By Nancy Reddy
LSU Press poet Nancy Reddy reflects on how she came to accept that, at times, the “speaker” and the “poet” are one and the same. She also discusses exploring that relationship in her new poetry collection, Pocket Universe, which examines the fears and joys of motherhood.
One of the earliest rules of my education in poetry was this: you never assume the poet is the speaker of the poem. So, when you talk about someone’s writing in workshop, you never say, Oh, how could you say that about your father? Or, Why did you do that awful thing to your sister? The rule is meant to keep the focus on the craft and to keep readers from making assumptions about the writer. It draws a veil over the poet; some version of the poet may or may not be speaking but you can’t quite see.
For years, I wrote in the freedom of that guide. It allowed me to write the darkest things—some out of my own life, some out of history or imagination, or an amalgamation of influences—and sit in workshop, confident that everyone around me at the table would talk about “the speaker” and not speculate (out loud, at least) about my inner life or what I was confessing through my writing. And in writing my first book, Double Jinx, I needed that freedom to experiment, to try on new voices and speak in a way I couldn’t in my waking life among my friends. I think of those speakers now as refracted versions of my own voice, like the multiple and split images a kaleidoscope produces.
But the veil of the speaker can also become a gag. And, wildly enough, it was a tweet by the poet and novelist Ruth Madievsky with an image of a real alligator riding an inflatable alligator that helped crystallize my thinking about the line between the speaker and the poet. Captioned “When I say I’m not the speaker of my poems,” the tweet struck a chord, with more than five hundred retweets and nearly three thousand comments (nearly all poets feeling deeply seen by the joke), and a host of spin-off images.
While the clear distinction between speaker and poet had previously felt like license, this joking image—and the admission that for many of us the line between speaker and poet is a bit blurrier than the workshop rule would have it—liberated me to say, about the collection I was then writing, the poems that became my new book, Pocket Universe, that I am the speaker. Pocket Universe is, at its heart, a book about early motherhood—but more specifically, it’s a book about my experience of early motherhood, how my sons’ births tore me open and made me vulnerable to the terror and wonder of the world. It took me years to write, in part, because it was hard to admit I was writing about motherhood, which still feels like a stigmatized subject in poetry, one that’s often assumed to be sweet or sentimental or marginal. I didn’t want to risk being sidelined as a mommy poet.
One reason that the rule about the poet vs. the speaker of the poem has been important is that writing that’s apparently personal—especially when done by women or marginalized writers, anyone whose experiences are perceived as particular rather than universal—can so easily be dismissed as autobiographical or confessional. And these poems are not just a decanting of my life onto the page. They’re not diary entries. They’ve been shaped and crafted. This work took years. I spent a summer reading histories of birth to write “In the Hôtel-Dieu,” the first poem of the book. To write “Spooky Action at a Distance,” I spent another summer reading about Einstein’s theory by that name trying to understand the way my whole being felt porous and vulnerable after my son’s birth. I wrote at least twice the number of poems that ultimately made it into the book. I cut poems I feared might harm people close to me, or where I felt the story was ultimately not mine to tell. I omitted poems that weren’t good enough or weren’t doing anything new.
But you can hear, certainly, how I’m getting defensive as I describe the poems. There’s research in them and there’s craft. But they also contain my heart, some of the most tender and vulnerable moments of my earliest years as a mother. And I think there’s power in that, too, in saying, I am that speaker, standing in the dark with the crying baby. I am that woman, ripped open and tilting hard toward joy. There’s value, I believe, in sharing those hard things in a clear voice and standing behind them.
When I think about me vs. the speaker in the poems now, I think this: a good poem is never merely autobiographical or personal. But also: there’s nothing mere about my life, or yours.
Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx, a winner of the National Poetry Series, and coeditor of The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.
Nancy Reddy’s Pocket Universe explores how the world becomes more wondrous and more perilous in the permanent after of parenthood. The collection begins in the public hospitals in sixteenth-century Paris—where women giving birth were as likely to die of fever as go home with healthy newborns—travels through the dizzying world of Instamommies and celebrities who effortlessly got their body “back” after baby, and ends with children singing at a bounce-house birthday party. Poems set those intimate, ostensibly domestic matters against weighty questions about human origins, our place in the universe, and the pervasive historical and present-day violence against mothers and children.