Friday, February 19, 2016

Yeats Laments his Leaking Breast Pads - An Interview with poet Emily Cullen

My first blog of 2016 is an interview with the poet Emily Cullen, writer, scholar, harpist and arts manager and mother of two boys. Her poetry collection, entitled No Vague Utopia was published in 2003, her second collection 'In Between Angels and Animals' was published by Arlen house. Here we talk motherhood, poetry and literary ghettos :)

Hi Emily, we first met through a Facebook discussion on motherhood and writing. Your poem Love And Milk, about breastfeeding, got a great response on the thread from mothers who were reminded of a time of deep connection, of how powerful the female body can be. In an era that often devalues motherhood, and women's bodies, would you say these poems are necessary poems, as a writer, and as a woman?

'She uses her words wisely and sparingly with none wasted 
as emotions, images and thoughts are conjured up'- Books Ireland, 2014
It’s true, our hypersexualized culture devalues the maternal. As a writer, I feel a responsibility to engage with the private truths of human experience and also with the silences that surround these realities in our culture. As a woman, these poems were vital for me to write as I negotiated new motherhood. The music often comes first, so the couplet ‘Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes / my night supply has been replenished’ was how the poem manifested. Then I thought about what actually happens: that heavy sensation of tingling fullness wakes me up. From there I knew I had the beginning of a poem that was important to me. It came, like lines from a song, early in the morning as I woke so I scrambled for pen and paper to capture it. I think the visceral experiences we go through as new mothers are tricky to write about because, not only are they surprising, but they are embodied within us. If the poem hadn’t come out like a musical cadence, I'm not sure how I would have begun it or if it would have happened at all. Finding a language to communicate those new experiences is challenging at the best of times, but when you’re drained from baby-led feeding and minimal sleep, the imagination doesn’t always co-operate and it’s difficult to will a poem about such moments into being. I was surprised to discover that, among the rich body of work by poets such as Sharon Olds, Helen Dunmore, Kate Clanchy and our own Eavan Boland, there was a dearth of poems about breastfeeding. (Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Sea Urchin’ is a brief but highly evocative piece on the subject). But, in a way, I can also understand this. It’s one of the most difficult and messy skills your body has to learn and I didn’t want to sugar-coat it. However, I did want to convey that amazing feeling when it starts to go well, the milk supply is established and your baby is latching on properly.

2. Imagine if Yeats could breastfeed, or Joyce could carry a child - would we ever have heard the end of it? :) Yet, I don't think women writers, especially novelists, explore these subjects as much as they could, or if they do, they're not getting published as much as they should! What do you think?

Yes, absolutely! Just imagine a hungry baby barnacled to Joyce’s lapel and Yeats lamenting his leaking breast pads! And Behan’s wit might have dried up from expressing milk all night!It’s difficult to fully grasp what forces are at work here. Are these evasions and if so, are they due to an unease about feminism or a fear of alienating male readers and publishers, or is it all of these things? Perhaps we need greater confidence as women writers to trust our instincts and the strength of our work when it deals with maternal issues. Instead of being curious about our common humanity, literature about pregnancy and childbirth tends to be marginalized in a literature ghetto that can seemingly, legitimately, be ignored by all but those who have given birth. Literary fecundity is arrested by the maternal. It seems we’re also prone to forgetting that women make up at least 50% of the population and tend to read novels more often than men. It’s remarkable to think that over the years, and through second-wave feminism, only a smattering of women writers in the English-speaking world seem to have engaged with the subject of pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood and the female body – writers such as Margaret Drabble, Fay Weldon Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and more recently Sarah Moss and Anne Lamott. In Ireland, writers like Sinead Moriarty have cleverly used humour to tackle issues around fertility and pregnancy. It is still confounding that these writers are in such a small minority.If these are not evasions, then perhaps the issue goes back to the problem of finding a way to convey the life-changing experiences of motherhood. Interestingly, British novelist Rachel Cusk has stated: ‘When I became a mother I found myself for the first time in my life without a language, without any way of translating the sounds I made into something other people would understand.’ This brings us back to the question of conveying and communicating the maternal experience. As another Galway poet aptly remarked to me after I became a Mum: ‘everyone lands in a different place’. All of these issues are more topical than ever because Ireland is finally beginning to confront historical and contemporaneous injustices against mothers. For example, the fact that unspeakable symphysiotomies were carried out on about 1500 Irish women between the 1940s and early 1990s, the social reality of the Magdalene laundries, the Tuam baby graves, Anne Lovett and the death of Savita Halappanavar. These issues remind us that there is an imperative need to take the maternal seriously. 

'In Between Angels and Animals'  travels Galway City through the eyes of a new mother. Having spent fourteen years there myself, they really resonated with me - the swings in the playground, pushing a buggy on the prom in Salthill, Hi 5 on the telly (Hi Nathan!), La Leche League meetings... As a reader, and a writer, it was incredibly validating to recognise this landscape, to recognise a writer negotiating motherhood - the frustrations and consolations, and the honesty, especially in poems like In A Promenade, - 'am I an invisible mother/pushing a buggy into the sea,' and later (Lassitude) 'I've a room of my own/ that never gets used'... and also - 'A Mother Now' which ends on the phrase -'I thank you for this grace.'  Were the poems written during this time in your life? Do you think there is a danger of forgetting, mis-remembering, and passing on untruths, if we don't document moments close to the time?

