Enduring Discovery: Marriage, Parenthood, and Poetry

by Brenda Shaughnessy and Craig Morgan Teicher

The Literary Life

Posted 8.31.12

September/October 2012

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A COUPLE OF POETS

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.

 

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Comments

saegraham says...

Thanks for sharing your story. A friend of mine suffered a placental abruption and ensuing emergency delivery--my difficulties were minor comparatively--but I was shocked to find out that issues related to oxygen deprivation can happen in 1-2 cases out of 1,000. (I didn't give it too much thought before I gave birth being naively preoccupied with epidural related paralysis cases in the mother, but assumed the chances were more like 1 in a million.) The chance/proximity of morbity and injury was probably the most shocking thing about being pregnant and giving birth--as there's usually such feeling of distance from radical injury or life-change for youngish people--and of course a universal possibility we dip into with every pregnancy. I really enjoyed hearing your story about how to fit writing in and don't know to what extent you want your book tours to become awareness raising endeavors/ medical explications though I imagine it might become a venue for these types of discussions depending on the audience. In any case, I look forward to reading more and am sure it will provide an avenue for reflection on the fragile veil between health and injury, and the surprising gifts and lessons this challenge brings for all of us. Bon courage to your both!

Robben says...

By including our telling of the stories of our having children of our own, and those times that were given to memory, that had made our struggles seem hopeless. When what we wanted from our childhoods was to live a different life than the one's we had. As we found that our hopes in what lay ahead could restore the trust we bestowed to one another.

slbphoenix says...

Hi,

I loved this article in that it brought back to me how much I love to write - how I used poetry as a young girl to find a way to deal with the abuse and suffering I was going through.  

As an adult, I write many things.  At age 61, I am still hoping and desiring to publish my first novel.  It is a path that is slow, but sure.  I started with a blog, 'Live And Love With Passion', then freelance writing, along with starting my novel.

I wish you much success with your books, and thank you for giving me this inspiration.  

Sally Brown

Annetherese says...

I'm looking forward to the publication of your new poetry, and I must say what an inspiration you are to me and all parents who have disabled children!  I wish you great success!

dreyes says...

Whenever I see a couple that has a special needs kid, I get a lump in my throat and wonder if I would have the inner strength to do what they are doing. These two inspired me enough to register an account here just to applaud them. 

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