A Conversation with Tina Parker
Natalie Goldberg once commented on the adage “Don’t tell, but show”:
“Writing is not psychology. We do not talk ‘about’ feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words.”
In Christina Parker’s latest poetic work, Mother May I, Parker truly guides the reader through the ins and outs of motherhood, reminding us of the personal and universal aspects of the parenthood experience. Parker’s first poetry chapbook, Another Offering, was published in 2015, and her poems have been featured in Literary Mama, Appalachian Heritage, Now & Then, Still: The Journal, Rattle, and PMS: poemmemoirstory. Parker grew up in Virginia and currently lives in Kentucky with her family. Through an email exchange, Gina Consolino-Barsotti and Tina Parker spoke about the art and science of writing and facilitating creativity.
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: There seems to be a dance in balancing one’s writing and parenting. How do you balance your day-to-day activities with poetry?
Tina Parker: The word “balance” makes that juggle sound so peaceful, but, in reality, it’s quite messy! On a typical day, I play several roles—get the kids to school, work my “day job,” family dinner time, then to bed, and it starts all over. I might spend five minutes on my writing. I write when I have a moment—sometimes that’s only enough time to write one line that someone says or several pages of freewriting. I write in composition books and try not to look back at what I write until a few months have passed.
GCB: You had mentioned in a blog interview with Geosi Gyasi that your greatest moment as a writer is when you are “writing and completely present; time falls away, and it is this delicious bubble of imagination, awareness and words.” As a mother and a writer, how do you get to that place of complete presence and mindfulness?
TP: Mothering young children lends itself to these moments for me. Sure, I feel isolated and alone many times, but I also have many experiences of being “in the moment” with a young child, experiencing life anew. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, which also happens in poems.
When it comes to finding that moment as a writer where time falls away, I depend on retreats for the time to sift through my notebooks and become completely present with my writing. I’m grateful to my family for supporting my need for retreats and to the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which provides a space for me to dive deep into my poetry a few times a year.
GCB: How did you get started writing poetry? What led you to choose this medium versus prose?
TP: I discovered poetry by reading poetry. In college, I would go to the library and check out all the poetry collections I could carry. I read and read like mad. I started writing poetry and fiction, never intending to focus on any one genre. However, my fiction kept getting shorter and shorter until it was flash fiction. Then it was prose poems. Then I was writing poetry only. I love that I can use narrative in poetry and do quite often. I also love the tension in poems—a tension between what is said versus what goes unsaid. Poetry allows me to experiment with that tension by paying careful attention to a word, the appearance of words on the page, and the presence or absence of white space.
GCB: What do you feel is the most important element of a poem?
TP: Oh my—that is a tough one. Memorable poems touch the heart and ring true to the ear. Those are two equally important elements. One is making a connection with the reader—there’s a universal truth that resonates. The second, more mysterious element is the way a poem sounds. This is the rhythm that poets, including myself, strive for during revision. When I hear the poem again and again, I am listening for the sound that renders the poem true.
GCB: I enjoyed your book of poems, Mother May I. What poem(s) are you most proud of in this work and why?
TP: Thank you so much! The poem I’m most proud of is the one first published in Literary Mama—”When my four-year-old asks mama will me and Opal die one day I want to say no.” It continues to surprise me because it is so raw, rough, and loaded with emotion. It captures a time in mamahood when I just flatlined. I felt anxious, constantly second-guessing every parenting move. I also felt isolated, like every other mama had this whole parenting thing down.
Except for me—I was sure I was scarring our children for life. On top of all this was guilt for not being as others thought I should be. Everyone, even strangers, told me to “just enjoy them.” So why couldn’t I?
I learned so much about myself from this poem, and I also learned to push myself in terms of format. I often joke that I thought for a while I’d have a poetry collection of one-line poems because I wrote in the five minutes or less that I could spare. At the same time, I was sifting through my journal for these one-liners, I was also reading Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents. She writes these expansive poems, which gave me the idea to start pulling many one-liners together. I ended up with this long, stream-of-consciousness-like poem, a form that mirrors the layers of emotion I felt.
