“I’m letting myself admit that I’m terrified”: An Interview with Sheila Squillante

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This year, Tiny Hardcore Press released Beautiful Nerve, a poetry collection by Sheila Squillante. The author of three chapbooksIn This Dream of My Father, Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry, and A Woman Traces the ShorelineSquillante has an M.F.A. in poetry from Penn State and currently works at Chatham University as assistant professor of English and as associate director of the M.F.A. programs in creative writing. Beautiful Nerve is about life, vibrant colors, and bears that chase you through the house while the children watch TV. After dinner, while her children watched Pokémon, Squillante answered questions regarding her Beautiful Nerve. And bears.

Your new book covers everything from very specific scenes to poems drenched in symbolism that bounce from thought to thought. I need to ask: What do you think about when you write poetry?

These days I’m usually thinking, “How much time do I have to work on this before my kids get up for school?” I’m also working on a new series of poems, and I find myself wondering what I’ll learn about them each day. It’s a very different relationship than the one I have with the poems in Beautiful Nerve, some of which have been with me for more than ten years. It feels a little like how I remember dating to be. Which is to say, exciting, though somewhat nauseating.

Do you think in different ways when you work on other types of writing?

I don’t know that my thinking is generally different for prose than it is for poetry. Often I’m not even thinking “poem” or “essay” when I sit down to write. It’s not necessarily that planned out. I’m always thinking about music, image and form, regardless of genre.

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Color shows up in your Beautiful Nerve, especially blues and greens. Does color have a specific meaning for you in your poetry?

I’ve always been drawn to vibrant colors. When I was thirteen I had a dress I always wore to school when it was gray or rainy. It had a dropped waist and puffed sleeves, and screamed green, red, yellow, and turquoise. I wore it without fail on these days of miserable weather because I felt it was my obligation to humanity to brighten things up a bit. Oh, self-important seventh grader!

In retrospect, it was very likely hideous—tacky and clownish—but I clung to this idea that color meant health and happiness, that it could transform. Later, I would marry a man who hated color, who regarded “earth tones” with disdain and only wore black and white clothing. Even our dishes were black. That marriage did not last, and I wore deep jewel green when I married again.

So I suppose in the poems, I use color the same way I used my dresses—to create a sensual, saturated, living world.

The title of “The Gap in Your Astonishing Vision” is also used in “Make Up a Secret About Yourself,” as well “Divine Girl” and “One Sparrow in a Flock of Sparrows from Here On.” Did you intend to use them again, or did those specific lines inspire you again later?

You’re a careful reader! The poems you mention are part of a series of collage poems in the book, all composed from the same source materials, arranged in various ways to create a kind of freaky narrative, an unsettled voice. So yes, totally intentional.

“American Home Cookbook” is dedicated to your grandfather and “A Captain of the World” to “C.S.G.” How do you decide which poems to dedicate to whom?

Some poems just seem to be for some people. Sometimes the dedication comes because I’m using fragments of memory or story I associate with them (my grandfather who loved country music in “American Home Cookbook”) or because the spirit of the poem reminds me of them (my friend Carla, who I think of as a prayerful person, in “Beatitude”), or because they show up in my dreams (my teacher, in “A Captain of the World.”).

And every book needs a love poem, right? So there’s at least one in there for my sweetie.

There are some recurring themes in Beautiful Nerve. Was this planned or unplanned? 

It was both. I think with the collage poems and the prose-dream poems, I was probably consciously striving for some similar things, but otherwise, I was just writing. That’s the neat thing, though: no matter what I write, poems or prose, narrative or fragment, my particular concerns always seem to work their way in.

In the poem “Bears,” you talk about kids watching TV and hiding from bears in a closet. What exactly do the bears in “Bears” represent?

Ambivalence about becoming a mother, straight up. I was not conscious of this feeling during my waking life—I embraced pregnancy and family-making; I was thrilled by all of it—but oh, my dreams had other ideas! “These are not my dust-bunnies” and “Pass me by, you beg. I am not at hand.”—in these lines, I’m pushing motherhood away. I’m letting myself admit that I’m terrified, that I feel ill-equipped. I dreamed continually of bears when I was pregnant with my first child, my son. Black bears, usually, but also grizzlies and, once, a polar bear which terrified me most of all because my teacher, the one from “A Captain the World,” in describing their habits of predation, said, “Ms. Squillante, if a polar bear sees you, it will eat you.” I am going to use that line in a poem someday and I’ll probably dedicate it to him.

—interview by Jenna VanWely

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