“Sand Flats, UT” by Emily Lawson is the winning poem for the 2021 Love & Eros Prize, selected by guest judge Kaveh Akbar. We’re honored to share this moving poem as well as an interview with Emily about her work and process.
“A searching, wry poem that reminds us how love-as-verb need not be extravagant. Here, love is a being-with, a still and loyal amongness found in a patient other—a memory red sandstone, outside of time.” —Kaveh Akbar
Sand Flats, UT
Interview with Emily Lawson
by AT Hincapie
AH: In her book On Immunity: An Inoculation, essayist Eula Biss writes, “you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you feel about it… Or, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.’” Does narrative medicine (or your writing process as a whole) provide an outlet for you to “control how you feel” about the circumstances described in your winning poem?
EL: Because this is a joyful poem, I can see the impulse to read a kind of self-overcoming in it. And there is transcendence there—no doubt. But I want to push back on this question (I have a lot to say about this, so bear with me).
I love reading both Biss and Sartre, and what’s more, they’re right. But I don’t like directing calls to self-mastery at cancer patients, who in particular are just bombarded with the message that it is essential—even for our survival—to keep a positive attitude. I wonder why so many people insist on this. Maybe it comes from a need to see only smiling, determined faces; to insert meaning where there is none; to reassure oneself that because of the mind’s purported power over the body, to be overwhelmed by pain or even to die of cancer is a personal failing—a loss of the will to live, an inability to control one’s feelings—that one would not commit oneself. I want to make clear that I’m not endorsing that message. To surrender to pain is not a moral failing.
How do I feel about the circumstances of this poem, which include a stage-III colon cancer diagnosis, a colostomy bag and its attendant scatological horror, the grief of being sterilized, long periods of physical agony, many hospitalizations, a grueling chemotherapy regimen, and the frightening possibility of a slow and painful death in my early thirties? Awful. I feel awful about these circumstances. I bore these things, but another frightening possibility is that maybe nothing is unbearable.
Early during treatment, my inability to “control how I felt” was a constant source of worry. As a poet and philosophy student, my mental life means a great deal to me. But I wish I had realized earlier that it is okay to escape the present through fantasy, memory, and distraction, okay to feel despair (if best not to live in it), and okay not to write. Poetry has incredible transcendent power, but I’m not convinced we should use it to bring our feelings to heel.
AH: Your poem opens in blood and closes in fire, allowing readers to witness as “the chemo turns all my fluids poison.” Why begin with these uncomfortable truths, especially if they might seem more shocking than the traditional “love poem” ?
EL: These truths, uncomfortable as they are, were intimate features of my everyday world. On the one hand, they were totally mundane to me. On the other hand, they were also shocking, as you say. Especially when put into words (There’s the constant thinking about cancer, and then the awful periodic thunderbolt: I can’t believe I have cancer. That pattern repeated on many levels).
I think the poem turns on this realization: “still you want me.” It’s the revelation that the erotic can coexist with body horror. It’s a surprise, both redemptive and maybe disturbing. To make the reader feel that surprise, I have to bring them into the experience of being in my sick body, as uncomfortable and shocking as they might find it. It’s essential to this piece as a love poem.
We don’t expect to find great love in the realm of the grotesque. I never would have thought that in being seen how I couldn’t bear to be seen, in a state of total physical vulnerability, I would discover a new level of soul-shaking, surreal depth of love with my husband, Shane. I will never love anyone like I love the man who, when I could not move, cleaned my ostomy, which was so horrific to me, and as he did, told me that I was sexy, even then, and meant it.
That is fucking real. Who gets to feel a love like that? I am so lucky (and so unlucky). And then through all of this, and in the background of the poem, is the proximity of death, of great fear and uncertainty. Terrible, but that darkness makes the good things stand out so brightly. It makes something like watching kids play in a park very moving. Love grows enormous and almost unbearable, almost blinding to look at. The sublime can attend acute suffering—only, as the poem says, at “a price no-one would ever pay.”
AH: Medical information often comes with technical jargon that can make it almost impossible for a patient to understand the details of their own treatment. However, the speaker in your poem beautifully advocates for visibility with no apologies for being “extravagantly unfuckable.” Why approach such a difficult subject with plainspoken and often “crass” vocabulary? Does this help you connect with your audience more directly?
