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Molly Sutton Kiefer: Poet, Mother, Resource Maven for Mother Writers and Artists

Posted Jun 25 2012 11:39am

Poet Molly and her daughter Your poem “Records,” charting fertility, ends on the sweet and surprising metaphor of a cowgirl—how did you arrive at that metaphor?

I had the image of a flailing sort of surrender, a frustrated reaction to all the different sorts of white-papered journals and charts—what I was eating, what my morning temperature was, how many days since a particular pill was taken. The flap of a flag in the wind reminded me so much of that bucking bronco, which is how that image eked its way into the poem. Later, when I was pregnant, I wrote the poem “Garter” ; it turns out I wasn’t completely done with cowgirl imagery.

In “Sleeping Pill” you marry fairytale to the mundane, with such lovely imagery as the beanstalk, the fire flies, nightlight. Can you talk to us about writing this poem?

Oh, whenever I count out my pills, and at my height it was over a dozen, my husband teases me about needing one of those pill-a-day organizers—I’d hold them in the creases of my hand, and I’d think to how those seeds would look in my palm each spring—the largeness, the plumpness of the beans always surprised me. I think this was the trigger. Often, when I write a poem, I just let my brain crack open and see where it goes—I love the chase of it. I also love best the poetry that connects the mundane, the domestic, with the fantastic—with rich verbs and surprising metaphor, personification.

Can you tell us about the project you run, Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts? How did you become involved and how did the project develop?

A lot of interesting things happened in the winter of 2010/2011. In December, my chapbook was published. In January, my daughter was born, after a tough conception, a tricky pregnancy, and a complicated labor (and an infection and a few months later, gallbladder surgery). I was pretty well walloped, and I was supposed to defend my thesis in May of 2011, but it just wasn’t to be. That spring, I could have easily seen myself abandoning poetry in lieu of becoming some kind of Super-Mom—keeping up with the house, teaching my daughter sign language, making sure the dogs were walked twice a day as they had become accustomed, keeping the household accounts in order, knitting and sewing her clothing, all at once, in a kind of frenzy. What was left of me? In January, I only read one book. For me, that’s unheard of. The year before, I had read easily over two hundred.

I realized I couldn’t lose that part of me, the poetry part. And I was hungry for other narratives about how people did it, but also for how people failed too. We don’t admit these things often enough—that it’s hard and we mess up, but it’s the collection of imperfections and foibles that make up our journey, right along with the best bits. It’s also an incredible excuse for me to contact artists I admire. About twice a month, I put up an interview with an artist-mama, each with the same questions, and get to learn about how she does (or did) it. It’s meant to be a space of comfort—of commiseration and inspiration.

Any desire to talk about your role as Poetry Editor at Midway Journal?

That’s been an interesting development! I edited poetry for dislocate when I was in the MFA program, and I’ve judged for the Minnesota Book Awards. I originally came onto the journal as a reader in October to help my friend out, who is also a poet and book artist. But my role morphed pretty quickly, and now I’m editing poetry for each issue. I’m excited about some of the poets we have in our line-up—and some of the poems have just given me chills. Some people are exhausted by the slush pile and I admit, when it builds up, it can feel a bit like a marathon, but what I love the most is finding that gem by someone whose work I’ve never heard of before—people whose work I want to champion and show off and read over and over again. Poems that echo in my brain long after reading them, that ought to be carried around and recited to strangers in the street. I also delight in getting poems from solicitations by poets I deeply admire. It feeds me, this work.

How do you balance motherhood, writing, and your duties as a poetry editor and interviewer?

I’m a stay-at-home-mother, much as I hate that term, and even worse—when people use homemaker, mainly to fill in that requisite box. My home is a lived-in mess. Yes, we eat together at the table, but I’m lucky enough to have a husband who is more likely to whip something up than I am. We’ll take time together to clean the house in a guests-are-coming frenzy, but my days are really spent reading to Maya and putting puzzles together and pulling weeds (and sometimes, oops, not-weeds) in the garden, etc. I think if I were teaching, which is what I did before Maya was born—recently at a university and before that, high school English—I might not have anything left for writing. Teaching and mothering are both such amazingly wonderful and exhausting occupations, and so is tending to what I consider my professional life, the life of poems. Of course, there were times when I’d get into a rhythm and would write a poem at the start of each prep period or when office hours were slow—I think that’s a big factor, rhythm.

I recently attended a reading of Tracy K. Smith at Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center, and she was asked a very similar question (she has a two-and-a-half-year-old). She said being a mother has removed her ability to procrastinate, and I think that’s exactly right for me too.

