“Palimpsest” is one of the poems I wrote in response to a friend’s death. It is not just about my own “sadness” and “fear” but my friend’s. Her pain was so much greater than my own. This poem is one of the ways I grappled with the inevitable and my helplessness. It is also meaningless in the face of reality. I have trouble grasping that the world could continue without her, that despite my knowledge of the terrible unfairness of existence, I cannot help but continue my protest and record my objections, as though they matter.
I did not realize I was writing a palimpsest until I had completed the poem. It was obviously one thing written on top of another and in the end, which was on top was irrelevant. Sadness and fear interact within the dark room that is this poem and can never be separate, maybe that is always the case: no escape.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the darkness? For me, the worst thing is that writing the poem is an escape and did make me feel a little bit better. Of course, this also led to a sense of guilt and the feeling that I was exploiting not just my friend’s death but my own feelings about it. The starless night pulls me in, sits me down, and delivers a stern lecture about the world/unworld that expects me to do something, anything about it. And again, no escape.
I do find some refuge in Elixir Press. I really love reading all those manuscripts, seeing all this great poetry and fiction before anyone else then bringing at least a little bit of it into print. There is usually very little conflict between my own work and the work I do with Elixir. I’ve gotten pretty good at carving out time for myself without taking anything from Elixir. I have to spend some time on my own work, or I wouldn’t be able to run Elixir at all. I think most people understand this.
Date: Tuesday, March 19, 2019 Time: 7:30pm Location: Ikeda Theater, 1 E Main St, Mesa, AZ 85201 Cost: $28-$50
Presented by Mesa Arts Center as part of the Performing Live series
Anne Lamott writes and speaks with self-effacing humor – she is laugh-out-loud funny. She writes about what most of us don’t like to think about. In all her novels, she writes about loss; loss of loved ones and loss of personal control. She doesn’t try to sugar-coat the sadness, frustration and disappointment, but tells her stories with honesty, compassion and a pureness of voice.
This performance is eligible for Mesa Bucks
For more information, or to buy tickets, click here.
Today we are pleased to feature author Kaylee Sue Duff as our Authors Talk series contributor. In the podcast, Kaylee discusses the creative process behind two of her flash fiction pieces, “Nothing” and “The Deer,” and the intertwined nature of the stories themselves.
Kaylee states that “Nothing” is one of her favorite pieces that she has written, for it “takes ownership of those feelings that… are terrible and impossible to deal with, and turns them into something that other people can experience as well, something that is really beautiful.” She highlights that the inspiration for “Nothing” stemmed from her own feelings of loneliness and isolation upon moving away to college, which led to her “figuring out a lot about myself and my identity.” She goes on to express that the piece is “more like poetry than I would ever care to admit,” and that, “by writing what… I felt was right, I was able to tap into something that I would never have been able to otherwise.”
Joshua and his three sisters on his 7th birthday. Sarah Beth is in the Myrtle Beach shirt.
Years ago, when I was taking an undergraduate fiction writing class, the professor talked about the short fiction he wrote in the year after his mother’s death. He showed his work to a friend, and the friend told him, “I see your mother on every page.” My professor protested angrily, but he went home and realized it was true. He was writing fiction, not autobiographical, not about dead mothers, but deep down, he was writing about his personal loss.
I found something similar happening to me when I was writing “Beagle in the Road,” five years after my brother’s suicide. I was writing about a moment when I was thirteen years old, seventeen years before I lost my brother. At that point, Joshua was five and happy, likely playing with Hot Wheels cars or shooting outlaws in a computer game that came free in a box of cereal. My little brother had nothing to do with my decision to follow my beagle into a busy road, so he didn’t belong in the essay. Still, I found myself embedding my grief into every line, and unlike my professor, I was intensely aware that this was happening, surely because I was (and still am) in the midst of writing a memoir about Joshua. I knew I wouldn’t have written the piece at all if he hadn’t died. After a few years of witnessing my parents’ grief, the beagle memory came back to me, and I suddenly felt horror mixed with my old pride and gratefulness about the risk I’d taken that day.
