Piper J. Daniels, whose work has been published in Hotel Amerika and The Rumpus (among others), spent over a decade working on her debut collection, Ladies Lazarus. Her collection won the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Award and was longlisted for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay.
For Daniels, the collection began as a suicide letter and over time morphed into a cataloguing, or rather a series, of works and ideas that gave her reason to stay alive. Infused with lyricism and enlightened with research, Daniels’ essays show her at her most vulnerable as she guides readers through difficult subjects, and she resurrects the haunted girls, women, and poets who no longer have a voice. She invokes the work of Anne Carson, Kafka, Rumi, and even Columbia College Chicago’s own David Trinidad. As readers journey with Daniels on her way to finding herself through essays, they encounter subjects and characters that may make them uncomfortable or sad, but at the end of each piece, more informed and knowledgeable on mental illness and experiencing violence.
I consider this book a must read, for those of us wishing to know more about the world around us and the essay form. It’s rare that we encounter narratives of mental illness or suicide from queer and other marginalized voices, but Daniels spent many years rectifying this. Moreover, Ladies Lazarus deconstructs the typical essay form by hybridizing lyric essay and research essay into one, thereby presenting us with fresher narratives. Each essay is aware of itself, its role, and its place in the collection, and passionately examines the intersections of feminism, queerness, violence, mental illness, and artistry.
Over the phone, Piper J. Daniels talked with Columbia alumni Negesti Kaudo MFA ’18 about the formation of Ladies Lazarus, the influence of Sylvia Plath, and her relationship to the essay.
Can you discuss the process of making the book—which essays came first and last?
The driving force of the book was the first essay “Sirens,” which took me ten years to get right. I began it as a suicide letter. I really wanted to advocate for the reasons people kill themselves—which sounds a bit crazy, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to explain so that people would understand why it’s not a selfish thing to do and why I was choosing to do it. As I wrote the book, I sort of talked myself out of killing myself. [“Sirens”] set the tone for the book and was the reason why I thought I had anything I could offer anyone else. And it went from there.
When I submitted the book to Tarpaulin Sky, I had a solid little collection of essays, but they wanted me to make the book a little bit longer, so I returned to some of the things I hadn’t included. The last two essays I worked on were “The Twist” and “The Return of Hunger.” “The Return of Hunger” was fairly easy. It was based on all I had focused on as a feminist.
“The Twist” was really . . . tricky. Because it was a bit more journalistic and there was more research. I was concerned about the validity of the sources. I wasn’t writing about myself. I was writing about the experiences of other people—children and vulnerable populations. I was very concerned about getting it right and not being exploitative. It took me so long, and it was so frustrating. But once it was done, [Ladies Lazarus] did feel like a book.
At one point, you refer to the Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus,” which is reflected in the title of your collection and the title essay. How is your book in conversation with Sylvia Plath?
I think with a book-length cohesive manuscript in mind, it’s always really dangerous to hyper-focus on [connection], because you end up ruling out all these strange and interesting things that might have entered the book otherwise. I was very careful about not being too cohesive. One of the most amazing things about literary collage is that everything is related and comes together in surprising ways when you let connections emerge. I’m always fascinated by the way that happens. There are threads throughout the book that tie it together. Sylvia Plath is a huge thread. Sometimes there’s more of an emotional or tonal way, a choice of language or diction, that unites the book.
Obviously, Sylvia Plath is a huge influence to both your life and your writing career. Can you talk about that relationship?
From a very early age, I experienced symptoms of mental illness, though that is not what I called it at the time. I always felt strange and isolated. There was this time in a bookstore—I think I was twelve—and I overheard two women talking about, “Oh, Sylvia Plath was crazy. She put her head in an oven. Why would anyone read her?” And it lit me up inside. I was like, “Stuck her head in an oven?!” I was so intrigued.
I started rooting through her work, and I was a little young to fully grasp the content, but I remember feeling a) that I met someone who was kindred to me and b) what I was feeling was okay and that it would actually be a good thing and give me something to offer.
Sylvia Plath had this ability, despite what she was working with, to excel and become this extremely important person to poetry and to the world, so I think that has been and continues to be a driving force for me. She is this incredible example of a person who had a severe mental illness and also managed to be such a star student and wife and mother—and one might say those are the things that killed her in the end—but she was such an overachiever, so driven and successful, and she managed to do her own work and then type up her husband’s.
