A.B. Our dear friend Sarah Braunstein (author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children and other amazing books and, not unrelatedly, exemplary colleague) tells the story of asking Grace Paley how to build a life around making art when one must also, you know, live. Paley reportedly said, “keep the overhead low.” Neither one of us has managed to do that—me with my three kids, you with your Lucia and your stepsons. This house. That move. This other house. That one over there with the birdhouse falling down.
And now COVID.
I am wondering what your thoughts are about houses and kids and gardens and puttering around in antique malls in Hallowell and Brunswick.
How do these distractions help us write poems?
C.M. Distractions do not help a person write poems, at least not if that person is me. I have a very hard time working around any kind of noise or people. I’m extremely irritable when interrupted, which is probably why I kept the “overhead low” for the first twenty years of my writing life, which I’ll identify as the years between 18–38. They seem decadent in retrospect: whole swaths of evenings alone to read and write, staying up until dawn, sleeping in until one in the afternoon, and basically taking a very limited part in society. I relished this lifestyle and thought it kept me young. It kept me immature, certainly. It enforced my sense of being the little god of my own world. It emboldened my narcissism and encouraged an often histrionic sense of self, in which I seemed to be at constant odds with the world.
I sure did write a lot of poems, though. I got really good at writing poems. But then I wasn’t very good at relationships, and I’d often write poems about that. I can’t regret any of this because it’s really just one version of many of someone in their twenties and thirties trying to figure out how to live and being genuinely excited by all the twists and turns life brings. (Though I will admit I’d love to go back and start my entire life over, knowing everything I know now.)
I’m glad for those years alone. They were often painful, but I feel they prepared me for the part of life in which I would have to give myself up. I decided when I was 38 to have a baby. It’s not something you can try out, like a pound puppy. You either do or don’t. I remember actually confronting the notion that I would have to wake up early to take my child to school, and I would necessarily have to interact with other people. This was something I had to acknowledge before I made my decision. (Which seems utterly ridiculous and precious to me now.) A close friend who had a young child was horrified when I explained that if I did, in fact, have a child, I would not opt to go to the park. “But you have to go to the park!” she cried. Another friend who was a mother to two children told me that if I had a child, I’d “never write again.” For a period, I decided not to have a child—in response to her statement—but then I reckoned (taking in the fact that writers like Toni Morrison and Sylvia Plath had been mothers) that what some people think is hard, others don’t find as difficult. A lot of people who don’t have very difficult lives find life extremely difficult. There are people for whom any number of things is a tremendous chore, and I’ve always privately considered these types of people wimps, to put it nicely. Poets are hardcore. Poets stay around until the job is done. Poets tell the truth when no one wants to hear it. Any poet who is good has been rejected and ridiculed by their peers at some point. Poets are accustomed to being rebuffed! Poets learn sooner than later that they may appear ridiculous, but make their peace with it because they are serving a higher cause. (A notion that is absolutely ridiculous but which I believe in with every fiber of my being.) I dedicate my life to this peculiar art. And doing so both torments and delights me. Distractions are very bad news as they interrupt the dream.
It was just a few days after I had my baby that I had to say good-bye to myself. It’s not that I was so swept away by my newborn’s innate whatever—it was because shit was serious, the kid needed to be fed, I was scared out of my mind, and I didn’t have time to indulge my internal dialogue. I remember telling myself, “I’m sorry, but I can’t love you anymore.” A baby had suddenly appeared in my life, was sitting atop a Boppy cushion on my couch, and I knew so little about what I was doing that I would sit with this baby all night long watching TV, wide awake. I had lost my mind. The baby had shown up seven weeks early. At the time I went into labor, I hadn’t yet bought a crib. In short, I was fucked.
I think interruption and distraction have been an enormous gift to my work. First, I am glad that I had those years in which I was able to focus on craft because I feel like I am now able to hit the mat hard when I need to.
On a more holistic level, I think that distractions crack open all the doors, wider and wider, and force us to allow new subject matter into our poems. I love being a mother to my particular daughter; I even love being a mother in the grander sense, but being a mother is not my primary identity. However, it changed the way I write and what my poems are about. It’s likely I lost a book to motherhood, but who really gives a shit? I ended up taking my kid to the park on a regular basis.
I did not enter into homeownership until I was 39. Naturally, I can’t think about homeownership nowadays without considering racial inequity and how all those privileges my parents were granted spilled into my life to make it what it is now. I have a house. What a thing to have! Then I think about “having.” Ownership as a concept is gross.