When I came to the end of the essay, I struggled with how to close without my brother. Throughout the piece, I’d felt his five-year-old shadow running alongside my thirteen-year-old self, both of us buoyant in our innocence of everything that would come later. And in the end, I pictured my brother’s twenty-two-year-old body when I imagined myself dead on the road. So, I tried to shoehorn his suicide into the turn, explaining to readers why I saw this moment so differently years later, after I’d witnessed the broken health and malaise that can follow the loss of a child. But the suicide revelation kept feeling melodramatic, a disrespect to my lost brother and to my parents’ grief. Since Joshua wasn’t present on the essay’s surface, I hadn’t developed him as a character, and readers couldn’t mourn a brother they didn’t know. I finally realized I had to stay in the moment, focusing on the relationships between characters who were actually present: my beagle and me, my dad and my beagle, my dad and me. The audience would understand that my life and perspective had changed in the time since I rescued my beagle. The reason I had changed was beside the point.
Of course, I have my own personal readers like my professor’s friend, people who saw my brother on every page. My most important reader, my writer sister, got it immediately. A poet friend read the essay, expecting a piece about my childhood beagle, and she said, “Wow, this fits right into your memoir!” And it does fit. Eventually, when readers see the piece in context, they’ll know it’s about Joshua. When I describe my dad’s potential grief, they’ll think of that horrible day seventeen years later. They may even cringe as I do over that imagined image of my broken body, thinking of my brother’s body hanging in his closet. But I also know that context also isn’t necessary. Readers who didn’t know my professor couldn’t get the mother connection in his stories, but I’m sure they felt moved by the undercurrents of grief—likely something that’s often happening to me when I find myself moved by a story, essay, or poem in an unexpected way.
In the end, I couldn’t help myself. I was burning to mention Joshua, so I put him in my bio. In creative nonfiction, the biographical note inevitably changes readers’ perception of the essay, so I decided to take advantage of that. But let’s face it: not everyone reads bios. If everyone did, my own undergraduate students would never call female writers “he.” And I know that one-sentence mention of my brother isn’t nearly enough to allow the most careful readers to understand all of the Joshua resonances that exist for people who know me. So, for readers who don’t see this blog post, or connect the piece to my other work, I’ll be content to let that grief stay concealed within my body—my real body, my live body in the essay, my imagined smashed body in the essay—the place where grief always hides.
“An old lady poem,” was the judgment of a friend recently. I was offended, then considered—at 73, am I getting to be an old lady? How could that happen!
Yet, the poems I wrote in my 20s were sharper and less reflective. Many had to do with self-discovery, the landscape of the young. As time passed, I found this investigation tiresome. It was easier to accept the person I have always been, or through decades have become.
My poems shaded into narrative. Though I write short fiction, I found my natural rhythm and voice more suited to the poem, yet story increasingly intrigued me. Subject matter changed too. Poems on the struggles of relationships—parental, sexual, marital, social gave way to less personal, more external topics.
I wrote a series of poems on criminals and on saints (featured in The Lonely Hearts Killers), a chapbook on art (The Chagall Poems), on the natural world (The Boundary Waters) and most recently on decades of country life with a noir flavor (Dead Horses). It seems a predictable progression. While I am still interested in, and write about, a variety of subjects, with the passage of the years, elegies replace love lyrics, ruminations on illness, loss, loneliness and death, for good or ill, are new preoccupations.
I hope I’ve retained the sardonic outlook that speaks to my dread of falling prey to “old lady poems.” Hera forbid, I become a character in one of my own such as “Red Hats.”
A hat tribe based on a poem
Praising a notion of insouciance.
The intention to wear purple
With a red hat when old
Incited not a revolution
But a convention of the like-minded.
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