The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Claudia Cortese Discusses Wasp Queen
In her debut poetry collection Wasp Queen (Black Lawrence Press, 2016), Claudia Cortese introduces us to Lucy—a young girl from suburban Ohio who rails against her parents, her gender, her friends. This may sound like a typical coming of age tale, but Lucy is no cliché. She knives dolls, chews caterpillars, crowbars turtles out of shells. Lucy bites and curses; she touches herself and her blood. By challenging gender norms, Cortese creates a girl who makes readers want to hold a mirror up to themselves, examining their darkness as much as their beauty.
Despite how violent or depressing Lucy might appear, this image is grounded by Cortese’s ability to render the rebellious teen vulnerable. Readers bear witness to her pain and sometimes are even asked to play a part in it. For example, in the poem “Lucy Mad Lib,” the poem is actually in the form of a Mad Libs game, its blank spaces begging to be filled in. Thus, Cortese allows readers to become complicit in Lucy’s sass and her trauma versus reading from a place of judgment.
In addition to this latest collection, Cortese also published two chapbooks: Blood Medals (Thrush Poetry Press, 2015), a collection of prose poems, and The Red Essay and Other Histories (Horse Less Press, 2015), a book of lyric essays.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on your first full-length poetry collection! I could read about Lucy again and again. In fact, I first met Lucy in your chapbook Blood Medals and was happy to have the chance to spend more time with her now. Were you always envisioning this longer arc for Lucy, or did you continue to work with this character after the chapbook?
Claudia Cortese: Thank you! No, I was not always envisioning this longer arc. Lucy was supposed to be one section of a book that explored girlhood, trauma, the suburbs and the way they kill its inhabitants with banality, loneliness, sidewalk-lessness, too many malls (though malls are now slipping away: that vector of consumerism where kid and adult alike would spend their Friday nights, sipping Orange Julius, browsing the Waldenbooks, playing Skee-Ball at the mall arcade, hoping for enough tickets to get more than a rubbery ring with an unidentified animal head bobbing from the band, is becoming a place of the American past). I submitted the book in which the Lucy pieces were only one section to about forty presses and contests, and it was rejected forty times.
Then my bestie, Grey Vild, said: “You just need to write all Lucy poems. The book doesn’t need anyone but her!” I had always wanted to write a book of Lucy poems and stories, but I feared that people would view it as frivolous, insignificant—pieces in a minor key—because who would care about one scared, traumatized, bratty suburban girl who crowbars a pet turtle from its shell and smacks her best friend in the head when she won’t let Lucy rub her “bottom part” against her? I feared that Lucy wasn’t serious enough—she didn’t explore the Big Issues and Big Questions. But then I realized that she does, of course, explore big issues and big questions—she just does it in a way that feels true to my life and experiences. With Wasp Queen, I didn’t want to try to achieve universality, which is probably impossible anyway and kinda problematic. (What’s more white and heteronormative than thinking one can reach all audiences everywhere?) I wanted Mellett Mall and Kool-Aid and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pixy Stix: the ephemera of my 90s girlhood. How could I write about the trauma and pathology, the terror and pain of those years, without the minutiae that colored them?
Rumpus: Lucy certainly does come to life because she touches on so many of those “big issues and questions.” Not only is her voice masterfully crafted in this collection by that exploration, but the forms of the poems are also skillfully imagined. Many were a pleasure to read specifically because they forced the reader to interact with them. For example, “Origin Story” set up a multiple-choice quiz and its sister poem “Answer Key for Origin Story” discusses what answers the reader chose reveals about the reader herself—much like a magazine or BuzzFeed quiz. Did these poems start out with this specific form and writer-reader relationship, or did the shape and structure come through the revision process?
