Juliet Cook’s collection of poems POST-STROKE is darkly rich and decadent. The chapbook itself is beautifully made by hand and is a treat just to hold, the words inside just as delicious a treat. After reading some discussions Juliet Cook has had since her stroke, I’ve learned that her carotid artery was bleeding and causing aneurysms and she has been tackling her difficulty with reading and creating words with determination and guts. I am thrilled she has agreed to an interview about her poetry regarding this collection and I happily introduce you to Juliet Cook:
Hello there. Before I answer your questions, I wanted to thank you for your interest in conducting a poetry-related interview with me – and I also wanted to honestly admit that I had a bit of a tough time with these questions, due to them being predominantly focused on my stroke and its impact. Obviously, the reason your questions focused on that was because they were in relation to my POST-STROKE poetry chapbook. However, even though I still have real side effects from my stroke and can’t simply ignore them, I don’t want that to be one of the primary things people focus on about me and poetry. My health issue did not largely change my poetry reading and writing style (except for slowing it down) – BUT my poetic content is mentally/emotionally based and the health issue had an impact on those parts of me. I’m happy to share some of this with others who might find it helpful or interesting.
1. Juliet, you made mention that before your stroke in 2010 you felt you were coming into your own with your poetry in 2008 and 2009. Can you tell us a little bit about your work and creative flow before your stroke occurred?
I have a tough time with dates and other time frame details, but I’ve been reading and writing poetry for many years and had been submitting it for years, as well – and despite occasional acceptances, my rejections outweighed the acceptances until probably somewhere around 2007 or so, I started receiving significantly more acceptances AND feeling more strongly about my own poetry writing styles. After many years of working hard and having a slow writing style, my poetry finally started flowing out more quickly and powerfully and naturally.
In 2008, I had five different poetry chapbooks published AND my first full-length poetry book, ‘Horrific Confection’, was published the end of that year. Then in 2009, I also had five different poetry chapbooks published and was in the process of working on several others. I think 2007- 2009 felt like really exciting, successful writing times for me, during which my poetry was starting to take off, both in terms of my own writing style improving AND being more widely accepted for different kinds of publication.
Then early in 2010 (January 6 2010), I had an unexpected carotid artery dissection, which caused a 99% bleed out, which caused aneurysms, which caused a stroke, which caused me to lose some brain powers – oddly enough, most of those powers related to words and memorization.
2. Once you had your stroke and you were working with the speech therapist you mention that reading and writing was difficult to do. What techniques did you use to overcome those difficulties and what kinds of words were the most difficult to work with? Were they action words? Naming items? Conceptual words?
I’m not even sure what ‘action words, naming items, and conceptual words’ MEAN – so yes, I guess my difficulties included those kinds of words and/or basic understandings of word-based meanings. I could barely read or write at all at first. I could understand many words if someone else said them, but I had a hard time thinking of words myself – especially the basic kinds of words that you learn when you’re a kid – like colors, shapes, sizes, body parts, even ABCs. At first I repeatedly went over the alphabet and colors and numbers and other stuff you learn when you’re a young child.
I had a hard time with months and days and even times. I had a hard time with food words, animal words, and people’s names. One of the first things I had to do when home from the hospital was write down the names of me and my husband’s immediate family members and read those multiple times a day so that I could learn them again. I would look at my own dad and it’s not like I didn’t know who he was, but I couldn’t think of his name. If I had to re-learn the names of immediate family members, imagine the names of friends and other poets. I felt out of it and clueless and still do to an extent. I still have to concentrate a lot when it comes to easy little words – sometimes I remember certain words; sometimes I don’t; sometimes the first letter and relative length pops into my head; sometimes it seems as if there is no particular rhyme or reason to any of it.
My parents helped me with therapy, much of it involving reading children’s books (which were very hard for me to read at first) and a Children’s Picture Dictionary. Much of the therapy was annoyingly repetitive, boring, but necessary (and frankly, I feel like most of my stroke-related answers to interview questions might be boring for other poets to read – because why would a unique creative individual want to read about another adult’s children’s picture dictionary therapy?).
