That’s what I most enjoyed about Champion’s poems--their surprising insistence on transforming pain into wisdom and growth.
(NOTE: After the interview below, read “Daphne, Upon Transformation,” and “The Old Red Maple,” both of which appear with permission of the author. Pre-order Reluctant Mistress here...it will be released on April 1, 2013).
Q: So many of your poems (including “Daphne, Upon Transformation,” “Woman Folding Origami,” “The Red Maple,” and “Change,”) beautifully explore change and growth. Yes, these poems are about love, lust, and heartbreak, but more importantly, they are about how to live with brokenness and pain in you. For you, what is the relationship between transformation, healing, and poetry/art (including your own poems)? What poems/art do you turn to in times of pain?
A: I want to start answering this question with the last three stanzas of D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Tortoise Shout:”
The wheel on which our silence first is broken,
Sex, which breaks up our integrity, our single inviolability, our deep silence
Tearing a cry from us.
Sex, which breaks us into voice, sets us calling across the deeps, calling, calling for the
Singing, and calling, and singing again, being answered, having found.
Torn, to become whole again, after long seeking for what is lost,
The same cry from the tortoise as from Christ, the Osiris-cry of abandonment,
That which is whole, torn asunder,
That which is in part, finding its whole again throughout the universe.
I recognize a profound truth in these lovely lines: the idea that we are broken into voice, that this voice is a way of reaching for another, that our voice can and will manifest itself in both cries and songs, that this brokenness is cyclical—a wheel that continually churns. You see it in the word repetition within his lines: silence, voice, silence, cry, calling, answered, found, cry, torn, whole, torn, whole. This back and forth of brokenness and healing, of desire and punishment, seems to exactly pinpoint the hefty emotional work of us all, and it seems to explain why we must give our brokenness words. Our cries are innate: we have no choice in how they manifest.
That being said, is poetry a healing elixir? Can art repair the damage within our lives? Ultimately, no. Real healing takes tremendous emotional and mental effort of sincere self reflection. It needs an honestly lived life, a network of support from other people, and, most importantly, the continual evaluation and re-evaluation of character. The brunt heft of this work is much more than a poem can carry.
However, poetry can help. The page is a space where you can explore and try to articulate the various “cries” that Lawrence refers to—epiphanies happen sometimes when we write. Because my writing is so personal, I feel that it is an honest dialogue of self exploration. Thus, it’s a step in healing.
Also, writing is, by its very nature, the complete opposite of brokenness: when we sit down to write, we slap destruction in the face by committing to create. And that commitment to creation, in whatever form it takes—poetry, art, fiction, photography, children—is a major part of healing. It’s a refusal to stay broken, even as you give brokenness your voice. In giving your full and honest allegiance to creation, you begin the slow journey of transformation.
Furthermore, poetry gives its readers a sense of community—a connection and anchor to this world. We read, we recognize ourselves in the voice of others, and we realize that we are not alone—there’s tremendous comfort in that. Honestly, I can’t imagine bearing some of my most painful travails without wrapping myself in the warm blanket of poetry.
There are several touchstones that I turn to in times of pain: Sylvia Plath, for her fearless and brutal honesty, her seemingly unabashed rage and terror; Sharon Olds, also for her courage, but more for her delicate empathy; Mark Doty, for his astounding wisdom and steadfast humanity; and Louise Gluck, for giving pain such beautiful lyricism. These are collections I return to repeatedly, and they seem to speak to me differently in each stage of my life—every time I open them, I am surprised, which, I think, speaks to our awe inspiring ability to continually transform.
Two poems from Reluctant Mistress
DAPHNE, UPON TRANSFORMATION
Finally. These veins have turned
to roots, soaking nourishment from earth
with stoic self-reliance, no longer needing
the channels that course in others
seeking passion. I confess
I was never human in that sense.
My flesh, already eroded
by his willful touch
has transformed the imprints
to lined bark which peels away
in bitter chunks.
My fingers multiply,
sprouting leaves from every knuckle
and I reach upwards, towards the nothing
I always wanted. It may look
like I’m reaching for him,
but I know the light of the sun deceives;
there’s more truth in moonlight
when my silhouette against the night sky
is no different from my shadow.
In the afternoons, they’ll pluck
leaves from my branches to adorn
his head, but I can easily replace
everything he takes from me now.
Today, the first nest appears, tucked
in a corner of my body I no longer
have words for, and the bird sleeps atop
her speckled eggs. I’d call to the gods
in protest if they could hear me.
Is there no way to forever shake out
that tremendous need in the world?
THE OLD RED MAPLE
Mid-November, I’d been trying to show you the chameleon in me.
Every day a new shade to prove I could be whatever it was you needed.
The Red Maple along the marsh where we used to walk
was trying to assert its final claim on beauty
before the next season took hold.
Alone, I watched the leaves change from yellow to orange to scarlet.
I ran my fingers along the bark, grey,
darkening and furrowing in narrow ridges with age.
I didn’t want it to change anymore.
As the wind pushed and pushed, its limbs held the trembling leaves,
swaying until they could do nothing but let go.
Their absence left a skeleton so repulsive I turned my head
for a whole season—
I can still see the way the vibrant colors fled.
I can still hear the leaves, a flimsy crunch under my feet.
I can still feel that old weakness.