Barrelhouse Presents the Authors of ELJ Editions: Tammy Robacker

Interview by Amber Edmondson

The poems in your collection, Villain Songs, tell the story of a girl’s “dark family secret” with a tone that balances brutality and bluntness. How did you arrive at this voice for your narrator?

The poems that make up my collection, Villain Songs, are often based on memory, observation, witness, and survival of sexual trauma. I think at this age, as a woman, having had decades of experience with that kind of subject matter—

Whether it’s a cat-call, a flasher on a public bus, or a family member sexually preying upon us as children, the poet’s eye can turn to examine such subject matter with just as much brutality. There really are no soft or delicate ways to confront childhood sexual abuse, so the poetry was a place where I could be real and raw. The truth had it’s say in this body of work, and although there are poems that transform the brokenness and speak the pain into moments of gold, beauty, or light, there is much discussion of the perpetrators, the men, the darkness, and the deleterious effects such abuse has on the human spirit.

Your collection takes readers on the narrator’s journey to reclamation which comes in stages throughout the last act, including a death, an orphaned doll, and a family gathering. What was your priority in resolving your character’s story? What did you strive to get most right?

I didn’t want Villain Songs to just be a raw, violent purge of poetry about the trauma. I needed to have some examples and moments of grace and hope through the poems, which is reflective of my own growth and repair.

I wanted to be sure the narrative of this manuscript also shared the moments of courage, healing, repair, strength, and the gifts discovered in continuing to love and have family relationships with those who live in the fallout; my aunts, uncles, cousins and other surviving women that withstood their own tribulations and journey to survive in spite of the harm. There is also a kind of ownership that comes with understanding and outing our pain and our scars. It’s part of my own history and story of survivorship. It diminishes the shame of secrets and hiding and blaming ourselves.

Mostly an intimate portrait of a girl’s family history, Villain Songs often splinters off to reflect the story of fictional or historical kindreds (Pammy T., Medusa, the children of the Tekakwitha Orphanage). What was your process in gathering these different threads and weaving them together?

The story of sexual abuse of children is not a single story. It is an ugly taboo that mars many lives, since the dawn of time. I wanted to turn my writing gaze from myself and my own experience and see where else the poetry percolated with truth and warning. Where else are the harmed gathering and telling their truths? I see the narrative of survivors of childhood sexual abuse rising up in fury in the Irish, German, and American Catholic church community; in the religious schools indoctrinating and institutionalizing the Native American community; in the private school community; in the Boy Scout community; in the juvenile detention communities, and in the older texts of fairy tales, mythology, and legend. The people and the stories who carry this secret are as old as time. Many poems came from looking outside of myself and confronting what I am seeing and reading in literature, in the daily news, in sexual abuse research, in documentaries, in independent art and films.

This is such a powerful, persistent collection, one that must be hard to shake from your writing as you move forward to new work. As a writer, how do you cleanse your palate between projects?

I am always writing poetry, so palate-cleansing is a manageable shifting of gears for me. I think Villain Songs served its deeply artistic purpose over the past few years to tell my own secret through art and writing. And even though I wrote that large collection on a specific topic, other poems in my future will address the trauma and the narrative down the road too. I don’t think it is finished by any means. Like poet Tony Hoagland has written, we writers all have our ‘flood subjects.’ That one thing that fills our creative mind to the brim with material…Speaking about childhood sexual abuse is definitely one of mine.

What images or topics do you find recurrent in your work? Do you chase any elusive but inescapable themes?

Writing topics and themes can range from what I am curious about naturally, which is love, aging, my heritage, my deceased parents, the body, shame, grief, loss, hope, justice, and sometimes the political. I am currently working on a new poetry book about my mother, who came from another country and died very young. I am hoping to tell her story, which is also part of my story. Family is really a rich arena for exploration in my poetry. I never seem to run out of good writing material on that subject.


Amber Edmondson is a poet and book artist living in Upper Michigan whose work has appeared in publications such as Autostraddle, Freeze Ray Poetry, and Menacing Hedge. She is the author of two chapbooks: Darling Girl (dancing girl press) and Lost Birds of the Iron Range (Porkbelly Press).


Tammy Robacker’s Villain Songs is available for purchase: