Today we are pleased to feature author Chelsea Dingman as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Chelsea discusses her creative process and how it “almost always stems from reading and discussion.” She also reveals that she loves “that poetry lives in uncomfortable, uncertain circumstances…There’s no resolution required in a poem.”
Chelsea then discusses the background and inspiration behind each of her poems in Issue 18, as well as her forthcoming collection Thaw. After discussing her other projects, like her thesis on her grandfather’s immigration experience and her current manuscript centered on the female body, Chelsea ends her podcast by repeating her earlier sentiment: “I am interested in the uncertainty of those moments and asking questions, every question. I still have so many.”
Creative Writing in a Chemotherapy Infusion Center
If it’s Wednesday, you won’t find me in my office, not at my desk at home nor the one at work. You won’t find me at the quirky Blue Moose Café, or The Grind just off campus, indulging in reading and writing with a healthy dose of caffeine. You won’t find me in the Robinson Reading Room of the Wise Library at West Virginia University. Instead, you might find me riding the Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, a monorail that connects the various WVU campuses around Morgantown, traveling from downtown to the Health Science Center. When the doors open at the depot, you might find me climbing stairs and walking across the parking lot towards the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Institute, making my way to the second floor of the building, to the chemotherapy infusion center. It’s here that I spend Wednesdays, working with patients with cancer, although I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I’m a creative writer. Instead of taking a patient’s vitals, I’m there to take his or her story.
The chemotherapy infusion center is a large box; the outside of the box is lined with cubbies, with three walls and a curtain that slides across for some additional privacy. The box’s center contains nurses stations, computers that can be wheeled around to cubbies, The kind of instruments and gear you’d expect to see in a bustling clinic. When I arrive I check in with the charge nurse. She’ll direct me to patients who I might have deliveries for—deliveries not of flowers or lunch but of stories—and or direct me to new patients to work with. New patients, new stories.
In October 2015, I met with Dr. Carl Grey. Carl, a young doctor, has a compact, athletic build, blonde hair, thick glasses and a shy smile. He married a woman I knew from grad school who runs the literary imprint of the WVU Press. In my mind, this makes them a power couple. Carl had a clever idea—that patients would be more open to tough conversations with their physicians if those patients had reflected on their lives and values first, and doctors could know those lives and values through expressive writing. But he wasn’t sure how to get started.
I’d worked with a dying man, about a year before, helping him craft a memoir. During this time I learned about narrative medicine, and attended workshops run by Rita Charon, MD, PhD. I like to call her St. Rita, because I find her work a miracle. St. Rita believes stories matter, and that the care of sick unfolds in stories. She believes that through these stories we bear witness to lives, and through writing and reading we join in attention, representation and affiliation in ways that make order from chaos. Through my work writing with patients with cancer, I find my view in line with hers. In the chemotherapy infusion center, I get some of those stories, the stories of the patients. I don’t ask about their cancer explicitly, but of course the patients can talk about that if they want. In West Virginia, where I live and work, patients like to talk about work, food, and family. I can’t tell you how many stories include parts of recipes and the food eaten at family events—from barbecue to soup beans, fried chicken to Hawaiian meatballs. Gardens, too. Tomatoes, squash, beans, lettuce, you name it. In West Virginia, telling a good story is considered an art of its own.
My storytelling patients range from late teens to over 80 years old. They are all receiving chemotherapy for some kind of cancer, some in early stage, others progressed. Not all, but most are Appalachian, many natives of West Virginia who still live here.
Part of the reason I’ve talked in summary about the patient stories is that, under our project, they’re protected by HIPAA. That allows the patient to be in control of their story. We do survey them to see where they end up. Most are shared with family members and friends.