Cortese: Both “Origin Story” (with its answer key) and “Lucy Mad Libs” started off with the form in mind. I wanted playful, everyday forms—the form of being bored in an airport and opening up the newspaper to do a Mad Libs, the form of the awful multiple choice tests imposed on kids—and I wanted those forms to confront the reader with the questions: “Is Lucy someone you know? Is she you?” Of course, the pieces are about more than that, but both essentially end with those questions. In “Lucy Mad Libs,” the poem closes by asking why Lucy writes, “Bobby sucks big dicks” on his desk and safety-pins her thumb-skin, as if the reader knows Lucy well enough to answer that question. In “Origin Story,” I provide the reader with multiple choices explaining why Lucy acts the way she does. Then, in the “Answer Key to Origin Story,” I give answers that are not answers. Rather, they say what the answer the reader chose reveals about themselves: “Your choosing or not choosing letter C may depend on how inescapably white you are,” for example. The final paragraph reads: “Your choosing or not choosing letter F may depend on the fictions that you love. Do you prefer your imagination or mine. Do you want a girl for your private hurt—her actions your own. Is Lucy your daughter. Is she you.”
I want Lucy to be a real girl, and I want her to be metonym: a stand-in for our daughters, our besties, our selves. I want the reader to see so much of themselves in Lucy that she becomes the reader. I chose to make Lucy both completely herself and someone who could be any of us by using as much specificity as I could. Proper nouns abound in Wasp Queen—Reddi-Wip, Polly Pocket, Strawberry Shortcake, Adidas sweatpants, etc. Lucy is a thirteen-year-old girl living in suburban Ohio in 1993; by making her completely herself, I make her able to be anyone and everyone, which is a somewhat novelistic approach to the poem. The lyric can exist outside of time and place, but the story cannot.
Going back to your question—my hope is that readers asked to fill in the blanks on a Mad Libs or answer a poem with multiple choices will get to create Lucy, so they can have a girl who embodies their own shame and trauma, rage and monstrosity. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are all monsters, but—rather—that many of us feel unlikable, unlovable, untouchable: we feel as if horns sprout from our heads, our skin covered in bee stings.
Rumpus: That setting of Ohio in the 1990s is also colorful in many ways, with the inclusion of references to Rainbow Brite or Saved by the Bell. When reading some lines, I couldn’t help but picture the vibrant world of Lisa Frank and her unicorns. However, these hues juxtapose with Lucy’s darkness through violence or recurring images of rot, rust, and worms. Additionally, an examination of whiteness (both as color and race) subsists in her world. How would you describe these colors in relation to the creation of Lucy’s world or how they shape her?
Cortese: When creating the Lucy pieces, it felt like I was writing in lime green and hot pink—the tart tang of Sour Patch Kids and the treacly sweetness of Rainbow Brite. The suburbs are so pretty—their neon lawns, sun-blue circles holding chemical water, freshly painted colonials, and yet behind the walls of those pretty houses, the families rot. Suburbs are where we go to die. A spiritual death. A lonely death. A death created by whiteness and capitalism. How can we keep each other safe if we don’t know each other’s names? How can we create community when there are no public meeting places? How can we keep from starving when everything we consume is empty? How do we see each other’s humanity when we are taught that money measures human worth? How can we protect children from neglect, emotional manipulation, physical and sexual abuse when keeping up appearances and keeping up with the Joneses is more important than confronting the horror beneath our brightly colored surfaces?
I was raised in WASP suburbs, though I am not a WASP. My parents are both immigrants from southern Italy. When my father moved our family to Ohio, my mother wanted to kill him. No, she wanted to die. There were no other immigrant families in the neighborhood. She was lost in a sea of whiteness she had no name for.
When the neighborhood association said that my five-year-old sister and I couldn’t play in our yard without our shirts on, my mother hissed, “Americans!” When my best friend’s parents kicked her out of the house for breaking curfew, my mother hissed, “Americans!” When my friends’ families ate dinner in front of the television, my mother hissed, “Americans!” By “Americans,” she really meant, in part, “white people,” though neither of us knew that at the time. Baldwin discusses how African-Americans understand whiteness much better than white people do, both because African-Americans have to learn how to survive in a white supremacist world and because people often suck at examining themselves (this is a paraphrase—Baldwin is much better at articulating this than I am). Growing up in WASP suburbs and yet being somewhat outside of American whiteness (while still benefiting from white privilege and white supremacy), I was able to see the pathology all around me.
That being said, my sister texted me yesterday and said, “Gurl, I couldn’t stop laughing while reading your book. You never said it was hilarious!” I sometimes spend so much time discussing Lucy’s pathologies that I forget this bitch is damn funny. Lucy’s humor is, I hope, full of camp and sarcasm and blades that—rather than chopping down the patriarchy with an axe—nick its skin with little pricks of irony and sincerity.
