Summer 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 1 Women's HealthJune 23, 2023 |

Sick and Writing: Two Poets Converse

Fleda Brown and Jennifer Sperry Steinorth talk about the impact of illness, and their own illnesses, on a writing life.

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth: You and I have said that we’d like to have an out-loud conversation about human ailments and their impact on the craft of poetry—or perhaps on writing in general.

And yesterday we were talking about different mediums for writing—essay versus poetry for example—and I shared how, for me, poetry often precedes prose. I think this is because, before I write the poem I don’t know what’s the matter. Or, put another way, in prose I struggle to articulate intricate links, whereas in poetry I articulate to discover those links. There’s something about tending to the music of the form that allows one to escape perceived narratives and arrive someplace new. Or ancient. As it happens, I am now working on a few prose projects that would not have been possible had I not written my last book of poetry. And as it happens, that book of poetry was crafted over several years during which I was in progressively debilitating physical pain, pain it has taken years to diagnose.

And now I’m remembering a lecture Marianne Boruch gave a few years back, positing that poetry is not so much a means of healing as it is a method of detection, occasionally therapeutic but essentially diagnostic. Which of course implies that poetry is rooted not only in dis-ease but in causes hidden.

I’m curious as to how you would describe the relationship between your health—physical, mental, spiritual—and your writing.

Fleda Brown: Dis-ease is the beginning of all writing, isn’t it? The human condition. Forever longing, forever not where we want to be, and even if everything’s perfect, we know we’re going to die. The engine of all our writing is that. Not that we’re writing to solve the mystery of being; it’s more the need to see clearly. To look at the undersides of leaves, to watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. To be amazed. To look at the adventure of our infirmities, even. As Marianne Boruch said, it’s about detection.

I have had a lot of infirmities. I’ve had cancer twice, and a string of surgeries, for cancer and other reasons, most minor. I’ve been depressed; I’ve had the full range of emotions, actually. And good for me for that. I wouldn’t want to end this life with any emotions yet unused. I’ve written them. I’ve wondered if I write them to feel in control, to feel in connection with others who suffer, or simply to articulate what this singular life is like, in the thick of it.

But I think there may be no point in trying to figure out why we write. The wellspring is deep and complex. Explanations will never ring entirely true. And who cares? The work is there.

Simple observations: I tend to write more prose when I’m struggling emotionally. No surprise. It’s hard to lift off when you feel heavy. I think prose digs around in the subconscious not to unearth meaning, but to find the places where meaning has slipped away. It’s the excavator of the subconscious. While poetry—well, poetry is all over the place, looking for holes to slip through unnoticed.

That is, if prose and poetry would hold still for such precious analysis! First, there’s no clear boundary between them. Second, writing does lots of things. You ask about relationship. The relationship among all sorts of health—mental, spiritual, physical—and my writing. Maybe it would be helpful for us to explore “relationship,” to go at this subject from the point of view of the writer. How do I feel about the words I’m putting down? Am I wrestling, am I sorting, am I passively receiving the way Coleridge said he was when he wrote Kubla Khan, until he was disturbed by the visit of a person from Porlock? Maybe he was on drugs. Yes, probably. But the Romantic vision of poetry simply arriving unbidden, to be transcribed, is with us still.

I’m thinking of your erasures. I’m curious not so much about your relationship to the root text but about how your body/mind is working in response to it. Are you really “unearthing,” or is there a quality of receptivity? You have major health issues. I wonder if and how your approach to genre is influenced by your health.

JSS: I like the idea of receptivity with regard to erasure. I have often used the metaphor of excavation to speak of that work, though I too balk at the idea that I am digging up something that already exists, something latent in the text. Rather, it is as if I am excavating the dead from a text that buried them—a kind of channeling. But the channeling is difficult. There is a physicality to it, scanning the same page over and over, trying different words, different combinations for a line that sparks, that resounds. And I must resist reading the words as I have been trained to read them, in sequence. Goodness, the metaphoric implications of unlearning how to read! Even this is subversive. The fine work of obscuring small print with correction fluid was also very physical: when I began to see double, I had to stop. Or excising words with a scalpel as I did in the last sixty pages; that surgery was so demanding, with little margin of error and so physically different from writing. The movements were tight and constricted, my whole torso pressing down around the artifact, versus the sideways tilt that happens when writing by hand—the energy flowing out to the right along the line of the page—or if writing via computer, the upright posture of looking through the window of the screen, both hands making their light music across the keys.

