Lauren Slaughter, Poet, author, and editor
Before Talea’s mainstage season finale on Friday, April 13th, I had the chance to sit down with Lauren Slaughter, who wrote the libretto to Maxwell Dulaney’s Already Root, a modern retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. We talked about Eurydice, feminism, re-runs of Friends, and more. By Zach Sheets.
ZS: Perhaps to start you could tell me a little bit more about yourself? What you’ve been up to, where you teach? Maybe, how you met Max and how you started working together?
LS: Yeah, sure! Well, Max and I go way back—we met in Tuscaloosa, Alabama years ago. When we were both at the University of Alabama, I had the chance to hear some of his work and have admired it since. It’s so intellectual and challenging and beautiful.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m originally from Philadelphia and come from a family that supports artists—and has writers within it—which is a ridiculously lucky thing. I went to Kenyon College where I studied literature and writing, and I worked on the literary journal, the Kenyon Review, while there. After graduating I pursued an MFA at the University of Alabama in creative writing: fiction and poetry. I’ve worked as an editor as well for years, and I edit a journal called NELLE, which publishes work by women. In many ways my project as an editor line up with my thoughts about Eurydice and the importance of feminist writing and interpretation.
As far as my writing, I have a book of poetry out called, a lesson in smallness—it came out in 2015—and my second book, The Mother Burlesque, is finished and will hopefully find a home soon!
LS: I mean, don’t congratulate me yet [laughs]. Although, I guess finishing something is worth congratulations.
ZS: Absolutely, it is!
LS: Well, so, working on Already Root with Max came at a great time because I was just about to finish with the second book of poems and was noodling around with some fiction projects. So, it was kind of the perfect time to work on something totally new.
ZS: So, let’s dive right into your and Max’s Eurydice retelling. As you mentioned, it’s a story that’s been taken up countless times, from Ovid to Monteverdi to any number of classical retellings. But, it also has taken on a history of feminist retellings, like Margaret Atwood or Carol Ann Duffy. Can you tell us a little more about Eurydice and your decision to cut Orpheus out of it?
LS: Yes! I mean, it begins with Max. When he brought this idea to me he had a lot of these ideas formed, insofar as he wanted it to be a feminist retelling. The work of Joanna Klink and Rilke was also really important to Max and his thinking about the project. They are both poets I really admire—I mean, Rilke’s work is so totally foundational— so I think we had a lot of common ground and a really common vision from the start—almost creepily so! So, I think it fits within the larger context of it being an important time to have space as a woman and a writer to think about Eurydice; the choices she didn’t have. Thinking about agency as a woman seems as important as ever.
ZS: For people who might have skipped this lecture in mythology, can you give a brief synopsis of why this story—one that we think of as such a rosy love story that’s so wonderful—is maybe not so good? I find it’s like watching a re-run of an episode of Friends, or something. Like: “oh gosh, this is what I grew up watching? This is where I got my values around love and romance? This is no good!”
LS: [laughs] Um, yeah. Right. So, basically, Orpheus has this unbelievable power as a charmer—so, Joey? Anyway, he’s so alluring that trees uproot and dance to him, rocks roll to him, and so on. Nothing can resist Orpheus and his lyre. After Orpheus and Eurydice are wed, on the day of their marriage, Eurydice gets bitten by a snake, dies, and is sent to the underworld.
That’s where the opera picks up—Eurydice finds herself in the underworld. Of course, the underworld is not “hell”. It’s this other place, this other world, that might be way beneath the earth or it might be on the edge of some faraway ocean—but to me it seems like a place of the imagination. It’s not a place of bodies; souls separate from their bodies to go there. Also, the way that it’s engraved with rivers and water, it seems in some ways like a very feminine place.
ZS: And then there’s Orpheus. We’re used to this beautiful, charming story, but actually Eurydice doesn’t have a lot of say in the whole thing.
LS: Exactly. The sitcom version is that Eurydice dies and Orpheus tries to rescue her with the help of Hermes who helps guide her above. The deal is that if Orpheus does not turn around to look at Eurydice, then she gets to go back with him. But, of course, he can’t help himself and she is sent back below. As you suggested, some artists have entertained the idea that she compels him to turn around, because she would prefer to stay, which is something that I thought about too.
ZS: So how does this moment of unification work in your retelling, without Orpheus there? What kind of moves can you make with that?
LS: Max and I worked this through together and it was one of the aspects of the opera we had the most fun figuring out. At least I did. So, should it end when Eurydice—accompanied by Hermes—is finally compelled to leave the Underworld but before she sees her husband? Or does the opera end when Orpheus turns around?
ZS: Can you tell me a little more about that? Working on an opera and working on a libretto? Either in general, or, specifically, working with Max?
