Interview With Anne Kaier
WG: Anne, you are probably best known as a poet, but your latest project appears to be a memoir based upon your experiences at Lourdes. Can you talk about what prompted you to turn to memoir and this specific topic?
AK: Someone once asked me what the difference is between an idea that starts a poem and an idea that starts an essay. Surprising myself, I answered: "If the impulse is irrational, it becomes a poem; if it's more rational, it becomes an essay." That's not entirely true, of course. There's plenty of irrationality in the impulses behind essays, but poems seem to capture one lyrical moment, or a history of life distilled in one lyrical moment.
I started writing essays about six years ago for two reasons. First I wanted to develop themes and tell stories that are more fully narrated than I could do in poetry. Secondly, I had left my corporate job to start teaching and, frankly, I had more time. I used to write poetry on lunch breaks when I was working in a corporate communications. But memoir involves a lot of research. Here's an example: I have a piece coming out in Alaska Quarterly Review sometime in 2013, which is about being born. The ultimate narcissistic essay, I guess you could say. I was what's called a "collodion baby," which means I was born with a tight membrane of skin which cracked in the weeks after my birth and left me a very sick baby, open to infection and dehydration. My mother later told me she had thought she could let me die, but, instead, she did everything she could to keep me alive. To narrate that experience, I spent weeks in the stacks at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Library reading about how "collodion babies" were treated in 1945, when I was born. I went back to my birthplace in Pittsburgh and located at least some of my medical records. I visited the house my parents lived in then and the local Historical Society for photos of Pittsburgh in the 1940s. I talked with neonate physicians at Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia who now treat babies with the condition I had and I talked with parents of other collodion babies. All this research proved essential to the essay—not only for the sake of credibility, but also to help me imagine my way back into the world I was born into.
Writing an essay on my experience at Lourdes, the shrine in southern France, involved similar stratagems. My parent took me there in 1957, when I was eleven. Although they were sophisticated people, they were also believing Catholics and hoped, somehow, that I might be cured at Lourdes of ichthyosis, the skin disease I'd had since birth. For years, this experience at Lourdes stayed in my mind as a kind of Wordsworthian moment, something that in some way changed me. To discover how, I needed to go back. So last spring, I spent two days there—before meeting a friend in Paris for some real vacation. I am not a believer and honestly, I felt nervous about the return trip to Lourdes. But I steeled myself, went and found it to be not as bad as I had imagined it might be. The place seems to be run by volunteers, ordinary people from all over the world. However, it caters to the disabled, called in French, malades. Lourdes challenged my sense of self in many ways. Am I, in fact, a malade? What does that mean? To what extent did an unbeliever such as me, still feel a desire to be cured, a desire which Lourdes drew out of me? In the essay, I've tried to ponder theses questions at greater length than I could have done in poems. However, the essay I finally wrote is in many ways lyrical. It has, I hope, an emotional progression which is not chronological; I move back and forth between my trip to Lourdes in 1957 and my trip in 2012.
Actually, essays can be very flexible. The more I write them, the more daring I become. I'm now working on a piece set in an Catholic boarding school Kentucky in 1930 [where my mother was a student] that may simply mix poems and prose sections. It's new, unformed and floating in my mind. But that's part of the fun of playing around with structures, don't you think?
WG: You mention returning again in 2012 - some 45 years after your initial trip to Lourdes – as an non-believer. There is an expression among Catholics, I believe from Augustine, that says "Give me a child until they’re seven and they’re mine for life." Do you believe there is any truth to that saying and that perhaps in returning to Lourdes you might experience something out of the ordinary?
AK: Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. It's true, it's true, it's true. There are lots of benefits to this if you are a writer—all that sacred symbolism, smells and bells. I'm old enough to remember the Mass being said in Latin when I was a child. So when my family and I went to Lourdes and other places in France, and went to church, it was the same service, in the same language. My brother, who was an altar boy at home, could serve in the Mass in France. I of course, being a girl, didn't get to. But, seriously, being raised as a Catholic, gave me the sense of being connected to something very old and international.
