An interview with Matthew W. Hall

Hall,Matt_cmykMatthew W. Hall, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and former general counsel for the University of Pennsylvania, has had a lifelong interest in American history. As an attorney in the field of natural resources law, Hall dealt with several cases requiring close analysis of legislative history. When he discovered that Jesse Burgess Thomas, a third great uncle of his wife, had been the prime mover behind the negotiations that led to the Missouri Compromise, Hall set out to write an account of this vitally important but neglected figure and the legislative crisis he helped to defuse.

SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Hall about his new book, Dividing the Union: Jesse Burgess Thomas and the Making of the Missouri Compromise.


What made you decide to write this book?

I was doing some research on my wife’s family and came across mention that the younger brother of her third great-grandfather was the author of the Missouri Compromise. Intrigued, I began looking at accounts of the Missouri controversy in pre–Civil War histories and found many mentions of the so-called Thomas amendment that drew a geographical line dividing slave and free and resolved a deadlock that could have broken up the Union. But there were no accounts of Thomas himself, no sense of how he came to play that pivotal role, and no history of how he fashioned the final compromise. I decided that this was an important enough moment in American history to merit a full account, and that is what I set out to do.


Jesse Burgess Thomas is someone I’d never heard of before reading your book, but he had an integral role in proposing and drafting the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which lasted for thirty-four years and is generally credited with delaying the Civil War until the 1860s. Can you briefly describe who Jesse Burgess Thomas was, what the Missouri Compromise was, and why Thomas is so important to history?

Jesse Burgess Thomas was one of the first two senators from Illinois and was from the beginning of his term in 1818 an ally and protégé of William Harris Crawford. Crawford was serving at the time as secretary of the treasury in President Monroe’s cabinet and was the leading contender to succeed Monroe in 1824. Thomas arrived in Washington just as the controversy over slavery west of the Mississippi was brewing. Both he and Crawford wanted the crisis resolved so Crawford could address other pressing problems and pursue his presidential ambitions. Though he was an inexperienced senator, Thomas became the point person in the ensuing Congressional negotiations that led to the drawing of a geographical line along the southern border of Missouri extending westward; there was to be no slavery in any territory north of that line with the exception of Missouri, which would be admitted as a slave state. This, along with the admission of Maine as a free state, constituted the Missouri Compromise, which, as you said, held for thirty-four years and delayed the conflagration of the Civil War.


I wonder if you could talk more about Jesse Burgess Thomas’s personal traits? You mention one of his sayings in the book, “You can’t talk a man down, but you can whisper him to death.” What did he mean by that, and what insights into his character does that give?

Thomas was a quiet man. While almost every other senator and most representatives gave hours-long speeches showcasing their oratorical talents and committing themselves to seemingly nonnegotiable positions, Thomas never made a substantive speech. In part this was because he was not a good public speaker, but mostly it was because he could see no good in locking himself into positions that would limit his room for future maneuver. He was also a patient man, as witnessed by the four subtly different versions of his compromise amendment that he put forward in the course of negotiations, eventually persuading a majority of his fellow senators and then the House conference committee to support the fourth version and winning passage by a single vote. With calm persistence he had “whispered” his way to a workable compromise.


You describe a tangled scene in 9780809334568the Northwest Territory (what would become Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) in the early 1800s, with various factions jockeying for position, carving off new territories, or making territories into states, and a struggle for power to determine who would benefit the most from this fluctuating landscape. Could you describe the political environment on the American frontier where Jesse Burgess Thomas cut his teeth in the late 1700s and early 1800s?

The governance of this vast area was framed in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. As settlers flooded into the area at the turn of the century, they competed ravenously for ownership and political control of the land they seized from Native Americans. The future of this area, thus, was built primarily on the exploitation of Native Americans. To a lesser extent, however, it was also built on the backs of slaves. Slavery was prohibited in Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance, but there was another provision in the ordinance protecting property rights. While antislavery Northerners relied on Article VI, Southern settlers claimed that all existing property rights in slaves were protected. Thus there was ambiguity and misunderstanding from the beginning, and it only grew worse as each new territory or state wrestled with the problem.


You talk about Jesse Thomas’s ability to straddle political fences, especially on slavery. He had a way of keeping his true opinions on the subject ambiguous; antislavery voters seemed to think he was antislavery, and proslavery voters seemed to think he was proslavery. Early on, he owned slaves himself but later in life joined the very abolitionist Episcopalian Church. What were Thomas’s views on slavery?

Even Thomas’s contemporaries could not settle on an answer to this question; so, at this far remove, it is almost impossible for us to do so. What is clear is that Thomas was pragmatic and believed there were more pressing questions facing the young republic, such as the financial panic of 1819, which was then rolling westward, and the country’s policies on the sale of public lands. Thomas was also accused of being duplicitous on the question of slavery, telling people what they wanted to hear. My feeling, for what it is worth, is that, reflecting his Southern background, he started off being mildly proslavery and then steadily shifted to a strongly antislavery stance later in life.


