The Challenge of Poetry

On this episode of The Desk Set, we're talking about poetry, the final category in this year's 10 to Try challenge. We'll talk to three poets. First up, Joy McCullough, author of Blood Water Paint, a historical novel in verse for teens. Next, Washington State Book Award Winner Tara Hardy, author of the collection My, My, My, My, My. Finally, Laura Da', Hugo House's Poet in Residence and author of Instruments of the True Measure.


A note: in her interview, Laura mentions that her residence at Hugo House includes poetry consultations with any member of the public. Learn more about scheduling a consultation with her.

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A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.

Recommended Reading

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Contact

If you'd like to get in touch, send an email to deskset@kcls.org.

Credits

The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the ideaX Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.

Transcript

Emily Calkins:

You're listening to The Desk Set-

Britta Barrett:

... a bookish podcast for reading broadly.

Emily Calkins:

We're your hosts, Emily Calkins-

Britta Barrett:

... and Britta Barrett.

Emily Calkins:

And on this episode, we're talking about books of poetry.

Britta Barrett:

Turns out this was a challenging subject for both of us.

Emily Calkins:

And we heard from many other readers who said that this was the hardest category for them, and they were working on the reading challenge this year, as well.

Britta Barrett:

But, we're very excited to bring you three poet interviews that'll hopefully change your mind.

Emily Calkins:

So first up, we'll talk to Joy McCullough, whose novel, Blood Water Paint, is a novel in verse for teen readers.

Britta Barrett:

And then we talk to Tara Hardy, who is a Washington Book Award winner for her collection, My, My, My, My, My.

Emily Calkins:

And finally, we talk to poet Laura Da', who's the Writer-in-Residence of Hugo House.

Britta Barrett:

All of these authors tackle some difficult subjects.

Emily Calkins:

We'll cover rape and sexual assault. We'll talk about trauma, abuse, and addiction. We just want to give you a heads-up that those things are coming so that you can choose when and where you listen to this episode.

Joy McCullough:

My name is Joy McCullough, and I am a playwright and novelist for books for kids and teens. I also live in Shoreline with my two kids and husband and dog and cat, and I've been in the Seattle area for 17 years.

Emily Calkins:

Your novel Blood Water Paint in a novel in verse. Blood Water Paint is about a painter, and please correct me if I pronounce it wrong, Artemisia Gentileschi?

Joy McCullough:

Gentileschi.

Emily Calkins:

Gentileschi.

Joy McCullough:

Very close.

Emily Calkins:

She's one of the first or the best-known artists of the female artists of the Renaissance. So how did you first learn about here?

Joy McCullough:

I was reading a book.

Emily Calkins:

Yay.

Joy McCullough:

I was reading The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, and she makes just a really quick reference to the name Artemisia, and she says something like, "I wondered if it was," I think it was a café called the Artemisia Café or something, and she says, "I wonder if it was named for the artist or the Roman general," or she names three things. And I thought, I haven't heard of any of those people. I've never heard the name Artemisia. And so I was just curious. And so I went looking for information.

Joy McCullough:

And it was 2001, so there was internet, but it wasn't anything like the internet we have now. So I was able to figure out just a barest minimum about who the painter was, and that sent me to a library.

Joy McCullough:

I was living in Southern California at the time and I went into the library, and I still remember exactly where I was when I pulled this book off the shelf that was about art history and I found this small, little passage about who she was and what her personal story was. And I was just immediately... both so excited to learn about her, but also outraged that I hadn't known who she was before. It seems like a story that we should hear earlier in our lives, in our formative years. And so, and at that time I was only writing plays, but I dove right into research and started writing a play about her.

Emily Calkins:

Talk about that. It started as a play-

Joy McCullough:

Yes.

Emily Calkins:

... and you then turned it into a novel. What was that process like, and why did you decide to tell this story multiple ways?

Joy McCullough:

I studied theater at Northwestern University, and I left definitely focused on playwriting. And I only wrote plays for a lot of years. And if you'd asked me if I'd ever write a novel, I would have said, "No. I absolutely don't. I only write in dialogue. I can't... Definitely not."

Joy McCullough:

And I wrote this play. I started in 2001. It didn't have a full production until 2015.

Emily Calkins:

Oh my gosh.

Joy McCullough:

Yeah. It had a lot of readings and workshops and sort of low-level things, and people would say, "Oh, it's beautiful. It's important. It's whatever, but we're not going to produce it." And finally, 2015, a theater company here in Seattle called Live Girls! Theater that does all new work by women, produced it. And it was a wonderful experience. It was at a little theater in the International District called Theater Off Jackson, and while it was being produced, we... we're talking about a rating for it because there was brief nudity and there's sexual violence in the play. And I think we decided on 14 and up, but it got me thinking how much I really hoped that young people would come see the play because I really wanted them to know about Artemisia's story.

Joy McCullough:

But a small production in one city for a few weeks, even if every show sold out, it wasn't going to reach that many people. And at the time, I wasn't published yet, but I had been working on fiction for a while and I had an agent. And I started to think, well she's 17 for most of the course of the events of the play, and maybe this could be a YA novel. And I ran it by my agent. I didn't think... I thought he was going to say, "That sounds wildly unmarketable," but instead, he said, "I would love to read that," and so I started the process of adapting it into a novel.

