Straw Dog Writers Guild Author Interview Series: Lanette Sweeney

Lanette Sweeney
Lanette Sweeney

Lanette Sweeney’s first poetry collection, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing A Child to Addiction, has just been released by Finishing Line Press. The book is structured in accordance with the stages of grief, and includes twenty poems by Sweeney’s late son, who died of an overdose in 2016. Sweeney began her writing career as a journalist, and has also taught writing and Women’s Studies at SUNY New Paltz. Lanette’s poems and essays have been published in a variety of publications, including Rattle, Gyroscope Review, Silkworm, Blue Collar Review, and Please See Me. Her short stories and essays have also been included in the popular Women’s Studies anthology and textbook Women: Images and Reality. Lanette was recently the featured reader for the SDWG Writer’s Night Out (via Zoom) on September 7.

SDWG: You’ve said that you have two messages that you want to share with the readers of this collection; one specific to addiction and its treatment and another about overcoming, or perhaps living beyond, loss and grief. Could you describe and discuss those two messages a bit?

The first message is that medication-assisted treatment saves lives. No one should be judged or stigmatized for taking Methadone or Suboxone to stay off street drugs. I wish I had known this when my son was alive. The state insurance clinic in Nevada, where he was living after he turned 26 and lost my insurance, would only offer him Suboxone or Methadone, not the craving-reducing, opioid-blocking shot of Naltrexone that had helped him in the past. My son called me the weekend before he died to say he thought if he couldn’t get the Vivitrol shot, maybe he would just take the Suboxone they were offering him. Tragically, I maintained a stony, judgmental silence, letting him know I would be disappointed in him if he went on maintenance drugs. I thought he was “better” than that. I thought he could just stop. I didn’t realize his disease was terminal until it killed him. 

Since then, I have had the opportunity to visit a methadone clinic, where I watched dozens of healthy young people run in, take their daily dose, and run back out to take their kids to daycare, to get to their jobs, to go on with their lives. If you love an addict, please know he or she has a deadly disease with an incredibly high relapse rate, as high as 97 percent without medically assisted treatment. We should be celebrating the people who take maintenance drugs, who choose to live and give themselves an opportunity to function again. I wish I had understood this in time to have not failed my son when he asked my advice. Instead, I believe my silence discouraged him from pursuing that solution, so that instead of going back to the clinic, he got street drugs and took them until they killed him three days later.

My second message is for my millions of fellow grievers. Though early grief will shake you to your core and make you question whether you can go on, I am here to tell you you can survive and learn to carry your grief with grace if you just hang in there and practice self care like it’s your motherfucking job. You can hear in my first message that I have many reasons to feel guilty over my son’s death, but by working through my guilt, I have been able to forgive myself. You can have a life of peace and even joy after even the most profound and devastating loss. Post-traumatic growth is real. No one wants to be driven to their knees by loss and trauma, but all of us can, in time, with a lot of hard work – allow our worst experiences to open our hearts and bring us closer to our more enlightened spiritual selves. I would never say my loss was a gift; it wasn’t. But as David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief says, we can choose to not just go through our grief but to grow through our grief.  

SDWG: In our earlier conversation you mentioned that you didn’t have a collection in mind when you started writing these poems. Rather, they were a reflex as you managed your grief. What was your writing process like? Did you have a defined “routine” or were they composed more spontaneously? Did you find that aspects of your writing process changed as time passed?

In the early months of grief, I couldn’t even read a book, let alone write anything. I think the first thing I wrote was in a grief journal and then in a journal I created for writing directly to Kyle, trying to channel his voice (which I could not do successfully, though his sister could, and her “channelled writing” really sounds like Kyle’s voice). Eventually, my wife and I rearranged our lives, refinanced our home, and made a lot of other changes, including living with one car, so I could stay home full-time; I just couldn’t care about my previously rewarding job after my son died. Once I was home I started to have a more rigorous writing routine, and for the last couple of years, I have had writing dates four days a week to help hold me accountable for getting my butt in the chair on a regular schedule.

SDWG: The search for meaning or understanding is clearly a presence in the poems. You mentioned that the grief of a parent, one who has lost a child by any means, let alone an overdose, is “complicated.” Could you tell us why and how this is so?

