VI KHI NAO: On page 20, you wrote, “K says being in love is radical” – what do you think K means by this?
LIZ BOWEN: This was taken from a conversation with a friend in which I was expressing a lot of guilt about the nature of my desires. I had recently fallen in love and it was upending the plans I’d had for my life in significant ways. Because I suddenly desired the person and things I did, I ended up with a very unstable living situation, mental health distress, and the loss of any ability to feel confident that I could anticipate my future at all. So, I understood her comment to be about the radical uncertainty, and even precarity, that love can introduce. Since I’m a person with about half my astrological chart in Capricorn, this was all extremely destabilizing to the point of being unbearable, and she was telling me to look for what it was teaching me. She was right: the experience broke me out of the super heteronormative nesting tendencies I’d developed over several decades of familial warnings that told me, essentially, that the only way I could avoid being gravely endangered in the future was by settling down forever with a nice and hard-working straight man, the kind of person who could support me when all my emotional and physical difficulties rear their heads. This is largely because I have a chronic illness, Type 1 diabetes, that would cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to treat without insurance, and so the coupling thing is a safety net for my bodily wellbeing. (I.e., there’s always another person there who might have insurance if I don’t.) But being in love for the first time in a very long time, and in a way that tore my life apart, was the only thing that really shook me out of that fear and need for safety in a visceral way. I had to face the fact that my happiness may not be compatible with the things my family wanted for me at that time, and that I don’t have to depend on the supposed safety of those traditional familial structures to ensure that I won’t die slowly and painfully of a chronic illness someday. Or, you know, I still might, but that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with whether I’m in a conventional romantic/familial relationship.
VKN: When were you diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes? What series of events lead to such a diagnosis? Do you have health insurance now? Some of your poems addressed money concerns–did that stem from your massive medical bills?
LB: I was twelve when I was diagnosed, so it’s been about fifteen years. Finding out about this illness was probably—I’m now learning, after years of therapy!—the defining trauma of my adolescence. I became extremely ill in ways that didn’t immediately read as illness: I was peeing constantly, and therefore thirsty constantly, and I lost a ton of weight. This went on for a few weeks, maybe a month, until I started throwing up and my parents took me to the hospital. I weighed 55 pounds when I checked in, and looked absolutely skeletal. I had developed a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, which—in my rather unmedical understanding—is what happens when your body can’t transform the sugar in your blood into energy, and so the body starts feeding off its own fat and muscle. This produces a chemical called ketones, which supposedly makes your breath smell like nail polish remover, but to me it always tasted fruity. In any case, my body had become completely unrecognizable to me—or, more accurately pain and discomfort were what led me to recognize that I even had a body, for the first time in my young life. Interestingly, the doctors never actually told me I had diabetes; they told my parents that it was a possibility, and then just proceeded as if it were the case, teaching me how to give myself injections and count carbohydrates and all the rest. Of course, the diagnosis was correct, given my symptoms, but I went on for a little while thinking maybe it was all still up in the air, and that this new, very different life was just a thing I was trying out for a bit. I don’t know when exactly I accepted that my bodily difference would permanently alter the way I perceive my world, but I do know that it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to think about what those perceptual differences might have to do with the way I use language. Where that thinking has led most recently is a poetics of precarity, where my writing is interested in questions like: what kind of logics and language underwrite the devaluation of bodies that are deemed unworthy of adequate and affordable health care? What kind of language do I need to use, what kind of voice can I adopt, to shift the way sick bodies are rendered rhetorically disposable? I am lucky to have health insurance through my school, but it’s really bad coverage—I pay a lot out of pocket, and since I’m living on a small graduate student stipend, it’s a stressful part of daily life. Fortunately I’m not in debt from medical bills, but it’s something I have to plan and account for all the time. This affects my work as a writer in material ways: for example, I regularly have to sacrifice working hours to wait on the phone with medical device or insurance companies that are trying to charge me more than I can afford. Incorporating this disruption at the intersection of illness and capital is a major project for me right now. On the one hand, illness can be read as a radical departure from capitalism’s imperatives of work and productivity, and on the other hand, the work of being ill under capitalism regularly keeps me from doing the creative work that sustains me.
