My first son was born a few weeks before I graduated with my MFA, and at my thesis defense my teacher Heather McHugh, referring to my extremely pregnant body, told me I was in the process of writing my best poem. At the time, not having written very many good poems, I felt relieved to think that I could be about the work of poetry even as a new mom, that I could grow in craft as I was growing my boy.
But being a new mom meant stripping it all down to survival, it meant simple acts of self care, like taking a shower, were not to be taken for granted. And writing was one of those acts—actual time spent writing became nonexistent for the first several months, and badly scattered after that. But what I found was that, like taking a shower, I didn’t feel well without it. I’ve always been a bit scared of Rilke’s instruction to “write only if you must,” but happily I found that I must.
William Stafford, when asked what he did when he got writer’s block, replied, “I lower my standards.” Now as a mom of two toddlers, my standards have been rocked. I don’t take the time to write a finished poem each day or even each week. Though, honestly, in grad school when I had the time to write a poem each day, I found the time intimidating. Building on Stafford’s response, the poet Ingrid Wendt says, “What if we could just lower our standards enough to write down, every now and then, that one good line flitting through our consciousness before it floats out of reach: that dandelion puff, that milkweed feather like those I learned, as a child, to catch and make a wish on and release?”
Wendt goes on to talk about constructing poems through piecework, by trusting the unconscious mind to have a logic all its own. “What if we could be more deliberate in our collection of these little language scraps, these spices, these pieces of fabric, and when we had a moment or two away from the kids, or the bills, or the job, we could sort through and cluster and group them, just as a quilter puts together matching pieces of cloth, or a cook, the saved ingredients?”
I found her words only recently, in a collection called Mamaphonic, a book of essays written by artists who work at remaining creative while raising children. I would have overlooked this collection before I found myself sharing a similar space. But now that I’m here, I find her, amongst others, standing in agreement with my own suspicions, that creative work is more than time or extended concentration.
Attempting to harmonize my work with the nature of this place, an idea articulated by Wendell Berry, I go about with notebooks tucked away in my diaper bag or nightstand or kitchen cupboard. That way I have a place to put those dust motes of clarity when they come, when the lighting is just so and I’m actually paying attention. I write here at home, where life is simple, where I’m most confronted with beauty and courage and regret. And it’s here where I find what I need to balance the creative act of poetry with the outlandishly creative act of growing two boys into men.
The poem I have forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review is piecework, reaching for a bit of the mystery I’ve found embodied in my second son, Selah.
Sarah Steinke is a freelance writer and copyeditor in Seattle, where she lives with her husband and two boys. Her poem, "Selah," is forthcoming in HFR issue #45 [to preorder, send an email to HFR@asu.edu!].