Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Eleanor Stanford

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Eleanor Stanford is the author of The Book of Sleep, a collection of poetry that explores new motherhood, spirituality, and travel. Published in 2008, the book was accepted through Carnegie Mellon Press's open reading season and was a runner-up for the Tupelo Press's Dorset Prize. Stanford's poems have appeared in many publications including Literary Mama, Georgia Review, Triquarterly, Poetry, Ploughshares, Indiana Review, and Harvard Review. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she raises her two young sons, Ezra and Ruben.

After reviewing The Book of Sleep for Literary Mama, assistant poetry editor Ginny Kaczmarek was eager to interview Stanford about the impact of motherhood on her writing and how she maintains the delicate balance between cohesiveness and diversity, accessibility and experimentation in her poetry.

Ginny Kaczmarek: What brought you to poetry and how long have you been writing?

Eleanor Stanford: I've loved writing and reading since I was a little kid. I started writing poetry when I was in seventh grade, and we had a special poetry program at school. This was the same year that I taught myself Spanish, and in retrospect I feel there's some connection there. I was attracted to both poetry and foreign languages for the way they allow me to take pleasure in words and to appreciate their power.

GK: Have you studied or written poetry in languages other than English?

ES: I've studied poetry in Spanish and French, but I also enjoy reading poetry in translation. There's a wonderful strangeness to it, a deliberate, filtered quality to the language that I enjoy in and of itself.

GK: Poetry requires a lot of work for usually little reward; what made you continue to pursue it through college and graduate school?

ES: I'm not sure what's made me continue to pursue poetry. Some of it is the thrill of finding the right words, the mysterious joy in exploring how my own mind works. Some of it is habit, perhaps slightly masochistic habit.

What I enjoyed most about studying poetry in college and graduate school was the community of other poets. It can get pretty lonely without that.

GK: How did the book's publication come about?

ES: I got pretty lucky with the publication process, as these things go. It only took a year or so for me to find a publisher. I submitted my manuscript to several contests and for awards for first books of poetry. It was a runner-up for Tupelo Press' Dorset Prize; then I submitted to Carnegie Mellon's open reading season, and they accepted it. It's been wonderful working with the press. They let me choose the cover image, which is a painting by my friend Haley Hassler entitled "Self Portrait as a Mother."

GK: It's a great painting, and it fits the book so well.

ES: Thanks!

GK: As a mother, where do you find the time, space, and energy to write?

ES: I think the hardest thing is finding the mental space to write. Poetry especially I think requires a lot of fallow time, to read and wander and do nothing, which seems like a luxury as the mother of small children.

I'm very disciplined about my writing time -- I write on weekend mornings. Although disciplined may not be the right word, since writing is one of my greatest pleasures. Thankfully, my husband is incredibly supportive and a wonderful father, and doesn't begrudge me the time. Still, it's hard not to feel torn.

GK: Do you have a special place or ritual that helps you avoid distractions during your weekend morning writing time?

ES: I like to get out of the house and go to a coffee shop. My husband stays with the kids. Ever since Ezra was a baby, that's been their special time together. On Sundays he takes them to my parents' house for pancakes.

GK: How has motherhood impacted your writing?

ES: Before I had Ezra, my poetry was much more formal and structured and logical. I wrote things like sonnets and villanelles and sestinas. After Ezra was born, as soon as I started writing again, I found my poems taking a much freer, dreamier, more intuitive style. It wasn't intentional at all, but I found that as my life no longer conformed to its familiar boundaries -- day/night, sleep/waking, even physical bodily boundaries -- my poetry wouldn't either. I feel like the experience has opened me up to trusting that intuitive voice, even when I don't know where it's going to take me.

GK: That's interesting; I found myself turning toward formal poetics for the first time after I had my son -- seeking order from the chaos, perhaps. Did you find your previous formalism informing your later style at all?

ES: I am still very aware of form, even in free verse. The line has to make sense as a unit of sound, sense, and rhythm, but in some ways free verse is more difficult, because these strictures need to fit the individual poem, rather than vice versa.

GK: Did having your second child affect your writing, in style and/or quantity?

ES: I don't know that having a second child noticeably affected my writing style, but I have definitely been less prolific and find it more difficult to make the time and space for writing. I expect these things to become even more difficult, temporarily I hope, with the arrival of my third child this April.

