by Amy Alexander
Kate Garrett’s poetry thrills me, partly because of her smart use of folklore. I love the old world references in her work, and always find myself learning something new. She strikes me as a woman who is always on a quest to understand the meaning of the things she says and does and loves. I enjoy following along in those journeys, and feel less alone when I do. It was such a blessing to be an early reader of her micro-collection, “The Fifth and Final,” from The Hedgehog Poetry Press, and I enjoyed every moment of following her through the seasons and her pregnancy and birth of her daughter.
I wish I could have Kate to show her my folklore library and lend her some of my wacky volumes. And then, I’d love to share a pot of tea with her, in England, and look at her library and borrow some books, which I would promise to return. We did the next best thing, with a Q and A, followed by one of Kate’s sublime poems, “For Josephine.”
And you are all invited.
What is your earliest memory of stories?
Oh, without a doubt, my grandpa was my first brush with storytelling. That man could tell a tale, he was a natural. I grew up between villages in southern Ohio, but his stories were usually about Tennessee; he grew up in the northeast part of the state. So he was often telling rural-based tales with a twist at the end, in the style of ‘urban’ legends – they happened to his brother, his brother’s friend, etc. – and he was one of 14 kids, so there were a lot of possible brothers, it was easy to get away with it.
The stories leaned towards gruesome – the one I always remember first was the ‘friend of his brother’ stopping at an old lady’s house for food because it was getting dark and they were on foot in the middle of nowhere. The story builds up with how hospitable the lady is and how good the stew is – until she tells him he hasn’t even got to the best part: the puppy in the bottom of the pot! I was about 4 when he started telling me this; I thought it was disgusting and brilliant. I couldn’t have told you anything about narratology when I was four years old, but I was under the spell of a good narrative.
He also used to tell me about creatures out in the dark, like the wampus cat (if there was an animal noise outside – and there often was, especially if we were camping – he’d whisper ‘listen to that wampus kitty!’). And he told beautiful and completely true stories about my great-grandma, his much beloved mother, who was practically a mythical figure in her own right – she was a granny woman, or what some call granny witches: a midwife, a herbal healer, a psychic (if you believe in that, I have to admit I do), but also a devout Christian. A lot of these things I’m working into poems for my next (and first full-length) collection.
After my grandpa gave me this solid background in oral tellings of folklore and stories, I later discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz, with their scary/funny folk horror tales, and deeply disturbing art by Stephen Gammell, all of which I was naturally obsessed with – so many kids were, they were pure magic.
What do you find to be the biggest source of material for you when you want to add lore to your work?
That’s not an easy question to answer! Literally everywhere. Books, my childhood, superstitious things people say, bits of local lore I pick up wherever I go, the internet – folklore is EVERYWHERE. My best luck recently was finding two second-hand hardback books – The Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles and The Fabled Coast: Legends & traditions from around the shores of Britain & Ireland – for less than £5 altogether… I had to have them, because of course these topics interest me and I’m always growing my library (on a budget!), but also, I just know I’m going to find inspiration in them for my own writing. And I don’t know if I ever don’t add lore to my work, it crops up in at least 80% of my writing – and if the poem doesn’t include straight up folklore/myth/legend/fairy tales, it’s still in there somewhere at a slant…
Do you have any rituals when it comes to writing that help you?
Well, this is very environmentally unfriendly, but I can’t write poems without a Bic Cristal disposable ballpoint pen – black ink, medium point (though I have recently discovered a charity that recycles disposable pens, so that’s a bonus). I can write other things with other pens, but I’ve had to write poetry and fiction with only those since at least my freshman year of high school, which is a whole country and 25 years since my pens have changed. Even though most of the recognisable writing I do – that is, the rewriting of drafts into something people will actually see – is done on my computer, I have to scribble the ideas and my first stream-of-consciousness ramblings down in my notebooks first. With a Bic Cristal – medium point, black ink – pen.
What are some of the poets you are enjoying reading right now or in the past?
