KRISTIN GARTH: Since your poems reference a lot of the mythology of fairytales, I wanted to ask you first what your favorite fairytale is and why.
OLIVIA LOCCISANO: I have many fairy tales that I love and resonate with, but my favourite has to be “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” by Hans Christian Andersen. It is a story about a toy soldier who has a broken leg. From across the room, he sees a ballerina in a music box dancing on one leg, and from afar, he thinks that she is missing a leg as well.
I would watch the VHS ballet version of the story as a child, so I love it for nostalgic reasons firstly. The VHS version has a happy ending with the soldier and the ballerina ending up together and living happily ever after, but that is not the case in the original text. Like many fairy tales, the story is actually quite grim and ends with both the soldier and ballerina burning alive. I love it because it tells the story of love and persistence as well as the feeling of wanting to belong in a world that does not accept you.
KG: I was lucky enough to publish two poems from this collection in Pink Plastic House, “Indifferent Housewife” and “The Tooth Fairy.” In the latter, I really loved the way you took a benign or even benevolent fairy story and turned it malevolent. What inspired this take?
OL: Not much is known about the Tooth Fairy. She is not like Santa Claus, who we know has a jolly belly, fluffy white beard and climbs down our chimneys. We have no idea what the Tooth Fairy looks like or how she enters our homes when we lose a tooth. She is kind of inconspicuous in that way. As a child I always wondered, is she the size of a full grown woman or is she a tiny sprite? Is she old or young? Where does she store all the children’s teeth? And for what purpose? All these questions I had as a child inspired me to create an image of her as a witchy character as opposed to the comforting nymph story.
In “Fairy Blood” I wanted to explore some of the archetypes of fairies and women in mythology such as Eve, the Tooth Fairy and Queen Mab and turn them around to see how they would be if we did not pacify or feminize them. Most of these women have been diluted in femininity and I wanted to explore a different kind of femininity that could be strong, opportunistic or even evil.
KG: What authors and filmmakers inspire you most?
OL: My biggest artistic inspiration is filmmaker, Julia Ducournau, (Titane, Raw) the director of two of my favourite films. Her films explore body horror in such raw and visceral ways while exploring beautiful themes such as familial relationships, love, and belonging. She works with body horror in a way I have never seen before with the way she explores the female form and taboos.
Sayaka Murata (Earthlings, Convenience Store Woman) is an author who really inspires my work. She writes with a distinct unsettling tone about the female experience as well as taboos. I highly recommend her short stories. The thing that both these artists have in common is how they tackle taboo subjects and how they present their female protagonists. I think it makes audiences or readers feel uncomfortable to see female characters who are “bad” or who make bad decisions, but both Ducournau and Murata explore the female experience as something that is not empowering, but is strange and uncomfortable. Some of their characters are bad people and instead of creating backstories explaining why they are bad or giving them “reason”, (which is what we are always looking for in anti-heros to make them more likable or feel sympathy for them), these artists just let their characters be and exist in the worlds that they have created for themselves.
KG: You demonstrate many kinds of body horrors that women experience in your poetry. “Ballerina” is a fable about wanting to shed one’s unique skin to resemble the thin snakelike forms of traditional ballerinas — though this transformation goes too far. How long have you focused on this female perspective of body horror in your work? What lessons have you learned from exploring this genre?
OL: As a child I was always writing disturbing stories. I was always so enthralled with weird and fiction that explored disturbing themes. I was obsessed with the television series The Twilight Zone as a child which melded the sci-fi, horror and drama genres. I would always search out films, books and stories with disturbing or taboo subjects. When I was doing my Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting at York University in Toronto, I began finding my voice as a writer, but still I think was either too shy or veered away from the strange things that I was into (either for my fear of being judged or, perhaps I was not mature enough as a writer to explore themes in this manner). In university my scripts were reality focused with a touch of fantasy but never body horror.
It was not until three years ago where I started to find my voice and my love for writing in the body horror genre. I started having a recurring dream of a woman who had a sunburn and began to shed her skin like a snake. Eventually, the woman developed scales, lost her ability to walk, and slid everywhere on her belly. This is when I started exploring body horror and veering on the weird side of fiction to which I had always gravitated. It interests me to explore characters and circumstances that are hidden in the margins of our society– the abject– the things we are uncomfortable with and want to pretend don’t exist or purposefully ignore that they do. I have always been so consumed with the body, especially with how the body can defy us at any moment; we could fall ill or become pregnant, and bodies are constantly changing.
Through writing and directing in this genre, I have learned how strong the body can be and how we trust our body for so many things. We feel our emotions in our bodies first whether it is the fear we feel in our gut, or the butterflies in our stomach when we like someone. That is why the body works so well for me to tell stories that connect to larger themes. Women can take control of these themes and it is such a visceral way of exploring larger themes that happen outside of the body. I have also learned through my writing that body horror is a very female experience, from childbirth to menstruation, to sexual and physical abuse. These are things that happen disproportionately to women or to anyone who embodies or has embodied the female experience or form. Women are constantly ridiculed and sexualized for their bodies and body horror is a way to empower women and show that femininity can in fact, be disgusting, and provide women with body autonomy.
KG: I noticed on your Instagram you also have a film called First Blood in the works. Is it about body horror as well? Can you tell us about the film? If it is about body horror, what is different about working visually in this genre as opposed to the written word?
OL: “First Blood” is my first film as a writer and director and it is a seven minute short film about a teenage girl who goes through a bizarre transformation after she gets her first period. It is a coming of age story about a girl beginning to grapple with the urge to consume blood. She comes to the realization that she does not need to bite or harm anyone if she ingests her own menstrual blood. It is a feminist take on the classic vampire story and creates a new type of vampire– one who can sustain herself.
