Review and Interview Featuring Lucia LoTempio
Hot with the Bad Things, Alice James Books, 2020
100 Pages, $16.95
Review by Madeleine Barnes
Fiery and lyrically gorgeous, Lucia LoTempio’s expertly crafted Hot with the Bad Things is a siren, a temperature rising, a “vibration charted like an echo,” and a testament to both the experience and devastating aftermath of trauma. Speaking to the elasticity of the imagination and violence, she writes, “My capacity for imagining a violence flexes like a membrane. Like a girl. I would call it red.” Shades of red run throughout this book and call to mind Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, in which Stein writes, “A remarkable degree of red means that, a remarkable exchange is made.” Remarkable exchanges are made in LoTempio’s book: “I was once a hand that went from overripe berry to next; a knife that cut nothing thicker than cake,” she writes. “Shuffle of you, I, our, untouchable and touching.” Our journey is “not a line but a loop,” and we encounter “mouse, but not a mouse—wolf cub learning.” Memories and dreams are interchangeable, and in certain moments, we don’t know “which girl is which.” As we reckon with trauma alongside the speaker, we are inundated with red.
LoTempio’s imagery and vibrant lyricism opens up many energetic and sonic pathways between poet and reader. Through the lens of red, we learn about a murdered girl and join the speaker in grappling with how to witness and truly see her without harming her further. Of witness, LoTempto writes, “I’m sure you passed so many women, but you did not see one of them.” What does it mean to behold the suffering of others? She reminds us that a person can be there without really being there, which speaks to dissociation and the way a traumatized person can feel physically detached from their body. Fear is central to this book, and LoTempio intersperses powerfully related epigraphs throughout, including Louise Bourgeois’ reminder that “Fear can be spotted like gold in the ground. Dig them out, make them help you. Fears make the world go round.” LoTempio and Bourgeois dig for fragments of fear and transform them into tools of restoration and fortification.
This book is full of urgent images that stay—we encounter honey juxtaposed with a serrated blade on cut-proof gloves, and memory “stilled then framed, like a penned-up animal.” Dreams outline and intrude upon the waking life of the speaker, who tries to make sense of bad dreams of knives that are “infinite and repeating,” cars without brakes, punches that turn into weak caresses, and dreams in which she sets a house on fire without thinking twice about it. LoTempio skillfully captures the role of nightmares in posttraumatic stress—bad dreams are spaces in which “furthest reaches of imagination falter.” In dreams, we work through intricate fears and memories. It is not uncommon for trauma survivors to wonder if they are capable of harm as they process the harm they endured.
The speaker experiences powerful moments of words and wordlessness. Questions arise: why, in certain bad dreams, did she stand watching a violent act, motionless? Of language and sound, LoTempio writes, “I had so much I wanted to say it feels like I’ve forgotten it all. It’s TV static or a white noise machine. It’s still a seen thing. It’s still noise.” In lines like these, we get to experience the sonic and rhythmic beauty of LoTempio’s lyrical writing style, which is one of the most enjoyable and captivating aspects of the book. Her lyrical passages blend colors with musicality, creating a synesthetic experience: “I want to sling through the pastel of outreaching leaves, to fill a sugared bucket; I am not the little berries, I am not the bucket—I’m at the shovel; press loose dirt and lay the smooth blade aside.” In moments like this, the red softens as instructions and questions are delivered through pastels or sugar-dusted yellow.
LoTempio’s poems and lyrical fragments are interesting formally—some are short and without punctuation, on the verge of shattering; sometimes text is enclosed in boxes or interspersed with symbols, including a black circle that replaces the name of an abuser. Section by section, the book gains momentum as lines begin to sweep across the page and take up more space, conveying messages and visuals through clear prose before breaking off again. Some poems include found text pulled from Facebook status updates, emojis and all, and in this way LoTempio captures the jarring and public way that people try to process violence online. One status update reads, “It’s difficult to process so much grief, confusion, and anger…I feel distraught over nonsensical posts about words we should or should not use.” Just as the news and social media are part of daily life, they play a role in this book’s poetic environment. The tone of these status updates adds texture to the book’s overarching lyricism.
