by Alexa Luborsky | Interviews Editor
Eugenia Leigh’s Bianca expands the confessional mode in its insistence that survival through writing is not the endpoint of the poem. Uninterested in catharsis for the reader, Leigh refuses an examination of motherhood, inherited trauma, and childhood abuse in a way that allows grace to exist without grief, desire to exist without erasure, and attention to exist without intention. The precision of Leigh’s language and technical optics turn the reader’s experience from a complication of page and language, to a complication of self and survival. The speaker of Leigh’s poems encounters the page with the clarity that writing, namely about the speaker’s abusive childhood, through the language of a Complex PTSD and Bipolar II Disorder diagnosis, can be a mechanism for self-acceptance, but it can also become a way of rewriting history rather than a reckoning with it. The collection, titled after the name the speaker calls her Bipolar II Disorder, challenges us not to ask how we get back to ourselves, but to ask how this question might privilege someone who at one point felt that they could trust that they knew themselves at all, and instead, imagines an alternative where acceptance of all parts of the self, including where one was and where one is now, is available. It was an honor to be able to ask Eugenia some questions about her brilliant new collection via a Google Doc.
Alexa Luborsky: The first two poems in your new collection are rife with imagery of the expulsion of man from Eden, of inheritance, of what is passed from mother to child. It feels reminiscent of how the original sin is inherited. In the first poem, “What I Miss Most about Hell,” the speaker is “demanding answers / from the maker of figs.” In other words, the creator. This is invited to be read as “The bright, violet blob // I called God,” but it might also be read as the poet or the creator of this universe of language we are entering. Interestingly, too, is the fact that figs, not apples, are highlighted in the first poem. Fig leaves are the leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover themselves, so it is debated if the apple was made the forbidden fruit just because of the pun it evokes in Latin: malus meaning apple and evil. The suggestion of the fig as the fruit of evil in these early poems I think echoes later themes of distrust in the historical knowledge we have of, well in some ways, the origins of our own suffering and the anxiety of how we might inherit it and/or perpetuate it.
I think of the Anne Sexton opening epigraph with the mirror and self-gaze in proximity to: “I had to / watch her get angry to know to get angry” from “The First Leaf.” Where does the knowledge of self reside? What happens when you no longer trust yourself as your own creator? How do our pasts/inheritances, historically, ancestrally speaking, play into that? I also know that you have researched attachment theory extensively. In an interview you describe the fact that “in an unhealthy traumatic relationship, a child is forced to choose between authenticity and attachment. And the child often chooses attachment, because if they don’t, then they would literally die, right?.” You’ve also mentioned that your newer poetry is “noticing now that I lost so much of my authentic self.”
This book, in some ways, feels like a process of the speaker getting back to herself. Can you speak to that a bit? You’ve also mentioned coming to poetry as a way of processing trauma in past interviews, but was this the same case for you, as a poet, as a human, in writing Bianca? I guess my question is, from this long string of smaller questions (sorry!), how do we trust what we build, including ourselves, with language? This could be in the context of your Bipolar II diagnosis or not, I leave it to you! And sorry again for the very long question. There is so much density in this book—it’s truly amazing.
Eugenia Leigh: I’m blown away by your close reading of this book, Alexa. The earliest draft of Bianca—which evolved tremendously over the last ten years—opened with a now-filed-away, unpublished poem called “Genesis”—a (terrible) reimagined treatment of the Adam and Eve creation story. Maybe even after I trashed that poem and that version of the manuscript, the spirit of that choice remained, which you seem to be detecting.
To answer your questions about the “knowledge of self”—for as long as I can remember, my parents told me lies about the circumstances of my birth and my childhood, and I was instructed to lie about our family to others. I was a Christian minister’s daughter. And the daughter of immigrants. They had many reasons to want to appear less dysfunctional than they were. So my sense of my own history has always been unstable, then further destabilized by Complex PTSD and Bipolar II Disorder, which affect the brain’s memory centers.
