In editing What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Converstion
(Nightwood Editions, 2018) I learned of all the ways an equal conversation between two poets, as opposed to a unidirectional interview, can unlock insights about their work and lives that might otherwise have been unreachable. When I discovered two of my favourite poets and people, Adrienne Gruber
and Elizabeth Ross
, were both publishing poetry collections on childbirth and motherhood in Spring 2019, I knew it was time to get another conversation started. Gruber and Ross had never spoken before this exchange, but (as you’ll read) quickly bonded over shared experiences in childbirth and in writing. I hope you enjoy the conversation!
|Elizabeth Ross and Adrienne Gruber, giving each other the side-eye|
Liz, I just finished After Birth
, but I feel like I need to read it again, this time in a more relaxed way. I was so eager and inspired in the first read. I also kept having to put your book down and go through my own book, Q & A
, to see the crazy parallels we have going. Obviously the birth and parenting stuff, but themes of elder care, cancer, mental illness, and death come up for both of us, too, though in very different ways. It’s a beautiful book, Liz. I can’t wait to read it again, slowly, and spend more time with each individual poem.
Here are some lines in our books that are creepily similar, yet totally different:
Q & A
From “Haikus For Baby Blues”
Don’t worry, experts
coddle. You should be able
to just shake it off.
From “Flood the Ocean With Your Breath”
For days your head
smells like me.
From “Flood the Ocean With Your Breath”
I prayed for a surgeon’s
salient hands and
From “Body of Water”
See your family doctor.
Join an online forum.
It’s just baby blues. It’s normal.
From “After Birth”
For days, I couldn’t bear
to wash it off.
From “Body of Water”
I begged for an epidural.
From “One Fuck of a Year”
My friend’s dad will move
into hospice and hallucinate
chairs on the ceiling, talk about
the resurrection, update his Facebook status
with gibberish. He will die.
I will miss his funeral and regret it.
From “Bedside Watch”
my father survives
off the glow of unidentifiable
flowers growing outside the window
lines of hormones and antibiotics
ducted into him
from an IV bag. Doctors are trying
to shrink his benign (but massive)
brain tumour. They come, consult,
and go. Amiably,
my father sees them,
says he can distinguish
hallucination from what’s
Holy: when you put our poems side by side, there’s such an energy. I feel like we’ve both tried to photograph a black hole. I also feel this connection between my poem “Guest Appearance” and the second half of your poem “Push”:
Q & A
…cheeks plump nests
mouth a curved shell
swallows of sobs
chin creases fat rolls
From “Guest Appearance” …cheese
behind ears, fat
rolling down arms,
beneath pudding the assertion
of an elbow. Palmed,
|Q & A by Adrienne Gruber|
I was so moved by Q&A
, and the themes we share. I feel like your book is the book I initially set out to write, and then my idea of what the book was turned into what the book is (like kids, I guess!). When I started writing, I intended to incorporate more external cultural references, especially medical and medicalized ones. I’m haunted by how you use old medical wisdom in some of your poems — for the reason of my “failed” intent, on one level, and also for how, as I move through your book, the speaker’s experiences echo off these references in surprising and violent ways, like the shift from the funny and personal in “The Cat Has the Stunned Look of a Murder Witness” to “Streptococcal,” a medical poem about the history of streptococcal infections killing new mothers.
One of my preoccupations is the culture of midwifery, both historically and in the current day, and ideally I would have had a section in my book on lay midwifery, which fascinates me, and that section would have included the transition to regulation and post-regulation midwifery, hopefully from perspectives of people who birth, their partners, and the midwives. But the poems I tried were didactic and bad; your poems weave in cultural facts in such a natural, gripping way, and I so admire how you did that. I’m thinking especially of “Ode to Lucy’s Pelvis” which moves (in this context I have to say “hingelessly”) from pelvic anatomy to the speaker in the birth tub.
I also wanted to write more about how postpartum depression is quantified and qualified in psychiatric contexts. I started writing an almost mathematical poem, but it went on to become “
Body of Water” and ended up being much longer than I’d ever guessed it would be. I’m so curious if overall your book took any surprise turns for you, as you were writing it.
