A Writer’s Insight: Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger’s “Maria Joana” and “Maria Gonçalves Cajada” appear in the winter 2019 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses the genesis of her lyric biopics, inserting the self into historical accounts as an ethical response to traditional history narratives, and the lyric essay’s allowance for silence and the ineffable.

Rhiannon Thorne: What was your process for beginning each of these pieces?

Kathryn Nuernberger: I was researching plants historically used for birth control as part of a long-term poetry project related to my forthcoming collection, Rue, and I was trying to learn more about what parts of the plants were used with what sorts of preparations. Since medieval women had limited access to literacy, I thought the records of witch trials might be a place where I could find women talking about their methods and experiments with plants as medicine. (Midwives, after all, were often a target in European witch trials.) I didn’t find much in the archives that helped with my plant questions—historical witchcraft is a lot less about ecofeminism than I imagined—but I did come across a Wikipedia list of people accused of witchcraft.

As I clicked deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole, which led out of Wikipedia and into the back corner of the rare books rooms at various libraries, I became fascinated by the individual lives and circumstances of the accused. Every time I stumble upon a new witch, I think I can’t possibly have anything more to say about witch trials, but each person’s story reveals a new set of ethical or philosophical concerns, distinct from the witches that came before.

RT: Spells and their connection to a feminine experience are central to the meaning making of both “Maria Joana” and “Maria Gonçalves Cajada,” beginning with Joana’s “tree of hypothesis” and Cajada’s accusation as a sorceress respectively. What does bringing the magic of these women, both as historical figures and as practitioners, adjacent to your own narrative mean to you?

KN: Because there is so little we know about these women, it is difficult to create a coherent narrative of their lives. And anyway I am a bit suspicious of historians who smooth out the rough edges of all those missing pieces to create a reading experience that approximates a novel. I find butting up against the limits of what is knowable about another person more interesting than fictionalizing. But there is a great pleasure in narrative and character, so I try to make myself a character in these essays, one who can have an arc that begins in a place of ignorance, curve through the research process, and arrive at some sort of understanding in the end.

I also think often about that adage of Faulkner’s about how the past is never past. Did you know Tituba had a daughter? Tituba survived the Salem Witch Trials and was purchased by an unknown person after Samuel Parris decided he did not care to pay the prison costs to release her from jail, though it was his daughter who first accused her, and he who beat her until she confessed. Her child, Violet, is thought to have been about two years old the last time she saw her mother. It is not difficult to imagine what the moment of their separation might have been like, given how often we see the same at our own borders every day. Making myself a character in the essays allows me to make our present-day delusions and scapegoating part of the work.

RT: You point to the difference between appropriation and syncretization as you bring together competing archival narratives: your own narrative alongside historical figures and myths from both Brazilian and European traditions. Can you speak more to this difference and how you navigate it in your own writing?

KN: I think it has been a mistake of white supremacy to focus so exclusively on European witchcraft. Too often I see the rhetoric surrounding witches become one more disappointing example of white feminism. The stories of Marie Laveau, Titiba, Candy of Salem, and Maria Barbosa, among others, are fascinating stories of subterfuge, cunning, and survival. Unlike most of the people who stood trial for witchcraft, Tituba never named anyone who was not already accused and in custody. Marie Laveau was an abolitionist and activist who managed a great many feats of kindness and generosity without ever being hauled before a court.

In most of the lives and trials I see a powerful streak of defiance that I admire greatly. My tendency as a poet and essayist has always been to turn inward, to help the reader connect to the subject matter by showing my own process of connecting. And when I was writing about narwhals or Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, I had a lot of fun with metaphor. In this project it doesn’t feel right to compare anything in my life, full as it is of privilege and luck, to the experiences of women facing torture, scaffolds, and fire.

One of the questions that has been running in the back of my mind throughout this project has been how I and other white women working from a feminist framework can be inspired by and tell stories about other marginalized people in ways that are intersectional but not appropriative. This feels particularly urgent to me because the more deeply I have come to understand the workings of the medieval witch trials the more I see the most obvious present-day correlatives involve mass incarceration of people of color.

RT: These two pieces are intertwined in a way which speaks of a larger work in progress. What can you tell us about the project?

KN: I’ve written a couple dozen essays about people accused of witchcraft—seventeen are floating around in journals right now. I think of them as lyric biopics. I like to imagine that together they form a book, which I’m calling The Doctrine of Signatures, but we’ll have to see if publishers agree.

RT: In “Maria Joana,” you write that “you also must have a word for what you want. I don’t have that word,” pointing to a failure of language to encapsulate an individual desire in one term. How did the essay’s form allow you to confront this failure? As a poet, what drew you to the lyric essay?

KN: I love the lyric essay for the way it allows a writer to embrace silence in a way that is similar to the silences in poetry. Long-form journalism or more narrative nonfictions don’t leave as much space for a reader to fully experience the ineffable between the lines of text. However, poetic forms require so much concentrated attention of readers, which I cannot make sustainable for the amount of time and space I need to weave together all of the threads of history and philosophy that inform some of the most evocative moments of the accused witch’s lives.

RT: Where might we expect to see more lyric essays in this vein or have any others been recently published that you can share with us?

KN: “The Inventions of Witches” was in The Paris Review Daily last year; “Agnes Waterhouse” is in Waxwing; “Walpurga Hausmannin” is in DIAGRAM; “The Invention of Fire” is in Plume; “The Invention of Familiars” is in Brevity; and I wrote about Johannes Junius for Catalina Ouyang’s installation Conclusions & Findings, in which she asked writers to translate the “Conclusions & Findings” section of a Title IX Report on a sexual assault at her undergraduate university.

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past and two poetry collections, The End of Pink and Rag & Bone. Recent essays appear in BrevityThe Cincinnati Review, and Copper Nickel. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, The Bakken Museum, and the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota.

Rhiannon Thorne is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review. Additionally, she is the managing editor of cahoodaloodaling, an associate editor for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and President of Tandem Reader Awards. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior ReviewManchester Review, and Midwest Quarterly, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University.

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