An Interview with
Beth Ann Fennelly
Interviewer Luan Gaines:Can you explain the misunderstanding of "tenterhooks" that led to the title of this book?
Beth Ann Fennelly: The juxtaposition of the horrific and beautiful underlies the experience of Tender Hooks because it underlies the whole experience of motherhood for me. Everything one knows of motherhood from movies, say, is so pastel, water colored. So although I’d never spent a lot of time around babies, I thought I knew what to expect, and I read dozens of baby books. But I was completely unprepared. The whole thing is simplified, sentimentalized, which cheapens the experience of motherhood. I wanted to investigate the extremes, which were interesting to me because I was unprepared for them.
The title of the book tries to hint at that juxtaposition of the horrific and the beautiful. It’s a mishear for “tenter hooks“--the hooks on the loom that keep the canvas taut and stretched. As a girl, I heard that phrase as being “on tender hooks,” which I hope gets at the sharp/sweet complexities of parenting.
Have you encountered a new awareness of your capacity to give life, experience pain and meet your body's changing needs?
I have always been interested in the body, and the way we apprehend the world through the senses. Baudelaire said a poet must be “A professor of the five senses”--I love that. Also, I think of poetry as an oral art, the body is the instrument through which the art comes into the world, so I guess it’s natural that I’m attuned to the sensory and sensual. But giving birth made me learn my body's limits, my physical outlines in a new way. Also, becoming a mother changed my view of my body as a primarily sexual to primarily maternal, so I reflect on changing roles and sexual appetites. In addition, becoming a mother made me aware of a huge, transformative, life giving power that I (and all mothers) possess--at the same time it made me more aware of my own mortality. All of these ideas are swirling around the book, I think.
Your work easily connects to the natural world around you, the small graces of nature as well as its realities. Have you always been perceptive in this manner or has the experience intensified since Claire?
I've become much more interested in the natural world, partially because I'm more aware of myself as an animal, a human animal, than I was before. And having a child makes you think deeply and perhaps for the first time about legacies--the legacy of environmental destruction, for example. And having a child lets you resee the world through the child's eyes, with all of it mystery and magic, so I do feel reconnected, renewed somehow in the natural world.
In "Extra" you write: "how bereft/ her arms look, hugging air". Do you have an intimation of the endless letting go that awaits in parenting?
When I started writing Tender Hooks, I wasn’t aware that I was writing a whole book about my daughter’s first year. I think if I’d known what I was doing in time to stop myself, I would have. But I just began writing the poems to try to figure out what I was going through. And only about half-way through Tender Hooks did I realize what I was perpetrating. I never thought about Claire reading these poems when she was a teenager because I couldn’t believe she’d ever be a teenager--she was so small, and each day was an eternity. But now I see how quickly she’s become three years old, and in Q and A's I get asked what Claire will think of the poems when she’s 16, so now for the first time I’m thinking about the answer. Which is: she’ll hate me. The endless letting go is something that I feel very deeply and know I'll never truly recover from.
Being a mother is a commitment that alters a woman's place in the world, subtly shifting her choices. Do you believe women can have it all, family and career? Why/why not?
That's a question I ask myself every day. I don't know how to answer it, Luan, except to say I'm determined to try. On one hand, having a daughter has affected my writing the same way it affects all mothers--by eating up my writing time! But the truth is, I’ve never felt like I’ve had more to write about than right now. And being married and having a child does make me feel more connected to the rest of the human race, more empathetic, more vulnerable--all of which helps the writing.
When you write about missing the altar boys, the rituals of the Church, you strike a familiar chord in me: "I didn't know then that the threads I pulled/ ten years later would still be unraveling_". Where has this journey taken you so far?
It’s true that TH deals a lot with questions of faith. To be honest, I didn’t anticipate this. My relationship to religion is very troubled. I was brought up in a strongly Irish Catholic family--my father would only pay for me to go to college if I went to a Catholic school, for example, which explains the Notre Dame fight song stuck in "Telling the Gospel Truth." In my childhood and teen years, I embraced Catholicism. But I grew older and educated myself about Catholic beliefs, I began to feel conflicted. I started thinking things like “Well, I’m a Catholic, but I believe women should be priests . . .I’m a Catholic, but I support gays, and I’m for birth control, and I’m pro-choice . . .and I began to realize that when I subtracted all the things I didn’t believe in, there wasn’t very much left. So I took a break from the church, all churches. I thought that during my “break” I’d figure out what I thought about God and afterlife and all the rest of it.
