“They deserve to be heard.” In conversation with Christine Heppermann
In “The Woods,” the first poem in Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty (Greenwillow Books), Christine Heppermann asks, “Where are the fairy tales about gym class / or the doctor’s office or the back of the bus / where bad things also happen?” Much of the rest of the book serves as the answer.
Simultaneously empowering and deeply unnerving, this collection has many forces at play: the body and our tendency to define it, the self and our tendency to punish it, conventional beauty and our tendency to worship it. Whether or not you’ve ever found yourself in an Abercrombie dressing room (a space that also has a place in this book), it’s impossible to not be impressed with the way Heppermann’s collection takes the language of our everyday world and subverts it. I was glad to be able to discuss her inspirations and influences with her in this interview.
AMANDA MCCONNON: Can you speak a little about the title? “Poisoned” puts a twist on this age-old phrase, but almost imperceptibly. How is this representative of what can be found in the book?
CHRISTINE HEPPERMANN: Well, when you think of the apple the wicked queen offers Snow White, it looks wholesome and nutritious, but it’s actually deadly. The same can be said of the cultural messages directed at women and girls. Pick up any women’s magazine. Practically every article tells us how we can–and should–improve ourselves. Tells us what to eat, wear, slather on our faces, think, feel. Maybe we’re happy the way we are, but why? We could be so much better!
Many of the poems in Poisoned Apples address the insidiousness of this quest for “perfection,” how it manifests in disordered beliefs and behavior. Some poems approach the subject with humor. In “Sleeping Beauty’s Wedding Day,” for instance, I put the princess through a grueling prenuptial primping routine that just makes her want to go back to bed. I was hoping to highlight the absurdity of it all, though, in truth, the consequences of buying into the beauty myth aren’t that far off from what happens to Snow White. Anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. And even those of us who don’t develop a severe eating disorder can relate to that feeling of looking in the mirror and wishing we would disappear.
AM: Where did this core idea stem from? Is there a poem in that came first and inspired you to keep exploring this theme?
CH: I was working on a different project, a novel-in-verse based on a rather obscure Grimms’ fairy tale, “Jorinda and Joringel.” In that story, a boy and girl are walking in the forest and become entrapped in the magic circle that surrounds a witch’s castle. The boy is frozen in place, and the girl turns into a bird that the witch scoops up and carries away to add to her aviary. The writing was going okay, but sometimes, inevitably, I’d get stuck. To give myself a break, I’d write stand-alone poems. I wasn’t consciously trying to adhere to specific themes, but everything I wrote seemed to follow along similar lines, whether it was about Rapunzel or a memory from my childhood. I always seemed to be writing from the perspective of a young girl who felt powerless, frustrated, angry.
Around that same time, the oldest of my two daughters, who was eleven, developed an eating disorder. Seeing her through that, worrying that she was going to die and I couldn’t do anything to stop it, was beyond excruciating. I started writing about that experience in poems such as “Blow Your House In” and “The Never-Ending Story.” Thankfully, after a year of being really sick, she started to come out of it. She’s sixteen now, and healthy, and it’s hard to remember what it was like back when I was terrified every second of every day–until I read those poems.
AM: That had to have been a terrible thing to go through, but I think it’s a testament to your work here that it brings back those feelings. I wonder — who do you envision as your readers and what reactions do you anticipate from them while reading this book?
CH: I try not to envision my readers! That is, if I don’t have a set picture in my head, I can imagine them as anyone and everyone. Most of the feedback I’ve gotten via social media has been from women–young adult librarians, booksellers, book bloggers–who describe what the poems are “about” far more eloquently and intelligently than I ever could. One of my favorite comments so far was from a teen girl who said she was grateful to find a YA book that told the truth. Oh, also, I really loved hearing from a young adult librarian who shared Poisoned Apples with her teen book club. She said they were convinced I was a teenager, not an adult, because no adult could write something that “cool.” And she said that two of the kids fighting for dibs on checking out the library copy were boys!
Most reviews describe the poems as “feminist,” and I’m incredibly proud of that label and don’t dispute it at all. But honestly? It’s not a word that came into my head while I was writing the book. I was just trying to capture how the characters in the poems were thinking and feeling in specific circumstances. I never started with, today I’m going to write a feminist poem from the point of view of Little Bo Peep. Instead I started with, Little Bo Peep lost her sheep; what if they never come back? How would she redefine herself?
AM: The sets of “rules” that sort of govern each poem in this book vary — some are inversions of fairy tales, some seem more deeply personal or anecdotal, and some borrow heavily from the language of consumerism (i.e. “A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale”). How do you feel they interact with each other?
