At the Kitchen Table
Shoshauna Shy has a conversation with Meg Kearney
Meg Kearney is Director of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. She joins Shoshauna for this issue about parenthood to discuss two of her poems titled Conception, American Style and Elegy for the Unknown Father. Bring your breakfast plate to the table, and join them.
SHOSHAUNA: In your book The Secret of Me published by Persea Books of New York in 2005, a young girl grows up knowing she was adopted, as were both of her siblings. While this fact was openly shared within the family, the parents demonstrated that expressing curiosity about birth parents or sharing the truth of adoption with friends outside of the family was taboo. The book was written in response to this restriction, and is a novel in poetic verse. Could you say what went into your decision to write this book as a novel in verse instead of as a novel in prose or as a memoir?
MEG: There is a writer you probably have heard of, Jacqueline Woodson (one of our rock stars of children's and YA literature), whom I credit for the "birth" of The Secret of Me. Jackie believes, and rightly, that poets should write for young people—we think in metaphor, which children and teens can easily and naturally grab onto and relate to. Many years ago, Jackie started urging me to write for young people. I was already a poet, working on my first book (An Unkindness of Ravens), but had never considered writing for teens or children. I didn't act on her suggestion until Jackie sent me a manuscript of a novel in verse she'd written titled Locomotion. She asked if I would read it and give her feedback on the poems before she sent it to her editor. When I read this marvelous book I thought, “Darn! Jackie can do EVERYTHING well!” I felt as if she'd thrown down a challenge. I knew novels in verse existed, being a fan of Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, but hadn't thought of it as a model for what I might do until I read Locomotion (which, by the way, went on to be a Finalist for the National Book Award). Because I considered myself to be a poet and not a prose writer, it seemed the natural way for me to tell a story. As soon as that idea dawned on me, I knew I had to try it—and almost immediately knew who my main character was, and the basic plot. I started writing as if possessed.
As for why I didn't write a memoir instead, I truly needed this to be a piece of fiction in order to tell this story. Lizzie McLane is the 14-year-old I wish I had been; she's much braver than I was at her age. Although I was writing poems by the time I was 12, I had had an experience similar to the scene captured in the poem in the book titled Reading My Poem 'What I Want' to Mom. When that happened, I didn't stop writing, but I did stop writing about anything related to being adopted—until I was in my mid-twenties. Creating the character of Lizzie gave me the chance to have that moment back, and let Lizzie realize, “There are just some things // you're not supposed to say to your parents. But / I can write them down. I won't stop writing them.”
SHOSHAUNA: From age 12 until your mid-20's—that's a long time to not write anything about being adopted! Especially since those are such turbulent years regarding identity. Well, a line in one of your poems that has stayed with me for months is "Everyone knows you were a mistake before / you were born." That is crushing. It sure explains an adoptee's resistance to sharing his or her history with others. On the other hand, I think of the girl who grew up next door to me. I met her when I was 4, and her mother told me right off the bat that this daughter of hers was "a chosen child"—which changed the whole adoption concept into something far more charming, (I admit, I saw angels and fairy dust when she informed me of this). It also seemed like an acceptable buffer for her daughter: highlighting the retrieval rather than the relinquishment that preceded it.
Another one of your poems in this book deals with the explanation parents give for that relinquishment, the explanation that it was out of love the birth mother gave up her child, which an adult can understand, but clearly, children are not able to. In your poem, you write, "My first / mother loved me / so much / she gave me away...I hope / no one ever loves me / as much as she did" followed by this poem:
EMPTY LIST POEM
Things I Love So Much
I Could Give Them Away:
That colon followed by the empty page just swallowed me whole. So, if this discussion actually happened to you, Meg, might you remember how old you were at the time? I'm wondering if you care to say more about that specific experience.
MEG: Many people have had strong reactions to the "Empty List Poem." Thanks for that. I think you understand from my books, which are admittedly quite autobiographical, that I had very loving and supportive parents, as Lizzie does. But yes, when they tried to explain to me that my birthmother gave me away because she loved me so much, that boggled my mind. How does a child understand such love? As an adult, especially now that I know my birthmother's story, I realize that my parents were exactly right: my mother gave me up for adoption not because she didn't want me, but she wanted me to have a better life than she thought she could offer me and believed very deeply that the people (nuns, mostly, back then) at the New York Foundling would find the ideal parents for me. Which they did.
I don't have a specific memory of being told I was adopted, or being told it was because my mother loved me so much—that was such a part of the family culture (I was the youngest of three adopted children) that it seems I heard it a great deal.
The idea of being "chosen" is right, too—I like that story very much. My parents felt that way, I think, but never expressed it exactly like that. These days, many families celebrate a child's adoption day the way we celebrate birthdays. That would have helped me think of being adopted in a whole new light!
