An Interview with Author Phoebe Reeves on Two New Publications
by Hannah Felt Garner
I Think of My Poems as Being Products of Sound— Phoebe Reeves
Phoebe Reeves is a poet and an English professor at the University of Cincinnati having a very productive year: she published her third chapbook last fall and débuts her first full-length book in May. The Flame of Her Will (Milk and Cake Press, November 2022) is a chapbook of erasure poems that mines a 15th c. guide to witch-hunting called the Malleus Maleficarum, or “Hammer of Witches.” Through an alchemical process, Reeves turns misogynist propaganda like “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman” into lines pulsing with feminist imagination: “Woman is the lion./She is by nature/the song of strength/and the flower of thorns./But her end is as bitter as wormwood.” Her poem from this project, “Chapter One: Methods of the Innocent” appeared in Cleaver Issue 25.
In Helen of Bikini (Lily Poetry Review, May 2023), Reeves takes up misogynistic myth-making in another form: the title refers to the sexualized code names of atom bombs tested during the Cold War. The poems in Helen engage with the nuclear, but also the garden: throughout the collection, Reeves’ poems interrogate what humans think they’re doing, messing with nature like this—detonating bombs and pulling weeds in their backyards. Both the human “we” and the personal “I” are prodded in “Linnaeus,” a poem named for the Swedish botanist who invented the modern system by which we classify flora and fauna.
We are the only ones
who name. This tree,
its compound opposite leaves
and rough fissured bark,
is itself whether I label it
correctly or not—blue ash,
box elder—the chickadee
still raps her beak against
a narrow limb to crack an insect’s
Hannah: As you look over the book now, are there any throughlines—thematically, stylistically—that ended up being the core of the book, whether that was intentional from the outset or not?
Phoebe: Helen of Bikini is my first full-length book and it took me maybe fifteen years. So some of the poems in it are old, and some of them are pretty new. [The throughline is:] How do you make this intersection between things that are intensely personal and things that are more broadly political—even though that’s a false binary. I think that it’s through attention to image and detail that those things come together.
Hannah: Are there any images that are coming to you now as you think about it?
Phoebe: I decided to try and record an audiobook version of it: I have a friend who has a studio, and so I read the whole book out loud in one sitting. And I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of hair in this book!”
Hannah: The two that come to mind: one is in “Spinster,” a poem that describes a witchy figure who weaves her hair into cords by which she is hoisted up by the moon. And the other that came to mind was the mole’s fur in “Coming Down the Mountain.” Are there any other ones?
Phoebe: There are all of these radiation anxieties: one of the key images is losing your hair. And so that comes up in some of those poems.
Hannah: I would be interested to learn a little bit more about those more political poems: poems about nuclear war, radiation, Chernobyl. What was your interest in those subjects and how did you come to write about them?
Phoebe: I grew up in Ballston Spa, New York, about four miles away from the Kesselring Navy site, which, when I was a kid, had six active nuclear reactors where they trained Navy personnel to use nuclear submarines. You could see the plume of the cooling tower right before you turned into my driveway. And one day going to elementary school, our bus drove behind one of those caterpillar transports that was taking the nuclear waste to the train station.
Hannah: And was there any specific catalyst for you writing poems about nuclear subjects?
Phoebe: I think it was one of my earliest poetic obsessions. Although it took me a long time to figure out how to write about it without being completely melodramatic. I can remember being twelve or thirteen and wanting to read books about nuclear stuff, being interested in the nuclear protest movement of the early nineties. My family is on the liberal activist scale of things: I have an uncle who’s a Methodist minister who used to do anti-nuclear protests. I think it was always part of the conversation I was around and I was interested in writing about it and thinking about it. It scared the crap out of me.
Hannah: It’s amazing how fear can be such a strong motivator for writing. I just thought of your poem “Outside After Winter” in which fear is so present in the speaker’s relationship to their garden:
As I heft a heavy planter,
I am afraid of grubs I have exposed […]
I am afraid of the white spider in the soil,
afraid of pulling out anything by its taproot,
afraid to hold my hands against the dirt.
I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about your relationship to gardening and gardens and how that came to be a strong presence in these poems as well.
Phoebe: I think that’s more my adult obsession. I have a chapbook that I published with a really great small press called Seven Kitchens—it’s called The Gardener and the Garden—that are dialogues between a gardener and a personified garden. I think it’s an evolution of some of the things that I’m concerned about in the nuclear-focused poems. Which is: how do we have a relationship with the larger world? Why is the human relationship with the world so dysfunctional? Why do we feel so separate when that is a complete illusion?
