When I learned that Sarah Kersey, a woman and poet of color, is by profession, an x-ray technologist, I felt compelled to talk to her about how that might inform her writing and reading. Kersey is an associate editor for the magazine I founded and co-publish, South Florida Poetry Journal, and the assistant editor for Royal Rose Magazine. I was amazed by my initial contact with Sarah back in 2018. It was an out-of-the-blue email demonstrating interest in being an editor for South Florida Poetry Journal. I had no idea who she was, but she has since then proven to be a valuable editorial member.
Kersey’s writing joins together stories, images, and sounds of the ER with those in her heart and head to make another kind of skeleton, another kind of x-ray. In seeing through human beings at her job, Kersey, by way of poetry, sees through them metaphorically, maybe even spiritually. It’s always interesting to know a poet’s occupation (I think of Wallace Stevens, for instance) because seeing the person behind the poet always helps to understand the work.
How is a poem like a human body? Or is it? I asked her about that, and other aspects of her writing and on being an x-ray tech.
The Rumpus: You take “pictures” of the insides of people—bones. That’s an amazing metaphor for any poet but especially for a poet of color. How does that find its way into your poetry?
Sarah Kersey: In various ways. In one instance, I spent the day jotting down the most interesting experiences, or statements, my patients made. It eventually turned into a poem called “No Story,” which is my first attempt at a pantoum. It originally appeared in Ghost City Review. The science of x-ray itself is poetic, as well as how anatomical terms sound on the tongue. Sometimes it just starts with that, and I jot some notes down, and just build off of it. I like juxtaposing the skeleton—a rigid, concrete structure—with ideas about people and their lives. The skeleton is the prime example of form yet there are many deviations in it, much like a poem. How does it affect the body, the person? We are bodies moving through space. We have the need for love and belonging. We have fears. It’s very compelling, inspiring, and satisfying to explore that.
Rumpus: Speaking of inspiring, what inspired you to start writing poetry?
Kersey: My parents’ divorce. When I was twelve, I had to write a poem for class, and I entitled it “Father.” It was about when he left home. I knew enough at that age to know that poetry didn’t have to rhyme.
Rumpus: The sooner a person learns that, the better. Would you say a poem is like an x-ray of the poet?
Kersey: I would, for the most part. A poem cannot exist without form or structure, just like the human body can’t operate without a skeleton. The x-ray image captures the body, and the poem captures the poet. Where poems and x-rays differ is soft tissue. X-rays are not good at delineating the tissue surrounding bone, because the radiation is not being absorbed by it. You can see the rough shape of an arm or a leg, but it’s mostly a silhouette. Poems, however, are quite good at visualizing figurative soft tissue. Poetry can “flesh out” a speaker to be a real person the reader can almost touch. The reader can see that speaker’s bruises and scars. The reader can also experience the speaker’s somatic responses to passion or desire in the form of goosebumps, perhaps.
There’s definitely a sense of aesthetic and finesse to positioning, and getting the image. I’m a real sucker for perfect superimposition, especially on this particular type of shoulder x-ray. It’s dead perfect when it looks like a Y. It just makes me happy. I feel more like a photographer or some sort of visual artist in that respect. Actually, there are a lot of parallels between photography and x-ray in terms of methods and math. When I interact with my patients, I feel more like a writer. They have incredible stories. I establish rapport with them in an environment simultaneously intimate and intimidating. Because we’re one-on-one, they disclose all sorts of emotional vulnerabilities. Then, when I image them, I can see structural vulnerabilities, whether it’s a fracture, bad lungs, misalignment, or metal. Of course, I can’t disclose any of those things to the patient because I’m not a doctor, but all the communication and imaging constitute visibility, and that’s the first step to healing. If you can spot something, then you can do something about it. That’s the poetry of it, because poetry is all about healing, so it’s gratifying to engage in that for a living. One experience that has stayed with me was with a white man in his early fifties. He had a lot of family strife. When I finished his exam, he said “You know how many women can’t look men in the eye? You didn’t break eye contact with me, not once. Don’t ever lose that. Also, you have no idea how often white women lack compassion, yet black women care so much.” Initially, I was quite suspicious of his sentiments. But looking back, I think that was such a defining moment for him. There’s such mutual safety in an x-ray room that you don’t get in other spaces.
