Super Mom Poets

Marilyn Nelson and Adrian Blevins talk about being mother-poets.

by The Editors
Marilyn Nelson is the current Connecticut Poet Laureate and a professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Her book Carver: A Life in Poems (2001) won a Newbery Honor Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has received two Pushcart Prizes, two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her latest book, The Cachoeira Tales And Other Poems, was recently released by Louisiana State University Press.

1. What poems do you like to read to your children?

My children learned to read early, but I read children's poetry to them before they could read on their own. Dr. Seuss, of course. Shel Silverstein. Jack Prelutsky. And then the classics that were reprinted by Childcraft and other anthologies.

2. What poems do you think of on Mother’s Day?

Several: I think of Paul Lawrence Dunbar: “In the Morning”; Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Mother”; Langston Hughes: “Mother to Son”; George Barker’s “Sonnet to My Mother.” Seamus Heaney’s sequence “Clearances” has two particularly wonderful poems about his mother: #3 and #5. I also think of several poems by Lucille Clifton.

3. Have you ever been given a poem on Mother’s Day?


4. Is there a poem you would you like to receive (or to give) on Mother's Day? Why?

I’d like a poem written by one of my children. One year my daughter gave me a little piece of paper on which she had printed “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DO THINGS.”

5. How does motherhood find its way into your own poems?

My second book is called Mama’s Promises. Since then, mine has been a mother’s perspective.

6. How have you managed being a parent and being a poet?

It wasn’t easy when my children were young. I was very torn. I stole writing time away from the quality time I should have spent with them. I sometimes think I shortchanged them. But my [perfect] son reassures me, and says I was a good mom.

Adrian Blevins’s The Brass Girl Brouhaha was published by Ausable Press in 2003 and won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Blevins is also the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation Award for poetry, the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction, and a Bright Hill Press chapbook award for The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes (Bright Hill Press, 1996). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Utne Reader, The Southern Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Drunken Boat,, and many other magazines and journals. New poems can be read in an upcoming issue of The Georgia Review or heard on the audio Web magazine From the Fishhouse. She teaches at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

1. What poems do you like to read to your children?

When the kids were little, I’d read anything fun and silly, such as William Carlos Williams’sThis is Just to Say,” Christopher Smart’s For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry, and even Winnie the Pooh’s:

                  Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
                 A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
                 Ask me a riddle and I reply:
                 “Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

When my older boys were teenagers, though, I used poetry to make certain points about how I did and didn’t want them to behave. This really embarrasses me, for I now know I was running the risk of ruining poetry for my sons by turning it into a tablet of commandments. I also used poetry for its therapeutic powers, which also bothers me now. They memorized Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come” to deal with my divorce—I made the boys say it every night before they went to sleep. When they missed their father I would take out Sharon Olds’ father poems to perhaps give them permission to be pissed at him too, which was not right—I was trying to control their feelings. When they were older and lovesick, I gave them Neruda’s love poems. And almost any poet is very good for the isolation and alienation teenagers feel—I could take almost anything off my shelf and it would work for isolation and alienation. Both of my boys read and write poetry now, so I guess I didn’t ruin them, but I am afraid my mom self interfered with my poetry self too much when my first two were growing up.

2. What poems do you think of on Mother’s Day?

The first poem that comes to mind is Stephanie Brown’s “Mommy is a Scary Narcissist,” which I think is wonderful, but I certainly wouldn’t like to get this poem on Mother’s Day. And then I think of Robert Hass’s “My Mother’s Nipples,” which, being partly a lament, wouldn’t work, either. Maybe Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips,” being a celebration of womanhood, is a kind of crooked ode to mothers? Peter Cooley’s “Macular Degeneration” has always seemed a poem of great mother-praise to me. Also Stephen Dunn’s “The Routine Things Around the House.” That’s a great gratitude poem. It centers, come to think of it, on his mother’s breasts.

3. Have you ever been given a poem on Mother’s Day?

No. But it would be wonderful!

4. Is there a poem you would you like to receive (or to give) on Mother's Day? Why?

I just found this poem by Steve Scafidi—it’s from For Love of Common Words,which is just out from Louisiana State University. It is just perfect for Mother’s Day. It will tell you why. Here it is:

Witness to the Work

If I could knock a house down with my crotch or pull a train
cross-country with a little string tied to my cock well then
that would be something. Not much, but at least something.

If I could breathe in sharply now and swallow the western half
of Portugal with its bright umbrellas and pointy cathedrals
and its statues of Fernando Pessoa it might be the same.

If I could just think of the pain I would fall over like a lettuce,
as it is, a great and growing awe comes between us now
and we do not speak of it. Months pass. More months.

She cries out suddenly and her cries are deep like nothing
I’ve ever heard and the car zigzags and we are there.
Then the hours pass filled with a difficult kind of grace.

And she pushes that baby out of her and the baby finally
says OK and galumph, just like that, this lump of breath
falls into the world and is lifted to her mother’s breast.

And she is crying and people are nipping and cutting, saying
Oh isn’t she, isn’t she and the room is spinning hard
and this spinning spins the earth and the earth spins faster.

And I always thought that life was like a blue donkey
named Disaster that we ride to death and whisper to.
Now I know. It’s this bloody holy work the mothers do.

5. How does motherhood find its way into your own poems?

I didn’t write about being a mom for many, many years. In fact, I wrote about everything but. I was much too afraid of being sentimental and cliché—of painting a pretty lie. The best poetry contains important contradictions and oppositions, and I guess it just took me a long time to muster the courage to speak truthfully about my experience, which really is not about small-print roses on white aprons. Now I do write about motherhood—my experience with my own mother as well as my experience as a mother—but I couldn’t do it until I killed my fear.

6. How have you managed being a parent and being a poet?

Well, I’m too often not the most attentive mother and, too often, not the most attentive poet. I have been known to put the kids to bed an hour early so I could get some writing done. I’ve been known to sit in the kitchen and read some book I couldn’t put down while one kid or another said hey mom hey mom hey mom over and over and over again. I learned to shut them out and feed them peanut butter sandwiches for dinner so I could write or read, which of course is horrible. I’ve also been known not to write poems because the kid at the door saying hey mom hey mom really needed me. It has been difficult, and I know that won’t ever end—Raymond Carver called parenthood a condition of permanent distraction. I had my first child when I was 22—I was just a baby myself—and I remember my undergraduate poetry teacher getting upset about it, telling me it would be hard and maybe even impossible for me to keep writing. That was a good thing for him to say, since at least part of my motivation thereafter—I’m seriously this bullheaded—was to prove him wrong.

Originally Published: May 8, 2006


On June 16, 2013 at 7:10pm jeanne wrote:
My moms a single mother to me and I wanted to give her the best gift ever.. I was wondering if you could write me a poem on her being a roll of not just my mom but my father at the same time I have put her through alot and shes just so strong .... And she deserves a good poem please can you write me one about moms being also dads??

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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