What the Poets Could Have Been
What the Poets Could Have Been
"What the Poets Could Have Been" is from Julianna Baggott's first collection of poetry, This Country of Mothers, published in 2001. The poetry in this collection can best be defined as stories of family and of change and growth. These are poems of childhood, of parents and grandparents, of miscarriage and childbirth, and of the metamorphosis from daughter to mother. This collection is dedicated to Baggott's mother, Glenda, and to her daughter, Phoebe, which is appropriate, since the poems are drawn from Baggott's own memories of being a daughter and mother. "What the Poets Could Have Been" fits neatly into this collection of memories and transformation.
Like her novels, Baggott's poetry is autobiographical. "What the Poets Could Have Been" is from chapter four of the collection, which includes poems that do not seem to fit neatly into the other four chapters of this book. The poems in this chapter are about spirituality and religion, about death and torture during war, and about being a poet. What they all have in common, though, is the poet's response to events or people. "What the Poets Could Have Been" recognizes the journey that Baggott undertook in becoming a poet. In this poem, Baggott explores several aspects of the poet's creative process, including the importance of imagination and creativity in producing poetry. One important aspect of "What the Poets Could Have Been" is Baggott's conjecture regarding what poets might have done with their lives had they chosen different career paths. Baggott speculates on the role that poetry plays in the poet's life. She also wonders what poets would have done instead had they chosen not to write. She finally wonders if paying more attention to lectures in school might have made them more content.
Julianna Baggott was born on September 10, 1969, in Wilmington, Delaware, and was raised in the nearby town of Newark. Baggott attended Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she studied creative writing and French. While she was at Loyola, she also studied abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she received a certificate in language proficiency in 1990. After she completed a bachelor's degree in 1991, Baggott went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of North Carolina in 1994. Baggott soon married David Scott, who was also a creative writing student at North Carolina.
In 1998, Baggott received a call from an agent asking if she was interested in writing a novel, and so she turned a short story, "Girl Talk," into a novel by the same name, which was published in 2001. At the same time, Baggott had a collection of poetry ready for publication. "What the Poets Could Have Been" is one of the poems in This Country of Mothers, Baggott's first collection which appeared in 2001. These first two books were quickly followed by two more novels, The Miss America Family (2002) and The Madam (2003). In 2004, Baggott published her first children's novel under her pen name, N. E. Bode. Her children's novels, The Anybodies (2004), The Nobodies (2005), and The Somebodies (2006), were a huge success with young readers. However, Baggott returned to adult readers with another book of poetry in 2006, Lizzie Borden in Love: Poems in Women's Voices, and a novel, Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in Confession, written in collaboration with Steve Almond. Baggott's third book of poetry, Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees, was published in 2007.
Baggott has received a number of awards for her writing. Her first book of poetry, This Country of Mothers, received the Crab Orchard Award for Poetry in 2000. Her third novel, The Madam, was nominated for the National Book Award in 2003. In 2004, Baggott's children's book, The Anybodies, was nominated for the Mark Twain Award in Missouri, the Diamond State Award in Delaware, the Maine Student Book Award, the Master List for the Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Award, the Massachusetts' Children's Book Award, and the Nene Award in Hawaii. The Anybodies was as of early 2007 under development with Nickelodeon Movies at Paramount Studios.
Lizzie Borden in Love: Poems in Women's Voices was a 2006 nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. Baggott won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series Award for Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees. As of 2007, Baggott was teaching creative writing at Florida State University. She was living in Florida with her husband and their three children.
If every time their minds drifted,
they'd thought instead of a grocery list—
milk, eggs, shoe polish, liniment—
if they could have smelled lemon
and thought of lemons, not their mother's
if they'd been more attentive
to Mr. Twardus's lectures on manliness
while sanding garden boxes in shop class
and more exacting of the apron hem
in Mrs. Niff's home economics, 10
if they'd been, in some cases, just a little taller
and hadn't fallen so deeply in love each time,
hopping the fence to swim naked with a lover
in the county park pool, their buoyant bodies
the way words bubble to the mind's surface, 15
if there were, in general,
less shine, blueness, ticking,
less body and earth, they could have been
repressible, contented. Imagine Hudgins
your minister bent over chapel weeds;
your librarian reading travel books,
pictures of le Tour Eiffel spread open
on her desk; Shapiro your basketball coach,
his thick glasses sliding down his nose
as he calls you off the bench; Levine, 25
having stuck it out at Detroit Transmission,
now your father's boss, his face
lined hard, eyes squinting.
