Poet, writer and former Sacramento State English professor Brad Buchanan suffered through multiple health crises over the past seven years, including treatment for a rare form of lymphoma, a stem cell transplant, temporary vision loss and now chronic graft versus-host disease. The experience left him reeling—and turning to poetry to make sense of what he went through. His fourth book of poems, “Chimera,” is an unflinching look at how a human body can be ravaged by disease and the emotionally complex intersection of beauty and recovery.
Why was poetry the right medium for what you wanted to say about your experience?
It’s what I’ve written the most of and what I’m happiest writing. Poetry is really immediate speech, in my view. It gets to the emotional truth of any situation a lot faster than narrative does.
Do you believe that when life gets really hard, as it has been for you throughout this medical saga, making art from the suffering is sometimes the best a person can do?
Since I’m not a religious person, I don’t have any sense that sufferings on earth in this mortal life are redeemed up in the heavens, so I do have to put my faith somewhere else. Honestly, I’m privileged to be able to attempt to make something. For some it might not be very beautiful, but for me it’s the best I can do. One of the last lines in the book is “beauty this fragile / means everything / even life depends on it.” Maybe that’s why I did survive, because I was so determined to make something beautiful out of all of this, something that expresses something about human nature and human endurance.
Your health and very survival have dominated your life for several years now. Do you envision a time when you’ll shift the focus of your writing away from this topic, or is this the lens through which you now experience the world and writing on a daily basis?
For my poetry, I think I’m stuck in this mode for a while. But I have managed to resume my other writing. I have a new academic book about Shakespeare coming out. And I’m writing a novel about chess and the KGB in Russia. I’m trying to escape from my claustrophobic medical world to write about other things. But it’s hard to write poetry from any place but exactly where you are. That’s why it’s good to have different kinds of writing genres to explore.
How has your way of experiencing beauty or joy changed over the last seven years?
You can trace some of that in my poetry. Fatherhood and being part of a young family was the source of so much joy and made its way into my previous work. Getting to experience the miracle of birth, watching two children grow up and seeing the world through their eyes, seeing how they use language—it was outrageously inspiring for me. These days, I guess I have to take an I’m-grateful-for-every-day sort of view and find beauty in the ordinary. Sometimes I find myself sitting on the porch and just enjoying my view of the front yard. My eyesight is fantastic now thanks to two surgeries, so visual beauty is something I appreciate more these days.