Interview with T.A. Noonan

After her recent stop at UIS, poet and author T.A. Noonan was generous enough to sit down and answer a few questions via email about her most recent book, the hybrid-genre poetry collection The Bone Folders.  The interview touches on her writing process and how she found the subject material for her collection and also strayed into her experiences in small-press publishing and advice she has to small journals like The Alchemist ReviewBe sure to check out The Bone Folders, as well as her other works.  More information can be found on her home page, fear_of_abstraction.

What was the inspiration behind your second collection of poems, The Bone
Folders?  Was there a certain group behind some of the characters in this
collection?

In 1999, during my second semester at LSU, I connected with a young woman who was involved in the Goddess 2000 Project, an international art initiative designed to increase visibility of the Goddess and Goddess imagery for the new millennium. She knew I was interested in mythology, Paganism, and witchcraft, and she asked if I wanted to work with her. I did, and so I went to a seven-acre property in Walker, LA, that was home to a group of witches known as the Covens of the Licorice Unicorn. They had a huge fence that they “donated” to the Goddess 2000 Project, and we were given paints and the freedom to create our own murals. As I worked on my mural, I became intrigued by the men and women of the Licorice Unicorn and began interviewing them. Their stories were sad, uplifting, and magical. Quickly, I realized wanted to write a book about their lives, and, by extension, my own experiences with Paganism and witchcraft.

The members served as the primary models for the characters in The Bone Folders, but they weren’t the only ones. I drew upon my own experiences, as well as stories from the women of my family, especially my mother and grandmother. Later, when I was working on my MFA, I met a group in South Florida known as the Sisterhood of Ahel Adom, and they also served as inspiration. So, the characters in The Bone Folders are an amalgam of about a couple dozen women I know or know about. I had to fictionalize them, mixing and matching details, but every character all emerged from interactions with and stories about real people.

What type of research is involved in writing about a coven of witches in
Louisiana – or Wicca in general?  What complications, if any, did you find
in writing about this culture?

Well, the Licorice Unicorn gave me almost full access to their archives and members. I understand that this was very unusual; even though they were public and known in the community, many members were very secretive, and the archive was a carefully controlled resource. I was and still am honored that they trusted me so much so quickly.

I also read a lot of books on witchcraft, Wicca, Paganism, and the occult. Of course, I already had a small library of my own by that point because I’d been practicing for a few years, but I didn’t know how much was out there until I started digging. There are some publishers that specialize in Occult, New Age, and Alternative Spirituality titles, and I read a lot of those. But I also did historical research, studying the roots of contemporary practices and beliefs. It’s still an area of interest for me, so I’m always reading and learning more. And, as a practitioner myself, I draw a lot of insights from “hands-on” experience from my personal and group workings.

There were two big complications I discovered while working on this book. The first was that a lot of the language used to talk about witchcraft is archaic, abstract, and clichéd. Plus, there’s always this problem of terminology; not everyone uses the same terms to describe or define the same things. It’s a pain. I struggled to find ways around that, even going as far as to dig into the words themselves, to create something that was more human and real than a vocabulary list.

The second was that it was really difficult to express my “insider’s” perspective in a way that was meaningful to an outsider. In a way, it’s like trying to write a reverse ethnography. So, I found myself focusing primarily on the human dramas, as well as drawing on other seemingly unconnected experiences to create associations that were accessible and identifiable.

“Witchcraft” seems to be a very loose word, especially in some of the poems
in this collection, such as “Slogan Triptych.”  In some poems, computer code
or mathematics or cooking seems synonymous with witchcraft.  Would you
define witchcraft as having a broad definition to include other forms of
craft and art?

I can’t help but tip my hat to Arthur C. Clarke, who famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Yeah, I see a lot of other arts, crafts, and sciences as part of “witchcraft,” but I think that may be something of a personal association and not “universal.” I mean, there are practitioners out there who, like me, use math in their witchcraft; for example, there’s a wonderful relationship between the Golden Ratio and the pentagram, that five-pointed star used by so many witches. Computer programming also strikes me as very much like setting a spell in motion because of the need to define a problem, figure out which operations to use, etc. Cooking requires knowledge of how different compounds will interact, and I’ve learned a lot about herbalism from using spices.

