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Into the Center of a Maze:Amy Amoroso on giving birth, motherhood, death, medical school, and writing

Interview by Jessica Powers

Amy Amoroso’s essay, “Hundred Year Old Soup,” was published in The Fertile Source on December 5, 2011.

1. One of the things that really drew me to your essay was the way you discussed how your understanding of what it means to be a writer helped you through the last final gasps of giving breath. Can you talk about that process a little bit more–both the writing process but also the fact that knowing this helped you give birth?

 
 
 

Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Giving birth to Duncan required going into a kind of dream-state. Seth and I took a class called Birthing from Within to get ready for the birth, and one of the things we learned is that the journey into labor is like journeying into the center of a maze. You (metaphorically) turn corners and twist through small places, moving further and further away from your rational brain and closer to your animal or mammalian brain. Our mammalian brain helps us to birth a baby without drugs or interventions. In this state, we don’t feel pain in the same way. But there are things that can take you out of this trance, like fluorescent lights, loud noises, or perceived stress of any kind.

 When things got stressful during Duncan’s birth, I did momentarily come out of the dream-state and it was very scary. I began to doubt that I could give birth at all. But I was able to get myself back into the birth trance by looking down, turning inward, and lots of deep breathing.

 When I’m writing and things are going well, I go into a similar place that allows me to turn off the part of my rational brain concerned with logistics, like the checkbook, the house cleaning, or the grocery list. In this state, I can transport myself to different times and places. I can be the people I’m writing about, and let the story unfold organically.

But coming out of that state in order to edit or revise, requires a different part of my brain. And if I come out of the dream-state too soon and start to layer in metaphor or play with the larger themes before the story has been “birthed,” I risk doubting my instincts, making a wrong turn, and losing the story altogether.

Maybe on some level, I was able to return to my birthing trance because I was familiar with the dream-state of a writer. But I think we all have access to this state. It’s just a matter of letting yourself go there.  

2. Knowing that Duncan was born without breathing, I initially had a very different thought upon reading those lines, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out.” Can you talk a little bit about the symbolic and metaphorical links between a) being an artist, b) giving birth, and c) that awful reality called death?

 When Duncan was on the cart not breathing and I was on the bed holding my breath, I was hit with the reality that he could die, and that everything we’d prepared to bring him safely and peacefully into the world and back to our home, all the love we’d already filled ourselves with for this child, would be for nothing. And that place was even darker than where I was when I was doubting my ability to push him out. I think I was also, on a subconscious level, scared to lose a part of who I was, if Duncan didn’t survive.

 Children carry on our gene pool and our legacy. Art carries a piece of the artist’s soul, and as long as the world is willing to read or look at it, art will live on forever. Birthing, parenting, and writing require my heart and soul. And pouring heart and soul into a work of art that may never be born or that will never see the light of day can be devastating because you’re giving up an integral part of yourself. My greatest hope is that my work, as a mother and an artist, will thrive long after I’m gone from this world.

3. Why do you think so many of us mother writers are compelled to write the stories of our children’s births? What compelled you to write “Hundred Year Old Soup”?

I initially wrote Hundred-Year-Old Soup to heal. When I began it, I was pregnant with my daughter and I knew that I needed to heal the wounds of Duncan’s birth before attempting to give birth again. The first version of this essay was three times as long. In that first draft, I did a lot of exploration to try to figure out why Duncan got stuck and why it happened the way it did. I went down many different paths— everything from blaming myself for my own patterns of getting stuck in my life to blaming Seth for having such broad shoulders and passing them on to our son!

What I finally came to was that none of it mattered and that I just needed to tell the story and forgive myself for whatever I thought I’d done wrong. I spoke at length with Duncan’s pediatrician about the helplessness I’d felt when his cord was cut and he was taken from me. She reminded me that I wasn’t helpless, and that I knew exactly what Duncan needed when I told Seth to go over to him and let him hear his father’s voice. This was a pretty big shift in the way I began to see the story.

I think mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births because they need to understand what really happened. We are so quickly thrust into raising these little people that it is hard to reflect on and process what happened on the day they were born. And too often we hold on to judgment of ourselves for the choices we made—sometimes without even recognizing it.

I’ve been teaching a class on writing birth stories here in Portland at a wonderful community center called Birth Roots. And the work we do to find the heroic moments in child birth is transformative for so many mothers who start the class feeling shame or guilt or remorse about the choices they made around their child’s birth. And it is not like we are just putting our rose-colored glasses on. There are always heroic moments in childbirth—for the mom and the baby. Always.

4. You left medical school to become a writer. Tell us about the process you went through to make that choice. How does your background in science/medicine inform your writing?

My decision to leave medicine is another essay (or book!) altogether, but it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. As a child, I was fascinated with the insides of things. I remember in seventh grade the day we dissected the cow’s eyeball was the day I decided I was going to be a doctor. And as I grew up and became more and more interested in stories, my choice of medicine was reaffirmed because what better position to be in than a doctor’s to hear the most intimate details of people’s lives? My plan was to be a doctor who wrote novels.

There were many heart aches in medical school for me. But in the end, I was not happy doing it. I kept a notebook where I was supposed to keep notes on various health issues and treatments, but instead I wrote about my patients’ lives. I wrote about the sterility of the hospital locker room. I wrote over and over again about how something was missing in my life. Something was missing.

In my second year, I took a class called Medical Humanities. In it, we read poetry and fiction, watched films and looked at paintings and sculptures all related to healing, death, dying, and medicine. It was probably the best class I’ve ever taken in my life. I remember sitting on the ground outside of my pathology lecture hall, reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I never went into my pathology lecture that day. I just sat their reading for two hours.

Eventually it became clear to me that what was missing in my life was writing. And when that reality hit me, it hit hard. I couldn’t go back to the hospital for one more day. I remember one of the mornings after I’d decided not to go back, my mom took me to breakfast and was trying to convince me to just finish out my surgery rotation—if anything for the writing material. It was good advice, because I probably could have gathered all kinds of good material. But I was done and it was the first time in my life that I decided I was going to follow my heart and not listen to the advice that everyone (even those I loved and respected dearly) else was giving me.

My two years in medical school left me with a great many stories and even more layers to weave into my work. Medicine is such fertile ground for writers because it is rich with tension, disappointment, humility, and miracles.

5. What are you working on now? And, how do you balance the demands of being a mother and being an artist?

 I’ve been working on a novel about a fictitious family who lived in the toxic neighborhood called Love Canal in Niagara Falls and lost a son to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The book begins with their twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ila, born seven months after her brother died, on a quest to find out who her brother was. Through stories from her brother’s high school girlfriend, his pediatrician, and her mother, she begins to uncover the circumstances that lead up to her brother’s death, while also coming to grips with her own surprising history.

