Monday, April 7, 2014

Guest post: On Motherhood and Poetry, by Elena Johnston

Today I'd like to welcome Elena Johnston to the blog. Elena is a mother and a poet, and she's here today to share how those two vocations work together in her life.

These days, it's hard to write much prose.

Tonight is something of a windfall, though. I can't exactly go to bed until the load of vomit-covered bedding comes out of the dryer. Hence the midnight writing time.

This is how it always seems to go. During this season of motherhood, writing happens in the most unexpected ways. I take what I can get.

And usually, what I can get is verse. This time of life isn't conducive to prose, but it's a a marvelous time for poetry. My heart is almost unbearably full, and the words that rumble around in my head are more thick with meaning than ever before. I have a lot to write about, for the very reasons why I don't have time to stop and write. But thank God, formal verse actually benefits from multi-tasking.

When I'm able to structure my writing life well, my vocation as a mother improves my poetry, and my vocation as a poet improves my mothering. Poetry can thrive in the cracks and in-between spaces of a busy life, somehow nourishing what it feeds upon.

Prose is a (for the most part!) a luxury for people who can write their thoughts down immediately. For now, as I'm writing in the middle of things, I depend upon the age old-tools of rhythm and rhyme. The formal structures hold the thoughts in my memory until I'm done changing the diaper, until I've finished the load of dishes, or until I get to a nice long stop light.

As long as I make good use of the mnemonic assistance of meter and rhyme, the fact that I can't write my thoughts down immediately is actually a good thing: I forget all but the very best phrases, and much of the editing process happens painlessly and automatically.

My poems turn out better when I write them in the middle of things.

A little bit of organization goes a long way when it comes to maintaining this sort of writing life, and I'm never more than a little bit organized about it. Most of my poetry makes its way into the rotating supply of unlined journals that I try to keep on hand; still, I always wind up with a good deal of residue. We have a big clear plastic box where my husband religiously collects the scraps and snippets of poetry swirling around our living room. It's all a big jumbled pile, but at least it has a lid on it. The lid is important, but so is the chaos underneath. When I go through my work looking for things to build on and edit, it is good to see how all the ideas tangle together. Poetry grows out of the unexpected connections between things.
Illuminated manuscript of Cicero's Philippics, via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
The tangling vines of a country hedgerow figure prominently in illuminated manuscripts, and I love the metaphor. You leave a little space wild in order to mark off the cultivated spaces, and it contributes to a greater order. It reminds me of my favorite poem of them all, where there is evening as well as morning, and chaos, too, has its place, like night and the monsters of the deep.
photo credit: aaron.bihari, creative commons, some rights reserved.

As I work on my poems, I often fill the margins with vines. The orderly growth pattern provides structure for my doodling pen. Penstroke by penstroke, the orderly pattern grows into a chaotic jumble. And slowly but surely, I'm learning how to shape that jumble into a tidy border. A few stray tendrils will always poke out here and there, though, and I'm glad. The in-between spaces are where the poems grow.

You can read some of Elena's excellent poetry here. I love it all, but a few favorites you might start with are this one, this one, and this one.


Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I'm so glad to see Elena featured here! More people (many, many more!) need to read her poetry.

Elena, thank you for this glimpse into your world. I enjoyed it, and I think it is neat how you use the real chaos of motherhood to refine your verse. I also love the image of Andrew corralling your scraps of paper. :)

Elena Johnston said...

That's true love right there. =)

Andrew plays a huge role in cleaning up the poems themselves, too. He's a brutal critic, and given that he spends all day dissecting Virgil, he sets the bar so high that I would probably despair... except that he invests so much in my poetry. It's hard to get discouraged when I know that he believes in my words enough to gather them up off the living room floor.