Imagine if they were your aunts and uncles,
as they drink beer on the back porch— 30
the simplest things make them happy—
you, for example, twirling your baton up
into the moonlit, mosquito-singing sky,
and all you must do—not this, not words—
is spin and try to catch it 35
in your unsteady, opening hand.
In "What the Poets Could Have Been," Baggott begins with the word, "if." She repeats this word several times in the first lines of the poem and uses this repetitive format to imagine what poets might have done, had they not been poets, had they been able to hold their minds in check and not let their thoughts drift beyond what was expected of them. The "if" is what might have been. The title of the poem makes clear that the subject is an exploration of what poets could have been, had they been different; it points to this poem's inquiry.
Baggott makes the differences between poets and other people clear in her opening lines. When the minds of people not destined to be poets are distracted, their thoughts turn to grocery lists. The minds of such people wander to commonplace errands of the day, trying to remember if they need milk and eggs or shoe polish. When most people smell the scent of lemons, they wonder if they need to buy more. But that is not true of the poet. According to Baggott, when poets smell lemons, they associate the scent with memories, in this case with a mother's hands that smelled of lemon. In the first line, Baggott refers to poets as a group of people who get distracted in similar ways. She repeats the use of plural pronouns throughout these first few lines, using "they'd" and repeating the use of "their" several times. Baggott suggests that poets share certain traits. The use of "if they'd" or "if they" establishes both the imaginative possibilities and the connectedness of all poets, who can be identified through their inability to be commonplace or like the majority.
In line 6, Baggott uses the conditional "if" to refer to those times when the poets' minds drifted in school, such as when the shop teacher, Mr. Twardus, lectures during shop class or when the home economics teacher, Mrs. Neff, expects careful attention to the hem of the apron being sewn. It is easy for a student's mind to wander from a teacher's lecture, and it frequently happens, but in these two examples, Baggott leads the reader to consider that for poets, this inability to pay attention to teachers is a sign of their creativity or of the talent that will be developed after high school. If the future poets had listened more in school, they might not have developed into poets later on.
Line 11 repeats the use of "if" to remind readers of yet another distraction, but "only in some cases." These words present yet another qualifier. If these future poets had been taller or less likely to fall deeply in love each time, if the world have been less tactile, with "less shine, blueness, ticking," then these people would have been "repressible, contented." In other words, they would not have developed into poets.
Future poets are impulsive in love; they jump the fence to "swim naked with a lover." When in the water, these kinds of lovers, their "buoyant bodies drifting up" to the surface, are inspired by words, which also "bubble to the mind's surface." Soon-to-be poets are the type of people who are spontaneous, intense, and impetuous; They abandon the ordinary and spring toward the unusual.
In these last three lines before the poem's first period, the poet provides of list of words, which are preceded once again by the word, "if." The list consists of sensory perceptions: the "shine" of the sun, the "blueness" of the sky, the "ticking" of the clock, as time passes. The poet sees and feels these things more vividly than those non-poets. "If there were … less" of these beautiful sensations, Baggott concludes that the potential poets might have been "repressible, contented."
Mid way through line 19, Baggott switches from the possibilities the lie before high school students to the realities of ordinary adult lives and work. The poet asks her readers to "imagine" adults engaged in ordinary work-related activity. In lines 19 and 20, the minister is weeding the church property; the librarian, who cannot take a trip to Paris, placates herself with a photograph of the Eiffel Tower; the coach with sweat on his face deals with the students; Levine has a lined face from having "stuck it out at Detroit Transmission." These adults have settled for less than perhaps what they hoped for.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Baggott's poetry is autobiographical. Make a list of at least seven to nine memories that are important to you. These should be the things that first come to mind when you think of your life. You might try to pick one or two items from each of the past several years. After you have a list, arrange them in order of importance. This order does not have to be chronological, but it can be. When you have brought some sort of order to your list, rewrite the list as a poem. Baggott's poem proposes that memories are interpreted differently by poets. After you complete your poem, write a brief critique in which you consider if your memories change when transformed into poetry.
- Select a poem by any nineteenth-century female poet and compare it to Baggott's poem "What the Poets Could Have Been." Compare such elements as content, theme, tone, and word choice. In your evaluation of these two works, consider the modernity of Baggott's poem. Do you think it is different in tone and content from the poem by the nineteenth century poet that you chose? How are the two poems similar or different?
