In Conversation with
Kailey Tedesco is a caulbearer, poet, and teacher who lives with her fiancé and two cats (Coraline and Marzipan) next to many, many trains. She likes to pretend she’s living in the same universe as Eraserhead. She currently teaches courses on the witch in literature and folklore at Moravian College and she co-advises The Laconic at Northampton Community College. She is the author of She Used to be on a Milk Carton (April Gloaming Publishing) and These Ghosts of Mine, Siamese (Dancing Girl Press). She is the co-founding editor-in-chief of Rag Queen Periodical and an associate editor for Luna Luna Magazine. She also performs with the Poetry Brothel. Her manuscript Lizzie, Speak recently won White Stag Publishing’s full-length poetry contest, and it will be published in 2019. For more publication info, visit her rarely updated website kaileytedesco.com or follow her on social media @kaileytedesco. Below, she discusses how her poems navigate and embody girlhood, and explore spiritualism, nature, folklore, and the female body.
Britny Brooks: Can we begin by talking about the structure of your book? The title is provoking and important too, and we'll get to that, but I think that the structure plays a subtle, but crucial role in walking us through the physical and spiritual "world" that your poems inhabit.
For example, the placement of the poems "The Place Before Crossing Over" and "The Place After Crossing Over" feels like a chorus or attendant to guide and prepare us for the part of the book that we are about to enter. Then there is the set of three Ring poems that carry a sense of physicality like a lodestone to ground us for just a moment before we carry on.
Can you speak a little about your intention for these poems and their relationship to each other and the two parts of the book?
Kailey Tedesco: I love that you use the word “lodestone” because I think that’s the perfect word to describe my intention for the “ring” poems! They were mostly intended to act as markers of girlhood, and femme identity in general. I felt like there was something mystically significant about wearing gems on your hands. Rings are something worn on the physical body as symbols and decorations, and the more symbolic the ring is, the more likely a person will also wear it in death—this is kinda phantasmagorical to me!
“The Place Before Crossing Over” was intended to be a very transient poem—I wanted it to signify that the speaker has not yet arrived to the place she is going, but as the book’s title suggests, she’s also not where she was before. I wanted the reader to feel a little disoriented here, too—like if Alice in Wonderland began with Alice already halfway down the rabbit hole. By the time the reader gets to “The Place After Crossing Over” (about halfway through), I hope to communicate a sense of realization. The speaker sort of teeters between both sides of the threshold—her childhood, things she knows well, and also the increasing capabilities of her body, even though at this point she may or may not have one in the sense that one might imagine.
BB: In many of your poems, I kept finding a surreal and conflicted relationship between nature, the physicality of the human body, magic, and myths (be they religion, fairy tales, or urban folklore) that I feel speaks to the imagination, and sadly the haunting reality, of girlhood. What inspired you to play with connections? And what relationship, if there is one, do you feel captures your interpretation of girlhood best?
KT: I think that there are so many things that we’re bombarded with as children, and there’s this compulsion to identify with a religion, mythology, parable, narrative, etc. and use it to form both our belief system and our sense of self, but this always leaves a lot to be desired. I personally grew up Catholic, and so Catholicism definitely plays a significant role in this collection. I was also exposed to a lot of pagan ideals and just stories in general as a kid, and I used those to fill in the many gaps that Catholicism left for me. Witchcraft, for example, allowed me to explore parts of my own agency and that my religion did not. These aspects of the collection are mostly confessional.
Strangely, though, when I think of how I personally constructed my self, I think of films the most. So, for that reason, I included several ekphrastic poems centered around films that depict a particular aspect of girlhood all throughout this collection. It’s these imaginary girls played by real girls that best encapsulated how I saw girlhood.
BB: One of my favorite poems is "Water, Sweet and Nasty" and I found myself being constantly drawn to it. I think this is partially because it references the death of Elisa Lam, who was found in the water tank of the Cecil Hotel, and the mysterious circumstances around her death that have become, in a way, an urban legend. Can you talk a bit about how urban folklore/legend lives in this collection and how it inspires/inspired you?
KT: Thank you! Folklore continues to be a huge part of my life. I lived in the Pine Barrens as a child (home of The Jersey Devil) and my great-great grandmother grew up on the same street as Lizzie Borden, so I always knew that narrative and the rhyme. (I just found out about my grandmother recently, though!) Also, I’m a caulbearer, and that has a lore all its own. It’s all just been so ingrained in my self-perception, and I didn’t think this was a totally uncommon way to think.
What interests me the most about all of it is the way that we ingest these stories—they can be a little indoctrinating sometimes, albeit powerful. In these poems, there are stories everywhere (some are the titles of the poems and some are allusions), and I wanted to show how these stories shape the speaker as she sort of transcends through each threshold. She formulates her identity and sense of self by likening her experience to archetypes in multiple types of stories. Girlhood is made to be so mystifying and often treated as its own lore. I think as girls, the speaker and I both tried to make sense of the multiplicity of it all through the lore that was already familiar to us.
BB: The book's title She Used to Be on a Milk Carton is one that calls to mind the themes of the indefinite, missing, lostness, and innocence, but also an underlying, unspoken violence. The ending lines of the titular poem show the speaker fingering a string of costume pearls that have just be placed around the girl's neck and then: "I roll them between my finger & thumb, wait / for beads to com skittering through / the streets with a single tug." What role do you feel that violence, both physical and insinuated, play in your work? How do you prefer to deal/talk/portray violence in your work?
