Avery M. Guess talks about embodied poetry
and writing The Patient Admits
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
When I first came to writing, pretty much everything I wrote was in the abstract—I was unable to write with language that was directly related to experience— which makes sense given how disconnected I was from my body because of the various traumas I’d experienced. I wrote often until I was in college, but when I dropped out at 19, I stopped writing anything besides journal entries for the most part. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I considered writing poetry again, after I’d moved to Kentucky to live with my birthmother. I think that I finally felt safe enough to write about the things my body had been through, but I still circled around what I really wanted to write for a couple of years before just throwing myself into it.
Once I started writing more from the body, I found my way into writing about issues of trauma and mental health. These are the poems that made it into The Patient Admits and that will be part of my first full-length collection from Black Lawrence Press, The Truth Is. I’ve been doing some reading about the ways in which trauma gets processed over our lives into our bodies (specifically how it can make us chronically ill), and I know that I am not done writing about the body yet. I doubt I ever will be.
So many of the poems in The Patient Admits circle around the idea of silencing, either by a patriarchal figure, or the internalized self-silencing that can happen after experiencing chronic trauma. Please talk a little about silencing vs. finding a voice and how those concepts impacted your writing of these poems.
Every poem I write is a fight against being silenced. It’s my way of saying, no. My way of saying I’m taking back my voice. I still enact silence in my life—especially surrounding trauma, and I imagine that might always be the case, but writing allows me to break through the barriers society throws up because people don’t want to hear about abuse or someone’s experience of mental illness. This is slowly changing, especially with the breaking of silence that is occurring with the #metoo movement, but there is a long way for us to go before people can speak their truths without fear of retaliation and disbelief. I hope that the writing that I am doing is, in some small way, helping to keep the gates open so that others may speak and be believed.
Regarding my poems, I think that I managed to build trust with myself first and then with a few trusted readers (a small, supportive local writing group) and then finally with larger groups (my MFA cohort, a literary magazine, the people who will read my chapbook). I shared incrementally. In stages. Over years. I wasn’t someone who dove into the deep end of the pool from the highest diving board. I took it slowly and built my poetic craft at the same time I was expanding my willingness to expose that which I’d kept silenced or only talked about in therapy.
I am drawn to the poem “The Patient’s Complaint!” I identify with this concept of “performing as a patient” from my time(s) in the hospital. As much as it helped me, I also I feel the system is quite paternalistic. Under the guise of “protection,” the executors of the system guide the patient to behave compliantly, no matter how they truly think or feel. To what extent do you feel that you have had to “perform” your illness? Or, how has the mental-health-industrial-complex impacted your writing of poetry about mental illness?
Even with my most recent hospitalization, I noticed that I tend to want to perform the role of the good patient, which is silly, really, because what does that mean? But it’s all based in fear of losing agency. If I don’t do the things I’m asked to do, if I don’t behave, then what if they won’t let me out? What then? I’ve never been hospitalized against my will, and that remains one of my biggest fears. In this poem, I write about finding my roommate in hospital attempting suicide in our room. After she was rescued, she was put on the locked ward, with the highest amount of restrictions. That terrified me. So, I made sure that I “behaved,” even when behaving took everything I had.
In my writing about mental illness, I don’t feel as though I must behave or perform for anyone. I am free to write about my mental health and my experiences with therapy or hospitalization or medication or (as I’ve recently been attempting) ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). Writing about it helps me to understand what I’ve been through in a way that talking about it with friends or family doesn’t. I process experience in writing.
THE PATIENT'S COMPLAINT
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
To make it a bit easier on myself, I’m only recommending books I’ve read since 2018 began. The following books all feature work that is embodied in some way. (Sorry, I went above the 10!)
blud by Rachel McKibbens
Set to Music a Wildfire by Ruth Awad
Death By Sex Machine by Franny Choi
My Body is a Poem I Can’t Stop Writing by Kelly Lorraine Andrews
You Ask Me to Talk about the Interior by Carolina Eibed
Natural History Rape Museum by Danielle Pafunda
Afterland by Mai Der Vang
Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo
Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away by Alice Anderson
Circadian by Chelsey Clammer
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz
What is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and her Pussy by Rokudenashiko
The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Be gentle with yourself, but also be willing to dig deep. Don’t just go for what’s easy, what comes up first. Try to stay in your body when you are writing, as hard as that might be. And if you can’t, remember to be gentle with yourself. The work will be there when you come back. It’s a cycle that focuses on healing ourselves. We’ve been hurt enough.
Avery Moselle Guess received a 2015 NEA Fellowship for Poetry. She’s a PhD student at USD and assistant editor for poetry at South Dakota Review. Recent publications include poems in Thrush, Rogue Agent, Glass, Rust + Moth, and Deaf Poets Society and creative non-fiction in Entropy and The Manifest-Station. Her chapbook, The Patient Admits, was released in September 2017 from dancing girl press, and her first full-length collection of poetry, The Truth Is, will be published in April 2019 by Black Lawrence Press.