My husband will go to sleep with our daughter (we co-sleep) and I’ll sneak back downstairs and stay up late to submit poems or read—I get into that in-and-out rhythm and can get a lot done in small spurts. I also have a very dear writing group of women, and we will have poetry dates and we’re working on a collaborative book-length sequence of poems inspired by the aubade, and having that kind of accountability helps keep me moving. I also tend to write about my subjects in-the-moment, so Pine was written as I went through doctor’s appointments and little pains and great yearning and whatnot. It’s trickier with a toddler who takes busy up several notches (she is, delightfully, a Kiefer, after all), but I’m learning to write while balancing a writing notebook on her stilled noggin or just running lines in my head over and over until I can get them down. I dream of retreat, but I also cringe at the idea of leaving her. Sometimes I’m jealous of my poet-friends as they are childless by choice or not quite ready yet, so they have a bit more geographic and time-freedom than I do, but then again, when I had that freedom, I was a procrastinator. I’m more prolific now, I think, and it’s out of necessity. If I didn’t let this part of me live, I might not be free to be the person my daughter needs me to be. It feels good, these selves.

Any mentors or favorite poems on the subject of motherhood you’d like to suggest for our readers?

Oh, I’ve read so much in preparation for sending Pine into the world—I wanted to make sure I felt I had something new to add to the discussion and was aware of others who had gone before me and are going at the same time as me. I’ve started a collection of resources I turned to on my blog . I can say I really loved The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, edited by Brenda Hillman and Patricia Dienstfrey, Beth Ann Fennelly’s Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, and the work of Sharon Olds. I read “Bathing the Newborn” and “High School Senior” when I was seventeen, and Olds’ rich, savory language made her my first and to this day, absolute most favorite poet. I also really enjoyed Kimiko Hahn’s Narrow Road to the Interior and Leslie Adrienne Miller’s Resurrection Trade, which aren’t strictly about motherhood but do integrate motherhood and the body into some gorgeous poems. And Rachel Zucker with her honesty. I could keep going—there are so many good writers out there. Right now, I’m slowly working my way through Not for Mothers Only, an anthology out from Fence, and it too, is good stuff.

Can you tell us a bit about the subject matter of your chapbook, The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake?

The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake is a kind of love story to my grandparents—my paternal grandfather, who was a professor, as was my grandmother, developed a rapid and severe case of Alzheimer’s, which was startling and disorienting for me. It was the first I observed someone I really cared about disintegrate in body and mind, and there were so many understated but raw feelings there—the old love of my grandparents, the life of a man whose world was language becoming surreal, this geography that was a part of my childhood and rapidly changing. I think the body will always be a huge curiosity for me—I love anatomy textbooks. Marianne Boruch, whose work I admire, was able to take classes as a professor at her college, and she took life drawing through the art department and a cadaver lab through the medical school and came up with a sequence called “Cadaver, Speak ” that was published in The Georgia Review. I remember thinking: I’d love to do that!

Can you tell us about your current writing projects? Anything in the wings?

Writing-wise, the full-length book Pine has begun to make its way to contests and between submissions, I scrub it up a bit, add a new poem, take out a poem, add an image that came to me. And I’ve started a third collection, which is a bit wider in scope than Recent History or Pine. I’m writing poems that I consider profile poems—not persona poems, but ones that bring to life experiences of women. Verse Wisconsin just accepted one that was written in observing Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyii met the first time called “Two Women in Turquoise.” I’m interested in writing poems about women whose lives I’d want to point out to my daughter, down the line—women who were brave, in some way or another, who lived in a full, open-arms kind of way. And I’m still writing poems about mothering, but more so as a feminist—there is a poem in Stymie about the roller derby, another in Harpur Palate about a sexual harassment experience I had in seventh grade and the desire to be proud of one’s body, etc.

I’ve also got that aubade—we have a document that shuffles between the four of us, and once a month, we contribute something to the conversation, with a few rules to keep its shape. I think what they say about MFA programs—that the best thing that comes from them is the friendships and connections you make—is absolutely true. I know by reading these women’s work and by really listening to what they have to say about the work that they love, I’ve broadened my own horizons. Sometimes we’ll read a volume together, sometimes we’ll simply get together and read poems out loud to one another. Sometimes we’ll go on hikes and come back with nothing by mosquito bites, laughter, and thunderheads.

One writing-subject related development is that my daughter, who is turning eighteen months old on July 3rd, will become a big sister in February! This is very fresh news to us, and a bit of a surprise as it happened naturally, coinciding with my starting a regimen of infertility treatment, which I didn’t need to finish, it turns out. Sometimes my breath catches with how blessed I’ve been, how blessed I continue to be.

Molly Sutton Kiefer’s chapbook The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake won the 2010 Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press Poetry Award.  Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Berkeley Poetry Review, Gulf Stream, Cold Mountain Review, Wicked Alice, and Permafrost, among others.  She serves as poetry editor to Midway Journal and curates Balancing the Tide:  Motherhood and the Arts | An Interview Project.  She currently lives in Red Wing with her husband and daughter, where she is at work on a manuscript on (in)fertility and finishing her MFA at the University of Minnesota.  More can be found at mollysuttonkiefer.com .

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