This interview with Ann van Buren was conducted via Zoom and through e-mail, several months after the publication of It Isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in Your Chest (Four Way Books), winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award.
Ann van Buren: Joan, thank you for taking the time to talk about your work. I’ve been immersed in your sixth and most recent book; It Isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in Your Chest (Four Way Books 2021). It is intricately crafted and intriguing. Your poem, “The Cartwheel” tells us that despite a world that may be upside down, it is possible to remain connected to “Ground. Sky. Ground.” The image of the cartwheel takes us to the extremes of heaven and earth, and it tells us that it is within the power of an individual body to see things from this perspective. The power and energy of the cartwheel might distract a reader from the line “my child-seat waits in weeds.” Can you tell us more about that child-seat and the acrobatics the speaker performs in order to effect its nearly total eclipse?
Joan Houlihan: Child-seat is perhaps a place in nature that is timeless, overgrown because no longer used, and certainly a place in the imagination that corresponds to a state of mind, a start of mind, a place of observation, not action, before the actions of the world work on the mind, before the child is required to participate in the actions of the world. The cartwheel, also childish in its execution and directions of extremes—black and white, up and down, right and wrong, heaven and earth as you say, ground and sky—the two poles pulling at the imagination, always—the oscillation between them, often fast and driving, a need to see “both sides” almost at once, do eclipse the quiet observations of innocence and wonder that take place in a slower, less directed fashion on the child-seat.
Ann van Buren: In what ways is this book different from your previous books?
Joan Houlihan: This book is very different from the last book, Shadow-feast, primarily in its subject matter, but also its structure. Shadow-feast is a book-length sequence that revolves around the phases of a beloved dying, and the various forms of witnessing that takes. In Ghost, there are groupings of single poems—many are persona—and I think there is a drive for simplicity and a hearkening back. I wanted to strip the diction of any ornamentation and see how far I could get with that. In two other of my books—The Us and Ay—both book-length narratives, I tried to get inside language and play with word origin and the positioning of syntax much more than Ghost, which seems on the surface pretty plainspoken. Anybody can enter the poems, but once you’re in them, you may find yourself stepping down into deeper water as you go. I’m aiming for that kind of simplicity.
Ann van Buren: It makes sense that you’re talking about the simplicity, because so much of this book is about childhood. I’m wondering what made you decide that this is the time to be writing about that and not an invented world or invented society. This book seems very personal.
Joan Houlihan: Yes, and I thought I left behind those personal concerns with my first book, Hand-Held Executions, and The Mending Worm, my second book. Both of those books drew on life and responses to personal events. But I don’t think of this book as being autobiographical in that way. It’s not about what happened or what my childhood was like as much as it’s focused on the concerns of age: what happened to time and what happened in relation to time, to my mind and to my imagination. So, being concerned with origin is an important thing that I explored with invented places and invented speakers in The Us and Ay, but in this book it’s more about personal origin—what’s happening to me in relation to what I was. And what was I? Those questions of identity are now coming back in a different way. The sense of loss, the loss of people—important people—in my life, which I’ve dealt with before, is also coming back but in a different way.
Ann van Buren: But I wonder why you are dong this at this time? There is the poem that mentions age sixty-six. “The Good Girl” is a portrait of an obedient Catholic woman who was physically assaulted by both father and husband. The speaker of the poem says that it took her until age sixty-six to hold her mother “where she is: in a near-blue sky pinned with a gold star.”
Joan Houlihan: Oh I think sixty-six just feels old enough—after all the struggles of childhood and adulthood to be able to come to rest on a portrait of the mother, now dead, that is not involved in identity issues/struggles. I had a lot of struggles with my mother because of our relationship or rather, lack of relationship. Of course I can afford to have this necessary distance since she is no longer alive, so all of the failures of communication are no longer happening. That fact clears some space to be able to look back and see things more clearly and sympathetically. The narrator has more clarity—and sympathy—for a difficult mother. The “gold star” is certainly ironic as this mother is someone who wishes to be seen as “good.”