About twelve years ago, my husband and I bought a house: we’re still in the city of Cincinnati, but we’re in the old-style fifties suburbs. We have a little yard and I’ve turned it into an extremely untidy garden. If there was a homeowner’s association, I would be in big trouble. Because I very much tend to let a thing grow if it’s growing. Unless it’s impolite and it’s choking everything else out. And then I’m like, “You’ve violated the rules of the garden.”
Hannah: In “Outside After Winter,” the last few lines read: “Afraid of harm and doing harm,/I pull 65 honeysuckle seedlings from the mint and leave them stranded on the lawn.”
Phoebe: That came from really early in my gardening where I hadn’t cultivated the brutal attitude you have to have. Honeysuckle and Mint are both non-native invasive plants, but Honeysuckle, it’s a blight where I live. It’s everywhere. And if you don’t pull it up, it will choke out everything. So it’s great to say like, “Oh, we should let stuff grow.” But if you let Honeysuckle grow the game’s over, that’s all you get. You can’t actually have a garden without being willing to kill things. But that’s what a garden is. It’s like creating space for one thing by removing another thing.
Hannah: It sounds a lot like writing. The phrase “killing your darlings” just came into my mind.
I noticed the reference to Wordsworth in your poem “The World is Not Enough with Us”: I was curious if there are other literary precedents that have impacted the way you think approach writing about nature?
Phoebe: I mean Louise Glück’s Wild Iris I cannot overstate enough. That’s probably the book that I’ll always be worried I’m writing too much like.
Hannah: I love that idea: that there’s a book you’re always afraid you’re re-writing.
Phoebe: One of my really early strong influences was William Stafford—the way he pays attention to the world, he and Gary Snyder. And Mary Oliver, especially Dream Work. And you can’t overstate Whitman and Dickinson: both of them had this really particular way of looking at the non-human world.
Hannah: And what was your college trajectory?
Phoebe: I was actually a music performance major for my first two years. But that was too extroverted and outward-facing for me: I figured that out pretty quick. I really like making music: I still sing. But I needed something that was much more low pressure. And so I added a double major in English and then went on to grad school in English after that.
Hannah: I am struck by how compatible singing and poetry are, especially since most singing is in verse. Was that connection alive for you at the time?
Phoebe: I think so. I mean they’re really both about breath, right? And they used to be the same thing, if you go back far enough: lyric poetry, Sappho, etc. And they’re both art that happens in time instead of space. I always think of my poems as being products of sound, primarily. How something sounds is really important to me, sometimes more important than what it means.
Often the seed of a poem is an image expressed in a way that the sound is interesting to me. Or a moment of verbal play where a word could mean two things: like homonyms or contranyms. A moment where there’s a tension in language and I’ll get obsessed, and then a poem will crystallize around that.
Like in my poem, “Taraxacum officianale,” thinking about all the different names for dandelions. Then you’re thinking of all the different ways in which a dandelion is valued or not valued. And then I’m thinking, Okay, but what does it look like? How does it grow? What does it feel like to dig it up? A language moment is often the first entry point for me.
Hannah: That makes me want to get to your erasure chapbook Flame of Her Will—speaking of language being the impetus for poems. But I also did want to say quickly I was thinking about “Linnaeus” and “Guide to Native Species of the Adirondacks” and how there seems to be a question in your poems about the hubris of fixing a name for things.
Phoebe: The hubris of Linnean classification is the idea that somehow we can control nature by attaching names to it, which I am completely complicit in because I’m really obsessed with knowing the names of everything. I also know that it doesn’t matter at all to the plant, what we call it.
Hannah: So speaking of things that do care: witches—
Phoebe: It’s the same problem but it’s a very different context.
Hannah: Yeah, very different impact on the named thing! It matters very greatly to women if they’re called witches and very little to dandelions what we call them. I am so curious to know how your project working on the Malleus Maleficarum came about, how you came to be interested in this text, and how you came to figure out that the best way to handle it was through erasure.
Phoebe: I often have lunch with another English professor, a Philosophy professor, and a History professor. (If you had them all walk into a bar, you’d have a joke.) And Fred, the History professor teaches the Malleus when he teaches European history. And I think I said something like, “You know, I should make poems by erasing that.” And he’s like, “Why don’t you?” And so I started it as an exercise, like a thing to get me going. And then I went on a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and I thought I would be working on this other manuscript project and all I wanted to do was keep erasing the Malleus. And I was getting really mad at myself, cause it didn’t seem like a thing that anyone would be interested in. Cause it was just so weird. I was talking to another writer at breakfast about it and he was like, “Well, I’d read that. I think you should just let yourself do it.” Which is of course one of the great gifts of being in a residency. Because there’s someone sitting next to you going like, “Yeah, do that crazy thing.” So I did a lot of it while I was there and I actually ended up erasing the entire manuscript. The Fire of Her Will is a selection. I actually have like a hundred pages.
