Holographic Haiku and Genetic Futures: Poet Alexandria Peary on Fertility and Follain

Poet Alexandria Peary

Poet Alexandria Peary

Editor’s Note: We ran Alexandria’s poems Fertility, After Follain, Oh Massachusetts and Rattle in May of 2013. We are running Alexandria’s interview today in celebration of our upcoming print poetry anthology currently in the works. The anthology will feature poems paired with interviews and is scheduled for release in the late summer/early fall of 2014 (check our website for updates).

In “Fertility, After Follain,” you take us through such an intense image spiral that ends with the woman holding the lake by its handle, so surprising and startling. If we look at Merwin’s translation of Follain’s “Speech Alone,” in so few lines—eleven total–Follain moves us from the vast to the particular to the vast (language, to planet, to tiny flower, to a specific gate–overtones of the eternal again–to specific table and chair, culminating in the celestial move outward to image of the sun).

 I see you playing with scale in a similar fashion, moving from fruit to the intimate to making a sort of celestial body of the mother as fertile being, holding both inside of herself and outside of herself the family, by the “handle of the lake.” Can you talk about how Follain inspired this poem, where you feel you align and where you leap from Follain? Loved the images and leaps of intimacy.

I started really reading Follain’s work a few summers back and was drawn to how he pivots through imagery—by which I mean, he’s able to sustain ambiguity between lines. The reader isn’t sure whether a line of description is supposed to apply to what just preceded that line or to something else, something lingering a few feet away in what he’s already said. Follain’s poetry looks simple but contains great—sometimes seismic—activity, like with his “The Silence,” the poem which evoked my piece, “Fertility.”

Follain starts with a very long line, practically a thesis, from which the rest of the poem hangs: “In the depths of time a marvelous silence turns green.” How much each of those unpunctuated phrases pulls off! Then the second line of “The Silence” is “made of the cities, the towns, and the slopes.” Is the green silence made from these locations? Or does that landscape list apply to the third and fourth lines? It’s marvelous: as though Follain is building a holographic haiku, a syllogism that shimmers and reveals other layers.

One of the poems in my second book, “Prodigal,” is also an attempt to recreate this quality by Follain, and in “Fertility,” I was of course also borrowing Follain’s character of the woman. I wanted her not to die, however, as she does, crushed by a stone (which falls mysteriously out of that green silence). I wanted to give her an escape plan, so she stands at the end of a gangway, holding her genetic future, her family, inside a suitcase.

Oh Massachusettsis rich with play on locations, specific and tangible, those you’d find on the map to that stunner of a last line, “I am only a mile from my heart.” Can you talk about writing this poem? What inspired it? How you chose which images to string together, including the “door knob to the women’s restroom in a Starbuck’s” to “the granite floor / in the baby’s room”?

My one year of long and tortoise-like commute to teach at a college in Boston was the inspiration for “Oh, Massachusetts.” Each day (I still commute from New Hampshire to Massachusetts but on a much more friendly route), I wave to the “Welcome to Massachusetts” sign at the state border. I say, “Hello, Massachusetts. Thanks for having me back.” This poem is my equivalent to that hand gesture. It also speaks to my conflicted emotions back then (and now) as a mother of young children who has a demanding fulltime job outside of the house.

I’d get stuck in traffic jams, ones moving so slowly that my then two-year old daughter would have arrived at work sooner than me, and be staring at the side street signs, names of restaurants, objects on apartment stoops—hence, the detail in “Oh, Massachusetts.” What strings together these details is the sense of being on a path, a paved path surrounded by other people in the same boat. I always felt more than a “mile away from my heart” and from the crib where my youngest would surely be sleeping by the time I arrived home at night from work.

In “Rattle”, so full of delightful definition play regarding writing itself, I’m moved by that last line, “Tears stream down the sunflower. Saying goodbye to / stop signs it passes on a rattling truck,” taking from it a sense of invitation to forego stop signs, both in thought and in terms of what a writer might write down. An invitation to play. Can you talk about writing this poem and where the last line took you? Or any part of the poem you wish to discuss?

“Rattle” is childlike (child’s rattle) but it also (at least to me) suggests adult dissatisfaction, feeling “rattled,” and needing to sit well with jangling, loose, rambling, awkward parts of existence. Part of one’s own poem can pass in front of one, rattling, distracting one, reminding one of the fundamental change and inability to find permanent balance.

How has your relationship to your poetry been affected by motherhood? You addressed some of the complexities of balancing writing, teaching, and motherhood for us over at Mother Writer Mentor in your guest posts, Water Breaks, Writer’s Block, and The Revision of the Sandwich. Do you have anything to add to the conversation on balancing writing, teaching and motherhood?

I feel immensely grateful to be a mother and a writer. I often can’t believe how my life has turned out. I think motherhood and the domestic life put useful timers on my writing life; they install planks over the well of time. I am aware of my three-dimensional obligations (fix school lunches, drive to daycare, honor the request to read a library book on the couch), and this awareness helps me see the limits of my life in the imagination.

What I mean is that the figures and emotions and imagery and developments which I encounter by myself in my mind while writing are usually that much more vividly delineated because I know my daily time with them is limited. I have less time to write, but when I write every day, it feels all that more sacred and existential. Writing is the Being inside me that may go unspoken as I lean over a child to wipe a nose or when I’m pulling wet towels out of the washing machine. Family is the Being inside me that leans over my shoulder when I’m typing and tells me that I can head back to them whenever I’m ready in the next hour or twenty minutes.

How did your Mindful Writing Blog: Your Ability to Write is Always Present come about? How does keeping a blog impact or effect the poetry you are writing?

I started my Mindful Writing Blog one summer. I was working on the screened-in back porch, as I usually do during weekdays in the summer, on a rewrite for a scholarly journal. For me, it was an unprecedented amount of rewriting: I had never been asked to do so many revisions by a single journal editor. I was losing grip on the value of that type of research writing. As a sort of reaction, I decided I wanted to hurdle beyond the editorial process and develop a blog (though the topic, mindful writing or mindfulness pedagogy was altogether different from the journal article that kept boomeranging back to me).

I felt—and still feel—fulfilled when I check my blog stats and see that someone from Japan or Slovenia or Kenya was looking at my blog that day. It feels great to not be limited to a narrow academic audience, the twenty or so people who might actually read the scholarly journal article one labored over for six or seven months. I didn’t want to be limited to those sorts of conversations—especially about a topic like mindful writing which seems like it could provide some help to others who want to write.

What are you currently working on?

I always have several ongoing projects in different genres and different states of completion. To match the clutter of intrapersonal or inner talk—those floes that move past our consciousness. It helps because I can ask myself during each writing session: what do I feel inclined to work on right now? So I’m wrapping up editing work on a scholarly book (with Tom C. Hunley, Creative Writing Studies: An Introduction to Its Pedagogies, forthcoming in 2014 from Southern Illinois University Press), plus a pair of scholarly articles from the field of Composition-Rhetoric. I’ve also started work on my next poetry collection and really having fun with it. I’m holding off purposefully keeping my creative nonfiction fallow until I can get at least one of those scholarly articles sent out but intend to return to writing creative essays by late spring.