Every parent, especially every mother, feels her number one job is to keep her child alive, so when our children die, from any cause, we feel we have failed. This guilt afflicts every mother I’ve known who has lost a child, whether from cancer or stillbirth or suicide. But the most complicated grief does come from losing our children to suicides and overdoses, as those deaths do seem the most preventable. The sad truth is, though, if that is how our child died, those deaths weren’t preventable. There was apparently nothing we could have done, because that outcome is what happened. If love could keep our children alive, none of us would ever lose a child. 

SDWG: Kyle’s poems appear throughout the collection in loosely chronological order, and while your own poems aren’t direct responses to his, they certainly are “harmonic” in the sense that they provide a second view and voice to the same narrative. You also said that you have not edited them at all. Could you tell us a little about Kyle as a poet? How did he start writing poetry? How did it correlate or contrast with other aspects of his life? 

When my children were young we started having poetry circles in which we would write prompts on slips of paper and put them in a bowl and choose one or two and write for 20 minutes (and then ask for 10 more). Then we would share our poems with one another. We kept this practice up all their lives whenever we three were together, and my daughter and I still do it though of course just the two of us can’t form a circle anymore, so there is always a shadow of sadness when we refer to our poetry circles now. Both my children became talented poets through this process and I was lucky to have so many poems of Kyle’s in my possession, in either his journals or mailed to me in letters he sent from rehab or left over from poetry circles we’d had when he was younger. 

I didn’t feel I should edit his work because he wasn’t here to help with that process, though sometimes that was painful, as when I left in his use of the slur “retard” in one of his poems. But I didn’t want to sanitize his work nor who he was. I wanted the poems to reflect his whole, flawed self. 

I loved that some of the poems, such as my poem “For Those Who Need Science Before Faith” and his poem “Unplugged” (which were published together in Amethyst Review, so you can see them here) did feel like they were in some kind of conversation with one another. In one of the poems he wrote to me for Mother’s Day, he refers to the masterpiece I’d made in creating his view of the world, something I hadn’t consciously remembered until years after I wrote the poem “Masterpiece” about him after he died. I like to think all of those harmonies added an extra depth to the collection. 

As Kyle moved into late adolescence, and especially after he became a hardcore addict and started spending much of his life in and out of rehabs, he wanted to present himself as a tough guy, so writing love sonnets or having family poetry circles became less of a priority for him. But when he was clean, he still loved writing, and even in rehab, he loved playing with words, as you can see in the video he made from his last rehab. The transcript of that is in the book, titled “Rehab Rap,” and includes a url where you can see Kyle reciting the poem.  

SDWG: Of course loss and grief have been a source of creative energy for poets for as long as…there have been poets. You’ve included some epigrams with some of your poems that connect them to other poets and their work. Could you tell us a little about some writers who have inspired or sustained you through this process?

I thank God for poetry and books in general. After Kyle’s death (once I was capable of reading again, which took some time), I read everything I could get my hands on about death and dying, near-death experiences, grieving, surviving grief, Poetry As Survival (an actual book by Gregory Orr, who found poetry as a lifeline after he shot his brother to death in a hunting accident when he was 12, suddenly lost his 36-year-old mother several years later, and was left to be raised by a speed-addicted, abusive father), and especially poetry books by other grieving parents. Edward Hirsch wrote Gabriel about his overdosed son; Mary Jo Bang wrote Elegy about hers. When my book was already being published I discovered Sheryl St. Germain’s Small Door of Your Death about her son’s overdose (the needle prick being the small door of her son’s death, an image I find heartbreakingly powerful), and I was able to slip in an epigraph from her at the last minute. Now I’ve just learned that Miriam Greenspan, who wrote a book that helped me in early grief, Healing Through the Dark Emotions, has a new poetry book about losing her daughter to substance use disorder, The Heroin Addict’s Mother. She and I are talking about trying to do some readings together. 

SDWG: I hope I don’t sound facetious here, but some folks might try to minimize the impact of grievous events in their lives and keep them as private as possible, as opposed to wrestling them into art and then sharing them with strangers. What do you think allows or compels a poet to do this? 

The most profound poetry is about either powerful love or its flip side, grief, which is just powerful love with no one left alive to receive it. I feel poetry is a natural impulse that arises when we are so swamped with emotions that we must find some way of getting them out. I am grateful I was able to write my way out of and through so much of my pain. 