So ten years later I have Claire, and find myself still on a break. I’d assumed I’d have everything figured out by now! Becoming a parent has brought all of this to the front of my mind again because I’m aware that my belief system will form the base of Claire’s, at least for a while. And she’s learning to talk and I know soon she’ll be asking the big questions and I have no idea how I’ll answer them. So questions of faith became central to Tender Hooks.
Do you believe that close friendships with other women help us to heal each other, even though the experiences are not the same?
Absolutely. I treasure my friendships, both with my friends here in Oxford and my old school friends. My college roommates and I still get together every year. Some of the most important conversations I've been a part of stem from those weekends. And yes, there is healing that takes place there. It was really two female friends of mine, a college roommate Laura and a colleague at Ole Miss, the poet Ann Fisher-Wirth, who helped me after I suffered a miscarriage. Both had suffered miscarriages and both, in different ways, gave me permission to mourn my child and realize that I needed to stop trying to "get over" the miscarriage. Those friends helped me see that I'll never "get over" it, and should stop trying to force myself to. I understand now that that dead baby is a part of me, and always will be. I'm so grateful that my life has been blessed with friends like these.
You share the joy of birth and the pain of loss in these poems. Has the joy allowed you to speak of the pain more clearly?
Yes, I think the more clearly we can understand and articulate suffering, the more clearly we can understand and articulate joy. The two are linked. Richard Wright said something like: "Most people had not lived--nor could it be said they had died--through any of their tragedies. They'd simply been stunned by the hammer. The lived their lives thereafter in a limbo of denied and unexamined pain." I think "denied and unexamined pain" isn't really a luxury allowed to writers, or any people who seek to understand the mystery that is human nature.
You don't withhold anything in your poetry. Where does this fearlessness come from?
If I could think of anything I wouldn’t put in a poem, I’d put it immediately, rather perversely, in a poem. Because poetry is play, is a game, though a serious one. And because I love thrift stores and the thrill of discovering the cool genuine item as opposed to buying, say, “distressed” jeans. And I love the energy that comes from the juxtaposition of different types of material, and I love the democracy of it, too. Here I’m thinking of how Marianne Moore would make use of a “low” poetic source, like a phrase printed on a Kiwi shoe polish can, and rub that up against some high culture reference to art in the Vatican. To me this tells us in words what Joseph Cornell’s boxes tell us with images--anything can be art, art is all around us. Look around you and you’ll find it.
In Tender Hooks, my inclusiveness took on a new aspect as I explored the emotional complexities of parenting. I felt such an urgent need to tell the truth that I didn't really think of what I was saying as controversial--I certainly never thought of myself as "fearless," but I'm glad for the complement. I've learned since publishing the book that some of the honesty in the book is shocking to people. I got hate mail for a few of the poems inside, no kidding. A poem called “Once I Did Kiss Her Wetly on the Mouth,” which delves a little bit into the erotics of the mother-child relationship, was reprinted on Poetry Daily and the editor, Don Selby, forwarded me emails from readers who called me a pervert and a sicko. The emails hurt my feelings for a little bit, but I got over it.
You wrote Tender Hooks because you wanted to better understand the questions. Did you accomplish this goal? Have the questions become clearer or more complex?
When my husband and I received our long-for news, that I was pregnant, I was elated. And then, increasingly, nervous. As the youngest child in my family, I hadn’t spent much time around children, and I began to consider all the things I didn’t know.
I tackled my sprouting fears like the ex-Girl Scout and A student that I was: I did research. But the research failed me. Although I read every parenting book out there--I studied for motherhood like a Ph.D. exam--I was unprepared for what it would really be like to become a mother, which is much weirder and wilder and deeper and funnier that hinted at in any book by any pediatrician.
Take, for example, breastfeeding. One book discussed the pro and cons. Another analyzed techniques such as the “football hold.” But the complex emotional journey--the breasts morphing from sexual appendage to twenty-four hour diner, the husband’s feelings of superfluity at meal time, or the occasional almost sexual pleasure the mother receives from breastfeeding--well, these things were never discussed.
