Interview with Marin Sardy

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Marin Sardy’s essay, “There Is the Urge to Find Meaning,” was published in Sweet’s 8.3 issue, and since then has developed into a riveting new memoir titled The Edge of Everyday: Sketches of Schizophrenia. Sardy’s new memoir confronts her lifelong connection with mental illness, the effect mental illness had on her family, and how she learned to understand these relationships. In this interview, Marin discusses these themes along with the writing process before and after grief, femininity, and mental health today.

When writing this memoir, and dealing with strong themes such as mental health, personal identity, and family dynamics, what was the writing process like? How did you decide which memories to write about and which to leave out?

For one thing, in order to frame and balance the intense personal stories I tell in the book, a lot of my process involved research on schizophrenia—science, medicine, history, philosophy—which was incredibly helpful in anchoring my experiences, since it’s such a difficult and misunderstood topic. Previously, most of my knowledge of schizophrenia came from direct observation and interaction with my mother and brother, so the research gave me a framework in which to think about how the illness has affected us all. And I felt it was important to speak responsibly about schizophrenia—to not accidentally promote stereotypes or misinformation, for instance. And I needed to think deeply about the illness in order to understand how to do that.

Deciding which memories to include was in some ways very intuitive for me, but it also had to do with finding the right pairings between personal material and other topics. For one, I went with what felt necessary in the moment. But also, I developed a process in which I would start with usually two topics, one personal and one external—my brother’s death and deep sea ecology, for instance, in “Nix.” Then the pairing became an organizing principle, guiding me in determining what was relevant. I just followed my own musings to make these choices. After my brother died, I kept having visions of the bottom of the ocean—it felt urgent and seemed to symbolize something to me about his life and death. I suppose that’s how my mind works. I often experience ideas as kind of dream-like images before I actually find the words for them. So I started studying the ocean floor, watching nature videos and reading science articles and taking notes. Eventually one day I understood that this could help me talk about how I coped with my brother’s suicide.

I’ve tried a number of times to write about aspects of my life that didn’t feel pressing at the moment of writing, but I always find they end up feeling flat. I once met a poet, an older woman (whose name I’m sorry to say I no longer remember; it was a long time ago) who said, “Never try to write about something that you’ve already worked through and sorted out in your mind. It will be dead on the page. It has to be alive inside you at the time of writing.” So I’ve actively resisted the kind of narrative shaping that requires getting into things that haven’t grown from what was alive inside me at the moment of writing (aside from what’s necessary to keep readers from getting totally lost, of course).

And I think that has allowed for delving deeper into the moments that still do resonate with me deeply. I’d rather follow the ripple effects of events in my life, doggedly, to see where they lead. When I write I’m always pursuing a question. For much of my book, it was: Why did my brother die? And to answer that in any way that felt remotely adequate, I needed to go all the way back to my great-grandmother and the multigenerational lineage of mental illness in my family. This is the part of the process that stimulates me intellectually the most—finding the connections between my life and other topics that interest me and weaving them together in ways that are revealing and surprising. And I find that this feels truer to the way my life has unfolded: Schizophrenia has always been this sad thing happening, but often it’s been in the background while I focus on other things. I wanted my book to capture that multifaceted quality and not focus too tightly on a single topic.

One aspect of mental health that you discuss in the book is mental health resources- in Vagabond you discuss the disappointment you felt because of the mental health system and then in That Fragile Space you write about two public programs developed to help the mentally ill, which were not implemented yet while Tom was alive. Do you think the country is moving in the right direction when it comes to mental health? What problems do you think still need to be addressed?

I do think this country is moving in the right direction, but there remain enormous barriers that prevent people with schizophrenia from receiving adequate treatment and care. The place where I see the most positive change is in the cultural realm. There’s an exciting pushback happening against stigmatization of mental illness, which has gained traction in the last decade or so. I see organizations popping up on college campuses, educating students about mental health and suicide prevention and encouraging people to not be ashamed to have a mental health diagnosis. This is wonderful—I think about what might have been different if my brother could have felt, when he was in college and his symptoms were just beginning to emerge, that he could talk freely and openly about what he was going through. But I’ve also noticed that this increased awareness rarely extends to schizophrenia. One organization, for instance, didn’t have the words “psychosis” or “schizophrenia” anywhere on their website, although nearly a dozen other conditions and symptoms were discussed in very empowering ways. I was like, Oh I guess it’s still not okay to say schizophrenia out loud. So I’d really like to get to where we can stop sweeping it under the rug like that.

