Madeira Mondays: Writing Poetry about the Salem Witch Trials

In last week’s post, I shared part-one of my poem ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, from my upcoming poetry pamphlet Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. This week, I wanted to look more closely at the story behind the poem. And I don’t just mean the historical story that inspired it, but also how I wrote the poem itself. But first: if you’ve not read last week’s post, you might want to take a look at that one first and have a wee read of the poem (this post will probably make more sense if you do!).

‘The First Afflicted Girl’ is a persona poem. A ‘persona poem’ is a poem that adopts the voice of a specific character (maybe a historical character, a fictional character, etc.). In this case, the poem adopts the voice of Betty Parris who was one of the ‘afflicted children’ during the Salem Witch Trials, who accused others of being witches. Her short entry on Wikipedia says that she, alongside her cousin Abigail, ’caused the direct death of 20 Salem residents: 19 were hanged…(one) pressed to death.’ But Betty was a child – can we really say she caused those deaths? A nine-year-old child didn’t hang those women, a community did. What I’m saying is, that’s pretty harsh, Wikipedia!

But, nevertheless, Betty played a key role in this tragic episode, and several years ago I became curious about her life after reading A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill (a very gripping nonfiction account of the Salem Witch Trials). Hill describes Betty as ‘impressionable’ and ‘steeped in her father’s Puritan theology that made terrifying absolutes of good and evil, sin and saintliness and heaven and hell.’ Hill also writes that: ‘Unsurprisingly, (Betty) was full of anxiety.’ These descriptions drew me to her, perhaps because ‘anxious’ and ‘impressionable’ were probably two words that could have been used to describe me as a kid, alongside imaginative (we’ll get to imagination in a moment).

Frances Hill

Who was Betty?

For starters, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Parris was the daughter was the daughter of Salem Village Reverend Samuel Parris. In 1692, she lived in Puritan Massachusetts in her father’s home with her eleven year old cousin Abigail (who plays a part in my poem). She also lived with an enslaved couple of Caribbean origins, Tituba and John Indian. It was unusual for a New England family at the time to keep slaves, and, at least from Hill’s account, it seems that Tituba was a constant presence in Betty’s life (maybe even more so than her mother, who I chose to make absent entirely from my poem). Betty would have known Tituba since infancy. It’s impossible to know the complex dynamic between little Betty and Tituba, but both Betty and Abby were certainly dependent on her – which is why Tituba’s presence is woven subtly throughout the poem. She’s always there, usually doing household chores to keep the home running (in part-one, for instance, she’s blowing air from the bellows into the fire).

What was Betty’s life like?

The days were quite monotonous for young Puritan children. Endless chores (sewing, helping with the cooking, spinning etc.). Families were mostly self-reliant (making many items there at home, like candles and clothes). Hill writes about how there was ‘little play or amusement’ for kids and, as they grew older, no entertainment or hobbies. The only books they had were religious ones. Most strikingly to me, there were few outlets for the little girls to imagine. Hill writes:

Young women of that time and place had nothing to feed the imagination, to expand understanding or heighten sensitivity. There were no fairytales or stories to help order and make sense of experience. Were was no art or theatre (…) boys enjoyed hunting, trapping, and fishing, carpentry and crafts. For girls there were no such outlets for animal high spirits or mental creativity.

This made me wonder: what would it have been like to be a little girl like Betty? What might the mind conjure up, if you had no outlet for your imagination? What might I have done, if I had been born in this environment?

So how did that research contribute to the poem?

The monotony of Betty’s existence is something I wanted to convey with the language of the poem, which uses frequent repetition (‘days and days and days/of lighting fires’). And if a young girl like Betty were to feel anything but content with these days of boredom and drudgery, then they would probably have interpreted these feelings as sinful and wicked. That’s why I bring in Betty’s repeated thoughts: ‘I am not wicked/I do not want to be wicked.’ These lines come immediately after she talks about ‘wanting/to be in bed instead of/sewing, washing, sweeping.’ ‘I do not want sunshine’, she tries to assure herself, but already, from a few stanzas back, we know that she ‘dream(s) her cheeks are burned by sunlight’.

