Arianne Zwartjes brings the body into her writing. In Detailing Trauma, she looks at our anatomy and the intricate interactions between our organs, blood, muscles, tissues—all of it, really—in order to discover something about trauma and healing. Here, Zwartjes speaks further about hybridity and stretching the boundaries of genre, as well as a multitude of ways in which writing enriches our world and our experience of it.
Chelsey Clammer: Your most recent book, Detailing Trauma, is subtitled “A Poetic Anatomy.” Can you explain a little bit as to what this phrase means and how it interacts with your lyric essays?
Arianne Zwartjes: Well, the subtitle here plays a couple of roles. First, I think, the role of going beyond what is a fairly concise, definitive title to question and complicate the latter’s scientific tone. Second, on a more straight-forward level, I suppose you could say it’s a point-blank indication to readers that this book is written in lyric form, it’s not your “normal” linear, concrete researched non-fiction. Finally—and this desire occurred at the editorial and marketing levels—it plays the role of indicating to potentially-leery readers who may feel they’ve read one too many memoirs about lifetimes of personal traumas that the word trauma in the title refers to the physical, medical meaning of that word.
CC: An interesting facet of nonfiction is that many writers and scholars discuss it in terms of gender—how gender is a fluid thing, an identity that can always change. Genre, they argue, can/is just as fluid as our varying gender expressions that stretch way beyond the dichotomy of male/female. Thinking of this, what are the ways in which you work within and rebel against established genres? How does this help and/or hinder your work?
AZ: I think it’s absolutely true that both genre and gender often get defined in terms of little boxes, but are so much more fluid and complicated than that. Jenny Boully articulates this really clearly in her essay “On the EOE Genre Sheet,” which she read on a panel at AWP in 2010, where she writes, “It seems to me that the inability to accept a mixed piece of writing is akin to literary racism. I think of the EOE data sheets. Choose the genre that you feel most accurately describes you.” I don’t know if you’ve seen the interview I recently did for Fourth Genre, with Barrie Jean Borich, but I talked a lot about this—the fact that I am very invested in questions of hybridity, margins, borders, both personally and literarily: in the hybridity of both social identity and of artistic form. These questions play out artistically in the debate around genre-boundaries and multi-media work, and socially they play out around multiracial identities, queerness, immigrants, and everyone else whose identity busts out of all those neat, organized little boxes.
But when I sit down to write, I’m not thinking about “rebelling” or how what I write is going to break some boundary or evoke questions about its form. I’m writing what I like to read (or at least, I’m trying to do so): work that is multi-layered, thinky, linguistically beautiful, critical and questioning. I like work that brings together lots of different ideas, and looks at the sparks they create when they collide, and so that’s the way my writing process often occurs, also—putting very disparate things side by side, and seeing if they create chemistry. I like, also, to play with the tension between a given language set, often something technical like medicine, and my subject matter, which is often much more personal.
And as far as “hindering”—working in this hybrid space, the barriers I come up against show up when I try to interact with structures and systems outside of myself—i.e. the publishing world—which needs me to identify and label where my work fits (and often sticks it in the “Poetry” category when they can’t figure out what else to do with it). Back to Boully again: “To be told to choose is to be told that you disrupt the neat notion of where things belong, that you don’t belong…. Just as my identity is often displaced, so too are my poetics and literary inclinations.” But I have to also say that I’ve been blessed to find editors and publishers—notably Joe Parsons, formerly at U of Iowa Press, and Ander Monson of DIAGRAM/New Michigan—who have embraced my work and haven’t tried to squish it into a box that doesn’t fit it, for which I’m really grateful.
CC: The majority of our society believes that we are in control of, well, basically everything, even every bit of ourselves and those we love and know. In this bootstrap-pulling-up land of the “brave,” phrases such as “you’re the master of self-control” predominate the socially-constructed view of how we relate to (read: dominate) the world. So. One concept you poetically approach in Detailing Trauma is the fallacy of control, especially in terms of our helplessness when faced with loss. You also touch on the idea that “living is an act of faith.” Where do you think faith and control intersect, if they even do? What part do our bodies play in this interaction between loss and hope?
