My grandma used to squint
her eyes and tell me stories
about skin walkers in the swamps,
giant panthers who’d slip off their fur
and walk as women, naked
through brackish water
digging claws into the bald
knees of cypress, and stretch
out bodies, lithe and warm,
howling for something more
than lust and blood.
She would remind me,
when I stole red lipstick
and a handful of glass marbles
from the Ben Franklin
and again when she found me outside
one morning, a pack of my mother’s
Virginia Slims in my pocket, tongue
slurring fuck you’s and cunt words,
a feral child drunk on the swingset,
a blur of fire ants and kicking,
that becoming a skin walker is a curse.
[Excerpt from the poem, Rooster Gumbo]
My liver was calling for the box of pinot noir sitting on top of my fridge, but I couldn’t get off the couch. I was like a doddering barnacle clutching my new book, Landlocked, Etymology of Whale-Fish and Grace by Danélle Lejeune. In a weird way, I was already drinking – on words.
Danélle’s literary style has the most delicious imagery. She writes about the hardship and reward of farm life, motherhood, beekeeping, sensuality, and death. Each piece was crafted with dense, seamless visuals – drawing out the rawness of her beauty AND her pain.
Rooster Gumbo especially touched me — because I was once a girl like her. Quietly sneaking around with a fresh pack of my father’s cigarettes and my mother’s favorite lipstick hidden in the fold of a pant cuff. To me, this poem was about a young girl’s rite of passage, of judgement, of nature, of self.
When you finish her book, you’ll want to stalk her, like I did. I had questions and I wanted more. Danélle just wrapped up her book tour and graciously agreed [eventually submitted] to answer a few questions for me.
First of all, how are you able to juggle all this? Writing, mothering, cooking, photography? Personally, I can barely find the time for my own family. Do you have to schedule everything? Or does it just flow for you?
Nothing ever just flows. Mothering is all the time, always. And cooking, I just try and make part of that regular pattern of the day. I do most of my photography with my cell phone and it is photography of chance, a moment of beauty catches me and I capture as quickly as phttp://five2onemagazine.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpossible. Photography has saved me over and over again. Sometimes I write poems on the back of receipts or junk mail in the car or jot lines down in notebooks left here and there. I have scheduled time every night after the kids are in bed where I write or read for at least an hour– every day. I wish I could say I do more- the book you’re reviewing took me almost 20 years to write. I once read an interview with Henry Rollins in which he said we have periods of breathing in, where we listen to music and read books and be in our lives, and periods of breathing out, where we produce our art. The life we live as human beings, motherhood, daily mundane, and every day is our breathing in, we have to make time to just live, be in the present. This is where poetry comes from. I’ve been holding my breath a very long time.
Your poems really touched me. Each poem made me feel something. You have this insane way of writing in abstract, but with clarity and emotion. Have you always written poetry?
I started writing poems when I was in third grade, but lost that fire after graduation [college]. My now ex-husband hated poetry and I think that influenced my avoidance of this thing I love. I buried this love in the back yard. That only lasts so long.
I was working on a cookbook and was pressured by family/farm co-owners to take the cookbook to Ossabaw Island. I applied, but they didn’t have a cookbook category, so I submitted my college poetry portfolio. I was accepted and went. That was a lifechangingohmyGod experience. I was away from my farm, husband, and kids for the first time in 10 years. I wasn’t breastfeeding; I wasn’t responsible for wiping anyone else’s butt, laundry, clean up, cooking meals, comforting, bottle feeding livestock, etc. Just writing.
One afternoon, I decided to walk in the woods alone. I got lost with a spotty cell phone signal. I walked into the marsh and pine forest and finally found signal. I sat down on a log and looked out over the water. Rising up and moving toward me was a 14 ft American alligator. Let me tell you, this Cajun blood of mine froze and I saw my own death. This is how I end, I thought. I took out my phone, took a picture, and sent it to a family member with my GPS location. This is where my bones are, I texted.
She texted back, “you must be Yankee, it’s not even 50 degrees where you are, walk away from it.”
I did. I lived. And that was the real beginning of this book.
What goes through your head when you’re creating a poem?
That’s a little bit trickier to answer. I start out often with each poem 3 pages long and I carve it back from there in the revision process. Sometimes it ends up telling an entirely different story than what I started out on paper. Sometimes I sit down and fill in a formal template. That’s how I make sonnets and sustain sistinas. I find a lot of freedom in the strict form of the sonnet. I really like the rules but I like breaking them even better. And I think that’s the thing that poets get to do more than any other kind of writer, we break the rules, the rules of grammar are the rules of form the rules of performance. But I also think that sometimes that freedom is too much and I go back to the way a sonnet is intended with iambic pentameter and 14 lines and a strict rhyming meter. I feel it’s made me more skilled at the craft to be able to follow and break rules.
