Of Durations, Of Endurances: Interview with Hillary Gravendyk

Tracks. Health/illness as narrative vs. health/illness as lyric. The sentence in prose poetry. Breathlessness. Four interview prompts for Hillary Gravendyk, inspired by her first collection of poems, Harm (Omnidawn Publishing, 2011), preceded by a poem from the book.


I was promised only good things. Basket filled with honey or the equivalent of honey. A thicket of long pines rimming the strayable path. Animals rustling. Had a cloak but left my head bare. Warning left its signature. Whiter horizon, a splinter. Basket of clever birds. Crossed the threshold of every afternoon at once. You were a series of obvious errors. A room close as the inside of a mouth, a basket packed with nettles. Costumed heart. I made a delivery; you were made of appetites. Timberwood, tinder. So I waited in the slick sack of your belly. Flinched when the axe came through. Shed you like a wet coat.

from Harm

1. Tracks (as in “Mended my skin with barbed-wire” or “rural route across the cheek”)

This isn’t a term that I had particularly in mind when writing the book so it is interesting that you pulled it out of the poems–the one thing I’ll say is that during the process of waiting, having, and recovering from a lung transplant one is (perhaps unsurprisingly) made to feel increasingly like an object upon which things are ridden, written, etc. Constantly being attached to an oxygen tank by my “clear plastic leash” and having PICC lines and ports taped to my skin, one feels a little more like a landscape than a body. Doctors, nurses, loved ones all make their presence known on the field of my own body, and there’s this dangerous passivity that sets in.  Of course, a landscape isn’t passive, but we often perceive it that way when it suits our actions, at our peril. Tracks on the land, tracks on the body–they are markers of more than mere presence; they are markers also of harm.

2. Health/illness as narrative vs. health/illness as lyric

In an early version of my PhD dissertation I wrestled with this topic quite a bit.  It is my contention that illness, or at least chronic illness, isn’t really a narrative. Rather it is a collection of durations, of endurances. I tried to make an argument that chronic illness brings us closer to Bergson’s ideal temporality of the duree, in that it forced a subject to encounter bodily experience, bodily time, in advance of logical or rational language.  I’m not sure that’s right, but I do think the idea of that helps me point to the reason why I find lyric such a productive mode to express what one might consider the “queer” temporality of chronic and traumatic illness.  Lyric opens the possibility for an exploded language, one that can ignore the chronological and the narrative in favor of the associative and the expressive.  The poems in Harm work hard to produce a set of affective responses out of the shards of experience.  My own illness experience is characterized not by a narrative throughline but by the aporetic and the fragmentary.  Lyric, and experimental lyric forms, offer a place for these kinds of (il)logics to take center stage.

3. Uses of the sentence in prose poetry

The sentence is an exciting unit of thought for me. It provides a recognizable structure that yet manages to be flexible and fluid, to allow for strangeness and complication. Something about the sentence is soothing, it makes you feel as if your are following a path, not lost in a morass of language.  And I think that “path” allows the reader to entertain ideas, metaphors, and statements that are a little weird–that don’t necessarily make the kind of sense a sentence usually makes.  The sentence as a set of boundaries allows for the expansion of what we think we can know.

4. Breathlessness (as exuberance, as quiet, as airless)

Breathlessness is something I think about a lot because of its dual citizenship in the realm of the medical and the highly romantic. There are so many phrases that indicate passion, surprise, love, etc that revolve around the idea of losing one’s breath (ie “took my breath away” “left me breathless” etc) and I wanted my poems to connect those two worlds togethe–as they were, in a strange way, connected for me. Many of the poems in Harm are addressed to a beloved–sometimes that beloved is my husband, sometimes my illlness. As I literally lost my breath, I attended to my heart, I suppose.

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