When her daughter was born eleven years ago, poet Julie Brooks Barbour wanted to know why everyone lied to her about motherhood. “People would say things like, ‘It goes so fast. Enjoy these moments,’ and I thought ‘Why is nobody telling the truth?’” Barbour began seeking out poetry by women who had children, but it was a challenge to find work that was honest and not intended for a laugh. Eventually, she stumbled upon Alice Notley’s, “A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead,” originally published in 1972:
My baby is quiet and wise, but I’m
a trade name and I’m
rainwater on a piano . . . .
Finally, Barbour had found someone who told the truth. “It’s one of those poems every mother should read,” she said, “because this is chaos, and for the first two years there’s no me here.” Notley gave Barbour the glimmer of hope she needed to keep searching. She went on to discover other poets who wrote truthfully about motherhood, and about the body: Lucille Clifton, Eavan Boland, and Nikky Finney, for example, and then Barbour started writing her own poems about motherhood as identity. “I’ve always been interested in the feminine and the body,” she said, “but when my daughter was born she really brought it together for me.”
The poems from Barbour’s first chapbook, Come to MeandDrink (Finishing Line Press) address the ways a woman figures out who she is once she’s become a mother. “I kept asking: How do you keep in touch with yourself when you feel split apart, when you’re only allowed to show certain sides?” Barbour said. After reading her work, it’s clear that poetry became the perfect solder for the poet’s split selves.
The title poem from Come to Me and Drink, which will also appear in Small Chimes, a full-length manuscript due out from Aldrich Press later this year, is one example of that fine weld:
Come to Me and Drink
I know what she tastes: the ambrosia
that one morning fell in drops
from my breast to my arm. Tasting it,
my tongue recalled the white and yellow
blossoms of honeysuckle sprouting wild
along a field’s edge. Collecting vine upon vine,
I’d pluck each sweet blossom, pull out
each green stamen, careful not to lose
the drop of nectar at its tip, delighting
my tongue with the watery sugar.
Now the gods put me on the vine.
The buds of my nipples are pink
and dripping. An infant plucks me dry,
a sweet smell on her breath. This liquid:
a heal-all for a stomach-ache, a sedative
for the sleepless child making her bed
in the field’s tall grass. Her lips suckle in sleep.
Her tongue clicks in her mouth, an exercise.
The passing breeze my voice,
whispering around her ear. My arms vines
coaxing her to come to me and drink.
(Originally published at Inscape / Morehead State University)
The subject of women’s identity has certainly kept Barbour inspired, as she has a second chapbook, Earthlust (Finishing Line) also due out this year. Earthlust considers the ways girls are taught to be desirable, how a woman keeps her identity in the face of sexual desire, and the institution of marriage. Many of the poems are re-tellings of fairytales; for example, the series “The Woman without Hands” takes a fairytale character whose hands were cut off by her father, and imagines how she continues to accomplish necessary tasks, such as breastfeeding: “forehead to forehead, she nuzzles him like an animal. / She cannot sling him around to her back like a bear.”
“At one point in the fairytale, her husband gives her silver hands, and I thought, ‘Dear Lord, what is she going to do with those?” Barbour said. In the end, (spoiler alert) she removes the silver hands, her own hands grow back, and she uses them to discover her body. The series acts as a metaphor for the many ways women empower themselves despite being told what they are and are not allowed to do.
In fact Barbour has been told that she should write about other subjects, should write poems that are less soft-hearted. Her response: “Just because I’m writing about being a woman doesn’t mean I’m being sentimental,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m sugar-coating it.”
Other poets who inspire Barbour include: Jeannine Hall Galey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mary Biddinger, Marianne Boruch, Susan Grimm, and Mary McMyne.
“Hearing Voices – Women Versing Life” is a continuation of a series that originally appeared at Ploughshares.
Recently Nadine Lockhart caught up with Kamilah Aisha Moon, whose poetry and prose appear in Superstition Review Issue 10.
Nadine Lockhart: The relationship your sister has with you, you with her, the entire family dynamic, and her interactions with the rest of the world (her impact on those around her, and how she is affected by them) are central to—but “slantly” told in—She Has a Name. What was the impetus, emotional or otherwise, for choosing to write about your sister? Was to educate others part of your decision as the title of the book seems to indicate?
