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, absolutely—in 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.