So a question like “what happens when you no longer trust yourself as your own creator” gives me pause because it assumes I once had a sense of self I did trust. I think it’s more accurate to say that for most of my life, I had no sense of self at all. The only favorite color I remember having is periwinkle, at age nine, because that was the favorite color of a friend I loved. Like you mention, the authentic self is often sacrificed when you grow up in an abusive environment. For me, this meant I became a very good chameleon to appease my attachment figures. I had to become whoever it was that my father would most tolerate or least abuse. This behavior became so ingrained that I repeated the pattern in my later romantic relationships and even in toxic work environments.
Bianca is less about “the speaker getting back to herself” and more an account of the speaker getting a chance to create the self on her own terms. To control her narrative. And, also, to grieve the younger self she never really got to be. I turn forty next year, and I’m only now asking: well, what the hell is my favorite color? Having a four-year-old at home who constantly asks these sorts of questions is weirdly helpful.
AL: This collection doesn’t seem to be interested in catharsis for the reader. In response to lines in which the speaker is helped by a group of men who drove her to an alleyway to do so, she answers the question that is on the reader’s mind: “And no, they didn’t rape me.” What does the reader do with that now? With the recognition of shared pessimism? The testimony coaxed from our thoughts? Where do we go from there? Personally, after that line I closed your book and looked out the window of a train for a tree with any last traces of a leaf on it just to taunt myself (it was January in Toronto). Additionally, writing itself is proposed as sometimes antithetical to healing for the speaker because of the ability to break from reality. In “The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes,” the speaker notes: “How it’s possible to rewrite a father as someone less like a violent and convicted felon and more like a wounded soldier.” This was a really interesting part of Bianca for me, because at other points in Bianca, as well as just by virtue of following you on Twitter/reading your interviews out there, you have spoken about coming to poetry as a way of salvation and I feel that strongly in this collection too. But there seems to be a tension between the ability to write through or about, and a temptation maybe to rewrite our histories into something else, something less painful. What is the relationship between art, healing, and surviving? And how did you survive writing this book? I don’t mean it in the past tense, really, because the collection makes clear that survival is a gerund. So I guess, what was that period of survival like for you and what is it like now?
EL: Yes, catharsis for the reader never entered my mind as I wrote Bianca. I wanted to depict, as intimately as I could, the extraordinary muscling required to survive abuse, to survive mental illness, to survive the kinds of trauma that could have and maybe should have killed us but did not. And I wanted to include both of those realities: “should have killed us” and “but did not.”
My first real interaction with poetry as a child showed me poetry could tell the truth when I was not allowed to say the truth. Many people use writing as a coping mechanism to say what they cannot say elsewhere. This is important and oftentimes lifesaving. So the writing is not the part I feel I must survive. I write in order to survive. It’s the publishing part that requires survival. It’s necessary to be able to discern which pieces of writing are just for ourselves and which ones are meant for outside readers.
The draft I write for myself almost never looks like the piece that gets published. I try not to publish something I’ve written unless I know it’s been revised enough and transformed enough to create space for a reader to have an interaction with the piece. If I am writing to publish something, I am writing with the knowledge that the poem will be theirs in the end. So what kind of experience do I want to create for the reader? I don’t want them to just read the poem. And I definitely don’t want to be a zoo animal they get to watch. I want to get the reader involved.
So the final draft isn’t about me or what I was going through when I wrote the poem anymore. The final draft is about the line, the language, the space, the music. And by the time the poem or the book gets into a reader’s hands, hopefully it no longer feels like survival. I’d rather it feel like I created a piece of art, and now I get to present it as such.
AL: Some of the most urgent parts of this work, for me, are hopeful. In “The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes,” the speaker says, “It was the year I most hated myself, but also the year my loose ideas of karma broke down and became replaced by that of grace.” Why do grief and grace feel so proximate in this work? What is so heartbreaking about being loved when you might not love yourself? And, maybe or maybe not related to that, does forgiveness, and even more pressingly, self-forgiveness, relate to grace (and if you want to insert another word here you feel is more accurate please feel free)?