GK: Your poems maintain an accessible quality in their language even as their forms are often disjointed. How important is accessibility and formal experimentation in your poetry? How do you maintain the tension between the two?

ES: Accessibility and experimentation are both important to me. The idea of accessibility comes later in the process, during revision. When I'm writing, what matters most to me is the magic of the language, which includes experimentation, as well as musicality, mystery, precision. But when I go back to poems I've written, I add, subtract, and edit so that they make sense at least on some level to a general reader.

Form is extremely important, of course, not in terms of how experimental the poem is, but in terms of how well the form expresses what the poem is saying. For the poems in The Book of Sleep, the form they wanted to take tended to be somewhat fragmented, but I don't think that makes them inaccessible.

GK: I agree; the fragmentation still follows an internal logic, allowing the poems to be dreamlike but still understandable. Do you have different writing rituals for when you're composing compared with when you're revising?

ES: No, to me the process is the same, and it's a fluid one. I don't really distinguish between writing and revising.

GK: I admired the central concept of The Book of Sleep: building your own mythology out of pieces of personal experience and communal memory. Where did the idea come from and did you always envision the poems as a series?

ES: The first poem in the series came to me in that sleep-deprived, new mother state. My sleep was so disrupted that I was often unable to drift off even after the baby fell asleep, and occasionally I would get up and write. I didn't realize it was a series until I had written several of the poems. What I liked about writing it was that it felt almost infinite, like I could have just kept going. Also that there are holes in it -- the series skips lots of numbers, so in a sense it is unfinished, and leaves space for the unknown and the imagination of the reader.

GK: Do you attribute that unfinished, infinite feeling in your writing to that new mother state, or did you write that way before your baby was born? Now that your children are a bit older, do you find your writing changing again?

ES: I partially attribute the elliptical quality to the new mother state. Maybe being in that state opened me to new possibilities in writing. I hope my writing continues to grow and change although I don't know that I have the distance to assess how that's happening.

GK: Your book explores themes from new motherhood to spiritual identity to travel, yet these topics always feel connected. How did you maintain that balance between cohesiveness and diversity?

ES: To be honest, these themes are so intimately intertwined in my own life, it wouldn't occur to me that they should be separated. Becoming a mother has forced me to examine my spiritual identity, as has traveling. In fact, travel is a pretty apt, if unoriginal, metaphor for both motherhood and spiritual searching.

I'm glad you pulled out all three of these themes. While I don't intend to downplay the centrality of motherhood to my work, I feel a bit uncomfortable classifying it primarily in that way.

GK: Tell us more about your experience with travel. Do you travel a lot?

ES: I haven't traveled too much. Aside from two years in the Peace Corps in the Cape Verde Islands, I've visited Senegal, Venezuela, France, and Spain. To be honest, though, the idea of vacation travel doesn't interest me much. It seems like a lot of effort for an ultimately somewhat superficial experience of a place.

My family is planning a move to Brazil this summer, though. We'll be there for at least two years. It has always been a dream of mine and my husband's to live abroad with our children, so we're really excited about it. He's going to be teaching at an international school in Salvador, Bahia, and I'm going to be the guidance counselor there.

GK: I read that you're currently working on a book about your experiences in the Cape Verde Islands, which is a fascinating subject in this book, too; can you talk a little bit about that project?

ES: This manuscript has actually been finished for six or seven years now. The Cape Verde Islands are a place of incredible geographical and cultural diversity, and the book deals with my experiences trying to negotiate this beautiful, strange, and isolated place. I have an agent who's tried shopping it around, and I have received lots of promising responses, but no offers of publication yet. I'm also always working on individual poems, but nothing that's come together as a book yet.

GK: We'll watch for your next project. Congratulations on your new baby and good luck with your move to Brazil.

ES: Thank you, Ginny. I really appreciate your interest in my work!

Ginny Kaczmarek is a poet, editor, and reviewer with an MFA in poetry from the University of New Orleans. Her writing has appeared in Kirkus ReviewsCalyx Journal, Women’s Review of Books, The Oxford American, MeasureRattle, and the anthology Birth Writes: A Collection of Real Life Birth Stories. She is a former poetry editor for Literary Mama and lives in New Orleans with her spouse and two sons.

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