In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Tessa Livingstone
Tell us about your poem “The Mystic Explains” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
“The Mystic Explains” was inspired by my favorite Tarot card, the Eight of Cups, which is said to represent things thrown aside as soon as they’re gained (i.e., success abandoned). I was thinking about how the card corresponds not just to the human world, but to the world of nature as well. The idea that even an animal gets what it wants at some point—in the poem’s case, a prized racehorse. I thought it would be interesting to contrast that with the speaker, who has suffered a stillbirth. There is an underlying absurdity in the mystic’s command: “When you get what you want, you must give it up.” I wanted the speaker to refute the idea that everyone gets what they want and has a choice in letting go, with the last two lines being directed at both the mystic and the reader.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Description really excites me— how it can create a subjective kind of seeing, and make images new. One of my favorite images ever comes from The Bell Jar when Sylvia Plath’s speaker describes the impact of seeing a cadaver for the first time: “For weeks afterward, the cadaver’s head—or what was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast and behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.” I love that descriptive language has the power to extend and illuminate our perceptions, and typically veer away from writing that doesn’t indulge this.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I’m most interested in the transformative and macabre, motherhood, irreversible loss, abandonment, and choice within choicelessness.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I learned how to play the musical saw about the same time I started my MFA program. Somewhere in the Appalachian mountains, in the early 19th century, rural southerners discovered you could produce ethereal sounds by bending the blade of a common carpenter’s saw and bowing along its flat edge. It sounds sort of like a Theremin, or an opera singer, or a ghost wooing in a B-horror movie. It’s gorgeously eerie. Learning the musical saw greatly informed my creative process because there are technically no rules to it. You can learn how to hold it correctly, how to bend the blade and how to bow, but the music itself is learned by ear and through muscle memory. There are no set notes or sheet music, but a range of limitless, expressive possibilities.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’ve been working on my first poetry book, Lady Grimm, for the past two or three years now. It’s a conceptual assemblage of fairy tales, fables, and nursery rhymes that center around a stillbirth in 1940s Scotland. It is both true and all made up.
Tessa Livingstone is a poet who holds an MFA from Portland State University. Her poems have appeared in Geometry, FIVE:2:ONE, Whiskey Island Magazine, and Portland Review, among others. Her poem “Grant, 1970” won the Blue Earth Review 2018 Poetry Contest, and was featured in their Fall 2018 issue. You can find her on Twitter @livingstonepoet.