Kerry Giangrande is currently living barefoot in the middle of nowhere. She is usually writing and is easily distracted. She has been published in various online journals and literary magazines.
Kerry Giangrande Interview, with JP Reese
In your 9/11 poem of no title, which I'll call "my heart has a terrible stomach ache," the speaker moves between a child's perspective of disaster and an adult's flashback to that same disaster. Is there any basis in reality? How much of the speaker's observations are actually yours in this poem, or is it completely a product of the imagination?
Most of the observations are actually mine, which explains the movement between the child's perspective and the adult’s flashback. The experience was almost exactly like that – staggering frantically from an adult perspective to a child's. I'm not sure if this has to do with my age at the time (15) or if it was just the way I emotionally and mentally reacted to it all. I think this "back-and-forth" also has a lot to do with how/why I write.I often find myself shifting my perspective from one to the other in a sort of ethereal way that's hard for me to explain. It's not that I regress, it's that I feel from both ends. It's like a house with very big windows. When I wrote this piece I used the details as I remembered them but tried to let more of what it was like to feel it happening be the more prominent. In any adult life though, I think you encounter what you encounter and surfacing throughout it all there will always be that very fragrant ghost of your childlike perspective. I think a lot of my writing has to do with a combination of perspective and flashback, childhood vs. adulthood, the literal experience and the different consciousnesses of that experience, and all of it always toying with reality. All of this sounds unfairly scientific when really, it's not calculated, it just arrives and I move toward it.
I was in Manhattan that October for a poetry reading, and it felt completely surreal. I can't imagine actually being there at the time. I flew over the giant, smoking hole where the trade towers once stood. There were uniformed men with automatic rifles stationed on many street corners and at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. It was hard to believe I was in the USA. You capture that feeling of confusion and surrealism perfectly in the poem. Does your style reflect an immediate process, or do these poems take days or months to complete before you're satisfied with the outcome?
Yeah, it was absolutely surreal. I hope I was able to capture that well but I'm not sure it's possible to completely articulate how absurd it all was. The absurdity of it is I think what made it so hard to pin down. My style is almost completely an immediate process. It comes to me and I run with it. There are times that I'll work on a piece or poem for a few days or weeks but those usually aren't my best. The ones people seem to connect with the most and that I feel satisfied with are the ones that happen very quickly.
I searched for you when you hadn't replied to my acceptance e-mail for a few days, and found a website on which a friend of yours was collecting money to help defray the costs of your treatment for Lyme disease. Is it too painful a subject for us to discuss, or can you tell me if your illness makes your work more important to you, more immediate? The reason I'm even going there is that I had chronic pain for about two years and it helped me focus on my writing. My writing became a kind of escape for me, and I wondered if yours has done that for you as well.
If I could explain why this question is so difficult, it wouldn't be. I'm afraid my answer is not the one you're looking for. I wish it was. In a deeply personal and heart-wrenching way, I wish the answer was that the words have been my escape and my solace, that words have never left me. This isn't my answer. My first few courses of medication only created more health problems and I've had to repeatedly abandon demanding treatments that failed me. After each failure I've had to begin again with total faith in something different, giving it everything I have. I'm now in the middle of my fourth or fifth attempt. In the past, while writing, it was important that I separated the phenomenon or occurrence from the reality of it. I'd unhinge the thing from its concreteness to make it more mine, to change its clothes. Only after creating that divide could I piece it together poetically. But with this, it is a thing that still has me so inside of it that I am unable to isolate the experience at all, maybe because so much if it is physical. Because I can't separate the pain itself from experiencing the pain, I can't step outside of it the way I'd need to write about it objectively.
There is this fog in my head where I've always been fluent. I look accusingly at this fog both literally and figuratively. My doctor often reassures me that "brain-fog" and cognitive difficulties are all symptomatic of Lyme, my nervous system is a mess, but more importantly of healing – when bacteria, infection, etc. die-off, they release toxins that cloud your system. I cling to these notions. I believe them. I wait. I fight, and I wait. It is most like a flailing.
It has been one of the more distressing elements of this, the inability to filter it the way I've always filtered everything, a way that feels so necessary and crucial to my being. I feel them, though, the words, delicately humming beneath the surface but I can't look them in the eye yet. My only hope is that as a writer, when you are in the middle of a story like this one it can only be shadows, and the shadows of those shadows, until it is finished with you, until you walk out of it with it in your hands. Ready for you to mold and move with it, to grow something else. Something I know I'll do. Something I really can't wait to look at from far away, far enough away to make it something magnificent on paper.
