Mystery and the Unknown: Talking with Lauren Haldeman

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In Lauren Haldeman’s most recent collection of poetry Instead of Dying, she asks, in an attempt to make sense of her younger brother Ryan’s senseless death: “What is the opposite of suffering— / the prism, or the prism’s light?” Using the properties of prisms and light as an entryway to understanding her grief, Haldeman composes poems that combine science and spirituality, syntax and feeling, in a way that dazzles readers not only with the breadth of her sorrow but also with the discovery of her joy as she reimagines alternative realities for her brother. Each of the seven sections experiments with form in ways that parallel and expose the fluid movements between remembering, grieving, and healing.

In each poem, Haldeman moves throughout time and space, matter and consciousness, to find her brother, to grieve him. She asks, “If I don’t believe / in a specific name for god / can an unspecifically named / god help me?” Instead of Dying is a testament that one answer, at least for Haldeman, is poetry.

Haldeman and I spoke via Skype about winning the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2017, making poetry accessible, and being open to the surprising possibilities of form.

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The Rumpus: Rainbows, prisms, and the number seven serve as both structural and thematic elements for Instead of Dying. What attracted you to rainbows, prisms, and seven as you tried to understand your grief?

Lauren Haldeman: When Ryan died, I went into this spiral of grief that was very new to me, which I had never really felt before, so I just started reading almost everything. I read a lot about different views on the afterlife, consciousness, the universe and molecular structures, anything that brought me balm to the grief and then these ideas ended up coming up in my writing.

Prisms came up a lot in terms of studying light. There was this idea that consciousness had some effect on the actual structure of light. I am a skeptic in a lot of ways and the skeptic part is always in the back of my brain, but the poet part of my brain went into these spaces where I was exploring wild, out-there possibilities. Could Ryan be in light? In what way is my consciousness able to go through time? If I wish Ryan peace and ease and health now, is there a way he can receive these wishes in the past?

I was in this place where my mind was open to as many possibilities as I could think of because Ryan being stabbed to death was something that I thought would have never been possible and it had happened; so, in a way, the grief blew away all these boundaries of what is and isn’t possible. There were parts of grief that were terrible, but it also came with parts that were expansive.

Rumpus: You can see this sense of expansiveness in the book’s first and last sections, where you write poems imagining alternative outcomes for Ryan. You write, “Instead of dying, you join a dogsledding team in Quebec” or “Instead of dying, they inject you with sunlight and you live.”

Haldeman: I wrote the first and last sections of Instead of Dying on these small slips of paper and one night I noticed that I had written “Instead of dying” at two different times. I thought these two pages were really interesting because they weren’t magical thinking that denied Ryan’s death. They were just, “Instead of dying, you move in with us, you get a job at the local grocery store, you adopt one hundred cats.” So, I was able to acknowledge he was gone while also getting to do a bit of exploration and travel with him in this weird way. I decided to keep writing these as they came up and it took me about a year to notice I had about twenty to twenty-five of these scenarios for Ryan.

Rumpus: These alternative scenarios remind me of the cover art: two wolves, one of which is standing and has light streaming upwards, whereas the other wolf is kneeling and has light pouring on the ground. Are both wolves Ryan and do they represent the refraction of light?

Haldeman: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I was thinking of all these dots as blood because it’s made up of all these elements—it’s iron, it’s water, it’s all of these other composite particles in the same way light is not only a wave but also a particle that catches other particles. When I was drawing this image, I was thinking about the blood coming out of him, but I was also thinking about light: Where did his light go?

The cover art was one of the first pieces I did about him and I had to push through physical sickness to do it. Every night I would go down and feel sick and start working on it, but after I was done working on it, I would feel a little better—like I had purged something. I understood that if I could push through that physical sickness and complete it, it would be healing and it was.

Rumpus: This isn’t the first time you’ve combined illustrations with poetry; the first time I encountered your work was “Senator“ here at The Rumpus. I was wondering if you usually begin with the text or image?

Haldeman: Most of them are text first. I usually take a poem I’ve written that I feel is especially calling for more visual interaction and then I decide if it should be a video or a comic and then go from there. I’m a visual person that’s drawn to beauty so I love including images and using a part of my brain that’s different from the writing part.

I also think that the inclusion of images adds a level of accessibility to the poem. My brother James had learning disabilities in the beginning of his life and he is now an engineer; my brother Ryan who’s passed had learning disabilities and dyslexia. I’m always aware that reading is difficult for some people, especially poetry, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to access it; as a result, the added visual elements become another pathway into the ideas and the verse.

