Congratulations to Dr. Billie Tadros on the publication of Was Body. Here’s the interview with her (conducted by Samantha Whiting):
Your bio reads “Injured Woman Poet-Scholar- Teacher/Ex-Runner,” can you tell us about the significance of this? How are you currently “Re-writing your narrative”?
Thank you for posing these personally and professionally pertinent questions! (Excuse my alliteration.) Until relatively recently (there I go again!), my bio read “Injured Woman Poet-Scholar-Teacher-Runner,” which is to say that the “ex” part of that appellation “ex-runner” is new. Long-distance running—and, specifically half-marathon and marathon-running—was the love of my life in my twenties. (I say this earnestly and without hyperbole: running was the love of my life.) But I was a passenger in a motor vehicle accident in 2014, and the consequences of that accident have gradually come to mean that that part of my life—the part of my life in which I was a long-distance runner, or a runner of any distances, if I’m being honest with you and myself—is over. Claiming the “ex” in “ex-runner” now is crucial to me. And I mean “crucial” in every sense of the word. If you look up “crucial” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find metaphorical uses of the word in the nineteenth century that make comparisons to “the trying action of a ‘crucible,’” so I think of the ways that transitioning from identifying as a “runner” to identifying as an “ex-runner” has been (and continues to be) transformative, fraught—and fiery. (Here I’m tempted also to think of the Phoenix, but I resist the temptation to compare coming to terms with injury to rising from the ashes—I’ll talk more about that in a moment.) You’ll also find that our most common current use of the word, to mean something is “very important,” derives from a more specific usage of the word that indicates a final decision “between two rival hypotheses, proving the one and disproving the other.” For me, these rival hypotheses following the motor vehicle accident were as follows: 1. I will run marathons again. (Disproven.) 2. I will not run marathons again. (Proven.) And, anatomically, “crucial” references the shape of a cross, and, specifically, how the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments of the knee are oriented toward one another as they connect the femur and tibia. (The former, the anterior one, is one of the parts of my knee that sustained injury in the crash. It was one of a number of injuries that are part of a history of injuries, and which were exacerbated by a combination of medical and personal decisions. The “simple” explanation now is that my joint is arthritic—over the course of those injuries and treatments it simply sustained too much irreversible damage, and it’s on course to continue degenerating.) I teach a course at The University of Scranton that examines narratives of illness (a course whose content is also highly relevant to narratives of injury), and one of the texts I read with students is Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness & Ethics, in which Frank offers a typology of cultural stories about illness. The dominant story—the one we all generally want for ourselves, and the one that defines the modern medical model—is what he calls the “restitution narrative,” whose “plot” or “basic storyline” is this: “I was healthy, today I’m sick [or injured], but tomorrow I’ll be healthy [better] again.” There’s nothing wrong with this narrative, of course, and those of us who find our own storylines conform to this narrative type are generally happy that they do. The problem with the dominance of the restitution narrative, though, as Frank says, is that it “crowds out any other stories,” and so when “getting better” or “returning to normal” or “making a full recovery” aren’t possible, people find they don’t have the language, the narrative models, to tell a “good story,” a true story, about their lives. I was absolutely seduced by the restitution narrative, particularly the one my surgeon told me when he said I could undergo surgery, move aggressively through physical therapy, and then run a marathon seven months post-op and meet the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, the goal I was moving toward when I crashed. But that’s not how the story went. Six years ago when I started saying I was “re-writing this narrative,” I was trying to write over the injury, to write a restitution narrative for which the injury served as a palimpsest. But now that “re-writing” project means no longer crowding out my own story, (re)writing with what’s left. Here’s Frank’s caution about comparing the “after” of an illness or an injury to rising from the ashes like a Phoenix: he says it can “present the burning process as too clean and the transformation as too complete” and in so doing can “implicitly deprecate those who fail to rise out of their own ashes.” The other problem, he notes, is that “[w]hile the Phoenix remembers nothing of its former life, the victim of some trauma….does remember.” So, for me, claiming the title “ex-runner” and “re-writing” my story now mean acknowledging the charred remains, living in and with the soot of this story, and no longer deprecating myself for not “getting better,” because doing so assumes that “getting better” was a moral choice over which I had control.
