Dr. Anna Leahy

Dr. Anna Leahy, Professor, Director, MFA in Creative Writing and Director of Tabula Poetica in Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences recently published a chapbook titled, What Happened Was: which includes ten poems each using seven repetitions of “what happened was” to tell its story. Leahy’s poems analyze her own experiences of mismatched assumptions and sexual harassment in college and in the workplace, in the context of history and in the present moment.

The Voice of Wilkinson sat down with Dr. Leahy to discuss her latest publication.

Voice of Wilkinson: Was there a specific moment in your life when you knew you were going to write this?

Anna Leahy: The chapbook opens with the poem “What Happened Was: my mother was pregnant with me,” and that’s my mother’s story but also the beginning of my own story as a human being. As a college student, my mother had been featured in the Saturday Evening Post for being the best woman debater in the country, and then there she was, almost finished with law school and unexpectedly pregnant with me, which she hid at first. And the dean told her that she had to take the semester off even though she had planned a way to miss only a couple of classes and stay on track for graduation and the bar exam, which was given only once a year. All four women in her law school class knew they were resented for taking a man’s spot, and the faculty and dean assumed the education was being wasted on women who would quit to raise kids. So, that was a tangible delay in her career but also represented a day-to-day distrust. That story had been rattling around in my head for decades, and I finally found a way to lay it out matter-of-factly but also as something larger than my mother’s career blip. There are so many ways women–and people of color, people with disabilities, people who are othered in various ways–get tripped up going where they want to go. My mom did a lot to try to change that, but it’s still happening in different ways.

Book cover art by Stacy Russo, https://stacy-russo.com/.

VoW: In the foreword it mentions Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill’s testimonies, can you tell me what these women did/said that affected you personally and how it affected this book?

AL: The title series in What Happened Was: really took shape in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before Congress in 2018. I thought back to Anita Hill’s testimony when I was still in school and about ways I had brushed up against bias and harassment in day-to-day life as a student and then in the workplace. When I was at a small dinner with colleagues here, this subject came up–harassment and assault–and I said that I didn’t think any woman could get all the way to full professor without encountering specific instances of harassment. The women nodded and chimed in, and some of the men seemed surprised that these incidents are so common, so much a part of life. What Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill said wasn’t shocking at all. It should be. One in five American women have experienced attempted or completed rape–that’s a lot of actual real people. But what was shocking, I think, was that these and other women–silence breakers–were willing to say it in front of the public. At first, I didn’t think I’d experienced anything “bad enough” to be part of that conversation, and then I realized that thinking it’s not that bad is also part of this cultural conversation.

VoW: Some of the poems in the book talk about your own experiences of sexual harassment. It must have been really difficult to “relive” those experiences. If you are OK with it, can you tell me how you did that and how you got through it? 

AL: There are a couple of workplace experiences that I haven’t written about. There are a couple in the book that were hard to write and even harder to convince myself to include in the collection because there are a few people who might recognize the circumstances, and I didn’t want this work to be about hashing out details. It’s not gossip. Honestly, using the repeated form of the title series helped. Each of the ten “What Happened Was:” poems repeats the phrase what happened was seven times. That gave me enough room to be clear about what happened and also pushed me beyond what was comfortable to say and then into something to say beyond myself. The structure was there like a net, waiting for me to fill it, a sort of invitation. And then, I wrote one of the poems as an invitation to others to tell their own stories, to fill in the blanks for themselves.

VoW: Does one poem stick out to you more than the others?

AL: I had a lot of fun with “Solve for x.” I started with the premise that x and y are chromosomes, and we think we know what that means, but gender is far more complicated than that. In fact, x is, quite literally, an intersection. So, I collected as many meanings and uses for x as I could and then wove that together in something akin to narrative. I thought about the hand gesture for x in American Sign Language, its use to indicate a kiss in xoxo, the way we draw it over the heart to say we’ll keep a secret. It’s also a symbol for what we don’t know or can’t say. It stands in for something, which is not to say it can mean anything you want because it’s standing in for something specific in a given context. Lets say, x stands for an experience I’ve had as a woman, and another x can also hold a place for someone else’s experience of a different identity, someone else’s signature on the dotted line or buried treasure on the map. I was amazed at how many ways we use this symbol and amazed all over again at the way this poem works in the context of the “What Happened Was:” series of poems.

VoW: What do you hope to accomplish with this book in today’s world? 

AL: I want What Happened Was: to be part of a larger cultural conversation and resonate with support of silence breakers of all kinds. Abrianna Jetté reviewed my chapbook at Stay Thirsty Magazine, and at one point, she says that it’s hard for her to talk about my poems without remembering her own stories and wanting to add what happened to her. That’s what I hope for, that these poems make space for others’ voices.