Kailey Tedesco's "Lizzie, Speak": Eerie, gorgeous, and gripping
Earlier this year, PHEMME Zine had the privilege of sitting down with author Kailey Tedesco to talk about her book, Lizzie, Speak. (If you aren't familiar with famed murderess Lizzie Borden, close this tab, do some Wikipedia-ing, and then read this interview.) Tedesco's poems are hauntingly beautiful; they hover somewhere between delicate and sharp, soft and bloody. Read on to hear about Tedesco's process. (Hint: it involves sleep paralysis, nightmares, and lots of inspiration.)
PHEMME: Tell us a bit about Lizzie, Speak. When did you start working on it? What did your process look like?
TEDESCO: I started working on Lizzie, Speak immediately after completing my first collection (She Used to be on a Milk Carton), only I didn’t know at that time that the Lizzie Borden poems I was writing would turn into a full-length book. What I did know was that I wanted to experiment more, both with my form and with my voice. I was reading a lot about the Spiritualist movement, so I thought a cool exercise would be to allow Lizzie’s voice to speak through me, as though I was a spiritual medium. This was both incredibly satisfying and chilling for me all at once, but I couldn’t stop until I felt like I had completed the story — whether that story, in the end, was Lizzie’s or my own.
I ultimately learned so much about my own voice and language from this sort of extended exercise in seance writing. I still use many of these techniques, like dissociative/automatic writing and text predictive exercises, in my current work. It all really sparked something in me, and I have Lizzie to thank for that.
P: When did your interest develop in Lizzie Borden? It seems like you have a personal connection to the material explored in your book—we'd love to know more.
T: I’ve been interested in Lizzie Borden pretty much forever. My mom used to sing me the rhyme before bed, so that has always sort of echoed through my memories of childhood. When I was older, we went on a family trip to the Borden Museum and B&B in Fall River, MA, and it shook me. I spent a lot of my teen years fearing Lizzie Borden in a way I couldn’t articulate. I’d get caught in sleep paralysis loops where Lizzie would be at the end of my bed, pulling at my ankles, or nightmares where I’d be wandering her house alone.
As I got older, I started to embrace a bunch of fears that I decided must be irrational — this list was pretty long for me and, at one point, included demonic possession as well. Lizzie was on this list, so I just started to read her biographies and watch the ghost hunts and adaptations voraciously. When I was nearly finished with the collection, my grandma
called out of the blue to tell me for the first time that my great-great-grandmother was Lizzie Borden’s neighbor. I felt so validated by that — like all along Lizzie had been pulling me for a reason.
P: The historical angle of Lizzie, Speak is another interesting facet of the book. How much research did you need to do before/during the writing process?
T: Thank you! I researched often, but not always in ways that were would be considered conventional. I was captivated by the mythos of Lizzie in addition to the history/biography, so I wanted to explore texts that were not necessarily factual. I watched the Christina Ricci Lifetime movie, listened to podcasts, read graphic novels, watched episodes of TV shows that explore the Borden murders (Supernatural has a super cheesy one), watched countless ghost hunts from the nineties onward, and read a ton of Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson (both authors wrote about Lizzie Borden somewhat extensively). Of course, I read biographies and more academic texts as well, but my heart is always with storytelling. In everything I do, I crave stories. The story of Lizzie Borden is enormous and distinct and still crawling through so many of us — it’s definitely in me.
P: What was surprising to you about working on this book? What was your favorite thing about working on it? What was the most challenging?
T: I think I was most surprised by how much of myself I found by writing about Lizzie. This was equally exhilarating and chilling. Society across time has liked to paint Lizzie as a duplicitous monster or a homely spinster, but in reality she was neither. I really enjoyed the process of sifting through all of the stories to find what I’ve approximated as the truth of Lizzie. Although, that “truth” may just be my own story of Lizzie according to my own biases. And that was probably the most challenging part — allowing Lizzie to speak through me in these poems without robbing her of her voice or agency in the story I was telling.
P: Give us a bit of background on you as a writer—how long have you been writing? Do you write in genres other than poetry, or do you consider yourself first and foremost a poet?
T: It’s probably cliche to say this, but I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I said a lot of prayers when I was little and my mom was always reciting nursery rhymes for me, so eventually I started making little rhymes and incantations of my own. As I grew, that became more of a deliberate practice and I’ve been writing pretty consistently ever since. I didn’t start sharing my work until just a little over five years ago when I started my MFA program, though. I’m not sure if that’s because I lacked confidence or just lacked connections to the literary community, but in either case I’m so grateful to have found spaces for my writing to grow over these years.
I will always consider myself a poet first, probably. It’s just what has always come naturally to me. I also write creative nonfiction often, though, and I’ve been working on some lyric essays and other hybrid works as well. I love the ways that poetry can intersect with all of the genres!
P: Name a few authors that inspire you.
T: Oh boy! There’s so many. Here are some that have been a huge inspiration to me recently: Jenny Sadre-Orafai, Annah Browning, Kristin Garth, Jennifer Coella Martelli, Michelle Reale, Angelo Colavita, T.A. Noonan, Dorothea Lasky, Arielle Tipa, Shirley Jackson, Jac Jemc, Sylvia Plath (always and forever), and, like, a whole lot more!
P: What, in your opinion, makes for a "good poem?"
T: My favorite poems are the ones that I get stuck in. They contain images that are surprising and obvious all at once, but ones that make me open my eyes to the world in a new way. I love film so much, so I’m also invested in poetry that functions like film with cinematic turns and scene cuts and stills. A good poem, to me, creates its own aesthetic from the inside out. •