In many ways, Thomas’s political life in Illinois and on the national scene was defined by his rivalry with Ninian Edwards, another powerful Illinois political figure. As someone born and raised in Edwardsville, I found Edwards and Thomas’s relationship to be engaging and interesting. What different political ideas did the two represent, and how did they play out in Illinois politics as well as nationally?

Ironically the two men differed little in their political views. Because of the influence of Daniel Pope Cook, Edwards’s faction was the first to come out against slavery, but Edwards and some of his relatives were among the largest slaveholders in Illinois. Thomas, on the other hand, owned few slaves, but his faction was responsible for keeping open the possibility of slavery in Illinois. Neither of them, however, was ever a strong advocate for slavery. Beyond that, their ideas on public lands policy and internal improvements (like highways and canals) were nearly identical. Their rivalry was almost entirely personal and a matter of style—Edwards was an elitist with a clear sense of entitlement, and Thomas was more self-effacing but probably more sure of himself. Edwards was more powerful than Thomas during the territorial period from 1809 to 1818, but following statehood Thomas chose a more powerful mentor in Washington and was soon chairman of the all-important public lands committee and became a more powerful presence in the Senate. This reversal of their positions made Edwards extremely bitter and was a factor leading to the so-called A.B. affair, which ended in Edwards’s exit from national politics. For his part, toward the end of his Senate term, Thomas found himself spending more time in Missouri and Ohio than in the state he represented, and when he left the Senate in 1829 he never returned to Illinois.


What I found most fascinating about the actual drafting of the Missouri Compromise was how much deliberate care was put into it—things like word choice and capitalization became huge issues. And you argue that in many ways the political brilliance of the Compromise was that it managed to take contradictory positions—essentially, proslavery people could read it one way, and abolitionists could read it another. Can you talk more about the legislative work that went into drafting the Compromise and making it ambiguous enough that both sides could agree on it?

The deliberate ambiguity you describe is not unique to the Missouri Compromise. I believe it is a characteristic of many political compromises and is probably not that bad a thing. Not only is it sometimes essential for passage of a bill, but it also gives the legislation room to adapt over time. Additionally, the participants in the compromise are often complicit in the ambiguitythey know that the legislation is being interpreted in different ways by different people, and they knowingly present it to their constituents in the way the constituents want to interpret it. It is far from ideal, but the ambiguity allows the politicians to put the matter behind them and gives them a kind of plausible deniability.


By the time the Missouri Compromise was repealed in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in the minds of many Americans (especially Northerners) it had reached almost sacred status as something that should be upheld. Yet you argue that part of the appeal of the Compromise in 1820 was that both sides could, under its linguistic ambiguities, wiggle out of the agreement. For example, even though the document said slavery was theoretically banned “forever” in any territory north of the 36˚30ʹ line, some believed that it was permissible under the Compromise for a new state to vote to make slavery legal after they moved out of territorial status. Given that the seeds of its downfall were literally written into the document, why did the Compromise survive so long?

The Missouri Compromise was the first test for the second generation of political leadership in the United States, and in the years following, leaders in both the North and the South did not want to again come as close to the breakup of the Union as they had in 1820. The proslavery faction showed restraint in never attempting to use the loophole you describe (except for the failed early attempt in Thomas’s own state of Illinois). The Union was far more than an abstract concept for them—it also provided protection against the European powers that were waiting to take advantage of the first fissures in the infant republic. As a result, both sides worked together to put off the admission of the next state from the Louisiana Purchase until Iowa joined in 1846. By that time it was becoming apparent that there would be more states admitted from north of Thomas’s 36°30ʹ than south of it, and the North began to feel more committed to the Compromise.


There’s a historical dilemma about the Missouri Compromise: it may have been the only realistic legislative option and it arguably put off the Civil War for at least thirty-four years, which we think of as a good thing, But it did so by prolonging and tolerating slavery, dooming millions more to live and die in bondage. The Compromise also created an official, very public geographical line to demarcate between slave and free states, helping to solidify the North/South split and heightening sectarian tension. You quote Thomas Jefferson as writing, “[The Compromise] like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the death knell of the Union. . . . As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” So even at the time there was a great deal of consternation about the bill. For you, what is the lasting historical legacy of the Missouri Compromise?

