The Country Dog Review

Laura Madeline Wiseman

Researching and Writing about Ancestors: An Interview with Laura Madeline Wiseman

Jeffrey Hecker: Last year, Writing Knights Press published your chapbook Men and Their Whims, a collection consisting of communications between your distant relatives Matilda Fletcher Wiseman and her brother Geo E. Felts during and after the Civil War.  The poems are written in the form of direct address letters, journal entries, dramatic monologues, even telegraphs.  If you could, speak to the difficulty of arriving at the proper earnestness and reflection this work required. 


Laura Madeline Wiseman: After conversations with family on a few separate occasions, ones in which they suggested I look up my ancestor Matilda Fletcher who lectured on stage while her children danced and sang Civil War songs, I simply entered Matilda’s name in Google. What I found astonished me. One of the first notes was Susan B. Anthony’s entry on Matilda’s lecturing work in the History of Women’s Suffrage. Once I read that, I wanted to know everything about her.  I wanted Matilda Fletcher to be the subject of my dissertation, a dissertation that is published in part in Men and Their Whims.  I didn’t know very much about her, other than she was a lecturer from Iowa, a suffragist, and that she was my great-great-great-grandmother. While writing the poems that became Men and Their Whims, I was simultaneously researching Matilda. I searched databases. I visited libraries. I requested items from interlibrary loan. I traveled to the places Matilda lived and spoke. One question I thought about often was how to tell her story? What would that story look like in the form of poetry? How does one go about telling a historical story with intimacy, especially when the subject’s self that is visible is only the public self?


JH: The NBC program Who Do You Think You Are? helps celebrities trace genealogy by picking up the tab for chartered day-trips to old-country Europe and hiring secondary sources like archivists to personally spend all day pulling historical leaflets, then explaining everything to the celebrities so they don’t have to do any work themselves except walk around and act amazed. Often actors like Matthew Broderick find out they are kin to fish mongers who nobody would dance with in the 16th century.  It’s difficult for us non-celebrities to chart our lineage.  In the Notes portion of the book, you cite over a dozen source references you harvested.  What kind of research is required to tell this kind of historical kinship?


LMW: In The Trial and Imprisonment Matilda notes she married her school teacher, John A. Fletcher. Matilda grew up and was educated just outside of Durand, Illinois. Other than Matilda’s book, I didn’t find other historical evidence about John’s school in Illinois, though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. More and more historical documents are becoming digitized and thus searchable and accessible to scholars. I did find evidence of John’s teaching in Iowa. I visited the city library in Council Bluffs, Iowa where Matilda and John lived from 1869 to 1873. The Council Bluffs city directories listed John as a teacher, and later principal, of Court Street School. Those, then, are the “secret” historical references, but let me also tell you about the origin of the poem, “On Love: In Mr. John A. Fletcher’s School.” While I was a writer-in-residence at the Hebert Hoover Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa, I spent an entire afternoon inside the one-room school house there. I wrote the first draft of the poem that afternoon. 


Let’s talk about research more, about references, about notes. What has been great about living in the Midwest while doing a dissertation on a subject from the Midwest—Matilda was born in Illinois, spoke all over the country, and lived in Iowa—was that it made doing research accessible. I was born and raised in Iowa. I still have family in the area. While I was researching Matilda, this was tremendously helpful. Often on such holiday travels, I’d stop at this site or that site to research Matilda. For example, she, John, their daughter, and her second husband are buried in the Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines. I visited her grave twice during my research. I also visited the historical library in The State Historical Museum and the site of Matilda’s home, both in Des Moines. I interviewed her descendants to learn what “Matilda Fletcher” lore had been passed down through the generations. I also was given access to family documents that made mention of Matilda. For all of this—the generosity of family, the recording keeping, the public access to documents—I am truly grateful. I wouldn’t have been able to write about Matilda without such sources.


JH: The poetic epistolary tradition carries directly into your book.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband” comes to mind. Did you seek out certain historical poets who also use correspondence to guide and encourage your own form?

LMW: I do love the epistolary form. The first book I remember reading that used the form was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and beyond that, I’ve been exposed to the long tradition of writers who wrote in that form, like Montagu as you mentioned. Many women writers have done the type of work that my dissertation does, the writing women back into the historical record, the recovery project of giving voice to an otherwise silenced or silent woman from literature and history, the retelling of a historical event from a woman’s perspective who’d been there, but had never been given the chance to speak. As a woman, I’ve always been drawn to that type of storytelling, the way of knowing a given story, but reading it through the eyes of another. I think of Marion Zimmeron Bardley’s Firebrand that I read in high school or Ursla Le Qunin’s Lavinia that I taught in women’s literature; both texts retell the story of the Iliad through the voice of one who didn’t speak or her words were given no merit, Cassandra in the latter, Lavinia in the former. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres that I taught in Introduction to Literature is another one that comes to mind. This time, the retelling is of King Lear through the voice of his daughter and set in the Midwest. The first year I was in Ph.D. school, I took an advanced poetry workshop with Hilda Raz, and one of the texts she taught was Carole Oles’ Waking Stone: Inventions on the life of Harriet Hosmer. One of her assignments was to write a long analysis on one of the fifteen poetry collections we read that term. My text was Waking Stone. It was a book I studied and reread many times. In Waking Stone and through various types of delivery, Oles traces the life of Harriet, a sculptor and an inventor at the turn of the nineteenth century as she travels, studies, and makes art. Similarly, in an American poetry class, I was assigned to read Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, one I’d read previously, but a book that also makes the use of telling stories of peoples’ lives in the past via poems. Both Oles and Trethewey have done this sort of work in earlier collections, Oles in Night Watch, which explores the life of a female astronomer, and Trethewey in Bellocq’s Ophelia, which imagines the life of a quadroon in a brothel in the South. After reading, studying, and teaching their work, I researched other collections that do this sort of telling and retelling, this refocusing and reconsidering. I began teaching those texts, such as Jehanne Dubrow’s The Promise Bride that I taught last year in my poetry workshop on the chapbook and Averno by Louise Gluck and Transformations by Anne Sexton that I’ve taught in workshops in poetry and women’s poetry. Oles and Trethewey absolutely influenced me—how one might tell a historical and/or literary woman’s story, how that story might appear in the form of poems, and the ways in which one arrives at the emotional intimacy of their experiences, especially if and perhaps because of, the gap of time between the subject’s life and the poet’s.


