Laura Madeline Wiseman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches English. She is the author of three chapbooks, My Imaginary (Dancing Girl Press, 2010) a finalist in four national contests, Ghost Girl (Pudding House, 2010), and Branding Girls, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in MARGIE, Feminist Studies, Prairie Schooner, and Arts & Letters. She has received an Academy of American Poets Award, the Mari Sandoz fiction Award, and the Stuff Memorial Fellowship, Grants from the Center for Great Plains Studies and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and five Pushcart Prize nominations.
Wiseman’s poem “Senorita Extraviada” was previously published in the Roanoke Review, which is currently welcoming submissions and reading for its $1000 Fiction Contest.
In the second of a list of films the woman tells of a scrapbook
of laughing men she sees in between the before and after she is raped
because she doesn’t know yet that she like the women will be caught
in a frozen scream
she will rewind and play again
as if by going back she could stop herself from flipping pages
of naked women taken vaginally and then anally
mouths violently keening with the sound off
because they don’t know what comes next.
They think these moments of violation
of clothes shredded
of desert sand slick with blood and semen
is the worst it could get.
They don’t see the scrapbook woman sobbing, snot bubbling
as the man forces her through each picture
thinking if maybe she behaves now
is a good girl for this he won’t.
They don’t know until the gasoline is blinding
cold and stinging between their legs and breasts.
Maybe one hears the catch of the match
but most feel the fire as another torture they must suffer.
The woman in the documentary sees them captured in murdering
not dead but dying
limbs launching as they try to fan it off
like a terrible memory they could wave away.
She is replaying now her begging
the scrapbook slipping from her hands as if it too was burning
to land soundlessly on her pile of clothes.
She’s swearing she’ll never tell how they were taken
because she doesn’t yet know
that this is still the between
the before and after
the moment when a line of men will watch her laughing
as they while they each they
she doesn’t know she’ll return
here return here return
to the between
Mary Crockett Hill speaks with Laura Madeline Wiseman:
MCH: “Senorita Extraviada” refers to the documentary of the same name about the numerous women kidnapped and killed in Juarez, Mexico, in recent decades. Can you tell us how you came to write about these “Missing Young Women”?
LMW: While doing graduate coursework I took a class in Chicana literature and theory. It included reading Desert Blood by Alicia Gaspar de Alba and watching Senorita Extraviada. Simultaneously I was also taking a workshop in poetry with the poet Grace Bauer. I vividly remember writing the poem “Senorita Extraviada.” I was tidying the house, but when I walked into my office and glanced at my desk, I had the urge to sit down and write. I did, sitting down on the edge of my chair, pulling a spiral notebook from the papers on my desk, and clearing a small enough space to write. In the circle of light from my desk lamp, the poem fell out of me, line by line, image by image. I wrote the poem in just a few minutes. Unlike most poems I write, it went through few revisions. I’ve written very few poems like this, by this process.
MCH: I’d like to know more about the scrapbook that serves as the poem’s entry point. Why start there?
LMW: In Senorita Extraviada, there are several disturbing scenes the director uses to try and make sense of the murders. In one of them a woman describes a book of photographs of murdered women. The poem responds to this scene, the flashes and stills of gruesome images. I’m interested in trauma and how the brain remembers horrific events. Traumatic memory is messy. It is unstructured, meaningless, fragmented, emotional, bodily, a snapshot, a phrase said. I think the poem is an exploration of how we remember and make memories of trauma.
MCH: How do poetry and politics fit together for you?
LMW: Poets have described the potential of poetry to foster change in the lives of one and of many. From Adrienne Rich to Pablo Neruda, from Percy Byron Shelly to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Audre Lorde to Czeslaw Milosz all write of poetry’s power for action. Muriel Rukeyser writes “If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day.” Czeslaw Milosz writes, “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born.” Adrienne Rich explains one must write the “words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.” I don’t think poetry has to create change or be political, but I think it can.
MCH: Where do your poems generally begin?
