Many thanks to Susan McCallum for tagging me to be part of The Next Big Thing.
What is the working title of your book?
Her Familiars, my fourth poetry collection, soon to be released from Elixir Press.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
After I finished Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of Year in Britain and Beyond, I had the good fortune to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry at the same time I was about to take a sabbatical. Originally, I’d planned to take some time to travel to the UK—where my daughter, Catherine, and my mother, and I were born—to re-visit (in person and in poetry) the Staffordshire and Northamptonshire landscapes that form a backdrop in my memoir.
But when I received that unexpected phone call from then-Chairman Dana Gioia on a rainy November night, I began to see I was being given a chance to re-think my relationship to the country I’d lived in almost all of my life—the U.S.—but had never quite embraced as home. Later, a few days into a precarious new year, my husband, Ned Balbo (a poet and pop culture maven) and I were watching an X-Files re-run where Mulder and Scully step onto the shooting range in the FBI building.
I grew up during the Cold War under the flight path of Andrews Air Force Base and had remembered visiting that shooting range myself during—of all things—a Girl Scout trip. What badge were we after, I wondered, what wisdom? With encouragement from my partner in poetic crime, I realized it was worth writing a book that reflected the life I lived in the here and now on a suburban street—one where the TV screen sometimes flashes diversion and, tragically, news of roadside bombs and body counts.
My dad’s an Air Force vet and longtime reservist, so connection to the military was always a part of my life, from visits to the base to dealing with my father’s deployment during the first Gulf War and, increasingly, these concerns made their way into my work.
What genre does your book fall under?
Her Familiars explores female experience from a variety of standpoints. Included are shorter lyrics and longer poems—epistle, refrain, litany, elegy, and more. Shorter poems investigate the effects of war on those who fight it (the first wave at Normandy beach, women like Private Jessica Lynch who find themselves under enemy fire, judges seeking to define what is and isn’t “torture”) and those who live under its many terrors (civilians watching televised accounts at home or heading to market in war-torn streets).
The elegies are supplemented by poems where the historical and contemporary intersect (breast cancer campaigns and suffragette mothers; 17th century witchcraft crusades and high school cliques).
Her Familiars is framed by two long poems: one a biographical sequence on Clarice Cliff (a Staffordshire ceramic designer with an interesting personal life and a fiery ambition) and a multi-section fugue based on the iTunes party shuffle function that reflects on the political and environmental effects of New World colonization.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m loathe to run a casting call for poems where family, friends, or public figures appear—no matter how satisfying a bit part as witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, popstar Victoria Beckham or famed cookbook authoress Mrs. Beeton might be. As far as the figures in persona poems go, Gwyneth Paltrow’s done Plath and I’m a huge fan of Samantha Morton’s portrayal of Jane Eyre (a.k.a. Charlotte Bronte). Thanks to my daughter, there’s a sestina based on Cartoon Network’s Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and I think that version of the reaper—a lost bet with bratty siblings traps him forever in the suburbs—needs no replacement.
Of course, for the book’s final sequence, Anne Hathaway might make a charming Clarice Cliff—truly, she understands the relationship between art and tomfoolery. I’m sure she’d splay her pattern books quite lovingly if cast opposite Jude Law as Mr. Shorter, the unhappily married pottery magnate who recognized the former factory girl’s native artistic genius.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Here are women’s lives—my own and history’s sisters, daughters, mothers—in a world threatened by war and witch hunts but also filled with love, wonder, and a dose of the absurd.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I feel happiest as a writer when I think about a single draft at a time. While on a semester-long sabbatical, I could live in the luxury of a day of writing that lasted from when my daughter headed out the door to the middle school down the block until the moment she returned. I was grateful to have a VCCA residency that summer. After three weeks in the quiet of rural Virginia, nourished by the company of dedicated fellows and the exquisite meals of the legendary Chef Rhonda, I returned to Baltimore, draft in hand.
What other books would you compare your story to within this genre?
As I was putting the book together to send to my editor Dana Curtis at Elixir, my husband and I debated the merits of titles. I remember he asked if had been thinking subconsciously about Anne Sexton’s wonderful poem “Her Kind” when I wrote the title poem. But I hadn’t read Sexton in years. Other books that mattered a good deal to me along the way were Roy Fisher’s The Furnace, Hill’s Mercian Hymns, John Matthias’ Kedging, Larry Levis’ Elegies. Long poems that dig deep into the layered geographies of history. Linda Gregerson’s Waterborne; Allison Joseph’s Kites and Soul Train; Sarah Kennedy’s Home Remedies and A Witch’s Dictionary; Jo Shapcott’s Her Book—and more I know I’m probably forgetting to mention.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
More than thanks are due to my husband—first reader, great talker, mandolin strummer, idea man. As in: “How come you’ve never written that?” I’m blessed by our on-going dialogue about this gorgeous, embattled world we live in.
My daughter’s kindness, intelligence, and companionship are crucial, too, as is her humor, the baked goods she shares, those well-timed cups of tea.
Beth Kephart’s many vibrant e-mails about reading, writing, and the world of YA literature provided a powerful trigger for the title poem. And the many members of the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Seminars were staunch companions along the way.
What else about your book might peak the reader's interest?
I’m indebted to the amazing visual artist, Kiki Smith, whose Familiars adorns the cover.
Causes Jane Satterfield Supports
Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)
Association for Research on Mothering (ARM)