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.

 

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