Looking ahead at the upcoming transits for February and March 2022, I have been thinking about the Venus-Mars conjunction in Capricorn that will occur Feb. 1st through early March (3/5), 2022. I’m a February-girl, myself, so I like to look at February transits. (I’m a Pisces Sun with Aquarius Rising, and February is the month that shares Aquarius and Pisces dates.) In my experience, I have enjoyed some wonderful friendships and relationships with people who have strong Capricorn energy in their charts. In particular, I have benefited or learned from Capricorn women mentors, bosses, family members, friends, professors/teachers, and colleagues. One thing that I really admire about Capricorn women is their ability to land on their feet–almost cat-like, no matter the situation; they are resourceful, courageous, enduring, and careful, and seem to have good judgment. They are also trustworthy, dependable, and give great advice, especially about plants.

Mars in Capricorn: Cool, Controlled, Commanding, Conservative Climber

What does a Venus & Mars conjunction in Capricorn look like for February 2022? Well, Mars is exalted in Capricorn, which means Mars is powerful there. Here, Mars is dominant, in control of emotions, physically in control, and self-assured. Mars in Capricorn, as cardinal earth energy, is masculine, likes to build, protect, and provide; Mars-in-Capricorn takes the initiative, seeks security (but prefers to build this, rather than have security provided), and climbs the ladder of success in at least one field, industry, or arena of life: ultimately, Mars in Capricorn is driven by a deep motivation to become the expert, the father figure, boss, the CEO, the authority figure, or the master, even if this is as a “life coach” who guides others towards self-mastery. In fact, Mars in Capricorn would excel as a life coach, financial planner, career coach, or as a teacher, mentor/coach in any dynamic in which there are students, less experienced newbies, or others who respect the Mars-in-Capricorn for Capricorn’s expertise, a robust résumé of experience, authority, and achievements. There’s a strong connection with fathers and fatherhood at the root of Mars-in-Capricorn, and this can include practical, down-to-earth ways of demonstrating an ability to provide for one’s family, or working too many hours at the job/construction site/office, likely in the position of leadership, overseeing the project, running the company, or managing a job site. Mars-in-Capricorn energy takes a calculated set of risks, like an experienced mountain climber, utilizing physical strength, as well as high-quality gear, ropes, and climbing pulley systems, which the Mars-in-Capricorn person probably engineered, or at least put in the hours, months, years of endurance training to tackle the more advanced rock climbing (or ice climbing, or cave-spelunking, or other earth-based adventure sport), both as a metaphor, and as a real-life example of how this archetype can express physicality, core strength, and that ultimate drive to move upward. Sometimes Mars-in-Capricorn can appear to others as though making a slow, careful climb in business, relationships, or fitness, but the overall momentum is goal-oriented, disciplined, and powerful. But Mars-in-Capricorn has a dark, albeit “dark and handsome, yet intimidating” side: I always think of the character, “Bill Compton,” in the southern vampire novel series by Charlaine Harris, and the HBO series, “True Blood.” The actor, Stephen Moyer, plays the character, and lead male role, “Bill Compton,” aka “Vampire Bill,” in the series; the actor has Mars in Capricorn, and his cold, steely, reserved, conservative, gentlemanly-yet-terrifying demeanor seems to perfectly depict that Mars-in-Capricorn “life force” energy, if you’ll pardon my vampire-genre pun. Vampire Bill is once, and always, a husband and father figure, also a military veteran, completely faithful to traditions and his southern heritage, while also closely adhering to the structure, rules, and governance of the vampire “ruling class,” a totally Capricornian premise! Remember, Capricorn is ruled by the planet, Saturn, which is known for structures, restrictions, discipline, and cold hard life lessons. Saturn is the teacher, and the disciplinarian.

The “Bill Compton” character is opposite the heroine, “Sookie Stackhouse,” a part-fairy clairvoyant/telepath waitress, portrayed by Anna Paquin, who has natal Venus-in-Cancer (in opposition to his Mars-in-Capricorn), and Black Moon Lilith in Capricorn (secret desires), and Virgo Moon (at 24° Virgo) in exact synastry with his Pluto (at 24° Virgo)–what a combination! They not only played a couple on the “True Blood” series but are married in real life. While I don’t expect actors to play/portray their astrological placements, it’s intriguing when it does seem to play out, especially in the case of a storyline about vampires, and really really old traditions, rules, established customs and a hierarchal structure within the vampire plot.

Capricorn is sometimes known as a cold, calculating, and commanding sign, and is associated with dry, cool earth; so are vampires known as cold, calculating, and commanding creatures who rise up out of dry, cool earthy graves. It’s just one metaphor for this archetype, certainly not the only one! I loved the “True Blood” series, to the point of hosting a “True Blood” themed cocktail party one fall after I first bought my house; my party guests brought southern, Cajun, and Louisiana-based cuisine, and we drank red wine. One of my best Capricorn friends not only attended, she helped me decorate, and kept a cool head even when I started to freak out about last-minute party prep in my typical Piscean way.

