Arts Programs-What Works
Anderson the Music Man
Helping Kids Learn
Selecting Movies for Kids
Becoming a New Dad
Alice Hoffman Kids' Books
Kingsley on "Holland" Monday Night Art Class
The Sisters Yankowitz
Istar on Harry Potter
POET AS MOTHER/MOTHER AS POET
Poet Miranda Field writes about her experience as a mother in response to questions posed by CreativeParents.com. Ms. Field lives in New York City with her husband, poet Tom Thompson and their two young sons. Her first full-length book of poems, SWALLOW, published by Houghton Mifflin, will be available in August, 2002.
CREATIVE PARENTS Interview: Miranda Field: 2/5/02
HOW DID HAVING YOUR FIRST CHILD INFLUENCE THE WAY YOU APPROACHED YOUR WRITING?
When I became a mother my poems got suddenly more voluble, my lines longer, my language more abundant --I would say lusher too. Giving birth -- surrendering to that enormous physical and existential upheaval --knocked out of me what I now think of as a somewhat reserved --even anorectic-- attitude to the world. As I remember it (and of course this is only subjectively true, and possibly gilded by my current nostalgia for the time) the minute the baby started guzzling at my breast, the world just suddenly got really juicy, just suddenly looked really delicious to me.
I think of Eve, in the Garden, with that big NO echoing all around her. At my child's birth, I felt an emphatic (maybe even a little fanatical) YES fill me, body and soul: Go ahead, it urged, Swallow---thus the title of my first book.
But this doesn't actually answer your question, which is more about strategy than receptivity. How has motherhood influenced my approach to writing? Perhaps most significantly, it changed the way I regarded --and put to use --time.
A couple of months after Willie's birth I began a piece called "Clock-Falling." The title is from an entry in my "Dictionary of Superstitions," and it refers to an old superstition that if a woman enters a house after giving birth, without having first been "churched," the clock will fall from the mantle.
The moment my baby was born, I became unmoored from what I'd known as ordinary time. Day and night got all mixed up, for a start, and time in general took on this very strange elastic quality. This was, at least in part, due to the fact that I'd left my office job, stepped out of the 9-5 grid, and was suffering that intense sleep deprivation which is such a definitive element of early parenting. But it was also a function of how closely I now had to attend to everything, how very in-the-moment I had to be, how alert each second of every day.
A critical (literally life-sustaining for your child) degree of alertness is necessary when you take on the care of an infant --a shaft of bright sunlight falls across your sleeping baby's face in the bassinet, and you immediately adjust the blind. And all kinds of beauties and seductions and bodily chemicals conspire to hook you and your child up in non-verbal communion. I remember how my milk would let down when my baby cried in a far-off room, before I knew I'd heard him. Plus, I think, just staring deep into the woozy little eyes of someone for whom time has only just begun can send you right through those doors of perception...
Motherhood has also made my relationship to time much more urgent, and more responsible, and selective. As a new mother, I found time under pressure enormously galvanizing. I became disciplined where before I'd been extremely lax in my work habits. I ignored advice to nap when the baby napped, and literally ran to my desk the moment Baby shut his eyes, and didn't stop for anything but that first hungry cry two or three hours later.
Of course I got more and more wild-eyed with sleep deprivation. But this too, crazy as it sounds, was a creative catalyst for me. Rimbeaud said: "Capsize the boat! rearrange the senses!" It wasn't exactly what he had had in mind, but nursing a baby through the night, living on almost no sleep, became my version of living a romantically profligate existence.
While I was pregnant with Willie, I got sniped at from every grassy knoll --with warnings ranging from the gently practical "oh, you'll have to let yourself off the creative hook for a while" to the (heavily implied) "you'll never write again..."
But not so. I wrote my first book against the clock --and the pressurized quality of the poems distinguishes them from pre-motherhood work of mine which, I think, tended to be a little lacking in a sense of necessity. So two things, possibly paradoxical --I let go, imaginatively, emotionally, expressively; and at the same time, in the areas of diligence, discipline and practice, I got strict --I got a grip.
