by Emily Brown
In the land of the dead there are questions, muted, no phone calls, linen dresses of red, some question as to whether we are living to whether we have woken up from a dream in another world and somehow we can remember all that came before the dream and remember all after. In the land of the dead we wander between frames monochrome and polychrome we wear our hair always in the many ways we wore it if then you knew us you know us know if you could see us you could see our usness our usness is not seeable our usness is yet apparent. You are looking at a photo of your grandpa, then photo of your other grandpa, you see the youth on grandpa’s face on face teeth you wonder how he sounded when he was singing when he began to be called, an angel.
Emily Brown is a Californian songwriter and poet and is currently an MFA student at Mills College in Oakland. Her poetry has been included in BlazeVOX and the Provo Orem Word.
by Emily Brown
this makes a trick of the eye when a ball appears to be rolling up but not down,
as it pulls away, as the cars pull away in their turning revolutions,
who will not worship anymore feeling unaccepted at their meetings
who ceded a lot of ground through exhaustion.
I have no need of mushrooms. I don’t like how they chew.
I’m in the middle of my bedroom with my computer on my knees.
the way it sifts and sieves instead melting ore,
the way it sweeps out.
where little growing things meet great growing things,
where they look up into the dark trees
spat on by pieces of yellow and gold
I don’t want you to know about it.
It shouldn’t belong to anyone, anyone.
that I know about it, why do I mention it at all?
even to hear about something like this is a gift
to say you may piece it together in the brain.
Emily Brown is a Californian songwriter and poet and is currently an MFA student at Mills College in Oakland. Her poetry has been included in BlazeVOX and the Provo Orem Word.
We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them . . . . Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The poet judges not as a judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.
At some point in my life I got tired of keeping things to myself. Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, movements 1 and 2. The gospel of summer. That unearthly spot on the mountain above the mouth of Provo Canyon where I sit and look out at the valley and imagine it flooded with water. You can go there: just take University Avenue all the way north to the canyon, then follow it not so far to where Mt. Timpanogos Park lies plateaued on the left with a parking lot. Park. Climb up the hill. The further you go, the better the view.
Are good things better shared? Or are they better in secret? I feel like Walt Whitman, and the author of The Song of Solomon: it’s as if I am a witness to something astonishing and beautiful and I can’t help but speak. I think, to some extent, all writers are like this. To write is to commit an act of optimism, an act of love.
Inscape is not a secret. This issue is small, beautiful, and precious, but it is for you and all others who are greedy for life and the world, and are, like the overambitious Carlos Argentino Daneri in Borges’ story “The Aleph,” interested in the pursuit of writing it all down. All you need to know before settling into these pages is that this is a work of love, love for the world around us: for its old women, its sonatas of thunder, its lime-green things and flowers tucked between, its resin-sticky hands, its air-conditioned and cold office parties, those moments of negotiation between husbands and wives, those vulnerable hours in the salon chair, the boring, the startled, the numinous, and otherwise worthy of our attention. Read and know the love that was poured into this issue of Inscape.
by Theric Jepson
Reading May Swenson
who loved moonshots
I learn that the Wright brother
his hips in a saddle.
He would wiggle his hips
to move the rudder
and steer through the few feet
of sky through which he passed.
I too have shot the moon
moving our hips
to fly away together.
But now I sit under
as they shadow the street
and pairs of women
walk by talking.
I don’t know if May Swenson
ever walked the
streets of Berkeley
as we have.
But she spoke too much of space
not to know what it means to fly
with the likes of you.
And she was human, wasn’t she?
We all move our hips
and hope to fly.
by Isaac Robertson
The long serrated grasses of the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Farmhouse
cross off date after date on our calendars.
We, the bastions of old spiritual regard,
we are much too wizened now to clench them with our ritual lips.
Yet do you notice the llama trainer sitting by the slop pond?
He lets the horse flies and faded butterflies condense
onto his muggy, elbow-patched tweed jacket, his soapy beard, his angry haunches.