LS: The logistics involved a lot of fits and starts—which is how I work naturally. In the very beginning, he sent me a sound file. The work was so complex but I felt like I completely understood: these incredible, ethereal breathy sounds: really intense music. From there we went back and forth a lot, via texting, via FaceTime, and a few in person sessions. One of my favorite things was that even on FaceTime we would have these wonderful “staring-off-into-the-distance” moments.
Our back and forth was anything from Max telling me he needed more fragmented words or specific sounds to more general questions about the narrative and arc of the piece. This learning curve felt steep for me, especially in the beginning stages. But I think artists in general love collaborating and having the opportunity to think about their work through a different medium.
But also think the two forms work complement each other; the way poetry works is also multidirectional. So much is happening simultaneously. For instance, in a line of poetry: how is that line independent and how does it reverberate against the music and patterns and images surrounding it?
ZS: That’s wonderful. I wonder: to what extent did you have to hold present in your work the fact that eventually this was going to be sung? I think English is especially difficult to set because the cadence of spoken (and sung) English has such a strong rhythm and rhythmic profile. If it merely sounds accurate it can be a little boring to sing, but if it’s not “correct” it just sounds weird. How does this filter into your own work as a poet, dealing with rhythm and cadence and assonance?
LS: That’s such a cool question. So, take for example iambic meter. It’s an unstressed followed by a stressed beat. And in English, you’re right, it naturally follows that cadence. And, yeah, I can’t imagine something killing Max’s piece more quickly than that kind of regular, monotonous footwalking of the English language.
The piece begins as Eurycide wakes up. She is getting used to her new surroundings, getting used to her new physical form, and if she were to begin to articulate this in our language’s natural cadences it wouldn’t make sense with what she is experiencing. She’s totally freaked out and so fragmented language needs to reflect that. I think that in poetry, after initial drafting, you want to find the form that fits the subject matter, and so that idea really helped me throughout the process for sure.
ZS: Great. Let’s talk a little bit more about your own work. You were kind enough to send me a few of your pieces in advance. There were two things that really jumped out to me about them, and I’d love to know how these features might be present in your Eurydice libretto. One of them is the way that everyday ritual and plain tasks are intertwined with really heavy observations and really weighty big life questions.
ZS: For example, I was struck by one image of walking down the stairs every day and seeing the same dead moth on the window sill. You noticed it when you moved into the house and it’s still there as you’re pregnant, and eventually your son is born. Finding meaning and value and life in these daily actions is really meaningful and valuable, to me, personally. Can you talk about where that comes from and how that filters into your work?
[to read Pulse in full, please click here]
LS: Sure. I think you’re asking about writing; about daily-ness and maybe the mundane. If you look closely, even the most domestic, most dull moment can take on these crazy metaphysical dimensions. I guess I’m interested in that, because that’s what our lives are made of. It all adds up.
The poem that you’re talking about—I mean, I couldn’t explain death to my kid, basically. The poem isn’t necessarily factual—poems usually aren’t—but it is an amalgam of things that happened, or things that sort of happened, or just ideas and images that amplify what I’m trying to get at. But this idea that passing a moth that’s dead in the window every day and having your son look at that moth and ask “Why can’t it fly? Doesn’t it miss its mother?” And then, not being able to explain to him that that moth is dead because…well, why?
And I think a lot of what happened to Eurydice, what makes sense to me thinking about her story, is that I think everybody can relate to not having agency over your life. I mean, a life ends. So how do you find your imaginative self and your creative self, in a physical space, in a mundane space, like going grocery shopping, or something like that.
ZS: Thank you for such a beautiful answer to what was not such a good question: I just said a thing I thought, put a question mark at the end, and you gave such a nice answer.
LS: [laughs]. Well, thank you for asking it!
ZS: The final thing that stood out to me—and I’m once again going to observe something and leave a question mark hanging—is, what about humor? These moments in your work that make one smile, in contexts that are otherwise challenging and sometimes really painful?
LS: I think humor in my own work is really important. Not as a comic relief, though—not like “things are getting heavy, better put a joke in there!” I teach a class called “#funny/not/funny” that investigates the way that humor helps us understand the most significant, challenging moments of just… being a human. But, humor, as I talk about in the class, is also the absurd. It’s the fantastic, and, as far as that goes, the underworld has plenty of it.
ZS: Lauren, thank you so much.
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and author of the poetry collection, a lesson in smallness (National Poetry Review Press), which was a finalist for the Rousseau Prize for Literature and the Eric Hoffer Award in poetry. Her poetry has recently appeared in Pleiades, 32 Poems, Sugar House Review, Nashville Review, Kenyon Review Online, among other places. She is an assistant professor of English at The University of Alabama at Birmingham where she is Editor-in-Chief of, NELLE, a literary journal that publishes writing by women.