July 29, 2014

The Moth Eaten World

 

The Moth Eaten World-coverHere is the cover of my new chapbook put out by Finishing Line Press.  You can order a copy here

 

To entice you, here are some “glowing” words from two poets who have read the book.

Suzanne Edison’s The Moth Eaten World held me breathless. Poem by poem we explore not just a failing body, but a daughter’s disease and a mother’s journey through this world.  The poems fill us with questioning concern—I left God in her Temple when you got sick—but she compassionately walks the reader through. Not many poets can write about illness well, especially the illness of their own child, with such precision and grace that Edison has.  These poems offer so much to the reader—strength and struggle, beauty and fear, faith and doubt—Edison is not only the detailed observer, but the moth, the mother, and the world held together, she writes a powerful and necessary book for all.    

– Kelli Russell Agodon, Author of Hourglass Museum & The Daily Poet

In The Moth Eaten World, Suzanne Edison talks about a subject no one wants to talk about: the sick child, and accomplishes this onerous but fundamental task by invoking mythologies, African tradition, story telling and the use of fresh metaphors to guide us through a deep and challenging world. She describes the accouterment of illness with a cleverness that invokes sticks in the sand instead of IV poles, angels instead of nurses, always in the presence of a mother’s partially cloaked desperation, and her fervent desire to “stitch you back whole” once again. All in all the book is a clear view of a catastrophic situation made palatable by the skill of the writer and a vision that uses language as warrior against the sorrow of loss. 

 

–David Watts, author of Bedside Manners, and The Orange Wire Problem.

Teens READING from the Heart of Illness & Healing

For 9 weeks now a group of 7 teens, aged 13-18, have been coming to an after school, independent, poetry writing workshop. These teens live with a variety of chronic illnesses themselves or live with a family member who is chronically ill.

I began this workshop for teens after several years of teaching writing to, and working with, parents of kids living with chronic illness.  I had written a grant to interview these, and other parents, and write a series of poems based on those conversations.  When I presented my work, one of the places I read was an inner city clinic in Seattle where many of the sickle cell families I had conversed with, are seen.  Subsequently, I was asked by the staff if I could teach a workshop for teens. I was excited by the idea and with the help of two more grants, was given this opportunity.

Tonight is the inaugural, culminating reading. They will read to their families, friends, clinic doctors, nurses, social workers and other community members.

They have shown determination and resilience in writing about their illnesses, about their feelings of loneliness, fear and anger. They have written about what makes them feel better, their hopes, joys and what can also be seen as normal teenage concerns of belonging, identity and passion.  I put the word normal in italics because this is the thing they all struggle with, and against. What does it mean to be normal, what does it mean to have an added issue of chronic illness to layer upon the everyday stresses of school, family, social life?  How do I define myself, how do others define me?  (My belief is all of them are bigger than their illness and expressing all parts of themselves allows them and others to see their fullness. It enlarges all of our lives.)

They are courageous, not only in their writing, but in their willingness to get up in front of people and read their work aloud. When we first started practicing for this reading 3 weeks ago, many of them swore they couldn’t do it. They wanted one girl to read all their work, as they thought she was the “true poet” and not afraid of speaking aloud.  But gradually, after much laughing, and consternation about whether they’d be laughed at, they were able to make it through a full run practice. Then one girl commented brightly, “this is going to be fun”.

Their work will also be available in book form. They chose the title:  Based on a True Story: Just Beyond the Gate.

For a copy of this booklet, please see the online store soon.

Birth and Death

The vernal equinox. Rebirth. Spring. Resurrection. Flight from Egypt to the promised land. 10th anniversary of the Iraq “War” (invasion). 19th anniversary of my mother’s death.

In honor of all this. In honor of the cycles of creation and destruction to which we are all subject. In deference to all the writers, artists, poets, great orators, quiet spiritualists who speak of our place in the Great Cycles of Creation. In all the forms we know through, and by, I offer a poem.  (Originally published as Remains in Seattle Woman magazine, 2004)

What Remains

Burrowing
into mother’s pillow

I inhale
a curry of wet leaves, dried

roses, an absence,
like chilies lingering,

the tongue
no longer afire.

I dream of gulls
piercing a crushed silk sea,

a litter of urchins
lashed wave upon wave,

their empty bodies
crumbs

the beach holds
rising.

Awake, like a mouse
in hawk’s sight

my sand papered skin
longs for cover—a tapestry

jacquared with moss
and flame leaves—

for rain to fill my fluted
bones, picked clean.

Finding solace in poetry-Children’s Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition

As a result of my KUOW interviews in late January, a wonderful organization in California was made aware of my work and contacted me.  The Children’s Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition wanted to feature some of my poems on their website.

