Resisting Elegy – A Conversation

A Conversation Between Justin Hamm and Joel Peckham About Joel’s Memoir Resisting Elegy

When I tell you the essays in Joel Peckham’s new collection Resisting Elegy are about his grief and recovery in the aftermath of a car accident that took the lives of his wife and eldest son eight years ago in Jordan, a certain set of expectations may begin to take shape in your mind, something more or less based around Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief” theory, which, through popular transmission, we’ve come to think of as definitive. But Peckham’s grief didn’t follow a neat, pre-established timeline, nor did it arrange itself into a tidy plot with a hero who finally and completely triumphs over pain and loss in the end. This is one of the biggest themes connecting the essays in Resisting Elegy. Grief and recovery are different for every person.

 First of all, a little background: Eight years ago, Peckham and his wife, award-winning poet Susan Atefat Peckham, their sons Cyrus and Darius, and Susan’s mother left Aqaba, where they had been sightseeing, and traveled back toward the University of Jordan in a van driven by a friend of their tour guide. On a dark desert highway, the van collided with a sand truck coming from the other direction. Peckham, Darius, and Susan’s mother survived. Susan and Cyrus did not.

 The details are scattered throughout Resisting Elegy, surfacing as you might imagine they’ve surfaced out of Peckham’s subconscious for the last eight years, without warning, juxtaposed with other memories from before the accident, juxtaposed with self-description, reflection, analysis, admissions of confusion. Resisting Elegy is not, as Peckham reminds me in the interview below, a memoir in the usual sense. And yet there is a narrative-ness to the way the whole things moves forward as events and people and ideas repeat and build upon one another. If there is a story, it is the story of what happens inside Peckham’s mind as he attempts to hold himself together for Darius, to meet the expectations of public grief, to come to terms with his new relationship, and to find meaning in what has happened.

 There are plenty of reasons to admire the book—the elegant language certainly stands out—but it is Peckham’s incorruptible faithfulness to his experience, to giving us open access to his grief, even when what we find is difficult or uncomfortable—unflattering descriptions of himself and his wife in the time leading up to the accident, for instance, and angry or awkward encounters with friends, in-laws, and strangers who presume to judge his actions in recovery—that makes this one of the most serious and interesting nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time.

 Peckham would probably refuse the adjective, but Resisting Elegy is a brave book. In our conversation below he talks about some of the impulses that brought it into being.

Thanks for taking some time to talk about Resisting Elegy, Joel. I have to say, I’ve never read another book quite like it. Your honesty astounds me. Again and again throughout the narrative, others are uncomfortable with your personal manner of grieving. There are several strained conversations with your in-laws, and of course that difficult email from the friend.

 In the same way, the narrative movement of the book seems to follow its own particular pattern rather than the conventional plot a reader might expect. It’s broken into essays, and the essays themselves move around as well, often driven forward by surprising meditative leaps in thought. Later in the book, you write, “Everything is a metaphor. Everything symbolic.” There, you are talking about your wife and son’s possessions, but does this extend to the essays you’ve written? Are the forms these essays take equivalent to the form your grieving took?

I genuinely was attempting to be honest but as much as I was trying to do something I was also resisting quite a bit. The tendency with a reader of a book like this is to turn the protagonist into a hero and from a reader’s perspective the natural inclination is to want good things for that hero, and to see the hero achieve his desires or in the case of a narrative in which there is trauma, to be cured. To the extent that a writer is conscious of that reader, he or she will tend to accommodate those expectations–both on the page and in life.

This is always true. How many times are we asked a week, “How are you doing?” and how often do we give an honest answer?

Very quickly the truth of the experience, of our lives, gets lost. I was resisting the urge in myself to give in to easily digestible and comfortable answers, statements, attitudes etc. I knew they wouldn’t help me because they weren’t true for me (and I doubt they are for anyone). I was incredibly lonely and isolated for a long time after the accident and much of that isolation was the result of not feeling as if I could honestly express my thoughts–what was happening to me. Then it occurred to me that that must be true for many people. It’s terrifying how many people suffer in silence because they fear the repercussions of telling the truth of what they are actually thinking and feeling. And the repercussions are real.