He spits into the sediment and smears his own eyes with it.
We are here, ready, too.
by Alexandra Palmer
Especially on Sunday afternoons, it’s nice to touch
the Catawba river with your mothy hands to get a gist of the size of
moss beds and Blue Ridge snow. Go
ahead, get a grip on it, vaquero.
Roll, Jordan, roll
it into alarming handfuls. Feel the wet tussle willy-nilly under your fingernails.
As you will notice, the fish no longer live
downstream. They have waded unbidden
into the confluence to dip their fins into oblivion.
by Heather Talbot
The day of my Uncle Ben’s burial service is hot and humid, typical of early July in Ohio, except for the wind, which blows in like a blast furnace. We arrived at my parents’ house late the night before and I am exhausted from the two-day drive from Utah to Ohio. Sweat runs in rivulets down my back as I unstrap my four-week-old baby boy from his car seat. My husband Cory unbuckles our three-year-old daughter and she runs around the car to grab my hand, shy and unsure, especially around so many people. Our older sons, eight and ten, restless from the long drive, run off to play with their cousins. My baby’s warm body against my chest feels oppressive in the heat, but also serves as a form of protection. He is my shield against a certain amount of social obligation. I am relieved when he needs me to leave the crowd to feed him, change him, or soothe his cries.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about my Uncle Ben. What I knew I learned from being silent. From a young age, I learned that silence was the secret to invisibility. I was a talkative child, but I knew how to be quiet when it mattered. The most fascinating conversations happened when no one knew childish ears were listening. Sitting on the kitchen floor, coloring or playing with the cat, I could be overlooked by the adults who forgot I was there, and I learned about my Uncle Ben. Ben was a drifter. He had a gift for working with horses; he travelled around the country finding work and refuge at racetracks and ranches, staying a while, then moving on. With his wife, Ann, he lived out of tents, trailers, tack rooms, or nowhere at all, sleeping under the stars. Homeless by choice, two free spirits, going wherever the wind blew them. Ben rarely let anyone in the family know where he was. He was a gregarious, charming, black sheep in self-imposed exile. Ben occasionally showed up out of the blue, “just passing through.” I only clearly remember meeting Ben once when I was about eight years old. He was tall and thin, scarecrow-like, with greasy, shoulder-length blonde hair and a moustache. My family gathered around him in the kitchen as he told story after story. I can’t remember any of those stories now, but his stories seemed bigger than life, like tall tales to rival Paul Bunyan. I was enchanted.
Ben was not a part of my day-to-day reality, but he was a frequent guest in my vivid fantasy life. I was fascinated with the idea of Ben. His life was romantic and adventurous: he went wherever he pleased and did whatever he wanted. I knew almost nothing about him, so I recreated his life as I chose to imagine it. I saw him as a lovable vagabond, free to roam, free to be impulsive, free to experience the world on his own terms. I wanted that life too. But those dreams were permanently stalled when I was nineteen. I found myself pregnant, single, and terrified into responsibility. Six months after my son was born, I met Cory. Three months later, we were married. I tried to tether myself to reality, but I mourned a carefree young adulthood. I was a balloon on a string, torn between the stabilizing anchor of my family and the freedom of the sky. I wanted both. I wondered about the things I would never do. Maybe I would have studied abroad or backpacked the Appalachian Trail or lived off Ramen and peanut butter in a tiny apartment in New York or Chicago.
Ten years later, when Uncle Ben died, my mom and her siblings travelled to West Virginia for a memorial service with some of his friends and his wife, then brought his ashes back to Ohio to be buried. My mom insisted on waiting for me and two of my sisters, who also live out of state, to arrive for our planned family vacation before holding the burial service. She needed us there for support, but maybe even more, she needed to believe that Ben was someone more to us than just a name, more than a blurry face in old photographs.
