Sunday, October 31, 2010
an Interview with Shane Neilson
T.T. One of your reviewers claimed poets and doctors share an obsession with death. Would you comment on that?
S.N. Poets have their own individual obsessions, but I'd have to say that love and its corollary sex, and also death, are the big three for most of us. We're always dying in thine eyes. There is an idea that poetry can and should be about anything, and I think that's true, I'd hate to limit poetry, but I must confess that I get bored by poems about butterflies (though I've written my share) and I need the big subjects to validate the depth of what poetry aspires to achieve. But doctors... in a sense, we deal in death. All illness are a prelude to it, are intimations of mortality, are threats to the mortal coil. It'd be an overstatement to say that all my patients are afraid of death when they come in with their undiagnosed symptoms, but looming over my title as physician is the power to deliver terrible, terrible news. I palliate several patients a year, and derive poems from that process.
T.T. In one of your ‘How Poems Work’ articles for Arc Magazine you say “Poems themselves, through their own control over experience, can also give the poet/patient control not over the ailment but over the experience.” Your poems work hard on that distinction between ailment and experience, and also on the issue of control. Can you expand on your comment
S.N. There is the idea that poems are exercises in control. (I certainly believe it- the wild poem is much more likely to be a failure.) That the poem is, as Yeats says, something "intended, complete." So the poet, when writing about personal calamity, imposes order on the disorder of illness. Poetry can validate the experience of illness without imposing the identity of illness. Patients mostly refuse to be thought of as diseased, as being of or consisting of their illnesses. I remember a paranoid schizophrenic candidly discussing that the diagnosis he had received was just a "label"- something to make sense of his life, but not to define it. A tool but not a deed. So the illness experience recognizes pain and suffering, but it doesn't leak into selfhood. Many illnesses can be managed, but they can't be controlled. Most people don't choose to be sick. And choice is necessary for control. So the poem can only promise understanding, appreciation, and celebration, especially naming, but never control over a disease. Poems just aren't that powerful... they are limited in that way.
T.T. In your essay ‘The Pre-Poem Moment’ you asked "The origin of poetry is presumed to be song; but what is the origin of the poem? Can you answer for your own poems?
S.N. I specifically didn't answer this question for my own poems in the Pre-Poem Moment essay because I felt, as an anthologist, that I shouldn't inject myself into the anthology in that way. I felt for that project that I should give the stage over to my contributors, and write about them, about what they were collectively trying to do, as opposed to dramatizing myself. But of course in the writing of that introductory essay I necessarily mined some personal convictions. And those convictions can be further distilled into a single thought: that each poem has its own genesis if it is to be a true poem, that each individual poem needs its own history to survive. So every poem of mine has a necessarily distinct process. This may sound precious, but every poem for me is a feeling out, a bungling sortie, a reconnaissance into something unknown and somehow unknowable. There is occasionally a trick to be pulled- poems based on personal biography, or historical biographies, and these are more obviously derivative from incident... but ultimately, with me, the poem boils down to emotion, and it must not be sentimental or manipulative, but honest and in the honesty hopefully resilient.
T.T. In your work on Alden Nowlan you quote him saying “Ever since I got sick I've become less and less hypocritical and more and more honest. Since we're all of us going to be out of the world so soon it seems silly not to tell one another what we really think and feel.” That seems to about sum up your approach. Anything you’d like to add to that?
S.N. I chose this Nowlan quote because it does summarize my own philosophy. Though in my poetry there's usually very little about what I think ( an exception could be made for Complete Physical, which involves my professional life). I'm usually writing about what I myself feel, or empathizing with what another feels in the case of dramatic monologues. Nowlan really changed what he wrote when he became ill; it was revolutionary, illness and the reprieve, for him. For myself, I just learned from this change, from this demonstrable, obvious change. Nowlan did the suffering for me. Then I did my own share of suffering later, but that's another history.
T.T. What about Nowlan as an influence? Or anyone else?