To get a patient story, I sit with each, working through a release form and some surveys. One survey collects quality of life information and another collects demographic data. Both will be logged in a secure database so we can analyze the results later. We have a study group and a control group. The study group begins the storytelling immediately, while control group does the story portion at a later date. I’d never thought of writing in these terms before, and it’s interesting learning this world of research. I go through guided questions to get at stories and while I do this I record the conversation. Later, this recording is worked up into a transcript, and from that transcript I work on a first-person account. When I have the story ready, I bring it to the patient in a crisp blue folder. Patients read through and can make any edits they need or want to make. When their story is finished, it’s theirs to keep and share. Most of the patients I work with have never thought to write anything down about their lives, and when I bring their stories, they get excited to read them. One patient, having a tough day in the clinic, actually went from slumped and ashen looking to sitting up, with brightness in his eyes. Carl has often said the stories turned out more beautifully that he imagined. We do file a copy for the study, and he reads every one.
Carl and I worked for about six months on grants to help make this project a reality. There have been plenty of supporters, and just as many naysayers. We forged on through the conviction of our belief and a lot of long arduous days writing and revising grant proposals. It pays off: of the first group of patients we’ve worked with, about 20% have been referred for symptom management or participated in Advance Care Planning because of the story project. Advance Care Planning is a set of directives patients create so that their wishes for their care are carried out if they are unable to speak for themselves. It shows one way the arts can have a palpable affect in a life, and how humanities and STEM are better together than in competition. The stories actually lead to improved care.
I like to think I might help change health care for the better. I am a rheumatoid arthritis patient, a condition that cut short my progress as a ballet dancer. Writing became a way to deal with that loss, and to forge a new identity. My younger brother is a cancer patient. Diagnosed young, cancer wasn’t just a shock to him but our whole family. Writing has helped me be a better caregiver and sister to him. My brother shares in the excitement about the ways in which writing life stories might better the relationship between doctors and patients.
Our writing in the cancer institute is a two-year pilot project. I don’t know what will come at the end of that time. I hope I’ll be able to do more work like the writing I do with patients with cancer. I feel touched, honored, and blessed to work with them. Most of all, I feel humbled. I find myself the caretaker of stories, and it’s an important job.
Because of this project, a group of patients with cancer will have a part of their life on the page. What I wish and hope is that these stories are meaningful artifacts for these patients and their families. For my share, the process of making the stories creates meaning for me, and buoys my faith in all the good things that writing can do. I’ve been asked if I get depressed going to work in the infusion center, but truth told, Wednesdays are the best day of my week. I know patients don’t wish to be in the infusion center. Maybe the making of these stories makes their time in the infusion center a little bit better.
My work infuses me with hope, spreading through me as if through an IV. A great hope is that more creative writers might have opportunities to do this kind of work. There are many programs people can attend—from the workshops and Masters program at Columbia University, under St. Rita, to more humble workshops, like the one I’m adding to the annual West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. Learning about how others write with patients can lead to new projects and initiatives. I recently learned about the Art for Healing at Yale New Haven Hospital’s Children’s, a program that integrates many art forms in support of healing. There are many, many more. We need to harness this collective power of art and healing. Writing can be a way to personal fulfillment, but writing can also be in service to others. This is one small way. If we have enough small ways, we have something big, changing way we live in the world, word by word, story by story. If we can do it in the heart of Appalachia, where, it seems, nothing comes easy, then I think we can spread it to all the places where people look for care. St. Rita says, “Stories matter.” Believe her.
“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things”
We are always torn apart. Behind the face we present to the world, there is a fracture. Two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control, and the dread of disorder. These opposing states, so closely linked, cause us no small misery, but the dynamic is so much a part of our ingrained habit of thinking that we constantly try, though with little success, to smother it with all manner of distractions.
We frequently wake up early in the morning with a crashing, dawn-clarity in the form of the question: What can I do about some awful problem? What we are really asking above and behind this question, is “can this problem be contained or controlled?” And if not – if the problem can’t be mended – how do we live with our sense that by not resolving this difficulty, and by allowing it to stand shamelessly unresolved, life’s great promise of joy will unravel from its spool? Further refined, we can distill the question to its rock hard core: How do I live with pain, grief, anguish?