EL: Well, I wouldn’t say the speaker of my poem is advocating for visibility (of cancer patients? of the unfuckable?), and I don’t think an apology for not being able to have sex during cancer treatment would ever be called for. But oh—this question about language is such a rich one. You’re so right that medical terminology has a distancing effect. Like all jargon, it offers precision at the expense of candor.
Thrown into the maw of the medical industry and its bizarre information matrix, many language-lovers interrogate the terminology of hospitalization, and even find beauty in it. That project is fascinating, but it isn’t mine: I try to avoid hospital-speak and its implicit euphemism. Though to think of it, I do use medical jargon a few times here. Now I wonder if I wrote “hysterectomy” to dodge the pain of describing “my uterus being cut out” or “colostomy” to avoid “my intestine extruding through a hole in my side.” Though really, ugh. The poem is probably graphic enough as is.
And yes, I guess I do use pretty crude language! To me, “toxic pussy” just felt hilarious, and I needed to laugh at the strangeness of my predicament. The beginning of the poem is pretty grim, so maybe I like that there’s a sharp turn, that the pall gets shaken off. I’m also remembering now that after my first emergency surgery, a horrific experience, I completely lost my filter. I don’t know if it was the drugs, or the trauma, or what, but I heard myself saying inappropriate things all the time, which is unlike me. I wrote this poem in the thick of the worst of it, so maybe the language just reflects that.
AH: The poem’s title details a specific place, one that the speaker offers brief glimpses of while recalling “the open hills of red sandstone.” Why is it important to find a moment “outside of time,” and how might the natural world provide this kind of intimacy?
EL: I’m working on a long series of what I’m currently calling “West Essays” in this prose poem form, and this piece is one of them. I was surprised that my attempts to write about cancer seemed to fit in with this “nature writing” project, but the juxtaposition also feels right to me. Maybe it’s related to your last question. How can I write about illness and mortality without only invoking the aesthetics of hospitalization? Because that aesthetic reduces, compartmentalizes, and sterilizes.
Sand Flats is in Moab, Utah, where Shane and I used to work as whitewater raft guides. We’ve both spent many seasons in the American Southwest—usually apart, sometimes together—and I think the West represents a lot to both of us (we’re actually slowly writing a YA fantasy novel together about a girl’s adventures in the desert, especially rafting the Grand Canyon). For me, the West holds memories of danger, precarity, vastness, violence, wildness, sensuousness…so much.
Imagination can offer us a way to escape misery, to remember that our lives are bigger than whatever moment we are stuck in, that the world is bigger than whatever room we are stuck in. During one early hospitalization, when Shane and I were beginning to face the fact that I might not live very long, I started to talk through some of the amazing things I’ve had the chance to do and see already. Listing them like that, saying them aloud, was astounding. I’ve encountered a pack of wolves in the backcountry in Yellowstone; I guided horseback trail rides at sunset through red hoodoos under honest-to-god rainbows; we swam naked in alien blue pools in Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon…and on, and on. So many of these experiences, any one of which might redeem a whole life, happened out west. Holding them in my imagination makes me feel braver.
Also, I mean…that was just an exquisite erotic memory! The landscape and its danger were all a part of it. 10/10 recommend having sex in the desert in a lightning storm, is what I’m saying.
AH: You have also published works of fiction and lyric essays, and your winning poem demonstrates an appreciation for the prose-poem form. How do you see these separate disciplines influencing each other across your work, or what might have influenced your formal decisions in this poem?
EL: I think this piece could be called a prose poem, a lyric essay, a flash nonfiction piece, a micro-essay, or any number of other names. For whatever reason, I am very attracted to the spaces between genres. But I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about genre! Whatever this is, the form has a lot of charm for me. It makes no promises, so it can go anywhere and do anything. It doesn’t make the reader go, “I am reading a poem now.” Because of that unassuming quality, a prose poem can sneak up on you, and deploy meter, music, and even line breaks without announcing itself as doing so. James Tate writes that because of this, “when, by the end of a prose poem, a revelation or epiphany has been achieved, it is particularly satisfying.” I only really wrote prose poems before my MFA. The workshop model kind of knocked it out of me for a while, but now I’m back to it (I’m trying to write “un-workshop-able” poems). For reasons you’ve pointed out, and so many others, it is hard to be direct writing about cancer (or love! or eros!). I think prose poems encourage frankness.