“Poetry is not a luxury.”—Audre Lorde
I take deadlines seriously. Therefore, when I was informed that my baby would arrive on February 27th of 2009, I wrote it down in my calendar. When my doctor moved the due date to March 5th, I took note. I was in fact preoccupied with another deadline: my application for the James Merrill House residency, due on January 15th. So when I landed in the hospital on January 3rd because my water broke, and was immediately put on bed-rest for an indeterminate period of time, completing this application (from my hospital bed if necessary) was at the forefront of my mind.
Several days into my prescribed bed-rest at Beth Israel, I would find myself wheeled down to the labor ward after complaining of abdominal pain. Ever the consummate multi-tasker, I entered the delivery room with the Merrill House application in hand. After all, I’d heard tell of the many hours women in labor spend in such a room with nothing to do but time contractions, fend off anxious relatives, and watch bad television. I refused to miss the opportunity to apply for a fellowship that would allow me not only five months of writing time, but residence in poet James Merrill’s apartment just because my baby decided to arrive seven weeks early.
You see, it was a dream of mine to live in this particular poet’s home: sequestered, yes, and allowed to return to writing a book of poems I’d barely had time to begin. It wasn’t simply that I wished for the space and time. I’d already been given the time: after several years of working furiously toward tenure, I’d at long last earned a sabbatical. As for space, I already had my apartment. But Merrill’s apartment was a special space. It was there he conducted his interactions with spirits via the Ouija Board in the company of his partner David Jackson, conversations with the other world that would fuel his most famous epic sequences. Not only had I been engaged in writing longer poems; the poems I’d been writing concerned the dead. I wanted, badly, the close proximity of Merrill’s vast library, the company of his bric-a-brac, to actually see the wallpaper (navy and gold, adorned with Chinese fans and bats) that so famously covers the walls of his living room— and I wanted to be able to work in the small study which I knew to be hidden behind a secret door that one could shut behind oneself: its facade not quite a façade even, but yet another bookshelf upon which he’d placed a tiny sign: Please come in.
As much as I pride my ability to multi-task, I would not be able to work on the Merrill House application on the evening of January 6th, 2009. It turns out that giving birth to an infant requires a certain amount of concentration. Lucia weighed just over 3 pounds. Seven weeks premature, she would spend the first four weeks of her life in the Beth Israel NICU before coming home.
Free to leave the hospital, I immediately tackled the Merrill House application. It requested a biography for any person(s) who would be living with the applicant during his or her residency. There wasn’t much to tell. I wrote: “Lucia Drew Marvin, 8 days old, presently resides in the NICU at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. Her doctor describes her as ‘opinionated’ in that she expresses herself when she does not like to be touched.”
I received the news that the committee was seriously considering my application just after Lucia had been released from the hospital. They stated that I was “ideal” in terms of my qualifications, yet they had “reservations” about the fact I had a child. I could only assume they were worried that Lucia might damage the contents of the Merrill apartment, as it is a space that may be the closest thing to a living museum in existence. Knowing my daughter would be eight months old by the time my residency began, I was sympathetic to this concern. (Indeed, the very thought of my child wreaking havoc in such a sacred space pained me.)
Thus, I made an impassioned plea to the committee co-chair of the Merrill House and swore I would do whatever it took to protect Merrill’s estate from the potentially destructive movements of the toddler my daughter would ultimately become.
Much to my delight, they offered me the residency. But then, long before I’d begun to plan for the move to Stonington, CT, I received a flurry of frantic queries from the Committee. And this is where the fact I am a single mother by choice comes in. I honestly don’t think the many concerns that were sent my way would have arisen if I’d had a husband or partner, i.e., a fellow-caretaker for my child. But it was also quite difficult to ascertain the origins of their anxieties. Their misgivings appeared to center on the following.
1. You may not be able to interact with the community because you have a small child.
2. You may not be happy because you might feel isolated.
3. You may not be able to handle climbing the many stairs that lead up to the Merrill apartment with your baby.
Well, I’d never had a baby before. I received many of these queries just after Lucia had arrived home; I was sleeping only two or three hours at a time. Still, even though I was anxious and sleep-deprived like any new parent, I knew quite well my position with regard to the committee’s concerns:
1. I am forced to interact with the world much more now that I have a baby.
2. Let me deal with my isolation as I see fit. (I am a poet. I like isolation.)
3. I presently live in an apartment that has 45 steps leading up to it that I climbed several times a day while pregnant and have since climbed regularly with my baby in tow. (Bring it on.)
