Interview: C.S.E. Cooney

C.S.E. Cooney is an artist whose talent is too large to be contained to one stage. A musician, poet, and storyteller, her writing has been described by readers as “wild” but she is a master craftsman, painstakingly choosing words to be wielded with surgical precision. Writing in a well–appointed garret in Rhode Island, her fairytales are dipped in seawater and wrapped in language so beautiful readers don’t realize until it’s too late that they’ve been flayed open with the most delicate of touches. Cooney won the 2011 Rhysling Award for “The Sea King’s Second Bride” and her works have appeared in numerous anthologies, including multiple appearances in The Years Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. A founding member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, she has launched an ambitious project to bring to life two EP’s of music created by Brimstone Rhine, a character who came to her in a dream. Whether spinning tales or making music, Cooney is an artistic whirlwind and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Uncanny Magazine: Like many Uncanny Magazine staff and contributors, you wear many hats. As a writer, poet, and musician, what makes on idea decidedly a short story while another is a song or poem? Is it a definitive or fluid decision and have you ever flipped an idea from one medium to another?

C.S.E. Cooney: That’s a great question. I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. I can say that what is now a novella called “The Two Paupers,”  the second book in my Dark Breakers series, started life as a one act play of the same name. The one act is, essentially, what became mere backstory for the two main characters in the novella, but the play was the genesis. I have a something called “Rust” that began as a poem, tried to be a play several times, and has desperately attempted to achieve storydom over a span of years. I don’t know what it wants to be in the end (NOVEL! NOVEL!), but I know it hasn’t stopped haunting me for years. Almost decades. It makes me cranky. I don’t know how to pummel it into shape. Yet.

What makes a poem? (There is a book called How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that is worth the purchase price for the introduction alone, not to mention the chapter about “The White Heat ,” [by Emily Dickinson] and I daren’t try to answer the larger question here, but…) A poem is swallowable. A poem I can do because the moment demands it, and it only takes me a moment to do it. As compared, say, to a short story or novel.

A poem is a glorified Facebook update? Oh, gods. Don’t listen to me; I surely did not mean that. A poem is playful. It’s an exercise in structure and rhyme. It’s what I do because I cannot do crossword puzzles. It’s an expression of indignation or rage or desire almost in the same breath as the experience itself. It’s often a gift I can give a friend when I can’t afford a postage stamp. It’s sometimes a story.

But a story is something else. A story has room. A story I can stretch out in, and loll around, and do some ga–doinging and some jumping jacks and maybe even some galloping. Poetry is more about distilling the universe into a blood drop. Like squeezing my own quintessence into a barrel and throwing myself over the Niagara Falls. It’s a wild ride, and it might break me to pieces one of these days. 

But I still say fiction’s harder work. For me. I have to think about this some more. Ask me again in ten years. 

Uncanny Magazine: “Deep Bitch” is a very visceral poem, emanating a deep sense of power and knowledge. The language delves into the primal and earthy aspects of womanhood, playing with the idea of sublimation and the role we are forced to play. While it is lazy to default to saying a work feels personal (how could it not?) I can’t help but do so in this case. Where did this piece come from?

C.S.E. Cooney: “Deep Bitch” came out of a conversation I had with my friend Mir. A younger friend of mine was complaining fairly vocally that all the girls she knew were “shallow bitches.” And Mir said, very thoughtfully, “You know, I make it a point to befriend bitches. Not shallow bitches. Deep bitches.” It reminded me of something else she had said about how she had found her inner bitch in India. Sometimes she said “inner bitch.” Sometimes she said “inner tiger.” The two images melded.

My life is not a war zone or a collapsing coalmine. I may tightrope walk the poverty line, but I’ve never starved or lived without a roof over my head. I’m so steeped in privilege I’m not even aware of it 90 percent of the time. I think about humanity and how it has bent its head and barreled through ice ages and plagues and nuclear war and trips to the moon. I think about our ability to adapt and survive.

And I wonder, sometimes, what have I got to complain about? What, in my deepest self, is waiting for me at the bottom of all my complaints? When life becomes not about what is inconvenient or ego–bruising or mildly melancholy, but is instead about what might be a hard threat to my very existence. What is in me that might fight for my survival at the end of all things? And what is its opinion of the rest of my dreamy, distracted, cushy, complaining, highly–strung, sensitive, bitter, giddy, arrogant self?

I think my Deep Bitch would take a chunk out of me if I got too close to her. Just to wake me up. Or for spite. Or because she’d find it funny. But I’m glad to have her. I think she’s a fighter. She may not be a friend, but she’s on my side. An ally. At least an enemy of my enemies, should I ever find myself in the position of having some, if that makes sense?

My friend Elizabeth  Rannenberg brought my attention to “Self–Portrait” by Leonora Carrington, who often wrote and painted surreal scenes about the inner bitch, or in her case, hyena. It’s a beautiful painting. I’m supremely happy I didn’t see it until after I wrote “Deep Bitch” or I may not have thought it worth writing.

Uncanny Magazine: Your use of language is rich, borderline decadent. The words fill your mouth, roll around on the tongue and crash into teeth. In poetry, it’s not just words and their meaning, it’s the arrangement of words and how they bash into each other or twine together to create specific emotions. How do you apply this sensibility in your prose writing where the economy and use of language is much less constricted?

C.S.E. Cooney: You know, as a prose writer I’m not often very impressed with myself. I like reading books where the writing is plain and pointy, is fast and funny and sharp to the touch. The kind of writing that leaves breathless lightning impressions on the backs of your eyelids. Sparse. Spare. Spartan. The kind of writing you can’t help but read aloud.

