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"The Grammatical Metaphor for My Condition": An Interview with Barbara Duffey

Barbara Duffey is the author of the poetry collection I Might Be Mistaken (Word Poetry, forthcoming July 2015) and is a 2015 NEA Literature Fellow in poetry.  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere, and her prose in CutBank, The Collagist, and the anthologies Exigencies (Dark House Press, 2015) and Oh, Baby! (In Fact Books, forthcoming).  She is an assistant professor of English at Dakota Wesleyan University and lives in Mitchell, SD, with her husband and son.  You can visit her online at www.barbaraduffey.com or follow her on Twitter @BarbaraNDuffey.

Her essay, "That There Would Be Better Pornography," appeared in Issue Sixty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Barbara Duffey talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about technical writing, in vitro fertilization, and the subjunctive mood.

Tell us about the origin of your essay “That There Would Be Better Pornography.” What sparked the initial idea or caused you to start writing the first draft?

I was trying to write poetry about my infertility, and not succeeding—I felt like I needed more complicated prose explanations of my condition than I could get away with in a poem. I had already written an essay about my diagnosis, and then we tried to do IVF, and I thought to myself, “I need to write down all these steps involved, and publish an essay, because none of my friends know how this works and I keep explaining it again and again.” Then, we couldn’t do IVF. I took several days to grieve, and when I came out on the other side of it, I figured that I would write about what I did have—the experience of not getting to do IVF, which was even rarer than the experience of having to do IVF in the first place. As a reader, I love learning about other people’s experiences that are unique and completely foreign to my life, so I try to write from a place of my own specificity that might seem interesting to other people, I hope.

How did you make the decision that each sentence in this essay should begin with “That,” as if it is a dependent clause? (And what about the decision that most, but not all, sentences in the piece should be written this way, with only two breaking the pattern?) What effect do you expect this unusual linguistic choice to have on the reader?

I was thinking of the subjunctive mood at the time, and I’m not sure I remember why, but decided I would write the whole piece in the subjunctive because it seemed the grammatical metaphor for my condition—a state of being that’s provisional or conditional or might not happen. It was originally called “In Vitro in the Subjunctive Mood,” but a very good reader pointed out that that was too descriptive, kind of gave away the whole thing. I then realized we don’t really have a reliable, regular subjunctive mood the way that say, Spanish does, so I used “that,” as if they were dependent clauses, to make it subjunctive. I also imagined the phrase “I wish” before each of these sentences. I broke out a couple times to come up for air and because I needed to explain a situation, not make a wish. I think the reader gets tired, maybe even overtired, from the repetition, but I wanted the wishing to feel exhausting, as wishing for a baby was exhausting me. I know it’s a risk and not everyone likes it, but I also felt I had to be true to my experience, which was as an exhausted person.

This essay goes into great detail about the steps of in vitro fertilization, including names of hormones and other medical lingo. Then, at the end, you use the word “miracle” twice to describe how you could feel as a result. Do you think (or hope) that your piece will demystify this scientific process for the audience, or mythicize it? Or both? Neither?

I hope it demystifies it. If I knew how to write the kind of essay that everyone forever after would read, I would write that kind of essay about IVF, because IVF is an increasingly common and important experience for many, and for everyone else, it makes the specific biology of human reproduction very clear. It makes birth control, getting pregnant, and the general perpetuation of our species easier to understand, and I feel that many of those concepts are shrouded in more misunderstanding than they need to be. I remember in health class in the seventh grade being told that women ovulated halfway through a 28-day menstrual cycle. I asked when women ovulated if their menstrual cycle was less than 28 days. Was it always in the middle? Was it always two weeks from the previous period? Was it always two weeks before the upcoming period? My teacher couldn’t answer me. That’s a problem. In fact, if she had known, and been able to answer me, I would have suspected right then, in the seventh grade, that there was something wrong with my ovaries, which there is, and which it would have been nice to know earlier. It’s our culture’s fault, not hers, that she didn’t know. Do you know? I think most people don’t.

Why I used the term “miracle”: my husband and I dealt so much in probabilities, in the probability that a particular treatment would work or not. I saw in my support group these probabilities play out in real life. If there’s a 20% chance that an IUI (intrauterine insemination, the method we tried after the IVF didn’t happen) will work, and you’re sitting in a room with four other women who each did an IUI, how do you explain that you’re the one who got pregnant? You, who didn’t even get to do IVF? It seems miraculous. I should point out that I feel this miracle has been bestowed by luck, if anything, not by any divine power.

Much of your published work is poetry. What lessons have you learned from writing poetry that have also made you a better prose writer?

USE FEWER WORDS. I learned it in technical writing, actually. Technical writing was the best thing for my poetry. I try to eliminate useless words. You can tell from these answers that I have trouble in my normal life eliminating useless words. It’s important to me in my prose to maintain the poetic devices we associate with lineated poetry—assonance, consonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm, etc. Our language is beautiful. Because of its heritage, there’s usually an abundance of words that mean any one thing. That means we can be spectacularly precise, and also that we can combine sounds in very pleasing and surprising ways.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I have four projects going on right now, which is way too many, and why I haven’t finished any of them. One is a book of poems about my infertility; it’s called Simple Machines. One is a book of infertility essays that “That There Would Be Better Pornography” is part of. One is a book of poems about motherhood called Cultivar. I’m waiting to see if those poems might not be part of the infertility story. One is a mystery novel-in-stories set in a fictional Midwestern town. I’m working on that story-by-story, so it’s taking forever.

What did you read in 2014 that you would like to recommend?

I loved this nonfiction book Parentology, by a sociologist at NYU, Dalton Conley. He does a kind of literature review of the research on parenting, and he applies many of their suggestions to his own kids and reports back on the results. I often feel lost as a parent, and this book assuaged some of that anxiety for me.

In poetry, I recommend Like Oysters Observing the Sun, by Brenda Sieczkowski, for its combination of poetry and nonfiction. Her book is the marriage of science and the lyric. 

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