(February 25, 2021) Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, is a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi. She has received grants and awards from the N.E.A., the United States Artists, a Pushcart, and a Fulbright to Brazil, and has published three books of poetry: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry and The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, and in textbooks. She is also the author of a book of essays, Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother. Beth Ann lives with her husband and their three children in Oxford, Mississippi, and describes writer-motherhood in 3 words as, “monstrous, magical, mind-bending.”
FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES
Beth Ann Fennelly’s website
Beth Ann’s Books
Beth Ann’s Washington Post article about her mother, “As the pandemic raged, my independent mother’s memory worsened, her isolation increased — and I was far away”
Emily Dickinson, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?”
Denise Duhamel, “Bulimia”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you’re a writer, you get used to being vulnerable and honest, and I really value honesty. I’m interested in explicating my emotions to try to figure out what the truth is and valuing the truth almost above anything else.
When I was in high school, a Catholic, all-girls boarding school, writing was something you did to be a lady. It was like a finishing school thing. We weren’t exposed to contemporary writing or poetry at all. The only Emily Dickinson poem we read was, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?”
I remember reading a poem by Denise Duhamel about a bulimic woman eating a wedding cake, and it was so shocking to me that there was vomit in a poem. I just couldn’t believe that someone had written something that was so intimate and personal and revealing. It was a door into the path that I was going to follow, where I wasn’t interested in any type of mask. I was interested in figuring out how I feel and how other people feel and what we’re doing here on planet Earth.
I memorize poems and recite them to myself and train my ear through the art of hearing the words coming up my windpipe and out of my mouth. Writing is physical—as physical and rhythmic as dancing. Human beings are rhythmic creatures; our patterns of eating and breathing and sleeping and making love. When we’re writing, we’re putting our bodies back in touch with the old ways, the rhythmic, natural world, and finding pleasure there.
Before I was a mom, when I wanted to write, I had to have my desk clean and my favorite pen and the right mental space. Now, looking back, it was so precious to me. When I became a mom and my time got so attenuated and condensed into these weird little pockets, I would lunge into any opening that presented itself. I didn’t care if my desk was clean. I didn’t even notice.
Motherhood allowed me to focus more quickly because I only had these pockets of time. I didn’t waste time. I was able to get more quickly into the heart of something.
Motherhood made me a deeper human being. I don’t think you have to become a mom to be a deeper human being; there are plenty of people who choose not to, or can’t, become moms. For me, personally, I think it deepens my connection to history, to genealogy, to the future, and to the past, and it made me feel more a part of the world around me. That was ultimately beneficial for my writing.
I’m a research-type person, a Type-A, an A student, so when I got pregnant, I thought, “I want to be really good mom—I want to get an A—so I’ll just study. I’ll read. I’ll approach it like a Ph.D. exam.” I read the books so when my daughter would come, I would have no questions; I would have this nailed. And of course, I was completely unprepared, emotionally and psychologically, for all the shifts that I was going through. I was filled with questions. Writing is the best method of articulating my questions to myself and trying to understand my own emotions. I think it’s hard work to know how you feel in a certain situation. I use words to help me do that work.
I’m trying to explore some of the funnier parts of motherhood, which is not written about all that much, maybe because it’s a private space, but it’s also a sacred space and a romanticized and frequently sentimentalized space, which is dangerous. To sentimentalize something is to simplify it and weaken it. I write about some of the complexity of motherhood, and there’s a lot about it that’s funny, because we’re only allowed to talk about certain parts of it in a way that’s socially acceptable.
It turns out, despite my best intentions, I’m always going to be circling around motherhood but through different genres, approaches, and names.
I wrote this tiny piece about the first day at daycare, when my daughter comes home smelling like another woman’s perfume. I had this sense of betrayal, of jealousy that another woman had held her that close. That’s a crazy, crazy emotion, but it’s also an honest emotion. That’s interesting to me, because it’s not so often represented as a part of motherhood.
Our view of motherhood is still this post-romantic vision of the mom feeling nothing but bliss for her child, completely content in the relationship, desiring nothing more. I think portraying motherhood that way allows new mothers, in particular, to feel like they’re insane.
It has not been portrayed how messy and sometimes painful and crazy breastfeeding is. When you’re in it, there’s so much about it that’s hard and gross and amazingly blissful and mind-blowingly profound. It’s like all the complexity has just been sanded off so that what remains is the woman in the beautiful nightgown holding her sweetly suckling baby, and that’s like 1% of it.
Sometimes women talk about reading my books in the hospital after giving birth, and it’s a cool thought that someone would want my voice with them in that very vulnerable moment.
“We have no ethos that has presented the complexity of motherhood and validated the true emotional and physical difficulty of a lot of it.”
It’s a fascinating, complex mechanism that’s always changing—this growth organism of the family. I think if I got it figured it out, I would stop writing about it. But unfortunately, or fortunately, that will never happen.
When I was in graduate school, everybody was writing about the Greek myths—like, here’s my Perseus poem, as if I care. All the books that were lauded, that giant novel, the Hemingway, Roth/Franzen model, or the novel that’s about war … all the drama that is in those books that people are seeking elsewhere through fighting Odysseus, or whatever, is in motherhood. There’s so much drama in the act of being a mom. It’s all there.
In motherhood, your boundaries are exploded and your capacity for joy is exploding, your capacity for fear is exploding—you’ve never felt such extremes before. I never was someone who yelled until I had my second child. There are new emotions, new actions, not all of which are pretty, new fears—all of the hugeness of this crazy thing that is so everyday, and all around us people are doing it, and yet we somehow aren’t quite aware of how miraculous it is.
My problem is I want to do everything well. I want to be not just a mom but a really good mom, and not just a writer but a really good writer. I want to be really good friend, and I want to be really good teacher. I want to do service work and be a good human being. You can’t be good at everything, but some days, I’m good at one thing and not another. Some days I’m not such a good mom, but I’m a good writer. Other days, I’m really giving it all to my teaching and then I’m exhausted when I come home. I try to keep it in balance in the bigger sense, instead of that micro-sense. I think it’s the No. 1 challenge of writing moms. I think it is the single most essential and unending discussion that we have.
The contract I have with myself is to be at my desk and in the right mental space, which means I cannot have checked email, I cannot have looked at internet banking—all the things that bring people into my life that need things, because if someone needs me, there’s something in me that has to start worrying about that. I just have to go to my desk as close to my dream life as possible. I do think that kind of dreamy headspace helps at the desk. If I’m there, and nothing happens—if I can’t write, that’s fine. I was there. That’s all I asked of myself. I’ll try again the next day.
Spending my time with my family or my writing or my friends or the arts—that’s what’s valuable to me, not a designer handbag. But if you live in a culture that’s always showing you designer handbags, and the only question you’re going to be asked today is “confirm purchase?” or “go to checkout,” you have to struggle to keep your eye on the prize, when the prize is time, beauty, and truth.
I try to keep in mind a statement by Emerson, who said, “Guard well your spare moments, for they’re like uncut diamonds. Spend them and they’re worth will never be known.” So, those moments that we give away, what could we have done with them? What could we have written? What amazing time could we have spent with our family? If we give it all away and use it up, we’ll never know what those moments could have been.