"Puberty's Monologue," Fearless Language, and Writing Despite Opposition: Poet Lauren Schmidt

An uninhibited and headlong rush into the whirling core of puberty, Lauren Schmidt's "Puberty's Monologue" is live this week at The Fertile Source:

Puberty’s Monologue beautifully and fiercely captures the raw mix of dreams, traumas, emotions, fears, and projections that can collide in us at the onset of puberty. Can you talk about how you arrived at such powerful imagery, and what the process of writing this poem was like for you?

First, thank you for your kind words about the poem and its imagery. My poetry generally is pretty visceral, so what you're seeing in this poem is something you'd see in most of what I write. If the imagery is successful in this poem, it is because of the poem's subject matter. A poem about puberty has to be fearless in its language. I hope I achieved that.

The process, for me, began way before the actual writing of the poem itself, as I am very interested in how puberty affected my body image. I believe this is the sort of thing most young girls go through and I wanted the voice of the poem not to be the girl, but puberty itself. It seemed a much more intriguing way to approach the subject. I have other poems about puberty and body image--most of them humorous--so it was fun to try something different.

Do you tend to write your poems in a first sitting, or do you tend todraft over time?

When I'm lucky, I can write a poem in a single sitting and barely touch it later. Incidentally, "Puberty's Monologue" happens to be one of those poems. That said, the idea for the poem and a few of the images had been rolling around in my head for awhile, so the poem had its own pulse before I started to write it.

When did you first start writing poetry?

I began writing poetry when I was a little kid--i.e. grammar school-- but I didn't always write poetry. I did, however, always read it. I seemed to only turn to writing poetry in my adolescent years when something was troubling me, and it wasn'tuntil a few years ago that I decided to give poetry a serious thought. Growing up, music was my first love and is, in many ways, my greatest love, but I never had the urge to create music the way I have the urge to write poetry. That's probably why poetry won over my heart in the end.

Who would you consider your poetry mentors (either in print, or teachers you’ve had the chance to work with)? (or is there a particular poem you return to yourself for solace or inspiration?)

I've always considered myself a far greater fan of poetry than a poet myself, so the list here would be incredibly long. And, like most poets, my list of mentors and the poems I read and reread is always changing. I tend to gravitate to poems that are about real people and real lives, poems that are full of images and those that are rich with interesting sounds.

If poetry were a map for you, what terrain do you tend to chart in your work?

When I was putting together my first collection, I noticed that I was fascinated by a lot of the same things: old people, childhood memories and stories, and the body (including disgusting bodily sounds and fluids). I hadn't realized the really obvious threads in my work until I was trying to assemble them in a manuscript.

Can you talk about the AWP Intro to Journals Project? And the focus of your particular project?

The Intro to Journals Project is really a contest, even though the name would suggest otherwise. All MFA programs that are associated with AWP can nominate students from each genre for the contest--the winner of which gets published in really great journals like PRAIRIE SCHOONER. I was nominated by Antioch University--where I was in the last semester of my MFA--and the poem they selected was called, "Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus." I didn't win, which is a bummer, but it's not like I haven't been rejected before!

What are you presently working on?

Reading, writing, reading, writing, reading, writing.....

My manuscript still takes up a lot of my time. I'm still polishing poems, adding poems, removing poems, submitting to journals, and seeking out presses that might consider my work for publication.

I am also assembling a chapbook of poetry based on my volunteer work experience in a homeless kitchen. This is a really slow process, but worth it. I was so inspired by the things I saw go on in that kitchen that I cranked out draft after draft. And while I can see how the collection will come together eventually, those poems need a whole lot of attention. They are dear to my heart and I believe in the spirit of that collection in a way I often have a had time believing in my work, so I don't want to rush the experience.

You shared with us that your poetry had become the cause of some controversy, leading eventually to the loss of your teaching job. Can you talk about the incident and how it has affected your work?

Under the circumstances, I am unable to disclose any details as to how things went down with my job, but I am happy to discuss my personal reaction to it all.

More than anything, what happened to me this past November felt like an awful betrayal. I gave everything to that school and to have my job stripped away from me in a matter of a few days was one of the most horrifying experiences I've had in my professional life. It was hard for me to believe that all the good I'd done there--including the good rapport I had with students, as well as a reputation for being a strong teacher--didn't matter when things got a little uncomfortable for my superiors. In the end, I think it was a knee-jerk reaction and perhaps, after some reflection, the administration that asked me to resign might agree--even if not out loud.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm still grappling with the loss on some levels, but as far as how the experience has affected my work: it hasn't. I'm still writing things that will make people uncomfortable, and if I had to lose my job to prove to myself that I'm capable of doing that, then it will all be for the best one day.

That said, this experience has dramatically changed the way I feel about teaching high school. I am reluctant to get back into the classroom because I don't know that I could handle something like that again. I was forced to move across the country to my native New Jersey (where I moved in with my 92 year-old grandfather) and look for a job in a terrible economy. Nevermind that I was looking for work near the beginning of the school year, when it would be impossible for me to get a teaching position. My reluctance to teach again is so sad to me because I have always wanted to be a teacher. I have hope that I'll find my way back into that role some day, and that I will continue to read, write and publish poetry regardless of its consequences.

In the meantime, I must figure out exactly what it is that I've learned from all this and then move on. One thing's for sure, though: I left that school with my integrity intact and I can only hope that my students learned something about me as a teacher, a poet and person.

Finally, if I may, I would like to use this public space to tell my students "goodbye," since I never had the opportunity to do so in person.

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Comment by Jessica Powers on August 2, 2010 at 6:39pm
Lauren's poem is now up at The Fertile Source.


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