Film is such a collaborative genre, especially in comparison to writing. The only part of the film I did alone was the script. The rest of the process involved many amazing and talented artists who are the reason this film came to be. Since there is usually no speaker in film as there is in literature, as a filmmaker you have to communicate to the audience character motivations and emotions solely through visuals. The poem “First Bite” in “Fairy Blood” is inspired by my film.
KG: I love the poem Blood for many reasons. I come from a strict religious background (Mormon) where I was abused, and I felt those elements in this poem, without it being explicitly spelled out. I love how you handle the violence in the Catholic imagery and that all the bloody and cannibalistic, even, metaphors implant their own literal answer into the violated, I believe, speaker’s head. It’s not the only poem of yours where I noticed this Catholic imagery. Is that your religious background, and, if so, how else did it influence your writing?
OL: I grew up Roman Catholic and went to Catholic school for both elementary and high school where I noticed a lot of hypocrisy and wrongdoings done to the people growing up in the faith. The symbols of Catholicism are very violent and very much in harmony with body horror: we are made to ingest Christ’s body and blood. As a child, I always imagined this in very visceral ways. Even though Christ’s body is symbolic and in the form of the Eucharist, it is a cannibalistic symbol. We are also bombarded with the image of a bloody Jesus on the cross where we are reminded daily of his suffering, further solidifying our guilt.
In my writing, I use this religion as a backdrop because even though cannibalism and vampires are forbidden by the Catholic Church, the religion seems to be obsessed with its imagery. “Blood” was inspired by many experiences of children who grew up in the church. The speaker is empowered back by the body that she consumes. I think that Catholicism has some beautiful messages, but the church carries them out in very wrong and hypocritical ways that leaves a lot of children suffering. By using Catholicism in my work, I can further explore these hypocrisies while playing with the visual symbols of the Catholic Church such as cannibalism and blood drinking.
KG: I love that the speaker in Blood becomes empowered by the metaphors of an institution that has oppressed her, at least in my reading, to literally bite the hand that feeds her, among other things. It’s an optimistic view of the transformation of the body. There are certainly negative views in poems like Ballerina. Do you feel your perspective on these transformations is neutral or more positive or negative?
OL: This is such an interesting question because I feel that in my writing process, bodily transformation has always been a neutral thing. I always felt that the body was a neutral phenomenon, but through the writing of “Fairy Blood”, I realized that many of the transformations did veer as being either positive or negative.
In “Fairy Blood”, I wanted the female speakers to take control of their bodily transformations. So often we see women emote and be susceptible to metamorphosis, but rarely are in control of their bodies and what is happening to them. Women have a history of not having body autonomy and body horror can help us reclaim our own flesh and skin as women. In “Ballerina”, the speaker listens so well to the advice of her teacher that she does become the snake to which the ballerinas are compared. I find that transformations can go too far and that the body is a prominent example of this. If we lose weight, there is always the risk of losing too much and adopting unhealthy mindsets about the body and food which can lead to obsession. Plastic surgery can also go too far and harm us if we continue to go under the knife and put ourselves at risk. But again, this is all how we perceive the body. So I guess my answer is that these transformations are neutral but that there are such fine lines between neutral, negative and positive, and “Fairy Blood” toes those lines.
KG: You write such captivating fairy stories that I feel are fables that really echo truths about modern life. “Fairy Blood,” the title poem, speaks to me and my own compulsions and feeling triumphant over them at times. Is there any poem in this book that you want to own as coming from a personal place?
OL: The poem “through gnome’s eyes” comes from a personal experience growing up and realizing that I was no longer looked at as a young girl, but that I was now part of the male gaze. I feel that many women can relate to this poem in the sense that they remember the first time of being sexualized or objectified as a child. Young girls are expected to grow up far quicker than young boys are, especially in institutions like schools that tell us that young girls can’t show their shoulders, or in a church where they have to veil and be modest at young ages before sexual maturity. Even though this poem does not delve deep into body horror like the others, it marks an event where a woman might realize that her body is not her own anymore.
KG: Tell us about your writing routine. Do you write everyday, when the mood strikes? Do it in public? With music or in complete silence? What does an ideal writing day look like for you?
OL: I love the conception stages of writing because it never starts on paper for me. I take long walks where certain images will repeat in my head and I will think about these images until I am completely drowned by them. I like to write alone and always with music. If I am at a public cafe writing, I will become so conscious of my facial expressions or if other people are reading my screen. If I have writer’s block, I will go back to my outline and then take a long walk. I was also never that person who could write for 1 hour a day. I will have a day of writing for 11 hours and then go days without writing, but those days are filled with my head creating ideas for future stories. I also love watching ballet videos. Watching dance is a big part of my writing process. This makes a lot of sense to me since I write a lot about the body. I don’t dance myself, but I have always loved watching the ballet, in particular. There is something so beautiful and sinister about ballerinas: in order to look so delicate and gentle, they have to be some of the strongest athletes both physically and mentally.
KG: Do you have any other projects in the works that you would like to tell us about?
OL: My film “First Blood” is complete and I have started submitting it to festivals. I am very excited about this film. I am also in pre-production for a stop motion film I wrote and am directing called “Pocket Princess”. It is about a young girl who must take part in a dangerous task in order to complete her doll collection. Stop-motion is a much longer process than live action and I began writing and preparing for this film two years ago. I also have a microchapbook called “Forbidden Nursery Rhymes for Little Girls” which includes ten feminist nursery rhymes warning young girls about the world in satirical ways. This is finished and I am waiting to hear back from publishers. Lastly, I am working on a full length short horror story collection called “FLESH” which I am scheduled to complete by the end of this year.