I’m struck by another similarity both our books share: one birth story that contains so many perspectives, even though we both have birthed more than one child. In the early days after my oldest was born, I tried to write a “definitive” birth story: partly as a recommendation from my midwife, to try and heal from some of the trauma; partly out of a drive to figure out what had happened to me (I think it’s called matrescence); and partly because birth stories seemed to be something everyone was writing to or about their children, and even sharing on blogs and social media. So I tried, but I couldn’t write a singular poem or story that captured THE birth story. It felt impossible and continues to, as my perspective has changed with time and the knowledge that the story will continue to evolve. This is one of the main reasons I love reading the different angles you write from throughout the collection: the pain, humour, the partner, the light in the room, the spaces between pushes, the voices of the midwives – all for the same birth, which constantly reinvents itself and its meanings.
Another angle you call out, especially in “What To Expect When You’re Expecting (100 Years Ago)” is the classist and racist stereotypes that persist today (ugh: hypnobirthing, anyone?). And I think every person who’s about to have a baby should read “Supply and Demand” — “Our bedroom is a dumpster” is the most singularly brilliant line of poetry I’ve ever read. The body-as-axis metaphor you use in “Gestational Fall” is the perfect symbol for this collection: a gravitational force.
I am overwhelmed with the close reading you have done of my book. It’s such an honour to be read in such depth.
The book that is now in print is light years away from the manuscript I submitted to Hazel and Jay at Book*hug three years ago. I have never worked so hard in a revision process in my life. I felt like I was pulling my own skin off for the last two years. It was definitely its own birthing.
I think your book is the book I was trying to write initially, too! And maybe that’s why we are drawn to each other’s books, because we feel this primal connection to them, the desire of what we initially hoped to write. There is something about your book that is so familiar to me. Your poems contain this beautiful simple wisdom (amidst loss and pain and longing and hope and joy) that I hoped to convey in my book when I was writing first drafts, but couldn’t quite reach because it sounded contrived when I tried. I think in order to get to the heart of the book I needed to write, I had to strip away so much of my personal backstory and rather than speaking in a straightforward way, it needed to come out almost disguised.
I think a lot of my poems were sentimental in their early stages because I was trying to get at the very real trauma I felt giving birth to my daughter, even though I had this very idyllic-seeming home birth and felt weirdly ashamed for feeling so traumatized. This is what I find so fascinating about birth. Every story is so unique, no matter how it looks on the outside. One of my closest friends in Vancouver also had a home birth and her first daughter was born a month before mine (we actually met in a hypnobabies prenatal class…yeah, I know!). She described her birth in such a serene way to me that when my own home birth was both “successful” AND I felt traumatized by it, I honestly felt like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone (but also had
to talk about it constantly) because it felt like such a contradiction. I couldn’t explain just how fucked up I felt for having gone through that experience because I literally thought I was dying the entire 21 hours I was in active labour. I was convinced of it. I clearly remember thinking that all I wanted to do was walk two blocks to the hospital and beg the doctors to do a cesarean, but I didn’t say that because I didn’t want my doula to know. I was terrified of the pain I was experiencing and the pain that was yet to come, and that fear is what drove my own trauma. After I had Quintana, I did not feel like the warrior they say you’ll feel like after you push a baby out of your body in your own home. I felt broken and terrified. I felt like I had survived by the grace of something inexplicable. I did not feel that I had any inner strength.
There is some kind of reckoning that happens when you give birth, whether you have a planned home birth or a planned hospital birth or an unplanned (or planned) cesarean birth. It’s all just so crazy and each birth is so radically different and our reactions to our births can be so unpredictable. In some ways I feel like my book is, in part, intended to be a public service announcement: HOME BIRTH WILL NOT NECESSARILY MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE A ROCK STAR…IN FACT, YOU MIGHT END UP BEING REALLY FUCKED UP AFTERWARD.
