Erica Trabold: Hi, Hannah. I’m so happy to be able to sit down and talk with you about your poem Alternative Therapies: See “Juicing” and your poetry in general. As your desk mate at Oregon State, it’s been a joy to be introduced to your work, read your poems, and share in the thrill of publishing them. I’m not a poet myself, but as a nonfiction writer, I’m very much interested in the autobiographical elements of your poetry. Your work, to me, seems very autobiographical. So, to start us off I’m wondering, how do you approach truth in your writing?
Hannah Baggott: I’m interested in Richard Hugo in “The Triggering Town” saying that truth must conform to music, and for a long time I was totally on board with that and was willing to invent whatever I wanted back before I wrote about illness. But, illness as subject matter has driven me to make sure that even if the events are slightly shifted for craft or style or point, the poems are always emotionally true. Always. That’s what I’m trying to get at in my work, to be emotionally valid at every point. So, even in things that are narrative, if the narrative is slightly shifted, even though sometimes that makes me uncomfortable—I never want to lie—sometimes there is more emotional truth in adjusting the narrative than it is as we live.
ET: In the poem published in Rkvry, “Alternative Therapies: See Juicing,” you name specific drugs and later name juicing as a form of therapy, but you don’t directly name your illness. Can you talk about your choice to focus on the effects of therapy rather than the illness itself?
HB: I’ll give some background. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007 when I was sixteen, but its effects didn’t become apparent to me until after I started writing poetry. First, “multiple sclerosis” is not a very poetic phrase—it strains the jaw—but secondly, I’m a lot more interested in chronic illness and therapies for treating incurable disorders. Often, there are side effects of the medication or treatment, and you can’t differentiate the side effects from the effects of the disorder itself. So, in a lot of my poems, and especially in “Alternative Therapies: See Juicing,” I’m looking at that anxiety and the effects from treatment. I think that it has a wider effect on readers if it’s not grounded in “this is a poem about multiple sclerosis.” Instead, it says, “this is a poem about trying to figure out the mind and body and really not being able to” because the poem in itself doesn’t offer redemption or a solution.
ET: You mentioned something interesting at the beginning of that answer about how you didn’t notice the effects of MS until after you started writing poetry. Do you have a specific memory or experience about those two things intertwining?
HB: I’ve always been interested in writing. I’ve kept a diary since I was seven, and I have them all. They’re not very interesting, but as a younger writer, I was interested in language and what that could do and how to write about my experiences in a way where my parents couldn’t understand it. I didn’t want them to be able to read about all the mischievous things I was up to. Moving forward and into this MFA program at OSU, I never thought about writing about MS because at the time, illness seemed like such a trope. I didn’t want to fall into self pity, into dark places, or give in to possibilities of depression that chronic illness can often bring. I never addressed illness because I just didn’t want to. It was too scary, and I didn’t think it was very interesting, honestly.
But then, I took a class with Jen Richter during my first term at OSU on poetry and medicine. We read these incredible collections that framed the perspective of doctors and nurses, but also people with illnesses, or the partners of people with cancer, people experiencing the medical system or the effects of illness on the body in some way, and it was just incredible. I was inspired to attempt that. The book that I read that I think threw me into it and made realize I could write about this in a way that mattered was Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, which is a really interesting cross-genre memoir, and also just really beautiful and lyrical. That’s where I got my start—that’s what pushed me into writing about illness.
ET: People with chronic illness understand that recovery is a constantly ongoing process. Now that you are comfortable with the subject matter, how do you think your work speaks to that experience?
HB: I want to push back, first, on the concept of recovery. I do think that it’s a beautiful concept and it’s something that we all work toward as far as illness is concerned, especially with treatment and the desire to be whole and not “other.” But the concept of recovery in chronic illness is potentially unattainable, at least for me right now with MS. I can only speak from my experience, but MS is degenerative. There are periods of health, and there are periods of illness—good days and bad days, if you will. But, recovery is not really an option in the prognosis, if that makes sense, of a full and total recovery from something autoimmune and neurological and degenerative, which has taken me a long time to accept.
My poetry addresses that idea of progression, and in the collection I’m working on currently, the phrase that I’ve found for it is that it attempts to “stay in the mess” of illness, rather than looking back nostalgically at any time before where it was good, or looking at any concept of redemption or full recovery, or even idolizing that as an option… because it’s just not. But, that’s okay, and I think in that understanding there’s a sense of emotional and mental recovery, in growing to accept the physical reality of a chronic illness like MS.