LMW: One way I’ve sought inspiration to begin a new poem is to start by reading poetry—a collection, a literary journal, a chapbook, an anthology, etc. I read and read until I’m inspired to write a poem. For me, it’s something about the cadence and rhythm of reading poetry that opens the door for my own poems. This isn’t the only way I find inspiration, but it is one of them. I also love to read prompts for writing poems. Currently I’m teaching the wonderful book The Poet’s Companion edited by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. The text is full of ideas for generating poems. I’ve also taught Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Because I believe writing teachers should write in the classroom, I always write alongside my poetry and creative writing students, both inside and outside the classroom. For example, a few years back because I was taking Naomi Nye’s master poetry and creative nonfiction workshop while teaching a poetry class, I often brought to class Naomi’s suggested writing assignments for the day (e.g. write a poem about “Lost Friend,” “Tiny Houses,” “I Don’t Know,” etc.). We wrote several poems from Naomi’s prompts, which my students and I enjoyed.
MCH: Am I right that you have two chapbooks coming out this year—Ghost Girl from Pudding House and My Imaginary from Dancing Girl Press? Could you take us on a sort of virtual tour of each chapbook?
LMW: A finalist in four national contests, my chapbook, My Imaginary claims humor as the site of inquiry into the erotic body. My Imaginary explores the interplay between imagination and reality, language and myth, objectification and sexuality, parts and whole. Imaginary (and often unruly) body parts often embody erotized narratives with words (slang or otherwise) that are taboo. We’re told not to say or speak them. Silences become something we’re expected to carry, making the act of speaking and writing to break that silence, powerful. My Imaginary seeks to transform and thereby reclaim the ways the English language genders and sexualizes. You can listen to audio recordings of some of the poems on my website.
My poem “Senorita Extraviada” appears in the chapbook Ghost Girl (Pudding House, 2010). Ghost Girl explores memory loss and recovery after relocation. While many of the poems are traditional in form (villanelle, ekphrasis, prose, found), Ghost Girl reclaims the heroic journey as a female one. Audio recordings and more information available at here.
MCH: What are you working on now?
LMW: I’m currently working on a series of poetry, Speech Making: from the American Platform of Matilda Fletcher. These poems are based on the life of the 19th century suffragist and lecturer, Matilda Fletcher (1842-1909). The fifth of fourteen children from abolitionist parents, who had fled what they called “the peculiar institution” of the South, Matilda was born in Winnebago County, Illinois, and raised on a farm in Durand. Like her seven brothers who served in the Civil War, Matilda imagined herself in the public sphere. After the death of her one and only child, Matilda joined the lecture circuit, a series of talks so powerful a man named a silver mine after her, another man claimed she had a forked tongue, and upon the death of her first husband, newspapers speculated who might be the lucky man to call Matilda his own. She spoke to support herself and her first husband until his death. He died of tuberculosis, a disease he contracted during his service to the Union. During her forty year career, she spoke on woman’s suffrage, temperance, and education and published several books, including An Address: Farmers’ Wives and Daughters (1873), Practical Ethics: For Schools and Families (1875), and The Trial and Imprisonment: of Geo W. Felts (1907). Given the nature of oration and the time period during which she spoke, much of her work has been lost. However, some of her poems and lectures have survived in historic newspapers, often as excerpts only. Eleven years after the death of her first husband, she remarried and became the stepmother to three children, all under the age of ten. She continued to speak on the issues that mattered to her until the day she died.
I first encountered Matilda Fletcher when I began graduate study in women’s studies at the University of Arizona. At home in Iowa over a holiday, a family member suggested I look up an ancestor who “spoke at Chautauquas while her stepchildren sang and danced.” Though my interest was piqued, I did not take up this inquiry for another seven years. At work on my dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one hundred years after her death, I began writing these poems, sometimes in the voices of the men in her life, sometimes in my own voice, and sometimes in hers, my step-great-great-great-grandmother.
The poem “Maternal Lineage” I wrote while doing a residency at the Herbert Hoover Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa in 2009.
MCH: Anything else you’d like to add?
LMW: Also a finalist in a national contest, my third chapbook Branding Girls forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, reclaims the commodified and objectified self as it interrogates the effects of the commercialized female body. Brand Girls delves into consumerism, brands, and advertising by using ekphrasis to respond to the work of contemporary women artists.