Poetry News

Holly Melgard Answers, 'Why Not Childbirth?'

By Harriet Staff


Some readings generate immediate reactivity (ow) and are then written about but it's, uh, to no avail? Others generate immediate reactivity (aah) and are then written about only to, yay, further the dialogue. Here's one at Jacket2 from beat reporter Kristen Gallagher and her askee of the week, poet Holly Melgard. Gallagher tells us that a young writer was talking with her about a recent reading given by Melgard in Philadelphia. "She told me [that] Holly Melgard had, as she described, 'performed childbirth, not actual childbirth, obviously, but just like made noises like she was in labor, and it was really loud, and people were really upset by it.' This performance apparently caused a great reaction. A number of people were furious, some felt insulted; why would some young girl who has never had a baby do something like that?" So Gallagher asked Melgard, "Why Childbirth?" An excerpt from her response:

“Divisions of Labor” is a transcribed, alphabetized list of sounds and phrases from childbirth scenes on Youtube. The first page of the poem (composed for sound, not yet available in print) reads, “a/ ah / ahh / ahhhh / ahhhhhhhhhhhh / am / an / anesthesia / are / arrrrrrrrrrr / asshole / ayahhhh / aye / ayyyy” and so on.

The vocal audience feedback was surprisingly generous: Laughter, groans, and stink-eyes during the reading, followed by reports that it was “fun”, “boring”, “sad”, “ambient”, “offensive”, “scary” and even “unwelcome”. Minus the details on process, to me the poem sounded generic, like just another Dada sound-poem, alphabetized list, transcription or conceptual poem. But friends and acquaintances told me afterward that “a poem involving childbirth” is “brave” for a “woman who has never been in labor” and “has no children of her own.”

I don’t get it. Was the poem “brave” because it wasn’t an authentic representation of childbirth? As one who participated in my own birth, have I not been in labor before? Are there any subjects who have never been in labor, or just subject positions for claiming that labor? Is poetic labor only authenticated through given subject positions? Although female labor has been historically aligned with the not-yet-articulate feminine, it sounds like the mother speaks louder than any other in the birthing scene. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? I’m told a poem that says “fuck you” at a reading is somehow a different poem when said directly to a child. How do babies manage to trigger so many reflexes? If the political category of “labor” is a construction site, then what forms of labor go undocumented when “articulation” is only read through single subject positions?

Read it all here.

Originally Published: February 14th, 2013