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Gwen Hart on Personifying Anxiety

Poetry Editor Malisa Garlieb interviews featured poet Gwen Hart about personifying anxiety.

“I value writing that takes anxiety seriously, but also lessens the stigma and helps people to find new ways to cope.”  

Your three poems in MSR explore and express anxiety, yet you unexpectedly flavor them with humor.  Could you talk about what led you to choose this tone? What do you hope readers will experience?

One way to deal with anxiety is through humor. I loved how the editors at MSR described the poems in the acceptance letter as “quirky,” and said that the poems “effectively braid humor and dread.” This was what I was going for, and it’s really exciting to me that readers are enjoying and responding to that mixture. 

Personifying anxiety allowed me to put her into imagined scenarios such as renting a VRBO. It created some distance, and let me bring out the humor in these situations. I hope readers see that anxiety can be a productive energy, spurring one on, perhaps to learn something or complete a task. Or, it can be a destructive force that distracts from the moments at hand.

The poems in this portfolio use short lines, which amplified their emotional impact.  Was this your first instinct about the form of these poems?  How did you create strong content and language within the constraint of short lines?

For me, the short lines add to the feeling of anxiety or claustrophobia. They also provide opportunity for interesting turns or surprises. For example, in “Your Anxiety,” the line breaks split up the sequence tripod-headstand-tripod-roll in a way that suggests the contortions the speaker has to go through. In “Your Anxiety Books a VRBO,” the anxiety is “segmented like the beautiful assistant / in a magician’s show, / head in one cabinet, / feet in another.” Here again, the lines break up the information. 

In “Your Anxiety Joins the Cast of SNL,” you end with a description of personified anxiety “dancing frantically/at the periphery of the crowd/and high-fiving herself/over and over again.”  The congratulatory nature of high-fiving is so striking.  What are you pointing to with these lines?

SNL skits dramatize human foibles, and anxiety is a great tool for amplifying those behaviors. As I was writing this poem, I didn’t quite know where it was going. By the end of it, the personified anxiety is so pleased with herself. She makes the suburban couple more paranoid about their neighbors; she intensifies the characters’ body-insecurities in the workout room. In other words, she found the perfect job for her talents! I kind of loved that she was high-fiving herself because no one had asked her to be there, but she managed to find her own self-contained purpose. 

Rates of anxiety have been increasing for decades, but really surged in 2020.  How do you see anxiety being portrayed in today’s literature and culture?

Anxiety has such a negative connotation, yet so many people have been experiencing it lately. I value writing that takes anxiety seriously, but also lessens the stigma and helps people to find new ways to cope.

Here are four books that come to my mind that might be of interest to MSR readers:

  • The Midnight Library a novel by Matt Haig, whose protagonist takes a wild ride through many versions of her life to understand what it is she really wants. 
  • Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufmann and Carolyn Gregoire, a nonfiction book with deep insights into creative people, and how they/we might develop stronger resiliency. 
  • Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, in which she traces her path through horrific family trauma.
  • Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens, a pocket-sized self-help book about how to deal with political, financial, and emotional stresses. 

I’m perpetually interested in the varied habits of writers.  When do you do your work, what are its rhythms, and what’s your editing process like? 

I teach at Montana State University Northern, in a rural town. One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the opening up of online face-to-face workshops to people everywhere. I’ve taken workshops through Hugo House (Seattle, WA), Louisville Literary Arts (KY), and Lighthouse Writers Workshop (Denver, CO). I’ve generated new material from these sessions, and gotten valuable feedback on works-in-progress.

Here’s a tip: to manage all the workshops, I bought a second wall calendar just for writing events. I started putting an “X” on calendar days in which I had written poems, not to put pressure on myself, but just to get some data on what I was doing. I also put a double line through any day in which I did not write new poems, but revised, sent work out, re-ordered or cut poems in the manuscript, and so forth. Doing this gave me a nice snapshot each month of where I was putting my efforts. I found that I drafted new poems at least half of the days of each month.

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my third poetry collection, which I hope to send out this summer. You won’t be surprised to learn that the thread of anxiety weaves throughout the manuscript!

By Malisa Garlieb

Malisa Garlieb is editor of poetry for Mud Season Review. Her poems have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Calyx, Tar River Poetry, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere. Handing Out Apples in Eden, her first collection, was published by Wind Ridge Books. She’s also a mother, teacher, healer, and metalsmith.