Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Double Negative by Claudia Putnam is the winner of Split/Lip’s 2021 Nonfiction/Hybrid Chapbook Contest. An intense, lyrical essay just under 50 pages, Putnam’s writing is gorgeously wrought.
This year’s contest judge, Jennifer Boully (author of works such as The Body: An Essay) had this to say about the chapbook:
“In exquisite prose that sparkles and pulses, Double Negative employs the long-essay form in an attempt to make manifest the nature of grief. Employing existentialism, the philosophy of space and time, theoretical astrophysics, the philosophy of mathematics, literature, studies of death, psychology, dreams, found material, and personal experience, the author leads us deep inside the mortal coil and its intersections of time and love and loss. Essaying at its best, this is a book that grabs you immediately while examining the difficult and impossible task of letting go.”
About the book, from the back cover copy: Double Negative examines the grammatical logic that two negatives make a positive, that an impossibility can ever be resolved by word rearrangement or by rearrangements of the physical body. The impossibility in Double Negative is the death of an infant, the author’s son Jacob, from an immutable heart defect that medicine, nonetheless, asserts there are options to treat. When is the right time to die, especially if someone is just beginning life? Three decades after her decision regarding Jacob’s fate, Claudia Putnam employs poetry, physics, calculus, scientific research into a hallucinogen, and the structure of the English language to interrogate her experience with grief. She asks whether there might be a difference between not dying and living, exploring personhood, and wondering at how the living do, somehow, manage to orbit so close to the event horizon of a child’s death.
About the author: Claudia Putnam lives in western Colorado, where she works part-time as a craniosacral therapist. You can find her writing in Confrontation, phoebe, Sunspot Lit, bosque, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry collection, The Land of Stone and River, was published by Moon City Press. Claudia is the mother of two children. Her surviving son, Julian, is a chef in Seattle.
Claudia and I sat down on Zoom the day before Double Negative‘s release to discuss grief, writing, and chapbooks.
Lara Lillibridge: So, first of all, you mostly write poetry and fiction, is that right?
Claudia Putnam: I write poetry, fiction, and personal essays also, and I probably will end up doing a book on paralysis in decision making. I thought I’d just sort of organize the story of my life around paralysis. That’s something I’m playing around with.
I have another essay that I’m working on now, and one that’s circulating. And a long one that appears in an anthology from Phillips Exeter Academy from when I was a resident there. One of the requirements was to give a personal talk at what they called the meditations at their church. And so I wrote about a bunch of things about borders and border control and prayer. Anyway, so that was another longer piece that is in this anthology that Exeter put together.
LL: “Double Negative,” is interesting, because there aren’t that many chapbooks of creative nonfiction, right? I tend to think of the chapbook as a poetry vehicle. And I know a lot of people who have pieces like yours, that are too long to be an essay, but too short to be a book. So can you talk about how this came to be and how it came to win Split/Lip’s Chapbook contest?
CP: I do increasingly see prose chapbooks, like Iron Horse Literary Review, for example, puts together a chapbook every other year. They alternate: one year it’s poetry and the next year, it’s prose. I think Accents Publishing does something similar. So there are a few places that do take prose, fiction and nonfiction.
This essay took years to write. I would write it during the anniversary periods — as you know, it’s about the death of my firstborn son, and a hard decision we had to make around what kinds of medical options might be available to him and whether to pursue any of them. He lived for three and a half days. And during that anniversary period, I write letters to him, I write poetry, and I started writing little snippets of this essay.
Another thing that triggered this essay was meeting survivors — people who had actually had some of those surgeries. It didn’t really change what I thought I should have done. But you know, it made me do more research and think about it more.
I use Scrivener, and I wrote these sections over a long period of time. And I just couldn’t see the whole thing — my mind would fuzz whenever I tried to think of it as the whole piece. So one day, my mind was just much clearer. And that tends to be what happens for me with longer projects, you know, I have these pieces and I can’t see the whole thing and then one day I can, and I was able to put it together. There was a lot of repetition, because each piece was kind of discrete. And I worked very hard — I had to keep in mind what I wrote already. And so finally, I got to a point where I could show it to some people who could then winnow out the last little bits of repetition, although there might still be artifacts in this.
I sent around to a few journals that take longer essays and the main editor of one rather good journal wrote back and said, ‘I love this, but I can’t give a third of my journal to this.’ I also entered it in few chapbook contests — Split/Lip was one of them. I found out I was a finalist and I found out I won, Jenny Boully judged it. And I really actually did think this topic was the best fit for a chapbook. As it stands, it felt complete to me. I didn’t feel like I wanted to turn it into a book at this juncture.