- Take the first line of Baggott's poem "What the Poets Could Have Been," and use it as the first line of your own poem. Write a poem of at least twenty-five lines, using the same strategy of asking "what if" that Baggott uses. Choose a different career, perhaps that of movie star, politician, or singer, and create a poem exploring the kinds of traits that go into the career that you have chosen and how life would be different. Your poem should also incorporate a similar style. For instance, you should try to create a lengthy dependent clause that then leads into the main point of the poem, whatever that might be.
- Artists are often inspired by poets to create some of the most beautiful art imaginable. For instance, William Blake was inspired by John Milton's poetry to create illustrations of the poet's finest work, Paradise Lost. Spend some time looking through art books in the library and select a picture or illustration that you feel best illustrates Baggott's poem. Then, in an essay, compare the art that you have selected to the images that Baggott creates in her poem, noting both the similarities and the differences between the art and the poem.
- One of the best ways to learn about poetic form is to write poetry. Place yourself in Baggott's life or the life of any modern female poet whom you admire, and using her work as a guide, write at least one or two poems that imitate both her style, meter, and content. When you have completed your poems, write a brief evaluation of your work, comparing it to the poet's work. What have you learned about the difficulty of writing modern poetry?
- Baggott's novels are autobiographical and, in some cases, like poetry transformed into prose. Stories can also be transformed into poetry, which is what you will do. Instead of writing a research paper, this assignment asks you to write a research poem. Choose a famous woman from history and use at least one or two important events from her life to create a narrative poem about her. Remember that sometimes the most interesting poetry does not rhyme. Instead, try to use free verse to capture the emotion and intensity of this woman's life.
Baggott introduces the word "you" into the poem, and for the first time, she pulls the reader into the poem, making the poem about the reader as well as the poet. By using "you," Baggott offers readers a chance to see themselves as a youngster again, a high school athlete, a baton twirler, a future poet. Readers are given the chance to imagine themselves as a part of this new world, in which the possibilities lie in the future.
The first word of the third sentence of the poem, at line 29, is once again "Imagine." Finally, the poet moves away from the people who inhabit schools, church, library, and business, and asks the reader to imagine the poet's family. The family sits all together on the back porch. They are made happy by "the simplest things," sitting there together, smiling, drinking beer. They do not need much to make them smile—the company of family, a warm evening, a cold beer, and a twirling baton in the hands of a beloved child. They smile as they watch the child perform. They are made happier by watching the child's attempts to catch the baton, in her "unsteady, opening hand." The simple act of tossing the baton and catching is all that is required, but that is not enough for the child. Baggott inserts only a short phrase to suggest that for the child, the performance is not rewarding. The words, "not this, not words" reminds readers that the poet's words are not what is making the aunts and uncles smile, even as the tossing of the baton does not fulfill the child's dreams. These "words" demand more from the child than the act of twirling the baton.
The whole premise of Baggott's poem is that future poets are not like other people when they are young. Those people who are not poets do not let their minds drift; instead they do what is expected. They conform. But they are not poets, whose minds drift from lemons to their mother's lemon-scented hands. Poets let their minds drift at school, as well. They do not conform, as other so-called good students do. Poets are not "attentive / to Mr. Twardus's lectures on manliness," nor are they "exacting of the apron hem" in home economics class. Poets do not conform in matters of love either. Poets fall more "deeply in love each time," and they are impetuous as well, "hopping the fence to swim naked with a lover."
Poets fail to conform in other ways as well. For instance, in lines 17 through 19, Baggott suggests that if poets were less connected to the world around them, they would more easily be contented and repressed. But they are stimulated a lot by the sensations nature works, by the "shine, blueness, ticking." They feel their bodies too much to be repressed. For poets, the sun is more intense and the sky more blue. They see the world intimately and respond to it, and this responsiveness causes their edgy discontent and their inability to be repressed or held back. Poets cannot conform, and they cannot settle for less.
At line 19, Baggott asks her readers to "imagine" some very ordinary adults—the minister, the librarian, and the basketball coach, all working in their everyday, attending to their obligations. There is nothing ideal or special about what these adults are doing. The minister is weeding the chapel garden. The librarian, Lauterbach, may dream about Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower, but the closest she gets is the open book on her desk with a photo. Clearly, the minister and the librarian have aspirations and dreams, but these scenes suggest those dreams were unfulfilled.
