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




ELOISE KLEIN HEALY is a poet of exquisite emotional precision. “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. 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. She is a lover of baseball and Chinese brush painting, of grackles and Portuguese Water Dogs. She is a blast to hang out with. She is my former employer, my wise woman, my dear friend. Eloise is a Los Angeles literary legend, dazzling us all with her talent, grace, and wit. In 2012, she was named the inaugural poet laureate of Los Angeles, her beloved city loving her right back.

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. In 2013, Red Hen Press published A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings by Eloise Klein Healy, to great acclaim. In 2016, Publishing Triangle honored Eloise with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the literary and gay and lesbian communities.

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. 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.

Eloise and I sat down recently to talk about her ninth book, Another Phase, due out today from Red Hen Press.

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TARA ISON: Hello, Eloise — huge congratulations on the new book!

ELOISE KLEIN HEALY: I know. Thank you. Can you believe it? It’s been five years.

I loved sitting down with a collection of Eloise Klein Healy poems again. And they are Eloise poems — I hear your voice, I feel you in these pieces. They’re clever and playful and insightful. They’re so moving. But still, this collection is … different.

Oh, yes. Very different. These poems came about because I lost my brain.

Okay, let’s start there. Tell me about that.

The encephalitis hit in the back of my brain, here, behind my left ear. I lost speech; I lost language.

What do you remember about when that happened?

I remember that night I’d had an event: I met with Caroline Kennedy, downtown at the Public Library, for a discussion on poetry. She was phenomenal, so knowledgeable and invested in the arts. It went great. I came home afterward, and I was totally tired, tired, tired. Colleen thought I was a little too tired. … I just went to sleep, then woke up in the middle of the night and spoke to her, but my words made no sense. At first she thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t kidding. None of my words came out properly — none of them.

Did you understand the words in your head? Did your own thoughts make sense to you?

No, not at all.

That must have been terrifying.

I was lost. It was like everyone — the doctors, nurses, Colleen, friends — everyone was part of this world. And inside I was feeling: okay, I think I’m on another planet, I’m floating somewhere else now, bye!

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. Those early days when everything was scrambled up. But once they figured out the encephalitis, and the aphasia, we knew I wasn’t going to die. I was here, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

And then you had to get back to work.

I had to get my language back, yes. We had to redevelop parts of my brain, the parts that were missing. And I had to learn to use other parts.

Tell me about Betty McMicken.

Colleen knew I had to work with a therapist, someone who truly understands how the brain works to create language, to recreate language. We met with four different therapists. Each one came in — the first three were all looking at Colleen, speaking only to her. I’m just sitting there like, “Oh, I must be the stupid one.” Then in comes Betty. She walks up to me, puts her hand out, and says, “Hi Eloise, I’m Betty. 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.

Yes. She treated me like a person. I never stopped being a person.

How did she work with you to get language back?

We often started with a picture. She’d show me a picture of something. I often didn’t know what it was. Say, an elephant. And she’d talk around the word “elephant,” just the idea of it. Then I’d sometimes find the word curled up in my brain, she’d lead me back to it, and there it was. Or she’d have to teach me the word again, as if for the first time. I had to reattach words to things, but also relearn the use of the thing, its bigger meaning. Every thing, every moment was a lesson. This is a fork, this is a pencil, this is a table. It was hard work, baby steps, but I remember saying to Colleen, “I want to hold on. I’m not going to let it go.”

Your language.

My language.

Did you have to relearn to read and write? Was it something that came back to you, or something you had to learn all over again?

Both, in a way. I had to learn a lot of it from scratch. I remember trying to write my name, and I wrote down the letter E. I wrote it backward, but still. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Oh my God, I remember E!” So I was on my way. Letters, words, sentences. Some things would come back to me. But then Betty would say, “Okay, which word here is the noun? Which is the verb?” And I’d get so frustrated — how could I not know what a noun was? How could I not put my words in proper order? I definitely remembered A, E, I, O, U, at least. I was happy to have my vowels.

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 did. So much of it was still there, buried deep inside.

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!

[Laughs.] Yes, but she still wanted me to name the damn noun. She was tough on me. 

So, how did these new poems come out of the work you were doing with Betty? At some point did she just say, “You’re a writer. Why aren’t you writing?”

