Brenna Womer is a prose writer, poet, and English Lecturer at Western Colorado University. She holds an MA in English from Missouri State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Michigan University in the Upper Peninsula. She is the author of the mixed-genre collection honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and the chapbook Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2018). She’s a nonfiction editor at American Chordata, and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Indiana Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your first full-length collection of mixed-genre work, honeypot, was just launched by Spuyten Duyvil Press. What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?
Brenna Womer: 1). I struggled to find presses to send this manuscript to because of its hybridity and lack of genre uniformity, so I’m incredibly grateful to Spuyten Duyvil for being open to it in the first place. I learned through the process that presses and book prizes tend to really like labels, which is frustrating and discouraging as an experimental, multi-genre writer. If you’re a writer like me and have experienced similar difficulties, I feel you. If you’re a publisher and/or editor, I’d encourage you to reconsider your guidelines and restrictions to make space for works that don’t fall neatly into one category.
2). I know my more experimental work, particularly my nonfiction, can be frustrating and overwhelming for some readers; my writing isn’t always “fun” to read. During workshops, I’ve received criticisms in this regard, specifically about “Hypochondria, or The Disease” and “Pet Euthanasia Consent Form,” but, fortunately, because of the literary community’s developing interest in difficult women and their difficult texts, I was able to find homes for my more “frustrating” pieces, which gave me the confidence to include them in honeypot when the time came.
All this to say, sometimes I intend for the reader to be frustrated by the format or made anxious by the technique. This approach is something I’ve taken to calling, at least with my creative-writing students, “mimetic writing,” or, essentially, using form, technique, and/or the writing itself to recreate a similar feeling in the reader as the writer is detailing on the page. For instance, the writers who first read “Hypochondria, or The Disease” in workshop disliked it for its lack of intuitiveness and ease; I haven’t even attempted to read it aloud at an event because I know it’ll be too difficult.
The whole essay, though, is an experiment in mimicking the form of a WebMD dictionary entry and detailing the effects of hypochondria on my life—the countless doctor’s appointments and ER visits; the relationships that ended as a result of my mental illness; the hours I spent obsessing over entries online and prodding my body until I had psychosomatically caused symptoms to physically manifest; repressed and deep-seated traumas that, perhaps, spawned my particular struggles, or didn’t. My aim in writing this particular piece, and others, isn’t for the reader to be entertained; it’s for them to come a little bit closer to understanding if they don’t already and for them to feel seen if they already do.
3). This book came together over the past several years as a result of some incredible mentors and professors, and you should read their work, too: Michael Czyzniejewski, Jennifer Murvin, Monica McFawn, Jennifer Howard, Karen Craigo, Nicole Walker, Jane Hoogestraat, Matthew Gavin Frank, and Rachel May.
KMD: You’ve worked with several independent presses and literary magazines. What drew you to Spuyten Duyvil Press for this particular project?
BW: honeypot is a bit of an oddity, separated into three sections—Fiction/Hybrid, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction. As I said, in my search for publishers I found relatively few presses comfortable with a book that wasn’t definitively one genre. When I came across Spuyten Duyvil’s submission page, though, and read that they’re “open to poetry and prose that is and makes new, and genre-bending cross-pollinating trans elocutions too” from writers regardless of “country, creed, color, sex organs, sex identity, preferred sex positions, heart’s desire, age, eye color, sports agility, handedness, or lunar sign,” I felt a twinge of hope that maybe I’d found a home for my unorthodox manuscript.
Because honeypot is so much about the female body and what it means to exist as a woman in this world, it was imperative the book come into existence under the watchful eye of strong, creative, female forces. My primary contact at Spuyten Duyvil is a woman named Aurelia, and when SD accepted my manuscript, it was Aurelia who made contact, writing a gorgeous paragraph in response to it, which begins: “honeypot sears and surges with sticky inner-innards. Made all the sweeter by the vinegar coming first. Hear the venerable, vulnerable I: risky, raw, real. The displacement and dysphoria of rapports splayed across time and space. Continuum? What comes from where?”