The next two people are the basketball coach and a boss. The reader identifies more intimately with the poet and poem if he or she also recognizes people and events from his or her past. Baggott uses the second person, "your," in the final segment of the poem, transporting the reader back into childhood and into a family gathering. Using the pronoun, "your," the poet invites the reader to recall moments in childhood when the act of pleasing the family was not what the reader really wished for herself.
In "What the Poets Could Have Been," the poet-speaker takes readers on a journey of self-discovery, in which they imagine for a few moments the possibilities that exist for young people. She creates images of a world that is much more interesting for poets than for non-poets, and she leads readers to imagine different choices. Rather than the boredom of high school class, the poet escapes, letting his or her mind drift away from the drone of a teacher's lecture. This is an enviable escape that many readers will recognize. Instead of growing up to become one of those teachers, the young people whose minds
drift grow up to be poets. These are the kind of people who fall more "deeply in love each time," and they "swim naked with a lover / in the county park pool." Readers may not identify with these images, but they are invited to see the beauty in the ability to feel more deeply or behave more impetuously. The intensity of experience that Baggott describes, even if not what the reader desires, leads readers toward understanding how individuals develop as they do and how adult work gets chosen. Modern poets in particular want readers to see a new world that is different from the old. Readers who are able to visualize the poet's world can learn more about their own world and more about themselves.
End-stopped lines occur when a phrase or sentence ends at the end of a line with a mark of punctuation. In a few cases, such as at the end of lines two and three, Baggott uses a dash to signal a pause for the reader, but except for the dash, she rarely employs an end-stop, preferring instead to continue the thought into the next line.
Enjambment occurs when the grammatical sense of a line continues beyond the line's end into the next line. In this poem, Baggott uses enjambment to continue the thought through several lines, from the first line to line 19, where a period finally closes the opening thought.
Free verse is poetry with no predictable structure, rhyme scheme, or meter. Free verse allows the poet to fit the poetic line to the content of the poem. The poet is not restricted by the need to shape the poem to a particular meter but can instead create complex rhythm and syntax. Free verse is not the same as blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Free verse relies on line breaks and word choice to create the rhythm. Baggott's poem is an example of free verse. There is no pattern of rhyme or meter to "What the Poets Could Have Been," and instead, the irregular line breaks give the poem its rhythm, which is best appreciated by reading it aloud.
Line breaks are a defining element of poetry. They are one characteristic that is used to impart meaning or to place emphasis on an idea, to create a rhyme or rhythm, or to lend a specific appearance to the poem on the page. Baggott uses line breaks to create a brief pause and to emphasize ideas. The use of a line break at line 16 emphasizes the importance of the list of words that follows at line 17: "if there were, in general, / less shine, blueness, ticking." Line breaks are not the same as the use of the dash at line 34, where Baggott wants to create more tension and put more emphasis on the words "not this, not words." The line breaks force the reader's attention on those words, whose meaning is just the opposite of the words that come before and follow.
Repetition of a word, sound, or phrase is useful in emphasizing ideas in a poem. This stylistic device is one way to cue readers about what matters most. Baggott uses repetition to emphasize the idea that when other people are paying attention to some things, poets are distracted by other things, and in some cases, poets may look like they are not paying attention, but the fact is they are paying attention to what matters to them. For example, in the first line, the poet uses "drifted" to describe the poet's mind moving away from the immediate subject—not to what follows in the poem (a grocery list, for example) but something else not all that explicitly identified in the poem. The next time the poet uses this word, she describes the lovers' bodies in the pool, poetry (in the form of a metaphoric comparison) taking over in the phrasing: "their buoyant bodies drifting up / the way words bubble to the mind's surface." Here, the poet illustrates what in the first line a would-be poet's mind drifts to: it drifts to words "that bubble to the mind's surface," irrepressibly and naturally coming into consciousness to describe the sensations of the fully lived experience. This immediacy of words and experience explains why the high-school-age future poets' minds drift. The repetition cues readers to see the point not directly stated elsewhere in the poem.
Education and Hard Work
"What the Poets Could Have Been" was not published prior to its inclusion in This Country of Mothers, which was published in April 2001. Although the exact date of composition is unknown, it seems reasonable that the poem was probably composed late in the twentieth century, at some point close to its publication date. Baggott was readying her first collection of poems for publication against a backdrop of social, economic, and technological change.
