Fox Frazier-Foley: Hi, Donna! I just finished reading your chapbook, Tinder, Smolder, Bones, and Snow (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), and I’m really excited to talk with you about our work. It seems we’re both writing from a magical, or mystical perspective, even though the types of mythology we’re engaging with are different (yours is secular, while mine is more religious in nature). I’m interested in finding out about the differences and overlaps in our approaches to re-telling familiar or inherited stories.
Donna Vorreyer: Fox, your chapbook Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned (forthcoming in 2017 from Hyacinth Girl Press) opened up a world of religious story and imagery that, despite being raised Catholic, I had never experienced. The vitae of female saints in your chapbook plays with myth, but also with representation and reinvention of female tropes and gender identity. Despite such a different source inspiration, I feel that both of our books address and challenge roles that have become assigned to women over time. I am looking forward to our conversation.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Tinder, Smolder, Bones, and Snow is such a beautiful collection of poetry, and even the title feels like a magical invocation. I love it so much. My experience of it, as a reader, is that its poems seem to draw upon imagery and tropes that many readers will be familiar with from fairy tales and folk tales. So, I wanted to ask you—what do fairy tales mean to you? My relationship to fairy tales began when I was very small: my Dad used to read me some of the Brothers Grimm tales before bed every night when I was really little. Then, as an undergraduate student, I TA’d for a class about the genesis of European fairy tales, where I learned that they were originally intended as sort of “civilizing devices”—to help instill conventional morality/mores, customs, and gender roles (and other forms of social hierarchy) in children from a very young age—almost as a supplement to the religious and social institutions that imparted these ideas in a more overt way. But I’m curious about what these sorts of stories mean to you—as a woman, a writer, an educator of children, a mother?
Donna Vorreyer: Fairy tales/folk tales have been a part of my reading life for as long as I remember reading, but I really got interested in them in my 20s when my husband and I started traveling all over the world. One of the things I started to collect and/or read before I visited somewhere was the folklore of that place, its stories. When I was a kid, I think I read the basics—and you know, princesses and Disney movies in the 60s were all the old-school fairy tales—so I never really knew the dark origins of the European tales, which, once I discovered, I loved. After investigating stories from other cultures, I learned that most folklore does NOT pull the punches of the Disney-ized versions we are fed at an early age. Their original darkness, meant to highlight the consequences of bad/greedy/“unacceptable” behaviors, had been scrubbed from the versions I knew as a child. As a young teacher, I often used picture book versions of tales from other cultures to compare the purposes of the stories. Luckily, that was a big thing in the ’80s—books like Lon Po Po (a Chinese story, similar to Red Riding Hood) and others were becoming available. I felt it was important for kids to know that all cultures have stories and that even the stories we THINK we know, the ones we claim as ours, are not. As a woman, I never bought into the princess thing, so I can’t say that fairy tales impacted the way I viewed relationships at all. But, as a mom, my son is South Korean, so showing him the stories of his birth culture and all the cultures we visited in our travels was always a high priority. You can learn a lot about a time or a culture from its stories. As a writer, I can get fixated on a tale or myth and build a whole series of poems around it—that happened with my chapbook Encantado, which is based on myths about the pink Amazon River dolphins. With this chapbook, a 1914 illustrated edition of Anderson’s Fairy Tales, found at a garage sale, was the impetus.
Fox Frazier-Foley: I’m also a believer in the importance of the kind of intercultural exchange that can come from sharing our stories, both religious and secular. I think something that’s also interesting to me is the relationship between different versions of the same story within a given culture, as the story (d)evolves over time. For example, as you say, there’s a big difference between many of the original Grimm- or Perrault-penned tales and their later Disney or Disney-esque counterpart versions. Sometimes, when I teach creative writing to undergraduates, I’ll have my students look at 4 or 5 different incarnations of the same fairy or folk tale; after they consider what each major changes adds to (or subtracts from) the essence of the original narrative, I ask them to write their own version of the tale—to consider what familiar elements they’d like to keep, but also what they’d like to change, and why. And so something that really struck me in this collection as delightful and effective was the appearance—which often felt like a subversion—of familiar objects (and tropes) from Western fairy tales. One example might be the appearance and reappearance of teacups. I really enjoyed the fact that you use them in different ways than a reader might expect. For example, in many of the stories I grew up with, a teacup might be meant to suggest femininity, decorum, delicacy, and fragility—but all in a sort of hyper-idealized context, meant to teach little girls that they should enact all of those qualities if they want to be pretty, proper little girls—if they want to perform their femininity “correctly.” But in Tinder, Smolder, Bones, and Snow, when the teacups appear, it’s frequently as a testament to the inadequacy of those concepts of fragile femininity. I was curious how you selected these objects or images, and whether you consciously thought through how to use them in subversive ways. Also, what are some of your favorite symbolism-imbued objects that turn up frequently in fairy tales? And why are they favorites?