Before I went back to Lourdes, I said to my Protestant and Jewish friends, "What if I go to mock and stay to pray?" I was nervous about it. I was also very nervous about the entire 'going to Lourdes to be cured of disease' motif. However, my clearest memory of the first visit to Lourdes, when I was 11, is that I would NOT get cured there. I probably lost whatever faith I had at that moment. Or so I think, looking back. I'm sure genuine believers, for whom I have a great deal of respect, might see the whole question of faith differently, and more subtly. But I knew, standing before that shrine, when I was 11, that nothing miraculous would happen to me and, of course, it didn't. [Some believers would say my problem, even as a child, was lack of faith]. But when I went back last summer, I inevitably imbibed the atmosphere of belief and found myself wishing that in some miraculous way I might still be cured. Although I had no rational credence for that wish, I recognized it. I remember looking at my hands when I left the shrine, hoping that at least they would be cured and then noticing that, of course, they weren't.
This 'being cured' theme didn't stand out during my experience there last summer, in my thoughts or in the journal I kept. And I know that the whole idea of being cured is honestly controversial, probably for very good reasons, in some parts of the disability community. However, when I started to write the piece on Lourdes—and after my Protestant and Jewish friends said things like "oh of course, you wanted to be cured, you unregenerate Catholic" — that theme came to the fore in the written piece. So, as a writer, I was left with a dilemma. How do I end this piece? With disappointment? With a rationalist expression that denied any kind of irrational wish for a cure? I decided to end it at the moment I looked at my hands, on the esplanade of the shrine, still hoping. So that's the artistic ending, which is and is not the same as the ending my rational mind embraces. Or maybe it's just the old Catholic in me coming to the fore.
WG: Can you elaborate a bit on the ‘being cured’ issue?
AK: As I dimly understand it, some people in the disability community reject the whole idea of cure—for some very good reasons having to do with accepting and celebrating one's self as one is. Clearly, if you hope for, or look for a cure, then you are buying into the idea there's something wrong with you that needs to be changed—and that society as a whole thinks needs to be changed. While I have a lot of admiration for people who take this view, I can't find it in myself to embrace it. I'd be cured in a New York minute if possible. Then I'd deal with the affronts to my self-identity as they arise. This is easier said than done, since ichthyosis won't really be cured until an effective gene therapy is developed. However, research scientists are on to such a therapy. Sooner or later, it will be developed. Perhaps too late for me. But having lived with a skin disorder for 67 years, and having managed. I hope, to be fairly sane about it, I still would rather not have the problem.
The great thing about poetry and creative nonfiction is that I can intuit and present all my conflicted feelings about myself and yet I do not have to take a final stand. I'm still in the middle of exploring all this material. I was raised to pretend, against manifest evidence, that I didn't have a skin problem— to ignore it and live my life as if I didn't have it. That was, in some ways, excellent advice. But it ignored the reactions of the outside world. It was also very confusing— and when I was a child and a teenager, indeed until I was 35, I had no one to talk with about my disability. [Parents wouldn't talk. I went to an old fashioned Catholic school where there was no counselor.} So when I first began to write poetry in middle age, I had all this material stored up. Perhaps when I get really old, I'll have it figured out.
WG: It’s a truism in life writing - whether its an autobiography or a memoir - that there is no such thing as an objective account and the one organizes their narrative in a way that reinforces the perception they have of themselves at the time they are writing. Given this, what do you think your Lourdes memoir says about you? What were you hoping it would say?
AK: My memoir doesn't yet exist as a memoir, so it has no real title. Currently, it's a series of prose pieces— of which three have been published or are forthcoming—on the ichthyosis theme. The Lourdes piece, which is finished and is out searching for a home, will be number four. I have two more on the drawing board. What I will do, book-wise, in the end, I'm not sure yet. So it's fair to say, I've been writing memoir pieces —with a jaundiced eye to a longer book.
I think something very interesting happens when I am writing these pieces—instead of just remembering them or reliving them. The act of writing, which , as you know, is terribly complicated, is—for me—an act of reclaiming. So many of my stories about the past were originally my mother's stories. She shaped them, took them over, kept them and all the drama inherent in them became her drama. Her emotions were center stage. Now, by wresting them away from her — including the Lourdes memory— I make them my story and finally part of my own past, not hers. She's still alive. She will be 100 years old in June. But her memory is now almost completely gone. It's no coincidence that I can finally write these pieces when she's no longer able to take the stories out of my mouth and twist them around to be her stories, to reflect her way of seeing our shared —and even unshared—experience. I think that if her mind were still sharp, I've have her in my head saying things like "Oh, no, you don't mean that." She'd be interpreting even my second trip to Lourdes and trying to wrest the meaning away from me. But she can't do that any more, so I have a freedom in writing about the past which I wouldn't have had if I were doing these ten years ago.
