By Lauren Gordon
I used to write really bad poetry. Really, really bad poetry. Poems about Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine. Poems about being lonely, misanthropic, angsty — basically poems that sounded like the lyrics to a Linkin Park song. I was seventeen, so it made sense. I’d like to think my poetry grew up as I did. Certainly school helped. I believe art evolves as an artist evolves, though this hinges on the sometimes controversial idea that there is always biography lurking in poetry. I always treated my poetry as a doorway into myself, or a barometer of emotive experience. It wasn’t until I gave birth to my daughter that I understood how much power a profound experience could wield over the Things You Thought You Knew. Becoming a mother changed everything about poetry for me; how I created it, how I read it, how I experienced it, thought about it – that’s the thing about having kids, though. They change everything.
I know, I know. What a pat cliché. Even non-parents can nod sagely and agree. Well, duh. Kids change everything. And I didn’t walk into motherhood blindly. I accepted that there would be change in all things, but especially concerning my art. Once, during my graduate program (in Poetry!) I spent a whole day in pajamas, drinking coffee and chain-smoking clove cigarettes while hovering over my laptop on a porch. I wrote through the morning fog that burned off by noon before it became a pinking dusk and my coffee turned into wine. I knew having a child would not allow me the time to selfishly pursue my art (and I knew I’d have to quit smoking), but what I thought might be a month or two of “time off” was actually closer to two years. Yes, I knew becoming a mother would change everything, I just didn’t realize how it would change the very core of my personhood, thus making poetry an absolute vital piece of my existence.
Heavy, right? If you had asked me six years ago why I wrote poetry, I would have told you it was because of compulsion. I felt compelled to use my divorce as the mechanism for which art could exist, like the daisy straining upward through the crack in the sidewalk. I was in this limbo of grief, there was so much loss. I attended nine funerals in the span of four years. I made a move from Southern California to Iowa (that alone warranted a chapbook’s length of dramatic, self-absorbed poems) and was just kind of riding whatever wave seemed to rise in front of me. Poetry was a means of healing and survival for me, as I think it is for a lot of people; art as a touchstone. It was a way of processing and creating a likeable narrative for the life that was unfolding before me. (Incidentally, this would be a good place to issue a Very Public Apology to every mentor, adviser and reader who was subjected to my grad school full length manuscript; your comments were kind and generous, but no one should have to read sixty poems about a miniature dachshund and a failed marriage against the backdrop of a Wisconsin prairie).
I was so excited to be pregnant, not just for the experience, but for the fodder. I really thought I would be so overcome with feelings and ideas that my little pocket-sized moleskins would be bursting at the seams with inspired snippets of language. I would gestate in a really grand way with fantastic results. Well, I gestated alright. I basically became a walking hormone. If I didn’t fall asleep at work, eat three corndogs in a row, wet myself while simultaneously laughing and crying during a commercial for feminine hygiene products, then I considered it a good day. Being pregnant took everything out of me and my daughter took everything from me, even the precious oxygen from my brain. Needless to say, I didn’t write a thing. Although, I tell anyone who will listen that my daughter was the poem I created for nine long months and I will keep using that line until someone visibly gags. I had not realized that writing poetry was an identity for me, that by becoming Pregnant Woman, I had to fold up Poet like a winter sweater ready for storage.
I went gently into the night.
I had no choice but to experience pregnancy constantly; there is no way of getting out of your body for that one. And I threw myself into motherhood, slipping on that new identity whenever I needed it … which was often. In fact, all of the time. I was consumed with the baby. When she slept, I was looking at pictures of her. When she nursed, I was fully present. When I cleaned, she was strapped to me. There was rarely a moment in the first few months of my daughter’s life that I wasn’t putting in 110% into that mother role; we had shared the same physical space for nine months. I hadn’t known you could love someone so deeply that the potential for your heart being broken could paralyze you with fear. Once I looked down at her impossibly tiny back as she lay on my stomach and I watched the rise and fall of her small breaths and it basically destroyed me. There are barely words for this (and as a poet, I should know better) but the overwhelming feeling of love and responsibility and pride and fear and awe impacted at exactly the same moment and I was so overcome, I had to put her down in the crib so I could cry. Ugly, heaving crying. Yes ok, it would be fair to point out that there was serious hormone mojo at work here, but my point is that it was one of those moments where I realized nothing could possibly be the same after experiencing that depth of emotion. It changed how I looked at everything and everyone.
