“Remember, above all, that the world needs your stories.” Their Sobering Suicides (Finishing Line Press, 2016)
What’s your chapbook about?
My chapbook is about the catastrophic losses of my only child and my youngest brother to suicide, within three and a half years of one another. On a deeper level, the poems are about my awakening, through these twin tragedies, to childhood trauma which, until my loved ones perished, I had minimized and disavowed. My book also touches upon violence: I and several members of my family were survivors of domestic violence. My poems address the human longing to push away, punish or make invisible that which holds up a mirror to parts of our shared humanity that we’d prefer to deny—and the phenomenal cost of doing so. I also address in these poems the ripple effects of inhumanity as well as the consequences of dishonesty both toward the self, and in relationship to others. I write about the incredible power and frailty of hope. And I highlight the rape of both childhood innocence and adult hope through soul murder.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
The poems in this chapbook were birthed out of several months of intense grief about my loved ones’ suffering, and their terrible deaths. I immersed myself in reading poetry that I found especially moving, and out of my reading of others’ works and reaching whenever possible for integrative solitude, the poems for this chapbook began to form. The prompts came from my pain itself, and from the longing to understand more deeply, then share with others what, in my perspective, had happened to my loved ones. As for revising my work, I would gravitate somewhat obsessively back toward the poem at hand, reading over it many times until I felt reasonably comfortable that the rhythms, imagery, metaphors and language seemed to coalesce into a sensible whole. Each reader must decide for him or herself if the poems have succeeded in evoking feeling, as well as helping to destigmatize mental illness and suicide. All of these, inspired by my love for my brother and my child, were powerful prompts for me to continue writing.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title for my chapbook came intuitively to me. There is a line in the poem “For Ken: Detroit Street,” in which I refer to my dead brother and me in adulthood as having driven “drunk on our own debasement.” We were addicted to self-loathing, I believe, not only because we had internalized our mother’s longstanding cruelties towards us, but also because decades later, neither one of us had adequately faced the truth of what we had endured, and who therefore, in our colossal denial of our traumas, we had become. As adults, we both accommodated others to the point of becoming invisible to them as well as to ourselves. And our repeated failures across time to set healthy boundaries in our relationships created a deadly ripple effect. My loved ones’ tragic deaths became the unfathomable “bottom” I hit as a woman of almost sixty—to awaken me from my self-disrespecting slumber which factored into my failures with both my brother and my child. It was as if through their terrible deaths, my loved ones were saying, Wake Up! and imploring me to abandon my illusions about myself and my world. Their suicides are undeniable confirmation that we have not a single moment to waste in growing a wiser, more conscious and compassionate world. Hence, their sobering suicides.
As for the arrangement of the poems themselves, this too, was an intuitive decision I made after some time. “Ever After,” the opening poem, felt introductory to me, as if I were preparing the reader for what was to come. With the exception of “Tour Guide,” which addresses my experience of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder following Ken’s and Mallory’s suicides, the other eight poems take turns addressing each of my loved ones and the experiences they endured. The chapbook concludes with a long, autobiographical poem, “1955,” in which I was led to connect the dots across nearly sixty years of life, to show the warded-off traumatic experiences which, because they were never fully accepted as real or worked through, led to tragic consequences for my family and beyond.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I submitted photographs of Ken and Mallory to the publisher, in the hopes that these images of them both in happier times might grace the cover. I also provided an image of a “sad girl” statue. I felt that that image would be fitting to depict how I have been devastated by their deaths.
What are you working on now?
I am at work on a memoir called Ripples and Dominoes: On the Road To and From My Daughter’s Suicide. It is an exploration of my experience of my family through three generations, and the intricate web of factors I believe culminated in my loved-ones’ deaths.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Read poems (as well as other literature) that you love, that move you deeply and resonate with you at the soul-level. Spend time in deep solitude, and surround yourself, as best you can, with those who both believe in you, and who understand your need for stillness. Live and think authentically. Use your powers of discernment. Enjoy the experience of creating. Connect with nature, which after all, shows us our essential nature. If you feel the need for a workshop, or some mentoring, do that. If you need a break from your writing, take it! Everything that you do is connected at the soul level. Remember, above all, that the world needs your stories. And you may well need to tell them more than you consciously know. The Dalai Lama said, “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.”
