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!

4 Responses to “The Politics of Motherhood and Poets Writing Fiction: An Interview with Laurie Klemme”


  • I really enjoyed this interview. Although not a mother myself, I am a middle school teacher embroiled in the lives of adolescents. While I don’t pretend to the same pressures as mothers, my day to day job does entail the pressures of helping to raise the children of our future. It was a pleasure to read such honest words from a writer mother. And it’s encouraging to see that there are many women like us out there – writers trying to make a living while still writing!

  • http://laundrylinedivine.com/5763/the-simple-truth-poetry-by-ingrid-wendt-and-some-momma-love/

    Boy am I glad to read this today. The thought of being glad that Big Bird appeared in early work makes me appreciate the timepiece that writing early in motherhood is- we are so wrenched and impressionable, as our pelvis’ softened, so does our receptivity, perhaps…I ponder this as I read and will toddle off here to find 25 Watt Light Bulb. But to answer your question about other poetry, I fell in love with Ingrid Wendt’s work having read it in Mamaphonic. I posted a particularly poignant one for mother poets linked above. Thank you for this interview today. oxoxox Suzi

  • Also, I found a glorious poem by Geraldine Taggard titled, With Child. Just search for it. I will post it on LLD. xo S

  • laurie sounds so lucid in print! She really is brilliant, so I’m glad to see it shows in the interview.

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