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Christina Stoddard

 10-13-2015

Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading 
 
Christina Stoddard 
 
Bodies of Two Girls Found In Woods

The sharp ruin of flies. A chilly morning
next to the river where steelhead spawn. 
Sunlight bright as a railroad spike. 
Clouds bitten by tamaracks. Wind slicing
the leather throats of frogs.
Sweet gums bruised by woodpeckers.
The slow fat rat of the river
gnawing at twenty cold toes.


The Oxford Unabridged

was how I learned the word fellatio,
though I paused to look up orgasm
and my understanding of male genitals was abstract
at best. I had read the word fellatio in the newspaper,
Local section, in a story 
about three runaways, two boys and a girl. 
A man held them in a cabin
for two weeks. He raped the girl
and forced the boys to perform fellatio on him
repeatedly. I didn't have to look up rape--
I'd known that word since fourth grade 
when Takeisha told me 
that her uncle took off his pants
when he babysat and we told
our teacher. But I read 
the definition of fellatio
and I considered what I knew
about repeatedly. 
The man picked up the kids 
hitching on the freeway 
and said he'd take them as far
as Enumclaw. The girl 
gave her testimony yesterday, 
which sounded strange when I read it 
because in our church, 
testimony was when we all stood up 
to bear witness of Christ 
on the first Sunday, in lieu of a sermon. 
The article said the girl had a glass eye.
The man stabbed out her real one
when she tried to escape. The man 
told her: I will not kill you. I will 
take some things away.


Raped Girl's Mad Song

Christmas. A chorus of angels in the trees.
I'm the girl their hymns forgot.
The wolf, he's here--he's taken me.

He asked directions with yellow teeth.
I helped a stranger, as I've been taught.
A chorus of angels in the trees.

The dumbstruck stars have gone to seed,
dark as bone, clipped blade, a kicked-in lock.
The wolf was here--he's ruined me.

Siren, slattern, witch. Girl reduced to beast. 
I touch the grafts that didn't take, knots
of neck and cheek. Weep now, angels in the trees.

I'm bruise and brimstone, dragged out to sea--
I'll have your skull for a flowerpot.
I'll hunt you like you hunted me.

Seven trumpets raise up my jubilee--
you're the one who will say please. There's not
an angel left among the trees.
The wolf, she's here. I'm her. She's me.

                               -from Hive

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Christina Stoddard is the author of Hive, which was selected by Lucia Perillo for the 2015 Brittingham Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press). Christina’s poems have appeared in various journals including storySouthDIAGRAM, and Spoon River Poetry Review. Originally from Tacoma, WA, Christina received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow. Christina is an Associate Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and a Contributing Editor at Cave Wall. She currently lives in Nashville, TN where she is the Managing Editor of a scholarly journal in economics and decision theory.

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A Review of Christina Stoddard's Hive by Anna Kramer first published by The Adroit Journal

The concept of a religious institution tends to be physical: a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc. A religious institution, however, is far more metaphorical and powerful than a singular building, and it is in Christina Stoddard’s debut collection of poetry Hive (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) that we are introduced to the concept of a life-consuming religious institution. Her perspective is a stained-glass window colored by the Mormon Church, poverty, violence, and violation, her story a controlled yet merciless thunderstorm of years of anger, frustration, and sorrow battering upon the tinted glass. Her distinctively unique perspective, rather than isolating the reader, allows the reader to begin their journey through her thunderstorm with the same standard and mostly clean slate. 

As a child, Stoddard grew up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and her poems examine and reflect the influence of the church upon her life, likening the Mormon Church to a beehive and herself a bee unwilling to remain part of the swarm. “Hive”, the title poem, stands as her penultimate protest to the church and its doctrines. She “gag[s]/on buzz and clack” and her “mouth/fills with swarm" as a child, while her adult self spits out the bees, forbidden speech becoming words on paper as she separates herself from the hive. The Mormon Church becomes not just a religion, but a cultish and proscriptive way of life, a state of mind, and a moral doctrine in one overarching mold. 

