Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys. Look to this series for writing inspiration, reading suggestions, and connections to other mama writers.
This week, Blog Editor and CNF Editorial Assistant Bridget Lillethorup conversed with Laurie Uttich, whose poem “A Prayer For My 17-Year-Old Son on the Other Side of the Door” was published in Literary Mama in 2021.
Laurie Rachkus Uttich is the author of the poetry collection, Somewhere, a Woman Lowers the Hem of Her Skirt (Riot In Your Throat Press, 2022).
Laurie’s prose and poetry have been published in Autofocus; Burrow Press; Brevity; Creative Nonfiction; Fourth Genre; Iron Horse Literary Review; JuxtaProse; The Missouri Review: Poem of the Week; Poets and Writers; Rattle; River Teeth; Ruminate; Split Lip Magazine; The Sun; Superstition Review; Sweet: A Literary Confection; Terrain.org; and others.
Laurie teaches at the University of Central Florida and leads creative writing workshops at a maximum-security correctional center for men in Orlando. Sometimes, Laurie sneaks her 60-pound dog Anna Faye into her classroom at UCF, but she hasn’t found a way yet to get her past security at the prison.
Bridget Lillethorup: Laurie, in the March/April Issue of Literary Mama from 2021, we published your poem, “A Prayer for My 17-Year-Old Son on the Other Side of the Door.” The poem is visceral, and brief, and left many of our readers (including myself) breathless (in the best way!) Can you say a little about your creation process with this poem? What is the origin story here?
Laurie Rachkus Uttich: I have three sons and I wrote this when one of them was struggling and I didn’t know why. You can ask your teenage kid a thousand questions, but that doesn’t mean you’ll receive any answers. I cried when I wrote this. I was worried about him and heartbroken watching him suffer.
It’s harder, too, I think, when we don’t know what’s causing the pain.
BL: “A Prayer for My 17-Year-Old Son on the Other Side of the Door” is also in your latest poetry collection, Somewhere a Woman Lowers the Hem of Her Skirt. Can you say a little more about this collection? Does this collection pick up on themes from “A Prayer for My 17-Year-Old Son on the Other Side of the Door”?
LRU: The poet Muriel Rukeyser’s beautiful poem “Käthe Kollwitz” has this line that I love and share with students: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” The collection has 5 parts–girl, townie, daughter, mother, she/her/hers–and I tried to tell the truth about all of the parts of my life. The mother section has 9 poems in it and all of them are based on my sons’ teenage years. I had more, but you have to stop somewhere!
BL: You write both poetry and prose. How do you navigate those genres, or, how do you choose which genre for your ideas to take form?
LRU: I love how poetry lets you fling open a door, step into a room, throw down an emotion, and slam the door on your way out. It’s so freeing and, often, fun. My prose tends to be much more nuanced, I think. I try to wander and speculate and I’m less certain in my conclusions. The narrator in my essays is closer to my personality, I think, than the speaker of my poems, although they’re both me. I don’t seem to be able to avoid telling some emotional (and often embarrassing) truth. So, it’s the topic that tends to dictate the genre. That said, I’ve often started writing a poem only to find it needed more space and turned it into an essay. I don’t think I’ve ever taken an essay and tried to make it a poem.
BL: I see on your website that you lead writing workshops at a maximum-security correctional center. I’m curious how that experience influences your own writing. How long have you been in that role, and what have you learned about writing?
LRU: I started in 2019 and recently took a break, but I’m planning on starting again this summer. It’s hard for me to overstate how much the men I write with have influenced my work. Writer Cynthia Ozick once said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage,” and I am continually amazed–and humbled–by the courage these men have. They live in a place where being vulnerable can have life-and-death consequences, and yet they show up on the page and they write their truths and they share them with each other. (If you’re interested in the stories they share, I wrote about some of them in The Sun.)
I honestly don’t know if I would have found the courage to send this collection out into the world, if it wasn’t for them. I’ve written 5 books, but because of the personal nature of my work (and the worry that I’ll hurt someone I love), I’ve always shelved them. But these men inspired me. Who am I to censor myself when the stakes for me are so much lower?
BL: What has your journey to publishing been like? Would you do anything differently? What advice would you give new writers?
LRU: I have always written–I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t go to the page to figure something out or tell a story–but I didn’t seriously try to work on my art until my late 30s when I went back to school for my MFA. I didn’t even know where to begin publishing in literary journals–or where even to find them, really–until I started the program.
My first “big” publication was in Creative Nonfiction and, for years, I only sent my work to places that were print journals. I didn’t want my work to be found in a Google search. For me, it’s impossible to write about my life without writing about those I love and I worried about how those people would feel.
That’s not the advice I would give new writers. The last poem in my collection is titled, “On Giving Yourself Permission at 52,” and in that poem I talk about the bravery of my students–both at the prison and at the university where I teach–and the last lines are “Your poems wait on the line while you put skin on bones. Night is coming. Oh, girl, it is always coming.” I will always be afraid I am hurting someone with my words, that my love for them isn’t clear in the stories I share. But there are only two choices really to make in life: fear or love. I don’t want to wake up at 80 and wish I had been brave. And I like to hope that my words will be seen as an act of love to those who might need the words I share.
BL: What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects?
LRU: I keep telling my husband I’m going to start writing trashy romances and actually make some money on my art, but we both know I probably won’t. I did just start a YA novel, though. I love the energy and hearts of the young people I teach and I’d like to play with fiction in a way that reminds them how much power and purpose they have.