Books

Motherhood Consumes the Poet

The literary consequences of raising a child

by
• 1,238 words

A portrait of Suzanne Buffam by the poet’s daughter.

Before my first daughter was born, I swore to live by a new rule: never write about the baby. To me, there could be nothing so distasteful as the woman poet gone domestic, nothing so cliché. I was young, straight out of McGill, unexpectedly pregnant during what was meant to be a year off before grad school. I had been writing poetry in a dedicated way for a few years, publishing in our small student journal and feeling like part of a scene. I wasn’t going to let a baby change me, man.

As though this helpless, mewling, scratching creature that I loved ferociously despite the off-putting helplessness could do anything but transform me. I was consumed. Consumed physically, as she nursed for hours while I sobbed on the couch or stood with her at the kitchen counter, one arm reaching to shovel sizzling fish sticks straight from the toaster oven into my mouth, the other supporting her angry pink body, her little lips latched on for dear life. Consumed emotionally, mentally, as she woke me with screams each morning and kept me up until all hours. Very soon it became clear that I really needn’t worry about writing about the baby, because it was unlikely I would ever string together enough thoughts to write about anything.

It is difficult enough for a poet to follow up on a strong career start, even without the added emotional and temporal drain of child-rearing.

This concern is what Suzanne Buffam explores in her third collection, A Pillow Book, a connected series of thoughts, observations, meditations, dream sequences, and aphorisms of a mother battling sleeplessness. “The closest I come to writing poems these days are the lists I jot down in the little blue notebook I keep beside my pillow to remind myself, years hence, how my middle years were spent.”

Readers familiar with Buffam’s 2010 collection, the Griffin-shortlisted The Irrationalist, will recognize A Pillow Book as picking up where an earlier prose poem, “Trying,” leaves off. In “Trying,” the reader is led through the difficulties and disappointments of a married couple attempting to conceive. In A Pillow Book, the intangible child once tried for is now a pre-schooler, referred to exclusively as “Her Majesty.” Buffam is tender but unsentimental. There is frustration, concern, anxiety, but also love. What comes through most honestly is exasperation—familiar to those who have been fortunate enough to experience the relentless tedium of day-to-day life with small children, with its attendant swimming lessons, potty training, arts and crafts, and bedtimes that include “a forty-minute meltdown, an ostensibly unintentional head-butt, a grudging apology, a warm bath, two books, and three off-key a capella nonconsensual renditions of Tomorrow.”

There is a hint of “be careful what you wish for” here; after trying and succeeding, the couple is now faced with new tensions, and the poem’s speaker fears that motherhood will impede her literary success. Early on, Buffam writes that on Mortimer Adler’s list of Great Books of the Western World, “only four, I can’t help counting, were written by women—Virginia, Willa, Jane, and George—none of whom, as far as I can discover, were anyone’s mother.”

Later the poet-speaker recalls a conversation with “a famous aging editor in New York . . . Did I have any children, he wanted to know . . . I’d just turned thirty-seven and had none. Good, he said firmly. You’ll be finished as a writer if you do.” Given Buffam’s early successes (before the aforementioned Griffin nomination, her debut collection, Past Imperfect, earned her the Gerald Lampert Award), this concern is fair; it is difficult enough for a poet to follow up on a strong career start, even without the added emotional and temporal drain of child-rearing.

The famous aging editor’s comment, however archaic-sounding, raises a good question: how do you negotiate a career that depends on time alone with one’s thoughts, on time to read and wander and scribble and ruminate, with a newborn’s need for sustenance, a toddler’s need for steadying, a pre-k’s need for an audience? My mantel and tables are stacked high with partially-begun books and my head rattles with conversations I meant to finish before someone needed a band-aid or a sandwich. Hours stolen away for writing find me with an attention span no better than a two-year-old’s, and by the time I’ve managed to focus my thoughts, it’s time to close the computer and return to the real world.

