We often negotiate with death when we write. There’s a last will and testament to everything we put down to paper. The literary act itself, hands a thought, feeling or memory, into the hands of others, that might pass it along with their own lives. And there are all kinds of ways that negotiation can take shape. Eternally fleeing its approach, with constant backward glances, has been Woody Allen’s comedic method. Nick Cave dances and stomps in pools of blood to ritualise his terror, searching for pornographic glory, and occasionally finding sublime insights into mortality.
Which brings me to your collection of poetry, Mortal, and the poems we’ve already seen on Verity La. Do you find death has changed for you after writing that collection? What have been your actual experiences with it and how has your writing changed those experiences?
If I could negotiate or barter with death, I would. Maybe writing poetry is my way of doing this.
Has death changed for me? I’m not sure. I feel that death is an insult, especially since I love life so much and there’s still a lot I want to see and do.
Still, death is a strange spice, the salt that sharpens the dish, don’t you find? How else to appreciate beauty, knowing it fades.
My actual experiences with death? The most crucial one was when my mother was hospitalised during my first year at university. Writing the collection in the aftermath of her recovery was a way of me getting to grips with the idea that, one day, my mother will die. I have been steeling myself against it, though at heart I know I will be devastated when it happens. So, it is futile but I wanted to make the gesture, anyway.
The threat of death, its inevitability, has made me an observer, a recorder of details. I don’t want to miss anything, both the visible and invisible, the physical and emotional life.
I used to be very cynical of the art as therapy perspective, especially when you take an actual look at the lives of writers. Most are not examples of sparkling personalities, beyond the need of therapy. In fact, I’d argue that our art can complicate and magnify our existing dilemmas, weaknesses and sorrows. So I was wondering whether you had any thoughts about that particular feature of the writer’s life. There’s also that wonderful, ever present, though rarely discussed idea of catharsis, taking us all the way back to Ancient Greece. You used Demeter and Persephone in Mortal, but I’m not sure how deeply involved you are with those kinds of myths and philosophies. Perhaps you have some thoughts on catharsis as well.
Perhaps art is like a Swiss Army Knife, with many tools in the one form. And one tool is not better or worse than another tool, just as long as you get something out of art, whether it be catharsis, therapy, transcendence or decoration. Oftentimes, it’s just good to create something!
Art takes me to another place. Art created for therapeutic value still feels like it’s on the way somewhere and hasn’t yet arrived at its destination. I think its the difference between a poem that springs fully-formed, both emotionally resonant and impressively crafted with music and rhythm, and a poem resulting from a writing exercise.
The myth in Mortal provided a certain narrative structure for the book while also giving me something to work against, allowing me to take liberties with it, so that instead of the mother rescuing the daughter from the Underworld, as the myth goes, I switch these roles around, so that Seph, the daughter, tries to rescue her mother, Dee, while also shifting it into the present.
I must admit, this interview feels a little one-sided (the nature of an interview, I guess), and I want to question, because you say you ‘used to be very cynical of the art as therapy perspective’, has this changed for you, what catalysed this change? Or are you still cynical about it?
Whether this is a discussion or interview always depends on my guest. I’m more than happy to talk about my own thoughts on any of the questions I’ve posed, so, since you ask, I’ll say that the idea of art as therapy always seemed to me, naïve at best and dangerously stupid at worst. Just look at successful writers. So many of them struggle with various forms of substance abuse, relationship breakdowns and fairly self-destructive lives in general. So the idea that writing could lead to happiness has always seemed like a school of business run by bankrupts.
You’ve talked about how your mother’s illness sparked a series of thoughts on mortality and your relationship with your mother in general. My own relationship with my mother was just as painful. I didn’t find that material arising naturally in my writing. In fact, I found that nowhere in my writing was I dealing with this issue and it seemed without wanting to, I was avoiding it. When I looked at it I realised I just didn’t see a way it could be dealt with. So that’s what I wrote about–> How we don’t get a choice. How we can’t resolve every issue in our lives. Some things are just sources of pain and the best we can do is develop coping strategies. And the piece was specifically anti art as therapy.
Ironically, it was deeply therapeutic in ways I genuinely never imagined. I’m still skeptical about how well this might work as a deliberate goal. I’m more inclined to think that, yes, at times, we can resolve some issues through our art. I might also mention though, that I haven’t been able to publish this piece and it might go to say that art as therapy might indeed occasionally help us deal with issues but it doesn’t necessarily make for great art. What are your own feelings for these ‘wellsprings’ of art which so often can seem like just so much self obsessing? What are the elements that make them work as valid expressions of art?
