Interview with Daneen Wardrop, author of Cyclorama

Cyclorama (n) : a pictorial representation, in perspective, of a landscape,  battle, etc. on the inner wall of a cylindrical room or hall, viewed by spectators in the center. 

Daneen Wardrop won the 2014 Poets Out Loud prize for this masterful collection of poems inspired by the art and history of the American Civil War. Through characters both historical and imagined, Cyclorama provides an intimate look at a defining event in American history. Daneen Wardrop is a professor of English at Western Michigan University. She is the author of another poetry collection, The Odds of Being, and three books of literary criticism.   

Erin Coughlin – Cyclorama seems like the result of years of knowledge and scholarship. Was there one incident that inspired you?

Daneen Wardrop – In some ways, it came from laziness. It came from a summer where I was trying to take time off from scholarship. I teach American Lit and often the study of American Lit is split into two different halves, with the Civil War in the middle. So the Civil War doesn’t get studied much, just what’s on either side of it, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know very much about the Civil War. I thought, well, I should educate myself, but because I was feeling lazy, I checked out art books about the Civil War, rather than reading about it. I thought about the artwork, filling myself with color and movement and shape, and then these voices started insisting I hear them. They came from the paintings, and eventually, I thought maybe I should write these voices down.

EC – I think the structure of the book is fascinating because it begins with these two poems that are based on historical figures, Sarah Emma Edmonds and Susie King Taylor, who wrote memoirs about their experiences, and then you segue into fictional representations of people during the Civil War, for example people in artwork. And those first two poems are all about secrets and illusions, things that are inherent in artwork. Do you see this book as an examination of the relationship between history and history as portrayed in art?

DW – I don’t think I see it that way. There are several memoirs that are represented in the book. The first two, as you point out, but also Sophronia Bucklin and Mother Mary Bickerdyke—a lot of nurses. And then actual people who have stories left behind that other people have recorded. The very first poem “Sarah Emma Edmonds” was meaningful for me. I somehow knew that had to be the first poem, pertinently because she’s a spy, and as somebody who takes on personae, I feel a little bit like a spy. I feel like I’m taking on territory that isn’t really mine, and I wanted to declare straight-out that's what's going on. I was really interested in representing people who are underrepresented. I don’t know if there’s any really famous voices, except maybe Colonel Ely S. Parker? The Civil War may have more history books written about it than any other event in the world, but there’s so much that’s not written.

EC - These figures in the illustrations were often used to represent ideas or make political statements, like “Making Havelocks for the Volunteers” and “The Enslaved Mother, Her Baby, and John Brown.” The illustrations that inspired these poems are both examples of using people in art to represent ideals. And they both represent marginalized people: slave women, women in general. Was your intention to give voices to people who did not have voices at the time and try to approach them less as symbols and more as human beings?

DW: Yes. Gender roles were so stratified in the 19th Century, and women were supposed to be good at every turn, so the “Havelock” poem was hopefully a wink at the fact that that’s not always the case, obviously. Fighting against some of those stereotypes.

EC: And she is wearing the Havelock in the woodcarving. You look at it one way and you can see her as supporting the soldiers and doing her part for the cause when in reality, or in the reality of your poem, she has this striking inner monologue of, “I would like to do this myself!” or “I would like to do something for myself instead of work to support somebody else who is fighting.”

DW: Yes, it's like she's thinking, “I’m always at home, but I’m also thinking of being out there, too.”

EC: Exactly, which ties into Rosetta Wakeman of “Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman” and Sarah Emma Edmonds who actually served as soldiers. It’s interesting that none of the poems deal directly with battles, except for what we see through the Gettysburg Cyclorama, which like your poems, is another artistic representation of the war. For example, “The Process of Drafting in New York.” You can’t think about the draft without thinking about the riots, but this poem is about the moment before the riots. It’s like this held breath before something big and tragic happens, which is what all these poems are. They’re these little moments going on for people within the context of this huge national tragedy. Are you interested in those moments “in between”?

