A Conversation between Allison Blevins and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach (www.juliakolchinskydasbach.com) is the author of three poetry collections: 40 Weeks (YesYes Books, 2023), Don’t Touch the Bones (Lost Horse Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize, and The Many Names for Mother, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize (Kent State University Press, 2019) and finalist for the Jewish Book Award. She is currently working on a poetry collection as well as a book of linked lyric essays, both of which grapple with raising a neurodiverse child with a disabled partner under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, Julia’s birthplace. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, The Nation, and AGNI, among others. In fall 2023, Julia will join Denison University as Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing.
Allison Blevins (http://allisonblevins.com/) is a queer disabled writer and the author of Cataloguing Pain (YesYes Books, 2023), Handbook for the Newly Disabled, A Lyric Memoir (BlazeVox, 2022) and Slowly/Suddenly (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021). She is also the author of the chapbooks Chorus for the Kill (Seven Kitchens Press, 2022), Susurration (Blue Lyra Press, 2019), Letters to Joan (Lithic Press, 2019), and A Season for Speaking (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), part of the Robin Becker Series. Her chapbook fiery poppies bruising their own throats (Glass Lyre Press) is forthcoming. Allison is the Founder and Director of Small Harbor Publishing, the Executive Editor at the museum of americana, and the co-organizer of the Downtown Poetry reading series. She lives in Minnesota with her spouse and three children. For more information, visit allisonblevins.com.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach: Thanks so much for being willing to have this conversation with me amid the chaos of caretaking we are both so immersed in. I’d love to begin there, because our role as mothers is so central, not only to our identities, but also to our writing. Even here, we were unable to find shared time to have a zoom conversation, let alone the time to transcribe one, so we have decided to converse in our own way and our own times, using Google docs, to return to the conversation whenever our circumstances permit.
I wonder if you could share a bit about your role as mother and caretaker and its relationship to your writing? Where does writing fit in? I’ll just say that for me, writing 40 WEEKS was my act of self-care, committing to write one poem a week for myself as a way to stay connected to my own body and mind while caring for many others—my child in utero, my neurodiverse son, and my chronically-ill husband who became fully disabled during week 36 of the pregnancy and book composition. Rereading those poems has felt like an out-of-body experience, like I’m bearing witness to someone else’s life, only to discover—or perhaps remember—that it is my own.
Allison Blevins: Thank you for inviting me to join you! I struggle with my role as a mother and caretaker. In nearly every way, the role defines my identity. Because of my disability, I work from home. This centers me as the primary caretaker of my three kiddos. However, my disability often demands I accept care. I’m terrible at this role. Writing is absolutely self-care for me. I sometimes call it my therapy. But when I reflect back, I can’t remember how I accomplished the task of writing. It seems impossible I found time to create in my daily frenzy of children, adjunct teaching, and running a press. I am certain that my creative work is how I attempt to define myself as more than a mother. I struggle with navigating how all of the pieces of my identity push into each other. As I read 40 WEEKS, I was very interested in the ways the book struggles with intersecting identities. Talking about the role of motherhood makes me think about how difficult it is to reconcile all the disparate parts of the self when creating a collection.
JKD: That’s so true. I feel the pressure to reconcile parts of us that seem wholly separate, but the more I write about these varying parts, the more I realize each aspect of myself is interconnected with all others. I’ve been watching my three-year-old put together a lot of puzzles lately, so perhaps to bring in this metaphor, it’s like all these parts of self are pieces of a puzzle, too. Even if every piece does not fit with every other one—to take it back to your idea about reconciliation—all the pieces find a way to come together to make a whole that reveals something we couldn’t have seen in just a fraction of the puzzle.
I have loved working my way through Cataloguing Pain. As a book from the point of view of the chronically-ill speaker often addressing her spouse, I felt particularly moved by the tenderness and lack of judgment or blame on the beloved. As the wife often caring for my chronically-ill spouse, and deeply concerned about my own missteps and misunderstandings, I’d love to hear more from you about how language around diagnosis—or putting a name to pain or behavior—fits into your work and your life. I’m thinking particularly of “A Catalogue of Repetitive Behaviors,” in which you say, “My wife thinks this diagnosis should make me feel better. How do I explain lonely feels like lonely no matter what you name it?” This moment just sunk its teeth into me because both with respect to my husband’s many idiopathic and mysterious conditions, as well as the naming of the baby in utero by comparison to its size as a seed, fruit, or veggie, I kept expecting language to help somehow, to illuminate and give me answers. Language is what I turn to and rely on, and yet, it keeps on failing and failing. Language can neither heal the body nor give me answers about that body. So then, what do we do with language or with the body, especially to name and diagnose and mourn the body? Carl Phillips asks these questions in a favorite elegy of mine, “As from a Quiver of Arrows,” written almost entirely in rhetorical questions:
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and then gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?
body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now
and write it down fast?
This question is, of course, too vast an ask, but if I’m going to ask anyone, it should be you!
AB: Absolutely. Every part of what you said swirls around me as I move through the world. Language is central to my process of healing from illness, depression, and trauma. Chronic illness is “chronic.” This word is mysterious. For most people, healing means an end, an end to pain or illness. But I’ve had to work to understand “chronic” in my mind, but mostly in my legs. The word isn’t enough to explain how it feels to have pain endure as an almost separate entity, to be forced to endure a pain that was before unimaginable. My work, in many ways, is this grappling with language made physical on the page.