What a stunning and articulate response, Kerry. Your poems are so immediate, so real, so daring, and so vulnerable at the same time. If this is the quality of work you can produce with “fog” in your brain, I can’t wait until you are fully healthy again. I suspect there is nothing you won’t be able to do with the written word. Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your immense talent with Connotation Press.
my heart has a terrible stomach ache. it has lupus, it has polio, it's infected. it has an ebola hemorrhagic fever. you've got to do something fast, talk to it maybe, tell it something good. it’s shaking way too hard, this situation involves seizures and scratching and blood moving backwards. there's blood all over, it’s on my hands and in the sink and all over the city.
this situation involves any understanding whatsoever of a small child cognitively processing and comprehending and grasping just the gigantic idea of physically witnessing two planes fly directly into two very tall and very real buildings right in front of them, right the fuck there in front of them. there is so much to say, in this situation, it was an impossible thing, happening impossibly. it was where their hands were exactly, how steady their legs were, the last sentence they said out loud, the sounds of every sound. the god damn occipital lobes in their brain visually processing the explosion of a building one hundred and ten stories scraping the sky with no logical explanation, 1 + 1 was 3 and 3 was screaming. somewhere in their little brains the knowledge that those buildings were made of steel and concrete, which is a word we use twice in our language. it is used to sometimes define rigidity and solidness. but fucking where? what solidness? the buildings burning put all the adult bodies into a new perspective, all tiny now, in proportion to the giant silver bodies burning and then crumbling until nothing crept around except the smoke that danced for the retinas that would send the visual message to their tiny, heavy, gorgeous, brains.
it is morning because mornings come everyday, despite everything, and the papers are flying all over on earth, in the streets, in your homes, in your stomach, inside my heart’s diseases and all of the the blood. could i tell you about the smoke? probably not but listen, the school’s classrooms filled up with it, no one on that tiny island knew what was going on but it was going on anyway. the south tower burned for fifty-six minutes and thirty minutes later the north tower caught up, fire is like that. in each of your eyes the retinas' 130,000,000 cells are very sensitive to light. when light strikes one cell a chemical change takes place that starts an impulse in a nerve fiber which travels to the brain. those tiny, heavy, gorgeous brains filled with papers and fire and repeated sound-waves of terror and everyone they've ever known and everyone they don't on earth.
to perceive my heart’s size and sound right now, its stomach-ache and the seizures and the paper and the blood in the sink you must die one million deaths. the heart is an expert on this. it is beating and in between every beat is death. vibrating. i can tell it has more cells than the retinas of an eye and it’s also a great deal more sensitive to light. it is sensitive to the words 'chemical change' and 'perception' and 'tower' and 'war,' sensitive to the blood in the sink it’s begging for. when i was little i would move my fingers around my face to break the world in pieces. i would blur and focus, blur and focus, deciding what was what and who was who and why and why not. the brain adds substantially to the messages it receives from your eye so most of what you see is actually created by your brain, it decides what it wants you to see and remember again, for later, for whenever it feels like showing anything it feels like showing. on the 106th floor was a restaurant called 'the windows on the world'. this is what i am telling you. about the heavy, gorgeous, tiny brains. it's all up there twisting and okay, so it was 56 minutes and then the 30 after that, but it wasn't. a group of us walked home early from school in the clouds of smoke that had become the new air, we wrote our names with our fingers in the dust on car windows. we went on our rooftops and smoked cigarettes and read the burnt papers that slow-danced around us. the fire the world and my heart and the tiny, heavy, gorgeous, brains had seen had been burning forever and would probably not stop and that's right when we knew it. there's blood everywhere and i can't remember why but i know that i threw my heart up into the sink, i'm sure of it because i can see it in there outside my body still beating, inside the thick puddle of blood in the sink. beating and then dying, and breathing, and dying, and then beating and before you ask me the answer is no, i'm not okay.
i've got to go, i've got an idea i've got an idea i've got an idea i've got an idea
i lost it.
i have no ideas.
when i was small my father was the architect for an old movie theater in brooklyn that was to be restored and extravagantly redesigned and re-opened. during the renovations from time to time he'd take me inside, while the construction workers pounded and sawed in thick clothes and boots i'd walk past, holding his hand. i was distinguished - the architect’s daughter. i became a pioneer. i felt like a cat. i would walk slow and take every single thing in carefully as to not miss a drop or sound or second. the main room was massive, with gigantic unfinished cathedral windows so the sounds outside drifted musically into the theater, the dusty black gate of the upper balcony romantically twisting. layers of fresh unlacquered wood laid around like sleeping lions, the dust of the wood dancy in the sunlight – dandelion parachute seeds. i remember the new, clean construction smells. maybe you know them, the smell of trees sliced right open and breathing.
it was built in the 20's as a vaudeville theater looking out onto the park and most of its archaic fixtures and pieces were still there, dusty and sleeping, waiting. a grand sooty vintage chandelier was still there among them, laid gracelessly sideways in the middle of the room, its body tilted. i didn't like it there like that, defiled like that. my father took a misplaced dangling crystal prism from that chandelier, it was bigger than my palm and hung like a long earring. he brought it home and kept it in a drawer. i looked at it a lot to remember the way sunlight holds onto dust but still lets it dance around inside it. i looked at it a lot to remember i was a pioneer. sometimes in the admiration i would feel for a second like maybe life was treasure, my little hands would touch it and i'd pray wildly that life was treasure. maybe. it’s not around anymore, the bit of chandelier, my father loses everything, even himself, but god damn i still think of its dripping jewels, how we had to dust it off and shine it. i should have swiped the thing. i should have hid it in my underwear drawer or inside a sock. i should have swallowed it.
