Where Is She? Two Contemporary Poets on Erasure, Gendered Violence, & Poetry

Sarah Clark: She May Be a Saint utilizes Sylvia Plath’s work as source material, and All the Twists of the Tongue is a collection of found poems from the Plath archive at Smith College. What continues to draw both of you to Sylvia Plath, and when did you first find her?

Cathleen Allyn ConwayI first discovered Plath in creative writing class as a senior in high school. Her poem “Mirror” was in the textbook, opposite the page under discussion. When I got to uni I kept waiting for Plath to come up in my literature classes and she never did, so finally I read The Bell Jar when I was 20. Her voice felt immediate and familiar; it connected from the first page.

In grad school, we were assigned a project to research movements we hadn’t been exposed to before, so I was banned from exploring more Confessionalists. While wandering the stacks looking for high moderns I discovered The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, which I read in tandem with my classes on discourse and rhetoric. Shortly after I moved to the UK, and while trying to grapple with my first year here, I returned to Plath, who had also emigrated. It was simultaneously comforting and irritating to see Plath struggled with the same cultural differences I dealt with 50 years later.

The Silent Woman is, incidentally, an infuriating work, and this control over Plath’s narrative I think is what eventually returned me to her as a subject of study when I decided to pursue a PhD.

Sarah Nichols: I discovered The Bell Jar when I was fourteen, I think. I had never heard of her, but I was attracted to its dark subject matter, and I remember being surprised that she had died so young. I told my mother I was reading it, and she didn’t like that I was reading it, but didn’t say that I couldn’t. I don’t think I had started reading her poetry at this point. A year later, I was hospitalized for depression (the first of many, many stints in psychiatric hospitals), and I felt even more of a connection. In my junior year of high school, I did an extended research project on her and her work. There were many poems that I didn’t understand at that point; I didn’t think I’d be a poet at all! For the longest time, I focused on the circumstances of her death and the breakdown she writes of in The Bell Jar; it was very much a thing of die young, and leave behind a masterpiece. It was not until I got older, and actually looked at the drafts of her work in the Smith archives that I realized it was indeed her work that should be celebrated; she worked so hard, and to see her process definitely changed how I thought of her. I return to her work  because it continues to surprise me: her acerbic, black humor, and so many indelible lines and images, and her tenacity. She was determined to bring her voice into the world.

She May Be A Saint, by Sarah Nichols (Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2016). All the Twists of the Tongue, by Cathleen Allyn Conway (Grey Book Press, 2018).


SC: Who are some other figures—writers or not—who have taken shape in your writing? Who are some other figures—writers or not—who have shaped your writing?

CAC: I absolutely have to mention Sarah here. It was Sarah’s Edie (Whispering) that re-routed my entire course of PhD study into found poetics (and I quote from She May Be a Saint in my thesis). That collection really opened me up to the possibilities of what  found poetry could do.

SNAnd I have to mention Cat! Her creating a space for women’s protest poetry, Thank You for Swallowing, brought home to me the fact that it’s fine to call oneself a feminist, but what else is one doing to broaden the scope of what that looks like? What I love about her is that she doesn’t back away, and this is evident in her poems, and they have allowed me to see other ways to interrogate texts to create something new.


SC: What are your thoughts about erasure poetry and found poetry as forms of anti-patriarchal resistance?

CACI have to give Minal Hajratwala credit for this, because we had a conversation about erasure oncewho was erased, and by whomthat shaped my view and practice. With this in mind, I am careful about the sources I choose: Plath was a privileged white woman with problematic language use, but also a victim of domestic abuse. I took words from her archive that Ted Hughes wanted suppressed or redacted as an act of anti-patriarchal resistance.

A photo of two women at a party. The woman on the left is Cathleen Allyn Conway, a dark-haired woman with cat-eye glasses and a big smile. Sarah Nichols stands to her right, with short blue hair and a black and white horizontal striped shirt.
Cathleen Allyn Conway (left) with Sarah Nichols (right) at Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” at Elizabeth A. Sackler Center For Feminist Art, Brooklyn, NY, March 2016.

