Jennifer Givhan Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Jennifer Givhan Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
First, congratulations! Your collection Landscape with Headless Mama was selected as the winner of the 2015 Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry contest and will be published next year. This is your first book, though you’ve been working hard with at least two or three other manuscripts making the rounds, rising to the level of finalist or semifinalist in good contests. Can you tell us about this struggle? Now that this one is taken, how do you feel about the others and their chances? Are these all very different books? What can you tell us, specifically, about Landscape with Headless Mama?
The seed of Landscape with Headless Mama grew out of an earlier manifestation of my very first poetry manuscript Red Sun Mothers, which I’m still working on and sending out to contests. So the heart of the collection that won the Pleiades Prize is a decade old and began with my struggle to become a mother—through a failed marriage, infertility and adoption, and ultimately pregnancy and birth. I’ve been writing and rewriting this collection all these years, overhauling it with each success and setback (i.e., every “finalist” encouragement). The struggle has always been asking myself whether or not to continue sending the manuscript back out as it was written, or to keep writing the poems anew, honing my craft and sharpening my images and themes with each new iteration. While the beating heart beneath the surface is the same for both collections, the poems themselves in the final version of Landscape with Headless Mama are very different than Red Sun Mothers. Another major difference is the lens through which I examine the narrative in each of the two collections; Landscape views motherhood and the speaker’s relationships through the lens of hereditary mental illness and personal familial myth whereas Red Sun Mother tends to look outward toward cultural and social implications of childrearing and child loss.
I realized that these were two separate collections when I began work in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, for which I had to write all new poems (no older work allowed). Even though I was writing all new work, my themes were nearly identical. One instructor jokingly commented that I was writing the same few poems over and over, as if trying to get the one idea right, but instead of revising the one poem, I just kept trying again. Maybe this is true. But I tend to think that each poem was re-examining the issue from a different angle, a different perspective, a different aspect of the truth—since there is no one “truth,” but there are various ways of looking that together may form a kind of true thing.
I think of Tony Hoagland’s essay on obsession in Real Sofistikashun; he says:
“A real, diehard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession in a poet is nothing less than a blessing. The poet with an obsession never has to search for subject matter. It is always right there, welling up like an Artesian spring on a piece of property with bad drainage… A poet without a true obsession, a foundational fracture, a mythic wound, may have too much time to think.”
The poems in these two collections are artifacts of digging up my mythic wounds, and while they do have surface similarities of theme, they are multifaceted in their individual fissures and breaks.
I think of Landscape with Headless Mama as a surreal how-to “survival manual.” Its framework is inspired by the artwork of Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington, three Mexican surrealist women I adore, whose work and lives have been incredibly inspiring and buttressing to my sense of myself as an artist.
I’m also working on revising a novel, In the Time of Jubilee, and sending out a completely new manuscript, mostly unrelated to mothering, titled Einstein’s Imaginary Daughters, which reimagines the fairytale of Rose Red and Snow White (whom I call Rosa Roja and Nieve Blanca) from a Latin@ perspective in a desert circus landscape. I have high hopes that these projects (along with Red Sun Mothers) will all find homes. The struggle for getting my work out there has been real, but I am dogged in the face of rejection—I am relentless and have the utmost faith in my work. I might not always believe in myself (in fact, I often tend to think too negatively of myself), but the poems I know in my heart are speaking truths and will find their readers. With each failure, I try to figure out what I can learn, how I can improve my craft and what new perspective I can see from, what new facet of the truth can be gleaned and what new form will best hold that shining gem.
I found an interview with you online called “Letter to a Young Poet,” and in a follow-up question you write, “I would like to begin interviewing other mother poets, writers, and scholars, and one of the questions I am interested in is their feelings about their creativity and productivity during pregnancy– or, if adoptive mamas, during their children’s newborn stages.” And so you have, as I find a number of them—including one with recent Congeries poet Julianna Baggott—on your web site.