I agree that the prolongation and toleration of slavery was a tragedy. I see only one other way the crisis could have been resolved. The Missouri crisis actually began in the Congressional debate about the admission of Illinois in 1818 when James Tallmadge of New York made two proposals—that no new slaves be admitted into Illinois and that all slaves then living there be freed when they reached a certain age. These proposals were voted down for Illinois but renewed when Missouri applied for statehood two years later. They became central to the ensuing debate. Tallmadge’s amendments, which I describe as temporal solutions, would have led to the gradual end of slavery in Illinois and Missouri and could have become a model for other states. The Tallmadge amendments have been viewed in history largely as a provocation thrown up by the anti-slavery forces, but in fact they were modeled on the successful emancipation laws of New York and other northeastern states. I believe they were put forward in a more constructive vein than commonly believed and could conceivably have worked. After all, politicians love to vote for propositions that will come to fruition long after they have left office! Such a temporal solution would have left slavery in place for a period far shorter than what occurred under the Missouri Compromise, and could conceivably have prevented the Civil War. There is, though, considerable doubt Tallmadge’s proposals could have passed.

Why do you think that Jesse Thomas has been so overlooked by historians?

The neglect of Thomas at the time was perhaps understandable because he was an unobtrusive figure working a quiet strategy that was submerged by the extravagant rhetoric flowing out of Congress. The neglect of him today, however, is less explicable. For example, of the one hundred documents chosen by the National Archives as the most important in American history, the handwritten conference committee report memorializing the Missouri Compromise is ranked 55th, but nowhere is it mentioned on the National Archives website or elsewhere that the handwriting on the document is that of Jesse Thomas, the head of the Senate delegation to the conference committee.


An interview with Guy Hasegawa

Guy R. Hasegawa, a pharmacist, is senior editor of the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy. He is the author of Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs and a coeditor of Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine.

SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Hasegawa about his new book, Villainous Compounds: Chemical Weapons and the American Civil War.

What a fascinating subject matter. You mention this in your preface, but would you mind again going through what the process was that got you interested in chemical weapons in the Civil War and led to the writing of this book? It started with you accidentally discovering a letter while you were doing research for another topic, if I’m correct.

That’s right. My historical research has focused on Civil War medicine, and my reading has included literature on the roles that Civil War scientists and health practitioners played outside medical care. Some of those sources mentioned ideas for chemical weapons, but the same ideas were covered repeatedly, so I assumed that the subject was exhausted and didn’t warrant further research. Then I stumbled on a letter in which a Confederate surgeon proposed chemical weapons that had not appeared in anything I had read before. That accident suggested that there might be additional proposals waiting to be discovered, and I ended up finding a lot of ideas that had not been previously described. Civil War weaponry is not my field, but chemical agents clearly fall within my medical interest. After all, medical personnel would have been responsible for treating victims of chemical weapons. As it turns out, most of the chemicals proposed as weapons had medicinal uses, and many of the weapons’ proponents were physicians.


Gabriel James Rains, a Confederate general, described one device he designed as “a most infernal contrivance to do evil.” What sort of ethical concerns did political and military leaders have about using chemical weapons? Were they dismayed, or were they willing to embrace the view in William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous quote that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it”?

I think the answer depends on the intent of the weapon. Many of the weapons were supposed to temporarily subdue the enemy without causing lasting harm, and ethical objections to these were minimal. There was a general aversion to weapons that maimed or killed in an underhanded or dishonorable manner, such as land mines and poisons. Since most politicians and military men claimed to put great value on honor, they would generally have objected to the lethal poisons, at least in public pronouncements. Weapons that were unnecessarily cruel were also condemned. On the other hand, the proponents of the weapons said that desperate times demanded desperate measures, even if those measures seemed morally questionable. Some individuals pointed out that it was more merciful to kill enemy soldiers quickly and painlessly with poison than to mangle them with projectiles and leave them to die agonizingly on the battlefield. Sherman’s quotation might suggest that he would accept the necessity of chemical weapons, but professional soldiers could have seemingly inconsistent views. Civil war troops used conventional weapons to inflict horrible suffering on the enemy, yet one leader of such troops, George McClellan, objected to an incendiary weapon as being outside the bounds of “civilized warfare.” I guess that term, to some people, was not an oxymoron.


You say that a lot of inventors were foiled by the government not taking their ideas seriously, even if some of the proposed devices were quite practical. What do you think was behind the reluctance by both the United States and the Confederate governments to consider and implement these sorts of weapons?

It’s well documented that the chief of the U.S. ordnance department was less than open to the ideas, and the same was probably true on the Confederate side, although there’s less direct evidence for that. Both sides had their hands full trying to supply their troops with conventional weapons and would be understandably reluctant to spend time studying unproven concepts. Besides, to a trained military man, it was clear at a glance that most of the suggestions would not work as intended on the battlefield. It must have been maddening for weapons experts to receive unwelcome advice about their own specialty, especially from civilians.


