It’s hard to think about 2020 as anything more than the year COVID ravaged the world. The virus didn’t just challenge the fragility of our corporeal existence. It also radically altered how we sit with grief, how we sit with others, how we sit with ourselves. But 2020 was not only pandemic, not only trauma; triumph, too, made a home inside some of us. To put that into words feels like a betrayal, but what is lived experience if not a cacophony of contradiction?
Among other things, I remember 2020 as the year my youngest daughter was born. I will be forever grateful that, as a direct result of the pandemic, I got to spend the first 18 months of her life at home. I also remember it as the year Katie Farris survived breast cancer. Not because Farris and I are particularly close. I met her once during a trip to Galway, Ireland in 2007. Since then, we have existed mostly in proximity, interacting entirely online.
In early 2020, Farris made the decision to catalog her experiences with breast cancer on social media. She’s a phenomenal poet and it doesn’t take long to see how generous she is with her spirit and her good will, either. Still, I was unprepared for how viscerally I would react to the poems she shared to her social media platforms around diagnosis, treatment and survival.
This October, I’m sharing poems and sections of poems that Farris wrote about her experiences with cancer to spark discourse in my classroom. She finds a harmony in strength and softness that, even in poetry, rarely works so well. The most obvious reactions from students will, of course, be about breast cancer. After all, 1 in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, and 1 in 100 breast cancer diagnoses each year occur in men. Students are already familiar with Breast Cancer Awareness activities during Pink Ribbon week. They attend pep rallies and “pink out” football games, show support through spirit days and see pink ribbons peppering the halls.
My plan is to lead with a quote that Farris posted to her Facebook shortly after receiving her diagnosis: “Once upon a time, I wrote ‘This is my body. Take from it and live.’ As a relatively private person, I’ve been thinking about the weirdness of having cancer so publicly…But here’s the truth: having cancer during Corona is lonely,” Katie Farris, August 31st (21 days after diagnosis) Next, students will consider the opening of her poem, “In the Event of My Death.”
I learned to trim your barbarian
hair. Now it stands always on end:
a salute to my superior barbary skills. In the event
of my death, promise you find my heavy braid
and bury it–
I will need a rope
to let me down into the earth.
I like my students to first sit with a question and form a response in writing, then share out. We’ll start with this: How did the pandemic change our perspective of medical care, illness and treatment?
My goal is to get students to confront the ways in which we are, quite literally, never going “back to normal.” We cannot authentically engage with a poem about illness during the pandemic unless we can also acknowledge that treatment and patient care are radically different than they were two years ago. As Farris points out in her social media posts, she began treatment without seeing her doctor’s face because he was masked. She spent chemo treatments entirely alone because her husband was not permitted into the facility. COVID didn’t just threaten our lives, it forced many people to die wholly and completely alone.
The next prompt we’ll consider is: What is the effect of Farris sharing an image of trimming her lover’s hair? Describe the ways in which her chemotherapy treatment alters this shared experience with hair.
Farris is brilliant in the way she captures this particularly nuanced exchange between husband and wife. Juxtaposing images of her hair growing thin with the wildness of her lover’s hair invites us into a moment of intimacy between the two. For her friends and followers, it also alludes to a striking post in which she shared a photograph of her once long, thick red braid. Accompanying the image, she described beating an effigy of her tumor and asking her friends to cut the braid before treatment began. Hair is no longer a simple metaphor. Not here. Farris runs her fingers through her lover’s hair in ways she can no longer touch her own. But this is not a poem of jealousy or despair. Instead, Farris gives her severed braid agency, leaving readers with the statement that she has hidden braids around the world, “a net/to catch [her] body/in its weaving.”
For the next class, students will encounter an excerpt from Farris’ poem, “Emiloma: A Riddle & An Answer,” in which she directly interrogates death.
Will you be
my death, breast?
I had asked you
in jest and in response
you hardened–a test
of my resolve? Malignant
In this poem, Farris deliberately invokes Emily Dickinson, one of the most iconic authors to write about death. The poem contains five sections. The first four invoke a potential arbiter of death, including two addressed to Emily Dickinson. Students can enter this stanza several ways. You might ask them to consider the effect of interrogating the body and how it draws separation between the speaker and their corporeal form. You might first highlight the internal rhyme throughout, or the distinctly canorous lilt of an otherwise fraught and private conversation between a woman and her body. This might also be an ideal space to bring in one of Dickinson’s poems to help facilitate a discussion about allusion and how invoking classical literature affects our reading of contemporary writing.
How would you extend the conversation?
With my students, I might ask: How does the relationship between the speaker and her body communicate the relationship between our metaphysical and corporeal selves? Could we apply this same understanding to other, more public discussions about women and their bodies?
There are many directions this conversation might lead, and it helps to be prepared for that. I know some of my colleagues have expressed concern about legislation in Texas around what teachers can and cannot discuss. One way to navigate these restrictions is to let the issues arise naturally through student discussion, rather than introduce them yourself.
