The Imagining

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If I let myself, I can imagine it. All the worst-case scenarios, all the terrible things that could happen to my children. All the ways I could fail them, and all the ways the world could get them and take them from me. I can imagine the weight of their bodies in my arms. The look of their faces, wiped clean of emotion, pain, joy.

Once you have children, there is so much to lose. Everything frightens me now.

Now, the worst-case scenario seems so much more likely. I can’t stop my mind from leaping into those dark chasms and swimming about in morbid fantasy. Lovely afternoons become nightmares. Mundane outings become disasters. I can envision all my worst fears and see the things I never want to see. My mind leaps to the terrible, no matter how hard I try to avoid it.

Perhaps it’s my mind’s prophylactic—as though by imagining it first, I can somehow stop it. Or maybe it’s just what happens when you truly have something to lose. All the worst thoughts come to the forefront when there’s something at stake. Regardless, it’s an aspect of parenthood I hadn’t anticipated.

All of my dreams are like horror movies now. We are chased by murderers. We are stuck in a maze of a house surrounded by danger. I am driving us—unintentionally—off a bridge. These are not things that I worry about in my waking hours, but they dominate my sleeping consciousness. In my dreams, the impossible happens over and over again, and I can’t stop it.

When I’m awake, I worry about the more likely disasters. I worry about car accidents, the latest superbug, an accidentally inhaled lungful of water. When they bonk their heads, I wonder if they could have hit it in just the right place. The place that will cause permanent damage. I’m afraid when they get sick. Afraid that rasp will turn into a choking cough, afraid that cough will keep them from breathing when we’re not watching. I’m afraid they’ll jump off the thing I’m always begging them not to jump from, and that they’ll damage themselves permanently. I’m afraid we won’t make the right choices for them.

For a while, I thought these relentless irrational fears were just me. I’ve always been a worrier, and I was well aware that parenthood had jumpstarted a certain paranoia in me. But then I heard a friend mention that she had strange disaster fantasies, too, and other friends piped in and said they did too, and I began to realize that this is just parenthood. We spend so much time and effort and love on protecting these little people we make, and then we realize quickly how impossible that is. We can’t protect them. We try, and we hope, and we do the best we can, but there’s only so much to be done. And that is terrifying.

Somehow, we have to learn to live with the fact that we can’t protect our children. Despite all our efforts and safety precautions, we have to accept that some things are beyond our control. They will make mistakes, they will get hurt, they will have accidents, and they will get sick. We can’t keep them cloistered from the dangers of the world and expect that they will be happy and healthy and well-adjusted, too. We have to allow these people we made to go into the world, and we have to do our best to calm our imaginations. We have to trust—against our own minds’ worse fears—that our children will be okay. Eventually, we’ll learn to quell the fear. To live with it. To breathe. To watch. To hold them tight and then, as hard as it is, to let them go.

~ Shannon Brugh

Thursday Morning

Rattle & Pen is happy to welcome a guest writer to our site! Jennifer Sanquer-Mason grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. She earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California at Davis and a Masters in English literature from the University of Amiens in France. She teaches English in a high school in Brittany, where she lives with her husband and three children.

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This morning is that of a typical weekday. My new son sleeps in a basket next to the wood stove where I’ve just managed to get a fire going. I’ve cleared the table of the whirlwind breakfast my daughters and husband have just eaten. Getting them ready for school is a little more deliberate with me at home; I actually fix my girls’ hair now. I’ve even learned to French braid, thanks to my four-year-old’s patience and determination to look like Elsa from Frozen.

I’m acutely aware, mornings like this, of feeling lucky in life. Today before leaving, my husband brought in wood and let out the chickens so I don’t have to throw on a coat and boots over my pyjamas. My third child, one month old, only wakes up once in the night to nurse, so, although I’m tired, I’m not experiencing that piercing exhaustion I knew with my two girls when they were infants. I’m in the middle of 6 months paid maternity leave, and after that will be taking 6 more months, unpaid. We can afford this even though my husband, also a teacher, is already working half-time by choice. When my son is 10 months old, I’ll go back to my teaching job in a high school not far from my house, where I could stay until I retire, unless I choose to leave. By now you’ll have realized I don’t live in the United States.