SHOSHAUNA: I'd like to ask you about your poem, "Conception, American Style" from your collection Home by Now published by Four Way Books in 2009. It's Part II I'd like to focus on.
CONCEPTION, AMERICAN STYLE
They’ve returned to the parking lot: dim light reveals
a sheen of sweat on her forehead and upper lip.
Her Scottish skin is blotchy, as if she’d had a drink.
He lights her cigarette, regards her in the match
glow, while her eyes linger on a tuft of hair—
she’d kissed him there—at his shirt’s open collar.
She is trembling; it’s time for her to go.
They stand by the car and he takes her hand,
kisses it; she presses her other hand to her heart.
Then they notice her blouse, something askew—
she mismatched the buttons, and
they laugh. It was her first time. She thinks
he has made her a promise. He must have
known that. He leans, kisses her. Wherever,
whoever he is, he must have known that much.
The last ten words razor me every time I read them. I am assuming the speaker of this poem is the woman who once was the baby that resulted from the act of love that preceded this kiss, and so the "...wherever, whoever he is..." packs an incredible punch. It illustrates that the speaker, if she was indeed the child, never has had any contact with her father. Am I on the mark here? If so, is this the speaker's attempt to understand the young man's position from his point of view, to make sense of his tenderness—and then his subsequent indifference?
MEG: You're the first person to ever ask me about that poem, so I'm extra glad to talk about it. Yes, the speaker is the grown woman who was once the baby who resulted from this essentially one-night stand. You are right on the mark that the speaker has never had any contact with her father—she doesn't even know who he is, much less where he is. The speaker is attempting to step into the shoes of the woman (her mother) who has just had sex for the first time. She is naive and in love, and thinks that their act of love means a commitment has been made. The speaker is guessing that he knew that, even though he obviously didn't honor it. That kiss was actually a kiss goodbye, though the woman/mother doesn't know it at that moment.
SHOSHAUNA: A kiss good-bye—ouch! Well, if you could, please tell me what launched this poem for you, Meg. I'm also wondering what came first. Was it the final line, the title, an image that prompted you to write it?
MEG: This poem started as two poems, actually, and then when I realized that one picked up where the other left off (with lots of years inbetween), I made them one poem in two parts, and was able to cut some of the first lines of what became section two. That poem was originally titled "Goodnight, Goodbye," and actually appeared in an anthology called Never Before: Poems About First Experiences by Four Way Books.
As to what prompted these poems—they are further explorations into my own humble beginnings in this world. It's a topic I have trouble staying away from, as I know so little about my birthmother's life when she became pregnant, and have no idea who my birthfather is; one tends to make up a history when the real story is unknown.
SHOSHAUNA: That image of the mismatched buttons, the blotchy skin, the cigarette...I had so many questions coming to the surface after I first read this: did the young man ever know he was a father; how old was this young woman and did she have to drop out of school; when did she tell her own mother what happened; does she, to this day, think of her daughter on the "birth" day—not that I expect you to fill in the blanks, Meg. I just found the description so evocative that I couldn't help wondering all of these things, knowing my own imagination would have to supply the answers.
As the poet, did you choose the tercet for this poem because there were actually three points of view going on here?
MEG: What a great question! Yes, the fact that there are now essentially three people involved in the story there was in the back of my mind, but that honestly came after I created the tercets, and felt like a bonus. Initially I was thinking about pacing. After the rush of part one, I needed to slow things down. All those end-stopped lines followed by stanza breaks in the first three stanzas are meant to make the reader take the words in more slowly, savoring the moment as the couple is doing.
I'm also thinking (always) of individual lines as units of meaning. In the third line of stanza four (the first stanza that isn't end-stopped), if you take just that line in itself—"they laugh. It was her first time. She thinks"—it implies she is very much aware of the fact that she has just lost her virginity—she's thinking about that—and then in the next enjambed stanza that thought is continued, revealing "she thinks / he has made her a promise." Many women, especially virgins, see having sex as an unspoken way of saying, "I love you and want to be with you." The reader soon realizes that was her mistake.
Isn't it remarkable how a poem can imply so much—a whole novel's worth of story in a few short lines!
SHOSHAUNA: Yes, as a reader, I realized that mistake once I got to the line: "...She thinks he has made her a promise. He must have known that."
One can't help but consider that the young man was already detaching from her before the last kiss. I considered that in the following line which you so skillfully enjambed: "He lights her cigarette, regards her in the match..."
This is an eloquent double-entendre. And, yes, a sense of betrayal by the young man towards the woman. But I get the message that the speaker, the resultant offspring, feels betrayed by him as well. So, there's something I'm curious about. Hypothetically, do you think there would be a sense of betrayal on the speaker's part if the couple had stayed together? I mean even if the adoption happened, but the couple went on to forge a marriage.