Yes, but she knew I had to come at it from a different angle. 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. A, you’re Eloise, and B, you’re a writer.

Right, I know. … But how could I get back inside something as huge as a poem? 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. But you can’t stay in the middle of the circle where you know everything. The poem doesn’t happen until you roam away. And I didn’t know how to roam anymore.

So Betty said, “I think you could try this by writing five lines. Just five.” I said, “Okay. I’m going to try it from A to Z.” That was it. I started with the letter A and I’d think, “A, what’s that about? What does ‘A’ mean, what does ‘A’ do? Okay, blah, blah, blah, five lines. 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?

Right. And I got all the way through A to Z, five lines each. 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. After a while the lines weren’t about A or Z anymore, I was able to roam beyond that again. And the poems became about what had happened to me, to my brain.

After “the weird time,” how did it feel to write your first poem?

I thought it was great! I was doing four poems a week! 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. I wanted to be writing. 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. / I want to relearn, to reline part of me. / How did my brain twist? / How did the whack of it phase me? / Every page. Every word blank.” I love the playfulness of it, but also the sense of inquiry that energizes so many of these poems. And they’re surprising, the turns they take.

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.

The roaming.

You have to roam, yes. You have to allow that to happen.

The poem “Attitude” says: “I know about the word information. / Now I’ve learned I ‘broke’ my mind. / My words smeared me — aphasia. / 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. It’s such a great paradox. Some of these poems echo the metaphysical poets, to me, how you’re unearthing a new truth inside an impossibility.

Sometimes those were just wonderful accidents. I’d feel how the words could measure and move, measure and move, and I’d get to the right thing. Or I’d take apart a word and reshape it, keep finding different meanings inside of it.

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. The struggle to find those meanings hidden inside words.

Yes, it is. I was recovering me, recovering language.

And re-informing language. That’s what we’re all reaching for.

Yes.

In “Awake,” you write: “At 3:00 am, I open my eyes. / No reason. / No barking dogs next door. / But in the middle of the night, / here come the words.” I’ve had that happen, when words woke me up.

Here they come, knocking on the inside of your head, begging to be let in, or let out! [Laughs.] Sometimes I don’t answer; I just let myself chill out and go back to sleep.

The book isn’t just about your personal relationship to language but also your struggle with the larger world. Some of the poems are explicitly political. In “Imagination,” you write: “It’s imaging the nation, I know. / The whole bad-ass things bashing a broken trumpet. / 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. Again, something we’re all struggling with, isn’t it?

This poem, “Flashlight,” reminds me of your work with Betty, how she’d show you a picture of a dog. And you knew it was a dog. But you didn’t have the word dog.

So there was no dog. “Dog” didn’t exist for me.

You write, “When did the flashlight get its name? / Didn’t have one yet? That time was 2013. / I have a new word exactly now. / Not only the thing I hadn’t said for three years. / Now, saying and using the flashlight, big deal for sure.”

Exactly. I had to find the word in my brain.

Or the object wasn’t real.

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’m thinking of Helen Keller, when she connected the word “water” to the water itself.

Yes, the power of that single word cracked the world open for her again. That one word was the beginning of it — amazing. 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. 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.

Your brain is almost a character in many of the poems — there’s an ongoing debate you two are having. In the poem “Ever,” you write: “Can I get better? Ever? / Can anything change it? But the brain / manages me. Rules it. 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. We’re still working it out.

I think writing these poems shows that your brain’s not managing you anymore.

Let’s say we’re still negotiating.       

The poem “Decided” raises a similar question. You write, “Though I’ve done this before, / I can’t determine who / authorized my work. / I’ve never chosen to care / about any moment of their concerns.” I wonder, have you always been that brave? Not to care what anyone thought? Or are you more unfiltered now?

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. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s impatience more than bravery.

I think many of us feel that way, though — that someone has to tell us it’s okay to write in the first place.

That’s so paralyzing, isn’t it? And if someone has the authority to allow you to write, or the authority to keep you quiet. You have to authorize yourself. Allow yourself.

We all have to knock out our own haziness.

Exactly. Knock it out of the park.

Thank you, Eloise!

Thank you!

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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.


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