Obviously, as is revealed in poems featured here and in these interviews, motherhood and the complicated causal chains of culture, politics, and discourse in which it is embedded, is a primary interest for you. I’m thinking here about something Rachel Richardson wrote in a piece in Southern Humanities Review, “Motherhood, though a wellspring of experience, has for a long time been considered somewhat taboo as a subject for serious poetry. That’s the particular reason it interests me as a topic: the dangers are obvious.” Can you speak to how motherhood drives your work aesthetically? How—if you do at all—do you contend with the ages old question of whether motherhood is of a sphere that is less important than another as far as its validity as subject matter for poetry is concerned? Do you think that the potential audience for poems of this sort is now larger than it was, say, twenty years ago? That is, has the feminist project of overturning patriarchal definitions of womanhood and what is appropriate as subject matter been successful in its goals?
I write more now than I did before I had children. More now that I have two children than when I had only one. Yet, even though I know how much I need writing in my life, I feel guilty much of the time.
Adrienne Rich, in her seminal work on motherhood Of Woman Born, makes a compelling argument regarding the social dogma surrounding the mother-child relationship. Women, she argues, are socialized to believe that “mother-love” is “continuous” and “unconditional.” Women are not supposed to get angry, she says, because culturally “love and anger cannot coexist” within the mother. However, Rich goes on to deconstruct that destructive and misguided social view of mother-love. She says, “The physical and psychic weight of responsibility on the woman with children is by far the heaviest of social burdens. It cannot be compared with slavery or sweated labor because the emotional bonds between a woman and her children make her vulnerable in ways the forced laborer does not know.” Rich here theorizes what has come to be a key feminist view of motherhood: it is, like anything else, subject to the ambiguities and ambivalences of human emotion and human life.
Yet sometimes it feels like the taboos of motherhood broken down in the 1970s by Adrienne Rich and likeminded feminist mothers were replaced by something more insidious and deeply woven. The pressures are not as external for all cultures in the U.S., but the social mores strictly defining motherhood and its prescriptions are now internally imbedded; we are our own guilt machines. We mothers bear our own internal failures. We carry the onus within us.
I think of the unattainable striving for perfection I see through the social media mask, all the posturing and false faces we wear there, the identities we create there that hold us hostage. I wonder what does poetry allow us to express that we might feel otherwise unable to? What does creating a myth of motherhood allow us to see/critique about the current reality of motherhood?
I write to speak through this conflict and find my own truths about parenthood as an artist. I write and read others to make those connections, uplifting each other in our shared poetry. As you point out, I also curate an online blog called Mother Writers dedicated to parents (particularly mothers, though I have interviewed men and child-free women as well) as they discuss how they overcome the challenges particular to writer parents, as well as the joys and wonders that come with parenting, the ways that our children inform our work in myriad ways.
My poetry, then, is about challenging the myths of motherhood and selfhood, and about using those myths to find truths in my own experiences and those of the (poetry) familia surrounding and uplifting me.
Is writing about motherhood dangerous? Definitely. But not necessarily because I worry about whether or not it will be accepted or seen as “sentimental” (though I’ve talked about elsewhere about how an editor once advised me not to write “mother bird poems,” or poems that rely on cliché and sentiment rather than providing a diagnosis of the complex emotions surrounding childrearing.)
On the contrary, writing about motherhood is risky for me because it means analyzing and critiquing the very thing I’m pouring my energy and time into right now, the life lived, the life written. It means I’m reliving my shortcomings on the page. As Denise Duhamel writes in her poem “Reading,” “What makes us do it, relive instead of live, go back / and forward in time? It’s like dancing / to empty chairs in an empty room of a closed bar, / your shimmery ghost there long after you’ve left.”
What makes the mother writer go back and relive the tantrums and the short fuses of patience and the history of childhood heartbreaks and traumas (and joys) this inevitably unspools, so that any poem about motherhood for me invariably becomes also one about my own mother and father, about my own childhood, still unaccounted for until I live it again, as a mother myself.
The risk for my poetry, as with anything I ever write about, is survival. I re-member, piece by piece, putting the childhood traumas back together like sewing patches onto my own children’s skin, and when I fail, I write it right. And since I am still living through this, I try again each day with my own children, anew.
What other poets who write about motherhood with frequency do you admire and why?
Sharon Olds has long been a poetry “mother” to me—her poems were the first I read (many years ago when I was earning my Master’s in English and adopting my son) that spoke so openly about childbirth and exemplified the kind of visceral splitting I’d been reading about in the critical writings of Adrienne Rich and Julia Kristeva.
