An Interview with Antoinette Voûte Roeder: The Poetry of Reunion, Poetry as Communion

by Tania Pryputniewicz

21st birthday” turns on a loving gesture on the part of the parents of the speaker in the poem (who bestow her with a tape recorder just after she’s given up her infant for adoption). This gift strikes one as more haunting than, say, a blank journal because of the indelible preservation of emotion on tape. We are left to question: will the speaker be able to use the tape recorder? Will it be enough? Can you talk about the tape recorder image and the writing of this poem?

It’s a lovely interpretation of the poem but that was not my experience. The year was 1964. Things were different then. We’d never even heard of open adoption for instance. This is a poem filled with unspoken irony and pathos, bitterness and resentment. A tape recorder. Could it in any way make up for the fact that I had been hidden away, gave birth on my own, never saw or held my baby, received no counseling or real emotional support?

There was no question of recording my emotions on tape. My feelings, my plight were as carefully put away as the wires of the tape recorder. The birth and my child were never spoken of again. With the recorder I received a pre-recorded tape of the Brahms Piano Quintet. I had been a music major at university before dropping out to have my baby. This was just a quiet encouragement to get my life back on track. Which I did. I went back to university and finished my Bachelor of Music degree, then went on to get my Master’s.

I wrote this poem and many others in the year following the reunion with my daughter. But that did not occur until 1993. I had simply stuffed her away. I went into a slump every year around her birthday but she had been erased from my life otherwise. I never would have looked for her. I felt I did not have the right. After all, I had given her up, hadn’t I? But she, courageous woman that she is, came looking for me, despite her adoptive parents’ opposition. And I bless her for it.

Were there other metaphors you found dominating poetry you wrote about giving up a child for adoption? Did those metaphors change for you over time, including those that didn’t make their way into poems?

Her appearance in my life caused the equivalent of a tsunami (how is that for a metaphor?) and I’m so glad that it did. Everything I had denied, every emotion, even the very labor and delivery themselves, I had to experience again…on the massage table, in meditation, in dreams. My daughter became real for me. And so did I.

There were no metaphors for having given her up. There was only the stark reality. Metaphors emerged after I got to know her, hold her, love her. Most of the metaphors were of her: she was the wind and just as restless, she was Charlie Brown’s little red-haired girl, she was Persephone and Annie Oakley, Cinderella, a comet. For myself, I was alternately a fallow field after harvest or a bowl that was continually worked and carved out in order to hold still more love.

You mentioned reconciliation was part of your experience with your daughter. Is there any part of that story you’d like to share with us?

Reconciliation was slow, very slow in coming. I first had to be reconciled with what had happened and what had NOT happened. I was never encouraged or invited to keep my child. In fact I was told by the (Catholic) doctor that this child deserved two parents. And I readily agreed.

The reconciliation had to happen with myself most of all. I had abandoned and rejected my child, AND myself in the process. I had not given enough weight to the incredible, indelible bond between mother and child. I had been rent asunder and she, as she expressed it, saw herself as a foetus floating in space with an unattached umbilical cord trailing behind. I had done untold damage to us both, psychologically and emotionally. I had to come to an acceptance of events as they had unfolded. I had made decisions given the maturity and information and experience and advice I had at that time. I thought I had done what was best for her and for me.

To touch my first born, to hold her in my arms, to push her long blond hair back from her face, to buy her a teddy bear, to introduce her to her half-siblings, these were gifts I had not even dared to dream. And they became reality.

But then I had to be reconciled to the fact that though she is my daughter, I am not her mother. She has a mother who reared her, who placed cool cloths on her feverish forehead, who took her to school on her first day, who watched her go off on her first date with an ache in her heart. (Maybe…I can’t be sure.)

The reunion (re-union) was something else. It was an ecstatic coming together of two kindred souls. We both felt we had known each other in a previous life. Something arcane and timeless was alive in us. She had grown up in a scientific, cerebral milieu. With me she could let her feelings, her artistic self unfold. Her birth father is an artist, I am a musician and poet. The arts were given short shrift in her upbringing but were honored as central in my life. Suddenly it was okay for her to have feelings. And there was a safe place to put them and support for them as well.

It has now been seventeen years since we first met. We live in different countries, lead very different lives. We write, we call, and we visit each other, and each time we drop into that deep place of understanding and communion that we discovered in the beginning. The love we know is strong as iron and we will never deny ourselves that bond again.

