Tara Betts: Lady in the House Questions

What has been your ultimate journey?

To keep writing in spite of challenges and finding a way to break through to inspiration. I still think I have some journeys to undertake to fully explore what the ultimate one might be.

How do you start? Where do you end?

I often start with a snippet, a phrase, an overheard comment, a quote, an image, or and obsession. Once the idea stays or leaps onto the page, I know I’ve started something good. I end when I hear the tone of finality in what could be the concluding lines or sentences.

Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?

I usually classify myself as a black-identified woman of interracial descent, but I think I also classify myself in a number of other ways that are not gendered, class-oriented, or race specific. Poet, amateur foodie, avid reader, music lover, Midwesterner, an oldest child, the only daughter, aunt, teacher, professor, I’d say I’m attached to these views of myself and several others that make me more in touch with my humanity.

When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

The wall that I might leave intact is the one that provides a useful structure like a poetic form that guides me to completed work. I knock those walls down when I seek to fuse unexpected lexicons in various discourses so people understand that my nuanced and multiple identities as a writer, with history and varied interests, still has room to analyze, question, and dream.

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Tara Betts: Lady in the House Questions

“Beyond this point there be dragons”: A Conversation With Eula Biss, Suzanne Buffam, and Lisa Olstein

Poets Eula Biss, Suzanne Buffam, and Lisa Olstein talk about motherhood: the strange or wrong or wonderful things about it; as a heightened place of dissonance; as a way of looking at the world, the self from a lens never before experienced prior to becoming mothers. Provocative questions are poised—“Can the ‘bond’ of early childhood become a kind of bondage?” Wow!—while they share with us the shifts, the impact motherhood has had on their writing practice and approaches, and the different places they’ve come to inhabit—consciously and unconsciously—because of it.

HER KINDHer Kind: Lisa, Eula, Suzanne—it’s great to have your voices here! Welcome to the Conversation. To start you off, I found this interesting quote from the essay “Chi/Ori, or, the Mother Within,” by Chiwenye Ogunyemi, and in it, she writes: “From a literary perspective, Chi as inspiriting muse gives the writer the courage and determination to institute, identify with, or counter a discourse. Traditionally, it is the mother who teaches the child to express the self in words and to develop the tactics to cope successfully in conflict, hence the primacy I accord the Chi as mother.” Was your mother (or a mother-figure) your Chi?

Lisa Olstein: And so opens the Pandora’s box of motherhood . . . archetypal and lived, idealized and real. Was my mother my Chi? Is motherhood an inspiriting muse? Yes and no. It’s complicated. Even if we accept the premise that traditionally it is the mother who teaches the child to express the self in words, this teaching is necessarily in concert and in conflict with, in response to and in reaction against. And I don’t accept the premise: it’s too simple, too essentialist to reflect my experience. Yet it points us in good directions, both in terms of the questions it raises directly—the foundations of self and expression in language and as writers—and the questions it raises indirectly—the definitions and expectations of “motherhood” and how they’re framed.

I’m blessed with a wonderful mother with whom I’m very close, but as someone addressed as “Mama,” “Ma,” “Mooom,” a hundred times a day in tones whispered and hollered by a three-and-a-half-year-old bursting with newfound language and assertions of self, presently the focus of these questions naturally shifts from the perspective of daughter to that of mother. Watching language and self develop together has been fascinating at every turn. For a long time, just as every aspect of our son’s daily life was created and monitored by my partner and I, so his language was fully knowable. In the beginning we kept counts and lists: there was a first word; then there were ten; then, even as they were plentiful enough to make tracking them ridiculous, we retained an intuitive sense of their scope, always knowing when a new word was being tried out, always able to trace its provenance. That quickly became a distant past. Now language—and through it, self—is a dizzying reflection and interpretation of disparate and vivid sources: the world of our home, the world he inhabits with peers and teachers, the world around us that filters in unpredictably, the worlds of his books, music, and shows—most especially these days, the world of the Beatles, his current obsession.

Just as a vocabulary unfolds, so do the many and complex structures and functions of language. Rhetorical argument, humor, negotiation, praise and damning, how words save us and how words fail us, the play of sound—these are the developing currencies of language between us now, language that yes, once was unspoken and between our bodies alone; language that yes, as a mother I have everything to do with but also very little at all. Watching a child gain language is watching a brain wire itself up and a reminder that though once thought to be exclusive to early childhood, this wiring and rewiring keeps occurring every day of our lives. Likewise, entering into and existing within “motherhood” is a sticky encounter with discourses, some of which we identify with, some of which we invent, some of which we need to counter.

Suzanne Buffam: They are hard discourses to navigate, aren’t they? My daughter will be three next month, and she’s already internalized some pretty strongly normalizing codes, however open I try to keep her horizons. Yesterday she came home from a party with one of the strangest cultural objects I have ever seen: a plastic talking piglet, fuzzy and white, with pink peace signs all over its body. It guzzles from a baby bottle, and when you pull its curly little tail it giggles and says things like: “Hi! My name is Veronica! I write for the newspaper! One day I’m going to be a famous writer! LOL! Awesome!” It’s a truly bizarre piece of garbage, and she loves it. And why shouldn’t she? After all, it promotes peace! It sends an intellectual message to little girls! It uses multi-syllabic words and says, “Let’s investigate!” But, on the other hand, it seems like a perfect example of what Žižek has hilariously named the “chocolate-laxative structure” so prevalent in American culture. Here! Eat this chocolate-covered laxative! It will cure you of the constipation caused by that chocolate bar you just ate! Every ill can be cancelled! Žižek applies this structure to a range of ethical, political, and capitalist landscapes, from the humanitarianism of figures like Bill Gates and George Soros to the closeted anti-Semitism of the movie The Sound of Music, and it certainly seems rampant in evidence throughout the landscape of marketing toys for little girls—and so much of the discourse around motherhood.

I’m a long way from having sorted out this landscape for myself as a woman (I’m wearing assertive looking high heels as I type this), but you’re absolutely right, Lisa, it does seem that this wiring and rewiring keeps occurring every day of our lives. And so yes, part of our job as mothers must involve teaching our kids to cultivate as nuanced a resistance as possible to the myriad discourses that seek to define us. And as writers, to be alert to the way language itself can create new possibilities.

As for my own mother, I spent much of my teens and twenties, through the haze of my dawning feminism, in confused reaction formation against the choices I felt she had made for herself. And when my own daughter was born, my mother flew across the country to devote her life for two months to helping me adjust to the radical shock of motherhood, an act for which I’ll be grateful for life. I have no idea what’s in store for my own relationship with my daughter, but I imagine that whatever equilibrium we ultimately find, it’ll be at least as hard-won as the one I have with my mother.

Eula Biss: I, too, am suspicious of the premise that the mother teaches the child to express the self in words. And in general I’m suspicious of many premises that assume the child as a product of mothering. This is not to suggest that mothering is not significant and essential work, but just that it doesn’t resemble the work of an assembly line or a factory or even an artist. I was raised, in many ways, to be an artist. And now that I know how very difficult it is to establish oneself as an artist, I’m deeply grateful to my mother for creating the expectation that I was already and would be in the future an artist. But I still resist the notion that she “made” me an artist, as I suspect she would as well. There is a certain kind of discourse around motherhood, intended to be empowering and celebratory I think, that expands the realm of the mother well into space that more rightly belongs to the soul or God or something ineffable and unnamable. And I’m not convinced that we are served, as mothers or children, by that over expansion or exaggeration.

“As nuanced a resistance as possible to the myriad discourses that seek to define us,” strikes me, Suzanne, as a perfect articulation of my imperfect efforts. A friend of mine just adopted a baby and she mentioned thinking, while out on a walk with her dog on a leash and her baby in a carrier, “I must look straight.” I felt some version of that quite powerfully right after my son was born—I had the sensation of having been drawn into some sort of normalizing discourse in which I didn’t belong. . . .