We have all encountered such moments. But nothing distresses the quest for control more than a crisis of health. The body lurks, waiting; it conceals sickness under skin, tissue and bone. Beneath the veil of our physical stability, a system bubbles toward disorder. My own crock boiled over when I was twenty-nine and diagnosed with cancer. At a time of life when people typically view mortality though a long lens, my death seemed more immediate. I had no resources to deal with the reality of death: therefore my responses were limited. My mind contracted under the idea of death. My notions were hedged by binary postures: fight, win, move on, or fight, lose, die.
Pressed in this vice, I ultimately found it most reassuring to learn to abandon the notion of continued life. This brought a measure of peace. Death is the ultimate negation – a blunt, inescapable fact. Somewhere on a cosmic script, the conclusion is written in indelible ink: you will die. So by embracing death, by laying down at its feet, I let go of the struggle against its oppressive strain. I was still bound to life, to be certain, but only by sheer threads.
In the first few years after surgeries and treatments, I devalued existence. This attitude worked under a certain set of narrow conditions. But as I expanded my horizons after the disease, this stance evolved into a crisis of conscience. How can we live without embracing life? Clinging to death is a poor long term-solution, for even after the cancer was in remission, there was still the fact that I might die at any moment. Death simmers inside of us. My unbending cheapening of life did not solve the problem of death – it merely postponed it. I had driven myself to the verge of an existential cliff. In order to continue to live, I had to change the mental formula that had been useful since I was diagnosed with cancer – because the thin gruel of indifference to life cannot sustain a flea.
If we face suffering, sickness, depression and death, we can turn to something well beyond us: religion. In the years following a great crisis, I turned to Judaism. But my reason for this move, I believe, veers very far from the common expectation. Religion did not provide me comfort. A Jewish life did not offer me hope of a healthy body as a reward for my virtuous actions, or the recompense of an enchanted afterlife beyond a bodily existence marked by pain and suffering; nor did I seek the protection of a powerful and providential deity who could answer my prayers.
On the contrary, Jewish practice catapulted me beyond the bounds of reward and punishment to a real “space” where my deeds are free from the expectation of reward. This is a crucial point: by practicing Judaism, I can relinquish control to the realm of pure Jewish action. In the language of Judaism I perform the mitzvoth, the Jewish religious requirements, not for any payoff, but, as is said in Hebrew lishma, for and in themselves. This perspective has steered my apathy and indifference into more disciplined channels.
I practice Judaism to practice it. This sounds like an echo, but the seeds of this practice produce sturdy foliage. With Jewish ritual practice detached from reward, I can pursue a goal without the restraints of expectation. My mind and heart practice Judaism’s ritual demands with detachment. Detachment, of course, has pejorative implications – a lack of caring, a stance of aloofness – but it can also emancipate; and in a paradoxical turn, the freedom of detachment can transform our indifference into a more vital, lasting form of care. And the practice of lishma, of doing a deed in and for itself, can be exercised everywhere. By living life lishma, the mind is freed from the stark habit of thinking that the two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control and the dread of disorder.
In lishma, we transcend the need to control the events of our lives. Order happens, disorder happens – they are states that come and go and we have no control over either. But no matter what happens, we perform our duty and live life. Our imperative to action is action itself. With patience and practice, even life’s gravest challenges and abrupt transformations become shaded in different hues. Events take on the color of the moment, rather than the stain of our anxiety for specious stability. When we are no longer distracted about the issue of control, we are able to free ourselves from the slavery of expectations. And by doing so, we are able to see ourselves in the light of the singular, precious instant.
After the tube was removed from my neck, I was allowed to leave the plastic-wrapped room, and the stitches in my neck were pulled. Then I started to seriously write. This is what happened:
At twenty-nine, after my bout with cancer, I had yet to realize that I had made two real enemies, and that writing would become an effective weapon against both of them. To learn this, I had to pay an extreme price.
