Molly Sutton Kiefer’s chapbook The Recent History of Middle Sand Lake won the 2010 Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate, Gulf Stream, Wicked Alice, Cold Mountain Review, and Permafrost, among others. She currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and daughter, where she is at work on a manuscript on (in)fertility. In addition, she is finishing her MFA in poetry at the University of Minnesota, serves as assistant poetry editor to Midway Journal, and curates Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts | An Interview Project. More can be found at mollysuttonkiefer.com
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
It has taken me a long time, but I suppose I can finally consider myself a "poet." Just a few weeks ago, we had a play date with my former doctor, who found herself in birth classes with us, sharing a hospital visit (her son Carson was born three hours after my daughter Maya). Her colleague asked me what I did, and I admitted, "I'm a poet." Not, I write poetry, but--I'm a poet. That took an act of huge courage, which has little to do with parenthood and much to do with stay-at-home-hood. What-do-you-do is linked to how-do-you-make-money, and I do a lot of the former and very little of the latter. From a very small age, I knew I wanted to write, but poetry didn't become my genre of choice until I took a workshop from Michael Dennis Browne, whose office become a comforting sanctuary. Now, I am on the other side of a chapbook and couldn't imagine a day without poetry.
What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?
Two of my dearest poet-friends have recently embarked on projects I'm incredibly proud of: Meryl DePasquale just had a show to celebrate her year as a Jerome Mentee at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Her artist's book, Dream of a Perfect Interface, explores skin--the sense of touch, the intimacy of lovers, the metaphors that can be born of the two. She has a beautiful post reflecting on the process here. Our friend Opal McCarthy has also been building her own business as yoga instructor and reiki healer at Gold Lion Arts. I especially love her sessions that include yoga practice with writing work, and her poetry gives me shivers.
Before I started my current manuscript on (in)fertility, I attended Bodies: The Exhibition with notebook in hand and Meryl at my side. I had been undergoing infertility treatments at the time, so I was incredibly drawn to the exhibits on fetal development and the female anatomy. We wrote our way through the galleries, and I was forever cemented to these images as I began my project. Some time later, my husband sent me a link to a New Scientist article, which celebrated the art of Helen Pynor and her Liquid Ground series. Her work with human tissue is phenomenal.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
A few years ago, I flew out to the East Coast and spent two weeks babysitting my two nephews, my husband's sister's sons, and everyone thought, in a chiding way, I'd come back not wanting children. Before I left, I figured I'd eventually be a mom, but I felt fairly indifferent, as if the whole act was a shrug of the shoulders. Then I fell in love with Megan's oldest, who had just turned three, with his unflagging energy, his unrestrained curiosity, his kindness. I came back from New Jersey and inched into The Conversation with my husband, knowing we'd have to make a conscious act, as I have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome, which was preventing me from ovulating). The medications I had to take destroyed me and the multiple monthly doctor's visits were invasive; I learned then what it meant to be an object in the medical field. My doctor was kind though, and I was blessed--for some with PCOS, this process can take years and may end in miscarriage, if pregnant at all. My pregnancy was difficult too; I was beset with small woes--nine months of daily morning sickness, carpal tunnel that required 24-hour brace-wearing on both wrists, restless legs syndrome in my hips and shoulders that led to insomnia, and when I was nine months pregnant, I was struck with such a stomach virus, I spent Christmas Day perpetually struggling from bed to the bathroom. My birth story is forty-two hours long and ended in a Caesarean. The physical trauma continued: I had a nasty post-birth infection, and in the spring, I returned for surgery, having my gallbladder removed due to the fluctuations from pregnancy.
My daughter, who is ten months old now, is the opposite of all this: her nickname from our friends is zenbaby. She's peaceful and curious and wonderful. She's tenacious and explores with the same verve as her cousins, and she is also a fierce snuggler who loves to turn the pages of the books we read to her. I am blessed with a phenomenal partner who tolerated the grocery-runs, the shifts in routine, and he was an incredibly supportive birth partner, and has helped me make peace with the whole journey.
My life divided on January 3rd of this year. My story isn't particularly unique or even harrowingly difficult. But it's mine.
And it's ours.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
My chapbook was written in-the-moment. As I observed my grandfather descend into Alzheimer's, and in his last days, I wrote poem after poem, many of them as a part of a poem-a-day exchange with a friend of mine. My current manuscript has been written in much the same way, many of these with Meryl in a bi-weekly exchange. I find when I am accountable to someone outside of myself, I am more successful in generating work.
When Maya was born, I lost a lot of my ability to freely move about--for a while, even going to the bathroom was fraught, as she'd cry for milk, almost as if she knew I had left the room, my husband waiting for me on the other side of the door. (To be fair, for many weeks, he was waiting there to assist me back to the sofa or whatever soft surface I leaned towards; I had a longer-than-standard recovery.) We co-sleep, which has made nursing easier, neither of us fully waking at night, and I trained myself to shake awake halfway through the night and shower after our four a.m. feeding, and then spend a be-robed bit of time working on my thesis, crawl back into bed and finish sleeping. The poems are now a part of the (in)fertility manuscript, and I'm finding my way again, shifting with each developmental shift of Maya's. She's at the six-stuttering-steps-then-plonk stage, and she loves to touch, touch, touch everything. Right now, she's hungrily eyeing the keyboard, ready to grab it out of my hands as soon as my attention wanes.
