Lauren Haldeman is the author of Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry, Center for Literary Publishing 2017), Calenday (Rescue Press 2014) and the chapbook The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press 2014). Her work has appeared in Tin House, Colorado Review, Fence, The Iowa Review, and The Rumpus. A comic book artist and poet, she has been a recipient of the Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, the Colorado Prize for Poetry and fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her online at http://laurenhaldeman.com. We corresponded about Instead of Dying from December, 2017, to April, 2018.
Zach Savich: This book includes fourteen poems that start “Instead of dying.” They describe what one blurb calls “intricate afterlives.” I cried when reading these, I think because of how tenderly they demonstrate what the imagination can do, and also its limits—how it can offer “an infinite mirror of stories” in relation to “the actual story, the story we don’t want.” How did you come to this form? What did you learn from writing these poems?
Lauren Halderman: Thank you for this wonderful question, Zach! I love how you read these (although I am sorry to make you cry. Maybe it was a good cry?) So, yes. To answer. When I first learned that Ryan (my little brother) had been killed, it was on a Friday evening, after work. My mom called me and she did not sound normal. She said “Lauren, I have some really bad news. Ryan is dead.” The initial reaction in my body was this intense, painful shock. There was a flash of horror that went through me, like an attack of physical pain. I don’t remember very much after that — I entered into distortion. The next morning, I woke up after a restless night, and for a second I thought “Wait. What is wrong?” Like, I couldn’t remember why I felt terrible. And then I remembered: my brother was dead. He had been stabbed. And the shock came back in full force. It was like I was hearing it for the first time.
This re-experiencing kept happening, at the beginning of the grief. It happened every day, several times a day. It was relentless.
The strange thing about grieving is that it takes a long time for your brain to catch up with reality. You have to re-sync with real time, over and over. It is really painful doing this. But your body knows what it is doing — humans have been grieving for thousands of years — consequently, we have the tools to process death within our very nature. So I learned to sit and feel the deep sadness, completely, whenever it arrived. I would watch the pain rise in my body, peak to intensity, and then fade. I realized that my body was helping me acclimate to the change of Ryan not being alive. It was like my body was informing my mind — through sadness, through crying, through sickness — about the new reality. That is why it was so important for me to fully embrace the feelings in mourning: the feelings were actual tools.
During this grief work, I noticed as well that my mind kept making alternate stories: I would unconsciously imagine my brother still alive and I would create a whole narrative, a plot for him. Like, I would be carrying groceries up my stairs and randomly think “maybe Ryan should try swimming more, he seems to really like it.” Or I’d be walking to work and think “Maybe Ryan can move in with us, and I will get him a job at the grocery store.” And then I would have this huge jolt: “What am I doing? He’s dead.” My mind kept making alternate realities.
Eventually, I started writing these alternate realities down. The first one I wrote, I started it with “Instead of dying, you …” and I really liked that framing. The phrase both acknowledged the fact of his death and recognized the “story” at the same time. It was both the truth about reality and the truth about my mind. So I kept writing them down. And as I did, they surprisingly erased the disconnect for me. The “stories” had their own validity, but they weren’t delusions. When they entered my mind, they didn’t come with that painful shock of re-experiencing his death anymore. Does that make sense? And the more I recorded them, the more joyful they became. It was like I was visiting him. It was like I could be near him again.
ZS: I sometimes feel skeptical when people talk about joy and gratitude, when that emphasis seems like it could deny suffering (or make others feel ashamed for not being immediately or totally joyful), rather than emerging, complexly, during grief and other hard experiences. In these poems, I feel that complexity. There’s one in which “you decide to occupy alternate structures of metaphysical space” and eventually “enter some undetectable sphere and completely disappear.” I feel a kind of radiant joy here–of cosmic transformation, awesome possibility–but also loss. Could you say more about the “joyful” quality of these poems? It’s sometimes ordinary and sometimes fantastical, ranging from “lawn sprinklers starting up” to building “an elaborate village out of plumbing.” Do you have favorite poets of joy? Thinkers or artists who helped while you were writing these?
