Judith Skillman Interview by Janée J. Baugher
Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.
Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.
Richard Brautigan came to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I did freelance work.
As a child who had to go down into the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.
Since moving to the Seattle-area, I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader (s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.
JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?
JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.
While I was under his informal mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.
I recall, when I saw his kitchen table, that there was a letter from The New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos Williams made him truly unique.
JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?
JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.
JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?
JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.
As humans we are especially self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is, the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain, right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland, Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify any one of the particular, unique pieces.
Poem-making is the same process. We bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.
Obsession plays a part, as in, possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather. There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents, financial problems—you name it.
So the compulsion to write poems, while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment. That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming awake.
JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?
JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…
So your question is salient. I would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma has not diminished with the years.
JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?
JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.
JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.
JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.
I believe the authenticity of the work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden variety compared to this set of issues.
JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?
JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.
While I have had personal resonance with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so the poem’s first line was a found line.
JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?
JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.
Writing, however, helps establish a foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means, but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.
So while I feel rather like a magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences. Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively short time.
JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”
JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.
Though they say it could have been worse,
give you ice and pills, nothing bandages
the millisecond you can’t remember
or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling
in slow motion through your knee,
your back, neck and stomach.
Though they say the limp will disappear,
you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb
to be collected by the accident
and packed into the ball and socket.
This kind of snow never melts.
Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain,
that part you can see, its summit clipped
by cloud, frame, pall.
(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)
JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?
JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.
JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?
JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.
So what in nature does this feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if, when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings, floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis. That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and artificial—again, can be fancy.
JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?
JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.
JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?
JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.
JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:
in blown glass on shelves
stacked on the buffet
quilted place mats
salt and pepper shaker
horns of ivory
rhinoceros don’t you dare
touch else the host
you’ll become the child
who ran into winter
jumped the fence
to fall on concrete
where a shard
entered your palm
look at the cicatrix
like a tattoo
a little leg
pulled from flesh
(Previously published in Hamilton Stone Review No. 35)
JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.
JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?
JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)
JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.
JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.
JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?
JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.
Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.
Janée J. Baugher is the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland, 2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.
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