Donna Vorreyer: Some of the repeated imagery/tropes in the chapbook came from the reading of the inspiration material. The 1914 Anderson’s uses old-fashioned and very time-specific diction that I saw over and over again—words like prattled, suitors, and dram, images like teacup, hedge, leaf, and palings. I love the objects that inhabit any story—I think they are crucial to establishing not only place and time but also character traits and attitudes. So turning some of those ideas on their heads in these poems was purposeful. For instance, in “Death, Your Eyes are as Blue as Paul Newman’s”, the speaker forsakes other suitors to woo Death itself. Instead of suitors being the prize of wealth/beauty, they become nuisances in the way of letting go of life. The teacups are also related to death and strength in the face of it—they appear both in poems where the pretty girl burns her husband in a funeral pyre and where she is peacefully facing her own demise. The wise old ragged woman also becomes a sort of prescient sage in the first poem—her words come back to haunt the speaker’s new reality toward the end of the set. None of these characters or items are used in traditional ways. In response to your other question, some of my favorite mythological ITEMS would have to be any personal effects that have some sort of role in the story—the magic mirror in Snow White, the shoe in Cinderella, the cloak in RR Hood. It’s fascinating to see someone’s personal effects bearing witness to the story and also being featured in the plot. It would cool to write a set of poems just about the famous items in fairy tales.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Ha! Maybe that’s a chapbook we could write together someday, because I also think that that sounds like a delightful project. And, yes, one of the things I really enjoyed about this chapbook was that there were familiar archetypal characters—the wise old ragged woman seemed to me to fit the Crone archetype—but they were rendered in ways that made them feel new—surprising, unfamiliar, uncertain. Probably the most obvious example of this would be the “pretty girl” who usually, in a traditional Western fairy tale, becomes a princess by marrying her prince (or, at the very least, a wife-who-is-lucky-and-happy-to-be-made-a-wife). That’s definitely a stock character—and, I’d argue snarkily, maybe more of a familiar object than a character proper. And yet, from the get-go in your collection, the pretty girl is a wife but that definitely doesn’t save her or give her a happy life. All of the traditional “pretty girl” rewards and values are thrown into upheaval. Are you “being mean to the pretty girl” in this book? What was the intent behind identifying her as “the pretty girl”? I love that you seem to be deliberately challenging the conflation between prettiness as a character trait and the idea that cultivating personal fragility means the world will bend to take care of you in all your attractively non-threatening frailty. Can you talk about the process of creating this pretty girl character and mapping out her story?
Donna Vorreyer: Well, having never been the pretty girl myself—the quiet one, the smart one, the musical one, the athletic one, and at some points in my life, the nerdy one, the fat one, etc.—I took great pleasure in taking the pretty girl, the one who gets “the good life” due to her looks, and putting her through the wringer, so to speak, stripping away EVERYTHING—husband, children, home, hope—to see if she would survive. And, of course, being someone who doesn’t want to promote the idea that beauty presupposes weakness, I had her find that strength, do what she needed to do to survive in the post-apocalyptic landscape into which she is thrust. I feel like that was a fair way to, yes, be mean in a way to the pretty girl. I feel okay about that, having been the target of so many pretty girls in the past. 🙂 Also, being older than many of my poetry friends and contemporaries, I wanted to play with the idea of the hag, the wise old woman. In the opening poem, she is not only dispensing wisdom, she is assuring the pretty girl that, despite their markedly different appearances, she also has lovers and a life beyond what others might perceive. She is happy in her own way that does not require youth or beauty. I think that is a message I am trying to send myself a lot these days.