SNI have also made a practice of choosing wisely in terms of what texts I use. Found poetry is not a license to transgress; I can’t tell stories that are not mine to tell. With that said, I do think that found poetry/erasure are in a unique position to dismantle the patriarchy. My chapbook of found poems, Dreamland for Keeps, is an absolute manifestation of that. I used James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, as source material, and it is very much powered by male obsession with a murdered woman whose death was notorious in terms of brutality and for the fact that it remains unsolved. My intent with that collection was to restore Elizabeth Short’s voice. In the novel, she doesn’t have one, nor does she have one in all of the books that have been written about the case. She still drives male obsession, but where is she?


SC: The body is central in both of your books, in honest and visceral ways. How do found and source texts complicate writing about the body and about trauma? Where does the body live in your writing processes?

CAC: All the Twists of the Tongue is essentially by-product of my PhD thesis, which does not read Plath to locate the woman, Sylvia, but instead engages with her undead corpus, which is not only her literal ‘body of work,’ but also all that constitutes ‘Sylvia Plath’ as a symbol. The poems in this pamphlet are much more intent on disrupting the control exercised on these works, on the body, after the death of their author. Jacqueline Rose in her book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath describes the redaction of Plath’s archival materials by Hughes, arguing that there is a body in Sylvia Plath’s writing, and that the ‘cuts’ in material from the first publication of the Journals were best described as ‘body in bits and pieces,’ ‘made to do violence on’ (as Plath puts it in her poem ‘Strumpet Song’). It’s not meant to be a Frankenstein’s monster of a rebuilding by sticking those bits and pieces back together, but more a means of using Plath’s rage and disgust, which Hughes tried to silence, to express my voice. The sources in this collection also include the annotations on her copy of Ibsen as well as words from the advertisements in the issue of Mademoiselle in which she was guest-editor, so it’s not just me remediating Plath’s voice, but all these Plath-adjacent (literally in the case of Ibsen, in which I took his line and her annotation as a whole phrase) or Plath-related source texts.

SN: She May Be a Saint braids the work of Plath and the work of C.D. Wright, and the way they both write about the body in very intimate ways. I did not set out on that project to write about my body and trauma, but both are definitely there, and for me, using found poetry to express what I cannot always articulate about a body (and a mind) that are continually wrestling with chronic health issues has allowed me a way “in” to those things that I might not be able to express in other ways.


Sarah Nichols, a white woman with blue hair wears a red faux leather jacket over a black and white horizontal striped shirt. She is standing in front of artist Jenny Holzer's "Inflammatory Essays," text printed on 7 colors of paper arranged in columns, creating a rainbow. The text cannot be read clearly.
Sarah Nichols in front of Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” at Elizabeth A. Sackler Center For Feminist Art, Brooklyn, NY, March 2016.

SC: Given the recent controversies about the boundaries of influence, imitation, and plagiarism, how would you describe the key differences between poetry that makes use of source texts versus misappropriation?

CACI hesitate to enter this discussion because so much of it has been tiresome hypothetical thought experiment about what IS a poem and is a poem a capitalist product and I think, well I could be reading this online navel-gazing or I could watch Killing Eve.

Innovative poetics is not plagiarism. I did a conference with SJ Fowler a few years back and he likened found poetry, recontextualisation, intertextual readings, erasures, et al to movements in art, and in that regard, poetry is decades behind. Fowler argued that context has meaning; that’s the whole point behind Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Literature in many ways has already done this, with the Moderns and the Beats (I’m thinking of the cut-up technique and the poem machine in particular, but also Ezra Pound’s collegiate technique and TS Eliot’s citation method). There are many ways to ‘treat’ a text, either erasing it or remixing it or even leaving it untreated on a new page. Fowler argued that ‘context has meaning’ and that to me is the distinction. Regarding “Gun Metal,” Ailey O’Toole took a memory of someone else’s childhood abuse rendered into text and made it a metaphor, made it subtext, from a woman of colour who was an abused child. That to me is far worse than just stealing a line or two or using someone else’s poem as a scaffold.

SN: I have had people ask me if found poetry is considered plagiarism, and I’ve said no, and gone on to explain about fair use and the citation of sources and even this has been met with skepticism, and there have definitely been moments where I have hesitated in terms of saying “I write found poetry” because I am using another author’s words, no matter how I might be transforming the original text. I’ve said that I “make” found poems, because it feels like I am building something, and in some ways this sense of building carries over into the non-found writing that I do. In light of the recent cases of plagiarism, I find myself angry and frustrated, because the original author built those poems; she mined her life and looked at it unflinchingly and to have someone else come along and attempt to claim it, it becomes more than a theft of words; it is not for the plagiarist to tell that story, or to attempt to fashion it in such a way that the stories and trauma are written over or erased.


