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FlakeHQ Interviews:

Sherry Sheehan

 FlakeHQ’s Poet Laureate

 Interviewed by Ed Dewke
in April 2007

Dewke:  Sherry Sheehan is a flaker like all of us, but six years ago she began to send us poems.  Sixteen have been posted here so far; each presents a unique image of what it’s like to have psoriasis.  

The talent visible in the small body of Sherry’s work collected at FlakeHQ indicates a practiced poet and, over the years, in email exchanges with Sherry, I’ve been informed about some of her other poetry endeavors.  She’s sent me books and anthologies that contain some of her poems on themes other than psoriasis.  All of this taken together, a picture of Sherry Sheehan, the professional poet, emerges.  In the United States today being a poet is not the way anyone I know makes a living.  There may be no poet in the United States today who earns a living wage through poetry.  How, then, do we apply the word “professional” to poets? 

In my mind a professional poet is one who turns out poetry with some regularity and it is good poetry, meaning it pleases the audience to which it is directed, and it survives some degree of critical analysis.  And in Sherry Sheehan’s case, professional includes a rich life keeping busy “around” her art:  in poetry reading groups (Valona Deli “Second Sunday” Poetry Readings, Orinda’s “Ina Coolbrith Circle,” and “First Tuesdays” with Joel Fallon’s Benicia Bards).  She’s been contest chair for the two Bay Area poetry contests that attract the most participation:  The 81st Annual Poets’ Dinner and the 85th Annual Ina Coolbrith Circle Poetry Contest. 

In 2006, I dubbed Sherry FlakeHQ’s Poet Laureate, a title she much deserved and, thankfully, accepted.  In this update, Sherry’s contributions to FlakeHQ have been listed together for the first time.  -Ed

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Dewke:  I’ve been reading your poems about psoriasis for six years. They’re all personal, but also composed with more or less “authorial distance” from your subject. I think this is what allows your humor, poignancy and irony. How long have you had psoriasis?  How have you treated it?

Sheehan:  I’ve probably had psoriasis since age 5 or 6, when I returned to Hawaii with “cradle cap” after spending a couple of years in California with relatives. The bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the evacuation of many children. My dad enlisted in the Navy, and my mother stayed on Oahu, taking care of an elderly aunt, keeping their home and their parents’ home going, and working in Censorship (cutting out parts of letters the enemy might be able to use).

Mom was appalled at my condition when I returned. I didn’t remember her, nor do I recall that first scalp attack. Much later, as a continually barefoot preteen, I remember peeling large areas on my feet. Nothing was diagnosed until my first major outbreak at age 13, which resulted in home schooling for several months. There were no long sleeves in Hawaii, and girls then wore skirts at school, never jeans or slacks. I couldn’t cover up and wasn’t able to handle being called a leper by former good friends. My last two years of high school and first year of college were P-free. As a partying freshman, I earned Cs, but an outbreak of P my sophomore year propelled me to straight As.

Since those early years I’ve gone through several full-body outbreaks that included my face. Besides my Christian Scientist grandmother’s arrival and stay until my teen outbreak remitted, treatments have included arsenic (little white pills that didn’t do anything positive); Grenz ray that was also useless; Methotrexate (which did help, but was limited); localized cortisone injections; systemic cortisone injections (Kenalog), which worked a fast miracle but had to be discontinued due to now well-known side effects; and coal tar in cream and/or ointment I use to this day. Tazorac tried on one leg five years ago exacerbated spots already there that remain.

In 1993 the National Psoriasis Foundation held its convention in San Francisco. My husband and I attended and agreed to give Chinese methods a try after listening to the presentation by a doctor of oriental medicine. Her combination of acupuncture, herbal pills (six with each meal), and dietary restrictions led to loss of unneeded weight and a P retreat. For various reasons I had to quit after a half year. I wouldn’t have been able to continue without being frustrated by the many dietary prohibitions of the Chinese regimen (no garlic, onions, chicken, shellfish, citrus, coffee, or chocolate, for instance). I’ve ordered the Deirdre Earls book, hoping that dietary changes will bring improvement and eager to understand the reasons for the recommendations, which the doctor of oriental medicine did not give when I asked.