KT: This is a great question and something I struggled with a lot while writing. “She Used to be on a Milk Carton” was the first poem that I wrote in this entire collection. I published it with FLAPPERHOUSE under that title (thankfully), but actually changed the title about 3-4 times afterwards. I think I was afraid of the story I knew I’d have to tell if I kept the title as it was, but I also knew this poem needed to be in my first collection. Eventually, I decided to keep it as is and allow all the following poems to orbit it.
In general, violence is hard for me. I’ve gotten better, but in the past I’ve walked out of classes and turned off movies because I just couldn’t stomach images or discussions surrounding sexual violence, specifically. When I decided to honor the title as it was, I also made a decision that I wasn’t going to explore violence explicitly. I didn’t think I needed to in the story I was attempting with the poems. There is trauma here, of course, but I wanted these poems to discuss both trauma and coping within a very honed in first-person point of view. The title allowed for me to begin after the proverbial milk carton has been thrown away or forgotten by others, so in that way the speaker is navigating post-violence and post-lostness. And the poems more explicitly about her trauma (like “The Purgatory Choice” and “Oh, Adored Cadaver”) are also from her POV, examining her own body—she has agency in this way. I didn’t want it to necessarily be about what happened to the speaker while she was alive, but instead her quest through all of the complicated realms and truths that come after her death.
BB: There is a lot in your book that plays with the religious and the magical power of threes. So I can't help but pair the title with the part titles, "Girl/Shape" and "Ghost/Body." Can you speak a little about the relationship between the title and the dissection of the female, especially the Girl, in your work, but also in popular culture (or whatever inspires you)?
KT: Weirdly enough, when I sat down to write, I started to think of girlhood in terms of mathematics (I really hate math, so this surprised me big time!). I thought of the idea of a girl as a kind of negative space that gets filled with artifacts of self along the way, and then after all that collecting, “girl” might not even be the best identifier. In this case the girl becomes a ghost, a literal negative space. The title also leaves room for questioning, and I almost thought of it like a word problem or logical situation : “If she used to be on a milk carton . . . then ______________ is where she must be now.” I think everyone’s mind will probably fill in that blank a little differently, and that’s where the unreal/real paradox comes in.
I actually added the section breaks to the collection in a final revision, and they were largely inspired by Sandra M. Gilbert’s essay, “My Name is Darkness”, which describes the difference between the supernatural and the natural woman. The two parts of the book are mostly separated by the speaker’s view of the world. While the speaker embraces everything society would deem “girl” or “natural” in the first section, she still finds herself feeling shamed. She resorts to a lot of pop-culture (My Girl, V.C. Andrews, The Labyrinth, Red Riding Hood, etc.) to try to work through these contradictions, but the world fails the girls in these stories in many ways, too. In “Ghost/Body” I hoped to show her embracing the “supernatural” aspects of herself in a literal way. She was haunted, but she is now becoming the haunting. Basically, I thought, girls are told to dream about or pretend to have power, but when that power is accessed in a real way, they are told to suppress it. In these poems, no magical power or magical being is off limits for the speaker.
BB: Would you share either a poem from She Used to Be on a Milk Carton or a new poem and unpack it for us? What was your process in writing the poem? Are there any themes, voices, or inspirations that you are currently focused on?
The Moth Cycle
My grandmother’s lake & a girl
on her belly.
Her damp hands peel the moss
from the earth, disturb
Small moth’s stir—
She adjusts her swimsuit & pounces—
pansies in her fist & misses
a crumple of white wings
Day’s end lines her game along the tide. One lap
carries the tiny bodies, easily as wind.
Somewhere across the lake—my body
blood-stiff & grey with rain.
Glassy wings stream
from the vague instar of my skull.
This is a poem towards the end of the collection, and both the grandmother’s lake and moths are recurrent through the collection. I titled it after I wrote it, and decided on “The Moth Cycle” because I thought that would be like an opposite of The Butterfly Effect (a little lame, I know).
When I initially workshopped this, it was much, much longer, very prose-y, and just not really resonating the way I hoped it would. In a lot of ways, it’s a really essential poem for this collection, so I needed it to work. I read a craft essay though (I can’t remember its name now) that challenged poets to keep words and phrases small and isolated, so I tried it with this poem. It turned into the above little, choppy piece, and I think it worked much better than my first drafts. The longer piece lacked the structural tension of the quick line breaks, but also the emotional tension of the image of speaker, now dead, watching a girl (this girl is introduced earlier in the collection) playing by a lake that belongs to her grandmother. There’s a sense of both ownership and safety for the girl in the first lines that’s contrasted with the danger of the speaker’s corpse in the last ones. I used the image of the living girl carelessly squishing the moths and piling them by the water to more deliberately reveal the danger of the location—the place where the speaker’s body now rests. Ironically though, the moths thrive more with the corpse. In this, there’s this cycle of both innocence and trauma, but they’re not mutually exclusive.
The poem was inspired by my love of moths (I do not condone squishing them, btw!) and also my favorite graphic novel, Beautiful Darkness, by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a similar unsettling revelation in the novel, but the tension is built through panels and a panning out of the artwork. This was the first time I realized how similar a line break and a panel transition can be. When I write, I mostly think in images, so this has been so enlightening for my craft.
BB: What are you working on now? What kind of culture are you currently consuming?
KT: Oh, what a cool question! I recently finished a second manuscript called “Lizzie, Speak” about a seance with Lizzie Borden. I wrote a lot of those poems with text predictive and using other exercises with things that could be considered modern necromancy. I’m excited to see where that goes! Now though, I think I’m going to take some time to write without the idea of a book in mind, and continue to experiment with techniques that previously scared me a little.
The culture that’s been most inspiring to me lately is: Twin Peaks, anything to do with the Fox Sisters, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Atlanta, Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller, Geek Love by Katherine Dunne, and I can’t stop watching The Love Witch.