Poet and novelist Jenn Givhan talks to Angela Narciso Torres about overhauling the word “mother,” ideas of empathy poetics, and her new poem, “Lila,” in NER 40.2.
Angela Narciso Torres: In a recent interview, you talked about developing your own “poetics of motherhood”—something you explore in your first book, Landscape with Headless Mama, and beyond. In “Lila,” the characters are a mother and a daughter coming of age. While the mother is more of a “supporting character,” she is clearly a huge part of this daughter’s identity—her nurturing, her superstitions and religious beliefs, even her loving chiding at the end—providing a kind of protective shell for the daughter to push against as she comes into her own. How has your own daughterhood, and, more recently, your motherhood changed or influenced your poetics?
Jenn Givhan: I’m struggling to find time to answer these questions (let alone work on any of my writing projects) this summer, as both kids have been home with me all day (I teach online classes from home as an adjunct), and it seems the older they get, the more attention they need. Perhaps there’s something about motherhood poetics encompassed within this dilemma, within the chaos of my fuzz-addled and exhausted mother brain.
In Landscape with Headless Mama, readers might expect that the mother figure is primarily my mom, and that I am primarily the daughter, but this is not the case. Throughout the entire collection there exists blurring of voices and perspectives, and I think that blurring between mother/daughter is what most encapsulates my poetics. I’ve been an official “mother” in our society’s definition of the term for twelve years, since perhaps my son’s birthmother handed him to me, from her birth canal to my arms, as I was the first person after the doctor who held him. With women’s bodies continually policed and persecuted in our still-patriarchal society, some people might secretly (or not so secretly) counter that even then I was an “adoptive mother” and it wasn’t until I birthed a living child that I was a “mother.” Though of course most people will never voice this aloud, I spent enough time as a woman unable to birth living babies and then as an adoptive mother to understand our society’s deeply-woven, often-hidden but still very rigid constructions of “motherhood” (and policing people who identify as mothers is still America’s favorite pastime). I need to write an entire essay sometime about how I truly believe the word “mother” needs an overhaul, stretched wider and sinuous enough to encompass those who do motherwork and give motherlove yet are not given the credit they deserve (let me hear it for the grandparents, the aunties, full-time stay-at-home fathers, the members of the LGBTQ community who might not feel welcome with the gendered connotation of the term “mother,” and those who have taken on the responsibilities of childrearing, along with the childless and/or child-free people who serve mothering roles in their communities, and I could go on and on).
All of this to say, while my motherhood and daughterhood poetics might seem to have been woven separately, at distinct times in my life, the fuller truth is that I’ve always been a mother, in the sense that mothering means to feel responsibility for and to act on that responsibility toward the caregiving, nurturing, and life/emotional sustenance of another human being. As the child of one alcoholic/abusive parent and another emotionally traumatized/anxiety-ridden parent, both of whom loved and tried to protect me fiercely even as they struggled within their own desperations and failures, I learned early on to mother—them, my siblings, myself, those around me.
Motherhood poetics means perhaps empathy poetics, and thus encompasses a much vaster perspective and set of voices and concerns than people might generally come to think of as motherhood poetry. It is docupoetics, yes, putting to paper the daily experiences of parents and children, giving voice and space and attention to the domestic space, seeing the inherent politics and power and drama of the parent/child relationship and the family dynamic, seeing women as active agents in that space, all of which I think are as necessary as ever, given our current political climate which continues to seek out regressive policies for women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ communities, and the list goes on. A black woman in Alabama was charged with murder after she was shot in the abdomen and thus miscarried her fetus (though, thankfully, prosecutors dropped the charges). Latinx children came home from their first day of school the other day to empty houses, as their parents were rounded up by ICE raids, and untold numbers of others are sleeping on cots or concrete benches in detention centers without their families tonight, after months of separation. I fear every day for my two small loves, Latinx and black children growing up within the hateful rhetoric fomenting and subsequent hate crimes escalating around the country, from the White House to the border towns where I grew up, and everywhere in between. So I believe that documenting our experiences has always been important, and perhaps more so now.
But beyond the voicing of our familial/domestic experiences and the places in which questions of science/power/politics/identity etc. interact with our daily concerns, motherhood poetics (in my own poetry and the work of those who feed my soul) is intersectional and creates spaces for the liminal, the unspoken and unspeakable, the under/mis-represented, the chided and belittled. Motherhood poetry is sometimes written off as only for mothers, as sentimental or confessional. And like any writing through any lens, poetry that focuses on the motherhood experience can be narrowed, can be written ineptly by poets who haven’t honed their crafts or wrestled with their duende. But motherhood poetics done well should be called motherfuckinghood poetics, the way that Cheryl Strayed as Dear Sugar in The Rumpus tells us to write like a motherfucker, with all courage, with all strength, getting down on the kitchen floor and wrestling with the second beating heart within ourselves, or, as Lorca would say, haunting death’s house, struggling at the edge of the pit, in that wound that never heals. And yet the paradox is that the mother (at least, the mother in my own work and life) must survive this, must find a way to heal the wound, if only to get her babies to the other side, safe. That second beating heart must continue beating, that festering wound must heal long enough to keep the child alive. And there within lies the crux of motherhood poetics. My dear friend, fantastic, powerful mother poet Leslie Contreras Schwartz, writes of mothering the world to end mass shootings, as she wrestles with continual fear stemmed from the uncontrolled beast residing in this country, the NRA and the greed politics that feed it. She writes of mothers sometimes barely holding ourselves together, sometimes not holding ourselves together, and still trying to hold those vulnerable growing creatures entrusted to us. I would say that Contreras Schwartz’s poetry is an example of motherfuckinghood poetics that I aspire to, and expresses what I’m trying to articulate here about intersectional poetry that does the damn work, that digs deep and keeps digging and finds no easy answers and will have none of them anyway.
Since I had children, I was able to tap more explicitly into the traumas of my own childhood, to find a road toward healing, to heal the past so I could heal the present and thus my children’s future. Motherhood poetics is multigenerational and has the power to effect concrete change in the world. But I don’t think one needs to adopt or bear children to tap into this ability. And the potential for cleaning out wounds and healing across generations, for changing hearts and lives, for slipping into the liminal spaces and seeing across borders (of flesh and blood, of imagination and reality, of past and present), and perhaps most important, of crossing those borders as though crossing bloodwaters and birthwaters—that potential energizes motherhood poetics and is available to all who are willing to get down on the kitchen floor and wrestle.
ANT: I so admire your use of image and metaphor in this poem. The title of the poem, “Lila,” is the main character’s name, and poem’s central image is the calla lilies in the first line. Their blooming becomes a metaphor for this daughter’s coming-of-age, with all the tensions, angst, body image insecurities, and defiance that often accompany this turbulent stage. But the lilies (“the funnels of their flared hearts, little throats opening”) also embody the voice that instructs her to “open the book . . . the book I want to write”—insisting on another, perhaps deeper kind of blooming. Can you tell us more about the genesis of this poem and how you came up with this metaphor?
JG: My dear friend Alicia Elkort and I collaborate on poems together, have written a chapbook and plan to set to work on a YA novel, and we’re thinking of a novel-in-verse, as we’ve both read and adored Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, a bildungsroman set in the barrio of Harlem, featuring the dazzling sassy voices of Xiomara and the girls in her neighborhood.
We’d been thinking of a YA novel for a while, and when we read Acevedo’s work, we felt emboldened to speak in the language of our poets’ hearts, and set for ourselves an exercise of writing the voices of our respective main characters, who would also stand in as our memoired girl selves, the girls back when we were growing up, who needed to hear our grownup voices telling them You’re strong, you’re powerful, you’re a warrior who will thrive and empower others someday. Keep singing.
Lila was the alter ego self / character who emerged for me, and I’m currently trying to get Alicia Elkort to move to New Mexico to be closer to me so we can finish our projects!
The calla lily is a flower I’ve always loved, for its champagne-flute shape, its slimness that grows into a full skirt, its trumpeted opening, that speaks to me of dancing (I was a ballet dancer and then a cheerleader, though since puberty I’ve been thick and sometimes full-out fat, still always athletic, and I didn’t have a body positivity movement back then to help me at all) and singing/speaking out loudly and clearly (something else I did with sass as a girl, though I wish I’d have known more about poetry and the arts and the opportunities for young people to articulate their thoughts and emotions and share those with others). So the calla lily image grows from what the shape and gestures of the flower conjure within my imagination and memory.
And then deeper than that, the flower represents death and rebirth, symbolizing my best friend Renee, who drowned when I was fifteen (she was seventeen). Ironically, this was the flower at my wedding (I married shortly after turning twenty-one, still in many ways a girl working through my identity as a young woman). As I delve deeper into Lila’s story, the calla lily and the book she needs to write will take on these connotations of death and rebirth, and will speak to the underbellied underworld she will traverse as she comes to realize her own power as a girlwoman and dancer/poet.
ANT: This poem is deeply rooted in your Mexican heritage—the calavera, the image of La Virgen, the maize man, and Mami in chanclas speaking in Spanish. How much of this poem, and of your poetry in general, is drawn from your personal life, cultural background, and family experiences?
