In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, our girl Cleo says, “My salad
days, / When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, / To say as I said
then!” She’s talking about an old fling with Caesar. Cringe. Caesar’s
out, Antony’s in. We all have our regrets. That’s what asps are for.
More than 400 years after the Bard writes those immortal lines, Laura
Theobald releases her latest poetry collection, Salad Days. Theobald
and Shakespeare share a lot of the same subjects—relationships,
politics, food, animals. For both, the everyday concerns of normal human
beings are more revelatory than many of us first assume.
There is poetry in ice cream, dinosaurs, puddles.
Theobald exposes the extraordinary weirdness of day-to-day life. Deft
humor and deep despair are doled out in equal measure, often in a single
poem. I was consistently amazed at the inventive imagery and emotional
intensity Theobald manages to pack into ten lines or less. She critiques
the modern world’s absurdity, while celebrating life’s strange joys.
Ecstatic love and bitter heartbreak are both explored with deadpan
candor: “I understand this is a life of mediocrity / I have prepared in
every possible way”
I corresponded with Theobald as 2021 drew to a close. The end of another
surreal pandemic year bleeding into further uncertainty. Needless to
say, an apropos time for artists to be alive and working. In the
conversation below, Theobald and I discuss the versatility of the
simile, how to embrace the low-brow, and why writing poetry goes beyond
simply screaming into the void.
Salad Days is available for purchase from Maudlin House
I’m always curious about how writers get their start. Do you remember
the first poem you ever wrote and what attracted you to the form? When
did you decide to start seriously pursuing poetry and start
I’ve been writing poetry since I was pretty young. My mom always kept a
journal and would give me journals on my birthday. I drew in them, and
wrote down song lyrics, and used them as a diary, and wrote poetry. It
wasn’t until around the time I read Anne Sexton in college, though, that
I started really paying attention. The first time I saw a poet read from
their own book in-person I knew I wanted to be a writer and make books.
I published my first poem at twenty-one.
I remember discovering Sexton as an angsty teen and finding much
solace in her work. Great gateway poet.
Salad Days is your third book. How do you go about conceptualizing a
collection? Do you set out to write a full-length from the start based
on a theme or idea or mood? Or is it more of writing individual poems
until they pile up and you realize they could coexist together?
Yes, gateway poet. She leads to harder poets. No, but she does present
ideas with fairly straightforward language, and talk openly about
womanhood, which are two important types of representation for people
who are just starting with poetry, I think.
At this point, I do set out with the idea of a full-length collection,
but that doesn’t always mean the actualization of that is a clear path.
With Salad Days, because it’s composed so much of similes and these
definitive “I am” / “you are” statements, I often had just a line or two
at a time and then the freedom to move those lines around and present
them in different ways. The book wasn’t really finished until Mallory
Smart (at Maudlin House) suggested I add ten more poems to the
manuscript, which became over twenty. Luckily, because I had all those
standalone lines, I was able to make that happen.
You mentioned the frequent use of similes and “I am” / “you are”
statements. I was so impressed how you took these commonplace figures of
speech and used them in unexpected ways. “It is like a suicide note that
goes on too long” or “I am secretly wonderful like a lost letter or a
black pie”—so many clever lines that follow the same basic structure
but continue to surprise. It just goes to show that even the simplest
poetic devices can be reconfigured in profound ways. What attracted you
to employing declarative sentences and similes as a main current in
Thank you. I was inspired when Chelsey Minnis’ book came out with Wave
in 2018. Nobody has made a connection between us yet that I have heard,
but when I was writing SD I was fairly insecure about the
What’s interesting about similes is you can soar these great distances.
You can find yourself being really clever. You start with an “I am” or
“like” and then you finish with the first image or phrase that comes to
mind. You almost never know where your mind will take you. For me, it
kept taking me to these truths I wasn’t expecting. It’s very easy for me
to think about the idea of a muse sometimes, or of poets being a kind of
conduit, because so often it was like these comparisons were just
sitting there waiting for me to pick them up and write them.
That sense of discovery is what can make poetry so fun to write. I
think the artist as conduit phenomenon is one of those timeless
mysteries, but definitely something a lot of people (myself included)
have experienced. Just letting go and tapping into the unconscious is
quite a trip.
I was also curious how you landed on the title structure used
throughout the book. “Ghost Poem,” “Onion Poem,” “Lucky Poem,” etc. It
makes everything both open-ended and hyper-focused. I also like the idea
of taking all the fuss out of belaboring over a title. On the other
hand, the seven sections of SD have specific titles that seem to
reference music (“Double Fantasy,” “Infinite Sadness”).
It felt right to keep the titles pretty simple for this collection. It
was fun to be able to name some of them after different types of food,
in keeping with the title of the collection, maybe the funniest of
Shakespeare’s neologisms. As for the section titles, I was sort of
reclaiming my appreciation of music while writing this, so music is
coming up throughout... Courtney Love (who I adore) is mentioned,
songwriting, instruments... “Double Fantasy” from the poem “Fantasy
Poem,” where there’s the line, “You are like your own evil twin [...]
