FOR ALL THE PENSACOLA GIRLS:
An Interview with Kristin Garth, Elisabeth Horan, and Jessie Lynn McMains
by Amy Alexander
Kristin Garth and Elisabeth Horan are authors of the collaborative poetry chapbook Pensacola Girls, written in response to the death of Dericka Lindsay, a nine-year-old who died after an adult cousin, who weighed 325 pounds, sat on her as a form of punishment. When the family realized that Dericka was unconscious, they called 911. Dericka was declared dead at the hospital, and her adoptive parents and cousin have been charged in relation to Dericka's death.
With their highly individual styles, Garth and Horan explore their own experiences of abuse and healing while challenging the abuse and rape culture that breeds such violence. “Our voices are not evaporating,” they write. “We know each other - as sisters. Our words will eat them alive as they did us and never once more hold us under - waves wash clean in the sands of Pensacola.”
I spoke with Garth, Horan and Jessie Lynn McMains, the book’s editor and publisher at Bone & Ink Press, just before the summer solstice, a time when families flock to the beaches of Pensacola, unaware of the dark secrets that might seethe behind the closed doors on homes that line the city’s streets—that line every city’s streets. We talked about the art of a good collaborative effort, writing about painful experiences as an act of power and healing, and the publishing process.
Amy Alexander: Okay, so let's just start at the beginning with how you all met and, Kristin and Elisabeth, how you two got the notion to write a book of poems together?
Kristin Garth: Elisabeth and I did another collaborative chapbook together, On This Path We Travel, with a bunch of female poets for Moonchaps (an imprint of Moonchild Magazine). I had always noticed Elisabeth’s work and her prolificness — the work ethic. I respect that. Working on this book, we had mentioned that we should do one together. We didn’t know on what. She immediately said to me, “Well, I was born in Pensacola,” and then we started talking about my neighbor that died. It had just happened. Dericka Lindsay, a victim of child abuse, lived, at that time, five houses away. I was so depressed and I had written about my own abuse. We knew we had a book there. It was so important to us. The bond of abuse is like the shorthand of sharing a hometown.
Elisabeth Horan: Yes, our herstories. Speaking of which, my New Year's resolution was to not feel competitive with other poets, specifically women poets, but to reach out to them, make friends and connect, support each other. So I did. Kristin and I connected in a mutual way. We both really respected the depth and courageousness of each other's work. And, like Kristin said, we are both really prolific and driven to write.
I had been writing, on my own, quite a few poems about sexual abuse, and I feel strongly about sharing my story. I want other women to know they have a voice and support and that they are not alone. Once Kristin and I started sharing some of these we had done on our own, we knew we had the idea for a chapbook about the abuse of women and how she and I have survived it, but some women, like Dericka, do not.
K.G.: Yes. That was the message I really felt from Dericka’s passing. I wrote, in the last line of the sonnet titled after her, “What a privilege to survive.” Sometimes, I have felt very sorry for myself, while I am very alive and doing things she will never do or experience. I wanted to share that message, too.
A.A. Let me just remark, here, that I find you both to be so very brave. Do you recall when you realized you needed to write these poems? Were you ever afraid or ashamed to put the truth out there?
E.H.: Thank you for saying that. I feel brave, having written them, and have even had some of my poems about sexual abuse published. But now that this chap will be a reality, I feel scared sometimes. Like, people might really read this, and what will the fallout be? Or maybe people will not believe me or hate me. It's the fear of retaliation of men and some of those that protect them.
K.G.: Yes, I was ashamed. I’m ashamed of a lot of things I write, to tell you the truth. I’m more desperate to get them out of me, though.
E.H.: I don't necessarily feel ashamed, but I am so angry and filled with rage at men who have hurt me, men who hurt women, and women who protect them.
A.A.: How do you, as artists, find a way to channel those powerful, sometimes frightening, emotions into something people can hold in their hands?
E.H.: Collaborating is so much about trust. That is how we did this. Ultimately, we shared just everything with each other, including the difficult wait time, and held each other up.
Jessie Lynn McMains: I’ve been writing and appreciating art/writing about these topics for many years, as well as making my own art and writing about them. But, in some ways, it really feels like our long time coming moment is now, what with Me Too, Time’s Up, and such. Mark Sandman had the song “Goddess,” and I get it stuck in my head a lot: “One day, brother / the goddess will return / on that day, brother / you are gonna burn.”
A.A.: Can you describe the actual composition process?
E.H.: It was incredibly exciting to write with Kristin. When we started, the poems literally flew back and forth. She would write one and I would be floored by it, and then I would try my hardest to write something good back. And let me tell you, the intimidation to write a decent sonnet to keep up with Ms. Garth is insane (laughs).
K.G.: Your poetry is phenomenal, Liz. I really liked how we mashed up our styles and kept what was uniquely each one of us. I like that we allowed ourselves to be ourselves. This was not a thematic chapbook where I could be experimental in form. It was too treacherous of territory as it was.