I realized—even with my very generous hippie parents who encouraged me to be in touch with my feelings—I often don’t know that I’m angry about something. Because women are so persistently socialized not to recognize their own anger. And the further I got into the Malleus, the more I realized how pissed I was. About it, about—it was 2016, so like, take your pick: there was plenty to be pissed about. And then as I kept working on it and revising it, it’s not like there was less to be angry about as time went on. So, yeah, it started as a game and then it felt increasingly relevant to the moment we were—are—living in.
Hannah: There’s a reference in the forward to the repeal of Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022. I can see how this project would continue to be increasingly relevant.
Phoebe: Or unfortunately more with time and not less.
Hannah: I’m trying to remember what you called the Malleus in your Forward—it was a really helpful phrase for me: a “historical hate text”. As a reader, as a professor, as a writer, as a person in culture, how do you grapple with the best response to historical hate texts? To narrow that down a little bit, do you have a sense of how you like to address that in the classroom?
Phoebe: We’re living in a moment where teachers are under enormous pressure to simply not introduce controversial material. I’m fortunate to be part of a union and so I have pretty good protection for academic freedom. I’m tenured. I’ll bring in a difficult text: I’ll bring in a Percival Everett story in which he’s talking about the Confederate flag and dropping the N-word. And I’ll contextualize it and we’ll talk about the history of the Confederate flag. If I were teaching in Florida, I probably wouldn’t do that right now. I wouldn’t have a strong union. I would be concerned about my job or about being harassed. I feel very fortunate. Honestly, my students—I treat them like adults: “Hey, we’re going to talk about something tough.” Or “We’re going to read this artist, and there’s a lot to admire, but also you should know that, even in the context of their time, they were totally a racist and a misogynist. Let’s talk about that. What does it mean when people say horrible things and also make beautiful art?
The Malleus, to me, is a little more clear-cut. There is no artistic merit to the Malleus Malleficarum, although it is quite a work of imagination.
Hannah: And paranoia.
Phoebe: There seems to be a real anxiety that underlies it, right? Like some real fear about female agency.
Hannah: If one of the main unconscious drivers of the text is anxiety about female agency, it seems like the poems that you end up producing are bringing to the foreground that agency. I’m not that familiar with erasure poetry as a form and as a tradition, but is that one of its features: that you are working with material that’s already there and then revealing a different side of it, or transforming it in the process?
Phoebe: I would almost use the science of the time to say that it’s like alchemy. The text is lead and I’m trying to find some gold in it. There’s nothing redeeming about the text. It’s only by completely deforming it that you can recreate something.
Hannah: So you’ve had these two books come out in really close proximity to one another. Was that just pure coincidence? How did that come about?
Phoebe: Just a very, very good year for me. Kim Jacobs Beck, who runs Milk and Cake Press, who published The Flame of Her Will, she is a colleague of mine, and she knew I was working on this project, and after the Dobbs decision, she was like, “Can we publish this?” And so I checked first: I emailed my editor over at Lily Poetry Review. I was like, “Okay, what do you think? They’re gonna come out around the same time.” She’s like, “Just do it.” And Helen, I mean, poor Helen: she’d been a finalist at every contest, you know? And so when Eileen Cleary at ˆƒgluck called me and said that she wanted to publish it—I cried.
Hannah: Was it tears of relief mixed in with—
Phoebe: Joy? Yeah. Disbelief.
Hannah: It’s amazing and so cool to have two such different projects come out around the same time. Is there a connection in your mind between the two that has arisen?
Phoebe: I mean obviously feminism is just a ground state for me in what I’m interested in looking at and talking about and thinking about. And I think that that’s pretty clear in both of them. And I hope that music and sound, and the way that words can rub up against each other in interesting ways is a thing that’s happening in both of them.
The quote from the Malleus that begins the second section in Helen of Bikini—I had that in an early version of the manuscript long before I started doing the erasure project that turned into The Flame of Her Will. It’s: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
Hannah: That way of thinking about women’s creativity feels so alive in our culture. That’s old and just absolutely current.
Hannah Felt Garner is a prose writer living in both Paris and Brooklyn. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Cleaver, Paris Lit Up, and Revue Profane. Besides teaching literature and composition, she also edits for Mother Tongue and Cleaver magazines. You can follow her writing on Instagram @hannahfeltgarner.