Stoddard looks not only at her experience, but also at events that took place in Tacoma, Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, the setting of the book. Each character in these poems reacts with passive silence to a series of violent acts either committed or caused by the Church. Infamous serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, stand as frequent subjects of her musings – Hive opens with a poem entitled “Bodies of Two Girls Found in Woods.” These poems and many others in the collection serve to illustrate a childhood of normalized violence, along with the Church’s normalization of silence as a response. When Stoddard describes the sensation of drowning to baptize the dead, she declares, “To save the others, the Elder/has to hold me down.” She readily applies this idea to other experiences, such as witnessing a drive-by shooting at her neighbor’s house and remaining silent until the publication of the poem describing the experience many years later. 

In Hive, we witness repeated victimization and Stoddard’s eventual reaction of furious rebellion. Her rage becomes most apparent in the most carefully controlled poem of the collection, “Raped Girl’s Mad Song.” Here, Stoddard conforms to a villanelle structure, using tight, carefully constructed phrasing to make her anger all the more overwhelming in her iron grip. It is in “Rape Girl’s Mad Song” that the ubiquity of this collection of poems is most evident; in reading this poem, the reader is consumed by inexplicable empathetic rage, not just for the poet, but for all victims of rape.

Imagining children in the face of such violence and anger is stunning, and yet Stoddard bravely contemplates just that. “I Am Thinking of Salmon”, a self-reflective poem, compares the perpetual cycle of breeding salmon to the cycle of breeding children. The Mormon faith proscribes that every soul exists with God before mortal life, and the soul’s period of life on Earth exists as a pre-destined fate. If a person can embrace the concept of fate, the question of whether to have or not have a child disappears and a child becomes something given by the hand of God. It is unclear what conclusion Stoddard reaches regarding children and her contemplation of breeding salmon, but her poem raises provocative questions that each of us must answer for ourselves. 

A sense of universal human emotion ties together the unfamiliar, violent, provocative, and rebellious collection of poems in Christina Stoddard’s Hive. The reader is not left with a grandiose, philosophical contemplation of the power of religion and the damaging, long-term effects of violence, but with simple, powerful, and universal emotions: rage, sorrow, and awe.

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Click here to read a review of Hive at Chapter 16

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An Interview with Christina Stoddard by Emily Choate, first published at Late Night Library

Emily Choate: All the poems of Hive are written in the voice of an adolescent Mormon girl. How did you arrive at this unifying structure for the collection?

Christina Stoddard: The poems mostly came first and the unifying speaker came later. I already had over half the poems written when it occurred to me that many of them sounded like the same person talking—or could easily be interpreted that way. That’s because I put together the book by selecting pieces from my whole body of work. In looking at all my poems and trying to decide which ones belonged in the same binding, I realized that this girl already existed in a lot of the pieces about adolescence, religious faith, and violence. So I decided to work with that.

There are a few pieces in the collection, including the very first poem in the book, that date back ten years. I’ve been trying to write about the subject matter in Hive for a long time, and it took many failed attempts before I found the right way in. The teenage persona turned out to be the key. Adopting a persona and weaving various characters throughout the book was an excellent way to give myself enough psychological detachment from my own experiences. It let me get out of my own way.

The speaker needed to be morally complicated and human, too. She couldn’t just be sitting in judgement of what happened around her. That’s why I included “Goldfish,” a poem in which the girl becomes the violent one, a predator to creatures more helpless than she is.

EC: At several points in Hive, the poems’ speaker seems to remake the patriarchal rituals or rhetoric of the church on her own terms, in effect translating them into her own language. How do you view this thread in the book?

CS: This girl experiences a number of horrible things and is witness to even more. But the doctrine of her church doesn’t give her any tools to deal with this. It’s one thing to be taught that hurting others is a sin, but what happens when you’re the one being hurt? How can God allow that? And who will protect you if God does not? The poem “Our Mother Who Art in Heaven” stems from these questions, and it is both a plea and a battle cry. If the speaker’s heavenly father ignores her prayers, surely a heavenly mother will hear her. Or so she hopes.

