INTERVIEW: MADELEINE WATTENBERG
Q&A with Madeleine Wattenberg by Michael Pfaff
Madeleine Wattenberg’s debut collection, I/O, is an enthralling book of poetry that explores the intersection between science, myth, and humanity through a unique lens. Laboratories, airships, golden cubes, and Greek gods all entice us to explore this collection again and again. The collection was a finalist for the 2021 Miller Williams Poetry Prize.
We asked Wattenberg a few questions hoping to dig into the poetry a bit and understand her approach to poetry, her relationship with the priestess of Hero whose name graces the cover, and what all goes into putting a collection like this together. Here’s what she had to say:
Miracle Monocle: Your debut collection, I/O, is clearly inspired by myth but as Billy Collins puts it in the preface, you seem to have "one foot in the ancient world of mythology and the other in [your] own time." Many of the poems are addressed to Io, in fact, and other mythological figures seem to make their presence known in the poems as well. Some of these poems have been in your grimoire for some time. For example, one of my favorites from the collection, “Charon's Obol,” that layers the psychopomp ferryman's imagery over the narrator's relationship with men, was originally published in 2015 in Guernica. Clearly, mythology seems to be rooted in your mind's eye. Did you have the idea from the beginning, or did it emerge as you were writing these poems? How did the collection come together as a whole, conceptually? And, was there a process of mixing the ancient world and today?
MW: I wrote a bunch of poems about zeppelins and other airships during my Master’s degree, though only two of these, “Helium” and “Aphagia,” ended up in the collection. In these poems, you can see me turning over a connection between science and myth, which I link also to my father’s approach to constructing narrative, his worldview as a scientist, and my forms of construction and examination through poetry and metaphor. Helium becomes Helios, and suddenly the entire realm of physics-transformed-into-myth cracks open. This was the meeting place for a lot of my diction choices. I also wanted to destabilize the idea that scientific language is more objective and that the personal cannot also be a site for knowledge production (that these are coded as masculine and feminine, respectively, is also no coincidence)—where does science’s ability to accurately inform break down? What other kinds of storytelling are necessary to lay bare truths of the world? This is where a figure like Margaret Cavendish enters the picture too—writing in the seventeenth century, she objected to the emergence of experimental science and the assumption that women would taint the objectivity of its processes because we are too bodily and emotional, and so she instead conducted her experiments in the satirical framework of science fiction.
Both science and myth reveal little pieces and obscure others, and I think you can see my poems’ speakers holding up different ways of articulating, different juxtapositions and dictions, to test what each method can reveal about a subject or event. What comes into focus and what disappears at the periphery? We need a lot of ways of seeing to see.
Rewriting Greek myth is a richly established feminist poetic tradition, so I was also drawing inspiration from Anne Carson, Rita Dove, and others who have already accomplished this work. There’s something communal about joining an ongoing conversation and constellation of imagery this way. I also looked for poems about disappeared or complicated contributions from women in science, such as Adrienne Rich’s “Power” and “Planetarium.”
MM: As noted, the collection's first section teeters from poem to poem, with the "Dear Io" selections as the fulcrum of the collection. Of all the possibilities, how did the titular Io become your "confidante and confessor?" Did you choose Io or did she choose you? And, why do you think that is? Does it have to do with the notion of "the woman struggling to navigate the terrain between choice and coercion?"
[T/W: for conversation about sexual assault and consent]
MW: Absolutely. I’m so glad you paired those questions to that quote from the book’s description. When I was young, I had situations where I thought I was participating in consensual relationships only to look back and realize how little power I had in making the choices that I did. Sometimes it’s easier to transform your own “no” into a “yes” in order to not have to face the reality of your refusal later being ignored. This is the sort of violence that the poems entitled “Except by Violence” reference; language is insidiously powerful in this way. I have also knowingly chosen things that were bad for me. Many places in this collection are attempts to re-language memories to make clearer sense of them and let them exist in full complexity, but it’s not always successful; it’s a messy, circular process that never quite coheres. It’s important that my poems—even the collection as a whole—don’t offer a clear resolution when I do not feel I have one.
In my version of Io’s myth, Io’s experiences parallel those of the contemporary speaker. But the fact of a man’s repeated abuse of power is the obvious part of a story, horrifying in part because it is so predictable. Io’s story barely begins when her direct relationship with Zeus ends, and what her myth permitted me to do was also consider how sometimes women choose to defend the principles of patriarchy, by blaming other women or assisting in their surveillance. Why does Hera turn her attention to Io rather than Zeus? Hera is simultaneously trapped herself and a jealous sadist. I was interested in the larger practice of surveilling women within patriarchy, which both Hera and one-hundred-eyed Argos so clearly represent.
MM: One of my favorite poems from the collection was “The Blazing Field.” It kept rattling in my brain like a pocketknife in a washing machine. I kept going back to that poem and re-reading it over and over. It's dense with these scientific notions of orbits and molecules, interweaved with allusions to the Medusa and Cerberus, and there also seems to be something closer to home here, kitchen tables and a new bride's hem. And, then I realized there is a Notes section in the back of the book that talks about the analogy of the golden cube and Einstein's cosmological constant. What was the headspace you were in writing this beautiful, beautiful poem? Will I ever understand it or is it like before time? The whole book is filled with poems like this that linger with the reader, the poems begging to be read and re-read, and perhaps—like a cultist in a henge under starlight—a mystery might one day be unlocked. Do you think there is something to be said for how both science and mythology lend themselves to this sort of wonder?