That said, the inadequacies and failings of the mental health care system, particularly as relates to people with not only schizophrenia but any severe and persistent mental illness, are still dramatic—and frankly horrifying. Many people, like my brother, end up in solitary confinement in correctional facilities, where they only deteriorate further. And this occurs in no small part because there are simply not enough psychiatric beds, not enough funds, not enough housing facilities, etc. to allow people with schizophrenia to get enough consistent care to actually make a difference in the long-term course of their lives. Our insurance system is largely to blame for this, with hospitals unable to allow patients to stay long enough to truly get stabilized because insurance companies won’t cover it. The current insurance system also undervalues non-medication treatments, which can be life-changing for people with schizophrenia. The lack of political will to provide public funding is also a big part of it, especially for the uninsured. And there’s no excuse for that. The fact that this kind of help is often made unavailable for financial reasons goes far beyond stigmatization; it’s flat-out discrimination.

And lastly, I’d like to see a shift toward thinking about mental illness as a family issue. Our culture has long framed schizophrenia in individual terms, the classic image being a patient on a psych ward, known only to the doctors, receiving no visitors, having no connections to the outside world. But this is simply not the reality anymore—if it ever was. People with schizophrenia are loved. They have people who care about them and want to help them, and their illness harms lives beyond their own. Mental health providers do understand that family support is integral to recovery for people with schizophrenia, but resources to educate and empower family members to care for them, and to care for themselves in the face of the enormous stresses involved, are still paltry.

 

Marin Book Photo

You talk about your personal struggle with femininity and the female body in the essay Break My Body. How has your relationship with your body and female identity changed since your adolescence? Did writing this memoir change that relationship, or teach you anything about your identity as a woman?

I think my relationship to my femaleness can be described as a long, slow evolution away from understanding myself in terms of anyone else’s notions of what it means to be female. On some level I feel that, at my core, my relationship to my female identity is exactly the same as it was in adolescence. I see myself just as myself, first and foremost, and always have. But back then I didn’t know what to do with that. I was never very invested in being what others wanted, but for a long time, I didn’t know I had a choice. I didn’t know I could choose not to perform femininity as I was taught it should be performed—and I wasn’t taught a very hardcore version of femininity, but it was something imposed on me externally nonetheless. I wrote Break My Body in part as a way of rebelling against the idea that I need to have any sort of relationship at all with “femininity.” I don’t even understand what the word means. All it is to me is other people talking. The term is so loaded with the weight of oppression, so built around the male gaze, I can’t even picture what it can or should mean in a context that does not place men at its center. It feels too external to the realities of being female. Which is why I prefer to say “femaleness,” which to me gets at the inner experience of being female. And I have always felt myself to be definitely female, but not really in any way that I can easily point to in anyone else.

The writing of BMB occurred when I was finally becoming able to articulate these feelings, and it was a great relief and a great discovery to get it down on the page. It was first published as an essay, in Guernica, and when it went live I was honestly worried that other women wouldn’t relate to it. I just thought, maybe other women are so much more comfortable in their femaleness than I am. Maybe they’re going to be mad at me for talking about my ambivalence. But the response was the opposite—women posting on social media saying they felt it deeply, they saw themselves in the essay, etc. So that was incredibly validating and rewarding. I think we as a society are still figuring out that women can be as many different things, in as many different ways, as men can. I feel like I’ve been understanding that more deeply in tandem with a lot of other women.

You express throughout the book how your family members viewed and were affected by mental illness (either directly or indirectly) specifically in the chapter titled Conversations with Family. How has mental illness impacted your family’s relationship specifically between you and your father? Through your losses do you think your family is closer, or has it caused tension?

My younger sister, my brother, and I were definitely brought closer together by our mother’s schizophrenia. Living with her, we had to look out for each other and to collectively look out for her as well. And this created between us a loyalty and trust that felt unshakeable, which is part of why it was so devastating for me when Tom became ill.

