Monday, June 1, 2020

Sheryl St. Germain in conversation with Ander Monson

I'm a big fan of Sheryl St. Germain's newest essay collection, Fifty Miles, which, like her last poetry book, The Small Door of Your Death, is in many ways about the 2014 death of her son Gray. I'd met him only a couple times, I think, if that, and knew him primarily through Sheryl, whom I've known for many years: she was one of my earliest creative writing professors. Sheryl turned me on to a lot of poetry, much of which still remains with me, and while she is probably better known as a poet I've always admired her essays too. Gray was a musician, among other things: he was part of the band Ghosthustler: check out one of their songs here. Since both Sheryl and I had our spring book tours pretty much cancelled by the pandemic, I thought it might be nice to talk in this space instead, so we got together on Zoom to talk about her book. —Ander Monson

Ander Monson: Hello Sheryl. How are you doing?

Sheryl St. Germain: I’m okay. My mom just got out of the hospital. She’s in an assisted living facility, and it’s really hard because it’s on lockdown. She lives in New Orleans, which is the epicenter, as you know, in some ways of the virus—New Orleans and the south. Her facility has five cases of the virus; one resident died. Anyway, I don’t think she recognizes me sometimes when I talk to her. I’ve been writing about this a little bit. It’s hard to go through that stage with a parent.

We had to sell her house recently when I was down there. We had to go through all her stuff and I found out she took creative writing classes in 1949.

She wound up in the hospital in January, falling and falling and falling, and we put her in a nursing home then in assisted living, and then she had heart problems. She had heart failure a couple weeks ago and that’s what landed her in the hospital, but now she’s back in assisted living. She’s okay—she doesn’t have the virus. She can hardly walk, and because of her dementia she’s going to have to be moved to what they call the memory unit as soon as the virus is cleared up. I hope you never have to go through this with your parents.

Ander: I probably will, but—my stepmother is still alive. My dad is still married to her. They got married, then they got divorced, and they got remarried without telling me or my brother, which should give you a sense of the relationship we have with my stepmother. They’re still married, but they don’t live in the same house. She lives in a camp on a place called, literally, Hermit’s Cove, and she almost never leaves. She’s alive—she’ll outlive everyone. She’s a tough lady. My dad hits all the buttons for Covid-19 risk groups, so he’s the one I’m worried about. She never sees anyone if she can avoid it except him, so I don’t know. But they live there, and we live here, and it’s something I haven’t for a long time felt like I had any control over. If I lived there, and felt like I could actually do something about their situation, I’d try to do that, but we really don’t have that relationship.

Sheryl: I have a very complicated relationship with my mother. And I’m now the person who has power of attorney, and has to make all these decisions, and I’m the one who has to check in on her every day, and all of this stuff is coming up, and it’s one thing if you have a wonderful relationship with a parent all your life, but if you’re the responsible party and you have a complicated relationship, it’s tough.

Well, the whole idea, was that I was going to go down there to do the book tour, and do a reading at the Tennessee Williams festival. That had been my dream for a really long time. I was going to do that, then stay with my mom for three weeks, and all this came down, and they locked down the facility, and I can’t even see her now. So now I’m just watching her dementia get worse, day by day. Two days ago I talked to her and she couldn’t finish a sentence. She can’t write a sentence either. It’s so sad. She kept copies of what seems like every letter she ever wrote. I’ve just been reading these letters. She was a very good writer. But today when I tried to talk to her, all she could say was okay. Okay okay. I don’t think that she knew who I was.

Ander: had she read your work before? Did you have that kind of relationship?

Sheryl: Oh she read everything. She was the one who, look at Swamp Songsthere’s an essay in there about her and all the books she had. Thousands. We had to try to sell all these books. She read my work. She mostly was supportive, but she was really pissed off with a poem that I wrote about her having an affair with a boy in the house when my brother was dying. And she didn’t like that I revealed some of what she considered the family secrets. She was unhappy about that but in general, but also she always wanted to be a writer, and I became what she always wanted to be, so there was a little tension there. She was mostly supportive, though.

