For this issue, editor Jen Hudgens spoke with Kailey Tedesco about her new chapbook Lizzie, Speak, out now from White Stag Press:

Traditionally, what most people know of Lizzie Borden can be summed up with the following:

Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.

In Kailey Tedesco’s book, Lizzie, Speak, we learn of a Lizzie who escaped societal demonization and stigma of being the girl who got away with murder.

Like most women, Lizzie Borden was subjected to patriarchial values of her time. I won’t call her a victim, because I don’t believe that’s true. Lizzie made a life for herself outside the constraints of society and her domineering parents after she was acquitted of their murders. She reinvented herself, and became a mythology of her own. When Lizzie Borden’s story terrified others, the stories that attempted to create her as a monster. This unified many of us who felt wronged and isolated by people who tried to stifle our creativity and individuality.

This collection has a set of teeth that gnaw through to the bone and gut of what it means to be a woman. The viscosity of blood does not end with mention of her parents’ brutal murders.

We learn of the speaker’s foray into shadow, into her own haunting.

In the poem “CLAIRVOYANCE,” Tedesco chants short, clean line breaks add a sense of urgency that billows out into a sort of music.

my shoulders
let velvet bend
spirits from

the blood
make witch cakes.
this midwifery

harvesting ghosts
from the holes
that caused them

JH: Lizzie, Speak feels like a deep conversation with her ghost. What techniques did you use to communicate with Lizzie?

KT: I spent a little time with traditional necromancy — trying spirit boards and at-home DIY séances — but ultimately nothing turned up. I started to deeply research séances and the Spiritualist movement, and then used that research to inform a sort of imaginary conversation between Lizzie & I, almost as though my attempts at contacting her in this more traditional way had been successful. I felt much more comfortable with this imaginative method, too.

I found the most success by using the text predictive feature on my phone. This feels like a very high-tech, modern séance to me. I would type half a line of a poem and then “Lizzie” would finish the rest. It felt more collaborative and voluntary. The most chilled I got through this exercise was while writing “I Ask the Netherworld if Lizzie Borden Did It.” I received the line “face the way of your life / and then / I’ll be there.” I felt so connected at this moment because Lizzie has always been in my dreams and seems to constantly manifest in my life in one way or another. It felt like a genuine message from her, and this is the poem that really ignited the whole collection.

JH: When you set out to write these poems, how did you do the research?

KT: I had a pretty strong knowledge of Lizzie Borden before I decided to write about her. My family has always been interested in Borden and my parents took us to see the house in Fall River when I was in high school. When I decided I wanted to pursue her narrative as a book-length project, I found every text I could about her and the murders, including fiction, graphic novels, and films. I made the deliberate decision to not just explore her biography and history, but also the lore that has sprung from it. There’s this dichotomy between Lizzie the person and Lizzie the myth, and I thought the area in between the two was begging to be explored.

JH: Why is Lizzie Borden’s story important outside of what we already know about the murder of her parents and her subsequent acquittal and isolation?

KT: I think Lizzie has become, at least for me, a sort of patron saint of outcasts or “weird girls”. In much of the lore, we see Lizzie framed as a monster/murderess/nearly demonic being. In reality, though, Lizzie was stifled, silenced, and likely abused along with countless other women of her time. She was also creative, intelligent, and empathetic towards the helpless. What fascinates me about even the most accurate and researched telling’s of the story is that it always seems to function very much like a fairy tale, complete with wish fulfillment. You have a young woman who is exceedingly different, yet vibrant, who seeks independence and freedom. She is the witch, fairy godmother, and princess wrapped into one.

After the acquittal, Lizzie moved to Maplecroft, a mansion on the wealthier side of Fall River, and spent most of her time with artists and thespians, including Nance O’Neil. This is everything she wanted. She thrived.

This, to me, is a narrative we see over and over — a Matilda or a Cinderella. We so rarely hear stories of female survival without the lens of fantasy, though. Lizzie, whether you believe she was a murderer or not, survived independently in a world that told her she couldn’t.

JH: In the titular poem, or proem, “Lizzie Speak,” Lizzie appears as a fixture in her own home, almost a ghost herself, discovering and living in the home after the murders as a housecat. As a crazy cat lady I find this incredibly effective in relating to a particular audience. What was your intent behind this move?

KT: I’m a crazy cat lady as well! The cat in this poem came from the resident cat at the Lizzie Borden B & B, and also a rumor that’s often perpetuated about Lizzie. There’s this story that she held a party once and her house cat kept rubbing up against one of her friends who was allergic. So, Lizzie took it into the basement and beheaded it, and then resumed her mingling at the party.

