What Poetry Can Do
Kathryn Jordan on Writing, Inspiration, and Life after CancerApril 5, 2021
Since the pandemic lockdown began, Jordan has treated her time like a sabbatical: taking morning hikes in the woods, playing piano, and focusing on her writing. She met with Sun Editorial Assistant Staci Kleinmaier via video call to discuss writing and her poem “My Late Breast” in our April 2021 issue. This poem is Jordan’s first publication in The Sun.
Many of your poems feature the natural world, especially birds. How does nature inspire you?
It’s a tonic for me to go into the woods in the early morning when the light’s just coming in, the bugs are rising from the earth, and the birds are coming out.
I learned early on that if you think there’s a bird in a tree, and you stare at that spot through your binoculars, you won’t ever find the bird. You have to take your binoculars down and have what Buddhists call “soft eyes,” where you see everything at once. Then you can hear a bird, but you have to stand really still. The Japanese call it “still hunting” because you let it come into you, rather than actively searching or compelling it.
For me it’s a relief, because I spent my whole life trying to compel stuff, and the only place I can get away from that is in nature.
Do your poems come to you, or do you have to compel them?
When I come out of that state of mind, after I’ve been in nature, the poem just goes right onto the paper. It’s my favorite kind of writing. I’m just being receptive and letting the poem come through me so that the living world can speak.
How did your poem “My Late Breast” come to be?
It’s a long journey in breast cancer: from the crisis of losing a breast, to the crisis of your identity and your body’s integrity and wholeness. It’s a never-ending story. I don’t know what was on my mind the day I wrote that poem, but I do read obituaries a lot because they’re remarkable histories — humbling reminders that we are here only a short while.
I accept the fact that I had cancer. I’m not running anymore. In the beginning, after cancer, I was overworking like crazy. I didn’t join any survivor groups, and I went right back to teaching. Now I see that I didn’t want to identify with the cancer then.
By the time I wrote “My Late Breast,” however, I was in a different mode. Instead of trying not to look at what I’m missing, I can now say that I lost something, that a part of me died. But now what is here? It’s me. It’s my life. It’s how I love my life. And I love nature and my children and my husband and my old lovers. I still do. And I am still here to celebrate this.
You say in the poem that you have lived fourteen years without your breast. Do we need time to comprehend trauma or deep wounds?
Yes. After nine years, I decided to have breast reconstruction. And then just last week, I had it deconstructed, to use a literary phrase. I decided to let go of that element because it didn’t feel like me. It wasn’t providing the restoration I wanted.
I feel better now than I ever have. This poem was part of that catharsis and metamorphosis.
When we were e-mailing before this conversation, you mentioned the “subversiveness of confessional poetry.” What do you mean by that?
A lot of people think confessional means wanting sympathy, but it’s not that at all. “My Late Breast” could be seen as confessional, but it’s not self-pitying. In fact, the only reason I sought to publish this poem was the hope that someone could get strength and joy from it.
We live with oppressive optimism in this country. We struggle to let anyone know we’re not OK. Letting myself go to the place that hurts in my poetry is subversive. But it is also a way to move forward; that’s what poetry can do.
Are you ever surprised by what comes to you when you write poetry?
Yes, and that’s what’s so much fun and so healing about it, because you ought to be open to the possibility that you’ll end up someplace you didn’t know you were going.
The surprise is where the magic happens.
That is the magic. It’s a kind of surrender.
When I set out to write a poem, I revel in the feeling that I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not afraid of the blank page. I want to be guided.
Ellen Bass says that the word poem comes from the Greek word poíēma, which means a “thing made.” When I approach the revision process, I do so intentionally, as if I’m making something like a table. I enjoy looking at the different parts, feeling the wood, and seeing where the grain lies.
It brings me happiness, too, because I spent my life as a teacher and a singer and a musician. Those are all ways of being creative, but they also felt like being a conduit of the creative force. And that was great; there was never a day that I didn’t feel fulfilled.
But I’m in a different phase of my life now, and it’s about making things, making poems. I’m blessed to be able to do it.
You can read more of Kathryn Jordan’s poetry on her website.
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