“Blood & Water”: Poets Writing Nonfiction
I’ve always written both poetry and prose. But in my writing program, there wasn’t a nonfiction track. So I took poetry and fiction undergraduate workshops—my fiction almost always autobiographical. As graduate students, we chose a concentration—poetry or fiction. I chose poetry.
My first three books were poetry collections. The first book, Underwater City, deals with many of the concerns of my memoir—my son’s adoption and subsequent death from leukemia, violence, environmental issues, and alcoholism. In the poems, my concerns about environmental hazards and leukemia clusters in Brockton, Massachusetts are presented in glimpses. My longing for my son—to learn something about his life and death, to know him in whatever way possible—are moments in the poems. The desire to know more set me in motion to do research and expand on these concerns in prose. I had the sense that if I began, the writing would take me somewhere. The writing itself could catalyze change.
Grace Paley, in her story, “A Conversation with my Father,” said, “Everyone real or invented deserves the open destiny of life.” I’d kept journals from the time period of my memoir. For many years, I wrote nightly. I had transcribed conversations, details, my voice and the tone of those days. I treated the journals as documentation for the revision process, a source for dialogue and facts, and only occasionally as a spur to memory.
As a writer of memoir, I’m interested in what gets remembered. While I was generally familiar with the journal contents, I kept them in another room while I wrote. Because every time I read them, they sunk me. They felt static and reductive. As if my life and my son’s life were without the possibility of hope, and we were imprisoned in those diary entries. Reading them was like watching someone drown. It was important for me to write from the perspective of the present, and to remain open to the possibility that, at the time of those events, and in the intervening years, I might not have really known what had happened. To believe that if I could see it new, something might be revealed. I wanted to believe that Grace Paley’s open destiny of life was possible for us, through writing.
As I wrote, I also had the desire not to be reminded through the journals, initially, of things I might have forgotten. First, I wanted to simply write and see what was unforgettable. Later, it was fascinating to consider why an “incorrect” memory had stuck, and to include that in the memoir. As a writer, I love these mistakes, and what they can tell me. I want to bring the reader along with me, through to the discovery of what happened and why it gets remembered the way it does.
Outside of my own experience, there are things that were told to me, that for many years I believed to be true. In part, it’s because I was unable to ask direct questions about my son’s life and death, so that much of what I knew was third or fourth hand, overheard. Guesses that over time began to feel like facts. Writing the memoir catalyzed me into asking direct questions, and I learned that much of what I’d thought was fact, was not. So the reader travels that course with me as I discover the truth.
In my new manuscript, How to Cure a Fright, I continue to question long-held beliefs. In this book, I’m interested in the idea of home. What is home? Where is it? It’s driven by the need to know how to live with fear and uncertainty. To write the book, I traveled for four years, living in places I’d never been, where I knew no one. Hoping to step into the open destiny of life, to do the things I feared, and come out on the other side, changed.
Poetry taught me to go into the moment. To stay there and really see what’s happening. When I was a student, Rita Dove, visited my school. And I asked her how to write a lyric poem. She said to begin at the moment you can’t turn away. I think of her advice often, in writing both poetry and memoir. There had been this false, forced closing—a silence over the events of our lives. My purpose was to open things up, and go down into the darkest places and, through writing, find out what happened. The tools that I took with me were from poetry.
The first memoir chapter I wrote is about midway through the book, “How to Make a Shoe” (originally published in AGNI Issue 67). I’d been struggling to find a way into writing the memoir that wouldn’t be a recounting of what happened, a collection of anecdotes. I needed a way to discover, instead of to tell. Early on, I’d mentioned to a friend that I knew so little about what happened to my son, so little about the city that I believed had made him sick, how could I write about it. He said, “Can’t you just start with the things you do know?” I thought it would be useful to step to the side of my particular story, and focus on its environment. So, I started with facts about the city where I was born which was also the city where my son lived, where he got sick. When I couldn’t ask anyone questions about my son, I learned the history of shoemaking in this city. It gave me a language, a vocabulary, a way to talk about grief. I couldn’t get at it head on. Shoes were my way into the book.
In memoir, I’m concerned with various subjects, but I’d like to just look at one of those here. For many years, I felt that there was something wrong with the city of Brockton. I had a lot of anecdotal evidence. But I didn’t know how pursue this intuitive feeling about the health of the city and possible links to environmental illness. I wasn’t an investigative journalist. I didn’t think I had the right.
But the spaciousness of memoir gave me room to start asking questions. I realized that asking questions in itself could be enough. I didn’t have to have the answers. I visited Massachusetts to do research, and in staying with friends of a friend, learned that their colleague had written an essay on Brockton, in a book on the Rust Belt that I admired. I felt ridiculous calling him, with just intuition on my side. I was almost frantic with nervousness telling him my concerns. But he’d said, “You’re not the only one to ask about this.” He advised me to show up in person, and look around. Brockton, he said, never disappoints.
After writing my first essay on the subject and publishing it in AGNI, I was contacted by another resident of the city, a student researching the same subject. She’d read my essay, and connected me to other researchers. I gained the assistance of a public health professional who helped me better understand the research.
I learned that Brockton ranks in the “top 10 most extensively environmentally overburdened communities in Massachusetts and “grossly exceeds” the statewide average of environmental hazards, with 347 hazardous waste sites in the city—“an average of over 16 hazardous waste sites per square mile.” I learned that cancer “now kills more American children that any other single disease, for the first time in history.” But I also learned leukemia clusters are very difficult to determine. And that rates of childhood leukemia incidence in Brockton were unavailable for the year of my son’s death, and for two years prior. The year he died, the Superfund site was cleaned up in his county. So, I don’t know if the city was to blame for my son’s leukemia and death. The research and writing were a road I followed. A space to ask questions and gain clarity and not be silent.
My own passivity is a rudder in the memoir, the inability to take action. My book, my life, couldn’t go forward until I tried to talk about things that had been kept silent. There’s another piece to the memoir, about becoming a writer. Even as a child, I knew I had a voice when I wrote. I felt heard. But it was a life of great interiority. The struggle was to learn to live, to take action, and communicate in the world.
The prose didn’t begin as a memoir. But as poems. And then, as these very short essays. But as the essays accumulated, I realized they were chapters and that I was writing a memoir. I found it thrilling to write a memoir in prose, and to approach it as I would a poem. To try to create a world and try to stop time. To see what can’t be said and try to find a way to say it.