An Interview with Poet Claudia Cortese, Author of Blood Medals

By on Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 at 9:05 am

Claudia Corteze photo courtesy of the author

Claudia Cortes’s poems and lyric essays have found homes at Black Warrior Review, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, and Sixth Finch, among others. Cortese lives in New Jersey and is a poetry editor for Swarm. She has two chapbooks: Blood Medals (Thrush Poetry Press, 2015) and The Red Essay and Other Histories (forthcoming from Horse Less Press, 2015). Her chapbook, Blood Medals, was described by Winter Tangerine as “vicious and vibrant – [Cortese] writes girlhood as gorgeously fucked up, dolls-with-no-eyes hideous. Blood Medals follows Lucy, a shitty little princess that we can’t help but adore.” Poems from Blood Medals were also featured on Sundress Blog’s Wardrobe’s Best Dressed for June.

Melissa Adamo: Congratulations on your first chapbook publication! It was a pleasure to read all about Lucy and live in her dark world through your stark yet somehow sweet lines. What has been the most exciting moment since publication in May?

Claudia Cortese: Thank you! The most exciting moment was certainly the chapbook release party at the Bureau of General Services, Queer Division—this perfect little literary space in the LGBT Community Center. For the reading, my friend Jen Pattap made a big batch of strawberry cupcakes with words from the poems etched in chocolate and placed atop the frosting. I bought three dozen pink tiaras that I distributed to the crowd, our heads all glinting with girly kitsch. One of my besties, and perhaps the biggest fan of my Lucy, emceed the event and told us about a room of dicks in the Center; he tried to collect his thoughts before the reading there but had a hard time doing so because, well, there were giant dicks everywhere. My fellow readers—Aziza Barnes, Alexis Pope, and Meghan Privitello—read electric poems that charged the room with powerful yet vulnerable energy. When I read my poems, and I looked out at the sea of tiaras, I felt such love sparkling my heart: I honestly have never read to a more attentive, supportive crowd: my reading, as well as the other poets’ readings, were punctuated with cheers, laughter, sighs, snapping, and clapping. The night was a treasure from beginning to end.

Adamo: Dicks, tiaras, and cupcakes…oh my! Can you talk a bit about the birth of Lucy, this “shitty little princess”?

Cortese: Like so many young poets in their twenties, I had been writing autobiographical, coming-of-age poems, and they’d been mostly good, with some decent images and original turns of phrase, but the poems were nothing special. Then, while visiting my folks in Ohio during the summer of 2011, I sat in their parlor to write and a girl named Lucy started praying her mother would die in a car crash, and she pressed a Reddi-wip nozzle till her mouth filled with sugary relief, then went to bed where vampires raped her in her sleep.

My friend Mike said to me a few months ago, while workshopping one of my Lucy poems on my porch, “I just realized that Lucy is more than a girl; she embodies the dark energy of girlhood.” Mike’s comments were one of those totally brilliant insights that I would have never had about my own work, and it helped me realize that creating the character of Lucy gave me a body into which I could pour the dark energy of my girlhood. Writing in the third person—behind the mask of the she, the Lucy—freed me up to explore the privilege and pathology, the brattiness and trauma of my suburban girlhood without the oppression of the “I.” Though those of us who have taken lit classes or poetry workshops are taught to say “the speaker” not “the poet” when describing the narrator of a piece, most of us secretly (or not-so-secretly) believe the “I” is the poet and the poem is memoir.

Lucy allowed me to create moments that I hope capture the isolation and loneliness of growing up in a neighborhood with no sidewalks and porches; the feeling of monstrousness that often accompanies having a girl-body that turns object and Other turns meat; the brattiness that results from being given shiny-new toys and clothes rather than love and attention. When I wrote that Lucy bites her dog’s fur till the roots let go and his yelps sequin the air—his sharp, bright cries—I was not describing anything I actually did. Rather, I wanted to use that action to show Lucy’s rage at being neglected by her middle-class parents and being bullied by the other rich whitegirls at her school and how she took that rage out on a creature who had less power than she did. This action, of course, is the logical implementation of the laws of power and privilege that govern Lucy’s world—the world of suburban Ohio girlhood.

Adamo: In what other ways do you identify with Lucy?

Cortese: When I first started writing the Lucy poems, I thought of her as an amalgamation of me and my girlhood friends. As is the case with many adolescent girls, my identity was tribal: I was not simply an “I”—my self was an extension of my group of friends: I was not Claudia: I was goth girl/riot grrrl/punk posse girl. So, it would be impossible for me to write poems about my adolescence in a way that is strictly about myself: I needed to create a character than wasn’t I but was also completely I—that was, essentially, all of us and, by being each member of my crew, she was none of us. Moreover, I have a twin sister, so my sense of self will always be dual and multiple. That being said, I identify strongly with Lucy. Lucy fears her mother will hear the Oreos crunching in her mouth. I would sneak cookies and ice cream into my room at night so I could eat without anyone witnessing my binge. Lucy dreams a man pins her wrists down. I dreamt for years about the night I was raped. The nuns at Lucy’s school show slides of herpes sores to the students. The nuns at my school did the same.

That being said, I also invented many of Lucy’s thoughts and actions. My hope is not that she conveys my literal story but, rather, that she captures the dark energy of our girlhood.