Being a mother and a writer is a balancing act. I rent a writing shed that’s about two blocks from our house and if I wake up before the sun, I can usually sneak out of the house before anyone is awake and write for an hour at the shed. But if someone is sick or had a bad dream or sad about something else, I don’t get to the shed. And that’s okay, too, because everything feeds the work. If we are constantly running from our lives to get our writing done, we miss the opportunity to be there when life happens. And being there when life happens is the very best material for writers. I will write about all of it at some point.

Possible Futures: Poetry, Puerto Rico and Adoption with David-Glen Smith

Headshot Poet David Glen Smith

Poet David Glen Smith

Your poem “Learning Spanish” provides a sensual recreation of the experience of immersion in a foreign language morphing familiar via the body—here through the lens of love and fatherhood and the translation into body rhythms. Can you talk to us about this rich braided layering of history, family history, and future? How you arrived at your metaphors and the process of writing this poem?

For a number of years, after many attempts at learning conversational Spanish, I reached the conclusion all languages are musical in origin, and my approaches conflicted with developing a poetic understanding of the phrasing—sometimes, on a basic level, there is a satisfaction just listening to a group of people absorbed in their cultural conversations without my comprehension of the words: the meaning transforms to music. From that starting ground I wanted to describe the sensation of a persona’s developing understanding of another language through a close relationship: a partner born from another culture. And the persona’s need for his child to understand the background of both parents, both cultures.

Likewise the process of creative thought is similar to language comprehension— in the sense writers often drown themselves in a collection of impressions and sensations in order to sort out and organize the flow of relevant themes and emotional impact to provide their readers. In this poem’s case, by mirroring the experience of language and creativity I opened myself to a wide assortment of material I needed to weave into a specific tapestry of information.

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I discovered how vast the quantity of history and literature and music were hidden from me, through no one’s fault but my own. Borrowing from my experiences of San Juan —the copper-blue cobble stones for instance, the carts of candy and chipped ice, the older men playing dominos in the town square— I discovered my persona would likewise be alien to the past life experiences of his partner as well as the average day-to-day speech of an unknown city. Once I acknowledged that fact, the watery metaphors quickly swept over the poem.

In “As A Figure of Hermes” the narrator open with the writer’s dilemma: “A moment of confrontation: me and the blank paper,” dilemma enough without the presence of a child to raise and love and imagine a life for over the rest of one’s days. Eventually the narrator latches onto the metaphor of Hermes, sliding into reverie about mortal son. Can you speak to the relationship between fatherhood and writing? How has fatherhood come to bear on your writing life?

With the experience of becoming a father last year, and the whole process of the adoption of our son Brendan, I quickly fell into a mode of redefining myself. Almost immediately a whole new understanding of my goals and aspirations emerged—I know it sounds cliché, but once the title of Father is attributed to you, a strange mindset develops without warning: no matter how much mental preparation you are supplied.

The poem in particular was a projection of a future possibility once Brendan reached his middle teen years—written before a birth mother had even matched with us. What I find interesting, although the projection of him as a dark-haired boy is inaccurate, my fear of a loss of communication with him is very similar to the fear of losing touch with my creative energies. Once, in the mid Nineties, I experienced a long spell of writer’s block, partly self-imposed, partly circumstance. My fear if the blank page echoes my fear of Brendan not understanding the creative energy of a writer-father.

“Without hesitation, / shove kindling and kerosene-soaked-rags / under the foundations of any structure / binding your slender body to the past” opens your powerful poem, “I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges.” This poem strikes me as the kind of letter, as a poet, I would hope to find in my “baby book” (or, from the prenatal birth classes parents of our generation might attend, where one is often asked to write a letter to one’s future child). Can you talk to us about the inspiration behind this poem?

The “Burning Bridges” poem is another example of writing which appeared before we were matched with the birth-mother. It was the first full length poem I wrote addressing my son as an actuality, rather than a possibility due to the fact we were processing the paperwork and profile information for the agency. As you mentioned, it is a letter “exercise” I heard about years before as a means of developing ideas into something stronger and more stable.

Most of the inspiration is based off negative experiences from my immediate past—mainly a one-time corporate employer telling me to not burn any bridges in my exit interview. This of course only made me burn a huge pyre when I left the company to pursue my writing and editing positions. I pray he is never put into such situations of corporate middle management—or ill-advised authority figures—which of course became the backbone of the poem itself.

Furthermore I did not want to bind him to any expectations of my own. Certainly I want him to be involved with the creative arts in same fashion, but it will have to be up to his own choosing, not mine.

Most importantly, I wanted to prepare him in a sense for the opposition he will bump into later in life due to the fact his parents are in a same-sex relationship. I hate that expression; it sums up the situation in a very cold, clinical fashion. Regardless of that fact, I want him to be able to see beyond the definitions and restrictions society often places on diverse thoughts, diverse ideas, to hold firmly to his opinions and live according to a moral code based on his own choice construction, and analytical process.

How do the practices of sketching and writing compete/complement your imagination’s processes?

At one time my sketching was more intensive, more of a ritualized practice which helped explore new ideas—during the drawing process I discovered that the development of new schemes with a different manner of expression brought new focus to writing. However, with Brendan’s birth, my regular practice of drawing and painting has stopped temporarily. Once the demands of raising him lessen slightly, or offer windows of opportunities, I’ll start the process again, exploring a way of bridging the two different fields into one project. I have partially generated a series of Japanese tanka verses partnered with ink-brush illustrations—a project only half realized at the moment. As it stands currently, what resulted is that my two selves, illustrator and poet, tend to argue who is in control of the output. Oftentimes the original idea seems to suffer between the two extremes. A compromise needs to be built between the two aspects of my personality.

Any writing mentors you wish to share with us?

When earning my MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College, then affiliated with Norwich University, I was fortunate to work with three established writers of merit: Susan Mitchell, Lynda Hull, and Mark Doty. Each of the trio, with their unique methods, did instill a better sense of direction for my writing. Through their individual approaches I strengthened my style of building connections between a variety of themes and story-lines. I always admired the manner their particular styles braid more than one conceit through one body of work. Some quick examples from their creative efforts I often use in my classes: Hull, “Ornithology;” Mitchell, “Havana Birth;” Doty, “Tiara.”

