Analicia Sotelo earned her MFA from the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review, Iowa Review, Antioch Review, Forklift, Ohio, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, was selected by Rigoberto González for the 2016 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Analicia has received scholarships from Squaw Valley and Image Text Ithaca and is the 2016 Disquiet International Literary Prize winner in poetry. Her poem “Ariadne Plays the Physician” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Ariadne Plays the Physician”?
I wrote “Ariadne Plays the Physician” late into the Ariadne series that eventually became a part of Virgin (Milkweed Editions, February 2018). I had been fascinated with the relationship between Ariadne and Georgio di Chirico, who used the sculpture of The Sleeping Ariadne as a motif of melancholy in his work. In the classical story, Ariadne helps Theseus defeat the Minotaur and runs away with him to the island of Naxos, only to find herself alone on the beach the next morning. Ariadne is a strange mix of vulnerability and strength—she risks everything to give the ball of thread and sword to Theseus, and she is also the one who has to cope with being left with no answers.
De Chirico, who deeply influenced the Surrealists, led me to other resources, including this phrase by Nadia Choucha from her book Surrealism & the Occult: “surrealism now aimed to link the conscious to the unconscious and provide an Ariadne’s thread (intuition) to lead Theseus (the conscious) through the maze of the Minotaur (the unconscious). Indeed Minotaure was the title of the surrealist magazine that succeeded Le Surrealisme au Service de la Révolution.”
The thought that Ariadne could have led Theseus into and out of his own ego made me think of hyper-masculinity, and the inevitable power struggle that marks relationships in Western culture. I also thought of the female Surrealists, who created powerful work alongside their male counterparts. But popular culture recalls the men most: Dalí, Magritte. I had the impulse to re-write Ariadne’s narrative from her perspective, but I knew I couldn’t do that without imposing my own. So I wrote a voice that could potentially be mine (the poet’s) and hers (the myth). I wanted to write a series of monologues that could be complicated and anachronistic, where Victorian rhetoric could live alongside modern concerns. It would be a kind of time travel that was simultaneous. I threw out many poems. I wanted to demonstrate her internal struggle, outside of history and never told. By the time I came around to writing “Ariadne Plays the Physician,” I was determined to let “Ariadne” speak as any male would. The Victorian physician, or alienist, is exactly the kind of male figure that can speak without fear. Now Ariadne would get to play that part, and play it as well as possible.
The voice of Ariadne, a figure from Greek mythology, takes center stage in your poem “Ariadne plays the Physician” and is several times associated with bright or sight-enhancing things. Ariadne describes herself an “Edison bulb” a “Spanish fan flirting with fire” and claims to have come to Theseus with “a magnifying glass” nevertheless, the poem’s conclusion sees her arriving at “no bright conclusion.” What inspired you to focus on the coexistence of sight and ability paired with blindness and failure? And how did that relate to her possible role as a physician?
Wow, this is an amazing question! Speaking very generally, I think women and gender non-conforming individuals who see themselves as having what we historically call “feminine” characteristics are taught to doubt themselves, to self-criticize, to never think they are enough. The character of Ariadne struggles with what she can see and can’t see of the same thing. She is desperate for the connection of a relationship, but she’s also resistant to that connection. She is suspicious of how well things could even go. That desire/resistance brightens and fades like a flame from a lamp, or the residual light that a person sees after a bulb goes out. The physician, or alienist, would have had access to many low-lit rooms, where there is an ominous power to examining a female patient closely with light, or peering through glass. Ariadne is calling herself a physician to admit that she herself has the characteristics of someone who desires that kind of control. Though she is a woman, I think she sees herself here as the opposite of that trope because she has calculated her way into romance, but can’t see through it clearly.
Your poem is structured with a relatively stable alternating pattern of three couplets followed by a single line. What drew you to this formatting and what do you hope it does to thread together the meaning and message of your piece as a whole?
I think the three couplets provide a closure that the single line challenges. Ariadne is a paradoxical speaker: she is confident, but self-conscious, constantly checking herself to make sure her determinations are correct. I think as a character, Ariadne is also a little Socratic, except that she doesn’t have someone with whom to dialogue. She doesn’t assume she knows everything, but her instinctual impulse matched with her intelligence tells her something important. This is a poem where Ariadne is no longer asking for confirmation, and there is a resolution to this poem that took a long time to find.
Ariadne appears to be struggling to control a story, fighting both with truth and fabrication as she narrates the poem. What does her frustration and concluding failure do for the story of the poem itself? Is she intended to operate as a successful persona and voice for her own struggles or does her weakness in “doctoring the truth” work at all to endanger her existence as a reliable narrator to the narrative of this piece?
I’m not sure if Ariadne fails at the end of the poem. Maybe the fact that she recognizes her own complicated weakness is a kind of victory? One of the things I like about this poem is that Ariadne is morally complex with no real indication of what she has actually done—the struggle is entirely internal, and she is voices it externally, perhaps not even for others. It could be all for herself.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim have had a strong influence on my work in terms of rhetoric and personal interiority. I wrote these poems while listening to Lianne La Havas, Yuna, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Kat Dahlia. I love the boldness of blues singer, Ida Cox. I’m also deeply influenced by artists, too many to name really, but Magritte, Chagall, and Cornell are quiet favorites. Honestly, a good dinner with friends influences my writing in the sense that I remember the gloriousness of small conclusions when shared with trusted listeners.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best advice was very good, but also abstract, and therefore difficult to explain. But I’ll say it was about writing without fear, and not overcomplicating a poem by over-explaining your best lines. If the poem surprises you as you write and rewrite it, it is carrying an emotional energy that will sustain it through the end.