The speaker struggles with the expectation that survivors forgive their abusers, especially when the abuser shows signs of guilt or embarrassment about past behavior. When a friend tells the speaker that the person who harmed her in the past feels terrible about who he was and how he acted, the speaker does not know what to do with this information. LoTempio writes, “I have no direction for the curved line that touches him.” Then, she turns to face us directly: “When other poets read this they suggest I take it out. It humanizes . But humans do terrible things, and they do them all the time.” This moment reminds us that people who commit acts of violence are, in fact, human—they are not always completely monstrous or completely benign. Conversely, those who commit violence can possess a capacity for self-reflection and remorse; this does not mean that survivors must forgive. By refusing to remove descriptions that humanize a person who enacted harm, LoTempio invites us to reflect on who is capable of violence, and to remember that survivors are not required to comfort or forgive a person who has harmed them.
This book addresses necessary and difficult subjects with fierce attention to both the body and place in relation to trauma. To read LoTempio is to walk away singed, cauterized, and full of wonder at what has been buried, unearthed, and transmuted through lyric. Her work reminds us that we must work to see others, especially girls and women, and refuse to turn away even when we’re afraid. “I am an accumulation of Once; I refuse to look away,” she writes, leading by example. Emotionally imaginative, masterfully constructed, and formally captivating, Hot with the Bad Things is not to be missed.
Interview with Lucia LoTempio
MB: The color red permeates your book in such a gorgeous and arresting way—we encounter “red hearts like playing cards,” a “red wrapper crinkling,” “betrayal harsh and red in places,” and “rows of mailbox flags, hinged knives in red.” I love this line: “My capacity for imagining a violence flexes like a membrane. Like a girl. I would call it red.” I also noticed that the title of your collaborative chapbook, Undone in Scarlet (Tammy, 2019) contains a shade of red. What do you associate with the color red—for example, what makes one’s capacity for imagining violence red? Is the prominence of red intentional?
LLT: The book always felt warm to me, like texturally hot, and the images I reached for often reflected that. Red’s prominence is intentional—as I wrote, red in particular kept popping up as a tether to this feeling, and as I edited, I looked for ways to thread this echo throughout. And I will say, echo and repetition felt important to the construction of it all because I wanted the book to have an atmosphere that was overwhelming and mundane. Like how something inescapable can be both claustrophobic and desensitizing. I do find red to have a creep to it. It has an underpinning of violence moreso than other warm colors, say yellow or orange, and I think its bodily associations really give it away—especially touchstones like blood, the cliché “seeing red,” etc. I’m also into red’s status as a cliché that carries a lot of cultural baggage—and with red in particular, I was interested in exploring the complexity, not just relying on it all. So that moment about the speaker’s capacity for giving image to violence, especially so early in the book, was a moment of indictment, of questioning my position, which was a main focus and constant question as I wrote and edited the book. Undone in Scarlet, my collaboration with Suzannah Russ Spaar, is an epistolary style chapbook that plays with Greek myth as it focuses on inheritance of violence, and similarly to Hot with the Bad Things, it makes moves to go beyond testimony. I think reds cropped up for Suzannah and I a lot in that project, and that obsession morphed along in Hot with the Bad Things (and perhaps it continued for Suzannah too, who is currently shopping her full-length collection, Red Gyrle).
MB: From a formal perspective, this book is so exciting and textured. The section that begins on page 39 is visually interesting. The text is confined by or contained in boxes of the same size, and the words within become notes, letters, or missals; you write, “I’m writing these missals because I want you to look around & recognize the fiery & gorgeous that survived.” Can you tell us more about the genesis of this section? Did your writing change at all when you worked within this formal constraint?
LLT: Yes! This section began germinating with advice from poet Yona Harvey during my time as a grad student at Pitt. For her workshop, I submitted many sections and excerpts from the book, and at the time, the manuscript was exclusively written in the second person, and was speaking back to a past 19-year-old self, either addressed as “you” or the diminutive “little mouse” (some relics of this have survived in the completed book). Yona challenged me to write from that past self’s perspective, and these letters began. Formally and with their shift in voice, they feel like a rupture, and I like how they undercut the speaker with their guileless naiveté. The writing process was a bit difficult, because while I knew the section would be cringey, I didn’t want it to tip to campy. I also wanted the earnestness of how 19-year-olds often feel and think and talk to come across without me, the author, coming off as a jerk. There’s a lot of stigma attached to being a 19-year-old girl—and all the internalized misogyny that comes with it and with remembering it. For some of it, I actually lifted lines from poems I wrote when I was an undergrad, and I looked to past journal entries and tweets. I think this section is honestly the most vulnerable of the book, and I only just started reading from it at readings.