I guess the easiest way to think about it is to define witchcraft literally as “the craft of the witch,” and because my “craft” includes a lot of different activities, my notion of what witchcraft is ends up being pretty large. Then again, I know a lot of witches who incorporate other arts, crafts, sciences, etc. into their practices, so maybe it’s more universal than I think.

In The Bone Folders, and with witchcraft in general, there seems to be a
theme of people who are social outsiders.  Do you feel that this is a common
trait among practitioners of witchcraft, or other types of art and craft?

I do, but I also think that all people who are deeply involved in any specific or narrow field tend to be social outsiders. Ever met someone who can quote Kurt Russell movies verbatim, or sing all the lyrics to every Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, or talk for hours on the intricacies of snake bio-mechanics? It’s not like there are a million opportunities for these kinds of highly focused interests to come up in casual conversation.

The Japanese have a word for these people: otaku. In modern usage, it roughly translates to “geek,” but there’s a great deal of negativity associated with the term. Outside of Japan, otaku is used specifically to refer to fans of anime and manga, and while the term doesn’t have the same level of unsavoriness that it has in Japan, there are still plenty of negative stereotypes associated with it. And a lot of these stereotypes tie into various taboos we have relating to cleanliness, etiquette, obsession, sex, and so on.

Witches have the disadvantage of being marginalized because their craft hits on even more taboos. That’s not to say that pop culture hasn’t helped make witchcraft more visible or ameliorated some of the most harmful stereotypes.

Still, when I think of a lot of the witches I know, I see them as outsiders because they are invested in a subject that most don’t value, not because they can’t function in society. And that, I think, makes them a lot like people who obsess over what the average person would consider a “trivial” subject.

What was the writing process like for this collection?

Long. But that’s oversimplifying, a bit.

I started the book when I was nineteen and worked on it throughout my undergraduate career. I completed the first draft when I was twenty-two, but I knew it wasn’t “done.” For one thing, it kept changing genres. The manuscript started as poetry, but it became fiction, then poetry again, then fiction again, then nonfiction, etc. I felt like I didn’t know what it was supposed to be, and I hadn’t realized it yet that could be all of those things. Another problem I had was that I didn’t feel like I’d captured the strange beauty of these people and their stories. The work felt too constrained, like I hadn’t managed to really get at the heart of who these women were. So, I kind of shelved the project and decided to write other things.

While working on my MFA, I had two experiences that made me rethink the project. One was meeting the Sisters of Ahel Adom; they helped me realize that my voice had value and could be used to tell a story that very few people could. I remember having long conversations with them about the ways that witches were portrayed in the media, and they were so supportive of the book’s concept because they saw that a book like The Bone Folders could capture the Pagan experience in a way that nothing else had.

The second experience was in my first poetry workshop as a graduate student. I had been struggling with this poem unrelated to the collection, and when I turned it in, the reaction from my peers was not good.

I explained all the ideas that went into the draft, and Susan Mitchell, my professor, said, “That was so much more interesting than what was on the page.” When I complained that there was no way to write the way I thought, that my ideas were impossible to translate, she looked at me and said, “Try.”

I did.

That poem became “A Chaos Theory,” which did make it into The Bone Folders, and the discovery that I could actually draw everything together and make the connections I saw was a revelation. I restarted the project, rescuing what I could from the older versions along the way. Not everything I wrote during that period ended up making it into the final version, but a lot of stuff did. It was kind of a crazy experience because there are pieces that I have almost no memory of drafting. (I sometimes wonder if I might have “tapped into” something during the process!) In any case, I completed the manuscript July 14, 2007, while I worked on my PhD. I did make one final revision to it September 2007, plus a pretty rigorous copyedit a few months before its publication. Fun fact: The Bone Folders was officially released on July 15, 2011, which was almost four years to the day after I declared the collection “done.”

So, all in all, The Bone Folders was nearly twelve years in the making. And it was totally worth it, because I’m very proud of it.

Some of your previous work has been published in several Southern literary
 journals.  As the internet brings cultures together and influences are
traded so easily, how do you feel that has affected the concept of
“Southern” fiction, if at all?

