Sara Henning Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
I’d like to start our conversation with your stunning poem, “Cancer: A Golden Shovel.” As the narrative begins, the speaker is in horror of something happening to her mother, and as the poem progresses, we discover along with the speaker that the mother is hallucinating from Dilaudid after an operation. What we think has transpired, an abduction, hasn’t happened at all, yet it feels real, and I admire how you are able to create a terrifying experience on the page while following the form of a Golden Shovel. While reading, I noticed Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” unfolding at the end of each line as the narrative of your poem unfolded, and I kept working between the two poems in my mind. Could you talk about the process of crafting your poem in this form?
The Golden Shovel form is one that I respect beyond all measure. Terrance Hayes' "The Golden Shovel" is and will remain a breathtaking contemporary literary achievement. This past July, Jericho Brown tweeted the following about the Golden Shovel form: Please retweet: if the golden shovel doesn’t go back to Brooks, don’t write it and don’t publish it. That’s all. Thanks.
I cannot, am not willing to, and would never dare to speak for Jericho Brown, a poet whom I also consider to be a contemporary literary master, though I agree with him. To write a Golden Shovel is no kitschy undertaking. As Don Share says in his "Introduction: the Golden Shovel" on the Poetry Foundation website, "practitioners of this new form have both Brooks and Hayes to live up to." Brooks' poem "We Real Cool," stands the test of time for capturing young men living on the edge of disaster: they are dropouts with swagger, pool hall dwellers achieving a bravado that is only won by "sing[ing] sin" and "jazz[ing]" all June. These men embody desperation without glitz, swagger without glamour, for living in a fully-vetted fury of youth and machismo will—must—eventually kill them. When I was writing many of the poems that would eventually form my third collection-in-progress, Terra Incognita, I was trying to write poems that could contend with, and contain, the loss of my mother to stage 4 colorectal adenocarcinoma. Under the punishing hand of this disease, my mother struggled hard and died harder. It was the ugliest thing I have—and will ever—witness in my life. What was uglier was her ruse—her attempt to hoard—her illness, keep it from me in some pretense of saving my feelings. During the operation described in the poem, my mother died several times on the operating table. I read an interview with Patricia Smith with Jon Riccio on the Volta Blog (January 2016), and he asked her about her use of form in her literary response to Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler. He specifically asked why she chose to use very constricting forms, such as the Tanka, and her response has stayed with me:
You can’t look directly at death unless you can contain it. It’s horrific in its undefined edges, and the idea of it unleashes a fear that blurs both its reality and inevitability. The tight control of the Tanka is somewhat sleight-of-hand—it’s a taming of what refuses to be tamed. Working in such a terse, controlled form didn’t change the truth, it just slowed my approach to it. It helped me rein in rampaging emotion. Concentrating on the syllable count gave me a way to confront the body count.
I agree with Smith: you can't look directly at death unless you can contain it. The death of a mother is not a fair comparison to an ecological crisis or one so complicated by poverty and racism, nor is it one that I want the reader of this interview to make. By transcribing this event, I wanted to co-opt Smith's desire to contain the immensity of truth through the literal use of form. I wanted to find a container to help me organize my grief. I wanted to translate the immensity of discovering my mother's cancer—a phone call late in the night, my mother hallucinating on medication and weaving a ridiculous story of abduction—by finding a vessel that would hold it. I wanted to capture the way my mother lived on the edge of disaster in this hallucinogenic meditation, trying to contain her terminal illness in secret until it finally came out. Such a story sashays with narrative swagger, a hyperbolic bravado. Something so large is bound to fall.
I love what you say about using poetic form to contain grief, and I’m reminded of your poem “Last Stash” in which the speaker busts her mother’s stash of cigarettes, hidden in the freezer, after a stroke. Even though there’s the finality of death in these poems, there’s control in “pitching” the mother’s last pack of cigarettes and getting rid of something harmful. I admire how you handle complex emotion in the action of the poem, coupling rage with “palming the final / pack like a bastard angel / of mercy.” Though contain is not the same as control, they feel similar, especially when dealing with grief, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the movement of the speaker’s symbolic action among the staggered lines and columns of the innovative form you use here.