The difference in physicality may seem incidental, but I think the process in the body matters (I was a dancer before I was a writer . . . ). In Her Read, the bracing, downward action of the body was indicative of the force it took to silence the authorities, those voices so entrenched, so internalized, I could barely make out that there were other voices, faint but singing. I silenced the one to hear the others, but the action in the body, while ultimately helpful, was violent. Medical intervention, as you know, can also be violent.

I have sometimes wondered if my health has been harmed by my receptivity. I have shared with you and others that I can no longer use correction fluid. Long exposure has left me intolerant to its toxicity. But toxic or not, using it was necessary to my survival. The work was a practice of choosing what to be receptive to, and what to quiet. What to let go.

To my mind, both the physical pain I was experiencing while drafting Her Read and the psychic pain that book explores are related to receptivity. Is this coincidence? In recent years I’ve been able to mitigate the physical pain, through radically altering my diet. But trace amounts of certain foods will leave me sick for weeks, and because those poisonous foods are so prevalent and the risk of cross contamination so high, I cannot eat food prepared by other people or in most restaurants, cannot “break bread” with others. The inability to commune in this ancient way, and the constant vigilance necessary to feed myself safely can be exhausting and feels antithetical to my person. Finding ways to maintain a sense of freedom and improvisation has been necessary to fend off depression, which both contributes to and is exacerbated by my illness in feedback loops between the gut and the brain.

But the illnesses we have experienced are very different. Do you find that in writing—in particular craft choices you are making—that you are enacting movements or voices your body longs for in its effort to heal? Or that violences of disease or of healing—surgeries, chemicals, radiation—manifest in particular ways on the page?

FB: As for craft choices, I’ve gotten more at ease with moving across the invisible border between prose and poetry. You might say the violences to my body destroyed my sense of boundaries. I don’t believe in them much anymore. After all, I thought I was more solid in the world than I actually am. I thought the world was more organized than it actually is.

At the moment, I have little energy. We just moved. In fact we moved twice, first into a temporary apartment until the one we wanted opened up. My husband is physically disabled. In my enthusiasm for getting settled, I did more of the work myself than I should have and am now almost unable to work at all. My cancers each required radiation, which has left, I suspect, my bone marrow damaged. That’s my own diagnosis. I tire easily. I haven’t written a scintillating word in weeks and weeks. But then, I remind myself, I have had long spells in the past with nothing of note happening on the page. It always makes me nervous and a bit depressed.

I think it may be significant that we’re in such different places (and ages) in our writing lives. My first book was so many years ago, and more than a dozen have followed, both poetry and prose, winning various awards. That recognition must provide a cushion, some sort of safety, in my mind, against failure, against not getting it right, or against rejection. I guess it does, but not much. Mostly what matters is what I’m working on at the moment. It’s always scary, and it’s always a beginning.

In the best of times, my body/mind feels it’s working against the odds. Writing is hard work for everyone, of course. I feel as if I am scraping the bottom of my personal well of energy, while at the same time I feel there’s more to write. I don’t know what, just as your excavation, if you call it that, doesn’t know what it will turn up.

I noticed you said there were “other voices, faint but singing.” Is our satisfaction when it feels as if we’ve gotten those other voices “right” the satisfaction of having said what we intended or the satisfaction of having somehow moved beyond what we intended? Of course it’s the latter—I’ve answered my own questions—but we have to start somewhere, and where we begin is with intention. I wonder what we mean by intention.

When I was much younger, my intention was to write a poem worthy of the great tradition that lived out there and that lived in books. Eventually I saw that I’m part of the great tradition, and that the tradition isn’t a thing but a movement, an action of the spirit. It is the spirit that I’ve had to stoke into action, through sadnesses and depressions, over and over. When I had cancer the first time, stage 3, I wrote prose and very few poems, but I wrote and wrote as a balm, as a letter to the world, as a clarification. I did not, I do not, want to go gently. Maybe the writing is a way to catch hold of the “out of control-ness” of the sick body, to give it speech and so enable it to control things. So at least something, if not “me,” is piloting the ship.

When my energy has failed, my response has been to get anything, anything at all, on the page. The tapping of the computer keys is my radical revolt against nonbeing, you could say. Arthritis in my writing hand has ended my handwriting. And even at that, I wear a thumb brace. So what? I keep on.