LO: The radical shock and the normalizing discourse. These are two of the strongest currents—cross currents—of my experience of motherhood. Both are expansive in their reach; both feel simultaneously deeply personal and absolutely cultural. And they must be related. Conventions and so-called norms serve all kinds of purposes, function in so many different ways. The shock—physical, emotional, logistical—of the experience and the radical reinvention of so many aspects of self and life (from the way your body operates to how you spend your hours to how you are seen by and see the world to the introduction of new forms of love and loss) create, potentially, at least, real motivation to seek out order and the security of known or knowable forms. Likewise, the intense female-oriented power of the context seems an obvious place where cultures would want to assert themselves—patriarchies in one direction, perhaps, and then our reaction to this, leading sometimes, it seems, to a pressured cycle of diminishment and exaggeration, although even as I write it I know exaggeration is the wrong word. I honestly don’t think exaggeration is possible here (although reactionary thinking and hyperbole certainly are) but there is something that occurs: a rushing in of expectations and judgments implicitly and explicitly imposed. In relation to these I frequently feel miscast along the lines of “I must look straight,” and I also recognize what feels like a genuine shift in reality. I inhabit a different place since becoming a mother. Some of it is superficial bullshit. Some of it is circumstantial. Some of it reflects my individual experience of something profoundly human. Many of these dualities surface in parallel form when thinking about motherhood in relationship to writing.

 EB: Can you say more, Lisa, about how this manifests in your writing? I’ve been writing a lot about vaccination since my son was born, and one of the ideas I frequently encounter in my research is suspicion of the “mainstream,” as in the mainstream media or mainstream medicine. Because of writing on this subject, but also because of mothering, I’ve found that I’ve been forced to think about my relationship to the mainstream more than ever. In my life before motherhood, I believed the concept of the mainstream was mostly mythical—I didn’t believe any actual lives conformed closely enough to any set of norms to really qualify as mainstream. Everyone is too young or too old or too black or too female or too queer or too fat or too weird to be “normal,” I thought. And I felt squarely outside the mainstream myself, probably because my primary identity was as a writer and I’m fairly clear on my relationship to mainstream writing—I’m not part of it. But all of this has been complicated by motherhood. I might now believe in a mainstream, or at least in the force implied by the metaphor behind the word—a strong current that carries one along in a certain direction unless one fights out of it. I’m aware that many of my decisions as a parent could be regarded as “mainstream,” and I find myself participating in the cultural moment so much more fully, or with much fuller awareness, than ever before. But maybe because of the powerful cross currents of shock and normalcy that you speak of, Lisa, the waters feel muddy—I find myself confused, on a fundamental level, over what I myself regard as strange or wrong. The breast pump, for example. There’s a chocolate-covered laxative.

SB: That’s a great one, Eula. Any woman who’s hooked herself up to a milking machine in a bathroom stall at the office has probably got a few things to say about the dissonance in this country between, on the one hand, the bullying discourse around “family values,” and on the other hand, legislation of maternity leave!

Having a child has definitely caused for me a “genuine shift in reality.” It remains to be seen just exactly how this will manifest in my writing—I suspect it will be a long time before my next book is done—but there’s no question it will. I can’t possibly be the same writer I used to be, since in so many ways, down to the cellular level, I’m so profoundly not the same person.

For one thing, I, too, find myself forced to think about my relationship to the mainstream more than ever, since joining the ranks of the regenerative. As a result, I think, my focus as a writer has become more political. For a long time, I was pretty convinced that as a writer, and as a woman writer specifically, I would never have a child, I would never quite fully participate in the regenerative project of the species and would therefore never live the kind of “normal” life I saw happening around me. (My formation as a writer to some extent, I think, involved a naïve narrative of myself as someone who would occupy a contemplative space outside an imagined mainstream.) My concerns as a poet were largely of a metaphysical cast. Well, of course, having a child has radically altered my relationship to time, and to our times.

One of the things I’ve been working on is a series of lists, somewhat in the manner of the lists in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. But where Shōnagon’s lists tend to explore largely aesthetic categories, mine increasingly seem to lean towards the political. To a large extent these lists give me a way to explore the muddy waters you mention, Eula, where I can think about all those things that I find strange or wrong, and with which now, as a mother, I’m so directly required to interact.

What about you, Lisa? Eula asked you a question, and I jumped in first. I’d love to know what you’re working on and how your practice as writer has changed, if it has, since becoming a mother.

LO: My practice is, ahem, evolving. Before having a child I didn’t usually have trouble finding time to write and was able to go with a process that was a combination of regular-enough diligence and feeling-it inspiration. Now it’s a lot more complicated. Since my son was 10 months old I’ve written almost exclusively on mini writing retreats, 2-3 days away in a relative’s empty house, binging on solitude and pent-up need. It’s a very imperfect system as I’m only able to get away irregularly—sometimes it’s three months between stints, sometimes six. This is borderline intolerable and it’s an old story and an ongoing one; I know it will remain a challenge, but I also know it will change, in part as my kid gets older and more independent, in part as I grow more accustomed to a home and a self in which my concentration and my time are infinitely more divided than they were before becoming a mother. Incidentally, going away from one’s young child to pursue one’s art or career is no simple terrain in and of itself—logistically, emotionally, and in terms of normative expectations. I remember, just before going onstage to read, being asked very earnestly by a friendly woman whether I felt “so guilty” for traveling to the reading and thereby being away from my then two-year-old son for two days. Although taking time apart from him is never simple, my immediate reaction was, “No!” and I bet a father—my partner, for instance, who travels regularly for work—would not be asked the same question.

The (hopefully) less pedestrian effects of motherhood on my writing dart in and out of my understanding like slippery fish. On the one hand, the things that have changed and the things that have remained the same are so fundamental—cellular, I think you said, Suzanne—that they’re difficult to isolate and impossible to predict. On the other hand, I’ve become aware of having real trepidation about writing from a place of motherhood or “about” having a child, a sense of “beyond this point there be dragons.” I realized this when at a friend’s wedding just over a year after my son was born. A writer I hadn’t seen in a long time asked after my family and my writing, saying “Your poems must be full of babies!” My immediate and truthful answer was, “No, not a one.” And then I thought, uh-oh. Just as I hold tight to the conviction that there’s nothing I have to put in a poem, I also believe there shouldn’t be anything I can’t put in a poem; and here I was, very much not integrating into my work this major shift in reality. So, I began to wonder, what are the dragons, what are the internalized judgments? Fear of sentimentality, marginalization, being too close to see, being autobiographical in a way I wasn’t interested in, or possibly, wasn’t comfortable with. Having realized my taboo, I set out to counter it and wrote a suite of poems very much about new motherhood, finding a way to come at it that allowed for the combination of intimacy and distance, me and not me, that felt right at that time. Now on the other side of those poems and the collection they’ll be published in, I’m sort of feeling my way, trying to let children appear in my poems when they’re compelled to, but also trying not to feel compelled to include them or to chronicle that part of my life any more than I feel compelled to chronicle any other part of it. Recently, and for the first time ever, I’m finding myself drawn to collage, centos, and an adapted kind of erasure. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the questions and circumstances of motherhood, but it might . . .

SB: This all rings immediately true for me, Lisa, in particular the “there be dragons” feeling. I minored in Women’s Studies in college and came out on the other side with an increasingly strong aversion to writing that I perceived as having limited its scope to “identity politics,” to writing that foregrounded one aspect of a person’s identity at the expense of the others. The problem of writing “about” motherhood still frankly terrifies me; but on the other hand, it does seem to me that if one can find a way to be true to the complexity of the experience, while also opening onto all the other subjects that provoke one, the charge of sentimentality won’t stick. Or that’s my hope, anyway. Congratulations on the new book, Lisa. It sounds like exactly the kind of work I want to read right now. Interesting, too, about your current interest in adapting others’ language—maybe a pendulum swing away from the intimacy of your motherhood poems?

EB: Lisa and I talked about these dragons early in my work on this vaccination project, and I wondered to her whether I might be responding to those sentimentality and marginalization issues by wrapping my work on motherhood in a cloak of medicine. Now that my research has led me to a better understanding of the historical relationship between mothering and medicine, I’m less concerned about that and have come to understand this project as a way of addressing the intellectual demands of motherhood. The physical and emotional demands are tremendous, but it’s the intellectual demands that I’ve been most compelled to address in my writing. And one of the interesting shifts that I’ve observed in my writing since becoming a mother is that it seems to have become more heady—more philosophical, more deeply meditative, more concerned with morality, more informed by Sontag, say, than Didion. The other interesting change I’ve observed is a new gravitation to the long form. I thought I would write many short little pieces in the years immediately after my son was born, as I knew my time would be fractured and I’ve always been more comfortable in the short form, but I’ve worked almost exclusively on this long project and have found that the most productive way for me to use fractured time is to maintain one sustained work to which I can return whenever the opportunity arises. I, too, feel fundamentally transformed by the experience of having a child, but I’m still somewhat surprised and even discomfited by what has remained static. I expected to become a mother through having a child, and what I’ve found is that I did not become a mother so much as I became a writer with a child. I don’t know if this means anything to either of you two, but it has been one of the more difficult parts of all this for me. I suppose I thought I would temporarily shed my writer self and enter some pupal stage where I was solely a mother, then perhaps emerge as a wondrous hybrid of both. And I don’t mean to be overly compartmental about this and suggest that you can only be one or the other—I’m just still disturbed, a bit, about how at odds the project of writing can feel to the project of mothering. . . .

