chapbook poetry

the chapbook interview: Lynn Schmeidler on research, the brain, and humor

Lynn Schmeidler

Reading just the first few lines of the opening poem in Curiouser & Curiouser (Grayson Books, 2014) and especially the poem “The Switch,” reminded me of Richard Power’s novel The Echo Maker, a book that follows a neurologist as he seeks to help a man after a traumatic brain injury. Can you talk about your research process to write such a chapbook?

It’s interesting you bring up Power’s novel. Years ago I wrote a short story about a character who suffered a traumatic brain injury and no longer had any sense of who he was. The idea for that story, like the idea for “The Switch” (the first poem I wrote for the collection that became Curiouser & Curiouser) originated from an article I read that discussed a rare neurological condition—one I could not stop thinking about; these situations haunted me. I first learned about Capgras, not from Powers’ novel, but from an article in Psychology Today (my husband is a psychologist, so we had the magazine hanging around the house). I then did a lot of googling to find out more about Capgras Syndrome and to find the various other disorders that became the focus of the book. Each source led me to another and soon I was reading case histories and sufferer’s accounts of their experiences. I love researching. To the point that it can become an excellent procrastination technique (I can’t possibly write about this topic when there’s so much more to learn about it). So the trick for me was not to over-research—not to let the true facts, the scientific and the medical explanations take over the imaginative experience of putting myself in the place of one who is suffering from each condition. I wanted this book to be about what we share, all of us in our various afflictions. My interest in these conditions was never to explain them scientifically, but to embody them artistically and to use them to meaningfully represent what it means to be human and flawed—the ways in which we are all separated from ourselves and placed uneasily on this earth.

I love that research is part of your process. At the Omaha Lit Fest this year, one of the panelists said she places a sticky note on her computer that reads “Research is not writing” and she quoted a friend who often said of writing that became too research focused—as if it were a slip—“Your research is showing.” It’s such a hard balance and you’ve done it well.

I’m going to post “your research is showing” as a cautionary note above my work space. I love that!

There is a delightful absurdity in Curiouser & Curiouser, in part by the shifts of point of view as one moves through the chapbook. Talk about your use of persona as a vehicle to explore humor.

Thank you for seeing the humor here. After the book came out there was a brief neurotic period of time I was afraid people might find it too dark and then my father read it and told me he laughed out loud. I wasn’t always conscious of using humor—I was conscious of not depressing myself, not making myself cry again like I had in college while forcing myself to read the entire Abnormal Psychology textbook for the final exam.

I like your idea that the humor comes in part from my choice to write these as persona poems. I write fiction as well as poetry and so it was a natural impulse for me to take on other voices. I have always loved persona poems—poetry as ventriloquism. And of course, it would have been impossible for me to write these poems as confessional poems. The persona vehicle was my way in. It became my project to see the ways in which I could relate to the confusion or disorientation each condition presented.

The question of humor in the face of the tragic interests me a lot. What makes something humorous? When is humor appropriate, even necessary? And when is it just avoidant? Humor has always been one way humans have dealt with the scary and the disappointing and the sad. Seeing the strange in the familiar and vice versa, as William James says of philosophy is also what humor does (and what poetry is often about). Here humor became a way to help me look at what might otherwise have been unbearable. So in answer to your question, you could say I used persona to approach the painful from the inside and that led me, defensively perhaps, transgressively maybe, to humor. The material, too, taught me that nothing is only one shade of emotion. I knew I wanted the book to be more than a pessimistic examination of all that can go wrong with a brain. And isn’t that what humor is for, after all? Freeing us from being only what we are; enabling us to be greater than our losses?

Yes, I agree and what you do here, too, is offer humor as a gateway to connection, to connect to larger mysteries of life, such as the inner workings of the brain. The September 2014 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle pays tribute to Nadine Gordimer and offers her words, “To me, what is the purpose of life? It is to explain the mystery of life.” Curiouser & Curiouser does that, offers passage via persona into the mystery of the brain. Another poem of yours that I adore is “Valentine Aubade.” It’s such a lovely, fun, and sensuous way to write about synesthesia. Can you talk about inspiration in your poetry?

