maisie at the poet's grave

In the Don Juan in Hell section of Shaw’s Man and Superman, The Statue, Don Gonzalo, explains why he has chosen to come to Hell instead of staying in Heaven. At classical concerts in England, he says, “you find rows of weary people who are there, not because they really like classical music, but because they think they ought to like it. Well, there is the same thing in Heaven. A number of people sit there in glory, not because they are happy, but because they think they owe it to their position to be in Heaven.”

Substitute “poetry readings” for “classical music” or “Heaven” and there’s one reason I like small children at readings. It brings reality to the event, and busts up the sense of duty and churchiness—an infiltration of life. Isn’t that what poetry’s about anyway?

This is self-serving, of course: I like bringing my 3-year-old daughter to readings, have done since she was a few weeks old. I only do it if my husband comes too, so one of us can take her out if she gets restive. Otherwise, he’d have to stay home and babysit, and miss the reading, or we’d have to pay $12/hour for a babysitter. Which we can't afford.

But even before I had a child, I liked it if someone showed up with their kids. If my poems don’t hold up to a little grumbling and snuffling and fidgeting, that’s their problem. Children in the audience actually make me less nervous. There is the question of adult content—I won’t change my set list if kids are present, but I will say there’s adult content and language in advance. No one yet has left because of that.

It’s perfectly okay for others to feel differently about this. People have different ideas about poetry, poetry readings, different needs in terms of their level of nervousness and concentration at the podium. It seems important to respect that. I always ask the poet first, and hope she’ll free to say no to kids. So far no one has said no. But I’d respect her for it if she did. I don’t have a sense of entitlement about this, and try to err on the side of courtesy. Even a little noise, and out Maisie goes. Mostly she doesn’t have to go.

At a Naomi Shihab Nye reading, then-three-month old Maisie started to fuss. When we got up to leave, Nye said from the podium “Daisy and Maisie do NOT have to leave” which made me want to kiss her feet. We left anyway, because I wasn’t sure the people around us felt quite as generous towards us as Nye did. 

Maisie was seven months old, sitting in her daddy’s lap, when I debuted a new poem at a reading of my own. She started blowing raspberries (a newly-acquired skill seldom included in developmental milestone charts) in the middle of it, which is probably what the poem deserved. The audience laughed and clapped. Nowadays she mostly sits quite quietly, drawing bees and snakes on her Doodle-Pro, or finding a sympathetic lady in the audience to sit next to and drawing her into a game of bzz-said-the-bee which consists of very quiet whispered “bzzzzzes” to each other, poking each other gently in the ribs, and an occasional suppressed giggle.

I had two-month old Maisie strapped to my front when I was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and had to read a poem from the nominated volume. A blogger in the audience—a boomer-aged woman whose kids are grown up—said in a post that this was the “worst career-move” of the evening. I thought that was interesting. I didn’t think of it as a career move—I had a new book and a new baby and was excited about both. Maybe as a new first-time mother I was also out-of-my-head exhausted, and addicted to baby. But my mother suggested that women of the blogger’s generation had a harder time being mothers and writers both, and worried about being taken seriously if they revealed their mommyishness.

At a John Yau reading, his daughter, then about six, sat behind him painting a picture. At some point in the reading she told him she was finished so he stepped back, she showed her painting, the audience clapped, and he came back and finished the reading. I thought that was pretty great. And I wondered if the blogger who criticized me for baby-wearing during a reading would have criticized Yau for having his daughter with him, or if it’s only mothers who should pretend they don’t have kids.

Originally Published: April 23rd, 2010

Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.