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“Trauma is really the waters in which we swim” / Elizabeth Kolenda in conversation with Cathy Eisenhower
I often think of writing as a cathartic event/practice. I am wondering, in part because I know that you are a therapist, what place writing has for you within a broader frame of mental health and healing trauma?
I don’t really think of writing as cathartic, though for some it is, as you say. For me it’s more about play–a space to experiment playfully. My writing isn’t particularly experimental in the context of all the writing around, but they’re my own little experiments with sound and words. In terms of healing and trauma, I don’t think of writing as healing, though it certainly can be. The healing is more about making something with your mind with your own experiences. That could be writing, or it could be something else entirely invisible. My own writing, I hope, is more like asking others to come out and play and maybe also do you like me?
When I am writing about rape it’s so common for me to avoid the actual word. I am curious about why you chose to use it so frequently?
As a kid I (and as an adult) I would (as is common practice) say the same word over and over until it seemed to lose all meaning and so sound unfamiliar. Maybe I wanted to see if the word “rape” would do the same if I wrote it/said it enough times. I don’t think it does, but it could be for all the words in between. It doesn’t become a cipher. It’s still what it is. And then “rave” and “rage” are connected to “rape” by more than sound, interestingly enough, the former healthy responses to the latter. I also think “sexual assault” confuses the issue. I prefer “rape.”
In the first section of this book violence seems to be addressed as something generic, as if “rape” could be replaced by any other word. In later sections the narrative becomes very intimate and focalized. Could you say a little more about this shift?
I didn’t notice this–I’ll have to look back at the book and see what you mean. But I imagine part of this concerns my use of social scientific discourse on rape, i.e. “research,” as a field in which the rapes are lost in the rough. Then the other research, done by the body against its will, comes to the foreground.
As I was reading this book I frequently encountered a sense of dissociation. I’m not sure if it was my own or something the text was performing. I was wondering if you could speak about dissociation, of the reader or speaker in the lyric movements of the book?
I’m not sure how a text would perform dissociation, but I’m interested. I certainly was not trying to embody symptoms in the poems in any way. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen …. An analyst once defined dissociation as “escape when there is no escape,” so maybe the book is too much at times. Some readers don’t respond so well to it, or to my reading of the “distance decay” section. I guess it’s intense and makes people uncomfortable, though I don’t think that discomfort is the same for everyone and I’m very curious about the different responses readers might have. That sort of surprised me, in a way, probably because I wrote it over five or so years, so the intensity for me was spread out. I’m sort of desensitized to it, in a way, except for at certain venues when I read, and I’m not sure why it sometimes happens that I feel more connected to it.
Because of your occupation I am sure you have a more nuanced understanding of trauma than most. I was wondering if you thought about the current conversations around trigger warnings while writing “distance decay,” is it the writer’s responsibility to think about harm?
I think people who have suffered trauma have a more nuanced understanding of trauma than most—and I am one of them, as are most of the people on the planet, unfortunately. So trauma is really the waters in which we swim. I maybe as a therapist have training in how to be with those who are traumatized in a way that tries, and often fails, to make them feel safe, and I have ways of talking about trauma that are specialized, though in no way more knowing than quotidian expressions of what aftermath feels like. As for trigger warnings, I haven’t followed the conversations that much. It’s hard to know what will trigger someone, and I think sometimes this use of “trigger” doesn’t mean send someone into a dissociative state or cause them to feel suicidal, but rather to make the squeamish squirm. People who are severely traumatized often seek out what triggers them. Others avoid everything to avoid triggers. Either way, a little prefatory remark about the scary stuff one may write or speak about doesn’t accomplish much in the way of keeping people safe in a world where trauma is the status quo.
I’m interested in the way that your writing felt like, to me, an antidote to the usual rape narratives, which are culturally pervasive and often invisible from the perspective of those committing rape. Could you speak to the possibility for writing to complicate or challenge rape culture?
A couple of things. I didn’t really have a purpose for this book–it was more, like I said above, about playing with discursive formations around rape. Play can move in different registers and is sometimes frightening and very serious. (As a play therapist, I see this often.) I wanted to allow myself to be scared of what I was doing in the writing—play can be scary. I am reminded of Brian Massumi’s book, What Animals Teach Us About Politics—that baby animals play-fight and they have a corporeal understanding of the difference between play-fighting and its movement into aggression. This can and does happen in writing that is “playful” and in other types of play. It’s still risky, especially when the reader/audience comes to participate. Massumi wrote that “Life profits from the surplus-value of life produced by play, converted into survival value.” For me this is critical. What play produces is valuable not merely because it ends up being adaptive, but even more so because it is inherently valuable–pleasurable, for one thing. I think that way about how my poems may interrupt rape culture–that could be the adaptive value coming out of the play, which also has its own … power? Purpose? Experience?
Lastly, is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you would like to say?
Thank you for your questions, Elizabeth. I really appreciate how thoughtful they are. I also appreciate Ugly Duckling publishing this book–the care they showed it and me in the process. I will name names–Anna Moschovakis, Emmalea Russo, Matvei Yankelevich. A lot of gratitude goes to them.
Cathy Eisenhower lives and works as a therapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of Language of the Dog-heads (Phylum 2001), clearing without reversal (Edge 2008), would with and (Roof 2009), and distance decay (UDP 2015). She is co-translating the selected poems of Argentine poet Diana Bellessi and co-curated the In Your Ear Reading Series for several years. Her work has recently appeared in The Recluse, Aufgabe, West Wind Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and Fence.
distance decay is available for purchase here.