Monday, February 29, 2016

Sheryl St. Germain

Sheryl St. Germain's essays and poems have received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay. Her poetry books include Going Home, The Mask of Medusa, Making Breadat Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade, and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and SelectedPoems. A native of New Orleans, she has also published one memoir and a collection of essays about growing up in Louisiana, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, and Navigating Disaster:  Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair, as well as a chapbook of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux, Je Suis Cadien. She co-edited, with Margaret Whitford BetweenSong and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, and most recently, with Sarah Shotland, Words WithoutWalls: Writers on Addiction, Violenceand Incarceration (Trinity University Press, April 2015). She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University.

—In memory of my brother, Jay St. Germain, 1958-1981
The truth is I loved it,
the whole ritual of it,
the way he would fist up his arm, then
hold it out so trusting and bare,
the vein pushed up all blue and throbbing
and wanting to be pierced,
his opposite hand gripped tight as death
around the upper arm,

the way I would try to enter the vein,
almost parallel to the arm,
push lightly but firmly, not
too deep,
you don't want to go through
the vein, just in,
then pull back until you see
blood, then

hold the needle very still, slowly
shoot him with it.
Like that I would enter him,
slowly, slowly, very still,
don't move,
then he would let the fist out,
loosen his grip on the upper arm—

and oh, the movement of his lips
when he asked that I open my arms.
How careful,
how good he was, sliding
the needle silver and slender
so easily into me, as though
my skin and veins were made for it,
and when he had finished, pulled
it out, I would be coming
in my fingers, hands, my ear lobes
were coming, heart, thighs,
tongue, eyes and brain were coming,
thick and brilliant as the last thin match
against a homeless bitter cold.

I even loved the pin-sized bruises,
I would finger them alone in my room
like marks of passion;
by the time they turned yellow,
my dreams were full of needles.

We both took lovers who loved
this entering and being entered,
but when he brought over the
pale-faced girl so full of needle holes
he had to lay her on her back
like a corpse and stick the needle
over and over in her ankle veins
to find one that wasn't weary
of all that joy, I became sick
with it, but

you know, it still stalks my dreams,
and deaths make no difference:
there is only the body's huge wanting.

When I think of my brother
all spilled out on the floor
I say nothing to anyone.
I know what it's like to want joy
at any cost.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem was composed around 1987. I was in GalwayKinnell’s workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and I had asked him a needlessly complex question about craft, the kind of question a young writer asks a famous writer to show how smart she is. He listened patiently to my question, then said, “Just say what the truth is, Sheryl.” I began the poem that night with “The truth is I loved it.” I had been struggling to write about my brother’s overdose and my own use of drugs at the time, and Galway’s comments gave me a way into the poem.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts? 

I made a few minor revisions to this poem in the first months after writing the first draft, mostly tweaking line breaks and stanza breaks. I think I eliminated a few lines from the beginning as well. It’s extremely rare—in my writing practice—for a poem to come out almost fully formed. But this one did. I think that’s because I had been thinking about the issues for so long.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration, and in this case the poem felt like a gift. I did not labor over the actual writing of it as I have with other poems, although the subject matter of the poem troubles me, and still does.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I wanted the reader to move, almost without stopping, through the poem to its end, so I crafted line breaks and stanza breaks that supported that movement.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I wrote it, almost as if in a fever, during the space of a few hours.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

The poem first appeared in 1990 in The Taos Review.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It does vary, but if the poem comes out of some kind of personal crisis—as “Addiction” did—I usually let it sit longer, as I don’t trust myself to judge whether the poem is good or not. One almost always feels a just-finished poem is better than it actually is, so I like to wait until the initial glow has worn off before sending it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

My younger brother and I did shoot up drugs—cocaine—while in the same room. My lover at the time had actually sold him the drugs. He did actually bring a young woman with him who lay on my bed and whose (workable) veins he had horrific trouble finding. So that part is true. We never shot each other up, though. Some have interpreted the poem to mean that we did so because of the dedication. There was, however, a closeness I had with my brother, a darkness that we shared, that I wanted the poem to suggest.

It’s not true—in the sense of “fact”—that I “say nothing to anyone” about my brother’s death—the poem itself clearly articulates much about the situation, and I am never afraid to speak of it. 

The poem is as true as I could make it in the sense of what I think Galway meant when he said “just say what the truth is.”

Is this a narrative poem?

I would call it a narrative lyric. 

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading Galway, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman. I was inspired by their bravery and unflinching explorations of the human condition. 

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

At the time I wrote this particular poem I was thinking of readers who had never experienced the high that comes from shooting up drugs. I was thinking of readers who might believe we can “just say no” to drugs. I didn’t want to glorify drug use, but I wanted to empathize, to say “I understand.” Not to demonize addicts, who are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. I also wrote for readers in recovery, who might find solace in a poem that traces that descent.

In a more general sense, however, I think I write mostly for readers who are like me, readers who like the kind of poetry I like, who don’t shy away from subjects that might make some uncomfortable.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I shared a draft with the poets in my workshop at Squaw Valley. I do not, now, regularly share drafts with a specific group of people, although I sometimes will share a draft with poet friends.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I have to work very hard on most poems, revising over months and sometimes years. There are maybe four or five poems I’ve written over the course of my life that came to me almost in a rush, as this one did. Other than that, the craft and the darker themes it explores are very much in tune with the rest of my work.

What is American about this poem?

Its frankness definitely tags it as American, as well as the subject matter, the concrete details, the involvement of the “I” (as opposed to the kind of distanced narrator, abstract or free-wheeling surrealism one might find in non-American poems).

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Definitely.