Seeing Poetry in Cancer: An Interview with Sue Russell
By David Livewell
Sue Russell grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the winner of the Academy of American Poets prize, and her work was selected for inclusion in Intro, an anthology of the best from graduate schools produced by the Associated Writing Programs. Since that time, her poetry has appeared in such publications as the 5 AM, Pennsylvania Review, Folio, Laurel Review, and the Jewish Literary Journal , and the anthology My Lover Is a Woman (Ballantine; 1996). Her essays, reviews, and feature stories have appeared in print and online in such publications as the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, Lambda Book Report, Library Journal, Readerville Journal, Poets and Writers, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also a cabaret singer and has written biographies of jazz and pop singers that have appeared in reference books and on the website, jazz.com. We came to know each other as editorial colleagues at a non-profit cancer research organization in Philadelphia. This interview was conducted over several weeks after I had the privilege of reading some of her latest poems, several dealing with her cancer diagnosis of ocular melanoma.
Can you describe your writing life and literary endeavors before you came to Philadelphia?
About 25 years ago, while living in Pittsburgh, I desperately needed a day job after years as a TA in Pitt’s MFA program and subsequent adjunct teaching. I landed in a research office with a boss who told me as long as I was available when he needed me, he didn’t care what I did with the rest of my time. And what he needed me for most of all was my unofficial job. In addition to answering the phone and keeping the appointment book, I was to be the keeper of the text. I was to edit everything, most of all for him but also for everybody else, like the Chinese statistician and the nurse practitioner who did not think in sentences. For the man himself, a European non-native English speaker (born in Germany, raised in Sweden), I would even “edit for hostility” the memos he drafted in a fit of angst toward a colleague.
So, in Pittsburgh I learned to be a medical editor, which helped me to become employable ten years later when I moved to Philadelphia, a historic center for medical publishing. The other lesson was that I enjoyed immersing myself in research projects, which I was frequently asked to do on the job. I came to realize that I could be the one identifying the hypothesis and going after it. About five years into this ten-year sojourn, I was drawn to a posthumous collection of love poetry by May Swenson, one of the first poets I found as a teenager while searching the shelves of Cleveland’s libraries and bookstores. I reviewed the book for a local publication edited by a friend, but felt I was by no means “done.” I wanted to know more about Swenson’s life as a lesbian poet before the landmark Stonewall rebellion in 1969 in reaction to police harassment and how she found a way to be true to herself within the confines of a somewhat restrictive cultural climate. I started to use some of my “free time” at work to write to people who had known her. One person and one question would lead me to another. One of the poets I wrote to was Marilyn Hacker, who was at that time, albeit briefly the editor-in-chief of Kenyon Review. Hacker wrote back to me with a couple of anecdotes about Swenson and suggestions for other people I might want to talk to, and she encouraged me to submit my essay to Kenyon, not “over the transom,” but to her personally when I had a draft. And this is exactly what I did. The essay was accepted and was presented along with two previously unpublished Swenson poems contributed by the executor of her literary estate.
After the Kenyon publication, I placed an essay review on three new biographies of Elizabeth Bishop and went on from there to review books for a variety of publications, which I still do. I also write personal essays and feature stories. I continue to write poetry as well, but I have to admit it did take a backseat for a while. Still, I always feel that I write prose like a poet, so the poet in me is present in all that I do.
Do you think poetry can speak about illness with a greater intimacy and power than prose? Did your illness bring poetry back into your life in a pressing way?
I would say that the illness brought poetry back to my life through heightened awareness. After my diagnosis, with each new test or treatment, there was always a part of me watching and taking note. Even during a biopsy, I was watching the doctor (a woman no more than 5 feet tall) navigate based on what she saw on the screen to find that tiny tumor in the right lobe of the liver. And I was realizing how strange it was for my liver to be the focus of attention, that I could actually feel the sampling needle going deep down to a place for which I had no sense memory. And a part of me could read this as comedy, as I thought about those old Reader’s Digest articles with titles like “I Am Joe’s Liver.” I think that ability to stand outside oneself, that sense of watchfulness, can lead to poetry because the experience and the images are vibrant and readily at hand. Cancer patients are often asked to tell their story, whether to doctors, fellow patients, or family members, with the underlying assumption that it will be sequential. Although the details of all these stories may be different, the narrative arc is the same, and something gets lost in the telling. Poetry allows one to dig deeper.
