What is a woman willing to give up in order to become? What do we sacrifice to become wives, mothers? These are among the questions Ohio poet Sara Moore Wagner grapples with in her book, Swan Wife, winner of the 2021 Cider Press Review Editors‘ Prize. Wagner has authored three full length books of poetry: Swan Wife, Hillbilly Madonna (2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript prize winner), and the forthcoming Lady Wing Shot (winner of the 2022 Blue Lynx Prize). She is the author of two chapbooks, Tumbling After and Hooked Through. Wagner is also a 2022 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award recipient, a 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award recipient, and a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist.
Wagner, who lives with her husband and children in West Chester, Ohio, recently spoke—via email—with fellow Ohioan Kelsey Madges. They corresponded about the influences that shaped Swan Wife and how motherhood and marriage have impacted Wagner as a writer and a woman. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Kelsey Madges: How did you come to be a poet? How did poetry evolve as your preferred means of expression?
Sara Moore Wagner: I like to say I’ve always been a poet! I remember I loved to rhyme, loved the sound of words, so my early journals were poetry. I was never good at music, so I liked to hear the words. This made me seek out poetry in the library, older poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Yeats, and HD. Early on, there were adults who saw my love of poetry and called me a poet, which made me lean into that even more, discovering more poets who stretched the boundaries of what you can do in a poem. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Sharon Olds’ Satan Says, and Adrienne Rich’s Diving Through the Wreck were the formative books I’d sit in the library and read during lunch at my Evangelical high school. Later, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets took me through grief and the end of relationships. After my daughters were born, Maggie Smith’s The Well Speaks of its Own Poison was a comfort and a push to return to poetry to speak through my postpartum depression, which began the foundations of Swan Wife.
KM: Poems in Swan Wife reflect theology, mythology, fables, and fairy tales, many of which may not be familiar to all readers. Did you study any of these as you were writing the poems or were they already a part of your writing vocabulary?
SMW: I did read a lot of fairy tales! The theology comes natural for me. I was raised Pentecostal (Dad’s side) and Evangelical. I did a lot of Bible study and memorization. It slips into my poems even when I don’t mean for it to. I also used to teach Ancient Literature, for about 10 years, at a homeschool co-op, so those things live in my psyche. When I was out of ideas, though, I would go to Grimms and Andrew Lang’s 19th century Fairy Books (collections of children’s tales), and I’d visit the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folklore index to add a layer. I really researched the Swan Maiden and animal trope tales because that felt like such a metaphor for how I was feeling. After I married my husband, I got pregnant on the honeymoon. Very quickly I found myself transformed from my former wildness, and I was searching for what it meant to be a “wife” and “mother” who could maintain her artistic passion.
I find a lot of inspiration in folklore type texts. There are so many holes to fill in and spaces to imagine into, and a lot of those stories started with women, women whispering tales into cradles, 17th century French literary salon women writing adult fairy tales interrogating “society” standards (like “Persinette,” by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, one of the earliest recorded versions of what would become “Rapunzel,” which feels like a statement against arranged marriage). The version of the tales we consider the originals were actually revisions made by men like the Grimm brothers, who of course have since been challenged, the tales have been reclaimed, by other revisionist writers like Anne Sexton, Olga Broumas, and Angela Carter.
I longed to be in conversation with those women and try for something new.
KM: You clearly have an affinity for the natural world. How did this develop and come to play such an important role in your work?
SMW: I grew up in nature. I was always in the woods with my dad or running through the creek in summer. Natural images are images I return to because they trigger that childhood self, which is really where the imagination comes from! Natural images are also such a part of the fairy tale world, with its forests and lakes and mountains.
KM: Swan Wife is divided into sections: “Free Flight,” “Descent,” “Submerged,” and “Return.” What led you to that particular structure?
SMW: I was interested in structuring this as a hero’s journey, like Joseph Campbell, so the sections reflect that structure: there’s the beginning (free flight), the call to action/journey (descent), the catabasis or abyss (submerged), and then that eventual heroic return. I wanted Joseph Campbell in the section headings, but I also wanted them to reflect the movements of a swan going into the water then back to the sky. I retitled many poems like “The Ordeal” and “Approaching the Inmost Cave” to wink at the hero’s journey, too. I have always been interested in myth and fairy tales, and in the hero’s journey trope stories, but in some ways I wanted to subvert that. No one puts women, especially “housewives,” married women with children whose only real “task” is to tend the children and home, into these kinds of stories and allows them to have agency, to be heroes. I wanted my poems to have a familiar arc, a male arc, to be a transgression on the arc, and for the message of that to be that it is a heroic act to be given a quest like motherhood and to not lose the self or wildness. That’s the challenge: to survive it and come out richer.