You can’t tell it from the previous paragraph, but I have to work pretty hard to rein in my (cough) (splutter) (gag) lyrical tendencies. I’d rather be vicious. But I think to be truly vicious you have to have moments of great tenderness. I think chiaroscuro is the word of the hour. I think Shakespeare works so well because his poetry and vulgarity walk hand–in–hand. I think the plainer I can craft my prose, the more soaringly beautiful my poetic moments will become.

Unfortunately, every time I try to draw a straight line, it comes out all curlicues and Baroque superfluities and an excess of cherubs. I’ll get it right eventually. In the meantime, at least what comes out is interesting. And that’s maybe better than what I deserve.

Uncanny Magazine: Is environment important to your creative process? Do you think you’d be a different sort of writer if you were, for example, living on a ranch in Wyoming as opposed to a garret in Rhode Island?

C.S.E. Cooney: Certainly! But the kind of writer I wanted to be is a Rhode Island writer. I moved here deliberately after 10 years in Chicago and 20 years in Phoenix. I fell in love with this place the one time I visited when I was nine, and all my life have been working my way back.

I wanted to live at the edge of something. I wanted to live high up. I wanted to live within walking distance of the Atlantic. I wanted to live somewhere old and confusing. I wanted to live where there were ghosts all around. (I have seen my reflection in a mirror George Washington shaved in. I have climbed Bunker Hill. I mean!) I wanted to live in the kind of small town that Stephen King populates with sewer clowns and demented spiders, where the cultural differences are so vast and subtle from the homogenized concept I grew up thinking was “being American” that I’ll be parsing them for years.

I live with the smell of salt in the wind, and surprising winters, and springs and summers and falls so sweet I could bathe in the dream of them and wake up rosy and warm and clean. I wanted to be where the mermaids were. And the sharks. There’s something about this place I always wanted. Plus, I live right across the street from my library.

Uncanny Magazine: You said the idea for your latest project, Brimstone Rhine, came to you in a dream in the form of the eccentric eponymous artist who “when performing, wore only a black net veil and a pair of bright pink Superman underwear.” In starting with a very clear character, how did you flesh that out to encompass two EP’s of material and how, if at all, did the vision change or expand from dream to finished product?

C.S.E. Cooney: The first EP “The Headless Bride” I wrote as a joke. Can I write an EP in a day? Can I find a musician to set these lyrics to music in another day? Can we do a rough recording of all of them in a third day? Can we then tell the world we did this thing in THREE DAYS, and won’t the world be SO IMPRESSED? Yes? No.

That’s what I wanted: to see if I could. An experiment of vigor and velocity! But trying to wrangle musicians! No one seemed as excited as I was to do this thing, so what was the point?

For months the Brimstone Rhine project remained my private joke for myself, and a private sorrow too—that it would never see the light of day or the dark of a recording studio. I do what I do well enough, but narrowly. I’m trained as a singer, not as a musician. I don’t have a background in music theory or composition or sound engineering or any of the cool stuff that actually gets a music project off the ground. Poetry and prose? No problem. I don’t need anything but a writing desk and a bunch of dishes to do while I am in that fertile pre–writing procrastination mode. No one else interferes till the editing and publishing stage of the story.

Music? I needed a rockstar like Brimstone Rhine.

She was such a good dream—as eccentric as I could ever hope to be, only far more spiteful and mysterious and quite clearly a genius. I think the first EP, The Headless Bride, is more true to her aesthetic as I understood it in the dream, dark and slipstreamy and a bit nightmarish. She could just stand in the middle of a stage and hold people fiercely in her thrall.

The Alecto! Alecto! EP is more a thing that I would do—me, personally, not my imaginary rockstar friend—retelling myths for modernity, with a feminist twist and a cheeky grin. But more on that below, perhaps?

Uncanny Magazine: The Brimstone Rhine project is two EP’s, one of which, Alecto! Alecto!, features songs about women of Greek myth and legend. Why do you think these stories still resonate? How do they personally resonate with you?

C.S.E. Cooney: I think I first read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in sixth grade. I forget the first time I saw Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version with the Harryhausen stop motion effects), though I do know that I often pretended to be Andromeda chained to a rock for the two years we lived in that house on Bloomfield with the swimming pool out back. It was in high school that I first grew indignant that Queen Dido had to burn. Around that era was also the first time I heard my best friend use the word “prick” as a noun rather than a verb: in a monologue from Lysistrata. I’ve loved the badass sorceresses Circe and Medea from the moment I met them—in myth and in theatre both—and I was always relieved, in the back of my mind, to know that Medusa had two immortal Gorgon sisters who couldn’t be beheaded with a hero’s sword, because that just sucked. What did she ever do to Perseus anyway? Bastard.

Why do these particular myths resonate with me? Is it the myths themselves, I wonder, or the myths I wanted them to be? I wanted Dido off that pyre. I wanted Medea to have something after the betrayal and exile and infanticide. I wanted an Alecto to worship beyond our fear. I wanted Lysistrata to call us all to arms again—or rather, to skin—to help us stop these never–ending wars. I wanted more songs about women. Women of power. Women of enchantment. Women exploring loss and lust, scheming for peace, taking the horizon for their playground.

Women are there in the myths, sure—but they’re often peripheral to some hero’s journey. I wanted to explore their journeys. But who am I kidding? Did I ever write a single song that was not also about myself?

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about your work with Uncanny Magazine!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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