“The female body is a product for others’ consumption”: An Interview with Melissa Ginsburg

The “Not Abandon, but Abide” interview series is dedicated to Southern poets abiding by hope in the South. Their poetry actively resists the notion that we all co-sign the actions of the monoculture. Poetry shakes what we thought we knew.

In Doll Apollo, Melissa Ginsburg calibrates the push and pull between story and music precisely. Instantly charming, these poems brim with rhetoric wound into substance, as cotton is picked, spun, and dyed into cloth. In other words, their assertions grabbed me before I could accomplish my analysis. Ginsburg writes lines like: “With hands like hinges, turn the page / as though you are not the page (“Genealogy of the Garland”) and “Teal garment on / let’s walk around, make / this goddess a surface” ([Neil Armstrong]). Then, “It’s true the conveyer belt / lies like a horizon that rollers / turn invisibly under land’s last // apparent point” (“The Origin of Trees”). I understood that these poems offer pleasure similar to a trompe-l’oeil painting, an appeal based on metacognition, their author a sort of feminist Wallace Stevens. 

Doll Apollo has three sections: Doll, Apollo, and Toile. As a poet, I wanted to figure out how these sections and their poems function together, and so my questions often went there. Of course, I was also attracted to what Doll Apollo could tell me about the South, since I felt that aspect contributes to its resonance. Melissa Ginsburg lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches at the University of Mississippi. She is the author of Dear Weather Ghost and three chapbooks in addition to Doll Apollo, as well as the novels The House Uptown and Sunset City.

By the by, if you are unfamiliar with toile de jouy, I recommend looking it up. The characteristic fabric design clearly inspired Doll Apollo’s cover and informs some of its imagery.

This interview took place over email in November 2022.

You’re coming back from some reading dates for Doll Apollo, right?  How did the tour go?  What kind of reactions did you have to your work?

The tour was a lot of fun. I love to read these poems out loud, and it’s been a pleasure to meet readers and poets and booksellers. The reception has been really positive — these poems seem to resonate with people both conceptually and sonically/musically, which makes me really happy. The paper doll poems in the book get a strong response, especially from women.

The Doll section is striking in that it feels retro but also contemporary in its evocation of gendered expectations.  I also have to ask about our current political environment here in the South. Do you think the book reads differently for women living in places, as we do, where living in a woman’s body means something different than it does in other parts of the country?

I don’t know if the feminist themes in the book have more resonance in the South or not — I gave a reading in New York and they were well-received there as well. I did have in mind a very particular brand of small-town Southern femininity, which does feel kind of retro/old-fashioned to me, but is also very much alive in the town where I live and the university where I teach. Fraternity and sorority traditions are the dominant social structures here. Young women are under enormous pressure to look and dress and do their makeup in a particular way, and there’s not a lot of room to move around within that.  But I think the rigidity of gender expectations is so universal, even when those expectations take different forms. I grew up in a big city and came of age in the Riot Grrrl era, and I still find myself struggling under, through, and with those expectations. It’s insidious, we internalize those values, we have to contend with them even if we do so by rejecting them. It takes so much energy.

In the poems, I was trying to think through how the female body is a product for others’ consumption, how it so often functions as a lesson, a warning. But then it’s also this physical animal thing that is so vulnerable, and it is also the self, and is connected with other living things. I wrote these poems before Roe was overturned, so it kind of hits differently now. But the trapped quality, and the vulnerability of the dolls’ physical forms — I think that’s something many women can identify with.

I wondered, too, about the Southern influence on Toile, which seemed to harken to the South’s slaveholding, agrarian past. Is that the case?

I love thinking about the toile fabric pattern — there’s so much there to explore. The images are often colonialist, often pastoral, and the printing techniques are bound with the history of textile production (including cotton, which is still grown everywhere down here), dye-making, trade routes, etc. So I’m definitely thinking about slavery in the South, but also it’s a French pattern and technique, and the dyes came from India, Europe. It’s a global phenomenon, as was slavery. The colors and the fabric come from plants from all over the world. It’s a very traditional Southern decor choice. I’m fascinated by the depiction of women’s dresses on a fabric pattern — it’s fabric of fabric, a kind of endless loop. And I’m fascinated by the gaps between the vignettes — what is being left out, what is unsaid. The floating, disconnected scenes are so disturbing when read in this way.  Violence is present in so many of the beautiful things we surround ourselves with.   

Rural Mississippi does have this quality where the past feels very alive, very violent. But nature itself is violent too. If you have any kind of relationship with land, you have a relationship with death — you come across dead animals all the time. I’m not even talking about the violence humans are doing to land, though I’m also thinking about that in nearly every poem in this book.

Your comment on dress patterns, that “it’s fabric of fabric, a kind of endless loop” and “I’m fascinated by the gaps between the vignettes — what is being left out, what is unsaid” sounds like a poetics statement of sorts. Your book seems to point out disconnections but resist filling them in. Or maybe the work is an ars poetica, as a reaction to narrative.