A few lines later, when Betty says the ‘outside is not different/from the in’, that line refers to the house being dark inside and out because it’s the dead of winter. But, on another level, it’s also her hope that her internal world and what she presents outwardly are the same. Of course, they’re not the same. Inside, it’s tumultuous and full of conflicting desires and self-chastisement, even if on the ‘outside’ she’s playing the part of an obedient child who doesn’t ‘want sunshine’.

The final three lines of part-one, ‘We burn the candles/and keep them/burning’, also works on two levels (I hope!). This is a physical description of the setting meant to convey just how dark it was during those bleak winter months, but also ending that section on the word ‘burning’, and isolating the word like that, on its own line, is suggestive of the witch trials that are to come (keep them burning). Although no women or men were burned alive in Salem, this imagery does evoke witch trials generally, I think. It’s a sinister note to end on, suggesting bad things to come, and the poem definitely takes a turn for the increasingly more sinister and strange in parts two and three, as Betty becomes more physically, emotionally and psychologically distressed. In the poem, as in life, she begins speaking incoherently, having violent convulsions, and eventually causing everyone around her to conclude that she has been ‘bewitched’.

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‘Witchcraft at Salem Village’ engraving from 1876, accessed here

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Of course, each reader will get something different from the poem, and just because I intended for something to be read a certain way, that doesn’t mean that it will be! Overall, in the first section, I really wanted to convey Betty’s fear of being ‘wicked’, the physical discomforts of her life, and the fervent religion beliefs of her time. Section two explores Betty’s dabbling with fortune telling (and her increasingly morbid thoughts) and finally her descent into ‘hysteria’. My poem ends before the Witch Trials actually begin. (I won’t say exactly how it ends! For that, you’ll need to read the full poem in the book!)

In reality, what happened was that Betty and Abby accused three (vulnerable) women of being witches: Sarah Good, a homeless woman; Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman and (perhaps most tragically and most predictably) the woman who had cared for them, Tituba.

Tituba survived, but many people did die as a result of the ensuing witch trials (nineteen hanged and one man pressed to death). I don’t have an answer as to ‘why’ the real historical Betty behaved the way she did. There were probably numerous contributing factors that led to her odd behavior. There are certainly many factors that led to the Salem Witch Trials generally, including long-standing superstitions (witch trials had been going on in Europe for years) and complex relationships and rivalries between members of Salem Village and Salem Town. As for the girls’ affliction: there’s a theory (put forward by psychologist Linnda Caporael in the 1970’s) that blamed their abnormal behavior on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye and might have caused hallucinations. But this theory is not really supported by historians, as explained very well in this blog post from a history student and tour guide in Salem.

In any case, my poem is not trying to explain exactly what happened to the girls, and it’s certainly not delving into the complex origins of the trials themselves. What I am trying to do is explore a certain state of being, a state of boredom, fear and anxiety that might have taken hold of this ‘impressionable’ nine-year-old girl. Hill also notes, and I agree with this argument, that this is a time when women weren’t allowed any sort of public voice, and had little to no power in their homes, so even feigning this kind of ‘affliction’ would have given the girls a kind of power. People would have listened to them, taken them seriously, an intoxicating prospect for a Puritan girl, even if it had deadly consequences.

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Examination of a Witch (1853) by T.H. Matteson, accessed via Wikipedia

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Within my book, this poem is also positioned right before a poem about my own experience of ‘Abstinence Only’ sexual education in a Texas public high school, very much an anxiety-inducing experience and one more aimed, in my experience, at scaring young people than educating them. Through this ordering of poems, I’m trying to draw (unsettling) parallels between past and present, and to raise questions about how young people are ‘educated’ then and now. 

So that’s a bit of insight into the research and thinking behind this poem! (There are much cheerier poems in the pamphlet too, I should add! The aforementioned ‘Sex Ed’ poem is actually really funny – I hope!). If you’d like to read more, the whole poem is in Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (available for pre-order here).

