Barbara Ellen Sorensen: An Uncomfortable Closeness to God
Barbara Ellen Sorensen spans cultures in her work as an editor with several Native American journals and her literary life as a Colorado poet. She has written about her connection to the high desert landscape and Rocky Mountains where she lives and works, and also about loss, illness, and disability, weaving these strands and remnants of life in a lyrical spiritual tapestry.
What is the purpose of poetry?
My purpose is to express beauty. By beauty, I don’t mean just flowers and birds—or beauty in the non-natural world, which might encompass writing philosophically. Beauty can be terrifying and fierce. And poetry is not a singular art, nor is it meant to be inaccessible. It is manifested in every aspect of life. This includes spirituality. I understand it’s not something everyone acknowledges, but a spiritual awareness exists in everyone and the beauty of spirituality is open to us all. In this sense, I think poetry does have a greater purpose, in that it evolves into something you must do, not something you just want to do. I think I write poems that identify the beauty that the body and heart (or soul) must carry every day. It is a burden and a blessing. But I try to remain open and to listen to every nuance a particular day brings. I try to tap into the invisible poetry in everything, even when it is painful.
You say you try to write tapping into each day’s nuance. How does that emerge in your writing?
Poetry begins to inhabit your body. This is what I believe Roethke was writing about in his villanelle, “The Waking.” When he writes, “This shaking keeps me steady,” and “I hear my being dance from ear to ear,” he really is recognizing the physicality that poetry elicits. When you’re listening to poetry, or even reading it to yourself in your head, you feel it in your body. It has movement. I think there’s sound and movement all during the day. In that sense, poetry is a good outlet for me because when you have Parkinson’s Disease, you have to be in tune with your body every minute. “This shaking keeps me steady” is a resonant line for me because awareness of my body keeps my mind alert and cognizant of things around me. Because of this condition I have to be.
Do you find that writing is a healing act?
For me, yes. I don’t think poetry is healing for everyone, or even needs to be. I know, too, that many books have been written about how to use poetry as a healing art, and I would never dismiss those wonderful people who have discovered that essence in poetry. But not everyone can identify with poetry as healing because not everyone can actualize the vocabulary of pain. It’s a very unique and difficult vocabulary, one that requires a terribly uncomfortable closeness to God. I don’t mean that my poetry does this. I just mean that the loss and grieving I have experienced have in some ways been eased by my writing poetry. When my youngest son died several months ago, poetry came to me like ocean waves. It was as if I were back in Haiti with my son, and we were both floating on our backs and waiting for the waves to lift us up over the coral reefs and place us back on the land.
Do you feel it’s important to write about living with pain for your own understanding and for others as well?
Writing about it helps my actual condition. It organizes my thoughts. I think it can be neuroprotective. This is what I mean by an uncomfortable closeness to God. I do not want to sound as though I am preaching. I do not wish illness or any kind of pain on anyone, nor do I think these experiences are necessary to every poet or poem. Having said that, illness is a portal that leads one straight to a very pragmatic and earthy recognition of God.
How for you does that work?
With a chronic, degenerative illness you do not become ethereal. The opposite occurs. As a creative writer with this type of illness, whether it be through poetry, or memoir, or prose, you are tapping into the humanness of God. You are, as Julian of Norwich (a Christian mystic) experienced through her visions, being “oned” with God.
What does being “oned” mean to you, in this context?
You must realize that God is running through you and creating that pain, however it has manifested itself. God is loving you mightily and you are being expressed, just as you are expressing God. Again, not everyone believes this, but God can mean anything. I have seen so many miracles in this world, miracles that embody beauty, as well as the fiercely ugly, so I can no longer deny that God is most absolutely walking among us every day, in human form.
Do you feel that your poetry and creative nonfiction can help those who also live with a physical condition?
My poetry about Parkinson’s can be just a factual summation of my experience that they can tuck away and intellectualize. If I am helping them in this way, then I guess that is a good thing, and yes, on the most basic level, creative writing can play an important role in understanding the million, unexplained symptoms of Parkinson’s. Everyone’s symptoms are different and it progresses differently for each person. It helps others understand that you’re not necessarily going to have the same pattern and rate of progression of the disease as someone else. It helps you understand that you’re not alone. I do feel I’m sharing with other people who have disabilities. I feel we all have to take care of each other.
In what way does creative writing help people take care of each other?
It lets people see your interpretation and how you can mold it into something beautiful, not necessarily terrible or something to be feared, but something you can work with and live with and not be afraid of it. That’s a very important thing, not to have fear of it. I’m not afraid. I’ve had this disease for almost eleven years, and now that I have had a procedure called deep brain stimulation I’m no worse for the wear.
What excites you in a poem?
When people can be good word-slingers, when there’s musicality to their words. What excites me in a poem is when a poet is able to make words dance, as Roethke does in so many of his poems, or to be more current, like the Colorado poet J. Michael Martinez, who just won the Walt Whitman Award. To toss words together expertly and, as Martinez writes, “weed the ’essential’ and allow an opening into this field.” There is always a field, isn’t there? And a far field, too! Ezra Pound has been a great influence on me because of his non-linearity. The Cantos are polyphonic, so beautiful. I read them over and over again. How he uses syntax has influenced me.
Does inspiration or revision play the greater role for you?
Absolutely inspiration. This universe is spectacular and there is so much to convey through writing, or really, any art form. I can revise quickly. Years of being an editor have taught me that skill. However, I do also go back and revise for long periods if I really love a particular poem and feel it hasn’t gained a certain momentum.