Maybe it is an ars poetica — I do think about poems in the same way I think about fabric — it’s possible to read them the same way, and to notice echoes. I’m not anti-narrative at all. I’m a novelist as well as a poet, and I have been writing more narrative poetry since Doll Apollo. I’ve been less elliptical too, in newer work.  It can be revealing and interesting to read a non-narrative form as though it is narrative (like fabric — those scenes printed on the cloth are not intended to be linear at all). But I don’t trust narrative any more than I trust decoration. They both mask kinds of truth, kinds of experience. The lives we live don’t always move forward in time, and our minds, our emotions exist separate from time. So do visual patterns.

What kind of research, reading, etc. did you do for the Apollo section?  Have you always been fascinated by the moon landing conspiracy?  

I’ve been fascinated by the moon landing itself my whole life. I grew up in Houston in the eighties, my dad worked at NASA, it was the cold war, we watched all the shuttle launches in school when I was a kid. We were all steeped in NASA, I thought about astronauts all the time. I was very interested in astronomy but it was hard to see stars in Houston because of all the light pollution, so I was kind of stuck with the moon.

For the book I read a lot of message boards and discussions about the conspiracy theory, which I had been only dimly aware of — I was working on these poems during the 2016 election and when Trump won, I suddenly felt this surprising kinship with people who did not trust the government, who could not believe what they saw on television. I was struck by the care and fervor with which the conspiracy theorists study film frame by frame, think about artistry and truth, light and shadow and wind and gravity — these are all things I routinely do as a poet, and I found myself deeply moved by it.  For the record, I do believe the moon landing happened — but thinking of the moon as a sound stage, as a site that is accessible, seemed so rich to me. It preserves the fantasy of the unreachable, untouchable moon, while also offering up an array of new metaphors and images.

Other research I did for this section: lots of reading about the training of astronauts; the construction, materials, and function of the spacecraft and the astronauts’ suits; astronaut interviews after the moon landing; iterations of the god Apollo over the centuries and regions where he was worshipped. 

I’ve heard one of your interviews where you spoke about the Daphne and Apollo story, where Daphne turns into a tree to escape Apollo, and its connection to your book. How did this idea start and grow for you?  Was there a “eureka” moment for you?  Did you write the “Daphne” poem last?

The Daphne poem was one of the later poems I wrote, after the manuscript had been accepted for publication. The idea of Daphne was sort of holding the book together in my mind, as I assembled it, linking the three sections. She was one of the figures (along with Apollo, Artemis, Neil Armstrong, NASA scientists, and the women who hand-stitched the astronauts’ spacesuits) who haunt all the poems in this book. The nymph Daphne is trying to escape sexual violence and is turned into a tree, which is the mirror image of what happens in the paper doll poems — trees are turned into paper, then women, and subject to many kinds of violence. But there was no mention of Daphne in the book, and an early reader who vetted the manuscript for LSU Press pointed out her conspicuous though unmentioned presence. It hadn’t occurred to me before to be so explicit, but I liked the idea — I thought it might help hold all the stitching together. I wrote a bunch of Daphne poems after that, mostly sonnets, but only one made it in.

Which poem in the book did you struggle with the most?  What is its origin story, and how did it change over time?  I suppose I’m asking for you to give me “background” on one of the poems.

I don’t really think of any of this book in terms of struggle. It was a pleasure to work on every one of these poems, though certainly some took longer to find their final form. Three poems in Doll Apollo began as sections of a much larger very experimental poem that was part of a project I was doing years ago about Freud, which involved a syllabic rhyme scheme that I invented. That poem, and book, never quite worked, but I revised and rearranged pieces of it to form two of the Apollo spaceship persona poems: “Apollo sleeps and dreams of transport” and “Apollo in orbit remembers the earth.” “History” in the Toile section also came from that project.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot, because I rarely understand what I’m doing until long after it’s finished, and I’m very patient with my process. I write a lot, and I love to let things sit a long time and to recontextualize and reshape them. I introduce new angles, new lenses, to see what interesting tensions might arise and reveal to me what the poem cares about, what it’s trying to say. I took lines from that long poem which seemed to be dealing with travel, with embodiment, with looking at the earth from a distance, with violence, with a long view of time, and considered how they might fit into this book. I love to juxtapose a long expository title with a more spare, impressionistic poem — the title orients the reader, and that orientation offers a great deal of freedom within the poem.

As I think about Doll Apollo, I find myself wanting to view each section as a discrete project, the way Apollo was once a chapbook of its own. Are there other concerns you were thinking about when you decided to compile the book thematically?

I think that for many readers, subject matter and concept are so forward-facing. If you look at it from that lens, Doll Apollo‘s three sections seem like three totally different projects, but there are so many other elements to poetry that interest me more than content: image, tone, philosophical concerns, variability in scale, mythology, etc. The physical landscape of rural Mississippi, and attention to texture and surfaces are present in every poem in the book. The landscape poems in Toile are the same landscape that Dolly lives in — she dissolves in the same pond and is torn on the same blackberry brambles that the homesick spaceship longs for. And of course, the moon in the Apollo section is the same moon I see from my front yard, from the gravel road in the poems in Toile. I like that these subtler threads connect a book that cares so much about fibers and papermaking and weaving and patterns.

Learn more about Melissa Ginsburg on her website.

Doll Apollo
By Melissa Ginsburg
LSU Press
Published August 3, 2022