Body, Event, Self-portrait without Breasts

An evening at Drew University’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies on the 21st of September 2015

FullSizeRenderI am most grateful to Philip Scibilia – who heads up the Medical Humanities programme – and to Elizabeth Fehsenfeld for their invitation to speak last week and for their enthusiastic welcome and generous hospitality. Thank you to Tara Jenner for the warm introduction. I was delighted to meet Sean Nevin who is Director of the MFA Poetry Programme at Drew. And it was a super audience – attentive, diverse (it was the first time I’ve looked up to see a dog as a member of the audience!) and with terrific questions. More on the questions later.

Whenever I present the poems and other material that makes up Self-portrait without Breasts I alter and develop the way I do it. This time I reached another stage with the project – I completely rethought the order of presenting the poems and the way I inhabit the narrative.

I had the bilateral mastectomy back in December 2006 – nearly nine years ago now, and I’m in every sense a changed person. I started writing the poems in 2007, and I look at them differently now too. I feel closer emotionally to some than I did back then, farther from others. Everything shifts.

Of course this changing perspective is always true with work done some time back, but I suppose that with this work – based on self-portraiture as it is – it’s even more marked, and it feels like part of the business of the project to examine it.

Generally I’ve presented the poems in more or less the order of the chronology of the story, starting with the poems from before surgery, ending with those speaking of the healing and reflective stages. But this time, having thought about how memory works as time moves further from an event, I began with some of the later poems – those written about the remodelled self – and I worked my way back into the nitty gritty of the transformation and beyond that to the pre-surgery body and self. My post-surgery self is now my ‘normal self’, so this new order makes sense to me.

I also read a number of poems from the cycle that I’d never read in public before – they seemed to fit with the revised order and the emotional landscape thrown up by the rearrangement. I showed a few images that I hadn’t shown before – some by Laura, but also an amateur colour shot taken as a contribution to my surgeon’s album, and a b/w photo of my infant self, to complement the poem black and white which speaks of my post-op self looking at this very photo. Arriving at the point of reviewing my deeper past (my very young self) towards the end of the performance felt satisfying.

The last poem I read at Drew – The bookbinder – feels more and more securely placed as the final poem in the cycle, as though by being there it holds all the others in whatever order they happen to fall.

The questions at Drew were good ones. I’ll mention a few of them.

Sean Nevin asked me about links between the plaster casts and the idea of the death mask. In responding to him I mentioned how to me each cast has two realities, the smooth inner surface and the rough outer surface and how the inner part seems to hold the life and the power of intimacy. More to think about here.

Sean also asked me about the future of the project, and I mentioned that I’ll be putting a book together at some stage.

There was a question asking me if I had deliberately not written about the pain of the surgery. This was a tricky one to answer, since for me the pain was absorbed into my writing and reformulated/re-membered into (mostly) expressions of emotional pain – states I had to re-enter in order to write the poems at all. And one of my main experiences of acute physical pain (removal of drains) proved to be impossible for me to write; I tried many times and could not make the piece work. I am grateful for that question – I intend to think more about this whole area of writing pain.

Then there was a fascinating question about gender issues. Another area of thinking I am only just getting into. More on that in another blog.

Yet another question was: had the experience of the surgery affected my writing process and style – was there a change in how I wrote before and after? Another important question, and one I’ve approached before. The short answer is Yes. The longer answer will continue to reveal itself, I suppose!

Altogether a memorable and creative visit to Drew and I look forward to our relationship continuing to develop. Thank you again for inviting me.



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