I read so much poetry, what a question! Actually, while I have the space to do it, I’m going to answer with poets who don’t have any books released or even forthcoming yet, but whose work really moves me lately: Rachel Nix, Rebecca Kokitus, Loma Sylvana Jones, Jenna Velez, Zoe Siobhan Howarth-Lowe, among others. All very different styles, but all talents to watch! My number one favourite poet-without-a-book is my husband, who writes under the name Robert de Born (at the moment), but I know that just sounds like horrendous bias… hopefully he’ll have a pamphlet out soon, then the world will understand.
How has your definition of home shifted as you have left the one of your childhood and built one with family you created/found?
Well, my attitude to place is very much the zen/mindfulness thing: ‘wherever you go, there you are’. Currently however, home is where my husband and children are, where my bed is, where my cat is – it’s a place of love where we can nurture each other and argue with each other and be creative and grow. When my children grow up and leave, home will be where Rob is. If we ever split up, it would be where my shelves of books and my fluffy blankets are. If I ever don’t have books and a fluffy unicorn blanket for some reason, it’ll just be… wherever I am. Without my little-big family, which is the most important thing to me, home would be where I feel comfortable with myself, can protect myself. While I was growing up my family was a horribly dysfunctional, unstable, abusive mess, and as a result my relationship with place, or the idea of ‘home’ as a place, is intense but adaptable. As much of a hermit as I am – I really do love being safe in the house – and as much as I adore landscape, urban or rural, a dwelling is part of the world. The world is beautiful but also can be awful, and it’s temporary, too – or rather we are. So I have come to see the concept of ‘home’ as a process; the more at ease I am with who I am, the more at home I’ll feel anywhere. This is, of course, all easier said than done.
Tell me about some projects you have coming out.
Well there is my Stickleback – these cool new micro-collections from Hedgehog Poetry Press – due out in February (or December for Cult of the Spiny Hog members, I believe). It’s a four-part poem called ‘The fifth & final’ and it’s a sort of mythologising of my youngest daughter’s conception/gestation/birth. It’s also about the liminality of the cross-quarter seasons, the pagan festivals that go alongside them – Beltane (April/May), Lughnasadh (July/August), Samhain (October/November), Imbolc (January/February) – and blending paganism with Christianity as a personal spiritual system, and blending my two homes as a witch – the very western edge of Appalachia in the USA, where I grew up, and the north of England, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life.
I’ve also recently finished a mini 12-poem chapbook called She looks just like you, which is about the things I feel are ‘other’ in myself – my sexuality, gender identity, physical disabilities, c-ptsd, and so on – through the lens of an elf or changeling in the human world. And I’m halfway through writing my full-length collection –The saint of milk and flames – which includes ‘The fifth & final’ and is named in honour of the goddess/saint Brigid. This collection covers a lot of themes: faith and doubt and belonging and not-belonging – but mostly it’s me striking a balance between my need to nurture and comfort, and my passionate, angry sense of urgency at being alive.
And now, for the poem:
by Kate Garrett
She rode the bus, crossed state
lines. Dressed in blue on the edge
of Christmas, where no one spoke
her name, she said a speeding train
would always take her somewhere.
No russet splashes stained the blue
of her dress, skin unbroken where
she lay smiling at the thought of Heaven
or Pennsylvania, hope concealed
and settling in her porcelain skull.
Still no one knew her name, this blue
girl, whose lips prayed their last as she
ran for the train, ran for the tracks
and flew, just once, to land at the feet
of strangers in a station, to land in a grave
belonging to “The Girl in Blue”. Here, they
say, she hangs around, stuck somewhere
between Heaven and Pennsylvania, speaks
with those who call her by her name.
Josephine “Sophie” Klimczak died in Willoughby, Ohio after running at an incoming train. She was not carrying any ID of any kind, and for 60 years after her death, she was known only as ‘The Girl in Blue’, and her grave was marked accordingly. The circumstances around her death are still a mystery, and as a result she’s become an important part of the regional folklore.
Amy Alexander is a writer and artist from Baton Rouge whose work has appeared most recently in Anti-Heroin Chic, Cease, Cows, The Mojave Heart Review, and Dirty Paws Review. She holds a master's degree in folklore from the University of Louisiana. Her chapbook, "The Legend of the Kettle Daughter," is forthcoming in April of 2019 from Hedgehog Poetry Press. Follow her on Twitter @iriemom.