And if you’d like to learn more about Salem generally, here are a few ideas:

Recommended Further Reading/Listening/Viewing:

Books:

Movies:

  • The Witch directed by Robert Eggers (one of my favorite films! I wrote about it last Halloween here)

Podcasts:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: ‘The First Afflicted Girl’ (A Poem)

The Salem Witch Trials is well-trodden territory for fiction writers. Perhaps the most famous fictional representation of this tragic episode in early American history is Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ (1953). Miller wrote this play as an allegory, drawing parallels between the fanatical 17th century Puritans accusing people of being witches and the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950’s, when the US government accused many people (including himself) of being communist. But beyond ‘The Crucible’, there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as well as several modern novels, including the YA novel A Break with Charity (1992) by one of my literary heroes, Ann Rinaldi. This is in addition to TV and movies ranging from the silly (think Hocus Pocus) to the serious, as well as dozens of non-fiction accounts from historians and journalists alike about what exactly happened in Salem Massachusetts that fateful winter.

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I never intended to write a poem about the Salem Witch Trials, for the very reason that it’s pretty well-covered ground. But several years ago I was reading a non-fiction book, A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill, and I became fascinated with her depiction of a somewhat ‘minor’ character in this story: Betty Parris. Betty was a little girl who, in the winter of 1692, started showing strange and abnormal behaviors (barking, hiding under tables, having fits). The adults around her decided that she was bewitched, so naturally the question arose: Who had bewitched her? Betty and her cousin Abigail started naming names, and this is what started The Salem Witch Trials.

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‘Captain Alden Denounced’, a sketch from 1878, author unknown, accessed via Wikimedia

Betty’s story really interested me. What was going on with her psychologically and physically? What was her life like? What events might have led up to these strange behaviors and her peculiar ‘illness’? I don’t have answers for most of these questions, but they inspired a three-part poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, that is in my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror.

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I’m going to share the first part of the poem here and then next week I’ll talk a bit more about Betty’s life and my historical research, what I hoped to achieve with the language, as well as what themes I wanted to explore overall in the poem.

The First Afflicted Girl

I.

I whisper Wake up, Abby,
as floorboards creak above and sawdust
falls on us like snowflakes.

Up there, Tituba blows air into the fire,
wakes it up. I want to burrow
like a field mouse back to sleep.
I dream my cheeks are burned by sunlight
but I wake and cannot feel the ends of me.

I pull on cloth, teeth knocking,
Wake up, Abby, shaking her shoulders
and we go up the stairs, clat clat clat,
and huddle by the heat, hold our palms
out to catch it. I think it is morning
but now the days fog into nights
and days and days and days
of lighting fires.

The Lord is in the candles
for He is in everything that is good,
like the pale sunlight when we walk
to see Mary Walcott,
for He created Light
and the Devil is in the cobwebs
and the nights when cold is biting
me. And in the wanting

to be in bed instead of
sewing, washing, sweeping.
I am not wicked.
I do not want to be wicked.
I do not want sunshine.
I light the candles,
see my face in dark glass.

Now the outside is not different
from the in.

Both are gray in winter.
We burn the candles
and keep them
burning.

If you’d like to read the whole poem and hear more of Betty’s story you can check out: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror which is out on July 2, 2020 and is now available for pre-order here from Stewed Rhubarb Press! Betty is only one of the many characters you’ll meet in the book which explores female desire and sexuality from a range of historical and modern perspectives. (Most of the poems are funnier and more light-hearted than this one as well, by the way!) There’s lots more information about it on my book announcement blog post here.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

(PS Today’s Featured Image is “The Witch No. 1 Lithograph” by Joseph E. Baker c. 1892, from The Library of Congress, and accessed via Wikimedia)

 

My New Poetry Pamphlet: ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’

Big announcement today, my friends: I’m delighted to introduce you to my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press on July 2nd, 2020!!

For those who might be new to the blog, HELLO! I’m happy you’re here. I’m Carly, an author, spoken word poet and academic. Here on this blog, I mostly write about random historical tidbits (like the history of ketchup or 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race), review books and occasionally muse about the writing process. But TODAY I wanted to tell you a little bit about my new poetry pamphlet, which has been four years in the making…

So, what’s this book about?

