Joy Katz: What’s the problem? What’s the problem with writing about our kids?
Sarah Vap: Repulsive tangles. When I write about my kids, I constantly negotiate three urges: first, unambivalent devotion to, love for, curiosity about them; second, an unrelenting FUCK YOU to the taboo or misogyny or perceived sentimentality around women (not men) writing about kids in contemporary poetry; and third, a keen awareness of the disturbing capitalist/neoliberal cult-of-kids in America. It’s exhausting and exhilarating (although over the years, increasingly monotonous) to try to figure out that tangle. I want to do it without succumbing to what feels easiest: being ironic about the kids. Reducing the kids intellectually or conceptually to make them more palatable for poetry. I do, however, want to be able to be ironic, reductive, and distanced about them for my own reasons, and among many other ways of thinking or feeling about them.
JK: Unlike you, I can’t seem to muster an F YOU to the taboo in poetry about babies. Instead, I tend to internalize that pressure. It’s not easy for me to shrug off ideas that I sense working against the poem as I write. I have to pass through a period of anxiety about them. that, if I’m patient and a little lucky, might turn out to be generative. Sometimes the censor is the muse.
SV: My Fuck You doesn’t mean I shrug off those forces— I feel them intensely. Every time I begin to worry that I should avoid something, that I’m walking on eggshells, that I’m going to offend a status quo or a gatekeeper or a powerful mindset or … —I remind myself that that feeling indicates: this is likely important.
JK: When I write about my kid, I try to let in intensity—that material has such high specific gravity—without crushing the poem. At first, I felt my poems would collapse if the baby came into them. I needed to find an equally powerful, opposing force to resist the force of, I am not sure what to call it… love.
Recently an editor in Paris said, after I read a poem with a baby in it: “I am not interested in content. Do you know what I mean?” — an absurd comment, but it made me see that when a baby comes into a poem, it’s hard for it not to be “content,” because the specific gravity of a baby is very high. Put a baby in a poem, and watch it fall, like a stone through a wet tissue.
Here’s a chart to show what I mean. For comparison, something sort of calm and scientific, like neutrinos, or laproscopic surgery, has a low specific gravity. Let’s say 0.01. That’s because a poem with neutrinos in it isn’t as sentimentally burdened as a poem with a baby in it. By comparison:
Poetic matter—Specific gravity
Daffodil in springtime—52.2
Back to your question about intellect. I think, don’t you, that there are all sorts of ways for a poem to work through intellect that don’t reduce a baby to concept. In certain quarters of poetry—even within the academy—intellectual language, or thinking, is silenced because thought and experience are understood to be opposites. I’ve heard this over and over: “concepts” aren’t authentic, only “experience” is authentic. (Whatever “authentic” means!) People separate thought from experience as though they are two different things, but they aren’t. No experience happens without thought. Thinking is as much a part of my life as writing poems, feeding a baby, running five miles, making love. I like thinking, I like thinky poetry. So I am trying to understand what “reducing the kids conceptually” looks like in a poem. Is that more of an abstract fear?
SV: I love thinking, too…I meant, by reducing the kids conceptually, that I am aware at each turn that I can do things to the kid-content of my poems to make it more poetry-cool, more academically-inclined, more palatable for the workshops or off-site AWP readings. I mean that I’m trying to navigate aesthetic tendencies while also trying to figure out what I want to do re. kids and my writing. Again—I do want to be able to be ironic, reductive, and distanced about them for my own reasons. But it’s loud out there. I feel a bit over-stimulated by opinions and fear-mongering and latest-research in every area of parenting—say: the absurd amount of energy that goes into navigating what I feed them in a world where Monsanto exists—and then multiply that out into every small and large aspect of their lives. Poetry is just one of thousands of places I hear and feel demands, opinions, pressures, scorn about how I care for them or think about them in this world. It’s a loud and ambivalent time to raise a kid or write about any aspect of it.
JK: So true! And a real pressure, the audiences at readings. On one hand, all people are potentially open receivers. As Rebecca Wolff said in her introduction to the anthology Not For Mothers Only, being born is strange. It may be as close to the “universal” as we get in art. If I write into the strangeness, the poem should be working, no matter who listens. On the other hand, I looked up recently and saw that I was reading to a South Asian guy in his early 20s with multiple piercings and full sleeve tattoos, and I had this flash of, okay, let’s run a diagnostic on my idea of “open receivers.” What assumptions did I make, without realizing, when I wrote this poem? Is the poem too much “mother”? Is the poem too white? Shuffling around in my mind for what to read next, because I want to offer something to him. Then questioning my want, because it’s narcissistic, and based on my own faulty assumptions. How do I know the tattooed dude doesn’t have a kid?
