Conversations in the Author's Corner: Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes
About the Book (via Mason Jar Press): In the mythic world of Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, two characters are cosmically intertwined, both moored to their past and to the expectations of society. Through syllabic and prose poems, the collection asks questions about what happens when people find themselves in a cycle of violence. Myths, retold over centuries, also mean that these cycles repeat through the storytelling. Both Ashley and the Wolf are modern, but they are forever tied to their myth.
About the Author: Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes was born in Harrisburg, PA and has a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA from George Mason University. She has appeared in Always Crashing, The Rumpus, Cartridge Lit, Crab Fat Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is one of two buds on The Smug Buds podcast. She works as an editor. Her name is a line of iambic pentameter.
*This interview contains discussion of sexual violence and abuse.
The Inner Loop's Kiera Wolfe: I feel like you get this all the time, but I must ask about your name being a line of iambic pentameter.
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes: Oh yes, this is my greatest accomplishment. When I was a freshman in undergrad at Susquehanna University, I took a class called “Forms of Poetry.” I knew what iambic pentameter was before then, but when we got to the part on meter, I remember thinking, my name is really long. E-li-za-beth De-ann-a-Morr-is. One, that’s weird my name doesn’t end on a hard, emphasized syllable. Two, I just need to marry someone with a one syllable last name! It’ll be fine. I started dating my husband around a year later. When I started dating Kenny I thought, oh this could happen. And then six months later, this is happening!
KW: My prerequisites! For betrothal! So it was completely unintentional, I was thinking maybe your parents were huge Bardolaters, but it’s fate of the universe that it happens to be beautifully metric.
EDML: You snatch those opportunities when they come.
KW: So Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, from which I have had the honor and pleasure of hearing you read multiple times now at The Inner Loop events. Last night, at our May event, you described the book as being about cycles of violence - something that feels raw and painful and really specifically rendered in that first section, and then opens up to include other women in the Coda. How did Ashley come together as the representative female figure of these cycles? How did you choose to expand that perspective at the end of the text?
EDML: Ashley started when I was driving to see Kenny when we started dating. There’s an exit sign at 81-North, the Ashley Sugarnotch exit. And I said, that sounds like the name of someone. I’m going to write about Ashley Sugarnotch. I kept it in my pocket, and maybe a year and a half later I was in the gallery at Susquehanna where they were doing a portrait competition. There was a painting called “Red Bow” by Bob Diven. And I thought, that’s Ashley Sugarnotch in the painting. It’s huge. If someone wants to buy it for me, it’s $5,000. They can donate that and I’ll hang it on my wall.
KW: Get in touch with us for Liz’s address, just send it on over.
EDML: I’m sure he would love for me to have it if someone were to pay for it. It’s this woman standing, flipping the bird wearing green bikini bottoms, and this big red bow over her chest. That’s where the first poem, “Ashley Sugarnotch and the Big Red Bow” comes from. I knew a couple things about Ashley, I remember thinking to myself, Ashley Sugarnotch is a bitch. I wanted her to be unlikable. I always knew she was unlikable. From there, I started writing these poems about being this sort of woman that is really unlikable, and, at least initially, clearly has a lot of privilege. I really wanted that first poem with her, where she’s talking about how she wishes her body were marred, to come off as sounding just obnoxious. Because she has all this trauma, and yet she has all this privilege because she’s white. She’s pretty, she’s conventionally beautiful, and she is unmarred. She looks “normal.” I started writing these poems about her and then as I kept writing the Wolf showed up. The Wolf, initially, was me. Was Liz.
KW: How so?
EDML: In some of the poems, like the poem “The Wolf Always Dreams,” those are real dreams I’ve had. From there, it developed. There’s a poem in the Coda called “Trisha.” And “Trisha” is about somebody that I went to elementary school and junior high with who was murdered [while pregnant]. And I wasn’t close with her, but I was friends with her on Facebook and heard her story [and it was a story] I kept seeing over and over. I don’t know if you remember the Facebook murders, there was this dude in Florida who shot his wife and then posted a picture of her body on Facebook. They had a 12 year old daughter, she was just upstairs. Even last night at the reading, there was a woman who told a story in one of her poems about a girl she grew up with whose father did the same thing. That’s where I started to think about these cycles. You have two creators, right, two parents and you are yet orphaned because one commits violence against the other. How are you supposed to break out of that? And then through the myth and fairy tale part of it, I started to look at it through the lens of fairytales and folktales. There’s so many versions of these stories. If you look at different versions of the Little Red story, Ashley is not Little Red but she’s definitely like that. Michael Tager, my managing editor, described her as Little Red’s older cousin who teaches her to smoke cigarettes.
KW: I love that.
EDML: Those stories have different versions. Sometimes Little Red doesn’t survive. Sometimes she escapes of her own volition. There’s no Huntsman. Sometimes she sneaks out. In many versions, the wolf makes her eat parts of her own grandmother as a trick.
KW: I had never heard that before encountering it in your book.
