Teaching Through Treatment: Normalizing Cancer

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After years of regularly meeting up for chats about poetry, teaching, and cancer in Macon coffee shops, Georgia poets Anya Silver and Sara Hughes decided there might be an audience for their conversations. So in May of 2016, they sat down with a tape recorder in the living room of Anya’s house on the perimeter of Mercer University’s campus and talked for two hours. After editing out a few tangents about twins and the occasional dog barking at traffic, Sara realized the conversation could be split into shorter pieces. So, without further ado…

Sara: Maybe we should start this conversation series by discussing how we know each other. The year you began teaching at Mercer University was my first year as a student there, so we’ve known each other over fifteen years. Since this is my first year teaching full-time at a university, I’m curious about your early expectations of being a college professor. Did you imagine that you would maintain friendships with students beyond the four years that a student was in college?

Anya: Well, I did because my father was a professor, and he had students who would come back twenty or thirty years after he taught them, and when things went wrong in their lives, they would call him. So I’ve always seen how student-professor relationships could become friendships in the long term.

Sara: Do you think relationships like ours are common?

Anya: It is unusual, I think, for a friendship to last as long as ours has, or to change from a professor-student relationship to a peer friendship. Maybe it’s because we’re both poets; that helped us move from one dynamic to a newer dynamic.

Sara: I also think that the fact that you were so young when you were my professor—

Anya: I was only 29—

Sara: Right. So there’s not a huge age difference between us.

Anya: Yes. See, now it’s different because I’m practically the age of my students’ parents, so it’s hard to move beyond a mentor-mentee relationship with my students.

Sara: You were definitely my mentor when I was twenty, and I still feel I can ask you for professional advice, but I’m grateful that our relationship evolved. I used to go out of my way to drop by your office just to chat when I was an undergraduate because I thought on some level that we could be friends. Now that I’m on the other side of the professor-student relationship, I am constantly asking myself how to establish boundaries with students while they are still students. Students are immediately comfortable with me and want to confide in me. Maybe it’s because I encourage them to channel their emotions through their writing. So, at what point do you say, this is getting TOO personal? Can you tell a student, you are trusting me too much?

Anya: I’ve never really had boundary issues with students. Even though I think my students like me, I’m not as accessible to them as other professors are. I do urge my students to write about personal experiences, and a few times students have come to my office and shared really intense personal details with me, and I’ve had to sort of back up and refer them to therapy. I’m not a therapist, and I don’t want to get into that kind of relationship with my students. I’m not competent to do that. Do you have the same experience?

Sara: Basically since I started teaching, I’ve had students treat me like I’m their therapist. They come to my office hours and unload on me and I don’t know what I’m doing to encourage that. But it’s not just students. People in general do that to me. I was on a train a few weeks ago and an old woman just sat down next to me and started telling me her life story.

Anya: There’s some openness about you that there isn’t about me because that doesn’t happen to me. Maybe it’s because you’re younger, and you have a youthful, friendly openness about you that I don’t have. <laughs> I think it’ll probably change as you get older because students will perceive you as an authority figure more than a peer. But you also teach a lot of nontraditional students, right?

Sara: I do. But the eighteen-year-olds are the ones coming to me with their problems, and it’s been happening since I first started teaching in my MFA program. I was twenty-two and totally unprepared to handle my students’ personal lives.

Anya: That happened to me when I was teaching high school. There was only a four-year age difference between the seniors and me, so they turned to me as a therapist or a friend. But there’s a friendliness about you that draws your students in.

Sara: Maybe it’s my friendliness, but I think it’s how open I am with my students from the first day of class, which became really important when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was very upfront about my cancer with my students.

Anya: I was too.

Sara: I thought they needed to know what I was going through. I didn’t want students coming to class sick because my immune system was compromised from the chemo.

Anya: Right.

Sara: I’ve known other professors who were going through cancer who didn’t tell their students because they didn’t want their students knowing anything about their personal lives.

Anya: Did you feel that you wanted to show your students that it was possible to live a full life with cancer? Did you have an idea of modeling how that’s possible for your students? Because that was part of it for me.

Sara: I think part of it was just trying to live an honest life. I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, but I also didn’t want anyone thinking I was trying to keep my cancer a secret.

Anya: Right! I didn’t want to seem shameful. I wanted to be very down-to-earth about it with my students. They watched me as I lost my hair, and it made the whole experience less mysterious for me and for them. Being open about my cancer normalized it, which made me feel better.

Sara: I got a lot of positive feedback from my students about how honest I was about my cancer. When I was going through chemo, and I was bald and sick and had told them that sometimes they would have a substitute because I was too weak to come to class, that semester in particular my students told me the most personal, intense things that were happening in their lives because I’d been so open about my cancer. However, that was the one semester I felt the least equipped to handle other people’s trauma.

Anya: Right. Because you were dealing with your own trauma.

Sara: I only had enough energy to teach my classes and take care of myself, but I had students that semester who wanted to talk to me about family members who had cancer and their fear of losing them. Also, a student who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that semester told me I was the only person he could talk to about it because I was also dealing with a serious illness.

