You Are Not Alone: Resources for Cultivating the Mother-Artist Life
by Claudia F. Savage
Although I have seven nieces and nephews, I was still completely unprepared for the way motherhood affected my artistic life. Resources about raising children hardly ever address problems that mother-writers and artists contend with daily: how do you access that necessary state where creativity lives? And, then, if you find that place, how can you create when you are interrupted a hundred times a day? Over the past two years, a small selection of books have provided me with solace and advice as I have struggled to keep creating while caretaking.
Temple by Kristen Case (writer and mother of one) is a glorious book of poems in which the author searches for the writer in the mother, the mother in the family, and her place the world, as in the poem, “Lactoexodus”: “For a time, my body made milk, and I wrote no poems./ For a time, I made milk, and my body wrote no poems.” (page 2)
Grave of Light by Alice Notley (an early poetry collection by the Ruth Lilly Prize winner mother of two) gets me with its alternating child-inspired dialogue and ramblings of the mother-poet, as in the poem, “January.” “I didn’t lose any weight today/ I had clean hair but I drove/ Ted nuts and spanked Anselm on/ the arm and wouldn’t converse/ with him about the letter C…” (page 50)
The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker (writer and mother of three) is a series of frantic, sometimes whiny, pleas for a moment alone with her mind, as in this fragment from “mindful”: “a snowstorm so no school I cried & said/ Mayor Bloomberg should be scalded with hot/ cocoa when someone said Yay for snow! I’m/ cutting it too close Erin if a blizzard makes me/ cry…” (page 83)
Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy (writer and mother of two) is a fantastic, sometimes scathing dialogue between what we imagine a mother’s life to be and what it actually is, such as in the poem, “Liquid Flesh”: “Mother. Baby./ Chicken and egg. It’s so obnoxious/ of me: I was an egg/ who had an egg/ and now I’m chicken,/ as usual scooping up/ both possibilities,/ or what I used to call/ possibilities.” (page 25)
The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman is a series of interview-essays about different mother-poets and their styles of dealing with motherhood and artistic creation. The poets chosen to be interviewed are phenomenal, from Carol Muske-Duke and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge to Maxine Kumin and C.D. Wright. As C.D. Wright said, “When my husband and I met other couples with a baby, we joined heads and bored into their glowing faces to ask in abrupt, strained unison if ‘it’ slept. And if ‘it’ did, we shunned those people.” (page 195)
Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists Who Are Mothers Tell Their Stories by Anne Mavor (visual artist and mother of one). In her introduction, Anne says, “The biggest shock was that I … couldn’t stay up late anymore and my artist friends dropped away …. Rowan was and is, of course, beautiful and smart and funny and amazing … but he cannot satisfy my artistic urge.” (introduction)
Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else by Carmen Gimenez Smith (writer and mother of two). Smith’s book deals with her own issues as a writer and mother, as well as her relationship with her dying mother. Echoing the fragmentary style of Carole Maso’s Ava, it is a deeply reaffirming work about the changing landscape of the artist’s life and how we define mother within it.
Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson (anthropologist, writer, and mother of one). One of my favorite books about life as a creative act. Some aspects of it will feel antiquated to younger feminists but it is still good to be reminded where we come from and the paths forged for us. Five women from diverse backgrounds and experiences in various professions, including writers and artists, focus on the way they still create when their energies are divided. Affirming gems such as: “Life is an improvisatory art … in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined.” (page 3)
May some of these allow you to hear your own story echoed, be renewed, and keep on.
Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing a Life (Grove Press: New York, 2001)
Edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT, 2003)
Gimenez Smith, Carmen. Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else (University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ , 2010)
Mavor, Anne. Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists Who Are Mothers Tell Their Stories (Rowanberry Books: 1996)
Notley, Alice. Grave of Light (Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, Connecticut, 2006)
Shaughnessy, Brenda. Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press: Seattle, WA, 2012)
Zucker, Rachel. The Pedestrians (Wave Books: Seattle, WA 2014)
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VoiceCatcher deeply thanks Claudia F. Savage for contributing this meaningful, well-researched and well-written series on how to develop an artist-writer practice while raising children. We look forward to future collaborations with Claudia!
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Claudia F. Savage has been a chef for people recovering from illness, a book editor, and a teacher of poetry to young women in Appalachia, ranchers in Colorado, and urbanites in Portland. Her first book, The Limited Visibility of Bees, was named a finalist for the New Issues Press Poetry Prize. Her poetry and interview credits include CutBank, Nimrod, The Denver Quarterly, VoiceCatcher, Iron Horse, The Buddhist Poetry Review, and Bookslut. Her published chapbook is called The Last One Eaten: A Maligned Vegetable’s History. Savage is a member of the poetry/music duo, THrum, whose album came forth in spring 2015. This article is the final in her series for VoiceCatcher, Leave the Dishes: Making Art While Raising Children.