Hannah Baggott

"Dysesthesia"Hannah Baggott
Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2015
Selected by Major Jackson

Could you tell us a little about “Dysesthesia”? What was the hardest part about writing it?

I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at 16, but I didn’t have a full understanding of the disorder or the language possibilities for it until I started graduate school (nor did I want to write about myself at all). After some encouragement in my Poetry & Medicine course, taught by Jen Richter, I started collecting notes—blurry memories of sensational experience, current happenings with MS, and research.

As I looked through lists of symptoms and their descriptions, searching for a word bank, I read about how dysesthesia is nicknamed “Dante’s Pain,” as patients don’t present any physical damage or trauma, but experience extreme pain or inappropriate sensational response. At that, I was taken. I became more curious about neurology and its language, as well as how much fear I have in not being able to communicate symptoms and experiences. (There was also the fear, at a younger age, that I had committed some sin worth punishing with a somewhat Prufrockian hell-on-earth body.) In the beginning stages of “Dysesthesia,” there were many stream-of-consciousness pages in my journal that drove me to attempt to write something comprehensible with each individual moment or breath of a section, while working on other levels in its undercurrent.

Thus, the poem “Dysesthesia” explores unnamable pain through the lens of Dante’s nine circles of hell; from limbo to treachery, each section attempts to marry personal experience with these hells to embody the bodily hell for which dysesthesia is known.

The poem went through many drafts and forms—more and less Dante, more and less personal; at one point, I think it was much sexier than the final product. The hardest part was finding the balance for a piece that has several currents—the implicit and explicit; I wanted it to be readable for those that don’t know anything about the nine circles of hell, but rewarding for those who know them well.

Your website says that your “concerns & obsessions” in your work include “medicine, the body, the American South, & honest human relationships.” Why do you think medicine and illness have been—and continue to grow as—such a rich subject for writers? (Feel free to talk about the American South as well!)

I believe medicine and illness are such intriguing subjects for writers (and readers!) because we still lack specific, universal language to describe pain and sensations—possibly the most private or individual of experiences. It is still a rich subject, as there is still so much to explore—so many connections between bodies that can be made.

I think it’s also important to bring medicine and illness out of the stigma of otherness or brokenness, and out of the fluorescent, sterile, checkable boxes of the hospital. Instead, writing and reading about this subject can allow us to grow empathetically and linguistically.

As a native Southerner, I think I am also drawn to subjects that are taboo and uncomfortable, as culturally and socially, I was taught to keep quiet about the darker things—appearance was the most important; seeming happy, grateful, and strong were spoken and unspoken social rules.

There’s some overlap with southern culture and illness, then—a desire to uncover or to break the given rules (which I think is what contemporary poetry, as a body, often tries to do).

The poem touches on the idea of “not looking sick” or “seeming fine” several times. Can you talk a little about that?

Multiple Sclerosis, in its early stages, is often an “invisible” disorder—all neurological symptoms that have yet to manifest as physical disability.

I’m always riding the line between wanting to keep it a secret—pass as healthy (or pass as who Virginia Woolf calls the upright)— and wanting, only just recently, to assert my identity as a human—a poet and a teacher—who also has MS.

I still struggle with that, though; it’s a poetic and psychological obsession that I’m still writing my way through. On a larger scale, I think wanting to “not look sick” has a lot to do with not knowing how to respond to sympathy (distinct from empathy), or much worse—fear, from others when they can tell you’re ill, when they assume you’re suffering, furrow their eyebrows, and let their eyes go glassy with concern or discomfort.

How have other writers and other works influenced your own?

In terms of writing about illness, I’ve drawn from Sarah Manguso and Lucia Perillo, along with Virginia Woolf. I also love the delicious fiction of Jeanette Winterson and Vladimir Nabokov.

I’m becoming more interested in drawing from other nonliterary texts; for example, I wrote a poem this past year titled “Mitochondria Aren’t Sexy | A Sonnet for the Wahl’s Protocol,” which speaks to a nutrition text for autoimmune disorders.

I also had the amazing opportunity of studying Medical Humanities as a discipline under Dr. Anita Helle this past term, which is driving me to move forward with being comfortable entering this big conversation between science and art.

What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

I love to write from a deeply intimate and vulnerable place; I like to uproot my own secrets on the page. However, my secrets are often tied to the secrets of others. I am challenged most by the balance of the private and public—the possible ethical dilemma of letting truth conform to music, especially when it intimately involves others, when writing from an autobiographical perspective.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing over Spring Break for a final “keep on writing” hype before my thesis defense in April. I’m now reading Anne Carson’s red doc and rereading Helene Cixous’ The Third Body, one of my favorites.