Ander: Had she read Fifty Miles, or was she too far gone by that point?

Sheryl: You know, the book came out in January, right when she went into assisted living. —I gave her a copy in February.

Athena Monson [from offscreen]: Zoom bomb!

Ander: Oh, we’re about to be zoom bombed.

Sheryl: is that Athena? You didn’t meet me before, but I’ve known your dad for a really long time, and I’ve seen pictures of you on Facebook! Hi! How old are you Athena?

Athena: 6!

Sheryl: I love your name, Athena. The goddess Athena.

Athena: Thanks. I might as well get back to playing my video game. [exits]

Sheryl: Yeah, so I gave her a copy of the book in December when I went down there, but I don’t think she read it. I don’t think she can read. A therapist told me a couple months ago that she took a cognitive test, and a normal person would rate 30, and she rated a 10. There’s a library in the assisted living facility, and she claims to read books, but the therapist said she didn’t think that’s possible. She’s read everything else. I found she had folders of work of mine from the 80s, poems of mine that I’d written. I was really glad to find some of these, because I’d thrown these terrible old drafts away, so it was fun to see them. She doesn’t like to dwell in darkness, and she wants to put a bright face on everything, and I’m all about well, let’s just say what it is, so that’s been a source of tension between us. Why don’t you focus on the bright side of life, Sheryl? [laughs]

Ander: Yeah, that’s not really your jam—

Sheryl: No.

Ander: I mean, there’s a lot of brightness in your work, but it’s not the predominant—

Sheryl: I think of Fifty Miles as a hopeful book. I tried to structure the arc of the essays so that it would end with hope, even though my son died. I’ve been running this Words Without Walls program for ten years and teaching women who are substance abusers. Some of them die, some of them don’t make it, some don’t write after our 6-month workshop, but I feel like it’s very important to develop that relationship. I’m not trying to save people, but…

Ander: When I was rereading the book, I was struck by how various it is. There’s a lot in it, with the four different movements/sections, and the first section is basically chronological. Gray dies between sections one and two, then in section two, we’re in that, section three is the long essay about him and you and video games, and that’s still one of my very favorites,

Sheryl: I like that one too. And the last essay is the teaching CW and addiction, but that’s an outlier in a way. I had mixed feelings about even having it there. I feel like the most important essay is the video game essay, for me anyway. At one point it was almost twice the length it is in the book. But you know, I really wanted to complicate the notion of who an addict is, and to give a fuller exploration of a person’s life, so it was important to have some of those earlier pieces, some of which I wrote way before he died. I just left some of those earlier essays as if he hadn’t died, because it felt untruthful to go back and change the essays after and put his death in there. But after he died, and I kept thinking about how he was such a digital person, so nerdy in that way. It wasn’t just video games: it was everything. He would just call me up sometimes, and I know he was on something, and he would talk for hours about complicated—you would have understood it, I think—about some kind of weird digital deep-dive, the coolest way to make and listen to music online, and he’d lose me because I didn’t get it, but it made me happy to hear him talk about something he loved.

Ander: and then we see that come back in the third, in which we see you playing with him, in that essay we see you move closer to him in an interesting way.

Sheryl: it’s funny; I don’t know if it’s his generation or what, but I felt like, but some of those intimate moments I had with him were either playing World of Warcraft or texting—digital—there was this buffer between us, and we could say things to each other that we could never say face to face. We were never together for long periods of time, since I moved around so much, but it felt important to acknowledge that.

Ander: Did you feel like that kind of communication through texts/chat/games, I can’t help but think of your mother and her letter-writing, and you and your son writing digitally to one another. Did you ever write letters to Gray?