Liz and I wrote these poems quickly, too, intense, back and forth, every night. So the rage and emotion fueled them. It was kind of good to just get it out and not have time to censor oneself.
E.H.: I feel like I write like a wild animal. I unleash shit and let go and then later, I am like, “Did I write that?” I can't hold all of it in anymore. I held it all for most of my life—shame, pain, ugliness, being fat, being abused, being laughed at. I’m kind of like, “Fuck you all. I’m saying my shit now.” But then I retreat and I am afraid again. That is the cycle of survivor and victim.
K.G.: Yes me too! Exactly. Someone asked me in another interview about my extreme sex positivity. I’m like, “My whole life, my boobs, my body was an issue. It was an object. It was someone’s problem. It is a triumph I feel to say, “Guess what? It is mine, and I will do whatever I want with it.”
E.H.: Our poems pushed each other. I wrote better every time I responded to one of Kristin's. I wanted her to love it, to inspire her, to awe her. I pushed myself harder as part of our team. We wrote the whole thing in, what do you think, Kristin, a week?
K.G.: It was very fast.
E.H.: We wrote, like, 3 poems each per day.
K.G.: It was almost like the idea of taking your medicine. Do it in a shot, as fast as you can, get it down. Then, I’d send to Elisabeth and she would respond. And it was like a conversation where you are influenced and challenged. It really helped my writing so much.
E.H.: There was also very little editing. I think the poems were already in our heads to be written.
A.A.: How did you approach publication of “Pensacola Girls”?
E.H.: When I discovered Bone & Ink, and Jessie as its editor, I put out some feelers with my own poems. But we kind of knew from the beginning that Bone & Ink was where we hoped to find a home.
J. L.M.: It was meant to be.
E.H.: We submitted it several other quality places, which were not good for it. We realized this had to be with a woman, with a feminist, with someone who would keep us safe and care about us and our words. We are so grateful to have found that with Jessie.
K.G.: Liz did most of the submitting of our chapbook, if not all, and when she told me about Bone & Ink, it was where I wanted it to go. It felt right. We used to talk about it late at night on Twitter and cross our fingers.
J.L.M.: I have to say, I love hearing how the two of you wrote this book, because it’s genius and I’m so amazed I’m part of it.
A.A.: Can you talk about the chemistry between editor and collaborators? It sounds like you had a strong sense of it. How do you know when something just "clicks," as an editor or as a writer?
J.L.M.: I just have this little baby press. I’d gotten several submissions prior to “Pensacola Girls,” and, of course, gave every submission equal consideration, but I couldn’t get the manuscript out of my head once I’d read it. The subject matter spoke to me, but so did the artistry. Both Kristin and Elisabeth write poems that are devastating and beautiful at the same time.
K.G.: I am glad it ultimately wound up with a female editor, with whom I feel such a kinship, even though we are only getting to know each other. When I read Jessie’s poem in Anti-Heroin Chic, “Blue Ballads for (Un)Dead Girls,” I felt I knew this person and I dreamed we would work together. I would have been devastated, to tell you the truth, if it had not worked out.
E.H.: I think the editor really has to be behind something like this, 100 percent, for the writers to feel safe, and that is how we feel with Jessie, and have from the beginning. She gets it, and gets us.
K.G.: Yes. We had already had some big disappointments by this point. As a writer, you are supposed to be a grownup. You’re supposed to say it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty good at that now. Not for this book. I can’t be an adult about this book. It is about children.
E.H.: Handling the waiting was very difficult. I dealt with it by detaching somewhat to protect my emotions. I felt that it just had to work out somehow. Now, I am so glad we were rejected elsewhere.
A.A.: Just to close, I want to get back to Pensacola, specifically, and Dericka. It struck me that this seems to very much be a book about place. Can you address that? When you started working, Pensacola was place you connected with. And, of course Dericka, who seems, in your imaginations, to be very much located in a specific place.
K.G.: Pensacola, to me, is where this happened: Dericka’s story. Dericka, a nine-year-old who lived on my street and I talked to every day, smiling, in cute dresses, but living a nightmare. Personally, it was grief and PTSD when she died.
E.H.: It’s a physical place, but it’s also an emotional place.
K.G.: A place where we have all been held down, mistreated, and suffered. Yes. “Pensacola Girls” really is about the emotional state of being abused. Being an abuse survivor is sharing a hometown.
E.H.: Every woman has her Pensacola, that shorthand of, “Oh, me too. I know who you are.”
Amy Alexander (@iriemom) is a poet and freelance journalist who has published more than 700 newspaper articles in the past 22 years, which involved interviewing thousands of leaders and thinkers. Some of her favorites have included children's TV host Fred Rogers, chef Julia Child, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, swimmer Mark Spitz, skater Eric Heiden, and baseball player Tommy John, who asked her if she could help him order a TurDucken (a chicken baked inside of a duck baked inside of a turkey) from the nearby grocer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she lives with her husband and their two mini-me's.