Rumpus: Another way that the book works to nick patriarchy is by its cover, which draws the eye not only because of the surreal, intimate image at the center but also because of the white space engulfing it. I would assume though that some might find this image risqué or in poor taste. Can you describe the process of choosing this powerful cover art by Martin Rock, and perhaps speak to those who might not view it favorably or even not see it as a specific choice?
Cortese: I didn’t choose this image by Martin Rock. Grey Vild, my aforementioned bestie, came up with the idea for a bee cunt that is also white skin being pried open by invisible ghost hands to reveal a mass of bee bodies writhing beneath. Another one of my besties, Traci Brimhall, put me in touch with genius designer Martin Rock who created my dreamy, horrifying cover. In other words, I wouldn’t have this cover without my bestie squad.
Have you ever felt so uncomfortable in your body that your skin starts to itch? How does it feel when a cut is healing, scab morphing into scar? The cover embodies that scratchy shame, the kind you can ignore at first because it begins as a slight discomfort, like a pebble in your shoe, but eventually your toes start to throb, leaking pus all over your socks, because that pebble has been pressing into your foot for years and what you thought you could ignore is killing you. My hope is that anyone with a body—regardless of gender—will feel like the image reflects how difficult it is to be corporeal.
The cover is also, however, a pussy full of bees. Lol. So, it’s both a cover without gender and a cover full of gender. When Grey came up with the idea, 62 million Americans had not yet voted for a man who boasts of grabbing women without their consent. This cover, therefore, has become a weapon: if any man tries to grab you, the bees will sting and sting.
My Italian mother shrieked when she saw my book and exclaimed in her high-pitched voice that curls at the ends with her thick Italian accent: “Is this what I think it is? Oh no no no no…” So, yeah, some may not view the cover favorably—my mama among them! Another friend said that the cover scared him. When I asked him why, he said he imagined bees stinging his genitalia.
When Grey came up with the idea for the cover, we did not know that pussies would become one of the symbols for the resistance to Mango Mussolini. We thought Hillary would be president, so we clearly knew nothing about the future. I love that the cover of the book is a bee pussy because pussies have become one of the symbols for the fight against not only the groper-in-chief but also the fight against rape culture. That being said, pussies have long been that symbol, not because women want to reduce ourselves to our genitalia, and not because all women have vaginas—some women don’t! And some people with vaginas don’t identify as women—but because history and science have reduced us to our bits. There’s immense power in reclaiming the imagery and ideas that oppress us: you want to reduce me to my pussy, fine—I will be all pussy then: a thick, furry, teeth-filled vagina that devours any dick. Happy now?
So, yeah, some may view the cover as being in bad taste. Some may find the cover uncomfortable, or even horrifying, to look at, which is what I (and Grey) wanted: to create an image that personifies the discomfort, shame, terror of living in a culture that hates you.
Rumpus: That shame and discomfort is explored throughout the poems, as they expose the problems surrounding body image that shape so much of Lucy’s girlhood. Do you think girls today face these problems in similar ways now that social media and other technological trends have taken over?
Cortese: Thank god social media didn’t exist when I was a teen girl! I could occasionally escape the gaze that scrutinized my body by refusing to change in gym class and slipping behind the bleachers with a book. When I was raped and the perpetrator said I had wanted it to happen, only the people in my circle of friends heard what he said and, thank god, they were woke enough to realize he was full of shit. When another friend, not as lucky as I was in the friend department, was raped by the football quarterback, her friends called her a slut. The violence and the name-calling after almost destroyed her, though it didn’t, in part, because the bullying was contained in the walls of her school—it didn’t leach out onto the Internet and spread across state lines. One of my students told me a few years ago that someone at her school had created a Facebook page that listed which girls were considered “sluts,” “hos,” “thots,” etc. If you made it onto the page, your “life was over.” Another student told me that someone photoshopped the face of a differently abled girl over a picture of someone’s naked body and circulated it around the school. The girl was so devastated by the taunts that followed, she transferred schools. Fuck, I am glad no one had the weapons of cell phones and social media when I was a chubby, awkward, purple-haired girl in suburban Ohio. I would have been destroyed.
