Time to pick up the thread of the last Birth of Pokey post—no, not those red pants again! The thread of how Pokey wriggled her way out of the little box she was in, not-so-affectionately known as writer’s block. If you’ve never had writer’s block, or its equivalent for your chosen work (bread that refuses to rise, bad trades, unstuck landings) it’s difficult to describe, and possibly it’s different for everyone. For me, it was like being in thought prision: I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t move on to something else. My own personal purgatory.
I was desperate for a guide (you know how Pokey loves experts) and I wanted badly to feel connected to other women like myself, poets and artists who had traveled this same confusing terrain. So, Pokey being Pokey, I decided I needed to study the problem, and that I had to ditch the sweatpants and get out of my house.
Because I’m old I can’t exactly remember how it happened, but I came across a description of the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center, an organization with an annoyingly long name but, luckily for me, a funky old house on the Mt. Holyoke campus with a residency program for visiting women scholars. No money, but an office, a parking sticker, library card, and a community of women with some fairly serious cred.
I know what you’re thinking: whoa, there, Pokey—scholars?!? One skinny poetry book and an MFA do not a scholar make. Nevertheless, reader, Pokey had just the right combination of recklessness, naiveté and foolish optimism to apply to the program. So she did; she thought of herself as a problem (not much of a stretch) and proposed to study herself.
Here is the actual excerpt from my application. I opened with the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy; I wanted to impress them with my scholarness! :
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard…
At the age of 42 I find myself at a stopping place. Maybe stuck, hopefully not. One foot mired in motherhood: two small children, a house, a partner, too many part-time jobs. The other foot dangles in mid-air, hovering above what used to be: my writing, a book, teaching, near-ecstatic sojourns at artists’ colonies. I look around for signs. Where to go? I look for strength, for models. You can do this. You can integrate mothering with writing, dredge up the energy, unearth what used to live: a sense of connection with the burgeoning world, a peaceful center inside of which lives creative energy, inspiration, sometimes a kind of resolution and joy.
I look around. I listen. Where are the mother- poets? Far-off voices. A few faint cries. But mostly silence. How can this be, when not only the woods but the fields, the streams the skies, the oceans are teeming with “us?” What exactly are we stuck inside that closes our mouths? What spell are we under and who has cast it? It’s the canon, it’s the critic, it’s our internalization of what’s deemed “fit” for poetry. It’s guilt or shame, the fear of being judged an unfit mother or even worse—a boring one.
Or Tillie Olson was right. Adrienne Rich was right. We are all too busy changing diapers, planning meals and washing dishes to write, to even think about writing. It’s a matter of economy and exhaustion. Of race and class and place. Or it’s… what?
These are impressions. I am not a scholar, not an academic. I am a writer and mother trying to put together a puzzle of which I am a part. This project is as much about recreating my selfhood, as it is about the work itself. I will be learning to do the kind of thorough research, analysis and documentation that the project requires. At the same time I will be challenging myself to do what I am looking for in others: write poems about and out of motherhood that feel true to its complexity, its darkness and light.
Pretty good, right? And guess what? They let me in! Ha!
Naturally, I immediately went into panic mode. What if they figured out I was a total mess? How long would it take for them to realize that Pokey’s idea of “thorough research, analysis and documentation” is tearing out articles from the Times Book Review and tucking them into my datebook? What if they asked to see actual poems written during my stay? What if I had to give a…lecture?
We’ll return to my stay at The Center (as I liked to call it) in another post, but for now I’ll say this: eventually I figured out which elevator to use in the library, pulled off some research, didn’t write that many poems, and did give a (fabulous) lecture complete with visual aids.
But mostly, two or three times a week I drove 40 minutes to my narrow slice of an office with its tall, Gothic window, and sat at my desk, taking in the pleasure of my aloneness in the company of others: a passionate, committed, intensely smart and quirky group of women who believed in the project that was me. They wanted me to figure it out. They thought it was important. They thought it was interesting.
And this, dear reader, is what we can offer each other as we stumble around inside our rickety thought balloons, bumping into walls and wondering if we’re OK and if anyone notices or cares. Yes, yes, and yes.
Next time: the Labyrinth