On the release of her latest poetry collection – blud – Adrianna Robertson interviewed Rachel McKibbens for Burning House Press.
I first contacted Rachel McKibbens because I had been—as I often am—considering what it means to write about mental illness. I wanted to have more conversation about why it matters to write poems about mental health, how it factors into one’s identity as a human and a writer, and what it is to attempt to put the experience of it into words. At the same time, I was reading more and more of Rachel’s work (I picked up Pink Elephant and couldn’t put it down) and I felt like I had to tell someone—or as many people as possible, that these poems were opening a door. The new poems in blud left me with that same breathless feeling. Again, I found myself reading them aloud, handing them to friends and my students. Yet, when I sat down to type my questions for this interview, I knew it was impossible to say all I wanted to say—how to describe all that these poems bring forth in me: sorrow, heartbreak, awe, kinship…and always surprise. Finally, I settled on some questions and what follows are Rachel’s eloquent and evocative answers, though they would have been this regardless of what I had asked. And, perhaps more important than any perfect word I could come up with to describe this collection, is this: we need these poems and I am so grateful to Rachel for writing them.
All we misfits, weirdos, black sheep, outcasts and witches who have managed to crawl out of the mud and hold our faces up to the light are family.
AR: Can you talk a little bit about the way these poems were written, not just how long it took to write them but also, as it relates to your process?
RM: The poems in blud have been orbiting me since the moment I realized poetry was the tool I needed to dismantle the decades of silence I’d lived behind. My first book, Pink Elephant, dealt with a very specific kind of abuse; because it documented my violent upbringing, it had to remain focused on the paternal side of it. My mother made a few brief appearances, but I decided early on to have her reside in the margins of each page, just as she did in my childhood. She was not a maternal figure, by any means. She was never a parent, did nothing to protect me from harm. In fact, any time there was a chance for her to torment or exploit me, she took it. Hers is an invisible illness, a monstrous entity that I’ve always felt only I could see or be damaged by. I was wrong. We carry our ghosts with us, and sometimes they manage to haunt anyone nearby.
Emotional abuse is such a vicious needle, slowly spinning its way into you so that, eventually, you learn to either live with that pain or find a way to draw it out. I harbored so much shame around the subject of mental illness and the mythology of motherhood, I learned to just swallow the needle, to never reveal what I’d endured.
As I got older, once I learned how to language all she’d done to me, I became outraged. I quit mourning that bottomless absence and allowed myself to get mad. I deserve to be free. I deserve my truest voice. I deserve to write what I have witnessed.
I consider blud a necessary companion to Pink Elephant which is why I spent a good seven years avoiding it. I knew it needed to be written, if for no one else but me, but I also understood that it would have a cost. You can’t write a book about one of your abusers and expect to just go about your merry way. Especially if it disrupts the narrative they’ve built to shield themselves from accountability. Finally, I am the needle.
Blood is not truly what binds us. Our stories and our survival —that connection—is what makes us kin.
AR: I find this aspect of writing so interesting—the desire to both write about a certain subject and to avoid it all at once. Yet, you did eventually write these poems and I’m particularly interested in the practical aspects of this, especially as it pertains to your role as a mother. Because when I am writing about the pain of my past, I find it so difficult to “come back” from it as quickly as motherhood requires me to do. Your consistent mentioning of apparitions and ghosts throughout the collection leads me to believe the past is never far —but how do you manage this work of revisiting your trauma—letting the ghosts get close (“language is a conjuring”) — and then make breakfast, check homework, etc.?
RM: I think many survivors have to adjust to a kind of duality. If you’re asking how many times a day I leave my body, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t return to trauma as much as I look back and reflect. I’m careful to give myself proper distance from a hard subject to ensure my safety. My duties as a mother will always come first, which means I have to take care of myself. The poems can wait. My household is, truly, an anomaly. We are a large family and we all genuinely like each other and will defend each other till we’re dust. If I’m having a bad day, there’s someone to step in and take care of business. I’m allowed to tap out if needed and commit to some self-care. Ours is an impenetrable bond. I no longer make demands of myself – if I’m not ready to go somewhere in my writing, I don’t.
AR: While we are on this subject of motherhood, the poems about your son and mental illness are so heart-wrenching—but also beautiful and fierce in their honesty. In “Glutton”, for example, I was so struck by the power of these lines “…you want to stay here, don’t want to be what he inherited from you and isn’t that the worst thing you have ever written?” Many of your poems are about what you have inherited from your past—and even with all the terrible pain and trauma contained in the other poems, this—THIS—is the worst thing you have ever written. The recognition of this stopped me in my tracks. Of course, the enormity of the subject matter is reflected in the form. How did you come to this poem and what was it like making these decisions regarding craft and form?
RM: “Glutton” was originally a Facebook status. I hammered it out in about three minutes. Once it was posted, I realized it was the missing piece to the manuscript. There needed to be this moment of survival and forgiveness and fear, all in the same room together, trying to make space for each other.
