In last month’s column, I led readers into “the deeper stuff of poetry” and asked them to reflect upon the process of claiming themselves as mother poets. The outpouring of voices touched me deeply, so this month I share three of these voices with you. Each one has lessons for our Birthing the Mother Writer Class in understanding the stages of claiming oneself and one’s voice.
The first selection by Nancy Brier shows the tentative, middle-of-the-night steps that we make as mothers and poets to listen to that voice within and share it with the outside world. As we learned last month, poetry is often in the form of an address from one person to another, and this essay shows the vulnerability and hope that comes from such an intimate claiming of one’s voice in the presence of another.
Claiming Myself as a Mother Poet
by Nancy Brier
I bundle the trash, spray the can with Lysol, put the bag outside the back door, get a new liner. Me, a mother poet? I wash my hands, take down my jar of Kosher salt, find the brown sugar, start a brine for the turkey. It’s four in the morning, the house cold, the gleaming wood floors icy against my socks. If I turn on the heater, will I wake everyone up? When the heater clicks on, our upstairs roasts like an oven while the downstairs remains frigid. The whims of a century-old house, the musings of a mother. But a poet mother? I don’t risk the heater and flip on the kettle instead. Tea will warm me up.
I just stumbled into your class, found it by chance on my smart phone during a bout with insomnia, read it through, dared to think of myself as a student, a classmate. Briefly, even, as a mother poet. “What are you doing?” my husband’s groggy voice asked. He must have sensed the glow of my phone under my tent, our down comforter translucent while I scrolled the pages. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “Go back to sleep.”
Your class pulled me out of bed, down the still-unrestored stairway, each step creaking as I tiptoed, using my cell phone as a flashlight until I made it all the way down and could turn on a light. I wandered into the cold kitchen where I contemplate poetry in life, the poetry of my life, the questions your class prompted and which run through my head anyway, just not in a way that I have shared with others. I have piles of journals, piles of boxes of journals, and I have to think that embedded in all that scratching must be a line or two of poetry.
A wig is curled up like a cat next to me on the table, my freshly chemo’d head cold, my ears cold, the new tufts of hair soft as a whisper but not long enough to keep my head warm. Sometimes I run my palm against the growth just to feel its newness, the shock of grey coming in soft waves. I miss my straight blond hair, long and youthful, sexy and bold. The short grey makes me look like a lesbian, an old lesbian, a stark contrast from the girly girl I used to be and would like to be again, an attractive heterosexual wife and soccer mom. Am I disqualified now? Would a real poet mother have such shallow desires, articulate thoughts that sound as if bordering on intolerance?
I started writing when I was just a kid, my pudgy fingers grabbing a dull pencil and a stack of scrap paper as I headed into the Missouri woods across the street from my childhood home. I crab walked my way down a long cement storm drain, then leaped from the end of it onto a dry creek bed, scrambled up the muddy, root laden bank to the well-worn path and on to my favorite tree. I soaked in the smells of the woods, their earthy dampness, and tried in my child’s way to make sense of the world, to organize it and put it down on paper.
When I was done, I’d stuff the pages in my pockets, weave the pencil into my ponytail, and then look at shiny rocks or pick fragrant purple flowers for my mother’s bedside table. At home, I’d hide those pages, burying them in the debris under my bed or in the bottom of my dresser drawer, places where my mom and siblings would never look, that no one would ever see. Scraps of paper detailing my little life, my desperation to make sense of a world that didn’t make any sense. Because events that compel a seven-year-old girl to take paper into the woods by herself, to write thoughts too secret to share, are events that don’t make sense anyway, that poetry or prose or art or silence just can’t figure out.
Over the years, those scraps of paper became spiral notebooks, piles of them. I fill one up, then throw it on the heap. When the heap is big enough, I box it up, toss the box in the garage. Move them when we move, wonder what to do with them. A bonfire? I’m not sure. Is there something there of value? Should I look back?