Sheryl: the only time he wrote letters to me was when he was really mad. So I wrote him a letter once, he was a teenager. That was the worst time with him. And he corrected it as if it was an essay that someone had turned in to me for a class. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t so funny then. He was circling things—and writing notes in the side like “ambivalent” or “not true”—and then he wrote a note at the end saying he really enjoyed this fictional account of our relationship.

Ander: wow.

Sheryl: he was very ironic like that. I did write letters to my mom a lot, and she wrote a lot of letters to me. But Gray had ADHD, so he couldn’t sustain things for a long period of time. He’d send me out of the blue a link to a song. Like Roberta Flack’s “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” and a long detailed really smart analysis of the song. And then he’d say I love you mom. There’d be this moment, and it’d almost always be songs, that would bring something out of him.

Ander: I’m trying to remember your shared love of music and how much that shows up here. I know it shows up in the previous book—

Sheryl: it’s in the poetry book. The Small Door of Your Death. It’s not so much in this one since I didn’t want to repeat that. It’s in the one long poem that’s about those connections we had.

Ander: Even before the CV took over and blew everything up for your book tour, you were trying to rethink the book tour from the get-go anyway, less about random bookstore readings, and were trying to create more intimate events with friends.

Sheryl: I wanted to reach out to people I knew, friends in different states, and see if they would be interested in hosting an event in their houses, or if they had connections with non-literary communities. I had several of these planned, like one in Atlanta. This woman who set the one up there, her son had been my student at Chatham, and he had schizophrenia and was taking medication for it, really really smart, but troubled in the way you might imagine, so he graduated last year, and a few months after he graduated, he stopped taking his medication, and he jumped off a bridge in Pittsburgh and killed himself. So I was really upset about this in all kinds of ways, and I got close to his mother. She offered to set something up in Atlanta, a smaller event with family members and some folks from the community and a local bookstore, and that meant a lot to me, and I was writing some grants with a former colleague to do some outreach, and we got one, called Spreading the Word, and trying to reach communities that wouldn’t normally read a book at all, and that’s going to happen in the fall. The grant will pay for copies of the book. I went to some jails and prisons in Ohio with ARCs and did some readings, and I really loved that. My press, Estruscan had gotten a grant to provide the inmates with copies of the book, so that was really great. They were a wonderfully attentive audience. They’d all read the book. One guy who was about my son’s age said to me, I feel very much like your son. The next time my mother comes to visit me here, I’m going to tell her how much I love her. That was unexpected and moving.

I was talking to Ed Hirsch about this. He has this book Gabriel that he wrote about his son dying from drug use, and we were talking about books, and he said you can’t really market a book about this. It just has to fall in the hands of people who need it. I felt this struggle with my last book too. It’s not like I want to go out and market a book about my son’s death. I’ve probably given away almost as many copies as I’ve sold, but I do feel a responsibility to the press, and I do want it to reach people who might get something from it, so I’m doing what I can to get it out. But this is clearly not the time. You had a book that came out too—so none of us really knows how to do this. I don’t like the idea of a virtual book tour.

Ander: I’m doing some virtual events, though I don’t really know what that’s going to look like. But there’s not really the same rationale behind it: it’s not as intimate. What do you get out of a virtual event? What do you want out of a reading or whatever? I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood and her invention of the LongPen, which allowed you to sign books remotely. What is the point exactly of doing an event at all? It doesn’t have the same kind of community-building effect that going to a place does where you know people and you can be a body in a room with those people.

Sheryl: That’s how I feel about it, especially with this book, but if people offer those things I’ll do them, especially if this thing drags out as it probably will, but right now I’m kind of in a holding pattern.

Ander: I have a plan for mine on Tuesday. I’m going to dress like a wizard, and use a virtual background—have you seen the virtual backgrounds people are doing on Zoom?

