If I might backtrack a little to your commentary on feminist concerns: What strikes me the most in "Mommy is a Scary Narcissist" is the concept of looking, whether at the self, others, or being examined, which brilliantly opens the poem in the first line with eyelid reconstruction. Your development of looking carries on throughout the poem as this speaker, much like the woman observed in "Marble Obelisk," falls apart. Do you think we are our own worst enemies in our desire, perhaps through our motherly experiences, to please others? I am curious if the repetition of "Mommy" along with anaphora is consciously used to increase a level of anxiety in the poem for the reader? Are these favorite techniques in your poetry writing?
Oh, I really love the connection you made between the eyelid surgery and looking! That is great—not something I consciously chose, but obviously there—so wonderful to have a good
reader see that. Thank you. I think the kind of person I’m describing is much more sinister, if you will, than regular types of mothers being our own worst enemies in wanting to please people. That’s definitely there and I was certainly a perfectionist when I was younger and a young mother. But I really, in both poems, was thinking of a culture of narcissism and the kind of women who are the consorts of a type of successful man who is essentially absent in their hearts and minds, as he also is attending to his own image. The “Scary Mommy” would be the mother of the woman in “Marble Obelisk.” In “Scary,” the mother is also sort of in a religious (specifically Catholic) swoon—kind of like a narcissistic Virgin Mary. The “male gaze” is also there. This is a kind of Catholic woman I’ve known, as well. Or really any religious woman—there is often a competition about who is more pious or charitable. It’s also living a life where 95% of your identity is about being looked at and even engaging in a constant performance. I really identify with the idea of living in a constant performance. I believe I have freed myself from this for the most part. The people is these poems are neighbors and/or kin to the people in “The Neighborhood of Successful Marriage.” It’s all business, it’s all the public self. I was trying to make that poems fill someone with anxiety and even revulsion. That is how I felt discovering this person while writing her into existence.
People always ask me about using anaphora and I think that it is definitely a technique that heightens the effect of whatever you’re trying to do to affect the reader, but really this is just the way I hear poems in my head. I think perhaps it’s a way for me to remember lines before I write them down. That is just the way they come to me. I usually keep them as they appear and sometimes go back and change drab words to sharper words, but it seems to be an innate way I hear words. I’ll send you a copy of something I wrote recently that is all anaphora, another library poem. It just came to me like this and I extended it as I wrote it down.
I could not agree more with your statement about "a dark side to any kind of mothering." I often think that mothering is perceived as a fantasy-induced Mary Cassatt painting, portraying the mother as loving, nurturing, and appearing 'put-together' in a perfect frame to be admired for eternity. And that is what we see in American “family portraits” appearing in Christmas cards, and so on. Oh my, the whole ‘Mommy Blogging thing’ that was after my time—how utterly exhausting to be writing or following them. All the baking blogs and cooking blogs with brownies on a vintage green ceramic plate and dusts of powdered sugar like fairy dust, snow, on table top, on kids’ freckled noses. Someone in my town photographs local sites and stores— it looks so Nantucket and amazing. You don’t see the grime, crap, trash and badness that exists in the same place. Mary Cassatt’s paintings are a great example of ideal motherhood and womanhood. In fact, perhaps her kindly vision was one reason she was accepted by male painters of that era. She is one of the few female painters to have been part of the successful coterie of artists in her own era. A couple of others are Judith Leyster who was a pupil of Frans Hals (she has a really good painting of a man offering a coin to young maiden and the woman, whose eyes are downcast, looks afraid; this is in contrast to the widely painted genre scenes of men in the same situation being taken by savvy prostitutes and madams, in a jolly sort of scene (men will be men! is the idea) and she shows the other side—a young maiden’s coming ruin). Another is Louise Vignee LeBrun in 18th-19th century France who was a portrait painter. Judith Leyster, “The Proposition” Not sure of this painter’s name, but there are many like it. Mary Cassatt’s domestic scenes and portraits are not too far away from the other Impressionists’ domestic scenes. She would not have painted dancers in deshabille or odalisques, though, without perhaps raising a scandal. But that is often what you have to do to get success—and it’s also possible that none of that interested her, either.
Does writing poetry and being a mother go hand-in-hand, or do you try to maintain some
level of separation between these roles?
