After she learned she had breast cancer in 2018, Donna Wallace didn’t feel like writing poetry, which had long been one of her creative outlets.
Instead, she kept meticulous notes on her appointments, the tests, the results and outcomes, developing a time line of what many breast cancer patients call their “journey.”
“When I felt like I could write poetry again, that put me back in the moment,” Wallace said recently.
The result is “Between the Stones,” a moving collection of poems about breast cancer, from diagnosis to thoughts of death to the loss of her breasts to the artist who tattooed her reconstructed breasts with nipples.
“Hard things bring you gifts,” said Wallace, an Indiana native who lives in Lewisville. “This is just my piece of the breast cancer experience.”
Q: How would you describe your art?
Answer: Accessible, not avant-garde. I want readers to be able to sense what is going on in the poem, yet gain a fresh or unexpected perspective. My poems are snapshots of life as opposed to narrative. Even so, my recent chapbook, “Between the Stones,” is a narrative, in that “stand-alone” poems appear in a particular order and convey story. The opening poem in the book clearly informs the reader what this collection is about:
the history of my breasts
than life their brevity my grief
I didn’t believe they would go before me
not dead but a bloom of tumors
bound for harvest from my autumn
going to seed
Q: How have you evolved as an artist?
Answer: I’m not formally schooled in writing or literature. My development is a result of writing and studying the craft alongside others. My “writerly tribe” in the broadest sense includes a wide variety of poets I read, or learn from in workshops and retreats, or serve with in writers’ organizations, or have befriended — most of them in North Carolina. My closest circle, my “creative family” lives and writes in the Triad. We regularly meet to critique each others’ work with bare-bones honesty that pushes one to do the best work possible. But the critique doesn’t feel so bad when offered with a little beer or wine!
If I have any discipline or work ethic in the writing life at all — I credit my critique group most of all. Their encouragement to keep writing and submitting my work for publication has a lot to do with my current success.
Q: Who has influenced your art?
Answer: An early influence was my paternal grandmother — a vibrant person and accomplished artist who began painting later in life. She would come to visit for a few weeks at a time and bring her oils and canvases. She pursued painting with such discipline and seriousness — in my young mind, she legitimized artistic pursuits.
I didn’t start reading or writing poetry until my 40s. Like my grandmother, I dedicate a lot of time to the craft because I enjoy it and enjoy seeing improvement. I am influenced by poets I read whose work seems to resonate and inspire me. For example, I seek female poets who can write the poetic equivalent of a freight train — Marge Piercy, Lucille Clifton, Patricia Smith, Maggie Smith. N.C. poets Valerie Nieman and Catherine Carter have written poems that are so original, they knock me off my chair. I could name many more. I cut my poetry teeth on Billy Collins and Ted Kooser and often recommend these poets to folks who claim “I don’t read poetry, ever.”
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
Answer: Getting housework done and a dinner plan in place! Once I’m writing, it is hard for me to emerge from the creative stream. No, it’s more like a mine shaft. I descend deep into this silent, isolated space where I am completely focused, working on a poem. I love being there, this soul-space where the poet mines veins of memory and perception.
Q: What does art do for you?
Answer: Writing poetry mainly does two things for me. One, it helps me process my emotions and life experiences. It is a way to explore what it means to be human. Secondly, through poetry, I give voice to the human experience, in a way I can share with others. Poems connect me with others whose life experiences may be like my own, or more likely, very different from my own. Recently I shared my breast cancer poetry, “Between the Stones” (Hermitfeathers Press, 2019), at the Pink Ribbon Talks sponsored by Cancer Services. Although each attendee had had the same disease, our experiences with breast cancer differed. Many women responded to the poetry by sharing their story in conversation. Poems can spark expression, understanding, even lifelong friendships! That is the power of any art form — art expresses something vital regarding life.
Q: Any advice for other artists?
Answer: It only takes two or three to start a “creative family.” Seek artists who have similar goals, expectations and commitment to the craft. Be patient, it will be worth it.
Discover artists whose work sparks a visceral reaction, and figure out why or what incited that response inside you.
Keep practicing and studying your craft. You are improving even though you don’t perceive it.
Set a tangible goal to strive for — one that can serve as a benchmark of progress.