• Tania Pryputniewicz
  • Poetry’s Secret Rooms with Sandra McPherson: Bloodlines, Adoption, and The Spaces Between Birds
Poetry’s Secret Rooms with Sandra McPherson: Bloodlines, Adoption, and The Spaces Between Birds
Sandra McPherson discusses mother/daughter poetry, adoption, neonaticide, and the ways mother writers struggle with earning power. McPherson’s Missing Children, Helen Todd: My Birthname, A Coconut for Katerina, and Children are live at the Fertile Source: http://fertilesource.com/?p=753. We are extremely honored to have had this chance to speak with McPherson (recently retired after 23 years on faculty at the University of California, Davis). Can we start with the beginning: your relationship to words and loving them? When did you start writing poetry? Words have always interested me; so did aspects of other arts: music and painting and fabric. I read what we’d consider bad verse as a little girl; that kind of verse used to come out in magazines with beautiful photos and paintings. I loved that kind of beauty and I’m not sure where that love came from. I made a little book of what I called my “Moderne Verse,” and safety-pinned it together, when I was twelve. I liked foreign languages and Shakespeare early on; we didn’t have a lot of books in the house, but we had the collected Shakespeare and The Bible. My adopted family had a good number of missionaries in it and a lot of them were Bible translators. So also in the house were foreign language dictionaries. I used to read our dictionary; it was a big heavy one. I didn’t know about the genetic language tie I shared with my birth family until I sought them out in my thirties. One birth grandmother was a German teacher, and my birth father, a Spanish teacher. My birth father wrote limericks with good rhymes (coitus and foetus, for instance). How did you come to know you were adopted? When and how did you start writing about that experience in your poetry? I knew right from the start that I was adopted. My adopted family had some nice little book they gave me about it. I was told it made you extra special: you were chosen. It was better; chosen. The child was chosen, and they never turned it around and said, “You the child chose us as parents.” Of course they believed God had chosen; they kind of went along with that religious sense of The Elect. Even after they had me, there was another child they planned on adopting. My mother woke from a dream hearing a voice that said, “God has given the child to the Williamsons.” And she was right; the Williamsons got the child. But then my parents conceived (with the new technology available to them) so they had a son of their own. It was thrilling to find my birth family. I’m just getting to know both of my siblings now. My birth sister and I grew up alone, not knowing about each other. And my adoptive parents’ son (my brother) says, “I don’t remember much about Mom,” which makes me think she wanted to give herself to others and didn’t have a strong identity. She lost her father when she was three. So in actuality everybody was missing somebody. I also learned that my birth grandmother (and her ancestress Abby Morton Diaz, a 19th century, funny feminist who hated making pies) wrote Poems—versey-things--published in the Christian Science Monitor. So I have that kind of bloodline. If one is going to start off with such an overwhelming strike against them (losing one’s birth family), does being a poet, in your opinion, provide some sort of solace? They say that you take up any art because there’s something missing, a sense of a lack. I think being a poet gave me an independence, a secret room. When I grew up and told people I had found my birth parents, they would say things like, “I used to imagine I was adopted to separate myself from my parents,” in order to have a life of their own as opposed to a life based on what their parents said they had to do. But in my case, it wasn’t a metaphor; I did have that experience where you go in your room and you write your little poems down in the night. I wrote little verses when I was four and five and up through high school. I remember I set about writing 100 poems and some of my friends wrote poems too, but they realized I was writing more than anybody, so they dubbed me “The poet of T101,” which was our homeroom. Can you talk about Missing Children, which opens with an adoptive mother’s lament: “‘She wouldn’t choose me,’ my adopting mother mourned / as if that were a judgment call / an infant could make”? In all cases, something is missing. My adopting mother felt she was missing something by not having a child on her own. Upon seeing me grow up, and eventually be so physically and intellectually different from her, she feared that if I could choose between women, I wouldn’t say, “Ok, I’ll take you.” Good heavens--we have enough guilt as it is; what a horrible choice to give a child. And so I left some things up to fate. We don’t have to take responsibility for choosing our mother. But to return to the word “missing”--yes, there was something missing. I had never seen a blood relative before. By giving birth to P-----, I would see a relative, be tied to her by blood. There are parents who want children, but they won’t adopt--as if only a child sharing their genes will do. And then there are parents who breed--mothers who grew up wanting to be mothers. Additionally, I think I was resentful that I didn’t get to nurse; and I loved nursing my daughter; and I didn’t know that as long as you were nursing you couldn’t get pregnant; I was only nursing a few weeks before I had to go on the pill and give up nursing her. That was something “missing.” Do you return to the subject of adoption now in your writing? I do still write about it; (Sandra gestures to the other room) I have poems piled up; in there are ones where I talk about having two mothers and wondering what my place between the two of them is. I