MB: In the Notes, you write that “Though she is never cited or mentioned, much of this book was written while thinking about Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning” and Jane: A Murder.” Can you tell us more about how Nelson’s work influenced or inspired your work?
LLT: I find Nelson’s earlier work and criticism to be really fascinating both in form and the way she weaves research and experience. In early drafts, I included this epigraph from The Art of Cruelty: “It is quite banally human both to perpetrate violence and to find oneself a victim of it.” I ultimately nixed it because it didn’t feel additive enough, and glaringly like just the most quotable moment I could lift from that book—and I find Nelson pretty difficult to quote actually! She often conveys complexities with complexity. She’s not one for quippy one-liners, which I like as a reader, not so much as a…quoter. I included that postscript mention because it felt almost disingenuous to not say her name at all in the company of this book. I love Nelson’s early work in the way I’m sure most people do: her ability to mesh theory and critique with lyric and emotion. I’m not invested in this binary structure anymore, but as a young writer, it was pretty fantastic to see an established writer take on topics that are otherwise degraded as too emotional, too personal, too feminine, and beef them up with sturdy, cerebral, masculine methods of expression. Like I said, I’m not so keen on this stark setup nowadays, but I can appreciate the ways it served as a catapult.
MB: This book does such a wonderful job of addressing and conveying the experience and aftermath of trauma. You write, “What can be blotted out? A man? A name? A life? I’m trying and nothing seems to be working.” Perhaps relatedly, I’m curious about your use of the black circle symbol that blots out the abuser’s name—when did you start using symbols in your work? Did using a symbol to replace this person’s name affect how you write about trauma?
LLT: When writing, it was less about stating the trauma, and more about how talking about the trauma gets really complicated. I was more interested in the experience moving in and out, than the facts of it. Readers have asked me some variation of how I find the strength to write about these topics, and I think my best answer is that for me writing is artmaking. And artmaking as a practice allowed my approach to be multi-pronged when writing through trauma—I didn’t have to fixate on healing. More to your questions though!—I was consumed by what felt unsayable about trauma. I also was a bit obsessed with passive voice and how terrible it is at pinning down violence. The blot was at once an expediency and a reflection of my wrestles with the unsayable. In using it, I wanted to express a desire to erase a past, erase a person—and show the impossibility of that desire. You can’t render a person, an experience, a trauma, as a complete absence—at best it’s the smudge the eraser leaves behind. Another layer was that it felt like a blackhole that you could fall into, a gravitational un-avoidance.
I had included the emojis that appear in the status updates in the very first draft of these poems, and they felt important to me in their inability and ability at expression, and I think they were signposts down the road to the blot. Before Hot with the Bad Things, I hadn’t ever used icon symbols in my work, and I do think using the blot had an effect on my writing leading up to and after its debut in an early draft. I think it moved me to think more expansively about how I was presenting these sorts of swirling concepts around trauma. I think too with the way the book tries to parse through trauma, I like how the blot feels like a draft, like an acknowledged failure on my part as author, like I wanted to find an answer, but I only got to placeholder.
MB: What do you hope people will take away from this powerful book?
LLT: I want readers to come away with a sense of understanding—whether it’s a knowing understanding or one of empathy.
Lucia LoTempio is a poet from Buffalo, NY. She is the author of Hot with the Bad Things (Alice James Books, 2020), which was named a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is the co-author, with Suzannah Russ Spaar, of the chapbook Undone in Scarlet (Tammy, 2019). Her poems have been or will be published in Passages North, TYPO, The Journal, Sixth Finch, Washington Square Review, Linebreak, among others. lucialotempio.com
Madeleine Barnes is the author of You Do Not Have To Be Good, (Trio House Press, 2020) and three chapbooks, most recently Women’s Work, forthcoming from Tolsun Books. She serves as Poetry Editor at Cordella Magazine, a publication that showcases the work of women and non-binary creators. madeleinebarnes.com.