Poetry News

On Desire for Motherhood: Belle Boggs & Monica Youn in Conversation

By Harriet Staff

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At Literary Hub, Belle Boggs and Monica Youn, both authors of recent poetry collections that explore infertility and reproductive intervention, discuss the ways that their life experiences have informed their work. More:

Belle Boggs: Congratulations on all the wonderful and well-deserved attention Blackacre has received, including the long list for the National Book Award! Reading it, I wanted to ask you two kinds of questions—first about the precision of your language and how you approached the book’s structure and organization and research, and second, more personally and maybe more urgently, about your writing about infertility, the concept of “barrenness,” and the desire for motherhood. These two lines of questioning made me think about my own experience as a nonfiction writer—I have something to communicate, but I also care very much about structure and form and language. What do you say when people ask about your goals in writing Blackacre?

Monica Youn: Thanks, and congratulations in turn on The Art of Waiting and all the fantastic press it has received!

My goals in writing Blackacre shifted at different phases of the writing process. The first phase of the book (roughly corresponding to the Hanged Men section) coincided with my initial diagnosis of premature ovarian failure, and all of the personal and marital fallout that ensued. Suddenly a big chunk of my life plan—find a partner, get married, start a family—fell away. At the same time, there were a number of other crises in my family. My parents’ 45-year marriage also seemed to be dissolving, and my mother had reached a breaking point. And then my father-in-law had a fatal accident, leading the family to decide to withdraw life support after an agonizing week-long deathbed vigil. So the Hanged Men poems were my fairly desperate effort to come to terms with all of this turmoil and loss. And what came to mind was the figure of the Hanged Man—both in tarot and in François Villon’s poem, a figure for whom the situation, the world has changed drastically, but who finds in that new perspective a certain calmness.

And then in the second phase of the book (most of the ___acre poems culminating in the Blackacre sequence), we had turned a corner. We had decided to have a child using a donor egg, and most of those poems were written in the second trimester of my pregnancy. In writing those poems, I was looking back on my nearly frantic efforts to conceive over the past 4 to 5 years—efforts that included pretty much every medical and quasi-medical remedy for infertility known to humankind, including failed IUI and IVF cycles. I had become what you call the stereotype of “the desperate, uptight woman who blindly pursues conception at all costs, destroying her relationships and her dignity in the process.” And I was trying to figure out what had brought me to that point. And I concluded that much of the problem hadn’t been simple “baby fever,” but also a sense of the shame of infertility, a shame which you document with great insight and empathy in The Art of Waiting. And I was trying to figure out how that shame had rooted itself in me.

Read more at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: October 28th, 2016