In Conversation with Elizabeth Martin
Claudia Cortese is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her first book, Wasp Queen, was published by Black Lawrence Press in early 2017. She has had work featured in Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast Online, and The Offing, among others, and is a book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine. The daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, Cortese grew up in Ohio and lives in New Jersey. She also lives at claudia-cortese.com Below, she discusses toxic girlhood, adolescent pain, whiteness, and reminds us not to snort Pixy Sticks.
Elizabeth Martin: Wasp Queen focuses entirely on, Lucy, an adolescent girl living in Ohio in the ’90s. Almost all of the poems are prose poems. Could you speak a little about this choice of form?
Claudia Cortese: Lucy drives the book. The pieces are character studies, vignettes, moments from her adolescent life that reveal her psychology, pathology, pain. I tried to make the poems plainspoken and direct—the sentences often terse, flat, though beneath that flatness churns much rage and dry humor. I kinda hate putting it this way because this is such an MFA thing to say (ugh), but the Lucy poems are more show than tell. For example, I often describe what Lucy does but not why. Much of her self-hate and cruelty comes from her experiences in a white-supremacist rape culture but, like, she doesn’t know that.
I love line breaks—their ability to punctuate a moment, expand syntactical meaning, slow the poem down. However, I didn’t want to slow Lucy down, expand the meaning in her lines or emphasize her images—I wanted to create a character with a voice of flat affect and performative boredom that masked the rage boiling beneath the surface. The best form for Lucy’s voice and character, therefore, was the prose form: she arrived in a small box, and I rarely took her out.
Roxane Gay argues that when “women [characters] are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations” because female characters, like women in real life, are expected to be sweet, polite, and (yawn) likeable. Gay goes on to say that “unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are most alive.” In other words, a character’s monstrosity may be what makes her “the most human.” I showed Lucy tearing her dog’s fur with her teeth and smacking her best friend in the head when she wouldn’t let Lucy rub “her bottom part” against her because I don’t want readers to like Lucy—I want them to love her.
EM: Similarly to Lucy, the cover of your book is beautiful but unsettling. Is there a story behind it?
CC: Yes! I met up with one of my besties, Grey Vild, immediately after signing the contract for Wasp Queen. I told him I didn’t know what the cover should be, and he looked at me and said: “You should have a white cover and down the middle will be a slit and beneath the slit a mass of bee bodies writhing and crawling over each other. The slit should fold up as if invisible ghost hands were pulling the sides, and it should look like skin sliced open. Oh, and it will also be a bee cunt!” Lol. He drew the image, and I reached out to another one of my besties, Traci Brimhall; she put me in touch with genius designer Martin Rock who created my dream book.
Grey may understand Lucy better than I do, so his brilliant cover idea speaks volumes about the book. The image alludes to flesh sliced open, revealing a hive of stingers and wings, the queen nowhere to be seen. The cover implies that under the surface writhes discomfort and pain, so perhaps we want to be cut open, to peel back the skin and peer at what’s embedded deep in our bodies. The image also alludes to vagina dentata, the horror movie trope that a woman’s vagina will eat a man’s dick, which highlights the fear of the monstrous feminine—of women who will “eat men like air,” to quote Plath. Plath’s bee-keeping poems and the white cover of the original edition of Ariel are both present in Wasp Queen’s front.
Plath’s poems taught me how to be a boss. Her speakers seethe with hot rage. They can also be quite funny, though readers and critics sometimes overlook that. After writing “Daddy,” Plath called one of her friends and read it to her, and they couldn’t stop laughing. In fact, Plath described “Daddy” as light verse. Unfortunately, in addition to being a brilliant poet, Plath could also be quite racist (ugh). In “Daddy,” the speaker appropriates mass genocide to symbolize her personal pain. In other poems, the speaker uses Blackness and Black bodies as metonyms for evil, oppression, her own suffering. For the pieces in Wasp Queen, I tried to channel some of Plath’s rage and acerbic humor without her obliviousness to whiteness.
That being said, while writing Lucy, I lived inside her voice and story—I didn’t know what she “meant.” All I knew was that I had never written anyone so alive before. In the past, my poems had often come out slowly and gone through painstaking revisions, but many of the Lucy poems came out quickly and in need of few changes: she arrived a whole girl. Later, though, I began deconstructing her and realized that she performed a particular kind of “toxic girlhood”—a girlhood of malls and suburbs, of brattiness and bullying and rape culture and slap bracelets. That girlhood is middle-class, is often white (though not always), and that toxicity intersects inside Lucy in complex ways. I would argue that all girls experience some kind of toxic girlhood, though different kinds of girlhood constrain, oppress, construct girls in different ways. In fact, I would go as far as to say all gender is toxic, so anyone with a body has to wade through that sludge, trying to survive those poisonous tides while staying human. My hope is that anyone who has experienced that itchy discomfort, as if bees rotted beneath their skin, who has wanted to cut a part of themselves out, who at some point in their lives felt untouchable, unlikable, unlovable will see some shard of themselves in Lucy.