Ann van Buren: Do you think that being a mother has also made you more sympathetic to your mother?
Joan Houlihan: Yes, and no. There is a lot in this poem about the church and the mother’s identification with the church. She was a strict Catholic, very much a believer. So once I became a mother, instead of resonating with her as a mother, I began to realize what things I didn’t get as a child, and how the church ruled her. I know women my age who are still involved in a difficult dynamic with their mother or father or both. They’re still in the realm of struggling with their identity or struggling against what they were to their parents. Once I had children myself, such a struggle took on a more abstract character. Now, for me, it’s what’s left after that struggle—and how do you then view the parents? These are some concerns of the poem, and of the book.
Ann van Buren: I found the poem, “A Species of Mother” to be particularly relevant to the world that we’re living in today. It describes children whose mother’s attention is usurped by the riveting power of television. To compensate, the kids
told each other the story of a forest
where mothers left children
in the care of a tender witch.
Can you comment on the captivating power of stories and our will to tell them? It’s interesting that the children are spinning tales in this story, not an elder who conveys wisdom. Do you think that if there is truth to be found that it will come from the future, rather than the past? And, speaking of screens, do you think that future generations will have the capacity to invent a better future, given the ubiquitous nature of media?
Joan Houlihan: Storytelling is ancient, essential and, I think, even biological/physiological—a need, almost physical, for the playing out of cause and effect; crime and punishment, suffering and redemption, as evidenced in fables, heroic tales, etc. Memory itself is a story, one we create as we go, and it makes a self. Without a story of the self, is to be without a self, without meaning, only fragments that flash by. So, how stories get created is, I think, a fascinating subject, but I do think they are essential for survival. A child’s imagination can be damaged by having their story of self upended or worse, ignored by the “elders” who are parents in this case. And yes, these stories that reflect us can be sought out in media, including books. The child wishes to be part of the parent’s story—the star! —but the parent has a different story, one that may not include the child. In this poem the mother is riveted by the stories on TV (and this is also of an era). Her stories involve evil (the “bad guys” of those 40’s movies), but so do the children’s—witches are also evil in the child’s world of fairy tales. Here, the resolution is that the evil witch (mother?) turns out to be “tender.” All this shifting of traits and outcomes is part of the imagination’s drive for survival in the child. What influenced the stories I’m telling now and the stories I’m telling myself about who I was, who I am, and who my parents were and asking is there a shift in me? When people lose their memories they lose their stories, themselves.
Ann van Buren: A thread of yearning for childhood innocence is sewn into this book. It appears in the poem “The Voyage” which describes the journey through childhood and into the world. In the lovely image of “the hill that loved my bicycle” the reader is bounced from the beautiful but precarious embrace of land and to a ship that is in the amorphous space of the sea. The psychological landscape acts as a third force-field in this poem. The speaker asks if it is possible to return not only to their childhood home, but “to the long-loving injury I called life.” Please tell us more about the paradox of the “long-loving injury” and the wish
…for someone to see
the child down here, to carry me up from the dark.
Joan Houlihan: Well, I think this probably goes back to what we were talking about previously— the relationship to the mother and the idea that although there is injury (I think of life as a kind of long injury) there is love in it and that’s where the paradox is. Not that the injury is loved but that life is loved in spite of—because of?—the injury.
Ann van Buren: The complex theme of rejection as a form of self-acceptance is evident in the poem “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” Of the past, the poem’s speaker says it “comes on as illness.” It is something from which she is fleeing. Nonetheless, she is still a fugitive. “Now I have become my own prisoner” she says. She is still trying to escape. “Where does kindness come from? Not here.”
Can you talk a little bit about the legacy of woundedness? Is it sometimes necessary to reject the very people we call our own in order to be free from their abuse? How then, does one overcome the problem of being seen as the person doing the rejecting?
