Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Claudia Cortese reads “Notes on Desire” by Eve Alexandra.
Claudia, this is a wonderful and intense poem you’ve read for us today. Before we dive into “Notes on Desire,” what can you tell us about Eve Alexandra and her work?
Claudia: Eve Alexandra has disappeared. She published one book, The Drowned Girl, from which this poem comes, and as far as I can tell, has published nothing since. I have scoured Google and social media for her and found nothing. The Drowned Girl won the Wick Prize in 2003 while I was a student at Kent State—that’s how I heard of her—and we all got the book, became obsessed with the book, let the book tear us open and transform us. When I say “we,” I mean my little crew of poets that sat on my wood-rotted porch drinking boxed wine (a liquid delicacy only undergrads can truly appreciate) and reading poems and crying and talking.
I still remember hearing her read a poem about date rape, simply called “Rape,” when she gave her Wick prize-winner reading at Kent State. The poem describes assault in plain-spoken and direct language. The speaker asks if the rapist’s penis is in her vagina or her asshole—no euphemism or pretty language, just the confusion and trauma expressed directly: “His penis is in your vagina. / Or is it up your ass? / This is what you don’t understand: / how you lose track / of your own body.” Listening to Alexandra perform the poem, I cried harder than I have ever cried at a reading, and I wasn’t the only one. The packed room shook with grief as we all bore witness to Alexandra’s work—and by “work,” I don’t only mean her poems: I also mean The Work (with a capital w) that they were doing.
Chris: The amount of power in this poem is incredible. The repetition combined with the brevity of the lines and strong language makes the act of recollection so visceral. Do you create similar effects in your writing? What are the elements in this poem that make Alexandra essential to you as a writer?
Claudia: “Notes on Desire” cracked open poetry for me. Before reading it, poetry unfolded in neat and precise boxes: event A followed event B followed C and voile! at the end is a lovely epiphany earned by a story well-told. This poem showed me how to queer form and language—that the self’s desires are so fucking complex and the denial of that is based on our profound fear of pleasure—the fear that we are capable of infinitely more pleasure than our heteronormative culture deems imaginable. The speaker of the poem fucks men and fucks women; she likes her sex soft and she likes it rough; she comes when her lover calls her “whore, bitch, my little slut.” She entered “into the world . . . with the knowledge of her own sexual power” and yet her power is just as often compromised. In other words, her desire brims with contradictions that are not actually contradictions—the body can hold that much complexity.
The choppy sentence fragments which are not broken into lines or stanzas—the poem is a block of prose—leap without warning between genders and bodies and scenes, which mirrors the realistic ways that we experience memory and body: one moment we want to have rough sex; another moment we may suddenly feel turned off. One day, we feel like we are completely straight and the next day we see someone of our same gender (or of neither or both genders) and we think, Daaammmnnn!
I just published a book of prose poems and flash fiction stories called Wasp Queen. The book develops and focuses entirely on a character named Lucy. Each piece is a character study, a vignette, a small piece of a not-so-small girl. Sometimes, Lucy calls herself a fat cunt. Sometimes, she wants to rub “her bottom part” against her best friend, Stephanie, and other times, she yearns for a boy who lives in the forest. Sometimes, Lucy sweetly pets the edges of her favorite ribbon and other times, she tears her dog’s fur with her teeth. Alexandra showed me I can say “cunt” in a poem, and she showed me how to create a character whose desires and life are as complex as all of our desires and lives.
Chris: It’s wild that Alexandra’s The Drowned Girl had this profound impact, going so far as to influence your book Wasp Queen, and then she virtually disappears. Who did you read after poetry cracked open for you? Who else is writing today that helped inform your poetry in a way similar to Alexandra?
Claudia: Meghan Privitello’s A New Language for Falling out of Love!!! Dear God, Meghan can WRITE. The book is a collection of prose poems. I totally have a crush on the prose poem and I totally have a crush on Meghan’s poems. What I find so exciting about her work is that I never know what she will say next: each line veers and twists and contorts away from the previous line, though somehow the car of coherency never falls over the cliff into meaninglessness.
CA Conrad’s Book of Frank and Shannon Hardwick’s Francine poems showed me I could pour my monstrosity—all the vulnerable, horrific, strange parts of myself that scare the shit out of me—into a character that isn’t me, and by not being me, she could be more completely me than I had ever been before.
Some other writers that take the top of my head off: Grey Vild, Gillian Cummings, Lidia Yuknavitch, Aaron Apps, Toni Morrison, Megan Giddings, Natalie Eilbert, Morgan Parker.
Chris: To end on “Notes on Desire,” is there a particular section of the poem, or an image that you can’t get enough of? I love the lines, “She said Yes, yes. It was summer. In trees. By the water. No moon. No stars. Just dark. The dark and their tongues. Their eyes. Their Hands. Their scent.” This whole exchange is bracketed by one of those gender-desire shifts you talked about and it all works together so wonderfully. The dark and absence of light work to symbolize the traditional ideas of “danger/impurity/ending,” but they’re also contradictory and can represent a sort of celebratory revelation—maybe an orgasm? Totally babbling at this point, but what is or what are the parts of this poem that still resonate with you today?
Claudia: Haha! The best poems inspire the best babbling! “She came into the world like this. A child with the knowledge of her own sexual poem” still shocks and amazes me. The image of a child experiencing her sexuality at such a young age, and feeling her sexuality not as a possible source of trauma and, thus, powerlessness, but rather as the place from which her power would spring is shocking, taboo, fierce, and fearless. I hope badass and brilliant Eve Alexandra reads this interview and comes out of hiding! The world needs her.
Claudia Cortese is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her first book, WASP QUEEN, was published by Black Lawrence Press in early 2017. She has had work featured in Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast Online, and The Offing, among others, and is a book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine. The daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, Cortese grew up in Ohio and lives in New Jersey. She also lives at claudia-cortese.com
Chris Petruccelli remains unsure of what he is. His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris’ chapbook Action at a Distance is available from Etchings Press.