Interview: Noel Sloboda

Noel Sloboda

We talk to Noel Sloboda (whose work appeared in issue #35) about cannibalism, myths and Gertrude Stein.

The cannibalism in your poem “The Cannibal Affair” could be interpreted as metaphorical, or as very literal. Personally, I enjoy the literal reading. What inspired it, and what is your “reading” of it?

My hope is that the poem can sustain both readings. When I started “The Cannibal Affair” I had in mind some clichés I wanted to reclaim and reinvigorate: “I could just gobble you up” and “I love you to death.” Also on my brain was the way danger – or a sense of it – can enliven a relationship; that stated, being hooked on danger probably isn’t a good thing, in the long run, for any couple. (Think Bonnie and Clyde, or Antony and Cleopatra.) The literal interpretation of the cannibalism metaphor lends dramatic urgency to the poem, which plays against the sordid reality of a duo cheating on spouses by screwing around in the backseat of a car. There’s a tension between the feeling and the experience that can’t be reconciled.

Are the poems “My Stepfather As A Porcupine” and “My Mother As A Raccoon” based on your life, or fictional?

Everything I write is true; everything I write is false. That’s not a dodge but an acknowledgment that different folks could regard these poems in either light. Holding them to a journalistic standard, I would say they’re untrue. But then the conceit in each poem is fantastical. Imagine a boy being raised in the wild by a raccoon! My choice of these particular animals all but announces that their speakers aren’t wholly available to readers. In slightly different terms, these poems wouldn’t work with ponies and labradoodles. Back to the concern of the question: with respect to relationships that I have had or that have been part of my life, yes, real experiences were planted, cultivated, and then harvested in the making of these poems.

Can you tell us a bit more about the making of Our Rarer Monsters? Does it differ from your other collections, and if so how? What was it like working on it?

It was a great thrill to work on this book because of my collaborators. They both taught me a great deal about my writing and helped me to improve it. The first is David McNamara, my long-time editor at sunnyoutside, who offered direction in the formatting, construction, and texture of the poems. Marc Snyder joined us to create the exquisite black-and-white linocuts that appear throughout the book. It was a blessing to have Marc on board; he is phenomenally talented. But once we had the suite of linocuts, the book had to change. That meant reordering the whole manuscript to accommodate the images. It also meant cutting some poems I really wanted to include in Our Rarer Monsters. This was not an easy thing to do – though I now have some strong pieces to incorporate into upcoming projects.

There are strands of myth and legend woven throughout your work. What first got you interested in this kind of thing? Do you have any favourite folk tales?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t engaged by myth and legend. However, here’s one seminal experience: when I was an undergraduate at Connecticut College, I had a spectacular course on Romance, offered by Robley Evans. He had worked extensively on Tolkien (this was long before the movies), and he helped me appreciate how myth and legend undergird Middle-earth. We also read a great deal of Grimm in that class as well as Bruno Bettelheim. Today, while working on Shakespeare, I am constantly reminded of the vitality of stories from the deep past: sometimes, it seems you can’t make it through a page without tripping over an Ovidian allusion. As for personal favourites from the realm of fable and folklore, I am drawn to Baba Yaga, who gave me nightmares when I was a boy. She appears in several poems in Our Rarer Monsters.

You mention in your biography that you’ve written a book about Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. Can you tell us a bit more about them, and about that book?

These two extraordinary American women came to Paris in the early twentieth century and made new lives for themselves there. They did so largely on their own terms, turning their backs on personal and cultural influences that might have inhibited them creatively. Yet in the 1930s, Wharton and Stein both reached across the Atlantic to present their lives in autobiographical works that established them as relevant, modern, and, perhaps most importantly, American. One angle of this twinned narrative that’s interesting for me is that, as far as we know, these authors never met – and it’s fun to imagine an encounter between them. Fun for me anyhow… And although Wharton and Stein had radically different writing styles, both women displayed great wisdom – and shrewdness – when it came to managing their literary careers. They constantly remind me of the fortitude, perseverance, and independence necessary for successful writing.

Where can readers find out more about you?

My website is more or less up to date, providing additional details about my background and cataloguing my work.  This fall, I look forward to being part of The 510 Readings at the Baltimore Book Festival. I will also be reading selections from old and new manuscripts at Penn State York, where I teach.

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Noel Sloboda serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company and teaches at Penn State York. He is the author of the poetry collections Shell Games (Sunnyoutside, 2008) and Our Rarer Monsters (Sunnyoutside, 2013) as well as several chapbooks. He has also published a book about Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein.