May 25, 2016

What Cannot Be Swallowed: Reading Poems/Conversations with parents who have children with health issues

My first reading of the poems I’ve been writing all year was on Nov.14 th at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. I didn’t think I was nervous until I choked a bit reading a line in a poem and had to restart the line. Hmm. It is hard to expose oneself with new work. Kind of like bringing a baby into the world, all fresh and unknown.  Though I have lived with these words and conversations all year, I had not heard myself reading to an audience.  I always love this part but am afraid of it at the same time.  How will people respond, will they respond at all?  Will any of the ideas touch them?  Is there a point to writing if no one reads or hears the words? Yes, but the response part is like the completion of a good meal.  Even if they hate the poems ( that would be hard to take, but something, at least ) I would know there was life outside my mind.

I started the reading with a poem I felt fairly confident about, Only Serious Applicants Need Apply.  I can’t post the entire poem yet as I’m hoping it will be published elsewhere first, but here are a few lines–  In the club you never wanted to join / is a job you didn’t apply for, your qualifications dubious. / Requirements include multiple personality transformations:–

I tried to weave in stories about the parents that I interviewed, and their child’s illness, between the poems. The audience consisted of 1/3 staff from the clinic and 2/3 friends of mine from various parts of my life. Two medical students left half way through the reading. Did they hate it?  Probably they needed to do some doctoring but no one told me.  I just went on.

At the end of the reading I asked for questions or comments.  Some very thoughtful questions ensued which made me aware that they were listening closely. Someone asked about my use of nature images in relation to the painful issues of illness and looming death of children.

Voices stick like pollen. / A wasp rasps its tongue on fence post, / turning wood bits and spit into paper hive / I transmute words, hearing again / what cannot be swallowed. 

          —from The North Wind

I had not thought this out exactly but I realized that the natural world is where I always go to help myself think through confusion or emotional upset. When my child was very ill and we didn’t know if she’d recover, I took walks whenever I could. I found that parts of nature, a nest or a tree or the weather itself was a vessel that could hold whatever I was feeling at the time. I felt connected to something bigger than myself.  Thinking about this question later made me realize that the natural world is the only place that helps me put life and death into perspective. And because those feelings, fears about our children and their futures, our guilt, anger, grief or helplessness, need a place to both be held and named, I wanted to find images that could help them do that. I wanted the poem to recognize and not shy away from, those painful places, and hopefully by naming them, one could feel ‘seen’, not so alone in them.

Another asked about how I handle a situation where a parent, if, after one long interview/discussion may have opened themselves up to painful emotions and are raw.  I can’t say that I did end all our conversations tidily.  I was aware of needing to find some closure for each person, particularly if I sensed that they were feeling this rawness. In one case I contacted a social worker that I knew the parent was in touch with to inform them about the parent’s state of mind.  I wanted someone else to reach out to her when I was no longer around. If this happened, I am not sure.  This parent didn’t speak her story to hardly anyone and I realized that I was not only given a rare gift, I had a responsibility to not abuse her trust since she didn’t really know me.

All in all this project, this series of poems, that I have come to call, What Cannot Be Swallowed, has been far more challenging than I had anticipated. It took me much longer to digest all the feelings and thoughts, wrestle with the forms of the poems, rethink the issues, decide what needed to be told and find the words to say them, than I gave myself time for.  As such, these readings are not really the culmination of the grant I received from the City of Seattle to do this project, but are part of a larger loop, a spiral that has led me back to revising some of the poems again.  That too is important, though at some point I will have to let them go out into the world.  Just as I let go of my child as she grows.

I will be reading again on Wednesday, Dec. 5th at 12:30 pm at Seattle Children’s Hospital.  Please come if you can..


  1. Carol Flotlin says:

    Where can I get a copy of your poems? My friend has a child with quite advanced CP, and I think she could really identify with the poem “Only Serious Applicants Need Apply”, which I heard on KUOW. She has spent a great deal of time at Children’s, and I feel the poems could help. So, where can I find them? Thanks.

    • Carol,

      The poems are available in my chapbook What Cannot Be Swallowed. You can go to the online store link, top menu, and purchase it through PayPal. Then I will get a notice and I can send it, or it can be sent to you and you can give it to her. I hope this helps, and thank you for thinking of your friend.