Mistaken Self-Portraits: An Interview with Meghan O’Rourke

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At Work

Photo: Sarah Shatz

Meghan O’Rourke is a poet, an essayist, the author of the acclaimed memoir The Long Goodbye, a teacher, and an editor; she served as the poetry editor of The Paris Review from 2005 to 2010. The Summer issue of the Review includes O’Rourke’s “Poem for My Stranger,” and her third collection, Sun in Days, was published last month. Sun in Days differs from her other books: it is less lyric, with longer poems that are almost essayistic, and it includes a series of “Mistaken Self-Portrait” poems, which find the poet taking on the voices of Demeter, Persephone, Meriwether Lewis, and—to borrow a phrase from O’Rourke—a mother of an unmade daughter. It’s a book about illness, moving past grief, wanting a child, and getting older. I spoke with O’Rourke when she had a few spare hours, while someone looked after her son.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry collections all seem to be about different stages of your life. Halflife was a young person’s book, Once was in conversation with your memoir and shared its concerns about grief, with the loss of your mother, and this new book of yours, Sun in Days, feels not post-grief, but … I’ve been trying to find the right word.

O’ROURKE

I know exactly what you mean. When I was working on Sun in Days early on, it was clear to me the poems were constellating around whatever that is—not quite post-grief. It’s actually hard to articulate, which is in some ways what interested me.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing these poems?

O’ROURKE

I wrote them while I had, as I describe in the book, a mysterious illness that no one could identify. Eventually, they diagnosed it as late-stage Lyme disease that had gotten into my nervous system. I mention this because while I was trying to write this book, I had this sensation that I was no longer myself. I could tell my brain had changed, but it happened so slowly that it took a while to realize. I had a very difficult time recalling and using language, which is a problem if you’re a writer. I also had this bizarre fatigue. We lack the language to describe illness, as Virginia Woolf talks about in her book On Being Ill. When you think of fatigue, you think of times you’ve been tired, but it wasn’t like that. I felt drained. I was trying to write, but I was unable to. The poems I was writing were so bad. They weren’t making sense, and I found it so depressing. “Unnatural Essay” and “A Note on Process” started because I gave myself the assignment of writing a line a day. I felt like I had to put all of my energy into making some kind of sense out of one thing. Sometimes I would write three lines, but there was this impulse toward aphorism or compression in a way that’s not quite how we think of the line in poetry working, in non-prose poems, at least. So those lines ended up more like prose.

INTERVIEWER

Some of your poems feel like they could have been turned into essays.

O’ROURKE

Yes. The first poems that felt a bit to me like essays were a few of the “Mistaken Self-Portrait” poems. “Mistaken Self-Portrait as Demeter in Paris,” for example. A lot of those lines almost operate as independent entities, though they do build to something. It was that building that was really difficult for me. I couldn’t do it, and so I had all these floating lines. As I started to get better, I tried to put them together and build an argument around them. It’s perverse because I couldn’t make sense of what those pieces were about, so I pushed them into this more essayistic form, where you’re pressed to make sense of things. The slippage and the places where the lines contradict each other in certain ways, to me that’s the heart of those pieces and why they had to have a more of a hybrid form as opposed to a lyric-poem form.

INTERVIEWER

Each “Mistaken Self-Portrait” poem is very different. What connects them?

O’ROURKE

Those poems began out of a desperate need to write something. Too much of a writer’s ego depends on the dubious accomplishment of putting words on a white page. So even though I wasn’t sure I was going to survive, I had to write. Writing gave me some sense of being able to push back against the uncertainty I felt about whether I was or wasn’t sick. Doctors were telling me they couldn’t find anything wrong, so I was thrust back upon this question, a poetic question, really, Are my perceptions real? What does “real” mean? If I don’t feel like myself anymore, who is the “I” that doesn’t feel like myself anymore?

Those poems came out of that push to put one thought down. I think the first one was “Mistaken Self-Portrait as Demeter in Paris.” That poem in particular came to me very clearly. It was a mother speaking about regret. I was trying to voice a persona that was not one I thought I would ever have. I was going to play the role of a mother figure even though I didn’t have a mother and was not yet a mother myself. I started thinking about the mistaken self-portrait because I was really interested in the idea that we have all of these selves the world doesn’t acknowledge. This idea about selfhood being an unstable thing is something we all grew up thinking about and reading, especially in lyric poetry, but it had taken on this very visceral reality for me. My sense of self was totally unstable, and yet there was some part of me that was stable because I had this sense of disruption—this sense of not being myself—which is a kind of paradox.