Both cancer and time became my interlocking adversaries, each feeding the other’s vitality. Cancer was the disease, and time was the stark marker of its strength. Time was being given a growing status by the cancer in my body. They had both grown together, and now seemed interlocked for their mutual benefit and my singular destruction.
But I didn’t know it right away. At first, there was no awareness, and a kind of frozen dumbness settled over me. Only after that lifted was I tossed down a deep well of obscure emotion built by the combined effects of cancer and time assuming the mutual power of a married couple. At first, cancer seemed the dominant partner, intent on robbing me of all I had left. But as my impassiveness wore off, I began to treat time as the more powerful and valuable partner — a precious commodity whose supply is easily stripped. So time gradually became Time, pronounced with a great deal of heft.
First, I made numerous errors in judgment. In response to cancer, I made many attempts to dull the hurt, which only short-circuited any constructive responses to the challenge. For a while, making mistakes was easier than forming any valuable response to cancer, time, and death. And this went on long after the tube was removed from my neck and I was allowed to leave the toxic room. It went on for so long, in fact, that I did not realize that the physical fight between cancer and me was really over, and that the far more difficult mental battle had begun.
I was not prepared for the pervasive influence of the idea of cancer. The idea of the disease loomed larger than any physical disorder. Its influence was pervasive, and trapped my mind in a mechanical set of fixations that were hard to defeat. And I had underestimated how my sense of disease, of cancer, of the element of time, had radically and forever changed me. In the fight against the idea of the disease, I paid steep prices for miscalculating my foe.
But eventually, something odd happened. After many years, fissures developed in the marriage of cancer and time. For those who fight cancer and then survive for many years, the disease and its grotesque ideas and associations begin to wane. What remains is the idea of Time as a narrow reserve. After this realization, Time becomes an open accusation. What are you doing with this limited, forever-dying thing?
From the wreck of it all — from the shambles of my bad decisions and missteps in the years after cancer — writing emerged and surpassed the disease. In fact, cancer and time eventually effectively divorced, and time found a new partner in writing (along with a turn toward Judaism and God, and a deep commitment to family, which are topics for another essay). Writing became the handmaid of time in as powerful a way as time had once been the spouse of cancer. Although time can never be conquered, writing has a curious way of arresting its flashes. Time, with its broad shoulders and colossal dimensions, can only be captured and tamed in snatches and bits. Writing doesn’t stop its passage, or retard our progress toward death, but it does create markers of time’s weaknesses and flaws. Its flow can be temporarily diverted by writing, which when done well, can capture elements of our experience which are as close to timeless as people can approach.
For me, writing is one of the few adequate responses to our time-bound nature. Of course one can’t achieve eternity even in the best of writing — but with effort, care, and dedication, we can find a glimmer of time without end within ourselves in the mirror of words. The fact that the glimmer is only a meager spark only speaks to the delicate and privileged nature of recognizing that eternity.
When first I sit down alone in the morning with coffee, before I fully emerge from an often intricate subway of dreams, I write in my journal. This is one of my most fertile times of the day for me. This is when poems shape themselves. I am not articulate yet in any intellectual sense. I am writing from some dim reckoning place, as the German poet Rilke said, “striking the dark air for music.” When I decided to write the narrative of my journey through ovarian cancer, the drastic chemotherapy I underwent for five months and my struggle to overcome the overwhelming side-effects I suffered, it was late January, 2013, mid-afternoon and I was crumpled over my IPad. I was still writing out of the dark but from a very different place. I wrote from my body, from my intuition, and finally from my mind to create order out of the chaos of trauma. This is what came out:
This desert January afternoon is pillowed with summery clouds that reshape sky as I sit on the patio. My once-flat abdomen is painfully bloated, the same as it has been since before my operation for ovarian cancer in early August, nearly six months ago. I have just finished the full course of my chemotherapy. Pain carves its name inside me, a calligraphy writing itself the length of my body, burning up through my legs, stabbing my side, nettling my feet and hands, twisting my intestines. What does a body at rest feel like with no pain?