Buffam’s format mirrors this mental and personal disjunction. A Pillow Book takes its name from, and refers frequently to, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, the famed thousand-year-old Japanese miscellany composed by a poet and court lady of the Heian period. Broadly, a pillow book is a snapshot of a particular period in a writer’s life, its quotidian events and concerns. Buffam’s pillow book engages Shōnagon’s in its form—prose sections interspersed with lists—and through direct interaction with the text, which is read at night by the light of a “Petzel Tikinna 2 headlamp set on low.” Buffam points out that Shōnagon “is rumoured to have borne” a son or daughter, but that this possible child is never mentioned.

Buffam balances her heavily-researched, fact-laden text with a stand-up comic’s skill for timing; she bounces between the wry wit of an academic and the giddy delirium of an exhausted twelve-year-old after a sleepover. All beverages—Sancerre, Neocitrin, kombucha—are “tepid.” Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Peach Tea makes repeated appearances in multiple permutations, starting with a place on the list of “Beautiful Names for Hideous Things” (a list whose other entries include concertina wire, crystal meth, and Lhasa Apso). Buffam’s humour gives the collection a warmth, a comforting air of this-too-shall-pass, or, perhaps, of you’ve-got-to-laugh-to-keep-from-crying: on the silly end we have “Jobs From Hell,” including “Eternal Finder of the Ragged Edge of Scotch Tape,” and “Plumber to the stars.” The register is more cerebral when Buffam lists “Dream Interpretations”:

If you dream about horseflies, houseguests are coming.

If you dream about houseguests, houseguests are coming.

If you dream about drinking, your in-laws will arrive with bad news from the east.

A polar bear means conflict on a list-serv or an over-crowded bus or a heartfelt robo-call from the Vice President’s wife

A construction site is a root canal.

A root canal is an IRS audit or a preschool fundraiser bakesale or a LinkedIn request from an ex or a day-trip in the rain to the zoo.

I am nearly thirteen years into this parenting gig. My husband and I are outnumbered by a ratio of two to one. He, also a poet, has managed to write in fits and starts, while I was fairly certain a year ago that I would never write a word again, in spite of all his support and encouragement. Like the poet in A Pillow Book, what I needed and craved was a good night’s sleep, unbroken by wandering children and unhampered by worry or mental self-flagellation.

Buffam writes that Shōnagon, “affords sufficient distraction on one’s pillow at night to transport one to a late Kurosawa dream sequence, but also enough repetitive and inconsequential minutiae to conjure, on a good night, the infinitely gentle god of sleep.” A Pillow Book, by contrast, is engrossing enough to keep a reader up late.

Andrea Callanan is a poet and writer who lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.


Culture

Something to Write Home About

Can we find solitude when surrounded by technology?

by
• 2,094 words

Photograph by David Merrett
David Merrett / CC BY 2.0 Agia Galini, Crete.

I wrote my first, never-published book in a fishing village on the south coast of Crete at the end of the 1970s. I went back, two winters later, to write most of The Summer Tree, with a contract in hand (not literally) for the trilogy it began. I am typing these particular words in the central highlands of Mexico, more than three decades later, thinking about “being away” and how what it means has changed—for me as a writer, and probably for most of us.

When I first went to Greece to write in my early twenties I was following a useful, and perhaps entirely pragmatic, Canadian literary tradition. Among other giants, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen had both found Greek islands effective places to live and work. Seemed like a splendid idea. I bought a used typewriter (It had umlauts!) in the flea market in Athens, lugged it aboard the night ferry to Crete, and eventually arrived over the mountains at what became “my” village, Agia Galini. It was my twenty-fourth birthday. Yes, there was ouzo involved. Also raki at night’s end. Don’t ask.

Technology began to have its way with us, and with the nature and shape of travel.

I had gone away to escape. To remove myself from people, distractions, demands. I had just finished law school, having promised myself when I’d begun that I would save for a period of time away after, to see if I could actually begin and complete a novel.

I was painfully aware of how demanding the sustained focus required was, and knew myself well enough to guess that relative solitude would be a factor in achieving it. Waggish friends pointed out I could go to Sudbury or Sheboygan and not install a phone line, but—on careful balancing of pros and cons—Greece appealed a little more.