AZ: You know I think there’s a real dualism present in US society, because on the one hand we have this incredible, arrogant rhetoric about being “world leaders” and having all this influence and control around the world—and financially and militarily, unfortunately, we do—and all this capitalist advertisement-based rhetoric about becoming perfect: perfectly happy, perfectly beautiful, perfectly safe. But at the same time we’re very aware, on a gut level, that we are very much not in control, that our bodies get older and break down, that we can’t even predict, let alone control, what will happen to us in the next 24 hours. In fact, I think most of the rhetoric of the former probably has to do with our denial of the latter—or at least, to do with both that and with power. I’ve had a very serious meditation practice for a long time now, and really the most central tenet of mindfulness practice or Buddhist study or what-have-you is the idea of impermanence, of us not being in control, and all the shifts in mindset that have to follow once you admit to that very basic principle.
As far as faith, well, my relationship to that word is a bit complicated because we so often associate it with some sort of blind faith in religious doctrine. But I think part of the process of writing this book was of grappling with the question of what faith & hope mean to me. And ultimately what I’ve come to, at least in part, is a sort of faith/hope in my ability to remain kind—to both myself and to others—which I think is way, way underrated in our society.
CC: Personally, and I know I’m not alone on this, I consider the body to be another page on which we write, that our bodies tell a story that is much different from what our writing can relate. As you worked on Detailing Trauma, were there any surprises in regards to how you used or thought about your body while writing?
AZ: I’m going to reference another writer again here, this time Lynn Kilpatrick whose piece entitled “Your Body is An Essay” appeared on Essay Daily last March. She writes, “language is a body and the essay is a map. A way not only out but in. Around.” And, “The way I understand the essay is the way I understand feminism which is the way I understand the world: through my body.” I think as I was writing Detailing Trauma I was very aware of my body and its fragility, but maybe in a way that I almost always am. As a medical person and a very physical person—for many years I’ve led thirty-day backpacking trips in the mountains of Wyoming, for example—my experience of the world and of self feels very much rooted in physical embodiment. Or maybe I was hyper-aware during the writing period, but if anything that hyper-awareness came from that singular experience—have you ever felt this?—of being so in love with someone that you suddenly feel their physical vulnerability, and yours, immensely, acutely, constantly. So not from the book project directly. Though the book’s starting point was a sort of outgrowth of that feeling.
CC: What role do you think writing plays in the context of navigating and healing from trauma?
AZ: I think the question of role is very personal, different for every individual. Obviously it’s critically important to find the voices of others out there in the world who have experienced, and found their way through the tangled labyrinth of healing from, a similar trauma to yours, whatever it may be. So the role of writers working through, publically and honestly and vulnerably and transformatively, their own struggles is critically important in the sense of offering succor, a sort of light forward. On the flip side, though, the question of how one navigates one’s way through via writing is very individual. For myself, I think writing is how I ask the questions that matter to me, and then try to write my way into some sort of deeper understanding, if not (and usually not) an answer.
CC: What are you working on now?
AZ: I’m working loosely on a project investigating the human tendency and drive toward both connection and violence. I can’t say much more about it than that—I don’t tend to sit down and frame out a whole project outline, complete with beginning and ending locations—that takes the discovery out of it. So, I’m writing my way into the project, whatever it ends up wanting to be. But I can say that I spent time in Turkey and in Cyprus this summer, and being in such geographic proximity to what is going on in both Syria and Gaza felt very impactful to me, on a sort of physical level. And I teach at a school with students from both Syria and Palestine, as well as so many other regions of the world where violence is an everyday reality. So that’s all a part of the writing I’m doing right now.
After receiving her MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona and teaching English and creative writing there for six years, Arianne Zwartjes is now in northern New Mexico serving as the director of the wilderness program at the United World College. The University of Iowa Press published her lyric nonfiction project, Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, in the fall of 2012; a selection from Detailing Trauma won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction, and was named a Best American Essays Notable Essay in 2013. Her poetry and prose can be found in Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, No Tell Motel, Cue, and elsewhere; her previous works include Disem(body), The Surfacing of Excess, and (Stitched) A Surface Opens: Essays.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, and is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. Her essay “A Striking Resemblance” received an Honorary Mention for Water~Stone Review’s 2014 Judith Kitchen Award in Nonfiction. Clammer is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a workshop instructor for the journal. Her first collection of essays, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub in 2015. Her second collection, BodyHome, will be published in Spring 2015 by Hopewell Publications. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.