Woods Wolf Girl and Red Riding Hood

Woods Wolf Girl and Red Riding Hood


On February 8th, 2011, Robert Kline sat down with London, Ontario poet Cornelia Hoogland to discuss the ways memories inform the poems in her recent book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak & Wynn, 2011)

RK: Tell me how and where the book began for you.

CH: I tried to go back in my mind: what were the first poems that I wrote? That must have been amazing to me, to find myself writing these poems, because I’ve been studying this story for a long time and using it in my teaching, and there’s a big leap between knowing the story and being interested in the story and actually trying to write it as a poem. The first poems were ones of Red as a young girl – I think it was the poem where she meets the wolf in the forest very early on: “this was different, he was different and asked my name.” And so, that’s one answer, what came first, and the other, where did it come from? I have always loved the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. As a child I loved it, I loved playing in the woods in the 50-acre park in Nanaimo, BC called Bowen Park, and I loved playing in that park. I was a great fort builder. Then when I went to university – and I went to university as an adult student, I was twenty-seven – my professor Josephine Evett Secker talked about the fairy tale and I started reading it again and looking at it again and looking at all the fairy tales again. I taught children’s literature eventually, and it’s always been a story that I’ve used in my teaching.

RK: If I were to ask you to classify your poems or describe them in terms of genre, what would you say?

CH: The genre is fairytale poetry, it would belong in that genre first and foremost – and it would be in very good company with people like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter (she’s not a poet but her fiction is very poetic), and have certainly inhabited this form. My readers might want to put this in a category with autobiographical poetry or memoir-like poetry, and I think that’s where it might be slotted. It’s lyric poetry; it’s contemporary poetry.

RK: So you didn’t set out to write autobiographically, but your readers received it that way? Did your memories get in the way of Little Red Riding Hood’s story, or was it the other way around – the story got in the way or your memories?

CH: The sense of autobiography in the book makes it plausible, believable.  I want my reader to be convinced by the characters and the situations, to be carried by the story.  Autobiography as a convention can help achieve this.  If I had to speak to the shape of Woods Wolf Girl, it would be the spirit of energetic contradiction. Who is the wolf? Is he bad? Only bad? How is he bad? Is he also good? How is he good? Education is sexy. To be in relationship with a content, either by yourself or with another, and to experience the spark of new knowledge, is exciting. The wolf shows Red the world, and when she says, “I could feel pulsing,” she shows that she’s ignited with its power. The book goes on to explore the character’s contradictions of sexuality and identity. This is a freedom I would have a hard time giving myself. I can’t imagine writing my sexual history without grave concerns about readership, implications for others involved, and about getting the story right. Actually, I’m not even interested in my rather ordinary coming-of-age story. But our cultural conflictedness about sex, and our alignment of goodness or purity with female sexuality interests me a great deal.

RK: These fictional characters appear to intersect with aspects of your memories, then.

CH: It’s a complicated layering of fictional and present images. Even those images from one’s memory bank are seen from here and now, from the perspective of the person one is today. The fiction is dominant; images (which often arise intertwined with sensory or image-based memories) helped me understand Red’s experience; they formed a bridge between me and the fictional character. There are many different voices; sometimes the woodsman (the benevolent green man) speaks directly to Red. Sometimes Red reflects on her girlhood experiences. Sometimes the mother speaks to Red.

RK: What do you make, then, of the possibility that readers who know you personally will recognize themselves or even you in these poems?

CH: My sister read an earlier version of this book, and said over and over that she knew exactly to what actual life incident a scene or a character referred. In each case, she raised a different memory or scene from the one I had in mind when writing the book. Not once did our memories mesh. I have no idea what my readers will insert between the lines, or how or what they will read into this book. I hope diverse readings are opportunities for good conversations.

RK: So these poems are full of memories, real and fictional, but to what extent are the poems about memory and the process/act of remembering?

CH: The multiple voices and points of view on any one incident or character in the book is my way of speaking to the complexity of identity. Red’s mother says of Red, “she was such a severe child.” The woodsman says of her, “it is she who has just arrived, who’s being shaped –.” Red the child says of herself, “obedience was my work, I was a good girl.” Red the adult says of herself “the girl I was returns to me after years of death.” Perhaps the woodsman brings the matter of who is Red full circle. The book starts with “a girl walks into the woods and the woods force her into clauses, suspended thought, into sentence fragments,” and near the end of the book he says that Red is “a wolf-girl, a soul-bird, a lamb – always more than these glimpses, she is a plot as liquid as mercury.”