MW: This poem definitely picks up on the question about how we construct alternate worldviews through different discourses—science and myth—but also how they converge in so many ways. My boyfriend at the time was studying physics and I would ask him to explain concepts to me—some of these explanations made it into the poem. He also lent me Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and I became fascinated by the metaphors used to explain physics concepts such as the heat death of the universe—gold cubes on scales and dancers floating in space. This poem also contains a reoccurring dream I have about standing in a wheat field and watching the Sun as it crashes into Earth—one thing that’s always striking about this dream is the intensely saturated colors and the way wonder and terror merge so perfectly that they seem to be the same feeling.
I love that you asked about understanding. I’m not sure things can be understood in their entirety. What I mean by this is that a complete understanding—achieved all at once—suggests we are on the outside looking in, able to separate ourselves from the object instead of experiencing it at a specific juncture of perspective, time, and language. Sometimes understanding occurs standing in the kitchen making breakfast and other understanding occurs within a dream. I guess this is a little bit like the observer effect. Readers participate in constructing the text and are never wholly outside it. I hope my reader has moments of recognition within the poem, but I also think it’s okay to step away from a poem unable to articulate its meaning now that you’re no longer in the poem experiencing it.
MM: With this being your debut collection, can you talk a little bit about the process of putting the book together and finally crossing the finish line? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced? And, did anything about publishing your first book surprise you?
MW: I wrote the majority of the poems within about two years but struggled with arrangement for a long time. I was resistant to what would have felt like an imposed narrative arc but I also didn’t want to endlessly lose my readers to questions about development and character. The beloved designated by the “you” in the poems isn’t consistent but rather an amalgamation, for example. While I was struggling, my friend suggested something simple—arrange poems by the seasons. I don’t think this is ultimately very evident, but it helped bring poems together in a way that resonated. It’s not a theme so much as an organizing principle. And then, of course, is the long epistolary poem to Io that weaves in and out the sections; in my mind, the letters serve as refractions that interact differently with the surrounding work depending on where they’re placed in the collection. Even so, I don’t think any arrangement was inevitable—though I envy other poets who do have clear visions for how their books are arranged.
That’s the craft side of bringing the book together, but there’s also submitting the manuscript to readings periods and contests, which is exhausting and expensive and full of challenges more related to the larger culture of publishing poetry. And hopefully I can say this without countering the immense gratitude I feel about having this book enter the world, but I still have doubts—would this be the collection I published without the pressure to publish a book in preparation for the job market? Without inherited ideas about what can be successful in the book contest cycle? What would my poetry look like without these pressures? It didn’t occur to me to ask these questions when I was younger, but I’m definitely asking them now.
MM: Miracle Monocle is publishing three pieces of yours in our upcoming issue. We are so excited to share “Apartment Villanelle,” “Convenience," and “Sonnet in My Name” with our readers. I especially love "Convenience" and the lines about the narrator's fantasy about leaving instructions for the neighbors on what can be recycled and what can't. "Sonnet in My Name" is just lyrically brilliant. It's the kind of poem absolutely must be read aloud and feel it with real vibrations on the wind. Please tell us a little bit about these poems, what they mean to you, and why you thought they might be a good fit for MM? You are also from Louisville, where the journal dwells. And, I wonder if any of these poems have roots in your upbringing or this city?
MW: I’m so excited for these three poems to find their home with Miracle Monocle, and thank you for your kind words about them. I was especially excited to submit these poems to you because they are poems that don’t quite live with any of my other work (at least not yet)—they try different formal strategies and their tones aren’t necessarily consistent. I thought they might be a good fit for Miracle Monocle because of the way the journal embraces work that lives a little bit at the edges of genre and form. It also feels a little bit like a homecoming to have poems in a journal from my hometown.
These three poems emerged from very different impulses and thus use very different strategies. For “Sonnet in My Name,” I began with an Oulipean form called the beau présent (or beautiful in-law), which includes only the letters within a specific name (in this case mine). In this way, the poem becomes about self-definition and what I can make from the sign that supposedly represents me and my identity. One thing I embraced was how often the imperative appeared due to the constraint—the tone gets a little bombastic. My name also has an echo with “made a line,” which I embraced as the constructing and defining of the self through poetry.
My current manuscript project is very overtly ecopoetic, and the poem “Convenience” is somewhat of a byproduct that emerged. The speaker clearly has self-righteous visions but ultimately has to admit to failing to meet her own ideals. I’m also really interested in the forms things take after they’ve been used or deemed disposable or trash. The predetermined purpose is gone and they’re free to become something else in that undetermined space. I don’t want to romanticize trash as a product of late capitalism and fast consumer culture and the harms it does to the planet, but there’s something beautiful about the uselessness of things once they’ve served their predetermined purpose. What else could they become? Perhaps they already serve a new purpose from a nonhuman perspective—like those of the ants.