Emily Calkins:

Great.

Joy McCullough:

And it became my debut. It sold.

Emily Calkins:

For readers or listeners who aren't familiar with this story, can you give us just sort of a little nutshell of what part of her life is covered in the novel?

Joy McCullough:

Sure. Yeah. She was her father's painting apprentice, which was highly unusual -  to have a girl working in your art studio. But he was teaching her, and she was very talented, and he was making use of that. And she did a lot of the work that he signed his name to. And so it starts there, where she's doing the work in his studio and she's feeling taken advantage of, and her skills surpass his. And he brings in an outside teacher to help her with perspective, who ends up raping her.

Joy McCullough:

And they take it to trial and it's not a trial for rape because that was not something that existed. It was property damage because she was her father's property and had been damaged. And so the book and the play cover the trial and the aftermath of that.

Joy McCullough:

And you can read the entire transcript of the trial. It exists.

Emily Calkins:

Oh, wow.

Joy McCullough:

There's a book called Artemisia Gentileschi by Mary Garrard, and it includes the entire transcript. So yeah.

Emily Calkins:

Interesting.

Joy McCullough: It's fascinating.

Emily Calkins:

That's actually come up a couple of other times over the course of this show how trial transcripts are one of the few places that women's voices get recorded in history because it's sort of this unusual moment where someone else is doing the writing. Women obviously are not often taught to read and write, and suddenly they get to have this moment of having their voice not only heard, but actually written down.

Joy McCullough:

Yeah, and it's... it doesn't only give you a whole bunch of information about the attack, it gave me so much information about her day-to-day life and the people she was in a relationship with, and it was this really comprehensive investigation. And so you'd hear from people who knew her in other contexts sort of talking about character. Some of the character witnesses were talking against her, but it gave so much context for who she was, and even the part of Rome she lived in because there's references to, "Oh, well we were on this street when we saw him and talked to him this one day, or whatever," which helped me. Then I took, that was like, okay, that street. And I looked at this map of Rome and figured out what neighborhood she lived in and stuff. Which then led me to mentioning specific things in the book like a certain fountain and a certain bridge that are right there. So yeah, a ton of information came from the transcript.

Emily Calkins:

Interesting. And was the trial also unusual, not only that she would be a young woman who was painting, but that-

Joy McCullough:

Sure.

Emily Calkins:

... someone would go on trial for committing this crime against her?

Joy McCullough:

Absolutely. And it was for property damage, of course. But yeah, it was very unusual because that was basically announcing to everybody that she was damaged property, right? So that would harm her prospects going forward.

Joy McCullough:

Her father is a tricky character in the book. And it's really hard to know... I sort of make it that she pushes for him to press charges. It had to be ultimately his decision though. And so, I feel like he's not... he's far from perfect, but he loves her enough that he's willing to go through that, which I think is rather extraordinary.

Emily Calkins:

Yeah. And there's a nice moment in the book where he is like, "Are you really sure you want to do this?" not because he doesn't want to go through the hassle, but because he's trying to protect her. He's saying, "There's going to be lifelong consequences for you.”

Joy McCullough:

Right. And for him. There will be consequences for him because he relies on her for the work of their studio, and if she is discredited in their community, that's going to change his life too.

Emily Calkins:

Like I said, the novel is primarily written in verse. Can you talk about the decision to do that instead of to use prose?

Joy McCullough:

Yeah. I have been working with this organization called Pitch Wars which works with less established writers to help them get their manuscripts ready to get an agent. And I worked with him for a number of years, and people would submit pieces to me, and I would say, I would choose, "I want to work with this manuscript."

Joy McCullough:

And for a few years in a row, I picked first novels to work with, and I would tell them straight up, "I am not a poet. I don't know anything about verse. I picked your story because I loved your story and your characters, and I feel like I can work with you on those things. The verse, that's up to you. I don't know anything about it."

Joy McCullough:

But in working on multiple manuscripts with our authors in verse, I started to really see the possibilities and really fall in love with the form. And so, when I was thinking about how to adapt, because I'd written... It's my debut novel, but I actually wrote 10 novels.

Emily Calkins:

Oh my goodness.

Joy McCullough:

Yeah. And they were all prose before. So I had been trying to write novels in prose. But as I tried to figure out how to adapt this story, there were a number of reasons that verse called to me. One is my background as a playwright. And there's a lot of similarity in terms of... the sparsity of language and the musicality and the rhythms of language, and how you have to get a whole bunch of information and emotion across with, you know, in a play it's a couple of lines. In a verse novel, it's a couple of lines, but not a dialogue. But yeah, so I felt an affinity for verse. I started to think, "Oh maybe I could do it." Because I feel like I'm not a poet, but I am a playwright, and Shakespeare sort of the ultimate poet/playwright. The two sort of feel like they go hand-in-hand. So that made me think maybe I could do it.

