Panhandler Books Author Interview – Lauren Goodwin Slaughter on Spectacle

Forthcoming in Spring 2022, Spectacle by Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is the fourth book published by Panhandler Books.  In anticipation of the book’s publication, Lauren sat down with Ashley Hernandez to discuss the collection and Lauren’s writing process.

January 13, 2021

Ashlea Hernandez: Lauren, I wanted to ask you first: what excites you the most about Spectacle?

Lauren Slaughter: Wow, what a great question. Can I say that it’s finished, finally? (laughter). Writing the book was such a long process, and it started someplace totally different with poems that, for the most part, didn’t make the final cut into the final version of the book. But I will say, that for the most part I’m pleased that the book does what I want it to do, if that makes sense. And overall, I feel like I was able to engage with topics I may have shied away from in my earlier writing. I was also particularly excited about the Rineke Dijkstra poems. Those were really challenging but fun to write, and I’m really excited that she has agreed to include some of the images. Jon was kind enough to make that connection for me, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that it worked out. To be honest, I’m pretty star struck about it.

AH: That’s exciting.

LS: I can’t wait to see how those work in the collection.

AH: That’s awesome because when Jon mentioned that you were going to be able to have those photographs, as a reader, when I read an ekphrastic poem, then I immediately have to go and find out what it looks like. I have to find the image that pairs with it, and I feel like it’s such a great way to have those poems side by side with the inspirational photograph. And since you mentioned her, tell me about how you first got introduced to her work and how you translated what you saw into poetry?

LS: Sure, I was in New York. I think it was 2012. I went to the Guggenheim, as one does, and they were doing a retrospective of her work. It was my first time encountering her photographs, and I just was gobsmacked.  They were so arresting and powerful and seemed to capture individual people so specifically, especially their vulnerability. I just couldn’t get enough. And so I started writing about her work. I think the first one that really struck me was Dijkstra’s self-portrait — there she is, center frame, red-eyed and exhausted from swimming. I started to explore her biography and learned more about the inspiration behind her work and the story behind that photograph in particular. Some of the others, too — seeing those images in the gallery and having that really visceral, immediate experience and connection, and then to step away and delve into a bit of research about her work and life. She’s such a fascinating person and artist and I had to go deeper.

AH: You can, totally. I can tell that it was just one of those moments where you know inspiration just came and you had to write about this. I love that part. I think my favorite one was Julie. I think my favorite line of that poem was when she just smashed the thing to her breath, because, as a mom, I could total I felt like it was one of those moments where you just, I don’t know, like the first time you hold your child and you’re not really sure how to do it, and I felt like those two images and the poem together encapsulated that feeling.

LS: Thank you. I totally relate to that as a mother, too. And you can just tell. Those photographs — they’re so physical. I don’t know if you had a chance to look at that image, but it really is just sort of like, “How do I hold a baby–my baby? How do I do this?” I definitely felt that way. I mean, I continue to feel that way with my eleven-year-old and seven-year-old, like, “How do I do this?”

AH: I remember when I saw that photograph, because I have a three-year-old and a four-year-old, and my three-year-old for a little while was in NICU. And the first time that I got to hold him, it was just so emotionally overwhelming. I was exhausted. So I saw that and then when I read the poem along with it, I thought this is exactly how I can imagine not knowing what you’re doing but you’re going to do it, somehow.

LS: You are going to do it. That’s how I felt. You are going to do it, but how you are going to do it–it’s a bit of a mystery. All you know is: you are.  

AH: So since you mentioned being a mom, I loved that with a lot of the poems I got to see myself as a mom. I think of like the Own Voices movement and how important it is to find ourselves in what we read. How has being a mom kind of help shape or change you as a writer, because I feel like there’s so much inspiration from motherhood?

LS: Thank you! I’m so glad you were able to connect with the poems in that way. There’s a heck of a lot to write about, isn’t there? I find that engage with the world as a mother, these days, whether I like it or not. I sometimes wonder where my work will go once I move into a different phase of life. It’s definitely made me, and maybe you’ve had this experience too, much more keenly aware of your own mortality. Your own, and that of those you love.

AH: Yes

LS: And this is a silly example but I don’t know if you’ve ever seen The Terminator movie (laughs)?

AH: Yes 

LS: There are a few parts in the film when you get to see the world through the Terminator’s eyes, and everything is being assessed for possible threats and danger. I think this idea translates into my writing, in a way.

AH: That’s awesome, yeah. There are so many different little things that you notice that you would have never noticed before, like the corners of furniture and those kinds of things. My sister is pregnant right now, and they’ve been trying forever, and her house has all these little Christmas-y knickknacks everywhere, and it drives me crazy with preschoolers. And I’m just laughing because I’m like, “Well, that’s changing soon. You’re not going to have those there.” The other things you talk about too with the bomb threat — it’s such a real thing, especially for me with having children about to go into school. These are things that I never really thought about, and I find it fascinating to see how that kind of bleeds over into us, because I can definitely, even in my own writing, see a shift.

