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INTERVIEW: Danielle Beazer Dubrasky, Shanan Ballam, and Brock Dethier

Danielle Beazer Dubrasky Speaks with Shanan ballam and Brock Dethier About Language and Writing Post-stroke

INTERVIEW: Danielle Beazer Dubrasky, Shanan Ballam, and Brock Dethier

On January 9, 2022, Logan, Utah City Poet Laureate Shanan Ballam had an ischemic stroke that initially resulted in a loss of speech and almost total paralysis of her right side. Her husband, Brock Dethier, also a poet, assists her. Over the next several months, Brock apprised his friends of her gradual physical recovery as she slowly regained her use of language. About a month after the stroke, Shanan wrote her first poem, an amazing piece.

I had the pleasure of reading with Shanan in the early fall of 2022 in Bear River, Utah. She walked up to give her reading, using two very cool-looking walking sticks and an ankle-foot orthosis for support, and talked about the effects of the stroke—that her foot still feels like it is numbly present and absent, and that she struggles with aphasia. She then read a set of stunning poems, all written since that turning-point day in January, poems that led us through her perceptions, her awareness, her fight to return.

Brock and Shanan have been longtime partners and significant members of the Logan literary world for decades. Brock is now also Shanan’s caregiver as she continues to recover. In this brief interview, I asked them each to talk about how poetry brought language back to Shanan. They also address how the stroke has affected Shanan’s writing ability and Brock’s own creative process. Three of Shanan’s early post-stroke poems and a piece by Brock follow the interview. We discuss these works in our conversation.

Danielle Beazer Dubrasky: Brock, in your prose poem you discuss a comfortable silence shared between the two of you before the stroke happened; you describe that silence in the following way: "neither of us got lost in word forests. What we did say felt like jewels."

I am struck by these phrases because in reading Shanan’s poems, I see the enjambed layout of the lines as creating word jewels. There is a stillness created by stunning observations that I feel is connected to her lines, "to know darkness / you must travel / through darkness // its dense forests / of pain."

These lines by Shanan imply a deliberate attempt to not get lost in "word forests" but to find a path through a wordless, more visceral darkness in order to be able to write about emerging from that path. These lines could also apply to earlier poems by Shanan, especially the ones in the book Inside the Animal, a collection that is a variation of the Little Red Riding Hood story.

Shanan, what does it mean to "travel / through darkness" in terms of how your poetry began to emerge during your rehabilitation process?

Shanan Ballam: I took the phrase from William Stafford’s poem “Traveling through the Dark.” The speaker in Stafford’s poem experiences literal darkness, the darkness of indecision, and psychological darkness.

When I first suffered the stroke, I fought against the darkness of brain fog, which is common after stroke and can include mental fatigue and problems with memory, thinking, and communication. I felt that I was waking up in a different hospital room every day, and the furniture had been moved or was missing. My poem “kaleidoscope” tries to capture that strangeness.

The darkness of indecision plagues me scores of times every day as I try to persuade myself once again to do one more set of the exercises that I know I must complete if I am going to recover. The snow and cold make it difficult to be motivated, especially because sometimes my right leg doesn’t work at all in the cold. Like a Samuel Beckett character, I constantly think, “you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

The stroke opened me to a level of hopelessness and despair—psychological darkness, anxiety, and depression. While I try to stay positive, every day brings new bits of bad news. For instance, today I’m worrying particularly about my right foot, which is still numb and stiff. Will it ever recover enough for me to walk normally?

The darkness of aphasia—loss of language—was particularly difficult for me as a poet. At first I couldn’t speak at all, and even after my voice returned, I struggled to complete thoughts and elaborate on my ideas. I was determined to write poetry, so I know that desire helped me recover my language.

With aphasia, my brain was dull and empty, as I say in “damage.” And it was like clawing my way through cobwebs. I felt a darkness in my brain.

DBD: Brock, how would you describe the process you observed as you saw Shanan emerge from her silence to where she began to use words, especially through poetry?

Brock Dethier: The speech therapist’s suggestions to help Shanan retrieve her language could have come from a poetry writing class. “Use all your senses. Describe the things around you in as much detail as you can. Build your description with memory and association.” Poetry led Shanan back into the use of language. On our walks, Shanan would tell me everything she could think of that was green, or all the words that rhyme with “cone,” or everything that fit the category “insect.” Within weeks, she was doing well on language tests except that she had trouble quickly coming up with words that begin with a certain letter. And she still has difficulty elaborating. The spareness of her poetry reflects the spareness of her post-stroke mind. At the moment, I don’t think there’s any danger of Shanan getting lost in word forests. The danger is in the “barren landscape” of aphasia.

DBD: Brock, how has helping Shanan return to language affected your own creative voice?

BD: I greatly admire Shanan’s evocative use of natural imagery and her ability to make images float down the page. Perhaps I’ll experiment more with that kind of form. But her new poetry has made obvious the difference in intents and purposes behind our poems—Shanan paints pictures with poems; I write essays that pose as poems. Though “Silence” started as a poem, the stanzas easily morphed into paragraphs. You couldn’t do that with one of Shanan’s poems. Oddly, the aspect of my communication that has changed most is that to express sympathy, surprise, or understanding, I now use the nonverbal musical moans that Shanan developed when the stroke stole her voice for three days.

DBD: Shanan, many of your poems rest on quiet and still images, such as a crane, water on a leaf, a horse, or a butterfly. These images are what I was referring to in my first question where I mention the poems’ stunning observations.

How did focusing on a single image in your poems help to ease you back into your use of words?

SB: My speech therapist at Ogden Regional Medical Center intensive rehab was like a poetry teacher. She taught me to focus on what was around me, to describe things that were in my sight, to use every one of my senses. So I just wrote down what I saw around me in nature… or even on TV. The image of the single red leaf in my poem “april” I saw on the CARE channel in the hospital. I was comforted by nature images, and I wanted to express that comfort in poetry.

That’s how I wrote “first poem after the stroke” and the other early poems. The poem “hummingbird,” for instance, was inspired by a little glass hummingbird that hangs in my window.

Nature calms and centers me. With poetry, I try to extend that calm perspective to some of the most unsettling things. In my poem “damage,” for example, I focus on the image of seeing the MRI of my stroke. Even though I knew I was watching part of my brain die, I thought the image was hauntingly beautiful, and I came up with the opening lines.

In the first part of “facing it,” I lament what I lost, but quickly pivot into what I can do. The poem turns to the solace of nature with invisible birdsong, then to visible animals: sandhill cranes, a skunk, a deer, and finally the monarch butterfly. It was calming to watch the butterfly, and it transported me out of my body.

In “april,” I literally looked out the window and around the room. Outside I saw a willow tree and a crabapple tree, and inside I saw a vase of lilies of the valley. In “april,” I draw from Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” with the line “peace comes dropping slow,” and rely on the element of surprise with lines like “fragrant as a rainbow / trembling” and “on my eyelashes // bright as feathers.” Focusing on images around me helps me emerge back into the light of language.

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