think I subjected both mothers to a form of imagination that they weren’t used to--not better or worse--for in a way, we spend our lives in our heads. You’re used to making associations and links, extensions other people may see and wonder what on earth is going on, and if they are forced to be an [actual] relative of that imagination, they may feel more mystified. If I had the details from my mothers’ lives, or if they wrote diaries, [that’d be different] but they don’t… I love that you documented hours of working, hours of housework in “Measurings, Work and Worth”; what a beautiful line: “But I clocked myself going from room to room.” I think many young mother writers find themselves doing that kind of math. What are your thoughts about it now? Do you remember how your relationship to your work changed as your child grew? I hope writing mothers don’t feel they have to do that kind of tracking. I wanted to prove that I was working hard; Phoebe’s father had a job teaching and earned the money, except that I made money from grants and I sold some poems. By the time we got divorced eighteen years later, it was fifty-fifty. I would feel deeply for the young mothers if they kept that kind of math; it would be because they felt very alone and powerless. I would always hope that our culture has gotten beyond that (people feeling dominated and as if their work didn’t count). I wrote constantly; I never backed off; and that interests me, because I had students over the years who would say, “I always wanted to write, but I wanted to raise my children first.” I wondered how they could stop writing. I couldn’t, or I wouldn’t have my sanity-- it was really mentally necessary. But those mothers (who stopped writing to raise their children) had a gift too. But set something of themselves aside. How did your relationship to your writing change as a result of having a child? P----- came along when I was really young, 22 or 23. Her father and I met in Elizabeth Bishop’s class. I got pregnant and then we went about finding somebody to marry us and got married and she came a couple months early. Having P----- had a big effect on my writing because I wrote what I call my first “grown-up” poem when she was born. Now that I was in the role of the mother of a young one and I couldn’t be the child anymore, my language changed in the poems. My confidence changed. I sounded older; my techniques were more mature. I was reading a lot of Plath and the first poems were quite imitative and sounded like Plath and were also the first ones that got published. And having P----- grew me up. I remember telling that to a few people, some judges of a poetry contest, once; one of them laughed at me and said, “Oh come on.” He himself was an adopted child and a gay man without child. But he didn’t understand. Within a month of P----- out of my body, I wrote adult poems. You mentioned early on in our correspondence about this interview that you would never think to write about your daughter now the way you did when she was little; can you talk about that some more? Take photography, for instance; whose picture do you take? When mothers write I hope they will learn from this--not so much as identifying your own feelings, but what is it about what makes that person one of a kind. It is just not our parental and offspring roles, but one odd person, and another odd person. With my birth-name being Helen Todd, Walter used to call me Helen T. Odd, because we appreciate oddities; those who write about their loved ones will see if they can capture peculiarities, not just our traditional roles. I did write a poem that got online and P----- found out about it 15 years ago. It was not a very good poem, but about some suffering I felt I was going through as a mother, and P----- said, Why, why, did you write it? I wrote to the online zine and asked them to take it down. I don’t believe they had ever asked my permission in the first place. It broke my heart; why, why did you put it up there? I didn’t need it there, and it didn’t need to exist. I’ve felt that I had come to the end of having to speak that way. Maybe I became more of an adult when I became an old lady. How did the idea come about for The Spaces Between Birds, which juxtaposes your poems and P-----‘ s poems? It was time to let the number of years of our life together appear as a progression: 1967 to 1995. In the book it is important to treat P-----‘s poems as equal with mine. What happens when a reader, a mother, a daughter, an individual does that? A doctor? If someone pays attention to her, what do “they” learn? You open The Spaces Between Birds with a paragraph from your daughter’s natal chart. What would you say now, looking back, on how you’ve seen it played out across your lifetime and hers? The horoscope seems to me of psychological value, allowing for intricacy, contradiction, room for growth and change, not standard achievement. I used to ask an audience, would you give this person a job? I meant, Please, would you offer this interesting person a chance? Basically the horoscope was true. I was living in Seattle at the time. A woman named Eve and her mother lived downhill (everything’s on a hill there). She did P-----‘s chart for me, for Henry, and one for also comparing her chart and Henry’s because she had a thing for him. Over the years, it provided some comfort--to read about P----- trying again and again. P----- moved out on Mother¹s Day, when she was 19, and began to live on her own; she began to do some work for a while as a handicapped attendant, so she worked with older people, and an older man friend, until he died; and she handled that very well; amazing what she can handle; I go to pieces much more. Then she became over the years a mentor, helping others figure out how to improve their lives; and became devoted to making good choices, which is what you hope for with your child. In The Spaces Between Birds, I see you