Sheryl: This is only my second zoom; I’m doing a bunch of thesis defenses on Zoom next week, but—

Ander: [swaps backgrounds; Sheryl laughs] So the new books are The Gnome Stories, and that’s the one I’m doing the wizard thing for. There’s a bit of a wizardy quality to those, and the other is I Will Take the Answer, and that’s an essay collection. They’re meant to be read together. IWTTA is about in part living in Tucson when Jared Lee Loughner tried to assassinate my congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. It’s the first book where I feel like I’m really from Tucson. I’m not from Tucson, but now I’m as from Tucson as everyone else here is, having gone through a tragedy. This is a book in which I’m trying to find ways of processing sadness and grief, but also it’s about bad pop songs and so forth, but that’s its undercurrent of sadness I was really looking forward to—the last time I had a book come out, it was 6 months after Athena was born, so I didn’t exactly crush that book tour. I wasn’t in a headspace then—I wasn’t getting any sleep. I did a couple events, but I don’t have any memory of them at all. I hope they were okay. So I was really pumped up to do it this time: I want my editors to be happy with the books and to know that I’m trying to help get them out there. And I got to do 2 events, and the whole thing just got nuked. It’s just depressing to see, though obviously people have much worse problems than this.

Sheryl: This was a huge tour for me. I just got a notice on my calendar—I just got back today it told me. I think my mother’s situation, if that wasn’t going on, I’d be more depressed about it, but there’s been so much going on with her, so I have no space for any other feelings. But I hope one of these days we can have public readings again, even if it’s not going to be anytime soon.

Ander: I wouldn’t plan anything in person until December. But maybe a few things will come together and feel really of the moment. Do you know Ross Gay’s work?

Sheryl: Oh yeah.

Ander: I went to a reading of his for his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, from which he was reading the night of Trump’s inauguration, and that’s just when he was scheduled to do it here at U of A, and it was one of the most joyful human readings I’d ever been to, maybe in part because of the occasion, but I remember going to that and feeling: fuck yeah. This was a real reading. It meant something. I mean they all mean something, but a lot don’t mean all that much.

Sheryl: Indeed. I’ve been to enough of those that don’t.

Ander: I hope there are opportunities to make some ones happen that will.

Sheryl: Maybe this forces us to rethink some of the big things in our field—like how AWP has gotten out of control—

Ander: Yeah, it’s huge—

Sheryl: Maybe this will allow us to focus more on smaller gatherings instead.

Ander: So to awkwardly pivot back to your book, one of the things I think is really interesting is how formally various it is. It includes a super long essay, a couple more traditional ones, some short-shorts in the second section, then the one that’s half poem. Would you talk a bit about what a collection can contain? Was there a desire at any point to saw off some of the formal edges, or make it more routinely prosy or memoiry?

Sheryl: I get really bored reading collections where all the essays are of a similar length, predictable, with a similar arc. Maybe the voice always sounds the same. I talk a bit about this in the introduction, but I wanted to honor the variousness of my voice and my personality. So the formal changes reflect emotional states of being for me. None of us are always the same. I wanted to honor that. The shorter ones are the ones that deal directly with Gray’s death. That’s why the first book was a book of poetry too, because with the fragmented grief I didn’t even want to make a narrative out of it. With the earlier pieces I was trying to stitch together a story about how the culture deserves some kind of responsibility for what happened to this child. And maybe I do too. And after that, the long long essay about video games, if I were to say to someone that I’m going to write a long essay about my son’s death, and it’s going to start out with me playing a video game, that would sound really shitty in a way, to approach a serious subject like that. That one deserved a longer arc, and I knew that was going to be a really long piece. It was almost twice as long, and I cut it back. I knew there was going to be a couple more traditional pieces in there because I’m a teacher, and especially the last piece is written in my teacher voice. It’s a little more analytical and less lyrical, but because I am a poet first, I think the lyric essay is the essay I’m most drawn to, but that essay has some limitations. There are some things you just can’t do with a lyric essay. And that’s when I turn to more traditional essays. I don’t think we need to expect in terms of form or voice that every piece in a collection should be the same. You’re a great example of that: a lot of your collections have wildly different things going on.