There is much talk recently about the validity of a higher degree in creative writing; at the time I was working towards my own, I felt a strong connection to the concept of guided study for developing a stronger sense of self, a stronger sense of craft. It is not a direction suited for everyone. On a practical level, I chose the MFA specifically to enable me to have a background for teaching university-level courses. On a more emotional approach, I needed to learn how to feel comfortable in my own skin and how to be honest with my own personal experiences.

We understand you are at work on a new series of poems, Quintet, with a unique structure. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Quintet is a manuscript, near completion, which explores numerous interior monologues. I do like the idea of a tight “concept album” in the music industry—in a tongue in cheek manner I created the same idea for a poetry collection. In this sense, the full narrative of a five member modern jazz group is heard. Edgar Lee Masters’ book Spoon River Anthology proved a valid inspiration ever since I read it in high school. In my case, the thoughts and impressions of the band are shown in a manner mirroring the sixties jazz be-bop movement, sudden solo improvisations popping into the middle of a memory without warning. The verses appear alternating between a tight, traditional form and an abstract, expressionistic pattern on the page. In this manner I follow the Modernists from the Twentieth Century, their rebellion against expectation and strict definition.

David-Glen Smith’s work appeared in various magazines including:Assaracus (where “I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges” first appeared), The Centrifugal Eye, ffrrfr, Houston Literary Review, Lady Jane Miscellany, Louisville Review, Mid-America Review, Saltwater Quarterly, Slant, The Steel-Toe Review,and The Write Room. In addition, a recent print anthology titled Ganymede-Unfinished accepted two of his poems. Currently residing in Cypress, Texas with his partner of ten years, they recently adopted a baby boy, a welcome edition in their lives: new topics and inspirations for poetry projects. Smith teaches English Literature at both Wharton County Junior College and Lone Star College-CyFair. He received his MFA at Vermont College, and his MA at the University of MO at St. Louis. For more information visit his website.

Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents with Poet Lisa Rizzo

Lisa Rizzo poet teacher headshot

Lisa Rizzo

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 JournalIn 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.

Limitations, Imitations, and Haiku as Form of Expansion: an Interview with Poet Stephanie Lenox

Poet Stephanie Lenox, headshot

Stephanie Lenox, Photo by Sabina Samiee, Oregon Arts Commission

In “Confinement: A Haiku Sequence in Ten Parts,” (published earlier here at The Fertile Source) the narrator speaks to her unborn child, “My fears feast on you / But even the leaves let go.” This beautiful line in particular seems to hone in on the way a mother’s brain has to rewire itself to accept the responsibility of loving someone we can lose at any moment. The rest of the poem also documents this process (which starts in utero). Can you talk about how the images came to you? And why you chose the form of haiku? How did the conditions of bedrest figure in to the psychology of the narrator?

I was inspired to start this haiku sequence after taking a workshop with Ce Rosenow, president of the Haiku Society of America. Her workshop reminded me that a haiku is so much more than simply a 5-7-5 syllabic form. Since haiku traditionally include images from nature, I wanted to do that in my sequence, but for the most part my imagery is confined to those things I could see from my bedroom window – telephone wires, a few treetops, the sky. I invited nature into my haiku through other images, but for the most part I aimed for images that reinforced the cramped, claustrophobic feel of pregnancy, especially a pregnancy spent on complete bedrest.

I started with haiku in part because motherhood and the preceding 70 days in bed was such a monumental experience – it completely rearranged me – that I wasn’t sure where to begin. So I started with five syllables, then seven more, and I slowly built and layered one image on top of another. (It was also a writing project I could chip away at between feedings, diapers, etc.) The formal restrictions of haiku helped focus me. I also discovered in the process that haiku, while appearing small, is a form of expansion. Without punctuation, it is intended to unfold and expand in the reader’s mind. I liken it to one of those toy capsules you drop into the bathtub that transform into a sponge dinosaur.

In “Last days of nursing,”  the metaphor of the magician strikes me as a clever way to point to the intermediary nature of motherhood—part God, part magician, yet so rooted in tangible and impossible acts, like weaning a child. I believe every mother who has had to wean her child will relate to this poem! Were there other metaphors you considered along the way? Poetry by any other writers you’ve seen covering this topic you’d like to share with us?

This poem is a direct response to the poem “The End of Nursing” in a beautiful book called Out of Refusal by Carter McKenzie. Her poem begins: “Interminable nibbler, attached fish, when / does this end?” My poem, in its last line, answers hers.

I felt so empowered to write about this topic after reading her poem that I practically stole her title and started writing my own version. I’m sure I considered a lot of metaphors along the way, but I settled on the extended use of the magician because magic is messy, or at least that’s the way I envision it. From the audience’s point of view, it’s all illusion, but for the magician and the assistant it’s a rehearsed performance, one that begins with awkward practices and risky errors and that eventually works its way toward mystery.

We understand you are at work on a new series of poems inspired by the birth of your daughter. Can you give us an inside peek at the range of topics you’ll cover? (And let us know when it comes out so we can alert our readers and support your work.)

I have been fortunate to receive an individual artist grant from the Oregon Arts Commission in support of new work inspired by my daughter’s birth. My first book of poetry, Congress of Strange People, will be coming out from Airlie Press next fall. I’ve always been intrigued by bizarre characters and events, and my first book explores this in large part through the use of persona poems. But in my new work, the strangeness has come home with me. I find it in the middle of the night during a feeding. I find it in the ants crawling through my kitchen cupboards and across my newborn’s tongue. I find it in my dog whose severe separation anxiety caused her to consume baby bottle nipples and parts of my breast pump.

I’m also experimenting with imitations of other poets. Theodore Roethke has said that “Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning how to write.” I’m a perpetual student of poetry, so imitations are my way of tracing my poetic lineage through poems that have changed the way I think about what language can do. I like to think of my poems as “offsprings” of the originals.

Any mentors you’d like to share with us?

I’m a member of a poetry response group known as The Peregrines (named so because we meet twice a month at a different member’s house). They apply the gentle pressure I need to keep writing in spite of all the competing obligations. I’ve likewise been grateful for the mentorship of the editors at Airlie Press, the nonprofit poetry publishing collective that is publishing my first book.

Has your experience of motherhood changed your relationship to your writing or your editorial work?

Motherhood has made me more honest about my time: either I do it, or I don’t, no excuses. I’ve actually been more productive since my daughter was born than I was in the years before she arrived. I work during naps and by the good graces of babysitters. My daughter has a bedtime of 6:30 pm, which used to give me a lot of time to work. However, since I’m now expecting my second child, I no longer have the creative energy to write in the evenings.