If afflicted, or harshly-aspected, or conjunct Pluto, the above traits can show up on the surface, but like a conservative suit, or clean uniform, conceal a darker side: Mars-in-Capricorn can, at its worst, be controlling, bullying, punishing, and/or abusive. Mars-in-Capricorn energy can also show up in behaviors that include “doing whatever it takes to get ahead” tactics, or figurative shin-kicking, or cold, calculated moves. One could suggest that some of Mars-in-Capricorn’s motivations might be partly driven by a fear of poverty, fear of instability, or fear of powerlessness in a past dynamic (including with a father figure or authority figure), that triggers a desire to dominate (or be dominated), to “get down on one’s knees,” or suffer melancholy, depression, joint pain (probably from a knee injury, or knee surgeries), or a festering resentment, if Mars-in-Capricorn feels somehow defeated (especially in a job loss or financial loss scenario). In these situations, where Mars-in-Capricorn is vulnerable, a tendency for gambling, making/taking financial risks–especially when facing poverty, or job loss, visiting a casino, investing poorly in a “get rich quick” scheme, dating a fellow gambler, or applying to pitch a business venture on “Shark Tank” without the necessary research, or careful thinking, might be a few of the Mars-in-Capricorn fall-back behaviors when backed into a corner. Mars-in-Capricorn might step into care for a parent (after the loss of a father figure), and resent that duty, despite loving the parent. Alternatively, Mars-in-Capricorn might seek out a BDSM or dominance/submission dynamic with another person in order to regain a sense of power, control, and authority. Mars-in-Capricorn likes to discipline others. The bottom line, Mars-in-Capricorn works hard to BUILD, PROVIDE for others, and to gain the authority and experience necessary to be respected as an EXPERT.

Venus in Capricorn: Elegance, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Endurance, and Effort

Where Mars in exalted in Capricorn, Venus is comfortable, secure, elegant, effective, and well-admired for her savvy business acumen, killer wardrobe with classic staples. She’s not adverse to putting in the extra time at work (to move toward her goals); she puts effort into cultivating relationships with lasting potential. Everything, and everyone, is evaluated as a possible investment–including, emotional investments. Venus-in-Capricorn owns a suit (or uniform, or at least one little black dress/black pant suit), or black pencil skirt/a well-designed black jacket, probably owns either black high heels as well as sensible shoes, a smart hair cut, or sports a classy “pulled-together” look, –but none of the dressing is nearly as important to Venus-in-Capricorn as a portfolio that impresses with experience, finesse, and the right references, no matter the gender here. Dark violet, shades of wine red or burgundy, deep reds, dark chocolate browns, earth tones, shades of stone gray, and silver also appeal to Venus-in-Capricorn. ALL valuable gemstones, not just the birth stones, as Capricorn appreciates all high-quality, valuable gemstones, appeal to this archetype, as long as it’s worn in good taste, nothing flashy. (Capricorn rules the hair, skin, nails, teeth, bones, joints, and knees.) Venus-in-Capricorn has an impressive LinkedIn profile, an online portfolio, or website, and is well-respected among colleagues, and could probably lead a self-improvement seminar on leadership training.

One celebrity example, Lucy Liu, has Venus in Capricorn (at 21° Capricorn). In one of her movie roles, in the “Charlie’s Angels” movie series, she plays, “Alex,” who at different points of the movie series, identifies herself as “not a bikini waxer,” “an efficiency expert,” dressed in a black-leather dress carrying a riding crop and pretending to be a dominatrix, and an excellent chess player, a champion at equestrian competitions, as well as a highly-intelligent, highly-focused, and a little intimidating, yet a loyal friend and teammate. I realize that actresses don’t necessarily play their astrological placements, but in this case, it seems to have worked out to depict various expressions of Venus-in-Capricorn for the character, “Alex.”

Venus-in-Capricorn is attracted to grounded, earthy energy (of the other two earth signs, Taurus and Virgo) as well as to the water signs, especially Scorpio and Pisces. Venus-in-Capricorn, with an eye for structural aesthetics, is a natural interior designer, architect, or botanical garden designer–and if working in any of those fields, has years of experience, a license and/or the degree or credentials. Venus-in-Capricorn, no matter the vocation, is down-to-earth, practical, magical, (yes, think “Practical Magic”) and likely has a natural “green thumb,” or affinity for growing plants, gardening, working outside with earth elements. Capricorn, as symbolized by the sea goat, is drawn to shorelines, beaches, and might seek a beach-side resort, or lakeside house, or summer camp, as a place to wind down and relax after working very efficiently and effectively, in whatever field/job/authority role that the Venus-in-Capricorn person has carved out as a career, or lifestyle. And it is about lifestyle–with Venus-in-Capricorn, who seeks a certain kind of lifestyle, whatever and wherever that might be, but locations where the mountains meet the sea are especially appealing for this archetype! It is ideally with an eye toward security, longevity, long-term commitment, and an extremely well-planned retirement that Venus-in-Capricorn invests effort, time, energy. Venus-in-Capricorn invests wisely, not only in tangible, material things, but also in people, partners, including for business and romantic partnerships (or traditional marriage). If Venus-in-Capricorn is artistic, the person pairs creative talent with a business plan, a way to market it, capitalize on it, build on it, and ideally, build a clientele, ideally an exclusive clientele, and a tight, reliable circle of trustworthy friends. This is the placement for people who are experts in brand management. Venus-in-Capricorn on the worst days, in times of stress, fears poverty, instability, and rejection–but this is rooted in a deep desire to build a stable future with another person, a partner, for the long haul, or the long climb. There’s a strong desire to be a provider, a responsible “parent” like figure, or a responsible partner in any dynamic, and often, seeks an older partner, whether consciously or subconsciously. Sometimes, there are “daddy issues,” as Capricorn is associated with fathers and father-figures, and if Venus-in-Capricorn is conjunct Pluto, or harshly afflicted, could indicate a tendency / inclination toward dominance-submission dynamics in a relationship, whether at work, or in a personal / romantic relationship, or in an “alternative lifestyle” sense of it. Venus-in-Capricorn might be drawn to a controlling or dominant partner, or by contrast, be the dominant/domineering/bossy/controlling partner to a more submissive/passive partner. This can also signal, boss-employee love affairs that turn into long-term relationships, or “marrying the boss” scenarios. Venus-in-Capricorn has sensitive skin, or might, in vulnerable times of life, experience joint pain, especially in the knees, skin problems, or tooth/jaw pain such as TMJ from teeth-grinding at night likely caused by work stress, worrying about financial loss, or poverty-stricken scenarios. Ultimately, Venus-in-Capricorn perseveres, as a strong-willed type, might be a “Type A” over-achiever, and a bit resistant to change, but taps into that core strength & endurance, in the face of adversity. This type invests in the best skin creams on the market, but will also be frugal in spending, generally, knows how to save for a rainy day, and balance the checkbook.