LO: Eula, I hope you’ll say more about your sense of the intellectual demands of motherhood—just reading your articulation of it fills me with a sense of relief. Why? I don’t want to diminish the physical and emotional aspects (nor do I think you do!). In fact, I think both of these terrains are teeming with important, provocative, deeply interesting issues that I’m hungry to see delved into. I think the relief comes because this hunger is for an intellectual engagement with these terrains and for recognition of the intellectual work of motherhood as a terrain in and of itself. Perhaps part of what makes becoming a mother so intense is that all three of these realms assert and reassemble themselves simultaneously and idiosyncratically within us while at the same time we’re bombarded with a slew of new expectations and cultural constructions (they were all around us before, but didn’t quite apply to us yet).

The identity piece you’ve both pointed to is at the heart of it: Suzanne, when you talk about the things you find strange or wrong that you now have to interact with more directly, and Eula, when you say you thought having a child would make you a mother but you found instead it made you a writer with a child. What did you unconsciously think you’d become that you didn’t? Any time I’ve approached an archetypal moment or participated in a culturally determined ceremonial act I’ve come out the other side feeling confused. Marriage, for instance. I remember after the ceremony feeling uncomfortable because I didn’t feel different. I wondered if I or my partnership was somehow flawed because I didn’t feel more transformed. I wondered if it was the way our culture both clings to and guts ritual. After having my son I didn’t feel like a “Mother,” I felt like his mother, or, rather, like me with a whole new set of experiences, responsibilities, and questions. I feel honestly transformed, but also very much the same, which veers easily into wondering if I’m not transformed enough. I say this from a position of feeling very strongly attached (to use some early childhood development language) to my son and vice versa, but the experience is part of a larger grappling, I think, with the way in which motherhood is a heightened place of dissonance between the real and the imagined, between experience and projections of and onto it.

EB: I became pregnant just after completing a demanding book project and I have to admit that I believed motherhood might be a place to rest my mind until I was ready to engage again with intellectually challenging questions. Ha! On reflection, there might have been some internalized sexism at work there. Or perhaps just naiveté. I found, even before my child was born, that the intellectual questions presented by motherhood are broader, deeper, more pressing, and more relentless than anything I’ve encountered as a writer. There’s the question of what it means to live a “good” life, which opens out of the desire to give one’s child a good life, but unfolds into so many other questions—is a good life a comfortable life or an enjoyable life or a life in which one is improved as a human being and made “good” or a life in which good works are done—and what are good works and what does it mean to be a good person? This is all before the birth of the child! And then there follow questions about the know-able-ness of another being, the chasm between the self and the other, the degree to which a mother and a child share a self or create a self together, etc. Even more practical questions like whether the baby should be left to cry himself to sleep can expand out into difficult questions about the distinction between needs and desires. And then there are questions about discipline, made all the more complex for me because I am an artist who sees herself as practicing a discipline that requires significant personal discipline. And so, as someone who fundamentally values a number of forms of discipline, how do I administer discipline in a way that teaches discipline? Is hitting as a means of administering discipline wrong? Why? If my child is “mine,” is my relationship to him anything like the relationship between an owner and a slave? Can the “bond” of early childhood become a kind of bondage? And what is the purpose of an education? Even if you limit yourself, as I have in my vaccination project, to the questions raised by routine medical care, the terrain is vast—political questions about our rights to our bodies and our children’s bodies, moral questions about serving the common good, epistemological questions about how we know what we know and what forms of knowledge production we do and should trust. . . . But then of course part of the difficulty of all this is that engaging every one of these questions and unfolding it to its true dimensions is not necessarily a productive approach to parenting. I remember my father saying, kindly, very early in my son’s life, “You might be over-thinking this. . . .” Then I correct for that, in order to remain functional, and end up under-thinking elements of my son’s care that deserve more thought. . . . Oh, to just be writing a book!

LO: This speaks so deeply to the innate paradox at the center of the experience: the extraordinary power and the extraordinary powerlessness of mothering. On the one hand, at least in the beginning, you invent everything—their being, the world they inhabit, their relationship to that world—and on the other, you usher them into a reality that you realize perhaps more than ever you have no real control over. After giving birth I felt immediately that I’d never needed the world and the support of other people more. (This was probably the result of a complicated combination of deep animal urge and rational calculation—both my son and I got infected during an extended labor and I was very aware that we easily might not have survived in a world without antibiotics.) And I also began to experience something that would unfold over many months, that is, the way having a child shifts on a visceral level your relationship to the world and to the fundamental issues that shape your life. This is hard to describe, but you do it beautifully, Eula, in your articulation of the questions that suddenly must be re-addressed on levels both philosophical and practical. In addition to inventing a new way of loving, of being in love, motherhood tears away the protective skin you’ve spent years developing—the conscious and unconscious intellectual and emotional choices you’ve made about what to let in versus what to keep out, which injustices or risks to actively engage with versus which to let pass by as not your fight, and, most of all, the distance you’ve managed to achieve between yourself and the painful or the insolvably difficult. Suddenly, you are responsible for this utterly vulnerable creature and he or she becomes a lens through which every question and risk can be re-imagined by virtue of his or her potential to experience it. Since writing is a primary way I know myself and the world—a means of both discovering what I think and feel and a way to expand and challenge what I think and feel—I, too, experience an increased need for it in the face of so much intensity and also as a refuge from that intensity.

I was just talking with some friends about the mythic nature of family and home from the child’s point of view—how influential the constructed context is, but how unpredictable the nature of what sinks in, what sticks. It brought to mind for me two instances when my mother’s non-normative interpretation of the world broadened my sense of things in a lasting way. The first was her response to a neighbor who’d stopped by the car window to chat as we were about to pull into our driveway. She announced that she and her husband were getting divorced and my mother’s response was an even, “Oh, that’s interesting,” rather than an assumption-laden expression of sympathy. The second was her insistence in a conversation we were having when I was twelve or thirteen that if my father cheated on her, it wouldn’t matter to her whether it was with a man or a woman, what would matter was the infidelity itself. I was shocked and I remember arguing that this couldn’t possibly be true, that if he cheated with a man it would mean he was gay, which was an entirely different and overwhelmingly important matter. She calmly and consistently disagreed, and as much as I didn’t understand or even believe her at the time, I think it was a formative conversation for me in the long run in terms of looking at the world, at categories and assumptions and norms.

SB: Speaking of non-normative experiences, I spent fifteen minutes last night scrubbing humus off Veronica, the pink plastic talking pig’s ear, then picked bits of balled up toilet paper out of my daughter’s butt crack in the bath while she squealed and squeezed my nipples. The master-slave dialectic has indeed occurred to me from time to time before in the experience of mothering. Then I went downstairs and turned on my computer and read the latest in the unfolding tragedy of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; shared a link to a petition with my 499 Facebook friends; brushed my teeth, flossed, and moisturized; read a few pages of the Teju Cole novel everyone’s been talking about, which I find increasingly compelling, although I only ever read two or three pages at a time; and fell asleep. For breakfast I ate a chocolate croissant. Earlier I used the word “political” to describe a shift I felt in my work. That’s a bit melodramatic. The shift is really more towards the absurd, which is ultimately how I feel about all these strange or wrong things we’ve been talking about in conjunction with motherhood. And all the wonderful things, too, for that matter. How to maintain the necessary distance? Personally, I find myself turning more than ever towards comedy since becoming a mother, perhaps because the world seems to me such an infinitely more painful place. And joyful, too, of course. An infinitely more joyful and also infinitely more painful place. How to live in two places? That’s the paradox of motherhood.