Having said that, I still love my story, because it’s mine. And the birth of my second daughter (also at home) was completely different. I felt radical and beautiful and empowered during that birth. Of course, it was over much quicker.
One of the things I love about your book is how you unapologetically speak of, and to, your experiences. Aside from having some killer lines in your poems (and killer poems in the book), you have a way of speaking about the shame and pain you’ve experienced both unashamedly and with tenderness. Even though it isn’t my own experience, I feel like your poems make me feel less ashamed of myself and my own humanness. Which is definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever projected onto a book.
I’m more than a little teary over your kind words. It took me seven years of writing and a lot of therapy to get some of this out. I completely relate to your writing process: tearing off your skin. And I see so much of my experiences in your poems — I can smell them, seriously. Your book is searing, beautiful, and brave as hell. When I first read it, on the train, I’m pretty sure I freaked out the person sitting next to me: I couldn’t stop nodding my head, annotating, and snorting with rage and laughter (which may be the title of my next collection).
I keep meaning to ask you, Adrienne, if you thought about any poets or any books in particular as you wrote, either in an inspirational or in an avoidance way. When I was writing, I thought a lot about Sharon Olds. No poems in particular, but she has always made me feel like I might be able to write what I need to. (And she has of course written so much about her family.) In a more specific way, I studied how some writers I admire, in particular Brenda Shaughnessy and Ocean Vuong, composed the subjects of some of their poems. But, for the first time, I watched what I read, in that I didn’t read very much poetry when I was writing it, which was a change for me. I wanted to come across the poems I was writing in a different way.
I read a ton of birth-related material while I was writing Q & A
, but not a ton of poetry. What I DID read was Brenda Shaugnessy’s Our Andromeda
(which I actually reference in the last poem in Q & A
– something I’ve never done before, mentioning a book of poetry in one of my poems) and I read it obsessively. I also read Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting
, another book of poetry with strong motherhood themes (her poem Nursery
is the best poem about breastfeeding I’ve ever read). I’m sure I read other poetry during that time, but those are the two books that had a hand in what I wrote and the way I wrote it. I think I was mostly reading poetry as a way of researching form, especially during the process of revising Q & A
. Many of my poems were lending themselves to traditional form, and I found myself searching out sonnets and villanelles to assist me with structure.
I wondered if that was a Shaughnessy Our Andromeda
reference! I still haven’t read that collection. I also love Joy Is So Exhausting
I have another question, probably one as annoying as a total stranger sidling up to you in the grocery store and asking if you’ll have any more kids: do you feel done writing about birth? I’m almost certain I’m not.
Your poem “Investment” speaks to uncertainty in the context of having more children, but I think it applies also to writing about our experiences as mothers.
Is this a love poem
or a poem of grief?
When we make something
In all honesty, I don’t know if I could ever be done with writing about birth, though the well is definitely dry at the moment. It feels like a topic I will never be finished processing. It also seems like every other month another friend is experiencing birth for the first or second time, or in the case of one of my close friends, the third time with twins almost two decades after the birth of her first child. It’s hard to imagine never writing about birth again, but I know that the next poems I write about birth likely won’t be about processing my own experiences. Unless I have another kid.
I’m struggling with poetry these days. I’ve been writing new stuff lately, but it feels too easy somehow, like I’m using a formula I’ve either mastered or pilfered from the internet. Everything feels recycled, somehow. I continue to write about my kids, the emotions and reactions they trigger in me. I explore issues that arise in my family (marital struggles, parenting struggles, anxiety and mental health triggers, etc.), but it feels too obvious. I don’t know how impactful the work would be if it went out into the world at this stage. I think I need to compost these new poems and let them grow into something new in a few years. I want my next book to feel as transformative as writing Q & A
felt, but I don’t know how to conjure up that experience. Which is likely the issue: I’m trying too hard to achieve something that was the result of an authentic (and unexpected) process, something you can’t simply recreate on a whim.