Venus & Mars Conjunct in Capricorn:

The power couple climbs.

Investing in oneself, or in a partnership.

Endurance. Motivation. Core strength.

Passion builds on a slow, cautious-yet-commitment-oriented dynamic.

What does the Venus-Mars Conjunction in Capricorn (Feb. 1 through March 5th, 2022) possibly mean for us as individuals? It depends on where the conjunction occurs in the natal chart (as a transit), where it might occur in a relevant Solar Return, if one has a birthday in February or early March, and/or a progressed chart, or Lunar Return–each with different layers or “flavors” for interpretation. A Solar Return is useful for looking at the themes and conditions for one year, from one birthday to the next. I’m interested in this dynamic since I have a birthday, and thus, a Solar Return, while Venus and Mars are conjunct in Capricorn. I was thinking about the metaphor of the mountain climber. If Venus and Mars represented two archetypes, we could extend the metaphor to suggest that these are two types of people, who are closely in tune with one another while conjunct in Capricorn. Together, they are the mountain climbers who have put in the hours, months, years of skill and endurance training; together, they have invested in the best climbing equipment, and worked together as a team, building trust, and developing a strategy that works under various conditions, such as when they encounter an obstacle, or high winds, or less-than-ideal circumstances, such as if one has a knee injury. (Capricorn rules the knees.) Together, Venus and Mars in Capricorn are a power couple. Mars is exalted, which means, powerfully positioned, and thus, more than capable of making Venus feel supported and secure. They are the King and Queen of Pentacles from Tarot; they invest in one another, in the partnership itself, as though the relationship were also a business investment. Together, they build, plan for the future, strategize and capitalize on their combined strengths, and when one is hitting an obstacle, the other one takes the lead, offering a foothold, or some kind of tangible, material support (e.g. a rope, or a hand, a piece of gear/equipment, or through financial support) along with instructions that reassure the partner during times of stress. I say, “instructions” because Venus and Mars together in Capricorn respect one another’s advice, wisdom, experience, and sets of instructions, because these are time-tested, methodical, carefully planned, and reliable step-by-step guides; Capricorn values the art of the step-by-step guide to achieving, or ascending, to one’s desired goal. The goal or goals can be anything! One Venus-Mars in Capricorn duo might invest in a condo near their favorite ski resort; another Venus-Mars combo builds a smart retirement plan, that includes land, property, and security; a third Venus-Mars in Capricorn partnership might build a business together with long-range thinking. Together, they are motivated by those inner shared fears of poverty or lack of stability, or a fear of powerlessness; but instead of focusing on the fear itself, this combined energy of Venus and Mars in Capricorn, the sign of the sea goat, the goal-oriented mountain goat, physically, and sometimes forcefully, move in the direction of their shared goals.

If all of this dynamic is happening within one person, rather than a partnership, it can signal a powerful, enduring motivation, realistic goal-setting, financial planning, investing in oneself, in one’s talents or skills, or advancing one’s career, including a strategic move toward mastery, gaining expertise, and garnering respect from one’s peers. If this is happening in one’s 1st House of the Self, I would suggest that this latter description is more likely, rather than an emphasis on a relationship/partnership scenario. Investing in one’s self doesn’t have to mean the same thing to everyone: it could mean seeking a license or certification, or degree, or some other credential that certifies that a person possesses a set of skills, has gained a particular expertise in a niche, or field, and/or has taken the necessary steps involved to professionalize those skills, talents, experiences, and figured out a way to get the credentials to improve one’s sense of self-mastery, and to acquire the courage to climb, face obstacles, and persevere.

Poetics. When I began to study poetics, I did not fully appreciate what contemporary poetics examines. It’s not simply the “form” of poems. It’s critical theory.

Cruel optimism. When I read Sappho’s poetry in Early Modern Poets class last fall, I encountered the idea of “cruel optimism” in the Sapphic principles of the unattained attachment and the significance—or imperative of the absent “object of desire,” even before reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). In her tenacious dissection of her term, “cruel optimism,” which she defines and illustrates by way of several expressions, for example, an attachment to a “cluster of promises” for an “impossible” identity, outcome, potentiality, ‘sheer fantasy,’ or ‘toxic’ situation, (Berlant, 2011) and examples as shown with poetry, e.g. John Ashbery’s poem, “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse,” (“We were warned about spiders, and the / occasional famine.” […] “He came up to me.”) in which the poetics of attachment play out before and after the critical action in the line, “He came up to me.” (For the full poem by John Ashbery, visit the Language Hat blog post here.)

Anyone hooked on the twenty-first century trend of “mindfulness” and “living in the moment” must read Berlant’s work on “cruel optimism,” as Berlant interrogates the notions of the “present” as found in lyric poetry; when we study lyric poetry, we take for granted that the present holds weight and meaning. Berlant challenges the present as it operates on other levels in the poetics of attachment: 1) She writes, “one must embark on an analysis of rhetorical indirection as a way of thinking about the strange temporalities of projection into an enabling object that is also disabling.” (Berlant, 2011) To this, I reflect on early modern poets including Queen Elizabeth I herself, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose lyric poems projected happiness onto the object of their desire whether it was a physical person, such as “Stella” in “Astrophil & Stella” or the queen’s youth in her sonnet, “When I was fair and young.”

