Erasure, Grief, and the Underworld - an Interview with Isobel O’Hare


Complain all you want about social media - its deleterious effects on human socialization, its enabling of privacy violation, its addictive qualities. Despite its flaws and risks, it allows us to connect with people we may not have otherwise had the opportunity to “meet.” In the poetry community, which can sometimes feel small and isolated, these connections to other poets and writers are necessary.


Though I have not had the pleasure of meeting Isobel O’Hare in person, I have watched them from afar via social media. A poet, herbalist, and co-editor of online journal Dream Pop Press, Isobel is refreshingly outspoken about their personal life. Isobel is also unreserved about confronting societal injustices via writing.


Earlier this year, some of Isobel’s erasure poems inspired by the #metoo movement garnered popularity online. These erasures have most recently been published as a full-length collection entitled all this can be yours by University of Hell Press. Around the same time of this publication, Isobel experienced a tragic family loss which they bravely wrote about (and continue to write about) online.


I have come up against both sexual harassment and the grief of divorce in recent years. These things, though separate, have pushed me to experience life in completely new ways. As someone who has had her first brush with the deep grief divorce can cause, Isobel’s openness about their experiences with both grief and harassment were something that I connected with. I reached out to speak with Isobel about their experiences, and about their new book.


N: Your book of erasure poetry all this can be yours, was recently published by University of Hell Press. Could you talk about the process of writing that book?


I: As I mention in the intro to the book, I felt overwhelmed and exhausted processing all of the apology statements coming out of Hollywood. Because erasure has always been such a cathartic art form for me, it occurred to me that I might benefit from erasing these statements. I forgot about the idea for a couple days until my roommate at the time, a wonderful artist based in Taos named Joel Larson, made an offhand remark that someone should compile all of the statements together in a book so that they could be read as a collection. That reminded me that I wanted to erase them, so I started with Kevin Spacey’s statement and then spent the entire weekend making the first 30 or so erasures.


N: What do you think erasure lends to these poems?


I: For me, the purpose of erasing these statements was to cut the bullshit out of them and leave only the truth behind. The truth as I saw it, of course. I wanted to reveal the empty PR language, the dancing around the issue, the pretending not to know any better, the declarations that times were different “back then.” I wanted to make it very clear to anyone reading the poems that these are common defenses predators use when they have been caught and exposed. I wanted to reveal the disingenuity behind that tactic of pretending not to know any better. If these men hadn’t known that what they had done was wrong, they wouldn’t have hired private investigators and lawyers to ensure they wouldn’t be caught or sued or in any way forced to suffer consequences for their actions.


N: I went through a divorce recently, and found it to be my first experience of real, deep, life-rending grief. In what ways has grief touched your life?


I: Most recently, grief has touched my life in the form of my father ending his own life earlier this year. This has been the most heartbreaking and transformative time of my life where I find that I am getting to know myself all over again because I am so changed by this experience. There are experiences from the past that have touched me, too, and that contributed to the creation of all this can be yours: child abuse and sexual assault. Then there were earlier losses of relatives and friends. An uncle ended his life the same year my grandmother died and a dear family friend died from complications related to AIDS, when I was 15.


Then there is the mundane, everyday grief associated with inhabiting multiple marginalized identities that aren’t truly understood or accepted by many of the people I interact with on a daily basis. I call this the grief of being seen but not recognized.


Right after my father died, I had the thought that life is nothing but a succession of losses, and in that moment it was a hopeless and cynical thought. And I still think this, that we move through life endlessly losing one another and ultimately ourselves, but I feel less bitter about it. I feel like this work of loss and grief is the most important work of our lives: learning to understand how temporary all of this is, that we have to cherish one another and do the work of recognizing and honoring our loved ones while they are with us, of honoring one another’s grief and unique process.


N: Do you feel that your experience with grief has resulted in changes in your writing?


I: Yes. I find myself struggling to develop a language with which to speak with the dead. It’s a dreamier, more fantastical, trancelike language than what I am used to. I’m dissatisfied with my attempts at describing this process, and I find myself drawn to music as a source of inspiration. One of the big changes for me has actually been a bit of a turn away from writing toward sound. I’m still at the beginning of that change, but I’m looking forward to seeing how making my own sounds will contribute to this new language I’m trying to develop.


N: Would you say that grief is present in all this can be yours? Do you find that grief and erasure are intertwined?


I: Grief is definitely present in all this can be yours. The grief of childhood trauma: being abused, neglected, and molested. The grief of some abusive relationships in my 20s, and the trauma associated with being disbelieved. I lost friends because I was outspoken about what a partner did to me. I told people that they could either believe me or lose my friendship, and a few people chose the latter. That was extremely painful because the subtext of their decision was “we don’t believe you.” That level of invalidation makes you wonder if you’re losing your mind.


For me, grief is always about loss. Whether that loss is a friendship, a pet, a parent, or a great love, we mourn our losses. We each have our own grief style, different coping mechanisms, and different ideas of what constitutes a greater or lesser loss. For me, nothing has come close to matching the grief of losing my father. Other losses have been painful, have taken time to move with (I won’t say move past because I don’t think we ever do that), but nothing has wrenched me from myself with this amount of force. It’s indescribable, really, going back to that desire for a new and different language to even approach the magnitude of it.