On the heels of that moment came an invitation from some friends to participate in NaPoWriMo – a challenge that encourages people to write one poem a day. I didn’t think I could keep up with the challenge, wasn’t sure how I would find the time or what I would write about. I was suspicious that something like this could even churn out anything worth reading because it ran so counter to how I produced poetry in the past. But I started a blog and waded into the water. It was weird in the beginning, like the first time you put on a pair of pants with a waist band and a zipper after pregnancy. There was some straining and discomfort, but some familiarity, too. That familiarity started evolving into necessity. Suddenly I was jotting things down in notebooks to remember for later. I was waking up in the morning with goals in mind, ideas floating around. I wrote in stolen moments in between naps or even as my daughter practiced her tummy time. Writing poetry again under such constraint allowed me to find the space of merged identity; mother, poet, woman, wife, you name it. I feel like April is the month I was saved. I created before child (B.C.) in order to process my own experiences in and of the world and in some measure, I was still doing that; but the importance of what I was creating took on a new dimension I had never experienced: the desire to create permanence.
I came across this timely quote from Seamus Heaney in his essay, “Feelings Into Words” on a view of poetry which Heaney felt is implicit: “Poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants.” I had always treated poetry – what I wrote, what I read – as a journey to Truth, whether the truth was personal, universal, or cultural. What strikes me most about this quote is the reference to archaeology, because it seems that Heaney is proposing the same idea here; that by digging, we find truth or treasure or growth or life or whatever you want to call it. I agree with the ideas of poems as archaeology, but not just for digging truth; sometimes the poem is the lost artifact. This is what changed for me when I became a mother: that need to create art that will continue to exist long after I am gone.
The Sword of Damocles is always dangling in my peripheral vision, now. I never had a sense of urgency in poetry before I gave birth to my daughter. I always treated poetry as a leisurely pursuit, never as vital. Those NaPoWriMo poems were my way of saying Kilroy Was Here. One month of record-keeping; poems written with someone else in mind, poems written with desperate importance – written while crouched next to a crib, holding a bottle, a spoon, patting a small back for a burp… words crossed out, words rewritten, words rewritten four times – too many? Three times, then. I don’t have the scrap book with her first lock of hair, the first time she pulled herself up on her arms, laughed or ate rice cereal. And when I’m gone from this earth, I don’t have much legacy to leave behind for her, either. A small collection of Nancy Drew books. Her great grandmother’s engagement ring. Some photographs. A paid-off Chevy. And now these poems – these (now heavily edited) poems that track one month of our lives together; one month of what poetry looked like when it became necessity.
My poetry won’t look like this again. I think. I don’t know how it could. The poems I have written since that challenge are not the precious things this collection is; certainly poetry doesn’t have to always be precious or suffer the strain of seeking permanence or vitality, though I know we often treat poems like they should. What poet hasn’t been offended by an editor’s request for an alteration? Or how many times has Flarf been panned by poetry critics? I don’t know if it’s just my singular experience of motherhood that altered how I view art (now with more Empathy and Meaning!) but it’s not an unreasonable idea that experience can affect someone so deeply that it alters how art is created and experienced. Not all poems are written in blood, but it makes me wonder why the ones that are seem to be more memorable to me. I have always had a hard time removing the poet from the poem. I don’t know if that makes me a Jungian or anti Post-Modernism or maybe I’m just a sucker for art with heart. Maybe I’m still brimming with excess estrogen. I struggled with removing my identity from my daughter’s those first few months, until I could create anew through poetry. I wrote with a desperateness I didn’t know I had in me. I read poetry like it was food and I was starving. I didn’t know poetry could do that.
Kids really do change everything.