In other news, why does it feel like birth analogies work to describe EVERYTHING a writer does? Hello obvious…
Yeah, it’s hard to escape birth when we have our kids around us and friends who are having babies. It’s strange, though, despite how immersed I am in this world, that I feel this distance but also a sense of recall – I wouldn’t really call it objectivity or even déjà vu – when I see someone with a new baby. It’s like visiting a new place yet having this utter certainty I’ve been there before, but it’s not a mystery as to why I’m feeling that way. I can take in that tiny person in a way I didn’t with my own – like I forget, despite having had three babies, how strange and little and wrinkled newborns are, and the grinding fatigue, and the leakiness and sloppiness.
There’s that saying, how “nature” (whatever the hell that is) makes us forget the pain of childbirth. I’ll never forget. But I have mostly forgotten the weeks that followed each of my daughters’ births – for sure there are moments that stand out (like when my confused and exhausted husband handed our hours-old daughter to a cab driver, but that’s another story!) but they’re mostly blurs of feeling, rather than recollections I can play back to myself, or things my brain consciously recollects and processes. Cognition is so radically different in the immediate postpartum. When my youngest daughter was born last year, I did write some poems, but the weird thing is, I’d totally forgotten about them – I actually found the notebook the other day when I was organizing a drawer. They were mostly about my body, though, than the baby: stretchmarks I’d discovered, my pelvis clicking when I walked up the stairs. I had forgotten about the poems, and I’d forgotten about these changes I was noticing in my body that had caused me to write in the first place. Maybe there’s a poem I could write about the forgetting.
I know what you mean. I also have these large gaps in memory of those early newborn days. I wrote a lot of non-fiction when I was pregnant with my second daughter and continued as much as I could after she was born. I recently read that material to see if I could shape it into something interesting and I was shocked at how few details I truly remember about that time. As I read, I was pulled back into that place, but if I hadn’t written about it those memories would be entirely lost to me. I think memory is fascinating, how it functions, how we store and retrieve memories, how memories are formed through associations. I’m especially interested in how pregnancy, birth, and postpartum permanently transform our ability to access memory. During pregnancy, if I’d put something down for a second, I’d instantly forget and spend an hour tearing around my apartment trying to find whatever it was I had misplaced. I also had trouble formulating thoughts. I would be in mid-sentence and suddenly completely unable to finish that sentence – I couldn’t even find alternate words/phrases to substitute for what I had originally intended to say. It felt like a serious condition that I couldn’t escape from. I find it so crazy that when we remember something, our neurons are firing to create a new reality, a new set of images of that past experience, an experience that no longer exists. Here’s an excerpt of the non-fiction piece I was working on a few years ago:
Before having children, I was relatively confident in my memory and my ability to circumvent memory lapses. Conversations, important dates, crucial periods and events were recalled with ease. Any instances of forgetfulness could be chalked up to environmental stresses, circumstantial events, or a stretch of clinical depression. Pregnancy changed all of this. The early stages weren’t too bad, but towards the end of my first pregnancy I was forgetting everything. Most of it was laughable; my husband convincing me that it was more of a scatterbrained state than a full on recall issue. The way I loaded the dishwasher as though it were an art installation, with no rhyme or reason, a plate wedged at an angle, a pot on top of the plate. I was willing to chalk it up to pregnancy hormones but when it continued postpartum, I worried. Then it worsened. I lost my keys six times in the first few months of my daughter’s life, once for several weeks. I lost whole conversations, misplaced important papers and found myself up against a daily wall of consuming inertia. Worst of all, I was completely inarticulate. I could hardly string three or more words together to form a complete sentence, let alone maintain any sort of linguistic fluency or coherency. I began to feel a kinship with those suffering from brain damage or those immersing themselves in a foreign language for the first time. My head would pound. My tongue would twitch. I ached to speak about my experiences, my feelings of identity loss and newly acquired motherhood. Instead my essence swam around inside me as though my body was an aquarium, as though my own brain was liquefying just like my Granny’s did in her state of dementia.
