“The Poem Doesn’t Happen Until You Roam Away”: A Conversation with Eloise Klein Healy

/ Is this only a room you’re now upholding / for your ‘presidential’ affairs or are you invading?”
No secret who I’m talking about there …
But it ends: “Put it simply, I am still envisioning a better world.”
I am. Pain.” And yet in “Here’s What I Said,” you write: “My brain needs me to knock out the haziness.”
It’s a power struggle. But you didn’t have the word dog. It went great. Eloise and I sat down recently to talk about her ninth book, Another Phase, due out today from Red Hen Press. Tell me about Betty McMicken. After a while the lines weren’t about A or Z anymore, I was able to roam beyond that again. ELOISE KLEIN HEALY: I know. / Every page. And I had to learn to use other parts. So Betty said, “I think you could try this by writing five lines. Knock it out of the park. Tell me about that. None of my words came out properly — none of them. Thank you, Eloise! Some of the poems are explicitly political. Can you believe it? Just five.” I said, “Okay. Once I knew “bread,” I still needed to learn spelt and rye and wheat, and each one is another experience, a world of bread in itself. In the years since, with the help of her spouse, Colleen Rooney, and her therapist, Betty McMicken, Eloise has worked to rewire the language networks in her brain, to find her way back to, in her words, the “hungry vision” of poetry. I often didn’t know what it was. We met with four different therapists. I was lost. And re-informing language. This poem, “Flashlight,” reminds me of your work with Betty, how she’d show you a picture of a dog. Poems need those places where you think you’re turning down one street, that you’re going left, but you discover you’ve really gone right. Or I’d take apart a word and reshape it, keep finding different meanings inside of it. Ever? Or the object wasn’t real. But you can’t stay in the middle of the circle where you know everything. And they are Eloise poems — I hear your voice, I feel you in these pieces. I came home afterward, and I was totally tired, tired, tired. We’re talking about this in the context of recovering from viral encephalitis, and the aphasia, but much of what you describe is just being a writer. Some of these poems echo the metaphysical poets, to me, how you’re unearthing a new truth inside an impossibility. Eloise is the author of the poetry collections Building Some Changes (1976), A Packet Beating Like a Heart (1981), Ordinary Wisdom (1981), Artemis in Echo Park (1991), Passing (2002), a finalist for the Lambda Book Award and the Audre Lorde Poetry Prize, and The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho (2007), winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society Poetry Award. Not to care what anyone thought? The roaming. [Laughs.] Yes, but she still wanted me to name the damn noun. In the introduction to Another Phase, Betty says that, because you were a poet, she believes you already had more connections to language in your brain than most people. I was still too brain-fried, too far away from it all, and I was stuck on wanting every word, every line, to be perfect …
Of course you were. You write, “When did the flashlight get its name? Each one came in — the first three were all looking at Colleen, speaking only to her. / Not only the thing I hadn’t said for three years. She is a blast to hang out with. Which is the verb?” And I’d get so frustrated — how could I not know what a noun was? A, you’re Eloise, and B, you’re a writer. Yes. It’s been five years. / No reason. She walks up to me, puts her hand out, and says, “Hi Eloise, I’m Betty. Very different. ¤
TARA ISON: Hello, Eloise — huge congratulations on the new book! She is a lover of baseball and Chinese brush painting, of grackles and Portuguese Water Dogs. At first she thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t kidding. In 2012, she was named the inaugural poet laureate of Los Angeles, her beloved city loving her right back. Colleen knew I had to work with a therapist, someone who truly understands how the brain works to create language, to recreate language. Those early days when everything was scrambled up. / Now I’ve learned I ‘broke’ my mind. What do you remember about when that happened? I was recovering me, recovering language. Right, I know. So much of