Welcome to "Paradise": Jennifer Metsker's new book of poems explores a bipolar mind
In Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise, Jennifer Metsker’s poems articulate a bipolar person's thoughts as they unravel. The poems show the mind making associations outside of rules as obsessions, fears, and beliefs take hold.
One of the poems, “Beta Waves Are Not Part of the Ocean and We Prefer the Ocean,” brings us to a psychiatric ward. People living there take on feline qualities and have cleaning duties, noting, “There’s no escape / from being a tidy cat.”
Amidst the mind’s chaotic adventures, the outlook remains bleak because:
There’s a little window here
but no way out
for this hatchback
of sad tigers growing sadder.
With the comparison to “hotels that were kinder,” the suggested temporariness of the circumstances and of the mind’s uproar nevertheless hints at brevity and a desire for things to look up in the future.
“Hypergraphia” is the drive to write compulsively and is connected to bipolar disorder. The first poem, which has the same title as the book, uncovers desperation amidst a chaotic internal life. We hear, “I’ll write anything fanatical / to make me forget this tortured life,” and also that “The suffering of nonsense seems like fun / until my room is being terrorized […].”
Writing serves as an escape, while it also perpetuates an unstable reality.
The poet is not without hope, though, as the poems leave the facility, explore life with family, turn sharply from wit to darkness, and contemplate tragedies in the news involving mental illness.
These poems illuminate the complexities of mental illness in an important way. Reviews and blurbs about Hypergraphia value contributions to the topic in poetry, such as how poet Khaled Mattawa calls it “a necessary book we all need to read” and poet Linda Gregerson writes, “... so perfectly does Jennifer Metsker render a mind under pressure.” Language for “differently abled worldviews” is needed, said Megan Fernandes.
Poet, writer, and artist Metsker is a graduate of the University of Michigan and now works as Writing Coordinator at the Stamps School of Art and Design. I interviewed her about her new poetry collection.
Q: What led you to become a poet?
A: I think I have always truly wanted to be a poet ever since discovering poetry at a young age. I used to write poems when I was young—this was my main activity in my free time. The poems were quite simplistic and upbeat and are funny to look back on now, especially since my memory of childhood is very sad, and I know now I was dealing with mental illness even then. Recently, I was a visiting writer for my partner’s elementary school class, and I brought the poems I wrote in fourth grade to share with them. I read a poem called “Summer Fun,” which was all about the joys of summer. By the time I got to college, though, every time I tried to take a creative writing class, I would just fall apart. I wrote my first poem in college about summer, as well, ironically, but it was about how isolated I felt even in the brightest days. Then I dropped the class. I dropped almost every writing class I ever tried to take because it caused me too much anxiety to write. It was easier to paint, to express feelings non-verbally, so I majored in that instead. I only found the courage to switch from painting to writing after I took a break from graduate school for painting, which was much later in life. I think I must have been around 30 years old or so.
Q: Let’s talk about your new book, Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise, which shows a mind reeling from psychosis and life with bipolar disorder. It is based on your experiences, as you spoke about during the holidays and also recently at your reading with Literati. Tell us about writing on this topic.
A: Well, first I think it’s interesting that I spent many years not writing about mental illness. I didn’t write about it during my MFA years, or many years after that, even though I was struggling with mental health pretty severely then. I think I never truly accepted how much my psychotic episodes and the challenges of living with bipolar disorder, in general, were affecting my worldview because I was working so hard to ignore that aspect of my life and try to be “normal,” whatever that is. I think my writing really struggled during that time, too, because the poetry I was writing was coming from a place of pretense. Then at a certain point, a few years after I received my MFA, and after a catatonic depression during which I couldn’t even speak for a while, I decided to try to write about what I had experienced. And then that opened up a floodgate.
Q: The poem “Release” says, “If I ever manage a mental health clinic I will try to ensure that the / waiting room signs don’t have any double meanings: Have a seat! / Your therapist will be out to get you soon!” How did writing these poems affect your view, and possibly even understanding, of mental illness?