Was there a specific thought or feeling you wanted to evoke in your readers?
On the subjects of mental illness and sexual assault, I was interested in having calm, honest conversations with people who might judge someone. Other books about mental illness felt off to me; they were poorly written, very narcissistic, perpetuating this idea of a mentally ill person that I don’t think is useful to anyone, especially people who might be trying to understand a loved one. So, I wanted to bridge the gap because it was important to me that if I was going to write about being mentally ill and I was going to write about suicide, that the person reading it on the other side (who may not have experienced either) would come away with a more compassionate, informed understanding.
I’ve been amazed by the feedback I’ve received from people who are outside of the book’s experiences who have written me to say that they understand now in a different way. I think that’s a really amazing result and I’m so grateful.
I want everything I write to be some kind of lifeline because to me, that’s the point: the human condition, the loneliness we all feel and the doubts we have about ourselves. I wanted to be certain that I was reaching out to people in a sincere way and inviting them to read the book as a person with whom I have a genuinely loving connection.
Do you consider yourself a lyricist?
Absolutely, I would be happy to call myself a lyricist. I think the lyric essay is incredible and I’m really excited going forward because it feels to me that we’re in this new place where finally the right people—queer people, people of color, indigenous people, disabled people—are getting the microphone. Because of that, we don’t have to adhere to norms in terms of narrative or language. We can do our own brand new, beautiful thing.
I was really lucky to have this education as an undergraduate where I had David Lazar, who is incredible. He has the most encyclopedic knowledge of the essay of anyone on the planet. He was able to guide me, and at the same time, I had Jenny Boully, who’s this amazing lyric essayist. Being able to have those teachers at the same time made me the writer I am. Then I went to graduate school and worked with David Shields, who’s a collage writer, and very orchestral about the way he composes. He’s a very conceptually rich writer.
So, I had this triad of the most amazing influences and it made me really interested in being able to take from here, take from there, and leave the rest. I’m really interested in writing lyrically, but I also want to be sure that I’m making bold, educated, and forward-moving formal choices. It can’t just be about form and it can’t just be about content; and it can’t just be about language and lyricism; it has to be this full package in the way those things interact with one another.
Sometimes in the book, you write with an objective voice, especially in “The Twist” and “The Sylvia Plath Effect,” both of which I loved. In these moments, it’s as if you’re presenting a dissertation on mental illness, girl/womanhood and art/work ethic. Did you feel there were some topics you needed to approach objectively?
I think emotional distance is one hundred percent required in the essay. Even if I’m writing about something that has nothing to do with me, I tend to connect with it emotionally, so I always try to be very careful. I think there are people (like Anne Carson) who have that down so perfectly. I’m still learning.
I had a daily schedule in order to finish Ladies Lazarus and there were days I would cry at my desk because it was emotionally draining to write. I wanted to be certain I was bringing in things that were interesting, that were historically, intellectually, or psychologically removed from my experience, so I had to balance my emotional response with my impulse to go into this traditional essayist mode. But I mean, there’s not a lot of lightheartedness in the book. It’s not a poolside read for everybody.
In the essay “The Moon, from the Bitter Cold of Outer Space, Croons to the Griddle of the desert,” you quote Jericho Parms’ definition of pilgrimage: “. . . as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul.” I found, while reading this collection as a whole, that it moves like a pilgrimage, with you and the reader coming to understand the intersection of womanhood, mental illness, violence, and more. Do you consider Ladies Lazarus to be a pilgrimage?
Absolutely. In so many ways, desperately, yes. I did a lot of traveling and moving and trying to figure out who the fuck I was and who I was supposed to be, and I still don’t know. It’s all a pilgrimage. If we’re lucky, we grow and improve incrementally. Sometimes when we look back, we’re surprised that we’re still around and still moving ahead. As a human being, writer, partner, friend, and person trying to figure out my political and religious beliefs, it was a very long journey. This book is about surviving and finding my way—essay by essay, paragraph by paragraph sometimes—to convince myself that I was a writer, that I was worthy of being here, that I still had things to contribute. I think I really struggled, but I know so many people who are going through it bravely and fiercely and beautifully, and I really admire that.
Interview by Negesti Kaudo
Negesti Kaudo is an essayist based in the Midwest. She earned her MFA at Columbia College Chicago in 2018 and her work has been published in Seneca Review, Wear Your Voice Magazine, IDK Magazine, NewCity, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.