An Interview with Fertile Source Guest Poetry Editor Kate Bolton Bonnici
Posted Aug 24 2012 1:42pm
The Fertile Source is proud to announce Kate Bolton Bonnici as our first Guest Poetry Editor for the coming year. We first met Kate in our Poetry of Motherhood class (offered last spring, through our sister site, Mother, Writer, Mentor ). Both Jessica and I were moved to hear that the sort of gritty, honest, grappling poems we publish at The Fertile Source had, over time, provided solace and inspiration as Kate faced her own challenges with mothering while writing.
As a result of Kate’s vibrancy, enthusiasm, and level of engagement with poetry (both her own and that of others), we realized we wanted to keep working with her. A graduate of Harvard University and New York University School of Law, Kate writes poetry that speaks for itself (read five of her poems here ). Starting September 1, 2012, please send poetry submissions to kate [@] catalystbookpress [dot] com.
Welcome, Kate! –Tania Pryputniewicz (Managing Poetry Editor, focusing now on role as Art Editor; send art submissions to tania [@] catalystbookpress [dot] com.)
“ Robbery ” tenderly charts a fragility between husband and wife, both partners attempting to stay connected while parenting (scrapping for time together, time apart—the need for time apart landing in this poem more squarely with the wife). Can you talk to us about the emotional landscape of the poem and the process of writing it?
“Robbery” was my attempt to explore the complex space between parents after the birth of their children, the ways their relationship to each other has changed, their understanding of self has changed. They are new people now — overwhelmed, physically and emotionally exhausted, in love with their children, tired of their children, frantic for time together and time apart. I think of it as treading water in an impossibly beautiful sea.
Parenting the children you love creates a remarkable place, but you still must keep your head afloat; it’s hard to reach out for your adult partner when you’re so busy flapping and kicking and taking big gulps of air. Sometimes you remember to lie back, float, look up at the turtle-shaped bits of clouds, and it’s a nice time to reach over, hold hands. Of course, that’s usually when the other one is stuck in his own treading-water thing, and he can’t hear you pointing out that your funny turtle-cloud just morphed into a pink dinosaur.
Our children have deepened my relationship to my own husband; we are fused together now in a profound way. That said, it is so easy to miss each other in the clamoring chaos of daily demands — including the demand for separate space and time for the self.
A quiet grace emanates from your poem, “Morning, Los Angeles,” from the opening admission, “Two now reach for me, want to hold / more than I can give,” which sets the stage—adds a simple poignancy to a line halfway through that reads, “My mother went for a run / and didn’t return.” Where in the drafts of writing the poem did the mother of the narrator enter the poem?
The narrator’s mother entered this poem in the first draft, but I’m not entirely sure where she originated from — one of the mysteries of the imagination or the unconscious, I guess. I set out to write about obsession and, as the mother of two young children (the younger being very young at the time this poem was written), what emerged was not autobiographical or historical truth, but two things, really — an emotional truth (the utterly consuming feeling of having “two now reach for me”) and a need to stretch this feeling to its most painful outcome, abandonment. In the poem, the narrator walks through her own mothering experience under the weight of this loss. It lurks, this pain, this temptation.
“Blood lines” picks up the narrative thread of mother haunting, examining in part how in becoming a mother oneself, memories of one’s own mother resurrect, reappear on a cellular level, here along the axis of “torn perineum.” How did you arrive at that amazing final image of that narrator’s mother’s birth-ravaged body, “holding her re-written body like a shaky glass egg that could lope away end- / over-end down the street”?
The narrator’s mother in “Blood Lines” did not appear until significantly far into the revision process. Earlier versions of the poem were purely a communion between mother and child, but somewhere along the way, I knew I needed to get more precise about the pleasure-pain tension one feels after birth, even a peaceful one, but especially if you have experienced tearing or an episiotomy. (I remember first hearing about episiotomies from my mother and being horrified at the notion. How barbaric! Then, contrary to my wishes, I had one with my first birth. During the birth of my second child, I had some tearing, but the dear midwife who sewed me up was so gentle, just as she was throughout the birth. Her soothing voice set me on a different course of healing.)
When I wrote this poem, I had in my mind the image of a quilt, of the literal lines woven by perineal stitches, the way my birth marked my mother’s body in this specific, physical way, the way the birth of my daughters did the same for me. This was the image I kept coming back to, and it led to the memory of new mothers taking their first steps after birth, the timid, ginger putting of one foot in front of the other, after your body has gone through the all-consuming process of birthing a separate being.
More, that fuzzy period just after birth felt like the first time I’d really understood my own mother, an honest glimpse into her experience. She was also there with me during the delivery of my first child, rubbing my calf, and would have been there for the second, except I needed her to do the important work of watching my firstborn.
