This month Cassie Premo Steele chose two poems by readers on the themes of mothers and suicide. And yet not. There’s something deeper at play in these poems. As if something is being shaken loose. Read the poems and then listen in on the conversation between the poets. See if something is opened and released in you.
Accessories for Women Poets
by Lizzi Vignali
a hot garage and a glass of vodka
or pockets of rocks
rivers fingerslipped heavy up our skirts
arbitrary restrictions make us feel
like we’re in control
syllabic counts and six o’clock dinners
a nice oven necklace around our throats
in the end we still
are in control of the out of control
conform to those acceptable spaces
between dotted lines
the wind’s rough hug off the edge of a bridge
rivers fingerslipped heavy up our skirts
headlights and fur coats
a hot garage and a glass of vodka
Lizzi Vignali is currently working on a novel, a poetry collection, and pursuing a BA in English at Western Washington University. Her poems have been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Commonline Journal, the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest Winning Poems chapbook and Jeopardy magazine. She lives with her family in beautiful Bellingham, Washington.
To Enter in Hiding while Playing House II
by Brandi Ballard
Inside our white, cardboard bedroom again,
seeking lost places – stairs, doors, the press
of our bodies existed: an internal
true burner pushed the young, familial
knobs as the not gives to what has to,
like on our stove. A plastic Plath roasting
to perfection, oven Sylvia is headfirst,
clean and open, finding a place north
of that compass, playing up the other
side. I never liked my broken orbits
scattered aside, yelling with a silver
dishwasher, to see siblings enter the kitchen
in hiding. Mother in image, the other
“I” a cardboard “we” in charge, seeking
safety through the preparation of birds,
fat turkeys discover the wanting is the pan,
circling their own oven with a set hide.
Brandi Ballard is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of South Carolina, where she is a James Dickey Fellow. She is the co-editor of The Art of Medicine in Metaphors - A Collection of Poems and Narratives and the nonfiction editor of Yemassee. Currently, she lives in Columbia where she teaches, paints, crochets, and thrift-store hops in search of manual typewriters.
Brandi and Lizzi and I met over virtual tea (our meeting was virtual, the tea was real) to discuss their poems and the influence that Sexton and Plath have had on all our writing. (See my last column for more on this.)
Cassie: Have you always been obsessed with Sexton and Plath? Or Woolf? Why?
Brandi: I think I came to them late in life. My only experience with Plath before graduate school was with reading The Bell Jar. As someone who’d experienced depression and struggled with mental illness throughout young adulthood, even during childhood, I found someone in the novel that I could relate to. There’s this particular scene with Esther Greenwood right after she has electroshock therapy for the first time. She talks about the bell jar being suspended above her and being “open to the circulating air.” Writing always felt very much like that to me. It is something that lets the air in and makes things a little bit easier, even when dealing with more difficult subject matter.
Cassie: I agree. I remember when I was writing essays about painful personal experiences when I was younger, and there was this sense that I was “getting better” with each word. I would stand up from the writing session and look in the mirror and I felt like I could see in my face that something had been released.
Lizzi: Great writers have to delve into dark places. For the first few years of my daughters’ lives — they’re five and seven now — I was afraid to reach into those dark spaces I’d accessed so freely before I had children. There was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to come back. When it was no longer only my well-being at stake, I struggled with the idea of sacrificing happiness for art. It seemed selfish to allow myself to be melancholy. So I didn’t go there, and most of what I wrote was. . . well. . . crap. Surface-level stuff. I thought I couldn’t be a good mother and a good writer at the same time, and I believed Plath and Sexton proved it. I read and reread Sexton’s Transformations and wondered if I could write like her if I were willing to give up contentment in order to do it. I felt simultaneously virtuous and jealous for not making that choice.
Cassie: That’s really powerful. It makes me think about a time in my life when I was depressed and taking medication that cut me off from my writing. I was so zombie-like I couldn’t even read. I complained to my doctor and she said, “But your marriage is happy! Are you willing to sacrifice that?” My husband was sitting right there and I sheepishly shook my head, but a part of me felt the ghost of Sexton in the air.
Brandi: I feel the same about Sexton. One of my teachers recommended Transformations last year because I was giving a lecture on Disney Princess iconography. There’s something about these figures that as poets, as female poets, we can’t ignore. I think of Woolf’s suicide in the river and Plath with the oven and Sexton in the car and these are stories we know. I don’t know if they are cautionary tales but it sort of feels that way. We read their work and we get the sense of their suffering, suffering for their art, suffering to create something beautiful, and I don’t always think it has to be that way, but for them it was true.