Lying under low-latitude sun in Hawaii and Las Vegas kept P at bay for years, but I had to stop that routine at age 40, when my first basal cell carcinoma was diagnosed and removed. I’ve had so many cut/stitch procedures since then that I’ve lost count. I used to warn others about too much sun, but not everyone has genes for skin cancer, so I’ve stopped. I visit the dermatologist for skin cancer checks and procedures and read about new P treatments but have not been inclined yet to try the injectable systemics.

 

Dewke:  You are a serious and hard-working poet and I know that your pieces about psoriasis are but a fraction of your total output. How long have you been writing poetry?  What got you started?  What keeps you going?  Do you find writing about psoriasis helps you live with it?

Sheehan:  Writing about psoriasis does help me live with it, but rereading how much I’ve written depresses me, since I prefer living as much as I can on the river (denial). I’ve written as catharsis since my late twenties. I wouldn’t call most of it poetry, even when I used end rhymes and counted syllables. Personal crises have always been a catalyst to begin again, and having a keyboard has made it easy. I can’t write with a pen or pencil for more than a few lines, but I can type for hours. The mundane inspires me these days. To quote a poet friend of mine, “I’m older than God,” and it doesn’t take much to get me tapping about something I remember, hear, or see, a new piece of art, a phenomenon in nature, or an oddity in the newspaper (I adore science articles).

 

Dewke:  You introduced me to the concept of ekphrastic poetry, one definition of which is poetry inspired by visual arts. You have three ekphrastic poems at FlakeHQ — Alternative Paths, No Owner’s Manual and Playful Parting, all presented here with reproductions of art by Robert Chapla. How did you get started writing ekphrastic poetry?  How long did it take you to see psoriasis themes in these paintings by Chapla?

Sheehan:  My aunt, who died at 99 two years ago, collaborated with Carmel painters, poets, and musicians when she was my age. She had been a well-tutored pianist (studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger) and had played a couple of times with symphony orchestras. She discontinued playing the piano and began writing poetry that was published in the local newspaper. Carmel mayor Clint Eastwood told her he bought it only to see what she’d written. He called her Carmel’s poet laureate, although I don’t think the designation was ever made official. She often visited and corresponded with her second cousin, poet Marianne Moore. Believing poetry might be in my genes (although my mother has little use for it), I began writing thank-you notes in verse. Later, reading a lot of poetry and realizing how much there was to it, I got more serious about it, although given the choice, I still prefer humor to gravity.

I met Bob Chapla either in an art gallery or at a long-running annual art show whose proceeds help the environment. I wrote a poem to one of his paintings and emailed it to him. Two possible reasons he didn’t dissuade me are that he sometimes writes poetry himself and, as a longtime teacher, he is used to encouraging artistic pursuits.

Writing to art (paintings, sculpture, music) is like taking a Rorschach test, in that each of us sees something different. I particularly like pointing out something in a piece the artist who created it didn’t see and then does see. Similarly, I enjoy another person’s response to what I’ve written when it shows me something I didn’t know was there.

The three Chapla paintings that for me contained possible psoriasis themes became available when I was probably already close to the thoughts his scenes provoked. His title, “Alternative Paths,” was literal for me: isolation of one from the group that I’ve experienced as well as taking a path different from other (possibly more preferable) paths that are impossible with psoriasis. “Playful Parting” struck me immediately as a prickly Brancusi Kiss, and I’d just been looking at a dermatologist’s graphic blow-up of skin so worked that in. “No Owner’s Manual” let me play with the concept of repeating lives, since those cows looked immediately to me as if they were in another realm, possibly cloud borne.

 

Dewke:  Flaking Life,” which we posted in February 2002, is the best concise description of psoriasis I’ve read — the rhyme is frosting on the cake.

