Published on October 6th, 2016 | by Ginny Wiehardt0
“Without Tremendous Agitation”: Ginny Wiehardt on Maintaining a Literary Nightlife Post-Baby
It’s 5:45pm. I get off the subway and rush the three blocks to my son’s preschool. I’m in a hurry to get him home, bathed, and fed, so that he can get to sleep on time—and so I can get out the door when my husband walks in. A writer friend is reading tonight at a bookstore, and my husband is leaving work early so I can go.
I’ve only been to two readings since my two-and-a-half-year-old was born. I feel guilty about this, about not supporting readings and the people I know who do them. I also feel guilty about leaving my son again so soon after we get home. I usually “do bedtime.” But it’s not only that I want to be there for my friend—I know the fear of reading to an empty room—I also want to check out the reading series for myself. I have recently won an award and my poetry chapbook, Migration, is publishing this month. In the poetry game, you have to go to readings, to get into readings.
My son and I get to our apartment building, take-out dinner in hand, at 6:15. If my husband gets home in the next fifteen minutes, as he’s promised to, I’ll just make it. We live in a walk-up. I try to talk my son into climbing the stairs, but he’s not having it. To save time, I awkwardly carry everything—him, the bag of food, his backpack and mine—up both flights.
“This is fun, Mama,” he says, as I carry him like a package under my arm. I deposit him and all the stuff on the floor inside our apartment. “C’mon,” I say, “Let’s take a bath.” But he’s understandably slow to head to the bathroom. Like most toddlers, he needs transition time for just about everything. And he feels about baths the way I feel about readings: I never want to do them, though I generally enjoy them when I take the plunge.
However, this reluctance explains why public readings were the first thing I dropped from my literary life after my son was born. I make time to write, and I find time to peruse poetry journals and submit work to them. I occasionally get brunch with writer friends, and I hop on the phone with other mother-writers after bedtime. And of course my son and I read poetry together and go to children’s events at places like Poets House. But at literary events for adults, I feel as though I’m impersonating someone I was three years ago. I’m sluggish and sleep deprived. Words don’t come easily. What do I write about? Whose work do I admire? Oh, God, is that yogurt on my pants?
“Fiction writers can get away with just writing and publishing,” a friend says, “but not poets.” It’s a pretty tight world. Poetry isn’t a popular form anymore, and there certainly isn’t any money in it. The people editing journals and publishing books of poetry are poets themselves. They go to readings, and often the people they think to support are ones they’ve met personally. If I went to more readings, I’d publish more poems. It might also help me get my full-length collection published.
While my son plays in the bath, I change clothes and start to brush my hair. But without my attention on him, he climbs out of the bathtub, dripping wet. I lift him back into the tub—getting my fresh clothes damp—wash him, decide his hair is clean enough to go another day, and then let him climb out again. Ten minutes later, he’s in his PJs and we’re both at the dinner table, eating. I remind him that Daddy will be putting him to bed that night. “Where you going, Mama?” my son asks, looking worried.
“To a reading,” I say. I explain what a reading is. He’s met the poet I’m seeing tonight, on the playground with her toddler. I remind him of this.
His eyes get big. He’s making some connection. “Are you a writer?” he asks. He makes being a writer sound about as great as being an Octonaut. A week from now, he will have forgotten this whole conversation, but I enjoy the moment nonetheless. And here lies a conundrum of motherhood: I want my son to be proud of what I do as he grows up, but I also want him to know that I’m there for him regardless. How do I pull that off?
I know fathers face this issue, too, but it’s different for moms. That belief that we’re supposed to be home taking care of people is so strong. I’m not only fighting the logistics of parenthood, in getting out for the night, but also my own conflicted feelings.
The first reading I ever did in New York, I had the privilege of reading with the award-winning poet Marie Ponsot. Ponsot famously took some twenty-five years off of the business of poetry while she raised her seven children and supported them as a translator and teacher. However, all that time, she kept writing. At the end of those years, she assembled the book Admit Impediment, which Alice Quinn snatched up for Knopf. In a BOMB Magazine interview, Ponsot said, “I was entirely out of all those professional poetry loops. That’s worth saying, because it’s easy to keep writing without tremendous agitation in whatever time you have. If you don’t imagine yourself as a career poet but rather as a person who writes poems, you can just go on doing that.”
I’ve considered these words more than a few times since my son was born. And yet, here I am, with tremendous agitation trying to get out of the house to participate in po-business.
I pick up my phone to check the time. It’s later than I realized, and my husband has texted: “Sorry. I’m stuck on the viaduct.” By the time I get to the reading, it’ll be 7:30. I will have missed at least the first reader and probably some of the second—chances are one of them will have been my friend. I’ve been running on a Jason-Bourne level of adrenaline, and now that adrenaline dissipates, leaving me exhausted. Do I really want to rush to a bookstore in another neighborhood, only to arrive unfashionably late? Am I only trying to make an appearance?
Why aren’t readings on Sunday afternoons, in the park?
Another writer I’ve thought of often in these early years of parenthood is A. R. Ammons. Like Ponsot, Ammons eschewed the professional poetry world for several decades. He worked in sales to support his family and wrote poetry on the side. When asked in a Paris Review interview what advice he gives young poets, Ammons answered, “If I think he’s really a genuine poet, I’d like to encourage him to get out into the so-called real world.” In Ammons’ opinion, it was this distance from professional poetry that allowed him to develop his own distinct voice, the voice that won him a Bollingen Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and two National Book Awards.
Many people work in this way, all over the country—and not only parents. I mostly grew up in small towns in Oklahoma and Texas, where bookstores are not likely to host a lot of readings, so I don’t take the thriving literary culture of a big city for granted. The fact that I have the option of going to a reading with poets and editors in the audience is completely geographic. But of course the reality of living in a big, expensive city like New York is that at the end of the day, you’re really tired.
“Don’t go, mama,” my son whispers as I brush the crumbs off his pajamas. “Play DUPLO.”
Do I go? Of course not. I put my son to bed, clean up the house, and crawl into bed myself. I’m too relieved to be lying down to regret not going. Regret comes the next morning. I’ve missed my friend’s reading and owe apologies. I’ve used up precious night-out points with my husband, who rushed home “early” from work only for the pleasure of my sleepy company.
But even now, fairly early in parenthood, I’m beginning to understand that if something is essential to my life, I will eventually work it back in. After all, I did get back to writing poetry and reading it, and not that long after my son was born. If I decide that a public literary life is crucial, I’ll find a way to have one, without waiting twenty-five years. After all, I only have one child and a supportive husband. As my son gets older, I’ll be more comfortable missing bedtime. He’ll be able to go to readings with me. Or maybe I’ll organize a Sunday afternoon reading series myself. In the meantime, I have a few minutes before my son wakes up to sit down with my friend’s book. I can’t wait to talk to her about it.
Ginny Wiehardt’s Migration publishes this month—in fact, if you live in NYC, there’s a reading and a party tonight to celebrate it. Are you ready to for literary nightlife? Here’s one chance; there will be others.