BY SARAH BRIDGINS
I was so excited to sit down and talk to Wren Hanks about their chapbook Prophet Fever, recently published by Hyacinth Girl Press. Prophet Fever is only 16 pages long, but i it Hanks uses the story of the cis gay teenager Wren and his relationships with his destructive mother, a sinister Virgin Mary, and a wolf to explore issues of gender, religion, sexuality, and environmental destruction in ways that are beautiful and complex.
S: First off, how did you come up with the title? I’m just wondering because I love it and I am very bad at titles.
WJ: I’m also really bad at titles and I worked really hard to become better at them. Originally I titled all the poems because there were many poems of varying quality and when I went to put it together, Prophet Fever was the title of one of the more successful poems. It’s section 6. So that’s where the title came from and the reason they’re no longer titles is because the rest of the titles were pretty rote. They were “Becoming” or “What Home Was.” They were pretty plain. When I started putting it together, it felt more like one long poem or sections of one long poem.
S: So when you first started. Did you conceive of this as a chapbook or have you been thinking about it as a larger project?
W: I’ve been thinking about it as a larger project. but I was an MFA and working on other things and it felt like and it still feels like a thing that will take a very long time.
S: Okay, because it works as a distinct piece. It feels finished.
W: Right. It feels like at a certain point I decided not only did I want to have something out in the world but I wanted to see how these poems worked on their own and I felt like I'd reached a certain point in the arc of the story. I could see this character starting off. I could see this kind of anointing and then [my protagonist] goes off to preach and then, it’s like obviously the end of world is coming so you know what’s going to happen—or you can imagine it—and sort of see it spooling out in your mind. My brother is a filmmaker, and I was also thinking in cinematic terms where a lot of times directors who want to make a feature film make a short as a teaser: i.e. if you like this thing I did…there’s more!
S: So when you first started working on Prophet Fever were you thinking of it in terms of a narrative or more thematically because there are all of these recurring images? Did the narrative come out of the theme and the images or what it the other way around?
W: When I first started working on this project, it was very different. It came out of a southern radio broadcast. Mary was the primary character, so it was narrative and I did have a narrative outline that I was working with. It was weird and formal and I feel like it was derivative of a lot of stuff that has been done before. There are a lot of good books that have come out about Mary—Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine and Tracy Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins to name two of my favorites. There has been a lot written about a subversive Mary figure. So I had narrative in mind, but Wren’s character was a lot more minor and peripheral.
S: Wait, so why were you listening to Christian radio?
W: Jeanne, my fiancée, and I do this all the time when we go on long drives. She didn’t grow up religious so it’s something she seems genuinely fascinated by. It’s this alien thing and it doesn’t really upset her because in a way it doesn’t seem real. It’s like reading old misogynist fiction or something. For me it’s harder because although my parents weren’t Catholic I grew up in a place [southeast Texas] where there was a lot of Evangelicalism. I get really prickly about it, but at the same time I have this morbid fascination with the Book of Revelation because Catholics don’t believe in it literally, which I think is interesting. They literally believe that we’re drinking Christ’s blood, but the Book of Revelation is the only book they read figuratively. So we’re driving in this U-Haul from Austin to New Orleans and the whole time we’re listening to these ridiculous stations and there was one of those call-in shows where you donate for prayers. They made $25,000 in ten minutes. The callers were saying, “I’m calling in because I need help because I’m dying of cancer—here’s $100. Or I’m calling in because my son is a homosexual.” Then this incredible man came on talking about how there’s the feast of birds and about how, I don't know the specifics because I haven’t Read revelations in a long time, the people who have been sacrificed and eaten by the beasts are also going to be eaten by birds and the righteous are going to have this supper over their dead bodies. That’s kind of how this book started.
S: Did the idea of using all of this as material help you not get as upset by it? Because then you’re approaching it as an anthropologist.
W: It becomes raw material. And I don’t know how much this registers for people who weren’t raised Catholic at all. I’m happy if people just seeit as this weird vaguely religious horror show.
S: You published this chapbook under the name Jennifer Hanks. What is your relationship to “Wren” the character and the speaker and your relationship to”Wren” as the name you later adopted as your own?
