How do you find your way into a poem?
Sometimes it’s that sensory moment—a line of melody, the flash of a redbird’s wing, the drift of scent on fickle breeze.
Sometimes the pump must be primed. You might read other writers, listen to music, or flip through a list of workshop prompts.
Then there are the times when a poem comes like thunder after lightning. All you can do, then, is hang on and try to get the words down fast enough before the vibrations fade.
I’ve had a few poems come like that, over the years, in a single stream-of-consciousness burst that sends words pouring onto the paper. But those have been few, far between, and always welcomed over the drudgery of pushing limp lines around on a poem that refuses to gel.
The arrival of the Leopard Lady, however, was something different.
I was working in my journal one night when this voice began, with no prodding or priming or expectation. It was strong and sure, a voice with Appalachian cadences, and it was dictating lines, whole poems. I scribbled as fast as I could for as long as she spoke, 13 pages that included three poems almost whole and large chunks of several more. But fascinating as this visitation was, I also had a strong impulse to turn it off, turn it away. She was a biracial woman from an era before mine, and the carnival she called home was entirely alien. And so I focused on other projects, working on novels and other kinds of poems, and I let the Leopard Lady rest. Or tried to. But the poems kept coming, slowly building a life story.
At first, I had no name except the one she gave, the Leopard Lady. The often-raw images of her childhood in Appalachia were not mine. I was raised in a loving family, if one that struggled financially. But the texture of the hills, the back roads with their weedy edges, the garden plots, and the shady pools in deep woods, these we shared.
There were points where we came together. The Appalachian voice, for one. The phrases pulled from Shakespeare. And the vitiligo that destroyed her natural pigment so that she became the Leopard Lady—that I knew from my own experience with this disorder.
I think of the poet, myself as poet, as a magpie, picking up bits and shiny pieces that it weaves into its nest. The poems that became Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse include those first thunderclap pages, but also legend and carnival lore and pieces of my own history, shaping a narrative that is part personal, part research, part voice.
Nearly every poem has some point of personal reference, allowing me an anchor in this unfamiliar voice and alien place. Places that I’ve known appear in the poems, some named and others not. Dinah (that was her name, after I tried others on her that did not stick) runs away from her abusive home and ends up near my childhood home in “Destroyed by Fire Flood and Ice”:
I leapt off the boxcar before the Oil City yard,
the man first down but not a hand
to help me over the clinkers.
Gallows-trees on the sidehills
and pump-jacks like to beat
dear life out of that knobbly ground.
Later in the book, a visit to a friend’s home in South Carolina provided the backdrop for “The Kangaroo Court Convenes”:
Lester swears he’s dying
cause Ranny worked a root on him.
Saw him myself at Beaufort,
conjure man in purple-tinted glasses.
They call him Doctor Buzzard.
Memories swirl around “leopard,” including fragments of leopard print material from a garment I once wore, incorporated into a quilt that’s on my bed today. And the story of my favorite toy, Lenny Leopard, and how I was warned not to leave him outside but did. The wet and maggoty toy surely was thrown into the burn barrel, but I don’t remember, so maybe I blocked the memory or perhaps I had set up the demise of an outgrown toy, like a sting in a bad movie. Other memories appear, my mother’s spotted hands that became my hands, and the dim cases of curiosities at the Ripley’s museum in Niagara Falls.
Finally, a deep memory, pushed down so far it was almost forgotten. I remember walking across trampled grass to a carnival. The midway lay ahead, and to the right was a sideshow, gaudy banners moving slowly with the breeze. I stared but never went inside, scoffing at the sideshow yet unwilling to confront it.
Of course, research helped me find my way into this story in another culture. Once I decided to accept the challenge of this voice, I revisited books I had read, Leslie Fiedler’s Freaks and Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, and sought out websites and books on carnivals and freak shows. I went to Coney Island, pursuing this story like the reporter I once was.
Leopard Lady was an unusual book in its quickness and slowness—the first blast then the accumulation over 15 years of poems in Dinah’s voice and that of other carnival members. Patience is a difficult thing in our world driven by speed. As writers, we never know how the work will come into bloom. Some poems and even books seem to pop open immediately, while others have to unfurl slowly, the petals so tightly wrapped that they have to fill their veins like a butterfly coming from the chrysalis.
I don’t know if I would have had that patience. But the Leopard Lady did.
Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse will be published Oct. 1, 2018 by Press 53.
You have not before read a book like this one. This one will take you where you have never been. Yes, you may have seen a circus but that is not exactly what is here. Nor have you met these people before. Unique, deeply moving, funny, and withal composed on the edge of danger and enlightenment, Leopard Lady is masterful. Nieman’s syntax, rhymes, meter and scenes make music while the reader is charged with an energy that takes us closer and closer to the singular truth we must bear.
—Kelly Cherry, former Poet Laureate of Virginia
Here, readers are taken on an unexpected adventure. In “Destroyed by Fire Flood and Ice,” the Gypsy Queen asks, “Do you dare see the secrets past the veil?” Readers, be ready to find what you did not know you were seeking, as the Leopard Lady will take you on an unforeseen journey and, indeed, you will discover secrets as you travel these wondrous paths.
—Jill Gerard, Editor, Chautauqua
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Valerie Nieman is the author of three novels: Blood Clay, a novel of the New South, which was honored with the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction; a novel about the Rust Belt of the 1970s, Survivors; and her first book, Neena Gathering, reissued in 2012 as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. A fourth book, Backwater, is now in submission, and research for a new novel included a month hiking solo in Scotland. Her second poetry collection, Hotel Worthy, appeared in 2015 from Press 53. She is also the author of a debut poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, and a collection of short stories, Fidelities.
She was a 2013-2014 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as major grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes. Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and at venues ranging from the John C. Campbell Folk School to WriterHouse.