Studying Sir Philip Sidney’s epic lyric poem, Astrophil and Stella, and envisioning them in my art journal

Secondly, Berlant asserts 2) that the poetics of attachment by way of “cruel optimism” create “a fake present moment of intersubjectivity” (Berlant, 2011) in which the object of desire, such as an ex-lover, a lost cause, a ghost—is absolutely absent. Thus, the “cruel optimism” is of a “potential occupation of the same psychic space” to allow an imaginary scenario to exist for the poet/writer. (Berlant, 2011) Thirdly, this functions as a projection onto 3) an “impossible identity,” open-ended meanings, “boundary-dissolving,” (Berlant, 2011) a myriad of poetic osmosis happening between the speaker and the addressee, whose identity may even be imaginary and unrecognizable to the real person or muse who inspired the poem.

  Holding the magnifying lens to Berlant’s work, we find an inverted focus on the “other” as this imaginary, affected attachment, nearly artifice. And we find the speaker, the “I” and the “self.” In Judith Butler’s work, “Giving an Account of Oneself,” (2001) the poetic accountability of these two bookend identities, or interpersonal perspectives, come into focus. The “self” and “the other” are constructions of the poem; these could be anything (as in Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century dialogue poems, in which she imagines a conversation between a man and a tree, for instance, or her own “self” interrogating her “barren” fertility problems and casting these as the “other”), not necessarily two individual human beings as subjects. Recognizing the ‘other’ is “subjected to that norm and agency of its use,” as Butler explains. (Butler, 2001) She writes, “I am compelled and comported outside myself,” and “the subject of recognition is one for whom a vacilliation between loss and ecstasy,” as it is the “possibility of the ‘I’ and the knowing of the ‘I.’” (Butler, 2001.)

In my work with the Gothic (or the EcoGothic, and Romantic-Gothic) women writers of the 1790s and early 19th century, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley, I search for this very phenomenon: where does the writer recognize her own “I” and situate herself apart from the “other” or conversely, portray herself as the other? This is, as I understand Butler’s work, a kind of poetic accountability (or accountability of poetics). The functionality of the “I” (for example, the female Gothic “I” or the lyrical “I” in contemporary poetry, or in Millay’s sonnets, her “I”) transgresses the boundaries of the “I” and confronts the liminal space around the “other.” At times, when we are hunting for the “other,” we find a convergence of the “I” with the “other” in this liminal space, a dissolving of boundaries, much the way Lauren Berlant talks of attachment poetics. When the poet or speaker, (or poetics scholar) is held accountable, these confrontations and central questions around self and otherness act as a frame of reference to position the other in relation to the self (or vice versa).

Exploring the “female Gothic ‘I'” from Romantic-Gothic literature
(my “Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, on the Eve of her Wedding”) LCS Mixed Media watercolor in my art journal

Interiority, or interior subjects, then become dependent on this relationship, and in some cases, the self (as “I”) is relying on the conventional norms of the other (as “you”) so that the poem has some basis in a hypothetical singularity. “The notion of singularity is often bound up in existential romanticism and a claim of authenticity.” (Butler, 2001) What strikes me about Butler’s work is a call to authenticate the “self,” in relation to other living beings (mostly human), in a way that seems reminiscent of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other Romantics, especially women writers in Romanticism (and even dark Romanticism, e.g. Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley). I find myself making connections between the 18th century philosophical writings of literary critics and writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and J.J. Rousseau, and the literary critics and sociologists like Berlant and Butler—specifically on the subject of the “self” and the “other,” and the problem of attachment, a favorite subject of both J.J. Rousseau and M. Wollstonecraft! So, it would seem we are still troubled by attachment poetics, and still perplexed by the recognition of the “self” and the “other” two hundred years later.

            In short, as a poet, I am guilty of crafting poems on the fragile, filamented, fragmented scaffolding of “cruel optimism.” (See my poem, “Capes and Daggers,” Fish Anthology 2019) In fact, I confess it’s a favorite tactic. Berlant’s interrogation of “cruel optimism” further disrobes the idea of the “affective attachment,” and positions the poet (or speaker) as the ‘wearer’ of the thing, effectively “wearing of the subject” and being “worn.” I love this idea of wearing the attachment like a garment but also wearing it down, the way a spirit must wait until the affected speaker is weary, vulnerable, and ready to be possessed—by desire, by this cruel optimism to a “proximate location” to, as Berlant alludes, the “good life.” (Berlant, 2011) Possession, both as a state of being, and as affective attachment, and possessiveness, as a trait, or quality, seem like a fitting mode that suspend “the cruelty of the now,” (Berlant, 2011) by building a fantasy scaffolding on the promise of an imminent happiness (reconciliation, reunion, resolution, miracles, once was lost but now found, etc.) I would love the opportunity to examine specific poems and apply Berlant’s model of “cruel optimism” to analyze how poems given an imaginary voice to the voiceless (ie. an absent actor). What about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets (those she’s written as a widow grieving her husband’s death)? Or, as a parallel example, it would be useful to create case-studies on several poets from different periods.

Cruel optimism seems to champion a kind of identity theft and reclamation at the same time. Poetics of attachment don’t work to retain or retrieve that identity all at once, but incrementally, in fragments, almost like a reversed Petrarchan blazoning. The speaker, by analogy, throws pieces of that impossible identity at a moving target, like a blindfolded knife-thrower releases daggers at a costumed assistant, spinning around on the wheel of death/transformation. No one ever really knows much about the knife-thrower’s assistant; in Berlant’s work, this is the “faceless universal subject of self-referentiality” (Berlant, 2011) as the action of the poem is not necessarily real; it may be illusion, the illusion of attachment, ultimately, an illusion of the ‘American dream.’  

This coming Sunday, February 21st, the Farnsworth Museum in Maine is hosting a special event to honor Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s free and open to the public.

Experimenting with the new block editor and am re-blogging this with a few updates!