Kamilah Aisha Moon: The idea of telling, and thus owning, one’s story has always been present through music, the books lining my mother’s shelves and the literature introduced in church and school from a very young age. And I wrote about everything but that relationship and how it shaped our family because it was too close, like trying to read a book pushed up against my nose. My attempts were trite and inadequate for a long time. I still don’t feel like they are all that they could be. I needed time and distance as a woman in order to circle back with enough perspective to go there in a meaningful way. But I felt like I had to because there was a long silence and a subtle yet pervasive shame around difference in the communities we grew up in. I think this often happened inadvertently—just not having the information or language on a wide scale at the time to facilitate conversation and interaction. I needed to make sense of what I’d seen and heard, intuited but hadn’t discussed with others. Visibility and pride, as well as promoting understanding definitely brought me back to this subject. And to not write about her and this condition would have been to ignore a significant part of my own journey.
NL: The book begins with “Borderless Country,” possibly akin to a reader’s introduction to autism as the poem oscillates between cold statistics and a mother’s inner dialogue. How did you decide on this work as the first poem of your first book? How did you come to the title—which is a very apt description of what it must be like to navigate life for those with autism.
KAM: “Borderless Country” is an acknowledgement of how many families in this country are affected by this condition across all backgrounds and walks of life. Since writing that poem, that statistic has increased to 1 in 88. The perimeters of the autism spectrum and its criteria continue to evolve and shift, and the poem is a brief litany of questions, possible causes and the initial grappling after diagnosis. It felt right to start broad and then zoom into a specific story.
NL: Embedded, among the titled poems throughout the book, are what appear to be theatrical asides spoken by different members of the family. They are untitled, but for the speaker’s name in parentheses; however, when your autistic sister speaks, you do not name her, which seems to echo the book’s title. What was the initial idea behind these “rests” inserted into the main musical score of the manuscript? What do you feel they do for the reader, or what did you hope they would do?
KAM: The only name that appears in the book at all is my nickname, Ish. These are characters based on real people. I want the reader to always be aware of this fact. The sister’s “voice” is left- justified, the title character needs no modifier. But the whole point as well is similar to the impetus behind the poem “Borderless Country.” This is any of us, all of us. Unsure of how to handle something we don’t understand, perhaps misplacing anger or shutting down for awhile. Or simply taking your sister or daughter to the park, or sitting in a meeting with an apathetic teacher, etc. Most people have found themselves frustrated by their own limitations, as the autistic sister mentions. As children when we met new people, sometimes they wouldn’t acknowledge my youngest sister, so we often would do it for them—“and her name is…” She is able to express herself, and has become more eloquent as the years go by. No matter what our individual struggles, we are self-determining and wrestle with our desires and needs. We are all here. We each and all have a name.
NL: The poem, “Frequency: An Ultimatum,” is one of my favorites; it is very different in sound and form from the others in the book. Was it written earlier? Later? What were the circumstances of its creation?
KAM: I wanted to “talk back” to the voices that my sister sometimes responds to out loud. I wanted to somehow capture the way she seems haunted and how we all resent their unwelcome intrusions. And express the helplessness of not being able to do anything but be there, try to soothe her when she gets upset.
NL: Another poem, “Blues Bop for Sonny,” includes a refrain and I could almost hear it as a song—as the title suggests. I’ve heard you say how much music has been an influence on you and your work. Did you have something like that in mind, ie, setting this poem to music or hearing it as a melody or even writing it as a song, initially? What role did Sonny Kenner play in your life, artistic or otherwise?
KAM: The Bop is a poetic form created by poet Afaa Michael Weaver born directly out of the blues tradition of storytelling with a refrain. I didn’t originally write this poem as a bop, but found it to be a natural fit since Sonny Kenner played both blues and jazz for years with several renowned musicians in Kansas City, MO. Also, the circumstances at the end of his life were a blues of its own, and unfortunately that is a common irony. I love live music sets and I used to go to his shows when I lived there, and was dismayed at how his passing was handled by the local news. The poem was a way of “seeing” him in a dignified way and remembering his gift.
NL: Of course, I resisted and resisted, but by the end of the book, I was sobbing. Have others mentioned this? Did you realize your poetry would have this effect? Was it intended? Would you elaborate on this kind of emotional release for the reader?
KAM: There have been strong emotional reactions from readers. I tried to write with empathy and as much of the original emotion felt as possible. William Stafford said, “Dig deep enough into your own story until you reach everyone’s story,” and this has been a guiding concept for my writing. I also kept in mind the idea that if there is no surprise or discovery for the writer in process, there won’t be any for the reader. Lucille Clifton often said “Something in me knows how to write poetry better than I do.” I wanted to get out of the way of the part of me that ‘knows’ better; to listen and receive rather than dictate. So I allowed myself to excavate places that weren’t comfortable and to write what came—especially when it didn’t match what I may have planned to write about. It is special to be told that you’ve increased someone’s awareness or sensitivity, or affirmed someone else’s experience in a way he or she hadn’t been able to articulate before. In a world that has a great deal of isolation and ignorance, moments of connection and clarity are godsends, I think.