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
I no longer chide myself if I don’t write. I no longer squander time doing things that are not meaningful to me. I listen to my soul, and I welcome in the lifeblood of my personal truths. I am much more aware of how I am impacted by the world, and of what I send forth. All of these things nourish my writing. But also, I do tend to be able to write much more during protracted periods of time away from life’s routines. Artist residencies, therefore, have been invaluable to me.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
I hope that my chapbook creates a vastly interconnected world, one which invites readers to consider that, even at our loneliest, even when some of us may feel disenfranchised, invisible, or misunderstood, we impact one another. I hope that readers feel invited to consider the “bigger picture” of everything that we think and do, and to recognize that, corresponding to that universal truth, we can conspire to love and help one another, or we can topple ourselves and one other through ignorance, injustice, arrogance, narcissism, or cruelty. And all of those are words for sleepwalking.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I wrote the first few stanzas of “For Ken: Detroit Street” decades ago, was unable to finish it, and put it in a drawer. Last year when I was writing about Ken and Mallory, I looked at the poem again, and allowed it to lead me in a direction which surprised me. It showed me that in spite of superficial differences between how we each lived our lives, and coped with adversity, my brother and I each had within ourselves a similar tendency to freeze up and tolerate unacceptable behavior from others. We both grappled with self-esteem problems and sometimes with profound anxiety. Like Ken, I too have suffered off and on throughout my life from depression. A long conversation between my brother and me which took place the year before he died clarified many of these similarities we shared. In significant internal ways then, he was, as I write elsewhere, my emotional Doppelganger.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The poem “1955” came to me after I had written the shorter poems, and it seemed to me to be the umbrella under which all the others existed. Like “Ever After,” it addressed the twin tragedies of my loved ones’ suicides from an intergenerational perspective, but it does so, I believe, with a more detailed, less impressionistic paintbrush.
If you could re-title your chapbook, what would the new title be?
Brother Daughter Uncle Niece was the original title. But I feel that the chosen title of Their Sobering Suicides both states more directly what the poems areabout, and also hits the twin stigmas of suicide and mental illness head-on. The theme of rough experience having the power to help make us more compassionate and wise is an important one for me.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
Now Then. This is a collection of poems which continue to look back upon my childhood (as several of the poems in Their Sobering Suicides do) through adult eyes and consciousness that has been jolted awake by life experience.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I gravitate toward memoirs and books about writing. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro were recent reads. As a teen and young adult, I became obsessed, for a while, with the Oxford English Dictionary. Haven’t touched that thing in the longest while.
Also, I have amassed a treasure trove of quotes that are meaningful to me. In an interview with Leslie McGrath, Camille Dungy wrote, “For me, writing about myself, my family and my home is a political act. It is not just confession, it is confronting erasure.” This comment resonated deeply with me, because especially for those of us who have endured severe trauma, the act of saying “I exist” in any form whatsoever becomes life-saving. An antidote to soul-murder.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I imagine myself writing to those hungering for truth in a world that would often have us sanitize or lie to ourselves and one another about what we feel. And I hope these poems may turn on a light for people who resist understanding how connected we all are. People wanting to understand more about complicated grief may also find these poems of interest.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
I hope my book will find its way to those why need it the most. It tells a dark story (although the telling itself is for me a colossal act of hope); therefore, this chapbook requires, I believe, a willingness from the reader to touch the darkness, without giving it the keys to the kingdom. People whose lives have been touched by mental illness, grief, or suicide loss, and those wishing to understand these things more fully, may find this a thought-provoking read.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I hope I have become wise enough in my old age to understand that some of the highest good I can do at this point in my life involves telling my story through writing and encouraging others to honor their personal truths in their own ways.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
I am brought to the page by a deep desire to give voice to the voiceless. I am inspired to stand up to the man-made miseries created by social injustice, cruelty, stigma, violence of any kind, arrogance, ostracism, and ignorance. I want to do whatever I can in my small time left on this earth to help create a more just and compassionate world. I am inspired to unearth the beauty and the good that can and must rise up from the detritus.
pre-publication ordering information for Their Sobering Suicides here
advance sales determine print-run and will ship on May 20, 2016
Lisa Richards lives in Southern California and has worked for over thirty years as a clinical social worker. Dear Mallory: Letters to a Teenage Girl Who Killed Herself (New Middle Press, 2012), which she co-authored, has been praised by the American Association of Suicidology, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Lisa received an Honorable Mention from the Academy of American Poets, and has recently won residencies from Turkey Land Cove Foundation, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center. She is at work on a memoir.
In the ever after
dust settles over
all is itself leveled we
fight this knowing with velocity
diseased thinking the ego the loudest
culprit it destroys
hope we are tricksters
I was born knowing
more than a kid should or wants to.
Orange skies broken bones of a mother
a girl herself the once calm air
polluted with sirens
a dismembered door is this why
my walls were made so
thin? Herded into an offender’s vehicle
for fifteen years like a calf on
her last hopes no more
Yet miracle, I held love they
Were not supposed to leave: Daughter. Brother.
How could they/I do
this they are teachers of dust
and hope I
walk the earth stunned dead hopeful
Can I translate what happened and
will you listen.
Can I be dust and here and walk
among you and will you know.
The song the sun the ocean roar
The relative calm of the protected fetus
The miracles the perfect beauty on
the other side
the things that could go wrong.