CH: “The Woods,” the first poem in the book, ends with the line “You can lose your way anywhere.” Thematically that’s the connection for me: characters who, whether they’re trying to navigate a fairy-tale forest, high school, the streets, a destructive relationship, or their own dark thoughts, get mixed up and turned around and have to fight their way back. The poems, to me, represent different points in the process. Some of them capture moments of deep despair, when escaping the thorns barely seems possible. Others, like “A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale,” are lighter and more satirical, as in, how did we even end up here? Still others, like “Pink Champagne,” which was inspired by a camping trip I took in high school, speak to those times when you feel powerful and free; you’re with good friends, the moon is shining, and nothing bad would dare happen. You’re invincible.
AM: I think that balance between despair and a kind of elation was really important in this book for me. In “The Woods” you also write, “Where are the fairy tales about gym class? / or the doctor’s office or the back of the bus / where bad things also happen?” Was there a strategy at play for you to write these poems that often deal with scary or uncontrollable scenarios while also giving their heroes a sense of empowerment?
CH: My strategy was more for balance overall than within individual poems. Once I’d amassed a group that seemed to go together, I read them all through and thought, wow, these are dark. Perhaps I should add more funny poems to the collection so my readers don’t feel like hanging themselves. Being able to laugh at something is a way of gaining power over it.
I also believe that reading about characters in the throes of despair can be empowering. Because the natural reaction is to want to help. To look for a solution. To get angry and decide, enough is enough. Probably the darkest, most intense poem in the book is “The Never-Ending Story,” about a girl spiraling into anorexia, and I hope one response to it would be, this shouldn’t be happening. What kinds of changes can we make as a society to prevent young women and men from hating themselves into oblivion?
AM: What kind of changes do you think we can make? What do you feel poetry’s role in those changes is?
CH: Just last week I was re-reading Adrienne Rich’s book of essays What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, and in one piece she bemoans the American tendency to see poetry as–I’ll just quote her, she says it so well–“a marginal activity, of passionate concern to its practitioners perhaps, but as specialized, having as little to do with common emergency, as fly-fishing.” She says we forget that historically, in countries such as Turkey and Russia and Chile, poets have been thrown in prison for their writing, their books burned. So poetry can bring about change if we let it.
I think teenagers, more than any other age group, are open to viewing poetry as a vital form of communication. Look at all the young people entering slam poetry competitions. Look at all the high school students who write poetry in their journals only to tear up those journals later–like I did!–because they’re embarrassed at how nakedly they expressed themselves.
I hate to make Adrienne Rich answer practically this whole question for me, but I love her suggestion that writing a poem and sharing it is a daring political act, or at least it should be. “To write as if your life depended on it: to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public words you have dredged, sieved up from dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence–words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.” Of course there’s always the possibility that you’ll say your words and no one will pay attention. But I’m hoping that reading my book will encourage teens to take risks and write about things that matter to them, and, in doing so, realize that they matter. That they deserve to be heard.
AM: What do you think makes us embarrassed by that kind of expression as we grow into adults? Do you think there’s room to write poetry in a way that serves as an emotional release but also remains relevant and useful to an outside reader? I think you’ve showed in this book that it’s possible, but why do you feel that emotional openness is looked down upon sometimes to the point that those teenagers feel they have to tear up those journals?
CH: I have to admit that my own shredding spree partly came about because the poems weren’t as, ahem, genius as I’d thought they were when I wrote them. Trust me, no one was ever going to dig my journals out of my drawer and crown me the new Emily Dickinson. Still, I wish now that I’d let them live. In my high-school humanities class, the teacher introduced us to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich, and I fell hard and fast. You can see that in my poems! I was imitating my idols, which is a good way to start learning anything, I think. Those journals marked the first time I felt that rush Adrienne Rich talked about, the desperate need to get myself on the page.
The more I read and wrote, the more I realized that, as with any art form, writing poems takes work. You can’t simply emote everywhere and expect people to applaud. You have to practice and study the craft. But sometimes I wish I could go back to when I wasn’t so aware of “the rules” and more or less scrawled down whatever images popped into my head. There was an energy in those poems that it’s difficult to recapture. And as adults it’s easy to look back at our teen selves and think, look how silly I was. Look at all those silly things that used to matter to me. But who’s to say adult concerns are more important? Who’s to say writing about one’s first love is any less valid than writing about one’s thirty-fourth? One way to encourage emotional openness is to cultivate an environment in which, no matter what age a person is, what matters to her matters, and no one looks down on her for caring about this instead of that.