Throughout the book, the adolescent speaker makes multiple attempts to claim ownership over herself. But there are always adults—most often male Elders—who are eager to assert their power, like in the poem where the chaperone at the dance shames her over the dress she’s wearing.

In turning rituals and ordinances inside out, the speaker is trying to see if there’s anything in them that can answer her questions. It’s like she’s shaking a piggy bank hoping for one last penny stuck to the bottom. In a sense, she’s trying to figure out why she doesn’t belong—because like many teenagers, fitting in is what she thinks she wants. But she doesn’t feel connected to God the way she suspects she’s supposed to.

It’s like when everyone you know is obsessed with a new band, and you pretend to love their music too just so nobody will think you’re weird, even though truthfully you’re not that into it and you definitely don’t want to have the drummer’s babies like your friends do. That’s how this girl feels about religion—for a while she keeps nodding along with the true believers, but she never burns with that moth-drawn, whole-body faith they all seem to have. She tries, but she’s on the outside looking in.

The speaker eventually comes to realize that she will probably never fully belong in her Mormon congregation. The box they want her to live in is too small. If she climbs inside the confines they’ve given her, she’ll have to live there with her nightmares—like in the title poem, “Hive,” where she dreams the Elders have shoved her into a box filled with bees and she is “stung the purple of reverent hearts.”

EC: What are some specific gifts or challenges that your own Mormon upbringing has contributed to the development of your voice as a writer? From where you stand today, how do you view this inheritance?

CS: There are plenty of gifts. For one thing, the language of scripture and hymn is always on the tip of my tongue. I grew up reading the King James Bible, a lot of which is essentially poetry. Same with the Book of Mormon. Our family read scripture together every night before bed, and that was how I learned to feel out sentence rhythms and read aloud.

Another advantage is that for Mormons, the personal and the historical are often collapsed into one. As a result, it’s incredibly easy for me to see universal resonance in small things. That type of observational sense is just what poets need to have.

But growing up, what I read, listened to, and watched was highly censored. I was also conditioned that a lot of art was immoral, which made me reluctant to admit it when I began to create art of my own, and plenty of people either told me to write happier things or that I should only use my talents in praise of Jesus.

I will say that having something to fight against helped me define myself. Once I realized I could not subscribe to the moral code I’d been fed since childhood, I had to figure out what “the opposite of what I’ve got” looked like. I had to get to know my own mind, which of course has informed my poetic point of view.

As for my writerly voice, the independence I gained by breaking away from the church has made me pretty fearless. I write what I feel compelled to write. I don’t think anything is off limits, even if it’s scary or it might make me look bad. I’m not afraid of mixing politics and social justice with my art.

EC: During these formative years, were there also literary writers who became guiding influences or touchstones for your voice?

CS: The first poetry I fell in love with was Philip Levine’s. I found one of his books at the public library in the New Releases section and I decided to take it home. Reading Levine’s poems, I recognized my own everyday life on the page: working fathers with sweat-stained shirts, coughing smokestacks, unpaid electric bills, everyone miserable. But still, Levine put in these small moments of beauty that seemed to say we shouldn’t give up on the world just yet. That had a big influence on me as a writer.

Once I figured out that the public library had a whole poetry section, I would walk down the aisle and open each book to read the first poem. If I liked it, I’d borrow the book. I found Allen Ginsberg that way. Ginsberg got me reading lots of war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I loved their work because there was always so much at stake in every poem. And in many ways, the place I lived felt like a war zone. I grew up in a neighborhood in Tacoma, WA called Hilltop, and Hilltop belonged to the Crips. Our next-door neighbor was a crack house that the cops wouldn’t bust because they kept hoping to catch its suppliers. Dealers were low-hanging fruit.

