Why I’m a Witch: A Conversation with Kim Stoll

Kim Stoll lives in Tucson, Arizona. She holds a BA in creative writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona. Her chapbook, Anna Lives, is available from Dancing Girl Press, and you can read her work online at ILKBirdfeastCloud Rodeo, and Alice Blue Review.

Her essay, “Dead or Alive,” appeared in our  Bug/Feature Temple Issue.

Below, she talks with editor William Hoffacker about dissociation, poetry, rituals, and more.

WH: How did your essay Dead or Alive start to take shape for you? Why did you choose to write about this video game and that particular moment in your life?

KS: The easy answer is that one of the editors off-handedly suggested I submit something to Cartridge Lit and I thought to myself, “Do I have anything to say about video games?” I thought through my childhood and different games that had significance to me, and DOA was the first I thought of and the one that had the most story to unpack around it.

The death of my grandfather was a really significant loss in my life. At the time I wrote this essay, I had been seeing a trauma therapist, so I think I was especially in the mindset to unwrap this particular event and my response to it. I knew that disconnecting, going blank and leaving my body was a thing that I did as a coping mechanism all through my life, but before therapy I didn’t know there was a word for it and I also didn’t know how to control it.

So, there was this really intense, important event in my life that I just totally dissociated from and there was this video game that sort of helped me do that. I think this was something I was just ready to get into and try to unpack and the way I do that is through writing. Also, the built-in metaphor of the game title alone, Dead or Alive… It writes itself.

Prior to this piece, all of your published work has been poetry. What lessons have you learned from writing poetry that serve you well as an essayist (or a prose writer in general)?

I think my work in poetry has afforded me way more freedom in my prose writing. Poetry taught me how to just make leaps, to move on quickly. And to be terse and economical with language. To just trust readers way more. Poetry doesn’t hold your hand and explain things, and I think that can be really freeing when you write prose and you don’t feel obligated to the reader in the same way. Also, there’s the obvious stuff poetry teaches you like distilling moments into a single image, relying on imagery and metaphor, and finding pleasure in the rhythm and sonic quality of a sentence, that kind of stuff.

What are the leading obsessions in your writing? What themes or subjects do you return to most often?

Well, I think I earned myself the reputation of being the “dead animal girl” in my undergrad writing workshops, and it’s not untrue. I’ve written a lot about the natural world and people’s relationship to wildness & wilderness. I grew up in a hunting family and return to that world a lot in my writing. I also like spooky shit. I like blood and guts in my poems. I like the idea of sound as a type of violence. Despite living in the desert, I’m obsessed with frozen landscapes, cold brutal places.

I guess at the heart of it all though, it’s all circling types of violence and trauma. So, even though this essay isn’t about my usual subjects it’s still in that thread.

In 2018 you began writing seasonal Divinations on your web site, in which you describe throwing bones, gathering with a coven, and other witchy things. Please describe how, when, and why you began engaging in these neo-pagan rituals (if I may call them that). What is their appeal for you?

Wow, well. This one is complicated. I don’t want to bore readers with an essay on Why I’m a Witch Now. But, here are a few thoughts about this (sorry if it gets long!):

>One simple answer is that I started posting these divinations as a way to force myself to write a non-work-related thing to completion at least once a season. It’s generative. I also wanted to practice divination methods and, again, this commitment of posting to my website forced me to stick with it.

>Another factor is that in the current state of the world, I often feel totally powerless, and have these deep feelings of anger and terror and confusion. Witchy-stuff is a way to sort of deal with those feelings. There’s a reason all these witchy, “woo woo” things are having a moment right now in our culture. I think it helps people feel in control, or helps give them answers, or helps connect them with the earth or plants or the stars or the physical world around us or to something spiritual. A lot of the practices at their core are about taking time to actually be in the present moment, to slow your thoughts and focus your intentions. It’s about mindfulness. Divination in particular I think can be a type of self-therapy, it’s a vehicle through which to understand a situation and talk your way through a problem.