I was, and still am, bowled over by the care and consideration my book was given by SD, and the end product is a book I’m so proud of. SD was open to any cover ideas I had in mind, so I asked an incredibly talented painter, Skyler Simpson, if I could use one of her recent pieces, a portrait of two (presumably) nude women. I sent SD the cover idea, and they were immediately on board. I just felt considered and respected by their team every step of the way.
KMD: honeypot gracefully blends traditional forms with postmodern, experimental, and conceptual gestures. What motivates you to carve a space for innovation within the literary tradition we’ve inherited?
BW: Since I took my first literary theory course with the late Dr. Jane Hoogestraat, I’ve been fascinated by language theory and, specifically, Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of apprenticeship—that we acquire language as apprentices of society and those closest to us. But if you’re a woman or a person of color or queer identifying, if you are a member of a marginalized community, the patriarchal, othering, and often binary language you apprenticed may not always serve you because it wasn’t intended to.
There’s a quote from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd that says, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Obviously, the quote extends to and intersects with many more communities than solely women, but this notion is why I feel impelled to break, stretch, confuse, agitate, and thoroughly take advantage of the language I’ve apprenticed, a language I understand was decidedly not made to work on my behalf. Through hybridity, experimentation, cross-genre work, collaboration, and other conceptual approaches, we can simultaneously utilize traditional approaches that work for us while subverting the expectations of those who never had us in mind in the first place. Reading and creating subversive work empowers me and reminds me that I’m more than a cog in the machine.
KMD: Relatedly, how would you describe the relationship between writing and activism for you as a creative practitioner? In what ways are form and technique politically charged?
BW: I suppose I touch on this a bit in the previous question, but much of it has to do with the way we use language and what we choose to say in the space we are either given or claim for ourselves. If we’re not creating art that engages with policy and activism right now, then what the hell are we doing and to what end? All creative mediums and their practitioners have a responsibility right now to be doing something. Impressive language without impetus and aesthetic beauty for its own sake, in my opinion, are frivolities taking up space that could be utilized by much more essential platforms.
KMD: In addition to being a talented poet, you constantly give back to other writers and artists in the larger community. Can you speak to the value of literary citizenship in our current cultural moment?
BW: That’s so kind of you to say! I learned early on in my writing career the importance of literary citizenship from two professors in particular who are still my dear friends and mentors, Mike Czyzniejewski and Jennifer Murvin. Mike taught by example the gravity of ethics as it pertains to the publishing industry, both as a writer and editor, and the importance of maintaining sincere relationships and a respectable reputation within the larger writing community. During leap years, he also tirelessly promotes the work of contemporary fiction writers by reading and discussing one story a day, each from a different collection, over at his blog, Story366.
Jen Murvin, my MA Thesis Advisor, taught me (again, by example) the importance of reading other writers’ work, that you cannot be a good writer without being a diligent reader. She always has a story/essay/comic/craft/novel/memoir/collection/anthology suggestion for every circumstance and reads more than anyone I know. As much dedication as she has to her own writing, I respect her so much for the matched dedication she has to the work of other writers. (No surprise, she now owns a gorgeous bookstore in downtown Springfield, Missouri called Pagination Bookshop, which hosted the honeypot release.)
All this to say, I had and still have incredible examples to follow. Witnessing and feeling the effects of literary citizenship made me want to put in the work to become a valuable member of the greater writing community. Many of us, too, struggle similarly with mental health, balance and priorities, paying the bills, and navigating relationships; we can be sensitive and discouraged as creators, in need of support, encouragement, accountability, and kindness, particularly given the current presidential administration, which is working against many of the communities with which we identify or ally. We need each other to push through.
KMD: What’s next? What readings, workshops, events, and projects can readers look forward to?
BW: In June, I’ll be serving as Fiction Judge for Split/Lip Press’s 2020 Chapbook Contest. This summer, I’ll be focusing solely on my novel-in-progress, a project I’ve had on the backburner for far too long now and that I’m so excited to dive back into. In September, I’ll be doing an alumni reading with the immensely talented Liz Breazeale at Missouri State University. In just a few days, though, I’ll be at AWP in San Antonio, attending panels and readings and buying too many books!