How does your new book Was Body fit in with your larger “re-writing” project? Can you tell us a little about what it’s about?
I talked about this a little bit with poet Jon Riccio in an interview this summer published on the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s blog (https://poetry.arizona.edu/blog/interview-billie-r-tadros), and what I told Jon was that although Was Body in some ways feels very different from what I’ve been writing since I finished it—I finished it about seven years ago, about a year before the car accident—one thing it has in common with both the work I was doing prior to this collection and the work I’ve been doing in its wake is that it’s grieving. (I’ve described Was Body as a book about/representing queer grief.) What’s a little ironic about how certain I am of this—that my work grieves—is that I’ve been spending a lot of time in therapy the last few years, and the last few months in particular, protesting the notion that I “need to grieve [the loss of running]” because, off the page, I don’t understand grief as something actionable. In other words, if I put on my to-do list as an imperative “Grieve!” I have no idea what that actually means, what I’m actually being exhorted/exhorting myself to do. Contrastingly, I do know (I think) how to write a book that does it, but I find that my grieving is fraught with contradictions. For example, something in C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil that I often find myself returning to as mantra is this claim: “What elegy is, not loss but opposition.” But if I think of my work, my re-writing, as representing an expansive understanding of elegy, as opposing loss, is this also opposing acceptance? In many ways, though the focus of Was Body (primarily, relationships between women, and the loss concomitant with the ends of those relationships) and the focus of my book Graft Fixation, forthcoming from Gold Wake Press (primarily, the love of running, and the violation of the specific way that I lost it) are different, these projects are posing some of the same questions: What does it means to live in a/this body? What does it mean to forgive, to grieve, to reach acceptance—of a/this body, of a/this reality? What can/can’t poetry do to ask these questions and represent their answers?
Graft Fixation manipulates the texts of my injury—the accident report, medical documentation, correspondence I had with the insurance company of the defendant in my personal injury case, the settlement I eventually signed with that insurance company, and my own reflections as I had posted them in Facebook status updates—using blackout, erasure, and nonce procedural forms. In that sense that book is trying to re-write others’ versions of what happened to me by using their own words, to reclaim agency over the narrative by establishing myself as the narrator. And, perhaps foolishly, I thought that I’d be done with this after this book, that it would represent some kind of catharsis after which I could “move on.” (This is perhaps foolish because I question catharsis in the manuscript itself. Also relevant: I’ve got a tattoo on my arm with a line and a half from one of the manuscript’s poems, “On Miscalculating the Distance between Pardon and Forgiveness,” which first appeared in Word Riot a few years ago, under the title “Pardon”: “I learned from the starting line://You have to decide if you move on.”) I may be moving on (whatever that means—lately I find the verb phrase “move on” as confusing as I find the imperative “grieve”), but it’s clear that I’m not “done” with this content: I’ve got a working manuscript of poems right now tentatively titled Was Femoral, Was Femme Moral, which follows the wake of the injury of a persona I’ve named “Was,” a persona I’m working with and through to examine the ways that running, for me, was part of my performance of gender and understanding of my sexuality, and to theorize what the loss of running then means to my embodied understandings of gender and sexuality. I’m also using the project to theorize what I’m calling the erotics of running. This last part situates this working manuscript of poems in conversation with my scholarship, which is seeking to define the erotics of running and consider its implications for feminist, queer, and disability studies.
How has the process of writing this book been different from your previous work, The Tree We Planted and Buried You In or past chapbooks? Do they stand together or do you recognize them as separate projects?
The arc of grieving is what most connects these projects, I think, though The Tree We Planted and Buried You In, Was Body, and Graft Fixation are all, formally, very different poetic projects. The student leader of The University of Scranton’s SAFE (Scranton Alliance for Equity) Space club recently invited me to give some opening remarks for a National Coming Out Day Event the club hosted in partnership with the University’s Jane Kopas Women’s Center, and I read a poem from each of those projects as well as one from the working manuscript of Was Femoral, Was Femme Moral in the order in which I had written them, implicitly also arguing that these texts represent the continuous process of my own coming-out and my own queerness, so I suppose all of this work is connected in this way as well.
