Monday, March 16, 2015

Esther Altshul Helfgott, Dear Alzheimer's A Caregiver's Diary & Poems

AUTHOR: Esther Altshul Helfgott
BOOK TITLE: Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems
PUBLISHER: Cave Moon Press
GENRE: non-fiction

GENRE: poetry
BOOK TITLE: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s
PUBLISHER: Cave Moon Press

When and why did you begin writing?
Writing is something I’ve always done – letters, diaries, notes to myself. The feminist movement of the early 1970s brought me to consciousness as a writer and a person who lived in the public, as well as the domestic, sphere.

Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?
When I am finishing an essay, poem or book – a particular writing project— I write all the time, day and night until it’s done – with breaks, of course, for life. Walking the dog, making dinner, listening to music, being with family, etc.  My kids are grown so I have that luxury. I wish that when I was a young mother I had blocked out a couple hours a day for professional writing, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer then. I just wrote because that’s what I did, letters mostly.

Do you ever have writer’s block? If so, how do you get through it?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think the concept has all to do with ego and little to do with putting words on the page. If we think we must write in a certain genre or for a particular magazine or journal or if we think we must write about a particular subject or memory and can’t get the words out, we haven’t developed the ability to access that information from ourselves yet. But we can still write something, anything. We can sit down with our notebooks in our laps and write “I can’t write what I want to write today.” Then, of course, we’ll launch into why, where, how, what, when, who and so forth and our pencils or pens or keyboards are on their way. The concept, “Writer’s Block” will not have its way with me(us); rather, I (we) will be in charge of my (our) writing destinies.

Who is your publisher and how did you connect with them?
PUBLISHER: Cave Moon Press
I was at a poetry reading on poetry and hunger and met Doug Johnson, publisher of Cave Moon Press. A couple years before, he had sent me an email to submit to an anthology, which became Broken Circles: A gathering of poems for hunger, but I was too involved with taking care of my husband then to think about anything else. I sent Doug’s email around to other poets who submitted. I went to the reading when the book came out and saw Doug there. He invited me to send him some pages on caregiving and Alzheimer’s. I did; he liked them and offered to publish the work, which became Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems.

What is your marketing plan?
 I really don’t have one. My publisher, independent bookstores books and, of course, Amazon, sell the books. I do book readings and signings and I donate sets of books to Alzheimer’s facilities for their caregiver groups. I’m not a commercial writer, not that I wouldn’t like to be, but I only have enough energy for writing and reading. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, medical care and a few bucks for entertainment and the kids. I do have a fantasy that a movie producer will put my work to the screen, but I’m not holding my breath.

What are your current projects? –
 A book of poems about my family-of-origin and a biography of a Viennese-born Seattle child psychoanalyst, Dr. Edith Buxbaum

How can we find you? Website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.?
Witnessing Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s View  Seattle PI blog; I have a twitter account but don’t use it much.

Tell me a little about your book.
 Dear Alzheimer’s started as a blog for the Seattle PI on-line. I had written a couple guest columns before that paper went out of print. When it became an online publication, I developed Witnessing Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s View.  It’s a combination of articles from the blog, diary entries and poems. I enjoy mixing genres, putting different types of writing and forms together, entwining them which I see as a reflection of real life, at least a woman’s life or anyone’s life that is fragmented.

What gave you the idea for this particular book?
 I felt it important to tell one couple’s Alzheimer’s story. Now many are being written but not as much in the 2000s when my story with Alzheimer’s began. I keep a diary so later I was able to look back and extricate some of my entries for publications.
What kind of research did you do for this type of book?
I listened very closely to my husband and read everything I could get my hands on about Alzheimer’s. I went to Alzheimer’s support groups. I listened to my feelings and cried a lot.

What about your book makes it special?
It’s my particular story. Everyone has a story to tell, but each one is different. The more people sharing their stories the more information we have about Alzheimer’s and caregiving.

When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?
I came to the writing of poetry via the women’s movement and, more specifically, the women’s poetry movement. Anne Sexton, Diane Wakoski, Erica Jong were important influences. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was important to me, more so than her poems. But my poetry writing emerged as a result of my diary and letter writing, which I’d done since I was a child. The diary form is my favorite of literary forms and styles. I like the honesty and the lack of artifice (usually). Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Anais Nin’s, women’s diaries of the Western Expansion and so forth.

Why are you drawn to poetry?
 Poetry helps me relax. I like free verse where there’s lots of space on the page, space between the lines, in between words and stanzas. I like prose poems and those that speak in the poet’s vernacular, regardless of ethnicity. There are poems for everyone and about everyone. Poetry explains the human condition; it helps me see myself in other people’s work and I hope readers can see themselves in my work. That’s the greatest success for me, the best compliment when someone says: “That’s just what I wanted to say but I didn’t know how to say it. Thank you for saying it for me, for writing down what I didn’t know how to say.”

In order to write poetry, one needs to read it, just as a fiction writer, say, needs to read fiction in order to write it. I don’t understand when people say they can’t read poetry. Maybe they’re looking at technical form poems or poems with a lot of Latin and Greek, such as Ann Carson’s work, which I love regardless of the foreign language elements. I skip over what I don’t understand. There’s a lot of meat in what I do understand and when I have the time and inclination I’ll look up a Latin or Greek word. But there are all kinds of poems, including nursery rhymes and Shell Silverstein’s and Langston Hugh’s wonderful poems for all ages. Who doesn’t love Emily Dickinson or hate her for that matter. It’s fun to read a poet you love to hate, though I can’t think of any I hate at the moment.

Would you give us an example of your poetry?

Alzheimer’s As Prayer

Who would have thought
that Alzheimer’s
would knit
the warmest and best parts
of their struggle together
into a blanket
and like a prayer
hold it over them

The last two weeks

I haven’t heard him speak 
a word 
in the last two weeks
but today 
when we were sitting 
in the quiet 
of an out-of-the-way 
after I finished
cutting his mustache 
and beard
he said: 
I’m sorry, honey.
s if he knew exactly 
what we’d gone through 
all these years
The Last Two Weeks appears in Here, There, and Everywhere  (RASP 2013) and in Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013)

Any tips for new writers hoping to write poetry?
 Don’t worry about writing in a particular genre or form. Write every day and see what themes develop. Find out what you want to say, what you need to say and how you want to say it. The poem will find you, but you have to do the work – writing  – for it to find you. Keep a journal. Make it your best friend.

Is there anything in your poetry based upon a real life event? If so, tell me about it.
Yes, everything. Both Dear Alzheimer’s and Listening to Mozart have to do with caregiving and loving a person with Alzheimer’s, my husband, Abe, who died in June 2010. Dear Alzheimer’s started as a blog for the Seattle PI on-line. I had written a couple guest columns before that paper went out of print. When it became an online publication, I developed Witnessing Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s View so I could share my experiences with others and, probably most important, to process my feelings about what was happening to Abe and, by extension, to me.

Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s came about after I read Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani’s The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage, 1990), I wrote about 50 poems in tanka-like form and found I was able to access feelings about missing my husband and about being widowed that I wasn’t able to write before. It was a new way of relating to my husband. I started keeping a Tanka diary, I sent it to my publisher, he liked it  and Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s was born.

What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read; think; walk my dog; watch old movies; go out with family and friends; historical research; listen to music, especially Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. I like folk music, jazz and blues.

What seven words would you use to describe yourself?
active, patient, disciplined, honest, conscientious, nurturing, curious


  1. Definitely an important story to tell. Lovely poems.

  2. Esther is awesome. You need to read her work.