I wish I’d realized how good I had it when my daughter would sleep in my lap as I compiled an issue of Blood Orange Review or read submissions. I miss the days I could read an entire book of poetry at 3 am while rocking my daughter back to sleep. Now that I have a toddler on my hands, there’s no working while she’s in my presence. But what I’ve learned most from motherhood is to constantly adapt to today’s challenge rather than forcing yesterday’s solution. 

Any programs for writing mothers you’ve found helpful or that you’d’ like to see developed?

The grant I received from the Oregon Arts Commission has been especially helpful for me as a writing mother. It’s paying for the babysitter right now as I answer these questions. Another thing that helps is finding other writers with young children. It’s extremely useful to share one’s frustrations and accomplishments as a writer while the babies roll around on the floor together.

As for more programs for writing mothers, I’m dreaming now, but I’d love to see more daylight poetry readings, ones with a separate room with childcare provided. I think one reason you see poetry audiences aging (at least in my corner of the world) is that young families face a lot of barriers to attending evening events. This has been the part of my literary life most impacted by motherhood. If I’m going to spring for a babysitter, I want it to be for my own writing or a date night with my husband.

Stephanie Lenox lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Her chapbook, The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, was published by Slapering Hol Press in 2007. The work published here was written with the support of a 2010 Oregon Art Commission artist fellowship. She teaches poetry at Willamette University and edits the literary journal Blood Orange Review. For more information, please visit her website at www.stephanielenox.com.

An Interview with Poet Brittney Corrigan: Second Hearts, Autism, & Mother Writer Retreats

Brittney Corrigan; Photo by Serena Davidson

Guilt Poem: Unplanned” opens with, “You didn’t want another child,” and continues to address the leap of faith mothers make each time they get pregnant—the attendant questions of sustainability: will I now also be able to nurture this new life, in addition to the one I am already nursing, raising. Can you talk to us about this dilemma, as well as the process of writing this poem?

When my sister had her first child, she described the experience of loving that child as “growing a second heart”. I think many mothers wonder, when they get pregnant for a subsequent time, how they will possibly be able to love the new child as much, or as well, as the first. For me, the fear was twofold, as my first child is on the autism spectrum. I was scared of the possibility of having another special needs child, when I was so overwhelmed by caring for the first. And I wondered, darkly, if I had a typical child, would I somehow love my first, challenging child less?

For me, these dark but nonetheless real emotions and fears are the basis for my series of parenting guilt poems. I wanted to address not the commonly discussed guilts of not wanting to play Legos for hours or feeling guilty about taking time for oneself, but rather the deeper issues of guilt that I think many parents have but are afraid or ashamed to voice. These poems are meant to open the discussion of these darker feelings of guilt, to work through them, and to come out hopeful on the other side. I have found that, even when I feel like I’m alone with these feelings, once each guilt poem is offered up to readers, I am suddenly surrounded by scores of parents saying, “Yes! I’ve felt that, too!”

When I read the line “this sibilant galaxy of two” (also from “Guilt Poem”) I knew we had to run your poetry—what a lovely stanza and line in particular. Can you talk about arriving at the star/constellation metaphor? Other metaphors since then you have landed on as crystallizing images regarding pregnancy and motherhood?

I tend to “gravitate” towards celestial metaphors in my work, whether the poems are about motherhood or other subject matter. I’m comfortable with the imagery of stars and constellations, and with the natural world, in general. In this particular poem, I enjoyed “breaking the rules” of not mixing metaphors by combining celestial and oceanic/tidal imagery. I feel that both metaphors capture the experience of motherhood – the regular rhythm of routines, the ebb and flow of emotions, and the concurrent fear and wonder of raising children. In my other poems about pregnancy and motherhood, I use imagery of the natural world throughout.

Here’s a question we never fail to enjoy asking at The Fertile Source: what impact has motherhood had on your writing life?

When I learned I was pregnant with my first child, I immediately decided that I would write one poem each week, from 4 to 40, exploring the experience of pregnancy. I wrote weeks 4 and 5, and then the exhaustion hit. I did very little writing for the rest of my pregnancy and in the first couple years of my son’s life. It was very difficult for me to make the space in my life – both literally and emotionally – to write.

When my son received his autism diagnosis, I began to write again about my experience as his mother. Poetry then became a way for me to work through the complicated issues involved in raising and loving a special needs child.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I was lucky enough to be awarded a week long residency at Soapstone, a writing retreat for women near the Oregon coast. I attended while in my second trimester, and with that renewed energy and the time away from my then 3-year old son, I worked on the autism poems as well as returning enthusiastically to the project of the week-by-week pregnancy poems.

As my children, now nearing four and eight, have grown older, I have found more and more time to return to my writing. I now greatly value any spare moment and have learned to write on demand when I have that time and to fit short writing periods into a busy schedule, since I don’t often have extended periods of time to write.

You mentioned attending the writing retreat, Soapstone. Can you tell us a bit about that retreat (we understand it is no longer running). Any reflections on that experience and words of advice to other mother writers considering escaping to writing retreats while raising children? Any other retreat venues you know of that are “mother friendly” (or what could you see retreats offering to mother writers in the future)?

Soapstone is a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon that supports women writers. The organization is no longer offering residencies, but I can tell you that the time I had at the retreat was an absolute gift. I was only in residence for a week during each of my three stays, but to a mother of small children, that seemed like an eternity of time. Having a space to write in a gorgeous natural setting, removed from the routines of the everyday, was invaluable.

Many of the other writing retreats and residency programs that I know about unfortunately do not offer stays of less than two weeks; in fact most are between 1-3 months. As any mother of small children knows, leaving them for even a few days can be a hardship on the family, and nearly impossible for a single mother. I would like to see more residency programs become more “mother friendly” by offering one-week stays. Eventually, I would like to apply for a residency at Hedgebrook, another retreat for women writers, but that won’t be possible until my children are much older, since the minimum stay is two weeks.

I also think it would be wonderful if local writing organizations could offer space in their own offices for “day retreats” – space that could be rented or even offered for free to mothers who are writers to come and write for a day or a few days at a time. I know that for me, it would still be valuable to be able to write for eight dedicated hours and then return to my family in the evening.

Any poetry or writings you could recommend to our readers that you consider pivotal or influential along your own writing trajectory?

The poets I love best are Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, Deborah Digges, Mary Oliver, Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, and Maxine Scates. In terms of poetry on the subject of motherhood, I could recommend the writing of Sharon Olds (very raw and honest), Jill Bialosky, and Sharon Kraus.

Any desire to talk about your own editorial role at Hyperlexia? Your most challenging moments/experiences? Your most rewarding?

