Tuesday, March 15, 2011

5 (or so) Questions with T.A. Noonan

The last day of the Early Spring Literary Festival is tomorrow, Wednesday, March 15, and one of the events on the schedule is the Ninth Letter reading featuring T.A. Noonan and Adam Levin. As I mentioned in an earlier post, T.A.'s essay on witchcraft and body image is in our summer/spring 10 (vol. 7, no. 1) issue. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with her via email about witchcraft, the underrepresentation of body size diversity in the media, and pushing the boundaries of genre. I'm very pleased to bring you 5 (or so) questions with T.A. Noonan.

9L: I'm very curious about the process involved in writing this essay, how it came to be, how it changed as you developed it because it balances the witchcraft and body image issues very well. They're connected as part of your journey in the essay, but are also given their own space. Was it difficult to find the right balance?

T.A. Noonan: Yes, balance was a huge challenge. I must have gone through at least a dozen major revisions of this essay trying to find it. Earlier versions featured a conversation with a transsexual witch in the transitioning process, an anecdote of my accidental christening as "Stephanie," a discussion of a poem by Rodger Kamenetz, a brief history of the word "witch," and a terrible ponderous mediation on the connections between naming, grammar, and magick. I'm glad I wrote those bits, even though they didn't make it into the final version, because the writing forced me to confront and work through all the experiences that -- no pun intended -- shaped me.

I had to get to a point in life where I wasn't afraid to tackle the subject. What's funny is that I wasn't at that point when I started writing; it was the process that got me there. I cried a lot. I'd never felt so exposed. Then I started to think, "Hey, this isn't anything I haven't talked about before in one form or another. I'm just adding my experience to the conversation." That's when the essay became less of a confession and more of an acknowledgment that there are lots of people who struggle to understand their bodies, who find it difficult to reconcile faith with experience, who question their dedication to the paths they've chosen. I was just one of them.

9L: Something that struck me, especially as someone who has dealt/is dealing with body image, is when you say, "...I don't believe being overweight means I can't be strong." I remember the first time I read that, writing in the margin, YES! Given how conditioned society is to associate fat with weakness that felt so bold and honest. In fact one of the things I love about the essay is how raw it is in its honesty. Did you have any hesitations about being so open? Also, what do you think would need to happen for this view of fat equaling weak or not good, I'm thinking of the characterization of the plump, fraudulent fortune teller from To A Ride a Silver Broomstick you mention in the essay, to change?

TAN: The honesty was something I knew that the essay needed, but it was very, very hard. I had recently finished The Bone Folders -- the "book about what I'd learned and was learning about witchcraft" that I mention in the essay -- but wasn't completely satisfied with it. Later, I realized that what was bothering me was the fact that I'd had to fictionalize a lot of the details. Sometimes, it was to protect those who'd spoken to me in confidence, but most of the time, it was to avoid getting too personal. It was like I had made a documentary where I was an integral part of the narrative but decided to edit myself out and reshoot all my scenes using actors. The story was still "true," but it felt like a lie. Petticoat Government, the collection that includes "The Trouble with Correspondence," features several personas, but unlike The Bone Folders, these personas are not meant to be stand-ins. They're more like slippery masks that occasionally fall off -- or get pulled off -- so I can say, "Yeah, it's me. Here I am." I had hesitations, of course, but deep down, I knew the narrative deserved it.

As for the association between fatness and weakness, it is largely socio-economical and cultural. Science has already demonstrated that fatness isn't always an indicator of poor health, just as thinness isn't always an indicator of good health. There are innumerable genetic and environmental factors that govern size. Really unhealthy people, though, lack access to the things that would allow them to be healthy: quality food, safe living spaces and neighborhoods, medical care, psychological support, positive social networks, etc. Poverty is, of course, a major and obvious cause of this lack of access, but there are other, more complex, social and cultural issues that contribute. I can't even begin to cover them all. Still, we need to see more diversity in the media -- people of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and colors represented, people whose bodies celebrate human diversity and are not objects to be scorned, ridiculed, or critiqued. I think if we did that, we would see ourselves represented and think, "It's okay to be who I am because I'm a lot like that person, and that person is great."

9L: Absolutely. There's also a lot of fear in society about being fat, which comes from the medical community just as much as from the media. The other interesting thing about the juxtaposition of the body issues with your witchcraft journey is the fear witchcraft still inspires -- the kids in school call you a devil worshiper, your moms asks you to "stop stealing her spices and mixing 'potions' in her food processor." You also mention that a lot of people think witchcraft is hokey when you talk about it. But for you it's just a system of faith. In fact when you were younger, you didn't see it as much different from Catholicism or other religions. And you struggle with what witchcraft and being a witch means to you in much the same way that a lot of people struggle with faith in their religions. We leave you in the essay with you still being unsure where you stand. Is that still the case? The question I really want to ask is, do you still practice witchcraft. If so, did writing the pieces for The Bone Folders and Petticoat Government give you any unexpected insights into your practice or change how you approach it?