A good percentage of those proposing chemical weapons were physicians. Most of the chemicals suggested for military use had medicinal purposes as well, so physicians would be familiar with them, and yet proposals for chemical weapons seem to fly utterly in the face of our ideas of doctors and a “do no harm” philosophy. Did it surprise you that many of the civilians on both sides proposing chemical weapons were physicians or had some sort of medical background?

Yes, that was a big surprise. I think part of the reason is that our modern concept of a physician differs from the reality of the Civil War era. In those days, there was essentially no regulation of medical practice, so you could call yourself a physician without graduating from a medical school or passing a licensing exam. To get a medical degree, you attended two usually identical sets of lectures, each of which took only several months, and completed an apprenticeship and thesis. The major barrier to entering a medical school was paying for the lectures. Clearly, becoming a physician back then didn’t entail the tremendous expense and devotion as it does today, and it was common for people who practiced medicine or had a medical degree to have other occupations. It’s my guess that the ethical standards and commitment to the profession that we associate with today’s physicians were not embraced as strongly by many physicians of the Civil War era. It’s notable that many physicians joined the Union or Confederate ranks hoping to experience combat, so my findings are not an isolated example of medical men acting contrary to the “do no harm” principle.


There are some proposals in the book that seem quite silly on the surface, such as throwing cayenne pepper onto a ship to irritate the soldiers fighting there. Yet you point out that in a lot of ways, ideas like this are very similar to modern-day pepper spray. Even concepts that might seem almost laughable to us like stink pots have modern-day counterparts in substances used by Israeli police. Were you ever surprised while researching at how some of the proposed (and even ridiculed) devices foreshadowed modern concepts and technology?

Yes. The one that surprised me the most was a proposal to place two relatively safe chemicals in an artillery shell and have them mix during flight to form deadly hydrogen cyanide, which would be released when the shell exploded. This was a so-called binary weapon, and the same concept appeared during the Cold War, for example, in an American artillery projectile designed to deliver the nerve agent sarin. Not only that, the chemicals suggested during the Civil War were used in American gas chambers starting in the 1930s and decades later in terrorist bombs. In this instance, the proponent got the general idea and the specific ingredients right, although it’s unclear whether the delivery system he suggested would have worked exactly as he claimed.


There’s a section in the book where George Meade, watching a demonstration of liquid fire to defend a position, points out that the fire is effective at up to thirty feet and rifle fire is effective up to three thousand yards. This is an objection that most of the weapons described in the book run up against time and time again; they’re really useful only in close quarters fighting or would be extremely difficult to implement on the battlefield. Of all the weapons discussed in the book, which (if any) do you think at the time was most practical and could have actually influenced sieges and battles if followed up on? Which of the weapons you cover did you find to be the most interesting?

First, let me clarify Meade’s remark, because he was being loose with numbers to make a point. He was referring to squirting liquid fire from a garden enginea device whose range might be, say, 60 or 70 feetand the distance from which riflemen could shoot accurately was perhaps in the hundreds rather than thousands of yards. Nevertheless, he was correct that enemy soldiers could deliver lethal fire from well beyond the maximum range of the primitive flamethrower. Some of the proposed weapons may have killed or incapacitated a few nearby enemy combatants, which may have been useful in some situations, so we shouldn’t totally discount them. To answer your question, though, I doubt that any of the proposed weapons would have influenced a full-scale battle. Many were simply unsuitable for being weaponized or didn’t have the chemical or toxicologic properties that would make them effective on the battlefield. Which weapons interested me the most? Other than the binary cyanide shell already described, I’d say the artillery shell containing liquid chlorine. Its proponent had a good understanding of the properties of chlorine, but the technology necessary to implement the idea was decades away. Chlorine, of course, was used effectively in World War I and apparently very recently in the Middle East. In World War I, chlorine was released from cylinders rather than placed in artillery shells, but the rationale for its use was exactly that articulated during the Civil War.


One sentiment expressed by inventors and some military officials throughout the book is that advanced weapons of warfare are actually to be desired because the idea and use of such weapons results in short wars and long periods of peace; “Sharp wars are brief,” you quote the Lieber Code from 1863 as saying. Is there really any historical support for this idea? It seems that the more “scientific” and advanced technology in war has become, especially in the last century, the fighting has become more horrid and destructive, and not necessarily shorter.

Well, I’m not an expert in the tactics or strategy of war. It seems to me, though, that having advanced weapons is only one variable in how long wars last and that another is the willingness of decision makers to use them in light of political and other considerations. I think that, at least in today’s world, the “sharp wars are brief” dictum is too simplistic.


Chemical weapons have a bit of a lurid grip in our minds even today, it seems (or perhaps it’s just my mind). As you mention in Villainous Compounds, some governments (and terrorist organizations such as Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995) use these weapons today, and I think the prospect of a chemical weapons attack causes anxiety in the minds of a lot of Americans. As a final question, has your research given you any thoughts about how chemical weapons are perceived and used today?

