VI KHI NAO: During your abbreviated interlude from the cognitive and remedial consumption of social work, you gave birth to a chapbook titled “Another Life” published by Counterpath Press. Could you speak about your experience with publishing a book for the first time? What was it like? Are you devastated by its raw vulnerability and intelligence or surged by its invaluable currency to make a difference in the lives of your readers?
KATIE EBBITT: “Another Life” was the first work I had ever published. It was written when I was sleeping sixteen hours a day, and was paralyzed by sleep. I was laid off from a job I hated at a tech firm. During the nights, I worked at a club. I only wanted to be asleep, so I slept and slept, and cried about the amount of time I slept when I was awake. I was involved in materialist feminist groups at the time, centered largely on healing practice. I am trying to remember the specific circumstances of writing “Another Life” but it was written so quickly. A lot was written on the subway or in twilight sleep.
Poetry saved me in many ways, and the publication of “Another Life” was the best thing that ever happened in my life. Poetry saved me in a religious way — that it touched me and brought me into a space of healing and artistry that I was so desperate for it hurt, and I knew that a healing space was available and I was searching, but wasn’t sure where to search and not until poetry came to me, and in many ways not until the publication of “Another Life,” did that search for a healing space subside. I did a reading with Judy Grahn and CA Conrad and Judy said “speak up, because you have something to say.” And I thought, I want to always be quiet, and insurgent and make people listen closely and in turn listen very, very closely to others. I feel so much life force and love feeling and I want those feelings to burn the world.
I do have a space of authority working as a clinical social worker. There is very little creativity in being a therapist for me, in the sense that therapeutic intervention is based on rules and specific modalities, and while you blend and intuit these practices, it’s from an automatic, prescribed space. Poetry for me is about the body, but an etheric body. My work as a therapist is not about me. It’s about facilitating a space of healing for the people I work with. Poetry is mine though.
VKN: Naturally, with your clinical background, your poetry directly and daily confronts mental health quite a bit: on healing and redemption. Letter(s) you wrote addressed to Ana Cristina Cesar, who committed suicide when she was only 31 years, appears here as an epistolary chaplet. Your letter attempts to anachronistically persuade her out of her suicide, or at least the conversation invites the temptation for conversion. What do you think is the best way to alter or change the stigma or negative stereotypes around mental health and the health care system? What was it like writing these potentially anti-suicide missives?
KE: Killing yourself is very difficult. I think people don’t understand this. It’s much easier to kill yourself accidentally. But killing yourself purposely is against instinct. Humans want to live. Not necessarily the psyche, but the body does, the life force does want to live. I wouldn’t do the work I do professionally as a therapist is I believed that there is no respite from mental illness. Most diagnosable conditions, despite being chronic, can be managed. Living with disease isn’t fun, but no feeling is forever, even if the brain makes you think it is. I work with a lot of people who are suicidal. Insurrection shouldn’t be against the self. Devastation shouldn’t be against the self. I believe that death should be reserved for the conditions that make living with a mental illness so debilitating as to be fatal.
For a long time I thought I wasn’t scared of death, but that isn’t true anymore, and it’s part of the reason I started writing to Ana C. Suicidality is a feeling that takes over and grinds all desire out. I am scared of that desperation because that degree of suffering is so tiring as to seem terminal; the waiting for a tide to shift and some happiness to appear. Ana is dead. I know she won’t answer. But if she ever does, I want to talk her out of it. I want to talk her out of death.
VKN: Are you familiar with poet & playwright Sarah Kane? For instance, her 4:48 Psychosis? Sarah Kane killed herself at the young age of 28. If you write her like Ana C, she probably won’t answer either. But maybe, one could have a dialogue with one of her plays. In her famous play, Crave, she wrote, “What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is simply the absence of grief”—and then about five lines after this, character A (the characters, not in alphabetical order, are A, B, C) announces, “I am an emotional plagiarist, stealing other people’s pain, subsuming it into my own until I can’t remember whose anymore.” Have you ever been a psychological plagiarist? If one has to be a plagiarist, what kind of plagiarist would you wish to be?
