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Journal, Day One

By Catherine Wagner

Hello strangers and friends. I will be fronting the poetry borg for this week. I mean flabbing the poetry blog. Welcome!

I am flying to Boise from Ohio today, to drop off my son with his dad. While my son’s away, I’m supposed to finish up working on an anthology of poems on mothering. “Go away, son, so I can think about mothering.”


“After laying her eggs, an Australian social spider (Diaea ergandros) continues to store nutrition in a new batch of eggs—odd, oversized eggs, far too large to pass through her oviducts, and lacking genetic instructions. Since she breeds only once, what are they for?

“These eggs are for eating, not for laying. But to be eaten by whom? As the spiderlings mature and begin to mill about, the mother becomes strangely subdued. She starts to turn mushy—but in a liquefying rather than a sentimental way. As her tissue melts, her ravenous young literally suck her up, starting with her legs and eventually devouring the protein-rich eggs dissolving within her.” From Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

Thank evolution, we are not Australian social spiders. The situation for the contemporary U.S. mother is different.


I don’t mean to sound strident. It can be very enjoyable there. Wondering whether that should be the name of the mother-poem anthology (it is supposed to be called Not for Mothers Only).

I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea of the anthology ever since I agreed to co-edit it with Rebecca Wolff (whose Fence Books is going to publish it). I wanted to do it because there are so many discomfiting interesting mother poems out there right now, and more connections available between mothers who write (via listservs). I wanted to think about the permission that poets like Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer and Fanny Howe and many others gave us to write poems on mothering.

But I was nervous about the project, and felt defensive when explaining the project, especially when I spoke to men about it. I’m now realizing that’s because despite my feminism and my own experience with motherhood I’ve swallowed the following cultural givens: Mothers are embarrassing. They’re sentimental. Their soccer-momness deserves to be reviled. They sacrifice themselves and are thus not worth listening to because they exist only in service to a larger good (or a larger evil, the patriarchy, depending on your point of view). At any rate, they can have little to say, unless they’re mouthpieces nauseatingly repeating cultural conventions about motherlove.

I didn’t want to make an anthology that moms would use to gain comfort and a sense of solidarity with other mothers—picking it up in the store and flipping straight to the section on miscarriage or on adoption. I think I wanted the book to collect wild fantastic writing by mothers, innovative, activist, experimental work, not necessarily poems that addressed a particular subject. I’m not used to categorizing poetry in terms of subject matter. Yet our solicitation letter requested poems on motherhood. Would our anthology be like those horrible anthologies of poems on cats, or (I really did see a solicitation for this) poems on one’s vacation home? If I were cool I’d be sending out a request for cross-genre collaborative butt-splicing. Poetry isn’t about subject matter, right, hence the familiar objection to so-called “identity poetry”?

But wait a minute, the objection to “identity poetry” can be a secretly bigoted way to hold on to power, to avoid engagement with other points of view, to unfairly smear a whole nonwhite or nonheterosexual group with the tarry brush of a failure to linguistically innovate. My embarrassment about this anthology makes me realize I still buy into a horrid sexist perception of motherhood. Enough with self-hate. I’m a human mother, not an Australian social spider. I can talk. Mothers can talk. They can write wildly and fantastically and they can do so on various subjects. The subjects can include motherhood and I want to show them working that category over, experimenting with poetic practices that emerge from the conditions of motherhood, using those practices to interrogate the category of motherhood.

Hi y’all, what do you think? Thank you for letting me think through this with you. I hope you comment. The comment feature is the coolest thing about bloggery: that fourth wall gets broken down: the audience talks, the audience is part of the show. The weird thing about screens is that your intervention, your comment, is immediately subsumed seamlessly into the Web page. It’s as if you tried to put your hand through the puppet-theater and suddenly found yourself gazing out from it, or if you tried to kiss or punch somebody and quickswitch turned into them. Oh well. Talk anyway.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, December 11th, 2006 by Catherine Wagner.