Polio Boulevard: Karen Chase Recalls Her Childhood Illness, Her Complicated Recovery, and Her “Small History” (Interview)

tags: Polio Boulevard, Karen Chase

History is confusing. I have come to see that history is like a braid

that you and I and everyone else interweave. History is big, history

is small. History happened to you and to everyone else too.

Karen Chase, Polio Boulevard

In her moving and illuminating memoir Polio Boulevard (Excelsior Books), acclaimed poet Karen Chase recounts her childhood struggle with the dreaded illness and her complicated, painful course of recovery as she interweaves her “small history” with “big history” including the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the polio-afflicted president who hid his inability to walk with the complicity of his family, his aides, and the media.

It was a half-century ago, in late 1953, when polio struck the young Ms. Chase, then an active, vibrant ten-year-old. She was hospitalized for months to treat the resulting paralysis and then underwent years of painful surgery and body cast immobilization to correct curvature of the spine, a residual of the polio.

And Ms. Chase was one of the last American victims of polio. A few months into her hospitalization—in 1954—she heard on radio news that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine that would prevent and eventually eradicate polio in the developed world.

In her memoir, Ms. Chase captures the dread of polio before the Salk vaccine. She writes, “For decades, polio terrified America, killing and crippling at random. It lurked anywhere, came on as easily as a cold. Any fever, any stiff neck or sore throat caused hysteria.” Her descriptions of confinement in hospitals and encasement in a body cast and her own sense of isolation are vivid and poignant. A friend who visited her was scared and told her many years later that she “looked like a monster” in her huge cast. Ms. Chase recalls, “I was an alien rocketing away from my body.”

Ms Chase’s memoir has been praised for its lyrical writing and blending of history and personal experience. A reviewer for the Library Journal commented: “Chase brings her poetic sensibilities to the page in discussions of the way history is not just huge wars and battles but small, personal skirmishes too [and she] elegantly conveys the experience of one small part of the world--her own--at a particular point in a much larger history."  And renowned poet Mary Jo Salter remarked that in “Karen Chase’s compelling memoir of a terrifying disease she and so many others contracted in childhood, we watch polio’s unwelcome transformations to be matched and outdone by the twists and turns of a poet’s mind. Bravely and with surprising humor, Chase has turned the unlikely, the unlucky, even the tragic into beauty.”

Ms. Chase is the author of two collections of poems, Kazimierz Square and BEAR, as well as Jamali-Kamali, a book-length homoerotic poem set in Mughal India, and Land of Stone, the story of her work with a silent young man in a psychiatric hospital where she was the Hospital Poet. Her poems, stories and essays have appeared in many periodicals including The Gettysburg Review, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and her work has been widely anthologized, with poems in The Norton Introduction To Poetry, and Poetry 180 edited by Billy Collins, among others. Ms. Chase also has received numerous honors and grants for her work. She also founded and ran the Camel River Writing Center and has twice served on the resident faculty of The Robert Frost Place. She lives in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.

Ms. Chase recently discussed her new memoir and her work by telephone from her home on a snowy day in New England.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to write about your polio experience when you were ten all of these decades later?

Karen Chase: The truth is, I really don’t know why now, but I have some ideas. It wasn’t so much a decision. One moment I started writing and, suddenly there I was, in the midst of it.

One thing that occurs to me is this - the book I wrote before Polio

Boulevard was very far-fetched for me. It is a book-length poem called Jamali-Kamali, an erotic love story between two men that takes place in sixteenth-century Delhi, India. And I write as if I am a man in love with another man. It couldn’t be further from my life in terms of time, hemisphere, gender, sexual orientation. Everything was far from me. Maybe letting my mind go that far afield opened something up in me and made it possible for me to look directly at my past.

Robin Lindley: Did you also have a desire to help others by sharing your story?

Karen Chase: No. Not when I started. Once the book was done, and particularly after it was published, those feelings came to the fore, but not at the start.

Robin Lindley: You mention that you found a hospital bed at an antique store that reminded you of your illness. Was that a trigger for the book also?

Karen Chase: The bed definitely sparked something. But something had to be opening up in me to even notice it. When I saw this hospital bed, it was really old, maybe a hundred years old, and my reaction was intense. I fell in love with the bed and started t write about it.

Robin Lindley: You were only ten when you were diagnosed. What happened when you first experienced polio?

Karen Chase: I was completely healthy. One day, I came home from school for lunch, and my leg started to hurt. I remember going upstairs and laying on the bed and raising my leg and looking at it. I was thinking does my leg really hurt because I had to do a book report that afternoon. I thought maybe I don’t have to go to school to do this book report, which I didn’t want to do.

I did stay home from school and it hurt more. I don’t think the doctor came until the next morning when I had a stiff neck, a high fever, and a lot of pain. I remember distinctly that he did a spinal tap and took fluid from my spine. That was horrendously painful. He had me sit on the edge of the bed and he hit my knee with a rubber mallet and my leg didn’t move. I remember that moment vividly because I registered that something was really, really wrong.