The life I have in France is just as I’d hoped it would be, and at the same time completely different. A little stone house in the country with a door we never lock, and land enough to grow fruits and vegetables. A teaching job. Three healthy children. My kids don’t know McDonald’s, but they do know where meat and milk comes from (the little farm across the street). On the other hand, there are no fireflies or bears or thunderstorms or mountains. Hardly any elevation at all.

French kids play at “wolf”, where wolf is the bad guy who tries to eat everyone. There’s usually a safe spot called “cabin” where they all huddle and where the wolf can’t go. My six-year-old is still slightly wary of any collection of trees that she could call a forest, because that’s where wolves live. This is despite us repeating the fact that there are maybe three wild wolves living in the whole country, all far from here, and all in danger of being shot at by farmers.

Psychologists talk about parents having to mourn the baby they’d imagined before getting to accept the baby they really have. I often get a flash in my mind of the house I’d have had if we’d gone back to the US: wood-framed, screen door, a porch. It’s a thousand unimportant details – the door handles, the window blinds, the electric outlets – that together create a rift between that imagined place and where I actually live.

Rift is what I used to think about when I wrote poetry. Lines, I thought, are like stitches or bridges going back and forth between the two sides, linking them though they’d never be entirely whole. Writing helped me hold on to contradictions, without erasing the inconvenient parts. A post card shows just the horse on the prairie; a poem includes the power lines and the highway.

I could find lots of reasons to explain why I haven’t written in years. Those reasons don’t include my children or my job or the lack of space in our house. It surely does begin with me getting tired of that voice in my head that notes down and narrates life. I needed that voice when I was younger, to make sense of things and give me courage. A few years after grad school, though, I just wanted to turn it off. I still think about words all the time, going back and forth between two languages. And my work teaching English to French teenagers gives me a chance to make deliberate choices about words. It’s not art, but it does require skill.

A teacher told me once he thought I wasn’t damaged enough to be a writer. I was shocked at the time, but maybe it’s not so far from the truth. I do feel safe here. And this almost makes up for the lack of fiercely beautiful predators prowling nearby.

~ Jennifer Sanquer-Mason

Book Review: Sirs & Madams, by Joanna C. Valente

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“Sirs & Madams,” by Joanna C. Valente
Aldrich Press, 2014
75 pages
ISBN 9780692278338

Joanna C. Valente’s full-length collection of poetry, Sirs & Madams, debuts with Aldrich Press. The book is a collection of character-centric narrative poems in four seasonal sections. The book reads like a non-homogenized Greek chorus version of “The Virgin Suicides,” and although set in a contemporary time, the poems seem to vibrate with some sort of 70’s afterglow. Even the cover of the book looks like it draws upon an updated version of Carolyn Forche’s A Country Between Us, but modern flotsam like OkCupid and Facebook flits into the poems with the same ease as does a reference to Sly and the Family Stone, vanilla wafers, or “Lady Sings the Blues.” Stylistically, it’s a character-driven narrative that explores generational soul-sickness.

A few dark motifs emerge right away: amputated feet washing ashore, empty spaces, ghosts and guts. The poems circle around three sisters and their eventual deaths, but it is the poems that occur in the autumn section that feel more fleshed out. The sisters never stop reading as ephemeral beings, or as if they exist solely for the boys who are woven into their lives. The poem “Paul & Marianne” explores Paul’s sexuality against Marianne’s desire for freedom:

Paul told her he wanted to be a dancer,
rent an apartment in the city with a dog & a man.

He was tired of fixing cars so his hands would become
rough. For years, all he wanted were hands that could build.

She already knew, said it was no big deal. They drove away,
passing strangers – wishing they had flowers instead of neighbors.

Marianne’s poems are always in motion, as if they can’t be contained on the page, and Valente captures the persona with noticeable consistency throughout each section. The death of the sisters is impending and made clear in the first poem, so there is a strange pull when reading, as if waiting for the sword to fall. The last poem in the winter section, “Driving to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring” reintroduces the narrator and Greek chorus-esque by breaking the fourth wall: “Reader, can you see the crush/of their minutes?” Valente suspends the drama by using this technique, and the sections contribute to the pacing.

