Interview: Poet Hannah V. Warren on Apocalypse and Digging Up the Past

In the humid loam of a Jurassic-era feeling Southern United States, poet Hannah V. Warren
debuts her collection, Slaughterhouse for Old Wives’ Tales (Sundress Publications, January
2024). Betraying the old adage, you can’t move forward by looking back, Warren explored
natural history museums (including some of our very own here in Chicago) and dug deeper into
long time interests in paleontology. Warren’s collection celebrates the landscapes both indoor
and out that heavily influenced her writing from exhibitions to mangroves. Exploring the
monstrosities of human and land, Slaughterhouse for Old Wives’ Tales feels current and
necessary. Plus, there are lots of dinosaurs.

The title and cover give the reader a first taste of what they are in for throughout the book;
can you talk about where the title came from and what drew you to Jaime Aelavanthara’s
photo for the cover?

 
Once upon a time, Slaughterhouse for Old Wives’ Tales was called Let’s Leave the Lights On.
Horror is so intrinsically important for this collection, and I waffled on what direction to take the
name. These poems are apocalyptic—they kill things off. Slaughterhouse felt right. Killing the
narratives that tell women how to hold their bodies? Even better.
 
I feel incredibly privileged to have Jaime Aelavanthara’s work on my cover. Like me, Jaime’s
from Mississippi, and her photography is deliciously Southern Gothic. My cover is from her
Untamed series. Slaughterhouse for Old Wives’ Tales sweeps across the South, drawing on
imagery from my childhood in Mississippi and my current life in Georgia. I can imagine nothing
more apt than Jaime’s abject swamp scene—a faceless young woman holding an alligator skull.

The end of times is present from the start with the first look at extinction. With the section,
Dinosaurs, you dive deep during the third section, Apocalypses. Was there a precise
moment where the outside world provoked you to respond via your art?

 
Working on this collection during the pandemic was uncanny, to say the least. Slaughterhouse,
as a project, was well underway when we entered lockdown, but my experience with walking
Georgia backroads to wile the days away redirected the newer poems to the present, especially in
the long poem “estranged south.” I don’t think I have a precise moment where I imagined an
eco-apocalyptic landscape, but the poems got significantly more violent as I progressed and
revised, especially since I was conveniently studying apocalypse literature for my PhD at the
time. “pulsing violets,” one of the last poems I added to the manuscript, is a testament to my
frustration with myself and others—and, on a grander scale, with our institutional inability to
minimize our environmental impact, which in turn floods into environmental racism then
continues toppling the house of cards. In June 2020, we recorded the hottest temperature
experienced in the Arctic Circle at 100.4° (38.0°C).

Poet Hannah V. Warren.

Familial bonds, for better or worse, are a focal point throughout. The same can be said for the concept of home. What influenced you to showcase the bonds that break and bind us?
 

Home is so tricky to me, so contextual. My husband and I ask each other if we should go home for the holidays, and we mean the small town in Mississippi where we both grew up. At a party, I
tell a friend it’s time for me to go home, back to the house I share with my husband and cat. Over the past two years, I’ve lived in Germany and England for work and research while my husband
is back in Georgia. Georgia is home—how are things at home? I ask on the phone—but so is my temporary one-room apartment; I send a quick text: I’m on my way home. In Slaughterhouse, I
sought to play with this transitive idea of home. After I left Mississippi, I spent a long time trying to shed all the trappings of how my home defined me, quickly learning it was impossible. Identity is complicated; home, whether running toward or away from it, is an identity-marker. I think I’m looking for elasticity in something that often binds or breaks.
 
In the first section of the book, there are three excerpts used from John Trundle, John
Woodward, and Mary Anning. What drew to you their work and why did you want to
include their words in your book?

 
I’m fascinated by paleontological histories. These 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century accounts provide insight for how people came to terms with monstrous bones they found in the earth. Serpents? Monsters? Migrant animals from distant lands? Trundle and Woodward experienced unknown curiosities and wrote about them with suspicion. As a woman, Anning received disdain and dismissal from fossil hunters and scientists. When Anning was young, her father taught her to clean fossils, then displayed and sold them in his shop. As she continued digging and identifying, Anning sold her fossils to male scientists, helping clear her family’s debts after her father’s death. Of course, they omitted her name from the discoveries. Now, her name is a familiar one, plastered across London’s Natural History Museum as one of our most crucial mothers of paleontology. I thought about Anning often while writing my paleontologist into these poems, and I’m delighted to have some of her tenacity embedded in Slaughterhouse.

From the flora and fauna, traditions and expectations, to the manmade world, place throughout the book is ever present and solid, how did setting influence this book?
 
I suppose I could say that place haunts me. All my memories are setting-specific. I never think about people without thinking about rooms, riverbanks, bars. I have whatever the opposite of an eidetic memory is; I remember important dates, secrets, emotions, and the ilk by association. Place is not just a setting for me, but an aesthetic value locked in time. Setting played a similar role in my composition of Slaughterhouse. Every location sparked specific memories for me, and I wove them in to make the place/space come alive for myself—and, hopefully, for my readers.

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Caroline Huftalen

Caroline L. Huftalen is the food editor at Third Coast Review and columnist behind Dear Cinnamon. Her reviews and interviews can also be seen on BuskingAtTheSeams.com. Huftalen is the founder of Survivors Project, Inc. which raises awareness for domestic violence by sharing stories of survival. A graduate of the University at Buffalo and the Savannah College of Art of Design. Huftalen lives in Chicago with her family and is currently writing a novel.