Here’s the description of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror from the Stewed Rhubarb website:

This pamphlet from Scottish Slam Poetry champion Carly Brown explores acts of looking out of and in to oneself. The heroine of an erotic novel stares at her own reflection and doesn’t recognise herself. Scottish painters look for inspiration in fin-de-siècle Paris, and a girl in 17th-century America goes looking for trouble and inadvertently kicks off the Salem Witch Trials.

In these lyrical and witty poems, Carly Brown deftly mixes personal histories, introspection and political truths, bringing new, surprising and necessary images into sharp focus.

If you’re curious to see a sample poem or two, you can read three of the poems from the collection here in the Glasgow Review of Books. Or you can check out this spoken word poetry video for my poem ‘Reading Fifty Shades of Grey’ which is the first poem in the pamphlet (the pamphlet title is actually taken from a line in this poem).

Basically, this is a pamphlet jam-packed with topics that I love – poems about early American history and Scottish history, about sex, about literature – all brought together in a gorgeous package. I can’t thank Stewed Rhubarb enough for the beautiful design. Just take a gander at the cover!

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Here are some really lovely things that people have said about my poetry in the past:

Brian Donaldson, The Scotsman: Wit, warmth and wisdom aplenty [] The future health of spoken word seems safe in their hands.

Haley Jenkins, Selcouth Station: With each poem there is a refreshing comedic integrity but also a brilliant truth that both enlightens and terrifies.

Maria Sledmere, US Studies OnlineHer poems delivered sass and wit, while using lush imagery and spirited accents to render themes of identity, politics and belonging […] Brown’s performance gave a sense of reaching across discourses, time, and space to invite empathy, understanding, and productive cultural exchange.

Aug 2019 Pic 3 LP Perry Jonsson

Me performing at the Scottish Storytelling Center at the Loud Poets Fringe Show, August 2019. Photo by Perry Jonsson.

What exactly is a poetry ‘pamphlet’?

In the USA, pamphlets are also referred to as ‘chapbooks’. This means a short poetry collection, usually under 30 pages, rather than a full length collection, which are more like 50-100 pages. It’s common for new poets to release a pamphlet or two before putting out a debut full-length collection (More about the distinction between pamphlets and collections here if you’re curious).

This is actually my second pamphlet. My first one – Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone – was published back in 2014. That book was a collaboration between myself and American artist Lydia Cruz. It sold out its first edition, but copies of the second edition are still available online in the Loud Poets’ Etsy shop here.

Who is publishing it?

Stewed Rhubarb is a spoken-word and literary publisher based in Edinburgh.

I wanted this pamphlet to be published by them, because I’d been reading and admiring their books for years. They’ve published Jo Clifford, Harry Josephine Giles, Hannah Lavery, Rachel McCrum and many other brilliant writers. I love that Stewed Rhubarb is Scotland based (like me), that they champion spoken word (many of their writers perform live in some capacity), that their list is diverse, and also (quite frankly) that they make very beautiful books.

How am I feeling about the fact that soon Anastasia will be out in the world?

In a word: excited! Of course, it’s strange to be launching this book during a pandemic. There was meant to be a launch party here in Edinburgh, and one in Glasgow, next month to celebrate but of course that can’t happen. But I’m still looking forward to sharing this book with you – even if I can’t do that in person, just yet!

I also want to take this time here to thank my diligent and creative editor Katie Ailes, as well as James Harding and Charlie Roy at Stewed Rhubarb. I’d also like to sincerely thank everyone who joined ‘The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb‘, the successful crowdfunding campaign that Stewed Rhubarb ran last year to help cover the costs of publishing my pamphlet as well as three others. If you supported that, I can’t thank you enough.

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing a few different blog posts here about the historical research and inspiration behind the book, as well as the editing and publication process. So be sure that you’re following the blog to receive those! And do let me know if there’s a particular aspect of the book, or the poetry writing process, that you’re curious about and I’ll see if I can do a post on that too. In the meantime…

You can pre-order the book now: Link HERE

Avid readers and writers will know that pre-ordering is a great way to support authors, because it shows publishers that there is a demand for their book. So if the book sounds like your cup of tea and you’d like a copy, now would be a perfect time to grab one! 🙂

Thanks and happy reading xx

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PS The Featured Image for this post is a painting entitled ‘Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen’ by Peder Severin Krøyer c. 1888