The pervasive theme of emptiness is kept from becoming overwhelming by Valente’s deft metaphor; it is not just about “the innards” of bodies, but the bodies themselves in the spaces they occupy. Houses are abandoned, bellies are empty or wombs are full of “ceramic knives.” The feet washing ashore are grotesque apparitions of ceasing bodily function; and the juxtaposition of cold v. heat, letters v. dialogue, suicide v. natural death appear and reappear as placement markers in each section.

The ordering is complex—again like a Greek drama—and Valente makes good use of persona pieces with concrete images to create an arcing narrative. Even with multiple narrators, the poems are able to maintain and propel the story. In the book’s final poem, “Tell Them They’re Dead,” Valente writes: “There were three sisters dangerous/as swans, broken into a hundred versions of themselves depending/on which day of the week.” The book ends as if a reader can expect a sequel, as if the new version of “bad blood” will create a new magic. It’s cleverly done for a debut collection, and Valente is undoubtedly a poet to watch.

Review by Lauren Gordon

Patience After Kids

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I used to be patient. People used to describe me as calm, serene, peaceful. I used to be patient.

But now, I am the mother of two small boys. And I don’t know if it was my children or teaching other people’s children before I had my own, but something happened. And now, I have no more patience.

I’m sure—ultimately—that’s not true. I’m sure if I could step back for a second and observe myself objectively, I would find that for a SAHM of two young boys who squeezes in part-time work from home, I’m still relatively patient. But it doesn’t feel that way.

Instead, it feels like my patience is stretched every hour of every day. It feels like my patience is tested and pushed and yanked beyond its limits. And it is. I am a parent, and that is what kids do. They stretch and push and yank (and sometimes stomp on) so that they can learn and understand. So that they can make sense of the world and their place in it.

I know this. Logically, I know that kids try patience and parents try to regenerate it, like the tail of some placid tropical lizard. No matter how many times that patience tail is yanked off, it will always grow back.

But, oh. There are those days. Those days when the kids seem determined to break me, and I feel like they will. Those days when I no longer have the patience for the 7,000th “Mom” or the 400th brotherly squabble. Those days when I think, “If I trip on one more truck I’m going to lose it.”

And truth be told, sometimes I do. I am far from perfect and far from the serene person people used to describe. Sometimes, I lose it. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I yell. Sometimes—though I’m loath to admit it—I get so bloody drained of patience that I kick toys across the room or slam doors. Sometimes, I just run out of patience.

The anger generated in me these days is a different kind of anger. I’m so drained of patience and energy every day that most of the time I feel like there’s something smoldering somewhere in my body. Like the embers are always lit, glowering beneath the surface, waiting to be stoked. And they are inevitably stoked by something: The incessant whining or the nonstop arguing or the refusal to eat the dinner I took extra care to make.

At those moments, I have this ridiculous cartoon flash when I feel the barometer rising, like steam will come bursting out of my ears at any moment. Like my top will blow right off.

And I don’t like that feeling. It feels bad. It feels un-parent-like. It feels wrong.

But it comes over and over again. I used to have the ability to squash it, to breathe through it or allow logic to chase it away, but I seem to have lost that particular talent. Maybe one day I just used the last dregs of my once endless patience. Perhaps it disappeared under the couch, slowly, like so many Legos. But that endless, regenerating supply of tolerance seems to be gone. And I struggle to bring it back in the moment.

Now, when I feel like the steam has no where left to go, when the embers combust once more, I have to find a way to sneak away to replenish that tolerance. With two small children in the house, that usually means the bathroom. So I find my solace in the shower. It sounds ridiculous and cliché, but it helps. A new squashing, of sorts. It’s one of the few places I can be alone (if I lock the door) and it’s one of the few times I can think a continuous thought.

Something about the water cools those embers and keeps me from burning out. I can find logic in there; there’s perspective in that soggy reflection. And every time, no matter how angry and exhausted and infuriated and done I am, I can think through it in the steam and the warmth. I can douse that ire that threatens to burn out of control. I can wash all that toxicity down the drain with my shampoo. I can breathe again.