Joy McCullough:

And for the story in particular, there's some really horrendous things that happen. There's a rape. There's a beheading. And I could've written those in prose, but to write them in the kind of detail that you write in prose, I felt would be not only really hard for me, but very distancing and off-putting for the reader. And I wanted the reader to feel the full impact of it without having to read the descriptions of exactly what happens when you cut off a head. You know?

Emily Calkins:

Yes.

Joy McCullough:

And it's also, the story takes place in the 1600s, but it's very much a story of now, and that was one of the things that struck me most when I read the trial transcript was there's all of this slut-shaming, trying to tear down her character and who she was, and they literally torture her to prove she's telling the truth. It's very much a story for today, and I wanted, I felt like the details of day-to-day life of the 1600s that you have to include in a prose novel would be distancing, would make it feel like, well that was then. Whereas verse really strips things down to sort of just the emotional core, which I felt like would help readers engage more closely with relating it to their own experiences.

Emily Calkins:

So kind of related to that, you mentioned that you've worked with some writers who are writing mostly for kids and teens. Is that correct?

Joy McCullough:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emily Calkins:

Who are writing in verse. So novels in verse are pretty common for children and young adults, but almost nonexistent in the adult world.

Joy McCullough:

I know.

Emily Calkins:

Do you think there's something about poetry that's especially engaging for adolescent readers?

Joy McCullough:

I do, and I'll say what, but I also think that the things that are engaging about it for young readers would be equally engaging for adult readers, and so I hope that perhaps... Because it's been in the last few years that it's kind of exploded, and the National Book Award winner for young people's last year verse .. and a few of them have been over the last 5 to 10 years, and some of the Newbery Honors, some of the big prizes are verse novels, and so I hope... I don't know. Maybe adult literature will look at it and go, "Ooh, they're on to something there."

Joy McCullough:

But yeah, I do. I think a couple things. One is the white space on the page. If you're dealing with particularly reluctant readers, big blocks of text can be really overwhelming and intimidating. To pick up a book and just think, "Oh, this is just going to take me forever." But you open a verse novel and there's so many fewer words on the page. Even though some of them are very long like an Ellen Hopkins verse novel is massively long, but it doesn't look like it when you open it up and you look at the words.

Joy McCullough:

My mom actually, she knew the book was in verse. She heard me say that. But she didn't really know what that meant until she held a physical copy. And she opened it up, and she started reading, and she stopped, and she said, "Why would you put it into poetry because isn't that more of an obstacle for a young reader?" And I can't remember if I really answered the question at the time, but I waited, and she kept reading. And after a little while she stopped and she said, "It's actually really easy to read." And she realized that it really, it flows easily.

Joy McCullough:

So there's that, and also the musicality, rhythm. There's a reason that we learn the alphabet as a song, and nursery rhymes we remember decades later. So I think that kids, any readers really, but kids and teens, I think they respond to rhythm in language and all sorts of poetic devices.

Emily Calkins:

I was thinking about that too. The blurb on the front of the novel is from Amanda Lovelace, who is like an Instagram poet, part of this whole generation of young women mostly who are writing poetry that's suddenly, like poetry's cool again, and it's popular. And when I was in my early 20s, that was not a thing.

Joy McCullough:

No.

Emily Calkins:

And I wonder if there's sort of a back-and-forth there of like it feels... there's sort of like an emotional immediacy to it that I think especially when you're a teenager and everything feels so huge, that there's something about poetry that's really distilled.

Joy McCullough:

Well, so many of us write poetry, like angst and tortured poetry-

Emily Calkins:

Totally.

Joy McCullough:

... as kids or as teenagers. Absolutely. But I think that we also get this connotation of poetry as difficult because we think of old dead white man poetry from English class that we were forced to analyze in ways they probably didn't even ever intend us to do. All love to English teachers! But yeah, I think that can kind of give people like my mom the idea that poetry is hard.

Joy McCullough:

But it's true that it's also where we turn when we're 15 years old and our heart's been broken.

Emily Calkins:

Yeah, and I think it sort of has been framed, at least in my experience in popular culture, as those being two diametrically opposed extremes, right? There's like serious poetry that's hard and complicated and from a long time ago and uses sentence structures that we don't understand or whatever, and then there's sort of like the stuff that we write when we're kids or teenagers that's sort of like not good, but really it's much more of like a continuum and those two things are talking to each other. And in a book like this where it is, it's so emotional and these really difficult things are happening to her, it can capture that sort of immediacy in a way that prose doesn't always, or it's particularly well suited without being sort of like, "I'm 15 and I have my heart broken."

Joy McCullough:

Right. And I think it can be interesting to think too about who is doing the writing and who is doing the critiquing because even the term Instagram poets, it's dismissive. And there are people in the sort of literary poetry world who would very much look down on an Amanda Lovelace. But if you look at the way her work connects with young people...

Joy McCullough:

I got to do an event with her here a few months ago. She came to town. We were at Third Place Books. And there were maybe two people there for me, and everyone else was her. And we sat at the signing table together though, and I got to hear... The people had... So many people had driven from hours and hours away, and they were just sobbing to meet her. And she meant so much to them. And she had inspired them to write. And so, she's a young woman, but she... and so I think that automatically, things that are created by young women often get discounted. But she's doing something really right to connect with so many readers and get them excited about poetry in a way that some of the more stuffy, literary kind of poets who might scoff at that kind of poetry aren't connecting.

