The announcement goes like this:
Susan Schultz on Writing Alzheimer'sSeptember 23, 12:00pm - 1:15pm
Manoa Campus, Henke Hall 325
The University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Center for Biographical Research Brown Bag Biography presents a lecture, "Old Women Look Like This": Writing Alzheimer's," by poet, publisher, editor, and UH-M English professor Susan M. Schultz
The talk will go something like this:
I was invited to talk about my recent e-book, Old Women Look Like This, which is available through Lulu, and was published by the Argotist Press, edited by Jeffrey Side out of Liverpool, UK.
Quala-Lynn Young, at the Contemporary Museum, organized a tour for writers last year, which was followed a couple of months later by a reading of poems based on the work of four artists. Having written Dementia Blog, I was most taken by the portraits of old women by Elizabeth Berdann, for their fidelity to their subjects. Here are some of her paintings. Edna is the woman whose face appears on the "cover" of my e-book. Each portrait bears the first name of its subject, along with her age. Edna is 91. (Old people, like children, are quite concerned with their ages; "I'm 86!" one of my neighbors said to me recently. Her dog is 12, she also told me.)
Elizabeth Berdann's paintings of old women
The poem I wrote for the museum event was based on several of these paintings. As I thought about the ways in which old women are seen in our culture, I thought to do a google search, "old women look like." When I did it, the results were (of course) profoundly strange. I found sites on how to appear younger, sites on how to appear older, pornographic sites, and sites about men who look like old lesbians. So I decided to write the poem by alternating brief descriptions of Berdann's faces with text I culled from my google searches. Here is the search: note that the current search includes the e-book itself, which is at once flattering (if anything computer-generated can be said to be so) and odd.
This method of writing takes something from a poetic movement that has grown in the past ten years from a joke to the subject of conferences, papers, and loud arguments among poets. It's called Flarf. For some writing about flarf, see this link, Flarf.
Some significant moments in the verbiage about flarf:
--Gary Sullivan's definition of "Flarf" as a verb: "To bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text." He brings up heavy use of Google.
--Mike Magee: "The use of Google being extremely common, the flarf method resembles in some sesen: a) the use of a thesaurus; b) eavesdropping and quoting; c) sampling; d) collage / cut-&-paste . . . What makes the flarf methodology different, to my mind, is the willful democratization of the method: the EXTENSIVE and even sole use of Googled material."
The best book of Flarf, to my mind, is K. Silem Mohammad's Deer Head Nation, which uses this method toward a (farcical) critique of American culture, focusing on the deer heads that people put over their fireplaces. But I didn't want farce so much as a commentary on the way old women are looked at, so the tone of my poem alternates between the google search's shtick and my own rather less absurdist takes on the women's faces. Part of the poem came out in the Honolulu Weekly; you can see it here:
and a snippet here: "She floats there, her neck rooted to the soil of its own shadow. Women talk openly about their sex lives after 60; I passed two women who held hands the way I imagine widows do. There are men who look like old lesbians on [cracked.com], but on the plus side, I look a lot younger than my age, or those who become senior before their time. Rose (90) has wide astonished eyes, hair a white nest; absence where her neck should be; she is all heart at the heart of her frame."
The move is from a Romantic poem image ("the soil of its own shadow") to the on-line source material, and then back again to hearts. (Berdann's frames are hearts and diamonds, so the play is on the frame, as well as on the literary frame/cliche of "heart.") Some of my lines are less Romantic (one is about the frame creating a baseball diamond out of the woman's face), but they are never "flarfy," in the ways the google materials are.
[read the entire poem at the talk]
I began to think less about image than about narrative, the stories we tell about old people, the way in which our narratives often fail to fit their lives, because our stories are more about children and about younger people. When I remembered that Sandra Day O'Connor's husband had fallen in love with another woman in his Alzheimer's residence, and that O'Connor was pleased because her husband seemed so happy about it, I turned to the computer again and found a soap opera generator. I took some of the short scenarios offered up by the generator and shifted them into the Alzheimer's home to see what would happen. The poem begins with an old woman stalking an old man (there are so many fewer of them in Alzheimer's care than women) and ends with a shotgun wedding based on the birth of a grandchild. The ways in which so many of our narratives depend on biology (who is the parent of whom is assumed to be a question about DNA and not about adoption) is made clear in this odd intervention. (Another of the poems is based on lists of children up for adoption, except that I substituted Alzheimer's patients for the orphans.)
