What Matters

In a few days I will launch my first poetry collection.Mel-014

It’s been a long road to get to the eve of the launch, and to tell the story of how it came together I usually go back to 2002. That’s the year ten of my poems were published in Exposed, a collection of work by “five exciting young poetic talents,” edited by Catherine Hunter for The Muses’ Company. (The other poets were Alison Calder, Chandra Mayor, Sharanpal Ruprai, and Kerry Ryan; I felt privileged to be counted among them.)

For a young writer, this was a big break, a publication I could use to springboard into the poetry scene.

But that’s not the way it went. My poems collected in Exposed reveal a fierce belief that poetry must matter. I had come alive as a writer while reading the engaged feminist poetries and poetics of writers like Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Di Brandt. I wanted to write protest poetry. But just before the launch of the book, I lost my first child in a late miscarriage. All of a sudden I found I had nothing to write except my own grief, which I revisited over and over in my journal.

“still,” one of the poems in my new collection, records the frustration I felt at that time: “these days all i write is // brown // umbilical    rot”—but eventually I had to make peace with the project, even though I hadn’t chosen it. In answer to the question I kept asking myself, “Why does this matter?” I could only answer, “It matters to me.”

I attended workshops and writing group, bringing the poems that burned in my throat and made me weep they were so loaded with fresh pain. I soon found that the poems mattered beyond just me, that there are other people whose dead rattle within them. I set a goal: to write about loss without slipping into cliché or sentimentalism, to write something better than the saccharine poems on sympathy cards.

A year after that first book launch I was pregnant with another child. I turned slowly from sadness to expectation; the poems from that time are hopeful but tinged with fear and doubt. My daughter arrived, healthy and beautiful.

Some of my poems were written in response to the platitude “your children are your poetry now,” about the struggle to juggle parenting and making art. When I was too exhausted to write, I took no consolation in these words from well-meaning friends and family members. I have learned from both sides that poetry and children are not interchangeable.

I remember, though, I met John Weier at a poetry reading and he said something like “I didn’t write at all when my children were babies. Don’t worry: it’ll come back.” He was right.

My friend Brenna George, the artist whose painting Waiting to Deliver is on the cover of my book, makes art about mothering and about her children. She says we ought to make art about things while we’re in the midst of them—if we try to look back, the immediacy is lost. I wrote very little in the years of parenting young children, but I’m grateful I found time to write down small scraps of poetry as they came to me. For example, the “reclining buddha” long poem took me years to get right, but it started in the early days of my son’s life.

I must seem ungrateful, going from mourning the loss of a child to complaining about how hard it is to be a parent, but that’s the way it went. The more recent poems in my collection were written after I went back to school and got my MA. I read a lot of feminist theory about motherhood, and it gave me a new sense that telling the hard parts about mothering along with the sweet parts is important.

My “happiness threads” poems, which use the form and the language of an online parenting forum to critique patriarchal motherhood, are named after Sara Ahmed’s “happiness scripts,” the prescriptions of white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, heterosexist culture for what will make us happy. That’s not how happiness works, Ahmed observes. Instead, it just happens, in unexpected times and places.

So I’m grateful for all that’s happened in the more than ten years since that early book. And I’m grateful for the new book—it’s not like a child, no, but a happy arrival nonetheless. Like when Exposed was published, I sense there’s a door closing on my old projects. What’s next? I’ll figure that out once the book’s launched.