LL: You sat with it long enough?
CP: Yeah, I had. It felt like it said what I needed it to say. It’s interesting, I was in an interview for the podcast called The Chapbook. And they said that I was generous in letting people into my experience. And I was glad they thought that, but for me, it was more about, like, you will hear my story, or you will hear Jacob’s story.
One of the things that so hard about losing a baby is that no one else really knows him. You know, I’m not saying it’s easier to lose an older child, but you can have a funeral with an older child, and the kindergarten teacher can get up and speak and the neighbor can speak and you don’t have to do it all yourself, and there’s a whole community that’s grieving with you. Whereas if you lose a baby, it’s the parents and really mostly the mother who has this deep connection to that being.
I want to testify, and I hope it’s not edgy and aggressive that way. But I need for him to continue to be in the world in some way. And I also need this experience, which I think does talk about death in a way that you don’t see enough of. And so that was another trigger for wanting to write this.
I’d read some essay, or some Facebook post by a friend who had a kid with stage four Rhabdomyosarcoma and who would rant about parents who did not do everything for their kids, and I’d think, you know, there’s another story here. That doesn’t mean the parents didn’t love their child to the moon and back, but we need to think about, if we are clinging so hard to life, are we talking about living? Or are we just talking about not dying?
And I don’t know, there were maybe two or three cases back then, and maybe he would have been one of the forerunners who had a pretty good story. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad as it sounded at the time. But the people I know whose kids have gone through this and who have had a relatively successful run, often the child still dies at 21 or something like that.
LL: I was at a writing workshop with a neonatal surgeon, and he talked about how a part of his job was convincing parents that oftentimes just because they can do something doesn’t mean they should, and that sometimes deciding to prolong life and do all of these heroic measures is far worse for the baby and the whole family. And that it’s so hard for parents to understand that.
CP: Yeah. I mean, especially when the child was just born, because everything in that being and everything in you is programmed to start your engines, and so to let go when you just gave birth, and you’ve been carrying this baby with so much anticipation — I think it’s understated what women go through in pregnancy. I mean, not just the spiritual process and the transformation that can occur, but also, you can be a different person on the other side of birth than you were, and then wait till you get to raise the kid, you will really be a different person.
It’s a very liminal experience for women — I mean, you’re between states. But it’s also, physically hard. I mean, you build a human being, and people are like, ‘Okay, well, when are you gonna have another one?’
It’s a big deal. I was much more tired from my second pregnancy. You really put a lot into the formation of a human being, and I believe that women create these beings — not to say that their soul doesn’t come from somewhere else. But you know, we incarnate them. So it’s a big deal. And then to be told, ‘you’ve done absolutely everything, right, you are young, you are strong, you are fit, you’ve read all the books, you knew what to do, you were smart. And, you know, this one isn’t gonna work.’
LL: There’s not really a place in our society where women are allowed to talk about the loss of infants. My friends who have had that experience feel very much forbidden to talk about it.
CP: And isn’t that interesting? You know, I mean, it’s very common, even prior to birth, and the fact that this might be a loss is really disowned by society. I think I mentioned this in the book — I had a short article published in the Sunday Camera Magazine in Boulder, six or eight months after he died, and I was contacted by women who said, ‘I think I’ll name my baby now,’ you know, a baby who lived a couple of days, or ‘I think I’ll plant a tree.’ They had not, in years, discussed this. And I find that to be really oppressive.
One day I was skiing, and it was between the pregnancies. And I rode up the chair lift with a person I hadn’t seen in years. She was an old friend from college, so I was really excited to see her. We were catching up and I told her what had happened. And she just couldn’t go there. I didn’t necessarily want to talk about about it that day necessarily—I wanted to ski. But knowing that she was one of those friends that was not going to be someone I could open up to about that just put a strain on that interaction and our friendship.
If you know a door is closed, it takes a lot of energy to be in relationship with whomever it is. And if you know they’re going to say something dumb, like, ‘at least you can have another kid’ or, or ‘at least you weren’t to attached to that one.’
I did have issues with my second son — I don’t want to violate his privacy. I only do that somewhat in the book. But he was suicidal at one point in his teenage years. He disappeared one day, and I went through a period of, ‘I can’t lose another one’ for one thing, but also realizing that there are differences to loss. I mean, I felt like I had put so much into Jacob, but I also had been fighting for Julian’s life for 15 years at that point. I think there’s like this threshold and once you cross it, it almost doesn’t matter whether you lose one kid, or two kids, or a whole family, you’re just kind of over that threshold—it’s kind of infinity at that point.
