BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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Interview: Sandi Leibowitz



[Here, we sit down with poet and author, Sandi Leibowitz. A widely-published poet, Leibowitz just released her first collection, The Bone-Joiner, with more collections planned for the future. Leibowitz will also be reading some of her poetry live, for those in the New York City area this summer.]


PaganSquare: How do you define your personal spiritual path? Are you solitary, or eclectic, or part of a tradition?


Sandi Leibowitz: I don’t consider myself a very spiritual person.  I don’t follow any religion.  I jokingly refer to myself as a JAP — Jewish Atheist Pagan (I was just telling someone that I made this term up decades ago, and have started to hear other people using it):  Jewish by upbringing (kinda sorta, which means, only culturally, not religiously); atheist by belief system; and pagan by attraction to old goddesses and gods of different cultures, primarily Ancient Greece, since these are the first gods I read about.  I often celebrate pagan rituals, but only in the privacy of my own home or at least my own company.


PS: You recently published your first poetry collection, The Bone-Joiner. First, congratulations! Second, what sort of poems are included in the collection, and how did you decide what to keep and what to set aside?


SL: Thank you!  The poems are all speculative fantasy poems, mostly steeped in myths and fairy-tales, though many are based in nothing but something from my own fancy.  Many are dark, because that’s often where my imagination leads me.  Some are humorous.  Some celebrate the beauty of the world. 


The question about deciding what to put in and what to keep out is an interesting one.  I wanted to create a book that didn’t have too narrow a focus (for ex., all fairy tale poems), and did have that balance between light and dark.  I decided to start with the title, and had a few contenders.  I decided on “The Bone-Joiner” because I thought that would catch people’s notice and not sound like anyone else’s work.  I picked some of my favorite of my poems — but not all; I’m saving them for other collections!  


At the same time, I also created two other possible chapbooks — and I didn’t want the books to contain any of the same materials, so some of the poems slated for the chapbooks were removed from The Bone-Joiner.  I then looked for similarities amongst the poems, ways to group them, and came up with five sections, each given a title from one of the poems from that section:  1) Witch-Love: primarily about sorcerers and witches, often spells; 2) Lady Mary Speaks of Dreams: poems that are about dreams or dream-like, and poems based on fairy tales, with their dream-like imagery and symbolism; 3) Awakened – about ghosts and other creatures awakened from the dead; 4) Invasion – about dangerous beings; and 5) Attic Dust – poems centered on inanimate objects (or are they?).   


PS: What sort of research went into the poems? What does your writing space look like?


SL: Some poems are born of my imagination and require no research (“Island of Crows” is based on a dream I had); others are based on myths, stories, etc., with which I’m very familiar.  If I need to do research (such as for “Rusalka,” “Kosode-no-Te,” and “Attic Dust”) I’ll either use the Internet or the internet in combination with books of myth I own.


I work pretty much exclusively in my "library" (I hate to call it an office; that sounds too much like work).  It's a book-lined room with teal walls, a wonderful painting of dancing people and dogs and a cat, and odds and ends like a miniature brass cauldron, an Aladdin's lamp, a tiny cloth mermaid sitting in a French turquoise glass cup, a dragon-handled hourglass, antique marionettes and stuff like that.  My desk is completely awash in papers that are in danger of sliding to the floor and causing me to scream and rend my hair.  In other words, a freakazoid mess.     


PS: Which poem was the most difficult to write, and why?


SL: Probably “Sycorax Awaits the Birth of Caliban” and “Lizzie Siddal’s Blessing” were the hardest to write because I wrote them both a long time ago (especially "Sycorax").  A really long time ago.  So long ago I don’t remember how hard I might have worked on them back then.  But when I finally figured out that I was a writer of speculative poetry (the term didn’t exist when I started writing as a kid, and probably didn’t exist — or, at any rate, I was unaware of it, when I first wrote "Sycorax"), I went back to these two and knew I could do a much better job on them.  With "Sycorax," I wanted to create a unique voice, especially considering she was not only a witch, but lived completely alone for who knows how long.  Plus I needed to alert readers that this is a Shakespearean character who is never seen onstage.  


PS: Where can curious readers find The Bone-Joiner?


SL: Curious readers may find The Bone-Joiner on Amazon.


PS: Which poems and collections and authors would you recommend to fans of speculative poetry?


SL: I have very specific tastes in my speculative poetry, so I will recommend the sorts of poets and writing I love.  While I love science fiction movies and TV shows, I pretty much don’t like reading it, and I really dislike reading SF poetry.  (Sorry!)  My taste is for fantasy poetry that uses luscious language and vivid imagery, especially if it’s based on myth and fairy tale.  


My favorite spec poetry web sites: Mythic Delirium; Liminality; Through the Gate (which is either defunct or on hiatus, but still on-line); and Goblin Fruit (which seems to be permanently done but is still on-line).  


Some print books:

The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry edited by Rose Lemberg

The First Bite of the Apple by Jennifer Crow

Ghost Signs by Sonya Taaffe

Songs for Ophelia by Theodora Goss

Hungry Constellations by Mike Allen

How to Flirt in Fairyland by C.S.E. Cooney

The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar


Orpheus and Company and The Poets’ Grimm are just two examples of anthologies of non-genre writers who are writing speculative poetry (the one based on myths, the other on fairy tales).  


Some favorite speculative poets other than those listed above:Ada Hoffman, Sara Cleto, Brittany Warman, M. Sereno, Lynn Hardaker,  Virginia Mohlere, Megan Arkenberg, Tim Pratt, Margaret Wack, Lynette Mejia, Alexandra Seidel.I am probably forgetting a whole bunch.  Of course, these are only contemporary poets, and speculative poetry, like speculative fiction, has been around since humans have created art.  


PS: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events do you plan to attend in the foreseeable future?


SL: In July I will be attending Readercon in Massachusetts and am waiting to hear if I will be presenting a poetry reading with a bunch of terrific poets (to be announced if and when it’s announceable).  


On August 11, I’m moderating and reading at a wonderful event I’m titling “Poe’s Heirs: Contemporary Speculative Poetry” at the visitors’ center at Poe’s Cottage in the Bronx.  We will have a panel discussion on speculative poetry; readings by each of the participants; a Q&A session; and a signing and book selling.  The incredible group assembled are: Brittany Warman, Sara Cleto, C.S.E. Cooney, Carlos Hernandez and (depending on availability) Mike Allen.  I so love this line-up!   


I plan to do a reading in Queens, either solo or with other Queens poets, and possibly in Manhattan, and even more possibly in New Jersey, hopefully soon, but haven’t gotten around to arranging that yet.    




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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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