Award-winning writer Gayle Brandeis is having a big year. With both a book of poetry and a memoir out in 2017, she sat down with me to discuss the female body, the challenges of writing a memoir, and the intersectionality of dancing and writing.
Wendy Hill: The Selfless Bliss of the Body, from Finishing Line Press, came out in June. How did the book come into being and what was your inspiration for the book?
Gayle Brandeis: I’ve been writing poems since I was four years old, and while the poems in the collection aren’t that old, a couple, including the title poem, were written when I was an undergrad (which was—gulp—about 30 years ago!), so this book has been in the works a long time. The manuscript has morphed greatly as I’ve tinkered with it over the years, as has the title—for a while, it was named “Lack/Luster” based on a poem about desire that no longer appears in the collection; I decided against that title after I realized it was handing reviewers an easy diss if they didn’t like the book (“Lack/Luster is lackluster”, har-dee-har-har). For a time, the manuscript had a section of love poems about my first husband; then it had a section of divorce poems about my first husband; then I took my first husband out of the manuscript entirely. It’s been quite the living document, this collection, a sort of evolving witness to my various obsessions over the years. After a friend observed there seemed to be several collections packed inside the manuscript, I decided to give the book more of a focus and winnowed it down to those poems that most specifically addressed living in a mortal body in the world.
WH: The phrase “selfless bliss”, in relation to women’s bodies, strikes me as so radical and subversive. We live in a culture that expects women to be selfless when it comes to the things we do for others, one thinks of motherhood or volunteerism, or the way we treat friends or lovers. And feeling bliss in and about one’s body is not normally associated with selflessness. It is a gorgeous concept, and one that I am so excited about. Can you tell us more about how the title came to be?
GB: Thank you so much! When I wrote the title poem back when I was nineteen, I was at the beginning of my exploration into how our bodies connect us to something bigger, how our atoms are connected to other atoms, how we’re all buzzing together at the most basic level. There can be a pretty intense feeling of bliss when we move so deeply into our own body, we move beyond our own body, be it through dance or sex or being out in nature or whatever gets you to the starstuff we all share. There’s definitely a spiritual element to the poem, but there’s also a reference to “le petit mort”, that sexy little death that can obliterate the self.
Here’s the poem:
the selfless bliss of the body
somewhere, under skirts
of black, a nun brings
herself to orgasm,
making love with the christ-
nature of her hand, her husband.
as toes tighten, white thighs
tremble, she closes her eyes
and dies and dies with him
in the selfless bliss
of the body
speaking your name,
i feel myself spiral
into my body as my voice
spirals out, uncovering,
discovering, the space
between my bones, swollen
with my small history,
the body is a verb, not a noun:
even in a monk’s stillness,
the circle of breath, twist
of double helix, turns
towards its absence,
towards the empty body
of pure vibration
WH: I love that, “the body is a verb.” Your versatility as a writer is impressive. You have written award winning fiction, a great craft book, Fruitflesh, a phenomenal book of poetry, a young adult novel, many essays, and you have a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, coming out from Beacon Press. How do you approach genre when you begin a project, and what do you see as the intersections and divisions between the genres?
GB: You’re so kind—thank you! When I begin a project, I often don’t know what form it wants to take—I may start with an image, or setting, or situation, or dream, or phrase that’s stuck in my head, something that sparks my curiosity in some way, and then I’ll see where it leads me. Sometimes it takes several drafts for me to know what I’m really working with. Several of my prose projects started as poems—The Book of Dead Birds began as a poem about dead birds in my life; several sections from my memoir are essentially cannibalized from poems I had written; a project I’m currently working on started as a collection of linked poems, evolved into a novel in prose poems, and now seems to want to be a play. Short stories become novels; essays spin down into poems; a novel I thought I was writing for adults ended up being one for young readers—it’s a constant dance, and I just try to stay open to where the work wants to go, and then craft it until it becomes most fully itself. Of course, each genre has its own specific set of challenges (as does each specific project), but they are all linked by language, and I always want to find language that is as fresh and alive and full of music as possible. I love fitting words together, seeing the friction or heat or flow they create. Language as alchemy.
WH: Can you tell us more about the memoir?