Other poets I’ve found mama-inspiration in are Rita Dove, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Beth Ann Fennelly, Eavan Boland, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Yona Harvey. These contemporary women poets are changing the myths of motherhood, from Rita Dove reimagining the Demeter-Persephone myth in Mother Love to Brenda Shaughnessy creating an entirely new myth in which she and her son can exist in Our Andromeda. We are mothers telling our own stories, creating our own myths through poetry.
I’m particularly taken with your poem “I’ve Carried an Elephant.” You have written that you are interested in “cultural constructions of and attitudes toward the “barren” woman as she emerges in Mexican and Mexican-American literature,” how it “. . . re-evaluates/revises the symbolic mythology surrounding the childless or “infertile” woman by juxtaposing her with differing cultural models of Mexican motherhood.” What can you tell us about this poem, how it came to be, and how it works within this dynamic? Knowing little of your life, it seems that you tried to have children, decided to go the adoption route, and then you and your husband were blessed with a child of your own. Is that right?
I wrote this poem during NaPoWriMo this year! I started a “secret” Facebook group with several poets I know, who then invited their poet-friends to join, and we ended up with a group of about thirty or forty of us who were posting new poem drafts every single day in April. It was amazingly generative and supportive, and opened so many creative wells for me. This poem is actually included in my collection Landscape with Headless Mama, as are several others I drafted in April (and then polished and submitted to Pleiades, where I won the book prize)! So I’m thankful to NaPoWriMo and the energy created there.
While drafting this poem, I was inspired by the paintings of Alexandra Eldridge. My best poet friend Alicia gave me a book of Eldridge’s work a few months ago because she knows how influenced my work is by art and ekphrasis, and Eldridge’s work is described as wrestling beauty out of chaos, creating a spiritual landscape. The particular painting I had in my mind as I began to write is titled “Walk On,” which had inspired another poem I’d written earlier this year, called “Child Loss,” because it spoke to me on so many levels in my own dealings with miscarriage and infertility. Indeed, the metaphor of this painting feels spiritual to me—it evokes the sense of survival in harsh environments and finding grace in loss that so much of my work aims for.
The morning I wrote “I’ve Carried An Elephant,” I had just experienced the conversation with my son that I describe in the poem the night before. As an adoptive mother, it was one I’d been waiting for since I first realized that we were going to adopt, and while at first I’d feared it intensely, over the years I thought I’d made my peace that it was going to happen and that it was more about my son’s experience as an adoptive child than mine as an adoptive mother. Still, when he said it, the air knocked out of me. I felt emptied. The poem came from a place of needing to write for the NaPoWriMo deadline and thinking that I was going to follow a prompt, but instead using that sweeping energy to write, almost frantically and while sobbing, this new era of my relationship with my son and motherhood.
It has long been my goal to reconsider what it means to be a mother. In the Latin@ and African American traditions, from which my children emerge, it is natural for other caregivers besides the biological mother to take nurturing, mothering roles. At the same time, it often feels that biological motherhood is privileged within these cultures. While post-feminist white motherhood doesn’t necessarily have the same cultural onus, as choosing a child-free life is a much more acceptable option now than fifty years ago, even within this framework, the biological mother is still often upheld as a model (the question women are asked is still when not if we’re going to have children, and the fact that people even ask this of young women and not usually young men is telling). When I couldn’t have children and became an adoptive mother, I often examined what it means not to have a biological claim to that child. At my baby shower, for instance, many people didn’t bring gifts because they were worried that the biological mother would change her mind. I couldn’t imagine not bringing gifts to a baby shower for fear that the mother would miscarry. People often made small faux pas in conversations with me, asking about my son’s “real mother,” as if I and the real work of caring for my son were somehow imaginary or less important. Our language reflects our ideals, and I understood these conversations to mean that even though I was a mother, somehow I wasn’t fully a part of the motherhood club. I had no birth story to share. I’d never labored through the night. I couldn’t nurse my son and had no external stitches or stretchmarks to show for the work I’d done in bringing him into the world, for my work was of the imagination, of the heart.
Then, as you rightly deduced, when my son was two-years-old, I became pregnant and was able to carry my daughter to term. She was as much of a miracle as my son, but I struggled with being now on the other side of that divide, that mothering border—of those whose bodies were able to carry a child into the world, and those whose bodies had let go. Because I relate to both. I know the pains and joys of both experiences, and I feel that sharing these stories is still so important. There are many paths to motherhood, and once on that path, infinite possible outcomes. Why it often feels so binary, so black-and-white, I’m not sure.