Emily Calkins:

Yeah. Yeah. I just think it's such an interesting sort of twist in the story of poetry in pop culture in the way that it's evolving sort of this novels-in-verse thing that's happening, and this poetry in new places, new voices kind of thing.

Emily Calkins:

So you mentioned that you had not written poetry before. Are you continuing to write poetry now, or are you kind of done?

Joy McCullough:

No, I'm continuing to write novels in verse. So, when you told me that you wanted me to come in for this series, I thought you might have chosen my book to represent young adult or maybe historical. When you said it was for poetry just like all my imposter syndrome flags went up because I don't identify as a poet even though I've got this book in verse. And I think the thing is that I need story. I need to follow a character through. And so, I've never written or really read very much standalone kind of poetry. But I love novels in verse.

Joy McCullough:

I read a ton, and so Blood Water Paint was my debut novel. My second novel is coming in April, and it's a book for younger readers and it's in prose. But then my third book that will come out, which is my second YA novel, is half in prose. It goes back and forth between prose and verse. So I am continuing the verse journey. I feel like I've learned so much with Blood Water Paint, and now I'm trying to keep challenging myself.

Emily Calkins:

Do you have, now that you are thinking about verse, whether it's in novels or just poems that are separate out in the world, do you have some favorite poetry that you could tell us about?

Joy McCullough:

Yes. So my suggestions are all in young adult and middle grade because like you said, that's sort of where we're seeing verse novels booming. One of them is a book called 500 Words or Less by Juleah Del Rosario, and it is set in a fictional Bellevue-

Emily:

Oh good.

Joy McCullough:

... and it's called Meydenbauer and it's about this girl at a private school who sort of falls into writing people's college entrance essays for them, her classmates, and then has to deal with all of the morality issues around that, while also encountering her classmates' lives, people that she had maybe been judging as one thing, and then she's reading their college essay where they bare their soul. So that's 500 Words or Less, and it's wonderful.

Joy McCullough:

Mary's Monster by Lita Judge is, if people are interested in my book about a historical figure, they would probably love this. It's about Mary Shelley. And it is also heavily illustrated, so it tells you all about her life from childhood through her marriage to Shelley and writing Frankenstein and all of that, but it's also about this just haunting art to go with the verse.

Britta Barrett:

Cool.

Joy McCullough:

Yeah. And because there's so much white space on a verse page, there's so much room for the art with the words, so it's lovely.

Joy McCullough:

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, who is amazing, but for people who don't know him because he is... he writes in middle grade and YA, and he writes prolifically, and he writes prose, and he writes verse. He sort of does everything. And he even writes, he did... it's Spider-Man... book too, Miles Morales.

Joy McCullough:

But Long Way Down, which got a bunch of awards and things, is about a boy whose brother has just been murdered and he gets a gun and he gets in an elevator and the entire book take places in the ride down to the ground with a gun and his intention is to go to get revenge. But you see him sort of work through... everything that has led him to there and figuring out how to move forward when the elevator dings and he's there on the ground floor.

Joy McCullough:

I'm going to mention one more. The Moon Within by Aida Salazar, which is a middle-grade novel, which is about a girl who is... just getting her period for the first time. And her mother wants to do all of these like traditional ceremonies and bring all of her tias and women in her life into come do these celebration of menstruation things, and she's mortified because she's 12 or 13 or whatever, and she's just horrified by it all. And there's all these really interesting questions of culture and identity and womanhood, and it's just really open and frank about sexuality and menstruation and girlhood. It's just beautiful. So, those are my recommendations.

Emily Calkins:

Wonderful. Thank you.

Joy McCullough:

Yes.

Emily Calkins:

And then can you tell us what you're reading now?

Joy McCullough:

Yes. I am reading a book, well, actually just finished, called Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby. She wrote Bone Gap.

Emily Calkins:

Yes. I love Bone Gap.

Joy McCullough:

Yes. So this book comes out October 1, so probably by about the time this comes out. It is beautiful and haunting. It is about two young women, one is dead. It's narrated by this ghost. And it's in the 1940s in Chicago, and the ghost tells the story of this other young woman who has been abandoned in an orphanage, even though her father's still alive. And both of the women, the young women, are trying to sort of figure out how they got to where they're at in the midst of war going on around them and... and figuring out how to move forward, and it's just, it's gorgeous writing, and it's really subtle. It builds in this way that you just don't even notice, and then suddenly it's exploding and the ending into just one of those incredibly stunning books that as a writer I finish them, and I go, "Why am I even trying to do this when there are people like this?" So yeah, and if anyone hasn't read Bone Gap, I would also really recommend that. Neither of those are verse. She writes in prose. But she's-

Emily Calkins:

I agree with you. Just incredible.

Joy McCullough:

... so good. And she writes middle grade as well.

Emily Calkins:

Thank you so much for coming. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

Joy McCullough:

Thank you. This was fun.