GB: It’s the hardest and most necessary thing I’ve ever written. My mom hanged herself one week after I gave birth to my youngest child in 2009, in the midst of a psychotic break, and this memoir chronicles that chaotic time and my attempt to make peace with her and her final act. I actually stole the title from the documentary she was working on at the time of her death; she wanted the film to showcase her own artwork and raise awareness about the rare diseases she thought wracked our family. I transcribed the film and wove it into the memoir; that gave me a springboard to explore our family’s complicated history with mental and physical illness, and created space for her to speak for herself.
WH: You’ve said that you cut twenty percent of the memoir in the editing process, that you realized that material was something you needed to write, but didn’t belong in the finished product. What considerations inform your decision to cut when you are editing, and do you ever find yourself making emotional decisions about your projects or are you more of an unemotional editor?
GB: I would say the ability to hack so much away was primarily a function of time—setting the manuscript aside long enough that I could gain a bit of detachment from my own words, and see them with craft eyes instead of through a lens clouded by emotion (the emotion didn’t go away, of course—it just kind of settled like sediment in a pond as I was focusing on craft stuff). Time away from the manuscript also helped me realize that my mom was more the center of the project than I was, myself, so all the stuff that didn’t involve my relationship with her—the end of my first marriage, etc.—really didn’t need to be there, even though writing it was cathartic and important for me. I had thought the memoir was ultimately going to be about me breaking my own silences—and it is in many ways—but the heart of the story turned out to be my attempt to come to a place of understanding my mom, and anything in the narrative that didn’t contribute to that understanding needed to go. Once I had that epiphany, cutting the manuscript felt liberating—each thing I removed gave the manuscript a clearer, tighter focus. Another thing that informed that revision was the death of my beloved father last year. Compared to that loss, letting go of words, even hard-won ones, was a piece of cake.
WH: What was the thing that most surprised you when writing the memoir?
GB: There were so many moments of surprise through the process, but I think the most surprising of all was the fact that I was able to finish the thing. I really wasn’t sure that was possible. I felt as if I’d be writing the memoir my whole life—it felt so big and painful and overwhelming. When I finished the first draft, I couldn’t stop crying. I knew I had a lot of revision ahead of me, but the fact that I was able to find a shape, a container, for my pain and confusion, completely transformed my relationship to my own story.
WH: Many memoirists, especially if they teach writing, encounter other writers who want to know how to navigate the complexities of writing about real people. This has always struck me as an unanswerable question, one each writer has to answer for herself. What is your approach to this question when students ask it?
GB: I agree—everyone has to find their own answer to this question. You have to ask yourself what you personally risk by writing about real people and whether that risk is worth it. I also suggest that writers hold nothing back in their early drafts, the drafts they will show to no one—don’t self-censor; don’t worry about what anyone will say or think. Write what you need to write; you can weigh the consequences of putting it in the world after you’ve gotten everything on the page. My sister struggled with my writing the memoir, which led to some painful conversations, but she ultimately gave me her blessing, and that fills me with such gratitude and relief; I know as long as we can talk about it, all will be well. Of course not everyone is as blessed with such understanding loved ones; each writer has to do what is best for their own well being.
WH: What most informs your writing life? Is there an element of your childhood or personality that you most associate with the desire to write?
GB: My first poem was titled “Little Wind”—“Blow, little wind/blow the trees, little wind/blow the seas, little wind/blow me until I am free, little wind” and I think that writing, from the very beginning when I was so young, has been where I’ve felt most free (well, that and dancing). I’ve always been shy—writing has been where I can be most brave, most fully myself. Writing is how I best process the world, how I best figure out what it is I know. I think my lifelong tendency to step back and observe the world around me, to bear witness with all my senses, deeply informs my writing, as well.
WH: Most, if not all, of your books can be read as political texts. In The Book of Dead Birds you address environmental concerns and race. In Delta Girls your main character is a female migrant farm worker. Your new work addresses the female body and suicide, which is so misunderstood and stigmatized in our culture. How does your work as an activist connect to your writing? Do you see any division between the two roles? Are they driven by the same influences?