Rumpus: That’s an interesting thought. Interesting, too, is that you incorporate medical vocabulary into your work, like the word “mittelschmerz,” for example. What is that? It’s the title of one of your poems.
Kersey: That word is German for “middle pain.” It’s used to describe pain and discomfort felt during ovulation. Basically, the poem is an ode to ovulation and the menstrual cycle. Tucked in there is the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. I sort of put those two things in conversation with each other. There’s something violent about carnal desire when it’s not satisfied. The female body induces bleeding. Both are borne out of that initial sexual desire.
Rumpus: I like that you mention desire, because there is a collective desire among artists to learn from the past. How do you challenge the literary world’s white, male, hetero past?
Kersey: By reading as many works by non-white, non-male, non-hetero writers as possible, by embracing painful institutions like colonialism and slavery, in order to diversify my own vocabulary and voice. And I try to see myself in the work of white writers. I find those points where I fit, and where I diverge. I engage with those things on the page, and within myself. I thank William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for that.
Rumpus: That’s a good segue way into my next question. You have traveled a “non-traditional writing journey.” In what way? Is it because you sidestepped an MFA?
Kersey: It’s mainly because I’m not enveloped in academia as part of my job. I love academia. My mother was a teacher, so when I decided that’s what I wanted to become, I thought she’d be happy. She was not at all. She’s the eternal pragmatist; she gave me one hundred and fifty reasons why it wouldn’t work. Many of those reasons included financial realities and family situations I did not want to accept at the time. She thought I should be an x-ray tech, because it fit my personality, which it does. Because I listen to my mother, for the most part, that’s what I did. I’m happy with it.
Rumpus: I’m glad. It helps make your voice distinctive. Along those lines, how do you approach personal trauma in your work?
Kersey: That’s a great question. I recently had to wrestle with myself when I read a tweet by Claudia Cortese, who said poetry is the language of trauma. She went on to elaborate, among other things, how white space on the page serves as silence, how poetry is the closest thing that comes to the bodily experience of traumatic memory. That hit me hard. I had never looked at it that way before. I realized that I had been afraid of incorporating trauma into my work. I had to ask myself why. I thought of my habits of suppressing and repressing emotion, how I haven’t ever grieved in a healthy way, and how I’ve constantly bulldozed through life despite traumas I’ve suffered, and continue to suffer from, just to get things done. As a black woman, I must get things done, and not just as good as everyone else, but better than. I have to work faster and harder just to be seen as an equal to my white counterparts. And that shows up in my profession.
X-ray in a trauma setting is a very intense situation. The pace is frenetic. One room is jam-packed with medical personnel, and everyone has to move around each other. An x-ray tech has to move around the patient’s physical trauma. In other words, I have to ask myself “How do I get this picture even though the patient can’t bend their leg? What is the most efficient way to take this picture?” And the thing is, patients are anonymous. At the hospital where I work, trauma patients are given city names and a number, such as Chicago 5 or New York 3. That anonymity contributes to my not wanting to expose myself in my work, to remain anonymous, like trauma patients. Still, I have poems that are quite personal and detail some of my own traumas. Regardless, I see my poems as sturdy truths. When I write a poem, I feel like a patient; I’m sometimes afraid.
Rumpus: You also said you “sometimes feel invisible.” Are you afraid that that’s been said so many times that it loses meaning for those who need to know its meaning most?
Kersey: Thankfully, there is a lot more visibility for PoC in the arts, but there’s always room for more voices and points of view. I think that’s a risk you always run, an expression becoming so hackneyed that people become inured to it, but that expression is so real and so true. Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, “Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form.” The world is way darker than the time period that was written in. There are still lots of people living in the shadows. We still need light.
I know for myself, there’s a frustrating dichotomous split between feeling invisible, and hyper-visible to the point of being misunderstood. I’m constantly defying erroneous stereotypes in people’s brains, because I don’t talk the way they think all black people talk, or live where they think all black people live. It’s sometimes hard to traverse all that cognitive dissonance. I’m thankful poetry is there to help process all of that!
Rumpus: Yes, light is warranted, but perhaps we need x-rays. If we took your x-ray, what would we see?
Kersey: You’d see a little kid that got left behind. You’d see fire, and hunger, and fear. You’d see latent, unacknowledged anxiety. Someone measured and poised. A reckless, ridiculous person. Excess. Obsession. Flexibility. Rigidity. A mess.
Photograph of Sarah Kersey courtesy of Sarah Kersey.