It appealed, and in the event it worked. I discovered that I was, and am, guilt driven enough that I awaken in a glorious place and proclaim to myself that I have no right to be there unless I produce a substantial number of good words that day. And I did, on Crete twice, and on subsequent journeys to New Zealand, Tuscany, and Provence several times. I can only relax into a late afternoon or evening in such splendid locations if I’ve had a good writing day.

Isolation was critical at the start. I deliberately booked a room in the highest hotel in Agia Galini that first trip, up a long, steep, dusty slope, to remove myself from the extremely alluring temptations of the harbour cafes, and the game of seeing who had just arrived in town on the latest bus as it pulled in by the water.

Evenings were spent in the one place that stayed open in the quiet winter (summers were touristy, even back then). And in this, too, I was fiercely disciplined, saying a firm goodnight before midnight, just as the dancing was picking up among those who were in town to party. I concede that you can’t actually call yourself “monkish” if the bar blackboard has renamed the gin and tonic Guy’s Guzzle (an early form of immortality) but one or two drinks were enough for me, then The Writer climbed the hill to his blameless bed and an early morning start at producing words.

Midway through the winter I actually received a letter from someone who’d left the village, addressed to “Guy The Writer.” It arrived with everyone’s mail in the small wooden box on the post office counter. Another intimation of immortality? It felt that way to a twenty-something hopeful. Ratification of a kind. Even the post office knows!

But that wooden box is at the heart of these thoughts, looking back. We were all cut off, we long-term travellers. Mail came slowly, erratically, to that holy box on the counter. There was excitement as one walked in late afternoon (arriving too early would beat the delivery over the mountains from the north) to see if anyone had remembered our existence.

Being removed from the people in one’s life didn’t mean forgetting them. Relationships could founder on a declaration that one was going off—alone—for an indefinite period to see if writing a novel was possible. Other relationships could be nourished by the slow pace of mail and the thoughtfulness that went into a long letter, knowing it might be two weeks before it arrived and two more before a reply came back. No dashing off of quick notes then. I called home once a month from one of three telephones behind the counter in that same post office, after the senior postman set up the call. Everyone hanging around could, and did, listen in.

A few weeks into my stay I was bemused and unhappy to have received no mail at all. Surely people liked me more than that? Surely my parents did, at least? A New Zealander named Graeme was headed north through Athens. I asked him to do me a favour and check in with American Express, which used to handle mail for client travellers, to see if they had received the forwarding instructions I had sent. A few days later I arrived at the post office and the counter’s wooden box was All Kay. I had fourteen letters. On one envelope Graeme had scribbled: “I gave them a kick in the ass.”

What lingers in memory. But I owe that man.

I devoured those letters, read each on the breakwater by the harbour in the sun, and then again at night in my room, then over breakfast another time. It was like a tsunami of my life, romance, family, friends. It disrupted that next day, (predictably) as I spent too much time writing replies, knowing how delayed they were by then.

But in the upshot, that “not being there,” away, undistracted, focused, and having told the Immediate Universe before I left that I would return with a novel (self-blackmail, essentially)—all of it worked. I did write that first book, obtain an agent, get interest if not offers from major houses. I did finish The Summer Tree (which had been bought on seven chapters), during a second winter in Galini. And I was similarly productive in Tuscany writing Tigana, and in Aix-en-Provence researching and writing A Song For Arbonne, with focus and concentration. Going away really did mean being away.

Then a change began.

For the world, not just me. Technology began to have its way with us, and with the nature and shape of travel. For me it started, that change, during our third stay in Provence. The Internet had arrived. Laura and I had a three-year-old son, and the ire and dudgeon of grandparents at the mad idea that we’d spirit such a delicate, necessary creature overseas was assuaged only by a promise to try to achieve some sort of email connection. My father-in-law had business email by then, my mother had my brother to relay what we wrote. Agents and editors also made their views known, without ambiguity.

