I Think of Each Poem as an Artery: An Interview With Stacy Nigliazzo
Stacy R. Nigliazzo is a registered nurse and the author of two full-length poetry collections, Scissored Moon (Press 53, 2013) and Sky the Oar (Press 53, 2018). Scissored Moon was a finalist for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize and the Texas Institute of Letters First Book Award for Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Journal of the American Medical Association, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Third Space (Harvard Medical School), American Journal of Nursing, Annals of Internal Medicine, and Annals of Emergency Medicine. We were lucky for the opportunity to pick her brain about her practice as both a poet and nurse.
Can you describe what drew you into nursing and your current role, responsibilities and interests?
My journey into healthcare began twenty-one years ago as the manager of a private practice. I was inspired by the good work of the physicians and nurses I served, though I never saw myself as brave enough to be one of them. Then, my mother got sick. She was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in 2003 – and the world split open. She died within a few week of her diagnosis. I wanted to understand what happened to her so I enrolled in an anatomy and physiology class at the local junior college. I was hooked. I didn’t just want to keep going – I needed to do it. It’s been seventeen years now. In that time I have earned my license to practice nursing, completed a master’s degree, and earned a professional certification in emergency services. I presently serve as ER clinical coordinator and prn operations administrator for a hospital in north Houston.
You’re also a poet with two highly regarded books of poetry. Can you discuss the relationship of your nursing and your writing? Are they separate activities for you, or are they connected. If the latter, in what ways?
I consider writing and nursing my life’s work in equal measure. I honestly don’t think I could do one without the other. Current evidence-based data suggests that reflective writing makes healthcare workers better observers as well as more empathetic caregivers. It also serves as a vehicle to alleviate moral distress and compassion fatigue. I have personally experienced these outcomes time and again in my own personal practice. I want to remember the stories of illness and recovery as I bear witness – to never forget what I have learned.
Writing for yourself, with no plans for publication, can be so important for stress relief, or a way to work out your feelings on the page. Do you work with other nurses using writing exercises? Also, Many people want to write but find themselves questioning themselves and never try it. Can you give some suggestions to these people to get started?
I’ve had the privilege of leading several writing workshops for healthcare workers as a resiliency tool. The most effective method I’ve encountered is the personal journal. Just about everyone has a little blank book somewhere, usually a thoughtful gift from someone important that often stays empty because it’s hard to know where to start. I suggest you dive right in. Forget the “dear diary” entries, formal prompts, or required word counts. In fact, I don’t even recommend complete sentences. It’s better to think in terms of a stream of consciousness exercise because our thoughts often don’t come to us fluid and organized, but rather as a series of flashes, pops, colors, and images. I encourage everyone to simply record two or three impressions from each day; something you believe is important, something you noticed, something you learned. It could be a pencil sketch, something cut out and pasted in, one sentence, or perhaps even one word. If you write 2 things down each day at the end of one month you’ll have 60 reminders of who you are, what you’ve earned, and what you’ve endured. Joan Didion wrote “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget… what we whispered and what we screamed…who we were.” We need to remember.
In my opinion, the ultimate healing instrument is an empty page. When I can share that space with others to confront an issue as mercurial as illness and channel it into something positive I not only feel empowered, but free.
For the novice writer, how would you describe the difference between writing poetry and prose?
I’m certainly no expert, as my literary learning has been largely self-directed with the exception of a few supplemental workshops (I’m lucky to live in the backyard of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program), but I see prose as composition in paragraph form, usually with complete sentences, perhaps in a conversational tone, with strict adherence to punctuation and grammatical rules. Poetry is more variable, often with highly stylized language, figurations, and metaphors, as well as flexible punctuation and arrangement of words on the page.
I think of each poem as an artery. The borders of the page are the vessel walls, the words and punctuation are the blood products flowing through it, and the white space is the lumen. Through the years my poems have gotten shorter – I think that’s the good ER nurse in me, wanting to include only the most vital details. With every poem I write I remind myself that it takes an average of only 0.8 seconds for the heart to complete one cardiac cycle, and I ask myself: what is that in words? Simplicity, concision, and white space are my favorite tools.
Mary Buchinger wrote “My goal is to write a beautiful sentence. A sentence that cannot be paraphrased.” For me, this is the essence of poetry.
What advice can you offer for people who are interested in, but intimidated by, reading and/or writing poetry?
I believe with all my heart that words do not have to be formally published in a book to be meaningful. It’s more about honoring personal stories and clarifying what you’ve seen and learned and how it made you feel. As a healthcare worker, what you experience stays with you. You cannot ignore these things. In the aftermath it often helps to simply paint a picture with words, if only for yourself. No one else ever has to see it. Sometimes it’s about a lesson learned, sometimes it’s because, like the sun in your face, patient interactions leave an imprint that remains, even when you close your eyes. Sometimes it’s about forgiving others – and ourselves. Poetry is an excellent vehicle for self-expression because you make the rules. Yes, established forms exist, such as sonnets and villanelles, but you are under no obligation to use them. I’ve never utilized a strict form. I just don’t have the patience. I’ve joked before that a poem is like a pain scale: it’s whatever the poet says it is. There is joy and liberation in such free expression.
What is your writing practice like? do you write each day or does it happen in bursts? What is one of the most useful pieces of advice you've received as a writer?
I believe in the necessity of inspiration and have never been one who could produce on demand. That said, I also believe one must work to refine one’s craft. You can’t just write when you feel like it and expect your work to be good. It’s like playing a violin. You must hone your skills through regular practice. The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received is to read – read everything – books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, journals, magazines, blogs – everything. You’ll find inspiration in the words of others and ideas on how to build your own work. My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read at least one chapter of a book, one short story, or at least three poems each day. I haven’t always met this goal, especially over the last few months while working bedside during the current pandemic, but when I do make time to read I inevitably find something there. And there are two books I can always pick up over and over again for instant inspiration: The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic and Curses and Wishes by Carl Adamshick.
Where does a poem begin for you?
A poem can begin anywhere. I once saw three blackbirds preening in a puddle of water and oil in a parking lot. That sparked a poem about the futility of managed care. Another time I happened across the word hyacinth and felt compelled to compose a poem using floral imagery. I was at the post office earlier this year and noticed the passport line. I was suddenly reminded of how my mother applied for her very first passport in the weeks before she died, just before her diagnosis, in anticipation of an international trip with her girlfriends. I went home and wrote about how she “planned – to fly.” Then I spent the rest of the afternoon crying it out in the kitchen over a batch of chocolate lasagna. But I felt better.
What topic or theme is most difficult for you to write about as a poet?
While I often honor the stories of others in my poems, usually in the form of composite sketches (like a literary quilt of sorts), I find it most difficult to write about myself. I’ll sometimes include my personal experiences within the context of a bigger picture, without specifically revealing that it’s about me. I have great admiration for the brave work of confessional poets. Putting yourself out there is difficult to do.
What is the last book of poetry you read? Which poets/books do you recommend for readers who are interested in poetry but not sure where to start?
I’ve been re-reading some of my favorites lately for comfort and inspiration, specifically: How He Loved Them by Kevin Prufer, Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West, Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady, and Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse by Valerie Nieman. I’m also re-reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (always a great choice) and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I read an exquisite book by Mylene Dressler last year: The Last to See Me. It’s a ghost story with a sequel that’s also on my future reading list (I See You So Close).