VKN: This chronic illness – does it inspire your interest in disability? Or was it something you have always been passionate about? You titled one of your poems, “being sick all the time is not like feeling sick” – I really love the title of this poem. What title from Sugarblood is your favorite?
LB: I became interested in disability both personally and academically when I was about 19, as I only then, for the first time, started to consider what it might mean to think of myself as a person with a disability. I had sporadically read some writing by others who identified as disabled in a class I was taking at the time, and I was introduced to the basic idea that disability is not a shameful identity, but rather a certain kind of experience that shapes the way you view and interact with your world. I have a different relationship to my body than many people I know because it’s a sick body— I have never entertained any illusions that my body is, like, “a temple” or some kind of sacred thing to be protected and kept pure, because it’s been profoundly imperfect for quite some time now. I have a different relationship to death than most Americans I know, because I started having to think about the shortening of my life span when I was 12 years old. These aren’t bad things, and in fact I’m really grateful for the lessons my body has taught me through its imperfections and, sometimes, suffering. I also love the title of that poem that you picked out, for this very reason. Being sick all the time sometimes means feeling sick, but other times it means being in tune with your body in a way you wouldn’t be if you weren’t sick.
VKN: I think I have a stronger understanding of the title of your poem now, “what do you like about being a woman” – you wrote, ‘a friend asked me this question – but I don’t know what it is asking me’ – I think the poem, given the context, means that when you use the bathroom you don’t have be reminded to put the toilet seat down, or it could mean that in some countries you don’t have to be straight and married to have health insurance. Perhaps I could ask “what do you like about being a flowery fractal?” I stole this from your opening poem “ethics of rude”: ‘fuck a canal/ a flowery fractal/ fuck a neon rose.”
LB: Oh, there’s so much here! Which is also what this poem is saying about the word “woman”— as many brilliant women of color established decades ago, there’s no singular “woman” that we can talk about that accommodates all the differences among women and their bodies. This has only become more evident as the idea of gender has developed in recent years. Transphobic feminists object to the notion that a “woman’s body” isn’t what they thought it was, but they’re ignoring the fact that there’s never been any singular woman’s body. We know this; we’ve known this for a long time. Disability is the aspect of existence in which I feel this truth most personally, because many of the things women cite as points of pride don’t appeal or apply to my body—feminist ideals like strength and independence are especially vexed for people with disabilities. But there are a whole host of differences that make it necessary to question our answers to “What do you like about being a woman”—that is, to question whether those things are actually about being a woman, or just about being a certain kind of woman. If I like being a woman because I was taught to put the toilet seat down, to use your example, that’s because I’m a woman who was assigned female at birth. If I like being a woman because I don’t have to be straight and married to have insurance, that’s because I live in a place where that’s true. Those complications are what makes it an almost impossible question for me to answer, but I think it’s a generative impossibility, and dwelling in it is part of what I like about being a woman, if that makes any sense. All the things in those opening lines that you quoted—the canal, the flowery fractal, the neon rose—are things I’m sometimes attracted to visually but that make me recoil a bit in their easy associations with femininity. There’s so much, like, femme-y pink vagina-flower art out there right now that is often quite beautiful, but that feels totally irrelevant to my own womanhood. That’s the alienation that’s bubbling up when I say fuck all those things. And yet there is the part of me that desires the flowery fractal, that wants to fuck it in the other, desiring sense of the word—even to become it. Gender is a big unbearable mess of alienation and intimacy, which is, I think, the only good thing about it, at the same time that it’s everything painful and deadly about it.
VKN: From your poem “the heart of it”, you wrote, ‘i tighten when i feel pain in my body:/ i tighten my pelvic floor and also/ not just parenthetically’ – what goes through you when you tighten emotional, psychological, financially? Where does your intellectual pelvic floor reside?
