The Poetry Collection is a Place for Disparities, Or Let It Bleed

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When I originally compiled my first collection Landscape with Headless Mama, I imagined the book very differently, called it Red Sun Mothers, and divided it into sections based on the experiences of different mother-entities in Mexican/American culture, including the infertile woman (or adoptive mother) and the psychologically-socially unstable mother (La Llorona—Mexican Medea figure). I began the collection before I adopted my son, and it was published when he was nine-years-old, so it was in flux all those years. And as the collection progressed while I raised my children, I realized the divisions were not so clearly delineated. Even after becoming a mother, sometimes the grief of miscarriage seeped through, and even in joy, there was also exhaustion and uncertainty, which sometimes gave way to fear and anxiety-induced mental illness, near breaks with reality, so that La Llorona was never as far from the supposedly stable mother as she might at first seem.

In the meantime, I read contemporary collections that struck deep chords and inspired new ways of seeing the shape of my poems as individuals and together—books like Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Julia Alvarez’s Homecoming, Patricia Smith’s Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, and Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. Reading these collections and then looking back to my own material, I found that my poems showed me how many conflicting desires and facets of truth/experience they could hold at once, how they could negotiate these borderland spaces where nothing is as clearly defined as we might wish—motherhood is messy, and the book showed me how to embrace that via the structure—so that Mama’s story bleeds into the speaker’s own, and it’s never entirely clear whether the speaker is the mother or the daughter. That bleeding uncertainty is purposeful and came after many years of trying structure after structure until I found the perfect one that asked each poem to do multiple layers of work.

Think of your poetry collection as a world, as a landscape, as a city, a room. Think as large or small as you need to for your poems to become as important and personal as they need to be for you to see them as a whole. By this I mean they should each carry a shape, a weight, a specific texture and color and smell within the collection, the way a place or character in your birthplace or childhood hometown would; think back to your street. On mine, Rio Vista, there were date palms, purplish jewels fallen to the dirt lot that separated the neighborhood from a dirt hill that led down to the New River, polluted and toxic carrying waste from the border, forty minutes away, bleeding socio-political alongside the glowing, dying fish.

Each poem in a collection occupies space in this world, and thereby offers up its significance, connected in some tangible way to those residing beside it. In mine: the house I grew up in, the neighbors’ houses where I experienced abuses and made lifelong friends, those palm trees dropping those squishy fruits that still remind me of the cockroaches infesting our bathrooms summerlong, the packed-earth hills I slid on my backside to the riverbanks below, where some still believe La Llorona herself haunts, and on those mud-cracked banks, the blood of her children.

See how I’ve gone from most personal home to most socially-connected river, with its border politics, its cultural myths—but they’re interlinked, my home beside that polluted water.

There are any number of ways you could order the space you’ve created—it’s your world, after all. My collections often begin with the most personal and yet I believe the personal is inherently political. In this way, a narrative begins to emerge, and carry with it the undercurrent of deeper troubled waters. I don’t recommend you stick only to chronology. I’ve found that any chronological order that arises in my collections comes after finding deeper and more nuanced connections in the spaces between the poems. For example, in Landscape with Headless Mama, chronology came after discovering that Mama and the speaker’s stories were interwoven. Then I could tell multiple stories at once. A clear chronology felt too facile; I’d tried that at one point and it didn’t feel honest in the way that the imagination can sometimes get at deeper truths than nonfiction. Instead, the chronology in the structure comes from a narrative underpinning. I love story—the power of story. And it was important to me that in telling my own story, I was speaking the truths of my own mother(s)—the women I grew up with in the Imperial Valley and in my own Mexican-American familia, even when the stories were nonlinear and messy.

A poetry collection is a place for disparities and oppositions and paradoxes to coexist and coalesce and stretch us to find new ways of existing within the flux. So even your most contentious, paradoxical poems can work together if you’re finding how they fit in the larger space. If you cannot find the connections even in the breaking places, then perhaps those poems are not meant for this particular world, and you should save them for another. I’ve found that poems I took out of my first collection ended up fitting perfectly in my second and beyond. My third collection, for example, retells some of Mama’s story but from a new angle, for compiling each collection has required of me stretching and seeing and re-seeing in new ways.

A manuscript consultation client asked me whether or not her poems of being an abused daughter fit in a collection so clearly about a mother caring for a child with special needs. She’d received conflicting advice from her mentor and felt torn about whether or not the differences and breaking places could ever fit together. I said, absolutelyin the world you’ve created. Being a mother is not separate from being a woman. And being a motherwoman is not separate from being a daughtergirl. I’ve found this over and over in my own life and poems. I’ve found the most freedom in my work when I’ve allowed everything to bleed, as I have bled. The past tinges the present, but the strangeness and heart truth is that the present tinges the past. That’s been the heartwork of mothering, for me. Mothering poetry and children.

Keep finding ways to coalesce and shed light and shadow on the different angles of your poems and your life, poets. Keep finding places of connection, where that jeweled date falls from palm to dirt—a hinge between the personal and political—write there.

 

 

 

PROTECTION SPELL in NBCLatino

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“The maternal instinct is a complicated emotional experience for a Latina in an interracial marriage and raising an adopted black son. Givhan’s heartfelt poems don’t come across as sentimental because her angst is expressed through the unsettling truths about the racism in today’s America that her partner faces and that her son will undoubtedly encounter. Channeling her inner healer and her inner bruja, the speaker offers words as solace and safety, knowing this doesn’t always guarantee an uneventful homecoming, “the boy on the street, his too-large cowboy boots/ forever walking home toward his mama. His mama/ forever on the porch, searching the skyline for a hat.” This moving and sometimes painful book of poems is nonetheless filled with positive light and hope.” ~Rigoberto González

Read the full list “9 Outstanding Latino Books Recently Published by Independent and University Presses.”