But overall, in my family, schizophrenia has caused far more tension and distancing than closeness. And I think this is, unfortunately, typical. Witnessing a loved one descend into psychosis is an extremely traumatic experience, and with schizophrenia, it’s rarely an experience that just passes. It stays with you, it keeps happening, a lifelong thing. And people often just do not know how to cope with this and so yes, it can drive them apart. The denial that occurs on every level is part of this, and one thing I wanted to make clear in Conversations was how pervasive denial can be. And also, how mundane it is—even when you accept that a loved one has schizophrenia, there are so many ways to be in denial about their circumstances or about the implications. And of course, when you don’t know what to do and can’t figure out any way to make a difference, denial can protect you from your own suffering. So everyone ends up with their own private take on what’s happening, and everyone also has different ideas about how to help and what will work. And then there’s just the extraordinary stress and pressure involved in watching someone suffer. And all of that contributes to tensions, which is very true of my father and me. I do suspect he and I would have an easier relationship, in a life without schizophrenia. But the illness has been profoundly shaping both of our lives for 35 years, ever since my mother became ill, so I don’t know that it’s even possible to guess what kind of relationship we’d have without its influence.

You mention not being able to write for a long time after Tom died. How did you overcome this grief? Was there a spark that allowed you to start writing again? How was the writing process different after experiencing this loss than it was before?

I don’t really know how I started to be able to write again, but it was a slow and sporadic change. At first I just worked in occasional, short bursts. And I didn’t write about mental illness for a few years. During that time, I wrote about Tom’s death but not his life, and I wrote about other things that didn’t at first seem connected to mental illness, but which I later realized were very connected to it. Most of that stuff found its way into the book eventually.

I don’t think I overcame the grief so much as I eventually journeyed all the way through it. And writing the chapters about Tom in the book were part of that journeying. In the final two years of working on the book, I felt completely and deeply haunted by my brother. I had an image of him as a ghost in my house—not my actual house but a house like you might see in a dream, the house of myself, maybe—and I had a sense that I needed to find a way to exorcise his ghost. But I knew I couldn’t do that—couldn’t tell him to go, demand that he go—unless I also offered him something in return. The Vagabond chapters became that offering, because I felt I owed it to him to tell the world what happened to him. And once I had done that, once I had done him justice on the page and made sure everyone could understand exactly how much he didn’t deserve his fate, I felt like I could be okay with letting go. And perhaps more importantly, I could not move on from the loss of him until I could be assured that he wouldn’t be forgotten, and that his suffering wouldn’t be for nothing.

Almost 20% of the country struggles with mental illness to some degree. What did writing this memoir teach you about either your relationship to mental health, or mental health on a broader scale? What advice would you give to families who care for someone fighting a mental illness?

Wow, so much. In the book I talk about my effort to understand what it feels like to have schizophrenia—wanting to connect more deeply to my mom and brother’s experiences of psychosis, delving into how psychosis reshapes experience and alters time. And one thing I learned, maybe the biggest, had to do with my own ideas about schizophrenia’s supposed incomprehensibility. The more I have studied and read and written about it, the more I think that’s just a story people tell. There is a tendency to set schizophrenia apart, to treat it as some kind of other order of phenomenon. It is a mythical illness. And while it is clearly unique in many ways, I think we’ve largely let its mythos overtake its reality. It’s not even a rare condition. So what I’m coming away with lately is that I think it’s time to start letting schizophrenia, and psychosis, be ordinary. Not to diminish its intensity and difficulty, but to think of it along the same lines as, say, cancer or diabetes. They’re just things that happen to people sometimes, just part of being human.

For families with loved ones struggling with any kind of mental illness, I would recommend putting in the necessary work to understand as much as they possibly can about it, as well as putting in the work to really listen to their loved ones. People start at such a deficit of not only basic knowledge but of how to conceptualize the mind and brain, and getting a handle on that is important. Beyond that, what families can and should do varies dramatically depending on the illness. Often, finding healthy ways to keep struggling loved ones connected to the support of friends and family is also key. It can be difficult to maintain healthy boundaries when mental illness is involved. There are no easy answers. But I think education and connection can go a long way toward finding what works best for each situation.