LB: Where does my intellectual pelvic floor reside! I love this question. I think it actually does reside in my literal pelvic floor much of the time, because so much of the tightening I do in my intellectual-academic life is in response to aggressive men advancing toward me in ways that make me recoil, often in that very part of my body. But, aside from that, I think the place I tend to tighten mentally or psychologically is in my capacity for caregiving, which is something I talk about in Sugarblood as well. I remember talking to a friend once about how illness brings with it an inherent narcissism, how when you’re in serious pain or sickness you can only think about yourself. (Elaine Scarry says many things to this effect in The Body in Pain.) So when I’m really wrapped up in my own body, it’s hard for me to be there for others when they are suffering, or even just when they are feeling. I “tighten my pelvic floor” in my emotional dealings with others in my life when I am feeling like my body and its needs / pains / desires are overwhelming.
VKN: Pain forces one to be narcissistic. But I also think it is a fancy way of saying that it is okay to be at the center of one’s awareness fully. When I think of pain I think of the infrastructure of war and of how the body has been completely attacked from all sides by the disease, the infection, the disorder, the illness. When the body gets attacked, its primary focus isn’t to care for others because it has lost the ability to care for others and has been forced to care for itself, which isn’t narcissism, but survival.
LB: Well, if you think about illness as having a metaphorical relationship to war, that idea of narcissism is really dangerous, right? Because it’s not just a metaphorical relationship—pain and debility are essential operative aspects of war, and the slippage between narcissistic and nationalistic imperatives to protect one’s self/nation is exploited by warring states to justify violence. Susan Sontag thought a lot about this exact metaphor in Illness as Metaphor, and she is actually hardline against it because she thinks it places too much agency / blame on the ill person to “fight off” illness, casts them as weak if they’re unable to, and relies on an oversimple mind/body distinction. She is right in many ways, but I don’t agree that the metaphor isn’t ever useful, and in fact I’ve often felt something like an adversarial relationship with my body at the same time that I am unable to conceive of my “I” and my body as different things. In my experience reading memoirs of illness, it seems that this paradoxical conceptual space is fairly common for sick people. In any case, it’s definitely not *just* an adversarial relationship, and those other, more complicated aspects of caring for the self and others are what I was trying to work through in Sugarblood. How does being sick inflect the ways I think about desire, money, friendship, care—all of these things that we all have to deal with as humans, but I find myself dealing with in slightly different ways than other people I know.
VKN: That is beautifully stated, Liz. And, noting earlier from your observation about your body has been imperfect for some time now, when you wrote “please understand/ obliteration is a gift/ when you are accustomed to negation” – could it be possibly be true when one substitutes “obliteration” with “imperfection”? Please understand/ imperfection is a gift/ when you are accustomed to negation.”
LB: Yes, that seems right. I’m thinking about imperfection as a state of awareness—as you also put it above—which is similar to how I’m thinking about obliteration in that poem. The poem is, really specifically, about the connections I’ve drawn between my illness and my desire to be sexually dominated, to feel like I’m not in control— I crave this because so much of my life is necessarily spent trying exercise control over my own body. So being roughed up or told what to do is a thrilling thing in contrast, and I think of it as obliteration because it’s about annihilating that need to have mastery over my body, to control what and when I eat, how much medication I give myself, how much I exercise, how much sleep I’m getting, all these things that affect my health if they fluctuate. Imperfection is the desirable dark underside of all those things, too.
VKN: Speaking of sex and sexual desires, is it hard to have sex when one is ill a lot? Or does one fit desire in like a pocket watch inside a pocket watch?
LB: It is harder sometimes than others! The thing that people always have to get used to, with me, is that I’m connected to a couple of medical devices at all times. One of them I can disconnect for short periods of time; the other I can’t. So I’m a bit robotic in bed, though not behaviorally. 🙂
VKN: There should be more medically related sex stories, with machines attached and weird hospital gadgets. I think it could be a lucrative business! What is the best way to care for you, Liz? From a medical, romantic, or sexual standpoint?