The late twentieth century was a period of economic boom in the United States, and it was also a period that saw a greater emphasis on hard work, with U.S. citizens choosing to work longer hours and take fewer vacation days than workers in many other countries. This period also witnessed the birth of mass technology, with online use changing the way that people communicated with one another, shopped for clothing and other goods, or chose entertainment. While all this technology fed an economic boom, with low unemployment and huge growth in the stock market, for families the change was also felt in education. While the percentage of teens that completed high school rose significantly during the last years of the twentieth century, to a graduation rate of about 80 percent, the actual mechanics of education changed dramatically. It became clear that for many attending so-called brick and mortar schools was not the answer. Many parents decided that their children could be home schooled, and many others used online distance learning programs to augment traditional community schooling. There were special schools for teenagers who had become parents and special schools for troubled students who could not adapt to a traditional school setting. Some students wore uniforms and some students went to school year round. Unfortunately there were also school shootings, which reminded parents everywhere that not all schools were safe.
Baggott takes her readers back to high school and reminds them of shop class and home economics, and through a careful choice of words, she reminds readers of how bored students could be in class. It was not only poets whose minds drifted during these classes. But perhaps those who were attentive were, as Baggott proposes, more "repressible, [and] contented." Maybe those students did grow up to be more restrained and subdued, and maybe they were so controlled that they never thought about writing poetry. The use of the drug Ritalin increased dramatically in the 1990s as more students were diagnosed with attention deficit disorders, and teachers made more attempts to create "repressible, contented" students. Schools clearly had changed, but bored students had not, which accounts for the variety of options designed to keep students engaged in their education.
Dreams of Escape
In her poem, Baggott suggests different ways to escape mundane everyday life. The minister may escape in thought while he weeds the church garden. The librarian can imagine a dream escape to Paris while browsing through a picture book, and the basketball player gets called off the bench and is finally given the opportunity to play. Although life expectancy climbed to nearly seventy-seven years, in the United States many people spend more of that time at work. The International Labor Organization reported that by 1997, U.S. workers were working the longest hours of any workforce in a major nation of the world. U.S. workers put in 77 more hours per year than Japanese workers and 234 more hours than Canadian workers. U.S. workers also worked 234 more hours than workers in Germany and 567 more hours than workers in Norway. All of this extra work added to the stress of everyday living. Americans chose many different ways to escape the stress of late-twentieth-century life, and there were plenty of things to make life stressful.
Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, leading to Operation Desert Storm and the Gulf War. The Bosnian civil war in 1992 and the killing fields of Rwanda in 1995 proved that genocide did not end with the World War II Holocaust. Both the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 caused U.S. citizens to increasingly worry about terrorism, and in 1998, there was additional cause for concern when both Pakistan and India tested nuclear weapons. The world was undergoing many changes. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, and Hong Kong became part of China in 1997. NASA scientists announced in 1996 that a rock from Mars might once have known living creatures, and in 1997 Dolly became the first successfully cloned animal. In the United States, people found different ways to escape their concern about a world that seemed to defy control. Huge crowds flocked to theaters to see the ship, Titanic, sink and to see the long-awaited prequel to Star Wars. Other people dove into the latest John Grisham escapist story or tuned into Seinfeld. No matter the choice, there were many ways to escape the stresses of late-twentieth-century life. Baggott offers one other form of escape—the method employed by poets, who use words to imagine different lives.
This Country of Mothers, Baggott's first published collection of poetry, won the Southern University Press Crab Orchard Award, which included a cash prize as well as an agreement to publish the book. As quoted in a release from the Southern Illinois University Press, in awarding the Crab Orchard prize, one of the judges, Rodney Jones, is reported to have stated that Baggott "is an accomplished poet of the eye and ear, of the definitive feminine experience, and her poems of private life are expansive enough to suggest a vision of a political and historical era." Although Jones does not specifically mention "What the Poets Could Have Been", he does point out that Baggott "draws themes as sharp as razors" and that her poems are "marvelously accessible." Jones's comments include the observation that "This Country of Mothers announces a poet of substantial powers."
The book also earned praise from several other reviewers. In a review for Book Page, Joanna Smith Rakoff links Baggott's poetry to her very successful novels, noting that the poems "wrestle with the same themes and ideas" as her first novel, Girl Talk. Rakoff points out that the poems are "narrated by a young American Everywoman, navigating her way through a generic and often cruel landscape." These are narrative poems, in which the speaker "strives to reconcile her growing spirituality with her intense skepticism." Rakoff claims that the narrative quality of the poems creates "compelling, breathless" works that should be read almost like a novel, "as the narrator engages with the literal and metaphysical worlds."