KE: I am familiar with the work of Sarah Kane because of you, sweetest Vi. I am familiar with Ana C because of you too.
The absence of grief to me is ecstasy, but I believe I know what Sarah means: she means that sadness takes all the fitness from life, and in those moments when you’re not in full mourning, it feels a little better — but you’re still aware it’s darkness all around. Sadness is so tiring. It’s impossible to be tired for years and years without respite. It’s not tenable.
Regarding psychological plagiarism, I don’t believe this exists. I believe all humans have capacity for emotions, but some have a wider spectrum than others. That’s what mental illness is to me: having a wider emotional spectrum. If you have the capacity to feel something or a predisposition to feel something, you’ll feel it. It’s not plagiarism if it’s mimicking initially but then you discover it’s intrinsically felt.
For me, and I have to do this clinically, I believe that very little of what I am exposed to is mine. And what I decide is emotionally mine, then I will deal with it as I will.
VKN: Plagiarism may be Kane’s fancy way of saying that sometimes pain doesn’t always arrive quickly or efficiently to us, like a foreign entity invading without permission, and sometimes existence has to find a host, such as the consciousness of Sarah Kane, who can be most efficient or systematic at inhabiting or housing such psychological, emotional, surrealistic pain. What do you hope to achieve with these Ana C letters, Katie? How would you like readers to consume or read them?
KE: I agree with you. Mental pain very seldom comes quickly. Sadness creeps in for months and months and then years and years, and many people know something is wrong, but aren’t sure what it is. It’s very difficult to understand illness and discomfort, to understand that something isn’t quite right, especially if that feeling seems part of you in a way that is precious or important. I think depression is like a baby that sufferers want to nurse, but also want to kill. How do you kill something that seemingly comes from you, and shapes all experience? It’s about reminding yourself you can live without the baby.
It takes double or triple the time to recover from a depressive episode then to slip into it. And really, how do you recover from a chronic disease?
I am not sure what I am trying to achieve in writing to Ana C. I am writing to myself. I am writing to Ana C to say I wish she hadn’t killed yourself. I am writing to tell her how much she means to me, though she is dead and doesn’t know me and never will. I writing to say I am so sorry that she felt the need to jump. I am writing to commiserate. I am writing as a protective measure.
VKN: Some say humor can be an antidote to chronic anything. Some people are gifted with the space to write and yet they are unable to write. And then there are others who have no gifts, yet they are able to scoop the ocean into a bowl. Where do you fall? Have you been able to teach a stone how to weep?
KE: Laughing is better than crying, I think. There is an absurdity in illness. What a waste of life to not be well. Wellness is hard won. There is a lot of work that goes into living. I have respect for those suffering from illness, but not for the illness itself.
I often feel unable to write. I write in my dreams, but forget the specifics. I forget my dream writing because the words aren’t clear, and I have a visual memory. I can’t spell waking or sleeping.
Writing with and alongside others is very important to me. The class I took with you, Vi, was extremely transformational and connected me to other poets whom I adore. I have also taken classes online with LA Warman, Elaine Kahn and Ben Fama. I like the digital connection.
Writing means everything to me. It’s my singular absolute.
VKN: Without community, perhaps we would all have ingrown toenails, psychologically. By the way, what is your favorite nail paint color?
KE: When I was younger, I liked bright red nail polish because I would use it as a tactic to remind myself not to eat. I eat now though. I like sparkle colors. I bite my nails.
VKN: I like red nail polish too. I wish we could all micro-write one poem for each of our ten toes. It will need to be brief, maybe haiku-like, but time manages us all the same. I like the idea of poetry being able to talk or take a walk or go naked (without carnal intent) or wiggle. Where did you go when you did not eat?
