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Survivors Speak - An Interview with Elizabeth Kirschner

Posted Jun 23 2010 12:00am

You all know I love creativity and writing. As a poet and memoirest it really excites me to meet other survivors finding their words and sharing them.

Elizabeth Kirschner  is a survivor of severe child abuse. Having lived to tell her tale, she has done so in a book-length poem titled, “My Life as a Doll.” A memoir in verse, published by Autumn House Press, it depicts abuse, mental illness and recovery. Elizabeth has also written extensivly about her trauma in prose. She is set to be interviewed this Sunday on Rick Kogan’s “ Sunday Papers .” You can listen to her on WGN radio at 8AM CMT. I interviewed Elizabeth about healing through her art.

1. What, if any, relationship did you have to poetry before using it as a therapeutic method?   

My relationship with poetry is long and deep as I started writing at age 19 and therefore have been creating poems for some 35 years. When still quite young I wrote two poems, both about dolls, and although the memories of abuse by both parents was completely suppressed, they have become seminal works. When I retrieved the first memory from the iceberg in my mind-it was of my mother pummeling the back of my head with a baseball bat-I simultaneously remembered one of the doll poems and inserted that memory in it. That became the trigger poem in my book-length memoir in verse, My Life as a Doll, published by Autumn House Press in 2008. The recollection of incest came later and when it did, I used the other poem, “The Collector’s Favorite Doll,” as a prelude to an unpublished manuscript of poems titled The Fire Bones. I don’t view my poetry as essentially therapeutic-the art part is most critical, which is also the heart and soul part. The power, the sheer utter power of poetry that can and will heal is, as in a song cycle of mine, “A Difficult Miracle.” Healing can happen, it may require a difficult miracle, but it does indeed happen.

2.  What first inspired you to explore your trauma/PTSD experience in an art form?

Once the first memory detonated, I began to live on its explosive synapses for years. Every time I landed on one, the violence came back in Technicolor fieriness. I had to, in a sense, learn how to sculpt flame into the flare of the poem. As a writer, I live a double life, one foot in some sort of shaky reality, the other firmly planted on the terra firma of poetry. Moving between the two becomes a dance and I am a highly trained dancer who can spin the whirlwinds of memory into the leaps the poem demands. Perhaps writing is closer to my first nature than my second one, that of the art of living.. At best they are Siamese twins and to sever one from the other is to sever a limb, a lifeline, or me from me.

3.  In what way do you feel using artistic expression has furthered your healing?

Reading sequences from My Life as a Doll publicly has brought a brilliant genesis to my healing. It begins by watching the interplay of emotions on the faces of my audience and ends when after the reading, people come forth to share their own horrific stories or those of loved ones. This creates the perfect climate for compassion and it is within the cultivation of the culture of compassion that we can truly heal. In the end, we heal in order to yield. What was barren becomes fecund-lines in poems are like tilling a field, the field itself the artistic object turned into subject as trauma survivors must turn from being objects into subjects. If we surrender to our subjects, tend to them no matter how horrible they can be and become good stewards of the word, well, that is everything and writing poetry has turned my life from a killing field into one that yields and yields.

4.  What’s the single most important benefit you’ve discovered from expressing your art this way?

For me it’s all about bearing witness. If My Life as a Doll can bear witness for one reader and if I can bear witness to the trauma of others, then the crucible of abuse can become a cradle. Through the singing voice of the poem, I can gently rock someone else’s cradle and we never outgrow our need for cradles. Cradles are better than graves and we are not meant to take our excruciating secrets to the grave. The poem, then, as lullaby, as goodbye to the torrential torrents of memory that can spread like wildfire. If I speak through the mouthpiece of the poem about what happened to me until I nearly ceased to be, then the internal inferno so well know to trauma survivors can turn into a piece of the peace of paradise.

5.  What have you learned about healing by filtering it through art?

Art makes the unbearable bearable, is that mouthpiece not just to the singular I, but to the plural many. I think of poetry as a form of the divine, but even the divine can have fire from the pits of hell in it. It is a humbling, lowly task, but turning the nightmare into a day song, even if it screams and bleeds, makes the scars pregnant. Words, then, as pregnant scars that blossom upon the page, every line a station on the cross, but in the end comes the resurrection of what’s been toyed with until it’s destroyed. Every poem is a resurrection and when we encounter art whose subject is trauma, the shock of recognition becomes the chakra of healing. Naming, not shaming, is all.

6.  Do you have a single piece of work that you feel best embodies what you were trying to express? What elevates this piece above the others?

My Life as a Doll gets so close to the bone it nearly shaves it and I had to go down, down, down before I could begin to elevate the work into art. The book is a direct hit to the human heart and although I have published four other volumes of poetry, this is the only one I have tried to truly champion because it has the ramrod of truth in it. The truth of trauma and abuse needs to be articulated in all of art’s articulate languages. Every word in that book was hard-earned as I had to unearth frozen tundras of consciousness to get to it. My pen was an ice pick and I whittled away at words until they learned to sing their pain as beautifully as possible.

7.  What tip would you give someone who is interested in exploring the idea of addressing his/her own traumatic experience through poetry?

Poetry is about immediacy, it is urgent and eager to be rendered. It is also very intimate as were the perpetrations put upon us. My advice is to write it all out, the glory and the pain, the triumphs, the many devastations, the classical tragedy of it all, then share it with one other person who can truly hear what you have to say. In an earlier manifestation of my prose memoir, Walking With Winter, which has not yet been published, I spent two whole days with a magnificent, writerly friend taking turns reading, paragraph by paragraph, the whole thing out loud. It was a very powerful and empowering experience. When the last word hit the air, we both threw ourselves on the floor and let out one hell of a holy scream. In that moment, my tale was complete. Write it, put the inhumane on the scaffolding of a poem, then dare to share it. It’s a connect-the-dots picture-we can’t do it alone, we need an other, a witness to bear and share it with. I return to the notion of a difficult miracle-it’s what all trauma survivors need, but we must walk with winter, sometimes painfully alone, pen in hand, crafting it all into art that just maybe might survive us and yes, we must fight to do it, wrestle with words till we come out on top.

~~Elizabeth Kirschner

Elizabeth is happy to announce the publication of her fifth book, “Surrender to Light,” which was just released from Cherry Grove Collections. Her fourth book, “My Life as a Doll,” was published by Autumn House Press in April ‘08 and has been nominated for the Lenore Marshall Prize given by the Academy of American Poets. Her first three volumes of poems, “Twenty Colors,” “Postal Routes” and “Slow Risen Among the Smoke Trees” were brought out by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She also has a chapbook, “The Red Dragon,” done by Permafrost.
In addition Elizabeth has collaborated with many composers, both nationally and internationally. Most notable she set her own lyrics, not a translation, to Robert Schumann’s “Dichterleibe,” which premiered in Vienna and was recorded at Boston’s Jordan Hall featuring soprano Jean Danton and piantist Thomas Stumpf. Now titled “The Dichterliebe in Four Seasons” it is under the Albany Records label as is another CD, “New Dawn,” which features a song cycle of my poems set to music by Carson Cooman. She teaches in Fairfield University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and lives on the water in Kittery Point, ME. She can be reached at:

The ideas contained in this post solely represent the perspective of the author. To contribute to ‘Survivors Speak’ contact Michele .

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