JG: As I alluded to in my articulation above of motherhood poetics, the mothers in my poems (and “Lila” is no exception) are comprised of the many voices of mothers and mothering figures whom I grew up with, the nanas and tías and abuelas both in my own familia and in the families of those I’ve loved, such as my ex’s family, with whom I spent much time learning to cook and speaking Spanish and being the Mexican hija my own mother was not fully allowed to be since her mom and dad (my grandparents) tried hard to make their family assimilate to American values and culture to spare their children from the ridicule and racism they’d experienced growing up in poverty and speaking primarily Spanish. Still, deep in our family’s veins, within the home, all of this culture has always existed, and came full circle to thrive again when I was a girl and my grandparents felt safer in expressing their culture (as opposed to when my mother was growing up). So for instance, I would always hear my grandparents speaking Spanish to each other and other Latinx peoples, though my mom only knows a handful of Spanish phrases, songs, dichos (sayings), etc. My grandfather, when he retired and began taking care of my young cousins, taught them Spanish, and they, this youngest generation, are now fluent, a fact I lament since I wish my mother and I had also learned from my grandfather, who speaks gorgeous, perfect Spanish.
I speak Spanish at home to my children though I don’t feel comfortable speaking it much outside of the home because mine is so broken and pocho (whitewashed) and often grammatically incorrect. But the way the Mexican mothers in my poems speak to their children more often resembles the way I speak to my own children and the way my ex-suegra speaks to her children and grandchildren than the way my own mother speaks to me (though I try to capture my mother in spirit, and the deeply religious vein is certainly true to life as my mother is probably the most devout Catholic I know). All of this to say, my Mexican culture is so important to me, and whether I’m expressing my own personal experiences or those of the gente in the places I’ve lived and loved, I think it’s necessary now and always to sing our truths, to never be silenced. I’m passing on our family’s traditions to my babes, and my grandma even told me last New Year’s that my posole rivaled my uncle’s, so I think, with my grandma’s stamp of approval, in both poetry and life, I’m doing well!
ANT: You recently released your novel, Trinity Sight (Blackstone Publishing 2019)—Congratulations! This novel comes after four full-length poetry books and several chapbooks. What struck you most about the differences between completing a novel as compared to a book of poetry? What aspects, if any, of your poetry writing, helped you in the completion of this novel?
JG: The poetry comes most naturally, ha! The noveling often feels like work, where the poeming is like breathing. The poems often happen at the subconscious level, and with at least one book for instance, Rosa’s Einstein, my most recent collection from University of Arizona Press, I sometimes feel as if I wrote the poems (merging physics and fairytale and girlhood and borderland Latinx identity) in my sleep, and they magically appeared on the page. With noveling, I have to plot. I have to sketch out exactly how I’ll get to the ending, though my characters often show up in unexpected moments and decide to do outrageous things (like fly off to New York for a writing scholarship) and I have to follow them (I used part of my NEA grant in 2015 to fly off to New York for the first time ever because my protagonist of my forthcoming second novel, Jubilee, up and flew away)! So with both the poetry and the fiction, there is magic happening at the subconscious level that I’ve allowed in after honing my craft (I have read dozens of books on writing novels, though I’ve earned all my formal education in poetry). But it still always feels more like home when I’m writing poetry.
I do love a good novel, though—love to stay up past my bedtime and follow a character through her dark alleyways as she strives for her heart’s desire too often thwarted, and I have things to say as a writer that lend themselves more aptly to prose. But I’ll preach this ‘til I die, I believe at the heart of all things, we all of us writers are poets, concerned with language at the level of language. Poets tend not to have to consider “plot” as such, though poets and fiction writers are still both concerned with desire and what the speaker/protagonist wants more than anything or believes she will die without, or even will die without. Deep desire and narrative arc, the hero’s journey-esque mythology, that Jungian archetype guiding us through most story—these are just a few of the “fiction-writing” lessons that have grown and stretched and buttressed my poetry. I’ve been seriously writing novels as long as I’ve been seriously writing poetry, so the two are interlinked. And as a poet-at-heart who writes across the genres, I encourage and challenge all writers to get in touch with their poet-at-heart, the lyricist who joys in the sensory image, and takes lessons from the structuralist muscles of the prose-writer, that shapefinder. We shapeshifters.
Write on, y’all world crossers. Thank you so much for reading.
Jenn Givhan, a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series, 2019), two chapbooks, and two novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee, both forthcoming from Blackstone Press. Her poems have appeared in The Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Poetry, the New Republic, Crazyhorse, and Kenyon Review. She has received, among other honors, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship, and New Ohio Review’s Poetry Prize, chosen by Tyehimba Jess.
Angela Narciso Torres serves on the editorial panel at NER. Her poetry collection Blood Orange won the Willow Books Literature Award. Her work appears in Colorado Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Jet Fuel Review, Water~Stone Review, and other journals and anthologies.