“The Trauma Mantras: A Conversation with Adrie Kusserow” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling 

Adrie Kusserow is a cultural anthropologist whose ethnographic fieldwork has focused on refugees from Uganda, South Sudan, Bhutan, India and Vermont. She has written four books, two books of poetry with BOA Editions, Ltd. (REFUGE and Hunting Down the Monk), an ethnography American Individualisms (Palgrave MacMillan) and her forthcoming book The Trauma Mantras (Duke University Press), a memoir in prose poems. She is currently Chair of the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont where she teaches. She lives with her husband and mother in Underhill, Vermont on the same land where she was born and raised.

KMD:  Why did this particular story necessitate a hybrid form? 

The Trauma Mantras is an ethnographic memoir in mostly prose poems and lyric essays. Much of it focuses on my fieldwork with refugees over the past two decades in Bhutan, Nepal, India, Uganda and South Sudan as well as Vermont where I live. Long ago, when I was getting my doctorate in graduate school in cultural anthropology, I kept getting frustrated by academic articles, both reading and trying to write them. They couldn’t hold the subtlety, nuance and multidimensionality of the people I was doing fieldwork with – the language was too constrained and stiff, the format too tight. I needed metaphor, image, rhythm, poetry in order to evoke the complexity and richness of what I was witnessing. So I turned to poetry, sneaking in classes on the side of my regular coursework. I also found that academic articles couldn’t hold my presence either. According to the British male social anthropologists granting my degree, I was supposed to be removed, completely objective, literally absent from my writing, which in anthropological field work is never the case. So I needed a form that allowed me to braid my own experience as a mother, wife, daughter, American into the anthropological perspective through which I was studying the world. So I’d say my book is a combination of autoethnography, poetry and lyric essay, but it’s also an anthropological tool. I actually use my ethnographic writing to bring me closer to the people and situations I find myself in. They allow me a fierce meditation and analysis on the bodily subtleties, nonverbal behavior, and energetic shifts that travel underneath conventional depictions of reality. It is also a memoir of witness, because I have always felt I should never hide from the inequalities of this world. It is also a manifesto of sorts, at times a feisty critique of Western approaches to the self, suffering and healing. Early on in the book I interrogate the way American culture prizes a psychologized individualism, the supposedly fragile self. I’ve always had a huge hunger to bust out of such narrow confines of individualism. I’m always looking for ways to widen the American self so that it includes what so many other cultures include within the self: tribe, family, ancestors, land, trees, animism. I tried in this book to not let myself off the hook, and much of it is also a rigorous reflection on my own position and commitments. As I travel, I am privy to the ways in which people stereotype the `West’ or `East’ – and social media has only made this more extreme, so some of what I write about is about these fictions. I’m also fascinated by the stories we tell about ourselves and obsessively weave from the available dominant cultural meanings that surround us. For years I wrote ethnographic poetry only, but found I wanted more of an essay that could accommodate my anthropological perspective. So I suppose the book is more of a multi-brid than a hybrid. Duke had a devil of a time trying to get me to call them prose poems, because I don’t think of many of the 1-3 page vignettes as poems at all. 

KMD:  What do hybrid forms make possible for you as a writer?  What do they offer — in terms of artistic resources — that might be difficult to achieve within the confines of more traditional ways of writing?   

I think of the book as a combination of ethnographic poetry, memoir and lyric essay. Not all of the pieces are based on ethnographic research, however. I wanted the book to be “wide” enough to allow both ethnographic creative writing and non-ethnographic. Ethnographic poetry is part of a growing movement of experimental approaches to ethnography and anthropological inquiry that have gained momentum since the 1990s. Like many anthropologists, I was looking for the most nuanced ways to represent and understand issues encountered in my research in Uganda, South Sudan,Vermont and Bhutan and was particularly drawn to the ways in which form, metaphor, image, rhythm and affect could convey profound subtleties of meaning and bring me to places of fresh insight. During my research, I found that poetry was not something I waited to write until after fieldwork was complete but was helpful in the process of observation itself. Ethnographic poetry could give rise to aesthetic, less linear ways of thinking about the field experience. Ethnographic poetry is not just about accurately describing an experience but using the insight of its acutely nuanced language and artistic aesthetic to bring a wider array of meaning(s) to these facts than conventional wisdom offered. Far from being a kind of epiphenomenal icing on the cake, poetry encouraged a more rigorous analysis and theoretical understanding of what I observed. In this way, poetry embodied and emboldened my ethnographic research, requiring me to probe behaviors with all my senses. It also gave me the tool of metaphor, which helped me express and pay more deliberate attention to the many ways culture is embodied in the senses of those we study and attempt to represent for others. Vague and generic words do not help anthropologists or their readers crawl intovthe rich, multi-dimensional places most humans inhabit. Hence, ethnographic poetry is not something that simply reflects an initial ethnographic insight; it is an active ethnographic tool, a deep and refined phenomenological probing, as opposed to a dreamy, distant musing. The tentacles of the ethnographic poem, through image, metaphor, language, form and rhythm, enable me to inch even closer to the complex, subtle experiences I am trying to describe and understand. 

KMD:  You have had a rich and interesting career outside of and beyond the poetry community.  Can you speak to the value of experiences outside of the literary world, particularly when it comes to offering a unique artistic perspective?  

I have always preferred looking at the world from a cross-cultural perspective, a large, existential, wide gaze as if looking down on planet earth and noticing patterns. I have never been very drawn to confessional poetry unless it points to the ways cultural values, beliefs and practices shape the deepest parts of the psyche. I have been amazed at how many editors have cherished what they see as a unique global perspective which they feel is quite refreshing. I do think my anthropological perspective has helped me a great deal in getting my writing published in mainstream journals because most poets don’t write from this perspective. 

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us? 

In sociology and anthropology there is a famous article used in introductory classes called Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. It describes the everyday rituals of this exotic tribe, which students then learn is America spelled backwards – the Nacirema. 

Write about some American ritual as if you were viewing and experiencing it for the first time and you had never been in America before.

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can our readers look forward to?  

I’m currently working on a book of lyric essays about aging, Buddhism and taking care of my 91 year old mother, who lives with us in Underhill, Vermont. There is a lot of anthropology in it, of course, and I approach the way Americans treat the elderly from a cross cultural perspective. In the book I explore the ways in which I try and “save” my mother from her suffering and fear of death, by helping her see life and death from a more Buddhist perspective. My attempts at pulling this off are not always successful!  Much of the book also explores why it is so hard for children to take care of their elderly parents because we are so primed by a culture buzzing with productivity, efficiency, social media, technology, and a very fast paced way of life. We come home from our jobs, work, multi tasking and it literally feels like a train crashing to a dead stop when we encounter the elderly, their slower pace, non linear thought can feel quite frustrating when we are so tightly wound with speed.