KE: My joints always crack. It’s a release, so maybe the ligaments’ poetics? I am never sure where I go. I am trying to decide if I believe in time’s existence. I went to a dark place, an underwater place, some place outside of myself but also accessed from an internal entry. I don’t know where I was other than not where I wanted to be. I still paint my nails red, sometimes.
VKN: After you ate or when you resumed eating again, where did you go?
KE: I would go to sleep. I would sleep until I was hungry. Or I would run a long distance until my hands were cold. Sexuality for me is lithe and wanting to be fed.
VKN: Sometimes, in response to the absence of a therapist, we seek a makeshift therapist in our body and in the absence of food. Most therapists tend to be incredibly helpful. Sometimes though, these kind of therapists — we can’t even donate to Goodwill. If you were an architect, say the Zaha Hadid of poetry (curvy, feminine, fluid), what kind of linguistic space would you hope to construct so that your work could be an emotional home for those who are homeless psychologically? If you feel that you have achieved this, what other spaces would you like others (and possibly for yourself) to dwell in?
KE: I think most therapists are bad therapists. I think the majority of medical professionals do more harm than they can conceive. I do behavioral therapy with a specific objective: to help people feel marginally better or not worse. I hope to create a space of healing with therapy. I hope to facilitate some kind of healing.
I want my writing to concentrate on an abrasive healing. I want my writing to be more than healing. I want it to be desired. I want my writing to be a mattress on the floor in a warm room partially lit by lamp light. I want to come to the bed space by way of a long entryway, and I want a lover in the bed naked who is desperately wanted but who doesn’t love you. I want the space to teach you how to be alone and how to be an adult.
VKN: I hope you will never experience electrical outrage, Katie. Or blackouts. What can poetry do that therapy cannot? And, what is the most painful part about social work? Has poetry alleviated that pain for you?
KE: This is selfish: I wish I would blackout sometimes. I feel highly awake, always. Even in sleep.
Regarding, what is painful about social work: I am both a facilitator and witness of state violence through the work that I perform.
Therapy is directive. There are rules in therapy and very specific boundaries. Good therapy should be productive. Good therapy means minimal damage to the person receiving therapy. I am a behavioral therapist. I work on understanding how thoughts and feelings are tied to behaviors, and what the consequences of those behaviors can be. I would hope that poetry doesn’t consider unhappiness or happiness in a corrective way. Poetry is boundless. Poetry is abject.
I don’t need poetry to alleviate pain for me. I can do that without poetry.
VKN: Please do tell me, Katie, what are you working on right now? How is it going? Are you facing blockages or challenges with it? If so, what are they?
KE: I am working on a book regarding being witness to animals in trauma throughout my lifetime. I am struggling with the writing because I am not sure what I am intending to do with the subject. I really love animals. I want to write about them in a way that is respectful.
I continue to write to Ana C. I have written her poems, too. I write to Ana C every day, at least a sentence.
VKN: What is the light like there over in your New York? It was raining a few days ago here in Iowa City. I want global warming to experience dyslexia: rain in the winter months, snow in the summer days. Speaking of dyslexia, what do you think are the benefits of being dyslexic? I know one dis-benefit: dyslexia isn’t good for potential rape victims, verbalizing “yes” when meaning “no” quite firmly. Perhaps as a society, we could spiral out of the conventional binary modes of affirmation and fatalism and seek a more interdisciplinary code of communication.
KE: It is night, but the city is never dark. The weather is not cold and it should be. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the lakes would freeze over so thick cars could drive across them, but now there is no freezing and no cars driving over the water. I feel sick because of it, because of the warmth that is both becoming natural and can never be natural.
Dyslexics have a broader range of vision: we’re scanners, so the way information is absorbed isn’t honed, but expansive. I spell tied as “tide.”
I wish there is no rape. I wish people could recognize and communicate their emotions more accurately. I wish communication was based on care. Communication needs to be more encompassing and more embracing of perceived disability. Communication needs to be simultaneously more forgiving and exacting. It is very hard to communicate.
A Folio of Poetry by Katie EbbittPara Ana
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016; the novel Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016); and the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University.