babies, parents, and poetry
My wife and I had a baby girl six months ago, and, in terms of motherhood and parenting, all I can say is wow, and more wow. I never knew how hard child rearing is; can you say tired squared? I am so overwhelmed (and inspired!) with only one; I have no idea how people do it, (like Rachel with two and one more on the way). Even though we’re in an era where many fathers change diapers and do daddy day care, mothers still do the heavy lifting, carrying the species forward.
I have to think that we overlook mothers in this country; I was in Guatemala 15 years ago in a small town, and I stumbled upon a statue of a pregnant woman, and it was so appropriate (and sadly disorienting) to see the heroics of the every day celebrated. Are there any large, public statues celebrating motherhood in this country? There are, of course, many tall buildings and several monuments that seem to be indirect testimonies to the most rudimentary element of fatherhood.
With babies and poetry, several things come to mind. 1. How does one find the time and energy to write? 2. Motivation—everything else in the world (including poetry) suddenly seems less crucial when I have my daughter in my arms. 3. The question of if and how to wrestle with the experience of fatherhood in poems.
One immediate danger with babies and poetry is a kind of delusion kicks in with children. My daughter is cute. I mean, really cute. I mean so cute that I’m tempted to put a picture of her on this very page and celebrate her cuteness. But doesn’t every parent feel this way?
So many people write about their kids, or the experience of having/raising kids, in really bland, straight forward, predictable ways. And then there are writer-parents who seem to cross some invisible line of privacy, and one wonders if they are exploiting their kids for short-term creative gains. So what path is a writer to take? Should we avoid altogether a topic that is so crucial to the human experience on this blue and green orb?
At a reading recently, Vijay Seshadri mentioned from the podium that a cynical friend said to him after his child was born, “you’re not gonna write one of those sappy baby poems, are you?” That night, perhaps out of spite, Seshadri began a poem called Baby, Baby, that is smart, funny, and touching, (not sappy!).
The next day I heard Rebecca Wolff read an intriguing poem that wrestles with the how of writing about her child. Wolff’s poem confronts head-on the Sharon Olds model (extremely intimate, seemingly autobiographical poems about her daughter’s body). So far I’ve avoided writing directly about fatherhood. Well, I did write one poem, Self-Portrait as a Stick of Butter, or the Four-Day Anniversary of My Daughter’s Birth, but the poem is spoken in the voice of a very anxious stick of butter, so I'm not sure it qualifies.
On some level, even though I am drained and have less time, I trust that the process of being a father, the unconditional love that comes with it, the whole new way of life rippling with responsibilities, will alter my essence in profound ways and will ultimately influence the work that grows out of me.
It’s funny, my college students often ask about how to avoid a collision between their poems and the living, breathing family members that appear in the poems: their parents. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but I’m no longer worried what my parents will think. (I’ve mostly made peace with that.) Now I’m beginning to wonder, “oh no, what will my daughter think” about the novel-like project I am 450 pages into, containing large doses of explicit sex and drug use. I guess as long as I pay attention to her and treat her with love, the other stuff will fall into place.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...