Blood Box: an Interview with Zefyr Lisowski
“Grappling with violence, trauma, and the legacies of settler colonialism, Blood Box is an empathetic, ethically uncompromising take on a horror story in which there are no innocent parties.”
For those of you who don’t know, Lizzie Borden, a rich white Massachusetts woman, allegedly murdered her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892 and has been the subject of endless stanning and problematizing since. She was also probably gay.
Zefyr Lisowski’s Blood Box loosely chronicles the days leading up to the Borden murders through the voices and perspectives of several members of the Borden household. In conversation with both primary source documents and feminist and queer historical fiction, Lisowski’s novella-in-verse examines the unreliability of testimony and the usefulness of lies through the confessional mode it adopts. Grappling with violence, trauma, and the legacies of settler colonialism, Blood Box is an empathetic, ethically uncompromising take on a horror story in which there are no innocent parties.
I talked with Lisowski about her book, the queer archive, and violence on a hot day in early October at my boyfriend’s apartment (my roommates hadn’t done dishes in too many days, and we wanted to watch The VVitch on his TV). She was wearing cut-off shorts, an effortlessly trendy graphic tee, and a gentle misting of sweat from the bike ride over from Brooklyn. I made spaghetti and garlic bread and we drank leftover cabernet from an event I had worked that afternoon; we were living deliciously.
Valentine Conaty: First, I have to ask — as the dedication, “For my father (1944–2017),” seems to invite reading beyond the text into your own biography — how the experience of your father’s death influenced the trajectory of this work? To what extent do these historical characters enable you to examine your own experience from different (and frequently difficult) angles?
Zefyr Lisowski: Thank you for noticing that! I started writing Blood Box out of an early childhood obsession with Lizzie Borden, but within the first few months of writing, I realized I was talking more and more about my relationship with my own father, my rage at him, the moments he was kind to me, my fear of him dying. And then, halfway through writing the book, he died, and it became about that.
I want to stress firstly there are several key differences between him and Andrew Borden. My father was never sexually abusive, as Borden was in the book. However, my father was a heavy alcoholic, which was part of what killed him. Especially as I grew older, that shaped my relationship with him more and more. As I’m noticing how, there’s no alcohol in the book at all — which surprises me. My father, like many fathers of trans children, made some decisions that for me will always be unforgivable, which shapes this text as well. But he also had his moments of kindness, tenderness, and surprise — none of which you really see in the text with Andrew.
Of course, I’m not fully Lizzie — or Emma, or Abby — either. Part of what I’m interested in around persona poem is the way it can be used to convey often contradictory autobiographical truths, however slantwise. Vievee Francis’ collection Forest Primeval first raised my attentions to this particular possibility, but I’m also indebted to the poet Ai and many other queer and femme poets struggling with writing identity. As a Southern trans writer who grew up class-stable but not rich, with parents who themselves grew up poor, there’s something about Lizzie’s world — as a non-trans, rich New Englander — that will never be accessible to me. But finding those identities that I don’t fit within helped form a container to look at my grief and rage at my own family, and also at myself more critically. Throughout all my writing, I’m not interested in the likability of a speaker. Someone who, by all accounts, murdered her parents freed me from the obligation of having to paint a speaker (and by extension, myself) in a good light.
VC: In the context of a murder trial, first-person testimonies are both vital to establishing a narrative account of the crime committed and fraught with individual agendas and vendettas. The bookending of the text with poems from Lizzie’s perspective — coyly titled “If I Did” and “If I Didn’t” — really drives home the inherent unreliability of these accounts, positioning readers as investigators attempting to piece together what did or didn’t happen.
Instead of staking claim to a single narrative of the Borden murders, Blood Box dwells in possibility and uncertainty. Why did you choose to leave things open-ended, and what light did you aim to shed on this famous case through formalizing the investigative process as such?