Some people call me a miracle while others shake their heads, lower their eyes, whisper, horrible. Some laugh, give me a high five, congratulate me. I can’t believe you beat it! I don’t think cancer is an enemy that anyone beats. How can I claim to be healed? Healing doesn’t happen in one scimitar slash, one flash of lightning or revving of hands to heat. Like building a house, real healing is a process, a tao, a way sometimes so imperceptible you must hold a breath feather over its mouth to tell if it is still alive. It seldom can be accomplished by one person. It takes an orchestra of healers, a symphony composing itself and performing in multiple keys.
Early on, I realized that I needed to write in a fusion of genres to find my way through the morass. I needed to find out what healing is. Over the many months of my illness, I had written in my journals, poem fragments, poems, and prose, but they wouldn’t hold the scope of my narrative. My book started with a fusion of my narrative and my poetry, but I knew that wasn’t enough. This book was not just my book, it involved a lot of people. Just as I had called upon the help of various healers during my illness, this book had to be written in various genres.
So, I began to cross the line. I have always been interested in story. Many of my poems are long narrative poems, often giving voice to people who have no public voice in this world. Thus came my decision to interview all the healers who had helped me along the way. It seemed uncanny how many and how various were these healers who presented themselves to me during those long and tenuous months I struggled to survive. It seemed important that I tell their stories, too. Most important of all, I know that I must get this right in every way in order to help others who suffer from cancer, a disease that is wild-fire epidemic in this country.
Nearly a year into my project, my book, THE BOOK OF HEALERS HEALING, has grown organically in form and texture and voice. It contains journal entries, Face Book entries, poems, lyric prose, my personal narrative, stories of others who’ve been diagnosed with cancer as well as interviews with healers from my surgeon and oncologists at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix to a Mexican currandera to a psychiatrist to an indigenous medicine woman to energy movers to an nurse practioner/acupuncturist to psychics and reiki practitioners. I have written the end twice, and twice the end has morphed into another story. This is the most difficult book I’ve ever written. It is also the most important. From it, I’ve learned what I learned from cancer itself, a simple lesson I keep forgetting in my life, that it is the journey that enlivens us, that ignites our creative passion. It is not the destination. I made an outline that the book outgrew, and now the book is as holistic as my treatment. I don’t know what I’m doing with this book, and that is one of its biggest strengths. If the text is willing, I will finish the first draft by the new year. I’ll then send it out to stand on its many legs and sing in its many voices to the world.
To what extent is digital technology an alienating influence?
A Google search for “Gabriela Nudelman Hamden Connecticut” yields nothing pertinent but a webpage from Mylife.com, where another Gabriela Nudelman had set up a profile.
This is not my grandmother. My grandmother does not exist, according to the internet. She is null.
This is what society has to say about Gabriela Nudelman: She was a civil engineer. She was a Russian immigrant. She was Jewish. She was the wife of David Nudelman and the mother of my father and my aunt. She was buried in a Jewish cemetery in New Haven and her gravestone is in the shape of the Hebrew symbol “Chai.”
It means “living.”
This is what I have to say about a woman who grew stranger after her death: She was adopted. She wore a Chai on a golden chain around her neck until she died. She used to take me to work with her. She worked in a cubicle. I had my first experience with computers at her work. Her screensaver was “Deep Space.” It showed thousands of white dots blurring out from the center of the screen, which were meant to represent stars and the movement of a spaceship. Now that I think of it, “Deep Space” is emblematic of our extreme isolation in this digital age. I played my first computer game on her office-computer. It was pin-ball, the sci-fi deep-space pin-ball that has always been a facet of a Windows operating system.
She was killed by ovarian cancer, discovered too late to prevent.
This is what Google has to say about ovarian cancer: “Ovarian cancer is cancer that starts in the ovaries. The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce eggs.”
