I had the amazing opportunity to interview Kristen Wittman on her new poetry collection 'Death Becomes Us' - a visceral journey through the ebbs and flows of grief. She shares with us the beautiful notions behind her poetry and advice on grief, from keeping loved ones' memory alive to how to cope with the pain it brings.
About 'Death Becomes Us' by Kristen Wittman
Beginning with halcyon days cast in soft light and cool dew, onward through veiled years of diagnosis and environmental damage, Death Becomes Us captures with masterful grace and restraint the intensity of absence and the importance of grief. Within the darkest moments of personal and ecological loss, Kristen Wittman’s second collection fashions a garden of love poems from memories of soft kisses and falling towers, a broken Eden where pain nurtures tender, blooming petals, and the ceaseless heartbeat of Mother Nature pulses underfoot, bringing forth every new dawn.
1. 'A sense of direction’ evokes beautiful memories of warmth and elements of an imagined future together. How important do you think it is for the bereaved to keep memories alive and what are the ways you do so?
This is tricky territory. Memories shape our behaviour, influence our decisions, and are important for these purposes. But there’s a fine balance between keeping memories alive and wallowing in self-pity. It’s important, in my view, to avoid spending too much time in memoria, as it were. Life must be lived; the future must be sought out. For some, keepsakes, photographs, songs are triggers into the past. For me, a number of these poems act in a similar way. They were written at a time when my husband was alive, in moments that remain precious to me. But as I get older, I recognize that trying to remember, or retain a memory of, every moment that is precious is not just impossible, it’s enervating. Allowing a memory in, letting it occupy space in my mind for a moment, and then letting it go, seems to work for me. They come when they want to; they would lose their mystery and beauty if I tried to recreate them or try to keep them alive. I have accepted that they won't be kept alive.
2. Often, confronting grief can be a challenging task. What inspired or urged you to write about your experiences in such a personal and beautiful way?
Whether we like it or not, grief is a part of life, and I don’t see the act of addressing it as a confrontation, so much as an acceptance. I have always written poetry, and spending time with my poems, working on them, honing them, felt like a natural way for me to find positivity in the experience of grief. It is, like all emotions, one that has to be carefully respected to avoid being destroyed by it. Maybe the urge was selfish: I could pretend I was working through my grief in a positive way, all the while allowing myself some time for self-pity. I don’t think so, though. I think authoring the poems, or refining poems I had written in the past, allowed me to disassemble the grief, take it apart, understand it for what it is, and build myself up around it. It will always be with me, the loss of my husband, it’s not something I can close a door on, or otherwise shove into a hiding spot. I want to live; in order to live, I need to grieve. I think the hardest thing to accept about grief is that it, too, will pass.
3. ‘Diagnosis’ feels like a suspended moment of time in the collection where winter and freezes over and a great shift takes place. I find that the great variation in poem length mimics, to me, the quickness of those last days together but also the slowness of processing the diagnosis and of the sadness and suffering, which I am sure many people can relate to. What would your advice be for coming to terms with a diagnosis?
It’s always amazing to have someone else read my writing – the beauty of writing for someone else to read is that a reader will find things the writer never saw. “Diagnosis” was simply my attempt to put into words the punch to the gut you feel when news that cannot be undone and cannot be fixed, falls on you. There is a need, as you say, to process these facts, to come to terms with them. It’s not easy, and I feel for those who do not get the time to go through that process with their loved one. We were lucky: we had twenty years to come to grips with the diagnosis, the prognosis. It made the entire journey easier, to share so much of it with Wayne. When one receives bad news, really bad news, to me that's like watching a river freeze over. The river freezes, there's a current underneath, it thaws a bit during the day, and then it freezes over again: we receive the information, it hits us, but we're still there underneath, a bit of time passes, we relax a bit, and then, WHAM, the reality of the news hits us again, freezes us in our place, again and again and again, because it won't change.
Advice that we have shared, both of us, many times with friends, with family, with people we've encountered along cancer's journey, is: don't panic. Let the river freeze, accept the information, and build what you can from it. Cancer never goes away. The bad news never melts. Panic prevents you from accepting, from adapting. Panic is only good for fighting or fleeing, and you can't really do either of these things with a cancer diagnosis. Everyone talks about the cancer fight, the battle against cancer. To me, these metaphors are incorrect. Cancer is not about a fight, it's about acceptance and adaptation, the ability to live with what you have. It is, after all, a part of you.
4. Your poetry is rife with natural imagery and glimpses of light and moonlight. What does light and nature symbolise or mean to you?