DW: I had meant for "The Process of Drafting in New York" to be both about the war and the riots and that he’s thinking, “Well, I can go to war if my name is chosen or I can also join the protest of the war here in the streets, in the little war that we have here, too.” So I was thinking of it in both ways. There’s more than one conflict going on at a time. I’m very interested in the moment in between. I’m an "army brat." War was always close to hand. As a kid, I tried to imagine what in the world a war could be like. It’s still almost unimaginable to me. I didn’t know this was what I was doing, but I think I was trying to get as close to the line as I could and still feel like I was being true to whatever I was able to register. For some reason, I did it through the 19th century, rather than the 20th century, but army families feel those in between moments all the time. As does a nation. As do all of us with war. I think we don’t always register those in between moments because they’re very sad and very hard, but they’re a part of who we all are.

EC: The Civil War especially because it’s such a defining moment in our history and it’s attained such mythic status. It’s seen as the sequel to the American Revolution, or the thing that fully completed the American Revolution, so every war that we’ve fought since goes back to the Civil War. It’s very important.

DW: Everybody lost somebody during the Civil War. No family was unscathed.

EC: Whole towns disappeared. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this book deals almost exclusively with the Union side?

DW: (laughs) Yes. The only exception is “Monticello, Early 1865.”

EC: And even that’s not from the perspective of any soldiers. It’s from the perspective of the students.

DW: I just don’t feel qualified to talk about the South. They had a whole different set of circumstances in a lot of ways. For women at least, their towns were directly under siege sometimes in ways that didn’t as often happen in the North. Their nursing experiences were really different. I’m a Northerner. I felt like I couldn’t do justice to what the Southern consciousness was like.

EC: Isn’t it telling that it’s still so much a part of the national memory that people even today say, “Well, I’m from the North. I don’t understand.” People down south say, “People in the North just don’t understand.”

DW: It’s still a divide. The recent Confederate flag issue is proof it’s still so alive.

EC: Over a hundred years later. Why did you choose to use real quotations within the poem? Because everything in italics is a real quotation and the way that they’re woven in, they almost seem to complete thoughts. Your characters will be having this inner monologue that is your creation and then it will segue into a real quotation. And you do that with lines from songs, as well. What was your reason for using the quotes, and how you use them?

DW: I think they were just inevitable. I spent so much time in those sources and also, sometimes they just said it so well, I wanted to bring it forth. I didn’t want it to be forgotten. Sometimes I wrote around those rather than through them.

EC: In “Union Camp Music,” when both sides start singing "Lorena" and a line from "Lorena" becomes a line in the poem, I thought that was so lovely, especially since that was such an important song to both sides. I had heard many stories of the two sides singing together. You are sympathetic to the other side. The soldiers and the nurses on the Union side are sympathetic to the Confederate side, not necessarily to the cause, but to the individual people.

DW: Absolutely, and in “Monticello, Early 1865” those students are going to the University of Virginia and they’re Southerners and I’m sympathetic to them. People love their homes, you know? You side with anyone who has to take part in a war, for sure. I like the song ‘Lorena’ because it has a kind of pathos to it, something like "Home Sweet Home," which in one accounting was a song that both sides sang together in a situation like that poem where they’re camped on opposite sides of a river and end up singing together. But I liked "Lorena" because it was not so obvious and it’s about a sort of secret longing and love that everybody has.

EC: Photography is such an important part of the Civil War both in how it was perceived at the time and how it’s remembered now, but you chose to use mainly woodcarvings and illustrations. The only two photographs that you use are Ely Parker and Rosetta Wakeman, who both have these incredibly complex backstories that nobody really knows. Why did you choose less photography and more artwork, except in those two cases?

DW: There was nothing rational about it. I had spent that summer accruing materials and some things spoke to me and some things didn’t. I think if I started this research with the intention of writing of book, I might have tried to look at more photography and also probably used more songs. Some poems didn’t work out, also. Always happens, darn it. I think color mattered to me.

EC: Color comes across very strongly in the book. In “Sophronia Bucklin” especially, she talks as if her hands are capable of a kind of alchemy. She can turn pillows into pearls. And in the poem about the prostitute, “Public Woman” where she starts listing all these colors that she wears and you get such a vivid picture of her and the life she leads.