SC: Your work feels aware of popular preconceptions about gender, and both of your texts touch on ideas of masks, persona, the performance of the self, and how we will be remembered (or not). What are your thoughts on how we perform ourselves, are expected to perform ourselves, and how we survive the dissonance of these two modes?

CACI really need to think about this. This is an interesting question in light of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s Letters, which demonstrate the many ways we as individuals slant presentations of ourselves to appeal to certain audiences. I don’t really know how to answer this. I think perhaps people of marginalised genders are always being required to continually shift their presentations to please and comfort others, and I am glad to see younger generations calling bullshit on that.

SNFor me, this question is kind of a gray area. In my life, I’ve gotten very adept at performing a role of someone who looks like they’ve got their life together; someone who doesn’t live with a major mood disorder along with being a recovering addict. But there are so many days where there’s struggle, and the fear that if I speak about how I truly feel, then no one will want to deal with it. As for my poems, I think I use persona and/or a performance of the self to articulate what I don’t think I can say, whether it’s about past traumas, addiction, or merely being in the world. I sometimes feel that I am far more open in my writing than I am out in the world.


SC: What is the role of feminist resistance in your practice as writers?

CACWomen ‘attempting the pen,’ as Gilbert and Gubar argue, is an act of resistance; it’s a literal transgression that informs my practice. I have not recovered from 2016, and looking at the completely stoppable, catastrophic burn-it-all-to-hell-who-cares-if-people-die Brexit, I probably won’t. I can only write my MP so many times, so: more poems, more critical interrogations.

SNResistance in my writing may not come straight out and announce itself as such, but it’s there. People are still disturbed by women’s lives that do not fit some sort of mold, and I think that my job as a writer is to upset that mold. Echoing Cat, I am still dealing with the fall out of 2016, and so it has become even more necessary to write and to listen to the stories of people who might be silenced: migrants, people of color, the ill, the impoverished. We need a record of how we have (or haven’t) survived this time.

CACThis. We need historical documents for people to see what happened and how it affected the most marginalised so we can apparently not learn from it, I guess.


SC: Who are you reading right now? What are you currently working on?

CAC: I’m reading Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry from Ignota, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamis, the updated Norton Anthology because I’m teaching it this term, and some urban fantasy because my brain needs a break from critical theory from time to time. As for work, I am finalising my dissertation, which I would really like finished.

SN: My reading is a bit of a hodge-podge right now; mostly non-fiction. As for work, I am trying to get into a space where I feel ready to start writing a full length collection. I want 2019 to be the year when that happens.


A photo of Cathleen Allyn Conway, a white woman with long black hair and light eyes. Half of her face is out of frame as she looks up playfully through her black-framed cat-eye glasses at one of Jenny Holzer's "Inflammatory Essays." Printed on pink paper, part of Holzer's piece reads, in all capital letters: "Don't talk down to me. Don't be polite to me. Don't try to make me feel nice. Don't relax. I'll cut the smile off your face. You think I don't know what's going on. You think I'm afraid to react. The joke's on you. I'm biding my time, looking for the spot. You think no one can reach you. No one can have what you have. I've been planning while you're playing. I've been saving while you're spending. The game is almost over so it's time you acknowledge me. Do you want to fall not ever knowing who took you?CATHLEEN ALLYN CONWAY is a creative writing research student and Sylvia Plath scholar Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she also teaches. Her pamphlet Static Cling was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2012 and All the Twists of the Tongue was published by Grey Book Press in 2018. Originally from Chicago, she lives in south London with her partner and son.


A photograph of Sarah Nichols, a white woman wearing a pink and black houndstooth coat in front of pink and blue street art. Her hair is platinum and black, short-cropped, and she's wearing blue lipstick. Sarah is looking slightly away from the camera.SARAH NICHOLS lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the author of seven chapbooks, including This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl Press, 2018) and Dreamland for Keeps ( Porkbelly Press, 2018). Her third chapbook, She May Be a Saint was chosen for inclusion in San Francisco State University’s Chapbook Exchange Program in 2017. Her poems and essays have also appeared in Rogue Agent, Memoir Mixtapes, The RS 500, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry.