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Digging through Dirty Laundry

Digging through Dirty Laundry

This week our featured poet is Elizabeth Onusko. Her piece, “Case History,” is slightly longer, and so I’ll include a link here to my personal blog so you can read it (sidenote: I am not as emo as my profile picture portrays me to be. Do people use the word “emo” anymore?) “Case History” struck me in such a way that only a fitting quote from Emily Dickinson–a woman who struggled with her own mental illness–can accurately describe. She once wrote, “When you read a poem, you should feel as if the top of your head was just blown off.”

Our interview this week concentrates on the tough and often stigmatized subject of mental illness. I admire Elizabeth for fearlessly forging through that stigma and writing this wonderful poem (Elizabeth mentions she admires Sylvia Plath for the same thing!) There’s no way to describe this interview with the phrase “shit gets real” in a wax poetic way, so I won’t try to. I think this dialogue is both revealing and raw–if you are searching for words to empathize with, you’ll find them here. Thank you, Elizabeth, for your honesty and dedication to truth.

First, I want to say that it’s truly an honor that you would be willing to answer my questions. Your repertoire is amazing—from Verse Daily to NPR reading and a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. I thank you so much for your time with me. How does the success feel?

Thank you for reaching out to me. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d call myself “successful.” After all, I know many poets my age who have accomplished far more. Poetry is a challenging field to have success in. It’s hard to avoid feeling that you ought to adhere to an artificial timeline — first book by age X, prestigious residency by age Y, etc. I’ve been submitting my work for publication since I was in sixth grade. For every acceptance, I’ve had dozens of rejections. As a result, I’ve developed a strong tolerance for rejection, and I’ve been rather patient with myself as I follow the trajectory of my work and not someone else’s timeline. Still, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

It’s amazing that you received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence, a school I’ve always admired. This reminds me of my muse, Sylvia Plath, and her time at Smith College—a small, liberal arts school similar to Sarah Lawrence. She went through many of the same experiences that “Case History” gives our readers. Do you feel the speaker might relate to this poet at all?

I’m so grateful for my time at Sarah Lawrence — its MFA program is unlike any other. In addition to workshops, craft classes, and readings, students spend one-on-one time discussing their work with their professors every other week. It’s incredible. I studied with Matthea Harvey, D. Nurkse, Vijay Seshadri, and Suzanne Gardinier, among others, and met many talented students with whom I remain friends.

Yes, I believe the speaker in “Case History” would relate to Sylvia Plath’s work. When I was in high school, my thoughts of what poetry should be were blown apart by her work. I’m currently reading Carl Rollyson’s new biography of her, American Isis. Plath’s fearlessness in exploring mental illness and women’s lives still inspire me.

I love your section about “Self-Diagnosis: as a skull compared to an atmosphere with a dropping “barometric pressure” and filling with “lightning.” This may be personal (although as an advocate for those with mental illnesses not being stigmatized), I admit that I suffer from depression. So this metaphor is so relatable and poignant for me. How did you come up with it?

Thank you. That means a great deal to me. I really admire your honesty.

Admittedly, I don’t remember how those specific images came about. “Case History” ended up being more of a quilt than other poems I’ve written. I always carry a notebook in my bag in which I record words, phrases, misreadings, and quotations that, for whatever reason, jolt me to attention. (And as a born and bred Midwesterner, I’m a lifelong weather junkie and come up with weather metaphors all of the time.) When I sit down to write, I browse through those pages, see if anything speaks to me that day, and go from there. Often a few seemingly disparate images will start gravitating together. When that happens, I follow them.

Again, perhaps personal, but would you say that this poem is at all autobiographical, or are you completely removed from the narrator?

I doubt I’d ever feel completely removed from a speaker in one of my poems, even if the factual truths of the poem are not mine. Some of my favorite poems to write are persona poems, which draw on empathy more than personal experience. That said, I’m best able to process what happens to me and explore my emotions in the realm of metaphor. There are certainly elements of autobiography in “Case History,” but I don’t consider the poem as a whole to be autobiographical. It’s a mash-up of several different inspirations.

I also love the section on “Relapse.” It’s funny how the simplest daily experiences can cause a complete downfall into sadness—a “robin’s egg that fell onto the sidewalk” or a marred raccoon. And again, how we cope in odd ways with these feelings, like “dropping glass objects” from “grand, spiraling staircases.” How is it that these acts are therapeutic? For you, me, the speaker, and indeed anyone who suffers, what are other ways of coping?

When people are overwhelmed by what’s happening to them, they often redirect their emotions in an attempt to deal with them. In this section, I was trying to convey a sense of taking control, though it may be futile. I think the impulse is natural and understandable; its success probably depends on what, exactly, a person is attempting to control — the situation, or his/her response to it. The difference can be hard to see sometimes.

Samuel Beckett once said, “There is nothing funnier than sadness.” Do you agree? Is there any hidden humor in your seemingly all-encompassing poem about despair?

Beckett is probably right. Although I do hope the despair in “Case History” isn’t “all-encompassing.” The humor I sense in the poem starts with the rather dramatic list of symptoms. Sometimes what makes despair funny is its outsized proportions. Then again, I’ve heard that nothing snuffs out humor like explaining it, so I will stop trying to!

What sort of work do you accept in your literary magazine, Guernica? How is editing different from writing for you? I love the reference to Picasso.

Michael Archer, Joel Whitney, Josh Jones, and I co-founded Guernica in 2004. Over the years, I played a few roles for the magazine, including managing editor and publisher. I’m no longer with Guernica, but when I was, what I loved most was collaborating with its dedicated and talented team. Everyone on staff had a day job or was in school, and we published two issues a month, so it was always busy. Guernica’s poetry editor, Erica Wright, does an exceptional job curating that section. She has impeccable taste.

It’s quite different to partner on a creative project than to sit alone in front of your computer, trying to make a poem happen and resisting the urge to check your email. The experience was very fulfilling, and it helped me to understand what huge investments of time and energy all editors make.

If you couldn’t write poetry anymore for some tragic reason, what would you do instead? Or is a “writer’s life” something that lives on in one’s heart forever?

When I’m waiting in line at a bank or sitting in a doctor’s office, I amuse myself by coming up with random phrases and images. Even if I couldn’t physically write, I can’t imagine my mind not wandering in that direction.

That said, other options include competitive lip-syncing (if such a thing exists — I’m quite good) and gluten-free baking.

Elizabeth Onusko’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, featured on Verse Daily and NPR, and has been published or will appear in 42opus, burntdistrict, Bellevue Literary Review, Poet Lore, Kin, and The Collagist, among others. Her chapbook, The Prague Winter, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She is a co-founder of Guernica: a Magazine of Art and Politics (


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