I’m delighted my negotiation of Galway and its spaces as a new mother struck a chord with you. I’ve been getting a lot of positive responses from women readers who wistfully recall the daily ritual of pushing buggies on the prom. Yes, the poems were written in the early stages of motherhood and during the first three years of my son’s life - many of them were composed in the small hours while my baby slept. Though my process was not consistent, as there was no daily writing routine, I followed my intuition and tried to engage with the thoughts, feelings and experiences as they occurred. Sometimes, I might only get to deposit two or three lines of a poem still forming, on a scrap of paper or in a new note on my phone, but having those initial lines was enough to help me to re-enter the poetic space later on when Lee was sleeping. With regard to the danger of forgetting, misremembering and passing on untruths, I think you may be veering into tricky, metaphysical territory. Do you mean documenting in terms of keeping a baby book or journal or in terms of creating art? (I meant were the poems actually written during the time in question) I appreciate what you are getting at overall, but I would also have to ask: does anyone question male poets about passing on untruths? ( Poetry and art, for me, is fundamentally about truth. Sharon Olds refers to the ‘felt truth’ of poetry and, to be honest, I wouldn’t publish poems that didn’t resonate with the ‘felt truths’ of my own realities. Why should we interrogate the truth-value of women’s subjective poetry?If a sixty year old woman suddenly writes a poem about a breastfeeding experience she had when she was twenty-six is this any less valid than a sixty year old man looking back to his time in the fields with foxes during his childhood? Would we question the man’s poem about foxes when he was sixteen? Why should a female poet be made more accountable because she is writing about an embodied truth? Helen Vendler has aptly written that “the ethical responsibility of the poet is emotional accuracy”. Art is often produced out of memory. While memory is certainly a tricky and complex thing, I believe that if you can revisit the initial impulse of the poem, re-enter its poetic space and tap into that ‘emotional accuracy’, you are well positioned to access and articulate the truth of that reality. A poet knows whether or not her poem is fully realized and ready to be published.

N: I see what you mean Emily, but think we're too capable of emotional inaccuracy if enough time has passed. There are so many myths smoothing over the realities of mother hood, that documenting the event close to its happening is important. A remembered poem at sixty is valid, and has its own truth, but not the true reality (if there is such a thing!) of that long gone moment. Memory reinvents itself.  With regards your man and his fox, yes I'd question that too :) 

E: Yes, I agree. I believe it is important to capture the moments as close to the time as you can, even in small fragments, and also to be vigorous about the truth. The narratives we read are often skewed toward domestic bliss rather than capturing the fuller picture of the sleepless nights of exhaustion and worry, as well as the joy and love. Ultimately, there is a sense in which this artistically irresponsible. As I said above, however, the poet will have a strong sense of when her work is fully realized because she is carefully considering her words and crafting them with an ethical consciousness. Incidentally, there are poets such as Frances Leviston who disrupt and play with our idea of what ‘truth’ actually is in art and how we convey it. There is a really interesting interview with Leviston about her collection, *Disinformation*, on the BBC4 ‘Start the Week’ podcast (January 2015) where she discusses some of the slipperiness between creativity, information and knowledge and states that she ‘can’t be inhibited by truth’.

4. Have you any tips for mothers trying to juggle motherhood with writing?

I think we sometimes get trapped by the metaphor of juggling as if it’s a specialist skill or a fine balancing act which some mothers can pull off and others can’t. I see writing as something that can be integrated into your domestic life without excessive upheaval. As a poet I’m constantly processing my own experiences of motherhood and the wonders of childhood. While recording these observations in the moment may not always be realistic, I know that I will carve out time to do so when I can.The negotiation isn’t always explicit, but it is still insistent. I think that keeping a positive attitude about your writing ensures that you don’t lose sight of the fact that it is a gift, just as motherhood is, and not a whimsical trade-off you should feel guilty about. You will gradually find your own creative tempo out of a combination of your domestic circumstance and personal bio-rhythm. I always found myself writing late into the night when my husband and little boy slept and this still seems to work for me as I’m a night owl, rather than a lark. Also, don’t be hard on yourself if the quality of your imaginative vision feels a little limited at times and compromised by exhaustion. Nappy brain is a very real condition! Thankfully, those inarticulate feelings eventually go away when your energy returns and the brain starts functioning again. Persevere and trust your instincts if you feel you have something worth saying. If, like me, you find yourself breastfeeding your infant throughout the day, you might like to line up a few choice podcasts to listen to on your lap top. There are some good ones aimed at writers, or even just listening to programmes such as ‘Start the Week’, ‘In Our Time’ or ‘Desert Island Disks’ on BBC4 will help to keep the inspiration and ideas flowing.

Thanks Emily, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.

from Skylight 47

To buy Emily Cullen's  *In Between Angels and Animals* (Arlen House, 2013)
or from Amazon Here
or from The Book Depository Here

About Emily 
Dr. Emily Cullen is an Irish writer, scholar, harpist and arts manager. Her first poetry collection, entitled No Vague Utopia was published by Ainnir in 2003, In Between Angels and Demons is published by Arlen house. She is a qualified teacher of the harp who has performed throughout Europe, Australia and the United States. A former member of the Belfast Harp Orchestra, she has recorded on a number of albums and also as a solo artist. In addition to writing poetry, short stories and feature articles, she publishes widely on aspects of Irish cultural history and music. 

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