Many of the people at the funeral—my aunts, uncles, and cousins—I hardly know. Some have lived across the country from me all of my life. I’ve only ever seen them a few times. But some lived a few small-town blocks from me my entire childhood. I avoid them all. I feel a familiar tightening knot in my stomach which adds to the feeling of being off-kilter and out of place. Some days the knot is smaller, more easily ignored, a slight discomfort. But today, like more and more days recently, the knot is thick and heavy, debilitating.
Today, in the cemetery, my chest beats and burns as if Hitchcock’s birds are pounding their militant wings against my chest, and my head aches with a dark emptiness. Depression hovers, closing in, feeding my anxiety. It is hard to see clearly, to think rationally. It is emotionally and physically painful to be here, to hear people talking and laughing and crying, to see people so at ease in their own bodies, with their own thoughts. I think of the way my relatives probably remember me. As a child, I was a confident, sometimes overly confident. I was frequently accused of talking too much; my nickname was Miss Chatterbox. I liked to have my space and time alone, to read, to imagine, but I also loved to be with people, to be the center of attention. I miss that girl, mourn for her. She slowly faded into the depression and anxiety that became my frequent companions in my early adolescence and never left. Eventually, she disappeared. The child these people knew is gone. I want to be alone. I want to talk to my grandmother. Though she died years before I was born, I feel closer to her than anyone at Ben’s funeral. I want to be alone by her grave and talk to her like I used to when I was a kid, when I felt no one else would listen, when I felt no one else would understand. She was the one person I could talk to when the darkness started to come.
Whenever the depression descends, it chokes out all light. It clouds my sense of reality. The people around me seem distant and hostile. I interpret their every action as hurtful and disingenuous; I sense pity or sarcasm behind every word. I can’t see anything lovable or worthwhile in myself, so I know that no one else can either. When I sink into this darkness, I don’t recognize my thoughts for what they are: a delusion, a trick of a broken mind. All my suspicions, my self-hatred, feel justified, so I push everyone away. I lash out at them like a caged animal, making sure no one will find out how I sometimes lie on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor with the shower running, drowning out the sound of my cries as I beg God to let me die.
Ben’s life was nothing like the fantasy I created for him. His wife, Ann, was schizophrenic and often off her medications. Typical of many people with mental illness, when she felt better, she stopped taking it. And, I imagine, because of the way she and Uncle Ben lived, she didn’t always have access to the doctors she needed. My mom told me that they separated at some point. Ben left Ann in the care of friends, but he went back to her. My mom once asked him why, and he told her, “If I don’t take care of her, who will?” I didn’t want to think about this part of Ben’s life. It didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell myself. I didn’t want to admit that I knew nothing about Ben, really. He was make-believe to me, a character in the story I wrote for him. But his actual life was much different.
When my grandmother was sick, dying of cancer, Ben came to her one night, asking for money. He was impatient and persistent. My mom overheard and confronted him.
“What do you think you’re doing? Can’t you see how sick she is? How weak she is? You can’t come around here begging for money. You need to grow up and take responsibility for yourself.”
My mom can’t remember exactly how he responded, only that he was angry. After he left, my grandmother came out of her room. My mom apologized for the fight, for upsetting her. Grandma just said, “It’s okay, Linda. He needed to hear it. Someone had to say it.” Over the years, Ben asked my other uncles and my aunt for money whenever he saw them. He never once asked my mom.
When I picture Ben now, I think of a story my mom told me after he died. He stopped by our house late one night to say goodbye after one of his visits, “just-passing-through.” Ann was not with him. He was alone. He carried an empty gas can. It was snowing, and my mom begged him to wait until the storm was over, but he told her, “No, it works better in the .”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I walk along the side of the road with a gas can, and people assume I have a car somewhere down the road. They pick me up and take me at least as far as the next gas station unless I can talk them into taking me farther. If it’s snowing or raining or really cold, it works better.”
My mom tried to get him to take warmer cleaner clothes or even a bar of soap, but he refused.
“If I’m dirty and I stink, I can find a place to sleep at night, by myself, safe. People stay away. My stink protects me.”
