Ahead of the 2020 release of her third poetry collection To Everything There Is, Donna Vorreyer spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Gokul Prabhu. Here, they discussed articulations of death and grief and how that influences the construction of a literary “I.”
Gokul Prabhu: What was your primary thought process as you put your collection together? Is there a larger narrative you hope to achieve?
Donna Vorreyer: This collection, unlike my last book, wasn’t conceived as a project with a crafted narrative arc. The poems I had been writing from 2016-2018 dealt with aging, doubt, and one’s relationship with the body. Then my life changed overnight when, within the course of a year in 2018, both parents fell ill and passed away. Writing then became a way of trying to both name and tame my emotional upheaval, a way to balance a complicated scale that carried the weight of loss on one side and the beauties and joys of living on the other. When organizing this collection, I knew that I needed to weave the other issues about which I’d been writing with the poems of grief in order to show that balance. I hope I have created a narrative seesaw for readers, one that they could ride as that scale tips from one side to the other.
GP: What is the significance of the juxtaposition of the body with the non-physical existence in your poems, especially in Section I?
DV: When you tend someone who is dying, the physical body screams for attention—not only the bodies of the ill, but the bodies of the caretakers as well. This keen awareness of the physical heightens the desire for explanation, for reasons, and leads to contemplation of the intellectual, psychological, and spiritual realms that make up a whole person. The love poems in the collection use all of these domains as well—being loved so well while being so desperately sad is a visceral experience. These ideas, blended with my existing interest in thinking about aging and the body, were arranged to complement one another, in a way that was shaped by conversations with Jeremy Reed, my Sundress editor for this collection.
GP: Can you speak about the book’s relationship with death and the language used to articulate it?
DV: This is a difficult question, as difficult as it is to try and articulate something as monumental yet as ordinary as death. As I wrote my way into and through the first years of grieving my parents, I found that each poem was unique in the way that each twinge of grief was unique. At times overwhelming, to write only about loss can be just as harmful as it is helpful, so finding different ways to approach these thoughts was important—using the natural world as a springboard helped me to find language for guilt, regret, and sorrow as well as beauty, joy, and love. In the end, the book is not only elegy. It is, to create a portmanteau, a “celebrelegy,” one that recognizes and explores the deep dark that comes with loss but also the light that continues to shine for those who are left behind.
GP: What is the significance of the recurring image of the anxiety of dealing with the everydayness of things, including your own body and the politics around it, especially after experiencing a deep loss, in Section II and III?
DV: It’s a cliché, but the answer to this question is “life goes on.” It has to. And part of my life before the loss was dealing with thoughts about my own aging, my relationship with my own body in space and in the world, my own vacillation between the wonder of being so well loved and the doubt about whether I deserve it.
GP: How does your form influence the articulation of this grief?
DV: Form for me usually arrives after the first draft, which usually has no form and is spilled out handwritten in a journal. With work, the correct form can eventually arrive and enhance the content. “Refusal,” for instance, with its ghazal form, mimics the cyclical and repetitive ways that “no” permeates your days when someone is dying. In “Self-Administered Rorschach Test,” the short lines and strange intersection of assonance and image mimic the oddness of the test itself. And in some of the prose poems like “Dawn of Grace” and “The First Thing I Wrote On This Retreat Was Not Supposed to Be about My Mother,” the large block keeps the reader in one moment by keeping the aspects of that moment contained in a rectangular space. “Purgatory” is one long sentence that waves down the page in staggered tercets, meant to mimic both the movement in the poem (of the train and the wind and of the speaker’s desire to be free of the space she is in). Using a variety of forms was important to me in order to try and mirror the disorder of mourning.
GP: How does your poetry speak to the current ongoing conversation around death and body politics in a pandemic?
DV: I think it would be a stretch to try and make these poems fit the current situation we are all living in. However, some readers have pointed out how lines written quite some time ago (some up to four years ago), resonate differently now. For example, in “Ebb Tide,” the line “Terrible/ news blares from the radio, all I love/both at hand and at risk” seems even more specific than when it was written. I think, if anything, that the poems make it clear how important it is to be able to be physically present to love and mourn. They also make me consider how difficult it must be to be separated from family and friends who are experiencing illness or loss, and how important it is to appreciate the joy that love can still bring into the darkest moments.
GP: How does the ‘I’ in this collection figure for you, and what parts of the ‘I’ are borrowed from your persona?
DV: I always answer this question by saying that, since I wrote the poems, I am in them somehow. Many of these poems are obviously autobiographical, particularly the elegy poems. But some of the exploration of the body, age, guilt, regret…the “I” in those poems is more universal, I think, more of a way to dig into a condition of thought rather than one of being.
GP: Do the three sections in the collection suggest a growth in this ‘I’ as a reader goes from the beginning of the first section to the end of the third? If so, what would you say is the most important ‘lesson’ the ‘I’ has learnt at the end of the collection?
DV: The collection shows the speaker straddling a chasm of loss, each bit of beauty and joy weaving a net beneath her. There isn’t a straight line from not knowing to knowing. As soon as we are born, we are working our way toward an inevitable end—it’s the nurturing one receives in that journey, despite the doubts and failures that plague it, that is important in the end. I think the last line of the penultimate poem gives the lesson—“so much of anything is completely out of your hands.” We seek to control so many aspects of our existence and, in the end, we have very little influence over many of the major things that happen to us. This sounds a little bit defeatist, but then the last poem balances that out, I think, explaining how even the strongest of relationships is really a piece of magic, how even love is something that we don’t choose.
GP: Why did you choose the title of a specific poem as the title of the entire collection?
DV: The title of the collection was in flux for quite some time, and the final decision of To Everything There Is functions in multiple ways for me and hopefully will for the reader. Of course, it is the beginning of a famous Bible verse (and subsequent song by The Byrds) that is meant to illustrate that there is a purpose for everything that happens. Another way of viewing the title is in an epistolary way—as a letter to “everything,” a way of embracing both the good and bad things the world has to offer us. Also, the title poem is a reflection on how we react to death and how we want to be remembered, which was important as this book is a small way to honor my parents.
GP: Which of the poems was the most difficult for you to write, and why? Also, which is/are the poem(s) closest to your heart?
DV: All of the poems about my mother and father were difficult to write as I had to relive the hardest emotional moments of my life. Both the elegy poems and the love poems to my husband are the closest to my heart, and choosing one of each would be difficult. But, if pressed, I’d say the hardest to write was “Karma,” which imagines a could-have-been scenario that still haunts me. (There’s that idea of no control coming in…). The closest to my heart has two contenders: “I Inherit the Whims of my Mother as I Prepare to Trash This Draft” as it allows me to be in an ongoing conversation with my mother, to think of her every time I see a cardinal or jot down a random thought; or “In the Encyclopedia of Human Gestures” as it combines my obsession with the ordinary, the contemplation of ideas, and the salvation of a great love into one poem.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016), and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Rhino, Tinderbox Poetry, Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, Waxwing, Whale Road Review, and many other journals. She currently serves as an associate editor for Rhino Poetry. Vorreyer has recently retired from 36 years in public K-12 education and can’t wait to see what happens next.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing, and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator, and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.