A Conversation with Alicia Jo Rabins
Alicia Jo Rabins takes her inspiration from across worlds, genres, and time. She wrote an album of songs about ancient biblical women called Girls in Trouble, a chamber rock opera called A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, and a second volume of poems titled Fruit Geode. This poetry collection takes as its subject the radical changes in body and mind that result from pregnancy and makes some small sense of how these experiences bond women together through history and in culture.
Winner of the 2015 APR/Honnickman first book prize for Divinity School, Rabins travels internationally as a singer, violinist, and performer. In this email interview, former Literary Mama editor Camille-Yvette Welsch talks to Rabins about her practice in these many forms of art as well as her experience with pregnancy and early motherhood, which found expression in the form of fruit and geodes, their beauty only revealed when opened.
Camille-Yvette Welsch: You refer to both split fruit and geodes throughout the book, and of course, in the title. What is it about these two metaphors that illustrate motherhood so powerfully for you as a writer?
Alicia Jo Rabins: It’s all about being broken open, that impossible combination of deliciousness and violence—of flourishing wildly while surrendering to extinction at the same time.
Both split fruit (your phrase, which I love!) and geodes—which, to the human eye, are only beautiful when smashed to reveal the inside—resonate with my experience of pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood. I had my kids in my late thirties, so I had built a life as an independent adult woman who answered to no one; in profound ways, both my body and my life as I knew them had to be split open, broken, and relinquished, at least for a while, in order to step into the role of mother.
CW: This notion of breaking apart, of radical bodily change, is pervasive in the book. Was this part of motherhood unexpected for you? How so?
AR: In retrospect it sounds slightly silly that I was so surprised—of course a body changes radically when it births a child! But it’s one of those things that can’t be understood until it’s experienced. I had never seen a birth, just read a lot of Ina May Gaskin, and I had no idea whatsoever about the postpartum body. Plus, the birth didn’t go the way I had thought it might. I myself was born at home—it was my mother who introduced me to Gaskin’s books; she had had uncomplicated pregnancies—so I assumed I would have a natural birth. I remember the midwife saying, “I can’t wait for your birth, you’re going to do great.” Instead, there was a whole mess involving “timing out” past my due date and being bullied into a c-section despite all vital signs being healthy for both me and the baby. The experience was disempowering and painful. (I write this with the full awareness that my experience pales entirely in comparison to the trauma so many endure around birth or pregnancy loss or so many other real tragedies.) My second child was an attempted home birth who was also born by c-section due to fetal distress, but I had much better care by then, so it was a totally different experience—I knew the c-section was necessary, so I was grateful. Like so many women, I also have a long struggle with body image, which made the physical changes more challenging.
CW: Many of the poems seem to self-propel without the benefit of punctuation. Why did you opt out of punctuation? What does that choice bring to the poems?
AR: This book inhabits the weird watery days of pregnancy, and the bleary, blurry, early days of motherhood. It felt like a deep-sea world to me, where previously important details like haircuts, free time, cute clothes, and punctuation go out the window. It’s a preverbal time, a dream state, and in order to capture that, my instinct was to leave out all those fancy commas and semicolons and just go with the words. Plus, practically speaking, many of these poems were drafted on my phone, with a sleeping or nursing baby on me, so I had to go straight for the jugular. (But, of course, I edited the poems for months afterwards—so the decision not to add punctuation was conscious, approved by the part of me which does get haircuts, and occasionally puts on a cute dress).
CW: You often speak of dualities whether it be the fruit and the geode (soft and hard) or the Jewish notion of compassion and judgment. Why are those ideas so relevant to you in a book about becoming a mother and offering mothering?
AR: I’m fascinated with the way every human emotion or experience contains its opposite. Desire and disgust are intimately related; joy contains sorrow, and vice versa. To me, motherhood amplifies this paradox in almost unbearable ways. I think the technical term for this might be “maternal ambivalence” but that sounds so dry, when it feels like being a goddess of creation and destruction, with almost unimaginable compassion and rage. The paradoxes are constant: how can the radiant miracle of a new human dovetail so perfectly with the emotional and physical agony of sleep deprivation and (in my case) healing from a major injury? How is it possible to love my children with this impossible fierceness, and feel so incredibly bored and frustrated when they’re on their second hour of bickering in the middle of a snow day? And those paradoxes are internal, too. I felt reborn as a mother, while also mourning the death of my pre-mother self; I felt utterly changed, but also had the same exact amount of ambition and passion for my work as I’d had since being a girl. It’s all a massive oxymoron . . . which I treasure and find to be a great spiritual lesson, when I’m not tearing my hair out.
CW: You invoke multiple belief systems and tales in your book, from ancient Egyptian to Jewish. How do these diverse stories fit into your book and your ideas about motherhood itself?