I picture Ben along the side of a rural stretch of road, the snow falling around him, an empty gas can for a car that doesn’t exist in one hand, the other hand raised, thumb in the air, his back to the wind.
Sitting on a creaky metal folding chair at the cemetery, I need to be alone. I sit through the service, distracted and anxious. I rock my baby, willing him to wake at just the right moment, to be ready to nurse when I need to escape. He miraculously accommodates. Just as the service ends, he begins to cry. I bounce him gently in my arms and tell my husband, Cory, that we need to go back to my parents’ house so I can nurse the baby. I struggle to both hold the baby and hold down my dress as it whips frantically in the wind. We can’t stay and mingle. We need to go. Now.
Cory talks to me while I feed the baby. He recognizes the panic, the beginnings of a deeper fall. He sees what I can’t see. Quietly, he tells me it’s okay. He tells me that I will regret not spending time with my relatives later, when the darkness has passed. He tells me I can get through this. I wipe my tears off the top of my son’s head. I want to run away. Cory doesn’t understand. He can’t feel this ache. He doesn’t know this pain. I wonder if anyone really does.
I sometimes wonder if Ben had bipolar disorder. My mom described times when he spoke in a rapid-fire ramble, making little sense. Other times, he sunk into a prolonged melancholy. But maybe that’s another fantasy, a way to believe that someone else could understand. When I was thirty-seven years old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. For nearly two decades, I had taken anti-depressants on and off. I now know those particular drugs exacerbate bipolar depression. When I changed medications and started going to therapy, my depression lessened and became controllable, but it’s still there, lurking in the shadows. As my emotional state stabilized, I mourned for a life I felt deprived of, the mother and wife I wished I had been during those twenty years when, during depressive episodes, I alternated between emotionlessness, rage, and hysterical outbursts. I don’t want the person I am when I am depressed to be a part of me. But it is. But it’s not all of me. It is a piece of jagged glass in a complicated mosaic, but I fear it’s the only part that people see.
After I nurse my baby, we go to a reception at my Uncle Greg’s house. There is a display of sketches done by Ben, hauntingly beautiful renderings of horses. A hot breeze blows through the garage where the pictures and other memorabilia are set up, twisting the paper anchored to easels, almost tearing it with the force. I try to study the drawings, to get a glimpse of the man I never knew, but I am assaulted by aunts, uncles, and cousins wanting to catch up. My mom is showing off the baby, and my daughter is clinging to the skirt of my dress. Whenever anyone talks to her, she tightens her grip and hugs tighter to my leg. For some reason, people seem to think if they speak to her in a higher pitch, she will suddenly want to be their friend. I withdraw from each conversation as quickly and as politely as I can. I am afraid I am not always polite, but the ache inside of me is stifling, pressing down on me, pushing me away, and my daughter is nearly in tears.
I take my daughter to an isolated corner of the yard. Cory finds me and asks me who people are, and I tell him, memories of sleepovers and late-night games of hide-and-seek spilling out. I feel safe here, at a careful distance. Cory suggests I go and talk to my cousin Brandy, one of my closest friends as a child. She was the cool one, and I was always game for anything she suggested: playing pranks on my brother, questioning the Ouija board late at night, running around town flirting with boys. But now the thought of talking to her terrifies me. I am sure she will be disappointed in me somehow; she will be nice to me but pity me when she walks away. I avoid eye contact, but she walks towards me anyway.
