“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.

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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

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

  1. Cate Marvin says:

    Hey, Ladies. This conversation is so profoundly moving for me. Actually, it freaked me out a bit– maybe because it contains all the things I worry about all the time but somehow manage to tamp down. Lisa, I’ve also had to decide whether or not it’s okay to welcome children into my poems. (They don’t appear often– but my daughter is a staunch figure in my life, and has thus shown up in a poem or two, whether I’ve liked it or not.) Eula, I know what you mean about feeling like writer who’s had a child. I don’t find myself changed. At the same, time, Suzanne, I find myself utterly changed. I am just the not the same person. But I’m also exactly the same person. It feels weird to me sometimes how *normal* it is to me now to have Lucia in my life. A friend commented the other day one how “obviously” it’s “so much work, so hard.” I know it’s hard (I spent three hours putting Lucia to bed this evening), but it’s also just part of my life. It’s no big deal. But it is also so complicated. Thanks, thanks, thanks, you three, for articulating so many of the complexities inherent to being a writer . . . and a writer who has a child . . . and a writer who is a woman who has a child. I should add that I am pretty certain I would have never started VIDA up (with Erin Belieu, who is also a mom) if I hadn’t of had a kid– because, like you said, Suzanne, you just stop giving a shit about what people think. I’ve become much more political since I had a kid. Because it doesn’t seem like it’s worth it to waste any time NOT saying what’s on my mind.


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