But I also know that as far as the experience of grief and fear and stuff, there are differences in losing an older child and the circumstances under which they die. But I’ve been told by people who’ve lost children in their 40s or 50s, you know, fully grown, that it was just as horrible. So I guess I didn’t really want to get into debating who has it worse.
A stillbirth to me—never getting to meet their eyes and actually meet them — would be horrible. I’m so grateful for the three and a half days I had. But I’m so envious of people who have heard their children laugh, even if they ended up losing the child for some reason or another, but they got to that point where they heard the laughter, they had some interesting conversations, you know, and they were able to share that being with their community
Some things about losing that child are harder, but I would trade. You know, I would trade and at the same time, I’m in this weird, paradoxical place of having chosen to let him go and not be part of the community and not be something that all my friends were fighting for. But at the same time, I think it was the right choice, but I really wish I could have had more of that richness.
LL: Carol Smith, I think it was, wrote that grief isn’t a contest. You know, there are no winners.
CP: No, no.
LL: Grief can look different at different ages. But often people do sort of feel almost competitive or dismissive of other people’s pain, like, ‘my story was worse.’
CP: Yeah. And I want to acknowledge that people who have miscarriages also lose something. They lose, really a hugely positive view of what they thought was going to happen. The ones who are grieving their miscarriages are grieving a dream that has not been sullied in any way. And other people — I remember talking to someone who belonged to Compassionate Friends and her son had been murdered. And he had been murdered in a way in a time when, you know, if you have a kid who’s 12 or 15, or 17, there have been some moments that are solid. And so if, if a child dies when some of that stuff’s not resolved, you know that that’s really horrific.
I did have to watch my son die and you know, I don’t think that is a good decision, a good thing, no matter when it happens in your life. You automatically fail if your child dies, you know, you just do, whether it was your fault or not. At that point, you know, I can totally see why people want to fight, and do all these awful things to their children in the hopes that they won’t have to lose them.
It is interesting to hear that about your neonatal surgeon colleague, because that was certainly the kind of approach that our pediatrician and our pediatric cardiologists took. They were like, we would hope that we would have the courage to let go in this situation. The literature I’m reading now is saying, 57%, or whatever it is, 58% (I put the statistic in the book) of these kids survives at least for 15 years after surgery. And so they’re actually recommending not counseling people out of doing some of these surgeries, because they feel like it’s a majority who are living a reasonable amount of time. Now, they also don’t talk about strokes and things that kids have the process.
LL: Ten years of medical technology is like a century, though, it’s a totally different situation.
CP: They are still doing the same procedures, but they now have statistics, and they’ve gotten better. And I think there are, you know, more donors of hearts. And I think they’ve gotten better at keeping the kids alive until a donor can be found. Although at least a third of them do die without getting one. So that means they lived entirely on life support machines, which are fairly violent. You know, everyone goes, ‘wow, life support, that’s so cool. It’s a miracle.’ But when you actually see what it means, it’s pretty horrible. It’s a lot of penetration — a tube down the throat. It’s not a happy way that you want your baby to live and possibly die.
LL: There are definitely no easy answers. I do appreciate that you are willing to write about it, because to me writing is advocacy — it’s making space in the conversation for other people that don’t see themselves or their story in literature. But I know it can be incredibly painful to put yourself back in those places.
CP: Yeah, I think that’s why it took me so long to write it, and then to organize it, because it didn’t feel like an organized experience. There were so many different pieces, I mean, even just reading about the soul, and reading about DMT, which is a drug that people take recreationally to have out of body experiences, that’s the substance in your brain that seems to be what causes or channels out of body or near death experiences, along with some other weird things.
I made a lot of decisions that, because of my age, even if I might have stuck to the same shape of that decision, I probably would have done certain things differently, especially rituals or other things to honor this passing. And I kind of knew I would want that, but I didn’t know what to do, because I was young and had no models for it.
LL: Can you talk about the title and the concept of double negative? You have a quote I loved; it says:,
In English, it’s not possible to make a statement containing a double negative, it seems to be an algebra problem. He who ain’t got no heart technically has one Russian, which I studied for seven years negates everything. No one was ever there. But more literally, no one was nothing, not ever, not any place.