HOW HAS BECOMING A MOTHER INFLUENCED THE THEMES AND FEELINGS YOU ADDRESS IN YOUR POETRY?
Well, I guess I've already begun to answer that: Pregnancy, birth, and motherhood make the mind-body connection undeniable, and, for me anyway, sent a big Mardi Gras resounding through the whole (though remember, Mardi Gras definitely has its darkness, amid all the glitter...). And this may not be explicitly evident in my work, but is definitely an undercurrent. I think it's in the vocabulary, in the tonality of the language of my first book, SWALLOW.
But then, (contrary to what a lot of people seem to think happens at parturition) my intellect remained intact, and maybe even toughened a little. Got a little more vigilant. I think of my poetics, the architectural containers of my poems, as, well, several words come to mind: rigorous, stern, maybe a little chastening, anyway, a force of containment leaning -- fairly hard sometimes --on all that lotus-eating going on in my inmost recesses...
James Longenbach points out how, in my work, "resistance is part of the mechanism" (Boston Review, vol.25, no.5) and I'd say that resistance is probably all the more severe because that floodgate got flung so wide by motherhood. One fairly predominant theme in SWALLOW is the experience of being broken open, the damage and the danger and the transformative power of that.
I remember, before I had my children, reading a memoir by sculptor Anne Truitt. In it, she said (or I believe she said, though I've been told this isn't in her book, and that I must have dreamt it) that she chose to have children because she didn't want to remain unbroken. I found that very moving --and (perhaps perversely) very tempting. In fact, I hold Truitt directly responsible for my uncombed hair and these smears of banana and yogurt all over my clothes.
What are some of the individual poems about? Well, a few touch upon motherhood (or children) directly, but most don't. There's one about the utter absorption of a child playing with water. There are several that explore passionate rivalries (specifically among sisters --I grew up in a family of four girls...), and many that either address or actually enact some of the various kinds of voyeurism that life and art engage us in.
There's also one (taken from a little fable from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci) about a spider in a vineyard --the creature is gorging on all the abundance and sweetness of the grapevines, but at the same time, the wine-presses are getting ready. Again, the simultaneous danger and beauty of hunger and consumption. That poem points out that, by definition, the word "rapture" is not simply a passive state, but an act --of "carrying off and of "being seized."
So I think of motherhood (my experience of it, at least) as having been in this sense rapturous: you lunge at it, you take it as your quarry, you hungrily gorge on it -- but at the same time, it carries you off, overwhelms you, consumes you.
HOW HAS HAVING A SECOND CHILD MADE LIFE DIFFERENT?
Well, maybe here's the place to say it's not all a bed of roses. Much as motherhood can fill one with responsiveness to the world, and pressurize time in a productive way, it also very severely curtails the amount of time an artist has to devote to her work --and to read, think, commune with other artists.
My second child is now fourteen months old, and I have to admit I'm probably where I should have been back when my first was born --if it hadn't been for those miraculous naps. Not that the party's over forever, but right now I'm overwhelmed, finding it hard to believe I ever had an inner life. I do have some baby-sitting with Finn where I had none to speak of with Willie.
But there are so many more needs to juggle now --so many more "I"s and "thou"s in the equation, so many more exigencies to divvy up the time among. I'm often blocked these days, not getting much done. But I have an irrational degree of faith (is faith ever rational?) that this will all fall into place in a way that works for all of us --kids, marital unit, writing-self --when the time is right.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ROLE MODELS OF POETS WHO ARE MOTHERS --(AND HOW DO YOU SEE THE DIFFICULTIES THAT BEFELL SOME OF THE WOMEN WHO STRUGGLED WITH THIS IN THE PAST)?
I think it's natural to look for models --to cling to examples of survivors when one undergoes a dangerous operation (as entering motherhood is to anyone who wishes to maintain herself also as an artist) but at the same time it's important not to look too closely at those models.
When I was looking for role-models (basically before I had kids) I was looking for writer-couples, since my husband, Tom Thompson, is a poet too. For a while, as newly-weds, we held up Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris as absolute proof that marriage, children (so many!) and two writing careers could all coexist. But that, as we know, all came to an unimaginably miserable ending. Well you have an awful lot of bad endings to two-artist marriages. But then you have a lot of badly ending marriages in general.