I also have to give Sylvia Plath particular due. Reading Plath taught me all about sound and syllabics and the dramatic monologue.

EC: A number of these poems involve acts of terrible violence—drive-by shooting, sexual assault, and serial murders. How do you determine the best ways to present difficult violence in poems?

CS: It took me years to learn how to write about violence and brutality. One of the hardest parts is to let the violence stand alone without a bunch of editorializing. I think a common impulse is to cry and rail against it, or to sermonize about why it’s wrong, but playing it straight is often more powerful.

You also have to be willing to admit that there are stakes greater than death. What people can think up to do to other people is horrific, and one of the worst possibilities is not necessarily death but survival. That’s the other side of the coin.

When writing about violence, many of my initial decisions are architectural: using plain language, modulating the pitch and tone of my word choices, and avoiding complicated sentence structure. You have to give the audience the chance to let things sink in as they read or listen, and that’s much easier for them when you aren’t piling on a bunch of dependent clauses. Also, I often cast poems about violence in the present tense to heighten their sense of immediacy. It really starts at the basic level of my syntactical choices.

EC: In terms of craft, what do these formal choices look like?

CS: It’s very important to pick the right viewpoint and moment of entry. The poem “Jacks” is a good example. Instead of describing the drive-by shooting in play-by-play detail, the poem focuses on the girls next door who witness everything and have to dive out of the way. The gunshots are the opening line, not the dramatic climax. The poem is all aftermath.

In terms of how poems about violence look on the page, use of white space is key for me. I might use jagged line lengths to convey a sense of uncertainty and fear, like in the poem “Abby’s Mother Shows Us Where Ted Bundy Signed Her Yearbook.” Realizing that she is only two degrees of separation away from Ted Bundy hits the speaker like a punch.

I work in tercets a lot in Hive, since three is such a stable number. (After all, it takes at least three legs to make any chair you can sit on.) But I’m often contrasting the stability of tercets with the horror of the subject matter. For example, in the poem “Party Where Maureen Pierced Everyone’s Ears,” the three-line stanzas have an in-out, in-out pattern on the page reminiscent of breathing. I also wanted it to visually illustrate how highly choreographed the interplay between this group of girls is. As they dare each other to do increasingly destructive things at the slumber party, it becomes a dance of one-upmanship.

One of the poems about sexual assault is a villanelle. I chose that form because villanelles are obsessive by nature, and so is the speaker’s rage. By using the form’s constraints, I was also able to forego giving much narrative about the circumstances of the attack—instead of spending the poem describing what happened to the girl, I could use the space to let her anger reverberate. From the title, “Raped Girl’s Mad Song,” the reader knows what the situation is, and keeping the details skeletal allows the speaker’s desire for revenge to wash over everything and really drive the poem.

EC: Your poems possess a strong interplay between narrative and lyrical elements. How have you approached these matters in your work?

CS: Personally, I don’t believe that the camps of narrative and lyric poetry are as far apart as we’re often taught they are. Can a poem be lyrically written—compressed and tightly wound—and still tell a story? I think the answer is yes. The division between lyric and narrative dates back to Aristotle, but genres bleed into each other all the time. In particular, Carl Dennis’s essay “The Temporal Lyric” has influenced how I approach this.

Ultimately, I am a lyricist. I tend to use a first-person speaker who gives the poem its point of view. But my poems almost never take place in a vacuum devoid of location and history. Every page in Hive is rooted in an actual world, in time and space, with real place names and specific details—which any English major can tell you would classify the poems as narrative. But they are also fundamentally driven by the speaker’s feelings and emotional reactions, which points straight at lyric poetry. I’m very interested in braiding lyrical and narrative components together in as many ways as I can invent.

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Click here to read an interview with Christina Stoddard at Writer's Digest 

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Click here to read an interview with Christina Stoddard at University of Wisconsin Press

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 Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

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Click here to listen to a reading by Stoddard




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Christina Stoddard



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