And I found that to be beautiful and really interesting. And it has a spiritual element to it. So I just wanted to ask you about that.
CP: Thank you. There’s a couple of plays with the term double negative. One is that there was no positive for this. In English, double negative is supposed to produce a positive, but there was just a decision between one terrible thing and another terrible thing. I guess you could have not really done anything wrong that way, but you also couldn’t do anything right. In the end, my baby died. That was an ongoing shock for at least a year that he was still dead, that I had done all that to try and protect him and protect his experience. And he died.
I was a gold star griever. I went to all these meetings and I journaled and I did all this stuff, and I read all the great books, and I’d wake up and he’d still be dead. I think Joan Didion talks about that in The Year of Magical Thinking, you kind of think that somehow if you do XYZ, it’ll change.
I would often long that, you know, because we do believe that somehow there are other dimensions and I sort of wish that I could step into one just for a few minutes to take a break, you know, step into a dimension in which he was still alive, or which this had never even happened. Just to take a break from this ongoing, ‘he’s gone, gone, gone, gone,’ and the finality of that.
I did want to obliquely give some airing of these kinds of choices that people have to make. I think abortion is one of another double negatives, in most cases, not all of them, but for some, I mean, for some people I don’t think it’s too hard a choice, but for some others it is, and I kind of wanted to explore that.
Maybe if I was in a different cultural tradition, I wouldn’t have to feel like I was stuck between two horrors. Maybe there would be another way to frame it, you know, that he was here and he never wasn’t. I think that once you tap into that origin point on the graph you’re in the middle of eternity, and I do talk about that mathematically.
LL: I was just going say, I was really mentally excited about the idea of the graph going to the left into infinity, also, and how hard that is to grasp. And I think you said before you were pregnant, you thought of it differently, is that right?
CP: Yes, I just couldn’t understand it. And I spent time trying to understand it, even as a young child in church, because they would say, ‘God, who always was and always will be,’ and I I could understand that ‘always will be; but what do you mean always was? I mean, who created God and what is the ultimate origin? And when you’re talking about infinity, there is no ultimate origin. Now we’re having all kinds of talks about whether the Big Bang was really the first thing, but that still raises the question of what was the other first thing? What was behind that?
If you’re talking about infinity, which we supposedly are when we talk about the universe, or our mathematical description of it, how does that work? And what I can only say is that a soul was inside me, a being was inside me, and came from somewhere. And so I even wonder if women have less of a question about the existence of a soul and then men, especially if you have been pregnant, because they were so distinct in both of my pregnancies.
But anyway, coming back to the graph, I struggled with the whole concept all the way into adulthood. I mean, not all the time. But that was one of my issues in math — I would get distracted. And then I kind of got it with him. It’s like, yes, I have always known you, you have always existed, this love is infinite. So, it has always been, and I didn’t recognize it until you came into my body and came into my life and met my eyes. I felt I had always known him. And, and so that is my visceral experience of it, which is completely subjective, but I feel like that now you are in the zero point on the graph. And there’s other times in your life where you might be at a zero point on the graph. And everything around you from all directions is eternal and infinite. So that’s kind of what I guess was a big change in my life and or just an ability to grasp something. I might have had the same realization with my second child, but I definitely pondered it a lot because of his death.
LL: That’s such a spiritual pulse to your book.
So your book comes out tomorrow (March 15). How are you feeling on your cusp of debut as we’re still in this sort of weird pandemic space?
CP: I miss real readings. Being around your tribe, really connecting with people and making some of them think or they make you think… I think it is hard to remember that, all over the country, there are these people who care about a lot of the same things you care about. And you could go to some small town in the middle of nowhere sometimes and find those people if you were giving a reading, so, so I missed that charge.
And, you know, I get very nervous, I’m bipolar, as I discuss in the book, and it’s hard for me to travel. It’s hard for me to get up there, but I still enjoy it when I do. One of the things I’m a little worried about is, again, this is a book that is a little tough and getting that feedback from the audience that they are interested in this and that this isn’t overwhelming to them, which is a little more difficult to judge reading it on Zoom.
LL: Well, you’re right that on Zoom, you don’t have that physical support — I don’t mean necessarily people touching you, but when you’re in a room with people, you can feel their energy holding you up and see their heads nod.
CP: Yeah, and you can also see when maybe you can step back and let them encounter this part on the page and not in person because it might be too much. But I’m excited about it, and I’m going to bring cake.
LL: Cake is always the right answer in my opinion.