So you settled in Philadelphia and continued to work as an editor. And now you’re a medical editor who works exclusively on cancer research journals. How did you process the irony and felicity of this situation?
This has been going on for some time. I also edited an oncology journal for most of the ten years I worked at another publisher down the street. A lot of the authors and editors whose names I see where I work now at a nonprofit cancer research organization were actually familiar to me from that earlier job. I have always been impressed with the compassion of these clinician-researchers toward the patients their research represents. I can “hear” it in their word choice and emphasis as I scan their Introductions, Results, and Discussions. And now that I have cancer myself I continue to be touched and impressed not only by sentences here and there in a research article but also in my day-to-day interactions with my treatment team at Jefferson and Wills. I feel very fortunate and very cared for. In turn, my doctors are impressed that I work where I do, and also that I’ve written professionally about my cancer experience. I was a big star in the infusion center when my feature story came out in The Inquirer. The felicity aspect is that I ended up in Philly at all, which happens to be an important center internationally for treatment of my rare cancer, ocular (or uveal) melanoma (as opposed to cutaneous, or skin, melanoma), which occurs in only six in a million people across the United States. And to add to that, my workplace is down the street from my docs, which makes my life easier and allows me to keep my job. Many people have to travel great distances for treatment because the specialists are few and far between for this rare cancer. Even seasoned oncologists at decent hospitals may not know the experimental treatments being tried or the best practices for scanning, and may present the odds to the patient as worse than they have to be. I should note here, for readers who don’t know me that, although technically I have stage 4 cancer (by definition, a primary tumor that has spread to another organ), so far I do not have cancer-related symptoms. I have some side effects from treatment, including fatigue. As for the primary tumor in the left eye, it has shrunk just as it was supposed to do from earlier treatment with a radioactive disc placed on the affected eye. I still have a dark spot in the corner of the affected eye, and my vision in that eye is not great, but I’m used to this. The other eye compensates. Day to day, I do fine. I love my Kindle White.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you received your diagnosis and how that realization brimmed over into your creative life? When did the two begin to connect?
I received my diagnosis in May 2012 at Wills. There was another element of felicity here. I had been treated several times before by a retinologist there for retinal tears. Ocular melanoma can be non-symptomatic, but there also may be signs having to do with changes of light, floaters, and flashes, which are similar to the symptoms for retinal tears. I made an appointment with the retinologist who had treated the tears, and it became clear to him right away that this was something more dire. Fortunately, he referred me to the ocular oncologists, who were just a few floors up in the same building. That’s where I was officially diagnosed. I opted to get genetic testing to get a sense of my risk for metastasis. It turned out I was at high risk, and I was referred to a medical oncologist at Jefferson, who got me started on some potentially preventive treatment and established a plan for surveillance/imaging. Unfortunately, metastasis to the liver was confirmed by biopsy in August 2014. Of course that’s a very scary thing, but I’ve gotten to know a lot of people with the same diagnosis, mostly through a Facebook support group, and I had a palpable sense of what to expect not only in terms of prognosis but also in the range of treatments. Also, I could see that these people were getting on with their lives, and that I could, too.
In my “creative life,” it seems like several elements are at play. Since I work on cancer journals, I see my own story everywhere. That makes me a better editor because I have a better sense of what the sentences mean, and also helps me to be more precise and clear as a poet. And there’s the black humor thing, represented by the mice and rats splayed out for all to see in so many articles and slated for “sacrifice.” And some of the gene nicknames are very funny, like sleeping beauty and hedgehog. Perhaps due to my poet’s sensibility, I have always been aware of these idiosyncrasies of language, but of course my awareness has intensified now that I’m living inside this cancer narrative myself.
Were there useful examples of poets writing about their illnesses? Did you intentionally read what other poets had written about cancer over the years? Did any serve as catalysts or instruct you with techniques or imagery you didn’t want to emulate? I’m thinking particularly about the married poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. Those poets had cancer at the same time. Their poems often covered the same material and even responded to each other.