Who are your poetry mentors or can you list any favorite poems you’d recommend to other writing mothers?

My poetry mentors are Caroline Knox and Laura Mullen—both fabulously gifted and kind women writers.

Alexandria Peary maintains a dual career in Creative Writing and Composition-Rhetoric and her degrees include a MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa, a MFA in Poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a PhD in English/Composition from the University of New Hampshire, Durham. Her third book of poems, Control Bird Alt Delete, won the 2013 Iowa Poetry Prize and will be published by the University of Iowa Press in 2014. Her other books include Lid to the Shadow (2010 Slope Editions), Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008 Backwaters) and Creative Writing Studies: A Guide to Its Pedagogies (co-edited with Tom C. Hunley) forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in 2014. Her work has received the Joseph Langland Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Slope Editions Book Prize, and the Mudfish Poetry Prize. Her published research on nineteenth-century women writers was a finalist for the 2012 Theresa J. Enos Rhetoric Award. Her scholarship has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, Pedagogy, WAC Journal, Journal of Aesthetic Education, and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. Her poems and nonfiction have recently appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Volt, Superstition Review, Hippocampus, and The Chariton Review. She is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Salem State University.

Additional Links for Alex:

Your Ability to Write is Always Present (blog we discussed above on Mindful Writing)

Collections (University of Iowa Press on Alexandria’s collection, Control Bird Alt Delete)

Published creative nonfiction (Superstition Review)

 

The Politics of Motherhood and Poets Writing Fiction: An Interview with Laurie Klemme

You probably noticed our postings here at The Fertile Source have been fewer and farther between. Under the rigorous demands of sustaining our own writing lives, earning a living, and raising our families, Jessica, Kate and I are announcing today that we are in a submission hiatus for The Fertile Source until further notice, though we will still be posting here on the site. We are still accepting guest posts for our sister site, Mother Writer Mentor, on an ongoing basis. We’d love to feature you there.

In the meantime, we have been busy compiling a print anthology of Fertile Source selected poems and interviews (work previously published on our website) tentatively scheduled for release in late summer/early fall of 2014. We are very excited about taking the poems on the road and breathing life into the years of work and hope you’ll join us once we organize the reading tour. We will post updates on this site as we select cover art and finalize the title for the poetry anthology.

Today we are blessed to have an interview with writer Laurie Klemme out of Iowa City–one of our writers featured in the upcoming anthology. We ran Laurie’s poems Stars and 25 Watt Bulb  in June of 2010. I met Laurie just after finishing my MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (she had already graduated). She was a lifeline for me (a reality check with heart) as I fumbled around in a post-degree funk clinging to that little piece of paper that confirmed I was a writer. Without many a cup of coffee in her kitchen to the din of her little twins bouncing on the mattress in the next room and without her firm and practical example of how to bridge her passion for writing into an income producing career as a teacher, I’d have floundered at much greater length than I did—thank you Laurie.

Your poem Stars turns on a haunting sense of what is larger than us in direct opposition to what limits our ability to express our dual position as universal beings and very specific individuals living a certain life. I love that you are using poetry to address both our expansiveness and the limitations of language itself. Can you talk about writing this poem? And how poetry figures into your life as a person and as a mother?

I wrote this poem well before I had children. I’d stopped drinking 6 months before, and since I tended to be caustic when drinking (or I was telling you how much I loved you), I’d been hiding out. I hated myself at that time, and I was incredulous that anyone wanted to see me. I ran into Jeff Hamilton, another poet—he’s at Washington University now—and he said, quite firmly, “you have some friends and they’d like to see you.” I was overwhelmed by his kindness. I agreed to go with him—way out on a farm—to a party with our shared poet friends. I had been tortured by self-consciousness as a person, also as a poet in the company of other poets. At the first red flashing stoplight in town, in the car of this very kind man who’d stayed sober enough to drive us home, I was free of all that fear. Jeff later wrote to me saying he should have answered my question as to whether he believed in God, and he expounded on what he did believe. Again, his humility struck me since he had been a redeemer.

25 Watt Bulb also hinges on a sense of incredible vulnerability: the warm, eternal sort of cocooned possibility of early motherhood, when there “is time still to teach” one’s child about the good as well as the hard: “the other world” in which “flies crawl out the nostrils / of other little boys.” With the perspective of the passage of time, what would you say now, looking back, regarding those intense juxtapositions?  Have your metaphors changed over time, say, in the light of raising grown children?

For me, metaphors change all the time. I’m certainly not writing about Big Bird anymore, but I am grateful that these images made it into poems. I can see them vividly, and remember everything around them. Much more than by looking at old pictures.

As you know, I have twins. They were born in the Spring of 1992—the year of Bush I v. Clinton v. Perot. I don’t remember any election specifics (other than Perot with his huge drawing pad). At that time one’s political context—an aspect of our experience I care very much about—seemed irrelevant in the warm light of a 25 watt blub. As a new mother. And yet, this was/is the world our children live in, where they’ll find purpose, and where they will make choices of moral consequence.

I think it’s hard to raise free people. It’s easier to start them out with commercial cultural icons like Big Bird and Ernie—and graduate to Lion King Happy Meals (as we did) than to make uncommon choices which are more defensible, morally. In that poem, I am grateful that our culture gives new mothers a pass; that is, all I had to do was take care of the babies, and I had fulfilled my moral obligation to humanity. Looking back, I am very grateful I had this time with my children, and I do think we are more loving people on account of it, but I know I had light duty. I say this because when I became a single mother (of twins), no one asked me to do anything other than survive. I was regarded by friends as heroic. But so many women, so many American women, are mothers under far more trying circumstances—like working at a low-paying retail or factory job and eating mac & cheese to pay for childcare. And then there are women who have disabled children! I do not know how someone would be able to write under such circumstances.

Can you talk a little bit about the novel you are currently working on or returning to? About how writing poetry differs for you from writing a novel? Does it help to be a poet when taking on the task of writing a novel?

My working title (and the work is almost done!) is the Reclamation of Frannie Bodie. My protagonist is a 35-year-old woman who wants children. She is also being called to be an actor in the world. This could be pricey for someone raised on the promise of comfort, so she struggles to make an uncommon, heroic choice. Women’s honor hasn’t been explored as much as it might be. In my opinion, as much as it should be.

In my experience, there are three big differences between writing poetry and writing fiction: 1) the time-span of one’s commitment; 2) the necessity, in fiction, that characters move through time, make choices, and act; and 3) the need for more control of the process while writing something the size of a novel. I actually outlined the book I am finishing now. I’m way off the outline, but I had a very detailed outline. I would never try to control a poem like this.