it was still there, buried deep inside. We all have to knock out our own haziness. Or are you more unfiltered now? [Laughs.] Maybe that’s impatience more than bravery. So there was no dog. She treated me like a person. Eloise is a Los Angeles literary legend, dazzling us all with her talent, grace, and wit. I did. I had to find the word in my brain. She is a visionary teacher and mentor, who for years has inspired and guided young writers to find their own voices, a social justice warrior and advocate for those whose stories have been traditionally undervalued or dismissed. / How did my brain twist? I was here, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I’m just sitting there like, “Oh, I must be the stupid one.” Then in comes Betty. They’re clever and playful and insightful. In the poem “Ever,” you write: “Can I get better? And she’d talk around the word “elephant,” just the idea of it. / No barking dogs next door. But then Betty would say, “Okay, which word here is the noun? Allow yourself. That’s what we’re all reaching for. How did she work with you to get language back? I started with the letter A and I’d think, “A, what’s that about? Thank you. And the poems became about what had happened to me, to my brain. Yes, the power of that single word cracked the world open for her again. Okay, let’s start there. In 2016, Publishing Triangle honored Eloise with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the literary and gay and lesbian communities. Say, an elephant. I used to tell students that a poem is a huge circle, it’s all the plants, all the trees, all the people, everything in the world. I was doing four poems a week! It was hard work, baby steps, but I remember saying to Colleen, “I want to hold on. And you knew it was a dog. Did you understand the words in your head? / My speaking could not count names or rhyme, / The ‘I, me, much’ of mine, gone, lost.” One of the things I love in these poems is how you’re using words to describe losing words. I wrote it backward, but still. I had to learn a lot of it from scratch. I definitely remembered A, E, I, O, U, at least. She is my former employer, my wise woman, my dear friend. She’d show me a picture of something. I’d feel how the words could measure and move, measure and move, and I’d get to the right thing. Sometimes those were just wonderful accidents. / How did the whack of it phase me? NOVEMBER 29, 2018

ELOISE KLEIN HEALY is a poet of exquisite emotional precision. It’s such a great paradox. I had to get my language back, yes. / I’ve never chosen to care / about any moment of their concerns.” I wonder, have you always been that brave? Colleen thought I was a little too tired. What does ‘A’ mean, what does ‘A’ do? / My words smeared me — aphasia. I think writing these poems shows that your brain’s not managing you anymore. After “the weird time,” how did it feel to write your first poem? We’re still working it out. You have to allow that to happen. [Laughs.] Sometimes I don’t answer; I just let myself chill out and go back to sleep. Some things would come back to me. We often started with a picture. That’s so paralyzing, isn’t it? And I got all the way through A to Z, five lines each. Your brain is almost a character in many of the poems — there’s an ongoing debate you two are having. I thought it was great! [Laughs.] And I thought, “Oh my God, I remember E!” So I was on my way. In “Imagination,” you write: “It’s imaging the nation, I know. A few months after being named poet laureate of Los Angeles, Eloise was hit with a bout of viral encephalitis; the resulting aphasia affected her ability to process language and to understand or express speech. Then I’d sometimes find the word curled up in my brain, she’d lead me back to it, and there it was. … I just went to sleep, then woke up in the middle of the night and spoke to her, but my words made no sense. … But how could I get back inside something as huge as a poem? But still, this collection is … different. Did you have to relearn to read and write? / But in the middle of the night, / here come the words.” I’ve had that happen, when words woke me up. / I have a new word exactly now. / Didn’t have one yet? The book isn’t just about your personal relationship to language but also your struggle with the larger world. Then B, okay, let’s get inside the letter B.”
