Madison Lazenby (19) is a freshman at Hamilton College, where she is a prose reader for the college literary magazine Red Weather and a contributing features writer for the college newspaper The Spectator. She is a graduate of the UVA Young Writers Workshop and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, and the 1455 Literary Festival. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from L’Éphémère Review, Sooth Swarm Journal, and The Ideate Review. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter under @mad_mads_maddie. She is still trying to grow her hair out. Madison’s poem “I’d Like to Think I Was in Gymnastics for a Reason” won second place in the Hips Contest and can be found in Issue Eight here.
A Conversation between Madison Lazenby and Lily Bechtold
1. Hi, Madison! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. “I’d Like to Think I Was in Gymnastics for a Reason” is amazing! Applying the “hips” theme to the idea of protectiveness is so interesting; how did this poem come to life?
Hi, Lily! Thank you for having me and for your kind words!
When I think about hips, the first thing that comes to mind—aside from Shakira’s masterpiece—is the idea of a woman having “good/broad birthing hips.” I then connected this concept of inherent motherhood and protectiveness in general. I also wrote this poem in the latter semester of my senior year of high school, which was both a time of personal endings and a time when the climate crisis was becoming more of a mainstream topic of conversation, so I was certainly influenced to write about Endings with a capital E more than ever before. Incidents like these, I’ve noticed, are never really controlled by the people who experience them—time runs its course and we are just riding along with it—so I really wanted to write something that explored this helplessness, specifically in connection to the female experience.
2. What role does the title play in introducing the reader to the poem? How did you land on the metaphor of gymnastics?
The reference to gymnastics came out of my own life, though I now realize that it is somewhat of a universal experience for kids in western society: my parents put me into ballet, gymnastics, and cheerleading in preschool and elementary school. Though I have started going to the gym more regularly now, these specific activities did not continue into my teenage life at all. In developing the poem, I started to wonder what the point of me being in gymnastics was, besides getting me out of the house for a set number of hours per day. Today, I can only do a somersault and I haven’t done a cartwheel or handstand in years now. I wanted to know what I had truly gained from being involved in these lessons if I did not retain them. This then became something that I wanted to know about Gen Z as a whole: How have we been prepared for the rest of our lives, especially with our futures being threatened by the end of the world?
3. The expressed need “to feel and see / and understand before it all dies,” coupled with the final two stanzas of the poem, creates a sense of urgent duty. How does this feeling of immediacy influence the poem?
It definitely does influence it! This primarily comes out of the dilemma of knowing that one day the world is going to end but not knowing when, though it seems like the estimate for that date is getting closer each time a new scientific study is published, thus making every effort in the narrative of the poem and in actual climate activism all the more urgent. This urgency also comes out of my personal philosophies in life—which can be boiled down to a love of continuous learning, both academic and experiential—as I am very conscious of the fact that there is so much “to feel and see” in the world but I know that I probably will not be able to experience it all before I die or the planet dies, whichever comes first. In a way, I would say that the poem is somewhat of an anti-bucket list poem, an acknowledgement of the fact that one truly can’t experience or—as is the case for the poem itself—save everything with what time we have on this planet. I wanted to explore that final realization and what that could look like for a person.
4. Courtney noted that today’s culture can place a lot of emphasis on the ability of the individual person (especially young people) to turn a tide alone. What is there to be said about the pressures placed on young people today to work toward solving issues like the climate crisis? How are those pressures represented in the poem?
The interesting thing is that I did not become a full-on climate activist until I got to college this fall, where I immediately joined our new Sunrise Movement Hub and became an organizer for on- and off-campus events. In doing this work, I have certainly felt the pressure of fixing the climate crisis more than I did when I actually wrote this poem. At the time, I knew that it was going to take mass public action to stop the incoming collapse of the environment and society, but I did not know what that truly looked like. Now, having had the experience of organizing protests with my Sunrise Hub, I know that individual action, though incredibly impactful, is not enough when done alone. All activism work is made stronger when done with other people. This I think informs the reading of the poem in the sense that the speaker is choosing to take on everything by themselves and still wondering what else they could have done, which is ultimately an impossible task that will cause more harm than good.