While knowing or loving an individual with autism is becoming more and more common, it has been my experience that it’s hard to find literary-caliber poetry on the subject. It has been wonderful to be the poetry editor for a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the best creative writing out there on the subject of autism. I have seen some truly remarkable poetry come across my desk. If your readers are interested in excellent poems about the experience of raising a child with autism, I highly recommend the work of Barbara Crooker and Rebecca Foust, among the many other talented writers published in our journal (Hyperlexia).

What are you currently working on?

As mentioned previously, my main project these days is the series of parenting guilt poems. I am also working on a series of poems about raising a child on the autism spectrum. I have completed the series of pregnancy poems, and I would eventually like to see them published in the form of a pregnancy journal for literary-minded women. I also have a handful of completed children’s picture book manuscripts that are looking for publishers. Finally, I’m working on editing my first full-length collection of poetry, which will be released in the coming year.

Brittney Corrigan’s poems have appeared in The Texas Observer, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Borderlands, The Blue Mesa Review, Oregon Review, Manzanita Quarterly, Hip Mama, Stringtown, and Many Mountains Moving, among others. She is the poetry editor for the online literary journal Hyperlexia and lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children. To read more of Brittney’s work, visit her website; links to her poetry on-line may be accessed here.

Father Witness, Birth vs. God: An Interview with Poet Jim Richards

Poet Jim Richards

Jim Richards

An extreme state of ambivalence towards pregnancy is explored in “Mother of Three.” One of the things I most enjoyed about these three poems is the fearlessness with which God and birth are broached and prodded—here, what it means to bring a fourth child into a home overflowing with three (and praying for some kind of redemption despite adversity). What happens for you during the process of writing poems like these? Any surprises in process or line of questioning/reasoning?

My wife, Debbie, describes deciding to get pregnant like deciding to have the stomach flu for nine months. Her “morning” sickness occurs around the clock and throughout her pregnancy. Food becomes revolting. Things as simple as answering the phone make her vomit. Once, after a particularly difficult day of pregnancy, I came into the bathroom when she had just finished vomiting. I put my hand on her back and asked her, “What can I do to help?” Her reply was, “Just go away” then she spit into the toilet.

What can a husband do in this situation? Nothing, was the answer. My suffering was to watch my wife suffer. In the poem, I conflate this experience with that of the God of the New Testament as he watches his son suffer death by crucifixion. Christ claimed that he died to bring life. In a way, so do women when they “lay down their lives” for their children. That’s the paradox I wanted to explore in the poem: the joy that comes through sorrow as it pertains to child bearing, at a moment when sorrow is tipping the scale.

Similarly, in “On Your Birthday,” there’s an honest look at patterns of communication in a relationship. Though hard in some ways, there’s also a tenderness that comes across.
I see you in a chair, your faced washed / With the sorrow of post-partum, wanting to glow / In the eyes of the newborn in your arms, / And wondering how. How do you choose which moments to depict in a poem? Other inspiring poems about relationship dynamics that you’ve encountered in your reading history?

These poems are unusually autobiographical and sincere for me, including “On Your Birthday.” The occasion and the memory you quote here are actual. While Debbie was rocking our first baby, from the other room I heard her whisper to the child, “Do you think I’m beautiful?” This helped me understand a measure of what she was feeling. I try to identify (or sometimes invent) moments like these that are common yet overlooked, and then try to represent them honestly. Frost’s “Home Burial,” Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Swenson’s “Feel Me to Do Right,” and Li-Young Lee’s Rose are models for me.

Can you talk about the process of writing, “Poem for a New Father?” Again, I’m struck by the way you map out the psychological territory a new father might find himself crossing when his wife gives birth: “A predator circles, patient as death.” Can you talk to us about that line, or others in the poem?

Again autobiographical, this poem was written for my brother after his first daughter, Grace, was born. It explores the question, “What might a man go through when his wife goes through childbirth?” For me, the experience is animalistic: the bearing down, the pushing, breathing, grunting; the pain and screaming; the blood and fluids; the indifference of the doctors and nurses for whom the ritual has become routine. The line you refer to tries to create this impression with an image of an animal bearing young in the wild while a predator watches. At any moment, mother or newborn may die. It’s that kind of emotional intensity I felt as I witnessed the birth of my children. I try to capture it in the poem as a way of empathizing with my brother.

How does your faith, and questions around it, enter your poetry?

My faith is so much a part of who I am I don’t know if I can answer this question with any real insight or objectivity. I was raised in a religious home by parents who were raised in religious homes, and so on throughout my ancestry. Quite honestly, I don’t think I’m capable of truly understanding what it’s like to live, think, or write without a perspective of faith. I believe in God and life after death and this influences every aspect of my life, including writing. It often inhibits my writing and makes me insecure because I worry that many readers may see me as naïve or old fashioned, and I’m probably both.

I struggle with the question: How can I believe and yet write in a way that will interest those who don’t believe? I don’t want to limit my audience to those who share my faith, but am I capable of writing poems of interest to those who don’t? I suppose many writers deal with this kind of struggle—how to reach beyond their own experience or identity to a wider world.

When did you start writing poetry? Any mentors you wish to discuss?

When I was in college on a study abroad in London my roommate asked if I wanted to go and hear Seamus Heaney give a reading. I had no idea who he was and passed on the invitation. Later that year I came across Heaney’s “Digging” in an anthology and loved it, especially its sound and imagery. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a living poet. The next semester I registered for a senior seminar in contemporary poetry, and I’ve been trying to write poetry ever since. My poet-teachers have been my mentors: Lance Larsen, Susan E. Howe, Lesli Norris, Ed Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski, Mark Doty, Marie Howe. Ten years after passing on the invitation to hear Heaney, I heard him read “Digging” in Houston. Redemption at last.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve recently completed a novel about a little boy whose mother loses a baby and has a nervous breakdown. The little boy believes the mother has literally lost the baby and is determined to find it as that seems to be the solution to his family’s woes. He searches for the baby wherever he goes.

How did you come to lead student tours in Mexico? Anything writing related to that tour? Are you able to write on such trips at all?

The university needed a new person to lead the tour, they asked me, and I said yes. We take about thirty-six students on the tour and travel through some of the world’s most beautiful and mysterious places. I teach a creative writing class in conjunction with the tour and the students write poems, stories, and essays related to their experiences. The demands and details of the travel plans keep me from getting much writing done, but I do keep a daily record. And a bird list—I saw a russet-crowned mot mot and boat-billed flycatcher today!

