“Head of a Gorgon” Poems Seek to Aid Survivors on Their Healing Journey

Raegen M. Pietrucha’s debut poetry collection, Head of a Gorgon, retells the myth of Medusa in our present day through using her often-misunderstood image to carve out a safe space for survivors of sexual and physical abuse. Forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, this collection begs you to take a look – far from turning its readers to stone, Head of A Gorgon instead highlights the necessity of believing survivors and rescuing their narratives from the monster-making machine that is far too often thrust upon them.  

Pietrucha’s poetry chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition, and she is currently working on a memoir. Pietrucha received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for the Mid-American Review. She was also the founding faculty advisor for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ undergraduate creative arts journal, Beyond Thought. In her present work, she fosters connections among writers and writing communities, harnessing her vast experience in editing and communications as a creative consultant.

You have said you were motivated by a sense of urgency to write Head of a Gorgon. Can you talk a little bit more about why you think poetry is a useful form for examining commonly held (and often deeply problematic) assumptions society has about victims of sexual assault? 

I’m not sure I would necessarily say poetry is more or less useful than any other forms of art for examining problematic issues we face as societies. I think any and all art can serve this purpose well; the most important thing is to just break the silence on these issues, and on that, when we are in the position to speak safely on these subjects, we shouldn’t hesitate.

That being said, poetry was the right form for me in writing Head of a Gorgon for a number of other reasons. One is the nature of what this book ultimately became: an exploration of the experience and aftermath of sexual violence through the lens of myth, in both traditional and personal senses. Poetry allowed me to bridge important gaps between fiction and nonfiction in a way that felt natural, seamless, and protective because poetry can be both and neither of those things — fiction and nonfiction — at the same time. Additionally, the condensed nature of poetry — the ability to pack a lot of story, said and unsaid, into a small space — felt right for the subject matter as well, mainly because of the sensitivity around and triggering nature of it. Plus, there are a lot of formal elements to poetry that fascinate me and really can’t be replicated in any other form but also create additional layers of meaning with respect to this subject matter as well as others. 

The poems in Head of a Gorgon are evocatively and beautifully rendered but difficult to read at times. How did you maintain momentum and clarity while writing about such challenging subject matter?

Thank you for the kind words! With respect to the subject matter specifically, I don’t know that there’s anything sort of “extra” I did craftwise that I wouldn’t do with any other poem that maybe talks about more neutral or mundane subjects. I try to bring the same attention to all my work regardless of subject matter. But if we’re talking about momentum from the perspective of personal momentum when writing about trauma — so, does one personally need to process something off the page, and does that require time away from the work — I tend to be the type of writer who reaches understanding through writing. This is not the case for everyone, though, and I’d like to think there’d be no judgment about that matter either way. But also, it should be kept in mind that I worked for more than a decade on this collection — and I’d like to think evolving during that time as well, which is for me where a lot of the editing clarity comes from — though the things that drew my attention away from it weren’t related to the subject matter of this book.

Medusa’s name is curiously absent in Head of a Gorgon. Can you talk a little bit about how the absence of her name serves the persona of this collection?

It’s really all about enabling readers to better enter, access, and even imagine themselves as this particular persona. Like, no one nowadays (or probably ever) names their kid “Medusa” — though I do have a poet friend who named her dog thusly, and I secretly hope I was subconsciously responsible for that. Ha! But plenty of people of all genders have names that begin with M. And, in fact, my middle name begins with M. So using only M seemed to me an effective tool in blurring the boundaries between ancient and contemporary times and between reader and speaker.

This, of course, doesn’t touch on the fact that there are other personas that make appearances throughout the book that are not Medusa, but I’m hoping that since they are not the protagonist, readers won’t so easily identify with those other “I’s.” In the earlier versions of what ultimately became this manuscript — here, I’m talking about when I was working on it as my thesis in grad school — my peers made clear to me that it was important to them to hear directly from other characters, lest Medusa be seen as some sort of unreliable narrator. That made sense to me, so that feedback carried into the final collection.

Head of a Gorgon begins with an ending — specifically, Medusa’s death at the hands of Perseus — and then appears to be arranged chronologically. Why did you decide to start with a “Flash Forward,” and how does the later linearity help you tell the story of Medusa you want to tell?

It’s interesting for me to hear how others are interpreting that first poem especially, as I wrote it very deliberately — and not by any stretch of the imagination easily — to have multiple reads out of the gate, mainly so as not to spoil the way the story unfolds and some of the surprise elements that appear later in my reimagined version of the myth.

As far as why we flash forward to an end at the beginning, it’s twofold.