[I just checked my email and found an ad for Botox, to get rid of the dark circles under my eyes, RISK-FREE. I'm told that 89% of those who use this product get compliments from their friends about their lack of wrinkles and bags.]
Another kind of narrative of old age and death is the elegy, which celebrates a life as it passes on, substituting a transcendent truth for the transient messiness of a life. One of my favorite elegies is Wallace Stevens's "To an Old Philosopher in Rome," a poem for George Santayana. An honors student of mine, Gizelle Gajelonia, had written nearly an entire thesis out of poems by writers such as Stevens, which she willfully "revised" into poems about TheBus on Oahu. Her take on Stevens is "13 Ways of Looking at TheBus," after his own "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Unlike Gajelonia, Stevens never mentioned Mufi Hannemann and his rail system in his poem! So I thought I might do a revision of Stevens myself. Here's Stevens's poem about the dying philosopher; I'll read just the beginning and the end, but you can hear the high seriousness and beauty of his language.
I hollowed his poem out and replaced much of the language with parts of a recent report by the Alzheimer's Association (2010). To Stevens's "The threshold Rome and that more merciful Rome / Beyond," I countered with: "The threshold, ManorCare, and that more // merciful ManorCare beyond" and with lots of statistics about Alzheimer's sufferers and their caretakers. My poem ends:
monthly check (to the tune of $6,000) for room and board and hair styling
and medical care. It is a kind of total disruptiveness at the end with every
visible thing diminished and yet there is still a bed, a chair, a common room
for conversation, a nursing station, and a nook with benches for sitting on:
The moving walkway is now ending. Watch your step.
Stevens is also obsessed with the ordinary things: the bed and the chair come from him, as they also come from my mother's Alzheimer's home. But his "total grandeur at the end" becomes "total disruptiveness," and the threshold of heaven is reduced to a "moving walkway," or a kind of temporal treadmill that the very old move on in their own version of timelessness. Not transcendence, but a different (imitative, fallen, non-Platonic) version of eternity.
The poems that work the best for me are those I wrote in response to the standard comparison of old age to childhood. I have a mother who is 92, and children who are now 9 and 11, so I feel qualified to test the simile. So I began rewriting the children's stories I encountered as if their heroines were not children, but very old people, people with dementia. One such piece I based on Are You My Mother?, a book about a small bird who is looking for its mother. The bird asks all sorts of animals if they are its mother, but they all tell the baby bird that they look different. "I'm a cow, not a bird," would be one response. So the bird finally finds its mother bird, and all is well. A Mother for Choco revises that story for adoptive children. In this story, it matters not who resembles whom, but who loves whom. So the orphaned baby finds that her mother is a bear and that mama bear has other children, including a pig. I made my own mother the central figure in this piece, which I'll now read. "Are You My Mother?"
Another of these pieces is based on a news story about the first black woman elected to the South Carolina legislature (in 1974) who died alone in her house of hypothermia. She was suffering dementia, but would not allow anyone to help her. So I rewrote the opening to Pippi Longstocking to be about her. Here's a description of Pippi, for anyone who might conceivably have missed her. Pippi is all those things we admire: she's independent, naughty, answers only to herself, and she has lots of fun in her solitude. She's like a wacky pig-tailed Henry David Thoreau in a way, except that she also has friends.
My rendering of Pippi changed drastically when I moved Juanita Goggins into Villa Villekula, Pippi's residence. Here's that piece; much of the language comes from the Pippi book. As you can hear, the narrative of joyful self-reliance goes bad when Pippi is replaced by this old woman who suffers dementia. She needed to rely on others, but could not. They refused to knock her door down, and so she died in her house, the good American's castle.
I don't necessarily want to end on a despairing note, although there are plenty of those in the world of Alzheimer's patients and their families. But I hope that the playfulness of the poems, their forms, the waywardness of their narratives, also gestures toward the humor that can be found in a day at the Alzheimer's home. It's a humor based on the play of minds that can do nothing except play. The last time I spoke here, about my book on my mother's dementia, I made a bad metaphor. I said that Alzheimer's was like a neutron bomb, which destroyed everything but the body of the building or the person. Someone came up afterwords to remind me that Alzheimer's patients are persons. I hope that this project has gone some distance in reaffirming that sentiment.
I would love to hear responses to the work, and to take questions about it.