Caitlin Conlon’s “The Surrender Theory” Burrows Into the Depths of Human Emotion [INTERVIEW]

Caitlin Conlon is a poet and avid reader from Upstate New York. She holds a BA in English and a Creative Writing Certificate from the University at Buffalo and, while there, was chosen for the Friends of the University Libraries Undergraduate Poetry Prize, and the Arthur Axlerod Memorial Prize for Poetry. Her debut poetry collection, The Surrender Theory, was released in 2022 with Central Avenue Publishing. You can find her online almost anywhere @cgcpoems. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

A trigger warning for listeners: the book being discussed contains sensitive material related to death, grief, and mental health.

James Morehead: Let’s start with the title of your book, “The Surrender Theory”, which is also the title of two poems. The poems in this collection give the title multiple meanings. How did you select the title of this collection and what does the title mean to you? 

Caitlin Conlon: “That’s a great question. I am notoriously bad with book titles. When I was putting this, my first book, together, I was at a loss for a while. I kept saving it as ‘Untitled manuscript’ with question marks because I just couldn’t figure out what to call it. 

“‘The Surrender Theory’, the poem, was the very first one I wrote for this book, and it ended up being the first one chronologically. As I was editing the book, I kept returning to that poem. You know, when you’re going through a book editing it, those first few ones tend to stick in your head, especially as you’re reading them over and over. 

“I got to this point where I had read the book so much that I realized the feelings that I’d captured in the poem ‘The Surrender Theory’ didn’t necessarily reflect my feelings now. And that’s how I came to write ‘The Surrender Theory, Part 2’. Once I had done that, I realized I’ve created this arc here with ‘The Surrender Theory’ from beginning to end. It just felt like the natural title for the book. It kind of fell into my hands, thankfully.”

James Morehead: Titles are impossible to find until you find them, and then they were sitting there all along.

Caitlin: Absolutely, exactly, just waiting for you to pick them up.

James: The handwritten notes are a key design element of this book, almost as if they are notes pulled from a scrapbook. Talk about the role these notes play and how you approached the design of “The Surrender Theory” with your publisher.

Caitlin: “I first built my poetry platform on Instagram, where I was making posts often handwritten in my own script. This style became something of a signature for my online work. As I was compiling this book, I knew I wanted to incorporate that personal touch. First, as a nod to the platform that gave me the opportunity to create this book, and secondly, because the subject matter is so personally significant to me. It felt like I needed an additional personal element to truly connect all the pieces and to convey the authenticity of my feelings.

“As far as working with my publisher, she was very receptive and open to including these handwritten pages, for which I was very thankful. It was a pretty straightforward process. I simply sent her scans of my pages, and she handled the incorporation into the book. This meant I didn’t have to worry about the formatting, which was a concern of mine when I initially had the idea to include handwritten pages.”

James: I kind of suspected that it was, but I think that’s a great design element. It really makes you want to have the physical book. I first read this as an ebook, and then I bought the physical book, which I’m really glad I did – it benefits from that format.  The core of your book explores grief in multiple ways. In “Nesting Doll” you write:

"My grandmother's death is a big grief - the size of,
maybe, a medicine ball. Anything bigger than that
is no longer grief, it is hopelessness, which is
generally much worse."

How do you approach writing poems that are so personal, so emotionally intense, while still having a critical eye for editing and revision?  

Caitlin: “I’ve definitely improved at this over the years. When I first started writing about grief, I was too close to it to examine it objectively. For me, when I’m writing about topics that are so delicate, so laden with grief and personal experience, I find that I need some distance from the situation to view it through a poet’s lens and with an unbiased eye. 

“For ‘The Surrender Theory’, a lot of the poems I wrote about my grandmother, whose loss is a major theme in the book, were penned after some time had passed. I needed at least a year to a year and a half’s distance from her death to really feel like I was writing about it in a way that was meaningful and true to who I am. I still need that distance from subjects in order to write about them authentically.

“The more you write about your personal life, or the more you write about difficult emotions, the easier it becomes to see them through the writer’s eye as opposed to the personal perspective of ‘I am feeling this. What do I do with it?’ that all of us experience.”

James: Yes, I think having distance from a subject can be incredibly beneficial. It can also help you step out of yourself and see yourself as a third party. That’s something I’ve tried to do with a poem I wrote about being mugged at the age of 10. It was a tough thing to write. I had to approach it as though I was writing about somebody else, and then it became a little bit easier. “Echo” and “Depression, Revisited” are two examples of very short poems, just a few lines each. Short poems can be deceptively difficult to write. How do you approach writing a short poem, or editing a poem down to just a few lines?

