The Landing: An Interview Series seeks to gain insight into the diverse creative processes of some of our favorite writers with the hopes that we can inspire others through this sharing. Each quarter we will highlight one previously published poem in a short interview.
photo by Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner of Bang Images
Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry -- House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2018), medi(t)ations(Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) – and four chapbooks. The recipient of a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the NEA, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, and The Journal. She currently serves as Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly. You can find out more at EmmaBolden.com.
In your essay "Dr. South Love or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Lady I Was" you shared traumatic medical events you endured from a young teen into adulthood. "I wanted to be a good patient. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be cured." This statement resonates with a lot of women who have been sharing their painful experiences—humiliation, degradation, and traumas that have occurred in doctors' offices. I'm thankful that your poem "Dry Needling" has joined this conversation. Why was it important for you to share this particular experience?
I felt alone, and I don’t want another woman to feel that way. That sentence is, by and large, the force that’s driven my writing for the past four or so years. This conversation – about what women experience in doctor’s offices, at work, on dates, simply walking down the street or even standing in their own front yards – is essential. Speaking out and up about our fears, our humiliations and traumas and degradations, is a necessary part of fixing this broken culture that tolerates, perpetuates, and in some circumstances even celebrates this kind of abuse and neglect.
This is not to say that speaking out and up is easy.
It took me over twenty years to speak out about the experience I describe in “Dry Needling.” The biggest part of the problem was the absence of a vocabulary to articulate what had happened. I knew that something very wrong had happened on that examining table, something that disturbed me to my core, that makes me shudder, even now, to think of it. In 2017, I saw some of Larry Nassar’s victims speak on 60 Minutes and realized that this, this procedure and the way it was performed, was what had happened to me. I also realized that there’s no way for me to articulate the importance of their bravery. Because they were brave enough to publicly articulate their trauma, I finally was able to name and understand mine.
What sparked the writing process for "Dry Needling"? Which part or line arrived the easiest for you?
I actually wrote this poem as a way to build a door into prose. I’d been working on an essay about pelvic floor therapy, which has been life-saving for me, but which I’d avoided for years because of this doctor. Now, I know that doctors rarely, if ever, perform this kind of therapy; instead, they refer patients to physical therapists, who are almost all women and take care to explain and obtain patient consent every single step of the way. I knew this scene was essential to the story, but I couldn’t face it so plainly, so overtly, in prose. I just couldn’t find the language, and so I decided to try it as a poem first. The easiest part was perhaps also the strangest part: the kudzu. It’s an invasive species ubiquitous in Alabama. It also, to borrow a very Alabama phrase, stinks to high heaven, especially in the summer. I remembered walking out to the parking deck after that appointment and almost gagging when that smell hit me. That was my way into the poem.
The structure of "Dry Needling" is not only visually intriguing, with two columns that merge towards the end, but also visually telling, enriching the story. How did you choose this format? Was it a shape you had used in your writing before?
I chose the contrapuntal format to visually recreate the way I experienced that examination. It’s as if I split into two, as if I were both the body on the examining table and a self floating somewhere above that body, as if my body and self had separated in order to survive it. This separation continued when it came to dealing with this experience: I knew something traumatic had happened, but since I didn’t know what had happened, I had to separate myself from the trauma until I found the language that allowed me to process it. It’s a form I’ve often used to write about trauma. My first book, Maleficae, a collection of poems about the witch trials in early modern Europe, also contains my first contrapuntal, “Her Burning.” There are three strands to the poem: the left-justified lines describe a sexual encounter with her accuser, the centered lines give an “outside” view of her death, and the right-justified lines show her internal experience. When read together, the lines connect memories of her life with her death.
Repetition, in many ways, drives this piece. How did you decide which words would repeat throughout?
When I remember that day, I don’t immediately remember the experience itself. I remember instead all of the details around it, all of the things I focused on as a way to survive what happened: the August heat, that sick kudzu smell, the neon light buzzing above my body. My journey into the memory starts with a blur of those details that eventually opens into what happened in that exam room, what that doctor did and said. I couldn’t approach the story without moving through this process in my memory, so I put that on the page as well.
Please tell us a little about your editing process for a long poem like “Dry Needling”. Did this poem have many different versions? Did you pare down from your original draft or add to "Dry Needling"?
“Dry Needling” first appeared as just a giant hand-written chunk of text: no line breaks, no stanza breaks, no discernable form, just the language I needed to follow into naming my experience. As I typed this text up, I realized that I needed to create a schism of sorts on the page in order to show the separation between my self and my body and also how this kind of trauma splits one’s life apart. As I did that, I realized that the left-justified and right-justified lines kept pulling apart into separate poems, so I worked on them that way: first as the left-justified poem, then as the right-justified poem, then as the poem that unites them.
What advice would you give to newer poets wanting to write about trauma, particularly that of the physical body?
Take care of yourself. Sometimes it helps to write about trauma, but sometimes it can rip you apart. Take care of yourself. Take your time. Remember that your safety and sanity is the most important thing, always.