Here’s what I’m realizing. I am distracted by a lot more things than family or houses. I am distracted by the fact that I spent years asleep, essentially lapping up everything that came to me, thinking it was rightfully mine, thinking I was, yes, special, and it feels really good to have woken up from that. It feels bad a lot of times too. But it has made me realize poems are real. My child, who teaches me more than I teach her. Waking up, actually waking up. Listening and reading and reframing my teaching as I invest, on a daily basis, in antiracist practice. Giving up cynicism. Connecting with people I may have been likely to judge in the past. Refusing superficial explanations inside my own head when I observe my fellow citizens.
Poetry has to grow with the self. I’m no longer worried about making it into the canon. Frankly, I’m not really all that worried about “making it.” I think, hell, maybe I have twenty more years. I want to spend them with my kid, mainly because she is weird and fun. I want to use them up. Make some really excellent sandwiches. Not worry about becoming fat because some guy will tell me I’m fat. I’m over feeling bad, period. I want gardens, houseplants, pets, and poems, and I do truly believe I can have them all.
How do you define “distraction”? What, to you, is “overhead”? Is it time or money? Are they the same to you? Discuss your peculiar grief.
A.B. Oh, Cate, how I love this response—this whole story you tell about enriching your life with your baby at such a late date and how hard it was and why it mattered. I love it that you frame this decision to have Lucia as a decision to give yourself away. I love how you even imply that giving yourself away is part of what it may mean to write real poems. I think you’re talking about being authentic, and not only to yourself. Authentic to your child. Authentic to suffering. Authentic to life itself and therefore authentic to poetry. I love the truth of your story—the danger of it—and I love your willingness to tell it.
We’ve talked before about our lives being oddly reversed—you coming to motherhood later, me earlier. And how this reversal of choices compels us to think about these ideas about women—mothers—making art now. For when you were teaching yourself how to write poems in the middle of the night all those years ago, I was struggling to find a way to make ends meet in order to support my two and then three kids. There was this southern idea about what it meant to be a woman that I idiotically adopted at a young age, and though my first husband and I were art students—he was a photographer—I couldn’t imagine living in the world without children, and actually gave up writing to have my first son. I was a senior in college. A senior in college! When I tell my students that now, their faces remind me of bathwater.
So here’s another reversal—I tried to give myself away, too. But I did it too young and also like a sleepwalker. It’s a long story, but eventually, when my firstborn was three and my second was on the way, I realized how idiotic and bovine and mammalian and milky I had become or just basically was and decided to go to grad school to try to remember how to write. As you know, I went to Hollins College—now University—with these two children. It was such a ridiculous decision to make! And people did think I was ridiculous. And I was ridiculous with my bag of diapers and baby wipes and Batman figures and cotton blankets. And it was so very hard to try to figure out how to write at least a little bit well with these two boys to take care of. My husband and these kids and I lived on about ten cents a year. Yet, I really did thrive at least spiritually and intellectually at Hollins during this time. I mean, I lived for reading and writing with others. It would be years before I would move from trying to write fiction to writing poetry, but I had to move away from my kids in order to become a poet. Now, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t love them. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend almost all of my time trying to figure out how to take care of them. But they did distract me. They filled my brain with tangled spider wire. And yet, of course, they were wholly necessary, and I loved them so much that I would go on to have my third child—my own daughter—about ten years down the road.
And not only that. I would also go to graduate school for another degree, this one in poetry, which was also a ridiculous decision to make. I mean, if we’re being logical here. But building a life out of making art is not a logical thing to do. It’s like feeling your way through a forest in the middle of the night, blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back. And yet, is this how we figure out who we are? What we’re capable of? What and who we love?
So it could be that we’re saying the same thing—that it’s life that fuels art? The more life the better?
I think we are.
I am writing this now in my little house near East Pond in Oakland. I’ve got the wood stove going, as we’re still on the tail end of winter here. There is almost no noise to distract me besides the low hiss the fire makes. When the kids were younger, I would struggle for a little peace and quiet, begging them to turn their stereos down and pick up their toys and maybe even make their own ham and cheese sandwiches, for Christ’s sake. Back then, I would have given anything to run away to a cabin in the middle of the woods near a winter lake in Maine. Now that I’m here, though, and the kids are grown—well, I don’t need to tell you how much I miss the mayhem they would cause. And how hungry they would get! Those kids drank a gallon of milk a day for at least a decade. If they weren’t on low-carb diets now and if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I would stop writing this sentence and bake each of them a cake.
So I guess we’re saying that the distractions are not distracting? That they are distracting but necessary? That the absence of feeling is death and that “it’s out of life that poetry comes,” as Gerald Stern says somewhere?