Our anxiety about chemical weapons is understandable. Not only do we associate them with terrorists and other ruthless groups, we see photos of the chemicals’ lifeless victims, who are often civilians. Chemical weapons seem particularly frightening and insidious because we imagine ourselves defenseless against horrible and invisible poisons that are spreading far and wide while the attacker skulks in the distance. This apprehension was not present during the Civil War, largely because highly effective agents—in terms of toxicity and suitability for weaponization—didn’t exist, military officials didn’t take chemical weapons seriously, people didn’t have real examples to frighten them, and civilians were not seen as likely targets for any kind of weapon. I wrote Villainous Compounds with hopes that readers could relate to its topic. Going back to a time when chemical weapons were being proposed but concerns about them were minimal can provide some insight about why we fear the weapons today.


An Interview with Sass Brown

Sass BrownSass Brown is a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in Poetry, a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, among other honors. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, and Gulf Coast. Brown’s website is USA-1000 is her first book.

SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Brown about her work and her new book.

Getting this book published has been an odyssey for you: seventeen years of submissions to contests. I think that speaks to a wonderful tenacity on your part, but how in the world did you keep going? I think a lot of poets would have given up after year eleven at least.

There were many times along the way that I took a short break (several months) from submissions, but by and large, I sent out to every contest I could find every single year. I slowly became more discriminating as I learned the unique character of each press. I will say that there were certain presses with whom I was the most tenacious, Southern Illinois University Press especially, because I felt that we were a great aesthetic match.

What kept me going were the kind, encouraging notes on my manuscript and the fact that I was a finalist, at one point or another, for almost every contest I entered. About twenty-five different presses named USA-1000 as a finalist, many more than once. I also had two book contracts fall through. Those were the most discouraging times for me; I stopped writing and sending out for a while. I am humbled and thrilled to finally have placed the manuscript with a press that I love. The upside to such a long wait is more gratitude.


At times consumerism seems to have an adverse impact in USA-1000, such as “Like Love,” where the speaker wastes a day eating cereal and watching TV. Yet in “Layaway Heart,” for instance, the products in the mall seem to offer the speaker a measure of salvation and a distraction from an unfulfilled life. What role do you see consumerism and “thing-ness” playing in your poems?

I think my own ambivalence about consumerism is pretty evident in the book, although I must say that in “Like Love,” I see food and television as nurturing—small comforts in a lonely world. As a child, I was a collector—of bottle caps, metal pins, chips of china I found along the Potomac River, stickers, and natural objects. During the early 2000s, I started a business and made jewelry mainly from recycled game pieces and other found objects, including phrases from the rejection letters I received. Many of these things I have kept over the years, and I still love the tactile experience of holding them in my hands.

In USA-1000, I wanted to examine our complex and intimate relationship with all of this stuff we intentionally collect and inadvertently accumulate. In “Simmer,” objects are clues for the speaker to get to know her elusive lover. When you are struggling to connect with other people, especially in romantic relationships, your bond with things becomes primary: the closeness of fabric against the body; the furniture that holds your form; the corded, landline phone with its promise of connection.

The book takes place on the brink of social media, just before widespread use of the Internet and the cell phone, and I don’t find myself having that same intimate connection with these technological objects that require maintenance and need to be replaced every few years. USA-1000 anticipates and explores the conflicts that these new technologies have created: more constant, and yet less meaningful, connections with others; our obsession with acquiring and replacing things; the omnipresence of advertising in every aspect of our lives; and the struggle to determine what is real and what is artificial, and whether that distinction even matters.


Humor fills these poems. I have to give a shout-out to “Letting Him In,” where the speaker asks, “What if I pinned his hand to my breast? // Would it change the fact that he’s here / for a toilet plunger?” At other times the humor is mixed with pathos, such as in “The Death of the Oscar Mayer Wiener Girl” and “Bridge of Flowers: Shelburne Falls, MA,” both of which start in humerous places but end on notes that, although being funny, are a bit more somber. As someone incapable of being funny in poems, I ask quite jealously: How do you do that? What role does humor play for you in your poems?

My favorite poems are the ones with a sense of dark humor. I love a poem that treads the line between being funny and unbearable. That’s the ultimate challenge to me: to make someone laugh one moment and break their heart the next. I know that my tone is often complex in these poems, and that’s intentional.

As it is for many people, humor is a coping mechanism for me during moments of tragedy or stress. I’ve always viewed the world with a combination of wonder and disgust. For instance, recently my husband and I visited Berlin just two days after the 2015 Union of European Football Associations Championship. We were only there for six hours, and I was determined to get a great picture of every major monument and building in the city, an impossible and impossibly silly task. Right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, blocking most of its view head-on, was a gigantic merchandise tent for FIFA, the international soccer association.

