Q&A: Ehrlich Speaks to Mother-Writers

Susannah Nevison

Lara Ehrlich, author of the short story collection Animal Wife (Red Hen Press, 2020), has a deep narrative investment in the ways the world denies women power and agency. In October 2020 that commitment took a new shape with the first episode of her podcast, Writer Mother Monster, a much-needed balm for those of us balancing mothering and writing in the midst of a global pandemic. Aimed at dismantling the myth that women can “have it all,” her podcast is a series of interviews with mother-writers working in all genres, at varied points in their careers, who candidly discuss the joys and complications of that dual identity. Ehrlich, herself a mother-writer—her daughter turns five this year—spoke about what she has gleaned from these exchanges and how they’ve influenced her own approach.

How did you start Writer Mother Monster? Are there other podcasts about mothering and writing that helped frame your approach?
I’ve always wanted to be a Writer with a capital “W” and I’d absorbed the message—both subliminal and overt—that motherhood extinguishes creativity. When my husband and I started talking in earnest about having a family, I began to ask writer-moms, “How do you prioritize your children and your work?” That question has persisted and taken on different forms: the experience of writer-motherhood was different when I was pregnant than when I had a newborn than when I was chasing after a toddler. Writer-motherhood means a constant reevaluation of the question: How do we mother and write? As Lori L. Tharps said on a recent episode, “Your books want all of you, and your kids want all of you.”

In the midst of this questioning, I looked for podcasts that offered solidarity through personal stories, deep dives into craft, and actionable parenting and writing advice. There are podcasts about parenting, writing, working motherhood, and motherhood and creativity—but I was unable to find one specifically for writer-moms. I started the podcast I wanted to see in the world. I imagined other women were probably longing for the same thing I was, so I brought the conversations I was having with other writer-moms to a public forum.

My favorite literary podcast is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, now hosted on the Tin House platform. While Between the Covers isn’t a mothering-writing podcast, David’s generous, insightful conversations draw out how each author’s lives intersect with—and often nourish—their craft. I study his interviewing style to prepare for my own conversations with guests.

What are the dangers inherent in telling writer-mothers “you can have it all”? How does your podcast deconstruct that myth?
The superwoman myth is so damaging. Like many women I grew up believing: “I’m a liberated woman; I can have a career and a family and pursue my passion.” When I became a mother I realized that’s impossible. The cost of day care is prohibitive, women are still paid less than our male counterparts, and we carry the mental load at home. The more we think we should be doing, the more inadequate we feel because we can’t possibly do it all. Then we’re bombarded with the message that we’re bad mothers, bad employees, and bad wives. We’re monsters. I try to deconstruct that myth by breaking down, reexamining, and embracing qualities that in women have long been considered monstrous, like selfishness, desire, ambition, and ferocity. Each guest has embraced the monstrous in different and equally illuminating ways, and we support one another in confronting the superwoman ideal of doing everything perfectly all the time. As Amy Shearn said in the first episode, “So much of being creative is giving up control and letting in a little bit of wildness.”

Writer Mother Monster powerfully refuses to address writing and mothering as mutually exclusive jobs. How do you center conversations about motherhood and writing without diminishing the importance of either identity?
The central message of Writer Mother Monster is just that: We can be mothers and writers, and both roles are vital to our selfhood. The prevailing message in our society is that motherhood is paramount; if we want also to write, then we should squeeze it in around everything else or make room by sacrificing our sleep rather than our work or our time with family. 

Nearly all the authors I’ve spoken to have said they feel guilt and shame when prioritizing their craft, when closing the door and asking—or demanding!—time and space for their creative pursuits. Everyone’s situation is different, and closing the door is not possible for all women, but the metaphor of the closed door holds so much power, in whatever form it takes—even if it’s claiming a corner of the dining room table to write for ten minutes a day. I loved in one episode when Lyz Lenz said, “You’re not stealing time; that time belongs to you. Take it, and don’t apologize for it, because your contributions to this world matter. You as a full human being matter.”