Anya: There’s a bond that develops because people want to speak with someone who understands what they’re going through. There’s this instant connection between people who have undergone this traumatic experience. It’s like being a soldier. It’s a natural human need. I don’t mind it when students want to talk to me about cancer. I like feeling like I can help people who are going through that.

Sara: But there’s also the question of whether you should establish boundaries with your students and just say you know, at some point, you need to stop talking to me about this and talk to somebody else.

Anya: Yes. Absolutely. I’m not a trained therapist, so I don’t want to hurt a student when I’m trying to help her.

Sara: Exactly. But there’s a difference between what students tell you in confidence and what they write about.

Anya: The writer Gordon Lish once said, “Whatever you’re trying to hide is what you need to write from.” Do you ever fear that you are pushing students to explore intimate parts of their lives that they may not be equipped to delve into emotionally, and that you are then not able to help them with? I’m thinking specifically of issues such as sexual abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm.

Sara: I ended up changing the types of writing assignments that I gave my students because I was getting from students things that were too personal, and especially when I was in my early twenties, I didn’t feel emotionally prepared to handle it.

Anya: I still assign personal narratives to my students, but I always let them know there are other options. I don’t want my students to feel pressured to write about something they’re not ready to write about just because they’re trying to impress me as their professor. But we live in a culture of over-sharing with social media, so sometimes students don’t even realize that what they’re writing about may be too personal for a college assignment.

Sara: Do you see this in poetry too? Do you see any trends of over-sharing in poetry being published today? Do you think a lot of poets are writing Confessional poetry?

Anya: Actually, no. On the contrary, I’ve picked up on some condescension toward the phrase “Confessional Poet.” A lot of contemporary poets who are receiving acclaim are not writing personal poetry. Maybe because of social media, confessional poetry has been relegated to this “non-art sphere.” What do you think?

Sara: Poetry I’ve read recently still explores personal information, but there seems to be a narrative distance between the speaker and the subject matter.

Anya: That’s what I’ve noticed too. Post-modernism trends and writing through different personas—I’m thinking of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—makes it seem like writers are using distancing mechanisms in their writing.

Sara: Do you consider yourself a confessional poet, or at least, is writing about illness inherently confessional for you?

Anya: I consider myself a confessional poet to the degree that my work draws from my life—whose doesn’t? I’m a product of my environment, my relationships, the books that I’ve read. I’m not as confessional to the degree as writers whom we consider “confessional,” like [Sylvia] Plath and [Sharon] Olds, are. But I admire confessional poets, and I think that any good writing about illness has to be confessional to avoid falling into cliché and sentimentality. It’s shocking to me to read so many poems about illness that use extremely similar language, like being “eaten up” by cancer. It’s time to eliminate that phrase. Writing about illness requires a precise vocabulary.

Sara: Are there some aspects or experiences of being a wife or mother that you are unwilling to write about, or is everything in your life fair game? What about publishing poems or essays about your family?

Anya: I’ve written a lot of poems about my family and self that I would never publish, either because the work is therapeutic but not good as art, or because it would embarrass or pain people whom I love. For me, being a loyal friend is more important than publishing a poem that could hurt somebody. I try to take my ego as much as possible out of the decision making process.

Sara: A few years ago when our mutual friend, Judson Mitcham, was giving a reading at Mercer, he said the same thing. Writers often feel compelled to tell all the truth, but a publication isn’t worth ruining a relationship. I would never want to betray someone’s trust just because I think it makes a great story. One problem I run into, though, is writing persona poems; since so many of my poems are in the first person, many readers assume I’m the speaker, even when I’m not. I used to think I couldn’t write in the voice of a woman who hates her husband because readers would assume I hate my husband. Luckily my husband is also a writer, so he understands that just because the voice in a poem expresses a certain idea, it doesn’t mean I feel that way.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Sara HughesSara Hughes earned a PhD in English from Georgia State University in 2014. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, The 2015 Best of the Net Anthology, and the 2015 Independent Best American Poetry Award. She has published in Rattle, Reed, Rosebud, TAB, Atlanta Review, Emrys, and Atticus Review, among others. Sara has also received two writing fellowships from I-Park Foundation and one from The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. She teaches literature and writing at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia.

 

Anya SilverAnya Krugovoy Silver is a poet living in Macon, Georgia. She is the author of three books of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010), I Watched You Disappear (2014), and From Nothing (forthcoming in September 2016), all published by the Louisiana State University Press. Her work has been published in many literary magazines, including Image, The Harvard Review, The Georgia Review, Five Points, Crazyhorse, New Ohio Review, Witness, The Christian Century, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Shenandoah, and many others. Her work will be included in Best American Poetry 2016. Her poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac,” in Ted Kooser’s syndicated column, “American Life in Poetry,” as an Academy of American Poets’ poem of the day, and on Poetry Daily. She was named Georgia Author of the Year/Poetry for 2015. She currently teaches in the English Department at Mercer University. She shares her life with her husband, son, and cockapoo. Since 2004, she has been living and thriving with inflammatory breast cancer.

 

 

Photo of coffee cup by Victor de Lara

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Atticus Review is a weekly online journal that publishes stories, poems, flash prose, creative nonfiction, mixed media, book reviews, and other genre-busting words of wisdom and interactive literary whimsy.

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