What Do You Know for Sure:
Millicent Borges Acardi Interviews Poet Andrea Scarpino
MBC: What did you or do you hope to accomplish with your new collection, What the Willow Said as It Fell (WTWSF )
AS: I definitely wanted to explore chronic pain as a subject matter, and I wanted to explore the book-length poem because writing with a book in mind from the get-go was something I had never done before. I don't know that I hoped to accomplish anything specific other than creating a strong work of art that resonates with readers. But I definitely wanted to record chronic pain as a subject matter that is worthy of poetry.
MBC: WTWSF encourages readers to "sit with and inside the body's many losses, to grow comfortable and restless in its vagaries, and to acknowledge the myriad ways the body shapes and informs our lives." What do you expect from readers as they explore your poetry?
AS: I don't think I have expectations from readers—I'm just so delighted to have readers!— do I have readers?—but I hope that readers will journey with me, that even when writing is uncomfortable or challenging, they stick with it, allowing the discomfort to move their thinking in new directions. And I hope that they read deeply and carefully, that they spend time with my words and with the words of other writers, to really carefully consider all that the writer has worked so diligently to put before them.
WTWSF is a book-length poem, so I imagine each moment building from the previous moment and into the next moment. I use a lot of repetition to return to and build on important themes, and what I consider a looping effect (similar to looping in music) to allow readers multiple opportunities to live in a particular moment.
Chronic pain is also a kind of looping experience—the pain just keeps coming back—so I liked the idea of including a lot of repetition to mimic that. And I hope that repetition will resonate with readers, and that they'll find it a successful strategy.
MBC: The collection incorporates found poetry, medical records; similar to meta-fiction, does this collage effect make the poems more grounded in reality?
AS: I hope that the different forms make the collection more accessible, absolutely, and relatable to diverse readers.
I include writing from the painter Frida Kahlo, for example, who lived with chronic pain almost her entire life, and from professional athletes who often live with daily pain throughout their season and beyond, and from young women with cancer in order to demonstrate the many ways pain exists in our lives and the necessity of thinking hard about it and what it means.
MBC: What was your intent/desire/ inspiration to utilize your own medical records in the poems?
AS: I include language from my own medical records because I find fascinating the impersonal, medical perspective on a patient's personal, intimate experience. When I requested my medical records from a host of doctors across the country that I've seen since I was 14 years old, I was immediately struck by how the doctors wrote about me and described me, particularly in ways that don't seem to me to directly pertain to why I was coming to see them.
So, for example, they comment on how I'm dressed, on my cleanliness, on my ability to make eye contact, and on my mood. And I really liked the idea of having that outsider, third person perspective included in a book that is often very inwardly focused to give the reader another vantage point from which to consider chronic pain.
MBC: Using the ash and willow tree as a metaphor, your poems are a form of therapy?
AS: I don't think of my writing as therapy. At least, writing this book didn't make me feel any better about living with chronic pain, although if it's a form of therapy for readers, I totally support that.
But I include the ash and willow trees and the various other figures that appear throughout this book as mythological beings that help ground my more abstract writing. So, for example, the ash tree has a long tradition cross-culturally as a healer, and Ask, one of the first humans in Norse mythology, means "ash tree." Humans have been very connected to a variety of trees throughout our time on Earth, and I liked the idea of having them as witnesses to the pain experience.
MBC: The seminal anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability is doing a lot to educate and spread awareness about chronic disabilities—what else can writers do? What can readers do?
AS: Well, I think the most important thing that writers can do is write about illness and disability and pain! These may not seem like particularly romantic subject matters, but given the number of Americans now experiencing chronic illnesses of all sorts, it's more and more important to try to represent our experiences on the page.
Some studies estimate 25% of Americans live with chronic pain, for example, the majority of them women, but the chronic pain experience is woefully underrepresented by contemporary American poets. So the first step is working to represent our experience on the page so that readers are able to connect with them. As for readers, I think it's important for them to be open to reading writing that isn't easy, that challenges them to sit with illnesses that have no cure.
So many of us have such a deep belief in the medical establishment that we tend to assume if people aren't being cured from an illness, it's because they aren't trying hard enough or following doctor's orders—or they're melodramatic or they just like the attention illness can bring. But the fact is that medicine doesn't yet fully understand how the body works, and doesn't have a cure for many, many conditions, and we must be sensitive to those truths as readers and willing to embrace a speaker's experience as real.
MBC: Can you share a line or passage from a favorite poem and why it is memorable?
AS: My favorite poem in the world is Nazim Hikmet's "On Living," which includes the lines,
I mean, however and wherever we are,
It's a beautiful poem from start to finish, but that moment always takes my breath away for the simplicity with which it is written and the amazing complexity that it contains.
MBC: Is there is a line you would like to be remembered by?
AS: Hmmmm. I titled the book What the Willow Said as it Fell in part because of the line that follows it in the book: "Take this body, make it whole." So maybe that's what I would choose to be remembered by, the idea of wholeness in body existing even if illness or pain also continue to exist.
Take this body, make it whole.
MBC: What project are you working on? Whatever comes to mind.
AS: I'm working on editing an anthology with Aaron Raz Link, and I'm working on a new book-length poetry manuscript. And I'm working to have a successful compost pile that isn't a breeding ground for fruit flies. That may be my most challenging undertaking to date—and my biggest failure.
MBC: Can you share a line from something you are working on right now?
AS: A line that continues throughout the book is the question, "What do you know for sure?" I actually stole that from a student who said his father used to ask that of any suitors who came to the house to date his sister.
And I found that fascinating—first, that you would ask such a question of a potential suitor, but also that you would presume to know anything for sure. So I started doing some freewriting around my family history using that question, "What do I know for sure?" and realized pretty quickly how little I know for sure about my family. Even my most vivid childhood memories are constantly shifting, and when I share them with my brother, we both find we've remembered events imperfectly, if at all. So that's a line I'm considering frequently at the moment.
MBC: What has poetry taught you about life?
AS: That's a great question. Poetry has taught me that art and humans and life are never-endingly complex and to pay attention. Pay attention.
As Rilke says,
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
And I love how true that is, the necessity of being in the world as fully as we can be for the whole of our very tiny lives. And poetry has taught me that the breadth of human experience is incomprehensible, that there is always something new to learn and experience and relate to others. So I better pay attention.
MBC: What readings do you have scheduled for 2016/17?
AS: I have a whole host of readings and events scheduled to support What the Willow Said as it Fell, including a 6-week poetry and philosophy tour that I'm doing this spring with my partner Zac, who is a philosopher.
We'll be making stops in Arizona, California, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Missouri, to name just a few, so that's the big event of the moment. I update my website with my events, so going to andreascarpino.com is the best way to stay informed of my goings-on.
MBC: What do you think are the major themes or subjects poets should be addressing in the 21st century?
AS: That's a hard question—I tend to think poets should follow their interests wherever those interests may take them. Personally, I would like to write more about water and the growing global water crisis. In my book, this is one of the most pressing issues of our time and directly relates to our survival as a species.
Several years ago, I wrote a poetry collection on water that I ended up throwing away because I thought it was just terrible, but it's a topic that continues to pull my attention so I'm hoping to find a better entry point in the future. But we have so many concerns in the 21st Century that would be served by poetic attention: racism, sexism, war, our global immigrant crisis, our continuing economic struggles, etc.
The challenge is finding ways to write about these overwhelming issues that don't become diatribe, that remain firmly planted in the realm of art.