Because the truth is, patience does always come back. Some days it takes a while. Some weeks it’s a slow and painfully deliberate re-growth. Some months there’s much more smoldering than dousing. But it always returns.

And a new day begins.

I am not the patient, calm person I once was. I am a mother now. And motherhood seems to have ignited a whole new passion in me. One that may not always be steady and peaceful, but is nonetheless filled with endless love for my boys. Serene, I am no longer. But I do love these kids with a passion.

~ Shannon Brugh

* Photo credit: (Mt. Saint Helens eruption, Wikipedia).

We Are the Minefield

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* Photo: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 

 

Readers, this is just a quick post, but I want to share it, as I’m feeling like we need a little hope today. Why? Well, yesterday’s politics are still ringing far too loudly in my head (and, I’m guessing, in yours). I spent last night feeling defeated by my government, saddened. Today, though, as I sat down to get back to work on a piece of fiction I’m writing (a story that, as it happens, is about a group of invisible, angry girls), I thought again of Justice Ginsburg’s line about the minefield and remembered what yesterday’s fury had obscured for me: we are not disarmed as long as we keep telling our stories. Language can be used to uphold old ideas, yes, but also to explode them. I say this with the many women writers I know and admire in mind. These women are not only writing the texts that will define the next generation of American culture, but also mothering and mentoring the next generation of readers and thinkers and voters and law-makers.

And with that realization, I felt a bit better about our future again. Yesterday’s fury became today’s determination. Keep writing, I reminded myself. You are the mine.

 

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Big Picture: Being Some Body

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It’s a muggy Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a dental chair in my periodontist’s office having a heart attack.

The dental assistant is patting my arm, telling me I’m doing a good job and to just relax. My rib cage is housing a wild, flapping bird of a heart and my breath is choked. “Deep breaths,” he keeps saying. “It’s not a heart attack. It’s not even a panic attack. It’s just the epinephrine from the Novocain.”

My arms are jerking violently of their own volition and I’m crying now. Ugly cry-face in front of this sweet, Midwestern beau hunk kid who ten minutes prior was talking about a seventy thousand dollar motorboat he wants to buy. This is the sixth dental visit I’ve had in four months and they rush together in a blur: a root canal on top of an old root canal, teeth cleaning, two hour exams, referrals, and now this gum grafting surgery for bone loss. These visits have been interspersed with eight visits to a podiatrist who gives me cortisol blocks in my feet and fitted me for orthotics, another visit to my physician for a month-long recurring rash on my arms and legs, a follow-up with a dermatologist…

“The crying is normal,” he says. “It’s a scary feeling.” I want to tell him the crying isn’t about my involuntary muscle movements or my throbbing heartbeat. I want to tell him how tired I am of being inside my body, how this biologically induced panic attack feels like the pinnacle of my fear and exhaustion and aging. “Think of the big picture,” he says.

When the numbing agents kick in twenty minutes later and I no longer feel like Uma Thurman’s character in “Pulp Fiction” with a needle sticking out of her chest, the dentist begins removing a section of gum tissue from the roof of my mouth. I feel no pain there, just a strange, insistent tugging and what sounds like ripping. I close my eyes behind the dark safe-wear glasses and feel the tense pull of muscles in my neck, my jaw. Even my legs are rigid with the pressure of holding myself so still. My throat aches to swallow the pool of blood that fills it, but I am past basic bodily functions at this point. I am a tight replica of a body without being.

The big picture? That at the rate I’m going, I’ll be walking around on toothpick bones with three teeth in my head and a gigantic bunion I’ve nicknaked “Paul.” I want to tell him it wasn’t always like this, but when I really start to think about it, I realize that might not be true. The moments I have felt alive or good in my body are rare, and that’s depressing when I let it be. Even my first marriage was the result of an impending and necessary surgery because I didn’t have the insurance I needed to cover the operation. It doesn’t get more romantic than that. That marriage saw me through a few surgeries and treatments–multiple laminectomies and diskectomies in my back and neck, a gastric bypass operation, thalassemia minor, a breast reduction, iron infusions, hospitalization. A glamorous check-list of ailments in my twenties that invited doctors to say things like “but you’re so young” or “you’ll recover so fast, you’re young.” One gynecologist said “usually I only see cysts like these in female truckers.” Another said, “You’ve got the cervix of a nine year old!”

