Interview With Ann Bracken

Generous LPR contributor Ann Bracken has out a memoir in verse called, “The Altar of Innocence.” New Academia Publishing/Scarith published the book on January 30, 2015, and it’s available on their site as well as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Bracken most recently appeared in LPR’s Food Issue with an interview of Grace Cavalieri. She interviewed Nancy Naomi Carlson in our Music issue and contributed an essay “Crafting a Bridge to Healing” to our Social Justice issue. Her poems “Adultery” and “Wine and Water” appeared in our Make Believe and Water issues, respectively.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Ann just as she began another semester at University of Maryland.

Ann Bracken knows about healing. As a writer, teacher and expressive arts consultant, she is skilled at harnessing the power of creativity to bring light into the darker areas of our lives. So it is no surprise that her new book, The Alter of Innocence: Poems, emphasizes spiritual empowerment and recovery. Despite the dark subject matter—her mother’s mental illness and suicide attempt, her own struggle with depression and an unhappy, sometimes verbally abusive marriage—it is a tone of compassion, not resignation or resentment that runs through the beautiful poems in the collection. “The book was an instrument of forgiveness,” she tells me as we chat on the phone on a chilly January day.  She says she had long ago come to understand the role her mother’s illness played in her behavior. But through writing, she gained greater insight into her husband’s actions, which she believes were partly the result of his fear and an inability to influence the course of her depression. Most importantly, in coming to see her depression as a spiritual illness she has learned to forgive and heal herself. It’s a message she can now share with the rest of us.

ER: Congratulations on your new book, The Alter of Innocence! The writing is lovely and poignant. The poems in this collection all relate to one another and tell a definite story, like a memoir in verse. How did you decide on this structure?

 Ann Bracken: Thank you, Emily, for reading The Altar of Innocence and for this chance to talk about my process. I’m glad you found my story moving.

Originally I started to write a chapbook that would cover my growing-up years and lay the foundation for another book that would deal with my own depression and the eventual decision to leave my marriage.  As I looked for contests to enter and reviewed the guidelines, I realized my collection was too long for most of the chapbook contests.  I decided to keep going and put the two sections together.  One goal that I had was to use the poems about my childhood to foreshadow similar events in my  adult life.

ER: I admire the way you apply adult understanding and compassion to the nightmarish and heartbreaking events of your childhood. I wonder if your attitude toward your mother evolved as you were working on these poems or did you start out from a place of forgiveness?

AB: I think I always had compassion for my mother. Over the years, I realized that she made choices in her life, and even though they seemed to lock her in an endless prison, I really tried to understand her.  When I was growing up, one question that haunted me was discovering the cause of my mother’s depression. Somehow the idea of a lifelong depression that began in her postpartum experiences did not add up.  In the late 90s I discovered a series of original watercolor dress designs that were more or less buried in my parents’ basement storage room. I was so taken with my mother’s designs that I had them professionally framed and then took them to her in the nursing home. When Mom saw the paintings she told me—for the first time in my life—that she had always wanted to be a fashion designer.  One of the saddest memories I have is when, as a child,  I would ask my mother to teach me how to draw, and she answered by hanging her head and saying, “I can’t.”

ER: Your mother was a talented young woman who sacrificed a lot of herself to her family. Would a creative outlet have helped her?

AB: Mom’s paintings have hung in my living room for the past fifteen years, reminding me of her unrealized dreams. And I can see myself as a teen observing her very physical manifestations of anxiety—hand-wringing, hunched posture, and hyperventilation.  I remember thinking, “I’ll never be like my mother.”  In my mind, I think I meant I would never fall apart the way she did. Or at least I wouldn’t look like I was falling apart!  Years later, when I thought about my own writing and how I only wrote when school was out for the summer, I realized I would be like my mother if I didn’t do more to make my dreams come true. My own dreams about being a writer. Ultimately, Mom inspired me.

I have thought a lot about whether any kind of creative expression would have helped my mother, and of course, I’ll never really know.  Even though she did not ever create any more fashion designs or do figure drawing,  I think my mother’s artistic sensibilities infused her work as a homemaker.  But was that enough to feed her soul?  I do think every woman, every person, deserves some time to express themselves in deeply personal and satisfying ways.