Many Writer Mother Monster authors have talked about the importance of modeling for our children that we are whole people with lives independent of their wants and needs. Beth Ann Fennelly’s son played with Lego toys in the back of her lectures and Ann Hood took her children on book tours. Now that her kids are older, Ann says they appreciate her work: “They’re proud because they know it’s hard to be a writer, that you sit with nothing and you make something.” And our writing may even offer our children insight into their own humanity, as poet Tzynya Pinchback said: “It’s overwhelming to think that my daughter is going to see me splayed out, writing about my flawed decisions, but it’s great for her to understand that there’s no perfect way to be a mom or a woman or a human.”

Writer Mother Monster often illustrates the surprising ways mothering and writing are profoundly connected. In what ways is this true for you?
For a long time I aspired to write the Great American Novel, trying to emulate Hemingway and Faulkner and other dead white guys. Writing about women, writing from a woman’s perspective, seemed at once insignificant and too raw. Everyday life was too humble to be the subject of worthy literature. Obviously, I was wrong. Like many, I grew up reading the canon as determined by the patriarchy, and I was reading neither books by women nor books about everyday life. It’s worth noting that of course not all books by women are about everyday life, and not all books about everyday life are by women—but that’s a prevailing myth. As I got older and my life became complicated in all the best ways—and some very challenging ways—by career and marriage and children, I began to realize that drama is not found only in the subjects of War or Love or Death. There is nothing more dramatic than motherhood, no one more heroic than a mother.

Many of the writers you’ve interviewed say that motherhood has reshaped their approach to writing women and women’s stories. Has motherhood changed your understanding of narrative power?
Motherhood has deepened my women characters and complicated my approach to narrative structure. This shift coincided with the birth of my daughter, in the middle of writing the stories that would go on to become Animal Wife. I began exploring women who claim more than one role in the world and experimenting with new-to-me narrative styles like flash fiction and fragmentation.

Something Rachel Zucker said in her episode stuck with me, “Prose, poetry, memoir, short story, creative nonfiction, essay, lyric essay, audio transcription—there was no one of those that was adequate to describing the experiences of motherhood. How do you communicate experiences that are internal or external, in the body, in the subconscious, the way you have the running tape in your mind all the time? The novel wasn’t really invented for that material.” Motherhood has revealed to me at once the power of my own stories and the limitations inherent in communicating the inexpressible. And isn’t that what it means to be a writer? 

Read a selection of the best insights and pieces of advice offered on Writer Mother Monster, curated by Lara Ehrlich specifically for Poets & Writers Magazine.


Susannah Nevison is the author of the poetry collections Teratology (Persea Books, 2015), Lethal Theater (Ohio State University Press, 2019), and, in collaboration with Molly McCully Brown, In the Field Between Us (Persea Books, 2020). She teaches at Sweet Briar College.

Twelve Pieces of Advice for Mother-Writers




In the May/June 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Susannah Nevinson interviewed writer Lara Ehrlich about hosting Writer Mother Monster, a podcast featuring conversations with mother-writers. To complement the interview, Ehrlich curated the following selection of the best insights and pieces of advice offered on the podcast since it premiered in October 2020.

Claim and honor your time. “It’s tempting to feel that any time you take for yourself, you’re taking away from your child. That can be heartbreaking,” says Blair Hurley. “But it’s important for children to see their mother valuing herself and valuing her work. And it’s important to have unfettered time, however you manage it, and to do your best to honor that time and only focus on writing.”

Take baby steps. When working toward a goal, whether it’s a short story or an epic novel, Liz Harmer establishes a routine with manageable steps. “I’m just going to finish a story. And then I’m going to finish another story. As time passes, you end up with fifteen or twenty stories. The habit perpetuates itself.” 