But how would I address the committee’s doubts? This was simple. I would show them a residency unlike any they’d ever seen before. I created a reading series that brought in five established writers that fall; I also held regular “Sunday Salons” in the Merrill Apartment, which were basically writing and reading workshops. All of these community-oriented activities turned out to be quite a bit of fun.
Living in James Merrill’s apartment was every bit as amazing as any poet might imagine it to be. His presence communicated itself through the vast array of artwork on his walls, his amazing collection of books, his excellent taste in furniture (pretty, but also pretty uncomfortable). His finely-tuned placement of brick-a-brac (all of which got packed up as soon as Lucia became mobile) . . . but the loveliest aspect of living in his home was, quite simply, his ju-ju. His apartment is by no means “haunted”; rather it is animated by his kindness, generosity, and, above all, his keenly eccentric sense of beauty. It’s a thinking space. While living there, I not only wrote like a fiend, I plotted the organization of VIDA from the ground up. Standing atop Merrill’s rooftop deck, overlooking the foggy-ether that had settled upon the buildings, boats and water below, everything and anything seemed all at once possible.
I lived with Lucia in the Merrill apartment for five months. The people I met were very kind, especially those who served on the Committee, for it was those folks who, I would learn, make the residency happen. They freely give of their own time to ensure the continuation of Merrill’s legacy.
Lucia celebrated her first birthday in the very dining room in which Merrill’s hands once moved across the Ouija Board, atop that legendary milk-glass table top that sits beneath the tangerine-hued dome of a ceiling. She dug her hands into the first cake she’d ever encountered, smeared her face with chocolate icing, while the many friends we’d made since we’d arrived in Stonington looked upon her fondly, their cameras a-flash!
I was sad to leave.
But something stuck in my craw. I’d learned through the grapevine that one member of the committee, a poet and editor I admired and whose anthology I’d used as a text in a great many classes I taught over the past decade, was my primary detractor. It was he who vetoed my application, who charged that I’d write “terrible mother poems” if I was offered the residency.
I wondered if he’d ever read my work. The speaker of my poems, in both of my books, is essentially orphaned. She, unlike me, has no family. And, because I believe that personal experience is transformed completely through poetry, I don’t know if she will ever speak as a mother and how she will do so, if she decides to do so. I don’t believe in autobiographical poetry. And if it exists, I don’t want to write it. I happen to think that this elder poet and I might have agreed on much with regard to poetics. My life is not my poetry. My life is too mundane (thankfully!) to be the life that is described in my poems. I believe in Eliot’s objective correlative!
Yet, how can I explain that the first nights I had Lucia at home? She was very small. Her eyes unsettlingly dark in the way they fully occupied their sockets. A baby is not a poem. Nor is a poem a baby. Yet, it is hard to resist comparing the two. Just as a poem is necessarily part of its author, a baby remains part if its mother. I think of Wallace Steven’s description of the writer’s intuitive movement toward the writing of a poem: “ . . . [the poem] is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was written what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was written what I wanted to do.” The experience of recognizing your baby, who is in fact a stranger, is a lot like that.
But am I now a “mother poet” because I had a child? Why can’t I remain a “poet”? Sure, I find myself changed now that I’ve had a child. This may affect my poetry. I also find myself changed because I adopted a dog, stopped drinking 32 ounce Big Gulps of diet soda on a daily basis, and painted my bedroom citron green. How these facts correspond with my work as a writer is not very interesting and, I would hope, irrelevant to the reader of my poems.
I’ll admit that I don’t know what comprises a “terrible mother poem.” I gleefully imagine writing a poem in which a mother abandons her child in a grocery store. Such a scenario would be “terrible,” indeed. Or is it just that my poems would be deemed “terrible” because they speak from the perspective of a mother? Am I meant to understand that such a stance is, by its very nature, tedious? I’m not sure I should care. To be honest, I’m not sure I can, though it’s clear some folks expect me to.
The fact that I chose to have a baby should be of little to no interest to anyone but those closest to me in my lived life. Do we ask male poets if they have children, or do we read their poems? As for my own poems, my duty is to remain true to them. Like most of the writers I admire, I’ve a bit of a contrary nature: being accused of an offense for which I am innocent simply makes me wish to commit it. Indeed, I think I must write a most Terrible Mother Poem right now.