Q&A With Jay Erickson, Issue 2 2017 Poet
In our second print issue of 2017, you’ll find a poem by writer and musician Jay Erickson.
The whole poem is just 43 words, beginning with the declaration,
“let this surprising wind bend me”
The writer demands that he be left with his trunk and roots intact.
“i am not done with them yet
We have more suns to reach for
More earth to hold”
The poem is excerpted from Erickson’s book, “BLOOM,” written when he was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer in 2013, and also while he underwent treatment. Our photographer and editor-in-chief stumbled upon the little book with the white cover at The Foundry Home Goods shop in Minneapolis.
Erickson vividly remembers the beginnings of the bizarre journey, starting at the intensive care unit at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, shortly after he was informed with the devastating news. The sub-type of cancer was identified as coreo-carcinoma, one of the hardest types to treat.
“I was in the ICU looking out the window at the East River. It was flowing upstream. I had forgotten it was a tidal estuary and had this sense of, ‘Holy shit.’ It was a surreal experience. In an instant, in the space of a conversation with a doctor, you go from moving through your life in a relatively normal way to being right at the edge of life. It’s so jarring. It’s as if you found yourself on the moon, in an instant. You’re in a wholly different territory very quickly. It’s disorienting.”
Throughout his life, Erickson noticed himself compulsively reaching for a pen and paper in times of crisis. “Poetry allows for the mysterious and intuitive, which is how our hearts are constructed. Linear prose can’t always contain that,” he says.
Continue reading to hear our Q&A with Erickson about his life today, and how he wrote “BLOOM.” 100 percent of the proceeds go toward funds for rare-cancer research at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. View this list to see where you can pick up your own copy.
What originally broached your interest in poetry?
I grew up in New York City and London from ages 7 to 12, and I think that’s when my interest in poetry started. At the schools in London, poetry was a real focus: writing it, and learning how it works. I remember it was very appealing, even at that age. Since then I’ve always being drawn towards it as a medium.
I started publishing little bits in journals while I was in high school and college. I have an expressive, artistic part of me, and poetry is a medium where I felt comfortable. My mother is also a writer. She has written children’s books and a number of short stories that have been published. She was born in Minneapolis, and my grandfather was an engineer for U.S. Steel in northern Minnesota. My wife also happens to be from Minneapolis. My father was a lawyer, which is also about words, but in a different way. My parents were very much an influence on how I was drawn to words.
How did your attraction to poetry evolve as you moved into adulthood?
I used poetry to communicate, mostly to myself, in a journal to capture emotions, events and feelings that other forms couldn’t contain. For whatever reason, it was just easier or more accurate to put them in the form of a poem. To me, it’s most exciting when it’s read out loud. It has its place on the page, but as humans we have been speaking to each other in some way for hundreds of thousands of years. The written word hasn’t been around nearly as long. I think it’s much deeper for us to hear words. In New York City, I also played music and wrote songs. I had a band called Red Rooster for many years, which became my vessel for expression through words. Song and poetry are so related. You could say poetry is spoken song, or song is sung poetry.
We all have micro-crises, but when the big ones come your heart gets blown open. At those times, it felt like a compulsion to write poetry as a way to release that energy. When I was 24, a friend of mine was killed in a car accident, and I wrote a poem for our group of friends. There was no other way to contain it. Poetry allows for the mysterious and the irrational and intuitive, which is how our hearts are constructed. Linear prose can’t always encompass that. In my early 30s I went through a divorce.
These life events would happen, and I’d be searching for a pen and a pad. When I was diagnosed with cancer, that was also a part of my natural response to it: to start writing. I was just doing it privately. I didn’t know very much about cancer. You hear that word and you think, “I’m gonna die.” It takes a while to settle in and realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There’s that initial moment of shock…
I’m sorry, I was just getting overwhelmed by the memory of it. The point I was going towards is that with poetry you can communicate the feeling of nothing making any sense. That feeling of, “What the fuck?” Poetry can hold that. It doesn’t need to make sense. It can allow for contradiction and space. These things on the surface don’t have to make sense, but do have a deeper logic. It was a way for me to help make sense of a nonsensical experience.
How did that inform how you crafted “BLOOM”?
When you’re being treated for cancer, you can feel very alone. Even with your friends and family. They don’t have cancer, and you do. There’s a sense that they can’t be in that space with you. My hope is that people going through treatment can read these and feel less alone. That’s the best manifestation.
There’s also a lot of imagery in the book of flowers and natural things. The idea of the name of the book for me came from this image of the cancer starting in my testicles and having an upward, expanding path, where it went through my abdomen and into my lungs. Almost like a flower would. There’s that image contained in it for me. And also the idea of a bloom as an opening, petals that unfold, the center of which has sweet nectar. Part of the experience for me was being opened by it, at the center of which is vulnerability coming through the poetry.
How did the book come into being?
I created a blog called Busted Nut, which was a way to communicate a sense of what was going on. My wife urged me to put up things like doctor’s reports, tumor counts, and oh, by the way, here’s a poem. I made that more of a practice, and began publishing poems. As I made my way into recovery, people said, ‘This is really great stuff. You should package this and put it into a book.’ My editor helped me put it into a collection, and we published it. It was a wonderful, cathartic thing to do. To me, it felt like I was wrapping up that experience and putting it out there.
You decided to have a child while you were going through treatments, correct?
I did. When I was diagnosed, I needed to start chemotherapy treatments very quickly. The doctors didn’t know if I’d be able to have children after chemo, and we had two days to bank sperm if that was to be a possibility. A couple of months into the treatment, my wife and I decided to do in-vitro fertilization (IVF). My oncologist and other doctors told me, “If things go south with you, you might not be able to hold it together.” But we wanted to say “yes” to life, and to have something else to focus on.
We did one round of IVF and it failed. It was hard. IVF is a significant procedure. There’s surgery, an egg retrieval, all while I was going through treatment. We had one blastocyst left. It was our last hope. And that became my daughter, Juniper. We had planned on a home birth, but my wife ended up needing to have a c-section. And while I was going through treatment, I had a soft-ball sized tumor in my abdomen that they had to take out, and there was a golf ball-sized one next to my heart.
The last poem is a letter to her. The book is dedicated to her. To me, this one line is the heart of the book, and distills the whole thing. I can tell it to you right now:
“When i saw the surgeon lift you out, bloody as the dark bloom that was lifted out of me.”
It turns out I recovered the ability to have children, but at the time we didn’t know that. So I have another daughter. It was a big surprise to my oncologist and fertility folks. There’s a lot of little miracles going on. Today, the technical term for my condition is “no evidence of disease.”
If you could alter your past—to choose not to have to go through having cancer—would you?
In a vacuum? I am not sure. But when I think about my daughter, I would do it all again, without question. I had to, for her to arrive. She came out of that experience. I would pay any price.
Illustrations by Kate Diago, www.katediago.com