Photo credit: Cambridge Jones

Survivor’s Notebook, Acre Books, 2023

Hear Dan read from Survivor’s Notebook

Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? 

Dan O’Brien: I started writing these prose poems in early 2017, soon after finishing treatment for stage 4 colon cancer; my wife had been treated for stage 2 breast cancer in the six months prior to my diagnosis. So together, and as a family with our then three-year-old daughter, we were inching toward life again, encountering sudden and frequent bursts of joy, relief, fear, grief, gratitude. 

I wrote poetry during my wife’s treatment and during mine, which eventually became the collection Our Cancers (Acre Books, 2021), and those poems were minimalist, like shards of experience, memories and visions that arrived from my subconscious in the maelstrom of the trauma. With these new prose poems I was following an instinct to engage with life again, and to me life is nearly synonymous with talk. So in these poems I was talking poetically to myself, and also to some imagined future confidant, as I tried to figure out who I was and could be after catastrophe. I didn’t want to talk only about catastrophe, by the way—many of these poems are humorous, or they’re meant to be, as I was learning to trust and take delight in the everyday again.

I’m a playwright as well, so I think of these poems as a hybrid with monologue, and with memoir, as I’m writing so candidly about myself here. The book also includes photos that meant a lot to me during my first few years post-treatment — photos of my reexamined past in New York, Providence, Tennessee, Ireland, and photos of my reawakening present in Los Angeles. I’m shocked, for many reasons, to realize that I’ve worked on these poems for several years now. Whatever coherence the collection possesses is due to my compulsion to revise, a desire to be economical with word, theme, structure — trying my best to serve “the story,” as I was beginning to understand my story. There’s my playwright’s instinct for dramaturgy again.  

What was your favorite thing about writing it? 

DO: The happiest aspect of this book’s composition is that I was alive to write it at all. To be on the other side of extensive and intensive treatment was (and still is) astonishing to me. And astonishment is energizing, and of course conducive to poetry. As with Our Cancers, the impetus for the poems was intuitive — memories were surfacing, moments and experiences in the present were announcing themselves as something I should pay attention to. The process of revising was an investigation into each poem’s meaning: what was it trying to tell me about what I’d been through, about my new self, about my marriage and my family? Stylistically and linguistically I was energized by the poetic-conversational voice that was coming through. I felt freed from the solemnity of “poetry,” and free to find music in a more personal species of speech. 

Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including or that was particularly challenging to you to write? 

DO: The book is structured as a symbolic year, grouped by seasons — spring, summer, winter, and spring again — with poems arranged along an emotional and psychological arc. The “Winter” section deals with the challenges my wife and I faced in our marriage post-treatment. Something that’s not often talked about is the havoc that cancer can cause in a marriage or partnership. This section was not so much difficult to write as difficult to make public. What’s included in the collection is very much a joint decision — my wife and I had to both agree that the poems have a value that’s worth our feeling vulnerable. My wife is an artist — an actor and a writer — and she believes passionately, as I do, in the necessity to transgress the taboo of a major illness like cancer. 

What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and surprising, or for some other reason?

DO: While editing the manuscript I kept only those poems that came to me in a way that felt surprising. Any poem in my in-process “notebook” that felt too self-aware or constructed I eventually tossed out. Many of the poems that have stayed with me, as I enter my seventh year post-treatment, are about my daughter. She was so young — still a baby, really — when my wife was diagnosed. Now she’s almost ten years old, and full of such grace and poise that I’m astonished again — or astonished continually — that I have been able to be her father as she grows up. 

As I write this the northeast is blanketed in smoke from the wildfires in Canada, and the photos and testimonies online remind me of the many fires we’ve fled in recent years here in Southern California. During one of our flights into the desert I wrote a first draft of the following lines, about love and joy simultaneous with destruction: “At home the hills are rolling molten while / fountains babble here. I follow my darling’s darting footfalls through / the flowering branches of a maze. I used to worry but now I laugh until / it’s gone.”

Can you share a few other works that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? 

DO: The confessional poets were hugely formative for me as a young writer — Sexton, Plath, Lowell — and probably all of my poetry has been autobiographical when it hasn’t been avowedly narrative/biographical. 

My plays were for many years fictional, often fictional accounts of historical stories, but for the past decade or so my plays have been memoir or documentary or both at once. So the impulse to risk exposure in my work has been with me since I started writing. I don’t know if anyone would necessarily think of the confessional poets while reading this book, because these are prose poems, among other reasons, but perhaps they’d think of monologists like Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, David Cale. The influence of these artists and this kind of theatre was present around the edges of my awareness while writing this. 

I’m happy that there’s an audiobook of Survivor’s Notebook available, because the performance of these poems is fundamental to what they are. I mean, the poems were written primarily for the page, but I hope the reader can hear my voice in their ear. 

Dan O’Brien’s poetry collections are Survivor’s Notebook, Our Cancers, War Reporter (winner of the UK’s Fenton Aldeburgh Prize), New Life, and Scarsdale. His poems have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals including 32 Poems, Birmingham Poetry Review, Cincinnati Review, The Fiddlehead, Hopkins Review, Missouri Review, North American Review, Poetry Ireland, Poetry Review, The Southern Review, Yale Review, and ZYZZYVA. O’Brien is the recipient of playwriting honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two PEN America Awards. His plays have premiered off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally. His nonfiction has been published in The American Scholar, The Guardian, Literary Hub, New England Review, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. His memoir From Scarsdale: A Childhood, and a trilogy of his plays entitled True Story, are forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press in September. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.