Lisa Olstein’s book-length lyric essay Pain Studies examines what it means to be in pain and the need to translate that experience. An author of four books of poetry, Pain Studies is Olstein’s first book of prose and first book on living with chronic migraine. In it, she offers a cultural history of pain, referencing everything from TV show House to the writing of Virginia Woolf.
We talked about translation, the archive, Joan of Arc, and writing about, around, in, and through migraine.
Olivia Muenz: As a fellow migraineur, I’m excited to talk to you about Pain Studies. The migraine brain is so different from the nonmigraine brain because migraine is not just head pain. Brain activity changes and it’s like entering a new world or new plane of existence. And I think that’s very hard for nonmigraineurs to understand, that sense of displacement, without experiencing it. It’s hard to communicate. Maybe even impossible. And yet in Pain Studies, you mention the need to continue trying—at least in terms of pain. Where do you think that need to try to translate pain comes from?
Lisa Olstein: I think it has to do with fundamental human empathy and communication that is both about pain but is also beyond pain. So I think that pain, one way or another is central to our experience as mammals and quite often a place of great importance in our lives and our relationships and our circumstances moving through the world or moving through our relationships with others. And so I think that, in and of itself, it is worthy of trying to communicate about. But I also think that it’s so fundamentally human that the issues of communication and translatability and empathy that adhere specifically to pain are also true just about our fundamental nature as humans. Pain is one of the fundamental things, unique to each of us and sort of at the same time shared by all of us, that it seems to me fundamentally important that we’re able to share with one another…at least to the best of our ability. And I think that it is true that it can be very, very difficult to communicate about. It can be very difficult or, we might say, impossible to really know what another person experiences in an acute situation like pain. But that’s true of so many other situations too: of loss, of all kinds of different experiences. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t get a lot closer to understanding of one another. Just because we don’t literally replicate each other’s experience through the telling, doesn’t mean that we can’t really enhance our empathy and understanding each other to come much closer at least.
OM: Yeah, it seems very mirrored in the writing process in general, this impulse to express and form some kind of communication that may not otherwise be there. Were you thinking about how that’s reflected in the writing process, the impulse to translate in general?
LO: Yeah, very much so, in certain ways. I think that for me, the crux of that is language itself, right? So writing is an art form devoted to language. Language is fundamentally human. We use it to express what’s happening in our consciousness, but it, in turn, also shapes our very consciousness. And I think that that is true when writing about anything. And when we share through language not just what’s happening to us, but the idiosyncratic architecture of how we think and how our minds move that that is often as successful or even more successful than the mere transmission of “information”, like semantic meaning or denotated meeting. So I think the urge to communicate and translate about any number of things is the urge certainly behind literary art, but also the urge behind language.
OM: I was also thinking, just in terms of migraine, since it is a disorder and not just head pain, did that distinction at all inform Pain Studies? And why did you still choose to focus on the pain aspect of migraine?
LO: Well, I hope it focuses on many aspects. It talks a lot about things other than pain: altered perception, altered sense of time, lots of other bodily effects, an altered relationship to language. So it certainly includes pain and the title points most specifically to pain, but I do think that part of—well, certainly it is true to my experience of migraine, that pain is one of many features. And I certainly wanted to reflect in the book the truth of that. That pain was one of the things I was trying to sometimes describe or explore or communicate what it meant to live with. But it was only one of many others, and I wasn’t trying to equate it to what it might be like to have a simpler version of headache. Because I can’t. I don’t have that experience. And likewise, I was trying to be true to the complexity and the prismatic nature of my experience and my understanding of migraine, which is that pain is but one feature of that neurological cascade.
OM: That feels fundamental to the language of migraine as dis/order. The boundaries don’t really become clear, and they become more sprawling. Pain isn’t quite so literal and physical. It’s an experience.
LO: I think both things are true. I think for many of us, pretty acute pain is one of the most dramatic expressions. But absolutely, it’s not the only one. And for me, in terms of informing a sense of how malleable our perceptual capacities are, the pain is not the key to that. It is things like heightened sensitivity to light, to sound, to smell—all those other features that are not about the pain, but other aspects of experience that migraine opens up.
OM: Hearing you talk about it, and as a fellow migraineur, I know it’s such a fundamental part of your life. But you mentioned resisting writing about migraine for a long time, partly to institute a boundary—migraine is already all-consuming, why give it even more of your time—and partly as kind of an avoidance coping mechanism. How were you able to separate this critical aspect of your life in your writing for so long and how did you decide the time had come to write about it?