Abandon the pursuit of perfection. “You will not be perfect, you will not have a perfectly clean house, you will not have a rigid schedule—no,” says Carla Du Pree. “It’s not going to be perfect, but life isn’t either, and neither is writing. Quite frankly, that first draft is usually horrible.”

Find fifteen minutes a day. “I realized when I was pumping—that was fifteen minutes. It was terrible writing, but I was exercising a muscle in the dark,” says Jennifer Chen. “All those fifteen-minute sessions gave me the muscle to write as fast as possible without thinking, ‘I don’t know if this is good.’ I just did it. I don’t have time for self-doubt.” 

Value your work if you want others to value it. “Work—and your passion—don’t always make money. We will not be valued unless we value ourselves and what we’re doing, and I always saw the value in my writing time,” says Ann Hood. “If you see your writing as worthwhile, then it is.” 

Redefine writing. The concept that an author is only at work if she is hunched over a desk is old-fashioned and limiting, especially for new mothers. “What works best for me is when I read books that are in conversation with what I’m working on. That feels like I’m touching the work,” says Katie Gutierrez. “It’s also giving myself permission to daydream and to use those daydreams as [part of] touching the work.”

Don’t strive to be superwoman. “There’s never going to be enough time for everything, and I just have to make peace with that,” says Daria Polatin. “I’m always probably going to feel like I’m not doing enough in a certain area, whether it’s this project or that project or my son or my husband. There’s only so much pie, you know?”

Write true. In experiencing and writing about the loss of a child Shannon Gibney says, “I feel deeply that if you’re writing and you’re not telling the truth, I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth we’ve been tasked to document. Sometimes it might feel too heavy, and sometimes it might be too heavy. That’s just how it is.”

Prioritize writing. Lyz Lenz says, “My writing is my career, and it is a priority, and that means it’s a priority over folding clothes, it’s a priority over raking the lawn, it’s a priority over all those things that we somehow think we need to do that are really just ancillary to the task of living.” 

Embrace the joy of work. Many mothers feel as though we must assure our kids we’d rather be with them than working. But why make it out to be a chore? Rachel Zucker says, “I’ve been trying to do a better job of telling my kids how much I love to work and not feel horribly guilty about it.” 

It’s okay not to write. “If it’s becoming too difficult, it’s okay to take breaks, especially when you first have a kid and they’re really dependent on you,” says Elle Nash. “They’re really little for a very short period of time. If you need to take that break and spend that time with them, that’s 100 percent okay.”

Just show up. “The contract I have with myself is to be at my desk and in the right mental space, which means I cannot have checked e-mail, I cannot have looked at internet banking,” says Beth Ann Fennelly. “I go to my desk as close to my dream life as possible. If I’m there, and nothing happens—if I can’t write, that’s fine. I was there. That’s all I asked of myself. I’ll try again the next day.” 

Enduring Discovery: Marriage, Parenthood, and Poetry


Brenda Shaughnessy and Craig Morgan Teicher


Finding a poet in New York City is like shooting fish in a barrel, but finding one who’s a kindred spirit, a romantic partner, and a writer you truly admire is more like landing Moby Dick in your third-floor Brooklyn walk-up. We probably met four or five times at various poetry venues and milieus—the Poetry Society of America, Columbia University, Poets House, and the venerable poet’s haunt Café Loup—before we ended up talking deeply over the stacks of poetry submissions we were both reading for Tin House magazine and then over dinner. We fell for each other quickly and were married almost two years later.

Shortly thereafter, Craig’s first book, Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, won the Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing, and Brenda found—after much anxiety—a publisher for her second book, Human Dark With Sugar (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). Thus feeling sufficiently productive, we decided to reproduce. We were excited for a year of new beginnings, but our lives changed in a completely unexpected way with the birth of our first child. After a healthy pregnancy with no complications, our son suffered a catastrophic brain injury at delivery. This devastated all of us, and changed everything. All those dreams and feelings that new parents generally share were for us replaced by absolute terror and anguish and endless questions.

