Dead cows the size of small cars
and pigs so fat
you could crawl
inside their carcasses
hung from steel chains
dripping from the rafters.
If I could have walked on the ceiling.
I would have looked up
and seen terrible balloons.
(from The Slaughterhouse Poems, White Gorilla Press, 2013)
In your latest collection The Slaughterhouse Poems, the young narrator explores the experience of working at a slaughter house. Assuming, you drew from experience, can you discuss writing about the slaughterhouse decades later? Were you writing these pieces over the years or did they come out when you started the book?
I started writing about the slaughterhouse when I was still an undergraduate, which was twenty-one years ago now. All of those poems got tossed out for sheer suckiness, but I liked the subject matter, and it seemed true to the area of the world I want to portray in books—Western Pennsylvania—so I stuck with it for years. Probably having distance allowed for some compassion to creep in. I’m well into middle-age now and it’s a lot easier to understand the struggles of people—even people who are mean-spirited or total fucknuts—because adulthood diminishes us all in some ways. It’s good to use that smallness to create well-rounded poems, I think, poems that show all sides.
“Killing Floor” is a short poem compared to the others in the collection, but is a poem that leaves the reader with a haunting image. Is this because the image remained with you all these years and if so when you wrote the piece did it come out in this clear, concise and poignant way or did you work through several revisions?
Thanks. I think the image was clipped from a longer piece originally. Then I revised it until it became its own poem. Writing long narrative poems generates more material than is useful so I cut and save that stuff and come back to it.
The image did remain with me, but it needed to be sorted. Life repeats itself endlessly, especially with work. The job of the writer or the artist is to find which moment from the repetition matters, which moment illuminates. Art grabs the one moment or conversation that is the same as all the other moments but somehow better.
Can you talk about your commitment to the working-class genre?
I love books about work, and I mean that in the broadest sense. One of my favorite novels is The Lemon by Mohammed Mrabet. The Lemon is the story of a kid in Morocco, desperately trying to find a job and survive. One of my favorite living poets is Ginger Andrews, who writes about cleaning churches. Work is what almost all of us do in the world, so it’s important to find meaning there, even if the meaning is unpleasant. It might be an unrealistic goal, but I write for people who hold jobs they don’t like and have to find purpose elsewhere, even though most of those people don’t have the time or energy to read. I’ve spent a lot of my life without the time and energy to read but I’ve read and it’s kept me sane and alive, no bullshit. I’d be bridge-diving to concrete without books, so that’s where I put my free time and that’s where I spend my money, on literature. Thanks, books, you’ve been a huge help.
Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Waiting at the Dead End Diner published by Bottom Dog Press in 2014. Cadillac Men published by New York Quarterly Books in 2012. Falling Forward published by sunnyoutside press in 2009, The Map of Our Garden published by Verve Bath Press, Dream Big, Work Harder in 2006 and the postcard poem “Logic.”. Her first chap-book The Tear Duct of the Storm was published by Green Bean Press in 2001. She earned degrees from SUNY New Paltz and San Francisco State University. She lives, teaches, and writes in New York’s Hudson Valley. You can find out more at RebeccaSchumejda.com.