I did a thing. I finally clicked publish on my latest poetry book, Sunbathing in Cemeteries. It’s been about two years in the making as I have lived through the aftermath of domestic violence and my own PTSD. This book explores those issues and tangential ones–motherhood, the South, and dating after a divorce. (Dating after a divorce with PTSD and a fairly high ghost rate the second I mentioned kids.) I have always woven scientific metaphors into my work, but there were more in this volume than in Hell and High Water. When I chose not to dilute the metaphors, I added footnotes in a few places.
This book is called Sunbathing in Cemeteries because it’s the best way to describe my frame of mind as I published these poems. I woke up and took steps to get me closer to medical school every day, sometimes appalled that the world didn’t stop with me and that the sun kept rising when I felt dead. I kept moving forward, deciding that if I am going to exist in this cemetery of who I used to be, then I can at least sunbathe in it. I adore ironic juxtaposition, and I keep imagining myself with a lounger, a hot pink bikini, floppy sun hat, and cocktail with an umbrella, tanning in an old and deeply Gothic cemetery. Things might get better, they might not, but I am determined to live my best life, wherever I am in the healing process.
On a personal note, I have been mentally meandering this summer as I took time off from my pre-med work to address my own health issues, get some of my art out into the world, and travel with my awesome kids. I don’t know if any of you suffer from PTSD, but I have learned that I definitely cope best with a boring routine. Not having anyone demanding lab reports, papers, or studying for exams has left me aimless for a couple of months. Who would have guessed that the rigors of organic chemistry would provide solace? I never thought I’d long for the drudgery of another chemical mechanism. And if you tell anyone I said such a thing, I’ll deny it vehemently. That said, writing new material and getting it published is occupying the puzzle-sorting part of my mind for now. And I hope you enjoy the latest poetry volume.
I am back to my writing–finally. The pandemic was a terrible time for so many people, but for me it was a chance to heal. Just a few months after my attack, the whole world shut down. And the expectations that I would be able to pick up my life as it was disappeared. I’m more grateful for covid lockdowns than most people. I thrived in the isolation with my family and my hobbies and work.
I often tell my daughter that people can be more than one thing. And I have been furiously working to be many things–author, mother, and medical doctor. I went back to school during the lockdown, and it’s been a wild ride. (Everyone needs a biology degree and chemistry minor along with a medical degree to accompany their English degrees, right?) My poetry has become more infused with science than ever–who else is going to write about DNA cleaving enzymes and people that are like ligase? At my core, I want to heal people, physically when they need it and with stories when their minds need a refuge. The little explosion turning my wheels is knowing that people feel less alone when they read truths laid bare by people like them.
And people I meet usually want to put me in a little box that says “Author” or “Aspiring Doctor”. But I’m not having it. Both sides of a brain can work and make beautiful art.
I received rave reviews on my latest poetry book from beta readers and am still reading it, searching for errors that will haunt me if I publish them. And I worked on creating my own cover. I don’t know if you adore ironic juxtaposition, but I do. And poetry books so often have big blocky titles that scream “High Literature”. I just can’t take myself that seriously. I could be the poet laureate and that wouldn’t happen. Or they have the face of a well known, beloved poet. That’s when you’ve made it, right? When you put your face on a poetry book and people think it’s natural? I’m looking at you, Mary Oliver and Nikki Giovanni. But my little book is full of contradictions, the kind that Southerners know about, the sorts that run society and confuse non-natives. So, I put my title in swirly romance novel font with a Gothic cemetery in the background. It’s not a mistake. I want you to feel as jarred as I did, too stubborn to die, but furious that ordinary beautiful things like sunrises kept happening.
And if you’re looking for more of that deliciously Southern ironic juxtaposition with a streak of science, Hell and High Water is on sale for $0.99.
I have been writing poetry for years. I’ve read amazing lines that left me despairing of my ability to match the skill of my favorite poets, awed by the way they bare the truth with only a few words. Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Pablo Neruda, along with so many others, taught me how to gut punch with the truth and a few lines.
I needed distance from my own poems before I was ready to separate and edit them, making cuts and looking for the most precise word. And I still might not have decided to share my poems. But, recently, I have been on a quest for any verses, any songs that capture the way I feel. And so much lacked depth. I began to wonder if maybe no one was in as much pain as I was. Living with PTSD can be isolating. PTSD on top of a pandemic made me feel singularly desolate. I’m especially interested in eradicating the lies we tell ourselves; in this case, it’s “I’m alone and no one can help me. No one else feels like this.”
So, I’ve decided to release the deepest and darkest words I’ve got. They aren’t pretty. They aren’t nice. They are concise. My poetry is a blend of Southern drawls, the fusion of science and art, and a whole lot of pain with a few glimmers of happiness. It’s not for the faint of heart. But I’m sharing it in case anyone else is on my dark path and thinks they are walking alone. If you’re heartbroken, read the whole thing. If you think you’re the poster child for PTSD, try “Fallacies” and “Ripples”. And then notice that “The Inverse” and “Benediction” follow those. I can’t hold everyone’s hand through panic attacks, but I can offer a sense of community and hope.
Hell and High Water will soon be available for pre-order and will be released on August 25, 2020. (It’s a bit of a pandemic surprise for me, too.)
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” –Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
I have been through what felt like years of questions and some brutal answers since I penned the ending to Where Angels Can’t Follow. In the last year, I’ve used my powers of the pen in the technical arena, and I have used my writing to empower victims of violence to not stay silent, to be screaming loud. My home was broken into a few months ago, and I was attacked quite violently by someone I was close to. It has given me perspective and deep gratitude for my village. But none of those people could have helped if I had been cowed into silence.
I still felt like I briefly lost my voice, the one I speak with and the one I write with, when I was stuck in hellish flashbacks. It’s not the kind of time loop one wants to be in. I discovered from reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk that research indicates one does indeed literally lose activity in the part of the brain responsible for speech when reliving traumatic memories. I am grateful to my caving community and every friend who reached out. You helped me find my voice again when I could barely find the air to fill my lungs.
I can think of quite a few literary greats who struggled with loss, depression, anxiety, and pain. Though it’s a hell of a crucible, the pain makes us great; it makes empathetic people who can get at the heart of any struggle with accuracy. I have my well of pain now to pull from as I write. And it’s a comfort to know that all I have been through the last couple of years will be instrumental in creating powerful new worlds and characters with depth.
Where Angels Can’t Follow is in some final editing phases now. I’m nitpicking the word choices and filling in the gaps. This one will be done this year so that I can make room for the other characters that keep trying to push their way to the front of my mind. Thank you all for waiting so patiently. And thank you to my friends who are not so patient, too. (I needed the nudging.) I am looking forward to sharing my mix of New Orleans, voodoo, archangels, classical Renaissance art, and generational differences with all of you.