LS: Absolutely. That was a horrifying experience. I also got truly in touch with my rage.

AH: I can imagine.

LS: That was one of those poems — and it really doesn’t happen often to me — but every once in a while I will sit down and fifteen minutes later I will have a finished poem. I may revise it a bit, but it really won’t change very much. I actually love revising, and sometimes worry that I may be an obsessive reviser, but this poem was different. I dropped my kid off; I came home; I was so mad and so distressed and that poem just kind of appeared before me.

AH: I can tell — even just the visual way that you presented the poem. I could totally feel that. So to kind of shift slightly to maybe less weighty topic, because I know that with the bomb threat poem I just had to set it down for a little bit because it got me.  I can tell, especially when you move into the fourth section since we’re talking a little bit about family, I definitely felt a shift into more of a narrative style. With your poetry (and I know that you do you publish fiction as well), I’m thinking particularly of “Paramedics,” I felt like it was almost like half flash fiction and half poem. How does fiction writing affect your poetry, or vice versa?

LS: That’s such an interesting observation and one that I really hadn’t made. The process of writing fiction and poetry feel very, very different to me. I’m drawn to similar themes, images, words, and motifs but the process itself  is quite different. For the most part, I tend to write poems that come from my own personal experience and observation, and with fiction writing I allow myself to stray a bit more. Sitting down to a blank page or screen has a distinctly different feel. It’s a bit hard to explain, but they’ve always felt like very different processes for me.

AH: Very cool. One of the things that I really loved were all the little artifacts that I found from everyday life. You have tweets in there and Newsreels. You have a syllabus and even a funeral program. And I about died laughing when I saw it was a funeral program. It was so unexpected. And so I love that you bring all these things that we take for granted into your poetry, and I just wanted to know more about your decisions and the inspiration behind them?

LS: I do believe that everyday, ordinary things and experiences make up our lives and often speak to those greater things happening with us and our world. I was kind of interested to see the way technology came into the work. In 2021, cell phones and tweets are simply part of the texture of our world. Social media, in particular, speaks to the title of the book, “Spectacle” for the ways that scrutinize ourselves and others, the way we’re all on display. The performances women sometimes engage in, or the way we are objectified. You know, beautiful picture, someone might write in reply to a post about a significant achievement. I mean, that happens all the time.  

AH: Yeah, and I’m glad that you brought it to the title, because I love the title even right in the first poem it really smacks you in the face, like the idea of a spectacle and then you’ve gotten the giant Alice. It escaped me for a second, and I thought, “Oh man, I totally get where you are going.” Did you go through lots of different iterations with titles? Can you give us a backstory on the title a little bit?

LS: I think titling is so, so hard. I have the hardest time titling–and it’s so important! I went through so many titles  before I settled on, Spectacle. It comes from one of the more recent poems, “Alice the Corpse Flower Blooms at the Chicago Gardens,” and once I tried it out is seemed like I finally found something that really unified the collection. 

AH: I feel like everyday life is sometimes a spectacle like you said. With modern technology and different little bits like that that you incorporated, I feel like it does really speak to the collection as a whole. It was one of those titles that made me sit down and think about it, like, “Well how does this apply?” It took me a second, but then it really kind of clicked by the end of the collection, I was like, “Yes, our life is a spectacle I get it.” I’m always interested in titles, because I struggle  all the time with titles. It’s just not an easy thing for me to get out, so I was curious about how you did yours. 

So kind of jumping a little bit off of the structure of the collection and that sort of thing as a whole, I noticed that many of your poems are framed with an epigraph, which is something that, I don’t know why, but I read other poetry collections and I never noticed it before but it jumped out with your poetry. Even the entire collection is framed with an epigraph. Actually, it’s something that I experimented with after reading your collection in my own work. What went into your choices with the epigraphs versus maybe including that sort of thing into the poem itself?

LS: Thanks for noticing that. I was just talking with a student about this the other day because I love epigraphs–they can be so useful, such an economical way to convey a lot of information without having to get too narrative. You can just delve right into the meat of the poem. I love using them. 

AH: I can tell, and like you said I really appreciated after the fact that I really understood how you were using them I thought, “Why have I not used these before?” Because, like you said, they just dive you right in and you can just get right to the point, without you having to move around too much and you go too narrative.

LS: I think for individual poems for sure, such as the trichotillomania poem– there’s so much information if you don’t know what that disorder is. It was very helpful to just provide an epigraph instead of having to explain it in within the poem. The epigraphs that work as dividers, I hope they help frame one’s thinking about a particular section. Yeah, epigraphs all the way.

