Three Summers of Poetry and Pathos: A Poet’s Ride With Cancer

Please note: this blog post was originally published by 32 Poems blog in the summer of 2011. I am not sure why they removed it, but they have been going through some restructuring over there…
For the past three summers, cancer has shown up in my poetry. In 2009, my mother-in-law passed away after a short-lived battle with pancreatic cancer. Last year, I was diagnosed with stage IIIa Melanoma. And now, my father-law’s current wife has been told if she doesn’t do chemotherapy and radiation therapy, breast cancer will take her in 3-6 months.

The circumstances behind our respective diagnoses are all different. My mother-in-law was feeling nauseous and unable to eat for months before she was finally diagnosed several specialists later. I saw that a crumb-sized mole on my foot had mushroomed to the size and depth of a pea. But it’s my wife’s step-mother’s diagnosis that is truly incredible. Earlier this summer, she was in a head-on car crash in broad daylight that not only required surgery in her leg, but also cracked five of her ribs. If it hadn’t been for the other driver, uninsured and reckless, she wouldn’t have cracked those ribs, and there never would have been a reason for the chest X-Ray that found the mass.
When my mother-in-law passed away, the poem I wrote for her was an easy one, in terms of topic and structure. Before she passed, I had actually been thinking of the poem that would need to be written if her fight didn’t end well, so by the time the service arrived it had basically written itself.
When I was diagnosed, that was an entirely different story. They say in times like this a lot of bad poetry is written for every good one, and the case was certainly true for me. I wrote a lot. I do have a couple of instant keepers that came out of it, but I don’t believe in throwing the others away. Revising, I told my eldest son the other day, can take years. I didn’t listen to my golden rule of writing poetry: resist the urge to write. Instead, I wrote when it came to me, with no regard for patience or rationality. Very little good comes to my poetry when I write this way; I don’t know if the bad poems came from this refusal to follow my golden rule, or because it was the saying that a lot of bad poems come out of experiences like this, or if the two are somehow intertwined and really the same thing. But regardless of the reason, the poems need to be worked on, however long it takes, until they are ready.
It was poor timing in another way, as well. I had just clued myself in on the great powers of social media for writers that Spring, and while I had begun to come out of my introverted shell like a lone poet wallowing in the corner at a party, I had at least attended the party.  Social media networking had also grown a sprout for me to actually network in the real world. My first real chance at doing this (outside of an on-line poetry class, which is suspect) was attending the Sotto Voce Poetry Festival that October in Sheperdstown, WV. I had actually signed up for a couple events there, but ultimately I was still too weak to go. It would have been an all-day event for me, and I just didn’t have the energy after having two major surgeries that summer. I distinctly remember “meeting” Deborah Ager of 32 Poems on Twitter, knowing she was already there, and thought there was someone I could actually meet and greet. It was this sort of social process for poets that had come to mean so much to me in the past six months, and I blamed cancer for stalling it.
This year, I don’t know what the creative process has in store for me. The cancer diagnosis came a few weeks ago, but it looked like surgery could remove the mass and the survival chance was high; now that we now how far its spread, we are looking at a new prognosis altogether. The wonderful woman the cancer is attached to is full of energy, very entertaining, a wonderful cook, and a good wife and mother. But in the 15 years I’ve known her, I’ve spent relatively very little time with her. I am not as close to my step-mother-in-law the way I was my mother-in-law. So I don’t know what poem will come out of this experience. It’s not easy to think about the potential poem the way it was in 2009. And in some ways perhaps it will be harder to get it right than it was in 2010. All I know is that four years ago I knew no one who fought the cancer battle; now, I know too many. This is the kind of thing poets dream of, in a way, topics that are in your face and challenging to the soul, but ultimately I would rather have the people in my life than the poems for whom they are written.

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