JH: I was particularly drawn to the poem “The Kill Dance.”  It reminded me of the voiceover work for Ben Chaplin’s Private John Bell character in the film The Thin Red Line.  There’s a kind of pining for a more peaceful time in both voices.  As someone who has never experienced war, I’ve also attempted to write poems in the voice of a speaker traumatized by battle.  I found myself reaching extra deep to create lines for those poems.  Can you describe your mindset writing that particular piece?  


LMW: I often remember the circumstances for writing a given poem, but I can’t recall what I was thinking at the time. I do know I wrote it in one sitting. I also know that I wanted a poem in the collection to address what it was like in the Civil War and how someone would be emotionally and physically marked by that experience. To write the critical introduction to Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), I researched trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder/syndrome). The texts were all instrumental to my research and understanding of how the body reacts to stress, the situations that trigger PTSD, and the groups and/or individuals who often experience PTSD. Those who experience gender violence and those who fight in battle were ones noted. They can, for example, experience slippages in time. The body’s reaction to stress (the hormones and chemistry that occur during a stressful event and those directly after it) causes one to remember the traumatic event in interesting ways and in different places in the brain. I’m interested in how such traumatic experiences are rendered in language, and I’ve taught many texts that do such work—Carolyn Forche’s edited anthology Against Forgetting, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Marjane Strapi’s two graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis 2, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and many, many others—as a way to explore such writings. My essay on trauma in Dispatches from the Classroom: Graduate Student Essays on Creative Writing Pedagogy (Continuum Press, 2011) explores teaching such texts in the classroom.


JH: The poems “Labor Day” and “The Grant Question” appear on opposite pages, and they are in many ways antithetical poems.  “Labor Day” is a jubilation of the senses as Matilda reports the birth of her daughter Alice (Allie) and an optimistic preparation for what is certain to be a life of domesticity. “The Grant Question” tallies the dire aftermath of both the public and private spheres of Matilda’s worldview after having her daughter pass after two years of life. In Matilda’s actual writings, what activity other than politics and sheer willpower did you find kept her from simply staying in bed during the early 1870’s?


LMW: Matilda worked because her husband, John, was often sick. Certainly, John worked as a teacher, lawyer, principal, county clerk, and other government appointments after his service in the Civil War, but his tuberculosis kept him from breadwinning. Matilda had to be the one. When I was at the Louisa May Alcott house, I picked up a magnet as a souvenir. Featuring the Little Women author as U.S. stamp, it includes her quote, “Work is my salvation.” I think work was Matilda’s salvation. She started lecturing in 1869, shortly after Allie died. John died in 1875. During those brief six years, Matilda lectured hundreds of times, all over the country, and even in Canada. She wrote and published two books. She was an editor and writer for the Iowa State Register (which was renamed as The Des Moines Register in 1903) where she describes her travels, her lectures, and her experiences on the train. She gave a lecture during this time called Tear off the Masque, and unfortunately, it was not printed in full in the papers or excerpted (though it might still be out there to be digitized). The lecture was described as recounting some of what she experienced in terms of grief over the loss of her daughter. Likewise, she published two hymns in The Song Echo (1871), both about her daughter. One of them, “Beautiful Voices,” has been redone in recent years as “Over the Sea” by the band The Lonesome Sisters.


JH: You’ve recently celebrated the releases of the important anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, which you edited, and your new chapbook First Wife, both out from Hyacinth Girl Press.  Could you talk about the challenges and joys of all of these recent collections?  What 2014 scribbling should we expect to read from you in the distant future?


LMW: I didn’t know how much work would be involved in putting together the anthology Women Write Resistance. It has been a challenge, but a rewarding one. I’ve especially enjoyed all of the wonderful responses to the anthology. My chapbook First Wife is a retelling of the Lilith myth from Lilith’s perspective. Like Men and Their Whims, I wrote it last summer when I was a writer-in-residence at the Prairie Center of the Arts. It was a fun series to write. I enjoyed researching the Lilith myths, the retellings, and the scholarly discussions.


As for what’s next, my chapbook Stranger Still is out from Finishing Line Press, and my full-length book on Matilda, Queen of the Platform, is now available from Anaphora Literary Press.

Jeffrey Hecker was born in 1977 in Norfolk, Virginia. He's the author of Rumble Seat (San Francisco Bay Press, 2011) and the chapbooks Hornbook (Horse Less Press, 2012), Instructions for the Orgy (Sunnyoutside Press, 2013), and Before He Let Them Guide Sleigh (ShirtPocket Press, 2013). Recent work has appeared in  Mascara Literary Review, Atticus Review, La Fovea, Zocalo Public Square, The Burning Bush 2, LEVELER, Spittoon & similar:peaks. He holds a degree from Old Dominion University.  He resides with his wife Robin in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia.

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013) and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), as well as seven chapbooks, two letterpress books, and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). She has a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has received an Academy of American Poets Award and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship, and her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, and Feminist Studies. Currently, she is a writer-in-residence at the Prairie Center of the Arts in Illinois.

Read a selection of Laura Madeline Wiseman's poems here, in the current issue.