Alex Boyd talks to three poet-parents
STRANGELY, AN ASTRONAUT unintentionally provided one of the better examples I’ve heard, in terms of becoming a parent: he said his whole perspective changed when he got outside the earth to look down on it. Parenthood also means getting outside yourself, so that you aren’t what’s important anymore. But there’s more that changes. Before parenthood, I was conscious of a personal timeline that extended only into the past. I hoped my father – my one remaining parent – would pass away peacefully in his sleep after many years, and then I’d carry on as long as I could, to be remembered by nephews and assorted books at rest, quiet as owls.
But fatherhood changed all this: it meant a direct personal connection to a future I hoped would be at least as good as the present. It also meant becoming more securely defined as a person even as I became more anxious with worry for my daughter. And perhaps hardest of all, it meant holding onto my identity when time for myself became scarce. Parenthood forces a new level of maturity on you, provided you’re doing it reasonably well. But it’s all so terribly rational, isn’t it? Poets are supposed to be finely tuned to metaphor and new ways to capture ideas—not tuned to a particular kind of cry. Some parents appear to give up and embrace the experience so thoroughly they spend every vacation at Disneyland. But is this enough for poets and writers?
So how does parenthood change things when you’re dedicated to cornering and expressing your own specific concerns? I asked three poets for their opinions: Julie Cameron Gray (Tangle), Alexandra Oliver (Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway), and Zachariah Wells (Track & Trace).
FIRST, IT'S HARDER to find time to write, never mind promote yourself in an age when writers are expected to be routinely and publicly clever on Twitter. In the past, a successful writer might’ve occasionally shared their private process in an essay or interview. Today, he or she provides an ongoing litany of stray thoughts. So have writers changed how they write? Gray acknowledges the need to play instrumental music of some kind to block out “head, shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes!).” She says she’s “much more concerned with making time to write, because having a child made me feel my age (maybe because my back hurts now?) and also made me realize that there’s a finite number of years, and subsequently a finite number of works I have in me.” This struck me as true; having a child does make you consciously feel a step higher in terms of life stages, which I had blissfully ignored.
Oliver suggests she used her son’s naps to write (needless to say, this depends on having a child who naps well). She found it more difficult when spending “the greater part of my day trucking my son out to the park, playing with him, feeding him and keeping him out of the bleach, the houseplants and the power socket.” But there was hope. “Things became much easier,” she told me, “once he started school and I could fashion my writing day into something more akin to a traditional 9 to 5 workday.” Wells states he has “never been very disciplined about time management,” but clearly finds the time whenever he can, adding that “writing is only one part of an assortment of literary undertakings anyway,” and shouldn’t be fetishized over reading or editing.
Have they changed what they write about? Wells acknowledges no “seismic shift.” But his son does make the odd appearance in his writing—and his interests have shifted a bit. “ I think I might be more interested in certain themes or ideas than I have been in the past—but this is really more an extension and evolution of the same sets of themes and ideas that have always obsessed me, rather than any kind of radical departure.” Enhanced original intentions might be a decent way to describe my own feelings about it. Gray knows having a family fits with an interest in “exploring the jagged edges of domesticity.” But she has her limits. “There will be no odes for my child, at least in any conventional sense. If anything, I feel more likely to push against the motherhood stereotypes in writing in favour of darker, more challenging angles.”
Oliver is also not thinking of glorious odes to motherhood, even if it may be some kind of everyday miracle: “I’ve never been one of these mother poets who write poems about the physical and spiritual glories of childbirth. For me, that bit was rather Cronenbergian and best left alone. But I do find, in my son, a delightful alternative to my old jaded perspectives on things. It’s great watching him look at New Year’s Characters on a Chinese restaurant menu or expound on tapeworms or tear around a glum doctor’s waiting room pretending to be a bee. But it’s not all roses. When we lived in the suburbs, I found myself fighting off a terrible, oppressive sense of malaise. Some people really love that kind of life, but to me it was monotonous and isolating. I loathed the “mother society” thing, the fierce competition, the pettiness. It was like middle school. Many of the poems in Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway are about the suburbs, and are presented through a somewhat sinister Midwich Cuckoos-slash-Stepford Wives sort of lens.”
