Pins & Needles No. 50: Caleb Washburn

bad wolf
© A.T. Velazco

No. 50: Caleb Washburn

Q. I’ll admit, I looked up the definition of “genioglossus,” but it got me thinking about the power in a name. How does this power function in fairy tales?

I’ve forgotten what “genioglossus” means, myself. I don’t know how naming functions for other fairy tales, but for me, for this poem, there is something very ominous about the specificity of “genioglossus”. The speaker doesn’t know the word, but the other man does, and it makes him loom larger as shadowy, omniscient other. It also marks the beginning of a period where the speaker cannot understand anything the other man says, which doesn’t change until the speaker is pulled out of the other man’s mouth in the penultimate section.

Q. I’ve seen starling flocks described or represented in movies before; usually they are menacing, or alive in a monstrous way, yet “The Man in Your Mouth” has them “blooming.” What inspired this unique description?

I actually started with the image of the blooming and tracked back to the starlings (this was before starlings appeared elsewhere in the poem). I was wanting an image of a kind of continuous unfurling, a gushing, a blooming over and over, and the movement of starling flocks came to mind. I love that you associate this with image with something menacing (and now that you say it, the frenzy of Birds seems obvious), but for me the movement always reminded me more of ballet; a gorgeous balance between synchronicity and chaos. At some point in time I watched videos of starling flocks, and I remember being awe-struck (both at the beauty and with a kind of terror) by what I can now only think of as a continual re-opening.

Q. The narrator here pictures being carried in a man’s mouth on sleepless nights. What’s the strangest insomnia remedy you’ve heard of?

I don’t actually know much about insomnia, but what I describe in the first stanza is all true. At the time of this poem I was doing a decent amount of breathing meditations, repeating a phrase and visualizing it, and I found that a similar process of breathing and visualization would help me relax to fall asleep when I was struggling to sleep. Over time it mutated to what you see in the first stanza. (So ha! I snuck some confessionalism into Fairy Tale Review!)

Interview conducted by Fairy Tale Review Editorial Assistant Lucille Randazzo.


Caleb Washburn’s poem, “The Man in Your Mouth” can be found in The Mauve Issue of Fairy Tale Review.

an excerpt from “The Man in Your Mouth”

Nights I can’t sleep I picture a man carrying me
between his cheeks, his body
exposed in the sun. I picture his chest as its own
horizon            free from distractions. I imagine him
still in a landscape without light walking.

This motion of him,                 this motion
of stationary steps, of rising and falling, with me
inside him, reminds me of being carried           as a child.

Tonight I become a small starling
a naked, ugly thing                   A man holds me in his mouth
But it’s awkward         My feet have nowhere
to go so I slide them under his tongue

He tells me my feet are cold   He corrects me
telling me my feet aren’t just under his tongue but resting
against his genioglossus

which strikes me
as odd              Why does he know that word?

Even though I know I’m no bigger
than a beak in the roof of his mouth
I measure myself          in the gap left
between the two rows of teeth           I rest
and imagine this space bothering him  having to
offset his bite for me           the space becoming a slow ache

I measure the opening between his lips
parsed into and oblong O
that’s my gap               that’s me