How do you navigate writing about self harm, PTSD, and suicide? Is there a fear of romanticizing, glorification, or misterpretation?
These are excellent, and really important, questions. I think, even more than romanticizing mental illness, I’m wary of appropriating others’ experiences with it. I’m always asking where the line is between witnessing something and appropriating it. One of the questions I often pose in classes, a question whose answers are always contextual and rarely absolute, is “Who ‘gets’ to tell whose stories, and how?” Every part of that question is important—the “how” perhaps most obviously, but also the implicit additional question beneath that question about what it means to “get” to do something in the first place. (Does “get” signify privilege? Does it signify possession? And how does the answer to these questions change the answer to the larger question?) My own experiences are my own experiences, of course, but what are the ethical dimensions of representing my father’s mental illness? My ex-lovers’? Do I have the “right” to appropriate and black out documents that legally “forever discharge” the defendant in my bodily injury claim—someone I knew personally—“from any and all claims, actions, causes of actions, demands, rights, damages, costs, property damage, loss of wages, expenses, hospital medical and nursing expenses, accrued or unaccrued claims for loss of consortium, loss of support or affection, loss of society and companionship on account of or in any way growing out of, any and all known and unknown personal injuries and damages resulting from an accident which occurred on or about 5/6/2014” in a formal exercise through which I am effectively calling into question that discharge, that absolution? Does it matter that that same document also asks me to deny my own narrative, by claiming that “[i]t is understood and agreed that [my] settlement is in full compromise of a doubtful and disputed claim as to both questions of liability and as to the nature and extent of the injuries and damages”? And even if you have a legal “right” to do something, does that make it ethical? I’d like to think that I navigate writing about these things by highlighting these questions, by bringing them to the theoretical forefront of the work, by claiming what is mine and acknowledging what may not be mine—and by acknowledging that multiple perspectives always mean multiple narratives. (The frontmatter preceding Graft Fixation introduces the text with this claim: “There is always another version of this story.”)
How do you process emotion as you write about heavy topics?
With the disclaimer/caveat that I’m not wholly convinced this is the healthiest practice, I’ll tell you that primarily I do this by theorizing what I’m writing about—and theorizing the emotions concomitant with/catalyzed by that writing. I’m very comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with theorizing pain, with trying to represent it in language and then analyzing that representation. In that book I mentioned earlier, The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur W. Frank says that “when [he] was a graduate student, theories were proposed with the tag line that they awaited ‘further research,’” but that he “now prefer[s] the idea that…theory awaits further living and the stories of those lives.” In a way that’s both similar and converse to this, I think I like to use theory as a way to understand living, to turn those “heavy topics” into stories I can manage and narrativize.
Reviews note your book has several fixed form poems, particularly sonnets. Do you start with a form and work an idea into it, or do you start with the idea and consider whether it belongs in a form?
Both! Sometimes I like to work with a received form or formal constraint as a generative exercise, and if I’m in the middle of a project I’ll try to work within the constraint with that particular project’s concerns in mind. When I’m starting with an idea and determining whether it belongs in a particular form, I try to ask myself which forms or formal gestures best represent the content I’m working with. For example, the first draft of The Tree We Planted and Buried You In was almost entirely prose poems and normative syllabic verse poems with five syllables per line. I saw the prose poems as evoking the idea of narrative on the page as I was trying to tell this story about my father’s suicide and about my own coming-of-age/coming-out, and the five-syllable constraint was both generative in pushing me to and past the line break, and representative of the fact that the earliest drafts of those poems were written five years after my father’s death. Some of both of those forms remain in the published manuscript, but a lot of the prose poems became lineated free verse poems when the ambiguity of enjambment and the line break became important to me in the multiple stories that the book was telling. I encourage students—and myself—to experiment with multiple forms in drafting/revising poems. Sometimes this experimentation reveals that there’s a better form for something, a more effective way to say something. Often it reveals that there’s just more than one way to say something.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you?