INTERVIEWER

The connections between Demeter and Persephone are easy to see, but how are the other two, “Mistaken Self-Portrait as Meriwether Lewis” and “Mistaken Self-Portrait as the Unmade Daughter,” linked to these themes?

O’ROURKE

The Persephone poem came very shortly thereafter. Those were written as a pair. I was trying to write a kind of response poem. I actually wrote a whole series of Demeter and Persephone mistaken self-portraits that I ended up cutting from the book. Then I tried to write this series of poems about wanting a daughter. They were first called “A Letter to My Unborn Daughter.” Then as I worked on them more and more, they started to take the shape of the mistaken self-portraits. That emerged as a discovery, not a top down, this-is-what-I’m-going-to-write decision. The Meriwether Lewis one is odd. You could make the argument that it shouldn’t really be in the series because it’s so different from the rest of them. It was already written as a monologue in the voice of Meriwether Lewis, but it’s another way of talking about illness. I have very few ways of talking about my illness that I feel has the kind of urgency I’m experiencing, and it doesn’t seem conveyable to other people when I write as a more autobiographical “I.” That’s what I felt unified them. There’s the bookend of “Demeter in Paris” and “Persephone in the Desert,” and then these two other poems that gesture out to the other themes of the book, one about longing for a child and the other about illness and what it does to your identity.

INTERVIEWER

You treat wanting a baby as both an existential question and a physical impulse.

O’ROURKE

Wanting a child is a strange feeling. It’s wanting as a sense of lacking as well as desiring. That lack becomes a kind of ellipses that presses against your experience of the days and distorts them because you want to move into a different stage in life. Once we hit our twenties, we don’t really have any other stages except perhaps becoming parents or becoming sick. I had become sick but not a parent. I thought, You can’t go through this period without thinking about what it means to you to bring a child into the world. I thought it very strange how one could be so full of ambivalence about the world and yet want so desperately to bring someone who has really no choice in the matter into it.

The way we describe wanting a child—or even being pregnant—is either very sentimental or very raw. But I found the whole experience really weird, and I’ve never heard anybody talk about this because it’s a very strange longing. It’s a longing with no real specification. It’s like wanting to be in love, which is a longing we have as teenagers, but not in the same way that we long for a child. That interested me as a poet.

INTERVIEWER

In your memoir, you write about watching your mother deteriorate. She struggled with language, as well. Did you think about that when you were struggling with language and memory in your illness?

O’ROURKE

I never really connected to that particular aspect of her deterioration. I think that might have almost been too painful to think about. Watching my mother be sick created a paradox for me with my own illness. On the one hand, I understood where things could end, but my illness was so different from hers—hers was so well understood and terrifying, meanwhile I was trying to get anyone to recognize mine. I began to wonder if I was sick, and I experienced it as a kind of intellectual and poetic failure at first, rather than a physical one, because I couldn’t write—that was the first symptom. It took a long time before I understood that it wasn’t a personal failure but a biological one.

INTERVIEWER

“Poem for My Son” is toward the end of the book.

O’ROURKE

I started it when I was pregnant, and I finished it after he was born. At first, I didn’t necessarily want the book to come to this tidy place of the fruition of one’s desire. On the other hand, it felt false to withhold it. The experience of having a child in some ways only underscored a lot of the uncertainty and mystery that I was feeling before. You’re confronted with the otherness of this being that you’ve been carrying. I had read so many descriptions of pregnancy that made it into this mythical sense of connection. My experience was that I was carrying another being inside me, which was obvious to me and very strange. That felt very in keeping with the rest of the book’s obsession.

INTERVIEWER

You close the book with the poem “How To Be,” which fades out at the end.

O’ROURKE

It’s a little self-puncturing. Can I really write a poem called “How To Be” and end the book with it? I was troubled by the fact that that poem, with its imperative title and certainty, seemed to be the end of the book. I kept trying to write another poem, but I couldn’t write one that felt like the end. I owe a debt to Alice Oswald. In one of her books she ends with a fading out and I just saw it and thought, That’s how this poem is.

INTERVIEWER

The final line is “and what if we do—?”

O’ROURKE

To me, the book is about how we make the selves, make the children, and make our lives. Writing the book was a stay against terror and pain and chaos—which the world is so full of. But a sense of uncertainty is central to everything.

Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Rumpus, The Comics Journal, and other publications.

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