Caitlin: “Well, I will echo what you said and agree that it is very challenging to write a short poem, especially to feel like you’ve captured everything you want to say. One approach that works for me is creating a Word document I’ve named ‘The Poetry Graveyard.’ When I’m editing poems down, if I sense a poem needs to be shorter, I’ll take all the bits I love and can’t bear to discard but know are preventing it from being a short poem, and put them in this poetry graveyard. That way, I know they’re safe. They’re somewhere else, and I can return to them without fearing they’re lost to the ether. I guess a lot of writing short poems for me is about getting all the feelings out and then cutting down, bit by bit, until I discover what I’m genuinely trying to convey with a piece.”

James: The poetry graveyard. I love that idea. It’s a way to cut out things without the fear that they’re lost forever. You may never return to that graveyard and unearth any of those pieces, but it removes the fear that they’re going to be forgotten. That’s a great concept. I think it could apply in general, when you’re trimming things you’re hesitant to remove, but you know you need to. You put them in a safe box. That’s really cool.

Caitlin: “Exactly, even if you never revisit them, you know they’re there. It removes that element of overwhelming fear.”

James: The series of poems in “The Depression Notes” vary in form and in length, some appearing like excerpts from a journal, including lines like, “I’m still naming my mistakes // after cities I’ve cried in.” How did this poem develop?

Caitlin: “This poem developed over many months. I knew I wanted to attempt writing a poem about depression and my experiences with it, how it’s impacted my life and the people around me. But I found I kept starting and then stopping. It never felt like I was on the right path with it. Over time, I accumulated a bunch of smaller pieces that seemed to capture these feelings of depression, but didn’t quite fit together. 

“I came up with the idea to do ‘The Depression Notes’ because that’s often how depression manifests for me, in these periods of specific sorts of sadness that can’t really be assembled into a single piece. It felt like the natural way for me to convey this feeling was to look at all of these ‘depression notes’ I’d taken and then see where they could fit together, if they could even fit together in a longer piece. 

“I had never done anything like that before. This was my first time trying it and I ended up appreciating the result, but it was really an experiment. I wasn’t sure if it would truly resonate, since all the pieces, while connected by a similar feeling, differ in content, in what they examine, and even in their use of literal versus metaphorical language.”

James: The poem “Clairvoyance” employs a unique form that mimics the internal conversations we have with ourselves. 

"At eight years old I was psychic / NO / I killed the plant / NO / I ran away from home on a plastic rowboat that my grandmother and I raced down the creek behind our house."

Talk about constructing this poem, about what you chose to include and what to leave out.

Caitlin: “The construction of ‘Clairvoyance’ was quite intriguing. I wrote it around 2020 during the pandemic, a time when open mic nights and in-person workshops were not feasible. “Instead, I joined a group of friends on Zoom once or twice a week where we would sit and write poems together. I don’t fully recall the writing prompt that inspired the poem, but I remember the process well.

“Often, I tend to venture off into a world of metaphors when writing poems, a characteristic I believe many poets share. We are, after all, creators of worlds and stories. While writing this poem, I found myself doing exactly that, becoming so metaphorical that it strayed from the truth. The first instance of ‘NO’ in the poem is my reaction to this realization. It was my insistence to myself to write about the reality, the thing that was truly there.

“Once I decided to confront the real, I saw an opportunity to experiment further with the poem’s format. The poem evolved, with me venturing into metaphorical territory inspired by true events, and then interrupting myself to refocus on what had actually occurred. This back and forth opened a new avenue for me to explore how grief can distort our perspective of the past and how our present selves perceive our past selves.

James: To our listeners who can’t see the poem, it’s punctuated with slashes and capitalized ‘NOs’. It’s almost a variation on a prose poem intermixed with form, visually very compelling. As I was reading it, it reminded me of those internal arguments we often have with ourselves. They may be silent to the world, but are so loud inside our heads.

Your poem “Benjamin Button” closes with a wonderful line: “I’ll never be older than when I was 19.” and “Half-Conditional Statements” ends with “then be // comforted knowing that you are // still alive.” They are lines, particularly in the context of the book, that rattled in my mind. How do you approach the ending of poems? 

Caitlin: “Of course, a poem’s ending often undergoes refinement through the editing process. When I struggle with an ending, I try to identify the poem’s ‘thesis statement’ – if I had to choose one idea, what do I want the reader to take away from this? This process frequently helps me find the right ending. It allows me to visually identify the central idea and to ensure it’s being adequately expressed.

“I’ve also started rearranging poems, a technique I hadn’t experimented with much in the past. Sometimes, switching around stanzas leads you to find the right ending buried within the poem itself. The poem simply needed a bit of restructuring. It can be a fun process.”

James: As you started by using Instagram to share snippets of your poems, has that influenced your perspective on poetry?