My conversation with Brandy is awkward. I feel exposed, sure that she and everyone around me can see my every flaw. She seems glad to see me, and I can’t help but smile a little as I watch her curly red hair—the hair I was always envious of—bounce like suspended springs as she laughs. But I don’t know what to say. My throat is as dry of words as it is of moisture. I know I am failing to meet the basic requirements of human interaction. At last, Brandy gives me a hug and says she needs to go, and I feel relieved as she walks away, but I feel sad too. I wish we could laugh ourselves silly, like we used to do. But it’s too late. A woman I don’t know approaches me, and my throat constricts. She introduces herself as a cousin of my mom’s. She points to my daughter, who we adopted from South Korea, and wants to talk about her own granddaughter, also adopted from Korea. I focus my eyes on my daughter while we talk, watch her running around with her cousins, see that she is starting to feel comfortable at last, and I am able to get through the conversation. As long as I focus on my daughter, I am okay. After my mom’s cousin, whose name I have already forgotten, walks away, I tell Cory that it’s time to go.
When my grandfather died in a car crash, no one knew where Ben was. They tried to track him down, but had to bury my grandpa without him. When he came home months later, my mom was the one who told him what had happened. He broke down in my mom’s arms, sobbing and inconsolable. When my grandmother’s cancer advanced, and they knew she was going to die, Ben made sure that someone knew how to contact him, made sure he could be there. And then he was gone again.
The last years of Ben’s life were painful. He had CREST syndrome, a form of scleroderma which causes skin and other organs to lose their elasticity. Skin tightens and grows rigid. Movement becomes restricted. Lungs, heart, and kidneys harden and become crusted with scar tissue. CREST is incurable, but it can be managed if treated early enough. Ben did not get help until it was too late. As his skin hardened and it became difficult for him to walk, his spirit remained free, but his body was not. He was trapped. But for a long time, he told no one, choosing to remain apart and unattached, unwilling to tie his burdens to anyone. By the time my mom learned of his condition, he was in end-stage renal failure. He was going to die. He was living in a small town in the small wedge of West Virginia nestled between Ohio and Pennsylvania, had been there for a few years, finally rooting himself, no longer a tumbleweed rolling with the whims of the wind. No one in the family knew he was there, just a few hours away. When my mom drove to see him, he was living in a tiny shack on a hillside, the windows boarded up, the electricity cut because Ann was afraid that aliens would get in through the wires.
In Ben’s final months, my mom visited him as often as she could, and they talked on the phone regularly. My mom felt like she was finally getting to know him. His friends would call her to ask if she could talk him into going to doctor’s appointments and taking his medications. Ben wanted to move back to Ohio, closer to his family, but by then, his doctors said he was too sick to move. So, he asked my mom to bring his ashes back to be buried near their parents. I think of how he spent his life––tossed by the wind, not tied down to anything, carrying his burdens alone. I don’t know if he was running away from something or just thought there would be time to go back, but his time ran out as it always does. After a lifetime of walking away, free and alone, in the end, he didn’t want his ashes scattered by the wind, but to be anchored in the ground of his roots. I’ve spent my life running away inside of my own head, pushing away the people who want to help me heal, to set me free from the darkness, while keeping me safely rooted in their love. Unwilling to tie my burdens to those who would travel with me through my pain, determined to travel alone, I couldn’t see that by shutting people out, I was trapping myself in darkness, shutting out the light.
As we leave the reception, I try to sneak away unnoticed. But my Aunt Annette calls me over, and Cory nudges me toward her. I resist the urge to pretend I don’t hear her, sure I’d never get away with it. Annette is bossy, brash, impossible to ignore, and she knows it. Her daughter, Brittany, no longer the little girl I used to babysit, is seven months pregnant with her first child. Annette asks if Brittany can hold my baby. Brittany suggests that instead I let her husband, who has never held a baby before, hold my son. I am nervous, uncomfortable, unsure, but this man is about to be a father. He needs to be comfortable holding a baby. He needs to know that he can do this. So, I decide that I can do this for him, for Brittany, for their child. I smile, ignore my own discomfort, and gently hand my baby to him, showing him how to cradle the baby’s head, encouraging him, trying to make him feel comfortable. I breathe deeply and the knot in my stomach loosens, the darkness is pushed back for just for a moment. The darkness will return. I will have to learn, in time, to face it, to be brave enough to let others in to face it with me. But for now, for a moment, I am calm. For a moment, the wind stops blowing.