Jim Richards completed a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston and now teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho in the Upper-Snake River Valley. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Texas Review, Literature and Belief, Poet Lore, and Contemporary American Voices. An avid runner, he writes about his progress toward completing fifty marathons in fifty states at 50before50.blogspot.com

Fear, Love, Pregnancy, Loss, and Memoir: Mira Ptacin on writing “A Kind of Love”

Mira Ptacin’s essay, “A Kind of Love,” was published on The Fertile Source a couple of weeks ago. Here, editor Jessica Powers talks with Mira about her experience with losing a pregnancy and then writing about it.

Your essay delves so honestly into the conflicting, ambiguous feelings of pregnancy: fear and a new love welling up inside you. In your case, it was complicated by the unexpectedness of the pregnancy, how sick you were, and the reality that your baby was not going to make it outside of the womb. What gave you the freedom to expose all of these things we don’t like to talk about in this essay?

I have the most wonderful parents. The raised me to believe that it’s not just important, but essential to vocalize my thoughts and feelings, and often. They’ve always encouraged me to pave my own path. So to answer your question, I believe that my parents gave me the freedom, or gifted me with the freedom to make “feelings sharing” a vital part of my well-being. One way I make sense of the world around me is by putting my feelings about life into words. Losing a child was one of the most confusing, upsetting, life-altering moments I’d ever experienced, so writing was the tool that helped me make sense of it all. I needed to understand what happened, and what grief was.

I had to describe my world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely. By the practice of writing about my sadness, I began to understand it, and be less afraid of it. By exploring my grief I came to understand that there was no “answer” or explanation. This is what helped me begin my healing process. Self-expression is not just freedom or a gift, it’s a necessity.
You offer such an interesting juxtaposition between the doctors’ phrasing to tell you your baby was going to die–“it is sick,” they said–versus the way you explained it to your family, which is “the baby is sick.” Did you struggle with the coldness of scientific knowledge and the practice of medicine? How in the end did the medical establishment treat you? Did you continue to find it alienating or were you finally embraced, somehow, when you made the decision to terminate the pregnancy?
 
 

 

 
 
 

Mira Ptacin

I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence when this all happened. SLC is one of the most expensive schools in the country, and I was on student loans, so before I got pregnant (before I had even met Andrew, for that matter), I had chosen to opt out of the health insurance to save a little money. Then I met Andrew. Then we got pregnant. We hadn’t planned on it—I had been taking birth control every single day, and never had missed a pill! When we found out I was pregnant, I had to sign up for Medicaid, because we weren’t married. While we loved our doctor, we hated the clinic we went to. After we found out the baby wasn’t viable outside my womb, it was all downhill. Right after we received the horrible news in the ultrasound, we were escorted over to see a genetic counselor, who would take our family history to see what had gone wrong. Minutes after receiving the terrible news, and minutes before seeing the genetic counselor, we were told that he refused to see us, that he “wasn’t allowed” to see us, because Medicaid only allowed me one doctor visit per day.  We were shaken, tired, terribly confused. We didn’t know if we had done something wrong. We wanted help, and we wanted answers. Finally, after she spotted my husband and me crying in a waiting room, a medical intern stepped in and convinced the genetic counselor to talk to us, rather than eat his lunch. In a room that smelled like mayonnaise and lettuce from his lunch, the genetic counselor proceeded to explain what might have possibly happened that caused our baby to be so sick. (It was purely a genetic fluke; nothing we could’ve done.) During the actual procedure, there was very little privacy at the hospital. We were often uncomfortable and exposed. We shared rooms. They were running late and short-staffed. The whole experience was harsh, painful, shocking, traumatic. And very impersonal. I’m assuming this is not due to the doctors’ and nurses’ and employees’ lack of care, but because the hospital just wasn’t equipped. It didn’t have enough money and or resources. It was exhausted. Everyone was exhausted. Sadly, the majority of people in NYC, not to mention in this country, are not rich and cannot afford good medical care, so this type of treatment happens more often than not. In fact, this goes on every day. That’s pretty pathetic, considering we live in one of the wealthiest industrialized nations.

There’s a moment in your essay when you sight a hawk and it sets you off on an absurd set of speculations that become metaphorical for your predicament. Can you talk about how you crafted that scene? How do you balance what happened in real life with crafting it to mean something larger, symbolically speaking, within an essay?
Writers have to be careful with metaphor. Sometimes, it’s best just to be direct, rather than try to find too many metaphors. You want to make sure the reader gets lost in the story, not caught up in the voice of the writer. You don’t want your audience to start pondering the writer’s craft, or questioning your technique. But sometimes, in real life, when something really significant is actually happening, you can’t help but notice all the little signs and the little metaphors surrounding you. Sometimes life just speaks in metaphor, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why it’s important to always be CONSCIOUS and honest with yourself, and trust your skills as a writer. Being fancy doesn’t always mean you’re being awesome.
 
 

 

 When this scene in Squaw Valley was actually happening in “real time”, things were extremely confusing and difficult for me. Nothing made sense, but the things I did see seemed to just be metaphors, everything seemed to be a sign or metaphor. Or maybe I was just looking for a sign or answer to where to go next and what to do. I was also at a Writer’s Retreat, which was really tricky: I was there for a nonfiction conference, but I didn’t tell anyone what was going on “underneath the surface” in my life. I was sort of being a fictional nonfiction writer. And at the time, I wasn’t writing about what was happening in my life. Looking back at it now, I think that was really crazy of me. But by having such a secret, I was lonely and was looking for signs or symbols for an answer, signs from things other than people. And I think I found many of them on that fortuitous hike.

I only confided in one professor, an extremely talented and compassionate author named Jason Roberts (http://jasonroberts.net/) who was one of my writing coaches. We were talking about a manuscript I was working on about a murder at an “Oriental massage parlor” in my hometown. After some discussion about nonfiction/memoir/narrative, I eventually told him about my current predicament, and he told me to throw away the true crime manuscript and that I should be writing about my pregnancy/loss. Maybe he said I HAD to write about it. So I did. And it became a book.

You’re currently at work on a memoir. Can you tell us about it?

First of all, I have to thank Jason Roberts for encouraging me to write about it. When writers are in the beginning stages of their career, it’s very difficult to navigate one’s way, and having gurus/advisors/mentors is more valuable than gold.