I will say that I truly believe my passion for poetry had a profound positive impact on my recovery – because I cared about poetry so much, that I would spend hours upon hours reading the same poem hundreds of times in a row.
3. Were there any specific words that “stuck with you” after the stroke? Words that were easiest for you to read and speak despite the stroke and what were those words?
Seemingly random words would suddenly pop out of my head and that still happens. Also, it seems that my brain has become more visual and seemingly random (yet strong) images often pop out. Sometimes it’s really overwhelming, because I can’t clearly explain the images with words. Word-wise, I didn’t lose big words as much as small words - but sometimes when a big word pops out, I’m not sure what it means and so need to check it out via the dictionary.
Sometimes it’s all kinds of imagery from my past, suddenly popping out. Pop pop pop pop pop pop – one image after the other, for no apparent reason – no matter how much I close my eyes, place the pillow atop my head, and try to control my thinking, all this imagery just keeps popping around in my brain – most of it really visually specific images from a long time ago.
The speed of the popping can be really overwhelming and sometimes lead to weird panic attacks. Another detail that contributes to my panic is that a little over a year ago, I started having small seizures, as a result of how my brain is healing.
4. Your chapbook is made with textural paper and the yarn that binds it is soft and comforting. Is it easier to create with materials than with words since your stroke? Does the type of materials you use help you present the words you are trying to speak?
My brain does act more visual than it used to, BUT I’ve always liked visual art and I’ve always used bits of visual imagery outside the poetry chapbooks I create. I started Blood Pudding Press, my itty bitty hand-designed print poetry chapbook press, near the end of 2006, and I always enjoyed adding small visual art snippets to the chapbooks I created. I preferred using ribbon-esque doodads rather than just staples. The soft yarn like substance I used to bind the POST-STROKE chapbook made me think of the color of brain veins. It could be perceived as warm and soft; but it could also be perceived as misshapen, discolored, and creepy. Dark and light; up & down; malfunctioned and scary.
5. Your collection of poems features a mix of medical words, descriptive words such as “red” and various forms of the word “blood” and animals that are not always pleasant such as rats, tigers, crows, pterodactyls. As you were recovering, how did these words come to the forefront of your mind into your poems? Were they ones you used before your stroke or were they words that associated with your inner feelings during the healing process?
6. I’d like to share the first poem in your collection with our readers which has no title. Can you describe what is happening with your writing and recovery with sharing this poem? Reading it I see a woman trying to reconcile her body and her soul, her body has a “pernicious red limp” and the previously “non overly obvious poetry” is “dead.” Now there is “platinum mesh/deep inside my odd head” and a “vicious new voice” waits to speak. Can you describe your emotions and the details behind this poem’s creation?
Post-stroke my words are not over-
ly obvious. Why on earth should my
non overly obvious poetry be dead?
1. Telebloodied brain cadaver with pernicious red limp.
2. Telebloodied drain dagger with growing open limbs.
3. My carotid swirling, awaited a dangerous blow torch
from the crotch; clicked in, rose up, added platinum mesh
deep inside my odd head. In spite of my almost annihilation.
4. A vicious new voice will slowly seep out of my skull.
5.Will spill more pretty crooked plucked out wordage.
In a conjoined response to your questions 5 and 6, many of the bloody, body part, and medical words within my POST-STROKE poems are related to what happened to me, during or after my stroke.
That first poem’s first three lines ARE its title – and some of that poem’s content is related to the surgery I underwent.
Within that poem, the ‘platinum mesh’ technically describes the kind of stent I had inserted during surgery – it was moved all the way to my upper neck, below the brain area using some tiny device inserted through a whole poked into the area of my thigh right next to the crotch panel.