Thank you again for such a thoughtful question. To start trying to unpack an answer, I’m going to reference memoirist Barrie Jean Borich’s terrific distinction regarding personal experience and its aesthetic treatment:
I’m with Annie Dillard when I say creative nonfiction writing is first about the formation of a text, the creation of piece of art, just like any painting or musical composition. Your life and the life of the world is your raw material, as much a part of the mix as is the paint, the chords, the words. Your subjects might be any part of this world.
For me, what is true of memoir/creative nonfiction is also true of neo-confessional poetry: experience and art have different rhetorical goals, but they are often interdependent. Experience shapes a person’s horizontal identity, and one can use this experience as one might use a chord or a brush full of Alizarin Crimson on canvas (I often self-soothe by watching Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting). That being said, my mother’s health issues (stroke, cancer) were largely attributed to smoking, a terrible diet, lack of exercise, and a Superman complex which made her think she was immune to doctors or disaster. Even after being diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal adenocarcinoma and having an 8 pound tumor removed during an emergency hysterectomy, she still smoked. Can you think of it? I’m not one to judge the actions of others, for they are none of my business. But my memories of my mother are my jurisdiction: she was either overconfident or had a death wish. Whenever I would try to intervene growing up, she’d deflect or curse at me. Her stroke, which her doctor attributed directly to her smoking while on chemotherapy, is what caused her to quit cold turkey.
Still, throughout her struggle with cancer, she told me about the stash of cigarettes she kept for when the cancer turned terminal. She hid them from me, but would tell me how much she was going to enjoy smoking them when the time came. While cleaning out her house after her death, I found the untouched stash in the freezer behind some Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies—once the cancer was terminal, she began to experience complications from liver necrosis, so long bouts of sleep turned into coma. Low energy and stroke-related aphasia must have erased them from her mind.
I didn’t just throw them away. In a rage, I destroyed them. “Last Stash” is about rage, really: the rage one isn’t allowed to demonstrate, the rage which complicates grief. Research shows that when grief is often complicated by other feelings, its trajectory of resolution can be adversely affected. My rage at my mother is, was, and always will be powerful and unresolved. To write about it, to turn the raw experience into an aesthetic product, I needed a form highly regulated enough to control the rage. I needed the right container.
Your answer is so beautifully wrought that I shouted with joy after I read it! How did you go about creating the container you needed for this particular poem?
Oh my, you make me blush!
Now here's my more direct answer: I thought it would be cool to write contrapuntal couplets deconstructed vis a vis an adaptation to William Carlos Williams' triadic line (a dyadic line?). I literally thought they would be mimetic of the poem's main tensions (the narrative of finding the cigarettes and the subtextual narrative of the speaker's rage) and a nod/wink to modernist poetics, but mostly I thought they looked neat. :)
I’d like to move to your poem, “Sowing the Field,” for the remainder of our conversation. I love how this poem speaks to the others included here, and also gives us a way to think about healing within the movement of our bodies and our connections with others, especially in the line, “We are the truth beyond.” I also admire that this poem exists among the difficulty of grief, not as a balm but a reality. Could you talk about this further?
I love how you state your reaction—"that this poem exists among the difficulty of grief, not as a balm but a reality." I'm so glad, because I didn't want this poem to be an aesthetic version of balm. I wanted to discover a realistic way, using both head and heart, to channel Beckett's conundrum (excuse the lack of contextual framework): "I can’t go on. I’ll go on." It is easier to make false beauty than to call things what they are, easier to soothe than to seek. The truth is that my love for my mother is complicated, but my grief will always be palpable. The truth is no matter how palpable the grief, I have one choice: to continue living a life without her. That life involves re-imagining my boundaries, as I came from her body. My mother is indelibly my mother, but love is bigger than any of us. I take comfort in this notion: the circularity of this statement, and also the power.