Caitlin: “Using Instagram has indeed influenced my approach to poetry, in both good and bad ways. On the positive side, it’s provided me with an avenue to understand my audience and what resonates with them. However, it has also made me overthink during the writing process. I sometimes find myself focused on creating impactful lines that will make people gasp or become emotional, instead of writing naturally. 

“It’s not necessarily detrimental to consider how the lines will impact my readers, but Instagram has made me hyper-aware of audience preferences, which inevitably influences my solitary writing. It’s something I’m still learning to balance.”

James: The poems in this collection about your grandmother are so touching and personal, yet touch on emotions we’ve all felt or will feel. How did writing these poems help you work through these emotions, and how have your readers shared the impact of these poems on them?

Caitlin: “Writing these poems was incredibly cathartic for me. When you experience something so intensely personal, it can feel isolating, as if no one else could possibly understand your emotions. I chose to write about my feelings again and again. Doing so helped me articulate what I was experiencing.

“As for reader responses, it was astounding to me how many people reached out after the book was published, sharing that they had gone through similar experiences. Initially, I hadn’t expected such reactions. The book primarily centers around my experiences dealing with the loss of my grandmother and shortly afterward, the end of my first romantic relationship.

“I was genuinely taken aback by the number of people who reached out to say that they too had experienced a significant loss coinciding with a relationship breakup. While I hadn’t consciously sought validation for my feelings through publishing the book, the shared experiences and conversations with readers offered a form of validation that was truly gratifying. It felt like a gift to discover this sense of shared experience and closeness with strangers through my writing.”

James: “I recently had the opportunity to read some of my poetry to high school classes as part of my Poet Laureate of Dublin, California role. I told the students there’s no correct interpretation of my work – it’s purely about their response. I was astounded by the diverse ways in which my poems, which are deeply personal, connected with the students in entirely unique ways. This served as a reminder that one does not need a grand, ‘Lord of the Rings’ style concept to compose a poem. Poetic ideas can be highly personal, small in scale, yet resonate profoundly. This, in my view, is the magic of poetry. A deeply personal idea can take on a much larger, universal meaning. It’s incredible.

In the latter half of “The Surrender Theory” you have a wonderful series of love poems. In “Blue Sky Love, I Sing You Happy” you write “If I’d known that the smoke of heartache led to you I would’ve put on running shoes and barreled through it headfirst.”

Writing love poems that are fresh and novel is tricky because so many have been written. How do you approach love poems while avoiding clichés?

Caitlin: “Writing love poems can indeed be challenging for the very reason you’ve pointed out. Clichés become clichés because they are so often true, or universally relatable. I completely understand why clichés exist. They encapsulate the emotions that almost everyone who is deeply in love feels.

“In my work, especially in ‘The Surrender Theory’, I try to focus on the smaller aspects of love. Take for example the poem ‘One, Two, Three, Four’, which describes a moment when my now-fiancé brought me a piece of cheese from the kitchen while preparing dinner. Sometimes a moment presents itself as a ready-made poem, waiting to be written about. That was one of those smaller moments that I latched onto and developed further.

“Of course, the collection does include longer love poems, such as ‘Blue Sky Love, I Sing You Happy’. This poem originated from a small moment too. The title was actually a phrase my fiancé and I created at a library with magnetic poetry. I took a picture of it, knowing I needed to do more with this phrase than simply leaving it on the library wall.

“I might have gone off on a tangent there, but my main point is that capturing these little moments and expanding on them helps us avoid clichés. By focusing on the personal and specific experiences, we can keep the writing fresh and authentic.”

James: “The Surrender Theory” is ultimately full of hope despite the pain you so effectively capture in poetry. In “For Anyone that Knew Me Intimately in 2017” you close the poem with:

"if you remember
anything about me,
i hope it is
how brave i became
in the aftermath." 

What do you hope readers struggling with grief and depression take away from your book?

Caitlin: “My hope is that readers of this book will feel less alone. We’ve already discussed the sense of togetherness in grief. While grief can be isolating and the feelings and situations are unique to each person, there’s an overarching sense of knowing that others have experienced this, survived, and moved on to find hope. This was the arc I intended with this book. I didn’t want to end on a note of never-ending, heavy grief, something impossible to lay down.

“What I endeavored to do with the ending, and I hope I’ve accomplished, was to communicate that while grief will remain a part of your life after experiencing it, it doesn’t have to negatively impact your life or drag you down. Through writing this book, I’ve come to understand that grief is just a different form of love. Many people have written about this. That’s what I took from writing this book and I hope that’s what readers will take away. I also hope they see that while I am feeling these things, I am not letting them pull me down completely.”

James: “I think that’s what makes this book so powerful. It has that arc, and if you had written the book earlier, without that other side, its power might have been somewhat diminished. I want to say to anyone who is listening and dealing with depression, please seek help. Also, I believe you will find comfort and hope in this book.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Caitlin recite selections from The Surrender Theory.

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