Tara Hardy:

Hi. My name's Tara Hardy, and I'm a poet, a writer. I describe myself as a working-class, queer, disabled femme, and I teach a number of places. I teach at University Beyond Bars in Monroe Prison. I teach at Hugo House. I teach at Path with Art, which is an organization that provides arts education for people who otherwise wouldn't have access because they're dealing with houselessness, or recovery issues, or disability. And I'm brand-new faculty at Evergreen State College, which is exciting.

Emily Calkins:

So your lived experiences include surviving abuse, addiction, and chronic illness. Can you share with us how those experiences have shaped your writing?

Tara Hardy:

Yeah, I sure can. Thanks for asking. I'm going to be very direct. I don't know if it's appropriate to be really direct, but I'm going to be, and I'm going to say that I started writing in my late 20s when the choice was kill myself or start speaking about my life. And so writing is probably the primary thing in addition to community, that I was pretty isolated at the time, so I didn't have community. Writing is the thing that saved my life and was and always has been a path for survival and joy and connection.

Tara Hardy:

In terms of trauma itself, being an abuse survivor, although other kinds of trauma too, I find that writing poems actually... not only does it give me an outlet to speak about my experience, but it also reduces symptoms. There are therapies that are being done with veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and those therapies include telling the story over and over and over and over again while somebody compassionately listens, or listens. And... what's being found is that people's symptoms are decreasing after, just from being heard. Just from being compassionately witnessed, and that's been true for me.

Tara Hardy:

And one of the surprising things was that I just started writing my story, mostly in the form of poetry in the beginning, but I'm also a memoir writer, a story writer. And when I started sharing those things, people responded. It was the weirdest thing. And so I didn't expect it at all. And I found other survivors, in particular child sexual assault, but I also found people who were survivors of different kinds of trauma. Veterans of war were sort of drawn to what I was doing. And through that I found connection and I found community, and I think that... well, I know that community and connection is such a huge part of why people survive.

Tara Hardy:

In terms of addiction, I want to say that I think, I agree with David Sheff when he wrote in his book Clean that addiction is a predictable outgrowth of trauma, that people try to take care of ourselves and dim the pain in whatever way we have access to. When I was a teenager, it was cheap alcohol, and so from the instant I drank alcohol, I was an alcoholic and I could not get enough of this new thing called pain relief and called confidence in a bottle.

Tara Hardy:

And so, when I started writing and I started repairing my relationship to my creative self, that's when I stopped wanting to drink as much. There was something that made me want to be conscious and awake. And so addiction, that's my response to addiction.

Tara Hardy:

And in terms of chronic illness, it's interesting. When I got sick, I guess it was... Well, when I got so sick that I couldn't ignore it anymore about eight years ago... What's the date today? Wow. It's almost to the date actually eight years ago. I had written myself into survival from child sexual assault, and so when I got physically ill, my first instinct was to just start writing because I was like, "Well, it saved me before. Maybe it'll save me again."

Tara Hardy:

And because isolation is such a... central part of living with illness or living with disability, writing became critical because it was a way that I tried to communicate and connect with the outside world, and it's a way that I continue to metabolize what I call the three primary emotions connected with being chronically ill. One of them is envy of people who aren't limited in this way. The other one is rage because the world, just to be blunt again, because the world isn't set up for people with disabilities, and the hardest part about being sick is dealing with an able-bodied world. And then the third thing is grief. The losses are daily. The things that I lose are daily in terms of chronic illness. And so metabolizing those things through writing has been essential.

Tara Hardy:

And while I can't say that writing cured me, I'm not even sure I believe in that word cure anymore because I'm interested in breaking up with the health binary of healthy, not healthy. I think that's a myth and I think that that's a binary that's really dangerous to a lot of people. But here's my point. My point is that writing has been critical in metabolizing grief and loss.

Tara Hardy:

I want to give a shout out to any other chronically ill people out there who are listening, or at home and isolated, and I want to say I'm so with you, and I'm so... I'm so with you in solidarity and your voices matter to me. And I want to know who you are, so please write to me.

Tara Hardy:

I briefly want to say that I have always been, I don't know why. I think this was factory installed. I don't think I got it along the way. I don't think I acquired it. I think it was factory installed that I have always been a joy person, but chronic illness has insisted that I also develop a loving relationship with rage, with anger, because it is part of what helps chronically ill people cope. And I have had the great privilege to be mentored by Disability Justice activists, one of whom is a dear friend of mine. Just came out with a book called Care Work. Actually, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, as a survivor of chronic illness and as somebody who's dealing with internalizing ableism in a brand new way that I wasn't before.

Tara Hardy:

So that's kind of a long answer to that question, but it's a big question. So, yeah. Being a survivor of trauma, addiction, and then also chronic illness, writing's been critical to all three of us.

Britta Barrett:

And then, My, My, My, My, My, you write about the impact of your diagnosis and the power of naming a thing. What can that poem demonstrate to readers about the power of words?

Tara Hardy:

Great question. Great question. It's interesting. I was thinking about this question, and what I wanted to talk about is the fact that I think you're referring to the poem Diagnosis?

