NA: I love how you open, Gloved Against Blood, with a quote from Proust, “For we are our loom,” and then write about your life and your ancestor’s lives, both as if they were images on a tapestry as well as the creators of the tapestry. How did this book begin? What was the first poem you wrote for it?
CV: The book began with the poem “How a Community of Women.” Although at the time I wrote this poem I had no idea that it was the beginning of Gloved Against Blood. I thought it was a stand-alone poem inspired by my mother’s family history. As my mother aged she started sharing with me stories of her early life. I realize now, in hindsight, that this preoccupation with her past and her lineage actually marked the onset of her memory issues. During one of my visits to Florida to see my parents, my mother and I happened to go out to dinner alone (a rarity). At that dinner I received an email from Sou’wester accepting “How a Community of Women” for publication. She was so moved to know that this poem that honored her history was going to be in print. It was a sign to me (and a green light) to explore this territory in greater depth and to document it in the best way I knew how – through poetry.
NA: That’s so interesting! Your mother was a little like Penelope then, weaving her story for you as her mind unwove her past? Can we post that poem here?
CV: Yes, it was important to me to bring Penelope into the book. Not only related to my mother’s memories but also because of the focus on needlework. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the precision of needlework with the fact that it naturally wants to, and will, unravel over time.
How a Community of Women
Resolved, That we will not go back into the mills to work
unless our wages are continued…as they have been.
Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.
Resolved, That if any have not money enough to carry them home,
they shall be supplied.
—Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834
How my French Canadian great-grandmother and great-great-aunts
toiled thirteen hours a day in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.
How weak the light when they left the boardinghouse each morning.
How screaming starlings flash mobbed them along the way. How they
sucked thread through the eye of their foot-long wooden shuttles
that fed the cotton to the looms. How they called that quick motion
of their lips “the kiss of death.” How they could not converse over
the cacophonic, clickety-click, clickety-clack of five-hundred howling
looms. How they walked back in ear-ringing darkness, had dinner,
then took up their needlework—crochet, crewel, cross-stitch, knitting,
mending, quilting, darning—close work, women’s work. My mother
taught me, her mother taught her, her mother taught her.
NA: It’s such a great metaphor! In the poem, “Triptych,” in which you reference Penelope, you talk about the mill your great-grandmother worked in. What was it like seeing it, or, as I imagine it, visiting your great-grandmother’s past? I am assuming you actually saw it? You wrote:
I’ve seen the steps she climbed each morning to begin another day
in the mill. They spiral like a beaded periwinkle
toward a far-off rectangle
CV: I visited the Boott Cotton Mills complex, which is part of the Lowell National Historical Park, while writing the poems for this collection. My great-grandmother (Mémé) worked there as a young woman before she married, but I have no details about her time there. All I know is that she left Quebec for a job in the mills and the one tangible thing that remains of Mémé’s life is her thimble that was passed to my grandmother, my mother and then me. Eventually it will be my daughter’s. My visits to the mills helped me imagine what it was like for her, to feel more connected to her and to put her time there as a young, hopeful immigrant into some kind of context with the rest of her life which was hard. For me it was important that the book reach beyond family history. I wanted to honor the mill girls, to tell their narratives and to weave a female story. My visits to the mills felt similar to visiting a memorial, almost reverential in a non-religious way. The idea that all those lives that toiled there—their hard work, best intentions, dreams and even just the mundane dailiness of it all—could be completely lost while the brick and mortar mill survived. And for some reason, those stairs spiraling up into the mill, affected me more than the looms themselves.
NA: For me, one of the most powerful poems in your book is “Lowell Cloth Narratives” in which you link the narratives of ex-slaves who picked the cotton to that of the women who wove the cotton. I wondered if you could say a few words about that poem? How you found those narratives?
CV: When I was doing research for the book I learned that the Lowell mills not only bought Southern cotton to fuel the mills but that they also produced Lowell cloth (a generic term for cheap, course cotton) which was sold to Southern plantations for the purpose of clothing enslaved African Americans. Many of the mill girls were abolitionists and yet their livelihood depended on slavery and they were charged with making the very cloth that the slaves wore to pick the cotton that fed the mills. The irony of this information was just so impactful for me—it took the top of my head off and haunted me. It became very important to me to include this in the book although initially I wasn’t sure how to present it. I Googled Lowell cloth and among the sites I found was one from the University of Massachusetts Lowell which included references to Lowell cloth found in 39 different Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the WPA in the 1930s. I studied these narratives and selected three to use in this hybrid poem that pairs the words of the interviewees (in italics) with what I imagined the mill girls might have wanted to share about their experience and the cognitive dissonance they must have felt by being anti-slavery on the one hand but dependent on it on the other.
NA: Could we post a section from that poem? Maybe the opening stanza?
