to linger on hot coals: an interview with Catherine Bayly

To Linger on Hot Coals is a book of collected poems by babylost mothers. Edited by Stephanie Paige Cole and Catherine Bayly, it includes the writings of twelve other writers, including Angie Yingst, formerly editor here at Glow, and myself. The book came out in February 2014, and recently I was able to talk with Catherine about the making of the book, writing, and babyloss.


Burning Eye: Many babylost parents and writers feel quieter as time goes on, as grief settles. Both you and Stephanie are years out from your losses. Why did you decide to make the book now, so many years later? What was it like to be immersed in a project about loss, so many years after your daughters died?

Catherine: This is a good question, and really distance turned out to be an essential part of the book’s mission and effect, I think. True, Stephanie and I are years out from our losses, and it feels like light-years in some ways. But the writers we included in the book have very diverse chronological and life vantage points. And, of course, we all know that the experience of losing a child never resolves, even if grief “settles,” as you aptly say. So the book served the purpose of showing not quite a trajectory of loss (because there is no such thing) but almost a scatterplot or calculus of loss. And, in that way, the book shows something true that chronological texts can’t quite show, which is the zig-zagging and infinite process of human grief.

So, for us, this dynamic truth (perhaps the sole truth?) was only possible to come to with some distance from our sadness and selves. Because, like anyone, early on, it felt there must be an endpoint, like grief would have to reach some resolution. But, although I am a very happy, well-adjusted person/mother/professional, the real ‘aha’ moment was that there wouldn’t be a resolution, per say. All of it was part of the tapestry. So, for me, it wasn’t like revisiting or dredging up something I didn’t feel anymore—the book was more like a truth-telling that I simply wasn’t capable of before. It was a big picture, only possible with hindsight that I simply couldn’t have had before. And the goal was showing the large picture, seen through the process of reading, rather than an A to Z movement, if that makes sense. It was a peaceful process.

Burning Eye: The role of editor is very different than that of a writer. Why did you want to put together a collection of babyloss poems? Why not just your own?

Catherine: I think the answer to this question is contained in question one to some extent. We wanted to convey an expanse of feeling—we needed to remember or learn what others felt. Although Stephanie and I share a lot, we didn’t know each other when we lost our daughters. We have separate hurts we share with other people we love, and we all have separate, but never wrong, ways we remember. Our individual books, Stephanie’s and mine, would look very different. And this is true of all the authors in the book. To just tell my story is to tell one side of an infinite experience. And we certainly didn’t capture infinity—there was no way we could, and I regret that—but we caught some lightning in a bottle there. And then it’s there for those who want to remember and experience through poetry, and for those who will come after us and who are inevitably different from us and each other. We wanted the book to feel not a bit like a how-to guide, if that makes sense.

Burning Eye: Who did you make this book for? Who do you hope will read it?

Catherine: We wrote this book for those looking to understand the complexity and multifaceted nature of parenting and loss. This could mean parents who are years from their losses, in that limbo between immediate grief and life’s hurtling forward. It could mean allies (grandparents, friends, etc.)—those who want to understand a fuller picture of loss and its repercussions and resonances over the years. There is also some genuinely gorgeous and wonderfully-crafted poetry in the book, so the book has also been enjoyed by poetry readers. Very important to me, also, is the book’s value for a reader who’s experienced any loss. While the subject and experience in question is, of course, specific, I feel that we are writing about an emotion/reality that is essential to the human experience. So the book really puts loss within a genre that is meant to address the depth of human emotion.

Burning Eye: As editors, how did you approach the selection of the poets and the poems?

Catherine: Stephanie and I looked to folks we knew as writers, or writers from venues we knew and respected. Because of her work, Stephanie knew most of the people we queried and led the charge—she’s a leader and I’m a follower, so that was easy!  We did not put out a call, nor did we want to force people to write on this issue. Some people are just called to write about their losses and to share their beautiful writing about those losses. That’s the way some of us remember, and so we asked those we knew who felt that way and were already doing the hard work of writing. That seemed the safest and most ethical way to put together a collection of work. I could, however, have seen the value in calling for poets or pushing for more entries—that certainly would have given the work more diversity and perhaps even more texture. But I am so pleased with the finished book and its feel, and the ambiance of people giving willingly of the most vulnerable parts of themselves.

Burning Eye: What was it like to go back through the things you’ve written over the years in order to choose what you wanted to be in the book? 