Adamo: And a more pressing question about Lucy: In some of your author bios, at PANK in particular, you note you never tire of Buffy re-runs. So would Lucy be Team Angel or Team Spike?

Cortese: Yes, this is a very pressing question: I agree! ☺ Lucy would certainly be Team Spike. Lucy would laugh and mock Angel’s brooding romantics and Victorian pledges of eternal love. Spike’s acerbic humor, punk rock ethos, and poetic sensibility (which he masks with his sardonic exterior) would totally appeal to Lucy. Ultimately, Spike is both more of a badass and more of a softy than Angel (though I want to be clear that I am team Angel for purely sentimental reasons: teen-girl me had such a crush on Angel).

Adamo: That Lucy. She knows what she’s talking about.

Blood Medals relies heavily on prose poems, but you also play a lot with form, the Mad Lib Lucy poem comes to mind here. How did you decide on form for these individual poems and/or the book as a whole?

Cortese: Ah! The Mad Lib! I had such fun with that poem. I just wrote a short piece on the mad lib for Winter Tangerine Review’s “Shedding Skins” issue in which they published several drafts—from the earliest to the final—from each of their contributors.

Here’s an excerpt of what I said regarding this in Winter Tangerine: “The blank spaces in “Lucy Mad Lib” allow the reader to insert their own horrors. The last three blanks beg us to explain why Lucy sticks marbles in her vagina and crowbars a turtle from its shell and safety pins her thumb-skin. If you are white and middle class in America, Lucy’s your daughter your pathology your hurt and angry creature; it’s your job, as well as mine, to fill in her horrors.”

(See the poem and the full response here)

Rusty Morrison says that the Lucy poems are “raw and fanatically simple, yet every trope is electric-charged, hot to the touch.” I think she nailed it: I wanted the tone of the poems to be flat, even cold, and for the poems to be prose boxes without the artifice of line breaks. My hope was that the flat tone and angular form that lacks the breath and silence of the line would contain a constrained rage. Many white kids perform this particular kind of apathy. You see it, for example, in Nirvana’s music and, specifically, Kurt Cobain’s attitude in interviews and concerts: he often has an affect of detachment that masks the hurt boiling beneath his cold surface. I guess that’s what depression is: the world seems flat, without texture and color; the self just floats through the day without attachment. In other words, I hoped the prose form would mirror Lucy’s interior life.

Blood Medals by Claudia Cortese

Adamo: At EKR, we haven’t discussed chapbooks very much yet. Could you speak to your decision in making Blood Medals a chapbook over a full collection and/or what you think chapbooks do for poetry that full collections cannot since they aren’t as widely known?

Cortese: Chapbooks are often handcrafted: they are art objects: they embody a DIY spirit. I made zines as a teenager, and so did my friends, and we would bring our zines to punk shows and distribute them to the crowd. In college, I helped produce the activist group Anti-Racist Action’s newsletter, and I also compiled several chapbooks of my poems—drawing the covers and then taking my stack of poems to Kinko’s to make copies. In other words, I love the spirit of chapbooks and my love goes back decades. I also quite enjoy how brief they are—one can easily read a chapbook in one sitting, so the experience is complete and uninterrupted, and I wanted readers to experience Lucy’s world without interruption.

Also, full-length books can be hard to publish! I have several full-length manuscripts (including a full-length collection of Lucy poems called Wasp Queen) that I have been submitting for years. I decided to put a chapbook together because I was growing impatient—I wanted so badly to birth Lucy into the world.

Adamo: And what drew you and Lucy to Thrush?

Cortese: I love the poetry that Helen Vitoria publishes in Thrush Poetry Journal, and their chapbooks are beautiful, so it was a no-brainer for me: they seemed like a great home for my book, and I was right!

Adamo: Any chapbook advice for writers putting one together or finding it a home?

Cortese: Since chapbooks are shorter than full-length collections, it’s important to have some kind of unity in a chapbook. There are many ways to create unity, the most obvious being through narrative or character; however, a certain voice, style, theme, setting, emotional impulse, form, or any combination of these, can also thread a collection together. That being said, unity is not the same as uniformity: the best collections cohere without being repetitive.

Adamo: You also have another chapbook, The Red Essays and Other Histories, forthcoming this fall from Horse Less Press. Can you speak a bit about this one? Perhaps how it differs from your first?

Cortese: The Red Essay and Other Histories is a very different book from Blood Medals. It’s a collection of lyric essays that—like the Lucy poems—explore trauma, though in a different style and form. The essays are from the perspective of the lyric “I.” In other words, they are from my perspective, and they weave anecdotes from my life with quotes and ideas from various texts with lyric images with fragments of overheard conversations and tweets and news stories. The essays are like scrap books in which I glue together my memories and experiences with the theories, ideas, and stories that inform them. The poems are nonlinear; the braiding takes place out of order. While the Lucy poems are mono-vocal—they are in the voice and perspective of one girl who, though she embodies many girls, is still just one person—the essays are poly-vocal.

Adamo: I can’t wait to read it! Thank you so much for speaking with EKR!

Blood Medals is available from Thrush Press and be on the look out for The Red Essays and Other Histories. Check out Cortese’s next reading Sunday July 12, 5:30pm for the Cross Review & Reading Series in Jersey City’s WORD bookstore.

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