Review: Matters of Record

Megan Roberts is a young, prolific North Carolina writer who has that one quality that all writers covet: she is able to genre-hop between fiction and poetry effortlessly.  While her MFA is in fiction writing, her poems have appeared in several literary journals and won awards.  She has a novel in the works and most recently published a chapbook, Matters of Record, which contains poems about women murderers who were executed for their crimes.

The chapbook will officially be released in July but Megan was nice enough to let me read an advanced copy, since I had heard her talk about the project and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.  I was intrigued by the subject matter.  Women murderers?  Executed?  There are so many different ways a writer could approach such a topic; each way would influence the stories being told, and I wondered how Megan would handle it.  Would she judge the murderers, have sympathy for them, give them voices, give their victims voices, or merely report the facts?

It turns out she did all of the above.  The women in the poems range from those executed within the last decade all the way back to Mary Surrat, who was executed as a co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination.  There are times when she gets inside the women’s heads and tells the stories in their voices; other times, the poems are from the perspective of complete strangers who are only tangentially involved with the crimes or executions; other times there is a completely omniscient, detached narrator.  Some of the poems concentrate on the crimes themselves, the motivations (or mental illness) behind them or the aftereffects, such as in “Wishing Well,” where a community pitches in to buy a– you guessed it– wishing well, and one of Betty Lou Beet’s (executed in 2000 in Texas) husbands ends up under it, or in the first-person poem “The Divorce,” which describes how Mary Mabel Rogers (executed in 1905 in Vermont) took her husband into the woods to poison him.  Other poems, like the first one in the chapbook, “Peach,” about Karla Faye Tucker’s (executed in 1998 in Texas) last meal, draw further away from the crimes.  The last stanza of that poem is squirm-inducing:

Later, as the hollow needle
was pulled from her arm,
a cockroach entered Karla’s old cell.
Engorged itself
within that leftover peach
head stuck inside,
legs running on air,
body struggling to go deeper.

Probably the one that haunted me the most, however, was “Margie and Me,” a poem about Velma Marge Barfield (executed in North Carolina, 1984, for killing a boyfriend, her husband, and her mother), and I think because it’s the only poem where the author explicitly allows herself to become part of the story.  This is the first stanza:

At ten, Margie stole coins from her father–
a poor girl and at school
Margie wanted to buy lunch.
That heavy thud against her thigh,
silver jingle in her little pocket.

My father left his dresser drawer full
of change like scattered temptations
along with a single heavy gun.
Satisfying thud as I slammed
the old drawer shut, thunk
inside my birdcage breast.

The fact that the author was making connections between herself and a killer made me stop and think; I didn’t for one second think that Megan approved of Velma’s actions or was trying to excuse them, but it did let me see the story in another light, one that was uncomfortable at first and then became more human as I considered it.  That’s what these poems do: they make you uncomfortable and squirmy, stop and consider, ask yourself questions about these women.  Each poem stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

After finishing the book, I assaulted Megan with a bunch of questions about the project and the process– I think the poems made me even more curious than I was before I read the book:

How did you decide to write a book of poetry about women sentenced to death for murder?  What started the project?

I can tell you that this is not the type of topic I usually write about. I normally focus on Southern families and places, small town tensions. So this topic was a big leap for me. It really started small, with a conversation with Luke Whisnant, a professor at ECU. He told me a little about Velma Marge Barfield’s story,  and then I was off and running. One woman led to another. I wrote about Velma early on, and I also wrote the title poem “Matters of Record” fairly early in the process when I began to explore racism and women in connection to the death penalty.

What kind of research did you do for the poems, and how much is fact and how much is fiction?

The basics of their crimes are true, but I’ve taken full creative license with the details. I’ve also used experimental points of view and small moments to allow room for fiction. Through adding my own “facts,” I began to find a deeper understanding in their stories.
I used websites, newspaper articles, and books for my research, but I am far from an expert on these women and their crimes. I researched enough to find something to be inspired by and then I put the books down. If I went too far into the research, I found that I couldn’t write a poem. My mind was overwhelmed and closed off to creativity.