Lizzi: When my mom died, I didn’t have a choice; those dark places came to me through my writing. But even in the midst of my grief, even on the worst days, there was a little light in me the darkness couldn’t extinguish. I think it’s a gift from my mom, and my daughters, and really everyone who loves me: the knowledge that I can always find my way back again. Ironically, once I stopped running away from sadness, I ended up happier than I’ve ever been.
Cassie: Yes, that’s it! The facing of it, letting it wash through you and finding a way to put words on it. That’s what is so powerful about poetry — it is there for you, for when you don’t even have a story, really, but you have these waves of emotion. Was that the catalyst for writing your poem?
Lizzi: I was experimenting with prosody at the time. I’d written free verse almost exclusively until then, but I discovered I really love working within a form, within some constraints. The process of taking a sprawling, unwieldy sort of idea and imposing restrictions on it made me feel capable, somehow, of dealing with difficult subjects. I thought about how we all have a tendency to create these rules and restrictions in our own lives without even realizing it, as if it helps us feel a small measure of control while living in a largely uncontrollable world. About this time, a friend reintroduced me to Anne Sexton’s poem “In the Beach House,” which to me is so much about fighting those very restrictions we put upon ourselves.
I wanted to write a poem to honor Plath and Sexton and Woolf, and all those who struggle for control and ultimately take their own lives. It’s hard to say whether they’ve lost the fight for control or won it by taking the only control they felt they had.
It was important to me that the poem not only reference this idea of arbitrary rules, but also embody it, so I created this form with lots of restrictions: a strict syllabic count, refrains, the requirement that each stanza can be read independently of the rest.
Cassie: Yes, Sexton did that, too — determined the form first, before the words.
Brandi: This poem was originally written for a poetry workshop. The prompt was to take one of our older poems and do a reflection, meaning use all the same words but change the order. The original was very straightforward, very narrative driven, and was in the voice of this adult me reflecting back on my mother and what I remember growing up. When I started rearranging the words, I found there was something else there, something just beginning to surface. Then this figure of a suffering mother appeared on the page and she was somewhat clouded, clouded by the trappings of domesticity and responsibility and what femininity means. There’s also profound sadness there and even hints at some sort of violence going on in the home. It was as if my words had taken on a life beyond my original intention.
Cassie: I call that “letting the language lead you.” It’s that shift during the writing process when your ideas move out of the way and you let the words take over. It’s about sound, and rhyme and rhythm. Tapping into the deeper stream of what is wanting to be written. You know, as we discuss this, I feel the presence of Sexton very strongly in our conversation. When she started taking poetry classes, she said she’d finally found people who knew “language.”
Brandi: I also think more about lineage now, not only my relationship and what I owe to the women writers who came before me, but how women have been depicted historically in myths, fairy tales, and other writings. I feel much more comfortable tackling these female figures, in writing about the times when things aren’t okay. I’m open more to characters, to personas, and sort of letting them dictate how their stories are told. I guess that is a way of saying I have learned to relinquish some control and allow ideas and associations to occur more organically.
Lizzi: Ooh, I don’t know if I should blow my cover . . . but for me, most of my poems are confessional. Not all of them, though, so that gives me some leeway when it comes to interpretations! I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I constantly have to remind myself when reading others’ work that the voice and the poet are not necessarily the same thing. I tend to assume (I’m sure, many times wrongly) the poet is drawing from personal experience.
Cassie: I once had a woman read my poetry and later ask me, “Are you okay?” It floored me to think that someone believed so completely in the match between the poet and the poem. What are your feelings about this?
Brandi: I tend to get that reaction more with poetry than I do when I read nonfiction. In poetry, I have had people think that I am the speaker of a particular poem and I’m not. I’m very interested in other viewpoints but also in collapsing viewpoints and timelines. If I see a female figure, or sometimes a male figure, that somehow relates to figure from another work, another time, I have a desire to put them in conversation with each other. I don’t know what a poem would look like that was written solely about me and solely in my voice. I don’t think it would look much like a poem at all. So I think that reaction from someone in the audience is a compliment, on the one hand, because the poet created a character that resonates with them. On the other hand, it ignores the finer points of the poetic art. Maybe it means the seams aren’t visible and that’s fantastic, I’m not sure.
Cassie: I’d love for you to respond to each other’s poems . . .