In the online forum, Emerging Authors, Dan Wickett's review of This Country of Mothers points out that "Baggott is not afraid to discuss her fears through her poems, to question both the positives and negatives of daily life and offer opinions." Wickett claims that in this collection of poetry Baggott "has nicely followed up on some of the themes of her debut novel," looking at the process of motherhood and moving through the "very personal journey of chronicling her own life." Wickett also compliments Baggott on the ease of understanding of her poems, which are "written so cleanly" that they are "entirely accessible." Wickett concludes that while Baggott's "poems are emotionally wrenching at times, and while certainly written from a feminine perspective, they should not be looked at as exclusive to women." Sales for this first collection of poetry were successful enough that the book went to a second printing, which is unusual for a book of poetry.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol holds a Ph.D. in English literature and is a university professor. In this essay, she discusses the self-conscious awareness of the poet, who uses her talent as a way to justify the poet's existence and give meaning to her work.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Lizzie Borden in Love: Poems in Women's Voices, Baggott's second collection of poetry and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2006, uses the voices of many women to offer commentaries about their lives. These poems include portrayals of Mary Todd Lincoln, Katherine Hepburn, and Monica Lewinsky, among others.
- The Madam is Baggott's third novel. Published in 2003, this novel is a fictionalized account of Baggott's great-grandmother's bordello, which operated in 1920s West Virginia.
- Baggott and Steve Almond collaborated on Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in Confessions (2006). This epistolary novel tells the story of two people who have an immediate attraction to one another and who use letters as a way to learn each other's romantic history.
- The Anybodies is Baggott's first children's novel under her pen name, N. E. Bode. This novel, published in 2004, is about the adventures of an eleven-year-old girl, who discovers she was switched at birth.
- Marian Coe's 2007 collection, Between Us: Women's Voices Sharing Confidences, Earned Wisdom and Moments from Life: A Gift Package of Stories, is a collection of poems, short stories, and essays that present brief vignettes drawn from women's lives.
- Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (2007), edited by Elisabeth A. Frost and Cynthia Hogue, is a collection of fourteen interviews with female poets from the last half of the twentieth century. These interviews provide an opportunity to understand the historical and cultural context of contemporary women's poetry.
The desire to use poetry as a way to either justify its creation or explain its purpose is not new. Julianna Baggott's "What the Poets Could Have Been" is only one of many attempts to explore the power of poetry and its importance, which some poets think extends far beyond words on paper. In ancient Greece, poets wrote about the purpose of poetry, the need for poets to fulfill certain functions, and the importance of poetry in the world of human affairs. After the Roman conquest of the Greek city-states, Roman poets adopted the Greek value of poetry. Horace's Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry or Nature of Poetry) became the standard attempt by poets to define what poetry means. When, in the first century b.c.e., Horace warned writers to "Examine well, ye writers, weigh with care, / What suits your genius; what your strengths can bear," he was only repeating Aristotle's earlier warnings. The power of poetry to influence people and actions, even political events, was well known. Horace claimed that poets should "Be delicate and cautious in the use / And choice of words," because he understood that words have power that extends beyond their value as literature. The lessons of two thousand years ago have not been lost on Baggott. In "What the Poets Could Have Been," Baggott focuses on the role that poetry plays in the poet's life and what it means to the reader, as well.
As early as 1956, an English professor named Robert Preyer lamented the fact that his academic colleagues did not read poetry. After acknowledging the complaints that readers express about the difficulty they have in appreciating poetry, Preyer tried to explain the importance of poetry and how poetry can enhance understanding. In his essay, "The Prejudice against Poetry: A Diagnosis and an Appeal," Preyer defends the importance of reading poetry, claiming that poetry is "an organization of experience capable of altering the present and creating new significances." For Preyer, poetry is a way to alter reality into something vastly different and perhaps more appealing. This is also true of Baggott's poem, which plays with reality and experience. In "What the Poets Could Have Been," Baggott captures the importance of poetry as a means to being alive fully in the world and through words bringing others to greater appreciation of sensory experience. For example, Baggott writes that people who have the potential to be poets are likely to hop a "fence to swim naked with a lover." The words conjure an image of impetuous desire, of living in the moment. Indeed, Baggott refers to the poet's many loves as having been felt more "deeply," somehow suggesting that the poet feels love with an unusual intensity. Moreover, the intensity stimulates words that, like lovers' "buoyant bodies," drift to the surface of the poet's mind. The link between passion and poetry illustrates the value of the words and connects Baggott's point to an ancient tradition of using poetry to convey romantic love and the risks it may induce lovers to take. Only poetry engages others in the lived experience in such an intimate way. Photography or paintings cannot capture the same intensity. The photographic image is flat and two-dimensional, but the poem brings the reader inside the world the words create, animating a sensed experience that exists off the page, as well as on it.
