I was thrilled to record one of the crown of sonnets from The Book of Hulga for Poets & Writers Page One podcast. You can listen to it here (and as a bonus get to see a couple of the illustrations from the book).
Here’s a little introduction to what you’ll be hearing:
When I was working on poems about Flannery O’Connor and beginning to feel lost, I went back to her collected letters, to see what it was that felt so urgent and inspiring to me. I turned to a letter she had written to her friend Betty Hester, a frustrated writer and lesbian who was perhaps O’Connor’s closest correspondent. In this letter she’s reflecting on Waiting for God, a collection of the writings of the French philosopher Simone Weil. I had not paid much attention to this letter before, because I was not particularly familiar with the writings or life of Weil. I was stopped by these words of O’Connor’s: “If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman—and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?” In the very next letter she explained that her heroine wouldn’t be a hypothetical version of Weil; she said, “My heroine already is, and is Hulga.”
Hulga is the main character from O’Connor’s story “Good Country People,” about a middle-aged woman with a wooden leg and a PhD in philosophy who decides to seduce a bible salesman, and she’s arguably O’Connor’s most autobiographical character. I started thinking of Hulga as the ideal lens for viewing O’Connor’s life and work, and became interested in Simone Weil. I got a copy of Weil’s notebooks, and found myself using some of the lines in the Hulga poems. This led me to conceiving a crown of sonnets—a group of seven sonnets where the last line of the first poem becomes the first line of the next poem and so on—using lines from the Notebooks. I was worried that the poems would seem forced or root-bound, that I wouldn’t be able to get through all seven. But then I wrote another crown, employing the same lines in the same pattern, and then wrote yet another one. There are now three interlocking crowns, meaning that the twenty-one individual sonnets can be combined in different ways to form hundreds of different crowns. So this is just one of the hundreds of crowns of Hulga.