Artist and Les Femmes Folles Editor Sally Deskins interviews poet Laura Madeline Wiseman about her recent book, American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014) about the inspiration behind the book, challenging gender representation via her writing, how the environment plays a role in the book and more…
Sally Deskins: Why science fiction and/or why Martians? What was the inspiration behind this specifically, as it seems to differ from your other subjects (or does it not)?
Laura Madeline Wiseman: I started writing American Galactic the semester I took Naomi Shihab Nye’s master class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was a spring of fierce thunderstorms, power blackout and utility men moving along my fence line with flashlights in the dead of night. Across my backyard and in the backyard of my neighbor’s, the silver and black electric lines draped across swing-sets and raspberry canes. Many evenings, I watched the trees gutter in the storm winds. And I wrote for Naomi’s class. Martians walked into my poems during those weeks and stayed around in my poems for the next two years until I finished American Galactic.
SD: Did you want to write about something genderless intentionally?
LMW: I’m interested in literature that challenges gender representation — Marge Piercy’s The Woman on the Edge of Time, Jeannette Winterson’s Written on the Body, for example — and seeks to question gender by asking readers to consider worlds where gender does not dictate roles, clothing and social standing in the former and cannot be tied to the body in the latter. I’m influenced by my master’s degree in women studies where I studied feminist and queer theory and explored the ways we do (or do not do) gender. When I wrote Sprung, a book about a relationship between a person and a body part we tend to assign as male or masculine, the one constraint I followed was not to gender the speaker or the body part in language. I refused to use the he/she and him/her and forced myself to work against the tendency to slip into gendered pronouns. By extension, this led me to resist gendering the pair in dress, action and roles in Sprung.
When Martians arrived in my poetry and I began writing the poems that would become American Galactic, I didn’t think of them as having or abiding by gender norms I knew. I didn’t think of them as sexless or genderless. Rather, the Martians that entered were not marked by gender. They were green. They had three fingers. They were somewhat childlike at first and wise later. They were visitors, they were here, and the narrator in the poems had to be among them. Was I going to gender those ungendered? No way.
SD: How does it differ (or not) from your other main characters or subjects about which you’ve written? Was it more freeing to write about someone without a gender?
LMW: Gender is a theme in my work. In Queen of the Platform I wrote about the suffragist, lecturer, and poet Matilda Fletcher. In Spindrift I wrote about mermaids. In Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience I wrote about bluebeard’s wives. In Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, the anthology I edited, I collected poems about gender violence from over one hundred American women poets. Resisting gender is an interesting experience as a writer because it forces you to become hyperaware of the way culture genders and has gendered one’s way of thinking. For all of us, gender becomes normalized and when it becomes normalized it fades into the background, even though if pressed, we could articulate the ways we gender every part of our experience. So then, to write about characters that resist by failing to live up to expected gendered scripts offers a moment to consider how gender operates in the stories we tell and why we tell those stories.
SD: What helps you break ties with traditional gender representations?
LMW: I mentioned two of the writer’s work I explored in my thesis, Jeannette Winterson and Marge Piercy. The third woman author I focused on was Margaret Atwood. Women writers who present strong female characters offer all of us a break from traditional gender presentations, as do strong female characters in film. I just watched the new Veronica Mars movie, after watching the TV series and feeling disheartened to see the show end, as much as I was to see the last of Dark Angel, Buffy and Firefire. My friend and I were talking about the film and how Veronica gets the best lines, greatest come backs and fabulous scenes. My friend said, “I loved that lipstick gag,” alluding to the scene where Veronica is awaiting her job interview at a major law firm in NYC and a fellow interviewee in the waiting room flashes Veronica a sketch of a huge cartoon penis he’s just made. Veronica reaches into her coat and pulls out her hand with the middle finger raised as if it were a tube of lipstick. She uncaps her middle finger and then applies the lipstick. I said to my friend, “Veronica Mars — she wins and wins and wins.” When we get to see such strong women in film or read about them in books, I feel like all women win.
SD: What do you think is at stake when people write characters that challenge gender?
LMW: One thing I love about sci-fi is that readers (and writers) come to the genre already willing to suspend their disbelief because the genre itself is of the unreal, the otherworldly, the fiction that is beyond what we have here. For writers, something is always at stake when you write anything that resists hegemonic discourse. That’s why writing is an opportunity, for it offers us a place to question the way things are by presenting other ways things could be.
SD: Turing towards American Galactic, we find the theme of the environment. Can you talk about how the environment connects to a collection about Martians?
LMW: One of the first poems I wrote on this theme was “The Vanishing,” a poem that responds to an exhibit of photography on the effects of pollution on the amphibian population. As a kid, my father took my sister and I creek stomping in a state park in Iowa. I caught a lot of frogs on such adventures. I even brought a mason jar of assorted frogs and toads to show-and-tell in the fifth grade. When I was writing the poem, I was with my students on a field trip where they were asked to write poems in response to something in the museum. I write with them. On that day, the exhibit was crowded with elementary school children exclaiming over the images. I think my poem responded to their dismay over the dying frogs in the photographs as much as my own.
I grew up in Iowa and live in Nebraska and though I’ve always lived in the city, living in such agriculture states makes one aware of the issues and concerns related to farming practices and the environment. When I leave the city, I spend many hours on the roads and highways among the sprawling fields of corn and soybean. Farm houses and barns, tractors and hay bails, cows and endless humid green is the scenery I know. And though I don’t live out there and I am only a visitor on such excursions, I am no less moved by the beauty and fears of such a place. Does such awe enter my poetry in American Galactic? You bet.