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Awaken Your Inner Word Witch: an Interview with Dr. Erica Anzalone

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Awaken Your Inner Word Witch: an Interview with Dr. Erica Anzalone

by Writing Workshops Staff

5 months ago

Few instructors of creative writing have captured the enigmatic blend of intellect and mysticism quite like Dr. Erica Anzalone. An accomplished poet with an award-winning collection, Samsara, to her name, Erica’s academic credentials are as impressive as her literary achievements. She holds an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctorate in English from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where she was a Schaeffer Fellow. Her work has founds its home in literary journals, including Autofocus Literary Magazine, The Colorado Review, and The Literary Review, to name just a few.

Now, Erica is bringing her unique blend of poetic prowess and pedagogical experience to an exciting new class: Awaken Your Inner Word Witch: A Creative Writing 8-Week Zoom Workshop.

This innovative course invites writers to delve into the powerful archetypes of the witch, exploring themes of magic, the moon, the underworld, and living deliciously. Participants will engage with a rich tapestry of readings, from the haunting verses of Sylvia Plath to the evocative prose of Carmen Maria Machado, while generating new work through in-class writing prompts inspired by Tarot and iconic films like Twin Peaks and The Love Witch.

Erica’s workshop promises not just to ignite the creative sparks of its participants but to provide a supportive environment for exploring unconventional forms and perspectives. Whether you're drawn to the crone’s mystic allure or the outsider's rebellious spirit, this course offers a portal to harness the power of the erotic and the enchanted in your writing.

Join us as we sit down with Dr. Erica Anzalone to discuss her upcoming workshop, the transformative potential of tapping into your inner witch, and how this unique course can redefine your writing journey.

Writing Workshops: Your workshop "Awaken Your Inner Word Witch" explores powerful archetypes like the psychopomp, crone, and outsider. Can you share what inspired you to focus on these particular archetypes and how they influence creative writing?

Erica Anzalone: Writers are often outsiders. In Carmen Maria Machado’s “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead,” the narrator is an outsider whose closest relationship is with her lost sister.  She also reluctantly becomes a psychopomp or traveler between the worlds. We can see how desire drives character and character drives plot in this story as she will do anything to find her sister.  This is crucial in writing fiction.

I chose the crone because women in particular are subject to ageism; yet the crone in MacArthur-winning author Kelly Link’s short story “Catskin” revels in all the power that has come with age.   

While Machado’s story is in an inventive hermit crab structure of a Go Fund Me, Kelly’s is in a classical Freytag’s Pyramid.  Similarly, we’ll be experimenting with form in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, as well as unusual point of views such as the first person collective “we.”

However a person comes to creative writing, they can find an “inner word witch” archetype that empowers them and enchants readers.

WW: One of the course takeaways is to harness the power of the erotic in writing, with guidance from Melissa Febos and Audre Lorde. How do you approach this sensitive topic in class, and what impact do you hope it has on your students' writing?

EA: I see these essays in the same lineage as Mary Karr’s essay “Sacred Carnality” from her book The Art of Memoir. Good writing in all the genres needs to “show” through the body’s five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. 

Audre Lorde expands the definition of the erotic past the merely sexual to include the political even if it’s the everyday act of self-care, a term she coined. Reclaiming the body in writing, especially if our bodies don’t fit into heteronormative beauty standards, is a radical act of self-care.

WW: Your class includes a diverse range of readings, from Sylvia Plath to Octavia Butler. How do these readings complement the themes of the workshop, and what do you hope students will learn from these literary works?

EA: Many mainstream writers are witchy!  This archetype holds incredible power.  All of the works illustrate two essential craft points for creative writing: Mary Karr’s “sacred carnality” as I’ve already mentioned, and defamiliarization. In short, defamiliarization means to “make strange.”  

In Plath’s poem “Medusa,” for example, she reimagines the underworld goddess as a jellyfish.  Plath’s Medusa is both defamiliarized and embodied: “fat and red, a placenta” shining with “Cobra light.”

