In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Kristin Laurel
In “Lucas”, your poem from Volume 24, the speaker is taking a bath after witnessing a man receive medical attention from a chest compression device. Can you tell us what inspired this poem? How did it come to be?
Literally, this poem came about after a twenty-four-hour shift as a flight nurse. I wasn’t thinking of all the benefits from a medical perspective, but thinking of the device through a tired poet’s eyes. Plus, something a coworker said when we started using this device years ago “codes sure are controlled and easier now.” Giving chest compressions is hard work, and there’s something about not having the cardio and adrenaline—it makes it less dramatic, and may I daresay less exciting. So for me, therein lies the danger— becoming too detached.
There is a little bit of humor in this poem that diffuses the intensity of witnessing medical trauma. I think the humor always highlights the intimacy in the poem: the speaker bathing, her reflections on desire for a man’s touch. If desire is derived from emotions and environment, in what ways did you mine through your own interiority to convey such a personally-nuanced but universally-shared expression?
Well, I’m glad there was some humor that seeped through despite the content. Truth is, I was probably missing my wife. At the time, we were only spending about six months a year together. She lived in NC and I lived in MN. We did the long-distance deal for over ten years, so longing and desire come naturally for me. Lol. If the LUCAS device was named Lolita or Lucy, it would have been a woman’s touch. I chose to stick with more masculine nouns and pronouns to make the poem less confusing.
I read in another interview that you write a lot from personal experience. There’s this nice NPR article about you in which you discuss compassion fatigue, a concept that may have been unknown to many of us until fairly recently. Does “Lucas” draw upon this concept of compassion fatigue? I’m thinking of how the speaker desires a man’s hands on her chest, not some medical device delivering chest compressions. Do you find that poetry is an outlet for human compassion? How do you wish for your poems to convey connections between humanity?
Yes, definitely. That’s exactly what I was aiming for. There’s a fine line to compartmentalizing for self-care vs. not caring (burn out). Technology makes it easier to dissociate and we need to be careful. When I was a student nurse over thirty years ago, we were taught massage. Can you imagine that now? I spend more time staring at a computer screen and entering information than I do actual hands-on nursing.
I do think poetry is an outlet for compassion among other things. I’ve turned to poetry in some of the darkest and hardest periods in my life—as both writer and reader. As a reader it’s always a comfort to me to read something that makes me not feel so alone, especially during periods of grief or despair. Poetry can unite us on a deeper level. My old mentor Thomas R. Smith once told me something like “poetry is where our best selves come out.” I’m still looking for my best self, lol, but I’ve written two books with extremely heavy, painful material. The writing act itself was therapeutic, but I felt compelled to put it all out there in hopes it might make a connection and/or help someone else.
One of our readers noted “Lucas” feels timely while we’re still enduring the Covid-19 pandemic, and yet I think the idea of desire for human compassion and decency will resonate with readers well into the future. Can you think of any poems or poets that you’ve read lately whose work feels both poignant now and transcendent of future time?
I wrote Lucas pre-pandemic, so yes, I think the desire for human compassion and decency is a universal and transcendental theme. I think so many poets do this; it would be hard to name just a few. An old poem (with a title that would not be acceptable today) that comes to mind and that definitely resonates with this theme is the poem by the late Alden Nowlan “He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded.” The poem describes what it is like going to a group home and giving one of the residents a hug. I especially love the lines:
It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss.)
Yet, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.
The title of Vol. 24, “Ghost(s) Still Living” comes out of a line from a poem by Heather A. Warren. Given all that’s occurred in our world in the past year or two, what does the idea of “ghosts still living” mean to you?
So many interpretations for this. And wow, that is a great poem “What Wounds Become” by Warren. For me, what comes to mind is grief. I wrote about the ghosts of my nephews after they died. As a poet, I carry the dead with me per se. My dead are my ghosts. They show up in my imagination, my psyche, dreams, or even as memory. After the last two years, there’s been a collective grief that’s almost palpable. Warren’s poem hints at (via my interpretation) “ghosts still living” inside of us.
What does your writing process look like? Are you still working as a nurse, and if so, has Covid changed your writing process? Is Covid providing new material for you to work with?
Pre-Covid, and pre-move to NC, I had structure and a writing group. I was disciplined and also very task-driven to complete a manuscript for the writing program I was in, and then another to honor the death of my nephews. I guess my process is obsession driven. I have a thought or idea (usually from an experience) and then set out to experiment on paper. I have been working as an ER nurse seasonally and now as a travel nurse. Covid has changed my writing process, I think. Why not? Blame it all on Covid. –When I’m on assignment it is draining and all-consuming. I find that when I am off work, I have this “ I need to fill up” mentality. Spending time with my loved ones and outdoors has taken priority. Writing, at times, feels like work, especially, writing about nursing or working with Covid patients. Covid has given me material, along with travel nursing. I’ve scribbled away at stuff in my journal to jog a memory here or there to come back to it later, but I haven’t written a work poem in over two years.
What projects are you working on now?
I’ve really been trying to write lighter stuff—which hasn’t been working out so great, at least on a prolific level. I’ve been consciously trying to be more mindful and grateful, and writing more poems inspired by the natural world. I’ve been working on a poem for my grandson for a few months. I’ve been trying to finish a short story for fifteen years. I’ve been dabbling and composing. Slowing myself down and enjoying the little things. Maybe that’s the one good thing that Covid has changed for us all.
Kristin Laurel has been employed as a nurse for over thirty years. She owes her passion for poetry to The Loft Literary Center, where she completed a two-year apprenticeship. Her poetry and essays have been published in CALYX, Chautauqua, Gravel, The Raleigh Review, The Portland Review, and others, and have been featured on NPR. She is the author of Giving Them All Away (Evening Street Press) and Questions About the Ride (Main Street Rag). She and her spouse divide their time between the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota and the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. You can learn more about her and her work at her website.