Elizabeth Onusko’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice Magazine, Linebreak, Best New Poets 2015, The Journal, Southern Humanities Review, and Vinyl Poetry, among others. Her work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and featured on Verse Daily. She is the author of a chapbook, The Prague Winter (Finishing Line Press, 2013).
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
It is pretty healthy right now. After I graduated from an MFA program eight years ago, I shelved my creative ambitions in order to establish a “practical” career, first as a teacher and then as a fundraiser. It took me several years to find my way back to poetry and do a better job of balancing my life. Now, as the mother of a toddler, I have never felt more attuned to my work or more invested, which comes as a huge surprise. I had expected the opposite to be true. Motherhood has been clarifying on a lot of levels.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
My favorite collection from the past year is Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Paper Doll Fetus. It is simply stunning.
In terms of my own work, I am excited to be submitting my first full-length collection, which has grown from a random group of poems into a (hopefully) cohesive manuscript since my daughter was born.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I come from a large extended family and have always wanted to be a mother. When I was 31, I had an early miscarriage, followed by a couple of years of infertility, which were really challenging. Eventually, I was diagnosed with endometriosis and had surgery to treat it. A few months later, I got pregnant.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
Keeping a notebook — recording lines, images, ideas, quotations, etc. — is generative for me, and the best way to jumpstart my writing process during a dry spell is reading. These elements have largely stayed the same after becoming a mother, but for convenience, I now use my iPhone instead of a notebook. This saddens me a bit because I believe something important happens when you put a pen to paper, and I love notebooks as aesthetic objects and artifacts. But what matters now is getting the work done by any means necessary.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
They do not interact much at this point, aside from my daughter loving to sit on my lap and type on my computer, as well as give me strange looks when I record poems for online journals. I look forward to that evolving, though. My husband is very supportive and goes out of his way to make sure that I have time to myself every week.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
Being a mother has made me a more open-minded writer and editor. Every day, I try to understand the perspective of a little girl who only has a few words at this point, so when engaging with a text, I find that I am more willing to be challenged and accept uncertainty. She has reminded me that communicating is hard but necessary work.
Are your children ever subjects in your art? [If yes, how so? If no, why not? / How do you feel about the concept of using parents using children in their art?]
I have written poems about infertility and pregnancy, which are centered in the body, but I am still grappling with whether to write about my daughter. I suppose it is inevitable, but I find myself resisting. Several ethical questions nag at me. I want to preserve her privacy, and I also envision her as a future reader of my work.
When it comes to other poets, though, I am more accepting. Unless they write something that will humiliate or hurt their children, I tend to go with it.
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
How to be present as a parent when I am absorbed in the draft of a poem. It can be difficult to shut off that kind of thinking when it is finally going well. I suppose this is another way of saying I would love more time. It is a hard truth to escape.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
I am taking more risks with my work. After you bring home a tiny newborn, and after you nurse a sick child through a long night, that damn linebreak or title you cannot figure out is far less threatening. This freedom, coupled with a strong need to maintain an intellectual and creative life for myself, has enabled me to be quite productive.
How do you escape?
In pretty banal ways — going online, watching home renovation shows, meeting friends for a very occasional drink. Also, reading and writing have gone from feeling like obligations to rewards. I savor them.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Your life will expand because it will have to. Everything will fit eventually, including your writing. Be gentle with yourself until it does. Realize that so many incredible women writers have done this before and you can, too. And find supportive communities — both as a writer and a mother (bonus points for both at the same time). You will need them more than you realize now.