Toward the Hanging Tree: A Conversation with Ginny LOWE Connors
by Laurin Macios | October 2016
Ginny Lowe Connors' new book Toward the Hanging Tree: Poems of Salem Village gives voice to the people of Salem Village and life to the narratives--singular and collective--of that time and place. She does so with equal devotion to the facts and the heart of the story, and with an artistry and craft both solid and fresh. Dick Allen, poet laureate emeritus of Connecticut notes, "I've never felt the terror and pathos of the Salem witchcraft story as deeply as I have after reading Ginny Connors' masterful, carefully hewn poems…Empathy and major poetry skill combine to make Toward the Hanging Tree a gripping, illuminating recasting of our early American nightmare."
I was glad to have the chance to talk with Ginny over email. This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
How did you go about the research required to write this book? Can you tell us what that process and experience was like?
First, I read several books. Among the most helpful books were A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill, The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey, and Six Women of Salem by Marilynne K. Roach. Stacey Schiff’s The Witches came out after I had finished the manuscript, but I found it a terrific read.
I visited Salem and Danvers (where Salem Village was located) several times, went to some of the existing sites, and talked briefly with historian and archivist Richard Trask. A friend of mine who is interested in genealogy and family history is a descendant of one of the victims, and she shared some good information.
My approach to history has always been to try to imagine what it was like for the individuals living through it, and that’s what I did with this book. We have some of the facts, but there is a lot that can’t be known. I just projected myself into others in an attempt to give them a voice. Literature does that all the time, and that’s what the experience of reading usually involves—becoming someone else for a while.
What was your experience and process of turning that material into poetry? To me, the poems never feel like they list off facts or are meant to relay information (as opposed to narrative), and I think that's a real feat. But I'm guessing it took a lot of work to make them read that way.
It is difficult to relay information, follow a narrative of sorts, and to do this using poetry as the vehicle. But I love poetry! It gets at the emotions in many subtle ways, through sound, through what is suggested but not quite said, through associations…
Some of my early drafts were a little clunky, but the only ones that I think remained stiff and essayistic are in the voices of individuals who likely came across as rather stiff and formal. At least that’s my hope.
A lot of my writing process is very intuitive; when it’s going well I channel a voice that comes to me fairly clearly. Then during the revision process I often read the work aloud and try to find a rhythm of sorts. I have poet friends who also offer helpful feedback. I’m sure that the folks in my regular writing group got tired of hearing the Salem poems, but they were most kind in giving suggestions.
How did form play a part in making this book, these poems and characters, come alive? Did you have to approach form differently than you do/have in other projects or when writing other poems?
When I began I tried various forms just because it felt like the right thing to do; at the same time, it also felt that I wasn’t at all sure of what I was doing, but I blundered along and made changes later as needed. Many different people are represented in the book, and I certainly did not want them all to sound the same. I invented some forms because I felt the need for repetition or patterns, but existing forms didn’t quite work. I also used some traditional forms that seemed to work for certain poems.
The poetic process is quite mysterious to me even though I have been writing for most of my life. I find that I just have to have some faith and courage and begin—later changes in form or format will appear necessary if I listen to what the poem is trying to say or do.
I have to say that one of my favorite things in the book is the repetition of words and phrases, because it adds this quality of gossip and he-said-she-said. I really felt, often, like I was overhearing conversation.
I am so happy to hear that! The use of repetition seemed to me as I was writing to perform two functions: first, it gives some poems a chant-like feeling that seemed appropriate, and second, as you point out, most people don’t speak in clearly directed sentences. They do tend to repeat and interrupt, even if they are only interrupting themselves in order to sort out their ideas or feelings as they speak.
Can you talk a bit about the experience of doing this project-based book? Was this a first for you? How did the idea come about, and how did you keep yourself committed to it in order to see it through to the end? Was that difficult, or did having a project and theme make it easier to see a goal and reach it, by telling a full story?
Toward the Hanging Tree is my first project-based book; most of the time I write on a broad variety of topics and in varying forms because otherwise I’d get bored, and because my interests range all over the place. But I loved doing this book and found it really helped to have one focus to work on. The topic fascinates me! The answers are not all clear, and that is always fruitful for poetry.