A: Mental illness, and particularly psychosis, leaves you with so many strange memories that you haven’t processed, and once I started writing about it, my memories became material, which allowed me to enter those experiences with more curiosity than fear. I came to see how fear of mental illness is what creates stigma, and my own fear and desire to not talk about it wasn’t doing anything to help me heal or understand my illness or what others with mental illness go through. The line you quoted also shows how it’s possible to move toward humor or to find some hope in moments that were truly not funny or hopeful at the time. I was truly terrified by that sign when I saw it because I really did think it was “speaking to me” and that I was in danger from my therapist. Only through writing could I move toward this lighter view of it.
Q: The connections in these poems feel surprising and piercing, such as in “Days of the God-Sized Brains” when, “Decaf is fine, I said, decaf is fine, decapitation is totally fine.” Would you share about your writing process?
A: I definitely have different processes, and it might be possible to see this in the book as well. This created some difficulty in putting the book together. Because of my mental illness, there are times when I’m in a state of hypergraphia, meaning I can’t stop writing—or it’s very difficult to do so. It’s a symptom of mania, or even hypomania, in my case. In fact, a doctor once told me not to write anymore while I was in the hospital because writing would cause me to have an episode. I obviously didn’t listen! But that has meant I have some writing, such as the long poem “Days of the God-Sized Brains,” that came out of an outpouring of writing that couldn’t be stopped. That poem was originally almost book-length in itself, and I got it down to 13 pages. So in that case, revision and editing have to be a huge part of my process. But other poems, like “Not a Walk on the Beach,” come out of a more ordinary process—I hate grocery shopping and thought to write about that, and I think when I write in a non-hypergraphic state, poems are more narrative or grounded. This means I end up with these different styles, which has been a challenge at times.
Q: The poems in Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise highlight some tragedies related to mental illness, such as the shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. What prompted you to respond to these events in poetry, and how did you go about it?
A: I have found that it’s hard to write about some of the tragedies related to mental illness because the tragedies don’t always just involve the mentally ill person themselves. For example, James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora shooter, is a very controversial figure. I followed the trials on him very carefully because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to cause so much harm to others because of psychosis. But that he was found sane because of premeditation, even though the premeditation was totally from the perspective of someone insane, truly perplexed me. I would like to write more about the violence caused by people who are mentally ill, but I don’t feel like I can because it’s too difficult. People are still looking for motives from people who cause harm from mental illness, but the motives will be not from any reality we are in, I’m sure, unless you count not being treated for your mental illness because of the stigma surrounding it a motive? But to your question, why do I respond to these events in poetry, I think it’s because it’s so difficult to respond to them more openly or publicly and they are always on my mind.
Q: This debut collection won the 2020 Editor’s Choice Award from New Issues Press at Western Michigan University. Congratulations! What did submitting to the award involve? What has it been like to receive the award?
A: I sent this book out maybe 30 times before it won this award. So submitting wasn’t hard because I just sent it off to them as I’ve done so many times! But having the manuscript recognized was really amazing. The editor called me and said that when she read my work, it really mattered to her, and that alone was enough. To know I reached someone.
Q: You are an artist, too, and have studied painting. Do you find connections between your poetry and visual art?
A: Sadly, no! I’ve tried so many times to connect my poetry to my visual art, but the only way I’ve found to connect poetry to art, is the creation of audio poetry, which I’ve done for the BBC and creating a “tour” of our library at the University of Michigan based on a Borges’ story.
Q: What’s on your nightstand to read and recommend?
A: Right now, I’m reading a lot of theory! I love Sarah Ahmed and recommend anything by her. And Maggie Nelson. Autotheory is on my mind so I’m reading a book about auto theory as an approach to feminism. But in terms of poetry, the most powerful book I’ve read recently is [Natalie Diaz's] Postcolonial Love Poem.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I wrote a memoir that I had shopped around a bit but it didn’t get picked up. I’m going to take that theory I mentioned reading about and rewrite it and try again. I’m also working on a book-length poem about the heightened religiosity experienced in psychosis and how that applies to everyday life. A selection of it was published in a journal last year.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.