The poets and editors of Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women will be the featured readers Thursday, February 8, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Red Sky, edited by Melissa Hassard, Gabrielle Langley, and Stacy Nigliazzo, was born as a response to the murder of Houston nurse Caroline Minjares as a vehicle for making the voices of victims of violence heard. Readers for the evening will be contributors E. Kristin Anderson, Dr. Katherine Durham Oldmixon Garza, and Dr. Andrea Witzke Slot, and editors Gabrielle Langley and Stacy Nigliazzo. Here, we interview editors Gabrielle Langley, Stacy Nigliazzo, and Melissa Hassard.
CH: Tell us about the inspiration for Red Sky, and how you began this collaboration.
SN: The project was launched after the death of my colleague, Caroline Minjares. She was murdered by a former boyfriend, who then took his own life. Gabrielle Langley and I discussed the possibility of creating an anthology project to honor the voices of those impacted by such acts of violence after I crafted an erasure poem in Caroline’s memory. Melissa Hassard of Sable Books read the poem and approached us about making the anthology a reality. Thus, Red Sky was born.
GL: Stacy Nigliazzo and I became friends through poetry. I have always admired her work tremendously. I had also been trying to write a poem dealing with war crimes against women; these are the types of crimes that affected both my grandmother and my aunt, as well as thousands of other women who were living in Berlin under Russian occupation at the end of WWII. These crimes had been kept secret for so long, at both the macro and the micro level. But when you investigate medical and hospital records from Berlin at that time, the rates of female suicides sky-rocketed disproportionately under Russian occupation. Not surprisingly, there were also reports of sky-rocketing abortion rates as a result of the unwanted pregnancies that came from the rapes. I saw so much psychic damage in my own family from holding on to these secrets. Something inside of me needed to give voice to this.
Subsequently, after I returned back from a trip to Berlin (a pilgrimage of sorts), Stacy lost a friend and colleague who had been stabbed to death by her husband. When Stacy sent me a draft of her amazing erasure poem that she had crafted from a newspaper article about the crime, the rage that pulsed in the lines of that poem really grabbed me. And you have to understand that Stacy is an emergency room nurse, so she is no stranger when it comes to facing violence head-on. At the same time, she is one of the kindest spirits I have ever met. Her intense compassion has always been a hallmark of her poetry, but this piece (“Triptych”) was something else entirely. The absolute rage was palpable. It was like a light flashed inside of me, and I thought women need to have a special place for these poems, an anthology.
CH: How did you find the work that you published? How long did it take this book to grow from inspiration to publication?
GL: We put out a call for submissions, through Sable Books. We also posted on poetry boards through social media. I think all three of us were pretty certain that this topic was going to capture the attention of many poets. What we NEVER expected was to receive close to a thousand submissions coming in from poets all over the world. When they began pouring in, we knew we had struck a nerve.
SN: I am immensely proud of the poems in Red Sky. They were culled from a general submission call, word-of-mouth, and personal invitations. It took the better part of a year to receive, read, re-read, and select the pieces for this work. Gabrielle, Melissa, and I poured over each submission, often two or three times, sharing our impressions and recommendations with each other. We felt a great sense of privilege to read these words. Each story was a gift.
CH: What was your process in organizing this work?
GL: Well, first of all, thank goodness for Dropbox! With Melissa living out of state, and Stacy and I both keeping really crazy schedules, this project could not have been possible without this technology. Melissa Hassard at Sable Books is also eminently qualified when it comes to organizing a project like this.
SN: For me, this was the hardest part, logistically. In my personal collections I have always relied on the expertise of a skilled editor for direction and guidance in framing a book. In the case of Red Sky, Melissa filled this role to perfection. The sequence is incredibly apt and inspiring. Each poem folds into the next. I am awed and humbled by her creative vision.
CH: What was the greatest challenge of this project? Its greatest gift?
SN: From the start, I was worried about re-traumatizing victims of violence through this collection. There is a quote by Margaret Atwood: A word after a word after a word is power (from the poem Spelling). I was determined not to allow my sense of fear to overpower the spirit of the book—the good I knew it could do. Yes, we offered works of harrowing violence, but also of survival and recovery. And these stories need to be told.
GL: Well, as you can imagine, reading close to a thousand poems that speak so honestly and intimately about violence against women was, both spiritually and emotionally, a huge challenge. I had to find something very resilient and tough within myself; it became my own determination not to back down. More to the point, it was my determination not to let the perpetrators dominate, yet again. Something inside of me was compelled to stare these bastards down, and to do so without blinking.
As I kept moving with the editing process, I realized that each and every poem was a triumph for the person who wrote it. As tough as these poems can be to read, I began to understand that, in addition to the sheer physical and psychological trauma that the victims face, there is yet even another damage, too. It is the way that perpetrators effectively hi-jack the entire story of the woman’s life. He robs her of this, seemingly forever. However, in being able to write about it, the woman takes back her story! The story is told her way, She decides what gets put in and what gets left out. Where the poem is concerned, the perpetrator falls powerless at her feet. This victory, for me, has been the greatest gift.
CH: With the rise of the #MeToo movement and the large-scale Women’s Marches that have been taking place in the U. S., feminist issues have risen in prominence in the national conversation. How has the book been received? Have you seen any change in its reception in the last year?
SN: This book has been very well received, and I suspect, would have been regardless of the current social/political climate. This is because violence against women is not a new thing, as Red Sky compellingly illustrates. There are poems from people of all ages covering a myriad of historical periods—personally, generationally, and metaphorically. And there are so many stories yet to be told.
GL: We felt amazingly fortunate that Red Sky has had such support and interest from the beginning. Obviously, it came out before the #metoo movement. Even so, on the same day that it came back from the printer, Michelle Obama blew us all away with her incomparable speech in response to the “just grab em by the pussy” story. For me, there was a real synergy in that moment. It felt like it was the herald of something really big.
CH: What advice would you offer to someone who is thinking of compiling an anthology around social justice issues?
MH: One of the things we saw as a priority with Red Sky was to make sure we were constantly self-critiquing and -evaluating to make sure we were reaching and encouraging marginalized communities to send work so that their voices would be heard as much as we could.
GL: Try to find a publisher with the experience and resources that you may lack. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask really well=known poets if they will consider contributing a poem to your project. Support can come from the most unlikely places, but only if people know what you are up to. So many of us who are poets tend to be really introverted and even shy. Where social justice is concerned, it becomes important to step out of that quiet space and speak up.