S.E. Ingraham (Sharon) is yet another of the very fine poets Walt and I met during Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides 2009 April Poem-a-Day Challenge. Months after the challenge ended, I wrote a poem about how I felt when I entered that site on April 1, and the days that followed. I entitled it “This Grand Ballroom,” and wrote of how out-of-place I felt among the excellent poets there. I was truly baffled and awed when any of them noticed my work. Without naming names, I mentioned several in my poem. Here is an excerpt:
A young woman compliments
My faux pearls,
Herself, adorned with genuine pearls
Of the highest quality
That she has been gleaning and stringing herself
For many years.
Sharon is this woman. Thank you, Sharon, for your encouragement to me back then. You were instrumental in igniting my love for poetry. Walt and I are grateful for your consistent presence here with us, and for giving of yourself so generously in this interview. Thank you!
Now, let’s begin with a poem of yours that really strikes me.
WHEN TREES WEEP
Out the south window she notes the weeping birch dying
Feels like sobbing herself but recognizes not for the tree
Everything will make her cry today she acknowledges with fresh grief
She wonders about the protocol for mothers of dead children
Then finds herself remembering her son’s face last seen
Alive, when he was in such pain, she barely knew him
She had to let him go, told him gently, “Hush…’’
“It’s alright sweetness,” she’d held his feverish hand in hers
Told him it would be okay, knowing death’s finality necessary
So now today, she gazes at trees weeping and dies
Inside a little more as she contemplates burying her son
A thought so alien as to be beyond her ken
She stares at the strange old woman in her mirror
Flicks invisible lint off her best black suit, wonders vaguely
If the hat’s too much, all big brim, widow’s netting
She smiles, knowing her fashion savvy boy would definitely approve
The bigger the hat the better, she remembers him saying
And remembering she finds herself wailing wildly in the moment
(Originally published in online ‘zine Melisma)
MARIE ELENA: “When Trees Weep” is so striking and emotive, I believe it surely must have welled up from your own experience. But I have said that to you more than once at Poetic Asides, and have stood corrected. Will you share with us how you so often seem to be able to tap both emotion and element so pointedly and poignantly in your work? (I hope this is not a true incident in your life, Sharon.)
SHARON: First of all, let me thank you for this opportunity … I consider it an honour to write for the site itself and even more of one to be interviewed by you!
The poem you picked is one of my personal favourites, so thank you. Happily, it’s not a true incident in my life. I don’t know why I’m able to tap into that dark place so often but I seem to need to go there, and I do.
MARIE ELENA: How impressively you’ve created story, setting, and emotion in such a short piece. This is part of what I love about your poetry, Sharon.
My ever-in-tune Partner reminded me that you had commented on Dyson McIllwain’s trek to Canada, and your own “Northern Exposure” of the Aurora Borealis. How does your location influence your work? What does location say to you?
SHARON: I think location influences writing enormously. There are entire university courses here devoted to just that thing since the Canadian landscape figures so prominently in all genres by Canadian authors. I know in some of my bios I write something like “…Ingraham likes to think it’s the latitude at which she writes and not her state-of-mind that informs most of her work but she rather doubts it …” Living in a country that has four seasons undoubtedly has an impact on my writing but I notice where-ever I happen to be influences my words.
MARIE ELENA: I see that you are now focusing more on your writing, and specifically on becoming a well-published author/poet.
SHARON: Last March I won a spot at the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Publishing Conference in Massachusetts, and the feedback I got about the manuscript I took there was so encouraging I was certain I would have it revised and sent out at least once by now. Instead I’ve barely glanced at it.
I know what I need to do (at least I think I do) to become published, and I keep saying that’s what I want but I still seem to be in a bit of a stalled place. I have at least two chapbooks partially assembled, both of which could be self-published or submitted for publication already, but they’ re both on hold also … And then there are the contests.
During “blue pencil cafes” I’ve received encouragement and advice from established poets I respect, and I know that winning or placing in contests is one encouraged and acceptable route to publication, but it demands a rigorous system of submitting and resubmitting and for some reason, I am stalled there as well.