Catherine: I have done this frequently, so the poems didn’t come as a shock. But, as a teacher of writing, I have to admit some of the rawness there was a bit embarrassing. And I don’t mean embarrassing like I worry about others’ perceptions of my writing. I mean more that I blushed a bit and longed a bit and cried a bit over that young woman I was. I came to new knowledge about myself. I was so in the moment then, so unable to abstract myself from my feelings, or see the big picture with any distance. It was a strange and humbling thing to go back there and recognize who I was now nearly a decade ago. It is interesting, because I try to teach my students this distance, as if it is possible for everyone, and I take for granted the years and hard work and patience from my loved ones that it took to get here. So, I came away more compassionate and kind—to myself and others.

Burning Eye: I think I understand that in a way, even though I am only two years out from Joseph’s death. Reading back over the pieces I wrote just after Joseph died is hard, not so much embarrassing but more like you said, ‘longing a bit and crying a bit’ over who I was then. I hurt for that woman, for her fresh grief, for how lost and shocked and isolated she felt.

You had a reading and event in the Philadelphia area last March, after the book came out. Why is it important to you to do readings and events in person, as opposed to just online publicity through the book’s website and Facebook site?

Catherine: My answer to this question may surprise you. But I am a very private person. Where, before, I felt or demanded that all people must remember Sophie always, ha, I now relish the near quiet surrounding my relationship with her. In the last year, I’ve gotten off of Facebook, and mostly dug into my work, family, and close friendships. That said, while I haven’t had a reading in a while, some of my most rewarding moments at past wonderful readings have been face-to-face conversations about loss. This gives me a chance to give back to someone who needs it. And, to me, that matters most—those one-on-one interactions with a mother who’s in pain. That’s not to say I haven’t messed those up, but I try my best and I learn more and more how much it matters just to be there for someone in pain.

Burning Eye: I’m a pretty private person, too (I haven’t shared my blog or that I write at Glow with my family or most of my friends). But I’m still in a place where I want people to ask me about Joseph. I want the chance to say his name. I know many babylost parents also want to talk about their babies, and a while back there was a thread on the Glow forums about opportunities to tell our stories. Do you talk about your loss in other arenas? Are you involved in other projects, writing or otherwise, around babyloss?

Catherine: I am not involved in other projects like this right now, although of course I have a select (very) few special people with whom I enjoy discussing Sophie and even saying her name. But I am somewhere different now, as strange as that seems. My ways of memorializing have changed. That need to have people remember is something that has transformed for me over time into a much more personal thing. That solitude is something I struggled with—something I never thought I would be ok with. But now, there is something special in it. Through writing the book, I actually, inadvertently, discovered just how private I’ve become and I’ve come to terms with that.

However, Stephanie, whose emotions of course I can’t speak for, stays involved in many projects in this arena. Stephanie continues to head Sweetpea Project, an organization which supports, guides, and provides remembrance venues for grieving parents. She’s also worked with Pia Dorer on The Sacred Project, and she’s constantly involved in art shows and writing projects. I do know that, like me, Stephanie is somewhere different in her personal life—somewhere much more peaceful—but the nature of her work is much more public and she feels a tremendous and sometimes heavy responsibility to advocate for the loss community. She works hard to stay to in touch with those mothers at all stages of loss—that is a remarkable thing about her. We’re very similar in some ways, but very different in the way we live out our emotions, but I so respect Stephanie for her work, which is so difficult.

Burning Eye: Do you still write about your daughter or your grief?

Catherine: I do not write about grieving Sophie anymore. Because, honestly, “grieving” simply doesn’t describe me anymore. And I hope that gives some people heart, even if it seems strange. I am full of too many feelings and people and roles now to ever say I’m actively grieving my first daughter. She always shows up and lives in many things I do—poems I write, the way I treat my students, the way I see seasons, the way I decorate, etc. But it’s almost never grief over her—just her life as a part of the complexity and story of my life. 

Right now, I have another collection of poems I’ve been very slowly chipping away at. The poems are very different in tone from those in the book—many of those were from my early days of grief. This contains some of that longing, but longing shaped by so many other wonderful and complicated factors.

Burning Eye: I think some of us have the fear that, if we’re not actively grieving, then we’re not remembering our babies. It’s something I’ve struggled with, even as far back as those first few weeks. When I felt happy or at peace for a moment, I felt like I was somehow betraying Joseph. But hearing to you talk about where you are in your grief-journey, it’s getting easier for me to accept that I don’t need necessarily need hold on to the grief part in order to hold on to Joseph.

Thank you so much for talking with me, and for helping to bring into being To Linger on Hot Coals.


Catherine will be checking back if you'd like to continue the conversation with her in the comments.