One, I was taking a feminist theory course in grad school while working on my thesis, and one of the things we discussed is the experience of time as related to gendered experience and society — matriarchy, patriarchy, that sort of thing. Some suggest women’s experience of time is more cyclical — think menstrual cycles and the like — whereas men’s might be considered more linear — and here I think we can infer what the reference would be to in that case. I wanted both, especially since in some versions of the Medusa myth, she actually represents the circle of life (birth, death, and rebirth), but this writer exists in a patriarchy. Someone referred to this as a “structural ouroboros,” and I thought that was a good way of describing it.

The other aspect relates to the title and what is actually going on overall in the book, if you were to, you know, ask the author. Ha! That moment when Medusa “dies” right at the beginning is the opening up of her head, from which this entire story is able to pour. In some versions of the original myth, when Medusa is beheaded, Pegasus and Chrysaor fly/spring out. It’s quite a stretch to consider the book itself Pegasus or Chrysaor, but the idea of something having to be separated, having to end, in order to begin again and/or get to the core of its meaning made sense to me in the framework of this version of the myth.

Many of the poems (“Sex Ed,” “Collector,” “The Spring Before Leaving Father,” “Relics”) contain single lines, and “Snaking Mane” consists of single lines exclusively. How are these lines — and the accompanying space created by the indentations — serving the content of the poems?

Lineation came to be very symbolic to me as I worked on this collection. When you work on something for a decade-plus, you probably have too much time to think about it, but I tried in many ways to build as much meaning as I could — as many layers as possible — into this work. And in fact, I considered it high praise when one of my colleagues, friends, and blurbers, Brad Aaron Modlin, pointed to this idea with his comparison of the book to a sort of Venn diagram, with new overlaps revealing themselves with each read. That was definitely my hope.

Head of a Gorgon is intentionally a bit of an onion, and stanzas are no exception to that, though I think what stanzas mean to readers differs depending on their relationship to poetry in general. So what I’m about to say is just a personal, sort of intuitive sense that different lineation provides me as a writer and a reader. Tercets, for instance, feel destabilizing and naturally build tension. I used those throughout the collection. Couplets, for me, always relate to something about love or romance, though this can be turned on its head to create tension, which I tried to do in multiple places in the book. A stanza of a singular line, though — a monostich — was something that sort of emerged as especially impactful to me as I worked on this collection specifically. For the most part, its presence represents isolation to me, a sort of departure — chosen or otherwise — from the framework a character is supposed to adhere to/reside in/etc.

As far as the indentations/spacing thing goes, same overall idea applies there, too, in that I was trying to add additional layers of meaning through it. I also became obsessed with diptychs and triptychs — and by this, I don’t mean two- or three-part poems; I mean either two or three columns side by side that can be read both horizontally and vertically separately and together. And I wanted to see if I could pull that off somewhere in Head of a Gorgon — and in a way that would contribute to versus detract from meaning. Hopefully I was successful — and accomplished it in such a way that readers may not even pick up on this fact until after a couple reads or until I pointed it out.  

The majority of poems in the “Reinvention” contain searing and heart-wrenching questions. Are the questions directed towards anyone in particular? The reader? The speaker? Perseus? Someone else? What function do these questions serve?

So, I know what my intention was, and at risk of spoiling it for readers who are very much welcome to have other interpretations, I’ll just say here that one way to understand “Reinvention Sequence” is to consider it a dialogue, a monologue, and a transformation all in one. The plain type and italics differentiation will hopefully help guide readers toward meaning, along with the lineation, imagery, overall denotation and connotation, etc.

This poem series in particular is very much intended for survivors who are somewhat along on their journey toward recovery/healing but may not yet have been able to regain full control over the mental/PTSD experiences they may have been struggling with. This book could be triggering, and for that reason, I would not recommend it for survivors who are still experiencing frequent/regular PTSD/panic attacks/flashbacks/etc. But for those who are able to grapple with their experiences safely and tap into any resources they may need to help them cope, this sequence intends, through its questioning, to help survivors reconsider their beliefs and perspectives on sexual abuse and assault as well as themselves in a way that might be able to help them better embrace themselves as they are and move forward beyond that place their predator(s) tried to trap them in. My deepest hope for this work is that it connects with survivors and empowers them in some way along their path toward recovery/healing, and maybe it does this by helping them reconsider some thoughts and beliefs that have been preventing them from finding some semblance of serenity, maybe even joy — both of which I believe are not only deserved by survivors but also possible to reach, even if it may take a great deal of time.

Head of a Gorgon
By Raegen M. Pietrucha
Vegetarian Alcohol Press
Published May 17, 2022