I’ve looked at poems by Hall and Kenyon and was particularly struck by Kenyon’s “The Sick Wife. It is written in the third-person voice, so again there’s that outside-looking-in feeling, and the sense that the most everyday activities now feel strangely out of reach. The last three lines in the first stanza go like this: “Not yet fifty, /she had learned what it’s like/ not to be able to button a button.” The whole line taken up by “Not yet fifty” seemed just right. In my own head I was replacing it with the analogous factoid for me: “Not yet sixty…”
I see in Kenyon’s work a sensibility that feels familiar. Rather than focusing on a particular procedure that is common for many types of cancer, I’m more inclined to see cancer as a background for everyday occurrences, so I’m looking at the unexpected ways in which cancer affects how I see the world. For example, in one recent poem, “The Gertrude Jekyll Rosebush,” I’m looking at the last rose of summer and the unwieldy branch that bears it. The garden is messy and overgrown, and a part of me wants to see this as yet another example of “things fall apart” (as in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”) in a never-ending spiral starting with cancer. But then I shift my perspective, and that’s the moment, perhaps, when poetry starts to happen.
Cancer touches everyone, and one person’s struggle with it doesn’t stop it from happening to other people at the same time. The world can look like a very dismal place at those times. Several months after my own diagnosis, my office mate, whom I had known from a previous job, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The progression was much quicker in her case, and she unfortunately died two years ago. This hit me very hard, and our common profession became the starting point for the poem, “Taking the Under Way.” The title comes from my former colleague’s preference for the two-word formulation, “under way,” as opposed to the more recent streamlined term, “underway.” I feel like shifting to the perfectly acceptable “underway” (I even see it in the New York Times now) would dishonor my friend’s memory.
Do you worry that you might not address the disease adequately in language? Can you comment on that in conjunction with your poem, “Cancer,” in which you flesh out both sides of the enterprise, the all-too simple concepts of “winning” and “losing?”
There are a lot of components to that question. Do I have an urgent need to write poetry, especially now? I’m not sure that I do, but I can’t help thinking about it because I’m a thinking kind of person, and if I’m thinking I might as well be writing. And I feel, maybe for the first time in my life, that I have something to say. Living with cancer has clarified some core beliefs for me. Getting it is the luck of the draw. I don’t feel that I’m under attack by a beast or that I did anything to deserve it. I don’t think I could have avoided getting cancer by exercising more or drinking lots of carrot juice, or if I drink a kale smoothie every day I will be miraculously cured. I do think, however, that it’s in our nature, biologically and otherwise, to put up a fight to stay alive. Nobody has to tell me to fight, I just do, and I think that’s true for most people. Even for somebody who is consciously ready to die, the body has other ideas. And I don’t want to think of my life, or anybody else’s life, as a war zone. Cancer cells, and the mutant genes expressed in them, have no volition of their own, evil or otherwise. They just do what they do. I will most likely die from this cancer, but that won’t mean I’ve lost any battle except the one that we all lose eventually, or that I’m any weaker for having “succumbed.” I think maybe for this game winning simply means doing our best.
Every day mice are sacrificed
in its name. We see their pictures
in all the journals, their brightly stained tumors
cute as little tracksuits. Meanwhile we walk
on our treadmills and drink
our green smoothies while the cell
break up and regroup like players
in a cosmic rock band. Everybody loses.
THE GERTRUDE JEKYLL ROSEBUSH
The flowers of this rose start as perfect little scrolled buds …The growth is upright and vigorous and in every way reliable.
[It gives off] a beautiful and well balanced Old Rose scent.”
The last lone pink bloom dropped its petals in August,
but one thorny branch keeps on growing
and now, in September, has reached the porch railing.
Cutting it down would require special gloves to avoid
pricking myself, and careful layered packing
for trash collection at the curb.
The season shifts so fast now, like calendar pages
in an old movie. I don’t know how to reconcile
the need for an ordered garden with the changes
happening inside, this rare cancer that travels
through my bloodstream from the left eye to the liver,
the cells proceeding relentlessly toward their checkpoint,
to be met and, one hopes, vanquished
by this season’s touted drug. As to my own limbs,
a florid bruise with two pin pricks marks the spot
where my vein refused to pop out on my left arm for I.V. insertion.
The right arm is much more dependable, or the hand.
The bruise will eventually disappear, to be replaced by
more bruises. The weekly labs will continue, with proper disposal
of all gloves (boxes and boxes of gloves), used needles,
and tubes. My own arms may be battered,
but something in me wants to see how tall that
Gertrude Jekyll branch will grow before the first frost.
TAKING THE UNDER WAY
in memory of Virginia Barishek
When copy editors die
the edits for which they are known
require our special attention.
We must not lose them in the quotidian
work flow or forget the rationale
for their defense. Respect is due
in the form of commentary, whether
by red pen or office conversation.
The favorite markings
of the dead are like sandwiches
that bear their name at the local diner.
It gives us a good feeling just to know
they remain on the menu.