Interview with Shannon K. Winston, Author of Threads Give Way

Ocean imagery is used throughout Threads Give Way in a way that makes landscape seem like an active character in your poems. If the ocean had a voice what do you think it would tell us?

This is a compelling question and a fun one to think about! I’d like to approach it a little “sideways” if I could by saying first that landscapes, the ocean in particular, have always been a source of calm and awe for me. I’ve always needed to feel grounded and connected to my environment in really material and perceptive ways. The smell of a wood burning stove, a sunset streaking across the sky, the sound of the ocean–these are all experiences that have left me breathless. I love moments when you take a “time out” not in the cheesy “smell the roses” kind of way but more in the greater sense of re-evaluating our vulnerability, our place in the world, our relation to nature, and to others. I think our lives often deny us such opportunities. My poetry attempts to capture such moments–ones that ask us to slow down and to really think about how we would describe, respond to, and live in our world.

The wonderful thing about the ocean is that each wave resembles the previous ones and yet is new. No two waves are the same. For me, the sound of the ocean is a great constant while also promising future possibilities. So if it had a voice, it might say something along those lines and ask us to be open and accepting of new possibilities.

As a child did you ever pretend to be a mermaid? How did this experience inform your poetry?

No, I never explicitly pretended to be a mermaid but I did pretend to be a bird. I put on my roller skates with a childhood friend and went as fast as I could while flapping my arms. I’ve always been obsessed with the wind and with speed. I love the feel of the air on my skin. In fact, almost every day since I can remember I’ve gone swinging on playgrounds near my house. Starting your day with your feet off the ground is the most amazing thing; it gives me a sense of renewed energy or if I’m in a bad mood it changes that, if only slightly. The rhythm of swinging has also deeply informed the rhythm of my poetry. The back and forth of a swing is like the back and forth of waves in some ways…I’m pretty dedicated to imagining myself in “foreign” environments–to imagining I could fly, have gills, etc. So being a mermaid is part of that but so is imagining myself as a fish, a bird, a tree even. Part of this came at a time when I was young and felt extremely awkward in my body and with myself more generally. So in my poetry, the act of entering into a new environment (the sea, for example) became a way for me to navigate such feelings–a process that was/continues to be incredibly freeing.

Your collection is beautifully cohesive. How did you decide on the ordering of your poems?

The ordering process was one of the most challenging things about working on this collection. When I originally wrote many of these poems, I wasn’t necessarily working towards a larger narrative. Jeremy Shiok was key in helping me with this and together we were able to talk about what kind of story we wanted to tell. And I say “we” since this project was such an amazing collaboration. Jeremy pushed me to become a better, more nuanced writer and to consider many different aspects of the process–including how to conceive of my poems together.

A Van Jordan once said (during a reading) that depending on how you order your collection it could tell at least four different stories. Starting with “Sea Anemones, Sea Stones” and ending with “Daybreak” seemed so right to me. The collection is about a lot of things that those two poems capture: the natural world, sensuality, encounters with others, otherness, traveling, etc. They echo each other nicely. I wanted to create a sense of reverberations, and overlaps (with variations) and to instill a sense of rhythm too. We worked hard to make sure that poems fit together while also giving a sense of dynamism, change, and unfolding. Rather than grouping all the poems about my childhood together, then, we worked to think about how they could best be “scattered” throughout to give the collection a sense of openness & airiness.

You mention Kid Ory in your poem “Wallpaper.” After hearing his name, I couldn’t help but think of his music as a sort of soundtrack to your book. Your poems, like the good blues music, balances good with bad. Did you use music as a way to channel the ascetic of this collection?

Kid Ory was very much a part of this collection but for slightly different reasons than you suggest. A man named Mr. Casey was an integral part of my childhood in France. He was an Irishman and our landlord while we lived in the outskirts of Paris. He quickly became a grandfather and godfather figure for my sister and I: he taught us French, took us to the market on his errands, let us help him in his garden. He had an amazing, huge garden that was surprising since we were living in such an urban environment! He even had chickens! Anyway, we would sit outside in his garden–filled with lavender smells, ivy, etc–and tell us stories. Some beautiful, others terribly sad. Before World War II, he played in blues bars in the center of Paris. He LOVED Kid Ory and continued to play his music until he died. I continue to be fascinated by his life and stories that seemed so fruitful for poetry.  So yes, the blues/Kid Ory was a really strong aesthetic but indirectly. It was Mr. Casey’s life–defined so much by music–that inspired many of my poems.

