Ellen Lord on Relative Sanity
Over the course of a career spanning three decades, Ellen Lord has immersed herself in working with people suffering from mental health and addiction. Her poems in Relative Sanity also reflect Lord’s own troubled gaze through the journey of her personal relationships. You will find multi-generational themes of love, loss, grief, and recovery. – NewsBlaze
In chat with RTS, Ellen Lord talks about her life, the experiences that put her on the writing track, and the poetry in Relative Sanity.
What inspired writing poems? Also what took so long to put together a book of poetry?
I could go on and on about priorities and paths not taken. For years my writing was consumed with assessments and reports for clients. I never seemed to have the time to revise rough draft poems. As I retire from the BH field, I choose to make writing poetry and creative non-fiction a priority.
I see life as a spiritual journey. There is always something, somewhere or someone to explore. I see aging as my next frontier. The challenge is how to remain soulful with retirement, illness, old age, and death. Actually, I don’t believe in ‘permanent’ retirement. There is always a job to do. My role as an Elder is to be a poet as I embrace my ‘wisdom years’.
As a behavioral health therapist, how do you relate to the themes of grief and loss? Does poetry like yours offer any therapeutic value to yourself or patients coping with grief?
As a BHT, themes of grief and loss are a backstory for just about everyone who seeks counselling. I consider my work to be ‘soul’ work. I love listening to stories and helping folks achieve clarity on their personal journey. Some clients like to use poetry and other forms of creative art in their process of healing. I worked for years with individuals who had the misfortune to be incarcerated. It’s all about finding the way back home. Individuals who float on the perimeter of society have taught me so much about living, about forgiveness and about redemption.
How do you enrich your poetry with imagery from distant memories in the past?
I’ve always been a listener and an observer. There is a dark and a light side to that. I grew up in a tribe that had a lot of emotional upheaval. I was the eldest of five and learned to be a caretaker when I was quite young. Some of my best times were when I could escape to the natural world. I loved to camp, fish, hike, swim in the summer, and ice skate in the winter. I tended to gravitate to folks in my family who were story tellers and I liked rituals.
Throughout the years I have kept journals and I continue to do that most mornings. I carry field notes when I walk and often stop to log a thought or observation.
As a behavioral health therapist, I have learned to be a ‘story keeper’. I am fascinated with the process of getting to know folks and helping them to navigate their journeys. I refer to this a ‘soul work’ and I am deeply grateful for this work. I do genograms and life maps as part of this process. Of course, some of my clients appear in my poems. I am very careful to maintain anonymity.
I study other poets and attempt to emulate my favorites. This began with Poe and Dickinson when I was a kid. Now I just love Mary Oliver, Ellen Bass, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison…so many. Currently, I am studying Diane Suess. I think her work is brilliant and so original.
In Relative Sanity, “Ode to Blue” stands out as a different kind of poem. Tell us a bit about it.
OTB is a ‘list’ poem. I bet I’ve revised it 50 times. Each word or short phrase represents an observation, thought, feeling, situation or person. It begins with a general feeling for the beauty of northern Michigan and then morphs into references about two young lovers. The turn comes with the line, “A color to be tangled up in”. The word ‘Valentine’ in the 11th line refers to a blue valentine which represents heartache. This poem is fun to process because it means something different to everyone. This is also one of these poems that folks either like or find totally obtuse. I patterned it after a poem Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Ode to Grey”.
Are you writing your second book or have planned any?
I am always writing poetry. Currently I’m working on some elegiac poems about my brother who just died this past year. We were very close and his passing has affected me deeply. He was a Viet Nam veteran. I have a special place in my heart for veterans.
I am also working on some memoir essays for myself and a few others who have touched me deeply. The work is always in process. When I was young, I had no idea that it would be so fulfilling to be a poet. I am in love with this journey.