There is little you can do about genetics, except wallow in it or rise above it. And here I am now, years later, in a different marriage with a different post-baby body, kicking around with my tiny cervix. This time around it’s bone loss and slipped disks and plantar fasciitis and allergies. How seemingly mundane. I sound old. I sound tired. Chronic pain is the kind of thing that only sufferers can really understand. How it changes the mapping of your brain, how you respond to stressful situations, how truly present you can be in a moment. And it’s nothing compared to the sliding scale of people who suffer to the point of immobility, or are not high functioning, or on pain killers. It’s more like piling the straw on the camel’s post-surgery back. She’s bowing from the pressure. Or is she drowning?

“Sorry about all the blood,” says the dental assistant, “I’m trying to suck it up as much as possible.”

I smile or grimace in response and start to remember an accident my daughter had a month or two ago. It was her bedtime and she got a case of the sillies. If you’ve ever parented a toddler, you know the sillies. You’ve missed the twilight call of the perfect bedtime window and your child gets the second wind. Daylight Savings Time exists solely to screw with parents of small children. So on the brink of new spring hours, my husband asked, “Do you think we should take her up to bed?” just as my daughter started to sprint toward the window seat like a colt.

“Probably,” I hedged, thinking about the walk up the stairs and my sad knees. “You know how clumsy she gets when she’s this tired.”

You can’t write foreshadowing this succinct or accurately. The second the words were out of my mouth, she tumbled head-first and hit her face against the edge of the wooden and tile window seat. Cue the deadly silent scream. I scooped her up, didn’t see any immediate red marks and started to say “I think she’s ok…” just as her mouth began to pool with blood.

Bloody mouths are remarkable things. You’ve never seen so much blood so fast, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, could only feel my stomach dropping like I was barreling down a roller coaster. I ran to the bathroom and instinct took over as I wetted a washcloth and shoved it against where I thought there might be a cut in her mouth, over her top teeth. Easier said than done with a hysterical child. It’s hard to simultaneously soothe and doctor.

“What can I do?” my husband said, his face white.

“Call the nurse’s line,” I said quickly.

I don’t know how he found a nurse’s line to call in a matter of seconds, but he did. For twenty minutes the nurse walked us through what we were doing and had us look at the wound. I lifted my daughter’s cheek and removed the washcloth to see a three inch gash along her upper gums, as well broken skin on her lower lip where she must have bitten herself. The short version of this story is that eventually she stopped crying, eventually the bleeding stopped, eventually my husband held my hands while I cried, told me how amazing I was to keep my shit together under those circumstances–to do my crying later, when my daughter had been doped up with Tylenol and put to bed.

Is this what it’s like for those mothers who lift cars off of their children, fend off would-be attackers with incredible rage and adrenaline? It doesn’t feel good. It feels enormously frightening to know you might not be enough, that your body isn’t enough. But being conscious of pain and present with it has helped me become much more empathetic to suffering in others, so maybe there is a trade-off here.

I see my daughter learning the world through her body while learning how to be in her body, and in turn, she is teaching me. She loves to try on my shoes and attempt walking in them. When the oven is warm, she presses her face against it and says in a stern voice, “hot!” Water on the windows is a marvel – “rain!” Puddles make noise when feet are stomping. Blankets are great for hiding under. Teddy bears are for hugging. Mama’s swollen, post-surgery chin is perfect for head-butting.

Her body will undergo so many changes that sometimes I’m overwhelmed trying to imagine it all. It will be regarded as property. Laws will be made about it without her consent. It will be objectified, looked at, the subject of countless articles and conversations. And it will suffer pain. It already has. It already does. How to listen to your body, acknowledge the pain, and move on? I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be present in my body, to know when to push it and to know when not, but it still surprises me. And I find myself baffled by how to teach her to love her body when I can barely stand to be in mine sometimes, but maybe that isn’t the point.

