This week’s posts are an attempt to understand the influence of parenthood on poetic practice. How do these (sometimes conflicting, it feels!) vocations inform one another? How can the reading practices of the very young teach us to become better writers? Better readers?
As a new mom, I’m delirious from months of midnight feedings and subsequent weeks of sleep training. Some days, my mind and body feel utterly depleted. Yet, I’m convinced that being a parent doesn’t negate my being a poet. In fact, I suspect that it could deepen my practice, if only I had the time and energy to figure out how. Here are some of my recent thoughts on how mothering informs my understanding of poetic practice.
As a reader, my daughter isn’t particularly discriminating. Anything will do: Crate & Barrel catalogues, The New Yorker, flyers from our local dentist. At this age, she likes books for their material quality. The way they fall open in her hands. The fact that, with each new spread, a different panorama of image and text lies revealed before her. She likes to handle the pages, to flip and crumple them. Some of her recent favorites are Melissa & Doug’s Farm Tails, The New Yorker (to chew, admittedly), and, of course, Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle’s classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Here is what reading looks like. She examines the first few pages of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, flipping them back and forth. The narrative, a fairly straightforward, linear sequence of sightings and questions, is disrupted. Unusual pairings emerge. Green frog! Purple cat! Green frog! Purple cat! Perception morphs; a brown bear becomes a yellow—a blue—a green—!! At times, all this arbitrary page-turning generates suspenseful litanies of text marked with an intensity of rhythm not present in the book’s standard reading. I see a blue horse! A green frog! A white dog! A purple—! Expectation builds, and then it all comes tumbling down. Yes, that’s right, we’re back to page one. Back to Brown Bear.
The flipping back and forth, the circularities and jump-cuts—all this can feel very random, but the reality is that, as poets, we’re always in the same book, bound by a consistent set of syntactical structures. Driven by contradictory impulses, we’re moved by a parent, guiding principle, which leads us through the narrative, nudging us toward the “close,” but then, there’s the other part as well, that which forestalls the ending. Resists the flow. This second impulse is the one that, once we’ve reached the climax, pulls back precisely at the moment of resolution and lands back on the same old “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” of the opening page. Both forces are vital in our writing. The energy generated by their contradictory impulses (the parent reading forward, the child flipping backward) can become a powerful dynamic in our poetry. At the Kundiman retreat several years ago, visual artist and poet Truong Tran advised us to allow readers to wander through our poems, to conceptualize our writing as labyrinths. Leave a few doors open. Don’t foreclose meaning. Give permission for Brown Bear, Brown Bear to be read in nonstandard ways.
To be perfectly honest, I think my daughter mostly likes the experience of being read to. Sure, she’s drawn to the images, and many of Eric Carle’s collages are beautifully textured, but really, I think she just enjoys listening to my voice. As readers (and writers) of poetry, we understand. It’s that sense of being spoken to—sung to, even—that keeps us coming back. Poetry’s magic lies in its ability to fashion within us the feeling that we’re being spoken to by someone who cares that we’re there, listening. It’s why we read: to hear another’s voice as it animates language in a way that delights and instructs. At the end of the day, what we’re after is an encounter with a voice that engages, reveals, and above all, draws us into a circle of intimacy and embrace.
Mia Ayumi Malhotra is a 2012 Kundiman Fellow and the mother of a ten-month-old. She teaches and lives in the Bay Area. Visit her website at miamalhotra.com.