Joan Houlihan: I think that part of my getting caught up in this idea of rejection had to do with questioning how does it come about? Who is able to exercise it? How does it feel to the person being rejected? How does it feel to the person who is doing the rejecting? Finally, why are they rejecting? When there’s rejection and forgiveness or when people feel wronged or like they’re victims, where did it start? I always wonder about the need to close these questions quickly and to say that’s why and that’s who did it. It’s not that simple for me. It may be simple in a crime drama when somebody kills somebody and that’s the murderer, but in real life there are a lot of things that go back and forth. There are people who feel victimized but have they been victimized—or defended against? Or is it always both? Obviously, there are clear-cut cases, but feeling like a victim is not necessarily based on an objective truth—and it’s also not really a useful feeling. It means that you didn’t have any responsibility in what happened to you. If you didn’t have any responsibility, then you can’t then change anything in the future to prevent that dynamic.
Ann van Buren: I think that part of what you’re saying is that life keeps going. So while psychology is important, if we can become stuck with diagnoses and prevented from moving forward to discover what comes next, what might happen in this moment, for instance.
Joan Houlihan: I think that’s true. Labels do that. They give us certainty and a sense of closure, but that prevents you from discovering anything more about the situation.
Ann van Buren: That was a great little romp there. Thank you.
Joan Houlihan: Well, I like those old movies. And I like your phrase “the legacy of woundedness.” The complexity of rejection is certainly something the narrator in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” is experiencing—I’ve been interested—at times obsessed!—with the idea of hurt and forgiveness. The—childlike, I think—notion that something caused your pain and there is clarity of blame has been insufficient for me. I don’t think it resolves any of the emotional complexity of how interactions are interpreted and stories around them created such that someone emerges the victim and someone the villain. For example, how can you flee and still be a prisoner—this is something this poem wants to explore. I liked taking scenes from an old movie as a template for this idea—and another old movie (“The Snake Pit”) that also deepens the idea of punishment as a mental state.
Ann van Buren: “Education” refers to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Like the poem “Voyage,” it hearkens back to childhood. Here the father appears. It is his presence that blocks the sun, and while this at first seems menacing, when the father moves, the speaker is blinded, paralyzed, rendered small and making shadow puppets:
cow nodding, floppy turkey, birdy-on-a-branch.
Little Plato is my rabbit
He nibbles on my scrolls.
I marvel at this poem, love it for its surprise ending, admire it for its powerful punch, despite its brevity. It grapples with the biggest questions of Western Civilization. Is knowledge a sin, something kept from us and only to be held by the patriarchy? If we gain knowledge, will we be punished and blinded, or, in the best-case-scenario, are the knowledgeable destined to dance around the truth as we replicate forms that may resemble it but that are not in fact the real thing? As an educator, I wonder if you can talk about the urge to seek and share knowledge and truth, despite the debilitating effects of this seemingly insurmountable quest.
Joan Houlihan: This poem is a brief, tongue-in-cheek, trajectory of the learning process—fresh and without guile, the child seeks what’s true—or rather, has the ability to see through what’s not genuine, especially regarding the behaviors and professed emotions of the adults around them. The “education” the child undergoes will involve understanding the need for lies and pretension, but if they hang onto the original seeing-through—as artists and writers do—they are endangering their connectedness to the adults who care for them. Going around telling the truth is something only young children are indulged, but as they grow, they are no longer indulged, and maybe punished for it. The adult has learned how to respond neutrally or dishonestly when asked for their true feelings, and, in fact, they may no longer know what those feelings are. Saying to someone the equivalent of ‘your gods are dirty” (as in this poem) is very dangerous, however much truth there is to it, and however much it may bring somebody into another realm of understanding. Casting doubt on someone’s beliefs is dangerous. Those who seek—and seek to tell others—their truths, end up like Plato, with shadows. The Little Plato and childlike shadows return them to their original state. Maybe that’s physically true in the decline into your second childhood where everything is simple again and people indulge you again for saying what’s on your mind. But in between there is “Education.”