The part of the process I love most is crafting something so it comes into focus like a black and white photo in developer bath. I discover half of a poem while editing. I can do this because a poem is short enough that I can hold the whole thing in my mind, edit, and not kill it. But a novel is too big for this and it’s a different challenge to really see it, edit it, not kill it, and not end up with a “big, baggy monster.” I learned so much about craft while I was in the poetry workshop at Iowa. I’m hopeful that this thing will have integrity as a literary artifact, but I sure wish I’d had the benefit of a fiction workshop. No doubt, I’ve spent time reinventing a wheel or two or ten.

What role has motherhood played in your relationship to your writing (you may have already answered this above)? Any advice for mothers trying to stay connected to their work through the childrearing years? Writing habits that have helped you sustain your relationship to writing? Or any other patterns or helpful ideas you’d like to share?

I’m lucky I had twins. They were close when they were little, and they played with each other. (Later, however, the fighting was a huge distraction!) Our house was also a play destination for other kids, so I could write, look up from my computer sometimes, make some snacks, and everyone was happy. There were times when my kids didn’t have my full attention and should have–particularly my daughter, who was navigating an interior life even more complicated than my own—but they did get thoughtful attention. I think every family struggles to meet their children’s emotional needs whether the parents are writers and teachers, or shopkeepers and stockbrokers.

The greatest difficulty I had as a writer who was also a single mother was with the business of writing. I wrote/write at home. I went out in the world to teach and brought home some freelance stuff, but home was a sanctuary. Dealing with anything commercial around creative writing felt like a threat to the safety I’d created for myself and my kids. My psyche wasn’t so resilient at that time. I had the usual fears that the world would beat me up, and I did have a lot to do. It takes a strong ego to assert oneself in the world and compete. I’d learned by then that my ego was no source of kindness and strength, and I relied completely on the promise of unconditional love to get through the day.

I wish I’d been able to resolve this earlier. It’s important that women participate and that they are heard. And not as a block, but with their myriad voices. Money pays for food and it reflects the attention and respect of others. Getting attention and respect is good for anyone. And apparently, the values common amongst mothers seem to elude some of our leaders—so mothers clearly need to be heard. So, my old crone advice is this: Don’t be afraid, go to war for your work, get heard, and get paid. Also, you can grade a lot of papers in the car during soccer and little league practice.

Any poetry mentors or specific poems for Fertile Source readers to reference specifically about children or motherhood you’ve found useful or inspiring?

Poems/Poets:

“The Bath” by Gary Snyder, “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and a million others.

 Essays:

Silences by Tille Olson, Women and Honor, Some Notes on Lying by Adrienne Rich, and anything by Joan Didion.

Laurie Burks Klemme lives in Iowa City where she earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has taught approximately 100 writing courses, raised children, and written poems and essays while no one was looking. She wants it known that she is in no way sentimental about motherhood; however, it honestly has been the most challenging, exhausting, gut-wrenching, and important thing she has ever done. Now that her children are young adults, she is excited to be finishing her second novel after-which she will finish the first!

Poems by Christine Stewart-Nuñez

Fluidity

With the ocean’s tidal slap
at my feet, I search for scallop,
whelk, conch, clam. My basket
fills until waves fold over
a thumb-sized something.
I know it once responded
to touch. Oceans hold with
salty hands. Back and forth
it bobs in a cradle of sand.

Hearing a fetal heartbeat
is like putting your ear
to a shell; whispers coalesce
into a spray of sound. Then
bump-bump, bump-bump
waves pick up. Behind
the rhythm, you can hear
the mother’s heart echo,
a syncopated splash
like a toddler running
in shallows.

On the screen, I see the black
sack of my womb. A deflated
balloon floats in amniotic
fluid. Anesthesia pulls me
under, throws me against
the rocks, bits of water-shaped
shell for collection.

 

When My OB/GYN Said He Didn’t Understand Poetry

I worried for my body is a more complex
text. When he feels the shape of my uterus,
he may not think pear-shaped yet an apricot
in size, hollow butternut squash, lightbulb.
He doesn’t consider it a bowl for a daughter
developing inside with a womb and eggs
for her daughters; a set like Grandma’s Tupperware,
burnt orange bowl inside goldenrod inside
avocado poised to seal away meals; nested
like my sister’s Russian dolls, old-wood copies
hidden, waiting to be untwisted, lined up, revealed.

My doctor speaks the body’s language, multiple
meanings in organs, tissues: the tilt of uterus
toward the spine could mean discomfort, pain,
or incarceration—womb snagged on the pelvic
bone. Pressing against ovaries, he examines
those almond-shaped organs pocked like plum
pits. Swollen, movable lumps become allusions,
possibilities: dermoid, endometrioma,
or “chocolate” cysts. Or nothing to worry about.

He questions structure, unpuzzles chromosomes,
scrutinizes tensions between biopsies and blood
work, and reads all this alongside testimony
and history because my flesh, like a poem,
carries mystery: it produced one child complete,
jettisoned the next four. My doctor’s glossing

of my uterine purse—whether it will fill
and stay full or remain empty—eludes
his science. But when I build a nest

of words, paradox and ambiguity kiss each
time, offspring running down the page.

 

Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Snow, Salt, Honey (2012); Keeping Them Alive (2011); Postcard on Parchment (2008); Unbound & Branded (2006); and The Love of Unreal Things (2005). Her piece “An Archeology of Secrets” was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2012. She teaches at South Dakota State University.

The Naming, by Anna Wildfong

The Naming
By Anna Wildfong

We start suggesting names
for the new boy or girl
in the seventh hour of interstate 80
   the first week
   into your second trimester

Beau is too country for a kid
who will grow up in the farmhouse
we are headed toward
with cows and
a high tunnel greenhouse
   we all agree
when we stop for gas in Pennsylvania

I pass a young man crouching
over a magazine filled with
naked women on my way
to the bathroom
and can only guess he is named
after his father who has a similar
build and haircut
and eyes the same women
when he comes to fill up.
   I imagine the ladies who pose like that
     do not use their real names anymore

From your home on the farm we
head toward the city on the train
   I throw Pete out
as we pass along the Hudson
   with ice that is cracking
   and shifting with the current
but Pete was an old boyfriend
and we think about breakups
   West Point on the other side of the river

The streets in Manhattan
have numbers instead of names
for the most part and
   Madison is the only one
   I remember

When we make our way to Chelsea
and see the Hotel I suggest Patti
   but no one likes that
because it is too androgynous, although
   I liked the man
   who wore a silver necklace with
   big pieces of amber
   on 42nd

We stop for falafel after
the Museum of Modern Art
I was toying with Dorothea or Franz
   you only added that the baby
   was now the size of a falafel patti
   and took a bite and smiled

We consider borrowing names
from other languages
on the subway
   my legs touch strangers
   we inhale each
   other’s breath

We run out of names at the Greyhound Station
when security guards are
confiscating steak knives.
We figure one will come
to us in the next few months
   when I come to visit again.

