Friday, February 13, 2009

Elizabeth Kirschner: Poetry Amidst the Madness.

Elizabeth Kirschner: Poetry Amidst the Madness.

With Doug Holder

Poet Elizabeth Kirschner is alive. She has survived a childhood heavily peppered with physical, verbal and sexual abuse. She has lived to write about it in her new collection of poetry “My Life As A Doll” (Autumn House Press), and a forthcoming memoir “Walking With Winter.”

Kirschner is an accomplished poet and lyricist, and has published a number of well-received poetry collections. She has collaborated with many composers both here and abroad. She set her own poetry to Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” A CD of this music featuring soprano Jean Danton and pianist Thomas Stumpf was released in the fall of 2005.

Kirschner has taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, Boston College, as well as the public schools in New Hampshire. I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You have collaborated with composers in your work as a poet. You most recently wrote lyrics to a Schumann composition.

Elizabeth Kirschner: The piece by Schumann is now titled “The Dichterliebe in Four Seasons.” It is a sixteen-song, cycle. It concerns a tragic love affair. I wrote poems for each season. I had a CD and a score, and I would listen to the composition over and over again to help with the process. Composer Thomas Oboe Lee helped me enormously. I also collaborated with a young, up and coming Cambridge, Mass. composer Carson Cooman.

DH: What was the germ of the idea for this project?

EK: It was the idea of the composer Thomas Oboe Lee. It never entered my mind before this. I loved the marriage between poetry and classical music. He was the one who encouraged me. It was a very difficult undertaking. He was a real taskmaster. He stayed right on me. He made sure every note was precise and sing able.

DH: Can you tell us about your new poetry collection “My Life As A Doll?”

EK: It is about my relationship with my late mother, who was very abusive. It is also about the mental illness that came out of it. Between the physical abuse of my mother and the sexual abuse of my father it is really amazing that I survived.

DH: Was the book therapeutic for you?

EK: I couldn’t express my experience If I didn’t have my art. I don’t view it as art therapy. Poetry is too complicated for that. It all came ripping out of me. I feel it can be a tool for healing for people who are reading it.

DH: What have you learned about abuse from your experiences and writing?

EK: What is interesting about abuse is when, where, and how, you retrieve a memory.
When I wrote “My Life As A Doll” I retrieved the key memory of my mother striking me with a baseball bat. That was after my hospitalization. I was in my late 40’s or early 50’s before that memory hit me. The memory came back to me when I was driving back from Cambridge to Newton, after my visit with my therapist. In my memoir I talk a lot about living in a sort of coma—a perpetual out of body experience…I just wasn’t there. I was gone. I have moved from this state thanks to all the difficult work I have done. I have learned that you don’t get the memories until you are ready to retrieve them.

DH: The reviewer Mignon Ariel King said that she felt that you fell in love with your madness. What’s your take?

EK: To me that comment was horrendous. My experience with mental illness has been so excruciating. Mental illness is traumatic. I have been curled up in a ball in my house screaming my head off—out of pain and psychosis. There is no way you can love that. It is a pain so profound that you think you can’t survive it.

My life as a doll

was a life of waiting__hours
reeled like pinwheels, days
passed like wind blown
through black holes, weeks
hung heavy as headstones
The God took a knife
cut me into pure pain,
alive amid birds
wilding in the grapevine
while my dreams angled
into me like hooks, dragging me
away from Mother
into a world
he forget to bless.


  1. My God, we must be sisters... and we are, in some important ways. After reading your poem and brief interview, I knew that you are expressing what must be expressed in order to heal. It reminds me of my paintings that sit in my mind, with my blank canvases perched across the room. If only there was time...

  2. At times, healing is like trying to fly without wings. We build them, from bone-tip to feather-tip, through our art. Sometimes, even the sky needs mending, hence it weeps, hence green thorns turn into buds...

    From Elizabeth Kirschner