INSCAPE: Is it okay if I start, I have some questions. Thinking about the title of your collection, and thinking about the epigraph, why start off your collection with this quote, and the idea of sea and water? There’s just a constant theme of that coming back.
MD: The book was not originally titled this. I did what they always told me not to do, which was to title your collection and then write the title poem. Don’t do that, the poem never comes out well.
I wasn’t going to have an epigraph for the book, but I came across this in Matthew Nino’s work, and wrote to him. I just had a very visceral reaction to it. “Who can face the sea and not inherit its loneliness” is very much what my book is about. And he agreed to let me use it, and he was quite forthcoming about the fact that the character doesn’t exist—it’s a character, it’s not a person. And that to me felt very much in-line with the epigraph of the title poem, which is this Welsh word: a homesickness for a home to which you can’t return, or maybe never existed. And I liked very much that idea of pointing out that the work is of course a fiction. It’s a home to which you can’t return.
I think in general, though, the epigraph is very much a tie-in to California, to leaving the coast, and leaving everything I was brought up to believe the coast was, and what it meant to me. Everybody thinks of California as this ‘Liberal Safe Space,’ and that’s not at all my experience. It’s certainly different than everywhere else I’ve lived, and I do love it. It’s beautiful, and everything tastes better at sea level! But it’s no sanctuary.
INSCAPE: Great, thank you. Thinking about your five poems that are portraits of myself or myselves—at various ages or states and genders—what attracts you to the self-portrait, and to revisiting it again and again?
MD: I think first and foremost, the idea that we are very far from unchanging. We are not static beings. I think of a self-portrait as trying to find the right title for yourself: what lens can I look through to be sure that I see myself right. And I think that exploring that has been deeply cathartic, but also really healing. I came up in a religious household, and I came up in a home where femininity was really aggressive. I was put in homemade dresses, I had very long hair I was not allowed to cut, and there was a lot of reactive panic about the person that they imagined I could become. So I try to bring justice to that, through mourning, through self-examination, through multiplicity.
I don’t read those poems anymore: at the beginning, it felt like this very public sort of defiance. It felt very defiant, I felt provoked. These poems felt much louder to me at the time, and much more abrasive or aggressive. They wanted to be seen in some way. And I read them now, and I just want to reach out to that person who was writing those poems and offer compassion and tenderness. I didn’t know that I was hurting, and that these were coming out of mourning. They’re not happy poems. They tend to be a little dark, and they tend to be sort of snapshots. And I didn’t know that was a hurt I had to tend. They ended up being quite personal poems, and they’re not easy for me to read in public, I think probably because I feel so certain that I am being misread. So the self-portrait has become yet again this false representation. The poem doesn’t allow the audience the full picture: the reaction becomes instead, “There’s two genders in one self, and you’re imagining yourself as an old man.”
INSCAPE: This is a question that I’m personally invested in, because it’s something that I’m thinking about with my own poetry. Your collection contains lines that speak to feeling a multitude of emotions—you’ll have seemingly opposite ones at the same time. Do you see your poems as having some kind of emotional responsibility to your reader, or just in general?
MD: I talk about this with my students a lot, about the responsibility of the poet. I think often we get sidetracked around the public responsibility of the poet. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about the private responsibility of the poet, which maybe we should. Very recently, I had my thesis students start ‘required daydreaming.’ They have to sit there and daydream, and they can’t do anything else. Earlier in the Q & A we were talking about images, and how lovely it is to look at things, and to be an observer in the world: I think that we do have an emotional responsibility around the attention of the observer. I think of attention as just like a certain kind of love. If it is that we, as poets, are after directing attention to things as a way to show their worth, inevitably as a way to preserve them and prevent one another from destroying them, then absolutely we have an obligation to look directly at the devastation and the terror and find some kind of love in it. I think that we do have a responsibility in that way, to be archivists. But also, to be investigators who interrogate why it is that we feel what we feel
INSCAPE: Do you see being a poet as your responsibility?