I still have so much guilt and anger over the blood I carry, over the perils of inheritance and the cyclical nature of trauma. No one wants to pass an illness down to their child. It is an impossible thing to reconcile. How can I forgive my body? How can I be a proper advocate for my child when I’m so fucking afraid? Which part of this experience is mine to share if we are both suffering?
I was in such an animal state when I wrote it. I felt like my brain was frothing. It is, to this day, the hardest thing for me to read and, also the most necessary thing for me to read.
AR: That phrase “the perils of inheritance” really speaks to me. Although so many of your poems focus on past trauma and where it derives from, they seem to me to be less about describing that trauma and more about considering how it can create identity. However, not just our experiences but also our heredity, not just our heredity but also our sexuality, not just our sexuality but also our gender and so on–and this is why when I read your poems, I feel so overwhelmed (in a good way) by what it means to be human and all the complex, terrible, beautiful ways we come to know ourselves. “Oath (blud litany”) is at the half way point in the collection, because in my mind, it binds all the parts together and your use of the “you” makes such a strong statement about the reader both being herself in the poem but also a promise of inclusion. Can you talk a bit about what this poem means to you and some of the choices you made within it, especially in terms of a person whose identity is also comprised of being mentally ill?
RM: Blood is not truly what binds us. Our stories and our survival —that connection—is what makes us kin. Blud is a mixture of the words blood + mud. All we misfits, weirdos, black sheep, outcasts and witches who have managed to crawl out of the mud and hold our faces up to the light are family. That’s the realest shit. Our survival deserves a dirty prayer praising our divine faults and everlasting selves. The poem asks to resist shame and, instead, find the glory in our wild existences, no matter what we’ve done to stay on this planet. We live in a world that has no idea how to talk about mental health. So, we have to do it ourselves. Put a human to the name. Resist being left as a column of data. I have PTSD. I have anxiety disorder. I live with depression and will bake a four-story cake that honors all of that while wearing the most daring lipstick in the galaxy.
AR: Let’s stay on this topic of mental illness. The front cover of blud features artwork by German Outsider Artist August Natterer who was schizophrenic. There are numerous poems that discuss mental illness in one way, shape or form; not to mention your acknowledgment at the end of the book: “I raise a fist in solidarity with all who live with a mental illness and all who have voiced demands to be seen and understood and loved and honored.” What are you hoping readers will understand about mental illness through these poems? What does it mean to you to be a poet who writes about mental illness? Are you or have you ever been concerned about being labeled as a writer because of this?
RM: The first time I saw the painting, “My Eyes in the Time of Apparition” I knew I wanted it to be the cover, but I didn’t think it was possible to get permission. I don’t know anything about that kind of stuff. I’m so relieved Copper Canyon went for it. The eyes are equally sad and terrifying, yet look how big they are. Look how hard they are working to see, to witness. To tell.
I have no concerns with how others label me. I cackle at the thought of caring. I’m far too complicated to fit on one shelf and I make no apologies for that. I love that people don’t know what to do with me. I love that I never went to college and I was homeless after high school and I had a kid at 17 and I have survived so much violence and oh yeah, I also write books! I LOL at anyone who doesn’t see the victory in that.
Of course, I hope the book awakens something fierce within its readers. I hope visceral reactions beget action. I hope people quit dismissing others as “psycho” or “crazy.” I hope people come away feeling seen and comforted. The blud coven gets bigger by the day, every day.
AR: I don’t think there is any way a reader could have an ambivalent reaction to this book. I think fierceness begets fierceness. I believe in words and in the strength created by them. These poems exude strength and I have no doubt will create more of it. The strength of the poems, of course, also lies in their careful construction. Your poems are artfully made. I always want to read these poems out loud because of the sound and the surprise and play that occurs between words. Not to mention, the spaces and breaths which create a rhythm and at times an incantatory tone reminiscent of spells, chants, prayers. Can you speak to some of these choices?
RM: I love how musicality can invoke a tone, or how a slant rhyme can cause a jarring effect in a poem about killing your assailant. There is a cinematic air that I truly enjoy. Think how violent early nursery rhymes were. Those haunting lyrics wrapped in soft melodies. I’m obsessed with that juxtaposition. I love the texture of rhythm and timbre and alliteration. Of course, I come from a school that recognizes the orality of the poem as the cherry on top. It better sound good when read aloud, otherwise what’s the goddamn point? Are some poems really meant to just sit there, staring up from the page? How sad!
AR: What is a question that you wished I had asked you?
RM: Ha! Maybe whether or not I love Riverdale. The answer is YES.
Rachel McKibbens was born in Anaheim, California. She is the author of Into the Dark & Emptying Field (Small Doggies Press, 2013) and Pink Elephant (Cypher Books, 2009). Her latest poetry collection is titled blud and is published by Copper Canyon Press.
About the interviewer:
Adrianna Robertson received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Recently, her poems have appeared in The American Journal of Poetry and The Arsonist Magazine, as well as on the Burning House Press website. She is also working with poet Cynthia Cruz on two anthologies—one focused on Latina poetry and the other on poetry concerned with eating disorders and nourishment. She teaches at The Ursuline School in New York and lives in Connecticut with her family.