“There are stakes greater than death.” An interview with Christina Stoddard
Forgive the hand to mouth,
Your prayers will blanket the heavens like ash.
Some of your mistakes
are forgivable. You’re not the one
who gets to decide.”
–from “Some Ungodly Hour,” Hive (University of Wisconsin Press)
In Hive, the debut poetry collection from Christina Stoddard rituals of religion and violence often intermingle. Narrated in the voice of a teenage Mormon girl, these poems confront the destructive, confusing elements that make up this girl’s world. As she attempts to decode unsettling messages preached by church Elders, dodges a drive-by shooting in her Crip-controlled neighborhood, and reckons with the aftermath of sexual assault, the narrator is also coming to terms with her own voice—insisting on her voice’s right to exist. Stoddard refuses to soft-pedal the brutality involved in these events and instead leads us deeply into her young narrator’s skin, a choice which earned Hive the 2015 Brittingham Prize in Poetry.
EMILY CHOATE: All the poems of Hive are written in the voice of an adolescent Mormon girl. How did you arrive at this unifying structure for the collection?
CHRISTINA STODDARD: The poems mostly came first and the unifying speaker came later. I already had over half the poems written when it occurred to me that many of them sounded like the same person talking—or could easily be interpreted that way. That’s because I put together the book by selecting pieces from my whole body of work. In looking at all my poems and trying to decide which ones belonged in the same binding, I realized that this girl already existed in a lot of the pieces about adolescence, religious faith, and violence. So I decided to work with that.
There are a few pieces in the collection, including the very first poem in the book, that date back ten years. I’ve been trying to write about the subject matter in Hive for a long time, and it took many failed attempts before I found the right way in. The teenage persona turned out to be the key. Adopting a persona and weaving various characters throughout the book was an excellent way to give myself enough psychological detachment from my own experiences. It let me get out of my own way.
The speaker needed to be morally complicated and human, too. She couldn’t just be sitting in judgement of what happened around her. That’s why I included “Goldfish,” a poem in which the girl becomes the violent one, a predator to creatures more helpless than she is.
EC: At several points in Hive, the poems’ speaker seems to remake the patriarchal rituals or rhetoric of the church on her own terms, in effect translating them into her own language. How do you view this thread in the book?
CS: This girl experiences a number of horrible things and is witness to even more. But the doctrine of her church doesn’t give her any tools to deal with this. It’s one thing to be taught that hurting others is a sin, but what happens when you’re the one being hurt? How can God allow that? And who will protect you if God does not? The poem “Our Mother Who Art in Heaven” stems from these questions, and it is both a plea and a battle cry. If the speaker’s heavenly father ignores her prayers, surely a heavenly mother will hear her. Or so she hopes.
Throughout the book, the adolescent speaker makes multiple attempts to claim ownership over herself. But there are always adults—most often male Elders—who are eager to assert their power, like in the poem where the chaperone at the dance shames her over the dress she’s wearing.
In turning rituals and ordinances inside out, the speaker is trying to see if there’s anything in them that can answer her questions. It’s like she’s shaking a piggy bank hoping for one last penny stuck to the bottom. In a sense, she’s trying to figure out why she doesn’t belong—because like many teenagers, fitting in is what she thinks she wants. But she doesn’t feel connected to God the way she suspects she’s supposed to.
It’s like when everyone you know is obsessed with a new band, and you pretend to love their music too just so nobody will think you’re weird, even though truthfully you’re not that into it and you definitely don’t want to have the drummer’s babies like your friends do. That’s how this girl feels about religion—for a while she keeps nodding along with the true believers, but she never burns with that moth-drawn, whole-body faith they all seem to have. She tries, but she’s on the outside looking in.
The speaker eventually comes to realize that she will probably never fully belong in her Mormon congregation. The box they want her to live in is too small. If she climbs inside the confines they’ve given her, she’ll have to live there with her nightmares—like in the title poem, “Hive,” where she dreams the Elders have shoved her into a box filled with bees and she is “stung the purple of reverent hearts.”
EC: What are some specific gifts or challenges that your own Mormon upbringing has contributed to the development of your voice as a writer? From where you stand today, how do you view this inheritance?
CS: There are plenty of gifts. For one thing, the language of scripture and hymn is always on the tip of my tongue. I grew up reading the King James Bible, a lot of which is essentially poetry. Same with the Book of Mormon. Our family read scripture together every night before bed, and that was how I learned to feel out sentence rhythms and read aloud.
Another advantage is that for Mormons, the personal and the historical are often collapsed into one. As a result, it’s incredibly easy for me to see universal resonance in small things. That type of observational sense is just what poets need to have.
But growing up, what I read, listened to, and watched was highly censored. I was also conditioned that a lot of art was immoral, which made me reluctant to admit it when I began to create art of my own, and plenty of people either told me to write happier things or that I should only use my talents in praise of Jesus.
I will say that having something to fight against helped me define myself. Once I realized I could not subscribe to the moral code I’d been fed since childhood, I had to figure out what “the opposite of what I’ve got” looked like. I had to get to know my own mind, which of course has informed my poetic point of view.