This description is difficult to read. Why? It is painfully disconnected. Like my own reaction to my grandmother’s death.
I was tough. I never cried, not once. I don’t remember the burial. Was I even there? My father cried in front of her grave one year later. It was wonderful and frightening.
I hated her after she died. I always thought that she was disappointed in me. My father kept her picture on his computer desk next to the living room. It was a black and white, candid setting, but she smiled as if posing, nervous and warm, as if caught in mid-twitch. I saw her in my dreams, but I didn’t want to. She was manifested in my poems. Truly, inextricable from my life story. Here are two of my many poems about my grandmother:
Stuck in the blue other house,
my grandmother, croaking like floor,
said what a big boy.
Night my parents left
us in the house on the lake,
the air terribly.
Hands pressed dark for nothing.
My father’s face the next
morning and I knew
Blue the end of sound.
He said she didn’t open her eyes.
I said the entire body when that happens.
The head has an empty room.
In my father’s first house we are having dinner.
The dead grandmother
suddenly beside me.
She reaches over plates to touch faces.
When she touches my cheek
When she left I was too young.
To be touched in a dream
The only way I can be “real” is through my writing. Who wants to be real? Raise your hand. The truth is, we were born into this digital age. And it sucks.
In ten years, I have not cried over my grandmother, except in dreams. Tears are a rare commodity. The last time I cried was one month ago. One of my favorite websites is Wouldhavesaid.com. Anonymous users upload letters of regret or thanks, addressed to entities who will never read them.
This is what the website has to say about itself: “Whether the person has passed away, contact was lost, or the strength needed at the time was lacking, this is a chance to say what you have always wanted them to know.” It is a good example of how the internet can be used for good, for storytelling, to evoke reality.
There is one letter on this site that I repeatedly read for catharsis, late at night, because it makes me cry. It is titled “Mr. Biggs.”
In it, Vincent, age 19, writes an apologetic but resolutely thankful letter to his first dog, the twelve-inch-tall and unappreciated friend who always loved him.
It is somewhat similar to my story. Ten years have passed. The writer gains a fulfilling understanding of the relationship through the catharsis of story-telling. He must have told the story ten times in his mind before it cleared enough for the page.
I’m telling this story: Baba Gala died of ovarian cancer. She lives again in this telling, but only so long as I am speaking.
I’m repeating this story, so you don’t forget it. So I don’t forget it.
Baba Gala lives. She dies. I change. I remain.
When revising a poem, I must distance myself from the emotion, to better understand the poem’s technical weaknesses.
This is well and good for the writer. Going over and over this story in my head for ten years, I have come to understand it better. But for my audience, or for any audience, once is simply not enough.
Gabriela Nudelman was my Yin; digital technology, my Yang—dualities in equilibrium; without the one, chaos. This is the difference between digital technology and story-telling. Digital technology seeks to inform. Facts cannot bring back my grandmother. Stories make her seem to live. Information is not evocation.
Computers are just another facet of a cancer which has been killing us since the beginning of recorded history. This cancer is the cancer of the once-told story, the story that is forgotten almost before it is read, and the story that entertains us only as long as it informs us.
Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story. Our story. This story. Of a life, of the death of a loved one, and its emotional yield.
Breathe. Everyone. In, out.
Our lives are changing. I’m still telling this story.
I have been thinking about the ways in which musical and verbal intelligences merge in a poem as compositional strategy, because I have wanted to understand how a poet “thinks” through the music of the poem, as distinct from stating a thought directly as an abstraction or translating it visually into imagery. What interests me is the way a poet puts sonorous “truths” in play. These “truths” are not always articulated thematically in the poem, but the poem’s music gives rise to them, in the musical supplement to signification that Northrup Frye called the “babble” of poetry. The choric aspect of poetry supplements and complements poetic signification, in meaningful (if indeterminate) ways, with what I’ll call sound-thinking.