MEG: That's a very tricky and difficult question to answer. In the poem, the speaker feels betrayed along with the mother, almost as her ally. If the child born of this union were given up for adoption and then the couple ended up together, the child might feel betrayed by both of them—but again, maybe the child would land in a better place, regardless, and feel relieved once old enough to understand all that had happened. And still that grown child's feelings would be mixed, I think.
SHOSHAUNA: I’d like to ask you about this second poem, "Elegy for the Unknown Father" from this same collection.
ELEGY FOR AN UNKNOWN FATHER
Maybe there’s a reason I was left
without a map to find you, why
the trail to your door has long gone
arctic. I’ve sat here nearly an hour
on the bench that marks the grave
of the man who raised me. I know
the way to this place, the back roads
south of the highway, the pothole
just before the iron gate. I know
its sparrows and withering lilies as well
as I knew the face of this father
walking in the door with an armful
of firewood or a fist of flowers. See
the groundskeeper give me a wave?
He knows me by name.
I have never needed you less.
SHOSHAUNA: I saw some very effective enjambment in this poem. That first line uses the line break especially well to communicate its message, and so does the lst line of the 2nd couplet. This is a very powerful poem in the way it addresses the unknown father, acknowledges the father who raised the speaker, and then shows how the speaker is acknowledged by a third man who "...knows me by name" implying that even the groundskeeper has welcomed the speaker into his life.
Could you say what it is you would like the reader to take away from their experience of this poem?
MEG: This is a question I'd love to turn around, and ask what you come away with as a reader of "Elegy." I know that for me, the power in writing it came from declaring a love and loyalty for my father (I won't even call him my "adoptive father"—he was my father, period) and letting go of any thoughts of finding the man half responsible for my birth. This came after a couple of years of searching for him, even though my gut told me that wasn't a great idea. I've now let it go, and writing the poem helped me do just that.
SHOSHAUNA: I can see how this poem helped to allow you to let go. As a reader, I loved how it illustrates that your father took care of you in practical ways, and also brought you beauty! I am also struck by how this loss echoes the earlier loss, and so, it is a delicate thing, the process of healing. The hopefulness in it is the fact that the groundskeeper, who has only known you, the speaker, a short time, is welcoming with a ready wave, and already knows your name. To me, the subtext is, "I easily turn acquaintances into friends; that's the kind of woman I am!" It's a very positive proclamation, and in defiant contrast to the last line: "I have never needed you less." But at the same time, I have to confess, I don't believe that last line.
MEG: How interesting to hear you say you don't believe that last line. I knew when I wrote it that I was trying to convince myself of the fact it was stating—and if that comes through, then good. It doesn't matter that I believe it now; I think it makes the poem more interesting, more layered, if the reader doesn't truly believe that last line, but WANTS to along with the speaker.
I'm also fascinated by what you understand as the subtext of that wave from the groundskeeper; I was thinking it pointed to the fact that the speaker spends a great deal of time at the father's grave, so much so that the groundskeeper knows her name. But again, there are a couple of layers here. I adore that aspect of poetry!
SHOSHAUNA: I do, too. Interpretation of poetry is always very subjective and personal. I think how it is interpreted reflects more of the reader's state of mind than anything else, and I find that fascinating.
For me, that last line is very provocative. Here the speaker is saying how little she needs him—and yet the entire poem, from tip to tail, addresses him. Which makes me wonder if adoptees ever feel like, if given the chance, they would opt not to meet or have contact with a birth parent. For example, I can't imagine the speaker in this poem electing not to if the offer came up, but I do know of situations where this has been the case.
MEG: I come from a family with three adopted children, just like my character Lizzie McLane, and I am the only one who has had any interest in searching for birthparents. I think this kind of longing and decision is very personal, and different for each adoptee. There are simply those who do not wish to search—and who might even turn down the opportunity to meet a birthparent given the opportunity—and I think that's an instinct they must listen to, as it's probably there for a good reason.
SHOSHAUNA: I am wondering, by way of wrap-up, Meg, what you would like readers to know about you as it relates to your literary life.
MEG: A dear friend and wonderful poet, Kurt Brown, died just a week ago, on Father's Day. I've known, adored, and admired Kurt for 16+ years. We worked together on an anthology titled Blues for Bill by Akron University Press, 2005, a collection of poems that honor Kurt's friend and my former mentor, the late William Matthews. Just like Bill, Kurt lived and breathed poetry—outside of his family and friends, it was his one true passion in life. That is a model I try to emulate, making poetry—the reading of it, not just the writing of it—central in my life. I think that's essential for a poet, or any writer; we must make this art not something that happens on the sidelines, but something that is somehow connected or infused in most of what we do. Art as something woven into life, not separate from it. That makes it possible (for me, anyway) to keep growing as a writer and as a person, both.