LB: I wish I knew! The medical stuff is just… otherworldly complicated, and even the people closest to me don’t know all the ins and outs of it fully. My mom is the only person who 100% understands how my illness and treatment work. Serious romantic partners have known some of it, but it’s really a secret world I live in most of the time. I appreciate when others trust me to take care of myself and don’t fuss or worry about me, while still expressing an interest in how it all works— that’s probably the way I most like to be cared for. I think my sexual needs are structurally much the same as anyone else’s; they just look different because I have strange machines attached to me. But if someone is willing to work with my body to do what makes it feel good—which they should be doing with all people they’re having sex with, anyway—then I’m happy.
VKN: Why do you think your mother understands it so well? Does she have it too? Does your illness strengthen the bond you have with her? What is the hardest thing for you to observe about her observation of, or presence with, your illness?
LB: She had to learn all about it when I was diagnosed, because I was so young, and she loves me a lot so she still follows all the new medical technology and asks me about it frequently. That last question is the big one! We had a really grueling bunch of years together when I was a teenager and I totally neglected to take care of myself, which was impossible for her to watch. She was trying to care for me by monitoring me, and I absolutely refused that care. At that time, I didn’t want to think I was different from other people because of my illness, or that my life had to be structured around it in any significant way. Things have been much easier for us since I’ve moved out of the house and since I’ve gotten a better handle on monitoring myself, so my frustration about needing to be monitored isn’t directed at other people who are trying to do it.
VKN: That must have been hard on both of you: your process of maturation and the ongoing development of relationship with your illness. You wrote in your poem, “does pretty hurt” – ‘i’ve avoided tongues ever since a doctor called mine “geographic”’ – why did you avoid them? And, what is the best way to depict your tongue, if “geographic” does not delight you well enough?
LB: The word “geographic” is actually a diagnostic term. I have a cluster of freaky autoimmune diseases that include something called “geographic tongue.” It has no real impact on my senses at all, but my tongue looks like a map! There are white patches of taste buds on it and they migrate around to different spots at random. It actually does sort of delight me as a descriptor, but I’ve always been somewhat embarrassed about what my tongue actually looks like, so that’s what the avoidance is about.
VKN: Ah, good to know! How fascinating ! I thought perhaps the doctor has a heightened fetish for maps and wished to blanket your world with her geographical proclivity, especially your non-sympatric tongue. And, why are you embarrassed about it? It’s mostly hidden from the world, yes? If there is one part of the body I am delighted to be embarrassed about, it would be my tongue, since no one ever sees it.
LB: There is something interesting about the tongue as a map from a linguistic perspective, right? The way certain tongues, as in languages, can be dominant and others endangered/exterminated (and the violence that attends those dynamics) is what I think of when the words “geographic” and “tongue” come together. It makes the description of a map-tongue in one’s mouth kind of intense. But yes, I know, it is totally irrational to be insecure about a tongue. I think it distracts me from things I actually should be insecure about!
VKN: Speaking of the body again, from your poem “mind over matter”, you wrote, “can i sublet my body/ prefurnished without a lease.” Would you sublet your heart? And, to whom would benefit the most from this circulatory, atrial transaction? Would you sublease it to Kim Kardashian?
LB: I would ABSOLUTELY sublet my heart to Kim Kardashian, 1) because poetry is a thing my heart works hard to produce and I would love to see what texts would come from her borrowing that machine, 2) because, hopefully, then Kanye would be in my heart as well? which he already is, and 3) because she would probably leave behind some belongings I could sell off.
VKN: LOL! Yay! I hope she is more excited or as excited as you are. She made 12 million dollars one year, I think, and could afford it. She can help pay for your medical bills. At any rate, will you break down a poem for us? Your last poem, “hold it together” on page 56? When did you write it? Where were you when you wrote it? What inspired you to put it down?