I am honored to be asked and they have recently posted Teeter Totter, a poem I wrote a few months after my daughter was diagnosed with Juvenile Myositis and was exhibiting all the classic Cushingnoid signs (moon face, bloating, irritability to name a few) due to heavy doses of corticosteroids.

I think the mission and vision of chpcc dovetail with my sense of what’s needed for families who have children with serious health issues.  Check them out.

Mission: Listen to, partner with, and work together for children with serious illnesses and all those who care for them.

Vision: We believe that all children with life-threatening conditions should have access to the care and emotional support they need to live life as fully as possible.

 

Interview with Steve Scher on KUOW

This morning, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, I was a guest on KUOW’s Weekday program with Steve Scher talking about writing and healing. For those of you who didn’t get to hear the show, you can go to the website and hear the podcast.

I will reiterate my basic messages here.

1) When children are sick, the whole family is affected.

2) Parents go through many stages of grief and loss, similar to stages of death and dying, on their journey with an ill child.
3) Using the arts, in this case writing, as a form of healing allows us to both feel our experience and learn to think without denying those feelings. The act of creation is both a way to re-energize our “wellsprings” and an opportunity to make sense and/or meaning out of our experiences.                                          

Also, I didn’t get a chance to completely make a pitch for my writing workshop at Seattle Children’s Hospital, called Writing as a Righting Journey, so I want to do that here.  This workshop is open to any parent with a child living with ongoing health issues. You do not have to be a writer, no experience needed. It is free. Please contact me for more information.

And if you want to read more of the poems that have come from my interviews/conversations with parents, please go to the online store here, to purchase a copy of What Cannot Be Swallowed.   Tune in on Wednesday, Jan. 30th to KUOW between 2-3 pm to hear 2 of these poems.

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.

The Examined Life, Ars Medica and other projects

I am pleased to say that my poem Bloodwork was published in The Examined Life: A Literary Journal of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in their Spring 2012 issue.  This school of medicine also holds a yearly conference by the same name, The Examined Life, and is one of a handful of schools involved in Narrative Medicine and that offers courses in Medical Humanities.  I recommend checking out the school/conference and this volume.

I also have a poem forthcoming in the next issue of Ars Medica.  Stay tuned for that wonderful journal from Toronto, Canada.  While their website is not really up to date, I would suggest asking for their most recent journal issues in a personal email to them.  And while you’re at it, ask them to update their website!

Lastly, I wanted to say I am working on a new set of poems about parents whose children are living with a chronic illness.  I was awarded another grant from the City of Seattle Arts and Cultural Affairs program to pursue this project. I am interviewing parents whose kids have Sickle Cell disease, Juvenile Arthritis, Muscular Dystrophy and one or two other illnesses.  They come from a variety of backgrounds and I am trying to capture both the unique specifics and overlapping issues, common in all of their, and my, experiences.

 

“Bloodwork” wins Honorable Mention

I was overjoyed to hear that a poem of mine won an honorable mention in a contest. While it would have been nice to win first or second place, the very fact of having a piece of poetry read and respected goes a long way in the heart and mind of a writer.  Poetry has such a small corner of the publishing world that finding readership is the proverbial hunting needles in haystack task. It is one thing to spend time writing poetry, arguably the hardest part, but another thing altogether to then search out places that might accept your work, read it, publish it.  So I am grateful to the unseen faces, to the unknown judges who decided that this poem was worth “mentioning” among 150 submissions.

In the larger context of writing about illness, caretaking and medicine, there is a growing appreciation of the role that the arts has in healing.  More on that and the new, wonderful anthology, The Healing Art of Writing, currently available, in my next blog.

 

Bloodwork

The live-wire of my body,
vigilant tuning fork, vibrates low.
Watching you walk, run, heave
a mottled brown ball toward netted hoop—impossible
to dream—a braided vision
of normality—I am no longer a chicken
pecking circles round your every moment,
as if that dance kept me from being
unzipped, or you, from falling.

Yet, each time your labs return
a notch too high or, a milky fog appears
inside one eye and your knuckles flare, grated
red, I curse the resurrected
hope-wagon I thought to ride on.
Still full of flint, ready for conflagration,
I would strip bark with my teeth, slice
the neck of pestilence—a fenestration
for cords coiled from my hair and flayed skin—
plait a lasso, harness, bower, anything
to keep the sky clear
of your unfurling.

 

(an earlier version to be published in Fall 2011 by UCSF Press Healing Art of Writing anthology)

 

Teeter Totter

No one wants to talk about the sick child,
corrugated sadness, apologies baited with fear
the mouse-trap faces of those with healthy kids, shut.

Nobody wants to stand too close to disease,
the thieving rat reaches into pockets,
through the body’s bars, swipes
skin-lush, flown-open dreams.

Stuck in binocular vision, I watch my child teeter
towards the ground. I should move, sit on her end
of the see-saw, leave the others
up in the air.