In Making Maxine’s Baby, a homeless woman with a traumatic past lives in the subway tunnels under New York City. As she navigates a surreal and frightening world, she struggles to heal, to love, and to have a baby. Caroline Hagood is a Teaching Fellow and English Ph.D candidate at Fordham University. Her first poetry collection, Lunatic Speaks, came out in 2012. In this interview, we talk about Making Maxine’s Baby, the relationship between horror and healing, and how her academic work influences her creativity.
Erin Coughlin: Where did Maxine come from?
Caroline Hagood: I grew up here in New York and so riding the subway is a really huge part of my life and always has been. Then I saw a documentary, “Dark Days,” about the people who live in the subway system. That had a big impact on me, but I think my whole life I’ve been going through and wondering about the life of the tunnels and wondering, are people really living in there or is that an urban myth? And then thinking about homeless people in general because we just step over them. It’s really horrifying, the amount of dehumanization. So that’s the realistic part of it and then the unrealistic part of it was, I liked the idea of the tunnels and the underground as this sort of underworld or mythological place. Because it’s obviously not a realistic book. At all. But I wanted some reality in it, meaning I wanted to think about homelessness, but I obviously wasn’t going and interviewing people and then trying to make a realist text about it. But I guess I would say that the book has a lot of emotional truth about things.
E: Well, you could make that argument for all kinds of fantasy or science-fiction or surrealism. It’s all metaphor for real life.
C: Exactly, so I liked the mythological and then I also needed somewhere to put these ideas about suffering, and I thought, "a female homeless person." That’s putting a lot of different modes of suffering and modes of being, you know, going under the radar and maybe not having a good situation. So I found her symbolic in a lot of ways. I’ve never been homeless myself and I’ve lived a pretty good life, in terms of always having a roof over my head and all that. I was interested in this underground, overlooked character who didn’t get to go to Fordham and pursue her poetry. But I think that she’s clearly somebody who, at least the way I was writing her, probably does come from an okay family and was educated since she refers to education and has read a ton. In my mind, she’s supposed to come from a privileged family and then probably through mental illness and what happened to her and not having a support system, ended up like that. And I also liked the idea that anyone can end up like that, especially with mental illness.
E: How did writing this compare to writing your first collection [Lunatic Speaks]?
C: Well, with the first collection, I’d written a certain amount of poems and then I wanted to put them together in a book and so I organized them. And [for] this one [Making Maxine’s Baby], I wrote “How Mermaids Save the Drowning,” [which is] I think, the center poem of the book and then I realized, you know, I want this character to have a book and I want it to be one big story, even though, of course, it’s not one big story. It’s not fiction in the conventional sense. But I wanted it to be narrative poetry and I wanted it to go together and be about this one character and be her story thus far.
E: It started with “How Mermaids Save the Drowning”?
C: Yeah, because to me, I was so shocked and horrified and upset and excited by what I’d written in that poem that I felt like I never wanted to think about it again. But I also felt obsessed with it. And I also felt like because it was so hard to look at this character and this story that had just come pouring out of me through many mixtures of things in my life. I felt like I had to do more of it, and so I wrote all the poems towards this idea and to go together as one book, as opposed to putting poetry together after the fact. I’m flirting at the edges of wanting to expand into other genres, too, but I’m actually most interested in hybrids so if I wanted to write something like the lyric essay, which is a very poetic brand of essay that a lot of poets write, or the deconstructed memoir. I like these formats that are a little hybrid, so I wanted to do fictional poetry. Fiction poetry. Narrative poetry.
E: Also, because everybody assumes the speaker, the “I” in a poem, is the poet.
C: Yes, and I’m so tired of that. Listen, if you’re writing a book, parts of you go in, of course. And details of you go in, of course, but I like the mystery of people not really knowing, like “Well, maybe some of this IS actually her even though it is Maxine, but maybe not. And maybe all of it or maybe none of it.” And I like that, as opposed to the assumed “this is all her.” Because even when I set out to tell the truth about myself like that, I would always end up making stuff up. In poems, it was never always about me, even with the “I.” And it was never not at all about me with the “I.” So I think I liked the idea of just making this completely separate thing, also so I could be more brave and more out there with her, because I didn’t feel that I was trying to represent myself. [It] gets to be very limited after a while. How many more things about my internal life does anyone want to hear? You know? It just gets a little old. And Maxine’s more interesting, so I got really into her. I think about her a lot.
E: She’s a great character.
C: I like her. I’m terrified for her, but I like her.
E: Your use of references in this book is very striking. You reference everything from The Wizard of Oz to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Lady of Shalott to Emily Dickinson to Mr. Potato Head to Donald Barthelme.