LH: I know what you mean about the skepticism around “joy” and “gratitude.” One of the hardest books I read after Ryan died was Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, in which she instructs readers to avoid “hope.” Everything inside of me revolted against this idea because I was raised, like most of us were, to find strength in what might be — to hang on until things “got better.” But she insisted no: don’t avoid reality. It is rich right now. Be with what is really happening, presently. Be with the pain, be with the suffering. Attend to it and sit with it. Don’t avoid it. She instructs us to go towards the emotions that scare us, that make us uncomfortable. In this way, she says, you are strengthening your ability to cope with the discomfort. And in this way you are aren’t blinding yourself to the joy that exists between the pain, alongside the pain.
When I read this, I viewed it as a quest. I imagined myself as a traveler in the world of pain. I tried to approach it with courage, like a mission I was on. And it was hard at first. I would sit with the overwhelming nausea of sadness, with the clenching, wailing pain, with the headaches and exhaustion. I tried not to run away. And as I did this, I realized that I was building a skill, a set of tools, for dealing with loss. Life is full of loss; why not become skillful at handling it?
Pretty soon, I started to view moments of emotional distress as an opportunities to practice accepting and tolerating those emotions. Just like how you would practice for a marathon, or lift weights, I was training for life. It worked – and what I found on the other side of the pain was joy. Joy was there, every day. In the midst of the crying, the sleeplessness, the headaches, the nausea — in the midst of all of this, I would have a sip of coffee and it would taste amazing. I would sit on a chair and it would feel soft. Even inside the worst days, tiny joys populated my world. I just had to notice them. And they were magnified when I allowed myself to feel the unpleasant things entirely too. What an odd truth, right?: that the more I opened up to the pain, the more I opened up equally to the happiness. I was suddenly rich with glee.
Ko Un is my favorite poet of joy. His work is so funny, clever, silly, energetic, and he was writing most of it from inside a jail cell, as a political prisoner in Korea. If that isn’t a representation of joy alongside suffering, then I don’t know what is.
ZS: That meditational approach reminds me of the observations and propositions in the book’s third and sixth sections. They can seem assuring and amused (“Time is an illusion, but only an adult writes that down”), wry and wise (“I’m going to feel some old gravity today”). Unlike the poems we’ve been talking about–which have a narrative, a situation–the poems in those sections are collections of four to eight statements. They variously respond to and veer from preceding lines. What they’re up to, rhetorically, feels pretty delicate. Let’s imagine that someone (me!) is going to teach this book some day (soon!). What would you tell students about how you settled on the order of lines in those poems? I mean, the last two lines of one poem read, “The snow glitters are glowing / No one gets old in this house.” Why do they appear in that order? Or perhaps these poems reflect the sequence of composition? Or another process of arrangement?
LH: These poems were partially inspired by your work! I loved the way you arrange singular lines on the page, letting the lines have their own space. It was revolutionary to me to see you write poems like that — I didn’t even realize that was a possibility. So thank you, genius friend.
And yes, in the sections you are talking about, section 3 and section 6, the poems are made of disparate lines that I have been collecting over the years. Most of these lines are from a secret protected Twitter account that I created to catalog great phrases and poetry that arose from the world around me — from my daughter, from my therapists and counselors, from my grief work — all in one place. I liked using Twitter because it was a fast way to write these things down, while out in the world. I had previously been trying to use notebooks and scraps and envelops to write down, for instance, the crazy amazing things that my daughter was saying while we walked somewhere, but everything kept getting lost. I realized that always had my phone with me, so I could just quickly add a tweet and then I knew where it was. After about a year, there were probably around 200 “tweets” in the private account — that was when I decided to work with them.
Putting them in order was just amazing fun, more fun than I have had with poetry in a while. I printed them all out from Twitter, and then I cut out each phrase so that I had a bunch of little strips of paper. Then I spread them all out on a big table and tried to find the lines that “liked” each other. It was a totally intuitive and very physical process: I was moving paper all around the table into little groups. Some lines really liked each other! If I felt like a grouping was complete, I would tape the lines down onto a piece of paper and see how they worked as a full poem. Rarely, but sometimes, they worked right away and the poem was done. But more often than not I had to rearrange again. So I would cut up the paper with the taped down lines and start again. There were a lot of lines that got left out entirely too — they didn’t make it into the book. This was heartbreaking to me. But such is the cruel world of poetry.
ZS: The sense of being in conversation with children (or with a child) comes up elsewhere: “L: What’s that face? / E: It’s a mad face of no scissors.” Other pieces have a related sensibility (“How about when I was nine I married a panda?”). Could you talk more about the influence of parenting on your imagination?