W: I’ll start by saying that I’m not the only trans person who has done this which is very comforting because I thought I was and I thought it was very strange. The poet Sara June Woods is someone who has talked about doing this. I know a couple other poets have said they fell into their name by writing letters to this other person. At the same time I don’t feel like Wren is me. I still feel like that Wren is a character. That said, I felt really comfortable in his voice from the get-go, and I kept having these conversations in workshop where people were telling me “That’s not a convincing male character, that sounds too much like you.” and I’m like “What does a male character sound like? And also what assumptions are you making about me that you think I can’t write a convincing male character.”
And this wasn’t my whole workshop experience with this book, but it came up sometimes. But then the chapbook came out and I realized I had been thinking of myself as this name for a long time. I tried to make as little deal of coming out as possible which you know, always goes really well. I didn’t know when I was going to tell my family so I didn’t want to do the name change. The thing about coming out in any way I think is that people want you to make the changes really quickly, or they want to know exactly what changes you’re going to make.
S: Right. And they want to be “good” about it and they don’t want to fuck it up.
W: And a lot of the time you don’t have any idea what the answer is for a really long time. And it hasn’t been a really long time. It’s been like four months. I told a friend, a really close friend who was far away and gende queer that I thought I might do this so they were calling me Wren before anyone else was. I’m still pretty self-conscious about it, and I don’t know how to explain people who don’t know me well. It’s difficult to explain that I feel very separate from the character “Wren,”, but I also don’t think I would have come out if I hadn’t written this or let myself write this.
S: Because then you’re going through the experience of having this other voice in your head, while at the same time it’s still you.
W: It’s a way to ease into being you. And I feel like when you write you do that no matter what you’re easing into. My chapbook that’s just out from Porkbelly is about my grandmother’s suicide and that’s about easing into grief, gender, and all the parts of myself I didn’t get to tell her about.
S: I wanted to talk about the wolf as a recurring figure in these poems. I don’t know if this is a connection, but I feel like the book has all of these sinister maternal figures, and I think of the wolf as a kind of sinister maternal figure just because of Romulus and Remus and that whole connection.
W: That’s there. And I do think of her as a maternal figure. But she becomes the only one who doesn’t have really bad ulterior motives because she’s not human and I don’t know if she’s capable of them.
S: But that’s interesting because she’s the one who is the most outwardly frightening.
W: Exactly. She’s very scary. In the cover image she’s on fire. She’s horrifying.
S: But it turns out she’s the least threatening.
W: Some of that has to do with the initial focus of this chapbook that isn’t as visible now that it it’s character-driven. In the beginning it was more about environmental apocalypse so it was important to me that most of the main characters seemed sinister and it was important that whoever the main protagonist was, they were rejecting the human world in some way. So there’s some of that, but also I think it’s important for Wren to have someone to rely on. He’s rejecting one mother who obviously has a lot of issues so he’s very vulnerable and his new mother figure is not any better at all. I mean, I love her, but she’s a terrible person.
S: Why do you see her as being terrible?
W: I think it’s the same way that the Greek gods’ aims are not focused toward mortals so they can’t really see these people as people. For her the mechanisms she’s working with are so much larger than these individual people involved. So maybe in that sphere she’s moral, but if you’re a person she’s totally manipulative. She totally consumes his whole life.
And it seems like she thinks this is what’s best for him because he’s chosen, he’s going to survive. No one else is, presumably. And you wonder about the reasons why his real mother is deteriorating at that rate and how much that has to do with her.
S: It’s just interesting trading in one dark maternal figure for another one.
W: I feel like there’s this specific queer vulnerability because I feel like a lot of queer kids are growing up through trauma so I’m interested in their ideas of what a family is or what a family might be. I have another chapbook coming out, gar childthat’s about a similar kind of violence, only through generations of queer women. I feel like for Wren maybe this seems like a healthier structure because she [Mary] is strong ,right? And she can actually provide, he’s protected.
S: Another thing I thought was really interesting was the relationship between sweetness and spoil and sweetness and rot. Like with the skinning the hand and the honey, and the meat spoiling, and the bread mold.