ER: As a society we’ve gained a lot of understanding about depression and especially post-partum depression. And yet I think a lot of mothers today probably feel a sense of isolation and sacrifice. What would your advice be to young mothers based on the experiences you’ve had?

AB: Oh, I would like to hug them and just say, “Ask for help. You’re OK to feel overwhelmed and kind of sad.”  No one said that to me, and most likely, no one said that to my mother. Even when I had my own children in the 80s, there was not that much support for women with postpartum depression. When I think about the tremendous physical and hormonal changes, coupled with the massive responsibility of a new baby combined with sleep deprivation, I have the utmost compassion for any woman who sinks into postpartum blues or depression. I think framing the situation by taking a look at the very real physical and psychological demands is the place to start.  Then we need to look at creative ways of offering women a strong support network, either with family and friends or with professional help.

ER: One of the poems that really affected me was “Time Travel,” in which you write this about your mom:

Maybe I could even
lead her up to the roof
where we would sit together
touching the green of trees
and Mom could see that anything is possible

Could you expand on the imagery here? I felt your desire to get your mother back in touch with the sensual world. She had retreated so far into herself.

AB: The roof image came to me as a way to speak about showing her more of the world, a way of getting her out of the house.  In some ways, the house and her flower garden became her whole world, especially as she got older.   And maybe I saw the idea of touching the green of trees as offering a connection to her love of nature, and a way to reignite my mother’s long-standing love of color. She had a fabulous color-sense, which I now realize was probably developed even more in a color theory class in art school.

ER: We watch you mature throughout the book. Your voice changes. Your understanding changes. Your desires change from wanting your mother to play with you at the pool to wanting her to go to AA. I think you capture the voice of each age so well. Was this difficult to do?

AB: I did not think about voice too much when I was writing the poems. I focused on the experiences and I think the voices just came through me. It was really a mysterious process. One thing that I did was to make a list of incidents that had stuck in my memory and then use them to brainstorm images and ideas that could reveal some character or desire. I adapted a few exercises from Visual Journaling by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox.  My favorite involved  doodling with colored pencils or oil pastels to capture the mood I was aiming for—curvy pink and teal lines for soft feelings,  jagged orange or black lines for pain or anger.

ER: I was really struck by much of the imagery in your poems. You write about trying to

…ignore the thought about slipping the pointed end of the seam ripper
under the white flesh of my forearm
and ripping out the veins

As a writer, how do you arrive at these sorts of images?

AB: It seems like I am talking about a different person when I say this, but those were my actual thoughts when I was deeply depressed and plagued by what the psychiatrists call “suicidal ideation”.  I had a dressmaking business at the time, so I spent many of my days making clothes for other people.  When I was in my darkest moods, I could not stop thinking about suicide—the only way it seemed possible for me to escape my pain.

ER: Tell me about your ex-husband and the role he plays in these poems.

AB: We met in college and were married for 25 years. For much of that time I was dealing with bouts of depression. It took me a long time to recognize how unhealthy our relationship was. In the first place, in those days verbal abuse was not recognized as true abuse. But also, I realize we were fundamentally a bad match. My ex-husband is a builder. He sees things in black and white and he likes to have control over his environment. My physical illness and journey into the darkness were things he couldn’t control and I think it really frightened him.

I’m actually grateful for my depression because it served to exacerbate his verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it.

ER: How long have you been writing poetry? What made you want to become a poet?

AB: I have been writing poetry since I was an adolescent, but only sporadically until about 1993.  I wrote the first poem that seemed pretty good when I was on a retreat. I didn’t realize until years later that my spirit knew I was depressed long before my mind identified it, or even my doctors. But the  poem speaks clearly about my inner state.  I think what made me want to write poetry was a desire to have a voice. I felt silenced in so many ways and writing offered me a way to speak.

ER: Who are your influences?

AB: My paternal grandfather wrote a poem for each of his grandchildren up until he died in 1955. His poem for me hung in my bedroom and I memorized it at a very early age.  I have so many poets I admire—Grace Cavalieri for her unflinching honesty and heart, Sharon Olds for her magnificent use of imagery, Lucille Clifton for taking on the underside of life with simplicity and plain language, and  Mary Oliver for two poems-“The Journey” and “The Wild Geese”-that helped me to find a deeper meaning in my experience of depression.