Do you keep on when you feel awful? How do you keep on when you feel awful?

JSS: The word awful has awe in it, but when I feel awful it doesn’t feel like awe—maybe it should. Pain alienates us from one another, from ourselves, and from language. It disrupts connectivity. But through writing or other forms of making, we struggle against that disconnect. It can feel animalistic, that survivor impulse—or what you said, a rebellion against depression, sorrow, anger, bitterness. I try to keep moving. Or I try to be actively still. In my body, in my mind. Lately I am attempting to revise a long poem about a tragedy that has haunted me for twenty-some years. I feel like I am in a solid place to reenter that work. For example, I have a job that is rewarding and offers more security than I’ve had in my adult life, with health insurance. Good lord! I’m forty-seven, and only once before, for two years, in a demeaning job I hated, did I have decent health insurance. Which of course is related to this issue of sickness and writing (any kind of artmaking), particularly for American artists—which we both are . . .

But reentering that work—investigating a horrific tragedy touching motherhood and religion and mental illness—also creates some anxiety. I sometimes need multiple walks a day; movement outside in the ordinary splendor of the world allows me to enter the tragic spaces of the past and the ongoing darkness in the world and in myself, without being swallowed by it. Jane Hirshfield talks about this in her wonderful essay “Facing the Lion,” inspired in part by Allen Ginsberg’s poem “The Lion for Real,” “The trick then is to let the lion into the house without abandoning one’s allegiance to the world of the living: to live amid the overpowering scent of its knowledge, yet not be dragged entirely into its realm.” Moving my body out in the world—outside the intimate spaces where I write—being in conversation with others—all of these help me hold the dark and light together. That this work demands so much discipline—even when I feel otherwise stable—speaks to the toll our work can take.

FB: Jen, you say, “I have sometimes wondered if my health has been harmed by my receptivity.” I am pretty sure this is the case, in general. My own body/mind has been pummeled by a number of emotional upheavals over the years, some so severe I felt at the time as if I couldn’t survive them. Chemistry and biology are our feelings. It’s all entangled. You’re working on that long poem about a tragedy that has haunted you for years. The Body Keeps the Score is the title of a popular book. Would I have had cancer, for example, if I had not had my particular childhood and my two devastating divorces? (There is almost no history of cancer in my family). Who knows? My skin feels particularly thin, but I can’t possibly say if that has mattered to my health.

And as for thin skin, I suspect it’s a bit precious to say that writers have thinner skin than average. Everyone suffers. Everyone grieves. It may be that writers and other artists simply use their art to express this; it may be that they’re actually more aware, that their suffering has come closer to the surface. I don’t know.

I think about the difference in what ails us. I have had cancer twice, various kinds of prolapses, hernias. You have been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and celiac disease, two autoimmune diseases. Your gut has been the origin of your autoimmune illness; my organs have been mine. Biology or metaphor? Again, I don’t know. Do you think the particular manifestation of misery in you has made any difference in the direction or tone of your writing?

JSS: I think that suffering has lent a bitterness to my writing—though, ironically, my first book, which was largely drafted before I started having overwhelming physical symptoms, feels more bitter to me than my second. In the drafting of Her Read, as my body became sicker, I think, perhaps, my writing got both more sorrowful and more playful, more—is it silly to say?—soulful.

I was also struggling mentally. I had not yet been diagnosed, and not only was I in a lot of physical pain, I had a lot of difficulty processing information, a consequence of my illness, and was deeply depressed. The difficulty of speaking through the constraint of erasure mimicked my own struggle to process information and the effort of climbing out of depression. When I think of that I marvel at how playful Her Read is—but of course what’s sad can be, in another light, hilarious.

I sometimes worry the work I’m doing now is too rigid, too controlled. Is this rigidity a manifestation of the caution I must now exercise a vigilance which sometimes dominates my daily thoughts and routines? How, in writing, do I let this rigidity go?

I used to enjoy alcohol several times a week and would sometimes have a glass of wine or a whiskey while I wrote. Now even a small amount of alcohol can wreck me, and I miss that aid that helps many of us to loosen our grip a bit or shift perspective. I’m happy that recreational marijuana is readily available in Michigan, and I have experimented, but with mixed results.