I’m so glad you like “Valentine Aubade.” Synesthesia is the least rare of the conditions I wrote about (up to as much as 4% of the population is estimated to have one form or another) and it’s also the one condition I wrote about that I wish I had. (Writing enables me to pretend that I have it.) One theory of synesthesia holds that since we’re born with more nerves connecting different parts of our brain than we need, perhaps in those with synesthesia, some of the “extra” connections don’t get pruned away. I love the idea that this extra sensory input may come from a sort of superpower we are all born with.

I’m inspired by the weird, the strange, the inexplicable. I’m inspired by the questions. And by the view out my window—right now lots of leaves that I know will soon fall and reveal a view of the busy street, but not before they turn brilliant shades of red and flood my house with a warm filtered light. I’m inspired by reading other poets’ work—I’ve just read Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast and am halfway through Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. I find inspiration in New Yorker articles and in This American Life radio stories and in dreams (greenery growing out of my palms) in my kids (my daughter posting a sign on her bedroom door entitled, “Long Term Memory,” my son telling me what to do when a bear approaches—act bigger than you are and wave your arms). The oddities in life that I try to explain to myself. The confusing. The out of place.

Arts.mic recently ran an article discussing the healing and therapeutic effects of writing by documenting scientific studies in which those with physical injuries and/or emotional trauma showed a quicker healing time if they spent time writing about their experience. Did you find writing Curiouser & Curiouser a healing endeavor?

That’s fascinating and also not surprising. I find writing is always a healing endeavor for me, in that when I am not writing or working out something related to my writing, I suffer. In the case of this chapbook, one could say I wounded myself each time I entered a different patient’s persona, and each poem was a way to heal that wound, if only temporarily. A few of the poems I wrote for the sole purpose of healing a sort of misery that would sometimes settle in during the immersion in these neurological ailments. “Litany with Inflections from Other Native Languages” comes to mind in particular. I remember coming across Foreign Accent Syndrome and finding it so funny (in that dark humor sort of way) that writing about it was irresistible.

And then sometimes writing heals inadvertently and abruptly: I’m currently writing what I thought would be my next full-length collection about a years-long, unrequited romantic crush. Only barely halfway through, the writing seems to have healed me of this longing I’ve had since I was ten. I hadn’t meant for the poems to cure me, and now I find myself searching for another “seduction” for my inspiration to ride.

How do you define chapbook? a small, beautiful book of poems that too few people are familiar with filled with wonderful surprises.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? by reading as much as I can: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, bumper stickers, license plates, minds, signs… I’m also trying to do whatever I can to be as receptive as possible. This includes but is not limited to: meditation, yoga, long walks, long baths and the occasional cocktail.

What makes a good chapbook? a unifying concept, an involved editor, a supportive press, a receptive reader

What’s next for you? I am currently working on a few different writing projects: finishing a full-length collection of poems, midway through either another chapbook or a second collection (it has yet to show its form), and two thirds of the way into a collection of short stories.

Your chapbook credo: write yourself into a perfect, little place

Number of chapbooks you own: 20 or so

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 19ish

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I try to buy other poets’ books whenever I can especially at readings and literary events. I swap chapbooks with other poets. I tell my fiction students to buy and read chapbooks and I give my fiction students poems from chapbooks to study.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: on fees for poetry contests

Your chapbook wish: that chapbooks be as widely recognized and as often coveted as chapstick and playbooks

Residence: Dobbs Ferry, NY

Job: I teach fiction workshops to adults and at-risk youth.

Chapbook education: learning all the time

Chapbook Bio: Lynn Schmeidler’s Curiouser & Curiouser won the 2013 Grayson Books Chapbook prize. Her poems and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Night Train, Southeast Review and Opium among other journals, as well as in Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press), Mischief, Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press) and Out of Sequence: The Sonnets Remixed (Parlor Press) among other anthologies. She teaches privately and at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Where we can find your chapbook:


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