Ann van Buren: “Hagiography” also grapples with the question of knowledge and whether or not it is something to be spoken and lauded for or something to be kept secret, under the cloak of humility. The child in this poem is praised by nuns for saying “The universe is an egg” but punished by them, with paralysis, when she refuses to say specifically what she heard from God. The poem is powerful in its mystery, and leaves us wondering what its protagonist knows and where she got her knowledge. I’m blown away by the last line “I never hurt anyone. This is why they sainted me” and wonder how you may or may not be influenced by Adrienne Rich when you explore the power and consequences of breaking silences.
Joan Houlihan: This is related to the thinking in “Education” and “I am a fugitive.” Yes, the power and consequences of breaking silences. Adrienne Rich was not on my mind when I wrote this. I don’t think of Rich as an influence. But I like what you said about the power and consequences of breaking silences. That’s what we were just talking about. In “Hagiography” the consequence of breaking silence in this poem is different from that in “Education.” “Hagiography” deals with the truth as seen through the eyes of the religious figure. I was always interested in the saints when I was a kid. They were the interesting characters. Keeping silent too. I went to a parochial school where you couldn’t speak except during lunch or when spoken to by a nun. I kind of liked all that silence. I liked that it gave me free range to think my own thoughts and not have to socialize. That was a great gift for me. Breaking the silence is an interesting phrase to me. What would compel somebody to come out of silence and what would compel somebody to talk about something that everybody else wants to keep quiet. I think that’s where Adrienne Rich comes into your mind. She was so driven at some point in her career, to break silences, even her poetry changed. It started as formal and then it became looser, became free verse, and her subject matter changed so that she was really intent on speaking truth to power. In this poem, the idea of becoming a saint because “I never hurt anyone” is somewhat bogus, because you do hurt people if you’re going to tell the truth. If you follow your own mind, people do get hurt or left behind.
Ann van Buren: This poem is saying that sainthood is a little bit false, isn’t it? Saints are not as heroic as we’re taught they were.
Joan Houlihan: Yes, it’s more about what they’re not. About what they don’t do. How repressed they are.
Ann van Buren: Well there are the saints and the martyrs but aren’t most saints martyred?
Joan Houlihan: Yep, I think that’s the surefire way to sainthood! But maybe they’re not all martyred. Maybe if I don’t hurt anyone or tell anyone about how I was hurt, if I keep silent, then I’ll become a saint. I’ll become a statue.
Ann van Buren: Both the poem “The Gift Horse” and the poem “Once Upon a Rehab” refer to irreparable loss. Would you like to talk about the circumstance from which these poems arise?
Joan Houlihan: There’s this idea that you commit a crime and you have to be rehabilitated. Rehabilitation also happens after medical procedures. You go into the “rehabilitation” wing. I was interested in that whole idea. Can you ever recover fully? I don’t think you can. I think you’re changed and that you become another person, not necessarily indistinguishable from the first person. There are also multiple identity changes as a result of multiple recoveries, I think.
Ann van Buren: Several poems refer to hands and an injury, to the loss of full-functioning. Would you like to share more about that?
Joan Houlihan: “My Left Hand” springs from the story of a famous mirror experiment where a leg that’s been amputated persists as a phantom leg until a double mirror is set up in such a way that the patient sees the missing leg (which is really a reflection of the one that’s there). I thought it was interesting that these people felt they were given back their leg which wasn’t really there. The analogue to compartmentalization or even dissociation fascinated me—how we hide parts of the self from one another. Hiding the self from the self. Seeing the self only as it is reflected in something or someone else. I deal with that in a lot of poems, I think.
Ann van Buren: So what do you mean by hiding the self from the self?
Joan Houlihan: In psychology it’s disassociation. To put away the part of the self that’s been hurt through some kind of traumatic experience and to only see that part piecemeal or to gradually reacquaint ourselves with that experience/feeling. Lots of times people have to go through trauma therapy to re-access the part of themselves that experienced the trauma. I think this is a good analog for putting pain away. People are good at doing that. They don’t deal with it for years.
