weird words with Lisa Mecham

Lisa Mecham writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared in The New York Times Tiny Modern Love and Roxane Gay’s anthology “Not That Bad,” among other publications. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles where she’s finishing a book about mental illness in the suburbs.

Pidgeonholes’ staffer, Haley Campbell, asked Lisa a few questions about her series of poems called “Dead Women”. We had the honour of publishing three of Lisa’s “Dead Women” poems on April 17, 2019, and they can be read here.

CAMPBELL: I’ve read a number of statements from women who are drawn to stories of violent crimes, especially involving women victims, who say they want to learn about that violence almost as a way to prepare for it, or that it’s comforting, in a backwards sort of way, to confront it directly. I’m curious if you share a similar feeling, and in what inspired this series initially?

MECHAM: I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to stories of violent crimes; rather, as a woman in the world, navigating violence (actual//perceived//future) is a constant state. I am drawn to art that explores violence in the form of horror, suspense, fantasy and the supernatural because it allows me to experience it with distance and with an aspect of control. Imaginary violence if you will.

I’ve been working on this series of poems called “Dead Women” for a few years now. It started as a complementary action to a novel I’m writing on mental illness, women, and the suburbs. I used to live in a suburb on the east coast—one you might find in an Updike or Cheever novel—and looking back on my time there, I was shocked when I started remembering all the women I knew, or knew of, who had died violent deaths within a small radius of my town. Their deaths ended up in newspapers, online, or in gossip circles as terse headlines. I wanted to know more. Not about how they died and not even why. I’m more curious about deep interiority at the time of death. The personhood and grace found there. And poetry is the best form to explore that because, to me, poetry is how we interrogate what we don’t know.

CAMPBELL: The form of each of your poems published by Pidgeonholes are so distinct. “This Bountiful Weaning” is a single, intense stanza; “What We Can’t Tell The Children” is formally repetitive, punctuated by monostitchs that could almost be a poem in themselves; and “Where the Sea is Called the Sound” seems to echo a sonnet (plus that one arresting line that splits the piece). Are there any pieces in this series with a form, tone or language that surprised you once you’d completed the poem, or did you tailor the form of each piece to the story you were trying to tell?

MECHAM: You’ve taught me more about my poems with this question than I even knew about them! I have very little formal training in poetry; my work is instinctual. For each of these poems, I started with inhabiting the circumstances of both the women’s lives and their deaths and then began to write. Now that I look at them closer, the form does mirror some aspect of how I imagine the thought process might “look” as each of these women were dying.

Almost every line of  “What We Can’t Tell the Children” surprised me. You know how you hear poets say, “I just put the pen on the page and transcribed what came to me?” That’s what happened with this one. The poem is based on a woman who was raped and killed in her home by two intruders while her daughters were also tied up in the house. This is a real event that happened in the town next to mine, around the time I was living alone in a house with my two daughters. It scared the hell out of me. I kept running through that scenario in my head and I knew that if it happened to me, I would be disassociating and mentally embracing my children as hard as I could. This poem took the form of a woman trying to hold that space for herself.

CAMPBELL: All these pieces invoke motherhood, in subtle and overt ways. How have your own experiences of being mothered (or mothering) influenced this work?

MECHAM: Yes, all of my work wrestles with “motherhood.” I spent much of my own time as a mother striving to be a “good” one. In the last few years, I’ve come to peace with the fact we can only be “good enough” mothers: doing our best with what’s been given to us or what we’re facing. All the ways society sets us up to fail, that’s what I’m interested in busting open.

CAMPBELL: In “This Bountiful Weaning”, you write:

Tell me she cries,
as they tie her to a tree so she can’t fly away.
How does one say, enough?

There is such desperation in these lines. As women, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect people, perfect mothers, when we are at our most vulnerable. What drew you to exploring that theme in this piece?

MECHAM: This poem is about a woman in my small town who committed suicide in a very painful and public way. After it happened, I kept asking people about her, if they knew her, and no one seemed to. Or if they did, no one wanted to talk about her. Being a mother is already lonely enough. Being a mother in a small town where no one seems to know who you are, let alone care about you after you’ve died, blew my mind and broke my heart. So, in this poem, I wanted to capture the escalation of experience and expectations put upon women and how a lifetime of loneliness can crescendo into a cry of “enough.” And how if you can’t say it, if no one is around to hear it, maybe your only action left is a very public suicide. An act of desperation but also resistance and even defiance.

CAMPBELL: “Where the Sea is Called the Sound” features an absolutely haunting image of a swan:

“How a woman has the decency
to shield our eyes as she strips the bed
and the swan, beak bowed, neck curled
round, sings back towards itself.”

