Brittany Cavallaro

Interviewed by Ashley Keyser

What I love about Evidence is that it’s both domestic and sinister: these hints of almost ludicrous preciousness (“like I’d fallen and spilled / into little tinsels of gold” or those wee ceramic foxes) combined with that slab of meat at the end (“is it done is it done”) or the title’s implication of a crime. From what I’ve read of your work, for example in your collection Girl-King, you often interrogate different aspects of femininity. Is this poem asking similar questions?

The questions I asked in Girl-King tended to center more on the adolescent girl, but this poem and the others in my second manuscript are more concerned with the girl grown up. I think that “Evidence” wanted to ask questions about vulnerability and necessity. Why do we find a stoic woman unnerving, and why is it such a relief to watch her break down? How much of yourself do you really need to reveal to make your relationship work? How much do the trappings we use to decorate our lives actually make up our lives—that is to say, why do the physical manifestations of our self-identity define us?

For example, I’ve caught myself cultivating intense attachments to things like my childhood bed. It’s simultaneously too small and too large, a four-poster with room for a double mattress, and when its slats finally broke I found myself despondent. I rarely cry, but I sobbed over it for days—even after we replaced the slats, I still got teary, looking at it. We moved it to the spare room and bought a bigger bed, and yet I refused to sell the old one. I was ashamed of myself for my reaction, then angry that I felt that shame. We love what we love. This poem, especially the little ceramic foxes, came from that place—the absurd grief, the idea that what we feel is wrong because we’re feeling it about traditionally feminine things.

I read somewhere that you described fiction as gardening and poetry as sneezing—that is, the methodical, long-term process of tending a world versus reacting to your environment. Would you describe your poem in this issue, Evidence, as another kind of “sneeze”—and if so, what triggered your reaction?

Evidence is a strange poem for me, as I don’t usually draw from straightforward autobiographical incidents as the impetus for a piece. Here, I definitely was. It was a prosaic thing: an entire set of dishes slid off our drying rack and shattered the summer my fiancé and I refer to as “the bad summer,” the one where we couldn’t afford replace anything. But I used that as a jumping off-point, a scenario to play out the relationship between my invented speaker, her partner, and her mother, exploring the things I talked about above.

On the topic of genre, you’re a poet and a fiction writer, and also a YA novelist. How has straddling genre boundaries affected your attitude toward those boundaries? I’m thinking here of distinctions not just between poetry and prose, but also between literary and popular fiction. It seems like we’re living in a Renaissance of YA literature, but those books are still very differently marketed than literary fiction, even if grown-ups read them too.

I think about this a lot, actually. I’ve presented at conferences (and raged at friends) about the unnecessary ghettoization of fiction, particularly when it comes to writing on domestic issues by women. Don’t get me started on the denigration of ‘chick lit.’ And if we look further into traditional genre breakdowns—well, my favorite bookstore, Boswell Books in Milwaukee, has a terrific display right now of books that combine ‘literary’ writing with fantastical elements, books that are, in their own way, unshelvable, and I’ve read and loved most of them. I don’t know. All of this is to say that I tend to find categorization untenable, just as much as I find disdain for ‘non-literary’ subjects to be absolutely misguided.

Or: I turned in a story in a fiction workshop in my MFA about privilege, sexuality and a teenage breakup, and was told point-blank by one of the participants that she couldn’t care about these characters because of their circumstances or their age. It was suggested, snarkily, that what I had written was actually young adult, as though that was some kind of penalization, like I should be kicked out of the Real Writer’s Club because I had an interest in something she deemed superficial. How sad, that narrow-mindedness. (I was lucky to have a wonderful professor in that class, Judith Claire Mitchell, who gave me incredible support then and has since.)

Back then, I remember thinking, oh, I love writing about teenagers. I love reading young adult. Maybe I’ll write a young adult novel. Maybe I’ll write a young adult mystery series. The idea of what a novel can or cannot contain to remain ‘legitimate’ is a subject I find…incredibly problematic. YA is so much more capacious as a genre than literary fiction; it reminds me of poetry in that way. Christian mythology, boy bands, allusions to classic science fiction and medieval lore, travel narratives, time travel narratives, reimaginings of classic stories with children as the protagonists, things that teenage girls care about that are deemed unworthy because they’re cared for by teenage girls. I’m into all of it. I should write that woman a thank you note.

I’ve heard you speak on the importance of reading widely, not just literature but a wide variety of texts. How has your omnivorous appetite shaped your writing? What are you reading right now?

I just tore through Nova Ren Suma’s incredible YA novel, The Walls Around Us, which is the kind of beautifully-written psychological thriller that keeps you up all night biting your nails (and wishing you wrote it). I’m also working slowly through Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes—gorgeous—and rereading Augustine’s Confessions.

I’m a really fast reader. I think I developed that skill tearing through thousands of pages of Robert Jordan novels as a child. It means I can read a lot, and so I read really widely, but it also means I constantly miss things unless I force myself to slow down. So I’m also a perpetual re-reader, always discovering things in the text I missed the first time through. I just like beautiful writing, on any subject. I don’t really care where I find it. I’m pretty sure I would be an avid serialized sensation fiction reader if I lived in the nineteenth century.

So, we met working at Northwestern’s summer program for high-school students, where you’ve taught creative writing classes for a number of years. How has teaching teenagers affected you as a writer, both as a writer for their age group and for an adult audience?

I love teaching art to teenagers. I’ve worked with such incredibly talented students, and they tend to be so humble and so imaginative. I remember maybe a little too well what it was like to be sixteen, and so I’ve never had too much trouble writing about that age group, emotionally. I do like to find out what my students are reading or listening to, what they’re seeking out in the world. It tends to not be very different than what I’m into. One of my fifteen year old students last year had just finished Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, and another one was doing epic nail art and writing amazing stories about the ocean. They were all into nineties grunge rock. I like knowing these details; pulling them into my YA fiction hopefully keeps it from feeling dated. And hopefully, when I get back to writing fiction for adults, it’ll mean that I can approach my teenage characters as the people they are.