Is that what we’re maybe saying?
C.M. I think we are saying that there are good and bad distractions. There are empty distractions that waste your time and empty your soul. And some distractions are as valuable as digressions (I adore digressions) in that they lead you off your path and pull you onto another and teach you more than you could ever hope to know. Children do that. I wasn’t always so hyped up on kids. I didn’t know if I wanted any for a long time. I did, and I didn’t. I didn’t know because how the hell can you? No one tells you what it will be like, what it means. They keep us in the dark; they don’t tell us what breastfeeding will be like even though we’re the ones who have boobs. Having a kid for me was a choice I needed to make all of a sudden. I found out I was infertile at 37 and needed to get cracking on IVF if I wanted to ever have a baby at all, and there was no partner in the picture, so I was gently directed to choose a sperm donor. I did not like this situation one bit. But, damn, I was suddenly thinking about life and my future in a new way.
Around the time I found out I had “the ovaries of a 42-year-old,” my dog, who I’d owned since I was 25, was dying of cancer.
It’s hard, actually, to even think about those days. I was so sad. My dog was on an IV for fluids in my living room. I stayed up all night and cut off my hair. I was bereft. I terribly missed the ex-boyfriend I’d believed I’d marry (and have kids with), and I’d call him and text him to tell him my dog was dying (he loved this dog too), and he didn’t respond.
If you look at Oracle, you’ll find that dog occupying the nooks of several poems. Here I am, getting distracted while writing about distractions.
A distraction is a light thing. It’s the light flashing on the snow—the errant thought in the produce section. Poets are annoyed by distractions because we are so intent on obsession. We don’t want the distraction. It feels like a fly landing on your arm. Nothing should take us away from our deep regard and engagement with whatever we’re fossilizing with our stare. It makes sense. We’re busy, and we’re about our business, and we’re even a bit fussy.
But distraction isn’t, I’m realizing, a big deal. It’s not something we like, but it can be dealt with somewhat painlessly. We can flick the fly off our arm and return to the poem. The problem, I think, we may instead be trying to get at in this exchange is obstacle, not distraction.
Obstacle is altogether different. It presents impossibility and contempt for one’s work. It represents the larger culture that recognizes poetry as either sentimental in nature, and frivolous, or sentimental in nature, and spiritually useful—in other words, in service to particular modes of thought and feeling: a genre. A product. A service.
Poetry, as we know, is pretty demonic. It upends all expectations. Its drive is both libidinal and pure. Its essence (a word poetry has taught me to hate) is a contradiction. Poetry is life. The obstacle to poetry is shame. The obstacle to poetry is cynicism. The obstacle to poetry is obviously capitalism, but poetry is pretty impervious to that guilt trip because it doesn’t need money; rather, it thrives off the fumes of the distraught and gets made in the early hours.
Very few like the truth poetry tells. Hence, the world tries to convince us there is a difference between song (hip hop), spoken word, “academic” poetry, literary poetry, and so on. Like we aren’t all using language deeply and innately, in the way one uses one’s body.
I wasn’t raised to believe in any god, but I believe in poetry.
Who would even want to stop it? Upend it? Prevent it?
The jealous. The cold. The managers.
Because poetry does show us how many people we can be (to badly paraphrase Milosz), it’s scary to people who are afraid of the imagination or afraid of the way art means—these people are, of course, more scared of their own reactions to art, of their own reflection in what they view or read.
So the conversation around obstacle necessarily gets personal. And familial. Despite the fact most people don’t read poetry (and usually only make a play at trying to “get” both it and your love for it), they will get mightily offended if they sniff out the fact you’ve worked any “real life” into a poem you might publish on a website no one ever visits. Suddenly, these words no one cared about have a terrible power, have wreaked harm . . . my friend, I am asking to you to delve into that altogether odious topic: OBSTACLES! Also, discuss the line between the personal (private) and the Personal (poetic).
When have you been shamed for a poem you’ve written?
When has a person in your life prevented you from writing?
A.B. Obstacles! Of course! Time used to be an obstacle, and sometimes still is when things get bothersome at work, or there’s a crisis like a wedding or a birth or a heart attack or a divorce. Money used to be an obstacle when there wasn’t enough, and my ex-husband and I had to sell our CDs to buy food. But even these really quite serious obstacles are far less obstructing than the extent to which we obstruct ourselves when we try to navigate the desire not to hurt people with the need to write the truth of our own experience.