I found the public sharing of my grief helpful, whether at the memorial service, in welcoming friends while we sat shiva, on social media, or in person with total strangers. I just felt so overwhelmed by the horror of what was happening that I wanted someone to bear witness to my terrible grief. I cried everywhere. Every time I saw someone for the first time after my son’s death I cried. I cried in the supermarket. I cried while walking my dog. I cried at my desk when I had to go back to work. Eventually I was able to turn those tears into words, and my desire to share continued, so I created Facebook posts, blog posts, essays, and poems. In writing poetry, using forms or formal rhyme schemes helped to contain my flailing grief. Creating the poetry collection was just a natural extension of that impulse.

Eventually, I entered an MFA program that I hoped would help me get the book published, and I worked with a wonderful mentor there, Janet Bowdan, who offered lots of helpful editing suggestions and constructive feedback. As she suggested which poems to cut and which to keep, I came up with the idea of arranging the poems by the stages of grief, and everything just fell together after that. I then had a place to put all my angry poems, as one of the stages of grief is anger, and before I’d arranged them by stage, those angry poems seemed jarring amid my poems of bereavement. I only did one year in the MFA program and published the book the old-fashioned way, by sending it out to publishers until one accepted it, but having a professional mentor who took the book seriously gave me a boost of confidence. 

SDWG: Would you suggest then that writing a poem somehow “transforms” grief? If so, how do you think it does this? Also, could we take it one step further and suggest that reading such a poem can have a similarly transformative effect for a reader? Again, if this is at least sometimes the case, how does it happen?

There is a line I read recently (from a book written in 2015 that I’ve just ordered called Caravan of No Despair by Mirabai Starr) that speaks directly to this question. 

“My spiritual life began the day my daughter died,” writes Starr, somewhat ironically, as she had been on a spiritual quest her entire life, started working with Ram Dass at the Lama Center while still a teenager, and had just published a translation of Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross the day her daughter died. “Tragedy and trauma are not guarantees for a transformational spiritual experience, but they are opportunities. They are invitations to sit in the fire and allow it to transfigure us.”

Immersing ourselves in our deep grief to write a poem about our tragedy and trauma is time we are giving ourselves to sit in the fire and be transfigured.

How poetry works on the reader is a bit of a mystery. However, we have been turning our experiences into poems we share, first in the oral tradition then later in writing, since humanity began using language, so surely it does work. When we see or hear our experiences summed up concisely and turned into metaphors and images presented with rhyme and meter and assonance and other poetic features, I think we are able to feel those experiences at a different, more primal, level. Because poems are not perfectly direct, declarative statements, they work on our consciousness at many levels, like dreams. Presenting familiar ideas in a new form can open our minds to think differently about them and may cause us to have new insights and deeper understandings. 

Lanette Sweeney book cover

SDWG: This is your first collection, but hopefully not your last (!). What are you working on now or next? When and where can we hope to see more of your work?

This book has such deep, personal meaning for me that I almost think I would feel satisfied if I never write another. And I admit I have been more focused on the book’s release than on creating new poems. However, I am still writing a few hours a week, producing either essays (which you can read at my website, www.lanettesweeney.com ) or poems, which I continue to send out for publication. I just heard that Whistling Shade will be publishing one of my villanelles in 2022. 

My next collection will be about my divorce, which was the second-most painful experience of my adult life, and for which I already have many poems that I had written before my son became an addict. I’m excited to finish putting that together and to start sending it out. 

SDWG: You were recently the featured reader for the SDWG Writer’s Night Out. Are you planning other readings or appearances? 

I will be doing an in-person reading in the Hudson Valley in New York at the Highland Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 18th, at 1 p.m. to mark the fifth anniversary of my son’s death. I am also working with Forbes Library and The Odyssey to plan Pioneer Valley readings, and Straw Dog tells me I will be featured in their next Writer’s Showcase event. And I hope to arrange future readings for groups of grieving parents, recovery groups, or harm-reduction groups to whom the book’s contents would speak most directly. 

Access and Contact:

Lanette’s website, with an essay discussing the raising of boys in a culture of toxic masculinity: https://www.lanettesweeney.com/

Lanette’s email address: lanettesweeney@gmail.com 

Kenyon Review profile of Lanette and What I Should Have Said

Direct sales of What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir About Losing A Child to Addiction are available directly from the author, via Bookshop or Amazon, from several local bookstores, including The Odyssey in South Hadley, Broadside Books in Northampton, and Booklink in Thornes in Northampton, or from the publisher:  https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/what-i-should-have-said