The Adventures of Fen Fatale ~ Ecoheroine

The Marriage of Tarot and the Empath

On the heels of the beautifully aspected Taurus full moon, my dreams lately have had me thinking a lot about empathy. Recently, I taught a series of workshops for Windham-Raymond Adult Education on folklore, astrology, palmistry, tasseography, and my favorite–cartomancy, the art of reading everyday playing cards for divination. I first began working with the Tarot, astrology, and cartomancy in 1992, while I was a teen-ager. Prior to that, around 1991, before I entered high school, a friend of my mother’s gave me a set of Celtic Tree Oracle cards–a system of divination with a guidebook and cards created by Colin Murray and Liz Murray, illustrated by Vanessa Card (1988). I still have my original deck and guidebook–even though there’s a little bit of tree sap on some of the cards from using them outside 20+ years ago. (I experimented with aeromancy, allowing…

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Come write flash nonfiction with me this winter (January 2021) in this unusual hybrid-genres workshop series hosted by Westbrook Adult Education (Maine). We’ll dip our toes in the literary works of the Lake Poets but we’ll really electrify our brains (and imaginations) looking at elements of dark Romanticism and life writing in the literary lives, loves, and works by Romantic women writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

Experiment with hybrid genre in this online workshop with Leah Stetson

Write by the flash of lightning–or candlelight, or the flicker of your woodstove fire, –or your desk lamp, and respond to writing prompts that come directly out of dark Romanticism. If you are the sort of person who likes to forage moss in the fall to make a moss garden (for the home and kitchen, or your writing room), why not think about moss as a writing prompt? Moss grows on the walls of castles in dark Romantic fiction that we’ll read in this workshop series.

Blarney Castle grounds, Co. Cork, Ireland. Stetson photo

There’s just something about Mary. But it’s not just about one writer. My love for all things darkly Romantic goes back to my childhood obsession with castles–medieval castles for the most part–and those are a distinctly Gothic element in dark Romanticism, especially in works like Ann Radcliffe’s novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. (Click on the link at left to see a brief preview of the course content.) Have you ever seen a castle? I grew up next door to a castle in coastal Maine. But last summer, I traveled to Co. Cork, Ireland, where Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her first novel, Mary, A Fiction, one of the short novels we’ll read in this workshop–and I visited Blarney Castle. Personally, I loved the gardens, the grounds, and the mossy, secret tunnels and hiding places outside of the castle like in the photo I took (shown above) on the Blarney Castle grounds near its fern garden. This is the kind of thing that inspires my writing. What about you? Do you like castles? Gothic motifs? Then this workshop is right up your alley.

My Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster-themed jack-o-lantern (a previous Halloween) Stetson photo

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has captured my imagination since I first read her 1818 novel–a work of Dark Romanticism, the combined or hybrid genre of Gothic Romanticism, in high school. I’m not alone. Many other writers, like Kiersten White, who wrote the contemporary retelling of Frankenstein, the New York Times bestseller, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein (2015), which I really enjoyed. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of the heroine, Elizabeth Lavenza, for decades, the idea –which Mary Shelley’s various heroes–the Monster and Victor Frankenstein–discuss and debate–of a theoretical “mate” or “bride” for the Monster. My imagination twirled into the idea of “what ifs?” and I wrote the feminist tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (last year), “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, on the Eve of Her Wedding,” which was published in BONED Literary Magazine (and their editor, Nate Ragolia, included my poem in the 2019 Anthology — Boned Every Which Way. But what has truly electrified my imagination has been my research into the literary lives, loves and works of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe. I’ve noticed elements of their “life writing” in their works–even “fictionalized memoir.” Could Frankenstein have been partly fictionalized memoir?

A sneak preview of this workshop

Did you know that Maine’s first novelist was a woman and that she wrote gothic novels? Yes! Sarah “Sally” Sayward Wood wrote works of dark Romanticism, too, and her first Gothic novel, Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800) has been compared to Dan Brown novels. How unexpected! Sally Wood is my ancestor by way of marriage to my great-great-great-great grandfather, General Abiel Wood, who was her husband. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Sally Wood was a pioneer of early feminism in Maine at the turn of the century. She and a friend started the oldest women’s organization in the country–the Wiscasset Female Charitable Society (of Maine) of which I am a member. In fact, I grew up in the same house where she lived and wrote (for part of her life). She lived in Lincoln and York Counties, Maine (even before Maine became a state). I want us to look at her novel Julia and the Illuminated Baron, or her novel, Tales of the Night, in this workshop, if participants are interested. Wood’s sentimental Gothic style might very well be in alignment with themes and motifs we find in British Romantic-Gothic novels, like those by Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft, who pioneered early feminism in the 1790s.

A Scene from Mary Shelley’s novel, Mathilda. Watercolor painting by Leah Stetson

Currently, I am a graduate student in a tenacious pursuit of dark, Romantic ecology of water and wetlands at University of Maine. I’m studying remotely and that’s why I’d like to take this opportunity to offer this workshop online (for participants, who like me, have been practicing social distancing.) Additionally, I taught college-level English classes for Southern Maine Community College 2007-2017, and in that class, I taught literary analysis; some of the students chose to read Frankenstein, and so I can say that I’ve taught classes on elements of Romanticism in the past. I’ve also led creative nonfiction workshops at several public libraries including Walker Memorial (Westbrook, Maine) and Windham Public Library (Windham, Maine), and a blog-based writing workshop at Raymond Village Library (Raymond, Maine). I belong to the Lakes Region Writers Guild in the Sebago Lake Region of southern Maine. I’m really excited to offer this workshop and I hope you can join me to experiment with hybrid genres and read excerpts and works by Ann Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sally Wood, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This class starts in January 2021. Visit Westbrook Adult Education’s website to register.