LO: I think both things were gut level. For a long time, that feeling of resistance was just that. It was a feeling. And it was one that I felt okay respecting. I felt a certain privacy around it, self-protectiveness, and I felt, like you said, that resistance to giving over any more of my time and attention to this thing that was such an unwelcome presence and guest in my life. But I’m always curious about what I resist because it’s worth considering where the resistance comes from. So I think that once I fully recognized the resistance as a resistance that made me kind of interested in nibbling around the edges of it. And that was something I did for some time before actually starting to write about it. But once I started thinking about it—and I think it was also just about time and where I was at in my own sort of journey with it and the treatments I was seeking, whether or not it seemed possible that somebody out there was going to be able to cure this for me—I think all of those things were sort of factors. But over time, that curiosity or willingness, at least, to explore what might be behind the resistance morphed into an interest in trying to explore through writing in this way.
OM: I know you mentioned in your book that migraine will affect your brain and thus the way that you write. Could you talk more about how migraine has influenced your writing style and practice in general? And more particularly, did you have migraines while you were writing this book and write through them?
LO: Sometimes, absolutely. I have migraines very frequently, as per the book. And what I can do while I have a migraine is pretty variable. So certainly, sometimes, I have the type of migraine that takes me out, and I can’t really do much of anything. But I also have a lot of experience continuing to move through my life to the extent possible, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much of a life. And I think if you have more occasional migraines, it makes a lot of sense to be like, okay, you know, draw the blinds and head to bed and just shut it down until this thing passes. And I’m not saying I’m superwoman and could overpower it. There are times when I still have to do that. But because of the chronic-ness and frequency, I also needed to see what I could manage to still do. So that’s a long way of saying, sometimes when I have a migraine, I really can’t write or read or do much of anything at all very effectively, but other times when I have a migraine, I still can. And sometimes when I have a migraine, that weird intensity of perception and concentration that it can put you into gets brought to the writing process for me. So there are times when I feel really immersed in the sonics of language or the feel and flow of a voice or a voicing, like a phrase. And I very much try to write into and from that space in this book. I think I definitely have done that just by virtue of living my life for many years of my poems. But with this book, I also knew that I wanted it not to be journalistic or scientific in the sense of the way it was reporting information. But I wanted to manifest those kinds of strange, often obsessive, immersive kinds of relationships to language or thought processes that I do have during migraine sometimes.
OM: It feels like there could also be a relationship there to the lyric essay because, at least in my experience with migraine, sustained attention becomes more and more difficult, too. You can have these little punctured moments of concentration, but having long ones becomes harder. And the fragmentary nature of a lyric essay could sometimes aid in that and be the right form to work in. Did you know you were writing in this form from the onset or did it develop over time?
LO: I agree with you about the lyric essay. I also think it’s something that poems can make space for that kind of brain space. So in this book, I knew that I was writing prose, not poetry. And I didn’t arrive at its final form until pretty late in the process. But in terms of having a sense that I was writing a lyric essay, I did have that feeling about it from the beginning. And the lyric essay is a wonderfully capacious genre construct. So it was useful for me, but more than—it’s not like when you say, oh, it’s a lyric essay, then that means you know exactly what it will entail. I definitely found myself really interested from the outset and it was an interest that was sustained through lots of—I was interested in lots of different forms over the course of this book. So there’s a lot of lists and indexes and appendices. There are glosses. There are proofs. So I was enjoying inhabiting different sub-forms or micro-forms within the overarching and pretty flexible context of the lyric essay.
OM: I was really interested in the different sources you were using, and I was especially interested in Joan of Arc’s trial. Gendered disability feels really crucial in this book, and having Joan of Arc as the figure of translation was such an interesting choice. How did you encounter these trial transcriptions? What made you choose to include Joan of Arc?