Fox Frazier-Foley: That approach seems really productive to me—both intelligent and compassionate. I think I’ve seen other authors, in different contexts, try to raise similar points, but in ways that keep the pretty girl useless and/or helpless—they condemn the trope of “the pretty girl” by denying a particular character growth or the ability to develop her own agency. It resonates with me that you use “meanness” as a way of forcing a character to locate her actual character—her strength, her self. That’s what the world does to most of us, I think, in one way or another—I mean that most of us who aren’t utterly sheltered do learn to grow and adapt through adversity. And watching a character evolve into someone more compelled and compelling is very satisfying. I didn’t think of it in these terms when I was reading your book, necessarily, but in retrospect I think that’s part of why I enjoyed the book so much—the pretty girl’s pain really brings about her evolution, her eventual empowerment. And the embrace of self-progress is a marvelous thing. I think it’s probably a great message for all of us!
Donna Vorreyer: I think the idea of pain bringing us to a place where we face our true characters is a common theme in many stories, but I tried to switch the code on that story a bit by bringing a fairy-tale quality to this really horrible sequence of events that happen to this character. It sounds like it worked for you as a reader, which makes me very happy! I think it’s important to recognize the power of adversity, both in lives and in stories. In many tales from around the world and in the news every day, the bodies literally pile up. Not everyone lives happily ever after. So bodies pile up in this collection—the poor little match girl, the soldier, so many bodies!—and the pretty girl herself becomes a bleeding, blinded, broken shell, one who does what is necessary to survive. Writing the darkness brings the light—something I was told once. I think many of my poems end up falling into this category in some way, and I’m glad that you found that light in this collection.
Now let’s talk about your chapbook Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned. My first question for you is about your inspiration. What initially drew you to the stories of saints, specifically to these women who chose to present as male or non-binary? How much research was required, and did you draw heavily from the official Catholic vita for the details of the poems or did you let imagination take over?
Fox Frazier-Foley: I grew up steeped in both the histories and the mythologies of the Catholic church; it was by no means my only religious influence, but it was a prevalent one. The contradictions between the spiritual mission of the Church—I mean, the blueprint, idealized version—and the way its earthly bureaucracy conducts itself has long been a source of fascination for me. Additionally, I had to become pretty familiar with a lot of the writing of theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and I read all of the letters of Abelard and Heloise, more than once. All of these narratives really influence how I approach the world, in general. A few years ago, I was sick with flu, and I was in that state where you’re too sick to do anything, but just well enough to be lucid, so I wanted something to feed my bored brain. I went hunting online for some documentary about Joan of Arc, but I couldn’t find it—and I happened upon a documentary about the mythos of Pope Joan. I had never heard of her before, but she’s a figure in Catholic legends and histories. She is depicted as someone who was gendered female and either disguised herself or chose to authentically present/identify as masculine, depending on which versions you read. According to all the different versions of her story, she passed for a man and became Pope.
Of course—utterly predictably—the Church historians involved in the documentary eagerly concluded that Pope Joan never existed, but was rather a fictional character in a cautionary tale about how women can’t truly lead. That infuriated me—partly because they believe all kinds of other stories that can’t possibly be verified, so why not this one? And partly because I think a lot of the time, whenever we hear any stories from history about women from almost any era displaying agency or doing surprising, daring, or interesting things, we’re immediately cautioned not to believe it.