AM: Along those lines, the struggles in this book are ones that are particular to a certain demographic of teenagers. There’s a specific set of “villains” — they range from a “BFF” to a gym teacher to parents. Was it difficult for you to hone in on this world as someone who is no longer a teenager? And, beyond that, to hone in on a teenage world that is probably pretty different than what your own teenage world was?
CH: Define what you mean by “certain demographic.”
AM: I think that, while of course males could relate to a lot of what’s going on in these poems (as evidenced by the library book fight you described), most of the struggles seem female-oriented. Also, since the language of many of these poems is based on phrases we see in magazines, even if they are using that language to mock it, (i.e. “A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale,” “Thumbelina’s Get-Tiny Cleanse–Tested”), or require a familiarity with certain brands (i.e. “Weight Watchers,” “Abercrombie Dressing Room”), a greater reaction might resonate with those who are familiar with these things, whose lives are affected by them, who encounter them on a day-to-day basis or feel something for not having encountered them. Of course that isn’t an end-all, be-all: I’m sure there are readers who aren’t teenage girls who shop at or wish to shop at Abercrombie but have felt something from this book.
CH: I’m pretty sure you’d have to be raised in a cave on a deserted Island not to know those brands, or at least brands like them! But I guess more than mocking a specific store or magazine, I wanted to capture the way pervasive cultural messages can make people feel: exhausted, defeated, inadequate, and on and on. You see photos of models in cute clothes; you walk into a mall and see clothes displayed on stick-thin mannequins. You try the clothes on and, what do you know, they don’t instantly transform you. I write the poems from a female perspective because that’s the perspective I know, but I’m sure boys feel similar pressure to measure up to unrealistic standards.
To answer your earlier question, it didn’t seem difficult at the time I was writing the poems to speak from a teen’s perspective, but obviously readers will decide for themselves whether I succeeded. And, sure, a lot of the trappings of being a teenager are different today than when I was that age, but I tend to believe the basic emotions and the reactions to being treated badly by friends, boyfriends, adults etc. are the same.
AM: I really enjoyed how in “Boy Toy Villanelle,” you used the repetitive form of a villanelle to confuse the gender-based aspects of certain childhood toys. How did poetry allow you to think about gender, beauty, and other ideas in this book that wouldn’t have been possible in another form?
CH: Writing poetry freed me from the narrative constraints of a novel. I didn’t have to stick with a limited cast of characters, a set storyline; I could hop around and explore whatever mood or theme or situation interested me. “Boy Toy Villanelle” was inspired by a trip to Michael’s to buy a birthday gift for my younger daughter’s friend. The toy selection marketed to girls all involved appearance–here’s an “art” kit to make your own lip gloss! Design a sparkly jewelry box! It made me think back to toys my girls played with when they were little, toys like “My Little Pony” figurines (formerly–and tellingly–called “My Pretty Pony”). Do the ponies come with little saddles and bridles that encourage girls to imagine themselves riding across the plains on some high-spirited adventure? No! They come with hairbrushes. You’re supposed to brush their hair. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to get all the tangles out of Pinkie Pie’s lustrous tail–I always found it soothing. But maybe that’s not ALL I wanted to do.
I guess if I had been writing a novel, I could have shoved in a scene where my protagonist ponders gender stereotypes by looking at her old toys, but poetry gave me the opportunity to try to figure out the best way of saying what I wanted to say and say it. So I imagined an action figure mini-rebellion in which G.I. Joe and Pony Princess Cadence swap gear and roles. And I had more fun playing around with that poem, figuring out the rhymes and repeating lines, than I’ve ever had brushing pony hair.
Find a copy of Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty on IndieBound
Christine Heppermann is a writer, poet, and critic. Her book of poetry for young adults, Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty, has been called “a bloody poetic attack on the beauty myth that’s caustic, funny and heartbreaking” (E. Lockhart) and a “powerful and provocative exploration of body image, media, and love” (Rae Carson). Christine’s first book, City Chickens, is a nonfiction story about a shelter for abandoned and unwanted chickens in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her poems are published in 5AM, The Magazine of Contemporary Poetry; Poems and Plays; Kite Tales; Nerve Cowboy; The Mas Tequila Review; and The Horn Book Magazine. She has an MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons College and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University.
Amanda McConnon has an MFA in poetry from NYU. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014 and others. Favorite books include Bluets, Stag’s Leap, and Life on Mars.