Later that day or the next morning an ambulance came and I was rushed to the hospital and put in an iron lung for a few days.

Robin Lindley: Wasn’t that frightening?

Karen Chase: I was probably so sick at that moment that I don’t even know if I was frightened. After a few days and the fever had subsided, I asked the doctor what was wrong, and he said I had a cold. It was something that made absolutely no sense.

I was on the ICU unit for ten days to two weeks. Then I was taken to the polio ward. At that point, the virus was out of my system, and the damage was done.

Robin Lindley: Were you completely unable to move then?

Karen Chase: I wasn’t completely motionless then, but I couldn’t stand up and I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t move my left hand or my right arm.

Robin Lindley: You describe that hospital experience vividly. You had been healthy and then you were immobilized. How did your imagination help you with the experience?

Karen Chase: My father gave me a camera when I was in the hospital and I took lots of pictures, and that was a nourishing thing to do. It was a little Brownie Hawkeye. I can feel it in my hands as I think about it.

And when I first got sick I was a little girl. I was ten. The whole ordeal lasted until I was 14. So I went from being a little girl to a teenager during that period. When I was in the second hospital for the spinal fusion and a full-length body cast, that’s when I was a practical joker and a teaser. I really had fun in the hospital. I remember really crying the day I left the hospital. I was leaving my friends, and we were a close-knit bunch of kids.

Robin Lindley: You eventually regained normal function. Can you talk more about your treatment for polio and how the spinal fusion came about?

Karen Chase: Yes. When I first got polio, I went from the ICU to the polio ward—a place called “Sunshine Cottage” at Grasslands Hospital. During that period, they wrapped me in hot packs, these steaming blankets. A machine lowered me on a stretcher into a big whirlpool bath, whirling waters. Then a physical therapist came all the time and had me do exercises. That was the treatment right after I had polio.

Then I went home, and I still couldn’t walk and I was in bed for several months. A physical therapist came and did exercises, and I eventually could walk in a few more months. This was all when I was in fifth grade.

By the time sixth grade began, I went back to school for half a day, every day, wearing a back brace. Between sixth and seventh grade, my family had a vacation at Martha’s Vineyard. During this period, the stronger side of my back became stronger faster, and I became hunchbacked. That’s when they decided they had to do a spinal fusion. And that was seventh grade.

At that point, I was taken to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, and put in a full-length body cast. I was there a few months when they straightened my back with turnbuckles. Then they operated. They made a groove down 13 vertebrae and put in bone from a bone bank. They re-plastered me and I had to stay in the body cast until that stranger’s bone fused with mine. Then I was put in a shorter body cast that went from under my arms to my hips. Then I was home and they took the cast off and I started to walk.

Then I went back to school and I never talked about this and never thought about it. I think that’s why so many close friends of mine find this new book amazing. They’ve known me for years and have said, “You mentioned you had polio but you never said anything more.”

Since this book has come out, people ask me about what it’s like to be a polio survivor. The truth is I never registered the phrase. When it was over, I didn’t look back for a second.

Recently, I came across a picture of me in high school watching my brother playing football. I have a long ponytail and I’m laughing and cheering in that photo. To look at that picture, you wouldn’t have known anything like this illness ever had happened to me. It actually feels odd to me at this point to have looked so closely at those polio years and to have dredged up the details of what did happen.

Robin Lindley: From your story, it’s clear that you have tremendous inner strength and courage . . .

Karen Chase: And denial. I agree that there’s strength but I don’t know if it’s courage. I think it’s a ton of denial. Denial can be good or bad, and in this case it was helpful.

Robin Lindley: You capture the historical context of the fifties. When I was growing up there was a great fear of polio, even in the days after the vaccine was introduced. I had a cousin with polio and our parents then warned us against activities like running through sprinklers in the summer. Did you have that sense of that fear and did you see that in reactions of your friends?

Karen Chase: I don’t remember the fear of polio before I got sick, although I know it was there. I raised money for the March of Dimes when I about seven with a few other little girls, so I knew about it but I don’t remember the overriding fear of polio.

Once I got sick, so many people visited me. I had a large circle of friends and I was very social then, which I’m not now. I don’t think people were avoiding me, but probably some were - I just didn’t know who they were.

Robin Lindley: I was struck by your thought that history is big events like wars but it’s also small personal struggles like your own. And your admiration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt is evident. Did you know much about FDR’s story of polio when you were being treated?

Karen Chase: My parents loved Roosevelt and there were books about him around our house so there’s no question that I was aware of him before I got sick. Afterwards, I was extremely aware of him and his struggles. My next book that is coming out next year is about Roosevelt.

Robin Lindley: What’s the focus of your new book about FDR?

Karen Chase: Roosevelt got polio when he was 39 in 1921. In 1923, he and a friend bought a houseboat, which he named The Larooco. They bought it on Long Island and had it sailed to Miami, Florida. For the next three winters, he spent two or three months on the houseboat believing that the warm waters and climate would help cure his legs. He tried to cure his legs from the time he got polio to the time he died. It never worked. While he was on this houseboat, he kept a handwritten, daily nautical log called The Larooco Log. This next book is called The Larooco Log: FDR on the Houseboat.