Music functions as an intellectual, even visionary element of poetry, putting into play something akin to a counter-intuitive logic. A poet sees through words and thinks in song. To give a brief example, consider Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem, “Comeback,” in which we find resonant moments of words chosen for the aural effect, with semantic intonations rippling afterward like the wake of a boat. What the reader is told is that—as the speaker remembers how her father “loved first light,” and would sit, exactly as the speaker of the poem is sitting in early morning with her cup of coffee looking out over the “Strait”— the speaker may be dying, like her father and her husband, of cancer. But any “certainty” in the poem comes not from direct statements, but in the music of the metaphor: “Light is sifting in/ like a gloam of certainty/ over the water” (emphasis added). Claims to knowing have no explanation, so of what can readers be certain, reading this poem?
I glom onto the word that draws our attention because of its antique music: “Gloam” goes etymologically back to OE, meaning twilight, not dawn, and darkness coming on, not the sun’s light growing brighter as it rises. The use of “gloam” at that moment in the poem is paradoxical. We are not aware of the paradox consciously, but our access to its insight is through the poem’s music. We register that insight subliminally, through the sound of the word, which is a vowel shift away from “Gloom” and “Glum” (as well as to the idiomatic “glom”). The word “gloam” suggests the other words, which are darker, moodier, and would spell out morosely the sense of feeling attached to life and contemplating losing it. The mournful music of long o’s punctuates the poem, where the poem also locates the speaker’s intuitive knOwing, withheld semantically but articulated musically.
I doubt that Gallagher thought of this as she wrote the first draft, or even paused to look up “gloam” in the OED, at least at first. Nevertheless, given the poet’s precision, I trust that “gloam” was retained deliberately during the process of revision. I speculate that while writing the first draft, Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment. She must have looked up “gloam” later when revising the poem, and at that time, was reminded that it denotes the exact opposite of how she uses it (dusk not dawn). Perhaps she then articulated to herself the kind of paradoxical logic the moment holds, the spell of sound tugging against the march of meaning. Perhaps she kept “gloam” because its presence is a door into the most profound level of meaning in the poem.
A poem is able not only to make something visible through language, to see through words, but also to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking, as I’ve been calling it. The point I’m making inverts the notion that content determines form (pace Robert Creeley), and that is that content follows sound.
 See J.H. de Roder’s useful overview of Fryean “babble” and “doodle” in “Poetry: the Missing Link?”: “Northrop Frye in his monumental Anatomy of Criticism simply states that the basic constituents of poetry are BABBLE and DOODLE, going back to CHARM and RIDDLE. In Frye’s view, poems babble, they foreground prosodic features of language – such as sound and rhythm – and by doing so produce charm” (Frye 1957: 275-287; qtd. in de Roder; http://webh01.ua.ac.be/apil/apil101/deroder.pdf).
 On the associated notion of “thinking/ singing,” see Hank Lazer, Lyric & Spirit (Richmond, CA Omnidawn, 2008), 185-204. As Lazer observes, there is a cognitive element which song both activates and enacts, and which we as readers only access by attending to the way music signifies in the poem.
Superstition Review was pleased to feature Matthew Gavin Frank’s poems in our very first Issue. Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with Frank to discuss his latest published work, Warranty In Zulu. Frank has published several poetry manuscripts including, Aardvark, SagittariusAgitprop, Four Hours To Mpumalanga, and 6 X 6. His prose has also been published in Blue Earth Review, Plate Magazine, Brevity, Transfinite, and elsewhere.
Superstition Review: How is Warranty In Zulu different from your other works?
Matthew Gavin Frank: Warranty is far more research-based than my previous collection, Sagittarius Agitprop. Warranty began as a project to engage the ways in which the exhibits of South African museums and galleries have changed since the fall of apartheid in 1994, documenting how the “landscape” of the South African art scene has changed in style, substance, and accessibility with the socio-political landscape, with the aim of uncovering a larger statement about the interaction between politics and aesthetics.