In a recent email exchange, the poet Kathy Ossip quoted the results from a study about rats, which showed that female rats are “smarter, braver, and calmer” after giving birth. While I might, in my case, substitute “more patient” for “smarter,” (which may in the long run amount to the same?) I have to say this does more or less ring true for me. I care a lot less about what other people think of me, for one thing. And I don’t expect to get results overnight, so I find myself increasingly able to keep my eye on the long game. Which is good news for a writer, no? Do either of you feel this way? And/or does it seem possible to you that becoming a mother, in spite of the near-impossible fragmentation of one’s time it causes, might actually be good for one’s writing? There’s so much overwhelming noise to the contrary (both external and internal), and so few historical precedents, that for a long time I really did feel convinced that having a child would spell the end for me as a writer. Since having a child of my own, though, I find myself having to believe that given manageable domestic and professional conditions (there’s the rub!), the experience of bearing and raising a child must be ultimately enriching for one’s emotional and intellectual life, and, consequently, for one’s writing. Could the odds at which motherhood seems to stand in relation to the project of writing in fact prove to be productive odds? It does, in fact, sound as though that’s already the case for both of you. This conversation has been heartening and profoundly motivating for me.

LO: Suzanne, we both seem to be tracking in the same direction. Maybe because I always revert in part to an “it’s not about about” relationship with poetry, as our time for this conversation winds down, I find myself wanting to think some more about the experiential ways in which existence in the sea of mothering informs and enriches existence in the sea of writing poetry.

Last night I read my son a new book he picked out at the library. In it a very small bear cub is bullied by a very large bear cub. My son still inhabits a protected world: he doesn’t have any knowledge of the concept of bullying or any real experience with it either, despite the wild range of ways preschool kids interact with each other. Likewise, he doesn’t know about all kinds of danger and hardship. He has yet to experience embarrassment or shame, the development of which is an intriguing and excruciating thing to witness (I was present the very first time my niece felt embarrassed and it was incredibly sad to watch that threshold crossed). The big bear’s behavior confused him. Completely missing the heavy-handed message about standing up for yourself in the face of bullying, he asked several times during the story and then later, when waking up in the night, “But what is that big bear so mad about?” I know this protected reality will end soon and I have a million feelings about that. From the perspective of being a poet, though, I realize what an incredible laboratory early childhood is. Just as we watch language develop, we see, and in part share, the experience of human emotion and reasoning as newfound land. There are elements that are there from the very start, there are elements that are learned over time, there are elements that are only brought into existence through the combination of other elements. Somehow this seems closely related to some of the work of poems: to some of the attention they require, to some of the experiences they invent.

And then there’s time, which has come up several times in this discussion. Without a doubt, mothering explodes it. Leaving aside a thousand rants and wistful expressions, I’m interested in how time as experienced in mothering relates to time as experienced in writing poems. Time with an infant or small child is utterly dominated by an insistent present. This present is easily made anxious by irritable reaching after past and future, but even when this occurs, the present reels you back. You can never fully engage with a reality outside of the moment because the moment is too demanding and too uninterested in anything but the now. In certain ways, this is true of poems. Your fidelity must be to the unfolding moment of them—even if that present is deeply marked by past or future concerns—in order for the poem to take on the life of its own that it must.

*     *    *

Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her second book Notes from No Man’s Land received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Her work has also been recognized by a Pushcart Prize, a Jaffe Writers’ Award, and a 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and is working on a new book about myth and metaphor in medicine with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Howard Foundation Fellowship.

Suzanne Buffam is the author of two collections of poetry, Past Imperfect and The Irrationalist. Born and raised in Canada, she teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Lisa Olstein is the author of Radio Crackling, Radio Gone, winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, and Lost Alphabet, named one of the nine best poetry books of 2009 by Library Journal. Her third collection, Little Stranger, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2013. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Centrum. With Dara Wier and Noy Holland she co-founded the Juniper Initiative for Literary Arts & Action at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is Associate Director of MFA Program for Poets and Writers.

 

“Beyond this point there be dragons”: A Conversation With Eula Biss, Suzanne Buffam, and Lisa Olstein

Her Circle

by Shana Thornton

People are becoming increasingly aware of community unification and the ways in which agendas divide us. We search for outlets that bring our voices together in celebration of diversity, creativity and empowerment. With businesses and governments across the world dominated by men, women see how critical it is to speak up and support one another in these achievements. I became involved with Her Circle, an online magazine of women’s arts and activism, with these concerns in mind.

Since 2008, Her Circle has existed in its present form, which includes journalistic articles and interviews with socially engaged authors, artists and activists. We also offer our readers four blogs, as well as book, film and exhibition reviews. Our One World Café podcast series provides authors with an opportunity to read from their work and to have meaningful discussions about socially engaged topics in an audio format.

Currently, Her Circle is an unincorporated collaborative project with a mission of emphasizing women’s literature, arts, activism and the intersection of the creative arts. The magazine is written, edited and published by volunteers from the US, UK and Europe, as well as voluntary contributors from across the world. We strive to bring awareness to organizations with a mission of bettering the lives of women and girls, as well as women working in the environmental arts.

Within the past four years, our volunteers have increased our readership and expanded our outreach. Our two literary blogs provide valuable information to writers and those interested in current political issues and literature affecting women. The Writer’s Life blog has grown from weekly guest posts into a home for professional writers. Traci Brimhall, Lauren Nicole Nixon, Naomi Benaron, Jyl Lynn Felman, Terri Giuliano Long and Amy Wright contribute advice on all the aspects of writing— from book touring, the inspiration of performances, and writing prompts, to the disappointment of rejection, the new landscape of indie publishing, the personal journey of the writer and more. The Writer’s Life is a resource for every writer at any stage of her career.

Shared by Kate Robinson and Marina DelVecchio, two writers who focus on the politics of feminist literature, our second literary blog, InContext, offers a feminist discourse on current political and social trends. Kate and Marina also welcome guest bloggers to contribute articles about literature and current events.

We also host two arts-based blogs, Femmage and Eco Arts Notebook. The creative arts blog Femmage features discussions centering on styles in feminist modern and contemporary art. We’re currently seeking a weekly writer for Femmage. Interested writers should visit Her Circle’s website for more information. Finally, the blog Eco Art Notebook, created by Cathy Fitzgerald, showcases environmental artwork and the politics of global sustainability.

Created by Misty K. Ericson, Her Circle began in 2005, as an online literary journal, which has since become Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Literature, an annual print journal published by our parent collaborative project, The Institute of Arts and Social Engagement. Magnolia is a creative writing journal, and the submissions are judged by a guest author and selected for publication in the anthology. This year’s judge is Karen Connelly. Our second edition of Magnolia will be available for purchase in June.

Our future goals and challenges include seeking incorporation and filing for non-profit status. We are truly a grassroots project, with a publisher who designs the Her Circle website, as well as Magnolia. Since we are all volunteers, our time often slips away with other jobs and responsibilities, but we are diligent in continuing our work which inspires more women to use their voices and work with us in bringing awareness to individuals and organizations seeking to better the world and their environments.

Her Circle

She Comes to Look at the Shape of her Future

by Olivera Jokic

Mother has come to visit again. Some months after she first saw the city, a few years ago, I saw her in Serbia; she and my father live in the same apartment where I grew up. She said, “I think I’m starting to like New York.” It’s fairly clear that she doesn’t like it much. She has told me several times over the years how wonderful it must be to live in smaller American towns—wouldn’t a house with a yard be just lovely?

Still my mother actively likes whatever is my life—from strange fruits and vegetables to long rides on the subway and people whose lives she will never understand. All her movement is a result of my “ambition”—a personal fantasy about the shape of my daily life that took me beyond any lives my parents could have anticipated. We must all like New York because I say this is the way we live now. And I must know since I got this far.

No one born to my parents could have been expected to live in New York. They grew up and met in what Europeans, the recalcitrant feudals, still call a village. My father wanted to go to the same high school in the big city that her brother went to, and somehow (we may never know exactly how) they started dating. My mother still likes tending plants and eating fruit straight off the vine. When in New York, she likes “nature”—the large parks, ocean views and well-kept gardens. Prospect Park is better than Central in that it is “more like nature.” That I am teaching literature at the college level, in English, in the United States, is, according to my mother, one of the great mysteries of life and of the universe at large. I usually prefer a causal explanation for the way we live now, and that one tends to refer to Yugoslavia, a not entirely mythical land we ran into the ground in the 1990s.

In that land, my parents were peasants miraculated into the cities by the great visions of social mobility designed to protect Europe from the return of fascism. My mother says she comes from a “backward” family; “traditionalist, uneducated, poor” is what she means by it. Her father was never allowed to go to school (why bother when you know you’ll herd sheep for the rest of your days) and her mother was a girl (no explanation required). That my maternal grandmother was illiterate I realized only a few years ago, long after she died; it had seemed clear when we were very young that my grandparents were pretty smart—keenly perceptive and often very funny—but they certainly never read to me.