In the essay “Not a Perfect Mother,” I talk about how I’d write if I were not a mother, or if I were in jail or wherever I happened to be. To me, there is no conflict or separation—they’re just part of who I am. I do think, though, that I compartmentalize parts of my life—but that’s just a personality trait of mine. I always knew I wanted to have children and write so these are natural things to me. What is more surprising is that I have found other talents in myself through my library career. I am now in upper management within county government and I really like it. I like managing people, decision making and policy writing. I like strategic planning and working on budgets. These are things I never thought I’d be doing when I was younger or even earlier in my career. Having children does limit the amount of time you can put into your writing career, and if you encounter complex issues and problems, like a child’s serious health issue, as I have, writing takes second place. Still, I wrote about it (“A Foreign Country” in a past issue of American Poetry Review) and so my writing self is always present. I have written poems about work; my writing self is there, too.
How did you become involved with the collection The Grand Permission: New Writings
on Poetics & Motherhood? You mentioned your essay from that collection earlier in our conversation. Can you talk a little bit more about your essay, "Not a Perfect Mother," and how you came to write it?
I had the good fortune of Brenda Hillman selecting my first book for the University of Georgia Poetry Series. Brenda and I corresponded some, and the subject was usually about motherhood. I think she just thought of me when asking poets to contribute. At that time my children were young and I was in the thick of raising them 24/7. Now they are 21 and 23 years old. The hardest thing for me in life was getting away from perfectionism and competitiveness, and that’s what “Not the Perfect Mother” was all about. Mothering young children was hard for me, and I never connected with other stay-at-home mothers when I was one. In many ways I did not connect with other people. A great deal of Domestic Interior is about that. The last poem in the book is about realizing my faults as a mother and feeling shame and humility. I don’t think I was a very good mother in many ways. I feel sad about that. That’s probably what I would write about now. I am often filled with tears and regret. At the same time I’d say that I was also a natural mother; it just happened. I was normal, the same as everyone else. I have known people for whom becoming a mother was like a really extreme change for them—they felt like a different person. That did not happen to me. I have come to realize that I’m a very mothering or motherly person. I think that is why I’m a good manager of people.
I’m also competent in traditionally feminine things like cooking, baking, decorating, entertaining and household management. I homeschooled my older son for two years and really enjoyed it. I am calm and solution-oriented in a crisis. All that is easy to me. My husband is the same way with traditionally male household work: he can patch the roof and fix the plumbing; repair anything, landscape the yard, etc. My husband and I are both good with traditional tasks, but it is in the background of our lives. We are readers and talkers. At the same time, I hate the idea of motherly people. I don’t describe myself to others that way. I do not want to look matronly, or perceived as smothering people. I mention this because I know people who seem to take pride in the fact that they can’t cook, blah blah blah. I don’t even cook anymore; my husband does. I certainly know how to cook and do it when I want to. I bake bread and cookies over the holidays. Others fetishize these roles, taking it all way too seriously. I say these things because I think it paints a fuller picture of who I am. My point is that the domestic sphere is a place I’m comfortable in. I’m still mothering my children and I know that I will for the rest of my life. I really hope that I will be a grandmother someday. All these things—living life—become part of one’s subject matter in poetry.
Your poem, "The New Door" (Tabula Poetica, Chapman University, 2011), features a woman on the inside of the door, and a man, or men, of different identities, on the outside of the door. I am curious if this fable-like poem is not only addressing a certain fear felt by the female character, but is also addressing a bigger, feminist issue?
I like your interpretation that it could be multiple men. I was thinking about how men build houses for women to live in. And my husband had just replaced our door. I liked that he could take care of me that way, and I had to get used to it. Real estate is very erotic. Buying a house and making a home is erotic. I think the poem is about learning not be afraid of men and what they have to offer—there is a change in oneself when one lives with the opposite sex. That was “the new door.” I don’t think you know what the other sex is like until you live with them. I witnessed how a man really wants to please you; there is also a territoriality and keeping involved. We often look at this in a negative way, but it is also very loving. I think it’s important for women to like the male psyche and accept it. I think in fact that we denigrate the male archetype too much. Having raised two sons, I feel this very deeply. The world has swung in the other direction; there is a lot of casual sexism about men thrown around. Men are allowed some very narrowly defined roles. At the same time, no one seems to like those roles, or behavior; I see a sick satisfaction some women have about it: “Boo hoo, you and your male privilege.” There is male privilege; I’m not an apologist for it, but there seems to be too little compassion for men. I think that’s feminist, but it's not an accepted point of view or an original one. I remember well the time period that I wrote “The New Door.” I had a lot of time to read. I was in a constant state of reverie. I was reading Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich and The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill.