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Interview with Shelly Puhak

SHELLEY PUHAK lives in Baltimore and is currently Writer-in-Residence at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New Delta Review, New South, Third Coast, and many other journals. She has received grants from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and the Maryland State Arts Council. She earned her MFA from the University of New Orleans and her MA in Literature from the University of Delaware. Stalin in Aruba is your first book of poems. Can you describe a little about how the creative process was for you? It was a rough process— not the writing of the individual poems so much as the act of revising and ordering them. It was quite some time before the poems coalesced into a collection. At first I had a book-length bunch of poems, but they weren’t yet a collection. I’d already written a short series of dramatic monologues based on scraps gathered from local nineteenth-century cemeteries: the parish priest, the schoolmistress, the young wife dying in childbirth. In response to the political landscape post 9-11, I started experimenting with the perspective of those intimate with history’s monsters. “Purging the Aunties”and “Nadya to Stalin, 1925” were the first “Stalin” poems I wrote and workshopped. I enjoyed researching and writing them so much that I kept going, exploring other silenced voices from the Red Terror. At first I thought these new poems would be self-contained section in the manuscript, but eventually they took over the collection. How did you approach the research process for your poetry? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest? I wandered through graveyards and I read formal histories, personal letters, and diaries. I also read many dramatic monologues to get a sense of how other poets went about inhabiting other time periods and people. Many of my roadblocks were practical: I wrote to archives that never responded to requests for permissions; I found wildly different translations of Stalin’s own teenaged poems. But the greatest roadblocks, for me, were ethical. Do dramatic monologues co-opt someone else's experiences, even, in many cases, someone else's pain? Or are they acts of imaginative identification? Where is the line between exploitation and empathy? As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same? I’m the mother of a (brilliant, darling) toddler, so I’m still figuring out how to juggle my roles as parent, teacher, and writer. I only work outside the home part-time, at least for now, teaching two days a week at a small liberal-arts college in Baltimore. As for carving out time to write, since I’m a better-under-pressure sort of person, I invent arbitrary deadlines. Poem X has to be finished by April 30, for example, or this manuscript has to go out to three places before February 1. I manage to work myself into a creative frenzy in the days leading up to these imaginary deadlines. When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you? I usually write at night, on the couch with my laptop, after everyone else is asleep. I enjoy the solitude and it’s convenient. Right now, I lack a room of my own. We moved four months ago to a 1920s fixer-upper and are in the midst of a renovation. My books are in boxes, I can never find a pen, and there’s a sink sitting in the middle of what will one day hopefully be my writing space. As a woman poet, how do you see Stalin in Aruba contribute to the greater discourse on women and poetry? Stalin in Aruba is about those on the margins of history, and so many of the poems’ characters are women: Lenin’s widow; Goebbel’s lover; Stalin’s sister-in-law, niece, and daughter. But looking beyond subject matter, I’d like to think my book might subvert some expectations about the female voice and women’s place in poetry by merging the domestic and political realms. The form of the dramatic monologue also forces readers to confront their own assumptions about the relationship between poet and speaker, between gender and voice. Who are the poets you admire the most? An abridged list of some early influences and all-time favorites: Ai. Elizabeth Bishop. Ann Sexton. Elizabeth Spires. What is your next project? Do any of your projects connect with the community? If so, how? I'm working on The Consolation of Fairy Tales, which is currently a chapbook, but may evolve into something longer. This project uses more of an autobiographical voice. But I still incorporate my love of history by collecting and recasting fairy tales and myths. Some of my work-in-progress involves my hometown of Baltimore, documenting the decay of neighborhoods, collecting older residents’ memories of the streetcar. I’m not sure where I’m going with this project yet, other than helping others bear witness. A little glimpse from this work, “The Lexington Market Fire,” just came out in Story South: All poems are meaningful, but is there any poem in your collection that has surprised you or your audience in how reacted to it? “The Dictator’s Daughter from a Nursing Home in Wisconsin” has become my favorite poem in the collection, and I’m surprised by the constancy of my own affection for it. I’ve also been surprised by audience reactions to “The Führer’s Girls,” a poem in seven sections, each narrated by one of Hitler’s lovers at the moment of her suicide attempt. I hesitate to read it because it is so long and so bleak, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive reactions of my audience to this one.

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