Anyway, so I started trying to find proper books about the mythos surrounding Pope Joan, and that led me eventually into reading about these other saints. Some of them, like St. Joan of Arc, of course I already knew about, but I didn’t necessarily know the full contexts of their stories. I didn’t know, for example, that the English were able to convict Joan of heresy by creating circumstances that manipulated her into dressing in men’s clothing. That’s verifiable fact, but that’s not the story I was told growing up, or at least not all of it. However, several of these saints’ biographies have also been dismissed by Church historians as “romantic fictions,” which, of course, infuriated me all over again. I mean, sure—we can believe in virgin births and all manner of culinary alchemy (water into wine, multiplying loaves & fish), but we can’t believe that a woman (or someone who was gendered female by the society into which she was born) stopped camouflaging her facial hair as a deliberate, subversive act, and was then murdered for saying “no” to the men trying to control her body? That’s essentially St. Uncumber’s story, and I feel like we read about things happening even today that are not so conceptually dissimilar. Why rush to insist that it’s not true? Who’s gaining from that immediate dismissal of her story and the dynamics it signifies? So, when I started reading the dismissive treatments of these vitae, I decided that maybe I should write about these stories and lives in a way that would try to honor them. I did draw pretty heavily from details in each saint’s vita, but I also kept at the forefront of my mind that these histories are stories that have already been so heavily edited and manipulated. My goal was partly to undo some of the visible, reductive, destructive manipulation, and then try to allow in sometimes—judiciously—new details that might enhance the essence of the story in a productive way, in a way that I felt honored the saint and the story.
Donna Vorreyer: It’s very interesting to see issues of censorship, denial, and control as they relate to women so clearly reflected in this church history. You’ve said the church dismisses these stories – this makes them seem highly modern and timely in terms of how people who choose to live in non-binary ways are often dismissed by society, especially by spiritual institutions. Starting with the famous Donne poem as an epigraph to your collection, the end of the stanza—“make me new”—seems to be a battle cry for these poems. Each poem is an exploration of how these women made themselves new, of how disguise in many of these cases becomes, alternately, deliverance, safety, freedom, or death sentence. Even the title of the collection shows us this— the thing but NOT the thing, the aftermath, the changed state of matter. Was this flux and its impact a way to comment on the many ways that change or choice impacts all of us?
Fox Frazier-Foley: Yes, I will say that as I was writing some of the poems, I felt frustration over how little things seem to have changed, in terms of how we identify, talk about, and accept (or don’t accept) different ideas of gender. I think of gender fluidity as simply part of the overall human condition, so the continued dismissal over time by these different cultures that each saint hails from—and then reading modern-day headlines about similar close-mindedness—sometimes felt a little bit like smashing my face into a brick wall. But, in a way, I also wasn’t really thinking about gender as THE major change I was writing about. I mean, obviously it’s there, but when I chose the Donne epigraph from Holy Sonnet XIV, I was thinking about how in that poem, Donne is essentially asking God to obliterate his personal identity and replace it with an identity that belongs to God, that is determined by God. I was thinking about what it means to find something in the world that you love so much—so insanely, so devouringly and desperately—that you want it to alter who you are. In one way, these saints were all experiencing this kind of love both from and for themselves; but, in another way, I think that all of these people I wrote about were simultaneously engaging in another, equally radical, type of transformation—they found a force in the Universe they identified with and loved, and they wanted to let that change them as well. And then I was thinking about how when something burns, a chemical change is created, and the state of matter, the identity and essence of the thing, can’t be put back to what it was. It can’t be the same again. And so the title is from a line that references the change we call death, but I thought it could stand as a title because of the other types of radical change these humans are willingly undergoing.
Donna Vorreyer: Funny that you say this. It seems like you are viewing their changes as more of a step toward a different state of being, as the Donne quote suggests. But in some cases, as in the poem about St. Theodora, when the spouse returns, (traditional male figure), he seems to usurp the power she has gained from her new life even though he cannot match her miracles or spiritual strength, making all of the transformation almost moot. As I was reading, I wondered if you felt any contradiction in showing these women of strength changing gender identities, gaining freedom/power, only to remain subservient in a spiritual sense. Was this a concern for you?
Fox Frazier-Foley: It’s interesting to hear someone ask this question outside of my own brain, because I actively worried about that, repeatedly, before I started writing the poems. I think I found that my answer was no—because in the end, I didn’t see them as remaining subservient, not really. I saw their adoption and enactment of their spirituality as giving them a deep sense of honesty, and of agency. I was thinking about their relationships, respectively, to God in perhaps the way I look at the ocean, or the vast expanse of night sky—I recognize that it is much vaster than I am, and that it contains elements that could easily kill me, so when I gaze at it I feel my own limits and finitude, for sure. But that doesn’t necessarily, for me, equate to feeling powerless or subservient. I think as I wrote the poems I began to feel that for these individuals, enacting the gender presentation they chose for themselves was empowering on a societal level—they were allowed to do things that they otherwise would have been aggressively prohibited from doing. But it also allowed them to manifest a sense of spirituality that I think women were not really allowed to exercise openly at those times. And I felt like they ended up seeing themselves as these electric, kinetic particles lighting up the hem of God’s garment, you know? They felt themselves, in being subsumed by spiritual experience, to be part of the overwhelming, vast, bright, pulsing energy that keeps the universe spinning, that keeps the stars apart. I couldn’t help but feel that there is true power in that, in all of those stories.