My cold head and the synchronicity of your class insinuating itself into my life, prompt me to wonder, to muse about the limitation of time, the what-ifs. That it might be okay to go ahead and show someone the piles of thoughts I’ve had over the years, some powerful, beautifully written, some shallow, whining chopping mindlessness, but all mine, the crazy story of my life, the constant narration that runs through my head and yearns to be put down on paper. Show it, your class said. Send it in. Claim yourself as a mother poet.
Nancy Brier is a wife, mother, entrepreneur, and organic walnut farmer living in Northern California. She and her husband, Gary, are best friends, business partners, and lovers. They have one extraordinary child named Lauren who turned 11 on 12-13-14.
Once the first openings into claiming take place, then the mother poet’s next step is to integrate this new identity into her everyday life. This means moving from thinking of writing (journals, poems, old letters) as something she did when younger into something she does daily. We see this transition in the next piece by Caroline Gebhardt, which gives us a glimpse into the real-life movements of claiming and being a mother poet.
Being a Mother Poet
by Caroline Gebhardt
I started keeping a diary in elementary school because I had to tell someone about Shana stealing my erasers in second grade, my Slim Fast diet in fourth grade, and the girl pulling my hair at Spring Sing practice in fifth grade. I complained a lot, shared many crush secrets, grieved over best friend fights, and always wrote “love ya” salutations as if my diary had two ears and a beating heart.
My family of four, plus orange dog and flea-ridden cat, recently moved into another area of our city the same week I had our second baby boy. When packing our house while very pregnant, I combed through several of my own pink cardboard boxes stuffed with spiral notebooks, the pages of which were filled with purple ink: prayers to God, tender musings about my struggles with food and body image, and my favorite writing exercise of letting my old, wise self speak to my young, needy self. While I didn’t have time to read through the journals with a two-year-old boy unpacking what I’d just packed, those heavy boxes of college-ruled paper had to go with me.
There have been times in my life where journaling saved me. There have been times in my life where I would write in my journal and apologize for not writing in such a long time. I still do that when I let another hour of Curious George slide into our day.
For now, journaling is a luxury like taking a bubble bath. Instead of hot water and fresh paper, bubbles and roller ball pens, and an hour to bathe or write, I turn to my Notes app on my phone. Not my choice but my need dictates my claiming myself as a mother poet now. Fifteen minutes or less, details of something that spoke to me that day, and raw truth.
I typically write poetry involving my children and those moments that need a voice or a stamp to prove they happened. Motherhood is teaching me not only what I need to learn to give to my children but also what I need to give to myself, to my loved ones, to this life. These are universal lessons that I often wonder if they were taught, truly taught with love and patience, the world would change. The world would change! It’s no wonder I’ve never worked harder in my life physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Forget the magazine spread of a mom in a pressed blouse and clear skin using a Kitchenaid mixer to make cookies with her smiling and clean twin three-year-old kids. It doesn’t work like that! It works like this:
You ran into my ankle bone
With your big red engine
And I screamed with pain
But I really wasn’t yelling at you,
I was mad at the pain
At the throbbing vein
On top of that protruding bone.
It’s kind of like a really bad day
When you step in muddy puddles
Or you fail another quiz,
You just get mad at the world.
It’s not really the world’s fault
Although you want to punch the Earth—
Then you fall on your knees
And have a heart to heart with the stars.
While we did talk about being gentle
And how the red engine can hurt
And to be careful around people and animals,
I know you didn’t mean to hurt me.
I know because you said “I’m sorry”
Then ran down the hallway
As I knelt and held that bone
You returned with a diaper for my ouchie.
This is why I didn’t take away your engine:
There will be many puddles to jump in or dodge,
There will be many quizzes to ace or fail,
And finally, many chances to take a sincere new breath.