Three years ago I began writing about loss and am now in the final stages of editing my manuscript:
“Poor Your Soul” is a memoir about the thin line between decisions made out of love and choices made when influenced by guilt. It traces my mother’s coming-of-age at age twenty-eight, her immigration from Poland to Battle Creek, Michigan, the adoption of her son Julian and his tragic death, mirrored by my migration from the Midwest to Manhattan, my accidental pregnancy and decision to keep the baby, the traumatic loss of my baby, and finally, my marriage in New York City, also at age twenty-eight. Our two stories are strikingly similar, and by reflecting on my mother’s, I learn how to cope with the inevitable but unexpected losses a woman faces in her the search for identity. In other words, this book is about the Uterus and The American Dream.
My mother learned to speak English by watching soap operas, and as a result, her English is a bit butchered. “Embrace yourself” really means brace yourself. And when Mum says something is eating her “out”, it’s really eating her up. POOR YOUR SOUL is something my mom would say as a warning, like “If I catch you watching T.V. on a school night, then poor your soul. POOR YOUR SOUL!” It translates into “I sure do feel sorry for your poor soul because it’s going straight to hell.” Soap operas are hardly realistic—plotlines generally revolving around amnesiacs, the resurrected dead, and the occasional demonic possession. An episode can switch between several dramatic threads at once, linked by chance meetings and coincidences. They’re like tapestries that never end. When one story ends another thread slithers in. In a precisely similar way, I have seen my own storyline develop. Embrace yourself.
 
 

 

Birth Mothers, Adoption, and Art: An interview with Ann & Amanda Angel

Birth mothers are often the forgotten or ignored part of the adoption triad.  Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption is a collection of personal stories by birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptees. The stories cover a range of topics about adoption, open adoption, birth parent connections, and unification with children after closed adoption, focusing on the relationship with birth mothers. Here, editor of Fertile Source Jessica Powers talks to mother-daughter duo Ann & Amanda Angel, the book’s editors. Ann Angel is an adoptive mother of four. Amanda is an adoptee and also a birth mother. She placed her daughter in an open adoption in 2000.


1. Tell me a little bit about the impetus behind this book. Why did you decide to do it? Why do you think it’s important and what do you hope it achieves?

AMANDA: A few years ago, I was preparing to visit my birth daughter. Previous to that, I had been exchanging letters and pictures, so this was going to be a new experience. She was seven years old and full of questions, according to her mom. So, I wanted to see what resources were out there for birth mothers to help them prepare for such events. As I scoured the internet and library, I realized there was a real deficit of materials for birth mothers. I wanted to know what I could say, could I hug her, how do I answer questions appropriately, was I feeling the way most birth mothers feel in this situation; none of the materials out there even touched upon the birth mother’s perspective. So, I went forward with no rules in place, mentioning to my mom along the way that birth mothers need help too. They need a voice and to be recognized for the experiences they encounter as a birth mother. And from there, the seed had been planted.

ANN: When Amanda mentioned that a book of essays for birth parents would help start the conversation on how to open adoptions in healthy ways, I mentioned that I’d just completed an essay for Catalyst Book Press for a collection of birth stories. This seemed like the ideal press to play an activist role. I also thought the book could help birth mothers connect with adoptive parents because it seems emotionally healthier and more connected in open adoptions if the adoptive parents are supportive enough to step up and be part of the relationships.

   
2. What was it like working with birth mothers, adoptive mothers, and adoptees to produce a book like this? How did you balance artistic talent with unique voices and the importance of the message?

AMANDA:  I thought it was a beautiful discovery of the complexity of the roles in adoption. Each essay had its unique purpose, all of which helped me continue to shape my view of adoption, both as an adoptee and a birth mother. It made me proud to hold the title of birth mother, among the ranks of such amazing women.

ANN: I find myself humbled whenever I hear their stories because these writers spoke of connection and loss, finding one another in ways that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Some of the stories were so sad and loss-filled they made me cry. Others made me laugh with the joy of connection. I found almost all of the stories were stories of redemption and they lifted my own spirit. I wish we could have included all the stories we received because it is important that we give all the members of adoption the chance to tell their stories.

3. How do you think American society characterizes birth mothers today? How has this perception developed/grown/changed over time and why is it what it is?

AMANDA:  I think our culture, at times, glamorizes adoption, especially when it comes to Hollywood stars adopting. However, I think we still forget that it is a process that involves more than just the adoptive parents and adopted child. The birth parents are often shuffled aside, whether in Hollywood or not, as just a vehicle to the end result. From personal experience, the stigma is still there. In some cases, people assume that if you are a birth mother, there must be something wrong with you if you don’t want to keep your child. In the past, it was difficult to explain that it’s BECAUSE I love my child that I couldn’t keep her. To give your child a healthy, stable environment in which to live, is a bigger gift than to subject them to an unhealthy, chaotic life. I can say, however, that in the last few years, as I’ve started to share my role, I have received more positive reactions than negative ones. My hope is that this book will “pay it forward.” The stories will help others get the word out that this is an act of true love.

ANN: While our culture encourages open adoption to help ease the adoption issues that can hurt adoptees in adult relationships, I think our culture still places a stigma on birth parents. This book helps birth parents share the truth of their individual stories in a way that I hope encourages other birth parents to come forward in ways that will help their adopted children know their origins. 

4. What is it like to make the decision to place a child for adoption? Why do you think pregnant women make that choice, as opposed to abortion or raising the child themselves? What’s at stake for a birth mother (in the whole adoption process)? For the adoptee? For the adoptive parent?

AMANDA: The decision to place my daughter for adoption will forever be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, choice I will ever have faced. I was 22 years old and ready to be a mom; circumstances had a different plan for me. In being an adoptee, I think I was lucky in seeing firsthand how wonderful the results of placing a baby could be. Even though I knew that this was the best option for my child, there were still times I doubted I could cope.
     A lot of ‘what ifs’ creep up over time. I can say that I’ve noticed an increase in what ifs now that I am surrounded by friends my age who have children and I do not. I never doubt my decision as my daughter is healthy, happy, and has amazing parents. However, I do wonder what life would be like if she were with me.
     I can’t answer why women make the choice for adoption. It’s such a personal decision that each situation is different. My best estimation would be that some women find themselves pregnant and know that this precious life they are carrying can bring so much joy and love to people who have tried and were unable to conceive. It’s a realistic and honest outlook-these birth mothers know they are not capable, at that particular time in their life, to care for their child the way in which a stable family could.
     The birth mother deals with the grief and loss that over time subsides but never completely vanishes. This has become more and more evident as more birth mothers come forward with their stories. Women who feel incomplete even though they may go on to have a family of their own. Reputation is another high stake; being a birth mother, especially in an open adoption, can be confusing to outsiders.
      Personally, I know that in the beginning of a few romantic relationships, it has been something I have shared as it is a part of my life and future. I have been told, in fact, that it is a “deal breaker.” When asked why, the responses I’ve received were usually a big sigh and an uncomfortable stumble over “It’s just different” or “It just makes things more complicated.” In addition to my personal life, I worry it may affect my career. I work as a teacher and sometimes fear that if our school community becomes more aware of my situation, some members may not be comfortable having their students in my classroom because of the “pregnancy before marriage” aspect. Although I understand how that could cause some initial trepidation, I also wish people could recognize that I made a decision that afforded my daughter a great amount of opportunity and happiness.
      For the adoptee, I think not having information of their lineage is at risk. Wondering where certain health conditions, mannerisms, or tendencies come from can be hard for adoptees to cope with. At times, there are identity issues that cannot be resolved if there is no relationship with one of the birthparents. 