The poem is “about” living with P; you managed in a handful of lines to sum up everything that’s important for anyone to know who needs to know about living with psoriasis.  These lines make my argument:

No cure exists.
Palliatives, yes.
Their effects wax and wane,
psoriasis, the bane
I've found no balm for.

What inspired you to write “Flaking Life”?  How long did you work on the poem?  How does it make you feel now?

Sheehan:  Five years after emailing the poem to you, Ed, I must rely on my computer to give answers. The [file] properties function shows I started the poem in January 2002, which was when a Starbucks opened nearby.  I remember confusing my flakes on the floor with pastry flakes already there. The computer informs that I revised it twice (I could have revised much more but clicked Save twice) and that I originally called it “My House.” I’m glad you like the five lines quoted, but overall, I don’t think it’s a best, even if it was a good vent. I don’t have, or want, a laptop computer so wrote the beginning in shorthand while sipping, completing it at home. How it makes me feel now is sad that Josephine and Napoleon, the two old cats who inspired part of the poem, have gone to cat heaven.

 

Dewke:  Bright Spots” is another one of my favorite Sheehan poems (June 2002).  I’ve got to reproduce the opening stanzas....

As a child I looked up
from the grass I lay on
to stare at clouds floating above.

I'd glee in their shapes —  
horses, dogs, the odd face,
all puffed up and looking like love.

Now adult, I glance down
at my carpet, dark brown,
to see flakes with odd shapes in them too:

songbirds flown, children grown,
pastry bits, ice cream cones,
an orangutan trapped in a zoo.

No matter how many times I read this poem — this building of limericks? — I get to the last line quoted above — “an orangutan trapped in a zoo” — and stop short, ready to guffaw or bawl.  Unquestionably one of the best tropes to jump out of a poem, for me, in many years!  I could write paragraphs on the significance of what that means, because I’ve literally spent hours mulling it over.  But of course, the most important attribute of the image is its jarring juxtaposition with everything else you’ve had to say up to that point.  It is wonderful poetic humor draped around what becomes, as the poem proceeds, a sad condition.

Please, tell us the story behind “Bright Spots.”

Sheehan:  Thank you for the enormous compliment, Ed. My face cracked from smiling, and my inner orangutan glowed in appreciation. Properties informs that it was written over nine days with six logged revisions and started with a dumb title, “Spots of Fun.” This one makes me happier than many others, because I’m remembering places where I’ve enjoyed myself, often without P to dim the fun, and imagining more of those better times in a next life. It’s a choice I make often: using imagination to fight depression about our intractable condition.

 

Dewke:  In the first three lines of “The Daily Deal” (November 2004) we are aware that we are listening to someone in the know:

What is the pleasure of the peel,
the crisp of skin that a fingernail
can lift like a potato chip?

One of my first eye-opening experiences when I launched FlakeHQ in 1996 was learning that others shared my macabre little secret — peeling scale off lesions was somehow ... fulfilling?  What is the pleasure of the peel, indeed!

I’ve read “The Daily Deal” numerous times and I’m hesitant to define the tone of the poem.  There is, of course, the expected Sheehan word-play and irony, but the overall feeling of this poem is not humorous.  Perhaps I would define it as “resolve.”  The end of the poem:

Shedding it in the shower
combing it away after a four-hour
creaming brings brief relief

before unwanted resumption
of excess production
I deal with daily.

These two stanzas are an inhalation/exhalation — a sigh — by someone who is resolved to her situation.

Now, tell us what you were feeling when you wrote the poem?  How did you intend it to affect the reader?

Sheehan:  You are giving me credit for more altruism than I deserve by asking me how I intend any poem to affect the reader. As with most psoriasis poems, and often with others, I write to get the frustration out. Later I might think of its effect on a reader. When I wrote "The Daily Deal," I needed to cathart. Most of my life I’ve been aware of how many worse things there are than psoriasis, but occasionally it feels good to indulge in a gross self-pity party, even admitting to the perverse aspects of attacks on one’s outer self. And that’s what I felt like doing when I peeled that one off (couldn’t resist, Ed).

