“States of flailing and difficulty”: A Conversation with Prageeta Sharma about Writing and Grieving – curated by Cassandra Cleghorn

Prageeta Sharma is the author of the poetry collections Grief Sequence (Wave Books, 2019), Undergloom (Fence Books, 2013), Infamous Landscapes (Fence Books, 2007), The Opening Question (Fence Books, 2004), which won the 2004 Fence Modern Poets Prize, and Bliss to Fill (Subpress, 2000). She is the founder of the conference Thinking Its Presence: Race, Creative Writing, Literary Studies and Art. A recipient of the 2010 Howard Foundation Award, she has taught at the University of Montana and now teaches at Pomona College.

Cassandra J. Cleghorn:   Thanks so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me about your new book from Wave, Grief Sequence. The book records the process of working through the “complicated grief” you’ve experienced since your husband, Dale Edwin Sherrard, died suddenly almost four years ago. Grief Sequence is such a bracing read — by which I mean, I need to brace myself to read it, and, as I’m reading, I feel braced, held by your extraordinary attention on this most difficult of emotions and processes. I’ve been living with the book since it came out last month, dipping into it for fragments, and rereading it sequentially — which latter method, of course, the book’s title suggests. 

I want to start with the notion of sequence itself. The concept takes me by surprise, inasmuch as it suggests succession, the logic of cause and effect, “continuity of progression,” as quoted from the dictionary definition included at the end of your book. And yet, the poems themselves seem to belie the idea of progress. You’ve told me that the book is, in part, about difficulty. In “Sets of Things,” you write: “I wonder what things really are, if they are just a set of symbols we sequence and then find purposeful” (43). Dickinson’s great poem about grief (“[Pain has an element of blank]”) proposes that pain “has no future but itself,” as if even the passage of time is short-circuited by grief’s shock.

And yet, writing is always an adventure in sequencing, however free-form or experimental it may be. In light of this conundrum, I wonder how you approached the writing of these pieces? How is writing like and unlike grieving for you? What is the work of meaning making?

Prageeta Sharma:  Thank you for inviting me to have this conversation with you. I think I am finally able to take some distance from this book and see it as a reflection of the stages I was in during the writing and early grieving process. It has become a true document defining my grieving stages, for me, which was what I had wanted to do.

I love Dickinson and those lines, and the idea of being in its present (no future) feeling rings so very true. I am thinking especially about what had been said to by widows and widowers; most would discuss their healing and grieving in cycles of days, months, and years: raw time and moving forward. In the first six months, I was desperate to feel something restorative, new, or different, beyond the inconsolable feelings that felt endless. As I grew stronger, I started to realize how unique the set of feelings around grief were. I started to see what it was teaching me, what its affordances looked like. This is when I realized that the healing process was, in some ways, designed to make you look at the layers of your set of “selves” in terms of defenses and neurosis. Grieving felt like a pure, raw time that you protected from other kinds of pain, dull and banal ones. I also felt free to say what I truly felt, without filters.

The first drafts were raw and then I plodded through, looking for my voice and trying to find my own set of answers or desires. What I realize now is that the writing only became more imaginative and elegant as I continued to revise for clarity and effect. So I guess my answer is that my writing changed its timbre, tone, and objectives the more distance I took from some of the subjects and feelings. I also wanted to think about what the elegy really meant to me, and how, through grieving, the form felt too contrived. I wanted these poems to match the state of flailing and difficulty I felt, its messiness. 

CJC:  Your answers feel so consonant with my reading of your book, Prageeta. Pure and raw, indeed. The beauty of flailing and difficulty. I love your naming of shifts of “timbre.” This evocation of sound makes sense to me. I heard your voice in this book, more than in most. Keens, sobs, long stretches empty of sound.

You reference a psychological condition or diagnosis, “complicated grief” (also called “persistent complex bereavement disorder”). When I first read this, I thought: Isn’t all grief complicated? But then I opened myself to the idea that there are different kinds of grief, different levels that seep and muddle into one another. That is, sets of processes that are by no means as orderly — or sequential — as the five “stages of grief” that have become a cultural commonplace. 

Can you tell me more about “complicated [spiritual] grief” and how that diagnosis or label helped you understand what was happening to you in the wake of Dale’s death?

PS:  I do believe there are distinctions to be made between the grief of losing a “pure love” and the grief of losing a complicated love. I’ve found myself more honest about this “complicated grief” as the years pass. And finding this diagnostic phrase helped me immensely in framing the poems the way I needed them to be. 

Dale struggled with a lot more pain and suffering than I realized while he was alive. I learned lots of painful truths after he passed, which made the grieving pretty wrenching — there were things I learned about a month out, and then things I pieced together several months later. I felt deeply betrayed and yet wanted to have the integrity of my marriage and my love for him honored, somehow, for myself. We had also been through so much together that I felt I deserved to have the marriage I believed I had, and I knew in all of his shame, he wanted this for me too. 

Because Dale fell unconscious from a brain tumor two months after his diagnosis, I was left without closure. Thus my grieving took on lots of unexpected pain and I lost a sense of trust I felt was sacred. But along with the sadness I felt after his death I started to also believe that we all live with our vices and needs. I gave him a good life, the best I could give, and he tried to give me the best of who he was. 

CJC:  I so appreciate your candor — again, totally consistent with your book. You’ve helped me think about the force of secrets in our most intimate relationships. We all do carry such sealed off pockets, no? So many motives, conscious and unconscious, at varying degrees of intentionality. 