My family is one example of this: mixed race, mixed biology.
My goal for my poetry is to continue exploring the many cultural models we already have that are often overlooked in the mainstream, and to offer other possibilities for how families can be shaped.
I thought I would feel like a failure if my son ever wanted to know what his life would have been like on the other side—with his other mother, his birthmama. One interesting side note is that he never asks about his biological father, at least not yet. We don’t have any information about the birthfather so couldn’t tell him even if he asked, but it is compelling that he tells me he feels like he has two mamas (like in our favorite show Once Upon a Time, Henry, whose birthmama is the “savior” Emma Swan and adoptive mama is Regina the reformed so-called “Evil Queen”). What this poem explores about family and motherhood is the beginning of a theory, inchoate in my own experiences.
“I believed the burden
was mine & the elephant carries me
across the water…”
My son is teaching me how to cross the borders, or maybe teaching me that there are no borders (though my life’s experiences would tell me differently). He and I are of the imagination, creating each other, creating ourselves, as we travel across.
Your identity as a Latina is important to you. Can you speak to how this reveals itself in your work?
I strongly identify with my Mexican-American culture, my mother’s culture. I grew up in the Imperial Valley on the Mexicali border and identified most with my mother’s family, and my memories are made up of colorful fragments like papier-mâché piñatas and Folklorico skirts. I now live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the images that most often emerge while I’m writing are of the place that informs me—the desert borderlands.
As I said above, influenced by Mexican surrealist painters, my work often uses fantastical imagery as a launching point to give the surreal its own lexicon. Deeply rooted in place and identity, my poems sing of survival and transformation via uncanny versions of femininity. An imaginative nucleus for me is the landscape that flashfloods my childhood sense of the world growing up in the Southwestern desert borderlands and the body-politic of those borders. Women, love and ritual are the main actors in this landscape, one I push into the realms of magic and surrealism. Ultimately, the idea of family is at the heart of my work—as the complex relationships many of us Latina women have with family are both liberating and subjugating, as buttressing as they are repressive. My histories are told to claim my own existence. As a poet, to stand up and say “Here I am” is an act of immense resistance, one that holds strength, an internal generative power that ultimately promises and celebrates survival.
In my MFA program, few of my mentors were able to recommend contemporary Latin@ poets for my reading list; there were a few well-known names, but mostly, they were not sure who I should read. In a UCLA poetry extension class I had the opportunity to take when I was awarded a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2010, a well-known poet, when she asked me who my favorite poet was, and I answered Sandra Cisneros, said, “Well, she’s not really a poet, is she?” Then, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Latin@ Writers’ Conference in my hometown Albuquerque, where I met Rigoberto González and was forever changed by his powerful words and beautiful generous spirit. Latin@ poetics is urgent because we are singing our hearts out, and it’s not entirely clear that anyone in the mainstream poetry world is listening. Not really. I want them to listen. I want us to listen to each other. More than anything, I want us to listen to ourselves.
As one who believes that poetry can indeed matter, what are your aspirations for your work? That is, as one who teaches composition as an adjunct professor, you know that a piece of writing typically assumes an audience and a purpose. Do you have a particular reader or set of readers in mind for your poems? What might you say is your purpose in writing them?
As I hinted at above, my voice is that of a Latina mother, and while I definitely do want to reach other Latinas with similar struggles as my own, encouraging them as I’ve been so inspired and encouraged by other poets, the conversation would become quickly insular and wouldn’t necessarily enact the kind of cultural change I hope for if my poems were not also being read and examined by those outside of my own personal worldview.
I want to expand the conversations of what it means to be a woman writer of color, writing of a particular place. Just because I’m a Latina writing about the desert doesn’t mean that only Latinas living in the desert would find resonance in my work, or just because I often write about child loss and motherhood that only those who’ve experienced these should relate to my work. My goal for my poems is that they speak across these borders, that they find the universal in the specific, that they find transcendence through their very grounded contextualization in individual experience.
I often write to find healing, of the familial generations before me and the generations after. My poems then, I hope, are a kind of bridge.
