The haunting and poignant poetry book "Salem in Seance", by Susana H. Case explores the infamous and unconscionable Salem witch trials, that took place in 17th century Massachusetts. In my interview with Case on January 9, 2013 she discussed this emotional collection and the work that went into it.
Q: Your book of poetry “Salem in Séance” is such an original and imaginative read. How did you get the idea to do poems about the Salem witch trials?
A: Thank you! I was watching political news and I was suddenly struck by the similarity of some themes in both past and present—the misuse of political power, religious extremism, and the ways in which women could be demonized. I decided to go back and read about the Salem witchcraft trials period again. And from the re-reading came the writing.
Q: Did “Salem in Séance” require a large amount of research? If so, did you enjoy the research or view it as a chore?
A: I’m an academic by training and profession and I also enjoy writing historical poetry, so for me it was an enjoyable enterprise and one I felt at home with. The difficulty for me was that the archival records were often written by people whose understandings of the rules of the English language were different from mine. I then had to decide how much quoted material to incorporate into the poems because the texts are difficult, but I wanted to provide a flavor of the way events were described then and I wanted readers to see the texts directly because often events from that period are presented in secondary sources. Most readers never see the primary ones. I decided to retain the misspellings and grammatical quirks and to use mostly short passages from the texts.
Q: Is there one piece in this collection that is particularly meaningful to you?
A: Any of the three poems about Heather Bishop. She was the first of the Salem “witches” to hang and she was the first I wrote about. She is a major force in “Red,” “Crone,” and “Without Powerful Friends” . Heather Bishop didn’t easily conform to prevailing standards and this got her into as much trouble as anything. In “Crone,” I include an old quote from the feminist, Germaine Greer: If the world has dubbed you crone, you might as well be one. There is no point growing old unless you can be a witch, and accumulate spiritual power in place of the political and economic power that has been denied you as a woman. I find a lot of meaning in that quote. Bishop also had a predilection for red accents in her clothing, and so, I could relate to her more superficially as well.
Q: Do you prefer writing poetry over fiction?
A: I do, though I’ve written a few short stories. Longer fiction requires a different set of writing skills in terms of the trajectory of a story. I admire writers who have the skill to keep all the threads of a fictional narrative in their heads at once and to be able to see the story through over time. I also prefer writing poetry over writing academic articles and/or books, though I’ve done that as well.
Q: Who are some of your biggest influences as a writer?
A: They change weekly! But I’ve always admired Sharon Olds’ work for the way she mines her own biography and Tony Hoagland’s work for its humor. The first poets I ever read (as a teenager) who convinced me I wanted to write poems were Langston Hughes and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kenneth Rexroth also had an early impact on me for his intensity.
Q: What are your future writing plans?
A: I’ve finished up a series of poems inspired by Rock and Roll which will be released in April from Anaphora Literary Press called "Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips." I continue to write music-inspired poetry and also have been working on a series of poems about the history of labor organizing of copper miners. Both topics are a bit removed from late seventeenth-century Salem, I know!