I’m dying to hear the story of your sleep-deprived husband handing over your newborn to a cab driver! This is the kind of thing that makes the pregnancy and postpartum phases full of poetic inspiration. There are so many layers to all of it, so many directions you can take with the work. One theme I really gravitated to in your book was the whole idea of competing birth and postpartum experiences. In your poem, “Toronto Moms Group,” you write,
our stories, shushed them
when they cried, burped
their painterly pudge, bodies thrown
over our shoulders like infant muses
fallen from heaven. My position usurped
by a mom who invited us to her house uptown
where her baby sat unassisted
on the carpet and matter-of-factly
drank water from a cup with a straw.
I think part of what I was hoping to do in Q & A
was address this whole idea of competition in birthing stories and how fucked up it is. I’m not sure if readers would see that theme directly in my work, but I hope it came across in some way. I definitely see it in your book and found it really comforting. Was it cathartic to write that poem and address some of those darker parts of motherhood in After Birth
? Was that piece planned or did it evolve into its current form?
|After Birth by Elizabeth Ross|
I’ll tell you the story one day! Yes,
the competition is SO messed up, and such an interesting cultural phenomenon, and one I’m completely guilty of participating in, especially in the birth ideal vs. actual birth experience department. When my second daughter was born, I honestly felt like a superhero who had roared out her baby in under two hours (see? I’m still kind of proud). I was higher than high for months – amazed at my internal power and at the birth process, when it goes “as planned.” But I was in a weird competition with the version of myself who four years earlier had made similar birth plans, but went on to have a brutally long labour topped off by an obstetric emergency, and then felt hugely inadequate and incompetent – two self-judging feelings that contributed to postpartum depression. I felt like I was betraying her, even though, of course, both births were completely out of my control and unfolded the way they had for completely mysterious reasons, because babies.
I think in my case, the competitiveness took root with a lot of well-intentioned but pious birth literature, and Ricki Lake, and other outdated information (that continues to circulate, argh!) about various interventions and the purported harm they can cause. If you “choose” to have an intervention, not only are you failing somehow at “natural” birth, you’re summoning the notorious “cascade of interventions” that supposedly endanger your child. So much judgment, so much fear.
I’ve heard some arguments that the “natural” birth movement has quote unquote “gone too far,” and I absolutely disagree: poems like your “Streptococcal” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (100 Years Ago)” show the oppressive and hubristic birth practices that have injured and killed so many women and babies. However, there’s an issue when someone measures their self-worth by how they give birth. Perhaps this correlation leads to the gross competition you identify, which seems to manifest in circles of other moms-parents, I guess because we’re all busy unpacking our experiences and consciously and unconsciously holding ourselves up against our own ideals of who we are. I mean, who would actually look another fellow parent in the eye and say, “Your weakness stalled your labour, you fool.” Or, “High five! Unmedicated birth!” No one. But I did this to myself.
There’s also the consumer side. When I wrote “Toronto Moms Group” I was fresh from reading some cultural anthropologists’ work in midwifery in Ontario, and increasingly aware of how the way a woman chooses to give birth can begin a self-branding process, especially in privileged contexts. Some branding is more self-declarative, like in online groups (e.g., “I’m a cloth-diapering, attachment-parenting, granola-making mama”) or on Instagram. But for some people a birth plan kicks off what leads to their personal brand: home or hospital, breast and/or bottle, the stroller, sling or carrier, used or new, organic or non-organic, this playgroup or that – all create a kind of logos. And the birth stories, especially. Narrative constructs realities in the most powerful ways, much in the way you talk about the recall process in memory creating a new reality. Looking back, I think storytelling is one of the ways I, and probably many women in this group, constructed ourselves as mothers, and also framed our various traumas: emergency or elective caesareans, hospital transfers, losses, genetic differences, inadequate milk supplies, formula shaming. These were all things I was processing when I was writing poems, including “Toronto Moms Group.”