This intrusion was annoying from a picture-taking standpoint, but I kind of loved the juxtaposition of ancient beauty and crass commercialism. To me, that’s more revealing than any flawless, pretty picture you could find in a guidebook. Many of my poems try to tackle this notion of what’s beautiful: Can artifice and consumerism be beautiful? Can relics and nature be ugly? What’s 100 percent authentic in this world anymore anyway?


There’s a focus here on the experience of being a girl, and then a woman, in a society that’s constantly telling girls and women what they must do, even if some of the things contradict each other. What do you hope to illustrate in the poems that focus on the female experience?

I think Paisley Rekdal got it right when she wrote in her endorsement that I’m describing an America that “simultaneously exploits, celebrates, and dismisses young women.” I see that idea explored in “A Response to the Critique of Subjectivity,” where a young woman, perhaps broken by a relationship, can’t stop playing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” This ordinary woman, striving for the perfect love her celebrity idol described, both comforts and tortures herself by listening to the song. Similarly, the imagined Oscar Mayer Wiener Girl, who once was a small-town beauty, ends up entombed by symbols of her past glory.

I also wrestle with these themes in “Peep Show,” asking what constitutes female debasement and empowerment, and is there any middle ground between the two? Or in “Stealing Casino” and “If My Name Were Michael,” the underlying question is, For a woman, when does strength become a liability?

Ultimately, I see my poems as explorations of the female experience, fraught with contradictions. What we have been taught to want (primarily love, but also physical perfection) is not necessarily achievable or even desirable, and definitely not how it is depicted in movies and advertising. In a real sense, women are set up for failure. The result of this conflict is examined primarily in Sections 3 and 4, where many of the female speakers are depressed (“Fortunate” and “Like Love”), detached (“Insulation” and “Layaway Heart”), or desperate (“Letter to the Better Business Bureau”).


9780809334469Since we’re doing a Q and A, I thought I’d ask about the Q and A in “Peep Show,” which, holy wow, is a great poem. What was behind the choice to have that third section be a long prose Q and A?

It’s funny you ask that, because the third prose section wasn’t in the original draft. I was happy with the other three sections, but they seemed awfully “tidy” to me, considering the subject matter. There was just too much left unexplored. And so I decided that I would interview the speaker of the poem, much like a therapist or priest, to get at the nuances and feelings behind the main scene: a father showing his daughter pornography while her mother watches passively. The prose form allowed for a flurry of words and details in direct contrast with the other more controlled sections.


We get peeks, in some of these poems, at the life of the speaker and her family before and after the death of her father, but not too many. I’m curious about how you chose what and how much to reveal about the speaker’s early life and these events.

I didn’t want this to become a Dead Dad Book. The poems that reveal details about the father are interspersed throughout, and I think their grief informs the rest of the poems as well. I see many of the poems as elegies, not just for the father but also for an idealized, 1950s-esque American way of life. Having lost my father suddenly and right in front of me as a young teen—that experience seeped into everything I experienced later on. Future losses are magnified—even small, seemingly insignificant ones—because they trigger subconscious memories of that old wound. I resisted this idea for many years, but it really is true. In my case, I found that mourning my father’s death was blunted by my first romantic love. When that relationship ended cryptically, as most high school relationships do, I was doubly devastated.


“There’s nothing in this world / I don’t want,” the final lines of “Wildcat Canyon,” the last poem, conclude, and it’s a fitting ending, because the poems here are absolutely flush with desire, want, and longing. How do you view desire in your writing?  

I have a favorite quote on a necklace my husband gave me. The pendant is a hand, and encircling the wrist on a tiny bracelet is a quote attributed to St. Marie-Francoise-Therese Martin. When she was twelve years old, her older sister offered up a basket of dressmaking materials to her and another sister. Asked to take whatever she wanted, Therese said, “I choose all.”

I think this philosophy permeates all of my writing, whether I intend it to or not. I am simply not capable of doing anything halfway. Desire is a constant, the thing that keeps me going and striving. This “lyric longing” is the basis for some of the best poems of the Romantic era—the conflict between a desire for transcendence and earthly reality.

Certainly, this philosophy has gotten me into a lot of trouble. It’s what drives me to create elaborate but impossible schedules while on vacation, cramming in as much culture, food, and tourist attractions as I possibly can. It’s what keeps my credit card in the red every month. Constant longing can mean constant dissatisfaction, but it also clarifies my obsessions and what really matters to me.


What was the organizing principle for the book’s sections and poem order?

Over the course of the past decade or so of revising this book, the arrangement of poems has changed quite a bit. When most people are writing their first book, they tend to think in terms of the poems themselves rather than the work as a whole. The challenge then becomes discovering the book’s themes, weeding out those poems that don’t fit in terms of tone or subject matter, and writing new work to fill in the holes.