Such withholdings become all the more potent when they are discovered (or guessed at) after a loved one’s death. In this light, the losses are very much about closed-off futures, never-to-happen conversations that may have opened into who knows what, refused versions of oneself and one’s partner (singly) and of the marriage or relationship you held together. How to accept the myriad unreconcilable versions of what once had with that absolute absence, which is what one now has?

What we’re talking about here also runs through the book, with awesome singularity of purpose. That is, despite your embrace of “messiness,” great coherence emerges from this work. And this coherence derives, in part, from the logic of sequence.

For example, in “Sequence 1”: first, as you’re exploring how you lived for so long together with “the dominion of freedom” until the diagnosis when: “I was struck back up, bent forward and sprung from my dry hapless complacency” (13). And then, “I was a nobody outside of his illness, as was he, but there was no togetherness in there except for something I craved of him and he of me.”  And then, “It was a disaster of insufficiency that now I learn is what death does with you, if you watch it take out what it needs” (14). Here’s a narrative sequence with familiar temporal cues: Back then, I lived in the moment, “helping myself. . .to the party of coupledom in its normality.” Then, the aorist blow. And, finally, the lessons learned. Stripped bare, the sequence is familar.

And yet, I don’t mean to reduce the subtlety of this piece — readers who have not read the book should run to order it right now from Wave Books! Under the familiar formula I just identified, you radically reimagine the logic of progress. Healing happens over time, but not by way of or in service to understanding or mastery. Instead, you come to what you call “hermetic opulence” (71). “Now, we can just take this morning and stretch out a line of aporia, an aphoristic single-sided horizon of trees, buildings, and sky” (66). That is, through grief (and poetry) you arrive at  a state that holds its own secrets, its own occlusions and withholdings. This isn’t even unknowing. It’s more like anti-knowing.

In its most generous reach, Grief Sequence thus seems to be a meditation on the chastened possibilities for poetry about loss, “simply the utterance of what half-thoughts can look like when we can’t help but speak to ourselves” (72). Is chastened too strong a word to use here? Can you say more about how writing this book changed your sense of what poetry can do in light of “the failure of life to death”?

PS:  The gift of discussing these poems with you is getting a chance to experience how a reader interprets the phrasing or these sequences — another way for me to reflect on the nature of my own growth that time has allowed me to have. Throughout writing this book I was reading Alice Notley, Roland Barthes, and Audre Lorde — analyzing their styles and approaches to writing about tough subjects — and also listening deeply to 70s lite rock, to narrative songs that felt like lyrics spoken from the dead, overwritten and overwrought sentimentality without apology and with a kind of extreme exposition in description which all felt raw, real and healing to me to write through: Bread’s David Gates, Olivia Newton John Stevie Wonder, Marty Balin, Bob Welch, Fleetwood Mac, Joan Armatrading, et. al. These were songs I listened to as a child and they were the first songs that invited me to have an inner life with them. Those early months, I went back in time to heal myself with songs that described experiences I had not yet had. This was a “song-track” to the adult desires I knew I was eager to have, and thus thinking through their lyrics gave me a new interiority in the grieving process. I was now having the explicit experiences in many of the songs. 

In my poems I wanted to rewrite the lyrics and build poems with more substance and strangeness but that carried a kind of exposition. This new kind of exposition for my lyric was to find language, abstraction, and found text, that gave me freedom to find my own way through and an authentic voice for my feelings. The “anti-knowing” was a state I felt and wanted to make as a real point of departure, so that I could arrive at fallibilities in difficult truths that could still feel like solid truths. Also, because of there being so much trauma around Dale’s death, when I found myself falling in love again and having experiences that were not associated with any betrayals or secrets, I felt a deep cathartic sense of hope that I had not felt for many, many years. I think the book tried to capture this new feeling — one that was deeply sentimental, and which I felt both ashamed of and grateful for. I love thinking about what I arrive at, “a new state.” I think it’s that truth of understanding. I have told myself now that I did the best I could, and just had to write through that condition of circumstance. 

CJC:  I love this. (Your mention of the “song-track” of the book reminds me of the marvelous piece you wrote about how you used 70s soft rock and the “over-explaining” of lyric-lite to help you grieve — for my money, the best writing about pop songs since Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar.) 

What are you learning as you put this book out to the world? What has surprised you most about responses to the book?

PS:  I am learning that I am trying to be more honest about this particular experience of grief, and to forgive myself for how hostile, disappointed, and difficult I might have been in many stages of this journey. At the same time, I am pleased having a new kind of intimacy in my relationships and only keep friendships that are built on trust and intimacy. I have been sad about losing friendships, but I think many people don’t realize the luxury they have to scrutinize, alienate, misunderstand a person in deep grieving. You really don’t know what it’s like to lose your significant other. Even if they were complicated and difficult, they were still your person. You don’t get over it, you move through it. I don’t know if this answer is about the book, but it’s about the journey I had in completing the book. 

Responses to the book have been so generous, and I also love the support I have experienced from Wave Books. They have been kind, supportive, and deep guides throughout this process. Joshua Beckman has been a tremendous editor. I feel indebted to him and the Wave family for this book. They believed in me, which is healing in itself. 

CJC:  Thank you so much for your time, creativity and thoughtfulness, dear Prageeta!