MD: I must feel some kind of obligation. I must. I think about teaching much more as a responsibility. I’m built for it, and I am made humble by it, but I’m also really good at it. I was made to do it, and I can’t imagine a thing that I could spend my time doing that would be more important in the world. And I think that teaching makes me a better poet, and poems make me a better teacher. It feels very much like one of those symbiotic relationships. I feel an impulse towards it. I’m definitely not one of those people feels like if they spend even a moment away from the page, the spark will die. That’s not how I feel about poems: I just feel moved by the world, and that’s the one way that I can hit all cylinders at once.
INSCAPE: I hope this question is okay, if it’s too sensitive that’s fine. As a person who’s hard of hearing, it’s especially impressive that your poems are so sonically strong—they have an amazing sound to them. Do you find that your disability informs the way that you use sound?
MD: I’m profoundly deaf now: I haven’t been my whole life. I have hearing aids that sort of calibrate to peoples’ voices. It’s really cyborg! It has been weird, but I don’t write poems with my tech in anymore. I stopped doing that in college when I realized that I was trying to read aloud, which was like anticipating a hearing audience. Which was in effect negating the possibility of a deaf audience. That felt deeply sad to me, this erasure of American poetics and American readers. I’ve been told for years that I have a great ear, and it comes out of a fascination with sound. We all like music: it gets us wild. I was obsessed with the radio, because the radio is a thing you can put your hand to and feel. It’s like a drum: you can feel the rhythm, the beat. I think just fascination with sound, and then this intense obsession with trying to fill my poems with sonic play. I was often told that my poems needed sounds that leap across the field instead of sounding like some jackhammer in a city.
I memorized rhymes and I learned scansion by sight. I think many folks would see that as some sort of overcoming narrative: I adapted and I figured out how to survive in American poetics, not disability poetics and not deaf poetics. And it doesn’t feel that way. It feels really sad to me now. We spend so much time saying, “Be yourself, have your own individual voice!” But you don’t get to be an individual if you’re disabled. You get to be what you have, and that isn’t always welcome. I still feel really excited about sound, but I think of sound as in the mouth. I love a poem that feels good in the mouth. I think that’s where it comes from. I have no idea what my poems sound like. I could guess, but the poems in which I feel confident are poems that I toiled over to get right. But it’s all with hearing folks in mind, and there’s a grief to that.”
INSCAPE: “What is deaf poetry? What do you mean by that?”
MD: So we have American poetics, and in America we have American Sign Language, and it doesn’t exist outside this country. So you would assume American poetics would include all of the people that live in America, or at least in the United States. But because of the bimodal tendencies of ASL, it’s not published. There’s no way to represent that textually, and we’ve not done any work in poetics to figure out how to welcome it or make it accessible or give it value. Deaf Literature is rich! And there are a lot of deaf poets. But they’re not counted under American poetry.
I’m deaf and I write in English, there are a lot of us. But specifically with ASL, to be able to write poems or perform poems in my native language, and not have them called pictures, would be radical. Would be baseline. If you don’t feel rhythm in the same way, because your body is built differently, we see that as poetry that’s not good. Our aesthetics are so shaped by our privileges, because we like poets that write like they have had access to education. Our aesthetics are this site of really intense politic. There are huge groups of people that we don’t ever get to read, unless it is that they’ve conformed to this idea of American aesthetics. It’s kind of a fascinating problem, but it is another site of systematic exclusion of particular voices because they don’t fit what is normal, especially with disability poetics. Like I was saying earlier at the Q & A, this idea of a wrong body: how could you have a body that is wrong? I can imagine being unhappy with your body, I’ve been there. I can imagine being afraid of your body, I’ve been there. I can imagine wanting your body to change, or be different in many ways. But wrong is such a projection from the culture in a way that I think is so scary and damaging. It implies that others know better than you do about what your body should be.