It seems so . . . what—mundane? juvenile? superficial? . . . to think about the role of drugs and alcohol in writing, but didn’t you mention Coleridge’s use of enhancements in writing Kubla Khan? And of course many of us walk through life on guard, even as we fail to keep harm at a safe distance. And good writing isn’t safe. Life well lived isn’t safe.

You mention the idea of being thin skinned versus thick. I think, to be a successful writer, one must be both. Of course one must be sensitive . . . to language, other humans, image, landscape, time . . . We must be vulnerable, must risk pain, loss. But one  must also deal with relentless rejection—not just from editors or reviewers but from family, dear ones—our own critical eye. It takes discipline to modulate sensitivity . . . if it’s even possible and not simply a matter of genes, experience, et cetera . . .

I think of your book The Devil’s Child—I recall your saying once that you felt writing it had taken years off your life. What did it feel like in your body . . . doing that work? You inhabited many voices, one of which belonged to a schizophrenic woman, Barbara, who had been born into a Satanic cult and horrendously tortured. How did you hold that in your body?

FB: My personal work in therapy, the depth of it, came very close to the time of my work on that book, so in a way, I reexperienced my own (lesser) traumas in Barbara’s. My therapist was a great support. My husband, Jerry, was endlessly kind, just holding me and letting me cry. At first I had only the Barbara poems, the ones in the main character’s voice, the most harrowing ones. I sent them to the poet Donald Hall, who suggested I add other voices, because otherwise even the reader will sink into the abyss. He said I needed a community voice to express, affirm the awfulness. So I added a priest (Barbara was Catholic) and a writer (kind of me, kind of not).

So the answer to your question may be that I didn’t hold it in my body entirely. I was pushing it out into the poems.

I’m having a lot of back pain at the moment. I have advanced arthritis in my lumbar area. I said when I was in cancer treatment that I mostly wrote prose. Now I’m more inclined toward poetry. Go figure. There is, though, a difference between a pain that may end your life and a pain that just hurts. What I do know about pain in general is that it pulls you inward. It makes you inwardly vigilant. Vigilance. You used that word about how you need to live your life, and I’m thinking, yes, I’m always on alert in some corner of my being. Does that vigilance augment the deep attention needed to be a good writer, or does it deflect that attention? I don’t know.

When my back hurts a lot, I want to drink, yes. Beer is best for back pain. But (maybe happily) my body won’t tolerate much. One glass of wine or one beer a day is all I can handle without feeling sick, or horrible the next morning.

I would say, for me, suffering causes some shift in the formality of the language. Emily Dickinson wrote, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am maybe less playful, not more. It feels as if the hurting body holds me closer to the ground. You rightly said, “[G]ood writing isn’t safe.” The ground isn’t safe either. No place is safe if you’ve experienced suddenness: unexpected pain or illness.

JSS: The ground isn’t safe, but we may steady ourselves reaching outward—for a wall, a tree, another human. These things are also unsafe—but reaching beyond ourselves may be enough to steady a moment. I’m thinking again of Marianne Boruch’s lecture, in which she likens poetry not to cure but to diagnosis, and claims diagnosis is more art than science. Poetry as a means of determining, as Boruch puts it, “not what hurts but what’s hurt”—which may be nowhere near the pain. In my case, it certainly wasn’t, was it for you? I’ve just dug up my notes from Marianne’s lecture—and gone to the internet to discover that the lecture became an essay soon after, published in New England Review, “Diagnosis, Poetry, and the Burden of Mystery.” My medical diagnoses, like many of my poems, have taken years and years—and continue to be in process. My doctor sent me to all the wrong specialists; nothing showed up on the tests for years. It wasn’t until I went on a restricted diet—not for myself but as an act of solidarity with my husband—that I realized I couldn’t tolerate gluten. That was the first breakthrough. It didn’t come through medicine but through love. How about that?

Often I write terrible poems—I don’t mean bad poems, though I write lots of those—but poems I am embarrassed by because what they say is awful. Sometimes when I tell people my diagnoses they tell me they are sorry, and I understand they think the diagnoses are awful, and I get that, but I am so thankful for the diagnoses. It’s such a relief to know what’s wrong—even when nothing can be done to fix it.

In her essay Boruch discusses how Keats, a medical student, kept his notes after giving up the profession because “an extensive knowledge . . .  helps to ease the Burden of Mystery.” Of course Keats was also famous for his articulation of negative capability—that particular quality he admired in poets—of being able to sit still with uncertainty, without scrambling after (false) assurances.