Donna Vorreyer: “as these electric, kinetic particles lighting up the hem of God’s garment”—what a beautiful thought! To give oneself over so completely to some larger belief. Speaking of power, I was particularly drawn to the poems about St. Pelagia (the courtesan/dancer who converts). She takes up a lot of real estate in the book, appearing in several sections spread throughout. Her story gives us the glitter and garments and wine of the courtesan’s life, shows us the transformation from someone who is concerned with temporal, sensual, and material things to someone who seeks a larger, more spiritual truth. It is she who admits in one section that she is “learning to discard,” which I think is a theme of this collection, one that many of us struggle with every day. Why does her story bear such weight in the collection? Is it because she discards SO many parts of her former life to convert and to change her way of living?
Fox Frazier-Foley: St. Pelagia definitely takes up a lot of space—the arc of the book is actually structured around those sections of her long poem! I crafted the poem so that the process of her conversion would have “stations” to mirror the Stations of the Cross. That was partly because she made an actual, physical journey, and partly because, yes, there were SO many layers that her path called her to discard. I felt that for someone who made a living by using her body—to act, dance, fuck, and otherwise perform—and who also enjoyed material wealth that she used to adorn, enhance, and indulge her body—I felt that for her, the sensory details of her conversion would be so important. It’s really nice to know that that came through, for you as a reader!
Another reason she takes up so much space in the book is that—I feel a little silly admitting it, but the truth is that when I read about her I felt like I was in love with her. I just thought—what a woman, what a person, to be able to give up the comforts she had, in exchange for such a harsh physical reality—the tenacity and intensity of vision she must have felt was really fascinating and alluring to me. And yet, on some level, I also felt that I could understand why someone might want to make that kind of choice. And, for someone who had spent most of her life accumulating wealth and power, discarding seems like it must have been such a dangerous and powerful act; so counter-intuitive, so unpredictable, and probably exciting. She discarded her wealth, power, beauty, interpersonal relationships, and even, ultimately, her body. I was interested in what I might be able to discover about myself and my own tendencies, in trying to map out an experience like that.
Donna Vorreyer: I will now have to go back and read again to see the connections to the stations of the cross—what a great idea to parallel the two unique sacrificial stories. And it’s not silly at all to feel so connected to a character—I think that happens to all writers at some point. Perhaps this is why the pretty girl had to find her power in my poems—I couldn’t be completely mean to her! Giving her the strength to overcome the expectations of her appearance offered me my own reminder to defy expectations and push through to a different self. Your characters transform in a similar way.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Yes—I love that both of our characters discard some aspects of their respective identities that had previously helped keep them comfortable or sheltered—and in doing so, they both turn into compelling people whose stories and perspectives become so much more interesting! I guess on some level, we both write about “pretty girls” who go through some trying circumstances—but we reward our characters for their struggles! In my case, I think it felt like giving a reward to myself, too.
Fox Frazier-Foley is the author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). Her newest collection of poems, Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in early 2017. Fox is founding EIC of Agape Editions, which is an imprint of Sundress Publications and is dedicated to publishing literary works that engage with concepts of the mystical, ecstatic, interfaith/intercultural, and the Numinous (follow Agape on Twitter, on Instagram, Facebook, and weekly Blog). Fox was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Binghamton University, was honored with merit-based fellowships at Columbia University, where she earned an MFA, and was a Provost’s Fellow at the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as seven chapbooks, most recently Tinder, Smolder, Bones, and Snow (dancing girl press, 2016). She currently serves as the reviews editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection and teaches middle school in the suburbs of Chicago where she tries to convince teenagers that words matter.