Britta Barrett:

Yes.

Tara Hardy:

And in that poem it's all about diagnosis, but I never name the diagnosis. And I do that on purpose because one of the things that I found is that people want to know the name of my disease, the name of my diseases. They want to know what they can call it. And I think it's well-intentioned, but I find that once people know the names, it's easier to distance themselves. It's easier to think about, "Oh, I don't have that. That's how I'm... " Let me back up a second and say that as a... what I've written about being a survivor of father-daughter incest, people have been way more interested in those poems in there about chronic illness. Why? Because incest or child sexual assault has either happened to you, or it hasn't. But with illness, we all have fragile bodies and it is something that can happen to anyone in an instant, and that's how it happened for me. I woke up one morning. I had red spots all over my body. I went to the hospital. I had a platelet count of zero, and normal platelet counts are between 115 and 415, so I had zero. So I was at risk for spontaneously bleeding to death at any moment. And not to be dramatic, but it was true. And... Oh gosh. I just got lost.

Tara Hardy:

Oh, my point is that what I want people to hold when they read that poem is the solidarity that we all have with, the connection that we all have with one another through living in fragile bodies. And frail bodies. They're also powerful. Our bodies are also powerful and strong, but they're also... human frailty is not contagious. It's just a state of things. So I deliberately don't mention diagnosis because I want people to sit with that.

Tara Hardy:

But one of the things that I did this summer was I attended a faculty training, a faculty institute on working with neurodivergent students, and we talked about the double-edge of a diagnosis. Because a diagnosis is useful in so much as it's a tool to open doors, but often people don't have access to getting diagnosis because it's expensive to get a diagnosis. And the limitation around diagnosis is also, as soon as people hear it, they think they know something about... about a person. And they really don't because everyone's experience is so much different.

Tara Hardy:

So diagnosis is double-edged, and particularly for those of us, and I'm also going to give a shout out to other people who are chronically ill who are dealing with this. People who have these ongoing autoimmune diseases that are so often disbelieved, crazy made, misdiagnosed by the medical-industrial complex basically, and a lot of us have medical trauma stemming from that, it's a really... How am I going to say this? It's a painful thing. It's a challenging thing to walk around with disease that, illness that impacts me every day in such intense ways in terms of fatigue, in terms of pain, and to have the medical profession not believe that I'm dealing with this. Which isn't wholly true. I have found medical professionals who have been willing to be helpful, but I've found plenty who are not, and it's just really painful.

Tara Hardy:

Anyway, diagnosis has many facets to it, and so thanks for asking that question.

Britta Barrett:

A lot of people learn very early that poetry either isn't for them, or it's inaccessible. They don't understand it. And we've heard from many people during the course of this challenge, "This is the hardest category. How do I find poetry that I'm going to love?" And I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about why for so many people poetry is either mysterious or challenging or just not as easy as finding other types of work might be?

Tara Hardy:

Oh I think it's about two things. One, I think it's the fact that arts programs have been cut in schools. Period. So it's hard to know what you're looking at in the art form unless you've been warmly, lovingly invited to look at it, and to study it, and to know its potence. And then the other thing is that the more privileged you are, the more likely you are to have work published. I think that privilege is involved in publishing. I know it is for me. The fact that I've had work published is related to the fact, you know, white privilege works for me every single second of every day including when I'm sleeping. The fact that I was able-bodied for so long gave me access to community in a way that if I had been disabled from the beginning, I would never have had access to. So my privileges have been involved with getting work published.

Tara Hardy:

And... so I think that if people aren't finding work that speaks to them, it can be a function of... finding work that is obscure, that locks them out, that... I teach at Hugo House and, well, Hugo House is, it's an awesome place. It's also a place where a lot of folks in my classes, not all, but a lot have a certain level of privilege. There are tons of women in my classes. 95% of the people in my classes are queer, non-binary, trans, and/or women, and yet the publications don't reflect that at all. They don't reflect who is actually writing, and so I think it can be hard to find work that reflects your life. Yeah.

Emily Calkins:

Speaking of work that reflects your life, who are some of your favorite poets and what are you reading now?

Tara Hardy:

I am rereading Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead, which is a remarkable book. I'm actually... We're reading it in the classroom at Evergreen. And some of my favorite poets, I love Natalie Diaz. I love Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha who has a new book out called Tonguebreaker. I love Rachel McKibbens. I love Ocean Vuong, and probably my favorite poet is a local poet by the name of Ebo Barton, somebody who is a performance poet, and they are remarkable, and change me, rearrange me... constantly with their new work.

Britta Barrett:

What can we look forward to hearing from you next? What are you working on?

Tara Hardy:

You know, I'm working on a number of things. I'm working on a book of poems, and that book, it talks about disability and chronic illness. I'm also really trying to push towards looking more deeply at privilege and writing about privilege, white privilege, writing about the years that I was able-bodied, and... I'm also working on a memoir, and the memoir shifts under my feet. It is a book that is going to explore surviving and recovery, and finally getting the appropriate trauma diagnosis in order to actually get help that could impact my life. It took me many years to get that diagnosis. And... I would say that the primary message of the book is about... inviting the world to consider... now I recognize this is challenging, but to consider breaking up with the victim-perpetrator binary. I think that that binary is... not, doesn't hold the full picture.