Granted, it wasn’t technically inserted with a blow torch, BUT the kind of stuff that was happening seemed so unexpectedly bizarre that a blow torch didn’t seem like all that much of an over the top descriptor in the midst of what was actually going on – which was my carotid artery bleeding out and then platinum mesh getting inserted near my crotch and surgically moved all the way up to my upper neck area – a blow torch seemed to fit into that picture, mentally speaking.
I’ve always used a decent amount of animal words and body part words and horror words in my poems. I actually have a harder time with animal words now and culled some of those words (as well as some of the other words within my POST-STROKE poems) from poems in progress and revisions.
One sort of words I used amongst the POST-STROKE poems that are not so much my usual poetic norm were quite a few words that reminded me of death and funerals and burials; in part because I felt as if pieces of my brain had died or were still alive but strangely buried.
7. In your poem “Unfurling” I am struck by the mix of images and the “she/he” of your brain as though it’s a separate entity. I’m also interested in knowing where the “inner thighs” comes from? The poem makes me think of your brain trying to grow organically in a new phase but it is a somewhat gruesome and tenuous process. The ending line you talk about the cat killing mice as well as butterflies, are you alluding to the fact that both good and bad knowledge/memories are missing in this stage of your recovery? Can you tell us more about this poem and how it came about? The poem is below:
On & off my brain she/he wants to break
tiny splinters embedded into inner thighs
with a high pitched buzz. Lobbing orchids,
wet dark truffles oozed through funereal fantasyland.
Tentacular lobes unglued, steamy, no longer able to fly.
My parents’ cat kills not only mice but butterflies.
I can still FEEL the visual impact I used in these poems; but I still can’t describe it very well in a non-poetic form of writing. I still feel lobbing and tentacular and unglued and steamy and unfurling!
In addition to having platinum mesh inserted into my upper neck area all the way up from my inner thigh/crotch area, I then had to have a device inserted into that little whole in my inner thigh/crotch area – a vascular closure device called a collagen sponge near my femoral artery. My surgery was 50/50 (as in 50% chance I’d live; 50% chance I’d die) – so in a way, that poem combine’s inner thigh insertion with almost death but oddly lucky life; thus the ‘funereal fantasyland’.
I was truly lucky to live, but then the unfurling or ripping apart of my life continued. Not that long after my stroke, I was temporarily living with my parents (and even though I was certainly lucky to have a temporary space to reside and I appreciated my parents’ support, living with one’s parents when in my late 30s was less than ideal for me), having troubling brain issues as well as emotional issues as well as relationship uncertainty issues. I ended up getting divorced, but I didn’t want to rush that choice – and I felt like some people wanted me to rush it ASAP – and even though they meant well, it ultimately needed to be my own decision – and it’s hard for me to make my own decisions when I’m in a space that’s not my own.
Sometimes I felt as if I didn’t know where I was or who I was or what I was aiming for anymore. Sometimes, I still feel that way – especially quite recently, since my first serious romantic relationship since my divorce recently ended.
My parents own several outdoor cats and on at least one occasion, while living with my parents, in addition to viewing one of their cats playing with and/or malfunctioning a mouse, I saw one of them malfunctioning a butterfly – and although that bothered me, at least I could work it into a poem – in which it seemed to offer a hint as to how my life style situation and malfunctioning brain felt.
8. The closing poem, Aftermath, speaks of an ending relationship, it mentions “A woman in need” and “I could be borderline/poison when he drank” and “I could be a super-sexual séance.” How were intimacy and relationships affected during your recovery? Can you tell us more about how this poem came about?
He purged me like a decapitated spread shot;
a moldy magpie slot when I used to be a slit
with girly feathers flung into a strip-tease.
I had turned into a grotesque disease.
A woman in need. Unworthy.
Might as well be dead.
Vile has two meanings.
I could be borderline
poison when he drank; strange
treat when he spit me out.
I could be a super-sexual séance underneath
a more luscious arrangement of teeth.
My porno-horrific rippling sensations will turn
into telepathic tinsel. My misshapen tonsils will grow
into succulent ornaments to float over your head.
I’m not a nightmare. I’m a dark delightful dream.