C: I wanted anyone to be able to pick up the book and read it, anyone who obviously wasn’t going to be too upset by it to read it. And so I was a little worried about the references because I didn’t want it to be, like, if you didn’t know the references, you couldn’t read the book, maybe with the exception of “Horror Theory,” which is the one that’s all about the horror movies and maybe if you haven’t seen them, you just won’t enjoy the poem as much. I was hoping that the other stuff would transcend the references, like, if you didn’t get it, it would be okay. But I was worried about it because I like the idea of my friends who don’t read poetry [being] able to read it, or people who aren’t conventionally into poetry to be able to read it, so I was a little worried about that. I didn’t want someone to be on Google the whole time they’re reading it. That’s something I’m going to have to keep in mind for the next book.
E: Why did you choose to have so many references?
C: Well, interestingly, in some ways they can be distancing and I saw the character as being a little distancing. I also saw her as filling up her emotional holes with knowledge. Almost like it was an obsessive kind of thing. And also I think the main reason there were so many horror references is because she, strangely enough, has found that to be her therapy.
E: Well, that’s what makes so much sense, especially in a poem like “Horror Theory” which was one of my favorites in the book.
C: I honestly have always singled that poem out as the one that people could hate the most in the book if they didn’t know the references. I feel like it’s the least inviting in some ways.
E: Horror’s like that as a genre.
C: Right. And the whole book is like that, in a way. So why I was concerned about it being inviting when it’s not an inviting book is interesting. I guess I wanted people to get to the parts that I thought were uplifting. Not uplifting in a fun way, but having something to offer beyond just the horror and misery.
E: Because Maxine watches horror films, particularly horror films about rape and about rape victims, because she’s a rape victim and it’s healing for her. Which I found to be—
C: A little counterintuitive.
E: Maybe counterintuitive, but it makes sense. Everybody always criticizes those movies for glamorizing sexual violence. Or even just depicting it.
C: I can barely watch those movies, which is why it’s so funny that they found their way into this book, but I think this book was about stuff that I was having trouble looking at and dealing with. And in a weird way, I was going to immerse my reader in it. I think I had to find my way through these things that so disturbed me for existing in the world. Just as an example, I Spit on Your Grave, which is one of the movies I reference in the book. This is one where there’s so much debate about it. I had taken a horror film class at Fordham with Moshe Gold. I had trouble sitting through a lot of the movies, but I found them to be psychologically and intellectually fascinating. And I thought to myself, is there something that women could find out of this because otherwise I’m just torturing myself. Because in almost every horror movie, something horrible happens to a woman.
E: Well, horror is a woman’s genre. So many of the issues that women face in everyday life…
C: …are explored in horror.
E: Are explored in horror.
C: I totally agree with you. And that’s why I think it was so interesting and that’s why I sat through the class thinking, ‘I have to do something.’ I had taken a million notes. Not just notes in class. I would go home and I would take personal notes about everything.
E: Those movies don’t leave you.
C: They don’t leave you. And part of me was like, “If I don’t write this down and get this out, I’m just going to be traumatized for life.” Especially a movie like I Spit on Your Grave. Because what’s interesting about it is, [the heroine] takes revenge at the end, but there’s been a very, very long rape scene. And so I’m thinking to myself, whose side are you on? You show this scene that almost enjoys it too much and then you really enjoy the backlash against the rapists. So what is there to be taken from this? I thought Maxine was enjoying the fact that there’s revenge in the end, but also working through the feelings by watching the [rape] scene. They have to upset you enough that you are really on the side of the revenge. So then it becomes about the “eye for an eye” question. Does anyone deserve that, no matter the circumstances? Moshe is particularly interested in ethics. We talked a lot about ethics in this class. So that’s where a lot of the horror movie references came from. Especially “Horror Theory” which came straight from the notes I took for that class, which is why it can sound academic in places.
E: But [Making Maxine’s Baby] does have funny moments.
C: I hope so. I wanted it to be funny because I enjoy humor. I like to laugh, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be uproarious because that’s not respectful to my character. But because I think humor and horror and wonder are all linked, because you can go through those different moods in the same hour, because they’re so close to each other even though they shouldn’t be, I wanted to include all those in the book. I didn’t want it to be just horrific, or just funny, or just sort of poignant and loving.
E: Well, life is all of those things.
C: Right. And they almost make room for each other. I would be so happy for Maxine finding love and finding happiness because I’ve stayed with her through [everything]. It’s like that moment in I Spit on Your Grave, after the metaphorical long period of suffering in the beginning. That’s how I see it. You have to sit through it. There’s all this bad stuff, but there is something good on the horizon. You just have to sit through it. But I think in the midst of all that, things can be funny, even when you’re miserable and crying, you can have a moment laughing. Or you can have a moment feeling happy for a second and you don’t know why. Because moods are just so random and they’re all interrelated. Maybe that’s why people cry when they laugh too hard. It goes in a circle.
E: And with Maxine, it’s not even funny ha-ha necessarily, as much as it is absurd, like Maxine goes and talks to aliens and discovers their old people are just like our old people. “Overstuffed with technology and Star Wars aficionados.”
E: It must be weird to hear your work quoted back at you.
C: It’s weird because I’ve been working to get anything written, so it’s strange to be at a point where anybody can read me, interview me, and quote it back to me. It’s very strange. It’s still sinking in.
