We sat down with Allison Blevins, author of Cataloguing Pain (YesYes Books, 2023) and two-time Fatal Flaw contributor, to talk with her about her new hybrid collection of lyric essays and poems, the juxtaposition of form and genre, and the challenge of making pain "readable."
Abby Mills: First of all, your book is beautiful. And obviously it's this incredibly personal book, so how did Cataloguing Pain come into existence? And when did you know you were going to write it in this form?
Allison Blevins: My book, Handbook for the Newly Disabled, released before this book. But I wrote it after. I think, in some ways, my full-length collections so far have a bit of a theme related to the five stages of grief. Slowly/Suddenly dove into, in many ways, the grief. I think of it as the sadness collection and Handbook is definitely the anger collection.
I do a lot of thinking about form and structure and just writing poems wasn't working for me. I was thinking about long forms and really started thinking about writing memoir. But of course, poets can't really just let it go and pick one thing. So, I think of [Cataloguing Pain] as a hybrid collection. It's lyric essays and poems together, and that was essential for my process because poems felt too contained, but then the essays weren't enough, either. I think there's a lot of juxtaposition happening in the book, and I hoped that the form was also doing that, that you were seeing some really short pieces next to longer things.
Mills: Definitely. Speaking of memoir, the book is about your experiences, but it's also about your husband's gender transition. I was wondering how it felt to approach both writing something that you know yourself, and then also writing about the experiences of another person.
Blevins: Sure. It's hard. The book definitely has a fulcrum, and “Elegy for my Wife” is like this falling off point into the other side – diving, which is a theme of the book. And that went out to a couple of places in an earlier form, and I got a rejection letter that basically said, “You can't write this. It’s very offensive. We can tell you're a good writer [but] we really hope that you would put more thought into how you're approaching this topic.” And I felt like I'd been, you know, stabbed. It was so hard to hear. But I think it was welcome because I'm a person who wants to really approach these issues intentionally. My husband and I had, of course, had lots and lots of conversations about what was in the book, how the book would be received. He wasn't out fully when I was writing the book because his transition started at the same time that I got sick and was diagnosed. So, his experience was still very private, But I think the experience that your spouse has reading the work is really different than how the world is going to perceive the work. He wasn't the best sensitivity reader, because to him it made sense. He was involved in what was happening.
A huge part of revising the book was also to think about how other people were going to receive the work. It was important to me that I handled it in the best way I possibly could. And I'm certainly aware of how it can be perceived problematically. I really wanted to do everything I could to make sure it wasn't perceived that way. But I think the only way to be fair and honest to people was to say, these are our experiences. And, it was hard. I think what sometimes made it easier to write about him was to remember I wasn't writing about him, I was really writing about me. And how it was to be the spouse of someone who was transitioning, rather than trying to represent what he was going through.
I had already written the book and it was in the process of being, it had been picked up, and I met Julie Enzer. She's the editor-in-chief of Sinister Wisdom, at the Saints & Sinners Festival in New Orleans. It's a queer book festival, and I was talking about the book on a panel, and she approached me afterward and said, “You know, this is something lesbians and queer people aren't really writing about as much as they should. Would you want to edit an issue of Sinister Wisdom?" So I'm finishing up that issue for her. And every person I approached said, “Yeah!” They were really excited to be able to share their experiences. I think a lot of queer people who are partnered with trans people want to talk about what that experience is like, in a way that is open and accepting and affirming, but also honest to what they went through.
So those parts of the book were hard to write, but I felt like in many ways it was essential because these were things I wanted to read, too.
Mills: I'm glad you brought up the letter from an editor, because I was going to ask about the other letter from an editor in your book. You mentioned in “Cataloguing Pain as Marriage Counseling” that “an editor once asked in an encouraging rejection letter why the manuscript had to be so depressing.” What would your answer be to that? Why, for lack of a better word, does it deal with these themes that can be depressing?
Blevins: I think my answer is the book, in many ways. That rejection letter was actually about Slowly/Suddenly. And [Cataloguing Pain] was the book I was writing right after I finished that one. So that rejection letter was in my mind a lot. I also had an experience in my MFA program where my wife at the time left, left our kids. So I started writing really depressing work. And [my mentor Sally Keith] said, “This is really sad! And we have to figure out a way to make it true to what you're feeling, but also readable. And you have to think about audience.”