MARIE ELENA: Do you ever have to deal with “writer’s block?” If so, what measures do you take to come out of it?
SHARON: For the first time in years I’ve been stalled, or blocked, for months. I wish I could say why, but I really don’t know.
The first thing that helped me, I’m thrilled to tell you, was this site. I was not a regular contributor, could not remember the last time I’d written to one of your prompts but something sent me here in late November and I wrote one of my “I Dreamed the Lake” poems. (I have a collection of these that I hope will make up a chapbook or a section of a book someday.) It felt great. Then Walt awarded me a bloom that week and I was over the moon. Truly. (Pan to Marie Elena and Walt, beaming! )
From then on, I’ve tried to write to your prompts at least weekly and added in other sites as I was able, priming the pump so to speak. The block is by no means gone, but it’s going. I still haven’t sent anything out but I’m closer. A lot closer.
Something I’ve found incredibly helpful always. but especially when the muse has left the building, is good books about writing poetry. Robert Brewer has recommended some and I’ve discovered some on my own. For Christmas my husband bought me Sage Cohen’s Writing the Life Poetic (one of Robert’s recommendations) and it is certainly living up to its advanced billing. I also love The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has never let me down either.
MARIE ELENA: 2010. The trip of a lifetime. Tell us about it.
SHARON: Ah the trip of a lifetime for our 40th wedding anniversary, the summer of 2010. Whenever I imagined this trip – and I confess, I never really thought we’d pull it off – it was always either a whirlwind thing: 12 cities in 14 days or some such, or two weeks at the most, in one place we both agreed was the place.
Instead we managed over a month – a week in Paris, just over a week in Provence, and about two weeks in Tuscany. It was a “pinch me – are we really here?” experience the whole time. We rented apartments everywhere we went and they were all exceptional, and exceptionally reasonably priced. The renovated castle in Certaldo, Alto was the best deal of all and probably the most unbelievable – sleeping every night down the street from where Boccaccio wrote the DeCameron? Surreal. (The castle is actually the “tree-house” on my blog The Poet Treehouse, for those interested.)
I should probably add that in a “feast or famine” type of situation – we went from not having traveled overseas ever to making it almost a regular thing. Last summer my husband was picked to be the surveyor on an ongoing archaeological project in southern Italy for six weeks in July and August. If you can imagine – because it’s an non-profit educational project that has profs and students and experts (Terry is one of the latter) – the deal is this: all expenses paid: airfare, transportation to and from Rome to Rionero, student-type housing, all meals (on-site chef actually) – and when they found out Terry would do it – they thought he’d balk at no pay, I’m sure – they made the deal for both of us! As long as the Italian government approves the project on a yearly basis, we’ll be invited back so as of now, we’re headed back July 2! We have every weekend to ourselves so have now also seen the Amalfi coast, Paestum, Sorrento and Rome … like I say – an embarrassment of riches …
MARIE ELENA: Wow! That sounds dreamy, Sharon! And what a great photo this is!
Back to the home front: When Walt interviewed me, he afforded me the opportunity to brag about my little granddaughter, Sophie. Get out your brag book: here’s your opportunity to tell us what it’s like to be a grandmother.
SHARON: The only downside to the lengthy time spent in Europe was missing our family, in particular our new grandson, Jack.
I know I’ve written about feeling this bond with Jack which is probably in my mind only but ever since he was born I’ve felt this closeness with him that I’ve never felt with anyone. When I found out we were both born under the same sign in the Chinese Horoscope – not just under the Ox but the Ox Inside the Gate (only those born in the years 1949 and 2009 share this distinction) – it felt like more pieces of some cosmic puzzle clicked into place for me, even though I’m not even sure I believe in such things. I know I’m biased but he is a delightful little boy.
In any case, Jack and his baby brother James (born in 2011) are two of the very best things in life. As are their parents.
Both of our daughters bring us much joy and we couldn’t be happier with the men with whom they’ve chosen to spend their lives – I may have mentioned, they both married in the same year? 2008. Katy and Scott had a fairy-tale wedding here in Edmonton in August, and Julie and Jason (the boys’ parents) had an all-inclusive wedding in the Dominican that November. They all live here in Edmonton.