Maybe this is just my experience, but I’ve noticed that, until fairly recently, people have had pretty restrictive notions of what makes writing “Southern.” They immediately envision these Southern Gothic tropes and magnolia pastorals, or they turn to the setting or the author’s biography. That strikes me as unfair, and I wonder if it has something to do with the ways in which Southern literature is taught, the way its canon is constructed. It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of new, exciting texts making their way into classrooms, which is a shame because there are some great Southern writers that blow my mind. It’s not that there aren’t classics of Southern literature that do the same, but avoiding the really contemporary stuff gives an incomplete picture of the subgenre.

Whenever I talk about being a Southern writer, I always feel it necessary to point out that I’m not a Southerner by birth; I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in the South. I consider myself a Southerner because I was raised in the South, and the majority of my experiences are, by definition, Southern. But I’m also a New Yorker, of sorts. Plus, I’ve lived in Florida for at least a quarter of my lifetime, which is both Southern and not, depending on who you ask and where you’re looking within the state.

My point in mentioning this is that it’s far too easy to think of Southern writing as a combination of geography and trope. The world isn’t so small anymore. People are a lot more mobile than they used to be. I’ve met Southerners everywhere. The proliferation of independent and online publishing has allowed Southern writers who don’t fit this narrow scope of what is “Southern” to find outlets for their work, and that is a good thing. And I do see a broadening sense of what it means to write in and about the South. But it’s slow. I think it would happen a little faster if the canon of Southern literature opened up more and a greater emphasis was placed on what Southern writers are doing right now, as opposed to what they have done in the past.

By the way, Flannery O’Connor explores this even further in her excellent essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Seriously, just read it. I’d quote her, but I’d either end up copying the whole thing or missing some of the nuances of her exploration.

You’re involved with several small presses and publications such as Sundress Publications and Flaming Giblet Press, which you founded.  What advice would
you have for a new (and small) literary journal?  What surprises did you
discover when starting up a small press?

The first piece of advice on publishing that I received was from Rodger Kamenetz, my mentor at LSU. When I mentioned that I wanted to start a press, he told me that the secret to making a small fortune as a publisher was to start with a large one. It’s a clever joke, but it taught me the first rule of running a press or journal. You can’t go into it thinking that you’ll get rich; you have to do it because you just have to do it. Publishing has to be a love affair and a moral imperative.

You’d be surprised how many hats a publisher needs to wear. It’s not merely about having a vision or aesthetic. You’ve got to be able to network, copyedit, design, communicate. If you can’t do all those things yourself, you need people who can teach you or do it for you. I guess that’s my second piece of advice: it’s good to find people you can ask advice of and/or work with. Network. Talk to others in the field. Almost every small-press or journal publisher I’ve met is totally open to discussing the process. And, if you’re going to work with other people, make sure their strengths compliment (or compensate for) your weaknesses. It’s not impossible to be a one-man or one-woman show, but it’s a lot harder.

One of the things that surprised me was how little I knew about publishing when I first got involved. I kind of had to teach myself a lot of the nuts and bolts. For example, the very first thing I published through Flaming Giblet Press was my chapbook, Balm. I figured that if I screwed it up, at least I only had to answer to myself. But I had no idea what I was doing, really. Thanks to the internet, I located a good chapbook template, used it to do the layout, designed and carved my own linocut block for the cover, and assembled the books myself.

Unfortunately, I was way too pleased with the results, and that satisfaction drove me to pursue a lot of projects that I wasn’t ready for. Ambition eventually got the best of me. That was and is my third lesson: ideas are great, but you should only do what’s within your means. And that includes everything from skills to time to resources. If all you can manage is a couple of broadsides a year, that’s great; do that. If you can do more, do more. However, don’t take on more than you can reasonably do. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a publisher, but the majority of them stem from over-ambition.

I guess my next suggestion for people wanting to get into publishing is to get as much experience as possible in any many related fields and arenas as possible. Intern. Learn how to build a website. Take design courses. Absorb some style manuals, even if they’re not exactly rip-roaring reads. Putz around with Facebook and Twitter and other social networks. The more knowledge you have, the better off you’ll be.

And, even though this sounds cheesy, you need to read, promote, support, donate to, and purchase from independent publishers. They can’t survive without people like you. If your budget doesn’t allow for multiple subscriptions or dozens of books a year, boost the signal by telling your friends about the great work you’ve heard about, read, seen online, etc. Always be on the lookout for new great work, too. The more you encounter, the more you’ll discover about what is out there and what is possible.

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