In the meantime, please feel free to check out this short preview video in which I discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel, Mary, A Fiction, which she wrote while living in Co. Cork, Ireland in the mid-to-late 1780s. (It was published in 1788.) I hope the short video gives you an idea of the kind of course content offered in this course.)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
painted by Samuel John Stump
oil on canvas, 1831 (National Portrait Gallery)
I am “Lady of the Lake”

One of the few helpful aspects of social distancing and self-isolation during this horrible time of the COVID-19 has been taking the time, in solitude, to read, write, organize, create, sketch, and to revisit old favorite hobbies, and passions, like art. Back in March, when my university transitioned to online courses, and my state governor issued a Stay-at-Home order, I felt reasonably “ok” with that, since I felt it was a good time to focus on my graduate study, which requires a lot of reading and writing. Last fall, two of my faculty advisors asked me a difficult philosophical question about why researching the topics I’d proposed was important to me–personally--and my answers then seemed flaky, e.g. “I am Lady of the Lake!” So, I have been thinking about how to answer those questions. It seems like I should be prepared to answer thoughtfully.

In May, I received Honorable Mention for my poem, “My Glacial Erratic,” in the 2020 Fish Poetry Prize, judged and selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. My poem will appear in the 2020 Fish Anthology, coming out later this summer. (That’s with Fish Publishing, which holds a number of writing contests each year, based in Ireland.) Since then, I’ve written new poetry, and started drawing images that go with my poetry, and some of it is inspired by recent coursework. Selkies, mermaids, the Irish merrow, bog-women, the Lady of the Lake, and other supernatural female figures in literature (Romanticism as well as other periods, particularly Gothic literature and Arthurian lit) have captured my imagination.

“Irish Merrow” – one of my watercolors

Enter art journaling. To work through some of my ideas, I’ve started art journaling. It’s now summer, and I’m still self-isolating, and spending a great deal of time at home, on my own, creating. I’ve started working in a blank canvas art journal (Jane Davenport’s supplies).

Painting on my deck. This piece is one of my mermaid characters from my “Blue Dog and the Sea Fan” series.

It never occurred to me to use my art (and poetry) to think critically about my proposed research, or to answer philosophical questions about my interdisciplinary research. I’d been approaching it methodically, seriously–with critical annotations, a working bibliography, term papers as building blocks, outlines. Now I’m approaching it differently, and I’ve got images of mermaids, selkies, bog-women, and memories of Ireland in my head.

Painting in my art journal– a scene from my trip to Co. Cork, Ireland in 2019

Part of that’s influenced by the research I did on Traditional Ecological Knowledge of seaweed harvesting in Ireland for a term paper. Part of it’s inspired by a Celtic Studies class I’m taking led by Dr. Sharon Blackie. I read her book, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (September Publishing, 2019) which I loved.

I loved this book by Sharon Blackie!

There’s something very liberating about making art. And it’s a good exercise to pick up a different tool–any tool–whether it’s a paint brush or fountain pen–but a physical tool, one that can be held in the hand to transmit ideas from the mind to the page. I love color. I’ve always responded emotionally to color. As a kid, the gift of a set of colored pens delighted me more than dolls or toys. I still love art supplies and colored pens. Recently, I’ve become quite smitten with art supplies by Jane Davenport, an Australian artist and designer, known as an “Artomologist,” a play on her nature photography, and particularly her love for ladybugs, and other insects. I’ve also really enjoyed her books, such as Marvelous Mermaids. Jane Davenport has a series of art tutorials on Youtube, and I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering my love for making art, partly inspired by her wonderful books, tutorials, and using some of her supplies. The “Mermaid Markers” are some of my favorite supplies, a water-reactive brush pen, like a watercolor alternative, that’s been fun to use. But my absolute favorite thing of hers is the fountain pen, an INKredible pen.

Inkredible ink fountain pen by Jane Davenport and one of my journals

Twenty years ago, I took a watercolor painting class at College of the Atlantic. Prior to that, I was a writing-art double major (or English major, art minor) at St. Lawrence University. For at least ten years, from high school through college, at four different schools, I loved making art. I incorporated art visuals into my poetry projects and liked making books. Then, in 2004, while in grad school at COA, I was living in a small cottage with a 15-year-old water heater, which leaked badly, flooding my little home, and saturating all of my possessions. My draft master’s thesis, which I’d meticulously organized into piles and chapters, along with my notes and data on my living room floor, floated in ankle-deep water on a soggy shag carpet. Even my old Dell laptop was submerged. One of the fatal losses that really crushed me at the time, three full art portfolios containing all of my art from more than four years in studio art classes–drawings, paintings, photography, self-portraits, watercolors, some of which I’d planned to frame someday (when not working on my master’s thesis). All of my art disintegrated. It was so shocking and sad, I focused on other things, like completing my master’s degree, and moved forward with other projects, and left my ruined art and love for making art, in the past.

In recent years, I’ve rediscovered my love for Kettle Cove State Park (southern Maine), and I have been lucky enough to swim in that small cove over an eelgrass meadow, where I swam and toddled around as a baby more than thirty-five years ago.  Recently, I swam at high tide, in the wake of the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer this June.

Kettle Cove State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Stetson photo

Every time I swim there, I am flooded with sensations, poems, ideas, and epiphanies. I’m rediscovering myself. I’m reinventing myself. Below is a weird “inner self-” portrait I painted, using watercolors and real Maine eelgrass, which coiled and wrapped around my neck and arms as I swam at Kettle Cove in June.

I collected a few blades of eelgrass, which was floating in the water, and coiled around my wrists as I swam to shore. It also washes ashore along with rockweed, so it’s easy to find there. I incorporated the eelgrass into my art journal.