Ann van Buren: Well what do you think the purpose is of putting pain away and not dealing with it?
Joan Houlihan: Oh, I think survival. Of the mind, I mean. Keeping it intact.
Ann van Buren: And then have you come up with an answer about what to do. Obviously the five Hail Mary’s aren’t going to work. So what can we do after we’ve made the mistake or sinned? How can we find forgiveness and how can we forgive?
Joan Houlihan: No answer! I guess I’m on the side of looking to forgive if possible.
Ann van Buren: For me, being able to forgive someone relieves me of the power that the injury has over me.
Joan Houlihan: Right. But I don’t think you can do it consciously.
Ann van Buren: It takes a lot of work to get there. The injury has to be owned, by both parties. That’s the problem perhaps, in our not forgiving—there’s so much denial that we’ve ever done anything wrong. I don’t think it’s lying denial a lot of the time I think it’s that people don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. We’re all living on these parallel tracks.
Joan Houlihan: That’s a great way to put it. I agree.
Ann van Buren: “Late of Sargent Street” is filled with internal rhyme (eye, high), alliteration and assonance (bush, bends, blown, jamb) and comforting images of oiled wood, birds and leaves. It conjures a healing energy that is all the more powerful in contrast with the delicate image of a trembling hand that moves across a sheet. Do you find that the act of writing such a soothing and beautiful poem assists in the healing process?
Joan Houlihan: I’ve always kind of scoffed at the idea that writing poetry is therapy. I’ve said “Oh no, it’s art, not therapy.” It’s fine putting your feelings down, you feel better, but I thought characterizing writing as a form of therapy was trivializing. But I’m not scoffing so much anymore. I’ve read Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival and I agreed with a lot of that book, especially that poetry both holds meaning and gives meaning. For Orr writing and reading poetry is a way to reside in some meaning after catastrophe (at 12, he accidentally shot and killed his brother in a hunting accident). That idea resonated with me: that poetry counteracts a sense of meaninglessness. Louise Glück says that she doesn’t know how people who don’t write poetry get through the suffering that they experience because she wouldn’t be able to. So, if I think of poetry not as an escape from suffering, but a fuller engagement with it as art, a way to shape it, make sense of it, then yes, it has a healing quality.
Ann van Buren: Maybe it’s just the power of language.
Joan Houlihan: The power of language, just saying it, sure. But then there’s art, too. So it’s not just about saying it. It’s also about how you say it, how you shape it, and what it is all by itself as an object of interest, even beauty, in and of itself apart from you and your feelings. Once you get it apart from you, you can examine it, experience it without prejudice. That’s a remarkable thing.
Ann van Buren: “The Girl I Left Behind Me” is a measured appreciation, in couplets, for the person one is right here and right now even as we each are the sum of our parts. Its title comes from a painting by Eastman Johnson (1872), one that Lucie Brock-Broido wanted to use as the cover for her last book. I have two questions about this poem. Were you referencing T.S. Eliot’s hyacinth girl in the poem’s last lines when it asks “how do you like your hyacinth girl, /the gone-as-smoke of me now.” And finally, can you share with our readers a little bit about your relationship with Lucie Brock-Broido, the great poet whom we lost in 2018.
Joan Houlihan: This is a persona poem—in the voice of Lucie—in couplets, her favored form. Yes, the hyacinth girl is a reference to Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and also to her favorite perfume scent. It follows the syntax of the last line of e.e. cummings’ poem Buffalo Bill (“and how do you like your blue-eyed boy/Mr. Death?”). My friendship with Lucie spanned decades and we were very close. It began as a student-teacher relationship in the early 90’s when I studied with her in her private workshop, first at Harvard, then at her home on Sargent Street in Cambridge, MA. Because of a cataclysmic event in my life, I stopped going, and when a year or so had passed, she called me, and thus began our friendship, a deep and complex one. She was a true friend, and someone I think of often and miss terribly—especially all the wit and laughter. She was someone to whom I could tell anything at all. Very rare. Aside from our personal connection—the hundreds of phone calls, hours and hours into the night, the visiting and talking—the connection through poetry was priceless—I learned from her teaching (to this day, have her voice with me), from her writing, and especially from her way of being a poet in the world, her dedication to a vocation, an identity, that seemed at times not chosen by her, but rigorously followed nevertheless.
