43.1 Feature: An Interview with Caolan Madden
Caolan Madden has an MFA from Johns Hopkins and is currently a PhD candidate in English literature at Rutgers. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Triple Canopy, Bone Bouquet, Iron Horse Literary Review, Anthropoid, glitterMOB, The Great Gatsby Anthology (Silver Birch Press), Electric Gurlesque (Saturnalia), and WEIRD SISTER, where she is a contributing editor. GIRLTALK TRIPTYCH, the chapbook she co-authored with the feminist poetry collective (G)IRL, was just published by dancing girl press. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Interview by SHELLEY FELLER
Listen to Caolan Madden read from VAST NECROHOL from 43.1.
Black Warrior Review: Since we published “levels” 6-8, I’m wondering if you could give a bit of an introduction to what’s come before this in VAST NECROHOL. For starters, what is the Vast Necrohol, and what was the genesis of this project?
Caolan Madden: The word “Necrohol” comes from the video game Final Fantasy XII. In the game, The Necrohol of Nabudis a haunted dungeon surrounded by a blasted and corrupted landscape; in my poem it’s more of a postapocalyptic swamp. I love the term “Necrohol”: it’s a ridiculous, over-the-top, meaningless fantasy RPG name, but if you don’t think about it too hard it’s weirdly evocative, and I think it sets up the combination of silliness and seriousness that I’m going for in the poem. As for the “vast” part: I have a very clear memory of this character Captain Basch fon Ronsenberg (another sublimely ridiculous fantasy name, and a model for the Captain character in the poem) introducing the Necrohol during a cut scene by intoning “now it is nothing but a Vast Necrohol.” But I can find zero evidence that he actually used the word “vast.”
I’ve been calling VAST NECROHOL “a poem in the form of a video game, or a fantasy quest.” The earlier “levels” establish that the goal of the game is to sink into a swamp, and that the speaker is trying to do this in a fruitless effort to rescue her beloved. By “Level Six,” most of the sinking has been accomplished and the speaker’s focus is turning more to the character of the Captain, who appeared earlier but who is becoming more of an adversary. You can read some earlier levels in Cartridge Lit or at Delirious Hem. And the whole thing is going to be published as a chapbook by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017!
The project actually began as a coping mechanism after my husband was diagnosed with a serious illness two years ago. “Level Six,” the first poem I wrote for this project, is actually a real-time record of my own magical thinking as I waited for him to call me with the results of an early MRI. Later, after we got the diagnosis, we were both pretty devastated. His prognosis was and is good, but the easy optimism we’d once had about our family’s future, the near-certainty that our daughter would grow up with both of us in her life, was gone. So the first Vast Necrohol poems felt like a transmission from a place of total despair. They started coming out in this weird orc voice I had used before as a Dungeons & Dragons character. Then I started writing more political, outwardly-directed poems in that voice. And that’s where the Captain started coming in more and more, as this patriarchal antagonist who wants to destroy you but also wants an apology.
So the poems were shaped by these weirdly disparate griefs and grievances. But within the world of the poem they’re not unrelated—they’re part of the texture of the Necrohol, what this character has to navigate in order to play this rigged, unwinnable game.
BWR: I love the idea of using video game tropes as a way to superimpose a “real world” speaker on her “virtual” avatar, and to complicate the relation between these two modes of experiencing the world/s. How do you see the video game working here as a frame? And what possibilities for poetry/writing in general do you think gaming might offer?
CM: In these poems the video game is pretty immersive, a mode of experience that you might not be able to escape. We talk about video games as being escapist, but that kind of immersion can also be painful or oppressive. The “real world” voice in the poem may be there to indicate that the poems are “serious,” that they’re about real-life pain and not just, like, comic video-game violence. But that voice also registers a desire to imagine a world outside the inescapable frame of the video game, which is also the frame of grief and of the mortal body. And the frame of other all-encompassing systems like patriarchy, or the Western canon (the swamp in this poem is filled with Major English Poets!)—systems that, unlike mortality, are culturally contingent but feel inevitable and inescapable.
The single-player RPG, which is the kind of video game I tend to play, works especially well as a depressing metaphor for life not only because it’s a self-contained world, but because it offers this illusion of choice and progress when as a form it’s both brutally deterministic and completely pointless. In these games you can customize your character, you can make a series of careful tactical and moral choices, but then a cut scene will play and the fucking plot will kill your girlfriend. So on a formal level, video games can be a helpful lens through which we can think about narrative and what we expect narratives to do and how we expect them to progress. That can be especially useful for poets, who often want to resist or complicate or get outside of narrative. I like the idea of video-game poems, or maybe even poem video games, that use the RPG form to expose or refuse the game’s pointlessness or its determinism: you keep gaining levels, but nothing changes. You button-mash but it doesn’t affect the outcome in any way. Another way to think of that seemingly pointless repetition, of course, is as a genuinely contemporary form of ritual, which also connects video games to poetry.