My mother lived in her parental home the great leap into progress ordered by the anti-fascist state by means of a radical redistribution of wealth and access to public education. Because they were from the “passive” regions, my maternal grandparents were encouraged by the socialist state to move from their mountain in Montenegro to the Pannonian plains of northern Serbia to practice more modern agriculture. They moved twice: they went back after the first time because their parents found the whole project inconceivable. It was a meaningless life they were after! They didn’t know anyone! But they moved to the strange life again, learned how to play a nuclear family, and because they did, got to let their children stray somewhat from the traditional plan. They got to educate the girls as much as the boys, and feel like they were shaping their own lives more than anyone in their family ever could before.

The flight and the transformations could be breathtaking. Children of illiterate migrants grew up without indoor plumbing, but the children’s children could go to good schools, learn foreign languages, watch foreign films and play the piano, as my sister and I did. In a country that promised to correct historical injustices, women were educated and (at least nominally) paid at the same rates as men.[i] Growing up in a smaller city in that country, I never met anyone whose mother didn’t work. My mother took it for granted that her daughters were going to college, but appears to have envisioned little else. There wasn’t much to envision, she recalls: I was going to do much as she did in her twenties, perhaps a little later and my mother would understand me better than hers ever could.

Historian Carolyn Steedman has written beautifully about women who chose not to become mothers or chose not to mother the children they had. These were women, Steedman wrote, who deliberately chose not to replicate their lives.[ii] Not so my mother’s peers. They were good: they did as they were supposed to do and not one of them would be caught dead saying she regretted her choices. That women didn’t ask much about motherhood as a process or a condition of social recognition bespeaks a kind of great optimism about their chosen path—the only path there was. There was no doubt their life was worth replicating: women were the force that commanded the shape of the ordinary and the domestic in families shuttling between rural and urban lives. Even if this negotiation was relentless work, it was also wondrous self-fashioning made ordinary, an exhilarating renewal of life’s possibilities. That was the optimism given to their children to inhabit and renew. There was nothing more selfless, and nothing more selfish.

The country’s collapse into a civil war in 1991 brought about an entirely new kind of extraordinary.[iii] What women certainly never counted on were the great scattering of their children all over the world over the following decade and the new shapes and languages of their future. The typical scenario involved the departure of (usually educated) sons, often propelled by the urgent need to avoid the compulsory and evidently criminal military service. Most sons would go off to become scientists and engineers, often with their girlfriends and sometimes new wives, a concession to the world of international migration that favors legal clarity in human relations.  It was not at all common for the daughters to go, not alone, especially not if they were destined to starve in an attempt to support themselves studying the humanities. Once I did that—a “very traumatic event” to my mother’s mind—I left it up to her for years to re-invent her narrative about the future.

Visits to a self-exiled child are potentially traumatic encounters with one shape of the mother’s future. The future may be a fascinating vision that gives the mother some credit for her parental accomplishments, even if she doesn’t speak the language in which this future is unfolding. Or it may be a picture of alien existence to which she is beholden, because she doesn’t speak the language of the future. I continue to translate my life for my mother—the forms of my pleasures, the tone of my friendships, the stories of my days and years. She only gets to see what I show her and hear what I tell her, and that seems to be all she cares to see. Everyone knows that these are the best New York and the best America anyone has ever been to.

It seems curious that my mother should know how to believe me when I tell her what has become of my fantasy about living far from the location and most references of my childhood. But women who rarely asked why they had to do as everyone else excel at tarrying with the negative. Life is what it is—the life of service, the faith in others’ goodness, the patient anticipation of rewards, the pride and the reconciliation (never disappointment) with the look of the future. My mother restores childhood to my project of rootless existence—in her my self-making meets its limitations, its banality, and its optimism. Since I’ll have to preserve myself before I can have the undoing, maybe I should first tell her what I’d like to eat this week. She knew what agreed with me long before I did.


[i] The tradition often lived in the mothers’ professional choices that routinely paid them a fraction of what the fathers made. Teachers, nurses, cooks, but also doctors, were all paid not very much. My father, a geologist, always made three times what my mother, a math teacher, did. When my sister was in medical school, the combination of low pay and emotional drain was offered as an explanation for women’s strong interest in the field.

[ii] Steedman’s work has not been published in Serbia. If it were, my father would be the most avid reader of Steedman’s descriptions of the life of his mother.

[iii] A historical anthropologist should write about what happened during the war at the level of domestic life and especially about women’s strategies of procuring and cooking food in the conditions of scarcity, power outages and hyperinflation (sometimes as high as 300% a day). Men’s lives, worthy objects of study in their own right, gravitated, often overnight, towards underground business dealings or a complete abdication of responsibility for understanding what their world had turned into.

She Comes to Look at the Shape of her Future

Epic and Jazz

by Robin Coste Lewis

When I was an undergrad, if you wanted to study Greek myth and literature, you majored in the “Classics.” But if you wanted to study epics and myths by brown people, you had to major in anthropology. The curriculum was patchwork, haphazard, unserious. If you got lucky, a professor might tack an epic or myth on their syllabus from a region you hoped to study—sometimes. But epics by people of color were and still are studied outside of the high-walled category of “literature.”

So I learned early on that in order to find the inspiration I was looking for, I had to leave my American notion of writing behind. It was immense to be relieved of the expectations the American canon placed on literature, immense to be relieved of the holy individual. When I was too young to understand expatriatism to be a real possibility, studying these myths was a way to live elsewhere. Myth is a home for the imagination. It is the imagination’s playground. It is also a refuge for the soul. These epics were so dynamic, the landscape so vast and playful, that studying them helped heal a lot of the damage inflicted upon my creativity via colonial education.

So I’ve been wondering lately about finding sustenance from other genres, other art forms. I read a great deal of poetry now, but when it’s time to work, my writing is sustained by the mythology of South Asia and Africa. I’m compelled by this history, and the vestiges we still carry into our every day lives.

Another strong influence I have is an obsession with the independence struggles that took place from the 1940s through the 70s internationally. I keep returning rather habitually to those decades. Within this, the art form with which I find myself most engaged—for refuge and inspiration—is jazz. So, it seems that no matter where I turn aesthetically—from architecture to cinema—all of the work was produced either within the ancient colored world or within the context of anti-colonialism and the verve toward independence.

Why epic? Well, for one, these myths are just a helluvalot more fun than what I was used to. The work is so prescient, so giddy, so scandalous, so philosophically devastating—all at the same time. A king is arrogant, so a god changes him into a woman. But then, when the king learns his lesson and the god is ready to change him back, the king refuses. He loves being trans, he says. He doesn’t want to go back “because women experience more pleasure.” Or in another myth someone falls head over heels in love with someone else, but their love goes unrequited, and they both die remembering each other. And then, absolutely no big deal centuries later, these two lovers find each other again, in different bodies. But now they’re enemies on a battlefield. And just as they meet and are about to bludgeon each other to death, they remember each other, lay down their weapons, and embrace. Or more commonly, one remembers and the other doesn’t. Or say you have traveled for a lifetime, walking toward Heaven. Say you’ve lost all of your family, except for a stray dog. And out of nowhere, along the roadside, a pond begins to speak to you, questioning you for hours. Depending upon your answers, you can or cannot enter Heaven. Or perhaps the most devoted god of all is a little monkey. Or the goddess’ child is an elephant (long story). The deities fly, they ride on tigers or giant eagles. The Ultimate returns again and again in different animal forms. I know: he is a boar sometimes. But in one incarnation he sleeps in the middle of the primordial sea, atop a bed made of giant cobras, symbolizing the scintillating energy we all have hissing so beautifully throughout our own bodies. What’s not to love?

I’m also obsessed with the aesthetics of this time, especially the work of 10th century saint and grammarian, Abhinavagupta. He wrote magically about the power of suggestion in poetry. I think his suggestion is what we now call silence. Poetry is supposed to ravish us. Art should leave us mute. We shouldn’t be able to look away. A poem should take us by the neck and drag us into the moment or sensation it creates. But rarely, it’s been said, are we willing to give ourselves over, so the artist must have a clever aesthetic. Suggestion, says Abhinavagupta, is one way to achieve this.

So, for example, say you were a musician and wanted to suggest the experience of longing. You might play a long thirty-minute rag one evening. You would choose a note or beautiful chord and play all around it, even bending the notes to almost touch the note, but never ever play it. And of course, the audience, without knowing why, will begin—subconsciously—to long for just that one note. Instinctively, their desire will build. They will grow uncomfortable, something subtle will gnaw. And then, just when the note’s absence becomes unbearable—like a kiss—you play that note. You riff all over it. And the audience is relieved, and leaves grateful for having been escorted on a journey from despair to release. These are the kinds of aesthetics that compel me.

