Paige Riehl: Thank you, Ann, for discussing your powerful poetry collection Somatic with me. Somatic is organized into four sections that explore the complexities of illness, in particular the diagnosis of hysteria, through the life and treatment of Anna O, the first hysteric diagnosed by Dr. Josef Breuer in the late 1800s. You expressed your interest in the relationship between the creative and scholarly, so would you tell us a bit about those intersections in Somatic as they relate to your process of researching hysteria and Anna’s case and writing the poems? Was it a more circuitous than linear process? From where does your interest in the subject matter stem?
Ann Keniston: The book evolved from several sources. One was the aftermath of my mother’s death; I actually published a chapbook of elegies about her (November Wasps, Finishing Line), some of which I revised—mostly pretty heavily—for Somatic. My interest in Anna O. and hysteria had several sources: I’ve always been interested in the relation of mind and body, and somehow I stumbled across a bunch of documents about Anna, from the first case study to a radically revisionary article by H.F. Ellenberger published in 1972 to a bunch of more recent feminist and other studies. Anna was kind of a blank screen for critics, it seems, who projected their own interests onto her. Before I ever thought of writing poems about this topic, I compiled a little anthology of those writings as a unit in an honors composition course I was teaching about memory. I just kept reading about Anna and hysteria and got more and more fascinated, and also a little repelled. I began writing poems about Anna, and also in her voice (or that of a more generic hysteric who was also, of course, partly me), and realized that the elegies were in fact relevant to the Anna poems, so I worked to bring those elements of the ms together.
Paige: The opening poem titled “Opaque” begins with the line “and then my mother wasn’t / there.” This poem explores the concept of absence, which is a theme in the book, and how it’s unexplainable, more defined by what it isn’t than is, although the poem ends with “unless someone chooses / a single moment / to preserve and undertake / the labor of transcribing it.” I read those lines as relating to both the poem’s content and to you as poet, the transcriptionist laboring to illustrate and preserve these tangled and complex historical moments, including what is absent from the records. What unique opportunities does the poetic form provide when exploring this history and subject matter? Do you think that the poetic form offers an opportunity achieve a “truth” that the medical records and case studies cannot?
Ann: I was definitely thinking about my own poetic project in that poem; in fact, this is one of the poems I revised heavily from the chapbook, so I was literally engaged in a laborious process. When I write poems, I often try to unfasten myself from linearity and narrative. Poems like “Opaque” allow me to explore contradictions and paradoxes that feel powerful to me. I often say that writing poems allows me to bring my analytic, thinking self to feelings that are powerful but inchoate, the kinds of often contradictory or self-defeating feelings that I sometimes think organize my life—and maybe everyone’s. In that context, I was especially interested that Breuer’s familiar published case history of Anna was in fact a radical revision of a shorter, unpublished one that was much less conclusive. Writing poems based on the case histories, from which I cite in often scattered ways, allowed me to further disrupt their logic, to focus on them as linguistic artifacts rather than arguments, and to expose the ways their arguments were in fact fictions constructed to support newly emerging theories. I was interested in the book in trying out different forms, both more and less coherent, again to try to get at what felt almost inexpressible, especially in terms of the complicated relation between bodily symptoms and their psychological causes.
Paige: I keep returning to the poem “Conversion.” I so admire the intensity of the short lines, the surprising metaphors, the way the poem turns and builds upon itself: “And then I made / an actual girl, hysterical, / from husks / and scattered pages / and her dust. / I licked her lips / and then her scar, / hurt bruise, / bereaved, her / hiding place. I mean / she was a house / I squatted in.” Will you talk a little about the speaker in this poem as well as your process of determining who else would be given voice in the collection? Do some poems have a speaker whose voice blurs or overlaps with your own as poet?
Ann: Absolutely. “Conversion” talks about a hysterical figure without appropriating her body or voice. It is a kind of ars poetica: I literally had the pages of different articles scattered around me as I wrote. I’m still not exactly sure why I became so preoccupied with Anna and hysteria, though I have had some firsthand experience with psychosomatic illness (now called conversion disorder). (I was also interested in the pun: I was converting documents depicting someone with conversion disorder into a not-quite living person who was also a version of me. My scholarly work on contemporary U.S. poetry has focused a lot on elegy and the ways poems create and invoke ghostly versions of the dead.) Using Anna as a foil and adopting the kind of “hysterical” voice that I and others have associated with the operatic aria—halting, aphasic, redundant, nonlinear, but also kind of histrionic—enabled me to express things I couldn’t otherwise. So, to answer your last question directly, I’d say all the poems in the volume, no matter who narrates them, speak in versions of my voice.
