Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Nancy Hightower and The Acolyte: A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Author Nancy Hightower joined us to talk about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte, which she told us she wrote over the course of 10 years! These poems deal with loss, despair, and hope - many of them in a Biblical context. Nancy said she had wanted to revisit the Biblical stories, treating the characters in them as real people.

She says she "tried to listen to the unspoken narratives." "Where do you have to be emotionally," she asked, "to nail somebody's head to the ground?" That is just what one of the Biblical women does, saving the nation in the process.

I asked Nancy why some of the poems have Biblical quotes preceding them and others do not. She explained that the more well-known verses aren't quoted because they are familiar to more people, while more obscure ones are quoted. In addition, the verse that precedes the poem "She" serves as a trigger warning for the gang rape that occurs in the verse and poem. We briefly discussed the purpose of an envoi at the head of a piece.

She said everyone talks about Moses going across the sea, but no one talks about how he's not able to go into the promised land. In this sense, all of the poems are about breaking expectations for how the Bible content will be treated and discussed. Bible verses tend to get used in very restrictive ways, and her worldbuilding choice was to frustrate the usual sense of narrative closure - the sense that "those stories were only good for one thing."

There is a fascinating temporal hybridization in these poems. Some are focused on the events of archaic time, but others bring in glimpses of our modern era as well, such as the story of Sarah, which brings in an evocation of the modern struggle of fertility as well as the events of the ancient time. Nancy told us that Transformations by Anne Sexton influenced how she talked about things. Nancy particularly wanted to give more of a voice to the archaic world. She says the political re-reading of these stories is too flat and cliché., and that we don't give that world enough weight or validity. She wanted to treat these people as characters beyond their traditional flat portrayal.

I asked her about how she decided which poems to include. She spoke a bit about her own spiritual journey. Her father worked for three televangelists, one of whom was Jim Bakker. She says that she came through the experience more full of doubt than surety, but that this was part of the strength of her faith. She relates to characters who wrestle with faith as a result.

I asked her about her use of poetic language, and how poetry is different from her prose writings. She says there are different mental modes for each style. Poetry is image-driven and "collapses the journey." She says poetry can be intimidating because you can travel so far in just a few lines. She described poetry as giving a strange feeling like they're the strongest surreal portal into other worlds, bordering on uncanny and maybe even violating if you're not ready.

I also asked her about how much she went by gut feel and how much by analytical technique. She says the first draft is intuitive, while you hammer it from a story into a poem. She said she drafted "Tamar" in one sitting, but "Leah" took three years. You have to find the best way to collapse it. You can travel great distances in 12 lines, and you must do whatever is needed to collapse that distance.

She said "Tamar" is her favorite. Tamar had two husbands die on her. She married Onan, but Nancy says the verse about him spilling seed on the bed is not about masturbation. Most importantly, she says, Tamar totally alters Judah's personal narrative, from the point where he sends his brother Joseph to be enslaved, to the point where he offers himself up.

Nancy likes pulling in multiple narratives and letting them reflect on each other. She sees these poems as falling between literary and genre. They are not as abstract as some. She explained, "I could have written these as mini-stories," but then she said it would have taken pages, and required a lot of backstory. To be a portal into the stories of the Bible it had to be shorter and more disorienting. She aimed for these poems to be dark and uncanny, and not evangelical. Narrative is comforting, she says, but poetry less so.

I asked her how she chose the title "The Acolyte." She said that the original title was going to be Slow Journey, but then the poem by that name was removed from the collection. The name "The Acolyte" is more liturgical, and taps into the sacred, tying it in to a liturgical world, but that these are not liturgy. The gothic cover features an apocalyptic scene with an angel who is not at all comforting. An acolyte is someone in training. I had the sense that perhaps the reader was the acolyte. Nancy didn't disagree. "I do want to change the paradigm," she said.

One thing she wants to look at is "what happens when you are un-chosen?" Ishmael is thrown out but sees the angel. Leah is un-chosen, trapped in a loveless marriage. Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth. Jeremiah. People in exile. Nancy suggests that this may because the postmodern mindset is one of exile. People will ask "Where do I belong?" "How do I stay in the story if I'm the un-chosen one?" She wants to continue to explore this and see where it goes.

Nancy says that people often come to stories with an emotional expectation, but to poetry with an intellectual expectation. With these poems, she expects people to be emotionally engaged, even gut-punched. She also says "something within me is in each poem." High poetry is very abstract, "close to heaven." She wanted to use the expressive medium for unexpected consequences.

Nancy, thanks so much for joining us and giving us insight into your work! If you'd like to hear more detail, do watch the video below. We'll be meeting today at 10am Pacific on Google+ to talk about Fairy Tales, and next week we'll be joined by guest author Megan O'Keefe, who will tell us about her new book, Steal the Sky. Join us!


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