Your time as a gymnast and your love for the sport play a large role in your memoir, so hypothetically if you could put together your five woman dream team for gymnastics (dead or alive, competing or retired) who would be on your team?

I love this. As anyone who reads the chapter “A World of Absolute Order” will know, I can’t simply go with who I think would get the highest scores, because that would be boring. But even the brightest stars of the ’70s and ’80s (like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comenici) can’t hold a candle to what’s being done in the 21st century, so I won’t include them. I’ll pick gymnasts who could handle great difficulty and who did so with beauty and flair—who in some way have made the sport their own.

For vaulting prowess, I’m going with Yelena Produnova (’00 Olympics), inventor and best-ever practitioner of the infamous “vault of death”—the dangerous and nearly impossible Produnova. Even twenty years later, few have ever landed it in competition. For bars expertise, I’ll choose the Chinese miracle He Kexin (’08 and ’12). Her routines were breathtakingly fluid and always surprising. For beam, it’s got to be Nastia Liukin (’08), the American daughter of two former Soviet champions. She was stunning—elegant, impeccable, and completely original. For floor, as much as I would love to choose Svetlana Boginskaya (’88, ’92, and ’96), the Goddess herself, her routines were just too easy compared to what’s being done now. So I’ll give this one to Aly Raisman (’12 and ’16), whose tumbling was top-level but who also performed with personality, grace, and a good dose of flash. And as team captain, I appoint Oksana Chusovitina, for sheer longevity. Once a Soviet great, she has competed in seven Olympics (’92, ’96, ’00, ’04, ’08, ’12, and ’16), most recently for her home country of Uzbekistan, at the age of 43, against gymnasts younger than her son.

Interview with Chelsea Biondolillo

Chelsea Author PhotoChelsea Biondolillo is an essayist, teacher and technical writer. Her latest work, The Skinned Bird, is a collection of essays that examine personal experiences with striking clarity and depth. Below, Chelsea expands on her usage of creative tools to weave memories, self-meditations, and precise imagery to build a space where her readers can learn along with her how to sing, how to love, and how to fly. The Skinned Bird will be available May 1st, 2019.

What made you decide to use birds and the language/song acquisition process as a storytelling tool in this book?

I learned about the stages of song acquisition in my ornithology class in grad school, but didn’t write about them until a couple of years later. At the time, I was having a crisis about what my immediate future would look like, having failed to find a permanent job or to finish a book after school. In the hopes of having a somewhat peaceful place to write for a couple of months while staving off the inevitable (which was moving back in with my parents), I’d moved into this guy-I-was-dating’s house, and he’d gone from being a doting suitor to a controlling jerk almost immediately. He reminded me of my biological father in dozens of ways, so one day while he was out of town, I called my mom to ask her to clarify some stories I half-remembered hearing as a kid about her first marriage. I originally thought the essay I was writing was just about them, but that’s why I love writing essays, because after a few edits there were more hints at my own crummy situation.

As far as the birds themselves… I have known a bit more than average about birds since I was a kid. When I was teaching myself to be a journalist, birds were a handy subject because I could easily observe them without expensive equipment (beyond a good field guide and pair of binoculars). There are tons of research papers about bird biology, bird behaviors, bird ecology, and the bird experts I’ve met have nearly all been very approachable, interesting people. I once called a man to talk to him about a grad school paper on vultures he’d written nearly thirty years ago and we spoke for over a half an hour—he didn’t have an answer for me, but he had observations that he still remembered and still cared to share.

In the section titled, “Safari,” you really incorporate various animals as a key element. How would you describe your relationship with nature? Why did you decide to use nature as one of the main motifs in this book?

Animals show up often in my writing for two reasons, I think, and the first is that I was often a lonely kid and animals were accessible to me in a way that children my own age weren’t always. The flash essay, “Safari Club,” is set at a restaurant of the same name (recently torn down) in the small town where my grandparents lived my whole life. It was full of hundreds of taxidermy animals, all shot by one man: Glen E. Parks. I was fascinated by them as a kid, and how close I could get to them—I could touch the walrus whiskers and pet the musk ox trophy, I could press against the glass right next to the tiny antelopes with giant eyes. The creepiness of the place didn’t occur to me until much later, and by then I considered it campy more than anything—though Parks excesses do not charm or interest me like they did when I was a kid.