Are you currently working on a new poetry project?

I’ve started to think about a new project and what it might look like. It’s not set in stone but I’ve been think a lot about the theme of “disasters” or “catastrophes,” which is to pertinent to our world right now. I’m fascinated (and horrified) by the way we’re surrounded by these narratives–the oil spill, war, etc– but also distanced from them too (in that we are often geographically far away). I’m less interested in writing an apocalyptic narrative than thinking about the ways we respond (or don’t)/understand (or don’t) such events. How do we make sense of such things? How do we think about them? These are some of the questions that I find really important to think about. It’s exciting to think about doing something thematically very new.  We’ll see where it takes me.

What did you learn from writing this book? How did these poems change how you approach life?

I learned the value of patience, revision, and dedication. There were many times when I thought, “why am I doing this?” but I also know that I must write. It’s a compulsion and a drive that I’ve felt for a long time. It’s sometimes very hard to write though since we’re a culture of instant gratification and “success.” Writing, for me, isn’t about that but sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that. I’ve also found a wonderful writing community (communities) since writing this book–something that’s hard to find! I also learned how amazing collaboration can be! Working with Jeremy was such an invaluable, inspiring process that’s given me an amazing new energy!

You can order your own copy of Threads Give Way at Cold Press

Gifts from a Mermaid: A Reader’s Response to Shannon K. Winston’s Threads Give Way

It takes a brave dreamer to approach the ocean’s shifting currents—to draw near life and death with equal assertion as Shannon K. Winston does in her debut collection, Threads Give Way.

Winston’s lines brim with life and threaten death with the same congruent motions as the sea. She leads readers to the deepest parts of their subconscious.

In order for the to pursue her, the reader must be instruct on how to become a mer-creature. This transformation begins with wonder. Winston writes in her poem “Tidal Pools,”

She wonders, then,
if childhood fables
are true—if this
is how it would feel
to have gills on land,
if her hands, too, would
make partial spirals
in the sand.

The poems, like sirens, beckon readers to submerge into the poems dreamscape. Once immersed in the book, Winston reveals to me the greatest secrete of mer-people—“Mermaids are everywhere!” She continues in her poem “Evolutions,”

Sipping juniper tea,
she spoke of structures—
 
of the hyomandibular bone
found thousands of years ago
in fish before shrinking
 
in size. Rippling through
curtains, a breeze unfurled
her hair. Spiracles: 
 
the name of openings
allowing them to breath.
We hear with the same bone 
 
now in our middle ear. 
The hour echoed one o’clock:
a neighbor played scales,
 
an arpeggio: she imagined
his silver violin strings
shining like gills.

Her poems assure dreamers that it is the mermaid in us that makes music possible! This is pure delight for anyone who dreamed of being of the sea.

In addition to delight, Winston’s poems are full of risk. They call for a person to inhabit  uncertainty. Uncertainty, is where possibility thrives; it is the home of love and imagination.

In her poem “Petals” she sings,

for birth
 
..........for love that hovers
 
...............................above this page

In Winston’s poems, the sea acts as a second womb, maturing the persona towards life’s greatest uncertainty—death.

In her poem “Conch,” a terminal illness is turned into a seashell by simply renaming it. “What is its name?” the poem begins, “That thing you turn on…that tube with an end like a vacuum to drain/ mucus from your lungs?” The speaker is answered by a voice saying,

 
Conch, you explain,
of the genera Stombus
and Cassis, having large,
often brightly colored spiral shells
and edible flesh. 
Conch, your repeat, and I confess:
I’ve forgotten the question.
 

This collection merges life and death, as though they were the coming and going of the tide. The words, like the sea, are filled with an unsettling calmness towards the inevitability of death.

While the poems are rich with magic, they also are rooted in reality. There is always that moment in her poems when the sea goes back to being a pick-nick table and the mermaid resumes its place as a homemade paper-doll.

Winston poems warn that dreams cannot save us from the pains of death or tribulations of life, but they can comfort us with possibility. Threads Give Way is a gift from a mermaid. The poems are treasures real as a sea stone and as untenable as love.