Former Literary Mama reviews editor, Camille-Yvette Welsch, lives a full, busy life. Along with writing poetry, she serves as a teaching professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, directs the High School Writing Day there, and parents “two wily children.” She is the author of the chapbook Full, the biography Meg Cabot (part of the Who Wrote That? series), and a full-length poetry collection, The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom, which was published earlier this year. Welsch’s work has been featured at Atticus Review, Barrow Street, From the Fishouse, Indiana Review, Menacing Hedge, Mid-American Review, Zone 3, Poems2Go, and many others. Literary Mama Senior Editor, Christina Consolino, had the pleasure of talking to Welsch about longing in writing and mothering, the importance of a tribe, and how poetry can bring a community together.
Christina Consolino: The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom is a unique title. How did you settle on the title, and where did the idea for the collection arise?
Camille-Yvette Welsch: The basic premise of the book is this: two anthropologists select four ugly children to adopt and force them to participate in a longitudinal study on the impact of ugliness on child development. They deny them any kind of intervention, and instead, write subject reports detailing their lives.
The title arose from a conversation over the dinner table about a sad family that attended the same church I did as a child. I had made the joke to my mother that the family had “the four ugliest children in Christendom,” and she immediately countered that I should write a poem about them.
The idea started there, and I wrote poems from the point of view of a third-person narrator, but it wasn’t until I met Marilyn Nelson at a conference that the idea of a collection started to take form. Nelson, famous for writing book-length and series poems, told me she thought these poems could become a book, but she wanted to hear from the characters themselves. So, I tried writing in the first person and found myself more deeply in the lives of these kids. Any kind of unpopularity or strangeness has its own quarantine, but this one—being essentially harvested as the ugliest people—was so profound, that I wondered how it might affect a child.
CC: Much like some attentive parents might do for a child, these poems “[show] us who we are,” and require “that we look, while challenging our judgments about appearance and acceptance on every page.” (Cynthia Marie Hoffman, back cover blurb) How do you, as a writer, move from intent to execution without sounding preachy?
CW: My intent was never to preach. I just want to see these kids move in the world and try to figure out what that feels like. I have been reading, like so many other people, that fiction readers are more empathetic people. Of course they are. They put themselves in other people’s lives all the time. To do otherwise is what I call a failure of empathic imagination. I was stretching those miles, trying to figure out what this kind of life would be like.
And, as a parent and a human, I know how vital it is to be loved by at least someone. We spend so much time wanting that for ourselves that as children we run back to the people who angered us the most, our parents. Yes, they punished us when we did wrong, but they were also the only people who could comfort us. What happens when you take that comfort and correction out of the picture? How might somebody create it for themselves?
CC: The parents in The Four Ugliest Children are anthropologists. All parents, especially those with multiple children, could consider themselves anthropologists of sorts, as they study the development and behavior of their children. What have you learned from your own children?
CW: I think my children taught me about my parents more than anything. I better understand the things they did and the motivations behind them. Of course, I also had an encyclopedic knowledge of construction vehicles for a while. And, I find that things I had little interest in as a kid—zoos, aquariums, water parks—are a lot of fun as an adult.
CC: The children yearn for physical and emotional connections throughout the collection, at times feeling isolated and alone. How does this longing fit into your idea of motherhood?
CW: Apparently, longing fits into my idea of everything! In graduate school, a colleague told me I was the poet of longing. I suspect that is because everything has its duality—joy but it’s fleeting, touch but it’s too constant. When I was nursing late at night, I alternated between a quiet bubble of joy containing the baby and me and a glass box that separated me from everyone and everything. So much of motherhood is impossibly present that I find myself longing for the future or the past. Because the experience is so intense, it breeds longing, whether it is for more time with the baby or the partner or the friends. I think this is the nature of adulthood actually, almost always experiencing a complexity of emotion as opposed to a pure unadulterated feeling whether it be joy or rage.
CC: This collection juxtaposes the ancient and the modern, calling to mind those who came before us and the lessons we can learn from them. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from someone who experienced motherhood before you did?
CW: Someone told me to assign duties so that both parents know what is expected, before the bed goes up in rage flames. That helped a great deal. I had baby duty until 3:30 or 4 a.m.; then my husband would take over, and I knew I would get four uninterrupted hours of sleep. That kept us both sane and civil.