Ander: For me, I don’t like that saminess or too much consistency either, and I always find it puzzling—I don’t like in an essay collection when the writer seems to have made no effort to think about the arrangement or the cumulative effect of the collected work, but I don’t like novels; I prefer short stories. I prefer to meet something new over and over every 20 pages or so, so when I hear people complaining about variousness in collections, I just don’t get it, especially in a book like this one, which is so anchored by this narrative drive to tell this story, and to tell these other substories that fill out these lives. But also this is a book that maybe more than any other book of yours, it has a pedagogical quality. It wants to talk about some real problems in a way that’s not just describing them but wants to change them. That comes out of your teaching I’m sure, but also your outreach work—Words Without Walls—that feels much more present and important than it is has in your older work. Is that something the lyric essay can’t do?

Sheryl: I’ve had really good reviews of this book. I had one review that was off the wall fantastic but then it said maybe I shouldn’t have included the last essay, which was more pedagogical and traditional in a way. The reviewer was awash in all the lyricism, and the last essay is not lyric at all. Well there are some lyric moments in it. It’s about this thing I’ve done for the last ten years, and that felt really important to have in there, but I struggled to find where to put it. Maybe I should have put it in an appendix or something, I don’t know. Might’ve been better to end with the video game essay, but I felt like it needed to be there. I work a lot with students who are drawn to me to work on what’s called trauma narrative. What can happen sometimes in a trauma narrative is that you give the trauma and you just end and that’s it. Who wants to just read through all this trauma shit? So I like to try and have some—sometimes it’s just in the language, and I do think that lyricism can do this, but—addiction is such a huge issue, and I feel like I wanted to say something. That last essay is a criticism of MFA programs at its heart, and it’s one of the reasons I retired early. I stopped believing in it. I’d find myself talking to students trying to get them into the program, and I realized I just didn’t believe it anymore. I wanted to work with people who needed to use writing to become intimate with themselves or to face up to something, and I wanted it to be a healing thing. In a lot of MFA programs there’s a kind of elitism, they teach the same kind of students over and over again, and do the same things, and maybe because I’ve been teaching for 36 years I just wanted to break out of that, and I am going far afield now from the question you asked, but it felt important to me to say that there is something you can do with this, and maybe it’ll help a little bit. There are a number of students who came through this MFA program who were recovered addicts—I directed their theses and they came out of it, and they’re very successful right now. I don’t know. I have writing and I have teaching, and I’m doing fiber arts too. These are the only things I know how to do, and they’re the only tools I have to address this huge issue, and so I wanted that teaching to be part of it.

The lyric essay is important in the same way poems are important, that there are certain things that are so complicated and so deep and there are so many tentacles that the only way I know how to express that is in the lyric essay or in a poem, and I’m not looking for answers there, but to say look at this thing: there’s so many legs and so many arms and there’s so many ways of it being understood. That feels important, but it also feels important to be able to sometimes say there are some things in real life—and I can’t tell you, Ander, how many people have come up to me, especially after the poetry book, and they tell me their brother or their son, their lover or their wife, their daughter is caught in this river of addiction, or they have somebody they want to give the book too. That feels like I’m making a bit of a difference, and when I die, I hope that something I did made a little tiny bit of a difference. It’s never going to be a big difference, but all you can do is hope that our work makes a difference in somebody’s life.

I might have told you this story a long time ago, but many years ago I wrote a poem called “Cajun” (reproduced below) and years after I wrote it, somebody contacted me, this woman who lives in an area of Southwest Louisiana, and she said she’d had that poem on her refrigerator for a really long time, and it got all kinds of stains on it, and she couldn’t read it anymore, and she couldn’t afford to buy the book again, and would I send her another copy of the poem? I said yeah, obviously, and I can’t tell you how happy that made me. A refrigerator is an altar. You put important photographs on there. I thought about that conversation a lot, that the poem meant so much to her, she put it on her refrigerator. That’s sort of what I hope for this book—nobody’s going to put it on their refrigerator, but for some specific audiences, it’ll feel like a place they can go to and get inside of. The thing is, there are a lot of books that deal with addiction, like self-help books, very prosy, or look-how-I-survived books, but this book is much different. It’s not a how-to. It is a story of one woman’s struggle with a child that she loved and was sometimes estranged from, and had connections with in other ways. Maybe that story will matter to people.