Of course, Sanskrit poetry isn’t the only literature that relies so masterfully on suggestion or silence. For example, writing about haiku and renga, Robert Hass said, “There is nothing quite like this…in the western literary tradition. The nearest to it, perhaps . . . is the American jazz band of the 1920s.” Later he says, “. . . the nearest thing to Basho’s hokku in the West in the twentieth century is Louis Armstrong’s solo in ‘Tight Like That’ or ‘Potato Head Blues’.”

This connection between jazz and haiku comforts me a great deal. I know there is this much-trumped myth in American letters that all poets descend from either one of two camps: Walt Whitman’s or Emily Dickinson’s, but what if your calendar goes much further back than all that? What if you grew up in a culture that had nothing to do with the literary projects of Dickinson or Whitman? Poet Reginald Harris recently made an astute observation about this. He said, “The Whitman/Dickinson thing is easy . . . too easy . . . facile really. Maybe even a tad lazy. Are the blues more Walt or more Emily?”

I think the blues are ancient. And jazz is the blues’ twin sister. And so jazz is another ancient influence to which I turn almost daily. The music is contemporary, but the aesthetic is as old as rain. I’ve learned a great deal about poetry by listening to great female vocalists like Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, etc.—that whole astonishing cadre of black female genius that walked the Earth for a few decades, belting. To me their work reflects some fine mysterious line between history and the individual. They knew how to take the ballad (a literary artifact) and empty it out, making every word theirs. They made English do what it could not do before. And how anti-colonial of a project is that? They could make “Mary Had A Little Lamb” sound like your most profound grief. You were the lamb, and the grass the lamb ate, and you were Mary looking for the lamb, too.

Recently, I’ve been listening to Shirley Horn again (and again). Starting and stopping, rewinding, meditating on the same two bars. No matter how often I do this, I’m always stunned by her economy, how she’s able to reach such sublime heights by maintaining intense restraint. She also has an uncanny ability to delay the rhythm of a song, to play it ever so slowly, and not have it fall apart. But most of all, her impeccable phrasing just cuts my head clear off. Think about her rendition of Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green”—who needs a shrink after that? Or the way she begins the cover “Come in from the Rain” with this resigned and breathy “Well . . .” which is followed by three pulsing seconds of silence before “. . . hello there . . .”— it’s just pure genius.

What’s the correlative in poetry? Enjambment perhaps. Consider Rita Dove’s masterful poem “The Regency Fete” from Sonata Mulattica. It’s a perfect example of how phrasing in jazz might be translated into to an aesthetic practice in poetry. Like Horn’s “Well . . .” Dove’s line breaks function existentially, suggesting sometimes two or even three metaphysical ideas while remaining syntactically sound.

These are the reasons I turn to jazz and epic: the tenderness and meticulous care they take with language’s magic; the joy not simply of articulation but of an articulation made sublime. Of course, what both these forms have in common is timing, breath, rhythm: meter. For me, poetry remains an art of song. If I do my job well, you won’t notice that I’m singing to you, you won’t notice certain meters. Hell, if it’s really good, I won’t notice either.

Ultimately, however, more than any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, epic and jazz remain primary mentors for me because of their ability to elucidate what in life can never be articulated. Every art form has its magic and its limitation. Narrative can only go so far. I love that. That’s when metaphor walks into a room, sits down, crosses her legs, lights a cigarette and smiles at you. Language can point at the ineffable, it can take you right up to its door, it can indicate, but ultimately there is this immense, mysterious—perhaps even holy—silence about being a little bi-pedal being scrounging for meaning. And the irony here is that we writers use language to explore this silence.

How similar then are jazz and ancient literature. Both forms use language to propel us to a place where there’s nothing left to say, or nothing that needs to be said, or nothing that can be said. Ultimately, narrative is not their goal. Instead, it is a tool they use to give the audience a profound experience of its own humanity. Narrative is a tricky ploy to distract the mind, something to give the restless dog in us a bone. But what’s really occurring underneath it all, and so skillfully rendered, is a tender procession inward towards the Self. With musical accompaniment.

Robin Coste Lewis is a Goldwater Fellow in poetry at New York University. She was a finalist for the War Poetry Prize and the National Rita Dove Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, she holds an MTS in Sanskrit from Harvard. She has taught at Wheaton, Hampshire, and Hunter Colleges.

Epic and Jazz

Bomb and Bang: A conversation with Neelanjana Banerjee and Laura Goode

Neelanjana (Neela) and Laura are collaborators on the super-secret blog, Cherry Bomb, which is dedicated to the hilarious, cringe worthy, awful and/or earth-moving story of sexual initiation. Becoming friends while working at New America Media, a multi-ethnic nonprofit news organization dedicated to bringing the voices of the marginalized into the national discourse, Neela has gone on to co-edit Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, and Laura wrote her first young adult novel, Sarah Goes Bang. In this conversation they address how literature and art were integral to their sexual and racial activation, ruminate on their Becoming stories, and as writers—Laura is also a burgeoning filmmaker—are committed to banging out their feminist truths.

HER KIND: Neela and Laura, welcome to the Conversation. It’s so great to have your voices here! To get you all started let’s start with a quote from George Eliot: “Life is measured by the rapidity of change, the succession of influences that modify the being.” Has this proven true for you as a writer?

 

 Neelanjana Banerjee: I definitely notice how as I change as a person, what I am reading and writing begins to shift subtly as well. I have new influences, but also those books that I always seem to go back to, or those that I hold close to my heart. For example, I came to writing as a poet—as I think you did, too, Laura—and I have such a distinct memory of being at a bookstore, I think it was a B. Dalton bookstore in a mall, and picking out a 100 Selected Poems by e. e. cummings when I was around 13-years-old. I remember it distinctly because no one gave it to me, no one pointed it out, no one told me I should read it. I found it by trolling the small selection of poetry and reading random lines. That book cracked open my whole world, with cummings’ syntax and playfulness, and his subtle, precious eroticism. “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond” defined my first relationship. All the first poems, or love notes, I wrote tried—in some small way—to emulate cummings. My poetry has moved away from cummings, and I would say my poetic influences today are writers like Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Martín Espada—who are writing about the same inner world that cummings did, but also writing outwards into what is happening in the world today. But I still have that cummings book, dog-eared and underlined and sacred.

Laura, do you have a book like that? One that you’ve kept, or kept reading, for ages?

Laura Goode: Oh, Neela, I couldn’t be gladder that you started us out with poetry. I am a fervent re-reader, especially of poetry—the volumes that I’ve returned to over and over again are mostly by women and usually feminist, and these were strong, early influences. Anne Sexton’s Love Poems. Eavan Boland’s In A Time of Violence. Anything by Plath, of course, and the entire corpus of Adrienne Rich.  Rich’s recent passing affected me deeply, and I wrote this piece for The Rumpus about my favorite poem of hers, “Modotti.” The poem addresses the revolutionary photographer Tina Modotti; Rich almost stalks Modotti in the poem, mythologizing her, excavating her. Rich writes: “if this is where I must look for you / then this is where I’ll find you.” I feel that way about these early influences, as though I’m creeping behind them, eager just to catch the scent of the breath tossed over their shoulders.

In college, the succession of influences bloomed outward, yes, rapidly into other women poets like H.D., Lorine Niedecker, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, Susan Howe, Alice Notley. Different poets, but as you can see, all circling around the same themes of feminine identity and social breakage. I resent the implication, often, that we have to give up or outgrow our early influences, especially when those influences are often stigmatized, iconoclastic figures like Sexton and Plath. I’ve moved forward from them, but still, like first loves, no one has meant to me what they have, and no one ever will; I stand by them stalwartly. I suspect this is true for many other women writers—Neela, what do you think?

All of this poetic proliferation aside, I think my work is characterized by an almost compulsive refusal or inability to stay within the confines of a single genre; I’m a bit of a genre schizophrenic. Last year I published a young adult novel, Sister Mischief, and this year I’m producing my first feature film, Farah Goes Bang, which I co-wrote with one of my best friends, Meera Menon. Though I vacillate between genres and monkey-swing into new ones, my literary values and influences always remain the same. Meera and I place what we call our “shared bottom line” at the foundation of our collaboration, which is our commitment to representing women in art as women see themselves in life. Both Sister Mischief (SM) and Farah Goes Bang (FGB) are about young women who are DOING something: in SM, four high school girls start an activism-tinged all-girl hip-hop crew, and in FGB, three twenty-something women go on the road to campaign for John Kerry in 2004. Both stories have a sexualized subplot: SM is a lesbian love story between the crew’s co-MCs, and the titular protagonist of FGB is on a transcontinental mission to lose her long-lingering (as she perceives it) virginity. In this way, I think throughout my twenties I’ve written not exactly a coming-of-age story, which implies an endpoint, but rather an ongoing Becoming story, over and over again, one that mirrors how my own becoming was activated by language and literature.

