This is an incredible book (The Baby Book)—focused on your desire and difficulties of having a child. I’d love to hear about the evolution of this book. Did you write most of these poems when you were dealing with infertility? Or did you compose them after your children were born, when you were looking back at the experience? And how many years did it take you to write this book?
Thank you, Nin. So one of the issues the book is deliberately murky about is the chronology and time frame. This is largely performative—dealing with grief is a cyclical experience, at least for me. In practical terms, the book covers more than a decade, from the early poems written when I was just beginning to solidify what I called then “the baby plan”—the desire to have children as a single woman—to the months following the birth of my son, essentially 2002-2012. The composition of the book mirrored that process; I wrote a few poems around the time I graduated (the first was a version of “The Childless Women Talk about Frida Kahlo”), then a substantial batch while I was undergoing treatment for my first child.
I sent this core group of poems out in maybe 2005, after her birth, as a chapbook, then added a section of poems that is largely not in the book anymore, based on some feedback from other writers, including a series of poems called “Notes from Famous Baby Books” (I really liked these—I should do something else with them!). The manuscript lived in a few other forms during this time, during which I was also working on a memoir and my chapbook project Frida Kahlo, My Sister. And then, based on feedback from the CKP editorial staff, I added a number of poems that provide a clearer framework for the book, including “Infertility Sestina,” “Lexicon,” “I Am Sorry for Your Loss,” and the postcards series. There’s no doubt it’s a different—and better—book because of that. That’s probably an unwieldy answer; the short version is it took about a decade, on and off, and I wrote both during the experience and after.
I love the opening quote from Virginia Woolf in which Woolf writes that she doubts any woman has told the truth about the female body. I think you have done just that in this book. You are so honest, open, exposed, vulnerable. Do you agree with that assessment?
Absolutely; I’m glad that sentiment comes across. That quote was my project for the book. There’s no question that it’s difficult material, in some ways very graphic and explicit about experiences that we are told, socially, to keep quiet about. I have a fantastic introduction to poetry class right now, with students writing about rape culture and child abuse, being transgender, dealing with anxiety, depression, ASD and more; to put it bluntly, if I’m asking them to honor those experiences as beginning poets, I need to expect the same from myself. Some readers, including the editor of a feminist press I very much admire, told me the book was “too much.” What does that even mean? But miscarriage is not pretty, and I wasn’t going to pretend it was. At the same time, how do you write a book without thinking about aesthetics? A number of central moments in the book reflect on that problem, including the poems “Metaphor” and “I Draw My Doctor a Picture.”
Do you have any literary role models? Were you encouraged and/or guided by other poets when writing this collection?
The three female artists who meant the most to me in composing the book are all referenced in it in various ways: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and the painter Frida Kahlo. In very different ways, all three of them reflect on what it means to be acculturated as female. Kahlo, especially, provides for me imagery and critical metaphor to talk about reproductive loss; what her paintings do visually I hope I’ve been able to do in text. To mark traumatic experience. To make it explicit. To ask a reader/viewer to look with respect. Her work was on display this past summer at the Detroit Institute of Arts; I went there with two women from my writing group and just stood for a long time in front of her “Henry Ford Hospital,” a tiny little canvas compared to these mammoth wall-sized murals. I was riveted. To see that painting, which was set in Detroit, in Detroit, not far from the clinic where I received treatment, was profoundly moving. Other poets I greatly admire who tackle the question of the female body in all its complexity are Sharon Olds, Julianna Baggott, Rachel Zucker, and Arielle Greenberg. I found Baggott’s book This Country of Mothers, which references her own miscarriage, when I was researching becoming a single mother. I forgot about that poem for a long time, until I needed it, and then reread the book.
In your poem, “Pregnancy After Loss,” you write: Women talk about their pregnancies/not their miscarriages. So true.
Also true, what you write in “Lexicon,” Sometimes babies/ embryos fetuses babies–/die.
You are willing to state the darker truths of motherhood, the dread, the fears, the messiness. But then you have this wonderful and redeeming line: I also know that infertility/ taught me love/ of the most pure and complicated sort.
So you see a silver lining to your experience?
For its frequency—depending on where you get your numbers statistically about 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage—we don’t really talk about it. And we certainly don’t want to acknowledge recurrent pregnancy loss, second trimester losses, stillbirths, late term abortions for medical reasons. I know women who have experienced all this and more. Women dealing with these issues shouldn’t have to look so hard to find narratives and information. It’s generally only after you tell someone “oh I had a miscarriage” that they come forward with stories of their own. I remember scavenging the Barnes and Noble in Plano, Texas following my first, looking for any books about it. Linda Layne’s work was important to me in terms of providing an intellectual framework, and Brenda Miller’s Season of the Body, her essay collection that confronts having ectopic pregnancies, is still one of the most meaningful discussions of loss for me.