As to what the Lourdes story says about me. After I had written it, I saw that it revealed an unacknowledged desire to be cured, to be completely healthy. I certainly didn't think that when I was planning to go back to Lourdes and didn't think it while I was there last summer. But the writing, and the choices I made, as a writer, about what to highlight, made it clear to me that I really did hope to be cured, despite my rational, unbelieving self. Before I went back to Lourdes, I read a lot about the ancient sacred spots in France—and about the primacy of healing springs or wells. Since my skin is unusually dry, I am, naturally attracted to water. But I read these studies as curiosities, as anthropology. When I got to the actual Lourdes spring which is the main attraction at Lourdes—for me-I thought to myself: "AH what you worship at Lourdes is water." And I was pleased with the neat symbolism of that. I disregarded the statue of the Blessed Virgin which stands near the spring. And I was very pleased that there were very few priests in evidence during my day and a half there. I responded to something pre-Christian and certainly not the ritual of orthodox Catholicism. When I set out to write the piece, I didn't want to make much of Lourdes is a place of cure. However, people who read the early drafts told me that this cure theme was there and was rising to the surface and so I decided to admit that and highlight it as I revised. So it's as much a question or what the memoir told me about myself as it is about what I thought the memoir would reveal about me.
WG: You mention a couple of essays you have on the drawing board. What are those about?
AK: One of the essays is about going to Paris in 1982 to get a drug, still unavailable at that time in the US, which had an immediate and beneficial effect of my ichthyosis. I took the drug, a kind of synthetic Vitamin A, and within two or three days, experienced a great change in my skin—which has lasted to this day, since I still take the drug. I got this drug in Paris, because my dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania had contacts in Europe where the drug was being used for ichthyosis, so I was referred to an eminent dermatologist in Paris. I think this will be a fairly straightforward story. Hopefully it has some inherent drama. I've done several drafts, but because it's set in Paris , I feel the need to go back there to check details! So I've gotta uncover funding for a research trip to Paris...
The other story is about my mother's last two years in high school, which she spent as a scholarship student in a convent boarding school in Kentucky. She had no desire to go there. She wanted to go to the local high school in Indiana where she lived—the high school where the boys were. However, family pressure sent her to Kentucky—her aunt was in the order that ran the school. For years my mother told stories about this place—where she got a good education and hung out with southern girls who taught her all the arts of being a Southern Belle—how to flirt, for example. One of her classmates was the daughter and granddaughter of Kentucky politicians. Men with tremendous power in Depression era Kentucky, they handed out patronage jobs on the KY Highway Commission, jobs which could keep families going. My mom went to Sunday dinner with these men. Always attracted to powerful men who could help her—she was fatherless—my Mom, who was just 17 , hung out with these families and practiced her Southern Belle persona on the young men.
Her high school experience was vastly different from mine. As a girl with a skin problem, I didn't get much chance to play Belle—and she didn't teach me. So now, I find myself very intrigued by her teen years—before I was there, before there was anything between us. I want to know more about what she was like then, I want to intuit my way back into her teenage mind and how she learned how to attract men. This is part of the experience of many women, I think. Their mothers teach them how to deal with men. Maybe not. But mine figured she would protect her odd looking daughter from rejection, by simply not sharing those 'womanly' secrets with me. So I'm intrigued by the theme of the "elegant mother with an different looking daughter." Also I figure she was a lot of fun in those days, and I'd like to get to know, imaginatively, that side of her.
