It's not like I just started writing or something. It's not like I've been closeting myself. Like most other writers, I've been toiling at this for years, 20 plus. Writing is a long, slow track career, and especially as a mom for whom children almost always have come first, my writing is mostly below the radar, read by small audiences, literary subcultures. We writers, especially poets, are used to being ignored. After a while, we begin to wear our ignominy like a badge. So I responded with mixed feelings when I got a phone call out of the blue, from the director of the city libraries, to ask if I would serve as 2006-2007 Milwaukee Poet Laureate.
Poet Laureate? I don't even comb my hair. I read radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and anarchists like Emma Goldman. I'm not old enough -- I'm only 42. I don't eat meat. I thought of a million reasons why it was a mistake to appoint me, including -- like the Groucho Marx joke -- disinterest in belonging to a club that would have me as a member. It's not self deprecation. After all, putting yourself down is just as egotistical as inflating yourself, as I tell my kids. It's that I consider myself to be so far outside of the mainstream, that I'm totally dismayed to find myself inside. And, as a consummate outsider, I have an abiding suspicion of titles and honors.
Most of all, my ambiguity comes from the artist's imperative to be always onto the next project, to be breaking new ground, to be moving forward, rather than rest on the laurels--of the laureate. In that regard, I've deliberately put poetry on the back burner, and I'm writing a play, working on my Literary Mama columns, and teaching a lot of yoga.
I explain to Kate Huston, the ever elegant and distinguished City Librarian, appointed by the mayor, why I'm not the right person for the job. And she asks me to just think about it and call her back on Monday.
I call a friend and tell her the news. She laughs, "The universe is fucking with your mind."
Just when I thought I'd gotten poetry out of my system, just when I had relinquished it to younger, braver writers, I'm being asked to come back out. Not only that but my poetry book, Three Truths and a Lie, is about to be released. It was seven years in the making, my MFA work from 1999-2001, and now feels ancient. It had taken this long to find a publisher, Water Press and Media, and for that small press to garner the resources to print the book.
So it's all coming to fruit now? Is this how elephant mamas feel after that looooong gestation?
The local high school newspaper decides to do a feature about me. One of Katja's friends calls me for an interview. Then she asks to speak to my son Malachi, 15.
"Which of your mom's poems is your favorite?" she asks.
"Ummmm . . . I don't read my mom's poetry," he confesses.
"What do you think your mom's best trait is?" the interviewer tries a different angle.
I can just imagine him squirming over this one. What positive thing can a teenage boy say about his mom?
"She has really strong opinions," he says.
He's practicing diplomacy. The way he puts it to me is, "You have too many rules!" No TV on school days, eat salad before you leave the table, do your chores, blah blah blah. You bet I have strong opinions.
"How do you think it will be for your mom to be poet laureate?"
"Well, maybe she'll write more poems . . . because she hasn't really been doing that . . . "
Out of the mouths of babes.
The most curious thing about accepting the position is how I've gone up a half-notch or so in my children's eyes. Malachi especially digs the attention.
"Mr. Halloran was talking about you today. 'Cause we're doing a poetry unit. We read Gwendolyn Brooks--'We real cool . . . ' Is she, like, the most famous poet? Wasn't she poet laureate?"
"Oh yeah, I love Gwendolyn Brooks. She lived in Chicago. I don't know if she was poet laureate, but there's an award named after her, and my friend Julie got it one year."
"Your friend got it? Wow, our family is really well known in the poetry world."
Our family? My ass.
Sitting around one day over winter break, Meiko, 19, asked Katja, 17, "You gonna read Mom's book when it comes out?"
"I don't know . . . what kind of book is it?"
"Poetry," I answer.
Katja is the bookwormiest of our bookworm family, consuming several books a week , ranging from Gossip Girl to Jane Austen. She wrinkles her nose, "Hmm, I don't like poetry."
Such a perfect Katja-like response! My kids are utterly unafraid of offending me. Katja especially, since early childhood, has been telling it like it is. If your outfit looks bad, if the dinner is inedible, if you have halitosis, don't expect any politesse from her.
The fact is I don't write poems for children, especially not my own children. I figure they won't read my work until they're actually interested, and their interest will be the indication of readiness. Meiko has asked me to bring the book when we visit her at school in April, but I'm not going to push it on anyone, especially not family members.
My book is finally released. Like the poet laureate title, I greet it with a complex mix of gratitude and detachment. I walk into the dining room and Katja is actually reading it.
"You're reading the book!" I exclaim.
"Yeah. It's good," she says casually.
Later I walk into the room and find Malachi with the book open in his hands as well.
Malachi claims he'll use my new title as a weapon against his not-so-favorite teachers. "Who you think you're talkin' to?" he'll threaten, "You know who my mother is? She's poet laureate. She's gonna write a poem about you."
Malachi is already nine inches taller than me. He likes to pat me on the head and lift me off the ground. But maybe I can still be mama bear laureate. Maybe I can still do him proud.