Magic, witches, and ancient beliefs associated with these and other traditions of the supernatural have an increased currency in the contemporary moment of culture in the United States. Popular movies and TV shows like The Vampire Diaries have spellcasting witches as main characters, and the shows have led to multiple series spin-offs that continue to this day. The idea of poetry as spell or an invocation of agency is not new to poetry, and remains actively practiced. CA Conrad, for example, writes poetry to be treated as spell: sometimes prayer-like, usually ritualized, and with the intention of altering reality—however the relationship between spell caster-poet and “reality” is defined. Divining Bones, nominated for a Pushcart Prize by BJ Ward and the third full-length collection of poetry by Charlie Bondhus, is less about poetry-as-spell and more about an exploration of the identities of witch and gay men; the book directly speaks to a larger cultural discourse on how to live in the world. In this interview, Bondhus and I discuss identity, poetry as spell, and his latest book, Divining Bones.
Ian Haight: Do you self-identify as a witch? How do you define that identity?
Charlie Bondhus: I call myself a Pagan before calling myself a witch. The reason is that Paganism refers to belief while witchcraft refers to practice. Anybody can practice witchcraft. I’m thinking about Italians who go to mass on Sundays but visit the neighborhood strega when they need help with something that prayer can’t touch. I have a friend of Catholic, Boriquan descent who remembers her grandmother fixing her colds through magickal means.
I do some spell work. And I think I’m pretty good at divination. But for me becoming a “magickal person” was more about adopting a Pagan worldview. As you’d expect, that means connecting to the earth and the universe. But it’s also about mysticism. I’d never call myself a shaman because I’m white, but shamanic practice resonates with me. I journey. I talk with the spirits. I’m still trying to get my ancestors to talk to me. So the greatest gift witchcraft has given me is a fresh worldview. Or better yet, worldsview.
About how long have you been practicing magick?
I’ve been drawn to magick for as long as I can remember. I dabbled in Wicca in high school but I never committed to it, partly because my Catholic upbringing made it difficult and partly because I didn’t really have anyone to learn from. Some of my friends practiced, but they were cliquey about it.
Interestingly, even though I wasn’t practicing, I generally kept a Wiccan altar during my college years and 20s. At the time I just liked the aesthetic, but I understand now that there was probably something unseen at work. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I started practicing in earnest and calling myself a Pagan (not a Wiccan).
What drew you to the practice of magick?
I went through an emotional crisis in 2015. I have PTSD that goes back to childhood, and in 2015 my brain said “Stop repressing this.” Like a lot of people dealing with mental health, I started meditating. In meditation, I could feel energy tingling around my hands. It wasn’t the kind of tingling you have when you’ve got nerve damage. It felt like something I could manipulate and move. It was exciting and powerful. I remember having the impression that two waterfalls were cascading into my palms.
It was an awakening for me. Even though I’d felt drawn to magick and the supernatural all my life, I’d marginalized that side of myself in favor of liberal rationalism. I’d adopted the old Enlightenment worldview partly because of grad school and partly as a reaction to my family’s Catholicism and the USA’s hurtle into evangelicalism. I was defining myself in opposition to trends that were oppressing me as a gay man. But experiencing that moment in meditation made me realize I could have an authentically spiritual life on my own terms.
What do you make of the growing presence of witches in popular culture, as well as poetry?
I’ve read a few articles on the spread of witchcraft and how it reflects a discontentment with the at-times moribund structures of western religion. I think my own journey is similar in that I craved some kind of spiritual connection but wasn’t finding it in Christianity. So if people are finding fulfillment, great.
As for poetry, my first reaction is admittedly “bitch, stop stealing my thunder!” But I felt the same way when I started working on a hybrid manuscript and suddenly it seemed like everybody was working on one. I’m not sure if I just don’t notice things until I’m doing them or if it’s some collective unconscious thing.
However, I’m glad that spirituality and love of mystery are coming back into focus in poetry. It’s very different from what’s been popular for the last 10 or so years, and if it’s time for artistic trends to shift, I’m happy they’re shifting this way.
There’s a lesser dealt with aspect of poetic tradition that sees language and form as incantatory spell. CA Conrad is one obvious practitioner of this kind of poetry; I think also of Anne Waldman, and in that Beat poet vein there is also Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton also come to mind…then Yeats and Blake, and many others before them. Are there any poems in your latest book, Divining Bones, that intentionally are spells?
It’s funny you mention Anne Waldman. When I started writing these poems, I had her incantatory style of reading in mind, particularly in pieces like “I am starting to remember Atlantis and so are you” and “The Hagiography of Sister Dottyback Devilray.” So I had the intention of creating incantatory poems, but not necessarily the intention of creating spells.
That said, I wrote this book while I was rediscovering witchcraft and recognizing it as a way to work through PTSD. The poems were one of several ways I explored my relationship to magick and my spiritual self, so one could say they were a kind of spell that I didn’t realize I was casting.