You also mentioned the possibility of co-writing a book of poems with your daughter. Have you started the process? Will you write separately to certain themes? Do you have a structure in mind?

Rita, my daughter, is a poet. She and I have attended workshops together in which our inner voices were evoked, in which we were inspired to write. She has been writing poetry off and on for years and has many very poignant pieces about her adoption as well as our reunion, from her own perspective. So each of us already has a cache of poems that could be integrated into a collection. It’s a process that I think we are now ready for. We started once before but I had too many insecurities and hang-ups about it and was not sure I could let myself become that vulnerable. Now, at age 67, anything goes (AND I wear purple!)

Do you continue to write about this subject?

No, I write about the holiness of everything: relationships, our natural world, life. I write protest poems regarding our abuse of the earth and of women (and I do see these as inherently related); I also love to write about other poets, poetry, and the writing process itself.

You also mentioned your recent book tour. Can you tell us about the book, the tour, and your experience of the audiences? Any particular questions readers had for you, or meaningful encounters you’d like to share with us? Or a favorite question you’d love for a reader to ask? Or most challenging question to answer? Any other advice?

It was a book tour in lower case letters. My understanding is that one has to do most of one’s own marketing nowadays, even if one has a fairly well established publisher. Apocryphile Press, my publisher, is a very small operation. So the marketing I have done has mostly been through networking with family and friends. I did a total of five readings on my recent little tour in Colorado and northern New Mexico. Folks hosted readings, either in their homes or in a more public hall and invited their acquaintances. I did a couple of joint readings, one with my daughter and one with my husband’s sister-in-law. I really enjoyed sharing the spotlight.

What I love most about doing a reading is the contact with an audience. Unless a poem is read or shared it is like a musical score left unplayed. Once the poem is read and put “out there” it becomes something else. It is no longer the poem I wrote because now it has joined with your experience and what you as reader or listener bring to it. And so a poem passes from hand to hand, so to speak, each time picking up different and unique resonances.

I don’t know whether it is the nature of the poetry or how I present it but I find that people allow themselves to become vulnerable along with me, and so together we create community and enter into not just communication but a kind of communion. It is very precious.

Still Breathing is my second volume of poetry. It is really a kind of extension of my first book, Weaving the Wind. Both titles were inspired by a verse from the gospel of John, chapter 3: “The wind blows where it will, we do not know where it comes from or where it is going….” (my paraphrase). The word for wind in Hebrew and in Greek is also the word for spirit and for breath. The John quote surely speaks of the grand mystery that is God or the Holy. My book titles are really code for the Source that keeps us in existence every second of our lives.

Each book is divided into several sections, each section covering a different theme. Still Breathing is different from the first book in that I chose to include some “people” poems: about my sister, father, grandson, friends. The last section is called “Birds I Have Known” and includes poems about the marvelous array of migratory birds that visit our small lake.

I offer retreat days for writers, lead workshops in the areas of poetry, writing, and spirituality. The best thing a writer can do is live her own life with awareness, become a witness to her own experience, listen to her gut, her heart, enter frequently that inner sanctuary from whence all creativity springs.

Second of all, READ! Read other poets, contemporary ones for sure, but don’t neglect the giants that preceded us: Shakespeare, Auden, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T S Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Denise Levertov, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rumi…always Rumi. Be authentic. Don’t parrot. And don’t be afraid. It takes great courage to write one’s own truth, even greater to share it with others. But when we do, we find that we are connected to everyone and everything. We are not a voice crying in the wilderness. Indeed, we constitute an enormous chorus.

Any desire to talk about your teaching?

I haven’t taught as such in years. I ceased teaching piano in 1992. What I do now is facilitate and I see that more as midwifery, offering helping hands and a soft heart to people who already know they are on the way but perhaps have not fully claimed or owned that yet. My mentoring or spiritual direction practice is very similar in nature but takes place in strict confidentiality, on a one-on-one basis. I’ve been doing that for about twenty years. It is a sacred trust and great privilege to be invited in to people’s hearts and lives, their struggles, their relationship with the Holy.

Who helps you want to return to the page to write?

I need no help. Does that sound arrogant? I do not mean it that way at all. I’m a sensual person. I love language, its taste, texture, its sound. I write on inspiration (there’s that breath again!) I have no daily discipline of writing except for journaling. Poetry wells up at the oddest moments: in meditation, on a walk, on a plane, in the shower. Absolutely anything can become the subject of a poem. Just like prayer. And I see no great difference between the two.

For a review of Antoinette’s second volume of poetry, see Still Breathing.

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