The other reason animals show up is not unlike the reason they show up in fairy tales or Aesop’s fables, or in so many idioms: sly as a fox, wise as an owl. Sometimes, it is easier to talk about our weaknesses and shortcomings (and triumphs) from just enough remove to lessen some of the burden of responsibility they can represent. Or, said another way, sometimes it is easier to be like something else, for all the possibility it contains in the negative—e.g.: I may be like a magpie when it comes to collecting useless junk, but at least I don’t collect junk the way my grandmother did, which was clearly symptomatic of a hoarding problem. I use an extended bird metaphor throughout The Skinned Bird, even though at different times the metaphor fails, because though we are sometimes like birds, ultimately we aren’t birds, and that can be a relief.

 

TSB cover

 

The essays in the “Kick Ball Change” section center o women in your family and the connection between them. How would you describe that connection?

It’s complicated. My mother was willing to do just about anything to avoid moving back in with her mother, and I know very well that feeling—though the two homes in question couldn’t be more different from one another, there’s nothing quite like having to give up your own rules of engagement to live under another’s. And now I live in my grandmother’s old house! (It’s much less messy now that it’s mine.) My mother and grandmother (and I) share many similarities. Besides a strong shared streak of creativity, we were all heavy readers and collectors of things most don’t find particularly valuable. My art-making and writing is very much the result of their influences and I’m grateful for that. My worries about my weight, my fear of being disliked—these also are the result of their influence, and I’d give those gifts back if I could.

In Part II: The Silent Stage, you include a section called “The Story You Never Tell.” Why did you choose to include this story, but block it out with large images of shells? Is there a reason that you chose photos of shells to cover the text?

Rather than prescribe how any one reader ought to approach that piece, I’ll say that generally, in the natural world shells have a variety of functions: armor, home, protection. In this essay, they also serve as an obstruction. They are in the way.
By obscuring nearly all the text, obstruction becomes the content, instead of words. I was inspired here by artists and writers who use different kinds of redaction and omission in their work–Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper has a character whose mind cannot be read, and so when the omniscient narrator passes over him, there’s a big black box on the page. In Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds blank pages inform the narrative, standing in for years of untold stories. In Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary and memoirs of war, the text is sometimes redacted by the heavy hand of censorship. There are, maybe, as many ways to not-tell a story as reasons one might prefer not to, and here, I wanted to explore what happens to the experience of reading when access to the text is out of the reader’s control.

Your use of footnotes to incorporate quotes in your pieces as footnotes and excerpts is creative and unique—what led to your decision to incorporate other artists’ and writers’ words in this creation? How did you choose which quotes would fit the best with what you were writing?

My first use of quotes was in a series of drawings and collages I did, several years after I’d graduated from art school. In the first collage, I used song lyrics and lines from favorite poems and filled a page with them, layered one on top of another, in different shades of gray felt pens, until you could only read a word here or there. I collaged pencil drawings, photo transfers, into a mash-up of my work and the work of others. I thought of this layered image: my drawings of master drawings, my photos of an artist’s sculpture, my handwriting but someone else’s poem, as a kind of conversation. As far as the quotes I use in my current essays—I usually start with a pile of “collage” material built up from researching a topic. And then try out different elements on the page, and in relation to the other elements, to see which spark the strongest connection for me.

In the case of “Phrenology” which includes a lot of different quotes, my original plan had been to write an essay about women in science. I’d spent weeks executing all sorts of Google searches, several pages deep, with different combinations of women + scientific words, like women in geology, women astrophysicists, etc. These led me to books on topics as wide ranging as the Mt. St. Helens eruption, women executed in the electric chair, and mathematical equations from the Harvard “Computers” (women tasked with completing astronomical equations). Eventually, I had all these pieces, but after several rounds of revision—that essay has been overhauled more than any other I’ve worked on—the text focused more on my own experiences with science, and the quotes and collaged statements haunt the periphery.

Hypothetically, if you could become any type of bird, which type of bird would you be? Why?