GCB: Through your imagery and style of writing, you have rendered the contradictory tug of motherhood palpable to your readers: the need for space from the child (“I Am Needed”) versus the need to remain close (“Her First Year”); the return to professional work (“Just Like That I Have a Daycare Baby”) versus staying at home (“The Stay-at-Home Mom Ponders Work Outside the Home”). Has your writing enabled you to reconcile these opposing feelings?
TP: These opposing feelings are what drive my writing—I usually describe Mother May I as coming from the tension between joy and loss, between loving and letting go. Writing has always been my way to process my experiences, so, yes, writing absolutely allowed me to process life from the place of motherhood.
GCB: Also in Mother May I, you have exposed yourself and the rawness of some of the feelings that many mothers would prefer not to acknowledge. In the poem, “The Day My Four-Year-Old Scratched Me,” you write, “I scratched her back / It broke the skin / I knew I’d be turned in.”
I applaud your honesty and vulnerability. Was it difficult to articulate these feelings and, subsequently, put them out there for others to read?
TP: One of my writing blocks is always fear of what others will think of me. Over the years, I’ve learned to recognize that fear and to write through it. I’m always striving to write the poem I’m afraid to write. It’s not necessarily difficult to articulate the raw feelings of motherhood; it’s a matter of pushing through the block. It takes practice, bravery, and a good deal of stubbornness.
I had a series of terrifying moments when the collection was in the process of publication. I asked my publisher if we should reconsider some of the poems: these poems have the real names of my children, and they will one day be mortified! My press—Sibling Rivalry Press—has the mission to “disturb and enrapture,” and their support has been an inspiration to me. I have seen, through the book’s publication, readings, and discussions with my audience, that the very pieces that were the most difficult to write have the most impact on my readers. This makes pushing through those writing blocks well worth the effort.
GCB: There are many mother writers, like yourself, who have cultivated their writing without pursuing an MFA. What suggestions do you have for these writers, both in the writing and publishing arenas?
TP: Remember that stubbornness I mentioned? First, in the publishing area, I turn that on big time. I don’t let myself take rejection personally; I use one journal’s rejection as a reason to submit the same set of poems to five more journals. It’s so much about persevering and about timing.
In the day-to-day writing, I trust my own process, rather than feeling I need to follow a certain “regime.” I look for non-academic writing opportunities: community writing classes, writing groups, book groups. And, in general, I look to surround myself with like-minded people, remaining aware of who and what feeds my creativity. In the end, when I feel it’s hopeless to live the writing life, I think of my daughters. I want my girls to see me doing what I love, making a space for it no matter what.
GCB: There are myriad places to submit your work these days. How do you select where you will send your poems?
TP: One of my favorite ways to do this is studying collections by poets I love who write on subjects that I’m interested in. I keep lists of presses that publish poets I admire. I also check acknowledgements pages in these collections to see which journals first published their work. Once I have lists of presses and journals, I begin to add publication criteria and deadlines to the list so I can be ready to send my work.
GCB: What are you working on now?
TP: I’m madly obsessed by my study of women and madness! I’m working on poems that spring from historical research into the lives of women labeled as “other”—whether that be “witch,” “insane,” or “hysterical.” These are the women who gave us urban myths, ghost stories, and all-too-true horror stories of women locked up and abused in asylums. In particular, the poems pull from accounts of hauntings by the Bell Witch of Tennessee, who allegedly taunted the Bell family all night with such mischief as twisting and pulling their hair and slapping their cheeks. An even bigger influence on these poems is the legend of Bloody Mary—specifically, the game where girls dare each other to go into the bathroom, sometimes holding a candle, and say “Bloody Mary” three times. Allegedly, Bloody Mary’s face will then appear reflected in the mirror. As I researched these accounts, I imagined a modern-day stay-at-home mom feeling desperate and isolated in her domestic role. What if this spooky apparition became a companion for her? The poems use aspects of narrative and elements of speculative poetry—non-linear passage of time and a seesaw between realism and the fantastic—to weave a domestic tale gone wrong and to illuminate untold stories.