As for my writerly voice, the independence I gained by breaking away from the church has made me pretty fearless. I write what I feel compelled to write. I don’t think anything is off limits, even if it’s scary or it might make me look bad. I’m not afraid of mixing politics and social justice with my art.
EC: During these formative years, were there also literary writers who became guiding influences or touchstones for your voice?
CS: The first poetry I fell in love with was Philip Levine’s. I found one of his books at the public library in the New Releases section and I decided to take it home. Reading Levine’s poems, I recognized my own everyday life on the page: working fathers with sweat-stained shirts, coughing smokestacks, unpaid electric bills, everyone miserable. But still, Levine put in these small moments of beauty that seemed to say we shouldn’t give up on the world just yet. That had a big influence on me as a writer.
Once I figured out that the public library had a whole poetry section, I would walk down the aisle and open each book to read the first poem. If I liked it, I’d borrow the book. I found Allen Ginsberg that way. Ginsberg got me reading lots of war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I loved their work because there was always so much at stake in every poem. And in many ways, the place I lived felt like a war zone. I grew up in a neighborhood in Tacoma, WA called Hilltop, and Hilltop belonged to the Crips. Our next-door neighbor was a crack house that the cops wouldn’t bust because they kept hoping to catch its suppliers. Dealers were low-hanging fruit.
I also have to give Sylvia Plath particular due. Reading Plath taught me all about sound and syllabics and the dramatic monologue.
EC: A number of these poems involve acts of terrible violence—drive-by shooting, sexual assault, and serial murders. How do you determine the best ways to present difficult violence in poems?
CS: It took me years to learn how to write about violence and brutality. One of the hardest parts is to let the violence stand alone without a bunch of editorializing. I think a common impulse is to cry and rail against it, or to sermonize about why it’s wrong, but playing it straight is often more powerful.
You also have to be willing to admit that there are stakes greater than death. What people can think up to do to other people is horrific, and one of the worst possibilities is not necessarily death but survival. That’s the other side of the coin.
When writing about violence, many of my initial decisions are architectural: using plain language, modulating the pitch and tone of my word choices, and avoiding complicated sentence structure. You have to give the audience the chance to let things sink in as they read or listen, and that’s much easier for them when you aren’t piling on a bunch of dependent clauses. Also, I often cast poems about violence in the present tense to heighten their sense of immediacy. It really starts at the basic level of my syntactical choices.
EC: In terms of craft, what do these formal choices look like?
CS: It’s very important to pick the right viewpoint and moment of entry. The poem “Jacks” is a good example. Instead of describing the drive-by shooting in play-by-play detail, the poem focuses on the girls next door who witness everything and have to dive out of the way. The gunshots are the opening line, not the dramatic climax. The poem is all aftermath.
In terms of how poems about violence look on the page, use of white space is key for me. I might use jagged line lengths to convey a sense of uncertainty and fear, like in the poem “Abby’s Mother Shows Us Where Ted Bundy Signed Her Yearbook.” Realizing that she is only two degrees of separation away from Ted Bundy hits the speaker like a punch.
I work in tercets a lot in Hive, since three is such a stable number. (After all, it takes at least three legs to make any chair you can sit on.) But I’m often contrasting the stability of tercets with the horror of the subject matter. For example, in the poem “Party Where Maureen Pierced Everyone’s Ears,” the three-line stanzas have an in-out, in-out pattern on the page reminiscent of breathing. I also wanted it to visually illustrate how highly choreographed the interplay between this group of girls is. As they dare each other to do increasingly destructive things at the slumber party, it becomes a dance of one-upmanship.
One of the poems about sexual assault is a villanelle. I chose that form because villanelles are obsessive by nature, and so is the speaker’s rage. By using the form’s constraints, I was also able to forego giving much narrative about the circumstances of the attack—instead of spending the poem describing what happened to the girl, I could use the space to let her anger reverberate. From the title, “Raped Girl’s Mad Song,” the reader knows what the situation is, and keeping the details skeletal allows the speaker’s desire for revenge to wash over everything and really drive the poem.
EC: Your poems possess a strong interplay between narrative and lyrical elements. How have you approached these matters in your work?
CS: Personally, I don’t believe that the camps of narrative and lyric poetry are as far apart as we’re often taught they are. Can a poem be lyrically written—compressed and tightly wound—and still tell a story? I think the answer is yes. The division between lyric and narrative dates back to Aristotle, but genres bleed into each other all the time. In particular, Carl Dennis’s essay “The Temporal Lyric” has influenced how I approach this.
Ultimately, I am a lyricist. I tend to use a first-person speaker who gives the poem its point of view. But my poems almost never take place in a vacuum devoid of location and history. Every page in Hive is rooted in an actual world, in time and space, with real place names and specific details—which any English major can tell you would classify the poems as narrative. But they are also fundamentally driven by the speaker’s feelings and emotional reactions, which points straight at lyric poetry. I’m very interested in braiding lyrical and narrative components together in as many ways as I can invent.
Purchase a copy of Hive here: http://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/5429.htm
Christina Stoddard grew up in Tacoma, Washington, as a member of the Mormon church. She earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow. She is currently the managing editor of an economics journal at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Visit www.christinastoddard.com.
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.