I suppose I'm guilty of being a bit of a romantic. Or rather, a Romantic. I see our place in the world as co-existing with nature, and for the most part, I see that as an abysmal failure on the part of the human race. We are racing towards a world that we control completely through science. Science kept my husband alive for twenty years when he should have died in fewer than five. I'm not opposed to science! But I also live in awe of the natural world and I would like to see us (the human race) adopt a more balanced approach to these two elements.
For me, nature provides comfort, solace. If there is nothing more frustrating than a computer that won’t work, there's nothing more calming than sitting in a garden in the evening, breathing in the flowers' perfumes and listening to the birds chatter to each other before nightfall. When I forget my password I go for a walk around the backyard, and poof, there it is, popped right back into my head. What would I do without the natural world?
5. What does the American dream mean to you, has it changed after he passed?
Everything changed after Wayne died. We talked for hours on topics like the American dream, and then he was gone, and we didn't. But my views on the American dream have not changed. If anything they've been reinforced. The American dream, to me, is one of the most convincing and damaging myths ever to be told, and is still used as a deception on people who want to believe that immortality is possible. It isn't. We're born, we live, we die, and yet there are people, again and again, who want to believe that there's something we can do while we're alive that will matter more. It's not the only myth of course, the myth of Icarus tells a similar tale. The difference between the two is that everyone can see the folly and greed in the boy who tried to fly and got too close to the sun. I fear that the American dream is not treated as a myth, as a tale with a moral, but rather is treated as an achievable objective. I worry that, if enough people believe, truly believe, in the American dream, it will be our downfall, and we'll all be Icarus, drowning in the water.
6. The last section of the book, ‘Eulogies’ expresses the inevitability of death, where it feels like you’ve reached acceptance by the end of the book. Was writing the book a cathartic experience and would you recommend writing (even if for oneself) as a way to cope with grief?
I can't sing, and I'm not much of a painter. I bang on the piano, but no one would call it music. For me, writing is the only way to truly express myself, and yes, it was absolutely a cathartic experience, but to be clear, it always has been. It's not unlike finishing a hard workout and feeling the endorphins kick in. It's addictive. So each individual poem is a catharsis for me. In fact, though, I took all of the poems I wanted to include in this book, and laid them out on the dining room table, and sorted them, so that the reader's experience could mirror that of the griever's. I wouldn't probably be able to tell you which poems were written before diagnosis, or after death; before acceptance, during grief. I didn't write any one poem with the idea that it would come at the end or the beginning of this book. Oops, I can hear the glass shatter. So much for the romantic idea of writing a book from start to finish!
7. What was the most difficult part of your writing process?
Editing. Editing is by far the most difficult part for me. I get inspired, I get an idea, and the poem works itself out naturally onto the page. And I think, wow, what an amazing poem. I'm fantastic! Then I go back and read it later and think, hmm, that's going to need some editing. So, I make changes to it, and then I think it's pretty darn good. And then the editor gets hold of it, and then I go through the pain of having to second-guess every word, every decision I've ever made in my life, it seems. Editing is the process where, if I'm not careful, I'll crumble in self-doubt. Having a good editor is pretty important at this point. Forcing me to think about why I chose one word over another, and then also accepting my explanation if I have one for keeping the originally chosen word, and supporting me if a change is required. I'm grateful for having had good editors. They helped to keep me motivated through the process.
8. What does the phrase ‘death becomes us’ mean to you?
It's found in the cover art, actually. I have this painting in my living room – I was lucky enough to buy it at an art auction. Shout out to Border Crossings and their incredible art auction. I fell in love with the painting the moment I saw it. The richness of the background and the image of a dead bird, beckoning, beckoning. To where? Who knows, I don't, but to death, for sure. That is the only certainty. Death is a part of life, we become death, and if we can accept that, I think we can enjoy living a lot more. Before the painting was in my living room, I had it hanging in my office and I was always interested in the reactions of my clients. Some wouldn't notice it, they'd be so invested in their problems, some would react in dismay or disgust, and some would quite like it. Most would say, hmm, that's … interesting. Told me a lot about my clients.
About Kristen Wittman
Kristen Wittman was born in Winnipeg and grew up on a farm next to Headingley Penitentiary. She received her law degree from the University of Manitoba, where she played field hockey for the Manitoba Bisons. Kristen received her call to the bar in 1996 and now practises in Winnipeg. She currently splits her time between Manitoba and Minneapolis.
You can find the book here, with links to stores if you want to grab a copy.
A massive thank you to Kristen Wittman and Melissa from Turnstone Press.