LB: That’s one of my favorites in the book. I wrote it in two parts, kind of far apart chronologically. It started out just as a poem in response to the way William Carlos Williams writes about the unicorn tapestries in the cloisters. I was reading Paterson in one of my first grad school classes, and spending a lot of time at the cloisters because I secretly wish I studied medieval art. Those pieces with the unicorn are not just astoundingly beautiful, but also so charged with the kind of toxic masculinity I saw rearing its head all through WCW’s epic poem: the desire to master and conquer beings you find mysterious, unusual, or hard to understand (in WCW’s case, mostly women / lesbians). I actually love Paterson as a poetic work, but it bothered me so much that he was thinking about this amazing, feral unicorn that can seemingly come back from the dead (if you follow the sequence of the tapestries, it’s killed and then reappears, fenced in a meadow) in basic-ass terms like virginity and sexual conquest. So I wrote the unicorn parts of the poem at that time. Then, probably a year later, I was walking home along Morningside Park and a man pulled out my headphones to try to talk to me, called me a cunt when I walked away from him, and only stopped following me because we happened to pass a security guard near the park entrance. Right before this happened, I’d been totally wrapped up in the beauty of Harlem at night as I could see it from the elevated part of the park, and I was texting a photo of the scene, along with a little poem I’d written right then, to a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. The comfort and sense of belonging I felt in the world in that moment was totally interrupted, and I felt like all I could do then was try to hold those two feelings together—the urgency of escape and the remnants of comfort—until I got somewhere safe. I often try to journal when I feel unsafe, and that’s where the other half of that poem’s material came from. I use a lot of my most freaked-out journal material in my poetry because it tends to be more syntactically interesting than other things I write. When I feel unsafe, my academic impulses to explain in clear terms give way to more scattered thoughts that surround and protect me, and that define the animal impulse to flee that I feel in those moments. Writing poetry has always been much easier for me than articulating my deepest-held ideas and feelings in full sentences, which I’ve always associated with the animal side of my consciousness. In poetry, I try to capture urgencies rather than explain or analyze. Because I’m a human animal, I’m inclined to capture them in language, but it helps me to be able to use language in less-than-rational ways.
VKN: That makes sense, Liz. What an interesting backstory! I love the story behind how a poem is made, especially this one. It feels sharp and particular. Thank you for sharing. I have a fondness for cloisters too. I also love visiting your website – it has water running and vapor or steam boiling and it’s very peaceful. It’s a meditative way of entering a digital space. Is there a website you regularly visit and would recommend?
LB: Oh my gosh, that video is the best thing I’ve ever made. It came from a stream near Mt. Rainier in Washington, where some glacial water, which had been turned white by the minerals in the glaciers, was coming into contact with regular, clear streamwater. I stood there watching it for so long, and then stood in the middle of it and cast a spell, which is something I’d never tried before and had no instruction on how to do. There’s no possible way to bring the magic of that place into a digital space, but I was hoping people would find it peaceful in the way you did! Anyway, one person who makes totally wonderful and terrifying and poetic website-worlds is Porpentine Charity Heartscape. Her work is largely interactive text-based games where you click through a story, sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure, but with less cliffhangers and more eerie traumascapes. She did one for The New Inquiry that has really influenced the manuscript I’m working on now.
VKN: How do you feel about your poetry collection being out in the world? Have others contacted you about their relatability to your struggle?
LB: Yes! Relatability was something I really didn’t expect for this book. I don’t know many people with my illness, so I figured most people would have a more distanced relationship to some of the experiences I’m writing about. But I’ve gotten responses from people with all kinds of illnesses, including my own, that saw something recognizable in my work that they hadn’t seen many other places, and that’s been really wonderful. I hope they all write poetry books! There are a lot of memoirs about illness, but not as much poetry. I would love my book to have a big family of diabetes poems to talk to, with a bunch of autoimmune cousins.