CANCER: A GOLDEN SHOVEL
Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, July 2015
Still flushed on dreams and the stern silk of sleep, her call tears me awake. 1 am. Honey, we
are in trouble , she says. Someone took me. My mother’s slurs are the siren call of real
stolen women: first a strange man ties her with rope, then drugs her. He eases his cool
weapon too close to her throat. She says, Oh God, he’s coming. She says, if we
hurry, he might not kill me . Her voice breaches time zones to re-tether her grip, as if I never left
the country of her body. Our relationship—twenty years too late. My only school
of thought now is guilt, that dumb, animal trigger. Fear, my translucent temple. Sara, we
need you to drive. He slashed her favorite purse, she said—I can’t mistake the lurk
of raw exposure in her tone. He’s got my keys. I’m too scared to move. The sheriff is late
picking up our three-way call. To track her GPS, he says, my mother must dial 911. We
have no choice but to untether her line. Dread shushes its hot lien against me. He says, strike
first, then move. But what if her abductor jumps her mid-dial, cold cocks her straight
before she reaches the cops? What if he’s already on his way to rape her? We
will do what we can , he says. Hangs up. I sit on the floor, my pulse in my throat. I’m sing-
led out. I’d joined the sisterhood of bad daughters years ago, traitor women. My sin
my inability to save my mother or my soul. A half-hour later, the sheriff calls—we
found her . No rapist in sight, no man shifting everything to bruise: instead, Dilaudid thin
-ning her post-op pain. Half of her liver knifed out by surgeons. Cancer, like gin
in her blood, turning everything smooth. Stage 4. Metastatic. Who can we
turn to in moments like this? Gary, the night oncology nurse, his voice like deep jazz?
My mother, mid-hallucination, speed-dialing me from ICU? Last June,
a tumor ate through her colon, ovaries, the sweet-slick gloss of her uterine walls. We
are this alibi of blood muscled down, Mother. A legacy plying the deep. To die
or go missing—what’s thicker than water? Love flown too soon.
When I say I busted
my mother’s stash in the deep
freeze meant for lightning sales,
I mean I snuffed out their cool
hushed up against Styrofoam
flats of cube steak, I mean
I snitched on their glitzy foil,
copped on their tincture of chic
like a narc. For years, I’d watched
my mother slip them between her
lips like heaven hid in the skin
of a lit butt. I watched her throat
their mirth like an indulgence
too holy to blame. When I say
she’d smoke until the moon
glimmered raw as her lungs,
I mean she’d smoke until her
body became a savior lost.
After her stroke, scared stiff
of their Stygian musk, she quit—
but the grocery sack stuffed
for the moment all hope was lost?
I bluffed it out. I imagine
her heaven paved with cartons,
the pearly gates roached
out with haze. Terminal meant
a litter of filters christenedwith lipstick and blunted.
When she died, this sorryklatch hustled itself deep,
a lone coterie of stale
bones. When I say rage but for
the grace of God go I , I mean
I’m palming the final
pack like a bastard angel
of mercy. I mean I’m pitching
its low-down sack
of a soul into the trash.
SOWING THE FIELD
To love is to tell the story of the world.
–Nomi Stone, “On World-Making”
If my body is a field you once lost yourself in,
Mother, if your body was a field I once lost myself
in—I could say sweet things about windflower,
musk thistle, some fractured kaleidoscope of purples
and blues. But these metaphors do not hold us long.
We are the truth beyond. You, catching like shrapnel
in my cellular heat before you skimmed your way
into a different ether. Before you made crucial
alchemy of this life and let go, I was proof of your
longing. Now, when my husband touches me,
he’s searching for some part of himself that will stay.
He wants some part of our love he can hold in his
hands. Someone once told me that to have a child
is to feel like your heart is walking outside your body.
I do not want a child to fall to her knees when I die.
This is how love becomes circular. This is how
love outlives us. Every time my husband reaches
for me in the dark, I think: I am alive. I think—
it starts this way, one cell breaching another.
Then a world unfurling, a world that will go on.
“Cancer: A Golden Shovel”: This is a poem written in Terrance Hayes’ original, ground-breaking form, the Golden Shovel, named after the famous poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. Dilaudid (hydromorphone hydrochloride) is an opioid analgesic used to control severe pain. One of its potential serious side effects is hallucinations. The lines “To die / or go missing—what’s thicker than water?” makes a nod to Lily Brown’s volume of poems titled Rust or Go Missing (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010).
“Sowing the Field”: The lines “Someone once told me that to have a child /is to feel like your heart is walking outside your body” references direct images and lines from Lisa Oz’s article, “How Does One Feel After Becoming a Mother?” (Sharecare.com), particularly the following: “when you have a child, you become a hostage to fortune; you feel like your heart is walking outside your body.”