EL: It’s possible grief and grace feel so proximate because to have grace toward the worst parts of ourselves requires grief. If we have experienced years-long physical and/or emotional abuse, it becomes horrendously natural to abuse ourselves. I still do it. When I make a mistake, my brain instantly unleashes a barrage of insults, abuses, lectures. This is what’s automatic for me. It requires work and time and real labor to stop that noise. To be kind to myself. To give myself grace. And replacing that self-abuse with self-compassion sometimes requires grief. I have to grieve the ways I’ve always related to myself. I have to grieve the reality that I had few models for how to give myself genuine, nonjudgmental love.
AL: I’d love to hear you talk a bit about the cover art and the title. Most of the poems are written in couplets or tercets, with the exception of the second section of the collection. To me this feels representative of the spatial geometry of, as the speaker often does, staying when she “should” not, or of holding onto a past image of “self.” And by “should” I mean when the speaker points out that it is not in her the best interest to do so. I don’t know if I know what “should” even means, really. I am haunted by things I “shouldn’t” be haunted by that I’ve epigenetically inherited. Things that feel they are mine and yet not mine in regards to intergenerational violence. But hauntings are not the fault of the haunted. This book feels like it wrestles with what happens both during and after a haunting, especially when we have the language to name it. How do we let go? Do we let go? How could we possibly let go? Is this even in our power to ask of ourselves? And finally, in putting the parts of oneself back together after this haunting is “done,” (again whatever that means) if it doesn’t equal the previous sum, then what does it equal? These are the questions that I feel resonant with both the title and the cover art. The many index cards/labels that are stuck to a body obscure the identity of the person on the cover, and the title, Bianca, refers of course to the name given to the Bipolar II Disorder of the speaker. I also am asking this in the context of what it feels like as a Korean American and of the violence generally of existing as a Korean in America. The lines from “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with Han (한/恨)” feel especially relevant here:
Alone as the day
he was released like a scream
from the mouth of an American
prison then expelled like an object,
foreign, from the American body
to a country neither his nor mine
but home to the ghosts roiling
our blood. To be Korean
is to house rage. Palpable rage.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I, too,
want to believe my violence
isn’t all mine.
EL: To answer your questions about letting go, I don’t believe anymore that letting go is the point. Our past, for better or for worse, is a part of ourselves. And the past selves who existed when we were in the thick of surviving our traumatic pasts still exist somewhere within us. One type of therapy I’ve practiced recently is Internal Family Systems. And when my therapist uses IFS language, she reminds me: “All parts welcome.” I often judge and condemn my many parts. The PTSD parts who cry or overreact to something seemingly small. The younger coping parts who crave that cigarette or crave intimacy with someone unavailable to me. I hate them all (and this hater is also a part).
And for me, the only real way to achieve the feeling of letting go of them is to accept them. When one part becomes loud and takes over my brain, I engage her with curiosity. I ask, what has been triggered for her? Why is she behaving like it’s 2007? And then: what do I need to tell her to let her know it’s safe for her to shrink down, take a seat, and let 2023 Eugenia drive the self? How do I convince her that I’m here now. A grownup. And I can take care of myself, which includes her.
It’s suffocating to think the “haunting,” as you put it, never ends. It dies down, but there are constant flare-ups. It’s possible I’m wrong. That total healing with zero flare-ups is possible. That there are people who let go. I haven’t figured out what that looks like while living with PTSD. And yes, all of this absolutely connects to the cover image. The “authentic self,” or the present-day “higher self” standing tall as these other labels of the people she used to be threaten to obscure her. But at the end of the day, they are not her. They’re just labels. Paper. When the wind dies down, when the voices disappear, they will fall.