The stories in these poems are told from varying, and extremely diverse, viewpoints, ranging from a bystander in a parking lot to the murderers themselves to an anonymous woman on an online message board.  How did you decide which viewpoints to use in the poems?

At first, I was only writing in first person as the women (persona) or third person with the women as subjects. After several poems, this began to weigh on me. I switched to unexpected view points out of necessity. I was bored, and the book was going to be much too dark if every poem took you inside a jail cell or to the electric chair. I began to ask questions like, What does a jury really think about? What about their children? What about witnesses? I soon realized the new viewpoints told a fuller story.
The online message board poem came from reading so much about these women online. There are a lot of other people who are obsessed with these stories, and they usually become obsessed with one woman in particular. I was always questioning why I was interested and why others, strangers to these women, were interested as well. I think it comes down to the connection we feel with them. Even if we find their crimes heinous and grotesque, there is something in all of these women that we can relate to. I think people dissect these women’s lives, childhoods, motives, because they are trying to understand humans and themselves. Most of these stories boil down to issues of power and powerlessness. What woman can’t relate to that?

Emotionally, how did you handle spending so much time and energy on the lives of murderers?  Did you become attached to the women?  Judgment is almost totally left out of your poems; personally, were you able to maintain that distance?

This collection was a side project. I couldn’t focus totally on it for any length of time. While writing fiction during my MFA, I would only spend a day, here or there, on these poems. If I spent much longer than a day or two at a time, my creative brain would shut down and my thinker brain would try to take over. I couldn’t let that happen because I really wanted this to be a creative project, not a political or judgmental one.  For example, Judy Buenoano, the Black Widow, is a woman I researched and studied;  she still haunts me, but I couldn’t write anything worth putting in a collection because I had begun to judge her. I hated her, and the writing was awful because of that.
I tried to keep my distance in the poems, but I probably show some sympathy or at least a connection to Velma Barfield and Helen Fowler. Especially in the poem about Helen Fowler, you can hear me lamenting her death. I slowly decided to bring the reader a little closer to my emotions throughout the course of writing. My main goal was to bring their stories to life; readers should draw their own conclusions.

I have no idea how chapbooks come into being– can you tell us a little about the process?

Me either! I became obsessed with a certain topic and just wouldn’t stop. At some point, fairly late in the process, I realized I might have a collection. I think it took a mentor or professor saying, Hey, you’re working on a book here. Then I began what was a really fun part of the process: what poems to include, exclude, and which poems to put side-by-side. I think that process was very organic for me. They seemed to fall into place within the book, but I really liked thinking about the poems “talking” to each other in relation to where they were placed within the chapbook. Then I found Finishing Line Press and they seemed like a good match for my subject matter.
I don’t know if I could write an entire collection (40-50 poems) on this subject because it is so draining on me. Although I am still obsessed by their stories, so they may begin to appear in my short stories now.

If you love poetry, find the subject matter interesting, or just want to support young writers and the local writing community, you can buy  Matters of Record for $12 (and I strongly, strongly recommend you do– the writing is fantastic, seriously).  To pre-order a copy from Finishing Line Press, click here.

To read a blog post by Megan about how she first became interested in Velma Marge Barfield and how it started the project, click here.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Matters of Record

  1. […] can write! Caroline Swicegood, a good friend and fantastic writer, wrote a very insightful and informative review on Matters of Record, my chapbook. Caroline’s post includes a review and a brief interview with me, so you can […]

  2. […] Swicegood, a good friend and fantastic writer, wrote a very insightful and informative review on Matters of Record, my chapbook. Caroline’s post includes a review and a brief interview with me, so you can […]

  3. […] Poetry Review: Matters of Record […]

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