 

Dewke:  I want to focus on one more poem, one of your ekphrastic poems using a Robert Chapla painting as the visual inspiration — “Alternative Paths.”  Though you’ve written several poems posted at FlakeHQ that sweeten sadness with irony and even humor, I think among the 16 Sheehan poems we’ve collected, “Alternative Paths” comes closest to exposing the sadness (stigma, alienation...).  Of course, Chapla’s painting invites this with one of four cows turned away from the others and evidently headed off on an “alternative path.”  There is, however, a glimmer of something — hope? strength? — in the last three lines:

...  Add three cows who shun
the other one for a double illustration
of how an assumed path can be undone.

Am I taking tremendous interpretive liberties by saying these lines suggest the single cow (the flaker) is forced away from the group (“shun”) but just might discover marvelous things by undoing the assumed path in favor of an apparently lonely alternative path?  The last three lines, of course, focus on the shunning, the undoing of the groups’ “assumed (proper) path.” Here is Sheehan’s sadness exposed.  But all must be considered under the umbrella of the title of the poem, “Alternative Paths.”  I see this juxtaposition as the real “double illustration” in this poem.

Sheehan:  It now occurs to me that I don’t know whether cows get psoriasis. That flaking cow you introduced me to makes it possible in imagination. However, I don’t wish flaking on the bovine population, which already has enough to put up with.

For me now, being alone is often preferable to its opposite, but as a socially inclined, eager-to-fit-in, too sensitive heifer, I was much more likely to let an outbreak ruin weeks, months, years of life, because of what I perceived I was missing. Now an older cow who runs with a herd not as affected by appearances as my youthful buddies were, I put up with what psoriasis and skin cancers have done and continue to do to my appearance.  Without a “control” (another me), I can’t say whether the path I took is better or worse than the one I’d have taken without these afflictions. It just is, and I don’t know how I could have forged it differently.

 

Dewke:  Tell us about a positive experience involving your psoriasis.   Have you written — or can we look forward to your writing — a poem about it?

Sheehan:  Several positive experiences and a joke come to mind. So far none has asked for a poem. This past week at our usual Saturday deli breakfast with the gang (a gathering a few of us started the first Saturday of the new century), a longtime friend showed me a quarter-size pink spot on her shin, said it had peeled off and that she had put some lotion on it. She asked if I thought it was psoriasis. I showed her my shin, and we agreed it might be, although not being a dermatologist, I said I would never diagnose anything. She smiled and replied, "I guess I just wanted to be in your club."  Another positive was what my dear dad told me after a bad teen outbreak had subsided, that without psoriasis I would have been too perfect. The joke was a husband's:  "She has spots on her but(t) I love her." Of course, the most positive P experience has been your naming me FlakeHQ’s first poet laureate.

 

Dewke:  You’ve been anthologized ... you share authorship of a book with artist Robert Chapla and another with Michigan artist Mary Reusch ... you have a web site ... you are building an impressive collection of ekphrastic poetry ... you cathart a lot.  Obviously we hope all this will continue.  Are you anticipating anything new or different in the future? 

Sheehan:  New, but maybe not so different: collaborations with artists I’ve not yet met as well as continued collaborations with those I have; coming across more writers with psoriasis (not that I wish it on them) such as Nicholson Baker, Dennis Potter, and John Updike. And last, reading the book written by your previous interviewee, Deirdre Earls, which just arrived. Following her recommendations (or failing to) might spark a poem that FlakeHQ will consider posting. 

 

Dewke:  On behalf of all of us, thanks for six years of informing us about our condition in a fashion that’s opposite clinical and makes much more interesting reading; thanks for agreeing to this interview; and thanks in advance for the next 16 poems that we’re confident the future will bring!

#

 Sherry Sheehan photo by Ronna Leon

See Also:

Sherry Sheehan's website: http://hometown.aol.com/slsheehan/myhomepage/poetry.htm

A collection of Sheehan poetry (and associated art) at Poetry Matters:
http://poetrymatters.150m.com/index_files/pages_files/sheehan.html

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