S.N. Influences? This could go on and on. Nowlan first, for the emotional power and how not to write sentimentally. I'd have to say Lowell, because of the bipolar disorder I suppose, but mostly the poetry- sublime, glittering poetry. Milton Acorn, for the lyric impulse, and for the lesson that political poetry is mostly unsuccessful. Illness too. Al Moritz, because I envy his intellectual heft. I just can't write that way, and so I covet him. To pick a generational contemporary, Ken Babstock for the glorious sound. Mandelstam for the music of pure metaphor. I won't name drop any more.
T.T. Would you comment on the two versions of ‘My Illness? Although they share an amount of material the first one is obviously not just a draught of the second. ’ What do you believe the second does that the first didn’t? What else was going on?
S.N. I'm not sure what happened with "My Illness." I think that I had something important to say, metaphorically, about myself. I felt I had to get that poem right. And I still feel that both are approximations. Both versions share some lines, lines I felt were central. But both head out in their directions. I shared the versions with Steven Heighton, who felt that both had their own integrity and that I should include them both. So I went with that advice. I felt that with these poems I had to disclose my own perspective, my own diagnosis, with my readers. My own sadness and infirmity. And so these poems had the most riding on them. I guess I decided to split the difference. As for what the second does that the first doesn't, I'd just say that the incompleteness, or the emotional weight of trying to say something, and failing, caused me to revisit what I'll call pain and resulted in a formulation. As I've said, the objective with each poem was the same, though the methods were different.
T.T. Many of the poems in this collection deal, either directly or indirectly, with pain. In ‘My Illness, Revisited’ you write “There is no pain, because there is no choice.” On first consideration that seems like an odd remark, but there is an issue of choice in pain. Would you expand on that, and on how the problem of pain colours your work? Your attempts, as you put it, to map it. Its attempts to map you.
S.N. My comment "There is no pain, because there is no choice" was meant to be very, very specific to this -my- individual situation. Some people clearly choose pain. You don't have to be a sadist to do so. In this case, I meant that there wasn't any pain, or I wasn't feeling pain, because I didn't ultimately choose where I ended up, what I was reduced to. I had no complicity. There was no compounding, no "insult to injury." I was suffering, and forced by my illness to that position. If there was an element of choice, then I was oblivious to it, and remain so. Some people sink so low that the very idea of choice becomes inapplicable. But as for your general comment on pain, I think that's perceptive- pain is clearly one of my predilections. I'm writing a suite of pain poems for Arc magazine, which they may or may not use in their Science issue. In fact I think I have two sacred words in all my poetry -all poets have a sacred word or two- and to these words I've devoted my life and afford them the proper respect. Those two interrelated words are pain and love. I feel this so strongly that I get angry when I see these words superfluously used in others' poetry. As for maps, pain possesses us. I wrote "All Pain can be Controlled" out of anger at a religious television show host, who purported that all pain can indeed be controlled. He was against euthanasia, and so am I, if I had to choose a binary, but I'm here to tell you, as a physician with some amount of experience, that most of it can't be controlled. But in poems I say its name.
T.T. Illness provides potent metaphors for the human condition. Some of your poems – The death of Josie’ comes to mind immediately – seem to play with what Susan Sontag characterised as “the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character.” She went on to talk about the way that idea is extended to “assert that the character causes the disease – because it has not expressed itself.” I had a much older friend once who told me “We get the diseases we need,” which seems related. Anything you’d like to say on either part of her observation, or on the wider idea of illness as a metaphor?
S.N. I'm hesitant to say that illness develops character. I think it harnesses character, or dramatizes character. We are who we are. And illness can never be allowed to usurp our true identity, which usually resists the state of being ill. Some people deny; some people accept. And on the ground, it's hard to convince people that their illnesses can be expressed poetically. Some people are emphatic in their suffering. But poems can be their best expression, and in "The Death of Josie" I tried to capture a personality who was very tough, and who I tried to honour. The key is in capturing the personality. Or the character.