Through Darkness Into Light - A Conversation About Writing Through Trauma

As part of our Featured Artist series, poet Catherine Garbinsky and Animal Heart Press Assistant Editor Amanda McLeod talked about using writing as catharsis, and how putting our grief and trauma into words can lead us through dark times towards moments of joy.

Amanda McLeod: Grief and trauma are themes that appear regularly throughout your work. How do you think the act of writing these experiences helps you process them?

Catherine Garbinsky: Suffering is not necessary to make art, but art is a necessary part of overcoming suffering for me. When I am overcome with grief, stuck in depression, or confronting trauma I can feel pretty helpless. Finding language to talk about what I am feeling, directly or indirectly, makes me feel braver. If I can name the beast I can defeat it, or at the very least I can begin to understand it's nature. 

AM: You talk about finding the language to talk about feelings. Your use of language is exquisite - how do you think you developed that? 

CG: Thank you so much. I grew up surrounded by stories. My parents were both teachers and writers. Well, I think almost everyone in my family writes. I think my reverence for language grew from there — reading voraciously and listening to songs, poems, and stories with my family. It was such a big part of my life and I soaked it all up! It was not long before I started crafting my own. I think we even have some notes from my pre-school teachers somewhere about how I would play storytime with my classmates, sitting them all down and making up stories for them. I get lost in language as much as story, though — I love the sounds and shapes that words make, I love onomatopoeia, I love to linger with a word and see how far it can stretch. Poetry, I think, celebrates language in a way that prose does not always make time or space for.

AM: The emotions that come through these experiences are extremely strong, but your work has some really clear and powerful visions. How do you find a way through all that to capture those moments with such clarity - do you have a process?

CG: My process varies a lot based on what I am writing about and why. I have some poems that took me years to be able to approach, and when I finally sat down to write them the work came out in one piece. Other times, I have to wring the poem out of myself like I am a wet rag. It might take a few revisions for it to come out right. I might need to take breaks for my mental health. But I love to revise. There's something so soothing to me in the process — to hone in closer and closer to what is truly being said, to play with form and structure of a poem and see how it can speak to the message of a piece. There's nothing more satisfying.

AM: What other themes do you feel drawn to in your work? Is there a particular source of inspiration that draws you back again and again?

CG: Magic is a steady theme in my work, as it is infused into how and why I write. I believe there is magic inherent in language, in speaking things into existence, in the very naming of things. I am always exploring the way that it lives and moves through language. I have done erasure as a form of excavation, of celebrating things we thought were lost. Bodies and plants are two other big themes, and images of plants growing in and through our bodies. There is something, for me, about growth and pain and regeneration that I keep coming back to. I am a gardener at heart, so it is not surprising that the natural world looms large in my work.

As for inspiration: I am inspired by attention to detail, in the world and in ourselves. I am inspired by the ways that we find ourselves mirrored in the world around us. I am inspired by the art making process. The world is made new each time I write a poem or a story — something like turning a rock over and over in your hand and seeing it differently each time. 

AM: Magic does come through a lot in your work. One of my favourite pieces of yours is ‘A Spell For Artists’, in which you wrote ‘there is courage in creation, there is magic in it’. This speaks to the catharsis of writing. Why do you think addressing our pain through words brings us such relief - and why do you think we return to those words so often, when they come from such dark places? 

CG: These are some of the big questions I wrestle with! I've been working on this book of spell-poems for the past year or so, and some of them are about using language for transfiguration and some are more about recognition or acceptance, about acknowledging what is in front of you — and those are two very different but equally important steps in healing, I think. Writing has always been cathartic for me, whether it was in the simple writing games I played with my mother (making collage poems out of words we pulled from a bag, exquisite corpse, etc), journaling, or my creative work. Learning how to explain myself, to look deeply and understand, to process my thoughts and emotions as they arose — it gave me tools that I use whether I am writing or not. I gained an emotional literacy from writing that I may not have found elsewhere.

I used to work for the Proprioceptive Writing Center with Linda Trichter Metcalf (author of Writing the Mind Alive). Her method of proprioception, of knowing yourself through writing, has stuck with me. We can safely explore different parts of ourselves through our writing, even the dark and hidden parts — our shadow selves. There is room to be brave, to say things we may be scared to utter aloud. And isn't that a kind of magic? 

AM: I love the idea of celebrating things we thought were lost. How do you think these pieces of our past can reshape us, and our creative work, when they’re brought back to light?

CG: This comes back to grief for me. Grief has so many different faces. It can be mournful and sad and all consuming. The pain can be quite acute. Another part of grief, though, is remembrance — and gratitude. In this sense my work is invoking spirits of those I love, communing with them, and uncovering the ways in which they live on in me. There is joy in this — a profound sense of joy. What is ever really lost?