If I hadn’t taken the time to write this poem, I would have never remembered that throbbing vein, or how my boy got a diaper instead of a bandage, or even sadly, how much more patient I was with him when he was an only child. I hope he will read my poems one day and appreciate them, but selfishly, I do it for me. I write to stay awake. I write to shed light on the real stuff, the hard stuff, the dark and the light. I’m not interested in how complex or mysterious my writing should or can be, I’m not interested in recording every milestone with a photo, I’m not interested in even trying to make it happen every day although it’s really magnificent when I don’t fall asleep before my children and I write. I’m interested in paying attention. I’m interested in finding God in every day. Every tantrum. Every dark, sleepless night. Every nose kiss. Every time one digger is more exciting than the first. I’m interested in using my mind and marrying it to my heart to dig deeply and find the jewels of grace in the mundane. This is what being a mother poet does for me.
Caroline Gebhardt is a stay-at-home mom to a three-year-old who doesn’t like to wash his hands and an infant whose cheeks enter the room before anything else. She’s married to a writer who repeatedly puts honey in the fridge, so she copes by writing, yoga, therapy, and interpretative dance.
Something happens to the mother poet who has claimed herself: she grows into herself while her children grow. In this last piece by Charlotte Ehney, we see a mother poet who has done just this. With 17 years of mothering and writing behind her, she looks forward into the rest of her life and sees the possibility for more growth. It is poetry with its power to grow deep roots that allows for the possibility of a life of constant growth as we claim ourselves as mother poets.
by Charlotte Ehney
The older I become, I realize the more I have to learn.
When I became a mother 17 years ago, What to Expect When You Are Expecting was the revered guide, practically required reading for any mother-to-be. I absorbed the words, ready to become an expert on my pregnancy. I received Parents magazine and dutifully studied each article preparing for the first year of my baby’s life. I was ready for my water to break, walking during the early stages of labor, the birth process followed by feedings every four hours, sleepless nights, and colic. Or so I thought. Reading about a subject will only get you so far.
About a month before my due date, my ob-gyns told me that I was beginning to dilate. “Don’t be surprised if this baby will be here early,” they said. I showed up for my next appointment still very much pregnant.
“You’ll have a Christmas baby,” they said. A week later, I was back in their office.
“Looks like you’ll get a child tax credit for this year’s taxes.” New Year’s Day came and went.
“What are you still doing here?” they asked. My body was all ready for the birth of my child, but labor did not happen.
“We’re going to admit you and break your water.”
That idyllic birthing that I pictured in my head did not happen. I had a nurse whose instructions did not match any of the articles I had read on the modern practices of the birth process. Since the doctor broke my water as soon as I was in my room, there was no walking the halls or relaxing Jacuzzi bath for me. I was irritated by everything. Then four and a half hours later, my baby’s head was crowning and I was desperate to push. The doctor who was supposed to be in the hospital was delayed with an emergency in the office.
“Wait! Don’t push!” the nurses insisted as they pulled my other ob-gyn out of surgery prep to come deliver my baby.
Once my baby arrived, I realized I didn’t know anything about babies. I broke down in tears the first time I changed my son’s diaper. My heart pounded when I gave him a bath, afraid that his slippery body would wriggle out of my grasp. I cringed as my son cried for hours and I could do nothing to soothe him.
With every passing day, I learned something new about my son and about me. Eventually, I did become comfortable with my baby. But there was a part of me that felt like everyone else knew more that I did. Too often I listened to others and ignored my own inner voice.
My journey as a poet has been just as challenging. My introduction to poetry was formula-based. Follow the pattern, throw in rhyming words and you have a poem. Easy peasy. As time went on, poetry became more complicated. Teachers introduced epic ballads full of strange word combinations no longer used. Themes and analysis trumped the enjoyment of poems. It was too difficult to imitate. Yet, I was drawn to the dark themes. The heartache, loss and angst melded with teenage years.
