If you’re a poet living in Chicago, you’re likely familiar with Abigail Zimmer. A graduate of poetry powerhouse Columbia College Chicago, Zimmer has made appearances in most of Chicago’s beloved reading series, including Dollhouse, Wit Rabbit, and Ravenswood favorite The Mingle—which she’s even co-hosted on occasion. She’s Poetry Editor for the publishing collective The Lettered Streets Press, and her first full-length collection of poetry, girls their tongues, is set for publication later this year from Orange Monkey Publishing.
This summer, Abigail Zimmer released her second chapbook, child in a winter house brightening (Tree Light Books), which re-imagines the ugly duckling tale. It’s been praised as “lyrically deft” and a “gorgeous & necessary” retelling.
I recently spoke with Zimmer about her connection to fairy tales, writing in hybrid forms, and how privilege plays a role in storytelling.
Heather Cox: You could have re-imagined any of a host of fairy tales. What drew you to the ugly duckling story?
Abigail Zimmer: I wish I could remember the exact moment when jotting down a few lines about feeling unseen turned into a reference to the ugly duckling. I don’t. Maybe our aversion and attraction to ugliness always has the ugly duckling at heart. The story embeds such a strong hope for finding one’s community—in the future. It’s the original “It Gets Better” campaign. But the older I get, the more stories I hear where that particular future hasn’t come or hasn’t lingered. Not that these stories are without hope. Not at all. But it’s not so clear cut, this future. Beauty is subjective. Privilege plays a role. And some people still find themselves outside of. I guess that’s where I wanted to re-examine this particular tale.
Heather Cox: Stylistically, this is a departure from Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale—most notably, perhaps, in your form: a hybrid long poem comprised of checklists, short prose blocks, bursts of dialogue, and lineated verse. Every page is a new adventure. Can you tell us a bit about the role form plays in your chapbook and how it allows for you to engage with this classic narrative from a new perspective?
Abigail Zimmer: Obviously the idea of form as changeable is central to the ugly duckling story, so it makes sense that each page is also trying to find the form that best allows the words to speak—though with my preference for neat and tidy lines, the first few drafts of this piece drove me crazy! In one draft, my friend Tyler said that my lines were “going through growing pains.” And they did change and tighten, but each time I sat down to write, I felt I was following the call of the poem, of the story, in a stronger way than usually happens when I sit down to write. Having a cast of characters also influenced the form. The Nature Committee speaks in such a specific voice, there is only way it could look on the page—and that looked different than any other character.
Heather Cox: What did you find challenging about retelling this story? What surprised you?
Abigail Zimmer: The temptation to spell out everything in fiction is always there for me, as well as falling into easy tropes to move the story along when a character isn’t fully formed. There is danger to the child and to the swan, but the ambiguity of the danger appeals to me, broadens the reading of the poem. What happens in the woods? Does the knowing matter? Or do we trust when a creature has its wings clipped that our role is to listen with empathy? I do think of this as a darker story, but one reader told me she felt very hopeful and at peace at the end. I found that lovely. It changed my thinking of “the end” to being “a release” or “letting go,” and that gave me hope too.
Heather Cox: Your chapbook is bound to a detailed narrative, but you also manage to cultivate a sense of mystery and abstraction that is both surprising and arresting. It’s quite an impressive balance. Can you talk about your approach to storytelling? Is this sort of equilibrium something you strive for as a writer?
Abigail Zimmer: Thank you! In the same way it’s easy to spell out everything in fiction, it’s tempting to want to obscure things in poetry. Perhaps that’s why a hybrid retelling suits me. I’ve always been drawn to stories—of characters and speech and reactions—though I write mostly in poetry and value an “in the moment” ecopoetics. I suppose I’m most curious in poem-storytelling about what details “make it,” what can give readers enough of an environment while still allowing them to bring their own energy and interpretation.
Heather Cox: One of the main characters—or group of characters, really—in your chapbook is “The Nature Committee.” Without stealing too much of their mystery, who are they?
Abigail Zimmer: They are outside of. They watch, they observe, they document decay. They take no action nor do they interfere. They are the Greek chorus who narrate for us the effects of nature.
Heather Cox: You’ve had several poems published with Fairy Tale Review. In general, what’s your relationship to fairy tales? What fairy tales do you return to most?
Abigail Zimmer: I love the tropes found within fairy tales and myths: The woods as a call to journey, the maiden/mother/crone roles given to (and sometimes taken by) women, the side characters with their own motivations who exist to help the protagonist on her way. Because of their familiarity and their ability to be so large, fairy tales anchor us in a childlike state of listening and possibility. I don’t know if there’s one fairy tale I return to. I enjoy the discovery of a newly created or re-imagined myth, such as the retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice in Anais Mitchell’s rock opera Hadestown, of George MacDonald’s 19th century story “The Day-Boy and the Night-Girl,” or Traci Brimhall’s poetry collection Our Lady of the Ruins, Dot Devota’s And the Girls Worried Terribly, and Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People. I don’t know who Gerland L. Bruns is and I’ve never read anything by him except this quote, “Poetry is a sort of world-making,” (aren’t quotes so pithy?) but I’m drawn to the unique worlds that fairy tales allow us to be in and dream in.
Heather Cox: Do you have a favorite section or moment from the chapbook?
Abigail Zimmer: One of my favorite pages is the one about the blanket, broom, and plate, which I guess came from a self-imposed Gertrude Stein exercise, to examine objects with particular attention. Harkening back to your question of abstraction and mystery in storytelling, I am very intrigued by how what is peripheral or tangential to a story can still tell the story. How absence is as large / as loud as presence in a story.
POETRY – CHAPBOOK
child in a winter house brightening by Abigail Zimmer
Tree Light Books
Published July 25, 2016