SR: What has it been like working with Barrow Street Press?
MGF: Risking overstatement: heavenly. Barrow Street is wonderfully hands-on when it comes to the editing process, design, lay-out, etc. They’re very involved, continually offering feedback and suggestion, which contributes to the rare, essential dialogue between writer and editors (who, in the case of Barrow Street, are brilliant writers themselves). The experience of working with them will likely save me a crap-load of time when it comes to self-editing future manuscripts before submitting.
SR: What was the most difficult part about writing Warranty In Zulu?
MGF: Avoiding “othering” or “exoticising” the various cultures of South Africa. In order to aid in this, I felt I had to immerse myself in the country via research and travel, many-handed observations. After numerous trips to South Africa, my wife’s homeland, and her family’s country of residence, the project became laced with the personal, the various narrators herein (many inspired by unofficial interviews, casual conversations, and folklore) engaging issues of history, identity, confused observation, the nature of healing, irrational fear, irrational love and the collision between insider and outsider voices. While not every poem in the manuscript is set specifically within South Africa (most are), each struggles with similar thematic strains.
SR: How have your life experiences (such as working the Barolo wine harvest) shaped your views in your writing?
MGF: I’ve been incorporating things from my own life into the work, more than I have in the past. In the past, I always had a great time wearing masks, playing the asshole, protecting myself. But lately, I’ve been finding greater fulfillment in taking a risk, meaning: being honest. Or more honest at least. This desire ignited at about the same time I began to feel a draw to return to the Midwest, my roots, after wandering and traveling quite a bit. Both desires can, I think, be leashed to my mother’s recent illness. In 2006, Louisa (my wife) and I had just, on a road trip (after leaving Tempe), landed in Montpelier, Vermont, and decided we wanted to live there for a stretch. On the day we were to sign our lease, we received a phone call from my sister in Chicago telling us that my mom was sick. We fled Vermont, returned to Chicago for a year, lived in my parents’ house, and took care of the family while she battled illness (and won, thankfully). This infected my writing with the honesty I mentioned earlier. Does this mean I’m being merely confessional? Attracted solely to the Midwest and the actual? It’s complicated, but no way. As if to balance this, I’m presently working on a series of short essays based on photographs I took in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a poetry manuscript based on couching the bad joke in verse. Its working title is “Your Mother.”
SR: What are you currently working on creatively?
MGF: Well, the Oaxaca book, tentatively titled, SELF-HELP, MEXICO, deals with the aftermath of living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for over a year, helping my family during my mother’s battle with cancer. Louisa, and I, struggling to rediscover our footing as a married-couple-in-love, fled to Mexico. Our search for ourselves, our sanctuary, our relationship, took us from the wild crowds and violent social protests of Mexico City, to the culinary jewel of Oaxaca City, and finally to a tiny indigenous Zapotec village in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez mountains. The manuscript, which is still in-progress (I’m hoping to finish my final tinkering before 2010 ends), is fusing the narrative storytelling techniques typical of memoir with historical and folkloric research, becoming a series of sort-of lyric essays, and situating the sense of loss and confused search of one particular young married couple within a larger socio-cultural context. In this village, we discovered an unlikely band of U.S.-American expatriates of various demographics, on grappling journeys of their own, contributing to a community both unique and ubiquitous in its quest for some version of fulfillment. I’m going to go back to the “Your Mother” project after I’ve finished SELF-HELP, MEXICO. My nonfiction book, POT FARM, about my work on a medical marijuana farm in Northern California will be coming out from the University of Nebraska Press in 2011 or 2012.
SR: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
MGF: Travel. Eat things that scare you: cock’s combs, for example. Force perspective onto your life. Allow your memory to distort things. Write a lot, even if it’s crappy. Read a lot. Be vulnerable. Allow the act of writing to play various roles in your life: mother, father, son, daughter, lover, pet goldfish. Argue with all of them, even though you love them. I will not say, be persistent. I swear to you: I will not say it.