Can you tell me a little more about your poem, “What Brings Her Ghost Back?” Can you elaborate a little more about your thoughts of family?
What brings her ghost back is an elegy to my mother who I hadn’t spoken to in 10 years when I wrote that. A poetry mentor suggested I kill her off in a poem and see what happens, mourn her, imagine that closure. I had a very difficult relationship with her growing up, and mental illness wasn’t something we talked about openly. The family drama that shaped my childhood is both beautiful and tragic, but the reconciliation process has been really formative as well. Sometimes when I read this poem at readings and there are people in the audience that know my mother- they come up to me afterwards and give me a great big hug and say, “I didn’t know she was dead.” She’s not, so, it’s really awkward– this is where I get an opportunity to talk about how not all poetry is fact, but it’s all true. And there’s a difference.
There’s poem in your book, called, Poppy’s Daughter, A Eulogy. I am obsessed with not only Poppy but also Rosie. I’d love to know more about their significance.
For almost 10 years, I ran a permaculture based farm in Iowa. We had sheep, chickens, ducks, peahens, bees, a llama, and a dairy cow named Rosie. Poppy’s Daughter was actually my first attempt at writing a poem about my farm and farm life. I wanted to start with Poppy because she meant so much to me. The night that Rosie fell, the ice storm, and her following death, were all intertwined with Poppy’s death. When I read that poem allowed, every time I burst into tears at the end. The grief I felt was so palpable when I was writing the poem that it comes through physically when I read it too. I have more poems about Rosie in my book in progress and each one is difficult to write, to chew on.
I try to cook, because I have humans and they need to eat once in awhile. I don’t particularly love it, but it sounds like you do. What’s your favorite dish to make? Also, what time is dinner? I’ve got a box of wine that I could bring!
I love feeding people. I love the kinship and friendship that happens over a table in my kitchen. I love nourishing people with a good broth, or a big plate of bacon, or the process of canning peaches together. These are the activities that used to be a daily ritual for people– now it’s replaced with driving to the grocery store buying a bunch of cans and dumping them out and then eating them with a fork. I find it very healing to go back to the beginning and not only know our food, but creating relationships with people in the process of a meal. Okay now that sounds all pretty silly now that I type it out– but I really do feel a special connection with the Cajun food that I make and share. I get really, really bent out of shape if anyone criticizes my gumbo. Or if someone says someone else’s is gumbo is better. I get irrational about it actually, it’s pretty ridiculous.
You mentioned a second book? I love it! Tell me more!
My second book is about halfway done! It’s not taking me nearly as long to write this one, and I really love what’s coming out of my writing right now- it’s also kind of funny that every single poem I’ve written for this book ends up with the title starting with the letter ‘C.’ I hope that I come up with a fantastic title for the collection, I’m playing with more obscure forms, I’m playing with music, and I’m learning to be even more honest when telling stories. There’s more myth, more carnage, and a bit of forgiveness in this one.
Finally, the bees! I’m really curious how you got into beekeeping! It’s almost romantic thinking about it, but I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to get near any.
Funny you say that you don’t have the guts to be near bees… I have about 50 irrational, unreasonable phobias, and bees were one of them. I decided after my daughter was born to try and work through my phobias, one at a time. Beekeeping was an easy one to start with because my neighbors needed an apprentice and a second location so they could keep their bees on my farm. They would instruct me how to take care of them and be right there to walk me through the steps. I find beekeeping to be a practice of mindfulness. You have to be exactly in the moment you are in to work bees. You can’t be reflecting on the past or worrying about the future. You have to be right there in mind and body. There’s an old folklore that says your bees will thrive if you talk to them, that when someone in the household dies you must tell your bees, when someone is born you must tell your bees, that bees are a direct line of communication to God. This I believe. So beekeeping has become a meditation, a prayer, a moment of silence too. A lot of my poems have beekeeping in them but also have references to Catholic saints, and this is because the experience of keeping bees and saints is similar to me.
Even if you’re not much of a book worm, Danélle’s book, Landlocked, Etymology of Whale-Fish and Grace will make you love reading. It’s a page turner and I can guarantee you — you’ll get drunk on every word. Not to mention, it’s MUCH easier on your liver than that box of pinot noir on top of your fridge.
Landlocked, Etymology of Whale-Fish and Grace is available on Amazon, Finishing Line Press, and Barnes & Noble. She will also be making an appearance at Book Lady Bookstore [Savannah, Georgia] for a book signing.
You can learn more about Danélle Lejeune by checking out her website, http://www.potboilerpoetry.com/