Perhaps when you are in Central Park
watching men rollerskate
you will find a name to straighten
your child’s teeth,
give him a walk
that will carry him across
   fields and onto the
   train platform
   into the lettered subways
of New York City

Anna Wildfong currently lives and works in Chicago and has been published in The Red Cedar Review. She studied creative writing at Michigan State University and is originally from Ferndale, Michigan.

Poems by Emily Lake Hansen

For My Son, Who Is Not Allergic to Eggs

I am learning to cook eggs: crack

them open against the pan, dispose

of the shells, wash my hands fast

under hot water, scramble together

the little round yolk and the clear junk

you say is called whites. For years,

I let you do the cooking, the messy

part, while I sat on the kitchen counter

silent, leafing through dusty cookbooks.

 

The first time I ate eggs, scrambled little

yellow things served with ketchup,

I broke out in hives, my whole body

suddenly covered in red, round welts.

My mother had to rush me to the hospital,

spent her first Mother’s Day sitting in the ER,

running her fingers back and forth

across the new landscape of my legs.

 

For two years, I refused to serve our son eggs,

convinced that our casual weekend breakfast

would turn his body into a field of tiny, red hills.

When you finally fed him his first bite,

a fuzzy-edged square of your omelette,

I had to close my eyes. I watched

the welts pop up and grow, the red spreading

across his limbs, spearing his torso, crawling up

his neck like the ants that invade

his plastic picnic table every summer.

 

Three hours later, he is still fine, skin

white and smooth, milky as ever.

The welts just an invention, a connection

I’ve imagined and reimagined between us,

wanting to give him things I can’t:

the lazy right eye I got from my father,

the lazy left ovary I got from my mother,

bodily things about us that can’t belong to him,

bodily things about him that can’t belong to us.

 

The Self and Others

I.

I say to my students every semester,

there is importance in the self.

I care about you, I preach to them,

because I care about me, about the capital I

we write with in English.

 

What happens then when self secedes to others?

When I choose you over me. My bathroom counter

is covered with antacids and Old Spice, my living room

floor is littered with matchbox cars, my dining room table

holds the mail. For a period of time, I wrote in the closet,

laptop on my knees, coats hanging behind my head.

 

II.

I struggle with where self erases,

but every day I choose this life:

my toothbrush, your toothbrush, his toothbrush

all alike on the counter, bristles gnawed, handles

touching. We touch each other and self

crumbles. He asks for just one more kiss

and I bow down and give it, pat his round

toddler belly and huddle over him like a bee

over a flower. I give and he gives. You give.

In the new house, you gave me an office.

 

III.

My students sit and I stand. They give

me papers. I give back scribbles, judgments,

the impression that my ideas are greater than theirs.

By the nature of the classroom, my I is bigger

than their I. My desk at the front of the room,

my loopy, white letters on the board.

 

There, you and he are just a little red dot, blinking

at the top of my phone. I pace the classroom and self

ascends, bullies the others. But even then,

I can’t just turn you off. Once you blinked six times

and I could feel self retreat, crawl back down

into my stomach and sit crosslegged.

 

I resent it sometimes – the freedom of other

selves – the way any new parent suddenly

understands her dog is not a child, or how

any newlywed learns there are two ways to load the dishwasher.

But the but that follows is just as true.

 

I don’t know how to explain

that this is a love poem.

 

Emily Lake Hansen is a third year MFA student at Georgia College & State University.  She was the poet of the month at Atticus Review in January.  Her work has previously been a finalist at the Agnes Scott Writer’s Festival competition.

An Interview with Poet Alice Catherine Jennings

I recently had the pleasure of discussing the Tudors, Mexico, and poetry writing with the poet Alice Jennings.  Below is our conversation.  Enjoy!

Kate

These poems  (five we published earlier at The Fertile Source) are part of a larger collection of Tudor poems.  How did your interest in the Tudors emerge?  What led you to envision this historical period through poetry?  Could you share with us a bit about the relationship between research, history, and imagination in these poems?

My fascination with the Tudors emerged in an unexpected way.  I live part time in Oaxaca, Mexico and a year or so ago while I was there working on a series of poems inspired by my experiences as an expat, I turned on the TV and watched the 1998 movie Elizabeth, a film about Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I found Elizabeth’s story so compelling that I began to read more about the Elizabethan Age which led me back to Elizabeth’s mother, her sister and all of Henry’s wives. I began keeping notes on things of interest. After awhile I had binders and binders of notes. Well, one thing led to another and first one poem emerged and then another and another and before I knew it, I had the beginnings of a collection of poems about the Tudors.

Because of my research, the narrative arc of my collection is based on actual facts although the content of the poems is a mixture of truth, myth, and imagination.  For example, it is true that Anne Boleyn had several miscarriages and/or stillbirths after the birth of Princess Elizabeth but the exact number is unknown. In my poems, “The Still Birth” and “The Miscarriage,” the dates of these events are real but the remainder is my invention.

One thing that fascinates me about your work is the braiding of history (reimagined in poems) and lines from other Shakespearean and Anglo-Saxon phrases.  Could you tell us about this interplay?

This braiding of text from other writers is another curious consequence of my life in Oaxaca. In my Spanish class, I was introduced to the book of short stories entitled Bestiario (Bestiary) by the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola.  This led to an interest in medieval bestiaries at the same time I was working on my poems about the Tudors.  One of the principal building blocks of a bestiary is the link between the behavior of an animal or beast and the stories of the Old and New Testaments, or intertextuality.  In the case of the scribes of medieval bestiaries, this linkage to the sacred texts was a way to impart moral values. I decided that a variation of this type of linkage would be an interesting concept to use within the context of this period when “morality” was often bended for personal gain.

In the selection of poems appearing in The Fertile Source, I “borrowed” text from Shakespeare and an Anglo-Saxon poet; other poems in my collection incorporate the words of writers from other countries and periods of time. For example, I have poems that include lines from classical Chinese poets such as Han Yu and Wei Ying Wu while other poems pull from contemporary writers such as Dana Gioia and Beth Ann Fennelly. I felt this mixture of culture and styles seemed to emphasize the timelessness of the themes of fertility/infertility, religious conflict and persecution, power and opulence, etc.

You cover wide ground in terms of form — a theatrical scene, a prose poem, more formal arrangements.  Could you share with us some insight into your poetic process?

This is a terrific question because it addresses how my process evolved as I was writing these poems. Initially, I was drawn to traditional forms such as the triolet and sonnet because they seemed to replicate the formality of the Tudor Court. (Coincidentally, Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet form to English during the reign of King Henry VIII.) However, as this period of time was a time of great turbulence and transition with Henry’s break from the Holy Catholic Church in Rome, I gave myself permission to explore modernist and even experimental poetry. In the end, this collection became for me a sketchbook of poetic craft.

Who and what are you reading now?  Do you have any writing mentors?

Currently I am reading Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and The Winter Queen by Jane Stevenson. The Winter Queen is a fictional account of Elizabeth Stuart, the ninth great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.