Paige: You are adept at using language and syntax to create tension in your poems that reflect and reveal the layers of historical tension—the tension between what is imagined vs. recorded, real vs. performance, between “treatment” and mistreatment. In “Concordance,” you write “each / almost-theory disproven by the newest batch / of symptoms till psychoanalysis became a curtain / filled with holes and also light.” Is effective poetic tension like that metaphor—"a curtain / filled with holes and also light?” Is building tension an intuitive process for you? Tell us about your process of creating and controlling tension and the function of disjunction in your poetry.
Ann: I often say I’m not an especially good drafter of poems, but I’m pretty good at revision. All the poems in the volume were heavily reworked, and at times reimagined from scratch multiple times, so I’d hesitate to say that these poems were “intuitive” in the sense of having written themselves. I think tensions are what I am most interested in—the tensions you mention, and how they are evident in tonal shifts and turns. In the poems I most love (and study most intently), the process of reading the poem involves surprises. I love it when poems swerve—when they move, especially over a line or stanza break, into unexpected territory. The idea of something simultaneously torn and revelatory is really powerful for me. I had a yoga teacher who used to play a piece called something like “Light on Fish Scales” during savasana, which reminds me of Bishop’s image of iridescent fish scales in “At the Fishhouses.” The notion breakage or splintering makes something more beautiful is really powerful for me, amd that suffering allows things to be revealed that can’t be otherwise. I’ve strayed quite a bit from your question, but I think that the topics I’m most drawn to write about are ones that involve, or let me create, tensions of different kinds.
Paige: Will you talk about the book’s structure a bit more? The book is divided into sections subtitled Elegies, Odes, and Arias. What are those forms for you and what is the effect of juxtaposing them?
Ann: I’ve long been interested in the elegy and ode as forms. As I mentioned before, I’ve written quite a bit about elegy in my scholarly work, and was very influenced by a weeklong seminar I took on the ode at the National Humanities Center led by Susan Stewart over a decade ago and actually wrote an article on the contemporary ode afterward. I am interested in the distinctive features of these forms, but also the ways they overlap, the ways elegies can end up as praise poems and odes can focus on unpraiseworthy entities or experiences. I kind of stumbled on the idea of the aria as a third (hysterical) mode: it seemed to me to express the kind of extremist and also performative speech a hysteric might use, and I was especially happy to see that Peter Brooks (in an article I cite from as the epigraph to Part Three) sees the operatic aria as a distinctively hysterical form. I return to the ode in the last section, entitled “Assemblage,” but differently: these poems attempt to locate a mode of praise that emerges from fragmentation and the reassembly of parts. Those poems focus direcly on actions of breakage and remaking, as the poem titles (“Profusion,” “Sutured,” “Reassembly,” “Accrual,” etc.) indicate.
Sample poem from Somatic:
So I could let her in
my secret animosity and
sweet, I found some other
broken girls I hadn’t known
existed till she
got lost to me, lacy
wraiths I pitied first, then came
to love since all they had
were bodies and the body’s
requirements come both first
and last. Illness is another
form of speech,
in flesh and manifest as symptom
I also speak, their voices
my portion, penance, snippet.
violent or tender but
since all I wanted
was not to further harm
my fragile, lost, familiar one.
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Ann Keniston is a poet, essayist, and critic interested in the relation of the creative to the scholarly. She is the author of several poetry collections, including, most recently, Somatic (Terrapin 2020), as well as several scholarly studies of contemporary American poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in over thirty journals, including Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literary Imagination. A professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches poetry workshops and literature classes, she lives in Reno.
Books, 2018) and the poetry chapbook Blood Ties (Finishing Line Press,
2014). Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications such as Artful
Dodge, Crab Orchard Review, Water-Stone Review, Portland Review, and
Meridian. She was a finalist for the 2017 Lindquist & Vennum Prize
for Poetry with Milkweed Edition, winner of the 2012-2013 Loft Mentor
Series in Poetry, and was a 2016 & 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee. She
served as the Poetry Editor for Midway Journal, as poetry mentor for the
Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and is an English faculty member at
Anoka-Ramsey Community College, where she is Chair of the Two Rivers
Reading Series and 2021-2022 Co-Coordinator for Minnesota State Write