I am enchanted by birds, but I like my thumbs too much to want to be one. What I love most about birds is their diversity and adaptability. Humans don’t occur naturally on every continent, but birds do. They can adapt to our habits, but don’t always choose to. They are also our closest link to dinosaurs—and if you get a close look at the talons of a condor, it’s easy to see the dinosaur still in them. When I lived in Ucross, Wyoming for one long spring, there were Sandhill cranes nesting just a few dozen yards from my bedroom window. Every morning I would hear their eerie calls (https://www.xeno-canto.org/372031) and once, they were joined by a crowd of red-winged blackbirds (https://www.xeno-canto.org/439853). I listened to the birds and wind across the plain, and nothing else for several long minutes and thought, “This sound is millions of years old. This is what the Cenozoic could have sounded like.

Interview with Stephanie Anderson

Stephanie Anderson_4Stephanie Anderson is an author, essayist, and educator of Creative Writing. Her latest work, One Size Fits None, explains the differences between conventional and regenerative agriculture, and incorporates a sense of depth through connecting with farmers around the country. Below, Stephanie relates the relationships of agriculture, what she enjoyed about this creative journey, her beliefs on a weed’s contribution to organic land, and details about a spiritual connection to nature.

 One Size Fits None informs us of the environmental divide between two sides of farming. When writing this book, did you find it possible to view each operational challenge as interconnected?

Regenerative farmers and conventional farmers do face many of the same challenges, such as inclement weather, weeds, disease, and so forth. And yes, those issues are often interconnected. For example, fertile soil tends to produce healthy plants that resist insect, disease, and weed pressures more effectively, so healthy soil makes overcoming those challenges less daunting.

The difference, of course, is how farmers think about and handle challenges. For example, a conventional farmer usually addresses the challenge of soil fertility with synthetic fertilizer, which actually kills the microbiology required for rich, healthy soil—the kind that stores water and helps plants repel diseases and pests. That decision to use synthetic fertilizer makes overcoming many other challenges more difficult.

But I think regenerative farmers and conventional farmers can bond over their shared struggles. It’s something they have in common and a fruitful place for dialogue to begin.

Who were the writers that were helpful as a guide when writing this book and why?

I have long admired Michael Pollan’s writing, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma. That book completely changed my understanding of agriculture and motivated me to join the conversation about it.

I also drew much inspiration and knowledge from Mark Kramer’s Three Farms, Kristin Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us, Judith Schwartz’s Cows Save the Planet, Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, Robert Albritton’s Let Them Eat Junk, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, David Wolfe’s Tales from the Underground, Lisa Hamilton’s Deeply Rooted, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Liz Carlisle’s The Lentil Underground, and many others.

While visiting Kevin O’Dare’s organic farm in Vero Beach, we are introduced to the point, regarding weed existence, that “we’re actually putting foreign plants into where they are.” How does this continue to complicate the idea of what is “natural”?

When Kevin said this, he was describing his views about weeds. He was pointing out that most weeds are not invaders or evil plants as some people might believe. Many weeds are native to their environment and have evolved special traits to thrive in it. They fit the definition of natural: existing in or caused by nature.

If we look at weeds this way, then we also see that most crops are technically “foreign plants,” as Kevin put it, in their adopted environment. When he sees weeds growing among his vegetables, he sees nature just doing what it does. As the farmer, he suppresses the weeds enough for the vegetables to thrive, but he also understands that the weeds are part of the environment.

But crops can be natural, too. We often see the word “natural” applied to plants grown without unnatural, human-made inputs, like chemicals or genetically modified seeds. “Natural” can also mean the use of practices that mimic nature, like intercropping or composting to produce fertilizer. These applications of “natural” describe practices rather than an intrinsic trait. In other words, crops can be natural if we grow them that way.

 In Part Two: Holistic Regenerative, the belief starts with recognizing a buffalo’s natural contribution to the land. What areas of holistic management do you personally connect with on a spiritual level? And how do you write the spiritual?

I like how holistic management defines humanity’s place in nature. Under this view, we aren’t separate from nature, but active members of it—beings who both depend on the natural world and participate in its functioning. I find this way of thinking very satisfying because it helps me understand my place in the natural world and my relationship to its various elements.

But that view also comes with great responsibility. We can’t just reap nature’s benefits without giving anything back. Holistic management asks us not to dominate, but to contribute. Just like any other member of the natural world, we have a right to survive, and that requires the use of nature’s resources. But we have to restore what we take so other members—animals, plants, ecosystems—can live, too. Our survival depends on theirs, and vice versa.