so beautifully capturing the essence of the mother child bond, the sense of shared center, a bound world, merged sometimes, submerged in others, as in the following lines: “Chrysalis: we cannot be told / Apart; and he can tell us--/ What--to speak for oneself, / Little and veering in the sun” (Butterflies by a Lake). Or these lines, referring to P-----‘s affections “so I can¹t withdraw / or go out of our single mind / to have another child” (Children) or “you and I are like an old married couple” (Lifesaving) or “We are a single mother, an only child” (Flowering Plum). Are those images for you a constant--is there a permanence to them, or have they changed as you and your daughter grew? Is there a new core image you’d use to describe the relationship today? There’s a funny story behind “Children” about how Phoebe climbed up on me. I think because of her slow pace of growing up, maybe I’m lucky in that those images linger, and she remembers them, an image where we’re physically matched up. Now that she’s a grown up, it is still applicable to her too: she sees that we have similar bodies. When she comes over the first thing she does is to pick me up, lift me up as high as she can, and set me down. When she leaves she does it too. I don’t know why, but it is a nice thing--a childlike thing that she will never outgrow. Or, rather, we will never outgrow. What can you tell us about, Swan Scythe Press (www.swanscythe.com), which you founded ten years ago? I ran the press for ten years and it has now been turned over to Jim DenBoer. Jim is putting out our 2010 chapbook contest winner, Burlee Vang (founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle) titled, The Dead I Know: Incantation for Rebirth. But I had wanted to do one last volume for my friend Joan Swift, Snow on A Crocus: Formalities of a Neonaticide, based on a story of young woman who spent three years in prison. If you were here tomorrow you’d be here for delivery of her book. How do you write about a neonaticide? You will want to see how this is done--it is all in form: couplets, pantoum, sonnet, villanelle, terza rima, triolet, acrostic. For the opening poem, Swift had a prose version and a poetic version. I said to her, let’s work on the lined version and it began to pick up some music and repetition. There were themes, questions emerging: did Swift kill her own father, did Swift kill the rapist because she sent him to prison [see Swift’s earlier book, The Dark Path of Our Names which looks at the issue of rape]? Is there a killer waiting in all of us, Swift asks, since her cousin killed her baby. That becomes the question in the book, whether you identify with the girl or not, or however you want to place yourself. She’s been through so much, yet Swift maintains a steady tone, asserting this is a story that needs to be told, not judged, just told. Are there subjects you have yet to turn your poetic eye towards? I’m feeling that I’m just learning things. Right now everything I study is Japanese. I realize what a magnificent culture and history—I’m learning everything I can mostly about 19th century Japanese art and that’s just one place on earth. There’s a lot I’m trying to add to my brain. I have lots of poems in progress; and I know now, it might well be twenty years, if I live that long, before I can come to the end of it, my work. What are you working on now? I’m starting a little press that makes little items: Ostrakon, which is a broken piece of pottery with writing on it. I’m going to publish my own. I have six of these lined up, each using a poem of mine I’ve maybe published long ago that I’ve revised and updated and am publishing with a Japanese woodblock, as a piece of art, just for fun. It takes so long to get out of school, from kindergarten to when you retire from teaching. I’m playing and that’s my big word for the rest of my life. What do you wish on the world of poetry, the world of readers, the world of young poets coming up? I think I would still encourage people to write about their lives; there may be teachers or poets that tell you not to, or that there’s “no author” but there’s still a great deal in the individual life that can, and needs to be, written about. Recently retired after 23 years on faculty at the University of California, Davis, Sandra McPherson studied at the University of Washington with David Wagoner and Elizabeth Bishop. McPherson taught for four years in the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, was Holloway Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, and conducted several years of classes for the Oregon Writers Workshop/Pacific Northwest College of Art. In 1999 she founded Swan Scythe Press, a poetry chapbook publishing venture (www.swanscythe.com) with 26 chapbooks in print under McPherson’s direction and two newly forthcoming under Jim DenBoer’s direction. McPherson’s honors and awards include three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim fellowship, two Ingram Merrill grants, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and letters, and a nomination for the National Book Award. She was featured on the Bill Moyers television series The Language of Life. Her volumes of poetry include: Expectation Days, University of Illinois Press, 2007, A Visit to Civilization, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 2002, Beauty in Use, Janus Press, 1997, Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1996, The Spaces Between Birds: Mother/Daughter Poems 1967-1995, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, 1996, The God of Indeterminacy, U of Illinois, 1993, Streamers, Ecco, 1988, Patron Happiness, Ecco, 1983, The Year of Our Birth, Ecco, 1978, Radiation, Ecco, 1973, Elegies for the Hot Season, Indiana University Press, 1970; reprinted by Ecco, 1982.

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  • Nicelle Davis

    Wow. Great interview. I must checkout your books.