DW: It’s very, very fun to write such poems. You can do anything that wouldn’t do in your real life. It’s very freeing.

EC: I love that image of the Public Woman with the flask in her crinolines.

DW: That was the great thing about those hoop skirts. You could store things in them.

EC: To go more general, how long have you been writing poetry?

DW: You know, I almost can’t remember a time when I haven’t been writing. I remember in fourth grade, there was a little saying of the day in the left-hand corner of the local newspaper that was kind of poetic and I would clip those out and save them, and they were probably really pat and sentimental, but I knew there was some sort of power there that I needed to keep for myself. I’ve always written poetry, but not always allowed myself to claim writing as a thing I should do. 

EC: What do you mean by that?

DW: Oh, you know. Some of us are raised to be practical. But I started going to graduate school—oh dear, maybe 30 years ago—and then I started letting myself do more of that. And I was a musician too before that, and let myself write songs.

EC: What kind of musician?

DW: Rock and roll. Lead guitar. Eons ago.

EC: So where did the academia come in? Clearly, you’re passionate about American literature.

DW: I always have been. I don’t know why it took me so long. In undergraduate school, I majored in philosophy because I thought it was serious enough. I finally gave in to literature when I was about 30, and thank heavens.

EC: And you’ve done a lot of work with Emily Dickinson?

DW: That’s right. Emily is my familiar, I suppose. I tell my students I don’t even need to read her anymore. I just wear her like a skin patch. She’s always around.

EC: What a beautiful idea. That you can wear Emily Dickinson and take her around everywhere.

DW: I’m so happy that I wrote my dissertation on her. You can write on different people and you don’t always want to keep working with them for years, but with Dickinson, every time I take out a poem that I know really well, it’s brand new to me. It’s just so fresh. I don’t know how that happens.

EC: That’s wonderful. You have to really love something to do a dissertation on it and devote your career to it.

DW: If you’re lucky.

EC: Does your book, Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing deal with the famous daguerreotype of Dickinson?

DW: Yes. In detail. What the fashion of her dress is and her hair. One of my arguments is, she cared very much about clothing. I think we tend to think of her as a ghost, wandering around in a white nightgown, but she cared how she presented herself and she discussed it with her sister-in-law, Sue and she spent lots of time sewing clothes. There was a hat factory almost across the street from her house, and she could hear the bells of the labor shift changes. She was very much in it in ways we don’t usually think of her.

EC: The public perception of Emily Dickinson is of a mythic figure almost. I believe we only have the one picture of her.    

DW: There’s a new one as of a couple years ago that may well be her. It’s being taken pretty seriously.

EC: We instead have a great wealth of poems that shows this incredible internal life.

DW: The autobiography of how she was feeling and thinking.

EC: I remember reading that when the poems were first published, the daguerreotype was altered. They gave her blush and curly hair.

DW: They dolled her up. It’s a horrible image, not one many Dickinsonians like or poetry readers like.

EC: But it reminded me of Cyclorama, because you have this artwork that’s being made to represent certain groups or certain moments in history that can miss the details and miss the truth underneath, which is the truth your poems go into. What is your process for writing poems, especially with your academic work because it must be difficult to juggle the two?

DW: Well, they’re pretty different. With academic work, you just sit down every morning, make a pot of coffee, and you go. I make myself stop after four or five hours because I’ll have to redo it. I get tired, even if I want to keep going. That feels really good to have a project underway, to know it’s with you and your companion for a few years. Poetry comes and doesn’t come. I figure my job with poetry is just to be vigilant. Read around a lot and wait. It doesn’t feel like writer’s block to me. It just feels like it will happen, because the voices are so strong when they come. You just know that that’s the time. Turn on the light when you’re sleeping and write it down. So it’s a whole different relationship. Sometimes it will sustain me that I have both types because I can rely on the one when I can’t rely on the other. Or I can go back to the other one with a new head.

EC: It’s like a double life.

DW: Yeah! (laughs) Why not?