CC: In “The Ugliest Girl in Christendom Gets Her Senior Pictures Taken,” the speaker imagines someone seeing her in the dark woods as she creeps through: “you would begin to dream / of other worlds and imagine / me a messenger, wondering / as I do, what I might reveal / if ever I drew close.” Many mothers are afraid to reveal their true feelings about marriage, motherhood, children, their lives. What do you have to say to them?
CW: This is a hard question, and I am not sure that I am the right person to answer it. My poems are not as directly autobiographical as those of other people. I often say things through my characters, but that doesn’t feel as risky as what you might say directly. On the other hand, because motherhood is such a broad experience, rather than the monolith that people might assume, someone is listening and needs to hear what you have to say, needs to hear that they are not alone. That is a powerful statement and one that can really sustain someone else when they are just keeping their heads above water.
CC: I love the bold statement at the top of your website that reads, “Poet. Teacher. Reviewer. Badass Mama. I am all the things.” We mothers are well-known for trying to be “all the things.” What helps you stay in the zone, so to speak, to feel confident that you can be “all the things” when you doubt that you have that ability?
CW: I have a lady tribe. I have always had a lady tribe from the time that I was in elementary school. I am still friends with women from childhood, high school, college, grad school, and the present moment. I adore women. I am confident that I can do things because my women have my back.
They are the best looking glass you can get. When I can’t see myself clearly, they can. If they are the mirror into which I look, then I am always gorgeous and funny and talented. In addition to helping me in that way, they also give me the confidence to take things on, knowing that they will show up or help with the kids or find a quick fix for a broken purse strap or give me a ride. I also have a wonderful partner who helps. Finally, I think that simply being in a job that has a lot of random plates in the air as well as having a mom life like that, I am accustomed to just making things happen; but again, support is everything.
CC: Mothers often feel critiqued by their peers, much like the children in your book. Do you have any advice to mothers or parents in general for how not to get bogged down by what other people think of them and their choices?
CW: Find your tribe. It goes back to what I said before: when you find the people who parent like you or at least honor the same values that you have, then the broader public doesn’t matter as much. You have a group that can talk you through your decisions, both good and bad. Sometimes their choices give you the courage to do what you wanted to do to begin with. I have a friend who lets her kids make mud, play in it, and rub it all over themselves, and she is so nonchalant about it. I thought, okay, I can relax and let them do this thing. Another friend has a daughter who can make you an omelet or sushi, and she is nine. I figured out that the first step was saying “yes,” but I don’t know that I would have seen that as clearly without these other parents in my life, doing their own thing.
CC: Aside from writing, teaching, and parenting, poetry outreach is very important to you. What does poetry outreach entail, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
CW: I love poetry outreach! I want people to think of poetry as part of their daily life, as a way to honor it, to remember it, etc. I tell folks, “It’s better than Sudoku! It keeps the brain agile!”
I run the High School Writing Day at Penn State, where we invite high school students from across Pennsylvania to come and hear a working poet and then participate in three generative seminars with their peers and their teachers. The high school students are so excited to be with their crowd, so excited to try something new and show off their writing. We get to show them what the possibilities for writing, both rhetorical and creative, look like at the collegiate level.
I also judge Poetry Out Loud competitions, and emcee open mics. I taught two poetry classes for kids as part of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of Performing Arts last summer, but my favorite outreach, by far, is Poems from Life.
Poems from Life is a cooperative program between the Pennsylvania Center for the Book and Juniper Hill Retirement Community. Local poets are assigned to residents at Juniper Hill and we are tasked with getting to know our resident and then writing a poem about that person. I have been a part of it for the last three years, and each year, the project culminates in a public reading at Juniper Hill. Many residents show up to learn about their peers, as do family members.
Each year, I have been brought to tears or a shout of laughter because of these poems. You look around the room and you see these big middle-aged men just weeping as they listen to poems about their moms, or you see an elderly couple holding hands and smiling at each other. I admit that part of the joy is watching the family and the resident react.
When you curate someone’s life into a poem, you have to distill down and trust what they tell you and how. It teaches you a lot about writing. You begin to mimic their rhythms.
If you can do outreach, I absolutely suggest it. There have been years where I have stalled creatively, but I still show up for this writing experience as it teaches me, forces me to write, and brings a community together in powerful ways.