Lisa J. Cihlar's poetry has been published in Qarrtsiluni, elimae, Pirene's Fountain, The Pedestal Magazine and other places. One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart prize. She lives in rural southern Wisconsin.
In Which I Become Obsessed with a Character
By Lisa J. Cihlar
In the olden days, when I was young, I used to think I would write a novel. In fact, that I was fated to write a novel. So I started one, and then abandoned it to start another and another and another. We are only speaking of small starts here, ten or twenty pages, a bunch of notes, but never more than that. All though high school, college, and into my working life, my true, but secret, identity was novelist.
Turns out, I had to retire early from my job as a library director due to a disabling course of multiple sclerosis. I was 44 years old and consoled myself that now I would have time to write my novel. But maybe I should begin with short stories. This, I figured I could do, no problem. It would lead into a novel I was sure. I joined some online groups, took some online classes on short story writing, and immersed myself in reading stories. I could do this. And I did, with a tiny bit of publishing success, but in the end, I wasn’t having all that much fun. No fun writing short stories, no fun writing aborted novels.
Then along comes a friend, who suggested I write a poem to go with a prompt he posted on a writing site call Zoetrope. Well thank you, David! Even though I had written poetry in the past, this time it took and I became a poet. Again, the classes and books, but now I was having fun. Lots of fun because it turns out I am pretty good at writing poetry, and revising poetry which was something I hated doing with novels and short stories. In 2007 I had my first poem accepted for publication in an online zine called Wicked Alice. Euphoria!
Flash forward to today and I am still enthralled with writing poetry. I have published around 50 poems and won some contests, well, runner-up in some contests, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My niche has been found.
All that intro to get around to my character obsession. This past April, I was writing a poem a day for National Poetry Month and wrote a poem entitled “The True Story of Why You are Looking for a New Apartment and Telling Your Friends I’m a Witch”. There was a character in that poem I called Swampy Woman. Here is my favorite line about her: When she lifts her tall black hat, it is all/mergansers and buffleheads and a solitary great/blue heron, eying the toads. Then I was done with that poem and moved on. Months later I started another online poetry class and pulled that poem from my files to be workshopped because I remembered liking it quite well and wanted to see what others might suggest. It needed some work, but was very well received. Shortly thereafter I was writing and who should show up, but Swampy Woman. It was infatuation from then on. I would have Swampy Woman thoughts in the middle of the night, and in the middle of reading poems by others. She took over my life. I made notes while in the bathroom, while cooking, and while watching TV in the evenings. The poems kept coming. I am up to ten now. I have notes for more, maybe a lot more. So far, only two of the poems are written from the point of view of Swampy Woman herself. I think she is getting her voice though. Soon, I may not be able to shut her up.
A mentor/coach, who I am working with these days, asked me recently, “Who is Swampy Woman?” It gave me pause. I hadn’t really given it any thought; she was just a creation, a fiction, running around in my head. But in putting together a response, I had to define her.
Swampy Woman is all women, she is Mother Nature without all the flower crowns and flowing gauze dresses in pastel colors. She gets down with the spiders and snakes and toads. She has sex, a lot. But then she sends her lovers on their way. She stomps on centipedes because they creep her out. She howls with wolves and never tells a lie, unless she does. Life is dirty swampy business a lot of the time. She is the truth about that. And about the joyfulness to be found there, too. Today I found out that Swampy Woman lets things die. Death is part of life, as she knows. I woke early this morning and these lines came to me, insisting that I write them down: Little girls bring her baby rabbits to save. They cry and hiccup telling how father/brother ran over the fur lined nest with the John Deere lawn mower. I didn’t know that Swampy Woman was going to let the rabbits die. She let me know though.
In the end, I suppose this series of poems, about a character who won’t leave me be, is my novel. There is a persistent myth out in the world that everyone has a novel in them. Not true. I don’t have a novel in me. NO. But I have these poems and that is proving to be good enough for me.
I will finish with a couple of stanza’ from a poem I titled “Wolf Moon Soon Enough.”
She gathers squash, carrots and celery root
from the cold root-cellar to chop and stew.
Out her back window, a commotion of blackbirds
across an O’Keeffe sky suddenly disappears
into a cottonwood. Bell-tone trills give them away.
Alpha-bitch. Her hackles rise. In the end,
feeling a skosh testy after all, she climbs
a rocky hill back of the woods and curls herself
into the den where half-grown spring pups
lick her face and name her grandmother.