As a writer, I try to embed the spiritual into the physical. In One Size Fits None, buffalo embody the spirit of regenerative agriculture and the philosophy’s potential to make us contributors rather than dominators. Buffalo also symbolize the ecosystems that existed before us and serve as a reminder of our responsibility to those ecosystems now that we have placed ourselves within them.

What was the most surprising aspect of writing this book?

I was surprised by the tremendous generosity I experienced from the people who helped me put this book together. The people I interviewed gave their time and knowledge so freely and openly. Many others read the manuscript or parts of it and contributed valuable feedback. I am grateful to so many people!

 

 

Interview with Anne Champion

Anne Champion is a poet who featured in Sweet’s 9.3 issue. Her most recent work, The Good Girl is Always a Ghost, is an anthology that focuses on what it means to be a woman in society, and channels her own voice into historical figures. Below, she responds to what inspired her to portray these women, the thought process for writing, and what she is working on next.IMG_8576

The Good Girl is Always a Ghost includes the haunting theme of women from the past that were broken either by history or their inner demons. What brought you to depict these stories in verse?

Like many girls, I grew up with the idea that I had to be a “good girl.” But since I was young, I was drawn to goals that were considered “masculine”: I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to be in the Air Force. I was told I couldn’t, that women didn’t do that, but I saw women doing it on the news, and I read books about Amelia Earhart and Annie Oakley. As I got older, it was my sexuality that trespassed the gender taboos, as I was inspired by the sexual freedom of Madonna.

It was only as I became an adult that I realized that this whole notion of the “good girl” was simply a means of control: no matter what we do, we are never good girls. Even if we stay within gender constraints, we are still scrutinized and degraded. If we are raped, we asked for it. If we consensually have sex, we are sluts. If we come forward about our assaults, we are liars seeking to ruin a man’s life. If we are angry, we are having a meltdown. If we are intelligent and successful, we are feminazis.

In reality, the only girl that a patriarchal society approves of is a dead one.

When I watch shows like Dateline, in which the majority of episodes center on women who are killed by men, this is the only time I see women spoken of positively. Suddenly, women are angelic, saintly, taken too soon, loved.

And if we look at the women throughout history who have broken records, trail-blazed, entered the historical records of our consciousness: they are all dead. Many living women are role models for other women, but they are still living: they are still able to be viciously attacked.

So I decided to resurrect some of these “good girls,” and try to examine them in the context of the patriarchy that abused them. Not all of them are role models: in fact, I hope to present them as real women—thus, not angelic—but human, flawed, chafing against their constraints.

It was important to me to have a diverse group of women: I wanted women from all over the world, old and young, able-bodied and not, with differing politics, sexualities, races, religions, careers, and gender identities. I include one transgender man, Albert Cashier, because he lived in a time when people could not name, much less respect, his gender identity, and so I see him as a victim of patriarchal abuse too, as he was forced into a feminine role he was not meant to inhabit.

What I learned most from this project is that my story, and my struggles, are not new: it’s one of the oldest stories there is. I think this book ultimately became a project that helped me grow stronger, become inspired, feel less alone, and heal.

“The Most Terrible Thing” illustrates Sylvia Plath’s influence on a generation of women writers and readers. In what ways has Plath influenced your work and why do we turn to her for inspiration?

I would probably not be a poet if it were not for the work of Sylvia Plath. When I first picked up Plath in my early 20s, it was as if every foundation I’d ever known cracked. I thought, “Wait, you can say that?”

She spoke the unspeakable for women: she spoke with venom and rage, with a poetic voice that sounds like an incantation. She spoke of her pain—I know this may sound strange, but I had never considered my personal pain to be valuable writing material. Quite simply, she gave me permission. Living in a patriarchal society teaches us many values, but of the utmost importance is silence and pleasantness. And furthermore, we are taught that if we want greatness, we need to emulate men. Plath’s poems did none of that.

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And the vitriol against Plath that still exists today points to the misogyny in our culture that still exists. Often, male grad students would tell me they found Plath to be “self indulgent and overrated”; yet, if a male poet shows any kind of emotional expression, he is deemed brave and emotionally vulnerable.

