Nancy Reddy’s work has recently appeared in Anti-, Memorious, The Journal, Boxcar Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Selected for by poet D.A. Powell for Best New Poets 2011 and nominated for a Pushcart, her work has also been included in the Best of the Net 2011. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is currently a doctoral student in composition and rhetoric.
Her poem “Lucy in Chrysalis" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.
Here, Nancy Reddy speaks to interviewer Amber L. Cook about backyard grocery stores, collectedness, innuendos, and transformations.
1. Is there a backstory to “Lucy in Chrysalis?” What inspired you to write this poem?
I did used to go worm-hunting on the playground at recess, and I did as a child have oddly romantic visions of running a grocery store. (I was – and still am – a serious indoor kid and was often puzzled about what exactly to do when my mom sent me outside “to play.” But I do remember having a richly imagined grocery store in the backyard. I stocked the shelves with canned goods and counted change for phantom customers.) Other than that, the poem is mostly word play and foolishness.
2. You really cleverly combine sexual undertones and womanhood through the speaker of the poem, which is echoed nicely in the title. Are there formal elements that helped you to achieve these threads? Enjambment? Pace? Repetition?
I’m fascinated by moments of transition – hence the image of the Chrysalis, of the girls in town all getting breasts & their periods at the same time. I like the idea of that as a shared experience, though I have no idea if that’s what my perception of that time actually was. So in part this poem uses the imagined, somewhat idealized small town with its gazebo & its corner store as a way of thinking about the intensity of early adolescence.
In terms of how I did that, I was mostly conscious of idiom and line breaks as I was writing. I love the way line breaks can double meaning and create innuendo. I was raised by women with a great belief in speaking politely, so growing up there were many words I wasn’t allowed to say and whole swaths of experience that could be talked about only with particular language and at the appropriate time. So I like poems that play with that, that hide sexuality or spite behind idiom and metaphor and wordplay.
I’m not sure that I’d say there’s anything inherently sexual in this poem, though. For me, it’s more about the relationships between girls and how complex and sometimes dark they are, particularly just before sex enters the picture in a real way.
3. When read aloud, “Lucy in Chrysalis” is so concentrated on sound quality. I especially envy the lines: “In the lunchroom the other girls purse/ their glossed lips & clear the table. Now/ it’s your birthday. The sliced cake sweats grease/ in the backyard. Soda fizzles in Dixie cup rows.” Are you often this conscious of sound?
I really admire poets whose work is more sound-driven, but that’s not necessarily an immediate strength of mine. (Ask my elementary school music teacher, or anyone who’s ever seen me dance.) Music is something I’ve had to really intentionally work at. I work in meter from time to time, and I’ve also become a collector of sonically appealing phrases and idioms. I have stack of index cards with snippets I’m hoping to find a home for.
4. Towards the end of the poem, you set up a series of almost lackluster desires of the speaker wanting to be something else: “you’d rather be a hayfield or a hatpin…a grocer or an acrobat.” How do these desires relate to the speaker of the poem/ What kind of speaker were you hoping to portray?
Oh, I don’t think those desires are lackluster at all. Really, I think it’s about the habit of looking forward and imagining a different life, in which you’ll be a different version of yourself. Or maybe it’s the desire to imagine yourself transformed.
There was a long while, in elementary school, where I wanted to be a hairdresser. It seemed like an impossibly glamorous job, though I’m sure I would have been terrible at it. After that I wanted to be the president. I think that when you’re young, any number of implausible futures seem equally likely, and equally lovely.
5. Is there something out there that you’ve read lately to give you inspiration?
I’m revising and restructuring the manuscript I wrote in my MFA, so I’m reading lots of collections with an eye towards structure. I’m fascinated by books with lots of little short sections, like Sabrina Orah Marks’s Tsim Tsum, as well as books that just sprawl with no breaks at all, like my friend Rebecca Hazelton’s stunning book Vow, which is forthcoming from Cleveland State. And Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar, which has has the most elegantly structured first section.
I also just bought Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, and I’m working my way slowly through that. And I’m really looking forward to reading Anne Carson’s new translation/adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, Antigonick.
6. What other projects and poems are you currently working on?
Revising – endlessly – the manuscript I mentioned above. And I’m perhaps halfway into another manuscript, though I’m always way too superstitious to talk in any detail about anything I’m writing until it’s pretty well finished. In my other life, I’m a PhD student in a composition/rhetoric program, and I’m starting to read for my exams, so I’ve been spending my days in the Historical Society reading room awash in Plato and Derrida and histories of 19th century writing instruction.