In January, I went down to Kentucky to visit the school—which is now part of the motherhouse-headquarters of the nuns who ran it. They have an archive and showed me her high school graduation picture, student yearbooks, publicity material for the school and alumni newsletters from the time my mom was there. I also wanted to see the local landscape she knew, to walk the halls she walked, eat in the tavern where she probably ate. She used to tell stories about riding horses into the nearest town in order to get away from the school. So I spent a day wandering around in the little town, which hasn't changed appreciably since the 1930s. In fact the Spalding clothing store, where she unquestionably shopped, is still there on the main street. I'll supplement this trip with research into local newspapers and I'll try to find descendants of her classmates to see if they told any stories of Mom's years at the school. I'm not sure how successful I'll be at this, but I'll try.
I'm not at all sure where I'm going with this material. It's too early to say, but I do feel a strong attraction to it. In some way, of course, I want to be her, to be this pretty, smart girl at the beginning of her adult life. I can only try to do that imaginatively. But how wonderful and ironic it is that writing might give me that chance.
WG: One of the things that impresses me in what you’ve had to say about your writing is the tremendous amount of onsite research it seems to take, so I want to finish our interview by asking a double question. The first, really, is just to ask you to comment on the value/importance of field research in memoir writing. The second, because you do teach writing, is to ask what kinds of advice or suggestions you would give to novices who are thinking of writing memoir about how they should approach it.
AK: I do a lot of field research and I hasten to add that my methods mainly self-taught. This probably means I waste a lot of time and stumble around hunting for things. But when I am writing real memoir, which includes events that happened fifty or more years ago, I am, after all, trying to intuit my way back into a world which I may only have heard about in the mythmaking stories passed down in my family. But I am trying to stand where my "characters" stood and smell what they smelled and hear what they heard. I also have a highly developed sense of place. I simply need to be in the place I'm writing about. For example, when I wrote about my parents' attitude toward me as a sickly baby, I didn't want to just depend on what my mom told me about those days—because she didn't tell me enough to really understand her motives. In order to get into her head, I went back to Pittsburgh, spent a few hours walking around the outside of the hospital where I was born, which has not changed since 1945. Then I went back to the house where we had lived. I had arranged with the current owner to see it , but I also walked around in the neighborhood the night before I'd arranged to go inside. I heard the railroad whistles sound—a sound my Dad loved. I saw the thick gnats and heard the crickets and gauged the height of the trees on our street. When I came to write the piece, I ended it in a scene in which my mother is pushing me and my brother, both of us fairly sturdy, in a stroller down the street I'd walked on as when I went out to visit. The scene isn't imagined. It came from old home movies my Dad took at the time. But the train whistle and , especially, the gnats that throng along the sidewalk as she pushes the stroller in my memoir—all come from that night walk I took.
The research also helps the reader believe you are a reliable narrator. Getting details right about what people wore and smoked and ate 70 years ago helps the reader believe you know what you are talking about. This is particularly helpful because, in fact, I will never know very much about the actual past. My own first teacher, Alexandra Grilikhes, a wonderful poet, used to say: "Memoir is a story we tell ourselves about the past." This is surely true. It's not that I make things up out of whole cloth. I don't. But all the research I do, helps me to re-imagine, for example, a small town in Depression era Kentucky where my mother lived as a girl. It often turns out that my assumptions were wrong—and research corrects those mistakes. For example, the father of one of my Mom's classmates, was a druggist. I saw his ad in the high school yearbook that the archivists gave me when I visited her school. But further research, in the local historical society, the stacks at Penn and in books I've bought for pennies on Amazon, reveal that this man was also an important politician—exactly the kid of guy my mom would have gravitated toward, even as a teenager. Here's another example. I always imagined Bernadette of Lourdes as a sort of simple looking peasant. When I got to Lourdes and saw photographs of her, she was drop-dead gorgeous. She was one of the first saints to be photographed—and a lot of the pictures taken of her were staged to reinforce the "simple peasant idea." But the earliest photos of her face reveal her as utterly beautiful in a earthy, slightly scowling way.
If students are writing personal narrative nonfiction, about events that happened very recently, of course it's easier to assume the reader knows the setting and cultural environment. If they are writing memoir about events in the farther distant past, I urge them to do the kind of research that will help make their pieces more credible. I send them to historical societies, as well as to online research sites. And I urge them to rummage around in family attics and to return to the place they are writing about.