NL: Even though semi-autobiographical, She Has a Name is not running exactly alongside the lives of the people we discover within the text. For example, your father was artistic, and so his emotions were probably not as blunted as those portrayed in the father in the book. And aren’t both he and your sister still living, so “Eulogy” is fictitious, yet one of the more heartbreaking, and at the same time, more hopeful poems in the book. Could you elaborate on your process of where to draw that semi-autobiographical line?
KAM: This collection is based on a shared experience in several lives full of innumerable experiences. So while it explores the truth of real emotions and events, it could never represent the whole of any person or experience. Elizabeth Alexander said “many things are true at once.” Truth also has many faces. These poems are sketches of very rich, textured, full lives filtered through the colander of one person’s memory. Tiny windows into a mansion of realities. I wanted to honor the challenges and beauty of what is unquestionably a deep, abiding love among all members of the family.
“Eulogy” is for my Aunt Joy, who passed away at the age of 28. Her untimely passing had a deep impact on our family.
Nadine Lockhart received both her MA and MFA from Arizona State University; she is currently enrolled in their PhD program. She is co-host/co-founder of the Phoenix Poetry Series, a monthly featured reading in central city; it’s in its sixth year. Her interests, in addition to poetry, include the visual arts, theatre, and Badger, her orange cat.
Kamilah Aisha Moon’s poetry collection, She Has A Name, is now available from Four Way Books. A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, the Vermont Studio Center and Cave Canem, her work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, and Lumina and Villanelles. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College, Drew University, and Adelphi University. She has also led workshops for various arts-in-education organizations in diverse settings. Moon received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
I had planed to keep a daily journal of my impressions of The Dodge Poetry Festival, but was so tired each night I could hardly keep my eyes open. I don’t know how many people attended this year, though the festival usually draws around 12 to 15 thousand. Thank gawd it’s biennial. I don’t know how they would plan such a massive undertaking without the break of a year between events.
The first time I ever went to the Dodge Poetry Festival I traveled there in a car with my friends, The Grubins: Dave, Joan and their daughter poet Eve Grubin. I was unfamiliar with New York, and so had no idea in what direction we were headed. But soon the city seemed to slip away and when the car stopped and we stepped out, we stood in a dirt parking lot the size of Detroit. I could not believe it. I remember asking Eve, “Every car in this lot is here for poetry?” Yes, she said as she took my astonished hand and lead me to the tents. This was Waterloo: Valhalla for poets. Except we were all alive!
What used to be a circus tent, mud and boots affair, has now moved to the streets of downtown Newark’s Arts District where poetry lovers stroll, fast-walk, or flat out run from one event to another. The day is packed with panels, talks and readings, as well as music and food. Books are for sale by every poet there as well as poets from former festivals. Literally hundreds of thousands of poetry books are stacked in rows 10 deep on the fold out tables, as well as Dodge Fest merch: t-shirts, mugs, baseball hats and jerseys, all with the Dodge logo proudly displayed. One woman I spoke with said that when she filled out her form for the suggestions box, she asked, “Why not scarves?”. It was getting chilly by the end of the fest so I feel sure I would have snagged one.
It’s really too much to take it, or to do justice in so few words. If you are a poet or a reader of poetry, it’s one of those things you must journey to at least once in your life. When I give a poetry reading, I’m still amazed that anyone shows up. Why would you stop watching TV or shut down your computer to go listen to someone read a poem? But they do, in droves. Some buy four-day passes so they won’t miss a word.
The first time I attended the Waterloo Dodge, I was there to listen to poets I revered, like Stanley Kunitz, Lucille Clifton, Gerald Stern, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Stephen Dunn, C.K. Williams, as well as newer poets I’d come to love Li-Young Lee, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland. Nothing prepared me for the sound of 3000 people settling into folding chairs as Stanely Kunitz began his slow walk across the stage. When he reached the microphone, the sudden quiet was so loud I could hear the tent top high above us billowing in the breeze. And as he spoke, the silence grew around his voice, the poem knitting itself into the air. When it was over, the silence sat a moment longer, still and close, and then the applause rose up to fill the void like sudden light through tall windows.
The other moment among the many moments I’ll never forget was when Marie introduced me to Stanley before the reading. I was shy, worried about what to say. I was shocked that the body that housed this great voice was so thin and fragile, and when he stood up I wanted to say no, don’t. But his eyes shone and he gripped my hand in his and planted a soft sweet kiss on my cheek. I blushed like a girl. For days, I did not wash my face.