I am an MFA student in the Creative Writing Program at Spalding University and my mentor last year was Molly Peacock. She was great fun to work with and encouraged me to keep writing more poems. I also belong to an online writers’ group, which has seen me through this project from beginning to end.

How has the experience of writing as an expatriate shaped your work?

While I was writing these poems and researching Tudor England, I felt as if I were entering foreign territory, which mirrored my expat experience. That sense of uneasiness navigating everyday life amidst different rules, language and culture opened up a pathway into the material.

Alice Portrait copy

Alice Catherine Jennings

Alexandria Peary — Three Poems

 

(Fertility)
            After Follain

Flecked with darkness
a piece of fruit
not quite a peach
tumbles over
the quiet part of the town
like a yellow hem
a list goes up
the side of a room
it wakens a tiny woman
with spring-green eyes
and four flowers
on her pillow,
two tropical
two from local fields.
A small black
and white window rolls
around the re
volving fruit,
tiny news printed
on it like a receipt
and a photo
of the woman at the end
of a gangway
holding a lake
by its handle,
holding her family
with the lake.

 

Oh, Massachusetts

I pick up the border
of Massachusetts—and drop it
I twang, twang, twang it,
the wavy line, the magnetic line
the ins and outs of it
that make a profile,
inlets and vestibules,
estuaries and the entrance
to a McDonald’s.
After a few seconds,
the cove and a bar code
of poplar trees stop moving.
I pick up the border
of Massachusetts—and drop it
I thrum, thrum, thrum it,
the lyric mile,
poetic lines like peninsulas, jetties, long reaches, sand bars in octometer, calcified prose
with revolving towns,
bead cities
shiny with information
& after miles of generalities
the door knob to the women’s restroom in a Starbucks,
the wicker mail box in the lobby
15 Arlington, Apartment 27.
I pick up Route 3, a junction,
and Walnut Path and drop them drop them,
and the end of the line
ekes out fife music,
murmur of the militia,
construction sounds of the new museum
wing, then falls silent.
While the heron on one leg in the bay
like a swizzler stick
like a lawn flamingo in Leominster
watches, the border slams
the ground one more time,
making the granite floor
in the baby’s room rattle,
I could break the prose across my knee
and make a 3-lined shelf
for the state bird, flower, tree,
the Mayflower, I-Max, and the brick factories,
but I strum, I strum,
strum, strum it,
and a yellow river
dribbles down my chest
—a passing lane
of crèche paper, party streamer
from the jade cave:
I am only a mile from my heart.

 

Rattle

Here comes the rattling part of the poem.
Pom-pom poem poem, silver balls
Silver balls along a line that’s being transported

Poem-poms on a dusty royal canopy bed
that’s being moved to another epoch in the building,
to a dove-colored room with egg-shell blue chairs.

Here comes the rattling part of a sentence,
and the fringe on a landscape, border around rhythmic rooms,
people in the hem. Grasp the ornate handle,

the great swish, slash lines of movement.
Tree tones, river tones, silver mountain tone,
Cedar waxwing, grosbeak, sea gull,

the curator’s cell phone has dropped onto the ancient bedspread.
Subject, verb, backslash, the underlined places in the room.
Here comes the rattling part of the sentence,

the underlined second half knocking into each other
like people in italics on a flat bed truck,
past crushed velvet crops, sunflowers.

Here comes the rattle of a sentence.
Two paper plates stapled together, put molars or dried corn inside
& hold up with an arts & crafts popsicle stick.

To make a Happy Face, drop in the beads of two thoughts,
swish it around, tilt head like shaking out water,
let them chase each other down tunnels

and chambers, poem-poems on the way to a labyrinth,
past the emergency room and the laundry room.
Tears stream down the sunflower. Saying goodbye to

stop signs it passes on a rattling truck.

 

Alexandria Peary is the author of Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers and Lid to the Shadow and co-author of Creative Writing Studies: A Guide to Its Pedagogies (forthcoming). Her poems have recently appeared in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, and The Gettysburg Review. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Salem State University and runs a Mindful Writing Blog: http://alexandriapeary.blogspot.com.

Alice Catherine Jennings: Five Tudor Poems

Anne Boleyn, Second Wife of Henry VIII

The Queen’s Failure

 

The Stillbirth

07.27.1534

(After “The Witches Chant” in Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

 

Sir Thomas Boleyn:

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

 

King Henry VIII:

Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.

 

Queen Anne:

‘tis time! ‘tis time!

 

 Sir Thomas Boleyn:

Quick to your chambers to produce an heir.

If a son is born, we will not fear

loss of face, titles, the King’s good cheer.

 

King Henry VIII:

Moonless pleasure, double regret

A worthless girl, a dead boy beget.

 

Sir Thomas Boleyn:

Anne, my child, we have much to lose

You must do your part to produce an heir.

 

Queen Anne:

Body breaking burning face

angels bring my boy with haste.

 

King Henry VIII:

Moonless pleasure, triple regret

A worthless girl, two boys dead beget.

 

Queen Anne:

Look in the mirror my heart does break.

The King I yearned for now me regrets.

 

 

Anne’s Prayer

08.12.1535

 

failing,

fallow land, my

womb – barain, aridez

devoid of fruit, incapable

matriz.

                        

fecund

fertillus seeds,

produce a spawning womb,

sustain abundant growth, a crop,

a son

 

 

Henry Hears Rumors of Anne’s Infidelity

12.25.1535

(From a line by William Shakespeare)

  

When my love swears that she is made of truth,

I do believe her, though I know she lies.

She caresses my thighs. Her whispers soothes

my self-regard. My love swears she is true.

She has borne no sons: what can I deduce?

My craze was but an act of sortilege.

When my love swears that she is made of truth,

I do believe her. Yet, I know she lies. 

 

 

Caught in Revelry by the King after the Death of Katherine of Aragon

01.08.1536

(From a line translated from the Anglo-Saxon by David Constantine)

  

I dance like flames, I lend the winds.

Glorious shapes, the fire in me

is aglow. My limbs, they fly and bend.

I dance like flames. I lend the winds.

Quit staring, Henry! I did not sin.

The Lady’s death – we’re truly free!

I dance like flames. I lend the winds.

Glorious shapes, our son in me.

 

 

The Miscarriage

01.29.1536

(From a line translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Ciara Carson)

 

crackle fire winter’s dawn fire hearth crackle crackle crack the egg lady madge snap snap logs, back, crackle crackle heat crack the egg, crack the egg, the pain, the back, crackle crackle heat erase the chill, crack crack, stuff my quaint, bind my legs lady jane, bind my legs tight tight stop the crackle stop the heat hold my legs, crack the back, the pain, the egg, no! no! no! expel the crack, the bones, the nails, the chinks, crack crack crackle no! no! no! crack crack add the logs, the rags, chunks of bone crack crack  crackle  heat cracks brows burn crackle crackle  teeth crack the eggs crack the pain, the heat…

soaked in sorrow, fearful at the sight,

for all that, I lay there a long while

all that remains is this bloody ash.

