Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013), The Dark Length Home (Noctuary Press, 2017), and The Good Girl is Always a Ghost (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Her work appears in Verse Daily, Prairie Schooner, Epiphany Magazine, Salamander, New South, Redivider, PANK, and elsewhere. She was a 2009 Academy of American Poets Prize recipient, a 2016 Best of the Net winner, and a Barbara Deming Memorial Grant recipient. She currently teaches writing and literature in Boston, MA. You can learn more about her at Anne-Champion.com. Her poem “On Noticing that Nearly Every Biography in the Children’s Book of Women Saints Begins by Describing a ‘Beautiful Girl’” will appear in the Fall 2017 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, October 1, for special savings and discounts.
We love the figurative language and the lyrical messaging in “On Noticing that Nearly Every Biography in the Children’s Book of Saints Starts by Describing a ‘Beautiful Girl.’” Do you normally lean toward writing narrative or lyric poetry?
I lean toward narrative but desperately want to be lyric. In general, poems come to me as stories to tell; there’s often a narrative thread in my work. However, in my reading life, I’m enamored with lyric poetry, and I have always been magnetically drawn to language that’s beautiful, musical, and acrobatic in poems and that expresses personal emotions. My love affair with lyricism has me always striving and flexing my writing muscles, so it’s one of the ways I challenge myself.
In the collection that this poem comes from, I was writing hagiographies of women saints, so the raw material I was crafting with already came in the form of a narrative, and I often wanted to preserve that narrative. This poem in particular allowed me to play with lyricism and image more.
The long, informative title facilitated an immediate entrance into the poem for the reader. It also seems the trigger for the poem. Is this the first time you’ve been triggered to write a poem based on noticing trends in literature?
I think it is! I have written many feminist poems based on mythologies and that could be considered a form of literature, but this is the only poem I can think of that was a direct response to a book. As I began researching women saints, I came across this beautiful children’s book that was perfect for my inspiration: All of the stories were very old and magical, as many of these biographies were rewritten from pagan origins. The whole book had this whimsical and regal quality to it, and it had gorgeous illustrations. I would sit with the illustrations as I was writing about a particular saint. As I read the story, I noticed that nearly every biography mentioned the saint’s beauty. That alone made me say, “Hold on just a second!”
It is one thing to be a woman in the contemporary world, in which we are constantly upheld as worthy through our physical attributes alone, but it seemed profoundly awful that even Jesus Christ would need us to be young and beautiful and virginal in order to have worth. And in most of these stories, the young, beautiful saint was tortured and/or killed by a man (often a man that wanted to rape her), and she was considered noble for enduring that abuse, especially if she endured it to protect her chastity for God. Of course, not all the female saints have this story and not all of them were young, but this book in particular did. It’s a sad truth about our culture that girls are fed patriarchal messages about their value at such a young age.
Can you tell us about your most recent books? What projects are you currently working on?
My next book, The Good Girl is Always a Ghost, comes out next summer with Black Lawrence Press, and it is a collection of odes and persona poems for iconic women in history. I recently finished the chapbook that this poem is from, titled She Saints and Holy Profanities. I have two other full length collections that I’m working on, both are political: One is inspired by a peace delegation I went on to Palestine addressing the military occupation, and the other one is too new to really summarize, though I suppose I could say it simply addresses my current emotional despair with American politics after our horrific election. It also examines our history of racism, capitalism, and imperialism.
Why is poetry important?
Poetry matters for the same reason that all art matters, because it shows the best side of human nature: our creativity. It can capture our history, our social values, and all aspects of the human condition. To live in a country that doesn’t value art is probably one of the most painful things to me, because I can’t separate a culture from its art, and a culture that suppresses art is a culture that is degenerating and barren.
Poetry, as a genre, matters because it can do things that other genres can’t or don’t do as well. It functions through an economy of language, and therefore it showcases the seemingly endless things that language can do, be it through diction, musicality, form, or image. Poetry occupies a rich tradition throughout the world that’s constantly being remade, as poets are using the tools of their craft, passed down through generations, and adding to them in new and interesting ways.
I think that poetry, no matter what its topic is, makes us reach for hope. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we are faced with communal tragedies, poems will go viral online. Think of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” after the election or Patricia Lockwood’s “The Rape Joke” after a series of highly publicized rape cases involving teenagers. When the Boston Marathon bombing happened and my classes were canceled because our city went on lock down, I sent all of my students a single poem a day via email. More than a few of them responded to it in a moving way, and many of them shared the poems on their social media. Poems, in and of themselves, don’t heal us, but they reach deeply into us and touch a part of us that wants to be a community, that has compassion. And, in the midst of destruction, poems are an antidote—creation. Even as they mourn, they reveal a part of us that refuses to be destroyed.