Things really started coming together for me when a friend suggested to start the manuscript with “The Death of the Oscar Mayer Wiener Girl” as a sort of epigraph. The poem always seemed like an odd duck to me because it is the only direct parody in the book and because it is so short. Pulling that poem out of the mix solved these problems but also  allowed me to see the direction of the book more clearly. I saw how the poem is emblematic, its tone progressing from humor to elegy. I saw how it underscored the pathos of young, vulnerable women who strive, are exalted for a short while, and then are deposed.

I tried to make a rough arc with the manuscript from interior to exterior space and from searching to discovering. I looked at the last line of each poem and often chose the next poem from echoes in that poem’s first line. The first section lays out the book’s themes in a general way. The second section largely is about family and growing up. The third and fourth are about living alone and longing for intimacy. And the fifth is about the conflict between image and reality, and the resulting dejection.


What is the significance of the title?

In the 1970s, USA-1000 was the phone number for a Washington, DC, tae kwon do studio owned by Jhoon Ree. He became famous due to the catchy advertising jingle, written by Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist Nils Lofgren, and Rhee’s own children uttering the catchphrase, “Nobody bothers me.” The song became a cult classic far beyond the local area, spawning covers by bands like OK Go and parodies on YouTube.

Rhee’s legend went a step farther when a rumor claimed that the owner and self-defense master himself was killed in a mugging. I took this urban legend and imagined in the poem “American Grooves” how families in the area would have handled the news of his death.

Originally, the book was called The Missing World. I chose USA-1000, in part, because it captures many of the themes of my book: that all-American fantasy of success versus reality; the power of advertising; the racial and class disparities in the DC metro area; and the mundanity of suburban life. The title also just sounds like our all-encompassing, overwhelming world of commercialism, teeming with objects and people.


How did you choose the cover art?

I met the artist Lisa Schumaier when we were both selling our work at art shows many years ago. She has a studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center near my home in Alexandria, Virginia, and over the years I commissioned a sculpture and bought many of her tiny paintings inside recycled bottle caps. I always have felt moved by the sweet sadness and mischievousness of the animals and objects she depicts.

I loved the idea of partnering with a local artist and friend, but more than that, Lisa’s work captures the spirit of my poems. From my perspective, the bottle cap art represents my interest in “thing-ness,” and the rows and repetition of similar images recall Pop Art, another inspiration in my work. When choosing which pieces to include in the cover image, I was amazed by how many of Lisa’s existing paintings depicted images I describe in my book. Plus, we were able to memorialize her dog Fern and my cat Toby on the cover.


USA-1000 is now available from SIU Press.

An Interview with Lisa Fay Coutley

Coutley_jpegLisa Fay Coutley is an assistant professor of creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry, at Snow College in Utah. She was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (2013), received scholarships to the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, and won an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and books, including CrazyhorseGulf CoastBest of the Net 2013, and Best New Poets 2010. Coutley’s website is Errata is her first book.

SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Coutley about her work and her new book.

First off, this is an astonishing book. I absolutely love “Shooting Geese,” the opening poem, and the final image of the speaker breaking the birds’ necks is breathtaking. The poem reminds me (in the best possible way) of Traci Brimhall’s “Aubade in Which the Bats Tried to Warn Me.” Was that poem an influence on “Shooting Geese?” What authors do you think of as the influences present in Errata?

Thanks so much for the kind words. You know, I hadn’t made a connection between Traci’s poem and mine, though I had certainly read Rookery. And who knows what influences our work indirectly? I did, coincidentally, write this poem during a seven-day poem exchange with Traci. On day 4 or 5, I was stumped to the point of wanting to cry, so I did what I often do when I’m stuck—reached for a favorite book—this time Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. I stopped at “Pitching Horseshoes” and started scanning my life for activities and titles that mimicked her use of the present participle. I thought of my first love (probably because Emerson’s poem is about a first husband) and how I hunted just to spend time with him. I typed “Shooting Geese” at the top of the page, and the poem just spilled out. It had been building for some time, and it came out close to finished. That almost never happens to me. To actually answer your question, though—Claudia Emerson, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marie Howe, Sandra Beasley, John Rybicki, Austin Hummell, and I could go on, but you get the gist.

You have some stark poems about motherhood in this book, whether it’s “Ode to Postpartum” or the speaker physically fighting off her son in “When He Comes at Me,” or the last lines of “On Home”: “All winter long I’ve left / feel-good Post-its on the bathroom mirror, / the espresso maker, the edge of my razor. // Every day I’ve given myself reasons to stay.” What beautiful lines! Yet they convey a real struggle for the speaker as a single mother with two boys. In a book that focuses heavily on mothers, what do you hope readers take away from your poems about motherhood?