If writing is more difficult, is that balanced by anything? Gray puts it succinctly: “The difficulties are balanced by joy. No one told me that the real surprise of parenthood is not the struggles, but the sheer joy of falling in love all over again, and feeling these small flares of love and happiness at random times when you see your child. And in that love, you suddenly feel so much more vulnerable than you ever were before – some small person can make you weep with frustration, or give you a feeling of love so strong nothing else matters. Oddly, being vulnerable when approaching my writing actually helps me take bigger risks now. Previously my fear of failure held me back, but it seems pretty insignificant now.” Oliver notes, “My son is now a poetry lover. In the age of the killer app and reality TV, that’s really something. But I think if you gave him a choice between poetry and Doctor Who, he’d probably still choose Doctor Who.” Wells insists that writing isn’t any more difficult, at least not because of being a parent. “Writing’s always hard,” he says. “Except when it isn’t.”
I’ve certainly felt the formation of a new reservoir of compassion since becoming a father. And I enjoy (and hope I can encourage) my daughter’s love of language and reading. I think most children love playing with sounds and words, until enough teachers and other authority figures tell them to stop sounding silly. I’ve long thought writing poetry is at least partly about getting back to the freshness and originality we possess so easily as children. At three, my daughter recently told me a storm would go away if you gave it a coin. I haven’t changed the way I write, but with less time to daydream up metaphors and other basic building blocks for poetry, I do find it more difficult. And with life more settled and domestic, I also need to guard against writing yet another five poems about rush hour. Much like Wells’ son, my child will make the odd appearance in my poems. (Confession: I’ve already written one poem about fatherhood—but I couldn’t have forced it.)
Do poet-parents become aware of a greater investment in the world and their own writing? Oliver is emphatic. “I would definitely say I feel a greater investment in both. Kids remind you that (gasp!) it’s not all about you. You discover a new kind of compassion and curiosity; you listen and look at things more closely. Also, you place more value on choosing your words. Kids are like sponges; what you say to them sticks. When I choose words for poems, I know that I’m choosing words that my son will one day presumably read himself. I don’t pull on my Puritan bonnet and scratch out all the naughty bits, but I try and make every moment count.” Wells, too, is aware of a greater investment. “I feel more anxious about the kind of world we’re living in, but I think that has as much to do with how shitty that world is getting as with fear for my son’s future.” While he feels pretty good about his son’s immediate prospects, he’s also “hyper-aware that more and more people are being disenfranchised by oligarchic pseudo-democracies like ours and that makes me angry.” Gray agrees. “Ultimately, my daughter is watching me, and will absorb many things about me unconsciously. People love to remark that daughters turn into their mothers. I’d much rather she learn that hard work and creativity are a path to something rewarding and gratifying. I want her to see that following your passion is a worthy goal. Also, being a mother hasn’t given me a lobotomy of any kind—I still feel like myself. And the me that I know, writes.”
While I agree with all of this, Wells touches on a subject that could be another essay in itself: the challenge of having children in a world that appears to be declining. News about climate change, superbugs and supposed world leaders acting like tedious bullies does not inspire confidence. My father bought a house and raised three children on his income, while my girlfriend and I have two incomes, and are reluctant to buy a house. Why have children at all? Perhaps because, like writing, it’s a way to leave an indirect note to the future. I’m not among those people who march around telling people they need to have children. If you have them it’s a great experience, and if you don’t there’s more time and money for other things. But we wouldn’t have children, or write, or do anything without some kind of hope for the future. As Christopher Hitchens says in Arguably: “Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.”
ALEX BOYD’s latest book of poems is The Least Important Man (2012).