Sheila Squillante directs the MFA program in creative writing at Chatham University, where she is Executive Editor of The Fourth River, a journal of nature and place-based writing She is the author of the poetry collection Beautiful Nerve, as well as three chapbooks of poetry: In This Dream of My Father, Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry, and A Woman Traces the Shoreline. She is also co-author, along with Sandra L. Faulkner, of the writing craft book, Writing the Personal: Getting Your Stories onto the Page.
Squillante’s latest collection, Mostly Human, is the winner of the 2020 Wicked Woman Book Prize from BrickHouse Books. Its poems tell the story of Round Baby, a girl-alien who navigates the 1980s, adolescence, sexuality, and gender roles under both the threat of nuclear war and the threat of the nuclear family. Round Baby is Gen-X, like Squillante, and shares a lot of the same life experiences, but she’s also supernova, extraterrestrial, and sometimes puts on an exoskeleton.
Squillante and I had a chance to talk by Zoom about Round Baby, patriarchy, David Lynch, and what it was like to be a girl growing up in the 80’s.
The Rumpus: Let’s jump into Mostly Human. The poetry collection is an alien experiment with this alluring omniscient narrator and a main character named Round Baby who is mostly human most of the time. I’ve heard you say before that Round Baby is and is not you. Can you talk about that?
Sheila Squillante: Sure. So, Round Baby is about my age. And she has encountered several or many of the same things, both personally and culturally, that I experienced growing up in the 70s and 80s. People have asked, and I told them that the very first poem in the book rises right from my life. It was the first poem I wrote in the project. And when I began, I didn’t know I was writing a project; I thought I was writing another book about myself.
The poem is a sort of an embellishment of an image that I have. It’s either a photograph that I’ve seen, or that was described to me, I don’t exactly know which. But it’s me as small as a baby, an eighteen-month-old or something, in a walker on the porch of my grandparents’ Poconos home.
And so, I mean, I am that baby, I am the Round Baby in the first poem. And maybe I thought for the first couple of poems I wrote that I was still writing about myself, although it was allowing me to go into some eerie or mysterious spaces. But I didn’t know I was writing a character at first.
So, she’s me and she’s not me. She experiences things that I did, but she makes different choices and has different ways to get out of things than I had.
Rumpus: The narrator is also a part of this. I’ve heard you say before that this voice came out of nowhere, right? The voice knows everything about Round Baby. And who also gives her commands. And, she can sometimes be a little cruel. Can you talk about that voice? Because to me, the narrator is a little different than the character itself. Who is the narrator? Where did that voice come from? How did you follow it?
Squillante: I don’t know exactly who the voice is. It is just sort of a guiding spirit, someone who really knows her, and, you know, does root for her, but also can be kind of, as you said, chiding—maybe a motherly voice in a certain kind of way.
That also was a surprise, because I’ve never written in third-person, like that was weird. It just happened organically. And I worried a little bit because of that shifting. The narrator is omniscient and tells the story to the reader, but also turns and talks to Round Baby directly. I took a risk and hoped it would pay off and work. But then, by the time that I had the first version of the manuscript done, I realized that if really believed this was a feminist coming-of-age narrative, then I needed to let Round Baby speak and to have her own first-person.
Rumpus: That was going to be my next question. Those first-person poems are Round Baby speaking, and you did that so that she could talk directly to the reader?
Squillante: Exactly. So that she could give her own perspective, and I think it’s a different voice. It is. Especially the teenage voice.
Rumpus: What was that like, writing from that teenage not-self?
Squillante: Really, really fun. I mean, you know, when I was a teenager, I was always following boys around and just sort of at their whim. I felt very powerless. I think Round Baby has more agency, or at least, she’s able to recognize that what she’s doing is participating in a certain kind of patriarchy. And so she makes whatever choices a fifteen- or fourteen-year-old could make.
Truthfully, when I thought about the character, I was imagining, you know, qualities of women and girls that I’ve known kind of as a composite, right? And so, it’s me, and it’s my sister, and it’s my daughter, for sure. I let that shape her decisions on how she moves through the experiences that she has.
Rumpus: How did you shape those experiences? How did you structure that? How did you come to that narrative arc?