Plath’s story is particularly tragic, and I’m sure that plays a role in some of the allure surrounding her, but I think that—for me and likely for many women—her story is one we fear. We feel that we could very easily end up like Plath, and we don’t want to. We want to beat the system and end the abuse.

Each poem includes the truth of historical events, like the Challenger explosion. How did you choose these events and what were the obstacles—if any—in turning history to poems?

The events I chose really came to me the same way most images come to me in poems. My brain latches onto something like a dog with a bone and starts gnawing at it.

With Sally Ride, I was reading about her, but it’s very hard to find her voice: she was notoriously quiet and reclusive. There’s not a lot of interviews to refer to. And I don’t blame her: she was asked absurd questions and she was protecting her partner and her sexuality from the public eye.

As I was thinking about what I personally remembered about space exploration growing up, I couldn’t get the image of the Challenger explosion out of my mind. I was a child, but I remembered it and it struck terror in me at the time. Then I wondered: What must Sally Ride have felt? In doing some more research, I discovered that she was actually on the committee that researched what happened with the Challenger, and she personally knew the astronauts. So, that image became a way into the poem, but also a metaphor for her life: for all she had to protect, for the fear of what would happen to her career if it were exposed.

I think the biggest challenge in working with history was the feeling that many of these histories are not mine, and I have no right to them. I did not want to do anything disrespectful or that could be deemed cultural appropriation. But I did not want to ignore them either. In those cases, I generally turned towards odes and elegies rather than personas.

In “Florence Nightingale: The Lady with a Lamp,” you chose to write the poem from her perspective. I’m curious about what is the poet in the poem and what is the historical figure? How did you find her voice?

I’d like to think that all of my persona poems are a mixture of both my voice and the figure. Florence Nightingale is a good example of this because her views are so different from mine.

She was actually against the feminist movement: she felt that women needed to be taking advantage of the careers that were already there for them to gain financial and emotional independence. She believed that she’d worked hard in creating the career of nursing for women to be respectable, necessary, and professional. And she certainly did—she changed the field entirely. She also saw it as a means to independence: she never married or had children.

But I see her view as limiting. So, in writing her voice, I had to really try to imagine a view very different than my view, and I had to find the value in that. But it’s impossible to say there’s none of my voice in the persona poems: as I researched these figures, they all became a part of me.

The voices I wrote for them were the plethora of voices inside me that took root as I read more about them. For me, writing persona poems is the process of cultivating empathy for others, and that is what I was trying to do.

It is clear that the central focus of your work is female identity. How has this shaped your writing thus far? How do you see it evolving in other projects?

As long as the world sees me as a woman before a human and sets limits on me based on my gender, there’s no way for me to not write about womanhood. Traumas related to womanhood are simply a defining part of my life, though I wish they weren’t.

However, I will say that my writing has branched off from this topic a lot, as I’ve been doing a lot of travel research that has led me to look at issues of colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and race. I wrote a whole book on Palestine, and I have another political book that I’m working on now: it’s important for me to not only be focusing on my fight, but to join the fight of others as an accomplice in resistance and an eyewitness.

Nevertheless, my poems on gender are much more successful and much easier to publish in book form. I think a lot of that comes with the time we are in right now: after the election, it was clear that this was going to be the political time of the angry white man, and so the voices of women and minorities are coming forward in the arts, and feminist poems are in high demand.

An Interview With Sandra Meek by Allyson Hoffman

While driving Sandra Meek from the Tampa Airport to the University of South Florida for a reading, I spent much of the trip asking her questions about her travels and trying not to be too enthusiastic about her writing. Be cool, don’t overwhelm her. About halfway into the drive I cracked. I probably said something along the lines of “Sorry for fangirling, but I am in love with your poetry.” Her sincere humility and appreciation of my praises speaks to her character: she is not writing for applause or acclaim, but rather to offer readers a new lens on the world. Continue reading

An interview with Lee Gulyas and Brenda Miller, by Carmella Guiol

While attending an artist residency this summer, I lived with two poets working on a joint chapbook. I had never thought of writing as a collaborative process before, but I was beginning to imagine how it could be. When Sweet published the essay, “Come Closer,” a collaborative effort between Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to learn more! Continue reading