Then I discovered free verse. I could write whatever I wanted and it was poetry. It was mine. Emotion spilled out onto paper for the good, the bad, confusion, and joy. I dabbled in poetry as an outlet for all those things I needed to express. But putting down words isn’t the same as learning the craft.
When my children became old enough to be left by themselves, I joined a writers group. By interacting with other poets, I began to look at my poetry a different way. It wasn’t just the words that mattered but the emotion and imagery the words conveyed. I had to distinguish between the longer explanations of prose and the flashes of poetry. I listened to other poets, and, in critiquing their work, I had to apply the same critique to my own. I let go of the belief that poetry is simple, and accepted that to be better takes work, experience, and the willingness to learn. Poetry and I are learning to be comfortable with each other.
I sometimes seek out the advice of other poets. Early this year, a poem began in my head. A phrase repeated and I hung onto it. While at the South Carolina Book Festival in the spring, I had time between workshops to put words on paper. Once I started, the words flowed. During that day, I completed a draft. I edited twice. Then I put the poem down for a few days.
When I returned to it, I revised again. Two more edits and I felt it was good. This poem had haunted me for months, staying just out of reach. I wanted it to be perfect so I sought a critique from a friend who is a respected poet.
A few days later, he sent back some compliments and some suggestions. He made changes to my poem to show me a way to work with rhythm using repetition. I could have smacked myself in the head—of course, his changes were fantastic. I should use them verbatim at once.
Instead, I walked away for a few days. When I sat down to read his changes again, I realized that though they were beautiful, they did not fully convey the emotions I wanted expressed. His suggestions were valid, though, so I edited my poem once more. I cut away words I loved because they were not needed. I reorganized stanzas. I added verses. When it was done, I knew I had given life to the poem I had imagined and had kept my own voice.
Motherhood and poetry are both a learning process. What works at one stage of life changes as I enter another. The things I hold onto are not always the important ones. The things I let go sometimes come back for the better. I have to decide how much I follow and how much I lead. Each takes time, devotion, and love to grow. And when I think I have mastered it, I realize there is so much more to learn.
Charlotte Ehney is a South Carolina native. She contributes to Lakelands Parents Magazine and Greenwood Magazine. Charlotte is the author of two novels, Blood Adversaries and Family Vows. She and her husband can often be found cheering on their two sons at football games, wrestling matches, and track and field meets.
All three essays, though they show different stages of the process of claiming oneself as a mother poet, can be read as a kind of triumph. We think of triumph as a victory over another, but what these essays show is that, for mother poets, the true victory happens when we triumph into ourselves as we share that self with another through poetry.
There are stages to this: we overcome our fears, begin to use our voices, and start to discipline ourselves to return to our writing again and again, even in the face of fatigue and pain and overwhelm.
And then comes the ultimate triumph: when we are brave enough to reach out to others for support and education and advice and encouragement, and we open ourselves to learning and growing more than we ever imagined possible. And then, from deep within, we know who we are, we know what our writing longs to be, and we trust our voices and ourselves enough to let both become who they are meant to be.
Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with “Due Dates!”)
Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we’ve got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I’m so glad you’re in this class!
Unit 1: Poetry
- September—Poetry is the Map
- October—Reader Response to Poetry is the Map (Submit up to 3 poems about how poetry has been your map. Due September 29, 2014.)
- November—The Deeper Stuff of Poetry
- December—Reader Response to The Deeper Stuff of Poetry (Submit an essay of 800-1200 words about claiming yourself as a mother poet. Due November 30, 2014.)
Unit 2: Fiction
- January—The Arc/Ark of Narrative
- February—Reader Response to The Arc/Ark of Narrative (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. Due February 1, 2015.)
- March—The Role/Roll of Dialogue
- April—Reader Response to The Role/Roll of Dialogue (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. Due March 29, 2015.)
Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction
- May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
- June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
- July and August—Summer Break
- September—Life is a Book
- October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)
Reader Response Submission Guidelines
Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:
-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”
-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.
-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.