I'm thinking about parent-child relationships today because author and Poetry Friday blogger Jeannine Atkins is visiting. Hi, Jeannine!
Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters is a trio of historical relationship studies -- all in verse. Look at the *display bling* Borrowed Names had at ALA last weekend.
That's a rainbow of stars!
Jeannine discovered that all three famous women she profiles were born in the same year -- and all three had daughters who influenced their own professional lives. So Jeannine began a journey of research, writing and finally a wonderful book (2010, Henry Holt). I can't wait until my daughter (now 10) is old enough to read and discuss Borrowed Names.
1. You wrote a blog post for the journal Hunger Mountain about beginning this book project in prose, then shifting to poetry. How did poetic form open up these mother-daughter stories for you?
I love the way that line breaks in poetry can emphasize words in the cutting way we’ve practiced as half-grown daughters, letting phrases turn sharp as an angle of an eyebrow, the spin of a turning back. And as a mother of a teen, I grew practiced in editing, thinking: Is this a thought I need to say? Moving the stories to poetry added some of silence’s tension, the way it does in a conversation, especially one between people who love each other, but also often crave a space away.
Believe me, this is also true for mothers and half-grown sons. I like the point about the tensions poetry can create with the silence of line breaks and spaces between stanzas. It's a way of listening to the poem's voice.
Ingalls Wilder’s books, what did you find there that felt poetic? How did her (and daughter Rose’s) writing style inform your poems about them?
I love the Little House books, but they feel more sturdy to me than spare as they move through the premise that people can and do go on… and on. Which has its own thrill, but it’s not so poetic. The connections and distance between the novels and the lives they were based on most inspired me, just as the difference between Louisa May Alcott’s real life and the somewhat idealized Little Women moved me to write a novel for middle readers called Becoming Little Women.
I was surprised to learn from your book how involved Rose was in the writing of her mother's books. There must be some interesting surprises for Alcott fans in Becoming Little Women.
3. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Pieces” – about Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter A’Lelia. The poem asks how A’Lelia can “bear to be the girl/ who demands so much giving up” from her mother. The adolescent daughter seems to be criticizing how she treats her mother, but is unable to stop herself. That feels very modern.
Can you talk about blending historical facts with moments like this – where we could be talking about a mother and daughter of 2010? How did writing poems help you weave together history and the rawness of these women’s relationships?
It’s always a question about how much of the present to bring to the past, but I tend to believe that while people may have dressed differently, read differently, and sat on different furniture, there’s more that remains the same than has changed.
Reading books written in the nineteenth century, we find more sentimentality about the mother- daughter relationship, as well, of course, about much else, such as the true labor of child-bearing or the difficulties of marriage. Good manners are more present in depictions of family life, and some habits must have gone deep. Daughters probably did feel a keener sense of dependency on mothers who might be their midwives or at least likelier to be neighbors.
But the daughters in this book came of age on the cusp of modern period. Virginia Woolf wrote, “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” Of course her tone is slightly arch, but the daughters in Borrowed Names lived through a time when the first world war brought enormous fear and tragedy, the suffrage movement and fights for civil rights were strengthened, definitions of what makes good art and music widened, and science was becoming increasingly rooted in worlds visible only to specialists. These daughters were going to live in quite different worlds than the ones their mothers had grown up in, and there were bound to be struggles as they found their places alone and together.
That's a good point about the daughters being aware they would inhabit different worlds than their mothers. A'Lelia Walker and Irene Joliot-Curie must have been particularly attuned to this, because they saw their mothers creating some of the changes you mention -- civil and women's rights, entrepreneurship, scientific progress.
More of my interview with Jeannine later today. While you're waiting for Part 2, check out more Poetry Friday offerings at Amy's blog, The Poem Farm. Or , go directly to Jeannine's awesome blog.