In that vein, I hope they are enacting healing everywhere they go, speaking my truths and the truths of my ancestors to anyone who needs them, as I’ve so often needed them in my own journey. I want my poems to light up darknesses, not in a sentimental way, not free of ambiguity. I want my poems to delve deep into the murkiness of human emotion and say, yes it is difficult, but still I feel… still I continue.
First Light in Tahoe City
The firs slant toward what sustains them
and what burns them without rain
the way I leaned against you all those years
you brought me home drunk
and propped me on the toilet seat
my head nodding toward sleep, those blinking
white party lights
those sugar pine, those beetles in the bush
as now the years have washed us of each other
now the aspen in daybreak flutter against
morning, and morning catches their
skirts, pins them with light.
I’ve driven all night to see something that reminds me
of you. Now I’m here and the water
shakes its black and the water
pools its light,
it’s like even the mountains gather
the strength to move on.
Reverse: Ten Years Of Marriage
Faucet water ticks & hours drip
from wall to sink, our drain
full with them, our entire mysterious lives.
You tell me of an optical experiment
how our brains pattern dots to control
all that random.
You’ve stopped breathing into my collarbone.
You sleep on the couch though I’ve held
your place in bed.
The luck fountain smells of orange blossoms
& wet copper pennies.
It requires of us these tokens
of belief—(when will we fracture our belongings?)
We are sharp as umbrella ribs loose
from their vinyl & poking haywire
into air, shiny lightning catcallers
come & get me, I’m not afraid of you.
(Not yet.) Breaking lends itself to surreality:
bonefish growing hearts on the kitchen tile,
the hearts, bleating. Some of this makes sense
for we are creatures who long,
& in our longing
connect star-patterns (in the dream, we made home
of meteors & our crashing
meant something) this decade
of wedding cake in its smoke-shade of hunger
tasting of campfire, metallic on the tongue.
My brain draws a heart shaped like a fish underwater
swimming backwards, where upstream
means splitting self from self
the way I wonder how lungfish
feel about deep space, that other separation.
I’ve asked for your lungs so I can breathe.
Mama Teaches Metamorphosis
It’s not the past that troubles, child,
but the future. Go on, haunt it
like the sweet acacia marked for clearing—
See how she lets down her needles, her yellow
buds, her dead finish still good forage
In the yard of the house where you cannot
yetlive, there’s a doorway—
It belongs to you
not for secret passage but for rattling. Try it.
A necessary sound. Oh, you’ll open yourself
like a trapdoor, flashing all your foolish luster
from within your own dark world. Time will come
I’ll show how to etch a diagram
into your body,
That guilt rag
That guilt rag
motherhood will summon back an animal
smell, like something dead already
& damp with your own children, as if
marking them for…
No, we cannot know what ghosts
your lot of dirt as horns shoot up
from the white buffalo’s buried skull. Ride
him past extinction, made of bones or trauma,
of trees that grow from amputation.
I’ve Carried An Elephant
Last night my son said he’ll run away
& find his birth mama.
What of selfishness
can I speak?—the way I wanted desperately
to become a mother & believed the burden
There is a forest in the desert, edging
a shallow brown river. I’ve found
an elephant in the water where no
elephant should belong.
I’ve held a child
in the place of an elephant,
or the elephant became a child
& I held him for longing—
I’m sorry his father screams at him.
If I were braver
I would ashen the sky with fire.
I believed the burden
was mine & the elephant carries me
across the water
when the monsoons come & the river turns.
There is a depth in the forest,
a bank of sand in the depth.
The boy dreams
a heaven into a state
he calls another country
pinpointed on the map of his heart’s bluest walls
surrounded by lakes & the greenest forests—
Can you imagine a forest greener
than your own? Does it hurt to imagine?
Once I found a house of sticks
of cottonwood velvet
stacked toward sky like a pyramid—
the smoke from the chimney never
burnt the house & inside lived a family made of mud
who never washed away
even when the rains came.
One day the house submerged but the smoke
I watched from the back
of my elephant.
Last night my son came downstairs
because he heard me crying.
He held onto me & his words held onto me.
Sometimes I carry the elephant when it grows
tired. Sometimes the smoke grays the sky for days.
Sometimes the rains leave everything unchanged,
mud grows dry, grows thick—
the elephant promises he will never leave.