I want to challenge common misconceptions about motherhood, so I push mothering into dark, imagined spaces. I’ve tried to blend my own experiences with the saddest struggles I’ve had in the privacy of my mind and lay them bare, because mothering can be very lonely if you feel that you’re not living up to some societal standard. If anything, I’d hope these poems might let mothers forgive themselves for being human and for having a range of emotions about what is the most difficult job some of us will ever have. And maybe to evoke a bit of compassion from the rest.

One of the things I love about this book is how the different types of poems bleed together, be they poems about loss, love, violence, or addiction. Why did you decide to have poems that on the surface seem like they should have nothing in common? What’s the effect you hope to achieve?

Well, from what I know of grief, it has no manners—shows up totally unexpected at inappropriate times—and makes us do crazy things, just as love does. Sometimes love begets violence begets addiction begets loss. Or some other variation therein. So the poems and the collection as a whole, I suppose, attempt to enact that tangling of threads.


This is a book with few straight narrative poems; most of them are gorgeous lyrics, but when read all together, narrative threads definitely emerge. When you were putting together the manuscript, how much time did you spend setting up the various narratives and thinking about how different poems connected to one another? Could you maybe talk a little about why you organized the book the way you did?

Too much? I feel like I spent more time arranging the poems than composing them, which is only a slight exaggeration. I struggled to know what order readers would need to experience the evolution of losses. I was fortunate to have some very astute readers, and one in particular, Sandra Beasley, told me that I needed to let readers see the stone (the major loss) drop early in the book so they’d understand the ripples throughout later sections. Beyond that, in the same way that I use natural landscapes and tropes from other academic disciplines to convey emotional tensions in individual poems, the speaker’s external journey parallels and counters her internal journey.

Throughout the book, grief is presented and explored mostly through muted, surreal images. Real-world images, such as the speaker spreading the mother’s ash at the end of “Ash over Utah” or the father holding the mother’s head underwater in “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” are relatively rare. Why the choice to explore grief in this way?

I think time can allow us to view some trauma with clarity and to organize grief, but many of the poems in Errata present situations that are strange to the point of indescribability or that take place in early stages of grief. For me, little is more surreal than fresh grief; therefore so is my rendering.

There’s a moment in “Her Father Says She Worries Too Much” where one of the speaker’s sons appears to have difficulty swallowing, much like the speaker in “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” implying the destructive effect of trauma is still present in the speaker’s family two generations onward. How do you approach writing about trauma?

I want my trauma raw and honest, so that’s how I try to approach it. Honestly, I hadn’t noticed that implication, though I’m pleased by it and not at all surprised. “Her Father” was written maybe six years before “Researchers Find,” but certain fears settle in and become part of the landscape. I’m glad you pointed out that connection. Thanks for giving the book such a close reading.

These poems are so full of beautiful unexpected moments and images that I have to ask: What’s your writing process like? How do poems like (to take just two breathtaking examples) “Self-Portrait as Mountains Surrounding a Dry Lakebed” or “In Which Dorothy Appears” come into being?

Again, thank you. I become obsessed with an image, concept, or language and keep picking until I can see inside. “In Which Dorothy Appears” is one of the few poems I wrote the year after my mother died, which makes it one of the oldest poems in the book. I moved from Wisconsin to Michigan a few months after her death, and one morning I walked into my office and saw the tree outside my window had, overnight, turned redder than any tree I had ever seen. It haunted me as much as the black plastic box (which the funeral home had given me) that held her cremains. “Self-Portrait as Mountains Surrounding a Dry Lakebed,” like the other portraits in the book, is built from facts about a landmass or from the language of a particular discipline. I like to pluck conceits from various sources—often from the sciences or seemingly more sterile or less emotional materials such as manuals on natural disasters or aviation—so reading widely has become a part of the process by which I search for relevant metaphors, not to mention it’s simply interesting and educational.

Though the topics many of the poems cover can be bleak, there’s an inexorable sense of hope and purpose present throughout. How do you engage with some pretty heavy, even depressing, material and still imbue the poems with hope?

I’ve said it elsewhere, but to write is to tend my desire to keep going. The act of writing—in and of itself—is a hopeful act, especially when a writer is attempting to make genuine discoveries.

This is a completely unfair question, but after reading Errata, I need more Lisa Fay Coutley poems. Have you started thinking at all about what’s next for you poetry-wise?

It’s not at all unfair. I’m flattered. I am in the process of polishing my second collection, which is a departure from Errata in both content and form. The new poems are as interested in silence as they are sound. I’m exploring bodies through bodiless (often cosmic) elements; examining artifice, copies, language, and repetition through various imperfect personae; and attempting to create distance in order to gain proximity and perspective through a central dialogue that takes place between an astronaut and an earthbound speaker. The poems breathe more and say less, if that makes sense.


Errata is now available from Southern Illinois University Press.