Because I was so desperate to write, I learned how to be pretty hard-nosed about what came out of me, poem-wise. People probably did try to shame me for what I wrote, but I didn’t care to such an extent that I can’t even remember who they were. Friends from grad school? Old lovers? Husbands? I don’t know. Probably. But, if I was going to write—and I was going to write—I could not afford to care. So mostly, I have written what I have needed to write. Yet this refusal to bite my tongue, as my mother would put it, has taken a toll on my intimate relationships since people will stop being vulnerable with you if they don’t trust you to keep their secrets and since vulnerability is the secret to connection.
So the obstacle inside myself I’m always fighting is wanting a poetry of exposure, of danger, of outrage, and of risk—wanting a poetry of truth—while wanting at the same time to be more empathetic to the needs of my intimate others for me to be more discrete. In these gaps between one life and another—a wedding, a birth, a heart attack, a divorce—I’ve been known to fall into a depressive emotional coma wondering if I have done the right thing by choosing words over people. I worry about the death of print culture. I worry about having wasted my life writing books. I worry about the death of the planet and my contribution to it. Every other week I go to the transfer station here in Oakland and gawk at the things people throw away. Gawk when I should weep. And I worry about how white I am and what or whom my whiteness obstructs. I also don’t give a fuck about making it into the “canon.” Even writers who make it into the canon don’t make it into the canon, save maybe Shakespeare. But writing does make me me. Writing keeps me alive. Yet is it right for me to choose my right to live by putting words on the page over me doing any number of other things I might do to help others? Shouldn’t I be bathing the homeless? Rocking orphan preemies?
I was married to a man for twenty-two years who seemed to appreciate my dedication to writing until he decided that it required too much quiet and time. There was also the dynamic of this person pretending to appreciate my dedication to writing as long as it generated money, which it does very rarely in the form of a prize or a small honorarium, but otherwise ha-ha. I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me if I make any money writing in order to figure out how good I am (or am not), so he’s not alone in this view. Still, it makes me sad to think about those jealous and cold “managers” you speak of who scowl about art in general and poetry in particular, wondering why some of us are so willing to waste our lives on vowel sounds and enjambments while the whole fucking planet goes up in smoke. So you’re right that shame’s the big obstacle. But I’m not ashamed of my tongue. My tongue’s my best body part! Still, some part of me is ashamed of not being Olivia Walton or Carol Brady making pies for the town picnic (and always has been). I think it was Galway Kinnell who said that all great poems might be called “tenderness,” so maybe the trick is to figure out how to write poems of danger and truth that are also tender? I mean, perilous as F, yet forgiving?
Treacherous but merciful?
And stay the course come hell and highwater both?
C.M. A writing life is a strange life in that you’re constantly working things at an angle. You’re actually living two lives, and the primary one often gets in the way of the desired one. One would prefer to live inside the poem, but groceries must be purchased, houses cleaned, jobs worked. Of course, living inside the poem all the time would make you ill: you’d be pale as a mushroom, hideous as one of those albino newts they find in caves. So you move around the edges of things, trying to make the time to do both. Life and poetry get muddied up with each other. They are the same thing, or so it seems sometimes, but then Poetry is art, and so it is made up. In order to tell the truth, you have to tell some lies: as in, the so-called “true” and daily account is not art. You have to pump the poem up with the helium of real emotions and not be tied down by what “actually” happened in real-time to make words make sparks. Any good writer knows this.
It has been distressing to me when persons with whom I’ve been close have regarded my work with suspicion and have believed that it reveals unscrupulous motives and/or character flaws on my part. By which I mean, individuals have at times equated me (the person) with my poems (the speaker). This is kind of hilarious. But actually tragic. Frankly, it breaks my heart like the gigantic bottle of vodka that slipped from my hands and shattered on the sidewalk of Vancouver when I was out carousing with fellow writers at an AWP conference over a decade ago. I try to explain to my beloved that the poem is both me and not me. It’s like trying to forgive a dream. Imagine if you had to report your dreams every morning? How would you articulate them? How would you rationalize them? You couldn’t. You’d be filled with horror and embarrassment at seeing your luxurious and strange dream laid out on the table for all to see. Poems are dreams.
In the end, I have to choose the poem. All of the poems I have written trusted me to bring them into the world. I really do feel it is an honor to be their conduit. Much in the way I feel honored to be my daughter’s mother. My role is to realize her. She tells me who she is. I follow her lead. Poetry and all art making is so much about trust, about—yes—negative capability. Which requires a lack of judgment. Let’s be ourselves. Let’s be easy with one another. Let’s make beautiful things with words. Let’s allow one another’s strangeness to breathe.
A.B. Yes! Let’s!
Image at top: Tedd Blevins, Two Figures in a Woods.
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