ANN: From my perspective, the birth mother will go through life with the knowledge that her child is in the world. She might fear letting others know that she has a child she couldn’t take care of. She might fear how the world perceives her. But women become mothers the minute they conceive. Whether a woman aborts a child, places a child for adoption or raises a child either in a marriage or as a single parent, she lives with the knowledge of her motherhood every day of her life. I’m not saying society judges the mother, I’m saying the mother either lives with grief of loss or raises the child-either way, it’s just always with her. 

5. How can birth mothers recover from the loss? How can adoptive mothers play a role in the grieving process?

AMANDA: Time can heal a lot of the grief. Having an open adoption helped me confirm that I had made the best choice possible for my daughter. For those women that do not have an open adoption with their child’s family, support groups could be another way to work through the emotions they may feel. Our hope is that this book will become a resource of sorts for women who need to know they are not alone.

ANN: Adoptive mothers can help birth mothers through the grieving process by sharing information even in a semi-closed adoption. If the adoption has been opened, I think the adoptive parents can serve as a bridge between the birth mothers and adoptees. In my own experience, sharing photos and connecting on occasion is especially important when an adoptee might back off and need time and space to work relationships out. The relationship is extremely complex and all involved need to be patient and sensitive to one another. I also think adoptive mothers can be supportive if they know an adoptee is searching for birth parents. In those cases, when a birth parent refuses contact, the adoptee will need to heal from loss once again. I can’t imagine being in a position where you feel you have to do that alone while an adoptive parent remains unaware. Given that, it’s also important that the adoptive mom provide a safe environment where an adoptee feels he or she can talk about searching.  


6. What role do you think art & literature can play in the grieving process for all members of the adoption triad (since all parties have usually experienced a loss)? What role has this book played in your understanding(s) of birth, adoption, and motherhood?

 AMANDA: Art and Literature offer a different perspective on our stories. As artists, we have a certain idea on how our work will be perceived; however, people’s interpretations vary based on their own personal experiences. Through this book, I’ve realized that I am not alone in my role as  birth mother. There are many women in the world that share a similar experience and have now put their story into words to help others. This book helped me appreciate my relationship with my birth daughter and her parents even more than I already did. I have been so fortunate to know how my decisions impacted their lives in such a positive way. It’s also given me the confidence to become more public with my role as a birth mother, in hopes of helping others.

 ANN: When we share our stories through art and literature, we share ideas and experiences that can lead to healing. These stories can also lead us to open our hearts to nontraditional ideas of family that enrich the lives of all involved. Working on this book has made me realize even more how important it is for me to encourage open expression of loss and grief and joy. It’s taught me how generous birth parents can be and I think it’s made me communicate more openly about adoption with my adult kids and their non-traditional families.  

7. What are the best resources out there for birth mothers, adoptive parents, and adoptees? What resources are there in particular for adoptees and birth mothers going through the reunification process?

 ANN: In most cases, contemporary adoption agencies encourage open adoption for the sake of the adoptee. Many counselors are trained to work with all in the adoption. But I think it’s imperative, if a family member wants to work through adoption issues with a therapist or counselor, that they make sure to seek help from someone experienced or trained in the complexities of adoption, perhaps touched by the experience themselves.   
  There are resources to help families create open adoptions such as Lois Ruskai Melina’s The Open Adoption Experience – A Complete Guide for Adoptive and Birth Families. David Brodzinsky has also written a landmark book, Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, that discusses the psychological and educational implications of adoption on a child through adulthood. 

  Our book, Silent Embrace, Perspectives on Birth and Adoption, fills a resource need because it addresses the complex emotional responses of all in adoption. I think it would be especially valuable for those who find their adoption records will remain closed. But the book serves all in an adoption triad because the essays reflect such a broad, intensely personal and honest response to the issue of parents and origins in adoption. Each story can help readers consider what a healthy relationship is and how we can navigate that relationship over time. 

Ann Angel is a professor of writing at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The editor of Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams/Amulet 2007), she is also the author of several biographies for teenagers, including the forthcoming Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams/Amulet 2010). Ann is the adoptive mother of four children, including her daughter Amanda, with whom she edited her most recent collection, Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption. Please visit her website at www.annangelwriter.com.

Amanda Angel is an elementary school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2000, she placed her daughter in an open adoption. Since then, she has become an advocate for both birth mothers and adoption. Although she has written plays including Three Rocking Pigs, a children’s musical produced for Marquette University, Silent Embrace: Perspectives on Birth and Adoption is Amanda’s first book.

An interview on breastfeeding and wet nursing with Erica Eisdorfer

by Jessica Powers

Erica Eisdorfer’s new novel, The Wet Nurse’s Tale (Putnam), was released on August 6, 2009.  The novel follows servant Susan Rose, a strong, independent devil-may-care woman whose dalliances with her young master get her into trouble and propel her into the wet nursing business. But a working class girl with a baby she wants to keep alive is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of social mores, scheming fathers, and the very nature of the wet nursing business in the Victorian era.

I was so taken with the novel (definitely recommended!) that I followed up with Eisdorfer in a telephone interview a couple weeks before the book’s release.

 Q. Tell us how you got the idea for this story.

There were three things that were the genesis of the idea for my novel.

First, you know how you know people who were born into the wrong gender or the wrong time. I always felt I was supposed to be British, so that was part of it. I read everything [related to Great Britian]. It seems like the place I oughta be.

Second, I nursed my own kids for a long time-one till two and the other till five. With my second child, we quit so she could go to kindergarten; it was kind of a mutual decision.

Third, for most of my life, I have worked in a college campus bookstore. I’ve never been a servant, but I know what it’s like to have to cut somebody’s crusts just so, to work for people that require a certain behavior. I understood that I was bending my behavior-we all have to do that to a certain extent but that was what gave me the idea for the servant kind of thing and the class sensibility [that pervades the book]. It’s a long shot and a real servant would roll their eyes at my comparison, but my experiences as a bookseller allowed my imagination to roam, and I took it from there.

Q. Obviously you feel passionate about breastfeeding…? Continue reading ‘An interview on breastfeeding and wet nursing with Erica Eisdorfer’




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