W: Well, I’m a vegetarian who is really afraid of rotting meat. I think there’s some sense for me that the natural world encroaching on us is dangerous. For instance, zombie apocalypses are about the breakdown of the civilized (human) world. Zombies are literally decomposing meat bags. Rot is this healthy, functional part of nature that we have a really hard time with. Prophet Fever is also just saturated with the…grossness of teendom. The candy and quick sex.
S: You lived in New Orleans for the last three years. Did you feel like the city influenced the way that you wrote or the subjects that you wrote about?
W: I think it influenced the way I wrote about queerness. I think being back in the south was interesting because when I left the south I was “straight.” And when I came back I was in this very visible queer/ trans relationship. There are many queer couples who are not visible in quite the same way as my partner and I are.—like for instance we got seated in the very back of a fancy restaurant once, and no one there (except one nice waitress who gave us a free bread pudding to go) wanted to serve us.. And it’s New Orleans. It’s not like there aren’t lots of queer friendly people in New Orleans.
S: It’s just weird though because it’s still Louisiana which you forget.
W: It’s still Louisiana. And I feel like that’s a thing you’re not supposed to say—but it’s true sometimes. So that apprehension was in the air, and that’s why I wanted to write about a character who had zero worry or fear about being gay.
S: When I think of New Orleans I think of it as being decadent but also haunted at the same time.
W: It is! I didn’t believe in ghosts and then the first place that I lived there seemed very haunted. The first night Jeanne [my partner] and I slept there we had identical dreams where the ghost told us that we seemed fine so it was okay for us to live in the house.
S: That’s terrifying.
W: It’s the only place I’ve ever lived that felt weird. I think the mindset of paranoia and uncanniness is easier to conjure up in New Orleans than in a very “realist” city like New York.. New Yorkers do not want to hear about my ghost chorus. In New Orleans I would tell people about my house being haunted and they would be like “yep.” Also I feel like, Prophet Fever’s not set in a swamp, but the sweetness and decay, a lot of that comes from being in this very tropical place. And New Orleans is beautiful, but everything is also falling in on itself all the time. I felt more capable of letting my work shape itself while I was living there. I was able to cede control a bit which is hard for me, but New Orleans is not a city that runs on time or lets you keep your original plans.
S: So what are some of your other influences as it relates specifically to this project?
W: In the book the wolf is named Lyra, like in the Golden Compass.
S: I was going to bring up the Golden Compass! But the idea of a sinister maternal figure one of the first things I think of is the Golden Compass.
W: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is pretty influential to this project. Jeff Van der Meer is a huge influence. Mostly because he doesn’t feel the need to privilege humanity over other species in his writing. He’s also a straight white man who does a really good job with queer characters and characters of color (in genre fiction no less!) which is something I really admire. Feng Sun Chen’s poetry , in particular her collection The Eighth House, is fantastic . I love how she inhabits a multitude of voices. The way Richard Siken’s Crush deals with violence in queer relationships—that book has really informed how I write and examine power dynamics.
Zombie movies—on some level, I do want this project to be a poet’s Dawn of the Dead. My fantastic D&D group, who I dedicated this chapbook to. David Bowie., in particular his album 1984 and “oh you pretty things.” Femme boyhood, as it relates to my own experience of transness or the experience I might have had if I’d come out sooner, is something I want to dig into more with Wren’s love interest, B, in the larger story.
Sarah Bridgins lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Buzzfeed, Bustle, Luna Luna, Sink Review, and Big Lucks among other journals. You can read more of her work at sbridgins.tumblr.com.
Wren Hanks is the author of the forthcoming chapbooks gar child (Tree Light Books) and Ghost Skin (Porkbelly Press). They were a finalist for Heavy Feather Review’s Double Take Poetry Prize, judged by Dorothea Lasky. Their recent work can be found in Arcadia, Bone Bouquet, Hermeneutic Chaos, and The Boiler, among other journals. An associate editor for Sundress Publications, they live in New Orleans with their girlfriend, two cats, and a collection of sea ephemera.