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Poetry Month Q&A: Sue Goyette on approaches to healing and her new poem, The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl

The Brief Reincarnation of a GirlMassachusetts, 2006. A four-year-old girl died from an overdose of drugs used to treat ADHD and bipolar disorder. Her parents were convicted of her murder. Sue Goyette’s new poetry collection, The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Gaspereau Press), imagines the testimony of the girl’s doctor at trial. A trial haunted by the ghost of the young girl and the personification of poverty.

Goyette spoke to Q&Q about writing her long-form poem.

Why did you choose to write this story? Because it’s tragic. From an outsider’s point of view, just reading about it, it made so little sense that it happened. As a parent, I’m interested in how we treat our kids when they’re encountering challenges such as mental health disorders and what the options are and how some of the options aren’t always medication.

Is that why you chose to focus on the doctor’s testimony? The doctor was tried for the murder of the girl and was found “not guilty” because she didn’t literally, physically ever give the girl the medication. So the parents were found guilty. I was interested in the doctor’s position because I’m interested in the trespass of business into healing. And I was also interested in how the doctor was so far removed [she never examined the patient] from treating someone as young as this girl. And it wasn’t the doctor’s fault; I think this is a systemic issue. The doctor at one point on the stand said she didn’t realize she had a stethoscope in her office or she would have listened to the girl’s heart. I think it’s a problem there’s not a kind of holistic approach to healing, especially with mental health issues. And the story seemed to serve as a teaching story.

Why do you think poetry is an effective way of telling this story? I like how the long form – this is a long poem – can reinvent or respond to a story that’s already been told in an inventive way, in a new way. It asks us to reconsider what we think about it. It is a good form of protest, a hospitable form of protest. In poetry, I can lean away from the non-fiction aspects of sticking with the facts, and yet present the more important truth of the story. And I also think that because the text doesn’t go right across the page, this story, and its intensity, can be given out in doses.

What was the process of writing it? There’s kind of a non-linear narrative to it because there’s all these different, weird characters. It came out, I want to say chronologically, but I really mean sequentially. Each poem caused another poem. It was kind of just following where these poems were taking me, letting them go where they needed to go. I needed to be able to talk around the social and economic dilemma about these kinds of situations without being too abstract. So I sat down and just started writing it until I finished. And I knew when I had finished it because it was done. I could feel it. It felt like I needed to carry that girl to some place important where she could rest and her story could perhaps serve us rather than be forgotten.

Why did you choose to include her ghost as a character in the poem? No one spoke on her behalf except the daycare teacher [who testified at trial]. And the fact that she was found on the floor beside her parents’ bed; not even in the bed but on the floor. I just wanted to make a space and imagine what she could have said. And be loyal to the age of that child’s imagination and logic. Which was really interesting and challenging to do. It was important to me to represent her point of view loyally and respectfully.

This interview has been edited and condensed.