 

 

Notes:

01 1st Witch:

    Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.


2nd Witch:

   Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.


3rd Witch

   Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!

   (From “The Witches Chant” in Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

 

03 When my love swears that she is made of truth,

     I do believe her, though I know she lies.

    (From “Sonnet 138” by William Shakespeare)

 

04 I dance like flames, I lend the winds.

     Glorious shapes, the fire in me

    (From Riddle 30 “I Dance Like Flames” as translated

    from the Anglo-Saxon by David Constantine)

 

05 I was soaked in sorrow, fearful at the sight

    For all that, I lay there a long while.

    (From “The Vision of the Cross” as translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Ciara Carson)

 

Alice Catherine Jennings is a student in the MFA Program in Writing at Spalding University.  Her poetry has appeared in In Other Words: Merida and is forthcoming in the Hawai’i Review, Penumbra, and the Louisville Review.  She is the recipient of the U.S. Poets in Mexico 2013 MFA Candidate Award.  Alice divides her time between Oaxaca, Mexico and Marfa/Austin, Texas.

Read Kate Bolton Bonnici’s interview with Alice Catherine Jennings.

Interview with Poet Jennifer Givhan

 We published Jennifer Givhan’s poems last week. Here, she speaks about loss, wanting, infertility, and writing as a mother.

Jenn and crabapple blossoms

“Lovesong of the Barren Woman” lyrically and mournfully navigates a song of loss, of wanting.  The imagery sways, moves, some lines reaching up, unexpected and breathtaking.  Could you tell us about the emotional landscape of the poem and the process of writing it? 

 

The process of writing this poem began seven years ago, when I scribbled the first lines, which were really nothing more than a list of words and emotions; I titled the piece “Lovesong of the Barren Desert” (though at that nascent stage, it was void of any of the imagery in this final draft, desert or ocean, except for the first line, which at the time was “I thirst for this”) and sent it to my best friend in a letter in which I detailed the process of going through infertility treatment. My husband and I were on the cusp of IUI and IVF, and we were discussing the point at which we would consider adoption as an alternative to the treatment. At the end of the letter, I told my friend, “I’ve been writing a lot of poetry lately,” which feels subdued compared to what I was really doing and would continue doing for the next seven years—saving myself over and over again, through poetry. Truly, poetry is how I processed the experience of infertility, miscarriage, adoption, childbirth, motherhood, and all while battling depression; metaphor allows me to explore the darker emotions I’m often afraid to admit, even to myself. A year after I penned the initial seed for this poem, I began working on a poetry manuscript then titled “From the Ashes of My Cervix, I Rise,” as my Master’s project at California State University, Fullerton, and the next iteration came through the framework of a shipwreck, its aftermath, and its origin.

 

The poem itself was meant to express the traces of ourselves we find in the Other; it’s a startling moment for the speaker when she recognizes a connection with the mirror image of herself in the woman who chose not to have children. At the time, I was grappling with feelings of jealousy toward a potential birthmother, should my husband and I have decided to adopt (which we did—in 2007 we adopted Jeremiah, my only sunshine). Before the adoption, it was difficult for me to imagine that I wouldn’t have been heartbroken if my child ever screamed at me, “You’re not my real mother!” That I ever would have been prepared to help my child find and meet and establish a relationship with another mother. That I would inevitably always be “Other.” The one who didn’t give birth. The one who didn’t carry life. I was terrified. It took me many drafts of this poem (and two poetry manuscripts’ worth of poems, one beautiful adoption, and the birth of my strong, healthy daughter) to see, finally, that we are all each other’s tocayas (in Spanish, “namesakes”) in some way, reflecting each other’s ectopic wounds; my son’s birthmother and I are connected, mothers both. In another poem of mine called “Cleaving,” I describe it thus: “My son asks if he can crawl back into me—a dwelling from which he never came. His birthmama’s blood I feel swirling inside me, balloon strings wrapping around me like limbs.”

 Part 1 of “Lovesong” – “Shipwreck” – pulls painfully with oceanic language:  “Any sea creature caught in my gut would tread oil spills / and the plastic necklaces of aluminum cans, / finding no safe spot to anchor,”  “Clomid pops like fish eggs on my blackened tongue,” and that last resonant line –  “I’d rise, I’d rise in sprays.”  The longer lines visually convey a similar sense of water, of lovely, lonely movement.  How did you arrive at these “shipwreck” images?  Could you tell us more about the imagery of this poem?

At the time I was reshaping this poem from the original jumble of ideas, I was reading the modernists like T.S. Eliot, and I was re-reading two of my poetry mothers, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath. My goal was to explore the personal and socio-cultural reasons that infertility became this kind of a shipwreck (for me). The entire poem is a mock ode to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, referenced in the imagery of the sticky pearls, because of the sonogram indication of this endocrine disorder; a woman with PCOS will have a series of small cysts lining her ovaries that look like a “string of pearls.” My sticky pearls in the Shipwreck section are personally emblematic, although I like the allusion to Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”—of course! Likewise, I was making use of references to Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” as poetic frameworks—although I responded differently to each. Most of my creative work responds negatively to Eliot’s view of poetry (exemplified in another poem of mine, “Burial,” in which I respond directly to “The Wasteland” and which can be read online at Autumn Sky Poetry), whereas I see Rich as a model for my own writing (I’ve long been influenced by her statement that the personal is political and by her theoretical work on the idea of compulsory motherhood). What I hoped to communicate by utilizing Eliot’s poem is a balancing of tone, both the mocking nature of the speaker, who is obviously very angry with the disease and feels emotionally/psychologically impotent as a result, but while there is much sadness and powerlessness over the physical in this poem, there is also hope—while the speaker doesn’t know whether or not she is capable of peeling off the sticky pearls, for example, if she can, she’ll rise, she’ll rise in sprays.

 In the Looking Glass section, with its body-as-empty-house imagery, I thought in terms of Mexican art—surrealist paintings, specifically by female painters Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, and Leonora Carrington, play a major role in my writing. They infuse my imagery with color, with discovering beauty and hope in the grotesque, in the strange. The columnar self is also an allusion to Frida Kahlo’s painting “The Broken Column”—and the grotesque is in part referencing the grotesque aspects of this type of art. I also draw on Julia Kristeva’s formulations of the abject in this section. Kristeva writes, “Abjection is above all ambiguity… while releasing a hold, it does not cut off the subject from what threatens it” (Powers of Horror). What threatens the infertile woman (and the woman whose babies die inside her) is her own body. Refiguring the classic construction of the mind/body split was a major concern in this section. In the poem, I was working out my own formulation for such questions as, how does a woman love a body that hurts her? That sabotages her? How does a mother find/express/nurture the babies that exist in her mind and heart but that will not grow inside her body?