I don’t know that I’d frame it as a “silver lining,” but I’m also a person who sees experiences in multiple ways. I met some amazing women as a result of infertility, my doctors obviously, and some kindred spirits I met online through the ALI (Adoption, Loss, Infertility) blogosphere I found when I was trying to conceive my son. The photographer who took my author photo, who is now a good friend and collaborator, I met at an event hosted by her organization “The Art of Infertility.” And, in very practical terms, I wouldn’t have my children if I weren’t open to donor gametes and alternative means of conception. Love, yes, of the most pure and complicated sort.
There are many powerful and scary poems about the mechanics of getting pregnant. I say, scary, because I detest hospitals. And perhaps in contrast, you have beautiful, if also medical, images of the female body in poems like “Shell.”
My relation to the medicalization of the female body, of reproduction and fertility, is, as you note, complicated to say the least. Because I was a single woman using donor sperm, my approach to family building was necessarily medicalized; I was a fertility patient before I was even diagnosed as infertile, if that makes sense. (By contrast I know women who are clinically infertile but not have the experience of being a patient at a fertility clinic, because they adopt or decide to live childfree or don’t pursue treatment.) The opening poem “Infertility Sestina,” as well as “I Am Sorry for Your Loss,” are attempts to think through those situational differences: as the poem states, I wanted to be a single mother but there was a black hole in my uterus, not a baby. The poem “The Fertility Patient” also does important work for me in terms of reclaiming experience, responding to medical treatment and insurance diagnostic codes. While those terms serve a purpose they are also alienating; what does it mean that treatment for pregnancy loss is coded as “obstetrical care,” for example, on a hospital bill? One of the most important interventions in this book for me is reclaiming some of those experiences; to be crass, when I left the clinic my medical chart was in three file folders held together with rubberbands and tape…that’s a lot of words, not mine, about what I experienced.
On the other side, I’m glad you like “Shell,” which is an attempt to render in artistic terms the otherwise sterile, clinical experience of undergoing transvaginal ultrasounds to check for follicular growth. Follicles, embryos, endometrial stripes—all very lovely once you know what you’re looking for. And both my reproductive endocrinologists used metaphors to describe what they saw. An embryo and a yolk sac as a diamond ring, for example. The acronym for assisted reproductive technologies is ART, and it is unquestionably artistic, beautiful, as well as scientific and “cold.” To be crass, I wouldn’t have my kids without it, and there is literally not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that journey. But it was also brutal both physically and emotionally. I hope the poems taken together convey some of that complexity:
After your struggle to get pregnant, you pull me up short with your poem, “The Childless Woman Has a Baby,” in which you say that when you finally have a baby, you are unremarkable. I am so taken with both your poetry and your insights into motherhood. But I can’t imagine you feel unremarkable, maybe because the book is remarkable.
One of the things I struggled with—still do, to a certain extent—is reconciling the fact of being infertile and a survivor of recurrent pregnancy loss with the experience of also having my family be complete. Both of these realities are true, and that’s something I hope is honored in that title. But infertility is quiet and invisible, not marked on the body in overt external ways, particularly following the birth of a child, and even during pregnancy. When I went to my two-week checkup at the obstetrician I sat there and sobbed; even within that context—even with six different diagnoses that added up to “high risk” written at the top of my chart—the nurse couldn’t see why I was so emotional.
Some women are more easily able to ‘move on’ following infertility treatment; by contrast, I think, for those of us who have issues with pregnancy loss, the experience follows us into pregnancy and beyond. With both my kids I was desperately afraid of SIDS; while I don’t think that fear is unique to women who have undergone infertility treatment, I think it takes on a different valence for someone who has already lost a child. Pregnancy via assisted reproductive technology is absolutely remarkable, in all senses of the word. But unseen, unremarked.
The coldness of the medical experience really comes through in these poems, especially in the poem, “Collage/Voice Mail,” in which doctors are leaving messages about your test results and medical condition. It’s so chilling. Please tell me this is somewhat exaggerated?
I suppose I should say I’m a person who doesn’t like the phone, and one of the few remaining Americans–it feels sometimes–who prefers a landline to a cellphone. So there was a period of several years when my cell only rang if it was my daughter’s school or a nurse from the fertility clinic. They had several phone lines; after a while I programmed my caller ID so one camp up as “Bad News,” the other “More Bad News.” I needed this sort of dark humor! The piece has a cumulative effect, I think, this series of voice mail messages one after another. They are a way of charting the narrative and moving through a long period of time. I can’t tell you how many calls there actually were; they happened everywhere, when I was in class, at the grocery store, making dinner, driving home from an appointment, after tucking my daughter into bed.