Lowell Cloth Narratives
Based on Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Lowell cloth was a “generic” term for cheap, course cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell.
State: Arkansas Interviewee: Bear, Dina
I was born in slavery time—a world away
we wove we wove away. I was born in the field
under a tree. Thirteen hours a day we toiled
cotton into cloth. People wore home-made
what I mean homespun and lowell clothes.
It snowed in our lungs and every window
shut. My dresses was called mother
hubbards. We passed abolitionist poems
from loom to loom. I was too young
to remember anything about slavery—
blood and sweat blood and sweat. I went
barefoot until I was a young missie. We
signed the petitions. Folk did not know
how we was made.
NA: I love the layers of this book: your personal history, your family history, and American history woven together. You’ve created a masterpiece with this book. I imagine it was a huge challenge, bringing those pieces together in your poems?
CV: Yes, it was definitely a challenge! Bringing all the layers together ended up being more of an organic process that evolved over time as I immersed myself in research on the mills and worked on the poems. Interestingly, I never thought of myself as a history buff and yet it was local history that ended up providing the lens and conduit for me to write about personal and family history in a way that, I hoped, would be universal. Throughout the process I learned that I needed to stay open to where the book wanted to go versus where I might have envisioned it going. For example, when I learned about Lowell cloth I had to write that poem and I had to find a way to layer it into the book. I also figured out that I had to be patient with myself. Some poems needed to sit on the sidelines for a while until I was able to connect them with the others. At the same time, there were poems that I ultimately had to leave out because they introduced yet another layer that I felt didn’t serve the whole.
NA: So tell me about your writing process? And maybe–how it evolved while working on this book?
CV: My writing process is somewhat deliberate because I have a demanding un-poetic corporate job and I’ve learned that I need to make a place for poetry everyday in order to keep it in the forefront. This doesn’t mean I write everyday, but I make sure that each day I read, revise, write, attend a reading or workshop etc. I feel an urgency to stay focused because I’m making up for lost time. Shortly after completing my MFA, I married, had two children and took the corporate job I hold today—I put poetry on a back burner for twenty years. I’m a terrible multitasker!
My writing process did evolve as part of writing Gloved Against Blood because it required that I spend a good deal of time researching and reading source material. I found that I had to study the material closely, frequently re-reading it in order to find the content that spoke to me in a way that allowed me to enter it and write from it. While this was at times tedious, the historic content functioned almost like poetry prompts and provided rich scaffolding to build from.
I typically don’t write on the computer, but in a notebook, often in bed or on the couch. I travel for my job and I’ve also discovered that I can write on planes. It’s like being in a cocoon. I always revise on the computer.
NA: When did you know the title of the book? And how did you know you that the book was finished? Ready to send out into the world?
CV: I guess you could say that I had a false start on both the title and when I thought the book was finished. Initially, the book was titled Thimbleful. Under that title and with most of the poems that ended up in the book I sent it out into the world. It was the Runner Up in one contest and made the Finalist and Semi-Finalist lists in other contests. I pulled it back and decided to do a manuscript consultation with the wonderful poet and editor, Susan Rich. As part of that process I revised some poems, removed other poems, wrote a couple new poems, reordered the manuscript and chose a different title. What I realized in working with Susan was that I was so close to the manuscript that I wasn’t able to see it from an editor’s perspective. While it was hard to take a step back and trust someone with my work, it was the right decision for me.
NA: I love that title, too! I am also a Susan Rich fan. I think poetry is, at its best, a kind of community. Who else has influenced you or helped you as a poet?
CV: I love so many poets, but Emily Dickinson, Rilke and James Wright are the ones who have influenced me the most. I don’t read them often now, but they were monumental for me when I was a young poet. Mostly now, I read current journals and new books – there are so many wonderful poets out there that I am learning from everyday. Like you, I also feel that poetry, at its best, is a kind of community and I am very lucky to have a strong poetry community. This wasn’t always the case. During the years when I was more focused on my family and career than poetry I wasn’t aware of the vibrant poetry community in my area (Boston’s North Shore) and felt somewhat isolated. Once my children were in college and I turned my attention back to poetry I happened to meet January Gill O’Neil at a local coffee shop. I recognized her from a feature on debut poets that I’d read in Poets and Writers. She told me about the Salem Writer’s Group – an open group for all genres run by J.D. Scrimgeour. I started attending the twice a month workshops and met the many writers who have now become close friends. We share work regularly inside and outside of workshop, attend readings and retreats together etc. I also reconnected with a close friend from grad school and we’ve been exchanging and critiquing each others work via email for several years now. Finally, I want to say that social media, for all its pros and cons, can also be an important community for poetry and writing as long as you have realistic expectations. I like it for the exposure and connection it fosters with a diverse group of other writers and their work that I might not otherwise cross paths with. All in all I would be lost without my poetry community.