ZL: I think questions of whether or not Lizzie Borden “did it” are deeply boring!! Western legislative, colonial, and post-colonial processes are obsessed with individual culpability and blame. I think those sorts of questions around guilt and responsibility are really important to acknowledge within interpersonal relationships, but are also such a limiting framework to approach “justice” through, and I avoided representing these norms more than I had to. For me, with this book, it was like: okay, I know as I’m writing this that there wasn’t anyone else who could logistically have committed the murders but Lizzie Borden. That said, why would I take pains to show her murdering her family — something that at best is voyeuristic, and at worst plays into this notion that violence is redemptive or sexual or feminist or whatever have you. I think violence is just violence — it’s sometimes necessary and sometimes not, but I didn’t want to just add one more exploitative depiction of the most famous white woman murderer pre-Aileen Wuornos to the literary canon.
But I didn’t want to be coy about it either, to be like, “she did it, I’m just not going to show you.” I wanted to respect readers’ ability to piece things together. There’s a lot of political work and consideration of exploitative systems buried in the book, and a critique you could make of Blood Box is that some of what I buried isn’t explicit enough. When writing this, I was thinking of realities of sexual violence, misogyny, queerness, and wealth — but also of legacies of coloniality, whiteness, and the American Northeast. I mean, the entire myth of Massachusetts, from Plymouth Rock on, is one based in violent settlement. I don’t ever name Lizzie and her family as such, but they’re white members of the owning class, they’re occupiers, and the guilt that piles up in the book is related, I feel, to their own inability to confront all of the violence they’ve done.
I don’t ever name Lizzie and her family as such, but they’re white members of the owning class, they’re occupiers, and the guilt that piles up in the book is related, I feel, to their own inability to confront all of the violence they’ve done.
It was important for me to write into this, but as I’m discussing it I want to acknowledge it’s nowhere near explicit enough in the book, and I regret not painting a consideration of these identities on with a thicker brush. But I also didn’t know how to at the end, because it was a collection of this family’s voices — often the most horrible acts we do are the ones that are the hardest to admit, and I didn’t want to cheapen the work by having characters confess to things I didn’t think they’d be able to confess to. Andrew, for instance, who’s the most unforgivable person in the book, is completely silent.
VC: Are you a reliable narrator in this regard? Where did you, as an artist, take liberty with the history to the end of supporting your own creative agenda? Tell me lies!
ZL: Oh, god no! There was a lot of research that went into this book, and in the process I was reading so much mythology around Lizzie Borden as well. The pigeons, for instance, are at most a coincidence; pigeons happened to die around the Borden house before the Bordens did. But for some reason, every single creative adaptation of the Fall River axe murders I’ve read or seen mentions the fucking pigeons. The tiny pigeon poem was the first thing from the collection I was able to write after my father died, and I kept the lie of it in the book to acknowledge that part of my own life, but also acknowledge how much Lizzie Borden is a kind of mythic story now as well.
VC: Talk to me about research. Some poems, like “Fall River Herald Reportage” bare their sources more than others. What sources did you consult, and how did those shape the resultant texts? How much narrative and character development is invented vs. documented? How did embarking on a research-intensive project structure your writing process?
ZL: This was an incredibly research-heavy book, which I don’t like mentioning — I worry it reifies the idea that you have labor over something for it to be good. But I read probably six hundred pages of primary court documents, newspaper articles from the 1800s, and then-contemporary sources to get into the book — some of which weren’t even accessible to the public. The Brooklyn Public Library was very helpful, as was the website lizzieandrewborden.com.
An independent scholar emailed me a transcription of the first inquest of Lizzie’s, which was a really helpful 200 pages of additional material to have. And I spent a lot of time lurking on Lizzie Borden forums and blogs (which all exist), with long email chains getting access to things. Then, I read probably seven or eight books of nonfiction on her, from the 1960s to today.
Almost all Lizzie Borden fans that I know of are women, which is one of the things that make the forums so interesting — it’s basically fandom culture.
All of that helped show how the Borden case is ideological — just the difference between the books written by women about her and men is astronomical. (In my experience, women tend to be much more sympathetic to her — which, hmm, duh.) Almost all Lizzie Borden fans that I know of are women, which is one of the things that make the forums so interesting — it’s basically fandom culture. But I was also interested in reading so much to help me understand why I was inventing what I did in the book.