What makes that even more complicated is how hard it can be to know the truth from one’s own delusions and projections. I am certain that in spite of how hard I was trying to tell my truth, I often got it wrong–both for me and others. There are sentences in the manuscript that I simply don’t believe anymore. I had to resist the urge to go back to each of those essays and revise what I thought then to what I think now. But that would have been a lie as well. Because the point wasn’t ever to be “right” it was to tell the truth of what was happening to me–to put down, honestly, what I was experiencing as I was experiencing it–even when I was being a bastard.

Many self-help books are unsatisfying because they superimpose an epic journey narrative on something that is rarely–if ever–linear. Grief does not bring out the better parts of our character. Heroes rarely emerge. Nor does it progress evolutionarily or in steps. Especially in the case of someone who has experienced traumatic loss, there really is no logic to grief. It comes when it comes as it wants to come. And it doesn’t care if you are ready for it or not. And because we are always taken by surprise–and we are usually feeling emotions of unresolved anger and betrayal–we don’t tent to respond very well. I tried to make the narrative an honest record of the mind working its way through grief and I tried to include what was beautiful and ugly. The structure and content of the book is meant to reflect the progress (if you could call it that), the struggle of that experience. So, yes, the book itself becomes a metaphor, a symbol or as Barrie says in Peter Pan, a map of the mind.

I’m really interested in how you’ve preserved the integrity of your experience, even against that urge to revise. It reminds me of what Joyce said about memoir. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect that most memoirs are written looking back with a mature, wizened view of the events, and that he wanted to get what was really going through his head at the time he was writing about. Many writers wouldn’t attempt to write about such an enormous event until years later, after they’d acquired distance and believed they could write definitively about the events. Many others wouldn’t attempt to write about it at all. Perhaps they fear “getting it wrong” or being ashamed about what they’ve written as their feelings change?

 At what point did you begin writing these essays, and when did you feel comfortable saying they were ready to be collected, ready to be a book, with all the implications about publishing and finality? Do you believe you can/will get closer to a definitive version of the accident and your recovery with more perspective, or is the definitive version the one that gets closest to the experience itself?

Most good memoirists are trying for a balance between that voice of innocence vs. voice of experience. But this really wasn’t a memoir–not in any traditional sense. I see it as a collection of essays–the mind moving on the page. And I’m not certain that that innocence/experience equation made or makes sense for me. If we are honest with ourselves, we are always experiencing the world in-media res. The line between the two voices is never so clear as we pretend, and often, that mature, wizened voice is performative—an act. I didn’t want to perform here. I was trying to explore what was happening to me and I was trying to hold to the integrity of the moment. I was in a very liminal, very transformative time. As for being comfortable–I’m not comfortable with it and never will be. Publishing this book is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done. As a poet I feel genuine joy whenever a poem or collection finds its way into print. My emotions about this book are much more complex. I do believe that I have created something that might matter to people, might make them feel less alone. And at times, I think it achieves a certain ragged beauty.

As for a definitive version. I don’t believe in definitive versions of the truth. We can only do the best we can to reach for it, to express it. If we manage to come near it, artfully, then we’ve added something to world.

 I’ve been told before that the original definition of essay was “a trial” or “an attempt,” and your description of these essays as explorations seems to be in that spirit. They are personal explorations, or attempts at makings sense out of the senseless. As you say in “The Neverland”: “I am creating a meaningful story of my life and myself. None of it is true exactly, but is as truthful as possible . . . “

 And yet, most authors talk a lot about an “ideal reader,” an outside person to whom the writing is addressed. You bring this up yourself in “Please Take What You Want”–the imagined audience as a metaphor for those who were watching with expectation–and possibly judging–your manifestations of grief. Obviously, this book has the potential to do good for those who are grieving as you’ve grieved–to make them feel less alone, as you said. Is that the audience you hope to reach? And what about your former in-laws, your friends, your son Darius who may someday read it? Do you think it will have value for them by opening up your perspective?

Like any writer, I do think about audience, but rarely is that audience a particular individual. I think that if writers think too much about specific people in their lives as the audience, they will probably shut down out of fear. Stephen King writes quite a bit about the IR and I think it’s generally good advice to imagine a reader or readership. But I don’t know that my reader is some idealized version of myself or my wife or my son. And I don’t expect that the book would heal wounds inflicted or received in my life or lifetime. And I don’t think I was looking to be understood better.