TAN: Yes and no. That must sound like a cop-out answer, but it's true. Most days, I love my body and don't experience any major crises of faith. It happens, though. And when it does, I have to ask myself difficult questions that don't always have answers. Still, I think that, as long as I am able to ask those questions, it's okay not to have immediate answers. The minute I can't challenge myself or my beliefs is the minute I don't care and stop growing.

I still practice witchcraft, though my specific practices are a little different than they used to be. Part of that is because I'm no longer around my coven. Our members are scattered all over the US and Canada now, so we tend to communicate online. Obviously, that makes it near impossible for us to worship together. For all practical purposes, I'm a solitary witch. I'm affiliated with and hold rank in a coven, but because my covenmates are so far away, my magickal workings tend to happen alone.

I didn't see a huge shift in my thinking or practice while writing The Bone Folders or Petticoat Government, but I did notice that my religious beliefs and practices were inseparable from my writing. I mean, I tackle other subjects, but I can never completely divorce practice from process. For example, my obsession with correspondence in magick stems partly from spending so much time memorizing all those charts. Later, correspondence became a control mechanism, a way to ensure that every aspect of my magickal work resonated with my Will. That carried over to my writing too. I think about every space, every punctuation mark, every line, stanza, or section break. I'm constantly thinking things like, "Is a colon and its association with equivalency what I want here, or do I want the dash and the suggestion of continuance?" And if I'm not happy with the overall effect -- if it's not completely in tune with my Will, so to speak -- I can't be satisfied. The (spell)work isn't done.

9L: The idea of transformation and how to achieve it is key to the essay, whether it be bodily or mental change, and as you said writing the essay was just as important to the process as living it. In this case, the exploration took the form of an essay and others you dealt with it in poems. Was there an advantage to dealing with the issues in "The Trouble with Correspondence" as an essay instead of as a poem. Since you work in multiple genres, is it always clear to you right away when you're writing that a particular piece will be an essay or a poem? Have there been times when you thought it would be one and it ended up turning into something else?

TAN: Yes, there was a definite advantage to writing "The Trouble with Correspondence" as an essay. There's this expectation of undistilled truth in nonfiction, one that readers don't usually have when they read poetry, fiction, or drama. Of course this "undistilled truth" thing is a huge generalization, but it's one that persists in spite of the many nonfiction writers who are pushing the genre's boundaries. I knew I wanted to play off that expectation, to force myself to believe I couldn't lie to the reader. This helped me a lot in the writing process.

Sometimes, an idea will hit me, and I'm certain of its form in that very moment; this is especially true with poetry. I find that I rarely question my judgment when it comes to the choice to write something as a poem. But my writing can and does change form in the thinking/writing/revising process. The Bone Folders is a perfect example -- it was originally supposed to be nonfiction. Then it became a mix of poems and essays. Then it was a novel. Then, poems. That's a big reason why the book is all over the place in terms of its genre.

There's something else, though. I don't think any writing is ever clear-cut in terms of its genre. Sure, I categorize text like everyone else, but ultimately, I see it as inherently hybrid. Labels are satisfying, yes, but reductionist. I'm more interested in how those labels get mixed, or even fall off, when picked at.

9L: What are you working on now? Also, what is the last thing you read that you really loved?

TAN: Let's see. Right now, I'm working on a new poetry collection and revising a young-adult novel manuscript that I drafted a few years back. Plus, I have several more projects in my queue. It'll probably be a while before I get to them, though.

When it comes to books, my philosophy is to fall in love quickly and often. I just finished Dan Boehl's Kings of the F**king Sea, and it's fantastic. Lately, I've been revisiting David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. Jeremy Clarkson's work has been on my list, thanks to my recent obsession with Top Gear. But Anne Carson's Nox was the latest -- or, more accurately, the most recent -- book to inspire deep, instant, and unabashed love.

Many, many thanks to T.A. Noonan for taking the time to answer my questions! To read "The Trouble of Correspondence" pick up a copy of the summer/spring issue 10 (vol. 7, no. 1) in our webstore.

If you're in or around the Urbana-Champaign area, be sure not to miss the Ninth Letter reading with T.A. and Adam Levin at 2pm on Wednesday, March 15 in the Author's Corner on the 2nd floor of the Illini Union Bookstore.

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