To go back to your previous question, there’s so much in Blood Box that was just made up or shifted. At one point in the collection, half of Emma’s poems were attributed to Lizzie, and then they all changed identity — which means the events they reference no longer line up with historical record. I was more interested in the emotional landscapes of them all, the different ways in which all of these speakers (and myself, really) are haunted. The idea of adherence to factual truth is an ideological fiction, but thinking about truth distracted me enough that the emotional reality of the text, what I was really trying to get at, slipped through more easily.
Of course, all of this I’m narrativizing after-the-fact. My writing process is very instinctual — even the research, which I did because something inside was telling me to do this much research. I very much could have just read one book and called it quits, but that’s not the way my own body is wired. I realize now I was trying to pile up facts until I got to something deeper, but at the time — well, I was also grieving at the time. I was trying to distract myself from my grief. To some extent, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.
The idea of adherence to factual truth is an ideological fiction, but thinking about truth distracted me enough that the emotional reality of the text, what I was really trying to get at, slipped through more easily.
VC: Debates about queer history abound throughout queer history. Many argue that imposing today’s models of subjectivity described as sexuality and/or gender identity onto historical figures is a form of strategic essentialism. For as long as queers have been writing our history, we’ve been arguing about whether these categories are descriptive of inherent patterns of human behavior or names we give to historically situated concepts we create.
It seems to me that if Blood Box stakes any claims, it’s to Lizzie Borden’s queerness, in that both John and Lizzie are described as being “bound by a box/ of its own sort — a feeling.” While you don’t explicitly name their queerness as such, you’ve created language to describe a commonality between two characters based on sexual deviance. What are the stakes of claiming Lizzie Borden within queer history? What does a queer reading of this case do to reframe the investigation?
ZL: I think one of the things that queer scholars have frequently talked about — I first encountered the notion in the work of Ann Cvetkovich, but I’m sure it predates her — is the use of the filling in the blanks when it comes to articulating queerness throughout history. There’s a semi-popular, although not universal, reading of Lizzie Borden as a lesbian because of a close personal relationship she had with Nance O’Neill, an actress from New York — a relationship that her sister Emma disapproved of strongly enough to move out of their shared house together and write Lizzie entirely out of her will.
For me, that was enough to be like, okay, she’s queer, I know how familial homophobia works. But then, if you’re starting there, there are all of these other things that people don’t really talk about. She went on a trip to Europe a few years before the murders. Knowing the ways in which travel anonymizes ones’ actions, I didn’t think it was far to assume , if we’re reading her as queer, that she probably had gay sex during that trip.
But also, thinking about queerness, her uncle John, whom we don’t know much about, lived on a cattle farm in the midwest for ten years with one man as his companion. If we’re reading Lizzie as queer, why not him as well? I wanted to articulate a version of both of their inner lives without falling back on this kind of HRC, “everyone’s valid” sort of labeling — which is why neither of them are anachronistically “living their truth.” But I’m also interested in homophobia as a motivator for violence. What boiling point does that contribute to?
I am let in through the back door because people
are clamoring for my shy face, too — the way
my eyes hood in the same dark way as the accused.
The way mine is also a body marked by dis-charity.
Lizzie, my Lizzie, stares at me inside her cell,
and at last, after all this, surprise seizes me — from her
ghostly face, Abby’s face shines too. From her hands,
Father’s crimson fingers clear as air. The papers say
we quarrel that day, and then immediately retract it.
I say nothing. This trial is long-brewing already, and I fear
in public I’ll have none of the words I mean to imply to
myself. Of course both stories can be true. What are
words compared to the language of the face.
What are reports to how the same set of eyes can hold
the sister I love and the enemy, the enemy as well.
VC: Let’s talk about the title. There are so many directions “Blood Box” leads in — whether referring to historical accounts that Lizzie was menstruating at the time of the murders, to the confinement imposed by a dysfunctional family unit, or to the Borden house’s own materiality and mythology. What attracted you to the idea of containment, and the box as a physical representation of such?
ZL: LOL I was just looking through old drafts of this book to answer this question and noticed an earlier version of it was titled “Emptiness Box,” which is an AWFUL title!! What was I thinking??
