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Talking with Chrissy Martin

Chrissy Martin is a PhD student at Oklahoma State University. She is the Poetry Editor for Arcturus and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Comstock Review, The Southern Review, and Atticus Review. Find her at chrissymartinpoetry.com.

Chrissy’s poem “Apple Scab” will appear in the Summer 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder to reserve your copy or subscribe at a discount by June 30.

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In your poem you explore the way familial trauma can be passed down and how it can affect self and identity, but creativity and artistry are also common traits that move along family trees. What is your origin story when it comes to writing?

I actually started writing because I was imitating my mother, who when I was young wrote and published poetry. It’s a little embarrassing, but I was writing rhyming love poems at as young as 9 and I thought it was completely normal. As I got older, writing poetry was something I always did, but it was usually for catharsis and I definitely was not showing it to anyone. However, in college, I started to think of poetry as something to pursue and stop hiding under my mattress (which is literally where I kept all of my notebooks of poetry).

In undergrad, a professor saw me writing poetry in my notebook and suggested I take his workshop. I was lucky enough to have multiple amazing poetry professors who encouraged me to share and submit my work. (Shout out to Mary Biddinger for being the best poetry mentor!) After that, I continued studying and writing poetry. I got my MFA in poetry and now I’m getting my PhD in it as well. My mother says she doesn't really find herself writing poetry anymore, but I am still sure to send her collections I think she’d enjoy.

"Apple Scab" is such a lovely title and metaphor for your poem—how did it come to fruition?

Not all of my poems are autobiographical, but this one is very much inspired by my life. This poem came to be through a process of thinking of my family tree and online research. As my own chronic pain started to worsen, I thought back to my father who injured his back badly at work and as a result, was barely able to walk unassisted. When he got hurt, he used to tell the story of his own father who injured his back and ended up in a wheelchair for a long period of time, but was able to heal and walk unassisted. I have heard of emotional trauma traveling down the family tree, but my dad had this idea that happenstance injuries do as well. When he got hurt, he made it seem like he always expected to have his back injured like his father because that pain was inherited. He seemed to also think that he would not heal because his father had—like someone ultimately had to pay up.

While dwelling on this, I was interested in the family tree as something literal that could be infected, either for a short period of time or permanently. I included many of these fungal diseases, but was most excited by “apple scab” because of its connection to the scabbing of the body.

A notable element in your poem is, aside from a consistent use of brackets, a major lack of punctuation. I feel this adds to the urgency and tone of the poem, and creates an emotional response from you as the writer. What was your writing process like?

I’m glad you feel the lack of punctuation adds urgency because that’s exactly what I was going for!

For me, some poems get written very slowly and others are like word vomit on the page. This one was more of a word vomit poem, but I did have to slow down because while writing this poem, I was also doing research about tree diseases. As odd as it sounds, discovering this entire family of fungal tree diseases was exciting and I fell down the Google rabbit hole while writing this poem. An earlier draft of this poem had many more of these diseases, but I had in rein it in. You should expect more tree disease poems from me in the future!

What are your favorite metaphors that inspire you, whether on your bookshelf or in life?

I don’t think I could decide on an absolute favorite, but there is one metaphor that I’ve been dwelling on lately. I was in New Mexico last week for a writing class and the discussion turned to how we as writers will often keep adding to and adjusting a piece of writing forever if permitted. Someone brought up the Winchester Mystery House that was under constant construction for 38 years and only stopped once Sarah Winchester died. The home was built haphazardly; it has staircases that lead nowhere, doors that lead to steep drops into the garden, and an estimated 160 rooms. There are many theories as to why Sarah Winchester kept building, but the most important thing seemed to be just she just keep adding onto the house without stopping.

We shared in the fact that we often feel we do this as writers—keep adding and adding and changing until met by an outside stopping point. I curse deadlines because they’re frustrating, but sometimes they keep me from turning my poem into a Winchester Mystery House. Usually, my habit of adding and adding for the sake of not being sure where the poem ends or not wanting it to be over yet results in a poem that appears haphazard. However, sometimes letting myself build and build a poem unearths a sort of wildness that creates a work that is strange and exciting.