Ann van Buren: In what ways did she influence your poetry?
Joan Houlihan: In many little ways—through the brilliance of her edits, her unwavering engagement with the text, the line, the word, her eagerness to experiment—and in one big way, by enabling me to see the poem as something both part of, and apart from, the self. The poem as intimate utterance, and the poem as an object in the world—the poem as self and the poem as art. Both need to be honored.
Ann van Buren: Thank you, Joan Houlihan, for sharing your thoughts and your work.
The sun has gone in. The world is feeding.
Cooing dove, hooing owl—
in the cooling light I am strange to them.
Every night I am carried to bed
light as unbaled hay.
Every day at the root of the elm
my child-seat waits in weeds—
Chokewort. Blackmouth. Bristle-burr.
Cloud bales load to the sky.
Arms and legs, I am spokes on a lawn
fresh-cut. Which way am I turning, which way
am I facing? Ground. Sky. Ground.
A Species of Mother
Crooked seams and a garter belt,
daytime TV and a Whitman’s sampler,
Queen for a Day with a twist—
she held us fixed in the sneer
of Cagney, his glee in pitching
a wheelchair down the stairs, grinding
half a grapefruit into a woman’s face.
We kept quiet, nurtured ourselves on m & m’s
and told each other the story of a forest
where mothers left children
in the care of a tender witch.
“I am a fugitive from a chain gang”
Blinded by freedom and without morals,
unable to follow orders, family
a partially digested memory,
I have left the problem known as people.
The past comes on as illness—
how we twisted together, clanked ankles
and smelled like heat. Depraved, rubbing
sand in the palms of our hands, from above
our line writhed like De Havilland’s snake pit.
Now I have become my own prisoner,
drinking from a bowl of river water,
playing with the head of an axe.
Where does kindness come from? Not here.
Candle lit in the hold, insecure on the boards,
I’ve forgotten why I undertook this voyage.
As the ship rocks, shadows flow over
embedded mosses, pockmarks riddle
the walls, waver into faces. No!
I don’t want to be here. The weather is water
and doesn’t belong to me, the candle
smudges smoke to corners.
I miss the feel of land, the leaf-lit streets
of autumn, the hill that loved my bicycle,
let down its spine so long, so lovely, so kind;
the wind, the trailing sun, the small work
of building snow-cities in hedges, their roofs
powder under my swept mitten—
Could I return? To hedge-light, paw print,
ant and leaf, to the shook leaves on my street,
to the long-loving injury I called life?
I am simpler here at sea, but I might not be well.
This matter can’t be handled calmly in a pharmacy,
blue-lit, red and trembling welcome on its door,
or by a doctor, ether rising from his coat,
the plangent striking of a drill or blade, the dosing
and pungency of alchemic liquids,
the way he sticks the hypodermic deep into my mouth
like a prayer. With all these bottles glowing, none of them,
opened, release me. This is the riddle of the bottle—
the wish evaporates once the cotton is removed.
What knocks against the hull moves loud
to soft, creaks and bangs as if a body
is thrown against a door. Who’s there?
The candle gutters. I trust a sudden flare
to light me in the hold, for someone to see
the child down here, to carry me up from the dark.
“The Cartwheel,” “A Species of Mother,” “I am a fugitive from a chain gang,” and “The Voyage” from It Isn’t a Ghost if It Lives in Your Chest appear with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved © 2021 by Joan Houlihan.
This interview first appeared in Plume in August 2022.