Cal had a radically nontypical infancy, and in our impassioned new role as parents we learned how to be tougher than we ever thought possible, because our son needed us to be. We were thrust into a complex world of therapies, specialists, and medicines, but it was the uncertainty that would keep us up at night. The only thing we knew for sure about Cal was that we were utterly crazy about him. We adore him. He’s our hero. Our beautiful, amazing boy is now five years old and he has severe cerebral palsy. He’s nonambulatory, nonverbal, and has a smile that lights up a room like nothing else. Yes, we’ve been through hell, but we’ve had this angelic, loving, marvelous child with us the whole time.

In no small way our love of and commitment to poetry—especially to each other’s—has enabled us to remain hopeful, joyful, and most of all, imaginative through some of the most challenging experiences any parent, or any couple, could face. Poetry has been one of the major forces that strengthen our family.

As poets, as individuals, we write separately. As a couple, we compose privately and then engage each other in revising and critiquing. But this year we have the unusual privilege of publishing poetry collections at the same time: Craig’s second, To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions), and Brenda’s third, Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press), will both be released this month. But these books share more than just a pub date; they share a family, describe a marriage, and navigate an excruciating crisis, accessing these common experiences through two very different portals. The poetics of To Keep Love Blurry and Our Andromeda are, to each other, foreign currency, though they reveal two sides of the same coin. The books deal with many of the same subjects: our marriage, our young son’s injury and disability, the relationship of art to life, the lessons of growing up, and intense pain, bittersweet acceptance, and big joy. Needless to say, we each deal with it all radically differently. Craig’s style is extremely formal in this book, a real departure for him, while Brenda wrote a few poems that are much longer than anything she’s ever attempted before.

We root for each other’s work, which is good because these books delve into our shared private lives. We are also genuinely nervous for that same reason. We’ve thought a lot about the way poetry fits into and shapes our marriage and our daily lives and we want to share some of what we’ve discovered.


We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.


We’d always heard it was ill advised for a poet to couple up with another poet. The main two reasons—and who could argue—are that poets are notoriously competitive and that poets are notoriously poor. A poet should wed a banker, and if no banker is available, and the poet simply must be with another “creative,” then a suitable commercial-fiction writer will do. For us, there wasn’t an option. Who else but another poet would have us?

Brenda: I love being married to a poet, especially since Craig and I don’t compete with each other. Not because we’re so evolved that we’re immune to that pitfall, but because we’ve simply never tried to catch the same wave. Craig and I met when he was a very new writer, and I was trying to find a publisher for my second book. So although we were in different spots in our writing careers, we both happened to be in really vulnerable places. I think we felt protective of each other and wanted to be nurturing. His first book, Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, was published in 2007, and my first book, Interior With Sudden Joy, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999. He’s always been so unwaveringly supportive of my writing, and I believe deeply in his work. It’s not complicated. I think Craig is an incredible poet, and this book is his finest yet. I feel lucky to be a part of his process, lucky to be the “Brenda” in his poems.

Craig: Frankly, I always imagined marrying a poet. The time I started to get seriously interested in girls coincided with the time I began to get seriously interested in poetry. Or, because in the dark depths of my roiling teenage heart I never imagined I would get married, I imagined crashing and burning with another poet aflame by my side. I never actually dated anybody who didn’t write poems. As a teenager and as a college student, I thought of poetry writing as a habit that set me apart from other people, the thing I did that made me special (I was no good at baseball). As I got older, it became clear that poetry’s real importance in my life had little to do with feeling unique. It had very little to do with what others thought and everything to do with the simple fact that writing was so meaningful to me that I wanted to organize my life around it.

Poetry demands a lifestyle that can be hard to share with another person: lots of quiet time, lots of frenzied conversation sparked by frequent epiphanies, bookshelves threatening to squeeze out all the people in the home. Most poets lead double lives, doing one thing to earn a living (even if it’s teaching poetry or editing reviews of poetry books) and then having a writing life in the evenings. Poet couples have to make accommodations for that. What I never imagined was this: If poetry was an unusual habit, then I would need to find a partner with whom it could be normal. I didn’t want to be the only poet in the house.