By telling the story from a variety of perspectives, my natural curiosity and the distractibility that goes with it were accommodated very nicely. I had more than one person tell me that I should tell about the witchcraft trials from a single person’s point of view, but that is not what I wanted to do. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone living through a traumatic event or series of events has a different way of seeing or understanding it. That interests me! Ultimately, I don’t believe that there is ever just one truth. The more facets one can examine, the more the complexity of a situation is revealed. With this book I just scratched the surface.
How did the idea come about? When I was in Salem for the Mass Poetry festival a couple of years ago, it was clear that the town was capitalizing on the tourist-angle of this incredible event (even though the main events took place in the town now known as Danvers), but my thought was: There needs to be a poetry collection about this! The era of the witch hunt was rich with mystery, fear, and well—just all of the human emotions. That’s poetic territory. I investigated and found nonfiction books and a few novels, but nothing much in the way of a poetry collection. So I set out to write one.
It also happens that my birthday is on Halloween, a day associated in some people’s minds with witches and deviltry. And at age eleven I acted in a college production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. They needed some young girls for the production. When I visited Salem, I remembered that brief acting experience and wanted to find out more about what actually happened in 1692. Miller took some liberties with his script, but his implied commentary on the way people scapegoat others and attack them was right on target. Of course, the McCarthy hearings were going on when he wrote his play, but the same kind of fearful turning against others in very hateful ways is still quite evident in our country today, as anyone who pays the slightest attention to political events is aware. Toward the Hanging Tree takes place in the seventeenth century, yet its theme and relevance are timeless.
How did you come up with the handful of invented characters, and what purpose did they serve for you in writing the book?
Almost all of the characters in the book are based on real individuals, but you’re right, I included a few fictional ones. The three gossiping women who are featured in several poems in the book are a sort of Greek Chorus (Massachusetts Chorus?) who help move the narrative along and also express the fears, doubts, and wonderment that some of the citizens who were neither accused nor accusing might have felt.
I wanted Thomas Parris to have a friend, as is natural for a young boy, so I made up Henry West to serve that function. Henry West also came in handy for the poem about the dog. Thomas Parris was a real person; almost all that we know about him is that he was the son of Reverend Parris and his wife, living in the parsonage where the whole story began. He would have been about twelve years old at that time. I used Thomas as a child narrator; he was close at hand, old enough to be thoughtful and observant, yet young enough to have some innocence in his viewpoint.
I could not find the name of the person who actually served as hangman, although he would have served under the Sheriff’s direction. What would it be like to hang someone? What if the hangman had a few doubts about the person’s innocence? I had to include this voice, so I assigned a name to the hangman: Joseph Leech. In a book called Toward the Hanging Tree, it seemed important to include this poem and character.
When you read these poems aloud, do the characters take on different (literal) voices?
Some of them do. I may do a few readings in which I ask a couple of other people to take on some of the voices. This book would work really well in a group or class of people who could do read-alouds in different voices. It is definitely appropriate for high school kids, for instance, and reading the poems aloud brings them to life. The voices should naturally be different as they represent different personalities, ages, etc.
Have you spent a lot of time in Salem, and if so, does the experience of being in the city itself play a part in these poems and in the book as a whole (or in your process of writing it)?
I have been to Salem and Danvers a number of times, but haven’t lived there or spent a great deal of time there. Being in Salem for a weekend full of poetry led me to put those two (Salem & poetry) together in my mind.
You mentioned that the Mass Poetry festival had a small part in sparking the idea for this book. That's so great to hear!
I attended the Mass Poetry festival both of the last two years. I participated in a program on writing prompts the first time. A panel of four of us shared writing prompts and some poems that had resulted from them. I hosted a session on the brave women writers from Afghanistan last year. My small poetry press, Grayson Books, published a bilingual book of poetry and short essays by Afghan women writers called Washing the Dust from Our Hearts, and two of the writers, college students in USA now, shared some of their work and insights, along with two American women who mentor some of the writers. The Mass Poetry Festival is a fantastic venue—it offers so much. And Salem is certainly a fascinating town.
Ginny Lowe Connors is the author of two previous poetry collections: The Unparalleled Beauty of a Crooked Line and Barbarians in the Kitchen, as well as a chapbook, Under the Porch, winner of the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. She served as poet laureate of her town, West Hartford, Connecticut from 2013-2015. She also runs a small poetry press, Grayson Books. You can find out more about her poetry by visiting her website: www.ginnyloweconnors.com.