Like Preyer, Baggott understands the nature of the prejudice against poetry. Her poem, "What the Poets Could Have Been," is both a justification for being a poet and a defense against those who do not pay attention to poetry. The lengthy dependent clause that begins the poem, with "If every time their minds drifted" and that ends only at lines 18 and 19 with "they could have been / repressible, contented," makes clear that for Baggott, non-poets are those who are content with less emotion in their lives, who are more easily repressed. These non-poets are not the naked lovers. The non-poets are those who are likely to pay attention in class, to follow directions in sewing a hem; they are the ones who grow up to stick it out in jobs that line their faces. The poet is the one who responds to the "shine, blueness, ticking" of life. To not respond means settling for life less fully lived. Poets deliver the fully lived life to their readers.
Robert W. Blake, an English professor at SUNY College in New York, agrees that poetry alters the perceptions people have of the world. In his 1990 essay, "Poets on Poetry: Writing and the Reconstruction of Reality," Blake asserts, "When one writes poetry, one reconstructs reality." For example, Baggott asks readers to imaginatively jump from high school experience to the mundane work lives most adults make for themselves. She uses the minister and the librarian as examples of people, who may well have unlived dreams. The minister weeds the church property, while he may well wish he could as easily separate the bad from the good for his congregation. The librarian sits at her desk with an open travel book, displaying a photo of the Eiffel Tower. She may well have wanted to visit France, but she settles for a picture instead of reaching for the firsthand experience. "Poets," Blake writes, "see the value of poetry in various ways. Poetry is like a lens or prism through which one views the world in a heightened way. Poetry is for telling people what they hadn't noticed or thought about before." Baggott makes her readers see inside the minister and librarian to intuit their hidden desires. In his essay, Blake argues that "poetry is using chosen words to reveal what people and living creatures are really like." This revelation is the work of poetry.
Baggott is not the first woman to use poetry as a way to delve into the self-conscious, even as she creates a more intense reality for the reader. In the 1860s, Emily Dickinson visualized the poet as someone who "Distills amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings." Ordinary flowers find their scent intensified to become a perfume, an "attar so immense" that it exceeds the flower's common origins. The poet is someone who reveals meaning hiding in things and becomes, "Of Pictures, the Discloser." Dickinson understood that the poet's role in helping readers to imagine greater meanings from their experience. Dickinson also injects a certain amount of irony. Given the poet's invaluable role in society, Dickinson acknowledges that those who are not poets lead poor lives by contrast: "The Poet—it is He—/ Entitles Us—by Contrast—/ To ceaseless Poverty." Baggott no doubt appreciates Dickinson's reference to poverty, but sees in it a different meaning. In several interviews, Baggott mentions how poor she and her poet husband were when they first began writing. For instance, in a fall 2001 interview with Cheryl Dellasega, Baggott states that when she completed her bachelor's degree in creative writing and French, "her father called it ‘a degree in starvation and poverty.’" Baggott and her husband were poor enough that they took in boarders to help cover the cost of housing for their growing family. Still, there are rich compensations for a person who lives life as a poet, one who engages in the magical transformation of the ordinary.
In her poem, "What the Poets Could Have Been," Baggott justifies choosing to live as a poet. To have not become a poet would mean for her becoming something less, something more "repressible, contented," but she does not use the word, "happy." Baggott refers to "the simplest things" making her aunts and uncles "happy" as they sit on the back porch, but the child with the hidden words is not described as happy twirling her baton. Baggott shows her readers what these people kept hidden within and so transforms their reality into something magical. In his essay on the need for poetic recreations of reality, Blake captures the essence of the poet when he writes:
Poetry is for representing the sacredness of human existence. Poetry creates something that didn't exist before without destroying something else in the process. And poetry is for naming all the concrete things in our universe and, by naming, acknowledging their existence and ultimately placing them in an intuitively perceived order, which I call reconstructing reality.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "What the Poets Could Have Been," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following interview, Baggott discusses books, writing, girls, and her indifference about the successful Harry Potter books.