EC: Would you say that Cyclorama is ideally read with access to the artwork or do you think it can stand on its own?

DW: I hope it can stand on its own. I did a reading here locally in conjunction with the art institute in Kalamazoo. We put together a lot of the images and the art curator talked a little bit about each of the paintings and then I would read a poem and that got a good reception. It was really nice. And a couple of my friends were there. One of my friends bought my book and she said, “The paintings aren’t in there” and another friend said, “Oh, they’re in there.” Which made me feel very good. So I’m hoping that it can go either way.

EC: It definitely can. I read the book without any knowledge of the artwork and then I read your Notes page with the names of the all the paintings. I went back and I looked up all the art. It can definitely stand on its own, but it does enrich the experience to know what you’re looking at while you’re reading.

DW: I’m so glad. I love it when artists collaborate from different genres. It’s just one of the most exciting things in the world. If I can call it collaborating with people who lived 150 years ago.

EC: I think that’s an excellent kind of collaboration. It’s respectful, but also innovative and a way to honor their lives and their work. All art has a family resemblance. Do you see any relationship between this book and the actual Gettysburg Cyclorama? The poems toward the end of the book that deal directly with the cyclorama seem almost critical of the attempt to try to capture war in art, but at the same time you’re reading this criticism of a piece of art about war in a book that is itself a piece of art about war.

DW: So Meta! Are you talking about the panels at the end of the book?

EC: Yes, particularly the poems about Peter Bird and Robert Bird.

DW: Well, actually, the two poems that are directly about the cyclorama panels were heavily researched, so if there are critical parts--like the two brothers are in a painting of a battle that they weren’t really in--that is actually true. They’re written from inside the painting, so they’re even more Meta than some. The last few poems in the book are from unnamed panels, and I did mean for those to be a kind of internal cyclorama. Other than Stephen Foster's Song ("Song Panel") it's all just this one voice of a soldier dying. 

EC: I was speaking specifically of the Bird brothers going to see the Gettysburg Cyclorama when it’s being presented and it brings back all these memories of the war.

DW: And I see them as speaking from inside the painting and seeing people come to see them.

EC: Oh! I see. I interpreted it differently.

DW: Well, it’s hard to envision. The cyclorama is in the round and then viewers would come up from underneath and look at the panels. In the 1880s, a lot of people did this and would cry and be very moved by the reenactments they saw in the paintings. So I had envisioned the Bird brothers as being the images of themselves, and speaking from inside the painting, as they see people come to see them. They’re kind of weighed down in the paint itself.

EC: “The people on the platform work hard not to betray us.” I was wondering what that line meant. And that leads into the “Unnamed Panels” series at the end. Is the “Woman on the Fence” in the Gettysburg Cyclorama, as well?

DW: No. That poem doesn’t refer to any other artwork. That just happened. A couple poems just happened.

EC: Do you have a particular favorite?

DW: Yes. Each day there’s a different favorite. I love the “Song Poem,” because it's based on a Stephen Foster song, "Hard Times Come Again No More." It’s a haunting, gorgeous song that haunted me for more than a year. I like the way the poem unfolded around that song. It’s dolorous, but active.

EC: I kept thinking of the theory of the Uncanny Valley while I was reading this. When something that isn’t real is able to produce the illusion of reality so convincingly that it’s almost unsettling. So many of these poems, you know they’re based on artwork depicting people that didn’t actually live, but they did reflect real experience and a real time. I think it’s easy to forget when you’re studying history, “Oh, this actually happened” and so, that’s what I loved about these poems is that they were so personal, whether you were dealing with actual historical figures or not, you get the sense that these are living, breathing people.

DW: That’s the most wonderful thing I could ever hear. I think history is so often taught as presidents and dates and battles. So much of the real stuff is left out.

EC: And as you said, how can anybody who hasn’t been in war really imagine war.

DW: Except for the times war is glorified, which is way overdone.

EC: You could argue there shouldn’t be depictions of glorified war because it’s not a glorious thing. We have to make it glorious in order to justify it, but it’s dirty and horrible.

DW: Yes, it is. 

-The interview has been edited and condensed