To be clear: there was no high speed internet then, no graphic web at all, this was the age of dial-up modems and the online world was entirely text-based. It was still a revolution.

I recall making a pilgrimage to the campus of Aix-Marseille University with a lawyer friend I’d made, from Washington, DC. We were in search of email access through the university, both armed with letters claiming we had academic connections back home. We met with a bored figure in the computer science department. He shrugged superbly and gave us the dial-up number and the necessary details to enter to be given access. We gave him a bottle of champagne. We’d decided to buy one, just in case. If we’d failed, we’d console ourselves by drinking it later.

Everything changed. Family got news, daily. Sometimes twice daily, if the child did something that could plausibly be deemed adorable. My agents and editors sent queries, updates. Some demands, couched, of course, as requests. I work with courteous people, mostly.

I even remember a moment that might resonate for the Facebook and Twitter and texting generation. It was my epiphany, my discovery that nothing would ever be the same about being away.

I played a decent game of tennis back then, and we had access to a good clay court. My wife and I had befriended an American couple also spending that late winter and spring in Aix. The woman was a former collegiate competitive swimmer. Her husband was alarmingly fit. First thing they’d done, they proudly told us, was join a gym. Our small children played together. C_____ and I played tennis. He was younger, bigger, faster, played a regular game back home and, couldn’t beat me. Cunning and guile and learning an opponent’s likes and dislikes on the court go a long way in tennis.

I will say, without shame, that it pleased me to no end to be able to win those games. But the changed-world story is this: in our very first match, which I’d entered into with glum resignation, figuring I’d at least get a workout while being annihilated on the court, it emerged that I actually knew how to play, and beat, this man.

Then, towards the end, as I was serving out the match, something happened that had never happened before. I began drafting a match report to my brother, as we were still playing.

I knew how to make him laugh, how to phrase the story with both wryness and hyperbole, and I realized I was actually grinning on the court, as I played and as I wrote, in my mind, the opening words of the report I would send.

It is passé today to note something like this. Everyone is online while they engage in their lives. Selfies, snapshots of restaurant food, or “What’s happening?” texts are how we live in the world. But back then, with a champagne-bribe dial-up account, this sense of immediate connection to home was utterly new. And it had already altered how I was, on the tennis court, as we went about our evenings in town, or when we took quick travel sorties around Provence.

I wasn’t “not there” any more. Not in the same way.

Never again would a month of mail suddenly overwhelm. A day or two without an email (from us, to us) would prompt a query. We were being ushered in to a different sort of travel life.

I am not going to editorialize about better or worse. I mostly want to note how it is different. Though I’ll make a point that for me, in one specific way, it is surely better. Once upon a lifetime ago, “not being there” meant the isolation that allowed me to write, in youthful insecurity. Now, being away—but still present online—is what allows these journeys. Being readily in touch with agents, editors, marketing and PR people, interviewers, family and friends is what permits us to go AWOL without actually being absent. It makes it possible to be typing these words in Mexico, and send a draft immediately to those who have asked for them.

In essence, a 180-degree reversal has taken place. Those growing up on a smartphone planet might not even be aware of how profound the alteration is. Those of us who have experienced the before-and-after can only reflect upon it.

I’m profoundly grateful that I can send notes, jokes, essays, photos to people back home. I love the steady back-and-forth, the reassurance as to how people who matter to me are faring. The business part of my writing life would be seriously compromised if I couldn’t be contacted easily. Technology lets me be reached, and reach back, and still be on a rooftop in San Miguel de Allende at the end of a workday, at sunset.

But, and this is an equal truth, for me at least: I still vividly remember the feeling that came as I walked into the Agia Galini post office from a windy winter street, and saw the heavily moustachioed postman raise an eyebrow at me from his desk, as he nodded with newfound respect towards the bulging wooden box on the counter, filled with my suddenly returned life from home.

Guy Gavriel Kay (@guygavrielkay) has written more than a dozen novels and books of poetry, including Under Heaven and River of Stars. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2014. His new novel is Children of Earth and Sky.


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