Making room for poor mothers at the poetry table

By Harriet Staff

Sandra Simonds has struck a nerve with her blog post on Poor Poetry Mothers. The visibility of poetry mothers on the scene and on campus is so poor that it requires Simonds to set out a few facts before continuing: a) the cost of daycare, b) the pay rate for adjuncts.

I have been thinking about mothers who are poets who live in poverty or close to the poverty line. Some of them are writing within academia, some of them not. Most of the mothers who I have been thinking of are adjuncts. They teach five or seven or sometimes more classes a semester. They do not have health insurance and I think about their struggles to write poetry. I want you to know that in many cities it costs 1,000 a month to put a child in daycare. I also want you to know that in many places, you only get a few thousand dollars to adjunct a class.

The prevailing narrative of the young poet is one who teaches a few classes in between working on his or her poetry and trips to the bar to spend time with colleagues (unless that young poet is particularly principled/privileged enough to decide that the confines of academia are too limiting for real artists). This narrative does not include the young woman who gets up at 5am and writes her poetry with her child on her lap and who feels guilt that every minute spent on each word is taking time away from her child while trying to stay above water and ahead of the rent. A poor poetry mother doesn't have the luxury of romancing her status as a starving artist when there are others to feed. And please don't even get her started on the idea that she and her peers and Sylvia Plath (yes, this issue is not new) "exaggerate their poverty" for attention and pity.

Being confronted with the notion of poverty makes people uncomfortable, and poets are not exempt from this, despite the fact that they would probably feel even more uncomfortable if they knew that by repeating tropes about "personal responsibility," they were perpetuating age-old stereotypes designed to keep women and the cycles of poverty firmly in their place.

When I was unionizing the graduate employees at Florida State University, I was very pregnant with my son, Ezekiel. I walked from office to office across the campus of FSU and I had to convince the graduate employees that they needed a union. Most of the students agreed and our union was finally recognized. However, there were many students who looked at my very round and heavy body and they told me that if I struggled it was “my choice” because it was “my choice” to have become pregnant in graduate school. When I think of the way that they looked at me, I can still feel in my body their sense of disdain.

There are so many people who feel this way—why are mothers blamed for being mothers? Then, when  the mothers move on from graduate school  to being adjuncts people say that it’s “their choice” to have become mothers while working as adjuncts and then it is their fault that they became mothers while being professors. There is simply no room for mothers.

Originally Published: February 21st, 2011