I am very pleased to introduce poet Camille-Yvette Welsch to ZPR readers. I met Camille at this year’s AWP conference in Portland, OR and had the great pleasure of reading with her at the off-site reading for The Word Works. I was immensely engaged with her collection of poems and think you will be too. To illustrate what I mean, here is a sample poem from her book, followed by our interview together.
The Ugliest Girl in Christendom Goes to the Gynecologist
When she asks the doctor what it looks like,
the doctor hands the girl a small mirror. The girl curls
her knobby shoulders forward, places
the glass between her legs and gasps in fury.
Here, at last, all the missing pigment, all
the rich color, the plump curvature she longs for.
Outside, her body glows white, Siberian hair,
pale eyes, skin white as pneumatic froth. And thin,
so very thin. When she swims in front
of the pool light, her siblings see
her every attenuated bone, the long fingers
of ribs closing over her heart. But here,
between her legs, smiling lipstick.
The doctor raises a questioning brow;
the girl scowls more deeply, shimmies
forward on the table and swings her legs down,
the knock of her knees a dull sound.
The doctor leaves, and the girl pulls
on her bra and shirt, contemplates ways
to wear very short skirts, to bend until people see
her burst, the real rage of her body, this small strip.
She pulls her bikinis up slowly, fuming.
What good is a secret that can’t be told?
The book follows the lives of four children who have been adopted by two anthropologists, bent on doing a longitudinal study on ugliness. They handpicked these four children and keep subject reports on each child, monitoring their mental, physical, and emotional lives, and the impact physical unattractiveness has on those lives. In addition to the subject reports, we hear from the children themselves, get a sense of their voices and what it means to live inside these strictures.
The book got its start in some ways when my mother dragged my brothers and me to church as kids. I grew up Catholic and my mother loved the choir at one church in particular. One of the families at the church was led by a very angry woman who could not believe that she had not been invited to be a part of that choir. To make up for it, she screeched through all of the hymns as loudly as possible. When she and her children made their way up the aisle to accept the Eucharist, the kids looked dumpy and ashamed. I was talking to my parents about that as an adult, dubbing them the four ugliest children in Christendom. Immediately my mother said I should write a poem about that. When next faced with a blank page, I did exactly that.
Still, in the course of writing, and even in that initial moment, I had sympathy for those kids. They were in a tough situation with their mother demanding a kind of negative attention. Loudly and in a church. When I started writing the book, all of the poems were in third person. The narrator was a sort of anthropological voice over, in the early 20th century tradition of staring and studying anyone who was not white, cis-normative heterosexual and Eurocentric. My husband has a doctorate in Anthropology and an extensive collection of anthropology books and the early ones are insanely racist and paternalistic. I found myself wondering if we had gotten away from that or if we were simply more subtly immersed.
I submitted some of the poems to a workshop with Marilyn Nelson and she suggested writing from the children’s point of view. I really liked that idea a great deal, to give these charaters a voice would bring us a step closer to empathy rather than the more distant sympathy. Once I started writing in their voices, I felt I understood them much better and I started to see how the poems could become a novel in verse. Even then, I was in for more awakenings. My former student, Kayleb Rae Candrilli read a draft and told me that I had no climax, and they were right. Back to the drawing board again. I found joy in writing it as a novel in verse because there were lots of narrative, structural problems to solve, but because it was poetry, I didn’t have to do a huge amount of transition between time and place.
The other thing that worked out beautifully for me was sending my manuscript to The Word Works. Should you get a finalist or semi-finalist position, they offer feedback. That feedback was key. I revised again, submitted again, and got the acceptance I wanted.
For those interested in reading more, you can find the book at Small Press Distribution
How did you come up with your book’s title?
The titles all use some version of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom do X. Because they are so visually marked, I wanted each poem, and the title, to also feel visually marked. The titles also gave me an entry point for each poem. I set up the plot and setting generally in the title, as in ‘The Ugliest Girl in Christendom Goes to the Gynecologist’ or ‘The Ugliest Boy in Christendom Attends the Star Wars Conference.’
Who are you reading right now?
I am all over the place, in part because I review books. I just read In My Own Moccasins, Helen Knott’s devastating memoir about violence against indigenous women, both by rapists and by the Canadian government. I was thrilled by Sarah Blake’s novel, Naamah that tells the story of Noah’s wife. She did all of the packing, the planning, the coordinating, the dealing with the in-laws—all of the mental load that plagues women today. It was a revelation. I am also diving into Lynda Barry to see if I can change up some of the ways that I write and teach.
For poetry, I just re-read Denise Duhamel’s book about Barbie, Kinky. Her book is fearless and funny. She pivots in so many directions with Barbie always at the center. My favorite poem is actually the title poem, where Ken and Barbie switch heads. My students are so alarmed by that poem, but it does everything I want poetry to do—it is startling, inventive, funny, and powerful.
What other creative activities do you take part in? What do you do to take a break from teaching, grading, writing, revising, etc?
A break, you say? I am not sure that I take breaks exactly. I do a LOT of reviewing, but I am also learning how to teach children how to write poems. In two classes I am offering this summer, we are creating our own Rorschach blots and writing about them based on an essay by Scott Beal called “Brain Spelunking.” And, I am writing poems with senior citizens about their lives as a part of the Poems from Life project sponsored by the PA Center for the Book.
I am also raising two children, so I find my creativity lit in that context—I designed an escape room style treasure hunt for my son’s birthday, and a series of ridiculous games for my daughter’s. We paint together and build things and make much of clouds and their shapes. Being with my kids helps me to pay more attention to little things as a caterpillar will stop them in their tracks, thus I am halted and returned to the world, breathless and awake.
What projects are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on poems about the body. Years ago, I wrote a poem entitled, “Ode to the Fat Woman at the Mutter Museum who, When Buried, Turned to Soap.” The alkaline in the soil reacted to the fat as it would to lanolin, thus turning it into soap. Crazy fascinating. The body has so much potential and is so very strange. We haul these bodies around but they are like a totally different galaxy inside with civilizations and outposts that we know nothing about. I find that compelling, and when these miraculous bodies don’t respond as we expected, we are at such a loss. Atul Gawande talks about bodies, or at least doctors’ perception of them, as being somewhere between the uniform melt of an ice cube, and the wildly divergent behavior of hurricanes. As a woman who experienced pregnancy, I know just how bizarre the body can be, the unexpected language attached to it, the ways in which it can suddenly and drastically change a life. The poems range from commentary on the Playboy Playmate who mocked a naked woman in a locker room to poems about being sliced open to reveal a face in your womb. I am both in awe and occasionally skeeved by the body and its manufacturings. I think that is a good place to be in a poem.
Camille-Yvette Welsch is the author of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom and FULL. She works at The Pennsylvania State University where she is a teaching professor of English and director of the High School Writing Day. For more information, go to www.camilleyvettewelsch.com.