I remember going to group therapy sessions sponsored by Compassionate Friends–a wonderful national bereavement organization for parents who have lost children. I just remember how lonely those people were, how silenced they felt, how desperate. They were so burdened by guilt and shame. They were so angry and lost. I guess this book was written for them.

In the essay “Satellites,” which opens the collection, there is a jarring moment when you supply the official descriptions of the corpses after the accident. As you’ve said already, these essays tend to exist entirely within the boundaries of your perspective, but the section I’m referring to seems to step for a moment entirely outside that perspective and provide something a reader can’t judge, something that is, cruel as it may be, simply fact. As difficult as these descriptions are for the reader, I can’t begin to imagine how difficult they must have been for you to include. Can you talk about your decision to use them?

The inclusion of those descriptions is really a dividing line for many people. There was definitely quite a bit of  “How could you?” and “How dare you?” But I think you go a long way towards explaining their necessity in your question. They are fact, not perspective. They are the cold and brutal reality of loss. My decision to include them was a hard one emotionally, but philosophically and artistically, I felt I had to do it. For many of my peers in group therapy, actually describing the corpses of their loved ones, articulating that horror, seemed to be integral and necessary. Part of the point of the book is to strip away the easy and comforting illusions that people espouse after someone dies. I felt that they were necessary for me–to face the reality of what had happened; and for the reader–to understand just how shattering such losses are. I felt I could only move forward after I faced them (literally) and that the reader could only move forward with me if he or she could do the same.

If people can’t get past that chapter, that’s OK. The book is not for them.

 You mention your work as a poet—and your prose certainly has a poetic sensibility. Do you see a relationship–form, style, content—between this book and your poetry?

I was a poet first. For the longest time it was all I wanted to do as a writer. I just love the sound and feel of good poetry. At first I tried writing about this subject in poems. But I just couldn’t do it. As a poet I let the words lead me, literally. There is no plan or arc imagined at the outset. As a result, I just couldn’t write myself to the place I needed to get to. So I switched to the essay form which is a bit more orderly. The creative non-fiction personal and meditative essays have a beautiful balance of form and improvisation that appeals to a poetic sensibility. Digression and associative leaping are part of the form. And for someone who is still trying to figure out what he or she is experiencing, the essay’s explorative qualities are really attractive. I love thinking of the French, essayer–to try. It is an attempt.

Certainly I love image, metaphor, and symbol, but I’m rarely if ever conscious of trying to be poetic—even in my poems. I’m just trying, trying to evoke something true.

 One point that repeatedly comes up in Resisting Elegy is the fact that you’ve found a degree of happiness despite everything that has happened. Would you mind discussing where you are in your personal life right now? Where does your happiness come from?

Things are good. I still struggle with anxiety and chronic nerve pain. I have bad days. Holidays can be hard. But mostly I live with a great deal of joy in my life. And there is no doubt that this joy comes from my relationship with my wife, Rachael, and son, Darius. I can’t tell you how important they are to me. I live with two people who love me and know how to communicate love. We care for each other and about each other. Rachael is also a fantastic writer so she understands the things that matter to me. And Darius–well, he’s 11 now, reads all the time, has become an excellent pianist and has a rocket for a right arm (we just need to learn to control it). I also think that the accident forced me to appreciate small moments of joy and beauty in the world that I didn’t before. I’ve become a bit of a hedonist, seeking to really enjoy each moment I can. Grief will come when it comes. There’s no dodging it. But sometimes, since the accident, I feel like my sight and vision has improved–as if my world went into High Definition.

 What about artistically? Will you revisit this subject matter, or can you even say at this point?

I have finished a 50-page sequenced lyrical essay called “Swimming.” I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, honestly. But I don’t know what to do with it. It’s too long for an essay and too short for a book. Maybe someone will print it as a chapbook. But other than the possibility of expanding that or writing a companion piece to it so it might have a life “out there,” I don’t see myself writing about this subject again anytime soon. Right now I’m working on a new collection of poems that I’m pretty excited about called “God’s Bicycle.”

Of course anything I write will be informed by this experience.

In the end you have to write about what’s on your mind or you get blocked. You can’t run from your obsessions. So who knows? The future is not a territory we are allowed to visit. Thank God for that.

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