Long ago in a coffee shop far, far away (okay in Orange, CA) Lisa Cheby read aloud her poetry mixed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) quotes and longing. She was captivating, intelligent and just down right nerdy. Cheby has recently released a collection of poetry pertaining to BTVS entitled Love Lessons From Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We caught up with her in between her daily obligations and writing to discuss her new poetry collection.
FGN: How long have you been writing poetry?
Lisa Cheby: Technically I guess since high school where I would write poems about science in my science notes and won a district writing contest with a portfolio that included mostly poems (including an imitation of Eliot’s Prufrock, “The Love Song of J. Anxious Senior”). But then I took about 15 years off, not counting a one poetry class I took at New College. I thought writers were these people mysteriously bestowed with the title since I didn’t really know any writers growing up. I didn’t know anyone could be a writer simply by writing a lot, experimenting and studying, and then sending stuff out until someone published it. This is why it is important to me to bring in writers to speak to students in my library, so they can see that writers are just people who love writing and who were persistent in pursuing that love. Instead I became a literature major so I could read and talk about what other people wrote.
FGN: What inspired you to start writing?
Lisa Cheby: I started writing again years later when blogging came to be a thing and friend of mine in NYC wanted to start a blog together (I think she was a bit shy to go it alone). My mother became seriously, eventually terminally, ill. I branched out onto my own blog, posting mostly what I now would call personal essays or lyrical essays about my mother dying. It was really just therapy, especially when I would be visiting my mother in Florida and was immersed in her home and world for a month at a time. As was common back in the early blogging days, I befriended strangers who were blogging, many of them ‘real’ writers who liked my posts, waited for them, conversed with with them. I enjoyed writing. Maybe missed it for those 15 years. So I decided to take a class in writing online. I wanted one that really focused on craft and ended up in a poetry class focusing on form. The lyricism of poetry and the structure of the form worked to provide a space for the chaos of grief watching my mother die, to capture the gush of emotion in a way that another might be able to digest it, share it. Only by getting my MFA at Antioch, which I got into with the poems from that online class, did I move from thinking of this as a pastime to thinking of myself as a writer.
FGN: Do you write in any format other than poetry?
Lisa Cheby: From that poetry class through a few years after my MFA (I graduated in 2010), I pretty much wrote exclusively poetry. However, about two years ago I started grad school again, this time for an MLIS, so writing is much slower. For the past year I’ve been playing with essays and short stories. I wrote some book reviews and had an essay published on RoleReboot. Right now I am just happy to get an hour or so of writing in every few days, so don’t think too much about form or genre. It will figure itself out later. I went to a lecture by Nick Flynn recently which inspired just a lot of description. They could be stories or essays (depends on if I want to admit them to be true or not) or seeds for poems (where truth beyond the emotion is not so much of an issue). I don’t really know how to go about writing a short story, but would like to try to write at least one decent one.
FGN: Your new collection is called “Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” What inspired you to translate Buffy into poetry?
Is there a particular character from BTVS that you identify with?
Lisa Cheby: This series started out of a prompt from my participation in the National Poetry Month Poem-a-Day challenge. I was using these prompts from Inkseeds, but also tend to combine prompts as sticking to one is difficult for me. The Inkseeds was about conjuring up your personal mythology and lexicon/image bank. The other was about using a line from a TV show or something in the poem. I was binge watching Buffy for the second time on Netflix so threw in a line from the show with some of the is conjured personal mythology imagery. That poem is in the book almost unchanged from the original. Every time I got stuck with a poem that month, I’d throw in a line from Buffy. I started collecting lines from the show.
One of the aspects I love about Buffy is that she is very feminist. It seems a bit haughty to say I identify with Buffy, but as someone who is independent to a fault, I do. She is the “Chosen One.” She is powerful and smart. Yet, she is human. In the early seasons, she wants to be popular. She wants a boyfriend. She wants to just have the butterflies of love and first dates. Yet she is still the Slayer; she has to be. She has to take care of business. It is rare that women are allowed both strength and vulnerability in society. Then there is the love that grows between her and the other characters, the friendships and the mentor relationships, the love of her mother and dawn, the romantic relationships that always end in her having to choose power or submission to the male ego or the refusal of men to admit she is has the power that was bestowed upon her. And there are times when her duties as Slayer and as friend are in conflict, when she outgrows being the student of Giles, when she must confront the Watchers. These all involve the struggle to own who we are, our power, while not isolating ourselves from those we love. So the love lessons expanded beyond romantic love.
That happened eventually, too, with the poems, which I kept writing after bringing a few to my workshop group (I am part of a monthly workshop group with Molly Bendall and am grateful for their feedback and encouragement in developing these poems) and seeing that they worked on multiple levels (both for non-Buffy fans and those in the know of the Buffyverse).
FGN: Do you have a particular favorite poem in the collection? Why?
Lisa Cheby: Not sure about one favorite, but a two are particularly close for me. “Love Lesson #497 from Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is about the episode where Buffy finds her mother has died. It is such a beautifully crafted episode that really captures the grief of losing a mother for me, an experience that is in some ways indescribable without being cliche or telling. That poem captures some of that for me, both the grief and the inexpressible nature of grief. I also really like “Love Lesson #418 from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” because it connects the radicalness of Buffy to radical acts of women in our world — the nuns and Adrienne Rich, who I also quote from in the poem — and to a side of feminism that is sometimes lost in all our debating about feminism. It also reminds me that all these are places where feminism is or can be enacted — pop culture, poetry, academia, church, religion, in the dark alleys where Vampires lurk. It also was a transition point to the newer poems I talk about below.
Also, the numbers are obviously all over the place. Most are insider references, little inside jokes with myself, or were just practical/random, like the date it was started. Just in case anyone is curious. Some people ask that question.
FGN: What has the reception been like when reading your poems from the collection?
Lisa Cheby: Generally people seem to enjoy them. Buffy fans recognize the lines, but mostly people laugh in the right places. I think non-Buffy fans are relieved that there is something there for them, that it is not too closed into the world of Buffy to not be accessible to those who don’t know the show. Or so I hope.
FGN: Do you plan to write any other pop culture-related collections?
Lisa Cheby: I am actually continuing to work on a full-length book of Buffy-related poems. The newer ones are much more political dealing with violence in our society, incorporating imagery and references to current events like Ferguson and the Boston marathon bombings and other elements of popular culture such as Call of Duty and the entertainmentization (I just made that up) of news. It is darker, but a different darkness than my first (yet to published collection) about my family history and the loss of my parents to different illnesses. By working with the unique language structures and imagery of the show, which gracefully bridges the divide of TV drama and comedy, the darkness in the poems is hopefully tempered or made more inviting by a wryness.
FGN: Where can our readers follow your work?
Lisa Cheby: lisacheby.wordpress.com and on Twitter @LisaCheby
Lisa Cheby will be reading her book live at The Ugly Mug in Orange, CA on March 18, 2015, as well as selling her book.
Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is now available from Dancing Girl Press.