Sacrifice the Bread: An Interview with Leanna Petronella

Our Interviews Editor Esteban Rodríguez talks with poet Leanna Petronella about childhood, the body as metaphor, fairy tales and myths, and the inspiration behind her debut collection The Imaginary Age (Pleiades Press 2019). 

Tell me about how The Imaginary Age came to be. 

The Imaginary Age was the result of many years of writing, revising, putting away, and coming back to. It slowly emerged after a long lifecycle of writerly grubbing.

My mother’s death from cancer when I was 22 was the inspiring energy for many of the poems. I was grappling with trauma and grief, and as a barely formed young adult, I didn’t have the language for those emotions. I turned to metaphor, which often ran away from me in the beginning. As I wrote the book, I began to learn some control. Over the decade that I worked on it, other themes entered, but they largely centered on the body: the ill body, the dying body, the animal body, and the sexual body. Another major theme was the imagination and how it can both save and terrify, offering dreams of escape and alternate possibilities, but also brutal in its anxiety of “what-ifs.”

Poetry can be both highly personal and highly fictionalized. To what extent did you feel comfortable, or did you feel it was necessary, to put your personal life on the page when a poem explored your mother’s passing, whether directly, such as in “The Imaginary Age,” or tangentially, such as in “I Wonder What Happens Next”? 

I’ve always felt very comfortable writing personal poems. This has led to some pushback in poetry workshops, where white dudes (it’s always white dudes) have scolded me for making my poetry too sexual or aggressive. Still, perhaps curiously, I don’t have much inhibition in my poems. I’ve personified dildos as war generals finding lost comrades beneath my bed. I’ve published a poem that’s the origin story of the tampon. To me, it’s all part of the fun of poetry.

I’ve also published very personal poems about my mother’s death, as you mention. I worried about how my father and sister might experience these poems, but they’ve always been very encouraging of my poetry.

I also have many poems that are more akin to fairy tales or myths. Still, even if the poem is about, say, how gods invented beds, my feelings and experiences are driving the narration. Those poems are personal to me, too, maybe because they are ways to talk around trauma, rather than directly addressing it.

The exploration of the body also seems to be merged with the exploration of childhood narratives we are all well acquainted with. Your collection features the March Hare and Hansel and Gretel, the latter of which is the focus of the poem “Daily Bread”:

This forest has been cut. Its blood sprinkles into pairs, red eyes 
staining bushes. Hansel and Gretel trudge. Stepmother’s stale slices 
are wrapped in tattered napkins. White skulls push up through the dirt 
and of course they gleam like mushrooms. In other words, you siblings: 
To go home, use your crumbs. Follow the trail, live. Sacrifice the bread. 

As you said, a major theme is the body, so can you speak about how you approach the body’s loss of innocence and innocence in general. 

As an adult, I still feel a visceral connection to childhood. I often treat my cat like she’s a stuffed animal. I constantly re-read children’s classics—the Babysitter’s Club booksthe Little House on the Prairie Books, the Anne of Green Gables books. I can feel uncomfortable about this—am I supposed to “grow up” beyond these feelings and interests? At the same time, because of losing a parent early, I sometimes feel older than my years. The last stanza of “The Imaginary Age” addresses this tension:

So my mother died. I suppose that event redid me
into infant frump, the loss-of-parent problem
only shared by parents’ friends. Oh God
my mommy God oh mommy oh my God
the mommyword a killing word,
I was like a cow for sobs.

So when I think of loss of innocence, I think of how my experience of grief was in some ways a glut of innocence, or at least a glut of childhood, because losing my mother made me feel very young. It’s one reason why I play so much with themes of childhood and adolescence in the book.

Animals also figure prominently throughout. You have a crocodile, a cockroach, fire ants, a hummingbird, a butterfly, and a grasshopper that take center stage in their respective poems (and there is also a rather somber anthropomorphic cow on the front cover). How did these poems come about as you were writing your collection? 

When I was in college, I took a poetry workshop with Jorie Graham. She was an amazing teacher, and she really opened my eyes (pun intended) to the project of seeing. In one class, she read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” out loud to us. She had us close our eyes and imagine the “movie” of the poem as she read. It blew my little undergraduate mind. Our assignment afterwards was to pick an object or an animal and write a poem about it. I chose a strawberry, and I delighted in the close observation and in trying to translate some of my observations into metaphor.

From then on, it’s been pleasurable for me to pick an object and then spiral off it to see what happens. For a long time, I was doing this with animals. I think that for me, having some kind of object as focus can be helpful, both in terms of jumpstarting my imagination and then reining it in. Also, because I love metaphor so much, animals became a great way for me to think through ideas and feelings. I’m always searching for that shimmering moment when a metaphor tells it better crooked than anything else could say it straight.

As the Imaginary Age took shape, I realized that animals were becoming a way for me to connect some of the book’s principal themes: grief for a mother dead and a young woman’s sexual coming of age, which, for me, happened at the same time. That’s one reason I love the cow on the cover so much: I think she embodies grief, yearning, femininity, and play, which are such a big part of the book.

I also appreciate how nothing is off limits when it comes to having animals connect with larger themes in the book. In “To Go To Marco,” we see God as a chicken: 

Egg with two yolks:
out of the shell, 
we slide away from each other. 
I guess God laid us. 
I guess God made us, 
our cloudy bodies 
crisping in a pan. 
I break and leak towards you, 
but can’t push through 
the borders of our skin.
God’s a chicken. 
His head droops 
with red organs. 

Can you elaborate further on this section and the poem in general. 

So, this poem occurs in the middle of a longer creative nonfiction piece in the book, “To Go to Marco.” As a young child, I could see my twin sister Georgina’s imaginary friend, Marco . The piece begins there and then explores themes of identical twinship, family, home, and cruelty, especially between children. This poem is about the twin relationship: the almost eerie closeness, and yet, the feeling that this closeness is never quite complete. As much as you might want to fall back into another person, to be totally enveloped and erased by them, it isn’t possible. The chicken-and-egg imagery is riffing off the anger felt at an imperfect intimacy.

How do you go about composing a poem? 

The most important thing for me is to write in a disciplined way. In these exhausting Covid times, it usually means that a few times a week, I write in the mornings for an hour or two. I need coffee, a window, and some slow, languid spaces of time. My cat jumping up to dance on the keyboard and to waggle her fluffy butt in my face is also part of the ritual!

What are you currently working on? 

I’m working on a couple of different creative nonfiction pieces, both flash and longer essays. I’m very interested in writing about childhood right now, which has always been an interest, but I’m exploring some different approaches.

Currently, I’m playing with a long piece about dolls, thinking through both their uncanniness and their powerlessness. What can these creepy, beloved microcosms tell us about childhood and motherhood?  I’m really enjoying working on it!

If you could describe your poetic journey in a few words, what would they be? 

Emotion, catharsis, imagery, metaphor, mischief, color, rhythm, laughter.

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