WW: The course description mentions the use of Tarot and films like "Dune" and "Twin Peaks" as creative portals. How do you incorporate these elements into your classes, and what do you hope students will gain from these unconventional tools?

EA: Tarot and films are sources of inspiration just like paintings. When students write about them, they are engaged in the tradition of ekphrasis. 

In her poem “When You Select the Daughter Card,” Aimee  Nezhukumatathil creates her own Tarot card for this relatable archetype. She appeals to the five senses to make the character and underwater setting sparkle through imagery:

The Daughter reminds you to look 

for moon-glow on every leaf and sea grape.

Such wonderment and safety are in store for you.

WW: You emphasize themes such as magic, the moon, and the underworld. How do these themes help writers deepen their work, and can you provide an example of a writing prompt that utilizes these themes?

EA: The collective unconscious that these themes represent are the well-spring of creativity.  However, they’re also subject to cliches.   

In his poem “When the Moon Sails Out,” Federico Garcia Lorca defamiliarizes the moon as a ship on the ocean of the sky.  Rather than resort to cliches like the moon being made of cheese, he appeals to the rare sense of taste when he writes of the moon: “it is correct then to eat green and icy fruit.”  We’ll be playing with synesthesia as well as the use of color to seduce all of a reader’s senses.

The underworld is often a metaphor for trauma. Students will be invited to write in a persona like Sylvia Plath does in “Medusa” as a way to support themselves while writing about difficult subject matter.

In terms of magic, a technique called anaphora casts a spell with its incantatory repetition.  I believe in imitation as is inspiration, so I invite students to write their own poems that repeat the line “A witch is…” after Elizabeth Willis’ poem “The Witch.” We create a group poem in the chat that I read out loud.  Writing shifts from individual competition to communal support, creating a safe container that inspires students to deepen their work with an eye towards sacred carnality and defamiliarization.

WW: With over two decades of teaching experience, what do you find most rewarding about leading workshops like "Awaken Your Inner Word Witch"? How does this course differ from other creative writing workshops you’ve taught in the past?

EA: It’s rewarding to work with the archetype of the witch because she rebels against any oppressive system and works outside of that system according to her own authority.   

It’s especially rewarding to work with marginalized folks who resonate with this archetype. The witch is a magic mirror in which they can finally see themselves and their experience.  Students from this class have gone on to publish their work and attend the MFA programs of their choice.

WW: For writers who might be hesitant about exploring unconventional themes and methods, what advice would you give to encourage them to step out of their comfort zones and fully engage with the workshop?

EA: I hope the way I’m reframing the witch as a literary witch  – as part of the tradition of literature – puts people at ease. In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”  T.S. Eliot argued that innovation is always in conversation with tradition.  Eliot himself used images inspired by the Tarot in his masterpiece “The Waste Land.” 

Likewise, the word witch experiments.  In “Persephone Holds a Q and A on Zoom,” Jude Higgins updates and recontextualizes the ancient underworld goddess in a contemporary and humorous situation.  Students will be invited to re-tell a myth or fairy tale for the 21st century, a popular approach as we can see from the success of novels such as Madeline Miller’s Circe.

In workshop, we’ll be examining all of the traditional tools of creative writing: character, plot, point of view, setting, imagery, and language.  But how can we defamiliarize and re-invigorate them using the five senses of the body?  In the bubbling cauldron of our class, you’ll awaken your “inner word witch” who knows the rules and how to break them.

Learn more about Erica's upcoming class, Awaken Your Inner Word Witch: A Creative Writing 8-Week Zoom Workshop, and sign up now to avoid the waitlist!


Dr. Erica Anzalone is the author of the award-winning collection Samsara. Erica holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctorate in English from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where she was awarded a Schaeffer fellowship. With over eighteen years of teaching experience at the college level, Erica's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Autofocus Literary Magazine, The Colorado Review, Hotel Amerika, Cream City Review, Juked, Pangyrus, Denver Quarterly, The Literary Review, The Offending Adam, Pleiades, Sentence, UCity Review, and elsewhere.


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