but naturally, of course, it's a little too late for that and this wasn't even my initial idea in the first place. i lost that one. this one flared in with the blink of the 6:09 on the digital clock, with the stiff-suited good looking men and women en-route to day jobs, how many cups of coffee in they are by now, no clue. it's not my idea. and i swear i'd sleep if my head didn't go off and do the wild rumpus or the run-around or catch things in its mouth to then spit out, like playing with water in the shower. and now it's 7a.m. which means i won't wake up until about three in the afternoon, which is not okay - by normal standards and probably means i should fix something, see a doctor, or another one, i should say. maybe i will find one that looks me in the eyes and has pretty hands and even stays up all night lying in a fort on the floor writing about childhood and chandeliers. that is my plan. i don't know much about tangible treasure anymore but sometimes things illuminate other things like the prism of that crystal would, and i know it’s not enough but it still makes me stop and move slower, still a pioneer, still the cat, and i've even got ideas. i've still got those, those i swallowed.
it's just that every time i've seen you, you're alone smoking a cigarette and you look so sad, that's all. i just wanted to know why. christ you're lovely. god damn. it sounds crazy, i know.i can take care of you. i make money. lots of money.
he laughs loud, loud like a lion would laugh.
are you happy? god you're so beautiful. who are you?
how am i supposed to live the rest of my life now, after i've seen a thing like you? what do you want? anything. look at you. anything, i'll give it to you.
he moved a lot, backward and forward, manically on the plushy cushioned chair. a lion would never do this. i sat near him on the bench of a piano in the lobby. he tried & tried to get me to sit in the more comfortable chair before he went to his room to get us beers but i didn't want the comfortable chair. i pressed the piano keys slowly one at a time while he was gone. he came back with two warm coors lights. i'm usually of the opinion that coors light tastes just like cat piss but i'll tell you, that one went down like water.
'i can't believe you're still sitting here'
in between his sentences i'd press a piano key down until its note was finished. you have no idea what this does to a room. it was so fucking perfect in that lobby in my life, it hurt my feelings. he didn't mention the single notes i kept playing, ringing dark and singular in their place, in the midst of our conversation.
i liked him for this.
his friend came down with whiskey in some paper cups and i laughed,
'what do you think you're doing?' i asked him as i took the cup.
'i have no idea but i'm trying to make it last as long as i can.'
'this doesn't look right,' i said. i pressed another key.
its note vibrated. 'to who?!'
there's something outstanding about the way the keys of a piano resist slightly at first and then give in completely. it is definitely something.
'pianos,' i said.
'yes. well if there was an audience here
they'd applaud you just because. do you love him?'
'i do', i said. i do. the lion laughed.
'by the way', between chuckles, 'i'm brian - this asshole here is jake.' jake tipped his hat. the irony of all of this was making the room too hot and no one was there to see it but me. sometimes ironies get so big they can make even love look small. i pressed a key. a very low one. no one should know this much. not like this. not ever.
the lion looked at his hands. 'god damn, if you were mine' he shook his head,
'you wouldn't be here. you'd never look that lonely.'
'i'm sure it wouldn't be the picnic you're imagining.'
'oh but it would. like, see just your face is the picnic, fuck.'
'i'm difficult' i told the lion.
'how? what's wrong?' he said.
jake coughed and excused himself and i didn't care. the lion moved in closer.'i'm sick.' i said and his face got light like recognition, like in dreams. he nodded and said 'me too. is it your blood?' this four-word question was so beautiful and strange and he asked it so solemnly it resounded. it's not exactly the way most people would respond. it sounded like my brain shaking. the room moved, shuttered. a hotel employee walked by, interrupting the cloud of everything. 'who takes care of you?'
i don't say anything.
'when where you born? where are you from?'
i couldn't remember anything from before or anything from right then, for that matter. or maybe just the idea of telling that 'it's a long story' story felt impossible to tell. there comes a point in every person’s life where how could it ever not be a long story anymore? why did mine matter to this lion? to anyone?
i should start lying, maybe.
the sound of each long piano key i pressed felt just like the inside of my heart outside, everyday. it was tailored for every moment i saw or sat in or overheard, it suited everything, it fit everything inside it.
i answered all his questions with questions. i strung all his stories carefully out of him without even really trying. they were good stories. they were. if he was the lion what was i? 'where do you want to go?' he asked me.
'what are you gonna carry me there?'
i just wanted to be inside the piano.
he looked at me.
you came in then and the room swapped places with some other room from some other warped dimension. the three of us had a cigarette outside. when we parted you walked ahead first. the lion whispered to me and gestured towards himself, 'come back' he said, 'come here. i'll take you anywhere, i promise.'
he whispered it right there with you right in front of me. i smiled and waved and followed you back inside. neither of us said a word in the elevator. i already missed the piano.