On Poets, Writing & Alcoholism:
Joan Fiset's Now the Day is Over
What is it like to be a member of an alcoholic family in which your father's addiction determines the emotional quality of your daily existence? What is it like to be part of a household where liquor is God and ordinary activities such as tying your shoes and setting your hair are performed against the backdrop of drunken stupors, lost jobs and broken promises? If you are a poet, what is it like, this zigzag kind of a life that memory contains no matter how far in distance or time you try to remove yourself from it? How does the life that was your past contribute to your writing habits and your special relationship to language and words? How does the past effect the content and style of the work you place on the page? Let us look at Joan Fiset's memoir, Now the Day Is Over, (Yakima: Blue Begonia Press, 1997) to explore some of these questions.
Joan Fiset is a writer-in residence at Richard Hugo House, the non-profit community center for literary arts in Seattle. She taught writing in community colleges and public schools for thirty years and is now a practicing therapist in Seattle. She works with Vietnam vets and specializes in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Fiset has been writing all her life, from childhood on. Perhaps writing has saved her life; at least, it has provided her with an emotional outlet and a means to recover from old wounds. Most important, writing has provided Fiset with an avenue for achieving a semblance of wholeness that allowed her voice to develop and mature. As a result, childhood events, however difficult and traumatic, have not kept her from sharing her writing self publicly.
Now the Day is Over, a series of prose poems and vignettes of life in an alcoholic household, is testament to Fiset's ability to refine language for public consumption. The book's title, taken from the hymn Fiset's father, a Bellevue, WA. minister, sang to her as she fell asleep at night, is also the name of a poem in the collection. Like many of the pieces here, it is a memory poem, entwining her current relationships with those of her youth.
Fiset's work is a father/daughter story. Her mother and sister are visible but quietly so. We read of Fiset's tenderness toward her younger sister the book is dedicated to her and, especially, of her mother's silences, even when Fiset's father pours a "box of Ivory Snow over my mother's head." In "Ink," Fiset writes: "Over the fire place on the mantel my mother kept a small china inkwell. In it were snaps and pins, lost buttons. Never, that I can remember, did it hold a drop of ink." Fiset's mother, who was a New York actress at the time of her marriage to Fiset's father, is nameless in this collection; but it is clear that she is a steady and organizing force in the family.
Fiset's relationship with her father, Ben, seems to be the one that inspires her to become whomever she wishes to become--teacher, therapist, seamstress. In "Zero Hour," Fiset's father attempts suicide. Fifteen-year-old Fiset calls the police. Four men carry her father out on a stretcher. "He is in a straight jacket. His arms are crossed and you can't see his hands." Fiset and her sister turn up the radio, put their young fingers in their ears "until it is quiet and lights from the ambulance blink red on the wall." Nevertheless, Fiset feels close to her father. She seems to identify with him.
Fiset told me in an interview that she felt loved as a child. Her father nourished her, especially in the area of words. Both her parents did. He bought her books and empty-page-journals to write in. In spite of the drama in her childhood household, she felt a sense of permission for whatever she wanted to do; ultimately, to write Now the Day is Over in non-fiction form, not an easy feat for many writers.
William Stafford, Fiset's teacher, said that "permission and receptivity" are two of the most important ingredients in becoming a writer. Fiset felt this sense of permission and receptivity, even with all the chaos. Thus, she was able to develop the courage writers need to follow through with their work. All of us do not get encouragement from our parents, especially those with deep psychological problems, so we must find other avenues of support -- each other and works by poets, such as Joan Fiset.