Tara Hardy:

I teach in prison, and the more I do that work, the more I, A, realize that we lock up the people who are most traumatized. In fact, I teach at the men's prison, which does not mean that the only people in my classes there are men. There are non-binary and trans people in my classes. But I teach in a place where 95% of the classroom are men, and what I expected was to walk in there and find a bunch of perpetrators. But what I found was people with trauma histories who I relate to. I had never been in a classroom before where people's trauma histories so intensely matched my own, and I felt normal in a way that I had never felt normal before the first time I walked in to teach in that classroom. And while a number of those folks had perpetrated violence, have perpetrated violence, it is so easily traceable to surviving trauma and surviving violence as children, being homeless, being houseless as children. And it concerns me that we continue to invest in that dichotomy of victim-perpetrator.

Tara Hardy:

The longer I live, the more I come to believe that there is one thing and it is human, and... What do I want to say about that? I know it's a challenging notion, but I think that, well, I've been an anti-violence activist for over 30 years, and in the amount of time...

Tara Hardy:

In my 20s, I was really involved with efforts to criminalize domestic violence, to have mandatory arrest in situations of domestic abuse, and in all the time that I've been investing and criminalizing and othering people who commit violence, it has done 0% to reduce the level of violence. And so I think we need to start looking at other options for intervening.

Tara Hardy:

And the book will explore being a survivor. The book will explore ways - primarily through addictions - but ways that I have transgressed other humans, and that I really did that... I'm not trying to abdicate personal responsibility, but in many ways I did that because I didn't get factory-installed boundaries like some people do as children. I had to learn about things, and I had to get the appropriate treatment in order to be somebody who could trust myself with boundaries. And... and to look at... I hope that the book re-humanizes my father. That's one of my goals. I want the book to humanize people who have found ourselves outside of having a moral compass, and I want the book to look at what it might take to gain and learn and retain and hold onto and be able to act with a moral compass.

Tara Hardy:

And I'm lost in it. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in this book. It's a book that I've been writing for nearly 20 years, but I want to tell the whole story and the whole picture because if I have one thing to contribute to humanity, it's going to be this story, and it's going to be I hope something that will matter, related to violence and survival.

Laura Da':

My name's Laura Da', and I live near here in Renton, Washington. I am a poet and I also teach school and my curriculum for our local school district here in Bellevue. And I've written two books of poetry. One is called Tributaries, and my newest book is called Instruments of the True Measure. And a lot of my poetry is... centered around my Shawnee history, so it's very indigenous in nature and lens.

Emily Calkins:

You are currently serving, in addition to all the other things you do, as the Poet-in-Residence at Hugo House. Can you tell us about that?

Laura Da':

Sure. Hugo House is in Seattle, and it's a writing institution that I've interacted with in all kinds of different ways almost from the time I moved back to Seattle from getting my Associates Degree. So I was a student in many, many classes at Hugo House. A lot of the books, the poems in my books, were started in Hugo House classes. I was also a Hugo House Fellow, so I was part of a cohort where we got support from writers, from Hugo House staff, and kind of helped guide my first manuscript. And now as the Poet-in-Residence I get more of an opportunity to help others. So I'll teach some classes, and I have the capacity to have an hour-long consultation with any member of the public from anywhere, and so anyone can come sign up for that. It's free, and it can be directed in any way people like. It can be to look at work, to look at books together, to create new works, so I'm really excited about that.

Emily Calkins:

Cool. And if people want to take you up on that, how do they contact Hugo House to do that?

Laura Da':

Sure. I'll be listed as the Writer-in-Residence, and then you can contact me through Hugo House and schedule a time and place.

Britta Barrett:

Cool. One of the themes of your newest collection, which is the Instruments of True Measure, is mapping and making sense of space and land. How do place and demarcating space serve as metaphor in your work?

Laura Da':

That's a great question. I guess I can answer it in a little bit of a story.

Laura Da':

I am a citizen of the Shawnee nation, and our tribal community right now is located in Northeastern Oklahoma, has been for a long time, but that's not our original homeland. Originally we're from kind of Ohio River Basin area, very rich, important kind of central location. And the Shawnee were removed really violently in 1830s, so that's part of the beginning of how I looked at this fascination with maps and mapping kind of as an act of... I guess Colonialism and suppression of indigenous... indigenous sense of land.

Laura Da':

Anyway, in the area where we lived in Ohio, it is America's beginning point was located there. So, the first point where all sort of organized surveying began in America was actually in kind of the heart of the Shawnee homeland. And I don't think it was an accident. I think it was kind of an act of war and an act of assertion of settler colonialism to begin measuring land in this very kind of mathematical fashion.

Laura Da':

So I think that that experience of seeing that mapping and experiencing that land as such a loss, it gave me the sense of an interesting metaphor where I guess I came to the conclusion that anything mapped and measured can no longer be whole, and it creates a distance between humans and land that I think really informs American identity, but is in counter to indigenous or Shawnee identity with land. So it was a long fascination for me, but also kind of a painful fascination.

