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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Women Who Write

Here's a conversation between poets Sarah Manguso (SM) and Rachel Zucker (RZ) about the roles of woman, mother, and poet, and how they intertwine, and how writers who are also mothers relate to women writers who are not mothers.

Like most women I have very conflicted feelings about these topics, so I've cut and pasted some of the many points made by these two poets that were most pertinent to my interests. Like SM, I blanch at being thought of as a woman writer, at having my writing classified because of the capacity of my body to bear children (an egg-box, these two women call it at one point).

But truthfully, my identity as a woman at all is not particularly strong; more of my persona poems are from male speakers' points of view than  females', partly because I was trained in analytical fields and spent a lot of time with men-heavy populations, but also because I was told much of my adolescence about how undesirable I was as a female, while concurrently being trained that the defining trait of womanhood was desirability to men. Sigh. I've left behind the population determined to teach me this, but have not fully escaped that kind of thinking....Also, I suffered from infertility before having my 2 sons, and once again fell into the egg-box mindset, questioning my basic womanhood, even still now that I have 2 sons, and despite the fact that intellectually I don't believe a woman or womanhood should be defined by reproduction and/or attractiveness. But somewhere deep in my psyche those ugly notions persist.

On the other hand, like RZ, my life is so completely suffused with my role as a mother, due to the sheer amount of exhausting time it takes to fulfill that role as well as because of the brand-new feelings that motherhood awoke in me (both positive and negative), that I cannot extricate my role of mother from my role of writer any more than I can separate any part of my life from my mother-ness (and I can't). I don't have many of the same feelings as RZ concerning writers who aren't mothers though....

Anyway, these women are far more eloquent than I am, and cover far more ground. Below are the points I was most interested in, but if this topic is dear to you, read the entire conversation here. I've inserted ***** to indicate that sections do not follow or respond to the previous section quote.


SM: A man can become a husband and father and still be a writer first in the public imagination, but it seems a woman must choose. In the public imagination, it seems that if a woman is to be perceived as a writer first, she must stay sexually available to men, even if that availability is only hypothetical. The public doesn’t believe (yet?) that women are as complex as men, so perceptions of women aren’t as nuanced.

One symptom of this problem is that people seem unable to talk about women’s writing without talking about their bodies. I periodically start to log the adjectives used in the New York Times Book Review for a comparative analysis, but after the first day, it’s just too depressing and obvious. Books by women are “gorgeous,” and books by men are “brilliant.”


Rachel Zucker: Perhaps Ozick is right that “It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.” Or perhaps she’s wrong. I’m wondering not just about “the capacity to bear children” but also about my (and others’) experiences birthing and mothering.

And this isn’t just about pregnancy. What about the reality of caring for infants or older children? The physical realities of childbearing and childrearing change my ideas about feminism. I may resent being limited to my gender, and yet I feel that to some extent these archetypes are inescapable because they are true.

Sarah Manguso: The problem with sustaining the dichotomy between mothers and nonmothers, of course, is that in doing so we weaken all women against the reigning culture of men.

RZ: I wondered, after reading your memoir, whether, when you were in the hospital, you felt there was a dichotomy in the world: sick and not sick. And now, do you feel there are two types of people: those who have faced death or a serious illness and those who have always taken their health for granted?

SM: Well, yes, in a way. I believe the essential dichotomy is between those governed by the childish ego and those whose egos have been eradicated—through suffering or motherhood or whatever.

RZ: It is possible that the things I’ve learned from being a mother are things I could have learned in other ways—by running a marathon, by caring for a sick parent or partner or friend, by having pets, by taking antidepressants, by being in therapy, by studying nonviolent communication.

The fact that I could have learned these things in other ways does not mean that I would have otherwise learned them.

SM: I guess that’s what we can’t know about ourselves, given that we live in four dimensions and can’t backtrack.


RZ: As you say, there are degrees of participation in being a mother. Unfortunately I don’t know many (any?) mothers who feel at peace with the degree of participation they’ve chosen. This seems, unfortunately, an ineluctable part of being a modern mother.

RZ: Making art sometimes feels highly indulgent and narcissistic. So does having children. At the same time, making art and having children sometimes seem to me like the only valuable things to do.


Carol said...

Such a fascinating conversation! I wanted to interrupt, like I could, and interject with all kinds of questions/comments--although I haven't read it completely through. Thanks for the link!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

It really strikes a lot of nerves, doesn't it?