I see our reflection in the sliding doors at the super market as I hold her hand while we walk. We hobble together in our way. Her steps are slow and loud, mine are just slow. But when we sit together in the overstuffed chair at home, her body nestles against mine like a puzzle piece. When we lie on the small bed together, we fit just right. That is the marvel–that my body had a hand in creating another body, so perfect and new and strong; that I would do ten more of these gum-grafts and wear ugly running shoes for the rest of my life if it gives me more time to just be here.

When the oral surgery is over, the dental assistant hands me a goody bag with a soft toothbrush and a three page post-surgery checklist. It’s a ten-week long recovery process full of follow-up appointments and special care. “Big picture,” he says again with a smile. “You’re going to be just fine.”

And I believe him.

 

–Lauren Gordon

 

* The image heading this blog post is from the gorgeous series “A Beautiful Body,” by photographer Jade Beall, which features the bodies of real mothers. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out immediately (here, at the Huffington Post site). It’s a stunning and sensitive look at the post-baby body. (KSL)

Interview with poet Joanna Penn Cooper

Joanna Penn Cooper

Joanna Penn Cooper

Here at Rattle & Pen we’re always looking for fantastic new work by women writers to promote, and so we were thrilled to find the poetry of Joanna Penn Cooper earlier this year. Cooper’s poems explore identity, culture, relationship, and motherhood through what feels to the reader like a slightly fractured, slightly dream-clouded lens. Entering her poems, the reader sees the world slant-wise. Details that might usually go unseen rise up to meet the reader’s eye, and to these Cooper knits her own interior observations and inquiries. These poems are all angle. They open not like boxes or windows, but like those origami paper fortune games we all played on the school bus as kids, each peak and flap capable of revealing multiple answers to the questions asked. As author Maureen Thorson writes, “Cooper describes a poetics of populated space, in poems that investigate and create at once.”

Here’s a sample of her work (first printed in the South Dakota Review):

On the Delicate and Non-Delicate Movements of Weather and Time

At 2 a.m. the humidifier sounds like crickets and then I know I should move to the country.

I let my large gray yoga ball sit on my reading chair, even though in times past that would have meant something ominous if I woke up wrong. But I know I’m undergoing a transformation because, when they do show up, the ghosts in this room keep me company now. One will hang around all matter of fact and affable, like a wise old dog, before leaving again, and then I’ll just go back to sleep.

My boyfriend tucks me in for the second time and tries to sneak away to do more work. “Goodnight,” I say, then hold up my arm and make a beak. Then I say, “Remember shadow animals on the wall?” He laughs and turns to go. He knows I’m always trying to start conversations about shadow animals when people are trying to say goodnight.

What do you expect? One lifetime is very short, but it’s hard to realize when it’s happening. Except sometimes it’s easy to realize. Sometimes you’re almost a year later in a room in Brooklyn waiting for a blizzard, when just a second ago you were almost a year earlier in a different room in Vermont sitting on a bed with a Vanity Fair, a pregnancy test, and an empty bag of M&Ms you don’t remember eating.

My friend tells me there’s a word for this made up by a theorist. She can’t remember the theorist’s name or the word. My friend is very intelligent, but we like to half-remember things when we talk. It’s just what we do.

Physics calls it “everything happens at once and all the edges touch.” I believe I read that somewhere or heard it on PBS and didn’t just see it in a movie.

I will be the theorist and I will call it effleurage, which actually means “a delicate stroking motion.” In my theory, it means that and it also means “the mind and body’s flagrant disregard for notions of the consistent forward movement of time.” A delicate and non-delicate motion.

Cooper’s first book, The Itinerate Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis was published earlier this year by Brooklyn Arts Press, and her second, What Is a Domicile came out this month through Noctuary Press. We’re happy to share an interview with Cooper here.

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R&P: Where do poems most often begin for you (if there is a “most often”)?

JPC: Often they begin when a thought, memory, or observation occurs to me in language that sounds odd or interesting in my head. I have a fondness for individual and regional colloquial rhythms of speech and thought, and sometimes I become enamored with turns of phrase that bubble up in my mind during the normal course of the day, starting a kind of chain reaction that makes me want to write it down or follow it. Other times, I’m reading someone else’s work, and the language or subject matter will cause an echo or response for me. Or I’ll be walking down the street and some connection among disparate images or ideas will occur to me. So: Thinking. Reading. Walking.

