Anya Silver’s next big thing

Today, I’m pleased to host another “next big thing” — this time from the poet Anya Silver:

What is your working title of your book (or story)? I Watched Her Disappear

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? I Watched Her Disappear contemplates, through various approaches, what it’s like to live with illness (advanced breast cancer), but also engages more broadly with larger themes such as suffering, redemption, faith, community, friendship, love, family, and art.

Where did the idea come from for the book? In a way, the book wrote itself. Since I’m living with cancer, it has become what Emily Dickinson would call my “flood subject.” I found myself needing to make sense of my life, and writing allows me, like any artist, to interrogate experience and create meaning. Poetry is a craft, though, so the poems are not just expressions of what I have felt or lived through; on the contrary, I think all good writing requires that the author be able to distance himself or herself from experience enough to place it within the confines of a form and to cut and facet it until the poem becomes its own object apart from the author. In my case, I used fairy tales, the third person voice, and works of art to get at the subject from a more unexpected angle or slant.

Because cancer is, let’s face it, such a depressing subject, with its always-present cape of mortality trailing behind, I balance the book with poems that praise the gorgeousness of the world, the grace of love, and the ever-present possibility of faith and hope. I do think it’s possible to look at the world honestly and without sentiment and then to acknowledge both suffering and blessing. So, some of the poems, especially those about friends who have died, are very angry, while others focus on the happiness of everyday moments like a child losing a tooth or watching my son chase a grasshopper. I think that any healthy person accepts the range of their emotions, and I try to do that in this book.

I like what Julie Moore, a poet whose work I treasure, wrote in her blog post about how her poems “emanate from witness and wonder.”  I’d say that that’s true of my own work and of the work of other poets whom I really admire, like Carolyn Forche and Ilya Kaminsky.

What genre does your book fall under? Poetry.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? In my dream life, I would like to look like Penelope Cruz. Of course, I look nothing like her, but if a movie were made about my life, I’d allow the directors to take artistic license.

When will it be released, and who is the publisher? I Watched Her Disappear will be published by the Louisiana State University Press in the Spring of 2014. LSU published my first book, The Ninety-Third Name of God, in 2010.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? It took about four years. Some of the poems were written eight to ten years ago, but most of them are new. I was already working on the second book when the first was published. At some point, after adding new poems, arranging and rearranging them, I decided that the manuscript was complete.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? This is my favorite question because I get to put in a plug for poets whom I love. The best book of poetry that I’ve read about cancer is Jason Shinder’s posthumous collection Stupid Hope. There’s a stoicism and an acceptance of cancer and fate, what Kierkegaard would call “infinite resignation,” in his work that I find very appealing and which I think my own work partakes in as well.

My book is very much in the genre of religious or spiritual poetry, and I’d cite Susanna Childress’s Entering the House of Awe, Margaret Gibson’s Second Nature, and Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains as collections that approach the divine as mystery in a way that I try to do in my work. I value Gibson’s poetry for its deep love of humanity, despite its flaws, and her ability to beautifully capture the sacred in the everyday things of this world. This same quality of the sacredness in the mundane can be found in the lovely collection An Almost Pure Empty Walking by Tryfon Tolides.

The poets whom I love the most, and who have most inspired me, are oddly all non-American:  Swedish Thomas Tranströmer, Russian Anna Akhmatova, and Polish poets Anna Kamienska and Adam Zagajewski. I would call each of these poets religious humanist poets.

My own work aspires to the work of these authors; I look up to them tremendously as masters of the craft.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? I felt an almost religious calling to write this book. I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason” in a platitudinous manner, but I felt like I had been given the tremendous challenge (I might say curse) of living with incurable cancer at the age of 42 and that I had better do something positive with that experience. If I hadn’t had cancer, I don’t think I would have become nearly as proficient a poet as I am now. Cancer, with its threat of incapacitation and death, concentrates one’s life. One no longer has the luxury of time in which to write. I knew that I had to write now and live for the now. Priorities become much clearer in the situation in which I now live. I wanted to write, write, write. I feel like I have to write in five years what I might have written in fifteen if I were not ill. I feel a responsibiliy to write for those who don’t feel comfortable or adequate expressing themselves. I also felt a real desire to leave something behind for those I love that will keep me alive, metaphorically.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I draw a great deal on fairy and folk tales in the book, and on works of art. I hope that readers will enjoy my rewritings of the Grimms’ fairy tales and of now lost figures of folklore, like the buried moon and Saint Sunday, who suffers all the needle pricks of girls who sew on Sunday despite prohibitions against work. Though I write a lot about cancer, the book isn’t a sad one. I believe that the reader will find that it ultimately celebrates the fact that each of us is given what Mary Oliver calls our “one wild and precious life.”

Anya Silver is the author of The Ninety-Third Name of God (Louisiana State University Press) and the forthcoming I Watched Her Disappear (LSU).  She is currently working on a third manuscript entitled Reliquaries.  She has published widely, including in The Georgia Review, Image, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse and The Christian Century.  She is a professor of English at Mercer University and lives in downtown Macon, Georgia with her husband and son.

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