EM: There are many wasp and bee images throughout Wasp Queen. At times the bee or wasp represents a source of inner strength, power, and resilience for Lucy, but in other moments these images connect to painful experiences, such as in the “The Mall,” when a boy says her face looks like it is covered in bee stings. Were you seeking to capture something in particularly with this imagery?
CC: The story of a boy saying Lucy’s face is covered in bee stings is a true story, though it is not mine. My twin sister Natalie had acne when we were teenagers. One day, she decided to go to work without wearing makeup (she worked at a store in the mall). A young boy pointed at her and said, “Mommy, why does that girl have bee stings covering her face?” In an earlier version of the poem, I had written, “I wanted to build us a moat, wall away that boy’s stare.” In other words, I wanted to protect her from the boy’s gaze, a male gaze he was already channeling at a young age, a gaze I felt slick over my own body as she told me the story. In that moment, my sister felt like a monster. She has never said this, but I know the shame, the disgust, the terror she experienced.
So much about Lucy is based on myself and so much about her is nothing like me. As a teengirl, my identity—like so many kids’ identities—was tribal: my self was an extension of my crew of friends. So, it would be impossible for me to write about adolescence in a way that is strictly about myself. I needed to create a character that was all of us and by being all of us, she was none of us. I Frankensteined together a girl—stitching a limb from my sister, an eyeball from myself, a clavicle from Cathy, a toenail from Nikki, etc., until Lucy emerged as one body made of many girlbodies.
EM: Lucy is simultaneously a bully and a victim of bullying. She often bullies herself too, as in "Lucy’s Guide to Surviving The First Day of 6th Grade in an Ohio Town That Is 92.3% White, 3.8% Black, and 3.9% Other" when she gets right in our heads. Did you want your audience to feel uncomfortable at times, and maybe even a little bullied themselves, while reading these poems?
CC: Our culture bullies Lucy. The “popular girls” bully Lucy. And, yes, Lucy bullies the reader while bullying herself. “Lucy’s Guide to Surviving the First Day of Sixth Grade in an Ohio Town that is 92.3% White, 3.8% Black, and 3.9% Other” is written in the second-person (the “you”) to force the reader inside Lucy’s head. When Lucy calls herself a fat cunt, the reader is also being called a fat cunt. I chose misogynist, violent expletives because that kind of language reflects the kinds of thoughts many of us (perhaps most of us) have.
A few years ago, I realized this: each time I looked in the mirror I would think one of two kinds of thoughts: if I looked cute, I would find a way to convince myself that what I saw was a mirage; if I looked not-so-cute, I would view it as an affirmation of how ugly I was. For example, if my hair and makeup were on point, my skin clear, the dark circles under my eyes gone, I would think that it was just the lighting or that it was only one good day among many bad ones or that it was a trick of the makeup—without it I’d be a mess. If I looked not-so-great, I would think something like, “Well, of course I look ugly—I’m a fat cunt.” I had been in this habit of mind for about 15 years, give or take, before I realized it.
The problem, however, is not whether I am “attractive” or “unattractive” (whatever that means)—the problem is that we expect women to be pretty and if they are not, they are viewed as worthless. There is nothing wrong with beauty, sexuality, the body, but when your right to enjoy sex, to wear certain kinds of clothes, to advance in the workforce, to be viewed as anything but pathological depends on what you look like, it can destroy you. That destruction often begins in adolescence, and I am not sure it ever stops.
In the title of this piece, I list racial statistics because the problem of body hate is, in part, the problem of whiteness. This is not to say that African-Americans and other people of color do not feel the pressure of dominant beauty standards—we all live in the same society, after all. However, a pathological fear of fat pervades white culture. I still remember when I first started hearing the word “thick” to describe someone’s appearance. I had grown up in mostly-white suburbs and had only ever heard fat, chunky, chubby, tub of lard, etc. Then, when teaching at a mostly African-American and Latinx college, I regularly heard students talk about women being “thick,” and it dawned on me that they meant this positively. I felt shocked: I had never known there was anything to feel but shame about my body.
EM: Given all of this bullying, is there anything you wish you could tell Lucy? Any advice you wish you could give her from your position of womanhood?
CC: Don’t slap Stephanie in the face. She is not the one who hurt you. Don’t go to the abandoned railroad tracks in the forest behind the school. Trust no boy named Connor, or Matt, or Michael. Female and queer friendships are not extracurricular—they will save you. Pack your own lunch—those burgers are worse than you think. If you are going to snort the contents of a grape Pixy Stick, do it in the far left corner of the cafeteria. It gets better. It gets better. It gets better.
EM: Did you ever actually snort a Pixy Stick?
CC: Yes, I did! That shit hurts.
EM: What are you working on now? What are you reading? What pop culture are you bingeing on?
CC: I’m working on a collection of essays called Twine and am reading/re-reading Meghan Privitello’s Notes on the End of the World, Jonterri Gadson’s Blues Triumphant, Gillian Cummings’ My Dim Aviary, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Cycle 23 of America’s Next Top Model just started and I binged the first seven episodes! Though I know that show is hella problematic, I love its campy humor, intimate explorations of female (and male) body rituals, and fantastic designer clothes.