Nicole Cooley

Nicole Cooley. Photo credit: Lisa Kolberg
1999 Wallace Fellow
New York, NY

Research at AAS

My fellowship at AAS in the summer of 1999 was crucial to my project, a book of poetry about the Salem witch trials, titled The Afflicted Girls (LSU Press, 2004) and crucial to my work as a writer ever since.

Wallace Stevens once said that “Poetry is a scholar’s art,” and this has always rung true for me and the way I think about writing. Simply put, I love research. I am interested in the ways in which poetry can focus on voice but not be about the poet’s own voice. My book is a collection of poems which looks at what happened in Salem from a variety of perspectives – the accusers, the accused, bystanders, those whose lives were forever changed by the accusations, trials and executions.

Although I am also a fiction writer, I wanted to write the story of Salem as poetry rather than as a novel for several reasons. While a number of books of fiction about the Salem witch trials have been published -- especially in the young adult market -- no books of poetry have been written which explore the event. Poetry has the opportunity to raise a different set of questions about history because it is a genre highly dependent on voice; in fact my archival research at AAS has shown me that this event has an even more complicated relation to human voices and the drama of human relationships than I ever imagined.

The Afflicted Girls is composed of four different kinds of poems: poems that narrate the experience of the trials from the viewpoint of specific people (for example, a man who helped his wife escape from prison, a four-year old girl accused of being a witch); poems that reference and incorporate colonial American verse and prose forms (including the sermon and the jeremiad); poems that pay tribute to the archival experience and explore the conception of the poet as archivist; and poems that investigate the lasting effects of Salem witch trials on present-day America (poems that revisit the museums in Salem, for instance). Thus, the poems examine both the social structures contributing to the accusations as well as the relationships between people that were wounded or destroyed by the suspicions, convictions and executions.

As I wrote the poems, I was considering a number of questions raised by the recent excellent historical studies that focus on the trials.* The questions examine the level of individual-level response such as: Why were certain women and men accused and not others? Why were certain women and men willing to confess to save themselves while others were not? The concept of a lie has a very different connotation in late seventeenth-century America than it now does. In Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem Village, Elaine Breslaw notes, “Puritans who confessed falsely endangered their souls” (129). The questions also involve broader, state and city level response including: What might the role of the opposition between Salem Village and Salem Town take in the trials? What effect did the revoking of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter and King Philip’s War have on the events in Salem?

But my fellowship at AAS also raised other questions and enriched the project as I became more and more interested in the “archive” as a collection and the poet as researcher. The full days of intense work in the library during the period of my fellowship allowed me to feel as if I were really transported back to the seventeenth century, as I read local histories, church documents, and books on witchcraft from the period. I felt completely immersed in that landscape.

That kind of immersion is what I have sought out in my four poetry books since The Afflicted Girls. My work at AAS changed me as a writer and a person and deepened my thinking about history and language.

I want to conclude with a poem from the book which speaks to the experience of doing research at AAS.


Archival: In the Reading Room

Book cover for The Afflicted Girls
*See such studies as Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft and Salem Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England; Elaine Breslaw, Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem; Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem; Peter Hoffer, The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials; John Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England; Carol Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England; Elizabeth’s Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England; Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. I am also very indebted to Boyer and Nissenbaum’s edited book The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak. Full citations are available in the project bibliography. In addition, I am grateful for personal communications with Salem historians Bernard Rosenthal and Elizabeth Reis and for their readings of my work.


Nicole Cooley and Maureen Cummins: Creating Salem Lessons (2015)

Nicole Cooley and Maureen Cummins (2000 Hearst Fellow) returned to AAS in 2015 to discuss their collaborative 2010 project entitled Salem Lessons. This work is a limited-edition artist book that features a slate-covered container and a "chorus of voices" that provide multiple perspectives on the experience of the Salem Witch trials of the 1690s. Together these voices (of both accusers and executed) tell the story not only of what happened during that terrible time, but also of the psychic reverberations that lasted long after the trials ended.


About the Fellow

Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her most recent books are two poetry collections, Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press, 2017) and Of Marriage (Alice James Books, 2018). She has published four other collections of poems, Breach, Milk Dress, The Afflicted Girls and Resurrection, as well as a novel, Judy Garland, Ginger Love, two chapbooks, Frozen Charlottes, A Sequence, and Vanishing: A Call and Response, with her father Peter Cooley, and a collaborative artists’ book (with book artist Maureen Cummins), Salem Lessons.

Her awards include The Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, a Discovery/The Nation Award, an NEA, a Creative Artists fellowship from The American Antiquarian Society, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her non-fiction essays have recently appeared in Entropy, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Rumpus, The Feminist Wire, and The Atlantic. She is currently completing a non-fiction book project, Dollhouse: A Book of Miniature Histories.

Currently, she is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York where she is a professor of English and lives outside of NYC with her family.

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