Upon becoming new mothers, we started asking the most brilliant and unconventional scholars and writers we knew what poetry about motherhood we should read. We weren’t necessarily interested in the writing that most directly or faithfully depicts the experience of motherhood—but the kind of writing that reconceives and reinvents motherhood as material, that extracts poetry out of its corners and crevices and makes it both wholly new and wholly affecting. Rae Armantrout, Rae Armantrout, Rae Armantrout, they told us. Armantrout’s writing is, in a sense, faithful to the experience of motherhood in that it offers no trite or easy truths but can be searing, evasive, pleasurable and maddening. But this is also true of a variety of experiences, and this is perhaps what we most value about Armantrout’s writing: that such conventionally disparate registers of thinking and reading—philosophy, physics and pop culture, among them—converge and shatter amidst her precise, sparing lines. Her poetry engages motherhood, but it is far from “motherhood poetry.” Motherhood lies amidst these different registers, and it is as worthy as them.
Armantrout is currently Professor of Poetry and Poetics at UC San Diego. Her book Versed (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2013, she published Just Saying (Wesleyan University Press). Of Just Saying, Rob McLennan writes: “Armantrout’s is a poetry grounded very much in her real and immediate world, while making connections to something far larger and far greater than itself.”
A. BRADSTREET: How do you see motherhood, the experience of motherhood, affecting your writing practice? Were there new procedures or routines, even strategies, you adopted to write after having children? And for your work in particular, we want to ask: would you say that the experience of motherhood affected the actual form/shape of your poems? One aspect of your writing that particularly draws us in as the mothers of young children is that the extreme condensation—and the short lines that elaborate on each other while also turning on each other—feel to be snippets extracted from an extremely full, active, constantly multi-layered, multi-tasking, and even sometimes distracted, life.
R. ARMANTROUT: I should first say that I was fortunate in that my mother lived in town and was able and eager to have my son with her for hours at a time. Still, I wrote more slowly back then than I have in the years since Aaron went off to college. Whether that’s because of the easing of my mothering responsibilities, I can’t say for certain. My poems were always hyper condensed, even in my first book, which was written before I got pregnant. And, to be fair, I have always written in a way that includes snippets of the everyday—and still do. So I really don’t think motherhood affected the form of my poetry. The experience of motherhood did give me new subject matter. You can see that in Precedence, Necromance and Made to Seem especially. The poem “Character Development,” from Necromance, uses the names of comic book heroes I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been raising a son. In that same book, the poem “Attention” begins “Ventriloquy/is the mother tongue” and includes a section labeled “song” which begins, “I’m not a baby/Wa, Wa, Wa.” I was sometimes moved to write about the natural but fraught power imbalance between mother and child. The child resents it, in my experience, and the mother may empathize with him or her. ”The Creation“ from Made to Seem ends ”Die Mommy Scum!//To come true/a thing must come second.“ I think I was channeling the defiance of the child (my child) there. The end of the poem “Crossing” also dramatizes childhood abjection. It ends, “Out of spite, he crawled/to the kitchen, demonstrating/the mechanics of desire.” That seems very dark. Actually, we had and have a loving relationship—but wherever need and control are involved there will be uncomfortable cross-currents of feeling—and I am always drawn to explore what troubles me. Right now the poet Catherine Wagner is exploring the underside of mothering in a more radical way.
A. BRADSTREET: In reading a somewhat recent interview between you and Ben Lerner in BOMB, we were struck by something you said: “As we know from physics, and from neuroscience, any single object we will ever see is, in fact, a buzzing multiplicity which we have found it practical to identify as a single entity.” This kind of tension between the cohesive-one view and the view of the multiplicity permeates your most recent book, and it is a theme that we find ourselves drawn to as well. Motherhood was the point that we profoundly began to feel this fragmentation, plurality, contained within any “one” entitity. Do you see a thread between this scientific understanding and motherhood in your work?
R. ARMANTROUT: I started writing my second book (actually a Tuumba chapbook, The Invention of Hunger) when I was pregnant. The title describes the process of conceiving a child as” inventing hunger.“ Of course, you are also inventing (or re-inventing) perception, love, and all the rest. The first poem in that book, ”Natural History,“(which was republished in my selected poems, Veil) begins with the line “Discomfort marks the boundary.” I suppose I was thinking of the boundary between self and other. That boundary, that discomfort, is the way we know we are a distinct “self.” During pregnancy, however, the distinction between self and other becomes blurred. The poem goes on to describe life from an (as if) distanced perspective as “Elaborate systems in the service of far-fetched demands.” I had been reading an article about termite mounds in Scientific American. Since I was quite pregnant at the time, I may have half-consciously envisioned my body as a termite mound of sorts. The termite mound is a system that can perform extraordinary feats. (“Temperature within must never vary more than two degrees.”) When you go through pregnancy and childbirth, you clearly see that your body knows what it’s doing and that what it’s doing is completely separate from what “you” may think you know. For instance, if you don’t consume enough calcium, your system will pull calcium from your bones and teeth to supply the fetus. What you think of as your self is no longer the center of the system to which you belong. But, then, it really never was and never will be. I imagine that the only time we see that as clearly as when we’re pregnant is when we’re in the process of dying.
A. BRADSTEET: You’ve mentioned in the past that you started writing because your mother read poetry to you as a young child. Do you feel that your consciousness of young children as possible readers, even as understanding readers of Emily Dickinson, affects your writing? Or affected your thinking of what kind of books, and kinds of plays with language, children really enjoy and should be encouraged to pursue?
R. ARMANTROUT: Well, I find that children are all different from the start. My mother read me poetry, and it made a huge impression on me. I tried reading poetry to my son and he was never terribly interested—at least not after he was two or three. He loved books about trucks and dinosaurs and minerals. His favorite book for a while was How Things Work. Now he’s a scientist. When I read him fairy tales he would ask, “Is that true?” I would say, “In a way”—and that would drive him mad. We did we enjoy reading Tolkien together. A bit later he got into sci-fi. I have a friend who read his twin boys parts of Finnegan’s Wake when they were small and, by all accounts, they really enjoyed it. I think you just try a variety of things, and the child will direct you from there. It’s interesting to see where his or her enthusiasms will take you.
A. BRADSTREET: In 1999, you organized a conference at UCSD with Fanny Howe called ”Page Mothers.“ The program is just unbelievable—frankly, it beats the Berkeley Poetry Conference from 1965 as the literary event of the last half-century we most wish we could have attended! The conference was not about motherhood, but rather about women poets and/as publishers, but we wondered if you could talk about how you came up with the term “page mother,” and what relation it had to motherhood. In other words, what political or social or even aesthetic work does the inclusion of “mother” do in a discussion on women poets and publishers—and how, on the other hand, you are might be subverting/ redefining/ rethinking what it means to be a mother here?
R. ARMANTROUT: I should give Fanny Howe maximum credit for creating “Page Mothers.” She came up with the name. I’m aware that the seeming focus on motherhood bothered some women. But I think Fanny was interested in highlighting the way women have mentored one another. Our culture values male bonding and all forms of patrimony. Oddly, there is no word equivalent to patrimony. Have you ever thought of that? Matrimony means something else entirely! Women are seldom depicted as being helpful, loyal or necessary to one another. But, of course, that’s just part of the sexism of our culture. In fact, women poets have very often facilitated one another’s work in a variety of ways, and it was Fanny’s idea to point that out. (My idea, in fact, was to have a conference called “Difficult Women”). So “Page Mothers” was Fanny’s brainchild, as it were. I was really her assistant. But it was a great experience!