Ander: Coming back, I was thinking about, that it’s a commonplace that you can’t market a book like this. I have another friend who was trying to sell a book in which she’s writing about a miscarriage, and it was extremely difficult for them of course, and many agents have told her that you just can’t sell a book like that, but at the same time, so many people have experiences with miscarriages or losing a child, or with addiction in their families. When I read Fifty Miles, I think a lot about my dad. It’s a book that has so many connections to so many people, that it’s bizarre that many people don’t think of as something that they would seek out. I guess you don’t go seeking out a book that’s not going to be uplifting or instructional, but it’s beautiful, and it moves me reading it, and I’m glad that people are finding their way to it—

Sheryl: I would read just about any book that’s beautiful. There’s a guy, not a lyric writer. I don’t know if you know Russell Shortos work? He’s a little more journalistic, but I love his writing so much. He writes a lot about the Netherlands, and about New Amsterdam, New York. I told him one day—I had him come out to read at Chatham—that I would read anything he wrote. There’s a reason to read my book, I hope, because there’s beauty there, and there are moments in the book that I hope rise to the level where people would be moved reading them, but there’s no happy ending. For a commercial press to have published it, it would have to have a happy ending. It would have to be much less various, more narrative, and I didn’t want to do that.

Ander: I also appreciate the move not to just strand us at the down point of the story. If you end after section two, we’re in a different emotional place, or after section three. I hadn’t thought about what it would be like without the final essay. It would be a different book ending on section three—still a reasonable way, we’re finding a way out of the dungeon—but the fourth section really brings us all the way out, with a call to action. Here’s a thing that I’ve been doing, and I believe in strongly, and it’s a powerful move out of that and to surface from the book.

I really love the book and hope that it will continue to find its way to people who will encounter it on its own terms, and will find it beautiful in the way that I do. So thanks for that.

I want to take the word back into my body, back
from the northern restaurants with their neon signs
announcing it like a whore. I want it to be private again,
I want to sink back into the swamps that are nothing
like these clean restaurants, the swamps
with their mud and jaws and eyes that float
below the surface, the mud and jaws and eyes
of food or death. I want to see my father’s father’s
hands again, scarred with a life of netting and trapping,
thick gunk of bayou under his fingernails,
staining his cuticles, I want to remember the pride he took
gutting and cleaning what he caught; his were nothing
like the soft hands and clipped fingernails that serve us
in these restaurants cemented in land, the restaurants nothing
like the houses we lived and died in, anchored in water,
trembling with every wind and flood. 
And what my father’s mother knew:
how to make alligator tail sweet, how to cut up
muscled squirrel or rabbit, or wild duck,
cook it till it was tender, spice it and mix it all up
with rice that soaked up the spice and game so that
it all filled your mouth, thick and sticky, tasting
like blood and cayenne. And when I see the signs
on the restaurants, Cajun food served here,
it’s like a fish knife ripping my belly, and when I see
them all eating the white meat of fat chickens
and market cuts of steak or fish someone else
has caught cooked cajun stye, I feel it
again, the word’s been stolen, like me,

from Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems

Sheryl St. Germain has published six poetry books, three essay collections, and co-edited two anthologies. Her latest collection of essays, Fifty Miles, appeared in January 2020 with Etruscan Press. She lives in Pittsburgh where she is co-founder of the Words Without Walls program. In addition to numerous awards for her work, including two NEA grants, in 2018 she was the recipient of The Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book. 
Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site. His newest books are The Gnome Stories and I Will Take the Answer, both from Graywolf

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