I can’t imagine spending my life with someone who doesn’t have the poem-making bug. It’s simply about priorities that are fundamentally in sync. For instance, I was having trouble writing my part of this essay. Finally, today, after our son had his preschool graduation ceremony and after I taught our one-year-old daughter to put the animals back into her plush barn, Brenda sent me off to our writing studio for the night.

Brenda: This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives.

Craig: It’s a magical place about a fifteen-minute walk from where we live, with desks and a daybed and wall decals of foxes and birches and other things that remind us of the woods at MacDowell Colony, where we’ve both spent time; it’s also stocked with books of poetry. With two kids, one of them medically fragile, we don’t get away very often. It’s hard sometimes to remember that we are writers, and, in addition to being parents, we are also people who met and fell in love with each other. So we rent this little place, this little fantasy place that we decided is a priority, where we can go and remember who and what we are and want to be, where we can be writers first and foremost. The only person who would agree to prioritize such an expensive indulgence of time and space is another writer.

Brenda: We both have this desire, this need, to write and to transform the feelings and experiences of daily life into poetry. It keeps us on the same page in all kinds of literal and figurative ways. The ordinary daily stresses of what’s institutionally called “work-life balance” are intense enough; factoring in disturbance or crisis, any household could easily capsize into chaos and despair. There are times when Craig and I are both really sad about our son’s injury and ongoing health and developmental struggles, and other times when we feel only one of us is allowed to grieve or be angry at a time, because the other adult has to keep an even keel. Still other times we’re just dancing around joyfully, or stressed and busy, or fully engaged with our kids, our jobs, our friends—our lives. Writing is a potent and renewable resource. We always have a blank page to turn to, an at-home reader to trust, and any number of new ideas to bounce around. Our lives are intertwined with kids and friends, caregivers and schools and doctors and specialists, and throughout all of it there’s this running conversation about literature, about poetry. Lately we’ve been reading the work of Jorie Graham together, marveling at poetry as if for the first time and finding new ways to describe its beauty and brilliance.



Brenda is a recurrent theme in Craig’s poems; Craig appears very rarely, and only glancingly in Brenda’s work, even though both books describe the same home life. That got us thinking about why we each transform essentially the same material into such different kinds of poems.

Brenda: I wrote a lot of love poems in my first book. Most of them were only possible because my relation to those objects of desire was already a thing of the past. The love poems in Interior With Sudden Joy were grief-stricken celebrations of love lost. Some of the love poems in my second book, Human Dark With Sugar, were swan songs to exes. I don’t feel the same compulsion to render Craig in text and metaphor because he hasn’t disappeared. He’s there day in and day out. There is no anguished longing, no poetical need to conjure the lost love, no “tonight I can write the saddest lines,” because my relationship with Craig is one in which we communicate and touch and laugh and experience so much together. Why would I write about Craig? My occasions to write are when I am trying to catch something fleeting. If a lover has fled me, that situation yields so much for me. If an emotion eludes me—a dream, a yearning for my child’s good health, certainty, adventure, and all the possibilities—I write about those things precisely because I can’t have them. Barthes, Freud, and others say that desire is predicated on lack, we must lack the things we desire. We cannot desire that which we already have. There must be some distance between wanting and getting, and that distance is called desire. I am not saying I don’t desire my husband. I do. He’s utterly adorable to me. I’m saying I don’t have to bridge the gap between him and me in poetry.