It is like a lazier double fantasy.” “Waves of Confusion” seems to me to
have come from nowhere, but it reminds me of the Pixies song “Wave of
Mutilation.” “Art for the Afterlife” is maybe the most conceptual
section title; it doesn't come from anything that I can think of; that
section speaks about the process of writing poetry to some degree.
“Future Moods” is kind of apocalyptic. “Moon Unit” is named for Zappa’s
daughter, of course, and the section dotes on the sun/moon/planets.
“Sour Times” is from Portishead and from “Sour Poem,” which goes, “The
future seems like an eternal shit / And sour like the mind of a
pervert.” “Infinite Poem” was one of the last batch added to the
collection and so “Infinite Sadness” just made sense for that section.
That “like a lazier double fantasy” line kills me. SD is infused
with such an endearing sense of humor. As frequently funny as the
collection is, there’s also a potent sense of melancholy throughout.
It’s an effective juxtaposition because one minute you’re laughing at
some offbeat observation and then there’s an emotional sucker punch that
catches you by surprise. Reminded me of Richard Brautigan’s poetry. How
do you go about striking a balance between humor and heartache in your
Brautigan is one of my favs. I realized a long time ago that I wanted
poetry to really speak to people, to be fun and unpretentious, and to
say exactly what it is I wanted to say—however low-brow, or
irreverent, or sentimental, or sincere. I think, in a way, being a good
poet is learning how to present all sides of yourself and having the
multitudes make sense as a whole, just like we do as people. I think
poets often limit themselves by subscribing to this certain austere
aesthetic that’s so popular, not to mention turn people away. I can
understand that some projects are going to have a certain weight or
feel, but we should want to be able to express the whole range of
emotion—our silliest self alongside our most broken or whatever.
Because that is the human experience—that sudden or violent movement
from laughter to heartache.
Low-brow, irreverent, sentimental, and sincere—my kind of poetry! I
think a big part of why SD is such a fun read is because it doesn’t
take itself too seriously.
Alongside the wide range of human experience you mentioned, a lot of
the poems in SD feature frank depictions of sexuality. I found this
refreshing given the current trend of a lot of writers shying away from
sex. Seems like there’s a weird anxiety about it for some reason. I see
a lot of debate with people saying, “Don't ever write sex scenes!” I
also remember hearing about a reading you did where the venue was
outraged over your use of the word “cunt,” which strikes me as an
inherently misogynistic response. Why do you think writing/speaking
about the female body still provokes such strong reactions? What makes
poetry a good outlet for exploring these issues?
Yeah, it was such a shocking response from that venue. (You can read
about what happened
The things they said about me were pretty vile, infinitely more
offensive than me saying the word “cunt.” I’m still not sure what lesson
to take away from that experience. That it’s still controversial, even
among young, normal-seeming people, for women to demonstrate ownership
of their bodies? I mean, I see misogyny every day, but it never stops
being totally shocking every time and just disturbing on every level. I
don’t know what the answer is.
I guess maybe in that instance a (to me) pretty innocent and playful
poem was able to unearth this small instance of depraved thinking and
expose it. So in that sense, maybe we can say that poetry makes things
happen. But I’m not sure that poetry is necessarily a better outlet for
sex than other forms of writing. I’m working on a novel that has a lot
of sex in it. It’s maybe the same kind of inclusion issue I was touching
on before: sex is a big part of life, I think, for most of us—plus,
it’s mystified and complicated and bad and good... not writing about
it seems disingenuous.
I’m sorry you had to go through that. There’s definitely a double
standard—not just in the lit world—of men being lauded for their
“edginess,” while women catch all this grief for talking/behaving in a
similar way. Definitely shocking that this shit still happens, but we do
live in America after all!
Speaking of which, I noticed quite a few of the poems in SD have a
political bent. There are lots of subtle critiques of capitalism and
consumerism and the insanity of American culture. I see a lot of debate
about whether or not artists should have a sense of political
responsibility. Circling back to this idea you mentioned that “poetry
makes things happen,” do you think writing can be an effective tool in
the fight for social justice? Do artists work because of or in spite of
the apocalyptic atmosphere we face today?
I think writing for sure can be an effective tool in the fight for
justice. With poetry I think there’s some nuance to that idea. Am I
“fighting” by merely noticing corruption and greed? Or writing about it?
Am I gaining ground? When I’m reading other people’s poetry do I get the
feeling that I’m accomplishing something? I think that would be rare and
is kind of not what poetry is for. I’m not making a practiced, rational
argument or a plea. It’s more like screaming into the void. Or to
whoever will listen, whoever wants to be near someone who is also
We’re beginning to see the large-scale effects of global warming on a
daily basis, and our government is racing past every flag, hoarding
wealth so they can afford a first-class seat to the apocalypse. And
we’re writing poems. It’s inadequate and absurd, but it’s also
something. It helps the time pass, it gives you access to a community
of sorts, it quiets the voices. It helps, in a way. You write in spite
of and because of and because you can't imagine not, I think.
Laura Theobald is the author of three books of poetry—Salad Days
(Maudlin House, 2021), Kokomo (Disorder Press, 2019), and What My
Hair Says About You (Metatron Press, 2017)—plus three chapbooks.
She’s a PhD candidate in English at UGA in Athens and received an MFA
from LSU, where she served as Editor of New Delta Review. In her spare
time, she designs books for independent publishers.