Christina Stoddard is the author of the poetry collection HIVE, for which she is the winner of the 2014 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Hive has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press. We spoke with Stoddard about this fierce debut collection of poems about brutality, exaltation, rebellion, and allegiance.
I needed to write a poem that was absolutely boiling over with rage.
Where did the title of the book come from? Why Hive? Beehives are actually an important symbol in Mormon culture, and have been dating back to pioneer times. The exact reason why is not known for sure, but there are a few theories. One is that honeybees embody many qualities that the Church teaches its members to prize: harmony, industriousness, order, communal labor. Everyone performing their assigned role and everyone working together for the common good. Bees are cohesive and single-minded, not individual. Bees don’t deviate from the path they’re given—and thematically that is perfect for my book, which is about a teenage girl who is doing exactly that: deviating from the path she’s supposed to follow. Utah’s nickname is the Beehive State—even though they don’t really raise bees there and Utah doesn’t produce a lot of honey.
I gather from the book that you did not grow up in Utah, however. No, I didn’t. I was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Tacoma, WA, which is where the book is set. But my father is from Utah, and we visited relatives there often, so I’m familiar with a few cities in Utah.
How long did it take you to write the book? That’s a little difficult to answer, because I spent many years
trying to write it and mostly failing. Originally what I produced weren’t poems, they were more like polemics. I was a very angry person in my teens and twenties, and I had to work through that anger first. A few of the poems have existed in some form for more than a decade. But most of the book was written over a period of three years, 2010 to 2013, after I had taken some creative writing workshops from poets Claudia Emerson and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Those women gave me the keys that unlocked everything else.
What sorts of keys? I took a summer workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from Claudia Emerson, and when she read the group of poems I had turned in for class, Claudia basically told me that it seemed like I was phoning it in. She said I wasn’t pushing myself in either form or subject matter, and she challenged me to do better.
Really? Yes. That hurt at first, certainly, but I decided there were two options: I could either give up and go sulk in the corner, or I could fling myself off a cliff of experimentation and see what happened. I chose the cliff. I started trying to write lyric poems, whereas previously my style had been very chatty, straightforward and plain, very rooted in story, what are often called narrative poems. A narrative poem has a beginning, middle, and end, and there’s usually a lot of context about what’s going on.
I took that new lyrical work and applied the next summer to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I had no idea if the poems were any good—they were way outside of my comfort zone. But I got accepted, and I took a workshop with Ellen Bryant Voigt. Ellen once . . . Full interview continued here