Joelle Biele is the author of White Summer and the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence. A Fulbright professor in Germany and Poland, she has received awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Poetry Society of America. Her essays and fiction appear in American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, and New England Review. She has taught American literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Goucher College, the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and Jagiellonian University, Poland.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
My family moved a lot when I was growing up, so the main way I wrote was through letters, first to my grandparents when I was small and then to my friends as I got older. I also had pen pals through a t.v. show called Big Blue Marble, which featured stories about kids from around the world. At the end of the show, they flashed an address on screen, you sent in a letter, and they would send you the name and address of a kid in a different country. I had pen pals in Greece, England, and Australia, and another in Reading, Pennsylvania. I loved getting mail and hearing from my friends, soaking the stamps off the envelopes for my collection. Even though most of my letters now are emails, they are still a big part of my writing life. They shaped the way I came to see my own poetry, as an intimate exchange between two people.
What’s a project of yours or another’s that’s been exciting you lately?
I adore Jenny Kronovet’s translations of the Yiddish poet Celia Dropkin in her book The Acrobat and have been trying to write a short essay about her. The New York Yiddish literary scene during the early twentieth-century is fascinating—so vibrant and alive—and Dropkin writes so frankly about women’s experience, particularly their bodies. Fans of Marina Tsvetaeva or Sylvia Plath would like her very much. I’m also trying at long last to finish a manuscript on Elizabeth Bishop, about the writing of her major poems.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
Becoming a mother was deeply tied up in my husband’s health. He was seriously ill during my first and second pregnancies, and looking back, I think my desire to become a mother was an urge towards life, towards joy, and a fear of death.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
I had to learn how to write with the kids around, otherwise I’d never get anything done. As they’ve gotten older, they’ve become aware they can ask me for pretty much anything when I’m working and I will say yes, sure, o.k., having no idea what I just agreed to…
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
Books and paper and pens and pencils are stacked up all over the house, along with my children’s craft supplies and homework and folders. My kids often help themselves to my notebooks and use them for drawing or tear out pages for airplanes, say, or fortune tellers. I’ll be flipping back to a draft and suddenly find a battle scene—stick figure pirates waving scabbards, rockets, explosions, plus random cats in fancy dresses drawn out over three or four pages.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting/has it changed since you became a parent?
Because I’ve come to see my poetry as ultimately an address to my loved ones, my children especially, I want to show them the world with as much complexity as I can, without sentimentality, so that one day they might better understand where they come from.
Are your children ever subjects in your art? If yes, how so? How do you feel about parents using children in their art?
There are many poems in my new book, Broom, addressed to my children. There’s a series of sonnets addressed to two of them from infancy until age three, one to my daughter when she was in the hospital, and an apology. I would not publish anything that I think might embarrass or hurt them. For me, writing about the experience of mothering is a feminist act. Women must define it for themselves; otherwise it will be defined for them.
Aside from the obvious need for more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
Being able to focus. As a parent, there are so many demands on your attention, many of them small—where’s the permission slip, did we sign the permission slip, did you hand in the permission slip—that it can be hard to prioritize and get in the groove. So much brain space can be devoted to these little details—they will run your life if you let them.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
Watching my children focus. I love watching my sons play baseball—it’s all about hitting the ball, catching the ball, that knock off the bat, the thwomp into the glove—it’s soothing and exciting at the same time. It was the same thing when they were small—their concentration when stacking legos, seeing that nothing else mattered except that very satisfactory click when one brick snapped on top of another.
How do you escape?
I try to find days where I can go out and do things that interest me, whether it’s going to a museum or gallery or taking a long walk in the park. Sometimes I stay up late binge-watching tv or barricade myself in the bedroom with a stack of magazines. The times I’ve been able to get away for a week or a weekend have been heaven.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
I don’t know that there’s any way to really prepare for motherhood. It’s such a life-changing/identity-altering experience that it can take a while to settle into. On top of that, there are so many large cultural and market forces telling women what a mother is or should be. So I would say to be sensitive to your own needs. One woman’s way of mothering is not going to be another’s, nor should it be.