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Good Letters

I took a nap in the day and dreamed I was volunteered by someone to cook dinner for a woman with a newborn. I was to cook for her four times just after the birth of her child, and I was sort of bellyaching about it to a friend, the expense and the time. But when I woke I thought, “No, we need to feed her.” We need to let the resources flow to this woman, the mother.

When I woke up, I thought, “narratives of power and winning,” which is part of a Muriel Rukeyser sentence from her book The Life of Poetry. It’s about how the American narrative of success is antithetical to the life of the artist. And I believe this in many ways, but I am also craving winning, the boost that brings, the recognition.

I worry about the mother artists, how easy it is to get discouraged. OK, I worry about myself, but also about my friends. I stealthily collect narratives of successful women artists and writers and file them away in my mind—whether they had children, whether they had a supportive spouse, whether there seems to be family money. Where are the resources coming from? To whom are they flowing? A single mother raised on tales of feminist do-it-yourself success is shocked to find there is no support system for women and children in place outside the relative safety of the nuclear family. The sometimes deceptive safety. “A single mother,” is what I say, but again I mean myself.

During my MFA program, I went  to a lecture by an eminent woman poet, aged, inspiring in her lifelong pursuit of her art. During the question and answer period, someone asked her about motherhood and art, and she said something to the effect of “get on with it.” That’s nice. A nice thought. Where are the resources? This poet also went on to bring up and be dismissive of another woman writer, a friend of hers whose husband left and who struggled for the rest of her life to be the brilliant and inspiring writer she was. Tillie Olsen. “Oh, Tillie was always begging people for things…” Something along these lines was actually said. “Oh, this elderly poet with the secure marriage, the financially and emotionally supportive spouse, she really has no idea,” I thought. I thought some other things as well. 

Recently in reading about the poet and artist Joe Brainard, I was struck by these words: “Beyond the fact that Brainard reveled in making art, I think one reason he made so many small works was to convey that modesty and ambition were not mutually exclusive.” I love Joe Brainard as an example of what an artist can be, both modest and ambitious, and in John Yau’s words, a “delightfully memorable synthesis of modesty, ambition, inventiveness, and humor.” I cling to that example still. But a woman poet in Brainard’s New York School circle, Alice Notley, wrote of the added element of motherhood.  In her poem, “A Baby Is Born out of a White Owl’s Forehead,” Notley writes,

After the usual pain and the well-meaning,
mostly but not all,
intervention of others and others’ words and meanings
I find him. Lying next to me yes and being
nursed by me.
I serve him why not he isn’t wrong.

I’m infused with a noxious dispirit
as the world makes me be a woman
everything has gone wrong in some sense by now.

Recently a male poet I know commented to me that he wasn’t concerned with “feeling famous,” that he just wanted to get to a place where he could have quiet and “write and write.” That was the hope, he said.  Yes, I agreed. That is the hope. And try doing that while parenting a small child, I added. I wrote to a friend who has three children, a woman writer who homeschools and farms and writes late at night, who would also see more resources go to parent-writers—more opportunities to make contacts and go to residencies and find mentors, even when for those whose lives might not accommodate an MFA program, for example. “What did Woolf say about mothers in A Room of One’s Own?” I ask my friend. “I guess we just weren’t supposed to have children.” “Yes,” she replied, “I think that being childless was implied.”

When I became pregnant in my early 40s and decided to have a child, I made a choice that changed my life and my son’s father’s life. Our relationship to our art changed, but also our relationship to how we would negotiate with each other for time and space as we shared childcare. As I came out of the beautiful, terrible, life-altering space of the mother-infant dyad, I found myself having to assert time and again that I deserved to do things like have time to sit by myself on the weekend to read and write. A life spent largely in rooms by myself thinking became something else altogether. That is to be expected, but what I do not want to accept is that women are the ones to automatically bear the brunt of parenthood. I once tried to explain to my former partner that when the mother is seen as the primary parent who must constantly be in the position of requesting breaks from the non-primary parent, it is exhausting. And when my relationship floundered and I became a single mother with shared custody, the parameters of the negotiations shifted, but the exhaustion did not. 

I once went to a yoga retreat at the Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia. I learned in reading about him that the founder, Swami Satchidananda, used to say to himself every day, “May I be grateful. May I grow. May I be of service.” As mothers, so much of our service is determined for us. But what of mothers who would serve in other ways, as well? Aside from any creativity-killing desire to “win” as a writer, aside even from the personal satisfaction it brings me, I believe that art of all kinds helps a society fully explore its humanity, lifts up everyone by putting more strangeness and beauty and mystery out into the world. How am I to serve? Will my society lift up all its artists, so that they may lift us all?  

Occasionally I will receive a compliment from a friend saying that I’m a “hero” for doing the basics of my life—looking for more work; caring for my complex, exceptional child; doing the small amounts of writing I can find the time and energy for. I don’t mind embracing the notion of being the hero of one’s own life, but I don’t want to be this kind of hero—one who grits her teeth and muscles through out of sheer necessity and desperation. I want instead a just society, one with affordable childcare, teaching jobs that aren’t divided into part-time gigs with no benefits, an economy that isn’t largely becoming a stress-inducing, health-killing “gig economy.” A society that supports humanity, supports lives lived fully, supports artists. One in which women aren’t eyeing each other on social media to figure out which of us somehow, miraculously, got a leg up and how.

image: Virginia Woolf via Wikimedia commons

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Joanna Penn Cooper

Poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). She holds a PhD in English from Temple University and has taught at Marquette and Fordham. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. Cooper teaches online workshops in flash memoir and lyric essay for the journal Creative Nonfiction and the Muse Writers Collective. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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