This interview by Air Schill, KPI Newsletter and Interview Fellow, was conducted via Zoom on January 20, 2022 with poet, herbalist and author Alexis Orgera, whose new book Head Case, was released from Kore Press in December 2021.
Ari Schill: After reading Head Case: My Father Alzheimer’s & Other Brainstorms, I found myself curious to learn more about your process and inspiration for your fragmented memoir, which dances through your memories as well as your father’s.
Memory is an overarching theme throughout your book. I watched your interview with Public Record and was impressed to see you recite a few poems from memory. What is your relationship to your own memory? Do you feel you have a ‘good memory’?
Alexis Orgera: I think I have a good memory, particularly memories from my childhood. As I get older and closer to the age my dad was when he was diagnosed, I get nervous about my memory slipping so I probably think about my memory a little too much.
I find myself noticing when I have lapses in memory. And, you know, everyone has memory lapses, but when I get migraines, I always have a little aphasia a few days before and start losing words and phrases. When that happens, sometimes I think, oh, is this a migraine or something else?
Ari Schill: While writing Head Case were there any memories or stories that came from other family members outside of you and your father?
Alexis Orgera: A lot of the stories were heard over the years from grandparents, aunts and uncles, or my dad. The story of my dad sitting in the driveway eating rocks as a kid came from his older sister. The story of my grandmother living under an apple tree in WWII came from her. That story sparked me to wonder if her story was an actual memory of her own or has the metaphor of the situation become the memory? Memory is so weird and malleable; I don’t know if you can trust it all the time.
In the book, there is a section about a dream I had when I was a kid. I had put my pinkie finger into a pencil sharpener and started sharpening it in the bathroom. None of this was real, but my brain remembers it as if it were a real event. I had to figure out how to separate that from reality, which never included me sharpening my finger.
I frequently remember my dreams, and a lot of them are quite vivid. I don’t know what the significance of the pencil sharpener was at age three or four, but the ones that I remember in detail are ones that I usually need to think about and understand more deeply. I took a Jungian dream analysis course when I lived in Portland, and it was a really great way to parse out the symbols and the archetypes that move around in your head at night.
AS: Did you know or have any experience with Alzheimer’s before your father was diagnosed?
AO: My Poppy, my father’s father, had Alzheimer’s when I was in college. I did not live close to him but saw him when I went home to visit, and there were some very scary moments. One time he violently pushed my brother up against a wall and threatened him. He accused me of stealing his kitchen knives. My grandfather got more violent than my father ever did. He eventually lived with one of my aunts before his final days in a memory care unit, and that’s when I saw what it was like to be a caretaker for someone with Alzheimer’s.
AS: Did the intellectualizing of your father’s diagnosis aid in your healing and process of acceptance?
AO: It’s funny that you call it intellectualizing, which I think you’re right, it is intellectualizing. But, I spend so much time in my head that to me, it just felt like processing. It was definitely a way for me to integrate his diagnosis into my life. But maybe it didn’t aid in the emotional healing. You can have an intellectual healing, but an emotional healing requires naming and sitting with terrible feelings and being at peace with that process. I wasn’t quite ready for that. It took me a good five years after he died to actually be able to sit with the feelings in any sort of way.
Once I was able to sit with the hard feelings, what helped me feel better while holding and processing were the good memories of my dad. I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, but to me, he does live on in those good memories. As mentioned earlier, memory can be unreliable. There are some traumatic memories of his Alzheimer’s journey that I had forgotten about because they were too traumatic for me to hold. It isn’t until my sister read the book and mentioned that I had forgotten to put some parts in. And when these traumatic memories are reintroduced, it requires a whole other, new kind of processing.
AS: You mention ghosts and haunting in a variety of ways throughout Head Case. Would you say that you believe in ghosts?
AO: Yes, with the caveat that I don’t have an explanation for what they are, exactly. I don’t subscribe to the traditional association of ghost as the spirit of a person who comes back after dying, although I won’t dismiss that. However, maybe ghosts are memory, maybe ghosts are hallucinations, maybe ghosts are energy, maybe ghosts are some part of existing on this Earth that we don’t understand yet. And that also includes the notion that maybe they are spirits or souls. I don’t know what they are, but I definitely believe in the unseen, or manifestations of something else in this reality.
Since I’ve had certain experiences that are extra normal or outside of the norm, I have to have some belief that there’s something that I don’t understand going on.
AS: On page 90 of Head Case, you say, “Ghosts are everywhere. To haunt is to show up somewhere regularly, ghost or human. To be haunted is to be present with a phenomenon that happens over and over again—an idea, a memory, a vision. Or to be haunted by something you can’t get out of your mind. The memory of an event, a person, an old pair of shoes.” Having had visions or encounters with mysterious entities from the early age of four, how has your own relationship to ghosts and hauntings influenced Head Case?