This has been pretty widely debunked and written off as an example of the ways the narrative has shifted to paint Lizzie as someone cruel and unfeeling. In actuality, Lizzie adored animals — just another example of this conflicting duplicity that’s generated around her. The culture surrounding Lizzie kind of forces her into ghosthood, so in this way she is the cat and the house and the town and the state and even the country, always lingering and haunting.

JH: Does Lizzie still haunt you? Do you feel like her ghost is a part of you?

KT: Yes! I get sleep paralysis often, and my version of the “Bent Neck Lady” has been Lizzie at the foot of my bed, yanking me towards her by my ankles. As a kid, this frightened me. I didn’t want to be associated with someone who allegedly hurt people. I leaned into it though eventually. I wanted to know why she kept pulling me, and so I just sort of fully immersed myself in Lizzie’s life, and I found so many connections that have nothing to do with the murders. She is, of course, so much more than the event of 1892.

By following her, I found out that my great-great grandma was her neighbor, and we’re still verifying this, but I may also be related to Dr. Bowen, her family doctor and the person who helped design the Borden home. I never knew much about my ancestry, so this whole process has been fruitful in more ways than one! She’s been pulling me into myself all of these years.

JH: What inspires you to create a particular project?

KT: I didn’t intend either of my books to be full-length projects when I began writing them. Both started with a small cluster of poems, and then this sudden surge where I was like “hey, I have a lot more to say about this!” I think that’s the whole basis of my inspiration usually— just like this urge to explore what I’m drawn to to death, sometimes literally, LOL 🙂

JH: Your books often read like a book of spells, I love this about your work. It evokes a sense of dark magic that a lot of us either struggle to uncover or to hide about our own nature. Do you find that writing about these things helps you with your own darkness?

KT: Thank you! I really love this question. The answer is absolutely! In my day-to-day life, I present very light and smiley, but I feel safe to let myself be more vulnerable with my poetry. It’s here that I feel like I can lay everything out completely bare, but still weave it into a shape that can function like a mask. There’s a power in this, and in naming fear and grief and misery. Taking ownership of our own nuance feels like a magic in itself, and that’s a big part of what I set out to do with this collection — explore my darkness, or my proclivity towards darkness, through Lizzie.

JH: In the last poem, “Black Mood Maplecroft” the last couple of lines say: of the truth/now come/hear the meat inside me is such a powerful and visceral way to end the collection, can you tell me a little bit about your word choice and placement here?

KT: I wanted to give Lizzie the last word in the collection, so this is one of several persona poems from her POV. In the first poem, I conjure Lizzie to speak, and here I wanted to create the sense that she’s inviting us to hear her truth, but not from her voice, but from her “meat.” I thought this created a lot of necessary ambiguity, and the word meat, for me, suggests corporealness and tangibility, each of which Lizzie Borden lacks because of death and myth both. This was my way of channeling her completely for a moment, but that’s as far as I could go. No one can ever speak Lizzie’s truth except for Lizzie, and that was one of the major assertions I wanted to make with this collection.

JH: What advice would you give a writer that might be afraid of digging into the darkness?

KT: I can only speak from my own experience with this, but I would say the more afraid you are of something, the more writing about it can free you. Maybe even immerse yourself in it, especially if that fear is coming from your own darkness. Understanding and empathizing with my fears, even if I’m afraid of myself, helps me to cope and move into the light. If you’re haunted, let yourself move into the space of the haunting and exist there until you’ve fully possessed it. Bring back your ghosts to share with others, when you are able. Darkness isn’t nothingness as long as you can see others inside of it with you.

JH: What’s next for you?

KT: Right now, I’ve been putting a lot of energy into my teaching, and I’m enjoying working with students on their own writing projects. Very slowly, I’m working on another collection of poems tentatively titled Forever Haus about the idea of hauntings. I’m taking it one poem at a time, as of now, and just seeing whether it culminates into something cohesive or just exists in pieces. I’m also finally writing an essay on VC Andrews that’s literally taken me a year, and I’m really excited to find a home for it!

To say this collection is visceral is an understatement. With each poem, I discovered something new about the author and Lizzie herself. There are some people {mostly incorrect, but well-meaning} that say you shouldn’t write poetry about dark subject matter.

There is something incredible about learning to navigate the dark, especially through art. Tedesco mapped out the darkness with the help of Lizzie, and leads the reader through it with soft, but calloused hands.

This collection creates a path of self-excavation that I had no idea I needed.

Kailey Tedesco is also the author of is the author of She Used to be on a Milk Carton (April Gloaming Publishing, 2018), and These Ghosts of Mine, Siamese (dancing girl press, 2018). She currently teaches courses on the witch in literature, among other subjects, at Moravian College. She is also an associate editor for Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Philly’s A Witch’s Craft reading series. You can find her work featured or forthcoming in Electric Literature, Fairy Tale Review, Bone Bouquet Journal, Witch Craft Mag, and more. WEB   TWITTER