The Becoming story, as I see it, is initiated with what author and VIDA board member Cheryl Strayed calls the Genesis story—Strayed calls the death of her mother her Genesis story, and that concept fascinates me. I’ve thought about it, and if I had to name my own Genesis story, I think I’d have to point to the experience of falling in love with a woman early in college. Neela, what would you call your Genesis, or Becoming, story, and what do you think of those concepts?

NB: You mentioned Anne Sexton, who was another poet who I read ferociously. I remember passing her Love Poems back and forth with a girl in high school who taught me how to be tough and sexy, which were such taboo identities for a South Asian girl. It felt so transgressive, and I got in trouble for submitting slightly obscene poems to my high school’s literary magazine. I still often think of the last line of “The Kiss”: Darling, the composer has stepped / into fire.

Yet, I had a period in college when I was slightly ashamed of the fact that an all-white cast of writers raised me: cummings, Kerouac, Plath, Sexton, etc. My sophomore year at Oberlin College, I got to take my first formal creative writing class with poet Martha Collins (who is writing really interesting poetry about race now), while I was living in Third World House and wrestling with my identity as a person of color in America. So, I definitely abandoned these literary heroes for a bit, though this moment helped me to discover new influences like Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni, among others. After college, when I moved to San Francisco, I was completely swept up and inspired by the amazing Asian American spoken word scene that erupted in the early 2000s: Chicago’s I Was Born With Two Tongues; San Francisco’s 8th Wonder; Ishle Yi Park. I even wrote this Fangirl tribute back in 2001.

But I had to really critically think about my influences as one of the co-editors of the first ever South Asian American poetry anthology: Indivisible. My co-editors Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam and I spent years discussing American poetry while we were finalizing the fifty-two poets who make up the book. It was during these years of critical writing and conversation, that all my first literary loves showed up again and I was able to claim all of my influences and use them as a way to think about what other poets were doing, what poets they were writing about and against, and realizing that being a writer of color, a South Asian writer in America, can be such a myriad of things—especially as a poet. For example, Monica Ferrell writing about Renaissance princess Beatrice D’Este, or Maya Khosla writing about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In a way, I think this struggle with identity, and being a person of color in America, has a lot to do with my Genesis, or Becoming story. Right now, I am working on a novel about a young Indian woman who is sent to live with her grandmother in India after she is found cutting herself after a relationship gone wrong. I’ve actually been working on this story for years, and I am so inspired by you, Laura, because where I am stuck is that my narrator is coming off as a victim. That is what I am trying to address in the rewrite I am currently working on: How can this young woman have control over her own sexuality? Alicia Erian’s Towelhead is one of my favorite novels, and she does something AMAZING in that book where the teenage narrator’s situation is completely terrible—she is in a dangerous sexual relationship with her adult neighbor—but you sympathize with her and are made to really, viscerally empathize with her point of view. Erian manages to pull off what you talk about, Laura—what you did in Sister Mischief, and what you and Meera do in the screenplay for Farah Goes Bang—which is to show complex female characters who aren’t just controlled by the men, or society, around them but reacting in real ways to sexual issues that are messy.

What I think is really inspiring about your work, Laura, that relates very much to what my work is about, is that you are unafraid, in fact, dedicated to representing diversity. Both Sister Mischief and Farah Goes Bang have characters of multiple ethnicities and sexual orientations. Your work is not in an “ethnic silo,” as our old boss Sandy Close often talked about. Yet, it doesn’t smack of the cheesy “multiculturalism” of the 1990s, or of the tokenism that you see in mainstream popular culture today.

Can you talk a little about why you are making those choices in your writing, any other writers who you admire who are doing similar things, and maybe some actual mechanics of it: Do you do research to get it right? Have you gotten any backlash about doing it?

LG: Neela, your words are of great value to me, as they always are, and I am humbled and flattered by your commentary on my work. I think what you call my dedication to diversity arises from largely the same sources that yours does: from a shame-tinged realization which arrived in my late adolescence, that while my influences had once felt far-flung and diverse, they were actually very limited in terms of class and racial origins. I grew up in an almost all-white suburb, attended one of the wealthiest universities in the country, and my education overall was very much steeped in the Western canon.

It seems a little context might be fitting here: Neela and I became friends when we were both working at New America Media (NAM), a multi-ethnic nonprofit news organization that devotes itself to amplifying the voices of the underrepresented—immigrants, people of color in general, the elderly, the incarcerated, the young, the poor. Though it was also a complicated one, it was a radicalizing experience for me, one that thrust me so far outside my previously established comfort zone that there was no way I could ever re-inhabit that zone. Never have I felt more aware, or self-conscious, of my whiteness and privilege. Never have I felt more daunted by the volume of that which I did not know. And never have I learned more about how to relate to experiences outside my own with compassion and curiosity instead of tokenism, tourism, or bias. It was a profoundly humbling experience, and a transformative one, in which I was shown a tremendous amount of generosity and patience by people who somehow understood that my intentions were good even as I struggled to climb the learning curve. I think you might call it a consciousness-raising experience: I saw things that, once seen, I couldn’t stop seeing.

Though my fascination with identity politics long predated my time at NAM, I would absolutely point to that experience as the one that galvanized not just my interest in, but my commitment to diversity in representation. It is hilarious to me, Neela, that you would ask whether I research the experiences outside my own that I write about, when you have so often and generously been a source of that research. Another bit of context: one of the main characters of Sister Mischief, Rohini-called-Rowie, is a Bengali-Indian American, and Neela was a wonderful fountain of information about Bengali culture as I was writing Rowie.

You ask if I’ve taken any backlash for writing outside my experience, and I am absolutely astonished to report how minimal it’s been. This was my biggest fear about writing SM: that Indian Americans wouldn’t feel Rowie was true to their experiences, and that the hip-hop community would interpret my characters’ engagement with hip-hop culture as appropriation. (I feel compelled to note that I think appropriation and even fetishization are actually very true to the adolescent experience—when we’re figuring out who we are, we try other people on.) This hasn’t at all been the case, and I regret to report that I assign that mostly to the white dominance in the reviewing population. I’d actually love to be taken to task more—I wanted to incite and engage in those debates, and no one really bit my bait.

Rowie brings me to your victimhood point, Neela—I think you raise a really interesting question, which is how can we portray a character as having deep, paralyzing flaws, vulnerabilities, or even failures, without treating that character as a victim of herself or her circumstances? This was a line I feared to tread with both Rowie and Farah: I knew that both of them had to fail themselves and others in some way, but I was so afraid of pinning them in a model-minority box, or of making them weak in any way. I realized, eventually, that it would be much more destructive to hold either of them up as a perfectly idealized character—that idealism, that reductiveness, seems the hallmark of the cheesy Benetton-ad 90s multiculturalism you name, Neela. I think you have to let your character fail herself, as long as you allow your readers the satisfaction of seeing her rebuild herself. Sometimes we have to be victims first in order to teach ourselves how to be agents.

It strikes me, as we discuss all these revelations, that you and I hold in common a sort of activation through literature and art—a sexual activation, a racial activation, a multi-pronged activation that affirmed for both of us in so many ways that language is an instrument of empowerment. It’s exactly the sharing of that activation that makes me so delighted to be collaborating with you on Cherry Bomb, and now is probably a good time to get into that: Cherry Bomb is a special companion project to Farah Goes Bang, and we’re structuring it as a “secret” blog of named or anonymous stories of virginity loss. I was shocked, as I think you were, to discover that this forum didn’t already exist—the sexual loss of innocence is such a fundamental and transformative experience, yet as a culture we don’t acknowledge it publicly. The purity myth is alive and well enough to shame most of us out of owning our sexual initiations, whatever they are, and the entire ethos underpinning FGB is a movement against that shame.

Neela, you responded so instantly to the concept of Cherry Bomb that I knew immediately you were the right partner to spearhead it with me. Why did Cherry Bomb grab you? What void do you perceive it responds to? I’d also love to talk about the variety of stories we’ve already received for CB, and the challenge of treating stories of nonconsensual or ambiguous sexual initiation with care—how do you regard that challenge?