SV: Exactly. What is most embarrassing about us (mothers who write about it) to the poetry world—that we do actually love the kids—is what is most demanded and monitored of us in every other aspect of their lives. How we walk them to school or do not. How many minutes they have unstructured play per hour or how many minutes of math they do per week. How and when do we begin talking to them about systemic racism and incarceration rates, where do I point out white privilege and how often, and how large or how modest their birthday party should be. How uncomfortable we are with our decision to have been parents, or not, in the poem. How problematic it is to have had a kid in the first place, or not, in the poem. We’re talking about and responding to infinite noises that are slippery, inconsistent, unrelenting. For myself, I feel like I don’t get to opt out of hearing all the noise around how I should think about my kids, too much is at stake—so I wade through it in every area of my life, artistic and mundane. I’m neverendingly sorting through it, and also trying to hear my own thoughts, feel my own way. Tons of this noise is what makes me say, Fuck You. But also, this noise is, in its absurdity, interesting to me.
JK: Love isn’t embarrassing in a poem, but mother’s love…think about even that phrase, “mother’s love.” When you hold it up to art, it seems bound to fail. I feel poems resisting that we love our kids, because it is too predictable. I mean in a poem—not in life. The challenge is what to do in language, with this love. I need to mix it with things that resist love, with un-love, otherwise there is no tension in the poem.
SV: I think some of the perceived “predictability” around motherhood/babies in poems might actually be… misogyny? Stereotype? Poor reading? A refusal to identify with? Disinterest? Even most conceptual poetry and language poetry are still “about” the inadequacy of language and its categories, are “about” power structures at work around those categories. Conceptual poems are predictable in those concerns. I am consistently very excited about much conceptual poetry—and its predictability is part of my excitement—a building of momentum toward (power, language) dissolutions that I want to have happen. I’m not sure predictability is the problem we’re encountering.
JK: I was just reading Juliana Spahr’s poem “The Remedy,” which moves from descriptions of the speaker breastfeeding her baby to having sex to collaborating on an art project to selling weapons. By the end of the poem, the language is all wrapped up in arms transfers, sub-machine guns, but not totally—it’s more that the baby and the fucking have been overlaid with violent commerce. To me, that’s an ideal conceptual poem of motherhood. What do you think?
SV: I’m all for it. Spahr’s strategy in this poem is, I think, very close to the instinct I have about some of my own projects. What is actually dangerous and embarrassing in this poem? It’s sure as shit not breastfeeding a baby or fucking a lover. They might be subversively dangerous to things like arms-dealers, but they’re not the dangers we should be responding against. Heteronormative violence, which becomes conflated with, say, breastfeeding a baby—that is also dangerous and something to be responding against. But breastfeeding or loving a child is a different thing than heteronormative violence.
JK: There is the cliché of mother’s love being not discerning. “A face only a mother could love.” The idea of mother’s love clouding crucial perceptions. By that definition, mother’s love is antithetical to an artist’s way of seeing. So if a poem centers on mother’s love, it may potentially be in trouble, depending—or at least, that’s one pressure.
Another pressure is that motherhood is a pretty “normative” thing, at least as it’s perceived. I resist writing a poem that participates in heterocentric wonder—I do not want to put a poem out there that asks you to be filled with wonder at my wondrous baby. A poem with a baby in it has got to do something entirely else.
SV: Thank God, because my overwhelming response to my children has not been an undiscerning wonder. (I would venture to say no woman’s response to her children, in the entire history of women and babies, has ever been nothing more than undiscerning wonder.) Yes, I have felt wonder about my children, but the overwhelming majority of the time my response to them has been so much weirder and darker and more complicated and more interesting than that. I find them staggeringly interesting, frustrating, challenging, and intellectually rigorous. Also: I live in the world with these kids. The world intervenes each and every second. I’m not sure what it would even mean to have a “just my baby” poem, and I actually think that such a poem doesn’t exist. Even if a poem performed only heterocentric baby wonder and nothing else—it would include within the poem its own enormous effort to block out the entire context of the world. Which, of course, includes a million other things directly within its own performed exclusion. (So it makes me wonder: why are we working so hard to defend against something that isn’t happening, but is perceived to be, at every turn, a poetry “danger”?)