ER: You’ve channeled what you’ve learned from your difficult past into a dedication to help others. Tell us a little about the work you do through the Possibility Project. What do you find most rewarding and what is most challenging?

AB: I trained to be a poetry facilitator through the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy. In going through my own depression, I found poetry and literature to offer an in-depth understanding of my spiritual, psychological, and emotional journey.  I can’t say enough about the fabulous CD by David Whyte called “The Poetry of Self Compassion,” where David explores many poems and literary works that speak of  the gifts in the darkness, the necessity of entering the darkness without fear.  David was a keynote speaker for the association, which is where I learned about poetry therapy as a field.

My own work is simple—sharing my love of poetry and its rich ability to both reveal and conceal as a tool for self-discovery and healing. Over the years, I have moved away from a focus on poetry because so many people are afraid of it—they think they can’t understand it. So I have developed workshops that incorporate improv, journaling and simple art projects as a way in to the layers we are sometimes called to explore. Some typical issue I work with are negotiating life transitions, processing grief of many kinds, and deepening one’s own artistic expression. I’ve also been a poet in residence in an elementary school and offer journaling and art workshops at creativity conferences.

ER: You’ve addressed the issue of sexual violence in some of your writing. What are your thoughts on the attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses? Is the culture changing?

AB: I think the culture is inching toward a new place, but we have much work to do. The mainstream  media and many of the voices of authority engage in victim-blaming, especially when they talk about how women should dress less provocatively and avoid  excessive drinking. But what about the men? What responsibility do they bear?   I believe we need to talk about mutual respect in relationships. No more wink and nod that “No means yes.”  We need to educate both young men and young women about the need for mutuality of consent.

When I interviewed a former Marine about her experience with sexual assault, I was shocked to hear about the way she hid the events, even from her husband, and the way she was harassed and hounded by her commanding officers. The incident caused her to suffer from PTSD  for years, but eventually she was able to help others with her Fatigues Clothesline Project, where female vets write and illustrate their stories of trauma and assault on the inside of their uniform blouses.

Last semester, I discussed the issue of sexual assault as a topic for research and suggested that a male student might take on the issue. I stressed that sexual assault is not just a female issue, and that male have an important role to play in changing  attitudes and behavior. Thankfully, one young man stepped up and his research was excellent.

ER: I’m interested in the work you do with journaling. On your website you talk about using the power of story to harness life’s goals. Can you talk a bit more about the healing power of journaling?

AB: I started journaling many years ago, before I had ever heard of it as a practice for self-reflection and healing.  I remember choosing various materials for journaling that matched my emotional state.  Once when I was especially frustrated and angry, I spread newspapers on the kitchen floor and wrote in huge letters with thick crayons.  I felt better afterwards.  When I went through my last depression, I kept a journal which really helped me to make sense of all the craziness of  finding the right treatment and struggling with my ex-husband.  Even though I now do all my journaling by hand, at that time, I  typed all of the entries as a way to work on my writing skills and to become a better typist.  When I worked on the second part of my manuscript, I hadn’t read the journal in 20 years, and I was amazed at what a resource it was for details about significant experiences that could illustrate my journey. I even used snippets of dialog that I had recorded.

I remember being terribly depressed and despondent for many of the four years of that depression, and keeping the journal offered me a way to objectify the experience by reflecting on significant events. I also began to play with metaphors and images that helped me more than I realized at the time.  I still journal on a daily basis, but now I handwrite everything. I use journaling to get rid of frustration, to make sense of puzzling events, and to set and keep track of my goals.  I often talk to my students about the value of journaling when they are upset or overwhelmed as a way to quiet their internal chatter.

Thank you, Emily, for your thoughtful questions and your careful reading of my book. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your readers.

ER: Now that The Alter of Innocence is complete, what are your next projects?

AB: I was a special ed teacher for years and my next book of poems will be a collection about some of the significant students I taught. I’m excited to tell their stories.

Ann Bracken is a writer, educator, and expressive arts consultant whose poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21stCentury, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Pif Magazine, Scribble, New Verse News, and Praxilla. Ann was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review and leads workshops at creativity conferences, including The Creative Problem Solving Institute, Florida Creativity, and Mindcamp of Toronto. 

She is the founder of the Possibility Project, which offers expressive arts and creativity workshops for women of all ages, as well as poetry workshops in schools. Ann Bracken is a lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Columbia, MD.

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