Lately, the hardest part is finding the time—i.e., making the time. But I also live with a pretty severe case of impostor syndrome, which can make both the process of writing and the work of valuing what I have produced challenging. That’s the other really difficult part. I don’t have a lot of really great advice for either of these problems, as I’m not consistently successful in solving them for myself, but I try to keep my mind in a project at all times, even if months go by between writing sessions during which I can actually draft toward it. (That working manuscript I told you about, Was Femoral, Was Femme Moral, is one I have been very slowly drafting for over two years now. And I’ve got another project I’ve been working on since 2011.) One thing that I think is important about this, though, is that the process of writing isn’t just about putting the pen to the page (or one’s hands to the keyboard, as that more often represents my means of producing text). Living with that project, when I’m reading other texts or commenting on student work or walking my dogs, is also part of the process. And as for the impostor syndrome, I guess I try to make space for myself by becoming practiced in articulating what it is I’m doing (there’s that theorizing again), which is a way also of arguing for why it matters. On good days that makes me consider my career not in terms of whether I’m more or less successful than my peers and the writers to whose work mine aspires, but instead in terms of whether or not my work is doing something. Usually, I find that it is.
How do you research for pieces? Do you draw from personal experience?
So, I definitely draw and write from personal experience, but for both better and worse I also want to be able to theorize it, which absolutely requires research. In the case of Was Body research was primarily venturing down a lot of rabbit holes, often through cursory reading, like reading internet sources of varying credibility (yes, including Wikipedia articles) on things like Hippocrates and the theory of the four humours, then mining those sources for a lexicon, and then going down additional rabbit holes through the Oxford English Dictionary to trace the etymology of some of those terms. (This practice generated the “Myth” poems in the book, “Myth of the choleric temperament, or, what gall,” “Myth of the phlegmatic temperament, or, the hack with it,” “Myth of the melancholic temperament, or, the anti-body,” and “Myth of the sanguine temperament, or, she’s so vein.”) With my forthcoming book Graft Fixation, there was a lot more extensive, deep reading, as I was working on my dissertation while I was writing that book, and that process of research is in some ways reflected in my extensive use of footnotes throughout the manuscript.
What is one writing cliche that you see others do, or you do yourself, that drives you nuts? (i.e. stereotypes, specific phrases, predictable endings, etc)
I’ve talked elsewhere about my bad habits of overextending an extended metaphor or cycling through puns just one revolution too far, and these are definitely foibles I’m forthright about in working with student writers so that they know when I point these things out in their work the gesture is as self-critical as it is critical! The other thing I’ve become more conscious of, both in my own work and in others’, is a tendency to craft speakers who shift blame onto a “you” who can’t speak for herself/himself/themself. (Thinking about blame and forgiveness is definitely central to Graft Fixation, and, to a certain extent, to both Was Body and The Tree We Planted and Buried You In, and I think an interesting project for me in the future might be to consider writing some more lyric poems in which the speaker takes responsibility instead of placing it elsewhere. To my credit, I guess there are some poems in my most recent work in particular that are exploring this.)
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
- Read. And everything—not just the work of other writers in your genre, though you should absolutely be reading these texts as well. But everything. Start close reading emails, Tweets, news media, scholarly articles, if you’ve got access to them, the mail you receive. A diverse body of texts gives you access to a more expansive lexical and formal vocabulary.
- Practice articulating what it is you’re doing. I’m working with a student poet right now in an independent study, and one of the things I’m encouraging this writer to do every week when we discuss their work is to practice explaining to me what it is the poem they’ve just written is doing (which is different than talking about what it’s “about” or what it “means). And this both is and isn’t about intent—I make a pretty big deal in classes about arguing that, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what an author intended. Rather, what matters is what’s on the page, what there’s evidence for in the text itself. I think being able to read and analyze your own work in this critical and self-reflexive way is really important, and, gradually, it does allow you also to be more intentional when you’re drafting and revising.
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Probably the best way to find more of me and my work is by visiting my website, www.BillieRTadros.com. I’m also on Twitter (@BillieRTadros), but I clearly don’t know how to use it effectively. (I’m pretty sure I use Facebook the way I’m supposed to use Twitter.)