INSCAPE: Thank you. I just have one more question, and this is a very general one that I was encouraged to ask. What advice do you have for beginning writers, particularly poets? The main audience for this journal is mostly Mormons. I’ve just been thinking about the way that you write about God, and you write about faith, and trying to create a more inclusive God or inclusive faith. And I really like that. What kind of advice do you have for poets and writers at BYU?
MD: I think two things: the first one I hope tends your question well. I mentioned Susan Howell, who sat at that symposium in 2014 on the illuminated word and devotional poetics. She said that we all have gods of our own making. That is a really radical thing to say, period. But it’s also a really radical thing to say in this space. At the time, I felt against that. I mean it’s such a reductive moment. I think that that’s the thing that I would push emerging poets at BYU towards, is examining that moment of refusal. Why refuse a god? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, I have refused many things that I have wished to hold up in some kind of hierarchy. But I also think that there’s such important self-interrogation there around the question, “What is it that makes you want to be alive?” How is that not God? What makes you want to stay? And then seeing what makes other people want to stay is just a different way in figuring out what your obligation is to the reader. If I have to anticipate your god but also honor mine, the poem has to do acrobatics that it didn’t previously anticipate. And I don’t think it comes down to honoring or disrespecting, I think it comes down to openness of what is it that makes you temporarily permanent on the planet. I really want you, as I want for myself, to experience the outer boundaries. I think of writing in general in this way. Welcoming the adventure of it, and of being wrecked proper. Of being ruined. Moving towards the thing that obliterates you, but still allowing yourself to keep going and tell about it. Something about openness and something about not refusing others’ gods and recognizing that that can arrive in a lot of ways. I felt very resistant prior to this book to calling God “God.” For some reason I felt much more comfortable with the word Lord. But we call our God, or our gods, by a lot of names. I think that there’s a lot of generosity possible in that space.
The second thing I would say is: keep showing up. People told me all the time, “You need a writing habit, you need to show up for an hour every day to the page, you need to do this, you have to have a fancy notebook, there has to be a fancy pen, you have to have pages to show for it.” There are a lot of ways to show up to writing, and most of it doesn’t happen at the page. So I would encourage intentional deviation from what it is that one has been taught, in the spirit of experimentation. Asking yourself, “Does this work for me?” I really like standing in line. I like taking showers, and I like standing in lines, it’s the place where poems happen easiest for me. It’s not waiting in my car in line, it’s standing with people in line. It works for me. But I wouldn’t have known that had I been tethered to the idea that writing happens at the page. I wouldn’t have known, had I not expanded my idea of what writing is. But you have to show up, that’s the thing you do have to do. I don’t write very often, but I am always writing.”
INSCAPE: “Thank you so much, these are so wonderful.”
MD: “Oh, thank you! What do you think about all this? What advice do you have for your peers, or for me?”
INSCAPE: “No, I don’t think I have any advice for you! I really liked what you said about being open: I just read Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet,’ and that section where he talks about how most people only explore one corner of the room in their brain, and there’s this idea of being completely open. That really resonates with me.”
MD: I like to ask myself, “What if the opposite is true?” What happens when we get into the nitty-gritty of the question, “Why is art always inside, or in a frame?” We get back to the aesthetics question very, very swiftly. But I like that. Some people look at it as, “’Last Psalm at Sea Level,’ that’s a risky title!” But I like to think, “What if it’s risky to use any other title?” What if this is exactly as it should be, and I just have to live through and deal with whatever comes of it. Will that teach me more about being alive? It might. So let’s do it. That openness is crucial.
INSCAPE: “That’s great. I think BYU kids particularly need more of that.”
MD: Maybe everybody needs more of that. I think BYU is its own ecosystem, its own microcosm, its own bubble, but the institution where I work is also its own bubble. It has different rules, it functions under a different system, but it still has a system. And it still has a hierarchy. We’re all just trying to figure out what way works. BYU has its own way of working, and my college has its own way of working. Sometimes they might be at odds, but what if it’s right? The poet has to ask.