I have to say, though, that I’ve noticed a softening away from the competition I’d initially felt. I first gave birth in 2011 and most recently 16 months ago; it feels like now people are speaking out against birth shaming and the other awful iterations of postpartum/early parenting shame, and I’m so glad. Have you felt this shift? I love how your poem “I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake” takes on birth dogma:
And I want to clarify that while I’m critical of birth plans and birth stories, I also deeply respect and celebrate their role in reclaiming women’s prenatal and postpartum care, and in their continued function to empower care, especially outside of colonial and heteronormative and cisgender birth contexts. Overall we need to do so much work to ensure reproductive justice for everyone.
I think I feel the shift, though it’s hard to tell if it’s that or just that my children are now long past infancy and I’ve moved into the pre-school/school-aged phase. A few of my close friends just had babies and visiting them shortly after their births threw me back into that intense postpartum world where it does seem that you either feel like a superhero or an utter failure.
I felt a similar internal competition between my own two birth experiences. I felt like a full-on birth warrior with my second, simply because the labour was much shorter and I didn’t have the same kind of terror I felt the first time around. That may be why I don’t look at anyone else’s birth experience as being superior or inferior to my own. I know that the environment was the same, I had informed and educated choice with both births, and I had body autonomy and respect. The births were just different. My level of understanding of how my own body births was different with the first and the second. I felt safer the second time because the way I birth wasn’t entirely unfamiliar and unknown.
Having a home birth doesn’t make a birth experience less traumatizing. I feel that a certain amount of trauma is inherent in birth. I’m not sure how you can go through an experience as transformative as birth and not experience some trauma. My body expelled two humans, how does that not automatically lend itself to trauma? And why is the goal to pretend we won’t live with the permanent impacts of that trauma? When I was reeling emotionally (and hormonally) after the birth of my first daughter, and telling that birth story to anyone who would listen, a friend of mine said, “Well, no wonder you’re traumatized. Women die giving birth.” It hit me, in that moment, that we are literally facing our own mortality during birth, no matter how that baby is born. The risk may be smaller than it once was, but it’s still there. And then we have to exist in a culture that essentially demands that we shut the fuck up after we’ve given birth, to deal with our post-partum bodies and minds, and the often extreme and permanent changes we’ve endured, in silence. We’re supposed to quietly disappear until we’re ready to re-enter society with our ‘pre-baby bodies’ intact, never alluding to what we’ve gone through because, what’s the big deal? Birth has been happening since the beginning of time, none of us are special for experiencing this, and we (most of us) ended up with healthy babies so let’s all just move on already.
But we don’t ever ‘move on’ and we shouldn’t have to. That’s why I needed to write
. It was entirely selfish, entirely for cathartic purposes. I wrote it because I couldn’t stop thinking about how completely insane it is that humans DO this, we just make and birth other humans. And yes it’s absolutely the most common experience in the world, but it’s also the most transformative and crazy and why are people not talking about it more? I couldn’t stop thinking about the way women were historically treated during pregnancy and birth, and how, in many ways, not much has changed. Options in pre and post-natal care are often limited depending on socio-economic status. It’s not lost on me that as a cis-gendered white woman living in an urban centre where there are a plethora of midwifery clinics, I had access to the best care available. I also had the financial means to hire extra support in the form of a doula whom I paid for out of pocket and was worth every penny and then some for the many ways she advocated for me and my family. I have a partner who is incredibly supportive and went on paid parental leave after the birth of both our babies, which meant I had extra support postpartum. We had family help. We had friends supporting us. We had dozens of lasagnas in our freezer. My birthing choices were informed and educated and I had no physical trauma and healed quickly and it was still fucking hard, so how many other people are walking around with birth experiences that have altered them permanently and aren’t given the space to tell their stories?
(Thistledown Press), and five chapbooks. She won the Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron poetry contest in 2015, SubTerrain’s Lush Triumphant poetry contest in 2017, and her chapbook
was awarded the bp Nichol Chapbook Award in 2012. Originally from Saskatoon, Adrienne lives in Vancouver with her partner and two daughters.
(2019). Her work has been published in literary magazines across Canada, longlisted for the CBC poetry prize, selected for inclusion in
, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. She grew up in Victoria and now lives in Hamilton with her family.