In “My Former Object of Everything,” you take the risk to bare the push and pull all mothers (who have more than one child) learn to withstand: dual love for the firstborn and intense frustration aimed at that firstborn when the second child comes along and that firstborn does what he/she does best: clamor for attention, etc. How did you arrive at your final draft? Are there other tensions (for mothers or fathers) you have yet to see explored in poetry that either you wish to explore or you’d like to see others exploring in poetry?
In my line of work (work away from writing, that is), I see tremendous pain in family relationships, families that are deeply splintered and broken, often wounded beyond repair. I think this experience underlies some of my writing about family. It sneaks up and darkens the world of the poem I’m creating.
That said, I was blindsided by the difficulty of caring for two children. I was blindsided by how draining the first child’s great need would be and how the strength of my connection with the baby would create unexpected tension. As with the other pieces in this group, I wanted to take my emotional experience and run with it into a poem, moving away from the literal and autobiographical into a new poetic space, one that would, I hoped, illuminate what hides at the fringes of the self.
Of all the poems in this submission, this poem most grew and shrunk over the course of the writing-revising process. With each draft, it expanded and compressed, expanded and compressed, until finding its current state.
I am fascinated by (and a little afraid of) missed connections between people, and the anger and frustration generated when we cannot connect. The theme of missed connections threads through all of these poems, I think, as I struggle to understand the realities of family life. With each poem, I try to write what is hard, what gives me pause, what makes me worry. When I feel myself retreating, questioning, looking over my shoulder, I think, there, there it is, write that! Some days I am brave — I write. Other days, I put down my pen. Fix another cup of coffee. Put away toys or turn up the radio. I don’t listen. When I write, I’m trying to listen, to be willing to explore the fullness of a moment, in all its mystery, glory, fear, dullness, uncertainty. I’m trying to push this further, to be braver, to write it all.
Can you talk to us about your relationship to writing, before and after the birth of your children?
Midway along my pregnancy with my second child, I felt a strong need to start writing poetry, after spending my entire writing life focused on fiction and creative nonfiction. It was quite a shift, but a necessary one for me. I’ve written poetry almost exclusively for the past year and a half. There are days when I write less because of my children. Then, there are days when I connect more intensely than ever to my writing and feel ravenous for it — in part because of my children. Plus, they give me tons of material. Joy and suffering and the gritty beauty of the everyday — it’s all there in the relationship with and experience of children.
How does poetry figure, if it does, in your professional life as a lawyer?
I’ve struggled with answering this question, and I think the answer is that there is a complex relationship between my lawyering and my creative writing. Stripped to their most fundamental cores, words and narrative are central to both fields. I am more precise in my legal writing because of my work as a poet. I edit my legal work on a micro level; words matter desperately in law as in poetry. And good, honest storytelling is just as necessary. Each side in a lawsuit must tell their story their way; the lawyer is there to help facilitate that process.
The tougher, but equally necessary, answer to this question is to consider the way my career as a lawyer influences my poetry. I practice primarily in the areas of criminal defense and family law, two deeply rewarding, deeply important (in the sense of fundamental rights and basic justice and all that good stuff), but deeply difficult fields. Frankly, no one seeks out my help unless their life is falling apart. The substance can get morbidly dark indeed, and I am witness to tremendous sadness and personal anguish as a matter of course. I think the experience of standing near the unfolding of intense, traumatic episodes in the lives of others has challenged and changed my writing.
How do you find time to work, to write, to parent, to tend to a marriage?
Ah, this is the question, isn’t it? In fits and spurts, frantically, often poorly and with bursts of goodness and delirious devotion. Seriously, as we all experience, every day is a struggle. Every day something gets shut out or forgotten or plainly rejected. (Today that thing was a balanced meal. Sometimes cereal will have to do.) I try to write daily or at least most days, and I consider time spent revising to be time spent writing. I often write late at night snuggled up next to a sleeping baby. I also run, reaching a nice, meditative place where I can work on ongoing poems or construct new ones.
I am thankful for my mother, my role model, and I am grateful to my husband, for truly getting it. Some days when my older daughter pretends she’s a grown up, she says she’s a mother and a lawyer and, oh, she must go write a poem! On those days I think I’m doing okay.
Any special poems or writing mentors you wish to share with our readers?
My aunt, Patricia Foster, has been my lifelong writing mentor — patiently reading my stories and poems (going all the way back to elementary school rhyme schemes and princess illustrations), feeding me a steady stream of new books for as long as I can remember, providing a template for the writers’ life, and crafting so many lovely sentences for me to soak in and learn from. Her novel, Girl from Soldier Creek, is forthcoming in October.
There are so many poets whose work I admire deeply — Beth Ann Fennelly, Natasha Trethewey, Mary Oliver, Laura Kasischke, James Galvin, just to name a few.
I just finished reading Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Exquisite, haunting, and yet breathing with little gusts of joy.