Editor’s Note: I first heard Lisa read “Daughters” at a Women on Writing (WOW) conference in the Bay Area three years ago and thought the poem belonged here at The Fertile Source; no coincidence then, that several days into this summer’s 2011 A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) Writing retreat, I found myself sharing breakfast with Lisa, talking poetry. Once we realized our earlier connection—that we’d first met at WOW–I had the opportunity to ask her again for the poem, along with “Uneasy Grace” and “Childhood”. I left in Lisa’s nods to me (forgive the indulgence), drinking in a little return acknowledgment for the time and hours spent here, with gratitude. Enjoy—Tania Pryputniewicz
I read these poems looking at the question of foregoing motherhood as a series, assuming a common narrator. As a trio, they present a moving look at the process of such a decision, and oddly enough, the dual finality and opportunity to connect in other ways. The childless narrator of “Uneasy Grace,” in reference to the gift of time with her niece, ends the poem on a haunting question, “What other spirit could I need?” Can you talk to us about how the process of writing poetry might lend itself to such decision? (Or what does poetry offer that other forms might not?)
For me, poetry is about being brutally honest with myself. When writing a poem, I can’t hide from myself, but rather have to face myself head-on. A friend just wrote to me: “You manage to tear out parts of yourself and stand back and appreciate them. I wanted to say analyze, but that is too harsh.” That is exactly what I want to do with my poems! So perhaps this art form has allowed me not just to accept my childless stay – a decision that in our society is often suspect, but to embrace it as a positive thing.
It amazes me how many words referring to spirit or religion I use in my poems. As I described in this poem, I have a real quandary about what I think of spirituality. It’s one of those gray areas in my life I prefer not to analyze too much, even though I write about my unresolved feelings all the time. In the same way, foregoing motherhood kind of crept up on me unawares. I think I had made the decision long before I realized it. As with most women, it was and is a difficult thing to explain. I do know that it was only after I became comfortable with my life without children that I decided to become a teacher. Are those two events related? I’m not sure, but I do think the progression rather interesting.
In a delightful turn, nested within “Uneasy Grace,” we witness the lineage of poetry itself passed from aunt to niece as they compose haiku together. Can you talk to us about the role poetry plays for you in your daily life?
I find it interesting that you used the word “nested” in your question – it brings us back to the idea of mother/caretaker. Thinking about this makes me realize just how much poetry is intertwined with my interactions with the children in my life. I’m lucky that I get to share in both sides of the poetic dance in my writing as well as with my day job. Being a middle school teacher, while challenging to my writing life in many ways, also allows me to share my love of poetry with the young people whom I teach. Adolescents are just awakening to their own place in the world and as a result, they are learning the power of words. So many of them love poetry. I enjoy the interplay between us when we read and write poetry together. It is that sense of wonder that I got when I wrote the haikus with my niece that day in church.
How did you arrive at the metaphor of the ribbon (appearing in both “Childhood” and “Daughters”) and were there other metaphors you considered along the way?
Until you asked this question, I had never even noticed the connection of the ribbon metaphor in both poems. Isn’t that amazing? I love it that other people can see things that I as the poet don’t! To be honest, I’m not sure how I came up with these metaphors. I do know that in both poems I was exploring the idea of where I come from, how my background and family has influenced who I am today. Those ribbons hold me to the past while giving me enough “line” to move on into my future. This is something I write about often.
Have you encountered work by other writers along this topic line that you’d recommend to us? Any desire to address the range of ways you see mothering still finding expression despite a decision to forego having a child (either in your life or the lives of others)?
This is a very interesting question. I really have not come across poems along this line. Once at a poetry reading, another poet read a poem about her unborn children, but that is really the only one I can think of. I believe this is such a sensitive topic in our society that many women don’t talk about it – or if they do talk about not having children, they have to excuse themselves. I know I have to be careful not to do that myself. I think this is why the poem “Daughters” has such an impact whenever I read it – I am always amazed at the deep emotions it seems to stir in other women. I feel quite honored by some of the stories women have shared with me after hearing this poem.
In “Childhood,” the lines “my future self tucked / dormant and waiting/ packed for my journey” struck me as an eloquent ovarian metaphor, in the context of the green suitcase the child is carrying. Can you talk to us about the process of writing this poem?
The photograph (view here) I wrote about is one of the most evocative images of myself that I have. It’s hanging on my bedroom wall right now. There is just something about the look on my little four-year old face that draws me back to it. I looked so hopeful about the world around me, yet also a little afraid. (The way I still feel most of the time even today!) Another very provocative part of the photo is the small fragment of my childhood friend that appears behind me. This has always intrigued me because she was wearing what appears to be an identical dress. Because so little of her can be seen, it looks almost like a ghost image. And why was I carrying a suitcase? I wrote this poem when I was just beginning to take myself seriously as a writer. The idea that this poet self was there all along comforted me.
Any writing mentors you wish to share with us?
My most important mentor is Charlotte Muse (her real name!). She’s a local poet with whom I have been taking poetry workshops for many years. She is an amazing teacher; gentle and encouraging while at the same time incredibly honest in her criticism. I credit her encouragement in helping me overcome my nagging self-doubt about my poetry.
And then there are all the amazing women writers I met at AROHO (like you, Tania!). I now consider every one of those women to be mentors. Since attending that retreat, the support I received there has helped me find a new commitment to my identity as a writer.
How do you balance teaching and writing?
With much effort and difficulty! It is always a struggle to meld these two parts of my life so that I don’t feel like they are at war with each other. To be a teacher means to be on stage for most of the day, a very extraverted activity. Then I often don’t have any energy left when I go home to tap into the introverted poet in me. Since coming home from AROHO, I’ve done a better job because I won’t let myself off the hook as much when it comes to carving out time for my writing. When I was at Ghost Ranch, I bought a stone that had an image carved into it. There were many of them with various images. The first one I was drawn to had a carving of a half moon/half sun. When I read the description of what this image was supposed to represent, it said it showed an eclipse. This is symbolizes power and union. I think it is a perfect metaphor for how I am trying to balance the union between these two sides of myself.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a variety of things. As far as my poetry, I am currently at work on a series of poems about my trip to the Serengeti this past summer. Being there was awe-inspiring. I am also trying to “outline” a vision for a poetry manuscript that I hope to write. I truly hate outlines, but I want to be more intentional about finding the connections between my poems so they work together to form a book. So far, that means a great deal of musing but little black and white on the page!
Recently I started my own blog Poet Teacher Seeks World. I never thought I would blog (I do hate how we have made this a verb) until I met you, Tania. Also, I’m working on our collaborative interview project, AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer. Again, this is a new type of venture for me and I am enjoying it immensely.
Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school language arts teacher who manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. She was born in Texas, grew up in Chicago and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Lucid Stone, 13th Moon, Writing for Our Lives, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark and Calyx Journal. In the Poem an Ocean is her first chapbook publication. She recently entered the “blogosphere” with her blog Poet Teacher Seeks World and the collaborative project AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.
April 14, 2014 update: Here’s an additional Interview with Lisa Rizzo at The California Journal of Women Writers by Marcia Meier.