With increasingly restrictive legislation around reproductive rights, it’s very likely that students may note that Farris creates a noticeably intimate relationship between herself and her breast. One question I might ask if the topic comes up is, If we understand this relationship to be indubitably personal, why are we so willing to legislate the female body?
Unfortunately, many (men) associate the female breast almost exclusively with sexuality, but Farris is not invoking anything sexual here. If anything, she is centering the ways in which the breast is deeply connected to her sense of self as a whole and complete woman. What does it mean to be woman? Is there a single definition? Do you think breast cancer, among other things, causes women to doubt their wholeness because our society connects the breast to both desirability and womanhood? What is the danger of centering the cis-gendered woman in discussions around breast cancer?
To help contextualize this line of inquiry, I will share Farris’ poem, “At the Oncologist’s Office,” which explicitly engages and responds to the male gaze.
Why bother closing a door
when everyone demands it open?
I go to the world with my tongue out
and my shirt unbuttoned, my keys
in the lock,
a six-inch scar instead of a nipple–
This poem begins with an inscription about a man who stares at the speaker, then eventually tells the speaker that “people must stare at [them].” Here, Farris directly responds to the idea that womanhood includes the presence of breasts, specifically situating a male voyeur to emphasize that it is patriarchy which misinterprets the breast as inherently intertwined with femininity. The image of an opened shirt, a lock in place of a nipple, communicates just how exposed women are against the male gaze. Farris, like the speaker in the inscription for the poem, refuses to break eye contact. She refuses to blink first.
Farris balances this defiance with tenderness in “Woman with Amputated Breast Awaits PET Scan Results,” a poem which gives space to the physical and emotional toll of waiting for medical test results. Specifically, she writes this poem while internalizing the possibility that her cancer has spread to other parts of her body.
Help me to spell waiting? I forget. And whom
can I tell how much I want to live? I want to live.
A stone, the waiting weights my body into stone:
what’s left, almost a palindrome.
Farris previously alluded to Emily Dickinson, a poet who has a well-known preoccupation with death both in her poems and in her correspondence. Now, it seems that Farris may call upon Virginia Woolf, though the connection is less obvious. When I read her insistence that she wants to live against the image of a stone that weights her body, it’s difficult not to envision Woolf’s method of suicide.
But what else does this image evoke? We could read it not as an allusion to Woolf, but to the Salem witch trials. It is, after all, the only execution in history which involves a man literally pressed to death with stones. Is Farris invoking a witchy history here? Perhaps. It’s certainly a thread worth tugging with your students.
One thing we haven’t addressed is access to medical care. Farris spends the better part of a year in and out of hospitals for treatment. Students could discuss the impact of privatized healthcare and how it affects which women survive breast cancer. Push them to consider the optics around Breast Cancer Awareness month. To what extent is the narrative of survival after breast cancer dominated by white, cis-gendered women? How is that connected to medical care and treatment costs? Should access to healthcare be a fundamental right? This thread might be a welcome exploration for a journal prompt, or even an argumentative writing assignment.
Farris shares a number of other poems that could be incorporated into this discussion. Students could read the full suite of poems she’s chosen to share publicly, or even her chapbook A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, which acts as a sort of memoir in verse about the experience. Each poem is remarkable in its own right, and each one offers one more layer to conversations around womanhood, healthcare and legislating bodies. Most recently, the poems shared to her social media deal with the lingering effects of chemotherapy, including the heart failure and osteoporosis she now battles.
We could also spend an entire week applying Farris’ public journey to the hero monomyth. Students could investigate how individualism requires a face to attach to trauma narrative and then, perhaps, develop a magazine ad that gives a particular trauma a face (this wouldn’t have to be a personal trauma, of course–merely a recognizable moment that alters one’s life). They could write their own narratives that explore the correlation between triumph and tragedy, as Farris illustrates through the juxtaposition of beating cancer and developing heart failure.
For me, the power of Farris’ decision to experience her healing in the public eye is that it simultaneously grounds us in the human experience. It also refutes every reason we have to feel hopelessly, tragically fragile. Maybe that’s something we and our students should get to sit with. Hopefully this will allow us all to go out into the world exposed, tongues out in absolute defiance of everything that would dare try to break us.
Additional Resources for Educators:
Latinx Heritage Month began on September 15th and extends to October 15th. If you’re looking for ways to bring that tradition into the classroom, consider this incredible collection of lesson plans developed by @JoelRGarza and @LyricalSwordz. All lessons include excerpts from LatiNext: The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4. One of my favorite things about this curated suite of lessons is that it recognizes the full breadth of the Latinx experience, including Afro-Latinx and LGBTQ+ Latinx identities.
You might also consider a novel study with Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, a hugely engaging novel in verse for young adult readers.