Rumpus: You also combine numbers with text. In Sections 2 and 5 of Instead of Dying, you have a series of poems that I’ve been calling “funhouse mirror poems.” On the left page, you have one poem with numbered lines and then on the right page, you have another poem where you go line-by-line and slightly alter words or rearrange phrases. Even though these are minor changes, they produce and reflect entirely new meanings. What led you to play with language in this way?

Haldeman: I love the funhouse mirror reference you’re making because—I mean, have you ever been in a funhouse with mirrors? It’s terrible. Some walls look like they’re clear and then you just slam right into them. Grief was just like my mind telling me these refractions of stories about Ryan and then reality coming in and surprising me over and over and over again. I constantly felt like I was running into walls and I love that you saw that in there.

I actually call these poems “mirror sets” and they first came from these small pages of writing. Most of the time I was writing on these small pages at night, just recounting my day, and sometimes something would come out that would feel like poetry, but they felt really disparate.

One day I was working with these poems and I started numbering the lines. I wanted to have some sort of structure so I said, “Okay, we’re going to do twenty lines.” I put the twenty lines left justified and it wasn’t working for me; it felt like the numbers were getting in the way and the lines read too much like a list. But then I had the thought to right-justify the numbers and suddenly they became part of the lines and I saw the mirror. Do you know what I mean? I just physically saw it and thought, “Oh, wait. There could be another twenty lines here. Let’s do this.”

For me, form is a real basis not only for organization of thought and structure but also a key to surprise in writing poetry. When you add in a form that is forcing you into different shapes or to make different decisions, you’ll suddenly be surprising yourself.

Rumpus: What was one surprise you had?

Haldeman: The first mirror set poem I wrote was the Google Maps one and the last two lines in the second poem “this place is the place I pick to pick / you up, pick you up, just so” were so surprising and heartbreaking to me when they started to show themselves on the paper.

I had mourned Ryan, I had mourned what happened to him, I had mourned the loss of him, but then those two lines brought up immediately, surprisingly through the form, that I wished I had been there to hold him when he died. It was like this deep want below everything else, like I am no longer wishing that he didn’t die; I am wishing I had been there to hold him.

Rumpus: Do you think you would have still discovered this realization if you hadn’t played with this form?

Haldeman: I don’t know. Grief is strange like where, even now, we’re five years out and little details will come up that I hadn’t fully mourned or need to mourn a bit more, but I know how to do it now. I have the tools to fully feel it, to get to the other side. I’ve worked that muscle, especially with the Instead of Dying poems. They helped me remember my brother joyfully as opposed to debilitating sorrow. Being able to remember him not just with sorrow but also with joy has been the greatest gift I could imagine getting.

Rumpus: These moments of joy definitely peek through, especially when you write about your daughter. What inspired you to balance your grief with joy?

Haldeman: I tell this story over and over. I was in my second or third session with my grief counselor and I told him I was worried I would never feel joy again. I was sitting there and I had a cup of coffee and he said, “That coffee you’re holding: can you take a sip of it? Does that taste good?”

And I answered, “Yes, it does.” It was warm and caffeinated and he said, “There. That’s joy.”

He gave me an assignment to go through my day and do all my mourning and crying and not try to stop any of that, but to try noticing these small moments of joy. That was the life vest that got me through the midst of weeping at work or screaming in the car. These moments of sipping coffee or taking a hot bath or making eye contact with a cat or a squirrel don’t cancel out the grief so I tried to bring them to the book.

In terms of Section 6, which are quotes from my daughter Ellie, I had been keeping a secret Twitter account as a way to quickly write down the genius stuff she was saying. I really wanted to remember how Ellie, this new person, was registering the world. As a toddler, she was learning not only language but also what the hell is going on in the world so there was this weaving of not having full mastery of language nor a full mastery of how the world works. Maybe she understood the world in a better way, but not in our adult way.

Rumpus: Or she doesn’t have the context we do?

Haldeman: Right. Going back to the prisms, I remember her trying to grab the rainbows coming in through our windows and she would close her hand and open it and close it again and she’d be saying, “I can’t get the light, I can’t get the light,” or “Why doesn’t the floor open up and let the rainbow in?” And I’d be like, “I know! Why can’t we grab light? I don’t have the answers for you.”

I think part of the job of being a poet is gathering and showing that the world is full of poetry. It’s everywhere. It’s in advertisements, editing mistakes, anywhere you can think of. With Ellie, I felt like I was gathering this sort of magic and so Section 6 was really fun for me to write. It was like she and Ryan ended up having a relationship in the space of the book while I was sharing some of her poetry with the world.

