UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
A.S.: If you had to live your life over, would you choose to be a poet?
R.B.: I am. And I am.
A.S.: What do you mean?
R.B.: I am twelve years old in my second life and I'm working on my fourth collection.
A.S.: What do you mean your "second life?"
R.B.: We are never the same after a brain injury.
A.S.: But you wrote poetry before your head injury, didn't you?
R.B.: I damaged the linguistic part of my brain and was writing phonetically three months after my coma when I could barely walk or talk and wasn't sure who I was.
A.S.: What is the linguistic part of the brain?
R.B.: The left temporal lobe. Thought comes from the right temporal lobe and is cognitively transposed through the left into speech or action.
A.S.: How did you come to know this?
R.B.: A writer I know suggested I read Oliver Sacks. Having inherited a reading disability from my mother, reading Oliver Sacks was an enormous undertaking. However, I've learned more about my disability through his books than anyone could tell me.
A.S.: You had this disability before your head injury .How did you manage to become a poet?
R.B.: I could always write better than I could read, though I've always been able to read poetry. After my head injury I couldn't read "anything" for many years, except for something I'd just written.
A.S.: How did you have your head injury?
R.B.: It doesn't matter whether you have a car accident or fall out of a plane. If you survive a brain injury, everything in your life is changed forever.
A.S.: How long were you in a coma?
R.B.: About a month, then I was semi-comatose for two weeks before being sent home where I waited for two months to get into my third hospital for rehabilitation.
A.S.: You were in three hospitals?
R.B.: Yes. I was resuscitated twice in the emergency ward of the closest hospital and was then taken to The General. I spent my time there in a coma.
A.S.: So, how did you suffer your head injury?
R.B.: I had my accident the day I learned I was sexually abused as a boy.
A.S.: How old were you when you found this out?
R.B.: Thirty-four. The subconscious never forgets. A psychiatrist gave me a truth serum that brought some of this memory out. I was panic-stricken and later that day I went to a local bar, had way too much to drink, and fell over the side of illegal stairs on the way to the bathroom, landing headfIrst on a concrete floor.
A.S.: You remember this?
R.B.: My memory of that day was destroyed. I learned about that day from my ex-wife and a lawyer we had.
A.S.: Oh, you were married?
R.B.: Yeah. Head injury destroys marriages ninety percent of the time. When one person's reality in a family changes, everyone's reality changes. It took me ten years to let go of who I was before my accident and come to terms with a new life. That's what my second collection Anamnesis is about.
A.S.: I noticed you pasted the Author's Note On The Text inside the afterlife. Having read the book, I can see why you did this.
R.B.: Well thank you very much!!! The publisher didn't think it was necessary, and I was too disabled to insist. Live and learn.
A.S.: Tell me about The Good Life.
R.B.: That was just a file my ex-wife published in 1990 through a printer who had a dream of becoming a publisher. It should never have been published. the afterlife is my first book. It's a poetic documentation of a man's first five years of recovery from a severe brain injury. Initial recovery is five years, then like a stroke, life-long. the afterlife took me five years to write and two years to revise. While I was revising the afterlife, I was writing new poems. My first two collections were finished around the same time.
A.S.: So according to my notes, it's been twelve years.
A.S.: And you're finishing your fourth collection of poetry?
R.B.: That's correct. I'm documenting my passage and providing a literary voice for all survivors, their families and friends. Over half a million people in North America suffer head-injuries every year. I learned long ago that it doesn't matter what causes a poem to be written, for after completion it takes on a life of its own. As long as I can write, I'll deal with whatever life throws at me.
A.S.: Is your childhood still a weight on your shoulders?
R.B.: No. Thanks to therapy, that's something I've been able to let go. It took me many years, but now I can live in the Here and Now. All we have is today. I've written about this in my third collection.
A.S.: It sounds like you've reconstructed yourself, to paraphrase a poem from the afterlife.
R.B.: It's an ongoing process. I've been sober for eleven years and I quit smoking in February , 2000.
A.S.: Your accident was twelve years ago. You drank after your head injury?
R.B.: On a hot very humid day in August 1990, I had a beer. When my ex found this out, she made me promise I'd never drink again. I never break a promise. She also made me promise not to commit suicide before she put me out on my own.
A.S.: Were you suicidal?
R.B.: I wouldn't say I was suicidal, but I felt like the walking dead... But look, there's nothing more important than my sobriety. Nothing more important than my next poem. And nothing more important than Here and Now. I'm on official medical record: I couldn't be paid to have a drink today! The last psychiatrist I saw told my ex I was not an alcoholic. He told her I was hiding.
A.S.: I know many survivors of sexual abuse become alcoholics.
R.B.: Yeah that's true. The man I was before 1989 is long gone. It takes survivors of brain injury such a long time to let go of a previous life. Every head injury is different.
A.S.: You 're an inspirational speaker for other survivors
R.B.: Yeah. And I always speak about the importance of letting go of yesterday. I met a survivor who was sixteen years in recovery, in a wheelchair, and still drinking alcohol. I always emphasize how bad alcohol is for the brain. The trick is to allow yourself to be born again. I don't mean in the Bible-thumping born again Christian way. Although if that works, that's fine. You have to let it happen. I know for survivors it feels like this will never happen.
A.S.: How does one encourage this?
R.B.: Time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, but one can live with the scars. There are many different kinds of wounds in life, many kinds of scars. Live the life you are meant to live. Call it Fate, or Karma, or God's Plan. It's greater than we know, whatever that is. It's all a magnificent mystery.
Robert Boates's works copyright © to the author.