So it's important not to be too superstitious. So, I think of Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan (who happen to have raised two sons in NYC, who seem to have turned out quite happily --in fact to be poets themselves) and then there's C.D. Wright and Forest Gander (with one son), Robert Haas and Brenda Hillman (currently raising Hillman's daughter together).
And Tom and I have quite a few friends --poets and visual artists --who, in their thirties and early forties, are just embarking on parenthood. So far most seem to be doing okay. But. as I said, I make it a point not to look too closely. I mean, if you look --really look --at that rabbit's foot in your pocket, you have to wonder how the severed paw of a vulnerable little woodland creature got to be a good-luck mascot...
HOW DO YOU THINK BEING A POET AND MOTHER TODAY IS DIFFERENT FROM IN THE PAST?
Enormous and completely unrealistic (and I think sometimes intentionally sabotaging) demands seem to have been put on artist-mothers of previous generations. My partner in this hybrid enterprise (domestic/artistic), the poet Tom Thompson, doesn't expect that, because I'm "not working," I should keep myself and the house lovely, the children lovely, and lovingly arranged dishes on the table. We're in this together, going crazy in it at times, but always together. After office hours (he has an outside job, 10-6) we're splitting it all as close to fift-fifty as chaos allows.
Writing is actually an integral aspect of Tom's and my mutual attraction, part of the resilience of our marriage. We have a healthy element of competition in our writing lives. We're each constantly being prompted to work harder by the other's successes.
There's probably an element of self-preservation in the way we tend to and protect each other's writing spaces. I think we have a post-feminist relationship (by post-feminist I mean, feminist ideas having been assimilated, become a "given.")
Important as writing is to us, however, we both consider it an absolute priority that we not sacrifice our children to our art. I think women in the past were often pressured into choosing between motherhood and art. And those who dared to do both, sometimes, having inadequate support, and dealing with educational and art-world and publishing biases, sometimes dropped the ball in one way or the other. And sometimes it was the child-ball that got dropped. (Of course that ball has been routinely dropped--- if it was even picked up properly to begin with --by countless male artists who've gotten away with it, scott-free, through the ages.) That's an irreparable damage inflicted on someone else's life. No book of poems would be worth that to me.
On the other hand, of course, it was very often the art-ball that fell and rolled away. And daughters (and sons too) of those thwarted mother-writers have to grapple with that too. It can be tempting (even unconsciously) to use your child as an excuse not to do your art, or vice versa. And, of course, it can be legitimately impossible to do both. Don't think I don't know how lucky I am. I'm thankful for many things in my life that support my juggling of motherhood and writing --not least among them, a decent public school district, public transportation, rent-control, and an endless supply of hand-me-downs, and a wonderful wine merchant nearby...
ARE THERE WAYS THAT YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND ARE CONVEYING YOUR INTEREST IN LANGUAGE AND POETRY TO YOUR CHILDREN?
We play with language (as my parents did in my childhood home) and relish its weirdnesses and gorgeous subtleties, and fall through its trap-doors and into all its rabbit-holes, and along the way can't help commenting on all this in our endless chattering with Willie and Finn.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR WORK EVOLVING?
Right now, I don't. I hope my second book will materialize, and that when it does, it will not just reiterate the first book. Of course, recent events have capsized the boat in a different way, have shaken us all to the core, and called into question many assumptions and complacencies, in art as in perhaps all other fields of thought and areas of life.
I have a feeling that, though my next book will probably not address September 11th and its implications head on, they will be at least subliminally present in the work. But in what form I don't yet know.
CAN YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR BOOK THAT IS BEING PUBLISHED?
SWALLOW is my first full-length book. It won the 2001 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize, and will be published by Houghton Mifflin in August 2002. A chapbook, same title, is currently out with Red Dog Press.
To read some of Miranda Field's poetry online go to Boston Review.
|Articles Interviews Reviews Activities Resources Surveys About Us Contact Us|
|Copyright © 1999 Dr. Istar Schwager. Site design by ArtMar, Inc.|