In the weeks that followed my daughter’s birth, through the wooly fog of sleep deprivation and a body slowly mending after ripping at the seams, I became fascinated not just with the little life we had created but with all the aspects of motherhood that surprised and awed and humbled. I wanted to investigate my questions, and for me, the best method of investigating the soul has always been poetry. So I wrote poems, trying to avoid the obvious danger of sentimentality, which sweetens and simplifies and therefore lessens our understanding of human nature. Of course, being a mommy is tremendously sweet; it’s also tremendously funny, and I wanted to explore that a bit, too. Was I alone in nibbling the rolls of fat beneath my daughter’s neck and then thinking that the expression I could eat you up is no hyperbole, and a little frightening? Was I the only mother who felt jealous when my child came home from day care smelling like another woman’s perfume? Was I alone in thinking that being around a newborn was turning me stupid? Alone in my ambivalence when packing away my passport and fishnets, or when seeing my child grow out of her footie pajamas, because part of me wants to keep her small forever?
Now of course I still have questions, there are just different ones. But I think the articulating and understanding the search and its importance is perhaps more important than reaching definitive answers.
You write with compassion, balanced with a sense of humor when looking at the world. How important is humor in daily life? In the writing life?
Humor has always been important in my daily life--one reason I fell in love with Tommy, for example, is because he makes me laugh. And one reason why I love being around my daughter so much is because she makes me laugh, we share a lot of laughter as a family. But only recently did I start allowing humor to creep into my poems. I think before I was worried about proving myself to be a serious writer, and humor it seemed might get one dismissed as a poetaster. But gradually I began to understand I like in a poem what I like in a friend--the ability not to take oneself too seriously.
Have you considered other forms of writing, short stories, or novels?
Most people find fiction more acceptable than poetry in that one can make money with it, and it’s not quite so high brow and threatening to the average person. But I think poetry really needn’t be so threatening, and people could really love poetry if the right poetry was presented to them in the right way. Maybe what poetry really needs is an advertising campaign.
I love fiction, love to read it, read it every day. But poetry, I believe, is a higher art form. Terrible to confess, but true. Sometimes fiction writer pals, after reading my poetry, say “You could write fiction!” Which always strikes me as cute and just maybe a little egotistical. If I could live to be a thousand years old, I’d give a few decades to fiction, sure. But how many years will I have? Not enough to “master” poetry, or even come close. As Chaucer said, “The lyf so shorte, the craft so long to lerne.” So mostly I think I’ll stick with poetry and do the best I can, besides writing some essays..
Are you working on another book of poetry? Can you share something about it?
I am working on a third book, but I can't say I know the shape of it yet. I do know that the poems will seek the explore how landscape affects psychology.
I also have a nonfiction book that will be published by W. W. Norton in spring of 2006. The book is epistolary--a collection of letters I wrote a very dear former student who was visiting my house with her husband and discovered she was pregnant. They were both only 22 and scared of the responsibility. And they were moving to Alaska for the year, far away from their support groups. So I promised to write her letters and give her advice and thoughts about motherhood. Now these letters have been collected into a volume that I think will be called Great With Child.
Have you any advice for those who want to write poetry?
Read and write every day. Apprentice yourself to the great poets through intense study. Have faith in yourself. Do not stop writing poems.
That's my main advice--the other thing I would mention is that I think one of the best things a young writer can do is travel. It certainly was for me. Living in a different culture, learning languages--it’s a great way of testing oneself. Somehow time spent living in a different culture is like “dog” time--one day there is worth seven here, in terms of the growth one can experience. Travel takes us out of our everyday ways of seeing; it wipes the cobwebs from our eyes and ears. And this is great for poetry. When I was younger, I’d go anywhere, anytime. I never had any money, but I always figured out a way. Now that I’m an old married woman, I’m a lot choosier because I like to be around my family. But I still get out of the country every year, and always will, I hope. Sometimes we let Claire visit her grandparents if we’re taking a trip overseas--we’re lucky to have a great extended family.
Beth Ann Fennelly teaches at the University of Mississippi and lives in Oxford. Her previous book, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and was a Booksense Top Ten poetry pick.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Tender Hooks: Poems (see accompanying review), about her book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2005.