But anyway, since you brought it up, oh my god, the menstruating account! I hate that so much. Whatever way you cut it, whether as excuse for her “crazy” behavior or, as in Ruth Whitman’s 1970s poem “The Passion of Lizzie Borden,” a kind of proto-TERF expression of power, it reeks to me of misogyny. But that’s something I’m playing with, sure. I also think in addition to everything you mentioned, that the human body, literally, is a blood box.
Part of being trans, for me, is being interested in and attentive to the ways in which my self is confined. There were other boxes in the collection initially; there was a whole sequence of poems that Lizzie spoke from the county jail — which I ultimately deleted because I felt I didn’t have the experience or moral authority to use incarceration in such a way in my collection. But all of the boxes left in the book are things that my life, at least, has orbited around — class, femininity, whiteness, familial complexity. And box is such a good word, sound-wise, isn’t it? It starts with something popping open and ends with you choking — which is a description of the trajectory of the book too, I suppose.
Part of being trans, for me, is being interested in and attentive to the ways in which my self is confined.
VC: One of the most striking accounts in the book is when we first hear from Emma Borden (“There’s been a death. Of course no one knows what to do [August 10, 1892]”). She’s drawing and redrawing her face in the hot weather, a gesture steeped in femininity. You’ve given us several different angles from which to look upon femininity in the perspectives of Lizzie, Abby, and Bridget, but Emma’s often seems to highlight an inherent unreliability associated with feminine performance. What does it mean to write into the inauthenticity of feminine performance as someone against whom an unattainable “authenticity” is so often weaponized?
ZL: You found the ~trans poem~ in the collection! I’m interested in the ways in which trans and cis women’s lives are similarly confined, and the performance of femininity ties into that. Abby’s marital unhappiness is also a kind of performative femininity — she’s with a man because she needs to be with a man. But with the Emma poems especially, I was interested in how often we as women have to create ourselves contextually and performatively. The lie that there’s an authentic or universal woman lying underneath any of this. There are specific things about performing womanhood incorrectly that are deployed against trans women, but — at least to me — it’s all stemming from the same patriarchal and colonial norms surrounding everyone else, as well.
VC: Lastly, I want to talk about hybridity. The collection pushes up against the borders of poetry in its use of character, narrative, and research-based practice; in some sense, the persona poem brushes upon historical fiction. Blood Box is also long for a chapbook and/or short for a full-length collection; it’s perfect-bound, but too thin to print on the spine. Were these intentional decisions or did this form develop organically in your writing process? What does this hybridity achieve that you wouldn’t have been able to in a more conventional format?
ZL: Across all of my work, I’m a very judicious self-editor. There are probably twenty or so pages of poems I just cut entirely out this book over the course of writing it. The book was accepted as a chapbook to Black Lawrence, but was definitely on the long end — when I sent it, it was 30 manuscript pages — and in the editing process expanded further. I think it’s still technically a chapbook according to my publisher, but it’s something that is a short full-length by many other people’s standards. I’m excited by troubling that distinction, which is why I’ve been referring to it as a “short collection,” a deliberately vague framing I think activates some things in the book.
But I’m also interested in a “non-experimental” collection that includes “experimental” poems, which is another way I approach this book. It has multiple affinities, like you said. It can kind of go anywhere, or everywhere. You told me you think of it as a “novella in verse,” which I love.
Zefyr Lisowski is a trans & queer Southerner, the author of Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and a Pisces. She’s a poetry co-editor at Apogee Journal and an interdisciplinary artist. Zef has received support from Tin House Writers Workshop, Sundress Academy for the Arts, The CUNY Graduate Center, and elsewhere, and her work has appeared in Muzzle, DIAGRAM, Literary Hub, Nat. Brut., and The Texas Review, among other places. Find her and more of her work online at zeflisowski.com.
Valentine Conaty is a Birmingham-grown artist based in Queens, and a founding editor at Bomb Cyclone, a journal of ecopoetics and mixed media. Her work may be found in Anomaly, Petrichor, The Operating System’s Ex-Spec Po series, Glass Poetry’s Poets Resist series, and VIDA Review. She received the 2019 VIDA Fellowship for Women and Nonbinary Writers at Sundress Academy for the Arts.