Interview with the Poet

Why did you begin this project, 40 poems for 40 pounds?

My dentist casually said to me, “You could brighten those babies up in no time -- with a little bleach.” 

Three weeks later, after twice daily sessions with bleach paste and a custom fitted mouth guard, my teeth were whiter than new snow. 

“Well, that was easy.” I said to my husband while examining my lovely pearlies in the bathroom mirror. “I wish there was a way to lose weight that simply.” 

“There is,” he said. “You just have to do it.”

Yeah. Easy for him to say. He just whispers the word diet and instantly loses 10 pounds. I know what's involved in real weight loss. Maintained weight loss takes hard core, desperate measure work: regular denial of pleasure, daily exercise, monitoring of intake, boring party conversation, hunger, irritability, absence of chocolate. And all that tediousness for what? Compliments from friends? Smaller sized clothes? Better health? Mental stability? Increased self confidence? How badly did I want these things? Of course a slimmer me was attainable, but harder for certain than whitening my teeth. I kept thinking about it though – for months - about losing weight. Then, near and around my 39th birthday friends started to ask, “What are your plans for next year? For the big 4-0? Well, I'm no party girl, at least not anymore. I don't enjoy karaoke. And I'm not one for a day at the spa. I already have a diamond ring and a string of pearls. There's not much I'm missing in my life. There's certainly not anything that I need. I have a good marriage, darling kids, nice in-laws, several pairs of decent clogs. My husband suggested going away – somewhere warm – since my birthday is in February and we live in a place with cold, rainy winters. A Mexican vacation sounded good. Great actually. But when I sifted through the image files in my brain – the ones of me wearing a bathing suit in the sunlight, I suddenly got depressed. What I really wanted for my 40th birthday was a new body. One that I could fly off to a Mexican beach at a moments notice and enjoy myself, unselfconsciously. And while I'm doling truth, here's what I really wanted; someone to give me that new body for my 40th birthday. I wanted to wake up and just find that new slender torso, that new well-defined backside laying there in my bed, on my sheets, my head attached. Happy birthday to me.

But who could possibly give me such a present? I'm not interested in plastic surgery even if I could afford it. And from years of past experience, I knew there was no quick fix to weight loss, at least not one that would last. If I wanted a new body, I'd have get it like the Little Red Hen makes bread. I'd have to do it myself. That was a scary thought. I was going to have to diet to achieve my wish? I did the only logical thing I could think of, that thing I do when I feel scared or nervous. I started to eat. I started to binge. More cookies. More chips. More ice-cream. More hamburgers. Definitely more fries. In no time, I'd gained 10 pounds. Then, I turned 39. The evening of my birthday, I ate my cake a la mode. It didn't taste good.. The next day, I did what I had known I was going to do all along. I got my butt to a Weight Watchers meeting. This was no quick-fix Slim Fast hoax. This was serious. I was about to make a “life-style” change. I was going to lose 40 pounds before I turned 40. I gave myself one year to make good on this goal. I would wake up on the morning of my 40th birthday, maybe in Portland, maybe in Mexico, forty pounds less. I would give myself the gift no one else could: thinness. I had decided that I could be a thin, healthy person. I have never been a thin person. I have always wanted to be one. I decided: It's okay. You can have that.

While I was busy attending Weight Watchers meetings, making yet another vat of cabbage soup and walking like a fiend, I was also writing. I had been writing for years; sporadically, chaotically, sometimes consistently, in the midst of staying home with my two young children. When I first started on my weight loss plan, I couldn't write anymore. I was too consumed with not eating brownies. This took all my concentration. At the end of the day, when I would normally write (and eat) I would go to sleep in order to avoid food. Eventually, I was able to diet and write at the same time. Impressive, huh? And what did I find myself writing about? Weight loss, food, dieting, exercise, eating disorders, motivation, family, shame. Profound stuff. And then, in the midst of the writing, and dieting, and exercising, I had an epiphany. While losing 40 lbs, I'd put together a volume of 40 poems about weight loss – as another gift to myself. I had previously rewarded my pounds lost with material goods and experiences. Five pounds gone was a pedicure gained, or maybe a new pair of clogs. But this reward system was not sustainable. After the quick 15 pound loss in the first two months of Weight Watchers, dieting became arduous. I was losing less than a pound a week and the rewards were slow in coming. New shoes didn't make me feel happy. But writing did. I looked forward to writing. It was pleasurable to craft poems about dieting. Writing distracted me from the kitchen, from thoughts of brownies. I also liked the idea of making my poems public. Weight loss is public. Like a pregnancy, everyone can watch your body change. They can also watch your diet fail. They can see when your new skinny pants no longer fit. This blog is my way of rewarding myself. For every pound lost, I post one poem.

I notice that sometimes weeks that go by – months even – when you do not post. What's going on?

Like I said, I only post if I've lost a pound.

Couldn't you write a small poem, a haiku for instance, for a ¼ pound loss?

¼ pounds are flighty things. They come and go so quickly. I can shit a ¼ pound.

Some of your poems seem angry. Are you angry about being on a diet?

I'm not angry. I'm hungry.

What has been the response to your blog?

My friends
are a little concerned about me. They think it's strange that I spend so much time writing about weight loss. I have one friend who calls me up and makes fun of me. She'll tell me, “Hey, I just lost 40 lbs! I had my skeleton replaced with titanium!” She assumes I won't maintain this loss. She's known me a long time. She's seen me binge, purge, abuse laxatives; in college, she and her boyfriend once tied me up and force fed me a Snickers bar.

But isn't it strange that you spend so much time writing about dieting?

Anyone who has ever been on a diet will tell you that dieters think about food all the time. I'm just putting my thoughts into writing.

Have you received any professional feedback on your poems?

I took a poetry workshop recently for the first time. I brought in one weight loss poem each week. The other people in the workshop seemed to feel sorry for me. They tread lightly on my poems, not wanting to criticize a person who I think they perceived as fragile. They were very gentle in their feedback. My poems are supposed to be funny, but mostly they were not interpreted that way. Eventually I told the class about the 40 lbs/poems project. One week, as I was leaving class, I caught the teacher looking at me intently – staring at my body in a way that made me uncomfortable. He finally said, “You aren't going to just waste away, are you?” I was very touched.

Do you know of any other poets writing obsessively about weight loss? 

There's lots of essays about weight loss and some “literature.” When I started this project, I sought examples from other poets who had been writing about dieting. I found a poem by Jane Yolen, “Fat is not a Fairy Tale.” I found an anthology (compiled by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang) of poetry and short stories all written on the theme of “fat.” I picked up a book edited by Naomi Shihab Nye called “What Have You Lost?” In her introduction she states, “Of course there are things we would like to lose – regret, worry, self-consciousness, frustration, envy, weight, fear. I have noticed it is harder to find poems written about these losses, though. And I have looked and looked. Maybe you will find them. Maybe you are writing one now.”

What inspires you?

 Garfield.  I really love Garfield.