Robin Lindley: I look forward to your book. Do you think people knew much about FDR’s disability?

Karen Chase: He certainly had done everything to disguise it. He was incredibly political and ambitious. He wanted to be president, and believed he could never be president if people knew he was crippled, so he hid it. And maybe he was right.

Robin Lindley: It seems that you never had any anxiety or fear of a recurrence of polio once you recovered.

Karen Chase: That’s true. Lots of people who have polio end up with post polio syndrome—a large percentage. In my forties and fifties, I was aware that that’s the time it comes back if you get it. I didn’t focus on it, but I think I was nervous in a subterranean way.

Robin Lindley: You mention that the Salk vaccine for polio was introduced when you were hospitalized in 1954, shortly after you were diagnosed. How did you and your fellow patients respond to missing out on this miraculous treatment?

Karen Chase: I was on the polio ward when it was announced. I can picture the scene perfectly. There were maybe five kids in wheelchairs and on stretchers around a monopoly board. The radio was on, as it often was, and a newscaster came on and said that a doctor from Pittsburgh named Jonas Salk had created a vaccine that would prevent polio.

I remember that we all looked at each other. People had very different reactions in that moment. I remember one boy who had braces on his legs, and he just turned completely silent. And another kid was saying, “It’s too late for us. It’s too late for us.” Then I remember myself and a kid named Dennis, my best friend there, and we were laughing about it. It was too much to even take in.

In that moment, I think I grasped how historical it was.

Robin Lindley: Did polio affect your decision to pursue a career as a poet, writer and teacher?

Karen Chase: I had a full imagination before I was sick -- there are a lot of artists in my family. Whether I had gotten sick or not, I probably would have gone in the direction of writing or painting. But I do think that the kind of writer I have become was influenced by having been so cooped up for such critical years, the degree to which I notice visual things, how much I notice aural things. Being stuck in bed unable to move certainly had a big effect.

Robin Lindley: And you worked as a hospital poet at a mental institution?

Karen Chase: It was really interesting. It was for practical reasons that I ended up with that job. I had gotten divorced and I really had to make money—and I felt compelled to keep writing and it was a way I could keep writing and work at this hospital.

So I did that for practical reasons. However, one of the patients I worked with was a completely silent young man. We worked for two years passing a pad and pencil back and forth, alternating lines of poems. Eventually, he started to speak. After that work, I was writing a book about it [Land of Stone], and I remember wondering why I made such contact with this completely silent character? I remember the moment when I thought, it’s because he’s paralyzed in his mind, and I was paralyzed in my body. That’s how we connected.

Robin Lindley: What were your duties as a hospital poet?

Karen Chase: I was there as a poet working with the patients and having them write poetry. There were some professionals there who pressured me to slant the work toward “poetry therapy,” and I couldn’t stand that. I hated it. I said a lot of these people have a healthy part of their mind that works if they’re using it for writing poems. And I wanted to work with that healthy part of the mind, and not turn it into something else, a tool for psychological understanding. Which is not to say that the writing wasn’t healing, because I think it was healing for many of the people.

Robin Lindley: What’s happening with polio today?

Karen Chase: It’s not here or lots of other countries. But particularly in war torn countries—in Afghanistan and in Pakistan—there’s a lot of polio. And there’s a lot of hostility and suspicion toward medical workers who go out to distribute the vaccine. And how do I feel about it? Miserable. It’s awful that there’s a vaccine that can prevent polio and there are still children on this earth who end up with this horrendous disease.

There are huge efforts by organizations and countries like India. India made a huge effort to eradicate polio and was able to. That was a combination of the government working really hard and collaborating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization.

Robin Lindley: Were you involved in that effort in India?

Karen Chase: No. I went to India in 2011 when Jamali-Kamali came out. I was driving in Delhi and saw a billboard about eradicating polio. I was shocked to see the billboard. Polio was the last thing in my mind. But by 2013, India was declared polio-free. They went at it on all fronts. Lots of government workers. There were Bollywood stars and cricket players going at it.

Robin Lindley: Your writing is evocative and lyrical. You’ve mentioned in your writing that you admire the work of Sappho, Whitman, Villon, Ginsberg, Tess Gallagher, and Raymond Carver, among others. Would you like to add anything about your influences?

Karen Chase: Yes, I wanted to add something -- and that is the importance to me of the poet William Stafford, who would have turned 100 this year, as I was falling deeper and deeper into the throes of full-time writing.  He was a man from Kansas who settled in Oregon.  I loved his poems early on but even more than his poems, I loved his beliefs. He said, "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them." He believed in the adventure of writing, trying anything, being non-judgmental, going forward and stumbling head-on to new things. At the start, he was my long-distance mentor whom I only knew through his books (although I later met and corresponded with him).

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you hope readers will take from your book?

Karen Chase: I feel that no matter what happens to you, you are who you are, and you don’t have to lose that. This is important particularly for younger readers. I am what I am as the cartoon character Popeye says. That’s one big thing I hope readers take from the book.