Brandi: I love Lizzi’s poem, there’s something almost decadent about the language. We have the fur coat, the glass of vodka, and even this beautifully disturbing image of the oven necklace. It feels very much like an Ars Poetica for the female poet, something that I think is hinted at in the title. But what we get instead are accessories, which I believe relates a lot to gendered thinking about poetry and value, and how the female poet is understood by popular culture or perhaps misunderstood. I very much like the collapse of these three figures as well (Woolf, Plath, and Sexton). I really love how the water of the river “fingerslips,” which is a unique but very slippery word, very laden and heavy, like the skirt that is taking on water. There’s also this loss of control identified but one that is covered over counting syllables and acting like everything’s okay. There’s so much stigma around mental illness, about saying what is really going on, that many sufferers often find creative ways to hide or creative methods of control. It’s a survival strategy.
Lizzi: Brandi, your poem is so gorgeously forlorn. This speaks to me of the loneliness that sometimes comes with mothering, the isolation of being the one who’s supposed to be in charge. There is such desperation in “seeking / safety through the preparation of birds.” It evokes the classic image of the perfect mother — coiffed and manicured and spotless in every way — and imbues her with anguish. In many ways, this makes me think about how art, to many of us, is about connecting to others. And yet these connections are also what make us feel we have to put on some sort of façade, to behave the way we’re expected to.
Brandi: Cassie, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.
Brandi: I’m interested in what propels you and how you have developed yourself as an artist. But it’s more than that, there’s a sort of peace about you . . . maybe tranquility is the right word. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it was like before, before you sensed this change in yourself — this development — and what it’s like now. What was your trajectory as an artist, particularly as a women artist coming up in the face of this lineage we all face?
Lizzi: I’ve wanted to ask that, too. Do you feel you’ve found the balance between family and art?
Cassie: Ironically, it was motherhood that calmed me. When I first became a stepmother, I was in my 20s and very driven, always sending writing out and frustrated by each rejection. My stepdaughter said to me, “Do you know how many elections Lincoln lost?” It was like a bell went off in me. I realized I was losing — not through the rejections, but in wasting the time I had with her by all the pout and drama about my work. I learned to be present with her. I made a conscious decision to be there for her. At some level, I decided that your life is more important than your writing. I feel sad that the historical conditions for Sexton and Plath didn’t allow them this realization.
Then, after my daughter was born, I found myself deepening my presence in an even more profound way. Learning not to look at the clock, learning to be open to what was happening right then, learning to trust the process of growth, learning to be lovingly accepting — all of these practices fed my writing and my spirit.
But I also feel that writing through the pain, the frustration, the trauma and loss — these things were also necessary for me to develop into who I am. So it’s a “yes and” answer — mothering and writing allowed me to develop a sense of tranquility.
Lizzi: Yes. The recognition that something beautiful can come out of pain. That communication can arise from isolation.
Cassie: Audre Lorde said poetry worked for women because we don’t have the time for longer writing. I wonder how you would respond to this.
Brandi: Maybe that is true for some women, but I think anything can come in pieces. I’ve heard of women writing novels a paragraph at a time, sometimes a line at a time, of women writing lines on napkins as they work in service jobs, or writing outlines on memo pads while waiting in traffic. When a writer has limited time, she makes the most of it. To be fair though, just because poetry is a shorter form doesn’t mean it takes a short amount of time to write. I write in my head a lot. I circle ideas and images, I’m sort of obsessive in that way. I recently wrote a poem based on a news article that I read two years ago. You could say I wrote that poem in a day or two but really it had been in my head for years. There’s just so much more to the writing process than putting pen to paper.
Lizzi: The idea that poetry is the easiest genre just cracks me up! If anything, I’d say exactly the opposite — that it’s much harder to write a poem when you’re a mother because it requires such a high level of concentration. I’m working on a novel, and I can dash off pages of prose while I’m stirring soup with the other hand, the kids screaming circles around me, the dog barking to be let out. But a poem? I need total silence and solitude. Which usually means leaving the house. Actually, right now I’m reading A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood (A great professor, writer, and mother, Kate Trueblood, lent it to me.) And Ursula K. Le Guin says something similar: “Whereas a poem, and often a short story, need to be grabbed while they’re flying past, a novel has its own momentum, and you can put it away until tomorrow without losing it.” I imagine it’s different for every writer, woman or not. As for myself, a poem can take hours, days, months.
Cassie: I’m so glad you both took the time to write your poems! And to have tea with me today! Thank you.
Brandi and Lizzi: Thank you!