LH: Becoming a parent catapulted my poetry to a higher level. This was a surprise: I would have thought the opposite to be true, honestly, when I first had my daughter. At that time, right after her birth, I thought my writing life was over. Informed by the way that society tends to box people into categories — especially women — I truly believed that I was now a “mother” and nothing else. But something strange happened. I kept writing. And because I had resigned myself to the box of “mother” I didn’t really think anyone would ever read what I was writing. So the work — if you could even call it that — became very honest, odd, silly and, most importantly, it became especially raw. Then one day, almost accidentally, one of my friends read some of it in a notebook and said “you need to publish this.” And a few months later this amazing journal Thermos (!) took some of it, and the feedback I received from readers was as overwhelming as it was surprising. People liked it. Which was weird to me!
As for the influence of parenting on my imagination, I would say it is substantial. First of all, pushing a human body out of your own body is nuts. There is no way to really NOT write about that. But also, witnessing how my daughter newly and fiercely interacts with the world — a world with which as an adult I have become weary — this reignited my imagination, my wonder, my child-mind. My daughter has recently told me that she “copyrights” everything she says now; this is because for a long time I was constantly writing down her words! It was super annoying to her, but dang it was pure gold to me. There is a point in a child’s life (for my daughter it was between age 3 – 6) where they are simultaneously trying to figure out how the actual world works and at the same time learning how their native language works. This results in uncontained, unabashed, nearly cosmic and absolutely transcendental poetry. I feel like every child at this point is an award-winning poet. I know the phrase “blew my mind” is overused, but seriously, what my child said on a daily basis BLEW MY MIND. Her necessary curiosity led to –> an insistent need to describe and question, which led to –> nearly obsessive attempts to explain using the fragmented and mysterious sounds (language) that she heard around her. It is a recipe for fantastic poetry, am I right?
ZS: So what’s the recipe for poetry for you these days? I know you also make and are involved with other types of art (and politics, and community life). What’s your relationship with poetry like now?
LH: This is a great question! So, like many of us after the 2016 election, I felt personally attacked in a variety of ways. I felt like half of the nation wanted me, and people like me, to suffer and fail. It felt like there was this palpable desire in the air for people like me to suffer. And at first, I was giving in to that suggestion. I was full of grief, sadness, fear, defeat. But then I had the thought: “the best revenge is a life well-lived.” And I realized that part of my activism could be to thrive. Simply to thrive. To thrive as a female. To thrive as a writer. To help others thrive too, inside the larger intersectionality of writers of color, LGBTQ writers, disadvantaged writers, writers with disabilities. So I decided that in the face of that hatred, I would refocus the negative energy being targeted at me and — like a ninja! — turn it into success. This became a mission. I had a plan. I think I even wrote it down, something like:
- Clean house — physically, mentally, financially. Get your shit in order.
- Organize, resist, be active. Assign yourself weekly volunteering and political tasks, and do them stoically.
- Excel at your own work. Use the negative energy to propel both your artistic work and your vocational work forward.
And this change in perspective immediately helped me. I felt newly empowered by this challenge. So I put my senators on speed-dial. I signed up for Wall-of-Us and Moms Demand Action and the ACLU and Big Brothers Big Sisters. I found a local woman (the amazing Ruthina Malone!) running for school board whose ideas I really liked, and I joined her team. And I set aside a weekly budget to hire a babysitter so that I could write for a few hours each Sunday. All of this was highly focusing. And out of this focused energy came two new manuscripts. I sent them out. I was really doing it! And this prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, this prize that I had been submitting to for 12 years — it appeared!; they called me up, and they told me I had won it.
Of course, a couple of months later I would run out of steam, break down at bit, and have to start the “recover” part of the plan. But recovery is part of the work too.
A Folio of Poems by Lauren Halderman
Zach Savich’s latest books include the poetry collection The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016) and Diving Makes the Water Deep, a forthcoming memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship. He is also the author of the poetry collections Full Catastrophe Living (University of Iowa, 2009), Annulments (Center for Literary Publishing, 2010), The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), and Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2013), as well as a book of prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand (Rescue Press, 2011). His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the CSU Poetry Center’s Open Award, and Omnidawn’s Chapbook Prize. His poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, A Public Space, VOLT, jubilat and other journals and anthologies. A former editor with the Kenyon Review, Savich teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.