In terms of content, I find that playing and writing about video games is a helpful and terrifying way to interrogate my own (weird, gendered) attraction to violence.
BWR: I’m especially interested in the ambivalent relationship between the speaker and the captain character. There is a tenderness, an almost insidious reverence for the captain in the lines: “his sweet slepen FACE / white marbel lippes whyte marbelle eyeelids…” that juts up against the riotous enraptured mashing of language in the following poem where the speaker asserts, “C4ptain3 we boath knowe itss nott about PLEASURE / Capt41n is it WAYSTE / Capt4in whnne you WASTEDD mine bodye…” These poems pull back the white-marble mask of desire—our (often coercively) received ideas of love and beauty, to reveal an oozing radioactive core—the violence that both engenders and ruptures this radiant “smear of love.” I was hoping you could speak a little about this relationship and what it means for the world of “Vast Necrohol.”
CM: Wow! I’m a little embarrassed, because when I wrote those lines I didn’t intend them to be about the Captain—I was thinking of the wounded beloved—but your reading is so convincing and beautiful that it makes me wish I had! And of course your reading is correct—not only because the Captain and the beloved share a set of pronouns, but because in the world of the poem the Captain and the beloved probably are the same, at least structurally: they’re both victims of the Necrohol and they both require the speaker’s reverence and tenderness and care.
For me the connection between the personal grief and the very political anger in these poems lies in their relation to feminized caretaking work. As a wife and mother and daughter I feel responsible for my family’s physical and emotional health, and I’m so often trying to protect them from my own intense grief and anger and pain. So even an act of tenderness can come to seem, as you say, insidious! And then there’s the way in which, in our current cultural and political climate, activists become responsible for the feelings of the people who are oppressing them: this sense that people need to pause in the middle of their antiracist or feminist work to say, you know, “it’s not that I hate white people,” or #notallmen. I certainly find myself wanting to apologize, feeling that tenderness toward the oppressor. The Captain is not my husband or father—lol #notallmen, but seriously, he’s not!—but even to imagine the Captain as an enemy is to imagine him in terms of a father figure or a lover, because most of us have been trained to love the Captain, to want his approval, to make excuses for him, to comfort him. And because, as you point out, we live in a world where sex and power are so inseparable and interchangeable. I love the way you put it, that in these poems violence engenders and ruptures love—and desire, and language. And maybe one question I’m trying to grapple with here is what happens once you’ve recognized that relationship—now that you know that you live in the Necrohol, that you eroticize violence, that your own tenderness is violence, what do you do with that knowledge?
BWR: In these poems the word “power” is multivalent. Its utterance conjures its usual significations while also activating word as material reality—object, orb, brute atomic density blasted back against all enemies. How do you envision feminist resistance at work in “Vast Necrohol” and in your own life as a poet/scholar/human in the world?
CM: Yes—one thing I want to avoid is a simplistic celebration of “good” power triumphing over “bad” power; I don’t want to write a poem version of a “kickass women” meme, where a bunch of girls with guns is presented as the most feminist possible image. So I do want power in these poems to resist easy categorization. At the same time, the poems are trying to imagine alternative forms of power and resistance. In “Level Seven” that involves technically playing by the rules of the game, but refusing the governing assumptions about power and pleasure that make a game a game by most definitions. Boredom becomes resistance: clicking, button mashing, running around, letting the game clock run out or restart, being inefficient, wasting time. Playing dead, which is a form of resistance that women poets have used forever. I was also thinking about the myth of the “fake gamer girl,” who just pretends to enjoy video games. OK, what if that’s true? What would it actually mean to “pretend to like” video games, or, like, sex? Whose fault is it if all women do secretly hate those things? And if we’re not motivated by pleasure, what are we getting out of it?
I love your observation about the materiality of power. The speaker’s quest is a feat of endurance and passive resistance consistent with misogynist ideas about what feminine bodies should do and how they should work—the Gamergate guys and, like, Mike Pence are probably happy for us all to sink into a swamp—but even the passive body has power, can be disruptive, can change the landscape. And of course in the context of those misogynist ideas the speaker’s body is nothing like a normative feminine body; it’s monstrous.