LO: She was really a figure that I did not know very much about, but, as I recount in the book a little bit, I just started encountering mention of her in ways that spoke about her relationship to language. Or at least it spoke to me about her relationship to language, that her utterances were really buried and few and far between. But when they were really fascinating to me, this expressed resistance to the context that she was in and resistance to the definitions and rules that were imprisoning her as much as the laws that were imprisoning her in the context of the war and stuff. So my interest was piqued. And then I got a copy of the transcript of her trial. And on the one hand, it’s an incredibly tedious and boring document because over and over again, it just lists: here are the people who interviewed her…it’s an incredibly bureaucratic document by design. But within this thick snowstorm of administrative language and bureaucratic language, there are these translations of things that she said to her interrogators. And I found them very, very fascinating in terms of what she was willing to share, what she said she couldn’t share, what she said they were wrong about and how all of that, 1) related to language, and 2) related to kind of her mind body. There are many people who believe that Joan of Arc had true, holy religious visions. And that’s cool. I don’t know. There are other people who would probably read those accounts and say, well, Joan of Arc was schizophrenic or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I’m not an historian trying to become an expert on Joan of Arc. All I can say, though, is there are certainly aspects of how she described the visitations that rang incredibly familiar to me as someone with migraine. She would talk about the quality of the light. She would talk about hearing a voice, things like that. I’m not trying to theorize that Joan of Arc had migraines. I have no idea if she had migraines. But again, the way she put her experience into language was just something that I found very resonant.
OM: That makes me think a lot, too, about the nature of the archive and, for women and disabled people, and especially disabled women, our place in the archive is not the best and what’s excluded feels even more important than what is included. Were you thinking about the archive at all when you were working on this?
LO: Yes. I approached all the research and all the archival interventions or duration or magpieing as very much a poet with a poet sensibility. So I felt like my obligation was to follow those places of resonance with a fascination and see where they lead me as opposed to obligations of a scholar or historian where a different kind of contextualizing might be at the forefront. So I would never manipulate an archival material beyond selecting from it. I would never attribute something to Pliny the Elder that I didn’t find in a natural history, but within the bounds of not misrepresenting anything intentionally, I did want to feel very free to simply pursue the shimmering threats that revealed themselves to me. So I enter into conversation with a variety of kinds of archives in this book, the Joan of Arc one, Pliny the Elder, also the archive of the popular television show House, or lyrics of pop songs. So I wanted to engage with lots of different kinds of historical and cultural documents.
OM: How did you imagine this fitting into disability lit? Or what disabled authors were you reading as you were working on this?
LO: I feel most comfortable offering it as just a very personal document. I don’t have any notions of how it might fit into the really important field of disability studies, mad studies theory, crip theory, any of that. I’m not an expert in in those areas. It’s a place that I’m really interested in becoming better read, but I’m delighted if it can be a useful part of conversations that are happening in those spaces. But I didn’t enter into the project and don’t now have a pre-articulated idea of how it might do that. I hope that it, as a personal document, might participate in some interesting conversations for people who don’t have non-normative health experience or abilities, to caregivers, and then of course to other people with disabilities or chronic conditions of various kinds. But it’s more an offering rather than an “intervention”.
For this project, I was also reading very, very idiosyncratically. “On Being Ill” by Virginia Woolf was a very important piece of work for me in relationship to this, but not, for instance, any theoretical work about Woolf’s various conditions. So again, I was reading Oliver Sacks and arguing with him. I was picking up a book like The Pain Chronicles and finding that there was nothing for me there in that particular moment. So again, it was very it’s very personal.
OM: Do you feel like in your future work you’ll continue writing about pain and illness, or has this this kind of encapsulated what you feel like you needed to accomplish and you’ll be moving on?
LO: I really don’t know. I think that on a certain level, anything that I write and the way I think is implicated with the experience of migraine and of other illness and chronic conditions that I have. To me, it’s not really extraditable. It’s part of how I think, which is what I bring to my work. And it’s part of my relationship to language, which is what I bring to my work. But at the same time, of course, the question of explicitly trying to address it in subject matter, I don’t really know. I would certainly never try to strip it away. But I also feel like, at the moment, it’s not like I’m intending to write like a part two of this particular book right now. But I guess through the experience of writing it, it feels less fraught to me to include my own experience in the kind of conversations that I have. It’s like I already came out about it.
Lisa Olstein is the author of Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020), a book-length lyric essay, and four poetry collections, most recently Late Empire (Copper Canyon Press, 2017). A 2020 Guggenheim fellow, she teaches in the MFA programs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Olivia Muenz is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She received her BA from NYU and is currently the Nonfiction Editor for New Delta Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, Heavy Feather Review, ctrl+v, and Timber Journal. @oliviamuenz