“I don’t subscribe to the traditional association of ghost as the spirit of a person who comes back after dying, although I won’t dismiss that. However, maybe ghosts are memory, maybe ghosts are hallucinations, maybe ghosts are energy, maybe ghosts are some part of existing on this Earth that we don’t understand yet.”
AO: It influenced me to write and talk about it. I get really jazzed up by ideas of the unseen and unknown. It was going to end up in the book inevitably. I come from a lineage of people who have had visions or seen things often categorized as out of the ordinary; it is a part of my life.
AS: In your interview with Deborah Kalb, you mention “physically wincing” when you had to revise and edit Head Case. What (or who) held and supported you during this time where “trauma and joy lived in one experience”?
AO: I have an amazing husband and two cats, Arthur and Hitch. My cats, actually, were not supportive at all because they do not like me, haha, but my husband is someone who comes with complete support. I felt I could always go to him. I also had a very supportive group of friends scattered around the country.
Being able to speak with my sister and brother was helpful because my husband did not know my dad. My siblings went through it with me. I didn’t speak with my mom very much because I didn’t want her to have to go through those feelings again.
My editor from KPI, Ann, was also a very kind editor and I talked to her a bit about trauma, the trauma of trying to edit the book, and my occasional attempts to foil my own efforts. Self-sabotage is definitely a part of dealing with trauma.
Even with all the support I had, it didn’t stop me from also going to therapy because revising the book retraumatized me. My therapist was helpful in very specific ways when I started having panic attacks.
AS: Do you have a favorite memory(s) while making art with your father?
AO: The moments of making physical art with him were a little bit bittersweet because they were a great time for us to commune, and it was fascinating to see what he was making, but they were always tinged with the reminder that he was really loopy.
The memory I feel most viscerally is less about making art but reading the Yusef Komunyakaa poem I talk about in the book. It’s always been one of my favorite poems, and I remember reading it to him as we sat in the courtyard of my father’s memory care facility. The sun was out, there was jasmine blooming everywhere, and he had his face lifted up toward the sun. In that moment he looked so content and happy, it felt like the perfect memory of art sharing. It’s so visceral because I can still remember how the jasmine smelled and feel the warmth from the sun.
AS: How has your love for Nikki Giovanni influenced your work?
AO: Her poetry was some of the first books of poetry I ever read. In high school, I would read her books out loud to myself in my room. I was reading early books like Those Who Ride the Night Winds and Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, and that’s where the fire really started. Nikki Giovanni gave me permission to let loose on the page.
AS: When you find yourself losing creative confidence, what (or who) do you turn to to realign yourself?
AO: I have a very dear poetry friend who is the most encouraging and supportive when it comes to talking me off the ledge.
I make sure I’m writing every single day, which helps reignite and realign everything. I have a morning routine where I read and write poetry every day for at least an hour. Until recently, I stayed in my bed with books and my journal, reading and taking notes. Sometimes I’ll doodle and draw. Then I’ll transcribe it onto the computer. Everything I’m writing goes into a particular manuscript. I just finished one called ‘Wilderness Studies’ but it’s mostly in revision.
If I am not doing this daily routine, I start to get out of alignment, think of all the rejections I’ve ever gotten, and it becomes an avalanche of self-doubt. Which is not something you want in a creative practice!
I love going to the library and getting like four poetry books at a time. I play a game where I go through every book and choose a word. Then I’ll write a line with that particular word in it. By reading multiple books at once, I can enter into conversation with a bunch of writers at the same time.
AS: What are you currently working on?
AO: I have four manuscripts that are complete and ready to go. I also have two books of nonfiction I’ve been thinking my way into, and I am looking forward to getting back to working on them.
AS: Who are you currently reading?
AO: I read multiple books at once in cycles. It will take me a few months to get through them and then I will start a new cycle. It works for my brain which is constantly firing, it helps me not get bored.
I am reading a YA mystery novel called The Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, which so far is great. I study herbal medicine, and it’s a funny coincidence that I’ve been thinking for months about the northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and the speaker of this novel just happens to be talking about that tree as one of the four pillars of Ojibwe plant medicine. I am also reading Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, which is about theoretical physics and our understanding of time, and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao, which I pick up a few times a year. The four poetry books on my shelf right now: The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, All Morning the Crows by Meg Kearney, Blackbirds in September by Jürgen Becker, and a book called Contemporary Swedish Poetry from 1980, so maybe not so contemporary anymore.
Alexis Orgera is a writer, editor, publisher, and plant person. Her two books of poems are How Like Foreign Objects (2011) and Dust Jacket (2014), and her poems and nonfiction have appeared in places like Carolina Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, The Journal, jubilat, Memorious, Prairie Schooner, Tarpaulin Sky, Third Coast, and elsewhere and have been nominated several times for Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. Her collection of poems, Hard Left, was a 2019 National Poetry Series finalist. She is the co-founder with poet Chad Reynolds of Penny Candy Books, an indie picture book press leaning toward the poetical and radical. Purchase your copy of Head Case, and learn more about it, here.