There is an intersection here with my queer identity. Coming out is chronic. I was thinking about these ideas of language and identity when I wrote the book. Cataloging Pain juxtaposes my husband’s transition with my disability because it became clear in day-to-day living how similar our experiences were. We were both struggling with a language that is ill-equipped to describe our experiences and we were both learning to live in changing bodies, learning to navigate the world in new bodies. In “Pain as Caged Birds” I write, “My husband is leaving behind his body captor. I am every day entering the body that will cage me. Cage me in the memory of a body without pain.” You say language can’t give us answers about the body, and I think that drives me, and maybe all writers, to put words down. Aren’t we all just weeping for this loss? We need answers.
In “Week 33: Pineapple” you write, “Fall too, / wholly wrong for the way / a body enters breathing.” I see the same struggle with language, with the word “fall” in this poem and with other words in your collection. “Rain falls. Fruits from trees. / But body from body? / There must be more / to describe such cleaving.” There must be more. I feel like my writing is screaming this too.
JKD: I’m so with you! Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain, “Pain destroys language.” This linguistic destruction or loss or difficulty or even impossibility is exactly the reason we write. But maybe we can turn to what we get from this process in all its difficult futility. Or what we write towards perhaps? Out of darkness, I find myself always trying, at least, to sing towards the light. As Brecht wrote, “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” I write this to you mid-mother multitasking (my perpetual state) in a plastic airport chair, looking up every few seconds at my kids—one child is playing a racing game on his Kindle and the other is shoving Cheetos in her face while watching Moana on hers—pure joy at the commotion around them and the intense concentration on their delight.
AB: I love that you mention Scarry. Her book was the second I turned to after my diagnosis. Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys was the first, and my book uses a quote from her essay collection. I’m deeply indebted to the writers of pain before me. Your comment about your children and “joy” reminds me of your poem “Week 7: Blueberry.” Your son moons other children at a park. The final line “their audacity / to shine instead of shame” has lived with me since reading. Mothers, the chronically ill, so many of us who are othered are often shamed into joy or happiness, shamed into presenting it outwardly. I felt this push so keenly. I felt it in how others responded to my work. I fought the push for so long, but in writing this book, I was able to start seeking small moments of joy for myself, organically.
JKD: Our kids are at once hyper-aware of their bodies and completely carefree, completely unaware of the way their bodies move about the world, almost as though they own it. As though there is nothing to be afraid of. The way both my three-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son love running around the house naked, windows open, bellies out, for all the world to see and revel in their unrestrained embrace of their own bodies. It’s something I reach for in my poems, that kind of embrace, that childhood wildness and confidence. How to hold onto it beyond the lyric moment? I don’t know. I try to capture it though, in words on the page. To hold its fleeting music. Its unabashedness. I try to learn from it in my own body.
Just last night though, my daughter—after stripping off her clothes upon walking into the front door and running around the house naked—said to me, I don’t want to see you naked, Mama. After a full day of college teaching and two hours commuting, I wanted nothing more than to take off my clothes, take off my bra, a favorite part of the day for me. I asked her why, and she said she doesn’t want to see me. I was so taken aback at her recognition of my body as one that shouldn’t be bare, in the same moment as she was sitting naked on the toilet and unaware of her own bareness. When I told her our bodies are the same, she immediately responded, Oh yeah, like me and my brother. Our bodies are the same too. I want to linger in this observation, in her lack of awareness of the differences within her brother’s body, or rather, in the way she loves and reaches for what makes them the same, unperturbed by where they diverge. To her, their bodies are free and beautiful. The way my child sees and bares her own body is the way I wish I could see and bare mine.
AB: I feel the same about my children—“a lyric moment.” I’ve had to learn to live with the duality of panic and joy—many chronically ill folks have, mothers too. I swing between panic—how long will I be able to see or write or hold them—and joy—feeling I have to print every moment in my mind, mark it.
JKD: So on that note, I want to ask you about your children watching your own body, and that of your wife, go through changes. Particularly, in the second section of “During the Days After My Official MS Diagnosis” where you write:
I’m really intrigued by the “joy” you attribute to your older children’s memory, rather than grief, at the loss of your ability to move about the world as freely. Do you find this joy also in memory? How are joy and pain in conversation for you in this book? Perhaps this is too broad a question, but it’s one so pressing in both our work, the conversation between past and present, and the way they come together in the lyric moment.
AB: This question is broad but essential. I’m obsessed with pain. How can I be otherwise? Some days, it is depressing and debilitating. Other days, it makes me seek the comfort of my children’s arms or overcommit or fall asleep on my back, watching grass. Something terribly human lives in the tension between what was and what will be. That must be why it fills both of our books. I am compelled to write my own history, to both show I’m more than my illness or motherhood and to mark the beauty. In the last piece in my collection, I write: “I think I’m writing a love letter to them, to us, to the words we fit together, to my body turning slowly to floating light.” That may answer your question better!
JKD: What a tender way to end. Let us end there too, together. On tenderness and longing and love, always love. Thank you so much for spending this time with me. For jumping in to answer mid-caretaking or after those we care for are asleep and we are barely functional. The way we did this interview is so true to the way we write—perpetual multitasking. I cannot wait to hold your book and reread the pieces, again and again.