Poetry is idiosyncratic, is non-linear (often not linear), is sensual and sensory, and I think memories are also these things. I can still remember being in grade eight and biting my hair, eating my hair, and all of a sudden I had a memory of when I was an earlier child doing that and I can still remember both experiences today, and it was the eating the hair that put me back in the earlier memory. So in that way, poetry tries to, it’s almost like walking in a dreamscape, often, and you’re looking around thinking, ‘what factors are intercepting in this place at this moment?’ And, much like short stories, they do the same thing, I think. They’re not plot driven the way a novel is, but they are looking at the way things are interconnected, and I would say poems do the same. Memories do that as well.

RK: This metaphor of poetry as a dreamscape is very interesting. Do dreams perform similar work as memories do?

CH: A lot of people use their dreams to write poems, because dreams are in some way a lot freer. I mean, we’re so trained, and our mind wants to be so linear, cause and effect. We’re taught to be rational, and in dreams everything gets tossed up. You know, a pen can become a very ominous character in your dream; it can take on meaning that is out of scale with your day-to-day experience, so yes, I think that dreams are wonderful in that they too say, ‘look at all these crazy images that I’ve pulled together, and go ahead, spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what the story is behind this dream, because you’ll never get there anyway, but it’s fun to think about.’ In Woods Wolf Girl I did dream that sequence where the girl is dreaming about the mother’s experiences during the war. I mean, Red/me wasn’t even born. Someone told me that I was in the Netherlands at that time – I, personally was – because a girl, a woman, is born with all the eggs she will have inside her already. So, technically, because my mother was in the war, I was in the war too. I love that intergenerational connectedness that I dreamt, and so I dreamt my grandmother, whom I never met helping me go west, which is what my own mother did when she immigrated here, and, yeah I dreamt some of the trauma that she experienced in the war, and that came through writing that character, so I included it.

RK: Dreams are so fragmentary, and poems can be too. Would you agree that poetry arrives at the page in the same way memories arrive in the mind?

CH: Physical place enables emotional and sensory memory for me. I was in San Francisco by myself recently, reliving the last time (20 years ago) I was there with my former husband and our three children. I visualized us boating to Alcatraz, I relived the excitement of the city through the children’s eyes, and through my own, young mother eyes. Sitting behind my computer at home, the places in Woods Wolf Girl rose up from my imagination – what should we call that place? Memory? The way something that was not there a second ago is suddenly real as the cup of tea beside me? I imagine the peppermint, the heat of the ceramic cup. How does that happen? Maybe the thing to note is that it happens inside the body; the body is the receiver, the carrier, the transmitter, and the data bank of both past memories and present experiences. The body; an underrated technology designed to guide us through our lives. It brings people into relationship with all things, aligns them with the larger ecology of earth. It’s so sad that many of us are taught to mistrust our senses, as was Little Red Riding Hood.

RK: When I first encountered your poems I recognized snippets of the fairy tale and formulated a version of it in my own mind. These poems brought me back to the tale in a delightful way. In that manner, the poem triggered my own memories – my own life story. What kind of other responses do you get to Woods Wolf Girl?

CH: When my daughter read Woods Wolf Girl she said that it helped her realize that the choices she is making (she’s an elite athlete) are in fact shaping her life. Reading about Red’s experiences helped her remember and reflect upon her own first sexual experience, her wolf, her path. The fairy tale’s rich and resonant metaphors are what Levi Strauss called “bonnes a penser” that is, good to think with, or good images to think with. In all my readings of these poems, people in the audience argue and contest my interpretation. That’s the amazing thing about Little Red Riding Hood – everybody knows something of the story, and everybody remembers it in his or her own way!


Cornelia Hoogland has two books coming out in 2011: Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak & Wynn wolsakandwynn.ca), and Crow (Black Moss Press blackmosspress.com). She is the founder and the co-artistic director of Poetry London (www.poetrylondon.ca), an organization that brings prominent writers into lively discussion with London writers and readers. She teaches at the University of Western Ontario and she can be reached at chooglan@uwo.ca.

Robert Kline is a graduate student in University of Western Ontario’s Education program. He will begin doctoral studies in English at University of Waterloo this fall. He can be reached at rwkline@uwaterloo.ca.

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