Now that I have to take advantage of pockets of time, rather than have the spread in front of me, there can be more of a desperate grab, or surreptitious sneak, when it comes to writing. I don't always have the freedom of gazing into space, summoning some lazing-about muse; instead, I have to slide right into writing, often after some sort of exhausting parenting activity--so I'll read a bit of poetry to slow down what all else in my head-churns. I'll close my eyes and meditate. The sweetness of my day can't disappear--often it will become a part of what I'm writing--but the noise must still. And there are days when I write while the noise still goes, but the poem must come out and in that case, it becomes a force of its own. More often than I'd like to admit, good lines come to me just as I'm falling asleep and I used to be able to rouse myself, write it down, fall back into sleep, but now, she's in the crook of my elbow and it's too warm to move anyway.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
I know this is cliche, but I think Maya has given me the chance to see the world in such an incredible and new fashion--we slough off our sense of wonder as we grow older and we are timing paychecks with bill payments and decrusting the dinner dishes. Now, I watch as my babe picks lint and dog fur from the carpet, presents them to me in her pinched fingers, and I get down on the ground and see the landscape from this intensely small place, this good place that pulses. To her, everything is new. To me, it is new again.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
Yes, Maya is at the center of my current project and will be center at the next manuscript, which is nebulous now, but seems to be about reflecting on what it means to raise a daughter, about women pioneers and leaders, about women's lives. It's complicated, I think, and now, Maya has attended my readings without protest. I'm worried about when she can understand--more than just surface understand, but know how much of her is in the work. Of course, the manuscript isn't about Maya, but about what it is to face a body that isn't working, what it is like to carry a human within, and that startling surprise of being thrust into motherhood.
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
I haven't yet had a chance to travel with Maya for my work, though she has been to four poetry readings thus far. This March, I'll bring Maya with me to AWP and my husband will come as well. It's an attempt of having my cake and eating it too. I yearn for the summers of Bread Loaf and the winters of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, but I'm not ready to be away from her for a week yet, not just because we're nursing. Those conferences rejuvenated me, reminded me of my not-aloneness. It's nice to be with a community of people who understand, who have the same drive, who have accomplished much. That motivates me. So instead, I try to find ways to re-enact those things on a small scale, forming a collective, writing poems together, stringing them, a little progression of lanterns.
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
When we wake up in time, we go to story hour at the library. We read every day, in various forms, in various places. She's been to poetry readings, goes to the bookstore with me all the time. She has book baskets in strategic places throughout the house. Maya has been to two art openings. She attended the Call and Answer Project's square dance at the Walker's Open Field program. We try to expose her to as much as we can: she's been to several roller derby bouts and has a strong love of percussion instruments. She prefers Mumford and Sons to sing-alongs. She bangs on the keyboard while her daddy programs. I don't know what her passions will be when she's grown up--maybe she'll study volcanoes or become a judge or run a sustainable farm. I hope to celebrate those passions as they emerge, though I do hope none of those involve, say, child pageantry or the Tea Party.
How do you escape?
Escape is such a tricky word because, to me, it implies running pell-mell from a situation. While I enjoy the things I do that might geographically separate me from my daughter, I will admit I still might drive a little faster on the way back home and to her. That said, burnout does exist, and there are times when I'd rather hide under the bed than face a deadline or a tantrum.
Our family loves to travel: Maya has been to seven states already, and we collect visits to state parks. In the summers, I love camping and hiking and we bought a canoe. I've also found that, because of the nature of my health and my poetic attention, I need time to pay attention to my body, so when I can, I practice yoga.
I also like to work with my hands and, to borrow a word in conversation with a friend while papermaking, I dabble. I rotate through: letterpress, papermaking, bookbinding, sewing, knitting, quilting, gardening, cooking, baking, even homebrewing, etc., depending on the time of year and my access to equipment (and my level of distraction).
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
I remember finding Beth Ann Fennelly's Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother in the first months after Maya was born. I loved the visceral, the intimate, the hell yes! moments as I struggled into motherhood. The collection of essays The Grand Permission: Writings on Poetics and Motherhood was a wonderful exploration, and the poetry books The Resurrection Trade by Leslie Adrienne Miller, The Wellspring by Sharon Olds, and Kimiko Hahn's Narrow Road to the Interior were important, as were the books of Rachel Zucker, which is why I am honored to have her as first interviewee of this project.
I think the word permission is so important here--give yourself permission to hibernate, give yourself permission to let things percolate. I read an essay in Poets & Writers where a novelist suggested writing for 45 minutes and doing something else for 15 in an hour--that something else shouldn't be reading student essays or checking email but washing dishes or gardening--a meditative act to let the work simmer. Return to the page. Find how it's been changed in the quieter moments. I don't have the freedom for an hour of controlled work, not just now, but I do love the idea of letting those showers, those endless vacuumings, to be a time when the work bubbles up.
- November 2011