GB: One of my mom’s greatest gifts to me was teaching me the power of the written word. She wrote what she called “poison pen” letters when she was upset about something, and I saw these letters make a difference in the world—she started letter writing campaigns through the PTA Safety Committee at my elementary school that led to a traffic light being installed at a dangerous intersection near the school, and got guns and ammunition removed from our local K-Mart. I started writing letters to the editor and the President at a very young age, so writing and activism have long been intertwined for me. Winning the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement gave me an additional sense of responsibility as a writer to continue to weave social issues into my work. The challenge is finding the right balance between art and politics, to not have too much of an agenda in my creative work, to let the politics be part of the fabric of the story, organic to it, so it doesn’t feel like me standing on a writerly soapbox (although there are places for that, in opinion pieces and the like). I am more engaged as an activist than ever in resistance to our new administration, but my resistance isn’t always in the form of writing. I haven’t worried so much about getting my own individual voice out there as I have in being part of a collective voice. It’s also been important to me to create space for voices that need to be heard, either by sharing work via social media or through the choices I make as editor in chief of Tiferet Journal, which promotes tolerance and empathy through literature and art, and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit, which focuses on writing that addresses issues of freedom of body and voice by women-identifying writers.
WH: I spent much of my young life as a fairly serious ballet dancer, equally obsessed with ballet as I was with writing and reading. You have a background in modern dance. Do you see any correlations between telling a story with the body, with movement, and telling stories with words? Does your training as a dancer inform your writing?
GB: Writing and dance have both been my greatest creative passions since I was very young, too! In college, I was in an alternative program (now called The Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands) where we created our own concentrations, so, as far as I know, I am the only person in the world with a BA in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing.” In my explorations there—and since (although I don’t dance nearly as much as I’d like these days)—I have sought to write in a way that’s as muscular as dance and dance in a way that’s articulate as language. The nexus of the two arts is the body, of course, and I want to bring physicality onto the page, to write words people will feel in their own bodies. My craft book, Fruitflesh, was very much born of this desire, and I hope it’s helping other writers tap into their own bodies as rich sources of material for their work.
WH: I remember seeing you dance with such beauty and abandon at an MFA dance party about a year ago. I was taken with the sense of freedom you exuded in those moments. That’s something I strive for in my life, although I never feel like I quite achieve it, or to be honest, even get close. That sense of freedom comes across in your writing as well as your dancing, and in our culture I think achieving that is an extraordinary and inspiring thing. Is that something you cultivate?
GB: Thank you so much! As a kid, I danced freely—at home, at least, since I was too shy to do so in public. Unless I was on the ice. I was a figure skater, and, much to my coach’s chagrin, when it came time to perform a solo in an ice show or competition, I would often throw away my carefully choreographed routines and improvise to the music, let it move me across the ice. Something in me just took over. It was like being in a trance state. I love that feeling, that experience of entering a creative current and letting it whisk me away. I have always been more of an improviser than a technical dancer, more in the moment than focused on discipline. I suppose that describes my writing process, too.
I have to admit, I became a self-conscious dancer for a while—I went through several years of being very uncomfortable in my own skin as a teenager. I remember being at a party my freshman year of college; a friend said “You’re such a controlled dancer” and it felt like a slap in the face. I didn’t want to be controlled. I wanted to be wild. Free. I wanted to let music move through me the way it did when I was younger, so I suppose I did work on cultivating that abandon in a way; I made a conscious effort to break down the blocks that were keeping me from my original sense of freedom. Now dance is an unfettered joy for me again. I guess you could say it takes me to that place of selfless bliss.
WH: Where can we get our hands on The Selfless Bliss of the Body and The Art of Misdiagnosis?
The Selfless Bliss of the Body is available through your favorite bookseller. You can also order it through Finishing Line Press at https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-selfless-bliss-of-the-body-by-gayle-brandeis/
The Art of Misdiagnosis is available pretty much wherever you like to buy your books (support your wonderful local indies if you can!), or you can ask your local library to order it (libraries rock, too!)
I have to say having a memoir go out into the world feels very different from publishing a novel. I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that this intensely personal experience (both the living of it and the writing about it) is going to be a product in stores. I see my mom’s eyes stare at me from the cover and something still catches in my throat. It’s a vulnerable feeling, but of course I’m grateful the book found such a wonderful home, and my dearest hope is that it will become a lifeline for those who need it, that it will help others feel less alone.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Two books are forthcoming in 2017, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in such publications as Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The San Francisco Chronicle; one of her essays was listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays 2016. She was named a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine and served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She is Editor in Chief of Tiferet Journal and the founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit, and currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College.