Thank you for joining us for Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome nurse and poet Amy Haddad, who reads Anya Silver for us and discusses the intersections of poetry and healthcare, and of writing about illness. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: What drew you to reading Anya Krygovoy Silver for Lyric Essentials?
Amy Haddad: I only recently discovered Anya Silver’s work in the Spring 2020 edition of Ploughshares as I was thumbing through the poetry in that issue. The title of her poem, “Being Ill” caught me eye because of the similar themes that I write about. I read the poem and immediately fell in love with her words about illness. I was so smitten that I decided to write to her, let her know the metaphor she chose for the turn in the poem was spot on—a sock in a dog’s mouth? Perfect! I looked at the contributor’s section for contact information and found this: “The poem in this issue is from Saint Agnostica, which is forthcoming in the fall of 2021 from LSU Press. Silver completed the manuscript just before she died in August 2018 of metastatic breast cancer.” I was too late to tell her that I literally gasped when I read her poem. Also, she and I had end-stage breast cancer. She was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer, in 2004 at the age of 35. I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer in 2016 following 15 years of being “cancer free” after bilateral mastectomies and chemotherapy for Stage IIA cancer. No chance now to share with her what it is like to ferry between remission and recurrence, carrying the baggage of cancer or how hard it is to write about.
I wanted to read more of her work besides this one poem and learned that she published four poetry collections with the fifth, Saint Agnostica in production. Her obituary in the New York Times on August 10, 2018 stated, “When she received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation this year, the foundation said that her work ‘engages with the trauma of chronic and terminal illness, and with religious faith and mystery, storytelling, memory, and the risks and rewards of being human.’ Ms. Silver was not worried about making readers uncomfortable. It was, she said, her mission to be honest. And if the truth stung, so be it.” I thought, “My mission too.” I strive for honesty in my own writing about my illness experiences as well as my work as a nurse. I was reading her collections when the opportunity arose to read for Lyric Essentials. It seemed like a small way to honor her work that explores much more than her experiences as a person with cancer.
EH: Was there a particular reason you chose these poems to read?
AH: I have an abiding concern about the way this sort of personal, illness-focused poetry is viewed in the literary community. The subject matter is so close to the bone that people are wary of approaching it with the same critical eye as they would any other poetry. During a sabbatical at the University of Minnesota, a poet I met in a workshop told me I should meet poet Richard Solly who lived and taught at The Loft in Minneapolis because, “he writes about what you do.” He agreed to meet me and after he looked at my work, he said he knew why our mutual friend had suggested we meet. He said, “I write about my colostomy and you write about your experiences with breast cancer. No one wants to touch poems like this because when they criticize the work, it feels like they are attacking you, the person who is chronically ill, or worse, dying.” However, writing about the human condition with its suffering, pain, and other vulnerabilities is the stuff that great art and literature are made of, so I have not let it stop me. When I find a kindred spirit who writes about these themes, I am drawn to it to see how they use these first-hand experiences with frailty and mortality and where they take the reader.
I wanted to choose poems from her collections that spoke to other aspects of life like aging, sexuality, notions of being good, the randomness of suffering, the beauty in the mundane and commonplace. I think these two poems show her range and creativity as well as her craft. These two poems only indirectly address her illness. I really liked her use of fairy tales that speak to the magic and despair of life. Many of the poems with fairy tale sources are short and have a lyric quality. She packs a lot of emotion in “Strawberries in Snow,” and relies on our understanding of the way these stories usually go, that is, goodness is rewarded in the end. Here we are left with the unfairness of life -no strawberries for the sister. By the way, I love learning new words and I had to look up “rime,” so see what it meant and how to pronounce it as I had not heard it before. What a lovely word choice that adds to the music of the poem for me.
I chose the second poem, “To the Man Who Yelled ‘Hey, Baby’ At Me!” because of the humor in it. We understand that this is a bittersweet moment for the narrator in the poem. She is too old to be hooted at from a moving car, and yet, that kind of attention especially for a woman who has been through treatment that can literally strip away feminine identity and sexuality, is oddly welcomed.
EH: As a nurse, do you find a particular connection to Silver’s exploration of illness and diagnosis in her poetry?
AH: I think because I am a nurse, I pay attention to the everyday concerns of patients and families. Because I am also a patient, I see how health care professionals diminish or ignore the realities of patients and families. No health professional means to be disrespectful or demeaning to patients, but it happens all the time. I started seriously writing poetry in a grant-supported writing group of women health professionals in 1992 although I had always written some poems even in grade school. We were focused on using literature to explore ethical issues in health care. The poems I wrote then were largely taken from my experiences as a nurse and how we often missed so much about what was going on in a patient’s life. This really came to light for me when I worked in high-tech home care where it was up close and personal with families struggling to care for loved ones who were dependent on complicated technology to survive. While in the writing group, I got my first diagnosis with breast cancer, so my writing began to reflect my experiences as a patient. Since then, I have been weaving these strands of my life along with my roles as a caregiver for my own family members into my creative work over the years.
EH: Lastly, is there anything else you are working on that you would like to share with readers?
AH: My first poetry collection, An Otherwise Healthy Woman, will be published by Backwaters Press, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press in early 2022 and my first chapbook, The Geography of Kitchens, has just been accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press in Georgetown, Kentucky. I am now working on poems for a chapbook or a hybrid book that narrates and reflects on photographs from the Durham Museum’s photo archives of the Visiting Nurse Association in Omaha in the 1920s and 30s when there was huge influx of immigrants to the city to find work at the stockyards and packing plants. The photos appear to be part of a plan to educate the community on the work that the visiting nurses did in the community. The photographs are amazing but there is very little information about the people in the pictures, just a few penciled notes on the back here and there, maybe a date. There is so much to work with here, I am really enjoying the process.
Anya Krygovoy Silver is the author of four poetry collections: Second Bloom (Cascade Press, 2017), From Nothing (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), I Watched You Disappear (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), and The Ninety-Third Name of God (Louisiana State University Press, 2010). An educator and scholar, Silver taught at Mercer University was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2018. She wrote often of illness after an inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis in 2004, and died of breast cancer in 2018 at the age of 49 in Macron, Georgia, survived by her husband and son.
Amy Haddad is a nurse, ethicist and poet who taught in the health sciences at Creighton University in Omaha, NE from 1988-2018. Her poetry and short stories have been published in the American Journal of Nursing, Janus Head, Journal of Medical Humanities, Touch, Bellevue Literary Review, Persimmon Tree, Annals of Internal Medicine, Aji Magazine, DASH, Oberon Poetry Magazine and the
anthologies Between the Heart Beats and Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa and Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio. She is the winner of the Annals of Internal Medicine poetry prize for “Families Like This” for the best poem published in the journal in 2019. She won third-place for the 2019 Kalanithi Writing Awards from Stanford University for her poem “Dark Rides.” Her first poetry collection An Otherwise Healthy Woman will be published by Backwaters Press, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press in early 2022.
Read Haddad’s manuscript announcement in the Creighton University press.
Check the Backwaters Press website for publication information about Haddad’s collection, An Otherwise Healthy Woman forthcoming 2022.
Read some more of Haddad’s poetry: “Primping for Tests in Radiology and Nuclear Medicine” in Aji Magazine and “At Rehab” in Journal of the Humanities in Rehabilitation.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at: http://ericahoffmeister.com/