The Next Big Thing: In the Time of Jubilee

Jenn and crabapple blossoms

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

My novel is *IN THE TIME OF JUBILEE*

Where did the idea for the book come from?

Reborn Doll

Reborn Doll

The idea came from Reborns. From Wikipedia: “A reborn doll is a manufactured vinyl doll that has been transformed to resemble a human baby with as much realism as possible. The process of creating a reborn doll is referred to as reborning and the doll artists are referred to as reborners. Reborn dolls are also known as living dolls or unliving dolls.

While I was researching issues of infertility and childlessness during my Master’s program at Cal State Fullerton, I watched a documentary from the UK on women who collect these dolls. Oftentimes, they are older women whose children and grandchildren have left home or passed away. These dolls are custom-made, and the artists who create them often advertise that they can recreate a replica of a child from a photograph. The women carry these dolls around as if they are real babies, strolling them around the park in prams, strapping them in car seats, etc. And the husbands often participate, for their wives’ sakes. The whole concept was incredibly interesting to me, and I wondered, what would happen psychologically if a woman really couldn’t tell the difference between this Reborn and her “real” child. In other words, what if this Reborn was real…

The other major inspiration came from the character Dorotea La Cuarraca, from Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, which I read as a part of a class I’d created on Latina Pedro_PáramoMotherhood:

“I never had a son… And it was all the fault of one bad dream. I had two: one of them I call the ‘good dream,’ and the other the ‘bad dream.’

The first one made me dream I had a son to begin with. And as long as I lived, I always believed it was true. I could feel him in my arms, my sweet baby, with his little mouth and eyes and hands. For a long, long time I could feel his eyelids, the beatings of his heart, on my fingertips. Why wouldn’t I think this was true? I carried him with me everywhere, wrapped in my rebozo, and then one day I lost him.

In heaven they told me they’d made a mistake. That they’d given me a mother’s heart but the womb of a whore.

That was the other dream I had.”

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Fiction

America FerreraWhich actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Here’s the problem—most of the mainstream youngish Latina actresses I know of come from the Disney Channel (i.e., Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez)!

The first person I thought of to play my protagonist Bianca was America Ferrera (loved her in Ugly Betty!!). She is a great actress, and her work with women’s issues inspires me. (See her part in the documentary Half the Sky). And hey, America had her start on a Disney Channel movie, too!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

*IN THE TIME OF JUBILEE* explores the idea of family through the experiences of 20-year-old Mexican-American Bianca Vogelsang, who arrives home one day with a doll in her arms—a doll she believes is Jubilee, the baby she was unable to carry to term.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I was super proud of the first draft of my novel because I wrote the entire thing in less than ONE MONTH for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story has been in my mind for years. The original idea came for it when I was writing my first poetry manuscript in my Master’s program at CSUF. At the time, I knew I wanted to write a novel eventually but was intimidated. I had about twenty false starts, where I’d write an opening, usually a paragraph or two, but never move on from there. Then, in 2011, I started thinking more and more about the idea. On a road trip back to Cali from New Mexico where I now live, I was talking the idea through with my husband and began to get excited about it. Then, I heard about this thing called NaNoWriMo in November. It’s a challenge to write an entire novel (at least 60k words) in ONE MONTH! I thought, oh man, can I do that??? Oct 31st, I still wasn’t sure if I could, but I’d made a commitment to myself that I would. November 1st came, and I took off. At the end of the month, I had written 75k words—a complete first draft of the novel. Much of it came from the ideas laid out in the poetry manuscript. I always knew I wanted to write a novel, but I never knew for sure that I could do it. And then I did it. There was such a sense of accomplishment in that.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

*SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK* (Matthew Quick)

*BELOVED* (Toni Morison)

Toward the Tower, Remedios Varo

Toward the Tower, Remedios Varo

*SO FAR FROM GOD* (Ana Castillo)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My family, surrealist writers and artists (especially the Mexican women surrealist painters Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo), and poetry.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Here are comments about my novel from editors for major publishing houses:

“Bianca’s troubling story is so authentically rendered on the page, and I love the lyrical power of Givhan’s prose. She is a real talent and a bright star on the contemporary literary horizon.”

“I think the concept behind this book is so cool (and creepy!).”

“Givhan’s complex treatment of reality, delusion, and imagination presents an entirely fresh perspective that allows readers to view the world through her characters’ eyes in rich, captivating detail.”

* * *

Thank you for reading!

Love,

Jenn

Jennifer Givhan writes because….

Jennifer Givhan writes because…..

After great pain, a poem comes. And I’m just a woman with an orange.

Read why I write, and then join the project and tell everyone why YOU write!

Thanks for reading and sharing, folks.

Love,

Jenn

We Represent the 47%

My personal story about how my family and I represent the 47%, posted online today.

JENNIFER GIVHAN’S VOICE

As Julianna Baggott says of my essay: “Jenn Givhan talks about the perils of miscarriage, pregnancy, and the healthcare system that can hit families hard. Such a strong piece.”

Visit the site WE REPRESENT THE 47% and share your own voice!

Love,

Jenn