In The Wink of the Zenith, poet and memoirist Skloot—who was brain damaged after a viral attack in 1988—dissects his often bumpy path to becoming a writer.
In Zenith, you talk about your undergraduate study of Thomas Hardy. What first drew you to his work?
Growing up, I was far more likely to read The Hardy Boys than Thomas Hardy. That gradually changed when I was a student at Franklin & Marshall College in the late 1960s. My job through four years there was to read for the chairman of the English Department, the writer Robert Russell, who is blind. I believe it was Hardy's struggle to say what mattered to him most that resonated with me both as a young writer and as a more mature writer trying to work in the aftermath of an illness that damaged my brain.
Have television and music played key roles in your life?
I grew up during the 1950s and '60s heyday of television and early rock 'n' roll. Popular culture helped shape the way I understood myself and my world. I began transforming scenes I read or saw on screen into moments within my own life, trying to grasp how the imagined and real correspond.
This is your fourth memoir. What prompted you to write one that didn't focus on your illness?
I understand what happens to me only by writing about it. Zenith explores how I became that person. It feels like the book I always wanted to write, that I needed to write, after writing about illness. The memoirs of illness taught me how to work with fragments of memory and view writing as an act of discovery.
You draw parallels between your own struggle to reconstruct your memories and your mother's decline into dementia.
My mother's losses opened a pathway for us to be together in ways that would have been impossible before brain damage changed us both. She showed me, as my own new limits in memory and abstract reasoning and cognitive power showed me, how important it is to live in the moment. Because all she had was the moment. She led me, without trying, to find new ways of communication.
What are you working on now?
A new collection of poems and, tentatively, new essays that might begin to cohere into a book. Some of these essays are about reading for the first time—now that I'm past 60—the many great writers of childhood adventure that I never read. I'm also writing about how I lost my Brooklyn/Long Island accent. This may add up to a book about what it's like to grow older but still know you have a lot of kid inside.