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Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread


L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award

72 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / no illustrations

ebook available


  Hardcover / 9780807135853 / March 2010
  Paperback / 9780807135860 / March 2010

Winner of the Mississippi Arts and Letters Award for Poetry

Named one of the top ten books of poetry for 2010, by Women's Voices For Change

In Ava Leavell Haymon's third collection, an unremarkable, harried, contemporary woman named Gretel finds herself at midlife overtaken by the Grimms' household tale "Hansel and Gretel." The violence and terror in that story supplant the memory of her own childhood, and the fairy tale retells itself in a sharp succession of surprising poems. The witch, the sugar house, Gretel's brother, her passive father, his cruel second wife, the sinister forest--all these and more rise like jazz motifs to play themselves in the present. Addressing themes such as hunger, child abuse, betrayal, cannibalism, and murder in a tone by turns disturbing and humorous, Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread is most certainly not a book for children.

Poet Laureate of the State of Louisiana, Ava Leavell Haymon’s most recent poetry collection is Eldest Daughter, published by Louisiana State University Press. She has written three previous collections, Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread, Kitchen Heat, and The Strict Economy of Fire, all also from LSU Press, and edits the Barataria Poetry Series, which will premiere Spring 2014. Her poems have appeared in journals nationwide. Prizes include the Louisiana Literature Prize for poetry in 2003, the L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award for 2010, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters 2011 Award in Poetry. Why The House Is Made Of Gingerbread was chosen as one of the top ten poetry books of 2010 by Women’s Voices for Change. A committed teacher of poetry writing, she worked as Artist in the Schools for a number of years, teaches poetry writing during the school year in Louisiana and, during the summer, directs a retreat center for writers and artists.

Advance Praise for Why the House is Made of Gingerbread

“Ava Haymon is far from the first poet to explore a children’s tale for its adult forms and implications, but she is one of the best. There is rich variety here in the strange convergences of fantasy and what might be called reality. The wickedness that lurks in ordinary life keeps bumping up against the poet’s ability to make a hilarious context for such a phrase as ‘a quiet blessing of pedagogy.’ This is an immensely enjoyable collection.”—Henry Taylor, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

“‘Hansel and Gretel’ is one of the most disturbing of fairy tales. Its themes and images have provided subject matter for paintings, stories, and operas that always fascinate. Now Ava Leavell Haymon’s brilliant collection of poems holds to the light numerous dark facets of the tale and brings to bear a haunting sympathy that searches out surprising implications. This poet sings the old songs, ‘the hard lullabys,’ in a different and surprising key.”—Fred Chappell

“In Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread, Ava Leavell Haymon turns inside out the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Finding the ‘walls of gingerbread . . . not on plumb,’ she begins ‘before the story began’ to re-imagine and re-contextualize the narrative elements of voice, place, conflict, and resolve. With formal care and invention, Haymon has crafted in this poetic sequence a suspenseful ‘insistent new version’ of magical intensity and power.”—Claudia Emerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Review of Why the House is Made of Gingerbread

Ava Leavell Haymon’s Why the House is Made of Gingerbread offers a stunning retelling of the story of Hansel and Gretel. More precisely, this book uses that myth to engage psychological forces that may be only accessible if one imagines how myths might have consequences for real people engaged with the same forces the myths represent. One of these consequences is Haymon’s lovely foregrounding of metamorphic processes that present bodies morphing into aspects of mind and the figure of the witch morphing into multiple modes of terror. For the reader it seems as the poem’s focus on the world of myth allows it to enter the psyche at strange tangents, so we realize that aspects of the myth are our story, as elemental as fear of getting older and all that the clues evoke by which the children find their way home. Haymon’s rendering of the old story also allows repeated images like the house and fire to take on imaginative intensity and density that would be much more difficult in poetry devoted to realistic situations. Finally Haymon is a master of pace and enjambment, the weighting of particulars, produced by an always slightly odd yet compelling diction, and of an evocative minimalism. All these traits are strikingly evident in “Year’s Turn,” one of the shorter poems in the volume:

A late summer sunbeam slanted inside
and reddened to amber. Gretel reached
the broom into corners, teasing
the dot of color. The girl’s

limber movements set the witch
muttering: Fields of grain with no shade,
knife that keeps its edge. A few words—
Bees and candles, year’s turn

growled into Gretel’s hearing,
fumbled words that twisted
the stiff mouth. Gretel saw sooty teeth.
She took a breath to ask something,

but the plaything of light
withdrew, and the dirty floor
had to be swept clean
before it was too dark to see.


Dr. Charles Altieri holds the Rachael Anderson Stageberg Endowed Chair at the University of California in Berkley, California. Dr. Altieri is primarily interested in the varieties of Twentieth Century American poetry, especially in relation to philosophy and to the visual arts. He has lectured and published extensively on British and American Poetry, including The Art of Modern American Poetry.

SOURCE: Dr. Charles Altieri


Watch Ava Haymon read What the Witch Wanted


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