door of thin skins is such a powerful book, and very disturbing. While reading it, I wasn’t sure whether it would be classified as memoir or poetry. And then you also added a visual component. It works so well. I was wondering if you could say a few words about why you chose this hybrid form?
I aimed to articulate, as best as I could, an experience that was confusing to an exponential degree—like a Tower of Babel. In my effort to give voice to this experience, the book’s structure became as important as its language; in effect, I built its structure as a language too. I wanted the book to evoke a state of being in the reader, for it to be not just a record clearly divided from the reader, “out there.” For the world that this book inhabits to be carried through sensation too, to the reader. One’s reading experience of this book necessarily includes body shifts; turning one’s self, or the book’s position, this way and that. Generally speaking, movement on the page leaves body traces as well as psychic impressions. I tried to calibrate this movement to enact an experience, to incorporate a phenomenological dimension to its reading.
CavanKerry Press’ crew, including their graphic artist, Greg Smith, did a phenomenal job with the visual components of this book, faithfully respecting every nuance that I had deliberately constructed. The published book, as an object, is more beautiful than I had ever imagined it would be. In effect, the book is a body now, a beautiful one at that. I have not yet settled into this surprise, as the book’s content is at odds with the character of its materiality.
Back to how the book’s shape functions as a language, albeit not the verbal kind. Silence needs a translator. As Wittgenstein famously observed, there are limitations to conventional language, and these limits are part of what I grappled with in my effort to articulate. Silence is being resisted. Such grappling happens when one attempts to articulate most any experience that falls out of the mainstream/normative, including traumas.
Since the experience portrayed in the book defies categories, I think it fits if the book eludes this too: “memoir,” “poetry”; “prose,” “poetry”—naming is impossible (back to the aforementioned Tower of Babel). “Discipline” and “boundaries” work at the level of the book’s poetics (word/image) and simultaneously at the level of the narrative content’s context.
I’ll also add that sight is one of the book’s recurring motifs and as such needed to have a visceral presence in it. All written language has a visual component to it, and I needed to use all the means of my medium at my disposal—even its sub-elements; shapes, at their outer limits.
I was so enraged at times while reading your story. I don’t know what angered me more, the sexual abuse or the mental abuse, the way the doctor questioned the reality of your perceptions. And yet, out of this nightmare, you created a beautiful book. Were you writing the book as this was happening? When did you start writing it?
I most certainly did not write the book as it was happening. In fact, I stopped writing altogether at a certain point while it was happening and didn’t start writing again until years later. One day, soon after I began writing again, it occurred to me that I had this idea that this experience wasn’t appropriate subject matter for poetry, and realized this was ridiculous: no one can say what is or what is not subject matter for poetry; it’s what you do with it. This recognition spurred me to write the first of what I came to call “Dr. Abe poems.” I wrote a number of them, and showed them to a poet with whom I had just started doing a tutorial, and to several poet friends. Their strong positive responses encouraged me to keep going, and I wrote a few more—maybe about ten all together. I never intended to write a “Dr. Abe book.” Often when I write a piece that I think has a good moment in it but the rest isn’t as good, I feel driven to work on the piece so that this “good moment” has a home. I didn’t feel satisfied that the series of Dr. Abe poems that I had written were a complete enough articulation, and decided that I’d tackle writing a Dr. Abe book. To do this I needed to be in an environment in which I could delve into the difficult feelings that writing this book was necessarily going to conjure, so I applied for a residency at MacDowell Arts Colony and completed the first draft of the manuscript there.
I worked on what eventually became door of thin skins and my previously published book, black seeds on a white dish, at the same time over a number of years, and coincidentally both manuscripts were accepted for publication by different publishers within the same month.
From the first Dr. Abe poem to the fourth and final revision of the manuscript, door of thin skins took ten years. It was accepted for publication four years ago. So, we’re talking about fifteen years ago I started writing it.
Was it healing to write?
That’s complicated; it was painful to write but I felt driven to complete it. Writing—making art—has always been my way.
Writing, for me, has always had a social component, and one of the traditions in which this book can be placed is that of writing as witness. The book’s dedication reads, “To healers of themselves and others.”
This could not have been an easy book to write. Are there any books or authors or mentors who served as role models for you?
There are many books and plays that articulate painful experiences and have contributed to furthering public discussion geared to effecting change, so I had many role models in this way. When I was working on the first draft at MacDowell, it turned out that Lucy Grealy and Spalding Gray had been colony residents in the cabin that I was in (there are wall plaques in each cabin on which each resident signs their name). I thought of the endurance these writers had in writing their stories, and this helped me with my own endurance and persistence. I did research to find other texts as models—I looked at H.D.’s Tribute to Freud and Sexton’s Dr. Y poems, among others, at contemporary book-length narratives in verse, but could find nothing that fit as a model; I was on my own. I had writer friends who were writing about difficult subjects too from whom I drew support, and encountered poets and teachers through workshops at the 92nd St. Y and the Writers’ Voice in New York City, Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale Foundation, and MacDowell’s Arts Colony who encouraged me to continue with this project. While I didn’t look to them for writing guidance in regard to the Dr. Abe book, there were writers I met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where I later went, and at the University of Utah where I received my doctorate afterwards, whose support was invaluable. Molly Peacock gave me input on the first draft and second revision. Because I had experience writing fiction, I had an approach to writing narrative that came in handy. I remember emailing my good friend, Jessica Treat, a fiction writer, drafts of revisions for her input as I worked on the third revision of the manuscript—besides that she was very generous in this way and I admire her writing very much, I knew she had a good ear for what I was up to in my narrative style. I was in the midst of the fourth and final revision of the manuscript (during which I changed its title to door of thin skins) when Joan Cusack Handler, the publisher of CKP, called to accept it, and I finished this revision without any input other than my own.
What writers have influenced you?
I’ve had different stages as a writer, and feel there are different types of influences—writers whose work inspires me to write even though I don’t write anything like them; writers whom I feel give me permission to do things in writing; writers/teachers whose sensibilities influenced me; and writers from whom I learn.
Writers who influenced me when I was first developing as a writer include Emily Dickinson, Stéphane Mallarmé, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Fyodor Dosteovsky, Yuri Olesha, Nikolai Gogol, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Ralph Ellison, John Ashbery, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Diane Schoemperlen, Clarice Lispector, Nathalie Saurrate, Jonathan Baumbach, Armand Schwerner, Christian Bök, the authors of the Bible and fairy tale writers including Grimm and Anderson; Guillaume Apollinaire and Barbara Guest are among the writers who influenced me later on. In short, my writing is influenced by many writers as well as artists working in other mediums. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by writers I don’t even know about when I’m influenced by any single writer, since they’ve been influenced by other writers too, and so on.
I would like to close with an excerpt of your choice from the book.
He splayed his fingers apart, their movement a Japanese pure, make-a-vacuum style, allowing them to twitch in all directions, implying cherry blossom petals dangling from boughs. He was a tall and fat man, his fingers incongruously refined, long and sculptural. Of course the fingertips flipped up. I say of course because even at rest he gave the impression that he covered everything; above and below.
How the very signal of that gesture enveloped to the point of obfuscating my senses. This is why it is nearly impossible to communicate, to hand over the experience.
He did it when he tried to make a point, but I tell you whenever he did it all I was aware of was the portrait he made with his hands. At their widest opening on their way down they were bird wings flapping—and the hole between the wings, where there should have been a body, was me.