Last month, we began our journey into a year-long Birthing the Mother Writer Class by exploring poetry as a map. In this month’s column, we read a poem by a mother with a toddler daughter, and hear her reflections on geographical space and writing time, the poetic elements of line breaks, voice, and rhythm, and being present in daily life.
by Jessica Martinez
We bought you a reading chair for your birthday.
When mommy was little she had one just like this.
She would sit, read or cuddle her teddies
and sometimes she would write
into her secret diary
or later stories about a mouse
When she was nine
she wrote a book about Jesse
but it was never printed.
Maybe she should read it to you some day.
Mommy kept on writing stories, poems
through school and college.
Then she worked and worked
for many years
without finding time to write.
What she did write
was history of some sort
as the youngest senior associate in the firm.
But writing always remained a dream.
Then mommy found out you were going to be born
and she was so happy.
She wrote letters to the unborn you
and she took a year off work
to look after you, secretly hoping
she could also write that novel.
Then you arrived
and the world's colors changed.
Daddy and mommy were so worried about you
until you and everything and
everyone around you calmed down
Mommy remembers every single day, every single hour.
Mommy looks at you now
as you get ready to blow out the candles
and you are the most beautiful daughter.
No one can tell today
how difficult that first year was.
That year lay a thin shadow over mommy
and she finally feels strong enough to push it away
because of everything you have given her.
While you sit in your new chair
and read your favorite books
she will go through the cardboard boxes full of diaries
and just write and write
until all the words sound right.
Jessica Martinez lives in Greater Hartford, Connecticut, with her husband and young daughter, after having spent most of her life in Europe. She loves writing, but always feels like she does not dedicate enough time to it. As a student, many years ago, she was an active writer, winning local awards and having a poem of hers published in a German anthology.
Q and A Between Cassie Premo Steele and Jessica Martinez
Cassie Premo Steele: I read your poem early one morning as I sat watching the stars during a moment alone before the house woke up and I was on to my mothering-writing-working day. And I cried.
I loved it! I especially loved the evocations of space and time in the poem and in your own life, and I wondered if I could ask you a few questions about that.
Jessica Martinez: Sure!
CPS: You say you lived in Europe and published in a German anthology. I'm fascinated by this! I feel such an affinity for European languages and culture (and my partner is German). How do you feel those experiences shaped you as a poet? Do you see differences in being a "Literary Mama" in Europe compared to the United States? Is there a difference in the attitude toward poetry?
JM: Living in different places definitely rubbed off on my poetry. We lived in three European countries over the past 10 years before moving to the States and it has made me go through a whole spectrum of feelings I had no idea of before—from feeling different and foreign when you first start out in a new place, to the pain and even grief of saying goodbye when you move on, versus the excitement of starting afresh elsewhere.
I also feel that living abroad made me a better observer. I had to learn lots of things from practical matters such as, "How do I open a bank account?" to more complex ones like, "What is expected of me in this situation? How would a local react?” That sharpened my senses because I have always had a desire to blend in. On a smaller scale, this also applies when traveling. Being in a new place and meeting new people often makes good writing material.
With a three-year-old, I still think I am pretty new at being a “Literary Mama,” but if we talk about differences in attitude towards poetry, my personal impression is that poetry is much more accessible here in the States than it is over in Europe. I grew up in Germany and it was hard work to find a sounding board for my writing as a teenager. I then spent my senior year in high school in the USA and I was amazed to be able to study creative writing on a daily basis. Creative writing is simply not something that is commonly taught at high schools in Europe—which is a shame because that one class opened up a world of opportunities to me.
CPS: Speaking of creative writing classes, one of the things poetry instructors try to teach is “voice.” How did you decide what voice to use in this poem? I think the use of the second person "you" is very effective, but what is more surprising is that "mommy" is a "she." How do you find yourself making choices about pronouns and voice in your poetry?
JM: I love to experiment. I originally started out with the more conventional “I” for “Mommy” and I was thinking about this poem in many different places. One day, I was at the playground and I heard another mom say to her child: “Oh, Mommy left your water bottle at home. She simply forgot.” I knew this could be an option and tried.
Many of the poems I write take a while to “ripen” within me. I think, write, rethink, rewrite. This one took about three weeks until I was happy. In terms of voice and pronouns, I find that the unexpected often works better than the conventional.
CPS: I agree! My favorite part of the poem is this:
until you and everything and
everyone around you calmed down
I remember that so vividly, the way time is different with a baby and a toddler, and I think the line breaks here show both how long that seems to take and also the loss, the absence, as it happens. Could you talk a little about both these things—time in mothering and time/rhythm line breaks in poetry? How do you find yourself thinking about them and practicing them?
JM: With motherhood came a new sense of time for me. I used to cram so much into my days before I became a mom and it was a bit of a shock to suddenly have days blending into nights without even managing to empty the dishwasher. Days with a baby or toddler are unpredictable in many ways (I do not mean this in a bad way!) and I try to reflect that in what I write.
A baby that cries excessively comes with its own challenges and I could easily fill pages about this. In this poem, I was looking for a way to show for how long those first months seemed to drag on, and when I read it without the line breaks, I thought: “Well, eight and a half months doesn’t sound like that much time,” so I had to change something. I tried describing it better, coming up with a suitable analogy, but nothing quite captured the situation as well as the line breaks.
Thinking about time in mothering, I now try to “go with the flow” as much as I can and enjoy the moments I have with my daughter, knowing how quickly she is growing up. I feel that I have become better at dedicating myself fully to whatever I am doing rather than getting distracted or trying to do one hundred things at once.
CPS: Thank you so much for your reflections and your poem, Jessica! I wish you all the best with your daughter and your poetry!
JM: Thank you!
Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with “Due Dates!”)
Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering.
And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we’ve got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class!
Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom.
I look forward to reading your writing and I’m so glad you’re in this class!
Unit 1: Poetry
- September—Poetry is the Map
- October—Reader Response to Poetry is the Map (Submit up to 3 poems about how poetry has been your map. Due September 29, 2014.)
- November—The Deeper Stuff of Poetry
- December—Reader Response to The Deeper Stuff of Poetry (Submit an essay of 800-1200 words about claiming yourself as a mother poet. Due November 30, 2014.)
Unit 2: Fiction
- January—The Arc/Ark of Narrative
- February—Reader Response to The Arc/Ark of Narrative (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that demonstrates the principles of narrative timing and scene making. Due February 1, 2015.)
- March—The Role/Roll of Dialogue
- April—Reader Response to The Role/Roll of Dialogue (Submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. Due March 29, 2015.)
Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction
- May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
- June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
- July and August—Summer Break
- September—Life is a Book
- October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)
Reader Response Submission Guidelines
Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:
-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”
-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.
-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.