 “Looking Glass” and “Shell Shock” complete the second and third parts of the poem.  The speaker’s voice comes from dry ground now, “where oceans are dry as salt flats,” all the way to the red and green chaser lights blinking “Merry Christmas” near the Chocolate Mountains.  Please tell us about this movement from ocean to desert.

 This is a wonderful question because it forces me to consider what I’ve long wondered about my own poetry. My poetry manuscript Red Sun Mother moves continually through water and desert imagery, so that I begin with “Desert Duende” in the first poem and end up with “My Saltwater Pearl” in the last. In some poems, such as “A Boy, Falling From the Sky,” I weave desert and ocean together in the same lines: “I want to braid a rope and catch you, Icarus. / In the desert washes, cradle you / amidst the stillborn borderlands, / the ocean this once was, / grave-dug. / Was your body here, Icarus? / Bone-sharp, bone-dry, /  little boy bones, / wax-sung and feathered?”

The simplest (and probably truest) answer is that I was raised in the Southern California desert two hours away from San Diego; my family was fairly poor when I was growing up, so our vacations usually consisted of camping (either on the beach or in the Anza Borrego desert). The desert and the ocean then are the landscapes of my childhood, the clearest imagery I know. They are the landscapes that flashflood my every canyon, where lightning-struck sand colors every other brain-shadow. Have you ever been caught in a desert monsoon? Think of the flashflood. The sudden torrential pouring. And then, sometimes within minutes, the rain is gone. But there’s hope the rain will come again. We save ourselves for that. We hold the water inside us, waiting.

 The poem ends in the desert because it began in the desert. It goes back to the place that raised me. Where I became a wife without a husband and a mother without a child, and where, though I long since grew apart from that place, my heart continues to burst with prickly cactus flowers.

 “Shell Shock” resonates with its direct narrative.  Woven within the lovely imagery is the story of birth that renders the earlier descriptions of fertility treatments and struggles even more conflicted.  Where in your drafting of this poem did the story take this turn?  Did you envision the piece from the beginning as conveying a lyrical, narrative structure?

 The thread of this narrative was present in the original inception of the poem, as I mentioned earlier, when it was no more than a string of ideas. The lines “Caroline had a baby girl, beautiful, intelligent, stacks Thomas the Train blocks” were always there, built into my subconscious as this narrative is. When I began shaping the poem into its three-sections, I originally called the last section “Deep Water” because this was as far into the depths of my pain as I could go, but I couldn’t get past those first lines. All I knew was my hurt over the fact that my lover had a baby with another woman. And that I couldn’t have a baby. When I began reshaping the poem, on a theoretical level, I knew I wanted to write about the sexual politics of female aggressiveness and competition over a male; I saw jealousy as a hindrance for growth, as debilitating and blinding. I knew there was something evolutionary and biological I wanted to get at, muddled as it is in our modern society, perpetuated by the power imbalances of patriarchy. I wondered how might women, away from power, away from compulsory heterosexuality, and the competition implied by it, help each other. But I don’t think I was able to move beyond my own stark pain in this poem, beyond the feeling of being shell shocked. I don’t think it was until much later (perhaps in my novel In the Time of Jubilee, in which this narrative is fleshed out to its fullest extent) that I began to articulate the theory, but here, I think I was only able to describe the pain. That’s a start though, isn’t it? We begin healing by first naming the pain.

 “Nine Months Pregnant after Five Years Infertility & One (Beautiful) Adoption” is an exquisite poem that gives physical touchstones to the complex sameness of anticipating motherhood, whether the children are conceived and born by you or are adopted—the heat of August, the plums, the experience of reading, and the poignant dreams, hopes, fears, and love.  Perhaps you could share with us the story of this poem?  The emotional territory of its genesis?

 For so long, I’d been “the barren woman,” reclaiming this term and using it as a source of exploration of our patriarchy. My first full-length collection, mentioned before, examines cultural constructions of and attitudes toward the “barren” woman. In it, I mine the symbolic mythology surrounding the childless or “infertile” woman by juxtaposing her with differing cultural models of motherhood in order to include her story with the other mothers of literature. The manuscript analyzes stories of figures such as La Llorona (the crying woman), our Biblical first mother Eve, and the wet nurse/auntie, or “other mother.” Through these symbolic frameworks, my work explored prevailing ideology that roots motherhood in biology. According to this view, a woman is not “real” (not fully realized) until she bears a patriarchal lineage. The dichotomy between mother/non-mother is predicated on reproductive function regardless of the mothering-work performed, so the noun “mother” often relates solely to a “woman who biologically bears a child.” There is no corresponding word for “a person who performs mothering acts” in English or Spanish, thus exposing the epistemological inadequacy of basing “reality” solely on biological function. In other words, I’d formed my entire outlook of myself and the body of my work as the reclaimed barren woman—the woman become “Other Mother.” And then, I became pregnant with my daughter, and she clung. She, stubborn and steadfast, held on inside my body. And I held onto her just as tightly. As I write in my poem “Redemption,” dedicated to my daughter Adelina, who arrived at last, “Each night past the seventh week of my final pregnancy, I found my voice steady, resounding Hail Mary full of grace, Holy Mary, mother of God, arms extended in modified sun salutation, rocking my baby girl in the grateful church-nave of my belly.”

 So when I wrote this poem,  I was nine months pregnant and on the cusp of giving birth and embodying, then, what I’d so long fought against—our culture’s interpretation of what it means to be a mother… How often I’d cringed when someone asked me about Jeremiah’s “real mom”… meaning, his birthmama… How at the baby shower my mom threw for me before my husband and I flew to Michigan for Jeremiah’s birth, many family members did not buy us a present because they were waiting to see if the birthmama changed her mind… though imagine, at any other baby shower, not bringing a present in case the woman miscarries? …

 I was the desert and the ocean.

 I was the Other inside the Mother.

 And I was the same.

 Could you talk to us about your relationship to writing, before and after children? 

 I write more now than I did before I had children. More now that I have two children than when I had only one. I write every day. I carve out some space in the day to write, even if it’s only to scribble down a few pages in the parking lot outside my children’s school while I wait for the bell to ring. Yet, even though I know how much I need writing in my life, I feel guilty much of the time. I feel guilty when my husband takes the kids to the community pool or the park so I can spend time writing. When I wake up at four a.m. or earlier to write a chapter before the baby wakes up searching for me (she is relentless, will stop at nothing ‘til she finds me, throwing herself out of bed, in a rampage, calling “Mama? Mama? Mama!” at increasing decibels until I respond), and then am cranky all day for lack of sleep. When I’m planning a scene or figuring out a character in my head and only half paying attention to my children instead of being fully present in each moment with them, my babies. My loves. Who will only be this young once. Who will only demand this much of me for a few years. Whom I wanted… more than anything. Besides writing.

 Could you talk to us about some of the influences on your poetry—landscape, literature, family history?