I think the most important thing all this research does for me is to give me a sense of confidence as a writer. I don't have to worry so much about describing the scene or habits of my "characters." For example, let's say I'm describing a scene in which my mom is riding a horse from her boarding school into Bardstown, KY, the nearest town. She told me stories about this. And when I went back to her school, they showed me pictures of students in 1929 riding their horses. [It's how they got around. Nobody had a car.] So I have these details firmly in my imagination when I come to write the scene. Because I've done the research, I don't have to stop every other sentence and wonder, for example, how far is it from the school to Bardstown? Could they really have ridden in on a horse? What's the landscape like? What did they wear to ride? I know all these facts and that knowledge frees me to concentrate on the emotional dynamics of the scene.
WG: Anne, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Before wrapping up, is there you would like to add about your writing that we may not have touched on?
AK: Thank you for your interesting questions and for giving me the chance to rattle on.
I'll say one last thing. There's an opinion among some folk that writing is "therapeutic," for people with disabilities or physical or emotional challenges... Somehow, this theory goes, it's good for us to just write it all down, let it all come out. In some magic way —usually unknown to the well-meaning friend, doctor, or other bystander who recommends it, writing about a difficulty or disability or trauma will be healing. This prescription is often given with a heavy dose of condescension as if writing were rather like finger painting— messy and good for you and something anyone could do, if only they got around to it. You can imagine how I feel about this attitude. I wonder if other writers whose work Wordgathering publishes have encountered the same advice.
I certainly have, although I am grateful that my dermatologist doesn't share it. I've asked him to read some of the pieces I've written which include medical information about ichthyosis. I wanted to be sure I got the medical facts right. He's kindly done this and has been very encouraging. This guy, Leonard Milstone, is essentially a scientific researcher at the Yale Medical School. He and his lab study the genetic basis of ichthyosis with the intention of ultimately finding a gene replacement therapy that might really cure what is a disease caused by mutant genes. So he publishes a lot in peer-reviewed medical journals like Investigative Dermatology. When I talk about my writing to him, I make a point of saying that my work also is published in peer-reviewed journals. I'm making a pitch for equality, of course. Asking him to respect my work as I respect his. I don't know if that has anything to do with the non-condescending way he's treated the work I've shown him, but it may. Then again, he's a good guy, has taught medical ethics etc. to Yale undergraduates, so maybe he's just gets what writing is all about.
You and I and your readers know that most writing is hard, detailed work. Yes, occasionally I do just write something out, free form and easy. It just comes. But most of the time, that's a first draft. Much more often I sit at the computer or yellow pad and knock my hands against my head, consult the thesaurus once again and wonder where my flexibility of mind has gone to. That's the craft side of things.
What about the 'writing about it is healing, it's good for you, just get it all out, dear' mantra? I found writing the Lourdes piece to be incredibly difficult. Emotionally. I went on the trip back there full of unacknowledged fears and apprehensions—mainly that I would be completely classified as a malade, as the French call the sick. I left Lourdes incredibly happy to be back in the diverse, real world. When I was actually writing the piece I sat at my computer and groaned, broke off work after a few hours, exhausted. And the more I wrote it, the more I understood that the piece was forcing me to face important questions—about self-identity, about sexuality—that I had ducked—and wanted to duck. It was my pride in trying to do a good job at the actual craft—I want to be thought a good writer—that kept me at it. I hope the piece is literarily excellent. Anyway, it's as good as I can make it.
At this point in a rant about these things, it feels natural to find something good to say about the process of writing about disability. "Yes, it's tough, but it's worth it because. " Well, all I can say is the pleasure that comes from having written a piece like my Lourdes essay is a more purely literary pleasure. That, and perhaps some satisfaction in having faced the important, difficult topics that arose from the writing. However, those topics—self-identity, sexuality etc—are certainly not resolved just because I've thought about how to include them in an essay.
These questions come to the fore in writing memoir—as they do in writing poetry—because the author is dealing, in an upfront way, with portions of a life lived with a physical difference. But it's still true that art imposes form on the chaos of life and in the end, art gives the artist, or in my case, the writer, at least the illusion of a measure of control. When I'm writing about my life, I feel that I can partially define how I am perceived—and perhaps, influence how I see myself. That makes writing worth it.
WG: Thanks again, Anne.