MARIE ELENA: Such beautiful little boys! And that “bond” you describe makes perfect sense to me. Thank you for pulling out your brag book.
You have studied Psychology, English, Creative Writing, and Fashion. Your career experience ranges from school bus driver to administrative assistant to fashion model to director of a modeling agency. Two questions: Of all these experiences, what did you enjoy most, and why? How has your psychology background helped you in your various careers?
SHARON: I studied psychology years ago when we still lived in the east (Brockville, Ontario) and I was considering becoming a psychiatric nurse. Ironically, I helped a psychiatrist run trials in a nine hundred bed psychiatric facility there – a really Gothic structure reminiscent of Britain’s Bedlam in some ways. The irony is, while I was discovering I really didn’t like being around physically ill people very much at all – weak stomach and all that and of course, there were some of those patients as well – and rapidly kissing my nursing aspirations goodbye – I had no idea that way down the road, I would be spending extensive amounts of time on the other side of the locked doors.
As for how psychology may have helped me over the years – I think subjects like this help to develop critical thinking skills… and in that respect a background in the subject is useful in almost everything else you do. So that’s a non-answer, I expect. Perhaps not. I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in several leadership roles and have also done a fair amount of negotiating; I love things like non-violent conflict resolution, and decision-making by consensus etc., all of which seems part and parcel.
It’s hard for me to pick one thing I’ve done work-wise that I enjoyed the most – my work history, as you noticed is checkered to a ridiculous degree.
I guess if I had to choose, it would be the things that allowed me to be with my kids. I love to drive and the bigger the vehicle the better so when I found out I could drive a seventy-two passenger school bus and take my daughter on-board while I did, it was a no-brainer.
When the girls were a little older, I ran a day-home out of our house, mostly so I could stay home, another win-win situation.
MARIE ELENA: When asked to share a poem that best represents her style and spirit, Sharon chose “Monstrous.” I must agree, and feel as though I would recognize this piece as one of Sharon’s, even if her name was not attached.
usually in disguise
and haunts the back
but if you look
for her, you will never
find her; you may see
to be feathers
of the corner
of your eye
but even turning
quickly will not
afford you a glimpse
it will be hard
to say when you
first realized she is
and she makes the hair
on your scalp hurt
you know she is
it’s difficult to put your
finger on just what
it is about her
that worries you so;
you want to hide
whenever you sense
and you sense
it more often
then you like
she chases you
from your house
as far as the field
by the highway
she led you
to the bridge;
it is she
that takes you
to the hospital
not even you
she is scarier
than the monster
under the bed
or in the closet,
she just is,
when you sit
in the garage
with the car
the door closed,
she comes there too.
SHARON: I really went back and forth about what poem to put in – thought maybe something a little more upbeat – but finally decided that since I do concentrate often on the sane and the insane and the seemingly thin veil separating both, I would stay true to the bulk of my work and put up something typical.
MARIE ELENA: So haunting … that thin veil plainly evident. Sharon, you mentioned “… spending extensive amounts of time on the other side of the locked doors.” If it isn’t too intrusive, will you please tell us what you are referring to?
SHARON: I have no problem talking about my mental health and, I am a huge advocate for removing the stigma surrounding the issue of mental illness. It’s funny, because I’ve written about my mental health history so often and at such length, I always assume everyone knows about it. Of course, that’s just simply not true. My major manuscript – the one I took to Colrain with the working title, “A Tear at the Edge of the Universe” is about as I’ve said elsewhere in this interview, my fascination with sanity and insanity, the thin veil that separates the two and what causes that veil to rip. The experience at Colrain showed me that an entire book of poems dealing with this topic is at least feasible as the two editors there – especially the one, Martha Rhodes – was very enthusiastic.