Maybe knowing what’s wrong—the diagnosis—helps us—if not to fix what’s wrong, then to adjust our mind to new uncertainties—to let something go?

I’m also thinking of Dante’s notions of contrapasso: the way, in his vision of hell, the sins of the spirit are enacted on the body. In Dickens too—the chains Jacob Marley carries in death, according to the story, were there in life, yet imperceivable. I don’t mean to suggest that our ailments are the result of our sins. But if we’re saying that poetry is diagnostic—a means of seeing that which is hidden—well, there’s also Adrienne Rich: “What we see, we see / and seeing is changing.”

FB: Diagnosis and seeing may be two separate streams of the same reality. To diagnose is to give language to, which is deeply comforting when you have been in the limbo of “What’s wrong with me?” And one simple name can locate a whole array of related words, related realities.

To see is what’s below the diagnosis: the inarticulate knowing, feeling. And seeing is changing, as Rich says. That doesn’t mean that we can change our diagnosis—probably not—but I might liken seeing to breaking through the dam so the mind is no longer held inside its concepts. And I like your Keats quote: “[A]n extensive knowledge . . . helps to ease the Burden of Mystery.”

I have a new long poem, eight pages, based on the life of Alexander Grothendieck, a brilliant twentieth-century physicist. Another physicist said that Grothendieck was like an alien, deposited on Earth, “Not to solve famous problems, but to reach such an understanding of the measureless deep that the solutions would fall out on their own, like softening a walnut in water.” I think this is the nature of staying with an investigation. This is what Rilke does in the Duino Elegies; this is what C. D. Wright—you’ve written on her work—does in everything she writes. She clings so closely to the moment of being alive that that moment becomes a deep well that pulls in all the other moments. Like probing a wound: the pain of it turns out to be comprised of all previous pains together. Which I guess is how poetry works. If I see deeply, I am probing the eternal seeing. The boundaries are no longer there when you go far enough inward.

JSS: I love this comparison you’re making between probing a wound and seeing. The idea that sight—like pain—has gravity. As probing the experience of a particular pain pulls other incursions of pain down into it, sight too may be recursive—and telescopic. Sight like a wormhole: a single vision teleporting us, blinking, into a new world, from within which we are transported to another vision, another telescopic portal—thence to a new world, and a new world, and so on.

Put that way, it sounds incredibly—perhaps naively—optimistic. The way you say it is better— “probing the eternal seeing.” It doesn’t always feel like that in practice, though, does it. Then again, even a dim flashlight can help us travel a great distance, as long as we keep taking the next step . . . and the batteries hold.

That feels like a good reminder to me now—uncertain where I’m going in my own writing projects. The light thin, my balance wobbly in the dark.

Wobbly reminds me of your blog on writing (and living), My Wobbly Bicycle, another transportational metaphor. Of course, the only way to change perspective is to move, or to let oneself be moved.

FB: I first used that title for my blog in 2012, when I wrote of my cancer diagnosis. I wrote that living is like riding a bicycle: often wobbly, uncertain. But it occurs to me now that the only way a bicycle can stay upright is for it to stay in motion.

Photo of Fleda Brown
Fleda Brown’s tenth collection of poems, Flying Through a Hole in the Storm (Ohio University Press, 2021) won the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize from Ohio University Press and is a Foreword INDIES finalist. Brown’s earlier poems can be found in The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, chosen by Ted Kooser for his University of Nebraska series, 2017. Her work has appeared three times in The Best American Poetry and has won a Pushcart Prize, the Felix Pollak Prize, the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry, and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award for Poetry. Brown has also twice been a finalist for the National Poetry Series Competition. Her latest book is Mortality, with Friends (Wayne State University Press, 2021), a Midwest Book Award winner in memoir from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s books include A Wake with Nine Shades (Texas Review Press, 2019) and Her Read, A Graphic Poem (Texas Review Press, 2021), recipient of Foreword Review’s Best of the Indie Press bronze prize in poetry and the Fred Whitehead Award for Best Design of a Trade Book. Recent work appears in The Cincinnati Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Pleiades, Plume, RHINO, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. An interdisciplinary artist and licensed builder, she lectures at the University of Michigan in the Department of English and is a 2023–24 Beinecke Fellow at Yale working on a biography of C. D. Wright.

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