Conversations with Speculative Poets: Shannon Connor Winward

The Conversations with Speculative Poets Series features interviews with writers of science fiction and fantasy poetry. For the eighth post in this series, I spoke with poet Shannon Connor Winward about her collection THE YEAR OF THE WITCH (Sycorax Press 2018).

Shannon Connor Winward is an American editor and writer. She is the author of the Elgin-Award winning chapbook UNDOING WINTER and THE YEAR OF THE WITCH, a full-length collection of poetry published by Sycorax Press (Summer 2018). Her fiction has earned recognition in the Writers of the Future Contest, the Odyssey Con Odd Contest, Postcard Poems & Prose Flash Fiction Contest, and the Delaware Division of the Arts, for which she was awarded an emerging artist fellowship in fiction in 2018. Her stories and prose have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Pseudopod’s Artemis Rising Series, Lunch Ticket, Shoreline of Infinity, The Wild Musette, Persistent Visions, Cast of Wonders, Gargoyle, Spinetingler Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Plasma Frequency Magazine,The Vestal Review, and PANK (among others), as well as in genre anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic (including Heiresses of Russ: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction 2015).

T.D. Walker: You begin The Year of the Witch with an introduction to the concepts of cyclical and linear years and an instructional guide for the reader, a “how to.” And yet, in giving the reader context for the poems, you also recognize the individual place where a reader enters your work: “Your measure of the Year is as needful, and needless, as mine,” and “There’s a story here, though it doesn’t matter, really, where it starts and where it ends.”

This led me to wonder how this cyclical nature of the year affected your process of crafting the poems in the book. Did you view writing the poems as a collection in this same way? And how do you view the necessary linearity of the individual poems–the flow of the poem from line to line, from beginning to end–in light of the overarching theme of returning?

Shannon Connor Winward: The Year of the Witch wasn’t written cover to cover. The poems were chosen from a body of work that spans almost two decades. Although my focus and voice has shifted over the years, I’ve long been interested in many of the same themes. Once I had decided on the structure of the book, that I wanted it to follow the wheel of the pagan year, with four main quarters—one for each season— it was just a matter of selecting poems that fit each seasonal axis.

Cover of The Year of the Witch

Is a poem’s nature necessarily linear? A poem is much like a story—some dance closer to narrative than others, but usually they contain story elements, even if only the impression, the ghost of one. And stories are cyclical; we tell ourselves the same stories over and over and over yet again. They must often follow a script or pattern—certain things have to happen in order, the first line has to come before the ending, flowers have to bloom before they die, because otherwise the cadence sounds off. On the other hand, it is possible to tell a good story no matter where it begins or ends. It just depends on the dance between the storyteller and their listener or reader, and how much we are willing to let go of.

TDW: Your collection centers on the supernatural: astrology, tarot, gods and goddesses. Yet woven in the poems is a thread of referencing the scientific. For instance, “Ostara / Spring” acknowledged the spring equinox as “an astronomical event,” the epigraph of “Midsummer” notes the distance between Earth and Mars, and “Paradox of Return” begins with the lines “The tilt of the earth / is 23 1/2 degrees.”

How do you see scientific fact as engaging with the rituals and the sense of the unseen in your poems?

SCW: Science was not anathema to pre-Christian cultures. A lot of the mythic and ritual traditions that inspire me come from early pagan groups who pioneered our observation of the natural world. Astronomy, in particular, was important to ancient peoples; it informed their economic and social systems as much as it did their religions. For me, as for folks throughout the ages, the marriage of observable, natural fact with a spiritual narrative makes for fabulous poetry. It helps us to understand our place as spiritual beings in a physical world.

TDW: Of the poems in the collection, the one I found most engaging is “Return.” The images of nature–the hyacinths–interplay with the mundane images of office work–the coffee cup and spreadsheets. Later, we follow the speaker back to her childhood home, then back to her childhood, which makes a frame given the reference to her son at the beginning of the poem.

In a book grounded in nature and mythology, the specific reference to hyacinths stands out. What sparked this poem for you? And what was it about the brief but brilliantly alive flowers of the hyacinth that drew you to them?

Poet Shannon Connor WinwardSCW: All of the poems in The Year of the Witch were chosen for their relationship to the seasons, either through direct imagery or else thematic kinships of a personal or poetic nature. “Return” is not only one of the first poems in the first quarter of the book (in the “Spring” quarter), it was also one of the first selections that I made for the book overall. To me it was a natural choice because of its references to hyacinths, the pungent annuals that herald spring, and because of the stream of spring-related associations that flower evokes for me (e.g., Easter, patent leather shoes, perfume on my mother’s wrist) that also “return” in the poem. They say smell is one of the most powerful ways to incite memory. One whiff of a hyacinth can transport me to the springtime of my own childhood. What scent can spark a sense-memory for you?

TDW: Are there collections that share the same themes as The Year of the Witch that you’d like to recommend to readers of Luna Station Quarterly?

There are many fantastic speculative poets out there who are exploring mythic narratives, nature love, and other themes similar to those in The Year of the Witch. As a whole, however, I’m not aware of a poetry collection that’s quite like this one, because it was intended as an homage not to other poetry but to a specific genre of non-fiction.

As a young person seeking new spiritual options in the early 90s, I cut my teeth on Neo-Pagan how-to books that sought to modernize ancient traditions for the new millennium–I read a lot of the kind of books that were shelved next to the crystals and tarot cards in the back corners of big box bookstores: glossy covers and user-friendly text focused on light and love, with varying degrees of actual scholarship to underscore their claims, but brimming with the new age-y spiritual romance that so many of us needed at the time.

A lot of the texts I enjoyed as a teen are still available through Amazon under searches like “wheel of the year”, so readers who enjoyed what I’ve done with The Year of the Witch and want to get more of that kind of content could start there. Another perennial favorite of mine is the Llewellyn’s Witches’ Calendar series, which still comes out every year. Along with the calendar blocks they publish earnest lyrical essays reflecting on witchcraft and earth-based spirituality as well as the magical associations, astrological data, and overall seasonal celebration that I remember from those early books–all the things that I tried to invoke, poetically, with The Year of the Witch.