NB: Actually, I’ve always been fascinated with virginity stories. For a long time, I thought about making a documentary where I asked South Asian Americans about how they lost their virginity, since sex and sexuality were such a strained issue in our community—even among my generation. So, I feel like editing Cherry Bomb helps me address that interest. (I’m also currently reading this amazing recent anthology, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, which I think addresses these complicated ways identity and sexuality intersect. Highly recommended!)

I think giving people this secret space of Cherry Bomb allows for a real conversation to start happening about sex, sexuality, virginity, and, in a way, gender, since both women and men—and other genders—are admitting to the whole spectrum of “cherry popping” from innocent love to nameless lust to meaningless rites of passage. We are definitely not seeing sexuality discussed in this candid way in the mainstream media (really, a 90210 sequel?); and we know that conservative male political leaders and talking heads are trying to pass damaging policies about women’s bodies and making violent statements about women’s agency on the daily. So, it’s been so refreshing so far to be able to read people writing about this huge moment in their sexuality with so much honesty. I’ve used this article by Steve Almond about sex writing in writing workshops for years, and I’d say most of our contributors have got it down: the contributions are often laugh-out-loud funny, but there are moments of beauty and heartbreak, too. And, yes, it is a very touchy subject and we clearly explain our intention to honor all experiences in the editorial policies for Cherry Bomb. I think this space, similar to what we were talking about before in wanting to write about the bad along with the good, holds true here as well—and I feel so grateful that people are sharing their stories with us. It is such a great way to support the creative vision for Farah Goes Bang, with these powerful confessions. The first month of submissions has been amazing, and I am really excited to continue this project throughout the production of the film. (We are continuing to look for submissions, so those interested should check out our submission guidelines and submit their stories to farahgoesbang@gmail.com.)

Speaking of Farah Goes Bang, as you go from the internal creative process of writing and revising to the hardcore, manic sprint of trying to make an indie film and turn your vision into a reality—can you take us out of this awesome conversation with a few sentences about what that’s been like, and how people can help?

LG: For me, the greatest aspect of film and theater production, as opposed to the solitary writing process, is the kinetic opportunity it provides to collaborate with brilliant, creative, energetic people like Neela, Meera, and the rest of the Farah Goes Bang team. There is truly no greater pleasure than being surrounded by smart people who have accepted the call to a vocation of imagination, and are willing to do whatever it takes to build a ship of dreams. I’m so, so blessed to work with my FGB collaborators every day.

We’re plunging forward full steam ahead: we’ve just crowdfunded about $75,000 on Kickstarter, and will begin production in early June. At this critical juncture, there are so many ways in which we’d be grateful for help. We love connecting with people on Facebook and Twitter, we’re thrilled by the accelerating mass of submissions to Cherry Bomb, and we love it when people visit our website and consider making a donation to our production. We’re in this not just to make a film, but, as Meera would put it, to bang our feminist truth out on the streets, to build a community and a movement behind candid, truthful representations of the female experience.

I would never ask anyone to support a project I didn’t believe in with a whole heart, and I believe not just in the quality, but in the necessity of Farah Goes Bang more than I’ve ever believed in anything. Women need to see themselves reflected onscreen in a way that truthfully expresses the range of our experiences: women who are diverse, complex, and whole, not just girlfriends, wives or accessories, but women who are agents, authors, and doers. I’ll spend the entirety of my life and career advancing that mission, Neela, and what I love most about you is knowing that in your own uniquely beautiful way, you will too.

*     *     *

Neelanjana Banerjee’s creative work has appeared in PANK Magazine, The Literary Review, World Literature Today, the Asian Pacific American Journal, and Nimrod among others, and is forthcoming from Breaking the Bow: Speculative Stories Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, 2012). She is a co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. In 2007, she received an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has taught writing and media skills to youth through the San Francisco WritersCorps and YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia. Her journalism has appeared in Alternet, Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, HTML Giant, Kitchen Sink, and more.

Laura Goode is a novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and poet based in San Francisco. Her first novel for young adults, Sister Mischief, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011, and called a “Best Book of 2011” by Vanity Fair online, as well as “a provocative, authentic coming-of-age story . . . full of big ideas, big heart, and big poetry” by Booklist in its starred review. Laura’s poems and essays have been widely published; she received her BA and MFA from Columbia University. Her first feature film, Farah Goes Bang, co-written with Meera Menon, is in production. Visit her at www.lauragoode.com and on Twitter @lauragoode and @farahgoesbang.

Bomb and Bang: A conversation with Neelanjana Banerjee and Laura Goode

Coming Back to Me

There is much said, I believe, about the people, especially other women writers, we hold dear to us. They are the ones that we hope will whisper in our ears when we are stuck with drawing forth just the right word, turn of phrase, or element of a scene or dialogue.

It’s become politic to name them as influences, well, because they do influence us, and for certain, even with all of our efforts, they are not named often enough: women that write from the heart, for justice, celebrating life, and in the face of death. These women, and writers, and icons, and geniuses, and sheroes should be exalted at every turn. They should be lifted up through our prose and through our praise whenever we possibly can. And we should return to the altars we erect to them through the calling of their names again and again.

But in the sometimes small, cluttered, awkward and lonely space of wrenching words from our dreams and visions onto digital screen or even (still) paper, I think there are other influences that many of us return to. They are not celebrated. We don’t lift them up. Unnamed and uninvited, they seize and captivate us in a place of breakdown rather than ushering us into the open air of breakthrough.

They are our limiting habits. They reveal themselves as negative self-talk, defeating our potential triumphs at every turn. They inhabit our mind and our body and we confront them, consciously and not so much, at every turn:

That was dumb.
You’re not going to be able to finish this.
Not that many people will even see it.
Why did I take this on?
This is never going to be any good

Or we just spend time avoiding our craft altogether. Distracted by food, fretting or Facebook. The time ticking away, speeding us inexorably toward our deadlines, with anxiety levels rising in direct proportion.

We give it different names: inner critic. judge. resistance.

Whatever the name or the behavior, these are the uncelebrated influences that we return to again and again. But what are they, really? And from whence do they come?

All habits reveal themselves in the body. However subtly, the unconscious, undigested material of internal conflict and tension; past trauma and the toxic by-product of under-supportive caretaking rages around in our bodies, spilling over into how we be in the world, in our relationships, and yes, in our writing.

For those of us that have developed sophisticated self-talk—the voices we hear in our head—if you listen closely enough, you’ll realize the voices are not your own, after all. They are the voices of your father, mother, slightly sadistic auntie Shirley and crotchety old granddad. More often careless than malicious, they infected and influenced our developing minds far beyond the moment of their misplaced words:

You got a B+? It was an A last time.
Not now, dear. Show it to your father.
Yea, yea, that’s nice kiddo.
Would you please go do that someplace else?
Girls should play with dolls.
Why are you always in your room by yourself?
Why can’t you be like the other kids?
Don’t you have a boyfriend yet?

To get where we all are. To call ourselves writers, to claim the mantle and to press forward, means that we’ve developed coping mechanisms to beat back and paper over the memory of those dark moments. But to get to be our full selves, to write with freedom from the pain and oppression of the past, means we have to do the work of letting go of those influences, rather than returning to them again and again.

Many of us covet that stuffed down pain, hold it close to us and deem it our muse. Some of us have written volumes from it. We replay the struggle of overcoming that which would have our voices silenced. The sign of our victory being each completed piece. Each deadline reached. We prove the naysayers in our head wrong. In fact, our creativity feels intricately woven with repeating this battle. Drawing our dark influences forth, we resist, flee, then turn and fight, bringing them to their knees, finally emerging victorious, only to fight the battle again some day. We are inspired by our suffering, so in it, we must live.

We fear losing our fears because they’ve become how we know who we are. We cling to our habits because they define us and give us a story to tell. No matter that the story imprisons untold possibilities for who we might become should we no longer inhabit the struggle against those influences.

I suggest there is another way. That liberation and inspiration are not mutually exclusive. We can be both creative and unhindered. That to finally vanquish those influences is the only way for our writing, and our selves, to be truly free. In doing the hard work required to release the habit of suffering that we have found strange comfort in, we give ourselves the gift of entering the unknown and stepping on the path to who we truly are.

To meet ourselves and be inspired by who we find and to be able to return to time and time again, is the greatest influence every one of us deserves.

Coming Back to Me