Claudia Cortese is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her first book, WASP QUEEN (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) explores the privilege and pathology, trauma and brattiness of suburban girlhood. Cortese’s work has appeared in Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, and The Offing, among others, and she writes reviews for Muzzle Magazine. The daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, Cortese grew up in Ohio and lives in New Jersey. She also lives at claudia-cortese.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
That’s a good question! My life is much busier with the more technical and “business” (for lack of a better word) aspects of writing. Since my book came out, I have been giving many readings, have organized a book tour and launch party, have sent out review copies of my book, etc. Before my book came out, most of my relationship to my writing had to do with the actual writing. Having my first book out is both exciting and time-consuming. I don’t say that as a complaint: I am so excited that my first book is out! I has, however, changed my relationship to my writing since I now don’t only think about the writing itself but also how to get others to notice it.
WASP QUEEN, which is all Lucy flash fiction stories and poems, is quite different from my current manuscript, which is all lyric essays. Lucy is a character I created that embodies, I hope, the privilege and pathology, the trauma and brattiness of suburban girlhood. The pieces are character-driven vignettes that channel the Lucy’s dark energy.
The lyric essays, on the other hand, utilize research and personal experience to explore gender, race, trauma. You can read one of the essays, “The Hunger Essay,” HERE. This piece twines my personal experiences of food, fat, femininity with research on holy anorexia, whiteness, and the show Orange is the New Black.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually wrote about why I first started writing poetry in an essay that was published in the anthology Poets on Growth. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:
This is my story, my mythology. I write, “Red leaves; razor mouth,” remember 19-year-old me dreaming of suicide: when I die, my sister will find my Word file of poems and the world will discover my greatness. Stephanie said, “We can play Barbies and pirates in my room but don’t tell anybody I hang out with you.” And I didn’t. Because 4th grade. Because fat. Because friend-less and Stephanie was The Queen. That is, until the night I prank called her for hours—“I kill cheerleaders, bitch,” I said over and over again—before caller ID but not before the police had tracers. See what I did? Linked event A with event B and voile! My narrative unfolded in precise boxes. For instance, I write poems because Jamie in a graveyard with a gun, an unusual method for women, according to Google; the feminine choice usually involves pills or slit wrists. An essay whose author I forget says this is due to the fact that even in death women want to preserve their beauty. Jamie, first girl I kissed at 15 years old, and she died four years later.
The first time a poem came alive for me was the night I heard Diane DiPrima read at my university. Jamie had just gunned herself and DiPrima declared, “Every man / every woman carries a firmament inside/ & the stars in it are not the stars in the sky. . . . The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Afterward, I walked to my dorm and felt a wide wildness net my body to trees and moon and sky. I had no bills, no responsibilities; I had, what Woolf calls, moments of being. And I had grief, though not the kind of grief Cheryl Strayed describes in her essay “The Love of my Life.” After her mother died, she’d wake each day and think, “I cannot continue to live without her.” When I got the call about Jamie, I wailed and threw a lamp to the wall and sat in my car playing AFI at top volume, smoking Red after Red, but grief did not destroy me. I used it, like my rape, my drug habit, the shit relationship my parents had, and felt exhilarated.
I know this is not what I am supposed to say. Yes, trauma almost killed me; yes, like Sexton said of Plath’s suicide, Jamie took the death that was to be mine, but I had nights on the wood-rotted porch of the house I rented cheap in college and vodka at midnight and serrated oak leaves and the minty smell of mown grass and moon between branches and drunk poetry and the time I circled my safe college town for hours and crawled to the edges of my being—its heights, its yesses, its everything-at-once-feeling. Poetry let me give form to my grief and trauma: it helped me survive.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Lucy, the protagonist of my book WASP QUEEN, came out quickly and without much revision needed. I had been writing mostly autobiographical poems that explored my childhood, as many poets do for their first books. The poems were yawningly boring pastorals of suburban Ohio adolescence. Then, I met Lucy: a bratty, angry, whip-smart bitch of a girl whose voice cut me open, and out spilled all the repressed rage and trauma of my girlhood. However, Lucy’s rage did not only belong to me: it belonged to my twin sister and my besties from middle school and the teengirls I teach. In some ways, Lucy was completely I and in other ways, she was nothing like me. She set me free to speak the truth about adolescence in ways that are terrifying and also, I hope, funny and absurd. Several people have told me the book is quite funny: my hope it that Lucy is as sarcastic and satirical as she is serious.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
It depends on the project! WASP QUEEN came out as a series of pieces linked together by voice and character.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love performing my poems! The writing process can be so lonely, and sometimes it feels like I am speaking into a void. Reading my poems for an audience allows me to connect with others in a visceral, tangible way. I also quite enjoy reading the Lucy pieces because she has such a strong voice that love channeling and performing.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
How does trauma mutilate the self?
How does performing monstrosity challenge monstrosity? Is embracing one’s own monstrosity the most political thing we poets can do?
Can the grotesque also be beautiful?
How do we heal?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Morgan Parker recently tweeted: “I am terrified of all art becoming propaganda.” On the one hand, art is more important now than ever: telling our stories, sharing our experiences, performing our selves in the age of Trump and the subsequent resurgence of misogyny, racism, xenophobia are the incredibly important political acts. On the other hand, it’s important to not let art become so political that it becomes didactic and reductive. The best story or poem does not promote a political ideology that tells the reader who is the “oppressor” and who is the “oppressed”; rather, the best poem or story reveals the complexity of human experience so that the line between us and them, self and other, oppressed and oppressor becomes so blurred that we start to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write what you fear.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Genre lines are somewhat arbitrary. Many novels are highly lyrical; many poems tell stories and develop characters; many essays use elements of fiction and poetry. So, it has not been that difficult for me to move between genres. One of the appeals is that it keeps writing exciting for me. If I am getting bored with the poem I am working on, I can go write an essay instead. If I hit a wall with the essay I am revising, I can go work on a story. I can then return to what I was working on with fresh eyes.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I keep a notebook in my purse and jot down lines whenever they come to me. I don’t have a writing schedule during the semester, since I am so busy teaching, but over the summer, I try to write for 2-3 hours a day, usually in the morning.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sylvia Plath! Aimee Bender! Toni Morrison! Also, smart and campy TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scream Queens, and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fresh basil, since my Italian mother always has a basil plant in her kitchen.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Television shows often influence my work! See above J
Other sources of inspiration:
Feminist theory, conversations with my brilliant friends, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna…
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to travel back in time and talk to teen Claudia. I want to tell her to not go into the barn with Bill. I want to tell her that she is fucking gorgeous. I want to remind her that her mother is not her enemy. I want to tell her snorting Pixy Stix in the cafeteria while the popular kids’ chant “snort snort snort” is gonna hurt like hell and they still won’t like her afterward. So, rather than enacting this parody of 1970’s porn parties, she should focus on loving and becoming herself.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would be a physician who works for Doctors without Borders.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wanted to die and writing helped me learn how to live in this world.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow Bird and Meghan Privitello’s A New Language for Falling out of Love are two great books I read recently.
Let the Right One In is the last great film I saw.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of lyric essays that twine personal experiences that have to do with trauma, whiteness, fat, growing up in an immigrant family with theory, history, and family stories.