Just a few months after I was back from the hospital, my husband was tired of hearing about my stroke. He thought that my immediate family was focusing on my stroke and my recovery too much, treating me like I was a baby. As mentioned prior, it’s true that a great deal of my initial therapy involved working with children’s books, because at first even children’s books were hard for me to read, and I had to re-learn words and meanings that I had initially learned as a child. It certainly was not my idea of fun or enjoyable, but it had to be done.
I really don’t want to get extremely personal in this interview, but that last poem was largely inspired by my marriage ending; we did end up getting divorced exactly one year after my stroke happened. Some of the details of that poem derived from some of the thoughts/feelings/emotions I was undergoing at the time. I sometimes felt as if an unexpected health issue had turned me into an un-fun, worthless challenge - and who wants to undergo such challenge to stick with a decapitated, unhealthy pile of broken down crap.
So the first stanza is quite negative and derogatory – the second stanza is a bit more in between, emotionally speaking – the third stanza is aiming towards new hopes, dreams, and desires that I still might have my own unique appeal.
9. Where are you now with your writing? Are words easier to speak, read, and write? Are you still recovering parts of yourself? What differences have there been artistically for you?
My reading and writing is much better than it was at first, but still slower than it used to be – so hopefully my brain still has an ongoing healing process ahead of it.
A little over a year ago, I started having mini-seizures, as another result of how my brain has changed. Those are certainly un-enjoyable, but could be far worse.
Emotionally speaking, I’m still kind of a mess – brimming with self-doubt and even self-deprecation; frequently questioning myself; feeling like I will most likely never be deeply, intensely loved by anyone again, at least not for any sort of extended time period. Feeling as if everything will most likely end to soon.
I still very much enjoy and care about poetry and art, but I feel more ‘what is the point’ about life in general. I wish I could re-energize my emotions into a terrain in which they are writhing with creativity and joy and love, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
10. With your press, have your tastes changed in the types of writing you enjoy reading, editing, and publishing?
I think every writer/reader/editor’s tastes change a little bit in the course of time, but I don’t think I’ve had a recent BIG taste change. Because everything takes me a little longer than it used to, I can’t afford to publish very many Blood Pudding Press print chapbooks – but just because the press is slower doesn’t mean I’ve given up on it.
The last Blood Pudding Press chapbook I created was a collaborative poetry collection called ‘Fainting Couch Idioglossia’ – and I am currently accepting poetry chapbook manuscript submissions for the next two Blood Pudding Press chapbooks (from now through October 15, 2012). More details are available via the Blood Pudding Press blog, linked to at the end of this interview.
11. As for yourself, what are you working on these days that we can look forward to reading in the future? Any manuscripts or published works we can be on the look-out for and where can we find them?
I’m still reading, writing, and submitting my own poetry (although somewhat slower than I used to be in such realms). I’m also submitting my second full-length poetry manuscript. One never knows exactly how long that’s going to take to be accepted; but golly, I would sure love it if it found its ideal home this year or next year when I am 40.
I do have a new poetry chapbook coming out quite soon from Grey Book Press! It’s called POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP and offers twenty some pages of my poetry ranging from 2008 to very recent work. I’m excited about it and imagine more information will appear upon Grey Book Press’s website when it’s available, here - http://greybookpress.com/.
Juliet Cook, thank you so much for sharing your work and your experiences with us. I wish you continued success in all areas of your life and hope you will keep us up-dated with your upcoming works.
If you enjoyed this interview I urge you to purchase a copy of POST-STROKE for yourself for a mere $4.00 at her etsy.com site at:
Juliet Cook is the editor and creator of Blood Pudding Press which you can visit at:
To purchase other poets’ wonderful work from Blood Pudding Press as well as more of Juliet Cook’s work through her etsy.com website go to:
Juliet Cook reads her poems at Menacing Hedge:
To learn more about Juliet Cook and read more of her work, please visit her personal the sites below:
Thanks always for reading, please click in tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…