CP: I’m trying not to eat sugar much these days, and, but I feel like this calls for cake.
LL: So, my last question would be what’s next for you? You’re working on this book about choice paralysis?
CP: I’m not really working on it. I’m stewing on it at the moment. So I have an essay that I do want to start — I’m waiting for a friend to deliver his mother’s journals to me. Liz was my best friend, and she died of cancer at age 54. I’m now 58. There was a book that we read together by May Sarton called A Journal of a Solitude. And we both were like, ‘yeah, this is what it’s like to be a poet. This is what it’s like to be a writer.’
I’ve reread that book, and I’m currently rereading it again. I feel like she’s in so much torment over certain things, and she’s over-analyzing things that I don’t think are necessarily caused by her childhood. Liz and I both had undiagnosed and untreated bipolar at that time when we were reading it. I have all the notes in my margins from what I was reading in my own journals around that time and I’m curious about how the experience of reading that changed for me now that I am being treated for my illness.
But the greater priority right now is finishing a novel that I’ve been also working on for a ridiculously long time. Not constantly but I started in the late 90s. For many years I worked in marketing. I worked for Microsoft and IBM for agencies that embedded me in those places. I just couldn’t do a larger project, so I kept writing stories, so I also have a story collection that is very close to being finished.
LL: So a lot of projects.
CP:I have a poetry book that will be officially launched at AWP — my first full-length collection of poetry. [editors note: Winner of 2020 Moon City Poetry Award.]
Both books are coming out at the same time. So that’s a little weird, marketing wise, but I’m very happy. And I have other ideas for poetry collections, they’re probably half done. So I’ll be busy until I die or lose my mind.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of The Grind. But it’s a group of us who, thanks to Ross White, commit to writing every day, each month. And I don’t think anybody necessarily reads what you send, it’s not a critique group. But it’s helping me keep my hand in the book right now, helping me get through some of these chapters that I’ve always known what they needed to contain, but didn’t feel like writing. So I’m hoping it’ll be done by the end of the year.
LL: Having an accountability partner has definitely forced me to keep going when I might otherwise have just sat around.
CP: Yeah, I’m going through another terrible loss right now — I’m in that humiliating cliched position where your husband leaves you in your 50s. I’ve been unbelievably devastated by that, so lots of poems, mostly crappy ones, have been landing on my pages. Maybe someday I’ll be able to do what Sharon Olds did and turn that into art. Mostly, it’s not right now — it’s a lot of pain, and it’s real. I think Robert Frost said poems start with emotion.
Everyone asks, ‘where do you get your ideas?’ It’s not an idea. It’s a feeling. And that’s true for me for a lot of things that I write. So having this group, even if it’s just a paragraph or a page or with a few lines of dialogue, it is getting me into the work every day. Accountability is amazing. I used to just have a group where we would check in over Facebook Messenger. We were all around the country, but we kind of agreed to sort of overlap time zone wise and we would write for at least two hours. So we checked in when we started and checked out, and there was no reading or sharing, it was just, saying ‘I’m on’ and that would kind of get us going. But over time, we drifted away from that.
I guess it’s another spiritual practice, you know, showing up for the writing and, you know, just making the best art you can make. And trusting that, that was useful in some way. This idea of ‘I will be an immortal writer,’ can’t be motivating me now. I believe that somebody will be changed by our stories. We are all just writing for one person maybe.
LL: I know when I wrote my first book, I would visualize a woman on the other side of the country, because I couldn’t handle the idea of my neighbors reading it, so I would tell myself, there is a woman in California that needs that needs my book, you know?
CP: Yep. Marvin Bell, the poet, has like 32 tips for writing poetry and one is that there’s one person in the audience, whether you’re reading or writing, and your job is only to connect with that one person.
LL: That’s very freeing.
CP: It is freeing, and it helps. And also, I always say a little prayer when something I submitted comes back. I say, well, thank you for freeing this piece that wasn’t going to go to the right place, and I send it back out.
LL: That’s perfect. I absolutely love that. And I’m glad your story found such a perfect fit with Split/Lip.
CP: I’m incredibly honored by the whole thing. Split/Lip is a dialed in organization. They meet their deadlines. Everybody did their work and did it well. And, you know, they care about it. I would just love to sing their praises. I think they have a wonderful book designer, I think they have good editors and good taste. So for people who are looking for places to send stuff that might be a little unsettling or experimental or oddly structured, Split/Lip might be a very good place to look into.
Double Negative is out now with Split/Lip Press.