Rumpus: Questioning definitions of identity and culture continue throughout the collection. Exploring Lucy’s ideas of goodness, for example, in “Lucy Dolled,” you write, “To be pretty was to be good,” then in “Lucy Wants to Be Sexless,” “Lucy wishes she were good which means to be without need.” Would you say this questioning is specific to Lucy?
Cortese: To be a good girl in suburban America is to be skinny, passive, pretty—a doll with plastic skin, no needs and volition within. By defining goodness, the poems ask the reader to question how we define what is good and not good, and how those definitions are infected with patriarchy and white supremacy. However, Lucy herself is not the one doing the questioning—the narrator is. Lucy moves through the world like most thirteen-year-old girls move through the world, shaped by forces she has no language for.
You mentioned earlier that the book is full of proper nouns like Saved by the Bell and Rainbow Brite. I wanted the details of the setting to pop off the page with painful specificity while leaving the details of Lucy’s trauma vague; that way, readers can insert their own trauma into the story. Moreover, the inability to understand and name what is happening to you is, unfortunately, one of the quintessential experiences of growing up in a rape culture.
Rumpus: Does poetry help with this process of naming?
Cortese: On the one hand, I started writing poetry to name trauma and ask readers to bear witness to that trauma. I remember taking a workshop with Dawn Lundy Martin, and there was a line in one of my poems that said, “I’d been raped once.” Dawn noted that she’d normally tell a writer to find a more subtle way to say this, though there was power in simply and clearly naming the violence—especially when our culture often gaslights survivors into believing the violence never occurred. On the other hand, going into detail about one’s trauma can create trauma porn—spectacles of violence that titillate the viewer while reducing victims to objects of fascination and pity. Lucy is all subject and rage—she’s no murdered victim our culture reduces to sexual schoolgirl object then publicly and passionately grieves when she dies (the kind of grieving often reserved for white girls). One of my friends said that while reading my chapbook Blood Medals (which is all Lucy pieces) on a bus, some dude started harassing her. Rather than ignore him, she channeled Lucy’s rage and started yelling at him. If Wasp Queen wins no literary awards but it inspires girls and women to yell at some creepy dude on the bus, then I accomplished what wanted with my work. And if guys reading the book decide to call out other dudes who are creeping or decide to not be creeps themselves, then I may never have to write a book again.
Rumpus: How do you think Lucy would define womanhood and her sense of self if she grew up and out of your book, especially in this current political climate?
Cortese: Lucy would punch a Nazi. Lucy would release bees from her pussy to sting his hand over and over again. Lucy would hold a sign at a protest that says, “Queef on Him.”
Or, perhaps Lucy grew up to be one of the white women who voted for him (she is the WASP Queen, after all). Maybe she chose whiteness. Maybe she embraced rape culture. Maybe she thought that the only way to have power is to become the monster who hurt her.
Rape culture is the collective gaslighting of women (and men sometimes, too). When an abuser convinces the abused that they cannot trust their sense of reality, it becomes hard to know what’s real. Trump redefined his boasting of sexually assaulting women as “locker room talk,” and many easily accepted his excuse because we are accustomed to this kind of profound manipulation of reality. Harassment is flirting. Sexual assault is a prank. Rape is rough sex, is fucking, is making love, is an argument gone wrong, is S&M. (Though S&M is, by definition, consensual, narratives like 50 Shades of Gray rewrite coercion as kink.)
And that goes back to your question about definitions. Lucy’s world has gaslighted her, and so she can’t tell what is true. In one poem, I take words from the Grandiloquent Dictionary, which defines extinct words, and use those words to define different aspects of Lucy’s experiences. For example, “ablutophobia” is the fear of bathing. I define it as “Bathtub fear because a girl-body is still a body. Despite doll shimmer and toy soldier, Lucy won’t set toe in that water.” Lucy refuses to get undressed and play in the bathtub, despite the toys that await her there, though I never say why she fears water. Trauma often lurks around the corner in Wasp Queen, just out of the reader’s sight.
Author photograph © Boris Tsessarsky.