Poet talks about the process of writing about the sensitive topic of mental illness in children
Halifax’s Griffin Poetry Prize-nominated Sue Goyette is a masterful hunter. Poetry is her prey. Her latest offering, The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Gaspereau Press), pays tribute to a four-year-old Massachusetts girl who died after a psychiatrist prescribed ADHD and bipolar medication in 2006. The girl’s parents were convicted of her murder.
Goyette prefaces the book with a quote by E.M. Forster: “Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!” In her brilliant and unique way, Goyette defies logic and confronts this story with heart and reason in a long form poem, which reads almost like a fever dream.
Her descriptions are harrowing and heartbreaking. She writes, “The doctor was talking like a boss about bedtime but the ghost of the girl held the girl like her bear and told her that it was okay, she had so many lullabies they spilled out of her like a kind of night light.”
Goyette personifies poverty and classism. She offers a compelling account that borders investigative journalism with a poetic twist. The Brief Reincarnation of Girl is a call to arms, a poetic rally cry to reexamine the medicalization of mental illness, parental neglect and society’s need for change. This is a poet in the cull of her wildness.
The story and the reality this situation represents had to take its own time to explore the many angles and complexities. I like the long poem as a form for how connections can collude and continue to chime throughout the piece. The form also creates a strong enough armature to sustain the weight of a eulogy. I think poetry is a hospitable form for this kind of intensity. The intensity of the material is meted out in doses. Poetry, as well, for how it lends itself to the inventive.
The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl is tragic and beautiful. It certainly sheds light on logic’s failure, the injustice of our society and medicalization of mental illness. What urged you to write this?
I wrote this book for all those reasons: logic’s failure, the injustice of our society and how little we understand of mental illness. I’m deeply concerned about how young children are when they’re diagnosed, how those diagnoses create a chronicity that can be so absolute that all other attributes are ignored. I’m concerned by what I’ve read about pharmaceuticals and how little we know about their long-term effect when used on children. How children’s brains are still growing and how those medications can interfere with that growth. I’m concerned by how emotionally illiterate we’re becoming. How we’re not always using other proven ways to heal or cope.
Poetry is the ultimate non-fiction. I remember you saying this book just came on hard and fast. In reflection, do you have any understanding of why?
The story is tragic on so many levels and could have been prevented. It struck me as a teaching story. I was also so moved when I read about the girl, how young she was. I wanted to write her to a place where I felt she was finally being taken care of. I wanted to write her in a way that serves the bigger picture, that invites reflection and gets us thinking, wakes us up. I don’t think I could have sustained the tragedy of this story for long. Writing this collection felt like a fierce response to tragedy. I felt like there was only so much air left in the room for that girl to have before she’d be forgotten so I wrote it on a tear. It still feels like the necessary pace so it can get out into the world and, perhaps, help someone.
The relationship between the bear and the girl kills me. In a way, they save one another. Why a bear and not another animal?
The young girl that I read about was found with her stuffed bear. I’ve been thinking about animals, their role in our lives, how they’re returning and how I wanted her to have company as she passed. What better company could she have, than her bear? The relationship is reciprocal because, at this stage on the planet, it needs to be. They were in it together as we all are.
What is poetry’s role in conveying, or retelling a news story?
Poetry affords a response, a reckoning and a translation of how a story can be shaped into another version of itself. It can widen or deepen our understanding by reclaiming or repositioning a tired or over-used or even an unchallenged perspective and, in this way, invite a reconsideration. In some ways, poetry can recharge a story and leave it refreshed and renewed. It does this by its approach to the language used to tell that story and from the position it’s being told from. In this way poetry can be a protest, I think.
What were some of the struggles in writing The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl?
I was frankly aghast by some of the material I encountered when researching. How little we know of the long-term effect of the medication we’re using for our mental health, especially for children. Of how the side-effects of that medication can be more troubling than the original disorder it’s medicating. How little we know of what happens neurologically when we combine medication we know little about to begin with. How little testing has been done on that medication. How ubiquitous pharmaceutical companies are. How they often fund the testing. How prevalent they are: if you scratch the surface, how they manage the material that gets into the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). How once the disorder is listed in the DSM, it is then insurable and medication is more accessible to low-income families. How low-income families in the United States receive monetary assistance for each child prescribed a psychoactive drug (and that support is proper but has complex socio/economic ramifications). The more I read, the more astounded I became at the number of children taking medication that isn’t intended for such young patients. It’s truly quite terrifying.
How do you protect yourself and/or take care when grappling with difficult subject matter as a writer?
I think it’s important to keep company with people who I can be vulnerable with. People who are okay that I’m a little feral, unlaundered, that I’m distracted, perked and listening: my partner, my family and my friends. My social radar isn’t engaged so it’s best that I’m not too public. I could easily veer off and not see anyone for days but then I’d feel the low-grade misery of loneliness. Staying connected is important. So is physical activity and looking at trees, at the ocean. Resting my eyes and my head from words and the ideas they migrate towards. Meditating is essential to me now. It’s also important that I maintain a sustainable level of concentration and connection to the material, to its ambience and reach, its vitality. Keeping all these things in balance is crucial.
Naturally, Gaspereau makes the most gorgeous handmade books around. Can you tell me a little bit about the beautiful design work of this book? It’s very pink, and gender-specific. Why?
The good people at Gaspereau Press commissioned the wonderful George Walker to make a woodcut for the cover. That’s how we ended up with that great image of the bear. The cover is pink but weirdly, maybe, I don’t consider pink to be gender specific. It only occurred to me after I chose the colour that it’s traditionally a colour associated with girls. I’m okay with that. This is a book that reckons with a girl and how she was treated. Perhaps the more girl for this the better. With a righteous bear in her company, protesting.
How will The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl translate to a live audience? It’s the type of book you need to read in one sitting, and to return to again and again. How will you present the material?
All poems like to be returned to again and again, I think. That’s a good question though and one I consider with each of my books. I think it will translate just fine to a live audience. Poetry audiences are extraordinary and turn up ready to actively listen. And they’re willing to meet the material halfway so there’s that. I also think it will instigate some good and necessary discussions. I’m going to try reading it in its entirety to see how long a reading that would be. I’m thinking, for the launch, if it’s possible, I’ll read the entire collection: a long reading to hear it out loud. I’m also thinking the only way to know how to present the material is to present it then take my cue from the experience.