I guess the connection to my own feminist resistance IRL lies in that insistence on materiality, on taking up space (and time). In my dissertation, I’m writing about the multitudes of interchangeable feminine bodies in poems by nineteenth-century women poets—and I argue that that bodily excess is an index of a certain kind of feminist collectivity. In terms of actual political resistance, I believe in getting your body in the street, if you can do that safely. I don’t know if it helps. What helps? But I do it. I try to be in the way. I’m also trying to learn to amplify other people’s voices, sink into new spaces with them, pass that orb of power like a hot potato.
BWR: In the passage between levels 7 and 8, you write, “I touch your radiant body I explode, whatever. Necroholics anonymous, I parted the brocade curtain, my body was jelly, I touched everyone on the soft face. / Dauntless the slughorn to my lips / and blew.” I’m wondering, is this a call to arms, and if so, for what exactly?
CM: Ha! It should be, right? That last line is (most of) the last line of Robert Browning’s 1855 poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which may have originated the genre of VAST NECROHOL: faux-medieval dramatic monologue set in a fantasy wasteland. (See also: The Wasteland?) In “Childe Roland,” blowing the horn is this brave but weirdly meaningless gesture: there’s no one around, we don’t know why Childe Roland is on this quest and neither does he, we don’t have any idea what will happen when he blows the horn, it maybe doesn’t matter. So in VAST NECROHOL it’s a gesture that wants to be heroic, that wants to be a call to arms, even as it acknowledges its own futility. That futility, that despair, becomes another kind of power in the poem. It does usher in the much more aggressive, taunting voice of “Level Eight,” where the speaker is lying in ambush for the Captain.
BWR: What immediately caught my eye when I opened your submission was the wild and uncanny orthography, which straddles nightmare-kitsch associations with medieval texts and gamer-speak. This system of spelling (and spell-ing!) forms a composite structure like an exoskeleton, containing and attaching to the throbbing musculature of language. I’m wondering, how did you come to write in this way, and why?
CM: I actually first wrote in this voice over a decade ago, while testing out a chat feature for an online game my husband was developing. You had to pick an avatar and I picked the female orc, who was shredding on an electric guitar. I started typing into the chat window and I immediately started channeling this voice: kinda fake Chaucerian, mostly all caps, typing very fast with a lot of semi-intentional mistakes. So the voice was born on the internet, and gamer-speak, fantasy kitsch, and fake Chaucer are all mother tongues. I really love her as a fantasy character: she enjoys her huge powerful non-normative female monster body; she has a sexuality, but she isn’t defined by it; she’s always seeking out shield-sisters and swearing loyalty to them and braiding their hair; she roars and screams and spontaneously composes sonnets about blood. I play her in almost every D&D game, I wrote a wedding-planning blog in her voice, and I dressed up as her, papier-mâché skull bra and all, for Halloween in 2010.
It’s probably significant that I used this voice (well, a sadder, angrier version) for a project that began during my husband’s illness. It’s a voice I invented and developed with him, on all these real and pretend adventures, and it’s a voice he appreciates and loves. Like, maybe he was her shield sister all along, and these poems are a love letter to him. (Now I feel really bad that I implied he might also be the Captain.)
BWR: What have you been reading/doing/playing recently? And are there any particular “emerging” writers whose work you’d recommend to our readers?
CM: Reading: Rereading Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy books, plus Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Victorian epic Aurora Leigh and Charlotte Mew’s The Farmer’s Bride for my dissertation. Being slowly destroyed by Monica McClure’s Tender Data, Natalie Eilbert’s Swan Feast, and Nikki Wallschlaeger’s graphic chapbook I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel.
Playing: Pokémon Go—talk about bodies in the world! Also this trash computer game from like 2010 called “Wedding Dash.” I can’t believe how much I have revealed in this interview about my love of weddings.
Doing: Pretending to be a wise walrus/the Tin Man/ Queen Elsa according to the demands of my three-year-old. Going on Pokéwalks in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with my husband. Drinking with various companies of shield-sisters. Trying to finish my dissertation.
Writers I’d recommend: I’ve read amazing video-game poems by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, Marlin M. Jenkins, and Julia Madsen, and I was surprised and delighted to find that both Sarah B. Boyle and Jacqueline Kari are doing beautiful work using versions of old-timey English. I don’t think they all count as emerging, but I’ve learned so much from these poets whose writing I first encountered in my NYC feminist writing group and/or through Marisa Crawford’s blog WEIRD SISTER: Marisa herself, Becca Klaver, Cathy de la Cruz, Emily Skillings, Geri Kim, Hanna Andrews, Hossannah Asuncion, Jennifer Tamayo, Krystal Languell, LaToya Jordan, Lily Ladewig, MC Hyland, Morgan Parker, Naomi Extra, and Sonya Vatomsky.