What drew you to the image of a swan for this piece, this story?

MECHAM: This was simply a moment of my brain visually connecting how a rope’s slack—or in the case of this poem, a line of ripped bed sheets tied together—might have the same swoop of a swan’s neck. But of course, there is more there. Swans are elegant, quiet, a bit elusive. Graceful. Like life, death is full of contradictions. Yes, there is horror but there is also peace.

CAMPBELL: You weave fairy tale elements together with the horror of a mother and her children being murdered in “What We Can’t Tell the Children”, the opening stanza reading:

There are Big Bad Wolves outside
the woods, witches with girls
on their breath and a sky
falling again and again.

You speak of enduring, and there is a certain grace in that—the ability to endure in the face of death. Is this a power you’re hoping to showcase in these women you write about?

MECHAM: The mention of endurance at the end of that particular poem is more about the speaker of the poem as a mother telling her children that she wants to endure the pain, so they don’t have to. But to your question about enduring in the face of death, that’s a tough one for me to answer. I hate that I am writing these poems. I don’t want to wonder about women who die because of domestic violence or home invasions or police killings or debilitating shame caused by societal expectations. But here I am. And the reason it intrigues me, the reason I want to give voice to this is because I could have been one of those women. And I would want someone to speak for me.

CAMPBELL: When we first published these poems, you posted a link to the pieces on Twitter, noting, “I’m interested in moving beyond the brief, stark headlines when women commit suicide, get murdered. Maybe it’s because there was a time I thought I might become one of those women and I wanted the world to know there was so much more to me, to my life.” Are you able to unpack these thoughts for us? You have written about these women in your poems with such grace, given their deaths deeper meaning—what is it that worries you will be overlooked?

MECHAM: Time and again, when I found myself trying to talk with other people (in my town) about these deaths or I’d read comments on a news website that posted an article about a death, I heard judgment. Victim blaming statements like, “She should have…” or “Why didn’t she…?” Judgment is a natural reaction to fear. I get it. It’s safer to judge than to imagine it could happen to you.

For example, my poem “Where the Sea is Called the Sound” is about the school superintendent in the town where I lived. She committed suicide after a period of time where she was publicly harassed when it was revealed she had accepted gifts from a male contractor whose work she had overseen. She apologized and made restitution for the gifts, but the town went nuts on her. Writing scathing letters to the local paper demanding she step down. Showing up at school board meetings with petitions. Digging further into her past. “How dare she!” was basically the outcry.

She was divorced, single, living alone. One day the woman who cleaned her house arrived to find a note on the front door, asking her to call the police and not enter the house. The superintendent had hanged herself.

One of the newspaper headlines that followed was: “Janet Shaner left behind many admirers.”

So, what is the meaning of her death? How was it presented afterwards for public consumption? It’s a senseless loss. It enrages me. But when I found myself wanting to write about her, it wasn’t my rage that came to the forefront as much as the fact that after everything, Janet Shaner thought to put that note on her front door.

CAMPBELL: The “dead women” trope is a real thing, sensationalized in books and television shows (and discussed in depth in Alice Bolin’s recently published collection of essays titled “Dead Girls”). Your “Dead Women” series fights against this trope, personalizing each death and bringing deeper meaning to these women’s experiences. How do you choose which women to write about? Are there particular stories that call to you more than others? Do you have plans to explore this series further?

MECHAM: I started writing poems about women I knew, or knew of, who lived and died very close to me when I was on the east coast. These women were all white and from middle to upper socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s the women who do not fall under those categories who suffer disproportionately from violence and often silently. Without headlines. Without poems.

I, too, was a white lady in a middle-to-upper socioeconomic town living in a dangerous situation and my work seems to be somewhere along the lines of “what happened to them and what if it happened to me?” It’s the “what if it happened to me” part that is haunting because the “what if’s” felt very close sometimes.

I’m continuing to collect information on women and draft poems. I’m currently revising a poem about Nancy Lanza, who was murdered by her son, the young man responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. I have a Google alert set for “Dead Woman Connecticut” that turns up something almost daily. Since I’ve left the small town I used to live in, another woman was murdered there

A school nurse in Dallas, Texas has created a publicly available spreadsheet called “Women Count USA” that is an astounding documentation of women killed by men in the United States. It’s like she says, “I’m trying to get the message [across] that women matter, and that these women’s lives mattered, and that this is not acceptable in the greatest country in the world.” See also: Lacy M.  Johnson’s piece on masculinity as a “terrorist ideology.”

I could have been one of these women. There’s a statistical chance I still could be. And so yes, I will continue to write these poems.

Logo by: Robert James Russell