Rumpus: You also share a lot of scientific knowledge in your book. Did you start out with a hypothesis on grief that your book was trying to test?

Haldeman: For me, there’s a very blurred line between science and spirituality because when I study scientific theories, it’s obvious to me that there’s a spirituality in it. A basis for my personal spirituality is mystery and the unknown, which is where you begin in science.

I love learning about new discoveries and how the universe works because to me that’s a power. Science isn’t making the universe happen; science is just noticing it. To me, that is spirituality: discovering over and over again the grandness and the mystery of things that are already made in this complex and crazy and beautiful way. Noticing these things just further engages the spiritual muscle in my brain which is where I went when I was grieving.

As a child, I was very afraid of death and I’m still a very anxious person, but not as much now. In a strange way, losing someone in such a dramatic way made me realize I can deal with it. As humans, we have been losing people and facing death for so long; it’s in our bodies to deal with death differently from our minds. Our minds are much more afraid of death, change, and the ending of things in a way that’s more explosive and magnified than in our bodies.

If you stay in your body and try to feel the grief without going up in your mind, the pain will come in and move through, and the book was in a lot of ways testing that hypothesis. How do I practice letting the pain come up and watch it move through? Can we go towards these huge emotions both in our minds and in our bodies, not only for me but also for the reader?

Pema Chödrön says move towards the fear and the discomfort and you will still reap rewards and find joy there, too, which the book totally tries to do. Even in the most painful moments, there’s a silliness that comes out, which is very much the way that I live and the way that my brother lived. If you push on the painful parts hard enough, you can find joy and silliness in there, which is an ability that’s also a survival technique.

After writing the book, I felt like a movement happened—a journey had happened—and now I can remember Ryan as the person he was and there’s a physical representation of a relationship between Ryan and Ellie that didn’t happen in the physical realm.

Rumpus: You are also a web programmer and I was wondering if you find any parallels between programming and poetry.

Haldeman: With both, you are manipulating the world. For example, when I write, I’m manipulating the world with a code that is language and I’m using poetry to tweak that code and create a code that passes to another system, which would be another human. Then, that human processes it and hopefully the code produces an outcome. The same thing happens with computer programming. You’re writing in a language that’s a code and you’re passing it to another system for a particular outcome.

The really addictive thing about computer programing is that it happens immediately because the computer tells you very quickly “yes” or “no.” However, with poetry, I’ll never know if my “code” has been processed by another system correctly and there really isn’t a “correct” way in the first place: You’re giving a lot up to chance and you’re giving a lot up to mystery; there’s no one or zero, no on or off. But I think both poetry and programming arise from the same human need to communicate, manipulate, create a ripple.

Rumpus: Beyond your everyday life, sessions with your grief counselor, and the texts you read, did you have any literary or poetic influences for Instead of Dying?

Haldeman: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities was a huge influence because he’s describing Venice in all of these different ways, which inspired me to describe my brother in all these different ways, too.

Ko Un’s book Ten Thousand Lives (published by Green Integer) was also influential. Ko Un was a Korean poet imprisoned many times over his life for political activism and while he was in prison, he took on a project of writing a small poem about every single person he had ever met in his life, from his mother to a person who sold him a tomato. The poems are short and they’re full of sorrow, but they’re also hilarious. I’d never seen poetry written like that before and his poems completely changed the way I wrote. They gave me permission to write short, short poems with a lot packed into them.

Current day poets are also influential. I love Kiki Petrosino’s work. I love the way Shane McCrae writes. It’s like he’s picking up voices from beyond and channeling this insane energy in a way I find very spiritual. Zach Savich’s poetry is very fluid and random and it’s full of jewels and treasures. These are just some of the endless influences for this particular book.

Rumpus: This particular book won the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2017. Congratulations! Where were you when you discovered the news?

Haldeman: I got an email saying they would like to call me and I thought I was in trouble for some reason. I mean, that’s just my default feeling. I thought they were going to call me and say something was wrong with the manuscript or I hadn’t filled out a form correctly, so it was quite a surprise to hear I’d actually won. That was a contest I had been submitting to for maybe twelve to fourteen years for that prize.

Rumpus: And you finally got it!

Haldeman: Yeah, exactly. “Persistence” is my charging phrase now.


S. Ferdowsi is a writer based in Chicago whose work revolves around identity, family history, and the politics of/as prose. More from this author →