Through his writing, retired Air Force officer Dan Wetmore strives to add something new to the storehouse of human stories. He also embraces Horace Mann’s advice to “be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity.” My Mother’s Gentle Unbecoming: The Absentings of Alzheimer’s (Saint Andrews University Press, 2016) is Dan’s first book of published poetry. You can find him on LinkedIn and his SWW Author Page.
What is your elevator pitch for My Mother’s Gentle Unbecoming?
This collection of poetry is a chronologue of my mother’s stair-step descent into the privations of Alzheimer’s Disease; an attempt to be an oblique voice for one who’s unavoidably voiceless, and not have such a taking pass without being taken to task.
When readers turn the last page, what do you hope they take away from the book?
Appreciation that the lion’s share of a life are the ripples we imbue in others; that beauty can be found in the seemingly most ugly, even if it’s nothing more than the shadow of sadness outlining former joys; and that a lamentation can be as much a tribute of recollection as can a remembrance.
How did the book come together?
It started as conversations with myself, trying to come to grips with such a perverse affliction, to sort out the paradoxes and anticipate what lay in store. The printed page was the best scapegoat I could find for the frustrations of these days, in hopes that casting words out to wander in the wilderness might somehow free those of us closest to her from our own aimless stumbling. And seeing so many friends and their parents in similar straits, hoping that sharing the words might include the catharsis I found in them.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Trying to avoid slipping into self-pity and let the proper focus shift away from my mother. Working to plumb the grief’s depths without becoming maudlin; keeping the sentiments from becoming a caricature, or worse, an exploitation.
In poetry, how important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work to understand a poem?
My answers might seem contradictory. Accessibility of meaning is very important if the object is to be read (as opposed to those who write solely for catharsis). But despite creating an obstacle to that, the reader should have to work to understand a poem. Mainly because things we’ve striven for mean more than those which are simply handed to us. But also because if the reader hasn’t traveled beyond where they were previously, if a lightbulb hasn’t come on—a new idea apprehended or phrasing experienced—it’s been nothing more than a passing distraction. Maybe I’m channeling my mother that way: having spent hours preparing the best meal I can, the last thing I want is for you to wolf it down without savoring it.
How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form, an image?
With an idea or turn of phrase. For me, poems are always exercises in concision (I’ve bought into Polonius’ assertion that “brevity is the soul of wit [insight vice humor]”), completeness, and sometimes the quixotic. I try to wring every nuance from an idea, in the most succinct way possible and if possible make it memorable/stamp it uniquely my own through an improbable juxtaposition. In poetry’s relatively few words, there are few to spare as guard rails (for the author or the audience), and I enjoy the adrenaline of walking the tightrope which is seeking the one word which has all (and only) the desired connotations, without which I and the reader will both fall.
Since you began writing poems, has your idea of what embodies poetry changed?
At age six, rhyme and meter—poetry’s unique traits—held the whole of their value for me (the evident perspiration found in technical precision). Now I believe the way seen defines the short lines as much if not more than the way said; the subject viewed peripherally, obliquely, intimated rather than stated. Also, since poems are snapshots of the world through the lens of the author (of the human condition and other verities), their aesthetic value lies most in how true a likeness rather than how well liked a particular truth.
Who are your favorite authors, and what do you admire most about their writing?
For the sheer lyricism of well-crafted prose, Mark Helprin and Anthony Doerr. For remarkable situations, ingenious plot twists and concentrated character studies, I can’t pass up the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Robert Heinlein. For exploring and embracing the self-deprecating absurdness of the human condition, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut take the cake.
Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing? What is your writing routine like?
It’s a draw between creating and editing. Like ice cream, one is mint chocolate chip and the other is caramel praline. The creating is exploratory and marveling at the unanticipated newness coming from a mind you thought you already knew in full. The editing is imposing order and wresting control from chaos, enjoying power over the world of your words. Sadly, my writing routine is 10 percent writing, 90 percent editing. Long blocks late at night when distractions are at a minimum are best, but a few minutes with a scrap of paper on a cross-town bus or waiting in a restaurant are good to jot down plot anchors or snippets of dialogue. When limited time provides the freedom of low expectations, the rewards are inversely high. And a sense of the illicit always helps to catalyze writing. I write best by procrastinating something else!
What do you want to be known for as an author?
Managing to weave seemingly disparate elements into something cohesive; unique turns of phrase and insightful reflections on the human condition. One of my high school teachers told me writing should do one of two things—take a reader someplace they’ve never been, or show them one they’ve been to but in a way they’ve never seen it before. I’d count either as success.
Do you have other creative outlets besides writing?
Building furniture, genealogy, and restoring old cars. Probably because they and writing all share the aspect of trying to give something to the future, whether being a steward of the past and care-taking what’s lent to us, or adding something new to the stores of the human story; trying to embrace Horace Mann’s admonition to “be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity.”
What writing projects are you working on now?
My first novel, which has been dogging my steps for more years than I care to admit, but is finally nearing its end through the combined exhaustion of the material and myself.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.