Emily Calkins:

Sort of related to that, I'm interested in the way that you had named land in that work and used latitude and longitude a lot. Can you talk a little bit more about language and naming place?

Laura Da':

Yeah. That's another kind of... I guess an interesting distance that I feel from land, and it's that kind of marking of latitude and longitude that I utilize in book. To me, it's like a surgical scar. It's a very painful naming, but I think in one of the poems I say that I don't have the words to identify this land that's been lost for me, so I have to utilize this colonial structure of naming, and so for me those... that demarcation is, it shows kind of that... as a writer, my inability to express what I'm reaching for, and so I think there's tension in that symbolic use of land demarcation that it's all on the surface. I could never, I'm always wanting to get underneath it. But I think that's what caused me to utilize that. And in the manuscript, usually when I utilize those marks, it's the moments of the most intense pain in the manuscript.

Laura Da':

The first poem, I think, has a pretty strong connection to these things we've been talking about. So I could read that now?

Britta Barrett:

Okay.

Laura Da':

This is the first poem in the collection. It's called Nationhood.

Laura Da':

I'm a citizen of two nations: Shawnee and American. I have one son who is a citizen of three. Before he was born, I learned that, like all infants, he would need to experience a change of heart at birth in order to survive. When a baby successfully breathes in through the lungs, the heart changes from parallel flow to serial flow and the shunt between right and left atriums closes. Our new bodies obliterate old frontiers.

North America is mistakenly called nascent. The Shawnee nation is mistakenly called moribund. America established a mathematical beginning point in 1785 in what was then called the Northwest Territory. Before that, it was known in many languages as the eastern range of the Shawnee, Miami, and Huron homelands. I do not have the Shawnee words to describe this place; the notation that is available to me is 40 degrees 38'32.61" N 80 degrees 31'9.76" W.

Emily Calkins:

The book includes a series of poems that follow the lives of these two brothers sort of throughout this removal that you're talking about. How much did your own family history inspire those poems?

Laura Da':

That's an interesting question because certainly my family and ancestral history informs everything I write to a really large extent, but at the same time, there are quite a lot of sort of cultural strictures in Shawnee culture about utilizing names and ancestral stories because they don't of course just belong to me. So I would say this is kind of like a mix, or kind of a creation of lots of different ancestral stories and experiences, and also kind of like a reaching for understanding of a history that mostly is very difficult for me to access because it's a history of genocide. So very... very much connected to stories I was told by family, by tribal members, and then by research as well.

Laura Da':

I think poetry lends itself really well to I would call it a more authentic historical record because it hinges a lot on ambiguity, and that's what family story does too. The story will change depending on the teller and the space. So I really am always drawn to poetry because of that kind of central place for ambiguity. And even as I was writing, that process was really significant to me and I think as I wrote the first book and into this book, I went through this kind of profound change of heart about what academic research was.

Laura Da':

I was educated in public schools and in tribal schools, but it was a very colonial education. So it prioritized written documents from the white perspective always, and then it kind of treated other sorts of history as anecdotal or kind of like... I don't know, like entertainment. So I tried to really break that of myself through poetry and through writing, and with this book, I made this decision that I would prioritize anything that I heard from my family or my tribe first as the most authentic record, and then secondary historical research for me came from what would usually be primary historical research.

Laura Da':

So that flip was a huge kind of shift that I think poetry makes possible, but I always thought of it as kind of decolonizing my own thinking patterns because it was the exact opposite of what I've always been taught when it comes to research, and I think that if I were a fiction writer maybe it would feel the same, but I've never done that so I don't know. But I do think poetry gave me a feeling of freedom to explore that without a lot of pressure for myself about that kind of need to have people be able to go back and find the citation, or a lot of this is utterly private, so it gave me some more agency, and I think also even authority about which story to take in, and I found it to be... it was very moving for me. It was a big personal element of growth that came through my writing.

Laura Da':

And I got to hear all these stories from older family members that I listened to actively instead of passively. So I think that was the biggest benefit that... I'd always, I grew up hearing all these wonderful stories, but I was listening to them passively, and this way I was really actively and attending, so I really, I appreciate that experience that this gave me.

Emily Calkins:

Any recent of the living contemporary poets that you really enjoy reading?

Laura Da':

I love Natalie Diaz. I'm really looking forward to her next collection. Jericho Brown's work I think is fantastic. I keep buying his most recent book and then I give it to people, so I've bought five, and I'm going to buy number six, and it just, the book has that spirit about it. The book is The Tradition. And so those are two poets I really love and think are wonderful for teaching.

Laura Da':

I'm always a huge fan of Arthur Sze's work, and just finished his most recent collection. So there's just so many incredible living poets that's... it's an incredible moment to be a reader. And a writer, but mostly a reader.

Britta Barrett:

Thanks for listening. You can find all the books mentioned in today's episodes in our show notes.

Emily Calkins:

The Desk Set is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, produced by Britta Barrett, and brought to you by the King County Library System.

Britta Barrett:

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