I was also thinking about the way that well-meaning able-bodied folks say, “Well, at least you can this, or, you know, buck up, try yoga.” And how we're not supposed to be sad somehow about being chronically ill or being disabled. I think we see this a lot with pinkwashing, where we tell women who have breast cancer that they should smile through the pain which is all really kind of crazy and insane.
I felt like I wanted to wallow. I wanted to say, “I'm sad.” We're allowed to be sad. But I do think the last piece in the book, “Cataloging Pain as Non-Narcotic Pain Reliever,” is sort of the joy piece. I did want to intentionally end there, to lift up at the end, because I think that did represent my journey in writing the book. It's not all bad.
Mills: Readable is such a tough thing to have to get your own experiences into, especially because they're not always readable. Something I was interested in was how writing about pain, conveying pain to another person, as I’m sure you know, can be really difficult. Elaine Scarry talks about how, because pain is so interior, it's so hard to describe. When you sat down to write this, how did you contend with that?
Blevins: I'm a person who does a lot of research. So when you mentioned her book, The Body in Pain, that was one of the first ones I read. And Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, by Sonya Huber. I remember starting to read it and sitting on the sofa and I was doing the kind of ugly crying where, you know, I was like sobbing and shaking the sofa and my husband said, "What is going on?” I told him, “You have to read this book. This book says what I'm trying to tell you with my words.” I think reading what other people had said about pain was essential for me to be able to say what I wanted to say. It did give me some tools to see how other people were talking about this really complex thing.
Readable is a strange thing. I've never said it before when talking about work, but now that we're using that word back and forth, it seems right. Because in some cases I had to decide, did I care if it made sense? If it was readable? Or did I have to let the strangeness or the lyricism or the weird metaphor just sort of stand on its own for what it was. Because sometimes that's what pain is. People living with chronic pain, or even, I think, people who are just having some sort of strange interaction with the world, no matter what it might be—I think it will make sense to them. I hope.
Mills: You talk a lot about in this work about diagnoses and measuring symptoms. Cataloging Pain is a lot like a synonym for diagnosing. And you mention in “A Catalogue of Repetitive Behaviors” how you receive a diagnosis and your response is, “How to explain lonely feels like lonely no matter what you name it?” I wondered if you speak about the act of naming. What benefit or use does it have?
Blevins: I'm obsessed with language, you know, like writers and artists are. So this is something that I struggle with in a lot of my work because I think writing, like all other ways to try and explain something, has limitations. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to describe something that can only be seen or heard. Synesthesia is a concept that's important to me in writing because of this obsession with language. Like the form of pen and paper is ill-equipped to do the job. I found naming to be really important when talking about MS because of the trouble I had getting a diagnosis, and this, again, is unfortunately really common for lots of folks dealing with any kind of illness or medical problem. I was partially paralyzed, in that I could kind of walk-ish, but not really feel my legs, was on a walker. At one point, I remember saying to my husband and even my primary care doctor, “Is it possible I've made this up? Is it possible I'm so stressed that I stressed myself into being unable to move my legs or feel my legs?" And of course, other people hearing something like that say, no, that's crazy. But you start to really doubt yourself because the medical community wasn't helping or validating what was going on. I was checked into the hospital by my primary care doctor and then sent home without any tests or even an exam two times. By then I just thought, “Is this my life now?” Before—of course—a female doctor saw me and said, "You have a serious problem and you need an MRI.” Having that experience, understanding how universal it is to people who are navigating the medical industrial complex, it felt really important to talk about that as a difficulty that we face.
The first piece of the book talks about my diagnosis with being on the autism spectrum, and it is becoming more common that adults are being diagnosed, but it felt very similar to that experience of being diagnosed with MS. It took over thirty years for somebody to say, “Hey, maybe this is the thing you’re dealing with,” and to put a name to it for me. I’m part of a tradition of folks, particularly women and marginalized folks, who are trying to name and label and identify the experiences they’re going through.