EDML: Horrifying. We sit, we tell these same stories over and over again. We also live the same stories over and over again. It made a lot of sense to put them together into this modern, I hesitate to say fairytale. There’s not very much magic, except the dreams.
KW: There’s a mythic quality to it.
EDML: Yes, mythic is the word I like to use.
KW: It’s interesting to hear you say that initially the Wolf's voice was your voice. Ashley speaks to us only in prose and the Wolf in syllabic lines, how did that come to be? Which came first, the speaker or the form?
EDML: Speaker for Ashley definitely came first. She had a couple of iterations. For a while, I was doing her poems in numbered lists, modeled after Sabrina Orah Mark. It’s in her book, Wild Milk, which she calls all prose, but it was published in Gulf Coast initially - “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.” I remember seeing this form and thinking, I need to write in this. But that wasn’t really working, it becomes a bit more hairy when you’re in the prose. Then, my mother-in-law is a stenographer, a court reporter. One day she said to me, “You’re an editor, could you look over these depositions for me?” I started reading over these documents and they have a specific form, too. Double spaced, each line is numbered. I was doing that for a while, but I abandoned it all together. Part of the reason is because it felt transcript-like, similar to the last chapter of the Handmaid’s Tale. When you find out everything you’ve just read is a transcript, and who the speaker is speaking to is not clear, except that she’s speaking as a way to record. I was getting that feeling from Ashley, she’s not really talking to anybody, but [is she] also talking to everyone?
For her, she’s controlled in every aspect of her life, and the prose is a place where she vomits everything she’s feeling. Whereas the Wolf’s poems have pretty much always been in syllabics. The Wolf is trying everything he can to not be violent. So his form is incredibly structured. Because it’s a constraint - he’s putting a constraint on himself to try to not fall apart. If you look at the poems, you’ll see the parts where the lines start breaking are where he’s not doing well. The dream poem is sort of in the Fibonacci sequence, but it breaks constantly. And that makes a lot of sense, because he’s talking about dreams. It’s when he’s allowing himself to be the most intimate with Ashley, in his own mind. And then, by the end, there’s “The Wolf Knows Your Number at Two in the Morning.” And that poem has no syllabics. It’s also technically a found poem. A poem made entirely of text messages that my ex-stepmother sent me at two in the morning.
KW: Oh, wow.
EDML: Every stanza break is a different text message that I got. When she was texting me, she was saying that I needed her help, to help me save my dad. And my dad, I don’t talk to him. I also didn’t really talk to her at this point. I changed it to be just between two characters, not three. But that’s where the forms came from. They’re very, very intentional.
KW: And they feel intentional, in the text. One of my questions was about the recipient of Ashley’s speaking, because her first person prose feels so confessional and intimate, even crowded. I love the way you describe that coming together. In contrast, the Wolf directly addresses Ashley, we always know who he’s talking to. There’s a sense of invasiveness and possessiveness to that. Now, the speaker herself enters the collection quite forcefully at the close. It’s a powerful turn inwards, in a collection that is initially so narrative. How did you come to this fourth wall-breaking moment of finality to end the collection?
EDML: We have this mythic world that both is and is not real, right? I wanted to pivot initially because these are real people in real places, these are things that are actually happening. I can get away with some stuff in the first half, the main part of the book, because it’s mythic. Because there are dreams, because there aren’t real people. I didn’t want to speak in the voices of people I didn’t know. But it becomes sort of unavoidable after a while. I had one poem called “Falter Suite” that was in an early draft of the collection, about this boy in Harrisburg who died of neglect in an attic where he was locked with a mattress. As I wrote, I really was thinking about empathy. His parents had a lot of kids, many of them medically complex. The mother claimed that she didn’t know how this kid was being treated because the parents split up the kids to care for them. With that poem, it got hard to try to not get into these people’s heads. I wanted to be kind to them in that I didn’t know their story, but I also did not want to excuse anything they had done. That’s part of the reason why I felt I needed both the first and second sections. You need both to say, “Hey, this is real.”
KW: For our Author’s Corner Project, we’re working with local authors publishing with small, indie presses. How was your experience with Mason Jar Press?
EDML: I’ll compliment them until I’m dead. I’m incredibly organized. I’m the person that schedules and knows where things are. At work and school in group projects, I’m the responsible one, and it’s exhausting. The best thing about Mason Jar is that I was not the most organized person in the room. I would leave those meetings just beaming, beaming, because I thought, I don’t have to do all the work. Mason Jar is a small deal, there’s not very many of them, they don’t really have much of a budget. I did a lot of work too, but every piece of work that I did, they reciprocated. They were really good at communicating with me. They’re incredibly transparent, which you might even see if you look at their Twitter. Any time they have a reading period, they will tell you what money they made, how many submissions they got, all of that. And they just are really, the kind of press you want to work with. They’re quick. They know what they’re doing. They really want to support their authors the best that they can.
Watch the full interview on our YouTube Channel:
About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses. Visit theinnerlooplit.org/authorscorner for more.