5. The expectation that someone protect and save the world around them is often closely associated with traditional femininity, too. The image of “hips rolling / out of place, my shoulders dislocating” is such an incredible description of what’s often expected of women and their labour in society. How would you say this idea of feminine duty comes into play here?
It’s sad but it’s absolutely true. I wanted to explore the imagery associated with feminine duty and labor because western society as a whole in the last fifty years has observed a large transition from a woman being expected to stay in the house to now being at least allowed to try to achieve whatever she wants. Specifically in recent years, with more women in positions of power—whether it be the Squad in the US Congress or Greta Thunberg becoming the face of the youth climate movement—while expectations of marriage and motherhood remain, the idea of feminine duty has been molded into something that I think the sociologists of the future will have a hell of a time defining. With how feminine duty tends to be associated with protectiveness, I really wanted to explore what that would look like if extended past the home to the world as a whole, especially when that could be taken too far.
6. There’s often a point where a constant effort to “throw my legs / far enough or stretch my arms / high enough” starts to become an over-extension or a source of exhaustion, especially for individuals as separate from the world. How does this poem specifically investigate that tipping point?
I wanted to find a way to explore a mental tipping point in a tangible way, since ignoring one’s own needs in favor of other’s will inevitably lead to physical effects. In this instance, I wanted to explore the idea of actually trying to wrap oneself around the whole planet, evoking the imagery of creating a human shield or simply an all-encompassing embrace. In this, I was attempting to find the intersection of maternal instinct and stretching oneself to the breaking point.
7. The end of the poem leaves readers with some deep questions about the possibility for one individual to “shield just one continent from the flood” or “split in half one great earthquake,” and the fairness of that expectation. What do you think about the answers to these questions?
I think that everyone will at some point wonder if they could have done something different to get a better result, which I often find myself doing despite knowing how unhealthy it is. I don’t think that anyone should torment themselves with questions of what could have been, though I fully understand that it is uncontrollable in many cases. I ultimately hope that the readers of the poem will draw the conclusion that drowning oneself in questions of what could have been is useless, especially when the thing in question has to do with the survival of our planet. I do, however, know that that anxiety can be used productively, but that can only happen when one works with others to reach a goal.
8. In your bio, you list a lot of involvement with the literary world, especially with younger writers and their work. How has this influenced your own writing?
I think it’s important that young writers become exposed to and form connections with other young writers, both simply for friendship and for growth. Attending the UVA Young Writers Workshop in Summer 2018 was my greatest period of growth in my writing and I largely have the friends that I made there to thank for that, as they both pushed me to work harder and exposed me to new styles of writing. I also attribute attending YWW and Project Write, Inc. as inspiring me to deeply consider teaching writing and literature in the future.
9. What does it mean to you to be a creative, literary young person in today’s political climate? What power do you think your words and the words of other teen writers hold right now?
I am reminded right now of the poem “Making Great Art” by Rhiannon McGavin—who I view as one of my greatest writing mentors—in which she critiques the thought that art and literature only matter when something important politically is happening. I agree with her in the sense that art and literature should always be considered important even when the political climate is relatively mild—but, to add onto that, when is there not something to comment upon, to make better? And, further, when is there not a time when free speech and creativity is under attack in some form or another? I do believe, however, it is important that young writers have their voices heard right now, since it is becoming evident that any lack of action on the part of elected officials—whether it be on climate, gun control, women’s rights, education reform, or anything else—is going to most affect the younger generation, who up until now have had very little say in how they are governed, not through any fault of their own but simply because of their youth. I also think that in general there are so many more opportunities for young writers to better themselves than there were in previous years. There are publications such as Body Without Organs that publish exclusively teenagers, contests for young writers, and summer camps and enrichment programs that focus on writing. Honestly, I really think that the world is ready for new and fresh voices and that young writers need to reach out and take as many chances as they can.