 I’ve talked so much about motherhood, I’d love to say something about fatherhood here for a moment, in order to give a long overdue shout out to my dad, Philip Boese, for inspiring in me an early love of poetry and the musicality of language.

When I was a little girl, my dad used to read poetry to me, and whenever we were playing at the park or reading together or I was riding on the back of his bicycle, he could pull a poem from his memory and recite it to me. Even though he’s a scientist (retired high school chemistry teacher), his mother was an English teacher, and she instilled in him a love of poetry, which he then instilled in me.

 Our favorite poem to recite together was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing.” Whenever we went to the park, as I climbed onto the swing, even before I began sailing up into the sky, already we had begun reciting:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown–
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

As a result of my dad’s faithful recitation and reading of poetry among other children’s stories to me, I learned early on to love the sound and rhythm of words.

Sometimes people ask me how long I’ve been a poet. I answer, as long as I can remember… since my earliest memories are of my dad and I, reciting poetry together.

And while I’m talking about fathers… so much of my writing wouldn’t be possible at this point in my life without my husband’s support. For example, I was a nervous wreck in the days leading up to my first ten-day MFA residency at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and I honestly did not believe I could leave my children for that long. My husband encouraged me and supported me—he practically pushed me out the door, calling, “Go pursue your dreams! We’ll be fine!” And I did. And they were.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my mom, Suzanne Boese, here. (And she’d never let me forget that I gave credit to my dad and not to her). My amazing mom reads every single draft of all my work. She’s read my books (poetry and fiction) in each stage of development. My editor, my cheerleader, my sounding board, my babysitter, my mom.

I’m so thankful for my family’s support.

 

Poems by Jennifer Givhan

LOVESONG OF THE BARREN WOMAN

1. Shipwreck

                Water, water everywhere
                              and not a drop to drink

I sing of PCOS—
That pirate disease, launching its scourge on my red woman’s deck,
goading my dreams as they walk the plank
with a splash and a plop.

I thirst. For round belly flesh.
For a living inner-tube to keep me afloat.

Any sea creature caught in my gut would tread oil spills
and the plastic necklaces of aluminum cans,
finding no safe spot to anchor.

I met a woman who had her tubes cut at twenty-two
and has never once regretted the decision.

I could be her twisted sister. Her mirror-image. Her tocaya.
In her I see reflected my own incision, ectopic wounds.
Gloved oars slice through k-y jellies;
they navigate my shame.

Clomid pops like fish eggs on my blackened tongue,
Eucharist to the bleeding woman.
One pill two pills red pill blue pill.

Hapless fisher kings in shining yellow slickers fishhook
my ovaries, but the fish swim away, and the wires snap back empty.
There will be no dinner tonight though the villagers are starving.

Sponge pads soaking in saltwater choke the angelfish.
Mussels suction my gut.
I’ve beads tonguing my cauliflower flesh,
strings lovely and strange;

If only I could peel them off, these sticky pearls
aborted before they’ve grown protective shells,

I’d rise, I’d rise in sprays.

2. Looking Glass

                   The image in the mirror appears whole
                             though I swear I am a fragment.

Columnar self,
I am my own grotesque other body.

I fell asleep inside my pod and woke to red,
where oceans are dry as salt flats, where red means lost
and lost means dead.

When the blood comes, yet again, unwanted,
hold high the striped umbrella, and sing
rain, rain go away to passersby, to gawkers
who have never seen a bloated caterpillar
sway in quite that way.

Tell them I am growing once more and soon
will overgrow this crumbling hull.
I’ve sublet my stomach to the construction workers:

Screw the landlady.
Who owns this house?
I am a troubadour.

My plump toes are spreading,
wrapping the branches of my mildewed limbs,
and the round tips of my fingers are sprawling wildly
for I have been eating too many pitahayas.

Now the juicy seeds have planted inside my nectar bosom,
and my roots are tearing through the chalky red walls
that hold this broken house-heart up,
creating cracks wide enough
for even the snails to crawl through.

Fissures of the soul? There is not space
enough nor time to fill me—yet
I am full to flowing and overripe.

3. Shell Shock

           Mother-woman, other woman, in my bed,
                      She’s the woman, fertile woman, hollowing my head.

Caroline has a baby girl.
She’s beautiful, intelligent,
stacks Thomas the Train building blocks in perfect rows.

Our pieces wedge together and converge
in that brown haired baby with seashell eyes,
she’s yours, not mine.

I am nineteen again and barefoot on the cold pavement porch,
gray USC sweatshirt to my knees, poised beneath
the veined trellis that raises its arms in wordless salute
to a crisp desert sky of stars hung like brittle ornaments,
cordless phone pressed to my ear.

I cannot understand his hesitation—
You strayed. I forgive you. I say. We can work it out.

Across the street red and green chaser lights blink
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.
But the sound rattles my ear canal, ricochets in a tunnel,
aerial gunnery, practice in the nearby Chocolate Mountains:

You don’t understand. He tells me.
Caroline is pregnant with my child.

The phone through the earth hums softly away in a manger.
His voice, a lone coyote’s distant howl,
stabs my moon, my heart, my breasts, my womb—
bits of body stubbornly casing spirits, dead weight, crushed ice.
And all around flashes
Merry Christmas, Merry
Christmas.

 

NINE MONTHS PREGNANT AFTER FIVE YEARS INFERTILITY & ONE (BEAUTIFUL) ADOPTION

Not so different: excitement the same.
Planning the same, packing, the same.

I’d long thought myself a pitted plum rotting,
but here I’m rooting, shooting, spiraling, curling,
and still, the same.

As usual, August swamps and spits down my face,
my breasts;  it gathers under my folds and pits
and crevices like jellies within their pots
and balms the backs of my knees.

Reading a book is the same. This one’s Erica Jong’s
Fear of Flying. I’d never read it, but pleasure
unfolds, mind unwraps, unspools even pops
and pulls the same. Tentacles uncoil the same.

Plums taste the same. I just finished a deeply
purple one, spotted and bruised,
pit perfectly intact. God it was sweet.

But even sweetness, even overflowing
and hearty and arching and malting and moon
heavy and cow eyed and summer sprawled,
sweetness is the same.

My son lies napping in his bed.
My daughter sidewinds my gut.
Dreaming, both.

But hopes. Fears. Loves.
Aches like soft loaves of bread. Weight
of worlds and oceans and maternity and eternity
in my blood. And my blood. And my blood.
The same.

                 first appeared in Poetry Quarterly

 

 

Jennifer Givhan was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, a St. Lawrence Book Award finalist, and a Vernice Quebodeaux Pathways Prize finalist for her poetry collection Red Sun Mother. Nominated for the 2012 Best of the Net, Givhan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in over forty journals, including Prairie Schooner, Contrary, Rattle, The Los Angeles Review, Fickle Muses, and Crab Creek Review. She attends the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, teaches composition at The University of New Mexico, and is at work on her second novel and poetry collection. You can visit Givhan online at www.jennifergivhan.com.




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