Squillante: I knew I wanted the book to be chronological, I knew I wanted you to meet her when she was a baby, and you grow with her. I didn’t write the poems in that order, of course. I wrote, and then I recompiled them. And I wanted there to be the cultural stuff on that other side of going along with personal.
Honestly, I had to go back and look up a lot of stuff: did the Challenger explosion happen before or after this or that? It’s possible I’ve even made some mistakes. It’s possible that something’s in the wrong spot. Who cares?
I knew from the beginning—once I realized I was writing a character—I knew that I wanted the book to end when she was about fifteen years old. I feel like that’s a pivotal time. I mean, for me anyway, fifteen and sixteen were really important developmental years. And I wanted the book to just leave us there.
Rumpus: You have a lot of 80s pop culture references and major events that ground us in time; can you talk about that? What were your influences?
Squillante: I was just very tuned into the popular culture, or I tuned myself back into the popular culture of the time. And again, I did a lot of research to look back and try to remind myself—stupidly, I mean, I lived through it—but like, what language, what jargon do we use? What kind of sayings did we have?
Like the poem that’s about Halley’s Comet, the voice in that poem is really from the movie that I referenced, which is Night of the Comet, which is so great. Little cult movie from the 80s, which I always loved.
I don’t know, I think maybe, I could say that I was influenced by David Lynch?
Rumpus: I was going to ask, is there some David Lynch influence here?
Squillante: A little bit. A little bit.
One of the things I like about Lynch’s work is that he just does it and doesn’t explain it. I felt like I wanted to do it and not explain it.
And that reminds me of Dave Housley, actually. At the very beginning, when I started reading these poems and Dave was around I would always start by trying to explain the book. Dave said, “Stop it. Just stop. Stop explaining and just do it.”
Rumpus: Yeah, like the exoskeleton—when Round Baby turns into this bug, it’s not explained, but I get it and I don’t get it. Which feels very Twin Peaks. Like, oh yes, of course there’s a Black Lodge; why wouldn’t there be?
Squillante: And that’s what I want. It’s like magical realism. You know, you’re walking down the street one day and you encounter a river of pizza or something. It’s like, Oh, there’s the river pizza. Go along back to the grocery store and get your milk. Keep going.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of food in this book, too—speaking of a river of pizza—and some of it’s grotesque. Actually, a lot of it is grotesque.
Squillante: First of all, I’ll say that the rotisserie chicken that Round Baby pulls apart in the container—I did that. That was a thing I did with a very close friend. It’s something I remembered. But for Round Baby, it was this very carnal and sexual act, and I didn’t think that’s what it was when I was doing it in real life. But, of course, you know, the memoirist on me looks back and thinks, Oh, of course. That’s what that was.
Rumpus: Speaking of sex, Round Baby is constantly performing an action, either on the universe or a boy. The narrator can be a little harsh when describing Round Baby physically—she’s called fat, her face is described in an abject way—Is that experience specific to Gen X? I think it blends into my generation, the millennial generation, but this is a Gen X book.
Squillante: It is definitely reflective of my experience as a Gen X woman. I think friends or readers my age would probably recognize themselves in it. I mean, there was a lot of—we have these bodies, and they’re exciting, and they’re strange, and they’re changing. And, at least in my life, my mother was talking out of both sides of her face when I was a teenager. It was like, “It’s wonderful that you have this freedom of sexuality!” And on the other hand, “Hide yourself. Don’t show us that.”
It was very confusing. I think that’s probably true of any adolescent experience, but I think it’s Gen X in the fact that it’s got a lot of casual sexism in it. The boys, you know. I think Round Baby puts up with more than Round Baby 2.0 or 3.0—I mean, my daughter’s generation would not put up with the shit Round Baby did. So, it’s a little bit of a warning, maybe, a cautionary tale.
But, it was really important to me that eventually, Baby, that she gets through it. That she’s not completely damaged. She’s transformed.
Rumpus: I wrote in the margins of one of the poems, “Does she get to escape? Does she ever escape?” I was anxious for her. One of my favorite poems is when she chews her own arm off.
Squillante: That’s my favorite poem as well, in the book. Yeah, I know. It’s really it’s my mother was like, “What is that?!”
Yeah. I wanted to have that, “I’m, I’m out of here, no matter what it takes, I’m going to get out of here.”
Photograph of Sheila Squillante by Sheila Squillante.