Is there a relationship between language and its ability to shape or change reality? How do you as author relate to that process?
Most of us understand that language shapes perception. The words we use to frame a situation color the listener’s understanding of that situation. This is often very political—for example, whether or not we are willing to speak of trans individuals using their proper pronouns. I’m also thinking about abuse and how violent language warps our perceptions of ourselves, especially when we’re kids. In these ways, language can shape and change individuals’ realities in very profound ways.
On a larger scale, writers choose their words in ways that impact people’s perceptions of different subjects. If enough writers are changing enough perceptions, that in turn changes norms, which to me is a kind of altering of “reality.”
How do the formal elements of a poem and its synthesized complete structure relate to an intentionality of (magick) incantation?
What’s interesting about magick is that it’s all about intention. The ingredients for a spell, the incantations, none of it means anything unless there’s focused intention behind it. The ritual’s purpose is to help facilitate that focus. This is similar to poetry in that good form poems use the form to amplify the content. A sonnet written as a purely academic exercise is going to be dry and ineffective. The same holds true if you treat a spell like it’s a checklist. Burning mugwort cracks a door, but you need to open it the rest of the way and walk through.
What happens when a poet casts a spell via poetry? What should be some reasonable desired outcomes?
That’s quite a question! I’ve never tried that before. Maybe I need to.
If magick is about intentionality and focus, then poetry may be the best way for a poet to cast a spell. Perhaps that means freighting your lines not just with your intellectual and emotional energy, but also your spiritual energy. What’s the difference? Good question. All of it is interrelated of course, but for me, spiritual energy is a more focused current, something I can visualize as a waveform and whose flow I can direct via concentration. It’s a tiring process and I can’t do it for long (probably means I need to practice more), but one could try to tap into that when writing.
Do you use things like numerology to structure your poems? If so, how?
All poets use numbers to some extent, such as syllable counts and line counts. I’ve never used numerology in the occult sense when writing. Again, that’s something I ought to try.
The figure of Baba Yaga is prominent in Divining Bones. How do you relate to this image as author, and what relationship does Baba Yaga have with the book?
Bondhus: I wrote an essay about this that appeared on Patheos last summer. Quick version—Baba Yaga made herself known to me a few years ago when I was working through PTSD. Like many dark goddess figures (Kali and Coatlicue, for example) she is both creator and destroyer, mother and bogeywoman. All the stories about Baba Yaga tell how she’ll devour you with her iron teeth, but they don’t tell how you’ll be rebirthed. She consumes your wounded inner child and births a healthier, more complete version of you.
The speaker in these poems is on a journey—in this case, a journey through gender—and Baba Yaga lurks in the background throughout his story, providing guidance and difficult wisdom as he reprocesses himself.
What is the attraction to writing this kind of poetry? Does it perform a service to the world?
It’s a cliché to say we’ve lost touch with the earth and our spiritual selves, but it’s very true. I’ve found that reconnecting with my intuition has made me feel much more comfortable in my own skin. For years I lived in my head and adopted a very empirical worldview. That was my rebellion against my Catholic upbringing and a society full of conservatives who dismiss science in favor of fundamentalism. Claiming my own magickal practice—a practice which would’ve gotten me burned at the stake in another era—was a powerful way to reclaim the spiritual inheritance all people are entitled to. It’s my hope that my work will encourage people to be more receptive to their own intuitive voices, which in turn will aid in their healing, regardless of whether or not they choose to adopt an explicitly spiritual path.
Could you talk about your next writing project? What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on two projects. The first is a hybrid called Occult High School Revolution that blends poetry with prose and fiction with memoir to tell a story about being queer, punk, witch, and teen in the ’90s. It features an angsty high school witch named Michael Chaos (who may or may not be my alter ego) as he hangs out with his best friend Crow (who really is a crow) and lusts after the local football star/art provocateur Pterodactyl (who is, in fact, a pterodactyl). Like in Divining Bones, magick features prominently. Sex and drugs are big too, what with it being high school and all. I think of it as a gnostic journey as undertaken by a horny teenager.
The second project seems a lot quieter in comparison. It started out as a series of poetic “letters” to the Celtic horned god Cernunnos but has since evolved into a more fully defined shamanic journey. There’s a cosmology to it that’s drawn from both preexisting systems and my own unverified personal gnosis (fancy way of saying spiritual stuff I’ve experienced on my own).
Maybe these two projects are meant to join with Divining Bones and form a trilogy. Their focuses map nicely onto my own personal holy trinity of Baba Yaga, Cernunnos, and Coatlicue, but I could just be overthinking things.
Ian Haight’s book, Celadon, won the 2016 Unicorn Press First Book Prize for poetry and was published in the fall of 2017. He is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, and with T’ae-yong Hŏ, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim—finalist for ALTA’s Stryk Prize. Other awards include Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Translation, and grants from the Daesan Foundation, the Korea Literary Translation Institute, and the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. For more information please visit ianhaight.com.