Poetry News

"I like the idea that the wound is the blessing that leads you to create": Laurie Lambeth on Living, and Writing, with MS

By Harriet Staff

See this Atlantic feature on poet Laurie Lambeth, in which she discusses living with MS, which she was diagnosed with in high school.

The piece opens:

The fact that Laurie Lambeth's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) came after only one month -- and after only one "event" -- made it a relatively uncommon one. Most people have at least a couple separate events (symptoms or flare-ups) before they're diagnosed. Lambeth's first symptom, at age 17, was numbness that spread up her left arm and down her body. She had been snapping her fingers to music one day, and the next her hand went numb, a sensation, or absence thereof, which diffused across her left side. As the result of this early onset, Lambeth -- who is now 43, a PhD, and a prize-winning poet -- has lived with the degenerative neurological disease for all of her adult life. How the disease informs her life, poetry, and concept of "normal" is itself a work in progress.

Despite Lambeth's young age at the time, the diagnosis itself was not particularly distressing. Her neurologist's nonchalant attitude about MS made for a diagnosis that was pretty low-key. "My neurologist said to me, 'think of it as minor inconvenience. Avoid hot tubs. Have a nice life.' That was it. There was no hysteria about it for me because he minimized it so."

From high school, Lambeth went on to receive degrees from Loyola Marymount and the University of Houston, where she currently teaches.

On how MS informs her work:

In many ways MS informs Lambeth's work just as its presence throughout her adult life has informed her relationship with her own body and with the world around her. "Since I couldn't feel the difference between fabric and a hand on my leg, I began to see the world more abstractly," she says. So Lambeth began creating metaphors - privately, at first, as an outgrowth of her personal experience, and then on paper, to express it to others.

Lambeth's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Crazyhorse, and the Mid-American Review. She has also published a book of poems and "fragmented" prose, Veil and Burn, which won a National Poetry Series award in 2006, and is working on a second.

Much of her writing explores the relationship between the self and the other, and even how we may experience sensation through another. Some of her poems articulate the physical sensations of MS, even the numbness, which she describes as a presence, an entity in its own right. Pain, she says, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to convert into words effectively. She also doesn't particularly want to invoke pity in her reader.

Finding a new normal has been an ongoing theme in Lambeth's life and work. "I have to say that for the majority of the time I have had MS I was under the impression that relapsing-remitting meant that my MS would never progress. I was wrong, clearly. It gets harder and harder to recover from a flare-up and get back to normal. Normal itself keeps shifting, and the area I can walk has shrunk." Exacerbations, or flare-ups, may occur during times of stress, or randomly, and the recovery may not be so complete as it once was, making "normal" an ever-changing concept.

And, how MS informs her life as a teacher:

One of the undergraduate classes Lambeth teaches is called Literature and Medicine. She tells her class about her condition on the first day, by making an analogy between a neuron and an electrical cord. "Susan Sontag says we shouldn't use metaphors," laughs Lambeth. "But on the first day of class, I hold up an electrical cord and ask my students if they know what the outer coating does and what would happen to the function of the cord if it were gone. Most guess correctly that if the insulation were gone, the cord wouldn't be able to carry the charge very well or at all. And I tell them that this is what's happening inside my body." Like first-year medical students, a few of her students inevitably confide in her the tinglings or aches they've experienced in their bodies, and ask her if she thinks it's anything to worry about. She tries to reassure them (without letting on an inward chuckle) that they're probably OK, but if they're really concerned, to go see a doctor. The students who do have chronic medical conditions seem to find comfort in having a teacher who shares similar struggles.

Whether MS has enhanced her career or held her back professionally is a question with which Lambeth has grappled for a while. "Strange: I don't usually blame my MS for anything, but instead I blame stigma or poor interview performance or the barriers themselves for most of the professional obstacles I have faced. The thing is, I know I'm a good teacher, but the market is tough right now, and I can't teach a large number of classes at the same time, and that does have something to do with MS. I often tell people I am a part-time professor and a full-time patient with 'years of experience.' And of course my writing, which receives so little of my time but means so much to me, is my true vocation."

Full article here.

Originally Published: September 4th, 2012