Mills: You have this one poem which is dedicated to the podcast My Favorite Murder, which I wasn’t expecting to see in your work. It mentions this list of people who have had close encounters with serial killers
Blevins: That’s a controversial piece because if it [had been] up to my publisher, it probably wouldn’t be in the book. I really had to fight for it. There’s a little note to Karen [Kilgariff] and Georgia [Hardstark] in the back of the book because it’s a personal piece. My husband had been listening to the podcast since it began. I think of myself as too old and fuddy-duddy to even understand technology. So I was like, “Podcasts? No.” When I was finally diagnosed, I had to have a spinal tap, and after you have one, you have to lay flat. So, you’re laying flat for an hour or maybe longer, and I just said, “Put it on.” And it helped. It got us through that hour and then the next. I was in the hospital for five days without my kids. It helped, strangely. It really did.
After I left the hospital I just kept listening. There’s a whole community that's grown around it, and they're really interested in talking about mental health and addiction and recovery. And so, for me, this community of people that really cared about not only the podcasters, but the topic was important, and it really sucked me in. How everything went together. How female so many of these experiences are. How women are so often treated so differently by doctors and hospitals. And how women are overwhelmingly the victims of men's violence. No matter what kind of pain we're talking about, women are more often going to be the bearers of it and the recipients of it and those who are going to be asked to shoulder more of that responsibility. So you’re right, in many ways it doesn't fit, but it felt so personal and essential to me to sort of say, “There are all these other women who experiencing pain in different ways." And I just felt a strange responsibility to this podcast. The world is a weird place. I wanted to say thank you in a weird way for getting us through it.
Mills: I haven't listened to it yet, but now I'm going to have to.
Blevins: Oh, you have to.
Mills: I've also been slow into the podcast game. I'm like, yeah, definitely technology adverse. I also wanted to ask about the quote at the beginning of the second part, “I strive to remain liquid.” The book ends with this really beautiful moment in the shower, and you describe your family as “strange aquatic mammals.”
Blevins: Water is another obsession for me, and after I was released from the hospital, I started physical therapy to try to learn to walk again. I did water therapy. There's a treadmill in the water. It’s very strange. I spent a lot of time in a pool, in water. Water is part of my feeling loss and strangeness in my legs—I like to say it feels like my legs have been frozen in a block of ice, but they're also on fire, which are two really kind of contradictory things. But the solution often is to put them in very hot water to try and alleviate the pain of how cold they are. So I do spend a lot of time with my feet in the tub or just sitting in the shower with this hot water running on them trying to fix some of that pain. You write what you’re around and what you know and your surroundings. I was just spending tons of time in water. When I read Eula Biss’s article, “The Pain Scale,” that quote, of course, really stood out to me. It was already a theme that was recurring in the work, but reading her words somehow just solidified that water was something important to the experience, this water imagery.
Mills: What’s next for you?
Blevins: I have finished a chapbook on addiction that I’m sending out, making the rounds. And I spent much of the time after finishing Handbook for the Newly Disabled working on a “for real” memoir. I say that, “for real,” even though it's very lyric and strange and reads as poetry to people who want to label things. I'm finished with that and also sending it out now. I always say I'm going to take a break after I finish a book. So, we'll see. Taking a break is a goal.
Mills: It’s a good goal. It’s a hard goal.
Blevins: It really is.
Allison Blevins is a queer disabled writer and the author of Cataloguing Pain (YesYes Books, 2023), Handbook for the Newly Disabled, A Lyric Memoir (BlazeVox, 2022) and Slowly/Suddenly (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021). She is also the author of four chapbooks. She is the Director of Small Harbor Publishing and the Executive Editor at the museum of americana. She lives in Minnesota with her spouse and three children. For more information, visit allisonblevins.com.
Abby Mills is a writer living in Boston. She’s drawn to writing that’s sharp and sweet, and particularly to things that make her laugh. Her favorite books as of late include We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, The Seas by Samantha Hunt, and Bunny by Mona Awad.
Molly Zhu’s stunning chapbook debut, Asian American Translations, is a deep and tender meditation on the delicate act of growing up and how time, distance, and differences in culture can create chasms in meaning and understanding. Zhu asks what gets lost in translation, not merely from one language to another, but from generation to generation.