ET: You call yourself a “poet of the body.” Can you share more about how the body informs your writing, specifically in terms of illness?
HB: I know in my bios and in other ways of discussing my work, I do identify as “poet of the body” over “poet of illness” or “poet of degeneration” because my writing, even the poems that aren’t grounded in illness, does indeed come back to the body, and to sensation, and to physical experience. I’m also interested in the relationship between body and mind, and that’s something you can see in “Juicing.” You can hear, especially when you read it out loud, an anxiety, and there’s a fallacious logic in the poem, which is what a lot of my other poems do. For me, to ground poetry in the body is to ground it in something universal—the body is universal.
ET: I think you demonstrate this through the two characters in this poem. Even if a reader doesn’t have experience with illness, there are people they care about that might or might in the future. And because you place the loved one in the poem, the partner, maybe that’s an entry point for people who do not identify directly with the subject matter. In the final stanza, it seems that your partner becomes a mode of therapy superior to juicing. Can you talk more about this relationship and the role that support from loved ones can play in the day-to-day of chronic illness?
HB: My partner’s name is Max. I was mapping out the current collection that I’m working on, my MFA thesis, and I looked up at him and said, “All these poems are about you. This collection is about you as much as it is about illness.” It’s about our relationship and that level of support and calmness there. The intention of this particular poem was to reflect on my own flawed logic and emotional instability that come as side effects of medication. I have a fear of not being myself, losing control mentally, emotionally, or physically. It’s hard to pinpoint causation.
But the poem does turn to focus on the partner –the one static thing. Max has been with me through all of these changes in just the past year, where I’ve started to progress into something a little bit worse. There are a lot more challenges, but he’s always there no matter what and no matter what kind of state I’m in, keeping me in check and letting me know everything’s going to be okay, even if I don’t feel present. The partner, especially in these poems, becomes grounding, present, and fueling for both characters… which sounds kind of dangerous. But I think in the context of illness, it works, or it has to because otherwise you have a speaker with illness alone and the potential to get a little bit existential, questioning the world and the hand you’ve been given. If you’re lucky enough to be a supportive situation, you’re given a little bit of room to be unstable without having to worry about losing yourself. Someone is holding the space for you.
ET: Sometimes readers approach illness or recovery-oriented writing with the assumption that it’s going to be depressing. How do you find balance between that and writing about the realities of chronic illness?
HB: Rafael Campo talks about this in some of his writing. In “Illness as Muse,” an essay published through the Bellevue Literary Review, he talks about how people tell him that his work is so depressing. When illness is the theme of any work, I think calling it depressing is kind of misleading. I think it’s human. There’s a lot that can be gained if readers would seek out work about illness without assuming that it all is going to be depressing or completely redemptive. There’s something to be said about the gray space in between what we might assume to be depressing and what we might assume to be almost too sentimental, which was one of my fears about “Alternative Therapies: See Juicing.” The end of the poem, I wondered, “Am I getting borderline sentimental here?” But then, it’s not, I don’t think, because it’s not a conclusive answer to anything that was asked. It’s just said. Dark doesn’t have to mean depressing.
ET: Earlier, you mentioned a larger project. What else are you working on right now?
HB: The current collection that I’m working on here at OSU, which I’m finishing up this year, is on illness, but framed in faith and intimacy, which are kind of the big words. They’re big concepts, and it doesn’t sound too specific, but again, under the idea that everything “stays in the mess” there’s a mess of processing faith and intimacy in the context of progressing illness. That’s the collection that I’m working on and that I’m really jazzed about.
ET: Where can readers find more of your published work?
HB: As far as my other work, I have a good deal of work out there that isn’t about illness, but it is grounded in the body. One particular journal that I am excited to have a poem in is the Bellevue Literary Review. I recently was lucky enough to win their Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry for a poem called “Dysesthesia.” It goes through the nine layers of hell in the context of my own life in a meditative sense, and it comes out in the Spring 2015 issue. Links to my other work are listed on my website: hannahbaggott.com.
Erica Trabold (@ericatrabold) writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, Weave, and Penumbra.