E: Your dissertation is about film, isn’t it?
C: That’s another reason why I was seeing a lot of movies. It’s about the influence of poetry on film and film on poetry, but right now it’s gotten a lot [simpler]. It’s female poets writing about male filmmakers and then frequently the male filmmaker that they’re writing about has also been influenced by poetry, so it’s kind of like a weird back and forth. So it’s about gender and it’s about film and poetry and I’m talking about not only theme, but form. The poet writing about film in her poem and the poem tends to take on cinematic qualities.
E: What are some examples?
C: The one I’m revising right now, Adrienne Rich is the poet and Jean-Luc Godard is the filmmaker and she writes this book called The Will to Change. She has several poems, either about him or about his work, but so many of the poems throughout even if they’re not about his work, seem to be so influenced by it, the form. And she was going to see a lot of films in the 1960s and she talks about going to see a lot of his films and how he helped her understand how to make images work. And she doesn’t go into what she means, so I’m trying to go through it and figure out, “Well, how does watching these films help her as a poet figure out how images work in her poetry?” and then another thing she does, just as a very structural example, she has a poem called “Shooting Script,” which is the script that tells you the position of the shots but then if you look at a lot of the poems in the collection before that, a lot of the poems have been using shooting script strategies. It’s not that we want to look at that form in this one poem. It’s that she’s used this film structure, but a written film structure, to structure a lot of her poems. So, when I was writing this book, I was very much thinking about structure and the weird ways things can affect or influence each other, so that’s where my mind has been and probably will be for a long time until I finish this.
E: How long do you have?
C: I’m revising. I’m working on the second chapter now. So I have three more to go.
E: How do you balance your creative work and your academic work?
C: Oh, I have to do a certain amount of academic work every day to earn my creative writing, and it’s actually better for my dissertation because I would skip the academic work, but wouldn’t skip my creative work. And that’s not to say that it’s any less good. Creative work is more relaxing for me. Doing extreme research and then trying to write essays is titillating, but it’s not relaxing for me at all and I have to get it right, whereas with creative stuff you have a margin of error. You have to work just as hard, if not harder, but I’m not going to misquote something. Although now I’m becoming an annoying scholar in my creative writing because I end up using a million quotes and references. And this is why I’ve become interested in poets who end up writing non-fiction.
E: Like who?
C: Maggie Nelson. I’m obsessed with Maggie Nelson right now. She wrote this book called Bluets. It’s a lyric essay so it’s non-fiction and it’s all about the color blue. And she’s a scholar as well and a poet, so she’s using these poetic and scholarly tools to write this creative writing. So all my worlds are coming together today.
E: Well, clearly the academic work is influencing the creative work.
C: It has to. You’re doing so much of it. It really takes over.
E: How long have you been writing poetry?
C: I think always, but not always because I’m such a poet. (Laughs) I was dyslexic so I had a lot trouble putting together sentences that were grammatically correct when I was young. I liked poetry a lot because there was no way to be wrong in the grammatical structure. I could cut the line where I wanted and not use punctuation. It was a freer form so I took to it as I was figuring everything out.
E: Also, you have a son?
C: I do! I was pregnant while I was writing the book…so obviously, I had babies on the mind in a way that I never had babies on the mind before I got pregnant. He would be kicking as I was writing the poems. The baby and the book got intermingled because I was choosing a name for him as I was choosing a name for her. His name is Max and her name is Maxine…but I don’t want him to feel like I wrote a book where I think he’s a female homeless person because I don’t. It was just that I was making them at the same time, so it happened that way.
E: They’re twins!
C: Exactly, they are twins. And then the non-fiction thing I’m working on now, it’s not directly about parenthood, but it’s hard to get it out of your mind once it’s in your belly and running around your house. Even if you weren’t that interested in motherhood as a topic before, it influenced a lot of what I was thinking about in terms of motherhood or let’s say, impending motherhood because I didn’t know what it would be like yet.
E: Does your husband being a psychiatrist influence your work?
C: Hearing the stories is all. He works with formerly homeless, mentally ill patients. They might have been homeless yesterday, they were put in housing, and then he goes to different residences every day and he’s the only psychiatrist there and he works with them. He tells me the stories, the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard. And he’s not a writer, at least not yet. I think he should write about this and so I’ve just sort of stolen it. I’ve taken notes on everything he’s told me. In that tawdry, poetic way, [I think], “Why can’t I stop all the suffering?” There’s nothing I can do. The only thing I can do is write about it and hope.
E: I think that’s a good motto for writers everywhere.
C: I guess. It’s a very helpless position because is a homeless person going to benefit because I wrote a little poetry? It’s probably the least helpful way of helping them, but it’s something for now. Hopefully. I’ll have to think about it.
E: Was it a difficult book to publish?
C: It got rejected so many times. I just kept sending it out because I had to. I think I was too stupid to give up, which is what you have to be to get published.
E: Has your academic work ruined reading for pleasure?
C: Nothing could ruin reading.
-This interview has been edited and condensed.