All my life, from my early teens on, I complained about being overly tired. I fell asleep in school and in public and just everywhere. I was told by doctors and everyone else I was just lazy. No matter how much sleep I got – I just wanted to sleep. This continued literally my whole life. Of course at some point I also got very depressed. Still extremely tired, I began seeing shrinks and began a long course of therapy and drugs. I functioned, got married, had kids etc., but was spiraling down the rabbit hole further and further until finally I guess, hit bottom and became suicidal and ended up in emergency. Thank heavens. The psychiatrist on call that night just also happened to be a sleep specialist.
For the first time in my life a doctor sat up when I said I was just so tired. Long story short – he knew at once I had a sleep disorder, ran me through his sleep lab to prove it, then set about helping me deal with the fall out.
And fall out there was – when a sleep order goes too long undiagnosed – I was in my early forty’s before my Periodic Limb Movement Disorder was discovered, unfailingly the patient is also clinically depressed. As my doctor put it, “No wonder you’re depressed woman – you haven’t slept since you were about eleven!” And, as one hears too often in the psychiatric world, “No one knows why this is but we can almost guarantee, within a year, you will almost certainly be Bipolar …”
Sure enough – almost a year to the day, I was hypo-manic. I’d lived in a state of depression for so long that both the doctor and I fooled ourselves into thinking that maybe this was just going to be my “up” side of normal; it was just so nice to see me with energy and reasonably high-functioning. I was somewhat lucky I know in that I only had hypo-manias for a couple of years … but still went way down when I did go down. However when I finally did blow full-blown manic, there was no mistaking that …
Anyhow – this was supposed to be the short version – suffice to say, it’s been a long haul of years of medication trials and therapy and numerous hospital stays and very hard times on my family. I finally came to a more balanced place about eight years ago and was doing not too badly especially, I believe, because of a spectacular doctor I was working with. We made a good team and I think would have remained so (my family agrees) had he not taken his life in 2005. I wasn’t willing to trace a spectacular mania to his death until long after the fact. A mania that almost cost me everything dear, and I do mean everything. It was followed – after many months – by a suicidal plunge that put me back into hospital for many more months.
At that point, when I’d almost lost everything and realized how badly I wanted it back, plus realized the doctor I counted on to keep me level for the rest of my life was gone – I guess I figured I better find a way to keep myself sane or I was done for. I couldn’t hurt those I loved again. Something must have taken hold in me. I haven’t been hospitalized since 2006 … that’s not to say I haven’t felt somewhat down … but I’m managing and that’s something.
Whew – and that’s the short version? I guess I don’t know a short version.
MARIE ELENA: … and I suppose there is no such thing as a short version, when one is traveling the path of mental illness. Sharon, I can’t thank you enough for sharing this part of your life and what makes you, you. Brave, wonderful people like you, Amy Barlow Liberatore, and my own beautiful daughter will surely help make a difference in how we view, treat, and care for the mentally ill among us. I pray that is so.
One of your favorite quotes is, “Much unhappiness has come into the world by things left unsaid.” (Dostoevsky) This plays right into my last question: If we could know only one thing about you, what would it be?
SHARON: I do love this quote!
I anticipated this question from other interviews I’ve read that you’ve done and while this fact could probably remain unsaid, I’m thinking it’s something most people don’t know about me.
Early days (very) – I sent something out for publication consideration with the usual hopes and aspirations. I received it back in very short order and so neatly folded and packaged, it was obvious to me it had not been read except maybe cursorily – just long enough for whomever to scribble across the first page in bold blue pencil -
“Too serious a topic for a female to attempt!” – no signature or anything else.
I don’t know how long it took for me to recover from the shock but I do know, I became determined to avoid any future knee-jerk, gender-based reactions to my work; I would forevermore sign anything I sent anywhere – S.E. Ingraham.
SHARIN’ SHARON’S SITES:
The Poet-Treehouse (primary poetry site)
The Way Eye See It (secondary poetry site)
In My Next Life (third site used for poetry)
The Blogamist (fourth site used for poetry)
S.E. Ingraham Says (for book reviews)
The Leaping Elephants (for rants, musing etc.)
What Are the Odds (ponderings etc.)
The Poet Tree (older poetry site)