KM: Swan Wife often feels like a study in contrasts. Many of the poems highlight wildness versus domesticity and the roles of wife and mother versus independence/freedom. Are those contrasts you struggle with? Have your feelings about the roles you fill shifted over the years?
SMW: I feel like those are my main contrasts! I’ve never really felt like I had anything together. I’ve always been independent and kind of messy, then when you become a mother, people expect you to carry the weight of everything, not just bear the child, but keep things neat, teach the child, get the child on a schedule, take care of yourself, etc. There’s seen and unseen labor that there’s really no training for–and was something that felt really counter to my natural state, which was pretty wild. I moved to South Korea alone at 23; I would always just leap into whatever thing seemed fun with no thought of rules or schedules or consequences. I had a lot of destructive habits and behaviors that I did just stop the moment I got pregnant with my son. I cut off everything I was because I have always been all-or-nothing and because I wanted to do things right.
When I later met and married my husband–we were married when my son was six–I had entered grad school because I realized how much of myself I had given up because I thought I “had” to. I was young. I wanted to break generational cycles. I had read too many books and articles on what a “mom” should do/be. Most of what I did was necessary, but giving up my own goals was not.
Swan Wife is really this contrast mixed with the real story of my first year of marriage. It’s about me and not about me. I wanted to fight against those larger ideas I was battling after marrying and getting pregnant with my second child–to see how I could live this life and still be free. I see my role now as different. Following my dreams is good for my children to see, though I still struggle with that “I’m not doing enough, I’m messing it all up” feeling.
KM: I was so intrigued by the group of poems “Mentor Study.” The goddesses you invoke — Psyche, Isis, Penelope, Beatrice, Circe, and Venus — seem to offer a contrast to the Bible verse quoted at the beginning of the group: “A woman must learn in quietness and full submission” (1 Tim. 2:11). What were you hoping the reader would take from this contrast?
SMW: I’m learning. I’m seeing what Western religious traditions want me to learn, but I’m going to scream through it.
In the hero’s journey, the hero is given a mentor, drawing from that first model of behavior, from Odysseus whose mentor was Athena, who literally called herself Mentor. When I wrote these poems, before I knew where they’d go, I was really drawn to locating myself in these complicated women whose only purpose, generally, is to serve, wait for/on, search for, or want a man. Some of them are quiet, some scream. All have been written by a man, as was the Bible. Some were real women who’ve been mythologized by a man, like Beatrice. These poems all have “complex” at the end of the title (like “Isis Complex”) because I wanted to think about these stories in a psychoanalytic way, how they exist in the unconscious mind, like Freud’s Oedipus complex. When I started these poems, I also wanted to push myself into the female space more. I have always seen myself more in male heroes, like Achilles. Achilles has the panic and grief I’ve always carried, but female characters always felt flat and unrealistic. The central question here was, then, what does the patriarchy say I should/shouldn’t be, and how can I explode that by giving a real female voice to these characters who fit into different traditions, but are still traditions of quiet submission?
KM: What does a typical day look like for you? How does your role as a wife and mother enrich your writing life and/or how does it challenge your writing?
SMW: When I was writing this book, I was “just” a stay-at-home mom. Later, I homeschooled my children (they are now seven, eight, and fifteen) for two years during the pandemic. Before that, they went to a co-op preschool where I was on the board. Before the pandemic, too, we would have playdates and other things most days. I was always out and about. Back then, I would get up early to work on my poems, or I’d find little pockets in the haze of my very busy days.
Now, my kids are all in school, so I still do some of the stay-at-home mom things, but then I am able to teach a class during the day a few days a week, so I grade or do things for my writing while my kids are gone.
KM: What are you working on or are excited about at the moment?
SMW: I’m really excited about starting the publication process for my third book, Lady Wing Shot, which won the Blue Lynx Prize recently and is an exploration of the life of Annie Oakley and of gun violence in America. Annie Oakley’s hometown is not far from me (and you!) in Darke County, OH. I look forward to going back there to share my book and add to her story through my research, in some way.
I also have two other almost finished full lengths I’m in the process of editing, one on religious art and one on the weirdness of suburbia. All three of these books, of course, are also about motherhood.
I’ve had so much writing steam for the last five years or so. I feel more in the organization stages now. I’m taming more than producing. After writing a historical book, I have been really interested in finding a new research project to follow into obsession. Right now, I’ve been studying ghost stories, so when I do write, I’m writing around those, seeing where it takes me!