R&P: What was your manuscript-to-book process?

JPC: This book has been a long time in the making, and at the same time it happened very quickly! The story is that I had another book accepted by Brooklyn Arts Press, but the editor there only wanted the prose poems and not the lined poems. (That book , The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis, we ended up calling “lyrical prose,” so What Is a Domicile is—or isn’t?—my first book of poetry.) Anyway, I took the lined poems out of the other book, intending to use them somewhere else. Then, a couple months after my son was born, I wrote a poem a day in April for National Poetry Month. It’s something I’ve done for five years now, as part of Maureen Thorson’s NaPoWriMo initiative. She had the poem-a-day idea years ago, and it’s really taken off. It’s a great way to get over writing humps and just write. I was surprised I could produce anything, but that year (2013), writing every day while the baby was still new and would just lie around and look at stuff ended up being a wonderful way to get my mind moving again, and I got several decent drafts out of it. I had met the editor of Noctuary Press, Kristina Darling, at Vermont Studio Center the previous year, and that spring, she wrote to ask me if I would be interested in submitting a manuscript. I spent some time figuring out how to arrange a manuscript from the older poems, a few poems I wrote when I was pregnant, and the post-baby ones. What emerged is a portrait of a specific time in my life— poems about the first few years of a relationship, about being in a very in-between position in my life in the city, and then about pregnancy and early motherhood. I’m pleased with how it came together and thrilled that Kristina accepted it for Noctuary.

R&P: What/Who are your literary influences? Whose work do you pick up when your own work is stuck?

JPC: Two big influences for me are my mother and her mother, for their habits of speech and originality of thought. In terms of other writers: James Schuyler, Lydia Davis, Brenda Coultas, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Robert Hass. Those are some that I’ve picked up lately to get me writing again. In an essay about Ingeborg Bachmann, Charles Simic writes of the idea of a “living voice,” and I gravitate toward writers who have some version of that—the sense of lived experience, a texture of thought and voice that reach across time and space to make human contact with you. I also enjoy how that living, human quality plays out in the works of many southern writers. Eudora Welty’s stories are a favorite. In the writers I’ve mentioned, I’m inspired by watching the ebb and flow of what I might think of as the stylized and the immediate, polished “craft” and more open, immediate speech-like rhythms (not that those aren’t crafted, too).

R&P: One never wants to presume that poetry is necessarily autobiographical, but is there any dovetailing between your life and your poems? And for Rattle & Pen, where the specific focus is writing and motherhood, can you discuss the ways in which your poetry affects or influences your mothering, and your motherhood affects or influences your writing? Are there conjunctions there (or disjunctions)?

JPC: There is much dovetailing of my life and my poems. I weave together bits of lived experience and imagined details in many of my poems, and I enjoy the way that poetry (for me) allows for reflection on one’s movement through the world and its interpenetration with memory, imagination, and streams of thought. In my experience, being a poet encourages me to pay attention to the world around me and to reflect on connections, threads, disjunctions. At the same time, I’ve found that if I try to stuff too much autobiographical narrative into my poems, they often flounder, so I’ve developed my own methods of coming at stories or life details through indirection and intimation. What’s the Dickinson line? “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I love that poetry can do that. There’s also an absurd quality that has snuck into some of my work more and more over the last several years, in part through the influence of my mentor Paula McLain, who encouraged me to embrace my “fine strangeness,” and in part due to my own frustration with how some of my more straightforward narrative and lyric poems were falling flat. The “fine strangeness” has always been there for me as a family and literary inheritance, and after a while as an artist you have to learn to embrace your weirdness. In terms of motherhood, it’s been interesting to watch my own search for form as I was pregnant and being a stay-at-home mother these past couple years. My son is still very young, so I’m sure the cross-influences will continue to evolve, but so far I’ve noticed that motherhood has caused me to further embrace an essayistic “hybrid” form that I started experimenting with before I was pregnant. I’ve become very interested in a searching, fragmentary form that weaves together bits of prose. I’ve always been a flouter of genre lines, and even more so now. I’m interested to see where that goes.

R&P: Where can readers find out more about your book, your past/forthcoming work, and your readings?

JPC: joannapenncooper.blogspot.com