>In terms of spirituality, I guess I’d say I’m an animist, though that’s not really a set of beliefs as it is just a way of being in the world. Anyway, all this witch stuff is connected to that. For those interested, I’d suggest reading the academic essay “The animal versus the social: rethinking individual and community in Western cosmology” by Priscilla Stuckey. It’s really interesting and has to do with the stories we tell ourselves, the mythologies and philosophies that have shaped our current western culture and given the state of climate change and “how things are going,” maybe there are alternative ways we could engage with the world? Maybe trying to connect to the wisdom and power of the natural world isn’t so silly?  

>For several years, I’ve been fixated with the idea of becoming an old and powerful crone. It’s just a vibe I want to have and an aesthetic I really appreciate. I even insisted on playing a old crone in my DnD group. I guess at some point I was like, wait I can actually do that, it doesn’t have to just be a fantasy, I can hang weird plants around my house, I can make potions in a cauldron, I can curse people!

>I took a workshop with CA Conrad on the occult and rituals, and they basically made me a witch. (I hope this gets back to them). If you’re not familiar with CA’s work you should definitely check it out. But they have these (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals, and I learned that through ritual you can kind of stop yourself from dissociating and be really present in yourself and in your writing. So, yes, this witch stuff does connect back to my DOA essay in a tangential way.

Also, CA talked about lion’s mane mushrooms, and though you can buy it in capsule form, you can’t find the actual mushrooms for sale in a grocery store and we don’t live in a place where you can wild harvest it, so I decided to grow it in my house and briefly got really into mushroom growing. And my house felt really witchy and weird and I was like “I’m into this. I dig this. Let’s see where this takes me.”

>It’s fun! It’s fun to gather with friends and make stuff like candles or tinctures or wreaths or whatever and eat a ton of food. Rituals are fun and creative and good outlets for our constant state of anxiety!

Anyway, if ya’ll want personalized bone readings hit me up. I’m still learning, but they say practicing is the only way to get really sharp at this. 

If you could adapt any literary work into any type of video game, what work would you choose and why, and what would that game look and play like?

Okay, yeah. Mathias Svalina does this Dream Delivery Service. He was in Tucson maybe two years ago and I subscribed for a month of dreams. He writes dreams every day and delivers them on bike to your doorstep early every morning. So, by the time I was up and leaving for work, I’d have this pink envelope stuck in my screendoor with a dream in it. The dreams are prose poems, for those not following.

Anyway, I’d adapt that. It would be like this: every day there’s a new five-ten minute experience you can play through. It’s one of those games where you just walk around and experience things (sorry, I don’t know video game lingo. I know there’s a word for this type of game. First-person walkabouts?). You briefly immerse yourself in a new dream reality every day and that’s it. That’s the game.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I have at least three different projects semi-started. Incubating? Maybe they’re all connected.

I’ve been writing a series of poems in this witch-aesthetic vein that pull a lot from Baba Yaga folktales, and there’s also some hunting & shamanism stuff in there. Who knows where that is going.

For awhile I was writing a lot of poems about my time working in an animal shelter and about dog/human relationships in general. I own four dogs and have studied dog training and canine behavior quite a bit, so I have a lot of thoughts to work out there.

I also have a project started that’s connected to all this work I’ve been doing exploring my PA Dutch ancestry and, well, I guess I haven’t been back East in a few years and maybe this writing is a type of nostalgia. But also, wow! There’s this history of folk medicine/ritual healing/folk magic-type stuff among the PA Dutch! So I’ve been exploring that a lot through my reading and writing. And I feel really excited for that whole project to manifest and come together.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Hm. Almost everything I’ve been reading lately if very specific to “research” for writing projects. I’m not sure if I’d recommend ya’ll go out and read grimoires or Russian folktales or academic essays on the Siberian Yukaghirs.

Oh, you know what I would definitely recommend though? Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan. It came out a few years ago, but I just read it this year and yeah, would highly recommend.