I think erasure offers grief the chance to reclaim the narrative, to find what is hidden beneath the surface and to speak more deeply with what we find there.


N: In my experiences with grief, I’ve come up against a lot of friction with my own psyche and experienced my own underworld journeys. Alice Notley’s book The Descent of Alette, comes to mind when I think of poetic underworlds. In Notley’s book the speaker journeys through a personal underworld and a resulting awakening. What does your underworld look like, who do you think is waiting for you there, and what do you envision on the upswing?


I: It's funny you ask this question because I belong to a Pagan tradition whose members undergo a series of spiritual “quests,” and I’ve been working through one since November. So, while undergoing this quest, which has an underworld portion known as Descent, I have had the experience of my erasures going viral and then my father dying by suicide. At times I wondered if I should drop out of the quest because of everything that was going on in my life, but I stuck with it and it’s been immeasurably helpful for me.


My underworld consists of my father, his blood, and my work to re-envision his death by replacing traumatic imagery with symbols of transformation and rebirth. Even before his death, he was there in my underworld, and now that he is gone from the physical realm my interactions with him there have become all the more powerful.


My goal as the quest comes to an end and I emerge into the Resolution phase is to integrate everything I have worked with and learned over the past seven months into a greater understanding of my own shadow and how it is intertwined with my father. My grief process will last the rest of my life, I imagine, and I will continue to gain insights into myself and him and our strange karmic connection until I’m gone myself. I don’t expect any of this to ever be truly resolved, at least not in this lifetime, but I do hope to learn how to coexist with it in a way that works for me. I think when we start talking about destroying the shadow or transcending it is when we become deluded. We have to face it, embrace it, and walk with it hand-in-hand. Otherwise, we are at its mercy.


N: And what underworlds do you think all this can be yours encounters?


I: The kind of underworlds we’ve seen in things like Twin Peaks, a show that I think does incredible work illustrating the various ways in which marginalized people, especially women, are mistreated and used, and all the methods they come up with for surviving and gaining some semblance of control over their own lives. I’ve been using Twin Peaks as a metaphor for my own life, my traumas and my coping mechanisms, since I first saw it 15 years ago. I often cast myself mentally in the role of Laura Palmer, but I also feel a strong affinity with Audrey Horne. There is a lot in that show that relates to the grief process, especially in the new series with Cooper’s journey to save Laura from her own underworld and Audrey existing in some strange fantasy limbo universe. I often feel like I’m attempting to communicate with the rest of the world in some garbled, backwards fashion from within the Black Lodge. And sometimes only other people who have been there can understand me. All This Can Be Yours has brought me closer to so many other survivors, other people who have been to the Black Lodge and emerged changed, and I am grateful for those connections.


N: How would you define or describe grief?


I: I believe that grief is a natural, magical healing practice that allows us to learn to coexist with our losses.


N: Where do you feel grief in your body? Does this show itself in your poetry?


I: My heart and my gut. Other people would probably be better than I would at knowing if that shows in my poetry, but I will say that I think my best work has been created in moments when I am physically overcome by some kind of emotion, usually ecstatic anger, which I believe stems from grief.


N: I found that when I was first experiencing the grief of my divorce, I would also encounter pockets of joy in caring for myself. What has been joyful for you, as of late?


I: Dancing! Grief has manifested for me in some strange and surprising ways. Twice now, I’ve found myself home alone just dying to dance as hard as I can, and in those moments I will blast music super loud and spend two hours or more just propelling myself around the room singing horribly at the top of my lungs. It feels slightly insane, but it’s what my body needs to do so I do it.


I also took myself on what I referred to as a “romantic weekend getaway” recently, which was a trip to Santa Fe by myself where I wandered around the city alone for days, visiting galleries, reading books, eating good food, and meeting new people. While I was there, I attended an event put on by Spiderweb Salon, an artist collective based in Denton, Texas. They put on such a life-affirming show, without skirting away from serious issues of various forms of loss and trauma, that I found myself crying in the audience. That might not sound joyful, but sometimes we cry because we find our people, and I can’t imagine anything more joyful than that.


N: Is there anything else you’d like to touch on or talk about?


I: I’d like to advise readers to trust in their own processes (of creation and of grief). Don’t feel pressured by what other people think you should do with your art. Your own intuition will guide you wonderfully; that’s what it’s there for!


Isobel O’Hare is a poet and essayist who has dual Irish and American citizenship. She is the author of the chapbooks Wild Materials (Zoo Cake Press, 2015), The Garden Inside Her (Ladybox Books, 2016), and Heartbreak Machinery(forthcoming from dancing girl press in 2018). Her collection of erasures of celebrity sexual assault apologies, all this can be yours, is now available from University of Hell Press.
Two of O’Hare’s poems appeared in the anthology A Shadow Map, published in 2017 by Civil Coping Mechanisms Press. A collaboration with the poet Sarah Lyn Rogers appears in They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writingnow available for preorder from Black Lawrence Press.

Nichole Goff is a writer, teacher, and dancer based out of Tucson, AZ. She is a former editor at Action Books, and the Editor in Chief of SPF Lit Mag. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 with her MFA in Creative Writing. You can find her most recent poetry in Dream Pop Issue 1. Her chapbook Aluminum Necropolis was published by horse less press in 2016.