I don’t “not have” Craig, so he doesn’t show up in my poems, that place I’ve always thought of as a sacred new world, a place where I could make real what isn’t. Poetry is a place where I can be a gust of wind and a spark and the scene that turns them into a fire, and I can also be the firefighter who saves the sleeping people from the conflagration, and the voice that tells the reader why the whole scenario exists at all, and then I can disappear. I can disappear in what never happened, what only happened because I wrote it. Poetry is where I write my wishes and fears and alternate existences. My husband is, to my delight, true and real and of this plane of existence, and so I am free to imagine other realities.

Craig: I want to say that in this book Brenda is a character and Cal is a character and my dad and my mom are characters. And, of course, that is absolutely true. Yet I also use their real names. I use Brenda’s name a lot. I describe events that actually happened. In one long poem, there’s an episode in which, while assembling a coatrack from Ikea, I drop a piece inside another piece, losing it, and Brenda blows up at me and I respond in kind. That actually happened, and it seems to me a fairly accurate portrayal of how things are with us when we get stressed out.

However, the versions of Brenda, of Cal, of anyone in this book are not so much characters as caricatures. They are exaggerated, overblown, and inaccurate in meaningful ways. I wrote about real people so that I could see how I felt about them, how I felt not all the time but sometimes. But writing about real people makes the poem feel alive to me. I’m aware that I risk offending or hurting the people I write about—for instance, please don’t tell my dad about this book. He would not find my portrayals flattering.

Brenda: Perhaps. But more likely it’s not for you to predict or know.

Craig: What I mean is that one of the reasons the stakes in these poems feel high is because they risk intruding on my real life. That gives them a sense of urgency. People may be led to think that Brenda and I fight a lot more than we do. People may think I have a lot less fun with my kids than I do. People are going to think, if they take this book as autobiography, that I am an obnoxious self-aggrandizing jerk. I’m not, I swear! I’m a dad who has written a funky version of Old MacDonald to play for his son and daughter over and over and over. It’s hardly the stuff of poetry, which isn’t supposed to be happy! Poetry is not the forum for problems with solutions! For that, we have television.

Robert Lowell was the patron saint of my book. There’s no better exemplar of how experience can be made meaningful, even metaphoric, through poetry than he. He understood, deeply, that a powerful kind of drama arises when a poem seems to be reporting from life while in fact it reports from the imagination. He was often very cruel in his poems—look at “To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage,” an extraordinary sonnet that is recklessly self-critical and aggrandizing at the same time—but he was really using the material of his lived life as a point from which to extrapolate, from which to exaggerate. He did some violence with his art that I’m not willing to do. When I write about Brenda or Cal, it’s not them, but feelings about them (perhaps not even feelings I really feel) at one particular moment—most often an imagined moment—that I’m describing. And yet those imaginary feelings help me see my real feelings clearer. Poetry is also the place where I let my demons graze: In a poem, my worst selves can act out all they want.

Of course, my poems are also a kind of perpetual valentine to Brenda. She has become, in a very practical sense, my muse: It’s through imagining her that I get to my best poetry. I call that a lucky marriage.

Brenda: It’s funny. Even though Craig wrote that poem about the Ikea coatrack, and of course I’ve read the poem and was also there for the actual event, I never noticed the symbolic meaning of what happened. You dropped one piece inside the other, losing it. We were moving apartments, if you recall, in complete upheaval, recombining our lives and all our belongings, renegotiating space. Remember how stressful it was to feel we were dropping ourselves inside the other, losing ourselves in the other person. The purchase of the coatrack was supposed to provide a solution to the entryway space problem, and instead it exposed nerves.

And then you say I “blow up,” or another way of putting that is I exploded or exposed that pent-up anxiety, releasing that unexpressed fear. But isn’t that just how it is: We need writing, a re-vision, to see what happened. It’s not enough to just live it, or to write it even once. Only now, upon revisiting that scene, is it clear what the stakes had been. Amazing. How do nonwriters know what happens? Or are things more obvious to them? Do we poets use our poetry to explain our lives and our feelings to ourselves? Or do we use it to avoid having to know these things in real life?


