The Flapper Press Poetry Café Welcomes Memoirist and Poet Catherine Anderson: Part One
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets of all ages from around the globe. This week, we highlight the life and poetry of Catherine Anderson!
For almost twenty years, Catherine Anderson has worked with immigrant and refugee communities in Kansas City, where she currently lives. She also facilitates the Kansas City Writers Place Poetry Reading Circle, where participants gather monthly to discuss poems and poets. For two decades, she worked in Boston as a teacher and writer, primarily focused on the lives of new immigrants. She has received awards in poetry from the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation (many years ago) and, more recently, the I-70 Review and the Crab Orchard Review.
In addition to the memoir My Brother Speaks in Dreams: Of Family, Beauty & Belonging (Wising Up Press), Catherine Anderson has published four full-length collections of poetry, including Everyone I Love Immortal (Woodley Press), Woman with a Gambling Mania (Mayapple Press), The Work of Hands (Perugia Press), and In the Mother Tongue (Alice James Books). She participated in a group translation project of the classical poet Nonnus’ Tales of Dionysus, published in the summer of 2022 by the University of Michigan Press.
We reached out to Catherine Anderson to talk about her passions, inspirations, and poetry.
Meet Catherine Anderson!
Annie Newcomer: Welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café, Catherine. We are so delighted to have you here to discuss your book My Brother Speaks in Dreams: Of Family, Beauty & Belonging. Let's begin by asking you to explain to our readers the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
Catherine Anderson: Thank you, Annie, that’s such a great question. The main difference may be one of tone. To me, the memoir is subjective, personal, and intimate. A memoir can be very elastic, containing a range of styles and genres, gliding through a scale of emotions, while perhaps hovering over a few specific themes or periods in a life. An autobiography also reveals the subjectivity of the author but primarily sticks to the facts, the details of a life, the linear sequence. We seem to be experiencing a renaissance of hybrid writing, and the memoir form is a reflection of that. Contemporary consciousness now tends toward collage, montage, layering, in contrast to older (still interesting & exciting) ways of thinking with its emphasis on the linear, sequence, and logic. Traditionally, a person didn’t attempt a memoir until very late in life, and usually the author was famous already, and often not as a writer but a public figure. Thankfully, that stereotype has been upended, and now anyone can write a memoir! To me, currently, autobiography resembles that old idea of a memoir written after a long career. I’m thinking of Katharine Graham’s Personal History. In contrast, the personal memoirs I went to for inspiration included Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, a poet’s account of mourning the sudden death of her husband, and sculptor Anne Truitt’s Daybook that tracks the growth of the artist’s early consciousness.
AN: Catherine, why was a memoir the best way to tell the story of your brother Charlie? Did you try other paths before settling on this form?
CA: Often you strike a path for the sake of momentum, not knowing where it will lead. I had published three brief essays about Charlie over the years, marking the course of our lives as siblings—our shared childhood, his institutionalization, our young-adult years living in separate cities, and then experiencing the loss of our parents. After Charlie died, I felt it was time to revisit those previous essays, fill them in a bit, and try to explore the full arc of his life as best I could, realizing it was a story told primarily through my rather limited, neurotypical lens.
I also wanted, through the long form of prose, to explore the more spiritual dimension of our relationship, how we connected beyond language. The result, primarily narrative but also hybrid, still remains only a glimpse of a life. So much I didn’t include for reasons of length and veracity. Another thing that compelled me: Each time I had read or published a poem centered on Charlie, perhaps exploring the limits of language—a significant theme for me—someone would always ask how he was, who he was. They wanted to see the full person. I was always thrilled to hear those queries, that curiosity. I knew his life deserved a deeper rendering, his place set in a particular era, within our unique family, and then as an adult, living among others. His life contained more than the stories of his autism and intellectual disabilities. Charlie had a realized life. He was a friend, a son, a brother, with adult interests, hopes, and disappointments. He made friends, he held a job, he mourned the deaths of his parents.
AN: How did you choose the poems that you included for your book? Might you share lines from these poems here and why they are important to you as you remember Charlie?
CA: Two important poems to me, written years before and very central to how I felt about Charlie, needed to be rewritten slightly to fit the context of the memoir. Language isn’t stone or bronze but ever changing. It’s more like water; it flows, gushes, or evaporates, a river we’ll never enter the same way again. “The Bread of Childhood,” a poem at the beginning of the memoir, was originally titled “My Brother Recalls the Bread of Childhood,” published in Woman with a Gambling Mania. I changed it because it now felt different set against the story of our shared childhood, the theme of that section of the book. These lines depict Charlie at a complicated time in his childhood, when there was so little understanding of his autistic syndrome. In the earlier poem, I was observing him; in this version, I am there with him, which felt more honest. The poem begins, “Born among wolves, we learned grace,” referring to my brother’s uniqueness and continues a bit later:
Names rained down like the sweat of Zeus.
We ignored them all and swallowed
the spark-flicker, shook foil
of things—salt diamonds dancing
on a crystal floor.
The poem then depicts a store and a storekeeper (enormously kind) and ends with the two children lost in the store, highlighting a more ordinary experience of childhood and showing that moments like this also existed in our lives:
We entered her store and smelled
the bright scent of bread
wrapped in circus colors, laid out
like babies in a delivery ward.
Turning down the aisle with our eyes closed,
we thought this bread was infinite.
Another one appearing later in the book, “Two Brothers Washing for Dinner,” originally published in The Work of Hands, is shown as a prose poem, its best form within the memoir. This poem portrays our younger brother Bill’s delight in knowing Charlie, who was finally home after living in an institution for eight years: “Though he would dream of bearing his older brother like a gift to the world, for now he led him through the hallway of our house, not narrow or dark for long, but reaching an end where a table was set and the candles were burning.” Charlie, the boy who was once hidden in an institution (no one had wanted that) had now come home. We would introduce him to our community; he would be the gift we wanted to share to the world. And the gift was received very well, over time.
AN: In addition to your memoir, have you written poems specifically about Charlie? If yes, might you include?
CA: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. The whole “The Bread of Childhood” is here, along with two poems from my last book of poetry, Everyone I Love Immortal. One touches on how Charlie used language and reflects my own disappointment (possibly misdirected!) with how he spoke. The next one shows how Charlie helped me accept the death of my husband, predating the memoir, but touching on similar images. The last is brand new—lyrical and non-narrative—reflecting Charlie’s love of nature and, I hope, the nonverbal side of his expression when read very slowly. John Clare was an astonishing early nineteenth-century poet with a keen sense of nature, who was unfortunately institutionalized during his life.