April 12, 2016

Friday, July 2, 2010

Poetry Friday: 5 Questions for Jeannine Atkins (Part 1)

Have you adjusted to summer yet? My kids have been off school for just over a week. Our little annoyances with one another (like my 13-year-old constantly pestering for more XBox time) seem more annoying at the beginning of summer. Then we learn to cope with the shift in our relationships and settle into summer-normal.

I'm thinking about parent-child relationships today because author and Poetry Friday blogger Jeannine Atkins is visiting. Hi, Jeannine!

Jeannine's book, Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura 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.

2. When you went back to Laura 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.


Irene Latham said...

This is a gorgeous book I have read more than once... thanks so much for featuring Jeannine! And it's not just for girls either: I gave the book to my father, and he inhaled it in one sitting. Wonderful, wonderful, well-deserved stars.

Author Amok said...

It definitely invites more than one reading. I love the combination of history, relationships and poetry.

Jeannine made a great decision in choosing poetic form. It gives the book -- and the people she brings to life -- breathing space.

Author Amok said...

There's a lot to think over as a result of reading this rich book. Toby -- glad the interview answered some of your questions.

Amy L V said...

This is such a beautiful book, and fascinating premise for a book too. I love Jeannine's words about her book and her wise reflections on life too. Thank you so much for this interview, Laura.

Mary Lee said...

Thank you for this thoughtful interview! Can't wait for part 2. I'm glad Atkins' book is getting lots of starry love -- it truly deserves it!!

Author Amok said...

The more I think about it, the more I appreciate Jeannine's choice to use poetic form. Borrowed Names looks at historical fact through the window of mother/daughter relationships -- and it feels timeless.