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Feature Christopher Lee Manes is the author of the newly-released poetry collection Naming the Leper, (LSU Press, 2020). He is a poet, scholar, and educator, and his work has appeared in Louisiana History, the Southwestern Review, Carville: Remembering Leprosy in America, and Think Global Health, an online publication of the Council of Foreign Relations. Manes is a Lecturer I Rhetoric instructor at the University of Texas at Dallas and teaches History at Richland College, where is primary role is Response to Intervention Coordinator for Richland Collegiate High School, a charter school of Dallas County Community College District at Richland College. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry?
CM: My first memory is listening to my mother read Edgar Allan Poe poems to me from a book that belonged to my grandfather. “The Raven” captured my imagination. My next memory is listening to my high school English teacher read aloud William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”; I remember the language being hypnotic, in a way, and my teacher (Mrs. Segura) read it twice: one time just reciting it, but the second time, she stopped after each line and analyzed it. That is when I realized poems had this whole other world that could be discovered. I suddenly became interested in reading poetry and trying to figure out what I could discover from it.
CH: When did you begin writing poetry? When did you begin to think yourself of a poet?
CM: I began writing poetry in the 8th grade. Sonnets. But I did not think of myself as a poet until my first year in grad school when I wrote a chapbook of about 10 poems. Prior to that period, I had written poetry, but I would do so as a means of brainstorming ideas for what I thought would be works of fiction. After I wrote the chapbook, however, I began thinking of other chapbooks and considered myself a poet. It was after I finished my doctoral studies in 2011 that I had the time to investigate topics and write for myself instead of for academic requirements. Between 2012 and 2017, I wrote 9 manuscripts: four book-length and five chapbooks, each ranging from 15-40 pages.
CH: When did you first envision the project that became your new book, Naming the Leper?
CM: The first chapbook I wrote in 2001 was originally titled “Regardez” and included about 10 poems that eventually became my master’s thesis by the same title. In 2017, after the death of a friend of mine, I reread my thesis and, well, frankly, I found it lacking in parts. I felt that what I had written about “leprosy” lacked multiple perspectives and did not fully represent all my family’s experiences. So that April in 2017 I put my thesis aside, stacked my copies of family letters in front of me and opened a binder of medical papers and I gave time to just reading the documents. In May I wrote about 15 new poems, which then inspired the manuscript that would become Naming the Leper. Unlike the first time I had written on the subject, I was 20 years older—in fact, close to the same age of my great-grandfather the year he died—and looked at my family’s medical papers with a completely different understanding and weight.
CH: The LSU Press release for your book mentions interviews with your relatives that were incarcerated in the National Leprosarium at Carville. Were you able to conduct some of these interviews? How was it for you to hear your relatives’ first-hand experience?
CM: The interviews were not with my relatives in Carville but included patients who had known my relatives. My last relative in Carville died the year before I was born in 1977. Additionally, I had interviewed cousins, some of whom had memories of my Uncle Albert. When I first went to Carville in the late 1990s, I had also interviewed one of the nuns who had known some of my family in the leprosarium.
CH: What was your process in crafting the book? To what constraints did you adhere in writing a book of documentary poetry?
CM: It was important to me to not write about my family’s experiences as if they were only in the past. I wanted to show the legacy of trauma that I believe was caused by my family’s forced separation and the terrible knowledge that this isolation did not have to happen, that there was medical and scientific evidence to warrant questioning the stigma about this disease in the 1920s and 1930s, when my great-great Uncle Norbert and my great-grandfather Edmond were forced to go to the leprosarium (Norbert in 1919 and Edmond in 1924).
As someone who teaches history, I believe the past is present, that something from it can be learned and most importantly used today. When I reread my family’s letters, I realized these relatives had longed for a sense of purpose. My great-grandfather, for example, did not mind being studied if he thought the examination would prove useful to medicine and science or improve someone else with his disease. My great-great aunt Marie asked to work in a “leper colony”; therefore, when I wrote Naming the Leper I wanted the documents to have weight and, equally important, to be understood from multiple perspectives since I believe that for far too long amid my own family there has been a tendency to tell only parts of the story but often without analysis or historical context.
As long as “leper colonies” exist, there is a dehumanizing namelessness that people with this disease suffer. When writing these poems, I wanted the names of my relatives and complexity of their perspectives and of their memories to be forefront in the poetry. Without scrutiny, stories about my loved ones become reduced to past events and dates that can seem without relevance today; they may be self-preserving for some in my family, but are not entirely accurate to the lives, tribulations, and legacies of my relatives (Norbert, Edmond, Amelie, Marie, and Albert) who were forced to live inside Carville. While the name of the disease was changed to Hansen’s disease in the mid-twentieth century, people today continue to be shunned because of the stigma and misconceptions of “leprosy”.
CH: Who are some of the poets whose work inspired you as you wrote Naming the Leper?
CM: My poetry guides are Joy Harjo and Natasha Trethewey.
CH: It seems we’re at a unique juncture, in terms of pandemic and its necessity of quarantine, to receive this book. And since quarantine in Carville was effectively a life sentence, I’m also reminded of current conversations about carceral systems. Where do you see connections between your relatives’ experience and current-day issues?
CM: Too often these systems fail to rehabilitate, improve, and regard the people inside them. Carville, for example, was established with good intentions: to provide safety and quality health care for people with “leprosy”, but that is not what happened in it, not for decades. It quickly became a place to send people and then forget them.
Institutions like the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana cannot exist without a society that is complicit in doing nothing but pass responsibility off to someone else. “Leprosy” was thought to be a sexually transmitted disease in the early twentieth century. People diagnosed with it were often blamed for their own illness. They were ostracized for what they had and not regarded for who they were.
Incarceration of any kind, in my opinion, assumes a very one-dimensional focus and narrow-mindedness. My own relatives in Carville were not understood and their experiences were not validated by family outside of the institution. My great-grandmother did not make any effort to hear her husband’s grievances about the place because if she had, she would have had to do something, to act outside of her comfort zone. Therefore, she in many ways dismissed him, not in words but in her silence. She abandoned him and convinced herself that he was in the right place, even though he more than once wrote her and his folks that he was not being helped or treated in Carville, and that his disease was not the dread that she believed it to be. My great-grandfather and his siblings did not argue against quarantine, but I think they feared being caged and forgotten, without purpose or hope.
Even today, there is a tendency to think of “leprosy” as being in the past or as a disease that occurs elsewhere. There is a tendency to do as my great-grandmother did and perhaps feel pity for people with this disease but not do the work to change mindsets and advocate for political and social reforms. “Leprosy”—what is today called Hansen’s disease—is not a terminal disease nor does it make limbs fall off, but if left untreated or mistreated, people with this disease can suffer from side effects and other illnesses or compromised health, causing disfigurement or scarring. The fact that in the twenty-first century, globally, we lack healthcare systems that can properly treat these patients, among others, and still have need for leprosariums or “leper colonies” should be a critique of our inhumanity and incompetence. That as a human race we have not done enough to enfold the sick and disabled into our everyday routines is more than a problem; it is a public health crisis and, in the case of the history of “leprosy,” a human rights concern.
CH: What are you working on right now?
CM: A series of poems based on prison stories and racial injustice.
CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
CM: Two books: the first is Pierre Reverdy’s The Song of the Dead, translated by Dan Bellm and the second is Unfinished City by Nan Cohen, both of which I picked up at this year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio.
CH: Where can readers find your book?