JK: If, as you propose in End of the Sentimental Journey, sentimentality is not sexy, is one problem for poems that babies are not sexy? There’s something akin to eros about the quality of intimacy with a baby. Beth Ann Fennelly has a poem about tongue-kissing her baby. Long before I had a child, I read that poem and it made me cringe. Now I think about it all the time. There’s a firewall in our psyches between nurturing and eros. That poem doesn’t cross it, but it asks about it.
Imagine if a woman tried to write about a sensual link between breastfeeding and orgasm, and a reader misunderstood…
SV: I think that the problem of sexiness and babies is a bit of the occident’s old virgin/whore problem. If we’re mothers, is that the logical extension of virginity—in a Christian sensibility? If we’re hovering around this line of thinking (in our media, in our wider culture)— then it’s obviously much sexier to be the whore. But this line of thinking: so fucking boring. Virgin and whore are two among our potentially endless options as human beings interacting with other human beings, and let’s utilize them all, as we will, in our life and in our writing. Fennelly, like myself (I obsess this in End of a Sentimental Journey), and like you, isn’t content with this diminishment of her options to 2.
JK: We will be a virgin and a whore, or neither. Whatever the poem wants.
SV: Yes. I am not really interested in the rest of the world deciding what I am based on the fact that I have had children. I am very much still a whore. Very much still a virgin. Very much a buttfucker. Very much a tree hugger. I contain the multitudes and I’m not willing to pretend that I don’t..
JK: Right on.
Another resistance to kids I feel comes from second wave feminism. The message I got from second wave was: A baby will mess up your life; you will not be taken seriously. I felt pressure from the second wave against both having babies and writing about them. Feminism supports comments like “babies are just content.”
This second wave pressure has not been mitigated by third and fourth wave feminists. Should I feel at ease being a writer with a child? I do not feel at ease. I still sense the pressure against women having the vote!—the suffragettes feel present to me. The trash talk about Hilary Clinton (however you feel about her as a politician—she’s trashed as a woman) and the eye-rolling about kids and the people who didn’t want women to vote in 1918 and the people who throw fetuses at abortion doctors are a single force, even though they come from different quarters and different times.
SV: I don’t feel at ease, either. I have had many of those same experiences—have felt actually scorned by second wave feminism in ways that confused me deeply when I was younger. I love second wave feminism. I love its activism. I love its rigor. I love its victories. I take none of it for granted. But it certainly didn’t finish the job. And I consider much of my work in feminism to be around mothering. And around race and around neoliberalism. I am a devout third-wave feminist in my joy about a plurality of feminisms at work, not always on the same things, not always in the same ways, not always in complete agreement, and learning from each other. I don’t need there to be One Right Feminism—but a leftover feeling from the second wave is discomfort with feminists who choose, for example, to mother. I feel that.
JK: I was at a panel recently where one of the speakers said she hated children. It’s always a laugh line. I wonder when hating kids became something writers tacitly agreed to find funny, or at least appear to. What does that mean?
SV: In my graduate courses, I have heard not just other students, but professors, plural, while in the classroom, say that they “hate kids.” Kids might be the last group of people that you can publicly say you “hate” in academia. Kids are the hungriest, poorest, most physically vulnerable group of people in the world, depending how you want to group people, and yet they are targeted with that kind of intellectual hatred? I think the people in those classrooms mean something different, and I wish they’d be more specific.
And I also think this “hate” is the same response that mothers and babies in poems run into. Not just misogyny but also conflation. We’re conflated with an entire set of politics because the right and far-right have come up with, for example, their very sad “family values.” A definition by which I understand that my family, thankfully, has absolutely no values.
JK: It is well documented that women weren’t supposed to have kids, are overlooked for jobs, and/or booted off the tenure track after having a baby. Scores of tenured women don’t have children.