In her essay “Against Sincerity,” Louise Glück precisely delineates the difference between actuality (which she says is “the world of event”) and truth, which she defines as “illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art.” So, she goes on, “The artist’s task…involves the transformation of the actual to the true.” We have tried to make art of our experience, our marriage, our family, our consciousness, and our events. Glück adds, “The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.” But as we approach the publication of these books, our secrets still feel powerful, even frightening, and we also feel it is important that we expressed them, gave them the power of being spoken. We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.

Brenda: There was a very secret place I went to in writing the long poem about Cal (the title poem in Our Andromeda). I wrote it at Yaddo, which is of course a well-known place, but it has a magic key that opens up the secret place in oneself. With that key I gave myself permission to fantasize about a parallel world in which my son was not injured at birth, a world in which he’d been allowed to live in his own body without the pain and restriction of cerebral palsy. In the safe space of Yaddo, I let myself give into yearning for his would-be path. I let my imagination get deep into the bargaining and begging every mother does for the safety of her child. I was beseeching the only gods I know how to talk to, the gods of poetry, to give Cal back his body intact. Cal’s would-be path: I had to imagine, construct, create it. I had to write it to make it exist. It was perhaps the most perverse act of longing I’d ever committed. I’ve written so many poems about sexual longing—oh if only that person would return my love, or my lover would come back to me—and yet just a few years later, I no longer wish for those people. That erotic longing for those old beloveds, gone.

This longing is different. I’d give my eyeballs, my organs, or steal someone else’s, for Cal. It’s an entirely new order of love. Nothing approaches the hunger I have for Cal’s well-being and his wholeness, and it turns out I can only express it or address it imaginatively. Not even the fiercest mother love can turn time back to undo or prevent the injury already incurred. I’d do anything to change it and I’m powerless to do so. All I can do is write my ass off about how angry I am on his behalf, how devastated I am, and how grateful I am that my beautiful son exists. How proud of him and in love with him I am. I can write that reality. It too exists in the boundless space of poetry. And I discovered in writing through my pain and my fear that any fantasy child, some other would-be Cal, disappears. That conjured being can’t compare to my son. The beauty of my actual boy becomes so starkly apparent that it collapses any imaginative construction of that other boy. My very real Cal is a hero to me just as he is. Writing this book allowed me to see him clearly.

Craig: When it comes to writing about Cal, I feel profoundly uneasy about the idea that I might be, we might be, exposing him. Is it hurtful or naive to inscribe his existence in a way that he cannot yet understand and certainly can’t control or make decisions about? But writing about Cal does help us see him. Because of our son’s injury, we are forever wrestling with the what-ifs. Poetry is the only safe place in our family where we can, as Brenda says, follow those would-be paths to find that they lead us to a son, a life, we don’t recognize or truly wish for. Poetry gives us a place to keep our pain—we don’t say much in these books about all the fun we have, and not because we don’t have it—so that we can keep more of our joy in our lives, in our home.

Brenda: What happened to our baby is one of the most heartbreaking things that can happen to a family, but we are determined to see Cal and to experience him as a great source of love and strength and delight, a force of beauty all his own. He’s not just a boy with a diagnosis; he’s a boy with a fierce loving family who adores him, and he is our Cal, who has a delightfully wily sense of humor and more resilience than any of us. I think all parents need to see and to see reflected the full range of emotions that having a special-needs kid brings. It’s not just doctors, therapists, and paperwork; it’s also poetry and emotion and transformation and joy. One of my greatest hopes for our books is for parents of differently abled or special-needs kids to find them and wrest some comfort and companionship out of reading them, that others will find here the kind of solace, challenge, and nourishment we have always sought—and found—in poetry.

Brenda Shaughnessy
is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). She teaches at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of two books of poetry, including To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions, 2012), and one collection of stories. He works at Publishers Weekly and serves as a poetry editor for the Literary Review.

Lara Ehrlich (Credit: Fandom House Studio)

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  • April 13, 2021