AH: I like them a lot. So I know we kind of touched a little bit on this before, but I’m thinking of the larger-than-life topics that we’ve been talking about, like with “Pulse” and I mentioned “The Fourth Bomb Threat” and the asteroid poem and, especially, I love “Julie” and how you really mix things like mass shootings and birth and life and art as a whole with the Dijkstra photography and those poems alongside them — how you mix them with that personal perspective. You take these giant topics and bring them back down to the personal. So what went in to your choice to kind of bring these two ideas in conversation?

LS: I think approaching this subject in this way is the only way I could feel somehow qualified. I can write about “Pulse” because in the poem I can also explore why I couldn’t explain to my son that a dead moth in our windowpane was dead. We kept passing it every day — and he was so worried about it–and I still couldn’t just tell him that it was dead. I’d started to write a poem about Pulse and it just wasn’t working. I just couldn’t do it–it was too horrific–and then I had this other experience and then I put it together to say, hopefully, something more than I would have been able to say about Pulse the shooting or this experience with my son without pairing them together. Somehow, I was able to say more about both of those things. 

AH: It makes sense what you’re saying. Sometimes when you have these huge things that happen and it only matters when it becomes personal, maybe, kind of what I was reading from you, is that unless we make it personal, then it’s just something that happens to someone else rather than, you know, yeah what it is. 

Okay, the other thing that I really appreciated, one that I really liked, was “Ghost Forests” and once I read that one, it was another one that I had to sit down and walk away for a second. Especially when I have two little boys. But I love, in even “In Praise of Dark Matter,” you’re bringing science and literature together. I can tell that you’re very passionate about marrying these two together, so tell me a little bit about those.

LS: I was actually commissioned to write that poem, and I fought the process because of the difficult subject matter. There is a project out of New Orleans called Rising Water that has paired poets with composers, to help bring attention to the issue of rising sea levels. I was thrilled to get involved, and as  I read and researched more about these whole communities that are underwater–the way that climate change is wreaking havoc on our world–I really had a hard time writing that poem. In the beginning, it was too much to look so closely at such a difficult subject. Maybe that’s why it ended up being so sparse. At first, I tried to take an impersonal stance on that subject, but it wasn’t until I was like, “Okay, children will no longer get shade from the trees,” that the poem began to take shape.  

Maybe, “In Praise of Dark Matter,” works in a similar way. “Pulse,” too. You know someday the sun is going to explode, you know there’s dark matter, and you know so much is out of our control. Some of it is beautiful, and some of it is terrifying, and some of it we just can’t understand at all. So I think with “In Praise of Dark Matter,” I was trying to wrap my brain around, the brain-breaking concept of dark matter. But I could definitely connect with the notion that there is so much in our lives that we can’t see that moves us and shapes us. I’ve never had much of a knack for science in an academic way, but the poet in me is continuously fascinated.  

AH: We just came back with the boys from the Kennedy Space Center and getting to see all the stuff that they would send up, and they mentioned something about the dark matter, and I was like, “Wait a second, she was talking about that!” It brought that back to mind, especially even having all the instruments and things that you never expected to find in science. I’m like, “What is this invisible stuff that we’re talking?”

LS: Right.

AH: As I was listening to you talk about “Ghost Forest,” I know some of those poems come either really easy or super difficult. They’re super difficult to get out, and I just wanted to know which poem is your favorite poem in the collection?

LS: That’s a fun question. I think it’s the first poem “Alice the Corpse Flower Blooms at the Chicago Botanic Garden.” It’s just the kind of wacky subject that I really love to engage with but I also hope it works to take on the subject of being seen or objectified, particularly as it relates to the experience of women. I also wanted to engage with the idea that this objectification is something that’s passed down. In fact, I wrote this poem during #metoo.  I tried to write a more overt #metoo poem, but this is what I came up with.

AH: I can totally get that. When I read it, I was like, “Yes, this is like the exact amount of sassy, ‘I am tired of this,’ kind of poem.” So, yeah, I loved that part about it. So in closing, I wanted to know what do you want your readers to take away from Spectacle?

LS: What a cool question. It still amazes me, this idea of “my readers.” It shouldn’t, I know,  but it mystifies me. You mentioned early on that you felt like you saw some of your own experience in the poems, and that’s really my ultimate goal. That I could connect with a human walking around on this earth who notices things and has anxieties and hopes and fears. Yeah, I think that’s the whole point: for the reader to connect and find some enjoyment in the work. 

AH: Awesome, I love it. Well, thank you, I really thoroughly enjoyed reading the collection.

LS: Thank you. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you for reading it so closely.