Eight months ago, I stopped writing poems. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just stopped happening, which was odd, since I’ve been writing poems pretty consistently since I was 15. People would ask “how are the poems coming,” (because I have good friends who like to keep me working) and I’d say I was taking a break after having completed a major cycle of translations. This is true, as I’ll explain in another post, but didn’t sound true when I said it. Did I need to catch my breath?
It wasn’t until earlier today, when reading Austin Kleon’s marvelous, encouraging second book, Show Your Work! that I realized what the problem was. Kleon writes about the birth of his son, and how some awful troll wrote in to taunt him about how now he’d get no work done, would quit being so optimistic and productive. He turned it into a work-lesson for the rest of us, which is what he does, but I read the parable on a literal level. Eight months ago, my daughter was born.
Even though everyone told me it was great, I never thought parenthood would be so rewarding and easy and fun. Our daughter is a joy, more of less morning to night, but her arrival did coincide with the end of meaningful work for me, as my teaching contract at the University of Washington ended, and my poems stopped arriving on the doorstep in ribboned baskets.
I know that other people go through this, new mothers and fathers giving up on passions they once held dear and I don’t want to become that way. I also know that making art is a choice, that it involves (often unglamorous) daily work, that parenthood adds a dimension of strict scheduling to those requirements. It’s a balance. I haven’t found it. That’s been hard for me.
But I have some encouragement in knowing others who have done it well. My heroes here are the poets Richard Kenney, and Matthew Neinow. I love Rick’s work, as I intimated in this letter that was published in Poetry Magazine. I knew him during his wife’s pregnancy, was there when he read “Pathetic Fallacy” (a kind of “Prayer for my Daughter”) just after she was born, and was a writer-in-residence on his Creative Writing in Rome program while she skipped around the Roman ruins. Through all that time, he was writing, daily. I saw it. It can happen. This year, his wife published a book of poems. I find it unbelievably encouraging.
Matt is the father of two young sons (at my last count) and he’s got three chapbooks out. We don’t know one another very well, but have read together from time to time. Somehow, while writing and raising his family, he has found time to become the winningest writer I know. Every year, Neinow wins a major cash award, including NEH, Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and many others. It’s amazing to see.
So, it can be done; I’ve just got to figure out how.