“Inner self-” portrait,  multimedia,  “Lass in the Eelgrass” LCS  June 2020

Now, twenty years after my watercolor class in spring 2000 at COA, I’ve picked up my paint brushes again. I’ve started making art again, almost on a daily basis, for the past month. At some point, during the process of social distancing, self-isolating at my home in the Lakes Region of Maine, I felt inspired to start sketching some drawings of symbols and seaweed as part of projects, like the one I did for Folklore and Environmental Policy class. Then, I started sketching ideas for other aspects (inspired by literary works by Romanticism-era writers like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft) while I organized a strategy for doing my graduate research. That led to the idea of starting an art journal that’s connected to the research I’ve been doing as a student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program. I’m a poet and “ecoheroine,” researching the Eco-Gothic and Arthurian lit in a tenacious pursuit of deep Romantic ecology of wetlands.

All of these images and photos are mine. Please don’t share my images. My art is work-in-progress. Thank you!

“The Invocation of Mary Shelley”

I contemplated the lake: tempted to swim, I stood on the shore in pitchy moonlight, a cascade of shadows in shapes of trees that tricked the eye into seeing some gigantic being, a monster from my past. To escape that memory of hell, I dropped my cloak, and retreating like an innocent-accused into her prison cell, I plunged into the calm, cool water. Whispering a poem as though it were prayer, it seemed that a fallen angel was quick to answer me. Bright flashes of lightning suddenly revealed clouds previously invisible in a black sky; the quiet storm illuminated the lake for several minutes until a dark, lacy veil descended like the faint sketches of an artist, crossing out first lines and drawing a new design, a pentimento of seasons. Summer rains had ceased; the cold miserable fall torrents replaced them, and my placid heart became agitated and weary. Wind licked waves and levitated them from their usual occupation. To my horror, a few curled into dorsal fins, a beast of prey in a troubled sea; I swam away, and slunk ashore, breathless with the thrill, and afraid.

Thunder erupted. Exhilarated, I pulled my shawl around my shoulders and watched the storm bestow a sublime, terrific power. Was I the only thing that beheld this beautiful scene? The frogs, I imagined, long had buried themselves with the worms in the earth. A loon wailed like a banshee. Once my eye recovered from the repeated flashes of lightning, I again retraced my path to the cottage where I took refuge in the most perfect solitude. Upon that vindication I sought from the judge, who bore witness to the depraved deeds of that dæmon, I passed whole days on the lake, often alone, or with a friend, listening to the loons, writing letters and allowing nature to restore me. On many an afternoon, I have seen this lake writhe and turn with the heart of a tempest, reflecting in some manner, the true passions of my nature, the fury and fears of a woman, whose airy singular voice, overwhelmed by danger, could not conquer violence, nor any nightmare, amid the crash and hollow cries of the nightly winds through tall pines.

It was a dreary day in November, many years later, when I tore up the papers that beheld his handwriting—that wretch who loomed like a hangman behind my back, transforming every staircase into a scaffold. I’d discovered the papers in a basket, and accordingly destroyed them, and placed them in the woodstove. I assembled some small branches and built a fire in the stove, watching the flames consume the haunted remnants of that evil spirit. Let those be the last words that fixed my fate to ruin. Here, in this bright cottage in a vale, I became my own protectress. This little wood became my hiding-place. In a nearby land preserve, I walked with my dog in meadows full of white flowers, alive with butterflies and wildness, that radiant sister to innocence. I became an advocate for Nature. It may seem a trifling service, lest I accomplish any small thing to prove myself worthy, at least I will be kind to my fellow creatures, and delight in every fortunate chance to row my little boat upon that lovely lake, or to swim in those glistening afternoons. To its powers of restoration, I owe my happiness. In spring, the ice melts, and a cool mist rises from the lake and flits about the forest; the sun sparkles on the lake, flickering through bare trees, allowing a glimpse of the water from my kitchen window. By late May, rains drench a lush green canopy. It bursts into birdsong. The woods become a fairy-land—rich in berries and nuts for the sparrow, wood frog and deer. -LCS

At the lake

In the flash fiction experiment above, I was drawn to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s sublime imagery in her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, and her metaphor of the lake. When her hero/protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, rows across the lake, he sees his beautiful native land of Geneva, and he’s filled with a sense of relief–until he suddenly sees the gigantic creature, climbing a mountain in the distance, and Victor is again consumed by conflicted feelings of guilt, horror, fear, regret, and self-loathing. The lake seems to reflect his best and worst feelings about himself. I borrowed the lines, “I contemplated the lake,” “I took refuge in the most perfect solitude,” and “I passed whole days on the lake,” directly from Shelley’s novel, and kept those particular lines in mind as I wrote this flash fiction piece about a time, a dozen or so years ago, when I took refuge on a lake in Maine. There was in fact a “monster” of sorts, but not the kind that Victor reanimates in his apartment.  The rest of my flash fiction piece is my own writing although I did experiment with a writing style that aspires to invoke the spirit of Mary Shelley, and a bit of her mother, too, Mary Wollstonecraft, especially in the line, “I became my own protectress,” even though neither Wollstonecraft nor Shelley ever penned that line. Both advocated for the idea of women becoming a “protectress” rather than looking to a man to fulfill that role. (See Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792)

Water is a strong element in Mary Shelley’s writing; she seems to use the water element–whether mist, ice, snow, rain, lakes and the river–to convey human emotion. The type of water she uses and the condition of the weather seems to match the emotional condition of her characters.

Romantic Women Class PostUpdate: Due to the pandemic and school closings and schools’ switch to online learning, this workshop was postponed. Hopefully I may be able to teach this in the fall of 2020, but it’s not definite yet.

I’m hoping to offer this in fall of 2020:  I have been asked to lead a workshop series for Westbrook Adult Education (Westbrook, ME) with the theme of women writers of the Romanticism period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

Travel back in time 200 years to the Romanticism period (1780s-1820s) and explore the lives and literary works of at least three Romantic women writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. Pioneers of early feminism, Gothic literature, and the inventor of the famous “Frankenstein’s Monster,” these women writers influenced the work of other writers of their time, and for two centuries—as we still have books today on the New York Times Bestseller list that are contemporary retellings of Frankenstein, or that invoke the spirit of the Gothic, or 1790s botany with storytelling.  “Life writing,” known today as creative nonfiction, grew in popularity among women of the Romantic period. We will read from a selection of their works, discuss aspects of their “life writing,” and ask why it was important for women to tell their stories.