SV: In the academy, I’ve heard poems that reflect women’s lives more than men’s lives referred to as “kitchen poems,” “bitch poems,” etc. I heard a (tenured, male) professor say of one poet: “I liked her first book but now she’s in the baby stage. I’ll read her again when she’s done with baby poems.” By these kinds of statements, you and I quickly learned, when we were young poets, that there is a certain content that goes unquestioned in American poetry, and there are other contents that carry the weight, the gravity, of assumptions that are made about them. And yes, I think the “weight” and “gravity” are ways of saying gender and race and class and sexuality. Just as young fiction writers learn that their female characters must be “likeable.” And so on.
JK: I was talking to Tim Liu recently, who sometimes uses the word “cock” in his poems. He had sent out several poems with lots of “cock.” They were quickly rejected. He then tried an experiment and, as he said, “castrated” the poems. The cockless versions were all immediately accepted for publication.
SV: Holy shit. What word would you substitute for baby? In my most recent manuscript I have been replacing “baby” with “coin”—satisfying like popping an enormous zit.
JK: That perfectly describes the feeling I had when babies first started appearing in my drafts!
SV: Joy, I have to ask about your book. So often in All You Do Is Perceive, the baby produces a response in the narrator, in the “her” (in you?) that is somewhere at the intersection between thinking/feeling: that is neural. Is nerve-like: tingles down the spine, hair standing on end, hair activated, the voltage, “thinnest pins to vibrate,” and “her scalp, filigreed all over, electrifies.” I am absolutely fascinated by and enamored of this in your book. You have found a language, and a phenomenon, that begins to link the intellectual and physical qualities of “the mother” and her response to an infant. I want to know anything at all that you can tell me about these images, this language, this instinct/ thought/ sensation for you. In “Mother’s Love,” the fibers, the filaments, the veil, the net, the sparks, the hairs on arm—interconnectedness of mind/body? Of mother/baby?
JK: Those images record physical sensations. This mind/body connection circles back to thinking-as-experience.
You know the cliché of new mothers becoming “stupid,” losing themselves to deadening routines: changing, feeding, napping. The cliché of being merely creaturely? What people think of as “stupidity” — another name for “the baby stage” that male professor sneered at — is the stage when a mother’s (or a father’s) mind becomes attuned to something imperceptible to an outsider. On the outside, it’s hard to tell what’s going on with the mother. Merely creaturely: but instinct is a highly evolved form of intelligence.
When I was 6 or 7, my friends and I took turns brushing each other’s hair. We brushed it till we couldn’t speak, and our hair stood up on end. This sensation was sensual, connective. It had to do with trust. When I was with the baby, that same feeling came back. His sounds, the gestures he made with his arms, brought it back. The connection being formed between me and the baby was, literally, electrical. I adopted him. Neurobiology shows that human brain chemistry changes during maternal bonding. Brain activity is electrical. When I watched him, I felt I was being intricately wired. I wanted to record that sensation. It became images of filaments, circuits, and pins, which are literally conductors.
Here’s a question about End of the Sentimental Journey. There’s a funny conversation in it between five Readers about a contemporary poem. Their dialogue is so collegial; they talk about a poem being like a “Cincinnati bowtie,” a “Pasadena steamer,” a “successful glass-bottom boat.” Eventually your book gets to the definitions of those darling-sounding terms. A glass-bottomed boat is “putting plastic wrap over someone’s face and taking a shit on it.” The “donkey punch” involves hitting a woman in the back of the head. When my students read what the terms actually refer to, they were shocked, and they found the book sad. Can you talk about using the coded language of fetish maneuvers?
SV: What I am trying to identify is the gendered part of “reading poetry” that remains unacknowledged, even to ourselves. I dive right into the absurdity of the sexual equivalents in that “conversation” because I can’t escape the absurdity of sexual equivalents I feel hanging around the reception of so much poetry by women. And even whole poetry careers of women.
Joy Katz is the author of, most recently, All You Do is Perceive, a finalist for the National Poetry series and named among the best books of 2013 by the Kansas City Star. Her honors include fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, a Pushcart prize, and a Heinz Foundation grant for her work-in-progress about race and voice. She teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pa, where she lives with her husband and young son.
Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent are Arco Iris (Saturnalia Books, 2012) and End of a Sentimental Journey (Noemi Press, 2013). She is a recipient of a 2013 National Endowment of the Arts Grant for Literature, and her book Viability was selected for the National Poetry Series by Mary Jo Bang, and is forthcoming from Penguin in 2015.