You’d use the letter as a writing prompt, like you’d give a student? These poems came about because I lost my brain. Exactly. The struggle to find those meanings hidden inside words. But the brain / manages me. I’d plan a day off, usually Sunday, but I’d be doing something else and realize I didn’t want to be doing that other thing. That one word was the beginning of it — amazing. They’re so moving. I was happy to have my vowels. / I want to relearn, to reline part of me. Oh, yes. I think many of us feel that way, though — that someone has to tell us it’s okay to write in the first place. Yes, it is. I’m thinking of Helen Keller, when she connected the word “water” to the water itself. How could I not put my words in proper order? Yes. There’s one poem, “Food,” about how I couldn’t stop with the word “bread.” That wasn’t enough for me to have all of bread back. We had to redevelop parts of my brain, the parts that were missing. Rules it. / The whole bad-ass things bashing a broken trumpet. And inside I was feeling: okay, I think I’m on another planet, I’m floating somewhere else now, bye! Thank you! I’d love to learn how to work with you and be your friend and talk about language and what that means to you.” I looked at Colleen and I said …
This one. The poem doesn’t happen until you roam away. Here they come, knocking on the inside of your head, begging to be let in, or let out! The poem “Attitude” says: “I know about the word information. In the poem “Mind,” you write: “My little brain flipped a coin and off I went.”
Off into the weird time, as I call it. This is a fork, this is a pencil, this is a table. That time was 2013. I loved sitting down with a collection of Eloise Klein Healy poems again. And they’re surprising, the turns they take. I remember that night I’d had an event: I met with Caroline Kennedy, downtown at the Public Library, for a discussion on poetry. My language. / Now, saying and using the flashlight, big deal for sure.”
Exactly. At some point did she just say, “You’re a writer. She writes, “In Eloise’s case, her language returned with exceptional poetic ability” and that “the recovery of her poetic abilities has been a unique, previously undocumented neuroscience phenomenon.” You’re a phenomenon! Did your own thoughts make sense to you? You write, “Though I’ve done this before, / I can’t determine who / authorized my work. “Dog” didn’t exist for me. I had to reattach words to things, but also relearn the use of the thing, its bigger meaning. Every word blank.” I love the playfulness of it, but also the sense of inquiry that energizes so many of these poems. / Can anything change it? And I didn’t know how to roam anymore. “Love is how close you can get and even bleed / and even want to pick it up again,” she writes in her poem “Cactus.” Reading her poetry feels exactly like that: it pierces and illuminates all at once, stirring a craving for more. I remember trying to write my name, and I wrote down the letter E. It was like everyone — the doctors, nurses, Colleen, friends — everyone was part of this world. I’m going to try it from A to Z.” That was it. The encephalitis hit in the back of my brain, here, behind my left ear. In 2013, Red Hen Press published A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings by Eloise Klein Healy, to great acclaim. That must have been terrifying. You have to roam, yes. Okay, blah, blah, blah, five lines. And then you had to get back to work. She was tough on me. 
So, how did these new poems come out of the work you were doing with Betty? Or she’d have to teach me the word again, as if for the first time. Why aren’t you writing?”
Yes, but she knew I had to come at it from a different angle. I’m not going to let it go.”
Your language. She was phenomenal, so knowledgeable and invested in the arts. Or I’d wake up in the middle of the night and get up and go write a little bit. 
In the title poem “Another Phase,” you write: “It’s hard for me to read the LA Times. But once they figured out the encephalitis, and the aphasia, we knew I wasn’t going to die. I wanted to be writing. I lost speech; I lost language. When Betty gave me that assignment, those five lines to write each day, it was like letting me stay in that smaller circle just a little while longer. I used to have Post-its all over the house: “refrigerator,” “scissors,” “kettle.” Once I could name the thing, I could begin to understand it. I’ve always known I was never going to wait around for someone else to authorize me, to approve of what I want to say. ¤
Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of the short story collection Ball and the essay collection Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies. And if someone has the authority to allow you to write, or the authority to keep you quiet. You have to authorize yourself. Letters, words, sentences. Right. Again, something we’re all struggling with, isn’t it? In “Awake,” you write: “At 3:00 am, I open my eyes. Let’s say we’re still negotiating.       
The poem “Decided” raises a similar question. Every thing, every moment was a lesson. Was it something that came back to you, or something you had to learn all over again? I never stopped being a person. No, not at all. Both, in a way.