AR: One thing I absolutely love about motherhood is the way that it ties me to women of all eras and all cultures who have kissed away tears, wiped butts, sung, shushed, scolded, and snuggled their young offspring. The animal mother in us. I absolutely don’t mean to erase the differences between cultures, and yet there is something fundamentally human about these transitions into and out of life—birth, infancy, childhood, death—which seems to touch the very fabric of being human.
I also think part of my fascination with multiple belief systems comes from my own experience. I grew up in a secular Jewish home, then rebelled by falling madly in love with Jewish texts and traditions in my early twenties. So I lived half my life knowing very little of my ancestral traditions, and the other half deeply immersed, and I can (and frequently do) switch back and forth between those two very different belief systems. I think this is part of my general fascination with different eras, different civilizations, and what remains constant about human experience across disparate traditions.
CW: You work across the arts and humanities, in music and plays, blogs and Jewish studies. How do you feel this interdisciplinary study informs your work as a poet, as a musician, and as a parent?
AR: I think they all come from the same place—writing, music, and spiritual study and teaching—but they have their special strengths. Music is an unmediated expression of emotion; writing allows me to work in a more nuanced way with intellect; and Jewish studies allow me to think directly about matters of the spirit, what it means to be alive, how to live a good life.
To my surprise, what this all leads to in terms of my parenting is a lot of crafting and baking. I didn’t expect to be a crafty mom, but it turns out I can spend all day gluing pom-poms to balsa wood with my kids and we are all happy, and same with baking weird concoctions. Turns out that what I need, on the most basic level, is to be making something.
CW: In your blog, you talk about the “gifts of practice.” What do you think those are for parents and writers? And, how do you fit your practices into your daily and weekly life?
AR: I find that meaning tends to accrete over time. Even what seems to be a sudden intervention can often be the result of a slow, growing pressure. To me, practice is a way of harnessing that incredible power of repetition. It works the same way at home as it does in my creative practice. Whether it’s lighting Shabbat candles and blessing the wine and challah as a family every Friday night, or helping my kid practice piano and watching her slowly transform into someone who knows how to play a few songs, or making sure I write something every day—and here I express my gratitude to The Grind, a voluntary, no-feedback daily writing group you can sign up for each month, which is really responsible for this book’s existence—the stalagmite slowly comes into existence, one drop at a time.
CW: You also write and perform music and serve as a Torah teacher. I am particularly interested in Girls in Trouble, both the album and the curriculum. In it, you write and play about the places where contemporary life intersects with biblical life and reality. Why are these stories so vital for you, and why is it so important to keep reconsidering them in the context of our own lives?
AR: Thanks for asking about Girls in Trouble! That project is very important to me—both the songs, which are based on different women in the Torah, and the study guides, which contain the stories behind the songs. I believe it’s important to shine light on the stories of women in Torah, which are so often neglected in favor of the men’s stories. I love the way these stories represent the women as incredibly strategic, courageous, and powerful in the end. And most of all, I love the way that biblical women’s stories reflect my own life back to me. They show me that life, including motherhood, is inherently complicated and difficult. The ancient rabbis have a concept I love called tza’ar gidul banim, the pain of raising children. Motherhood wasn’t easy for Eve, so why should it be easy for me?! It’s not supposed to be easy! That is such a relief for me. It’s so easy to beat ourselves up when things are rough, especially with my kids. Then I remember these women’s stories and I think, oh yeah, this is the deal—it’s not some embarrassing personal problem—this is what it means to be alive, this is what it means to be a mother.
CW: Having read your blog and your book, and listened to some of your music, I know how important foremothers are to you. Can you talk about the impact of some of your literary foremothers on your writing?
AR: I love this question, thank you! I adore Sylvia Plath, her combination of raw emotional honesty and brilliant intellect. And some contemporary foremothers are Anne Carson, who writes about ancient texts in a starkly intimate way, and Laurie Anderson, who combines experimentalism, beauty, and humor in a way which inspires me endlessly. I had the good fortune to study with Claudia Rankine in the late nineties, in college, and her brilliant work has been a major influence.
Speaking of literary mamas, I’m forever grateful to the late poet (and mother) C.D. Wright. She chose my first book, Divinity School, for a contest she was judging, after I’d been submitting the manuscript out for five years of unremitting rejection. When the book came out, I set up a little book tour, which brought me near her house. I emailed out of the blue and asked if I could stop by to thank her, but warned her I’d be travelling in a caravan with my husband (who plays in Girls in Trouble, and came along for some performances), our two little rugrats, and my parents, who were helping with our kids. She wrote back, “No problem, I love rugrats.” We stopped by her house and the seven of us walked to the bay down the street, where the sun set in brilliant orange. I was too shy to even talk to C.D., but I listened as she told us about her son and his own creative work. She gathered a bunch of shells on the beach, and when it was time to turn back, she gave them to my kids. A couple months later, she suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. I think often of that walk: her love for her son and her kindness to my kids. In her stunning and relentless work, she is a talisman for me, as a poet-mother.