Unlike other medical issues where most consults happen face-to-face during scheduled appointments, information needs to be communicated very quickly to fertility patients during an IVF cycle; for example, if you go in for a blood work appointment in the morning, you can expect a follow-up call later in the day to give you the results and tell you what to do (medication doses, for example, or scheduling another appointment the next morning for monitoring). Much of this is communicated through nurses and medical technicians acting as go-betweens, and it’s easy for miscommunication as a result. I do not envy their jobs in this respect. What I hope comes through, though, in the end of the poem and in the book as a whole, frankly, is that it’s a complicated emotional experience for all parties, and I am very grateful for those individuals who communicated with grace and compassion, especially my primary caregivers. I saved a voicemail from my doctor for the entirety of my pregnancy with my son—it was that significant to me, and I was quite superstitious about it.
As you were writing the book, did you imagine an ideal reader? Perhaps women who were suffering as you were?
During the early process of drafting, no, I didn’t really think about audience at all; I was really writing for myself, to process experience, make sense of it. But once I made the decision to send it out as a book, and certainly once it was accepted by CKP, I thought very seriously about who I wanted the book to reach, what work I wanted it to do. I’ve been partnering with an organization “The Art of Infertility” doing workshops on writing the body and such, and that’s been fruitful and fulfilling, and serves as an important outlet for education, community, and even activism. I do think my ideal reader is women who have gone through treatment, or experienced RPL, or otherwise had difficulty building their families. Doing readings for other patients has been a wonderfully emotional experience for me. But on the other side if I had read my book when I was just beginning treatment I don’t know that I would have been prepared for it.
You are a professor as well as a mother? How do you balance writing, teaching, and motherhood?
Yes; I’m a poet, memoirist, and literary critic. I’m also a professor, program director, and single mother. I like to watch TV, go to yoga, and have coffee with friends. I try to have one-on-one time with each of my kids. And given that I have a history of insomnia and a 4-year-old who is just now beginning to sleep through the night, I do not at this stage of my life ever sacrifice sleep! That is, I’m pretty ruthless about scheduling and maintaining boundaries. I don’t multitask, except if we’re talking about putting something in the crock pot for dinner and then sitting down to write. I try to schedule time for new writing four days per week and do “business” work of editing and sending out submissions and such on Fridays when I don’t teach. With very few exceptions, I drop my kids off in the morning, sit down with a cup of coffee and work on writing. It might not be long, sometimes just an hour, but an hour is enough time to draft a new poem or write a page or two of prose, or edit. I think in many ways I’m more productive because I have children. I don’t have the luxury of long expanses of time and I don’t kid myself that that’s what I need to work. What I do miss, though, is that sort of dreamy afternoon in a café I’d have in graduate school writing, aimlessly writing in a notebook. Maybe I’ll have that this summer.
Do you have a new collection of poems underway?
I do have a new project, what I’ve been describing as a book of domestic prose poems tentatively titled “Mother Is a Verb.” It’s a project that tries to make sense of becoming “domesticated” as a feminist. They’re based in observations of my neighborhood but I would not really describe them as nonfiction. They mark the passage of time over days, weeks, months of early motherhood. What happens, for example, at 3:00 in the morning with a sick child? I’m planning on drafting 168 of them (one for each hour in the day), although I doubt the final book will be that long. Maybe. It’s fun to be at the early stages of a project again, and one that’s not so angsty. And yet motherhood is not all sunshine and roses; it’s hard work. A verb as well as an identity. The Baby Book gestures toward some of those experiences—breastfeeding a child with food allergies, late nights in the rocking chair—but doesn’t fully explore them.
I’d like to close the interview with a poem of your choice from the book.
What a difficult choice! This is one of my favorites, as it brings together a number of key images from the book.
An Open Letter to Frida Kahlo
When my legs were dumb from the D&C
when my feet were heavy, stirrupped balls of cotton
& I couldn’t tell where they stopped & the blankets began,
I thought of you.
They kept putting more blankets on me—
they were white & everyone else wore green, my doctor
in her scrubs standing between my legs. I’d been there
before, in your painting dear Frida,
& there were wires attached to my chest & there were tubes
run between my legs, & Dr. E sucked it out, him out,
my boy, I mean, & I thought if this scene were a painting
by Frida Kahlo it would be beautiful, & I laughed.
The sound filled the room like a newborn’s cry.
Frida, what I wanted to say is that I understand
why you come back to this room, a hospital in Detroit,
why the paintings pin you there to the bed like a bug on a nail,
because you’re still there.
You left pieces of yourself behind—
a blot on a sheet, some tissue in a jar—& you want them back.