AL: Last question, and it is two parts. Firstly, in a conversation with Su Cho, you used the term “un-poetic” when describing how you wrote “My Whole Life I Was Trained to Deny Myself.” It reminds me of one of my favorite works by Pablo Neruda, “Explico Algunas Cosas,” or “I’m Explaining a Few Things,” where he is describing the destruction of the Spanish Civil War, and he writes: “y por las calles la sangre de los niños / corría simplemente, como sangre de niños” or, translated, “and the blood of children ran through the streets / without fuss, like children’s blood.” Sometimes metaphor does more harm than good. Sometimes the euphemisms we use negate reality. Sometimes it becomes a practice of making violence palatable through language. Do you feel that bareness is at odds with poetry, but maybe in a productive way? I’d love for you to share any thoughts or hopes you might have for how you or others are currently using the confessional mode and how it might be a project against aestheticization. Conversely, there is a problem, I think, with thinking of the confessional as a mode of absolution and not of processing, which I think your work very much is not interested in. What would you say to those interested in engaging with the confessional mode? What does intent have to do with content? Second part of the question, do you have any advice for poets who are looking to write confessional poetry, poetry about family trauma, PTSD, mental illness…etc, but maybe are afraid to? Additionally, when did you decide to start sharing your work/decide that you wanted to publish it? I wrote this question to myself in a journal recently, so this is somewhat a selfish question on my part: do I write poetry to the dead because I am unable to speak/discuss my feelings with the living? How did you empower yourself to write about the living, in spite of the looming threat of your family (or anyone for that matter!) potentially reading it someday?
EL: Metaphor and “bareness” can both be of service to poetry and be at odds with poetry. They can also both obscure and reveal. Some of the plainest, most colloquial, metaphor-free poems sometimes reveal nothing true. And sometimes we need metaphor to help us understand the real weight of a thing. Every element of craft can achieve anything depending on how it is used. For example, white space creates silence. But it can also give extreme attention to a line and thereby create loudness. It’s when and how and why we wield these elements that produces the results we want.
The confessional mode is no different. The revelation of trauma itself will never be enough to make a strong, moving poem. One of my favorite craft lectures to give is to present a poem that uses a healthy dose of confession and moves the reader emotionally. Then I prove that it’s not the content doing the work of affecting the reader. It’s the form. The craft. Timing. Often, it is the un-said surrounding the confession that moves us.
Here’s the other thing: our ideas of what counts as “confessional” are constantly evolving. Our definition of what is and isn’t confessional only exposes the limitations of what we, as a culture, have decided is appropriate or not appropriate to talk about in polite society. One of the great services of confessional writing is that it shifts the culture toward talking openly and teaching openly about the systemic and individual injustices in our lives. To employ the confessional mode is a work of resistance. Especially for BIPOC writers, for queer writers, for anyone being hunted or silenced.
So for poets who want to write openly about these “difficult” subjects but are afraid to, I’ll tell you what Oliver de la Paz and Kimiko Hahn told me at my first Kundiman retreat. I had done a round of submissions for my first manuscript but had given up on trying again or even writing again because my abusive father had begun to harass me and my writing publicly online, even creating fake Twitter accounts to tear me down.
Oliver de la Paz took me aside and asked, “Why are you letting your father be your editor?” Whew! This question has stayed with me, and I ask it every time I am afraid to write something down, sometimes replacing “father” with another critical voice. And what Kimiko Hahn said was this: you have to write your story. You’re a writer. The writing is not the part you negotiate with fear. Write it all down. Then after you’ve written something, you can decide whether or not to publish it. Even now, I have some pieces of writing I can’t or won’t publish. But I no longer let the fear stop me from writing in the first place.
Eugenia Leigh is a Korean American poet and the author of two poetry collections, Bianca (Four Way Books, 2023) and Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014). Poems from Bianca received Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize and have appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, The Nation, Ploughshares, and the Best of the Net anthology. Her essays have appeared in TIME, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Eugenia received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and serves as a Poetry Editor at The Adroit Journal and as the Valentines Editor at Honey Literary.
Alexa Luborsky is a writer of Western Armenian and Eastern European Jewish descent. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, and West Branch, among others. She was runner-up for the 2022 Quarterly West annual poetry prize. Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Virginia, she is the Interviews Editor for Poetry Northwest and reads for Meridian. You can find more of her work at alexaluborsky.com.