Duality and Hidden Meaning in “Sweetbitter”

Stacey Balkun is the author of Sweetbitter & co-editor of Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry. Winner of the 2019 New South Writing Contest as well as Terrain.org’s 10th Annual Contest, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2018, Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, & several other anthologies & journals. Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches creative writing online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft.

Tiana Nobile recently spoke with Balkun about her debut full-length collection, Sweetbitter (Sundress Publications, 2022), an examination of youth, gender, sexuality, and deep yearning at an atomic level.

I’m interested in the many dualities that surface throughout your book — nature and industrialization, innocence and experience, reality and fairy tale, for instance — and your use of the contrapuntal. What drew you to this form, and how do you feel it serves some of the overarching themes of Sweetbitter?

I’m very interested in reflections, refractions, and uncovering hidden truths. I was drawn to the contrapuntal form because it offers a chance to explore three narratives in one piece: each column can be read on its own, and yet together, they tell a third story, that, while literally includes the text of the first two, is different. This offers a complexity that can better capture the experience of living: no one single story is true, right? I think the form offers a chance to explore multiple angles of the same moment, pushing the reader to reconsider truthfulness, since many of these dualities do in fact exist in tandem: they’re braided, tangled, reflected within each other.

In the first poem, “The Water, the Truth, the Water” (also a contrapuntal), you introduce different kinds of water such as natural streams, chemical ponds, and swimming pools. How did the contrapuntal help you consider variations of water? What is your own relationship to water?

I think it’s fitting that I received this question while I was actually out on the lake — water is everything. I’ve always been drawn to it because it offers a sense of liminality: swimming is a state of being between worlds. In his essay on what he calls “swimmer poetics,” Steve Mentz describes the “twinned joy and danger” of being a human in water: our bodies are not really made for it, and yet so many of us are drawn to it again and again. I think this duality of danger and joy is best captured in a contrapuntal poem because it allows for a sense of multiplicity and reflection. I’m drawn to poetic forms that allow for more questions than answers, more flow than boundary.

We both live in New Orleans, and I definitely feel that sense of joy and danger living in a city that’s so often at-risk because of our proximity to water. Thinking about place, so much of the book is situated in the forest. In the second section, the woods serves as a space to explore the intersection between nature and human intervention, bouncing back and forth between scenes of adolescence and a hazardous chemical plant before blending together:

          … We wanted
a life like the storybooks, all song
birds and happily ever after, not this

barbed wire and chain link. Not
chlorine-stained hair, unwrapping
bomb pops from the ice cream truck.

You render the woods in such a dynamic way, which makes me wonder: what is it about the woods? In what ways did the woods shape your poetic project?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted one mountain a zillion times. She felt that Pedernal was “hers” and so returned to it over and over again to get it right. Maybe my little patch of Possumtown woods is my Pedernal, and I’ve been revisiting the same landscape to render it more accurately. Like water, the woods is a liminal place: it’s the setting of so many fairy tales. You enter the woods and never quite know what to expect, and you sure don’t leave the woods the same person you were when you first went in. As a kid, the woods were a hidden place: it was such a beautiful escape from the scenery of suburbia, which felt so ordered and mundane. I’ve always had a fiercely independent streak and would rather escape the watchfulness and rules. I was obsessed with The Boxcar Children and I guess I kind of imagined my friends and I as those kids: making our own life from what we could scrounge up, free from all the adults and expectations. I think the woods have always been there, but connecting them to the lineage of fairy tales gave my poetic project more shape and depth.

Fairy tales and their blend of horror and fantasy provide such a compelling stage for coming of age stories. In “Wolf-Girl” (another contrapuntal!), you write:

I read the stories   I wore a tight red dress 
I snarled       into the woods 
Tangled hair         neighbor boy unholstering 
His papa’s gun    said he wanted     a wolf

The poem ends:

I could howl               if I tried
I want him                  gone
                       I sharpen my teeth

I love the inversion of the wolf not as the adversary but rather as a creature for the speaker to embody. How did you arrive at this poem?

I think this poem was inspired by Vievee Francis. Her book Forest Primeval has several iterations of fairy tales, and many of Little Red Ridinghood that also blend in lyrics by Howlin’ Wolf. I wanted to reclaim Little Red’s agency, and the agency of a teen girl exploring her sexuality, and a contrapuntal seemed like a good form to hold all of these mirrored versions of things together. I think this was one of the earliest poems I wrote, before this project was even a project! I feel drawn to Little Red mostly because growing up, my grandmother lived at the edge of the woods — it was easy to move around in the world of that tale. I’d walk through the neighborhood from my house to hers, but I’d play in the woods on either end. Like Little Red, I mostly did as I was told, but I wanted to revise memory in search of agency. The woods are full of mystery and darkness, and it’s so fun to enter the forest in search of a poem.

Like Vievee, you also incorporate song lyrics in a series of erasure poems that appear throughout the book. Why did you choose these 80s/90s rock songs as your source texts, and what did the performance of the erasure reveal about what was hidden within the text and your relationship with it?

Thank you for asking this question and for drawing that connection to Francis: I’m very aware of how she uses lyrics but never really thought of my song erasure work as being connected to hers. Wow!

Sweetbitter is very interested in subtext and hidden meaning: what are the stories we’re being told in the media we’re exposed to? I started my 90s rock lyric erasure project with Toadies’s “Possum Kingdom” because I thought the title itself had an odd connection to the neighborhood where I grew up, Possumtown. I remember adoring this song: its catchy guitar riff, its growly, simple lyrics. I have very fond memories of driving in my dad’s car while we both (especially he) rocked out to it. I never thought about the lyrics until this erasure project: seeing the words on the page, ugh. It’s coercion. It’s date rape. It’s a blatant abuse of gendered power: the hook is “do you wanna die?” It infers that unless the addressee (presumably female) goes along with what the singer wants, she’ll end up dead behind a boat house. How is it possible that I have always considered myself a feminist, yet have deeply important, formative, fond memories of singing this song with my family?

Erasure allowed me to find this hidden narrative, which was not even so well hidden. It showed me the absolute saturation of misogyny in the stories we’re raised on, be they religious, fairy tale, or song lyric. In the book, the two girls only know what they’ve been taught: song lyrics have taught them that, as non-men, they are to be used, abused — ultimately, lacking all agency. Through erasure, this book attempts to shine a spotlight on this issue and reclaim some power within existing texts.

By Stacey Balkun
Sundress Publications
Published January 18, 2022