With the poetry of yours that Verity La has published, the source seems to have been tragedy and pain again, though this time in the lives of others. And here we approach the idea of catharsis again. It strikes me as one of the great proofs of humanity, this facility to forget our own ego-locked universe and experience the life of another as our own and to feel their pain as ours. So I’m also wondering how you have experienced catharsis, both as a poet and a reader.
I appreciate your thoughtful response and engagement with my question. The idea you stated, that ‘writing could lead to happiness’, does seem to be a rather simplistic viewpoint. While I do not begrudge writing’s therapeutic value to those who might benefit from it, I believe the power in the writing that stems from trauma lies in the writer’s ability to transform such material from mere catalogue to something that gestures to something larger.
It is interesting that its therapeutic value has caught you by surprise and also that dealing with such a complicated issue has manifested in a different way. I mean, that’s not to say I wasn’t also avoiding certain difficult emotions, such as anger and betrayal, that I felt incapable of dealing with head-on. Who knows, it might’ve resulted in a richer book had I tackled these things.
Going somewhat on a tangent now: I wonder, do you think a poem is worth noticing only when it is published? I would hope that art is not solely validated thusly (though, of course, it’s nice when it is).
When I write a personal poem, I use a concatenation of both my experience and what I imagine my speaker has also experienced. I will extrapolate in order to write the poem. When I write a poem based on some aspect of my life, I might also take liberties. If it seems solipsistic, well, I think that can’t be helped. Nobody else is writing the poem but me.
Validating a poem is fraught and problematic. I can only go on the poems that I respond to on an emotional or physical level. Sometimes it is as basic as that. Sometimes it’s the music in a phrase or the aptness of an image, but a good poem declares itself to you and almost impossible to ignore. As a reader, I feel grateful when a poem expresses something I didn’t even know needed expressing, especially if it’s difficult topic.
Every reader has their own idea of what makes a poem work. That’s mine. But my ideas about poetry are in constant flux. Who knows how I’d answer that question in the future.
The more good poems I read, the more exposure I get to the poems that inspire this emotional/physical response, the more I have an idea of what to reach for in my own work. That catharsis, that exhalation of relief and gratitude of finally getting a poem down, is a damn good feeling.
So, in light of this discussion and as a new father (congratulations!), how has this affected your view of poetry and writing? How do you do it, now that you are likely to have less time to write? How do you see human frailty and catharsis now?
I suppose I’d respond to your first question by saying that beyond our own desires, hopes and fears, the signal is crucial to any act of communication. If there’s no transmission then there’s a failure at that most basic level of intent. Of course there’s personal growth and the piece I mentioned was deeply rewarding in that respect.
In regard to your other questions, I can’t say fatherhood has affected my writing at all. The distractions of fatherhood have simply killed many of the other distractions I used to have. I own seven guitars, but they’re now in a garage.
Catharsis is still one of the most interesting questions in our craft. I’m sure you’ve had that experience when reading a book, where everything seems to be in place. The writer is technically efficient and every other element seems to be adequately in the mix, but nothing works. You feel no response at all.
When we think of catharsis we often mean the big emotional pay-off, the culmination of a play, poem, story, etc. But catharsis begins in that moment where a phrase constructed from the bits and pieces of word sequences becomes as dear to us as anything that’s happening in our own lives right now.
This setting aside of ourselves, the ego unit and its centre-of-the-universe insistence, to accept the life of some stranger as not only relevant but even crucial to us, it’s something that still amazes me. Jane Smiley wrote ‘reading is an act of humanity.’ I’ve always loved that quote.
I’m also interested in what you do in the workshops you’ve conducted. I assume you rarely talk about catharsis but I’m wondering what people come to your workshops hoping for. Do you find the same questions? The same concerns? The same difficulties?
Your thoughts on catharsis are very interesting, in that the emotional pay-off or release happens as one writes or creates it. I agree with this, while being mindful of the difference between what comes out and what is finally presented is not unexpurgated material but shaped and crafted with an eye and an ear for maximum effect on the reader, the audience.
I like that Jane Smiley quote as I also believe that a poem needs a reader to complete the circle.
Yes, catharsis is not directly discussed, though I am always asking my students how they feel about what they’ve written or a poem that they’ve read. Perhaps it’s about getting them to articulate their thinking and writing process, to concretise ideas that are normally ephemeral and taken for granted or glossed over.
Many of my students want to understand poetry and how to write their poems so that it stretches these muscles they didn’t even know they had. They want to find out how a poem works and what makes it tick, and how they can express themselves through this difficult and strange medium.
Catharsis speaks to an emotional undercurrent in writing. I think there is something about emotion that works as a vital ingredient in poetry, the crucial signal perhaps that you mentioned.