Diane Alter, a Colorado Springs-based former journalist and college professor, turned to poetry in 2012 when her son, Armando Alters Montaño, 22 and known as Mando, died suddenly and violently in Mexico City. Already an accomplished student journalist, Montaño had recently graduated from Grinnell College, interned with the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications and was interning with the Associated Press at the time of his death.
Diane Alters and Kathryn Eastburn met and bonded when they were both instructors at Colorado College and discovered they had both lost a young son. Eastburn’s son, Theodore Kang Eastburn, 22, was an Iraq war veteran who died in 2007 of suicide, awaiting re-deployment with his US Army Reserves unit to Afghanistan.
In March this year, Alters’ chapbook of poems, “Breath, Suspended,” was published, the result of nearly a decade studying poetry and putting into words her grief over the loss of Mando and her everlasting love for him. She recently sat down with Eastburn to talk about her literary journey.
Eastburn: You were a journalist, a professional prose writer. Why did you settle on poetry as the vehicle for writing about your loss?
alters: At the time Mando died, I didn’t have many words, and I simply could not describe as a dispassionate journalist what was going on, how devastated Mario (Mando’s father) and I were. But I needed to write. I kind of bled out some tiny, short poems at first.
Of course, I had some words. I was notifying friends and family, talking to investigators. We flew down to Mexico City the day after I learned Mando had died. It felt like writing a poem was the only way to contain—and maybe even understand—how awful it was. I still did not believe it, even when I identified his body from him. Which of course became a poem. How could it not?
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What I love about poetry is it gets right to the point. Even though it may not be clear what the point is, as it is with journalism. But the feeling is there.
Did you have experience with poetry or was it a completely new experience?
I’ve always read poetry and occasionally I tried to write a poem, but I didn’t know much about poetry itself. In college I’d write a haiku or something like that. I fell in love with the work of Carolyn Forché during the civil wars in Central America. Her work offered me a way to feel outrage about the wars and American policy without having to be a journalist.
Can you talk a bit about studying with other poets when you were writing the poems in “Breath, Suspended.” You said in the Acknowledgments that poets and teachers of yours knew what you wanted to do before you did it.
In 2013, a year after Mando died, I knew I needed to figure out more about poetry because I wanted to write poems and knew there was a craft to it that eluded me. I emailed the poet Chris Ransick at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver about taking his class from him. I thought I needed to warn him my poems were about grief, and I worried that they would be a drag on the class. That’s how little I knew about poetry. Chris wrote back a warm and welcoming note, saying that poetry was all about grief as well as joy, and not to worry.
When I first started taking poetry classes at Lighthouse, I heard an interview with the poet Edward Hirsch who had just written a book-length poem called “Gabriel,” about his son Gabriel who died a year before Mando. I was struck by how, even in his own grief, Hirsch had empathy for the interviewer who’d just lost his own mother. I had gone to college with Hirsch but didn’t know him well. So, on impulse, I emailed him and that began a long conversation about poetry and grief and our sons.
Hirsch spoke at Grinnell College when Mario and I announced our backing for a fund that pays for a lecture that would honor Mando every year. It was there he said that when he was writing “Gabriel,” in the year after Gabriel died, he was relieved to think about craft, about how to write, in the midst of his own grief from him. That made perfect sense to me, though I barely knew anything about craft at the time. That’s why studying poetry was so necessary for me.
Over the years, as well as taking Lighthouse classes with Chris, who sadly died a couple of years ago, and Elizabeth Robinson and others, I’ve taken intense seminars with poets Mark Doty, Ross Gay and Jericho Brown.
Can you talk about writing as a process of moving through grief? How did making art in the form of a poem help you move through your grief over the loss of Mando?
I think it has to do with just getting it down, marking the day-to-day despair, the things that don’t make much sense until they’re commemorated with words. Words give things shape. I was a writer, and I had to write it down and poetry was the only way I could do it. I also kept a journal which was enormously detailed. It included things that people told me about Mando, letters from people who knew him. It’s long and wrenching to read. Somehow it’s easier to read a poem than to re-read that.
My friend Janis Haag, a poet in Sacramento, first started writing poetry after her husband died many years ago. She took a class in writing through grief at her local hospital. Another friend, Hilary Abramson, whose husband died before Mando, took a class with Jan and knew and adored Mando. We exchanged our poems about grief. The process of writing it down and sharing with someone who knew the person who died was helpful; it made the person who died seem more real. It’s a way to animate our memories, really.
Describe the organization of the chapbook to give readers an idea what it covers.
I took a Lighthouse class on making a chapbook with the amazing poet Andrea Rexilius, and we talked about how the poems need to talk with each other on the page, maybe even repeat a word or an idea throughout the book. I used sections to sort of move it along and somehow clarify that the poems happened at different times.
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The first section is about Mando’s death in Mexico City and the immediate aftermath. The second is roughly about going to Peru to study Spanish. I also spent time in Buenos Aires, a place Mando loved, and in Spain where he planned to attend graduate school. One poem in that section, “Water in an Eye,” is about when I first realized why I was so intent on re-learning Spanish, which I had stopped speaking when Mando died. I realized in the writing of that poem that Spanish is probably the last human sound I have ever heard.
The third section, “Memory, Aspirated,” is made of memory poems commemorating feelings or events that happened in the years afterward.
“Where Would You Have Gone, Young Reporter,” the fourth section, remembers Mando and speculates about what he would be doing today. It’s kind of a futile exercise, but I’ve heard from friends that these poems brought him back to them a little.