When prose failed her, Diane Alters turned grief into poetry
Diane Alters, a former journalist and college professor based in Colorado Springs, turned to poetry in 2012 when her son, Armando Alters Montaño, 22 and known as Mando, died suddenly and violently in Mexico City. Already an accomplished student journalist, Montaño had recently graduated from Grinnell College, had interned at The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications, and was an Associate Press intern at the time of his death.
Diane Alters and Kathryn Eastburn met and bonded when they were both teachers at Colorado College and discovered they had both lost a young son. Eastburn’s son, Theodore Kang Eastburn, 22, was an Iraq War veteran who died in 2007 by suicide, awaiting redeployment with his US Army Reserve unit in Afghanistan.
In March this year Alters’ collection of poems, “Breath, Suspended”, was published, the result of nearly a decade of studying poetry and putting into words his grief over the loss of Mando and his undying love for him. She recently sat down with Eastburn to talk about her literary journey.
Eastburn: You were a journalist, a professional prose writer. Why did you choose poetry as a vehicle to write about your loss?
Alters: At the time of Mando’s death, I didn’t have many words, and I just couldn’t describe as an unbiased reporter what was happening, how devastated Mario (Mando’s father) and I were. But I needed to write. I kind of bled a few short little poems at the start.
Of course, I had a few words. I advised my friends and my family, I spoke to the investigators. We flew to Mexico the day after I learned that Mando had died. It was as if writing a poem was the only way to contain – and maybe even understand – how awful it was. I still couldn’t believe it, even when I identified his body. Which of course became a poem. How could he not?
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What I love about poetry is that it goes straight to the point. Although it may not be clear what it is, as is the case with journalism. But the feeling is there.
Did you have any experience with poetry or was it a completely new experience?
I always read poetry and sometimes I tried to write a poem, but I didn’t know much about poetry itself. In middle school, I was writing a haiku or something. I fell in love with Carolyn Forché’s work during the civil wars in Central America. His work offered me a way to feel outrage about wars and American politics without having to be a journalist.
Can you talk a bit about your studies with other poets when you were writing the poems for “Breath, Suspended”. You said in the Acknowledgments that your poets and teachers knew what you wanted to do before you did it.
In 2013, a year after Mando’s death, I knew I had to learn more about poetry because I wanted to write poems and I knew there was a profession that was eluding me. I emailed poet Chris Ransick of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver asking him to take his course. I thought I should warn her that my poems were about grief, and I was afraid they would be a drag on the class. That is to say how little I knew about poetry. Chris replied with a warm and welcoming note, saying that poetry is as much about heartbreak as joy, and nothing to worry about.
When I started taking poetry classes at Lighthouse, I heard an interview with poet Edward Hirsch who had just written a poem called “Gabriel,” about his son Gabriel, who died a year before Mando. I was struck by how, even in his own grief, Hirsch empathized with the interviewer who had just lost his own mother. I had gone to college with Hirsch but didn’t know him well. So, on a whim, I emailed her and it started a long conversation about poetry, grief, and our sons.
Hirsch spoke at Grinnell College when Mario and I announced our support for a fund that pays for a conference that would honor Mando each year. It was there that he said that when he was writing ‘Gabriel’, the year after Gabriel’s death, he was relieved to think about the craft, the way of writing, amid his own grief. . It made perfect sense to me, even though I knew next to nothing about crafting at the time. This is why the study of poetry was so necessary for me.
Over the years, in addition to taking Lighthouse classes with Chris, who sadly passed away a few years ago, and Elizabeth Robinson and others, I’ve had intense seminars with poets Mark Doty, Ross Gay and Jericho Brown.
Can you talk about writing as a process of going through mourning? How has making art in the form of a poem helped you overcome your grief over the loss of Mando?
I think it has to do with just noticing it, marking the day-to-day despair, the things that don’t make much sense until they’re commemorated in words. Words give shape to things. I was a writer and I had to write it and poetry was the only way I could do that. I also kept an extremely detailed diary. It included things people told me about Mando, letters from people who knew him. It is long and heartbreaking to read. In a way, it is easier to read a poem than to reread it.
My friend Janis Haag, a poet in Sacramento, started writing poetry after her husband died many years ago. She took a writing through bereavement course at her local hospital. Another friend, Hilary Abramson, whose husband predeceased Mando, took a class with Jan and knew and loved Mando. We exchanged our poems on mourning. The process of writing it down and sharing it with someone who knew the deceased was helpful; it made the dead person more real. It’s a way to animate our memories, really.
Describe the organization of the compendium to give readers an idea of what it covers.
I took a Lighthouse course on making a chapbook with the amazing poet Andrea Rexilius, and we talked about how poems should speak to each other on the page, maybe even repeat a word or an idea while throughout the book. I used sections to move it along and somehow clarify that the poems happened at different times.
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The first section concerns Mando’s death in Mexico City and its immediate aftermath. The second is pretty much going to Peru to study Spanish. I also spent time in Buenos Aires, a place Mando loved, and in Spain where he planned to go to college. A poem in this section, “Water in an Eye,” is about the moment I first realized why I was so determined to relearn Spanish, that I had stopped speaking to death. by Mando. I realized while writing this poem that Spanish is probably the last human sound he ever heard.
The third section, “Memory, Aspirated”, is composed of memory poems commemorating feelings or events that occurred in the years that followed.
“Where Would You Have Been, Young Journalist”, the fourth section, remembers Mando and speculates on what he would do today. It’s a bit of a futile exercise, but I’ve heard from friends that these poems brought him back to them a bit.