Poet and mother Anna Livesey is interviewed by novelist and mother Kirsten McDougall on being creative, the mummy/woman divide, and her new book of poetry.
Ordinary Time is Anna Livesey’s third book of poetry. In her book she delves deep into parenting, the personal and the political, and reflects on life as a mother.
Let’s talk about being woman/mother/writer – for a start how has being a mother changed your approach to poetry, or the place of poetry in your life?
I think this is a very common experience, but after my elder child was born – my son Robbie who is now four – I felt as though I’d had one layer of skin removed. Everything in the world – the beauty and the horror – felt so much more acute.
At that time everything felt too intense to do any writing. I think that after I got over the first skinned feeling, and then over the post-natal depression that I had with Robbie (or maybe we should call it post-post-natal depression, because with both my kids it struck me when I had to go back to work earlier than I thought was ideal), I thought – it would be nice not to feel that poetry is gone forever, even though life is so full. And so I wrote one poem, which is in the book – ‘A Book is A Way of Tidying the Mind’ – which is about exactly this. It includes the line ‘For some time I’ve not thought of myself as a writer’ and ends with ‘Still, ego resists the notion of ‘over’. I wake and sleep. The baby moves in his cot like a crab’.
After that poem two things happened – I got pregnant again (and this time it stuck) and we moved to Auckland and there was WAY TOO MUCH going on. I had to sleep. There was no chance for writing. However, what I have learnt over time is that for me, poetry is like riding a bike. The bike might be in the shed for a while, and I might be a bit rusty when I get it out, but I can still do it.
I still come across people who dismiss poetry or novels that have ‘domestic’ subjects. It’s as if people can’t imagine how politics and public life affects domestic life. The life events you’re writing about – giving birth, being responsible for dependent children, being the daughter of a mother with dementia – these are events through which we can reflect on our very existence. Can you talk about your choice to go ‘full domestic’ in Ordinary Time?
I’m not someone who has always wanted children. I was pretty clear I didn’t want them until about six months before I got pregnant for the first time. My husband was entirely delighted – he has always wanted children and the idea that we wouldn’t have any was a great sadness for him. The last poem in the book is about this – women growing up and realising that all the resisting of parenthood they have been doing, for whatever reasons, has ended and they have ‘helped and betrayed some earlier, more clear-cut version’ of themselves. Note that I don’t think this happens for everyone – certainly not everyone wakes up at 33 and suddenly wants a family. But I did.
I hope that the poems in this book move through the domestic sphere to touch on the world. The first poem ‘Ordinary Time’ is about my sense that caring for a family is not enough. They are ours and we must care for them first, but by any sensible measure they are no more important than any other people on earth, and we should not use our own concerns as an excuse for neglecting the wider world. Because in doing so we neglect other people’s children and fail in the human duty to see them as beings worthy of love.
To look as this from the other point of view, when I am out and about with my very small children, one of my great joys is seeing other people react to them: with joy when they’re just being cute, with respect and indulgence when they have some little person problem, like breaking the cup their fluffy came in, or with genuine instinctive concern if they need help or guidance, like the man who rushed after my daughter when she was about to run into the road the other day. He didn’t stop to worry about anything other than – look after that baby! That sense – look after that baby! – is at the heart of being human to me.
And that’s a very long way of saying – I think the domestic, whatever form that takes, is the crucible of life. And therefore it is as generative of good writing, and as worthy of thought, as any other sphere.
I had the shock of recognition when I read these lines in ‘Privacy’:
‘At 3 a.m., bare, shaved, I wanted only my daughter out, my mother’s
hands on me, the dark privacy of the womb restored.’
I had never felt so much like public property in my life than when I had small babies. To have the privacy of your body restored to you, that feels like a wish that will take an eternity to be granted when you have young children. Can you talk about how you combine your mother and your experience of birth in this poem?
That’s a hard one. I never really know how to say what I say in poems in any better or clearer way. Perhaps I can just say I had two ‘emergency’ caesareans and both times I felt so desolate – so much like a broken container rather than a person. I also watched my mother become demented and lose all volition over her own body and all privacy – and I wondered what it means to have privacy if you have essentially no mind. And also having a baby made me miss my mother.
I’ve had people say to me – I don’t know how you work and have kids and write at the same time – and the truth is, me neither! But I do know that now more than ever, writing keeps me sane, especially when my children were very young, writing felt like a way for me to maintain my identity as ‘Kirsten’ rather than as ‘Mummy’. How do you feel about this? Do you have Anna/Mummy divide?
There were seven years between my second book and my third book, and for most of that time I wasn’t writing poetry, because I was focused on career things and study things and there was no pressing, internal need. After I had my first child the naked, skinned effect started the poetry hare in me again. My second child cluster fed which meant I was in bed with her from 6pm until midnight every night, and it was then, ironically, that I found the concentrated time and space to write out some of parenthood and what it means.
There’s no time for poetry again right now. For me, at the moment, the Anna/Mama divide comes more at the point where I leave the house in the morning and get on the train and open my handbag and find my lipstick and put that on. I never was a lipstick wearer until last year, and now I wear it to work every day. I wipe it off the moment I get home because I want to kiss my kids and I don’t want lipstick on them, and I don’t wear it in the weekends. But I love my job and I love being ‘Anna’ out in the world – almost as much as I love coming home again to being Mama.
Anna Livesey is a poet who works full time as a corporate strategist for AMP. Her new poetry collection Ordinary Time uses parenting as the lens through which the poet views the world. Anna lives in Auckland and has two children, ages two and four.
Kirsten McDougall is a novelist and publicist. Her new novel Tess is a gothic female love story set in Masterton at the turn of the millennium (read a review here). Her two sons are 11 and eight.
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