In this class, students will have an opportunity to write short memoir pieces in the form of short ‘experiments’ in life writing. There will be at least one in-class writing activity, and several take-home writing prompts. Genres may range from first-person narrative creative nonfiction, travel narrative, or short fiction. We will experiment with hybrid genres, such as short-form nonfiction, otherwise known as “flash nonfiction.”


The short-form nonfiction essay form has been around for two centuries but became more popular in the mid-19th century.  We will look at examples of short-form nonfiction essays that offer a new approach to memoir writing from contemporary sources. We will also look at some of Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Mary Shelley’s travel writing, which contained personal life history (memoir). I’ve developed a unique writing exercise that’s inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–but we will also experiment with other in-class writing prompts on occasion (probably only once per class session), or there will be a take-home writing prompt as an optional experiment. For our last class in May, we will choose a nice place to sit and share our writing pieces, once everyone has had a chance to write a piece they feel comfortable sharing with the group. We may hold our last session at Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook, Maine. Times and dates TBD, but it will most likely be in fall 2020. Possibly online options.

Historically, classes focused on William Wordsworth and Percy B. Shelley, and this workshop won’t ignore the male Romantics; but we will focus our attention on the works by Romantic women writers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We will read excerpts from Maine/New England women writers from the period, too, to notice how the works of the British writers influenced those living and writing here in the northeast.

This class is open to anyone who likes to read and is curious about these Romantic women writers; all genders and perspectives are welcome! This is ideal for those who have an interest in writing short creative nonfiction and/or short fiction in the theme of “life writing.” It is highly recommended that each participant bring a notebook, writing utensil(s), and if possible, a laptop. Participants, ideally, will have access to a computer to write and to read online materials, or to view the occasional short video. Dates: Thursdays, 6-745pm starting March 19th running through May 14th      

For more information and/or to register, please click here. Seating is limited to 8 participants. Please call to register, or register online.


0This past summer, July 2019, I had the honor of receiving “Honorable Mention” in the annual Fish Publishing prize for poetry; one of my poems, “Capes and Daggers,” was published in the Fish Anthology 2019. Poet Billy Collins judged the poetry contest in 2019; Collins will also judge the 2020 poetry contest. This is a huge honor and I was very grateful to be included.

To learn more about Fish Publishing’s future / upcoming poetry and short story and memoir contests, visit Fish Publishing’s website. They are based in Southwest Ireland in Co. Cork.  The book is also available on Amazon as a Kindle version.

In June 2019, I traveled to southwest Ireland, Co. Cork, to attend a conference at UCC, to explore nature preserves, to learn more about Ireland’s saltmarshes and intertidal zone. I participated in a traditional seaweed harvesting workshop and paddled a kayak on Lough Hyne, a rare saltwater lake. I also visited a saltmarsh in Kinsale, outside of the city of Cork. I learned a lot while I was there. Here’s a quick overview of Irish saltmarshes:

Screen Shot 2020-02-28 at 12.05.58 AM

Sorry about the typo above. This is a map showing the saltmarshes along the Irish coast (2017 data from Wetland Survey Ireland.

saltmarsh-wmi-2016_med  I went to a bird sanctuary in Kinsale. It’s a restored saltmarsh. The marsh is an artificial lagoon with restored saltmarsh habitat for conservation. This includes some rare species recorded in the 2007-2008 survey (of all saltmarshes, Ireland). Notable: changes in range, increase in Borrer’s saltmarsh grass (Puccinellia fasciculata) found here. It was a really windy day and the wind kept pushing my binoculars against my face as I watched egrets. 20190627_122955


Cammogue Marsh Wildlife Marsh and Bird Sanctuary, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been taking a course to further my journey toward becoming a certified English teacher. “Methods of Teaching Secondary English” is a required course for teachers in Maine. For the class final project, we were assigned to design a lesson plan that is “original, inspired (or inspiring) and presented using some type of technology, which might be out of the comfort zone of the author.” I am not accustomed to making videos or movies of myself using iMovie or Youtube, other than the occasional cat video that I make in my living room. (Note: I never subject others to these little movies about whatever funny thing my cat did. I think the Internet has plenty of these gems without my contribution.)

First, I had to learn how to use iMovie. I started by calling my best friend, who seems to know all things related to whatever issue I’m having on my Mac. Then, I watched tutorials on Youtube, started practice filming for a different assignment earlier on in the course. I made the dorkiest iMovie, trust me, including action shot of me, weeding my garden as a metaphor for how English teachers have to cultivate the “constant gardener,” or “constant writer,” in their classrooms. Then I set up a Vimeo account, which was fairly easy. I may be the last person to do this (have you done this yet?) Next, I had to edit my iMovie, patching together many, many pieces of footage, or “clips,” and record voice-overs for certain parts, attempting to sound professional without sounding like the authoritative Catholic school nun from the 1980 “Blues Brothers,” scolding my audience, well, without the ruler.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 5.33.38 PM

I made a video for my final project. I designed an original lesson plan called, “The Writers Cafe.” Also, I had to do a rain-dance in my dining room, wait patiently for 22 hours while the video uploaded to Vimeo and “converted,” whatever that meant. It was such a long wait that I thought I had done something wrong. And I had selected the “high” quality resolution but not the best quality/professional resolution. I made it with the recent-most version of iMovie on my MacBook Pro. So far I have received some great feedback from my instructor and classmates on my lesson plan. The video is no longer available for viewing.


Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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