Writing as N. E. Bode, Julianna Baggott's Anybodies series is a coupling (soon to be tripling) of books featuring Fern Drudger, a young girl on her pre-pubescent path to enlightenment courtesy of a wild imagination and a whole lot of girl-power gumption. Though odd-looking, a little nutty, and open to moments of deep desperation concerning her place in the world, Fern is also bright, funny, and unafraid of asking important questions of her elders. Baggott has something to say, and with her resilient and intellectually advanced teen protagonist, she says it loud: Girls rock.
That's, of course, how her YA audience might describe it, but Baggott's explanation of her objectives with Fern are lot more complex. According to Baggott, not only are books with strong girl characters in need of a Renaissance, so are serious female writers interested in genre-crossing. Baggott has spent much of her career attempting to make literary inroad by adopting what she considers a male approach to writing. As far as she was concerned, this was her ticket to a sustainable career. As it turns out, it wasn't until she wrote Girl Talk, about a young New Jersey girl searching for her biological father, that success came her way.
The irony of a writer so set on giving voice to bold young women not outwardly trusting her own is hardly lost on Baggott. Yet she still finds herself frustrated at clichéd and even patronizing responses to women writers by readers and critics. Girl Talk wasn't so much a response to this as a catalyst for opening Baggott's eyes to the amount of work needed (or, at least, the amount of explaining) in order to remain strong-willed and confident as a commercial literary writer. She's one of the lucky ones, in fact, writing to critical approval and decent sales. It's no surprise, then, that lately, Baggott's confidence is looming large.
This is especially noticeable throughout The Nobodies (released through HarperCollins in June) and its precursor, The Anybodies, (out in paperback in September). Baggott steams into the story with humor and intelligence as she explains just how far from heavenly it is for the crazily inventive Fern to comprehend her parents, Mr. And Mrs. Drudger—the most boring people alive. They didn't like to take vacations from [work]," Bode writes. "But … didn't want to cause a stir by not taking them either."
The dull Drudgers are opposed to anything resembling super, awesome, or cool, and so Fern's creative mind is ordered to a standstill. The problem is, Fern's about three-parts normal and all the rest creativity. Her dreamer qualities (can she or can't she make stuff drop from books by shaping them really hard?) and devotion to literature (she's read every books for kids there is) fill her up. Her very personality is has been fuelled throughout her short life by the books she's read, the adventure stories and fairytales she's immersed herself in as escapism and for sheer entertainment's sake.
Fern desires her own adventure, though. She gets it at the beginning of The Anybodies when she receives a visit from a man proclaiming to be her real father. A hospital mix-up meant that math-loving Howard ended up going home with him, and Fern with the Drudgers. Her father, known as The Bone, makes a deal with the Drudgers to swap kids for the summer and gag just how well, or not so well, they fit.
So begins Fern's own girl's adventure. She soon learns that her overactive imagination might just be a product of her DNA. She, like her father and late mother, is an Anybody. She learns, too, that a book containing the secrets of the Anybodies entitled, The Art of Being Anybody is her birthright and so sets herself on a quest to find the book and thus learn everything possible about being an Anybody. She is going to have to be quick smart about it, though, as someone else—an evil and miserly someone—is also on the hunt for the book and its treasures. Fern is suddenly on a race through literature and fantasy to get her book and discover her true purpose.
Fern's race, continued in The Nobodies in which she and Howard attend a camp for Anybodies and discover something's not quite right about the camp counselors who seem to all be suffering fun-transplants, is about a whole lot more than a simple quest for a book. Along the way, she comes to learn that being an Anybody is about understanding the true effect of literary life, and that the world is ever changing and that she can change along with it, so long as she doesn't alter her personal beliefs and ideals unless she does so on her terms. As a mystical fellow Anybody tells her in The Nobodies:
Thing are always changing. You have to be in tune with that, the world's flux. You know that Heraclitus was a great Anybody. He was the one who said that you can't step in the same river twice. And Kafka was dating an Anybody when he wrote Metamorphosis, of course.
Heady stuff for kids, but effective. The point here, that Fern comes to know, is how important it is for young people to understand the level of control they have over their own life paths. Fern soon realizes that her parents' dispositions need not be her own, and that if she desires avenues considered unworthy by anyone at all that she thoroughly believes in, she should have the will to go forward. She is, essentially, the god of her own world, the writer of her own story.
Baggott, as N.E. Bode, brings this intricate message to young readers in style reminiscent of Roald Dahl, by way of P. L. Travers. There's a snappy buoyancy to her prose, which is offset (but never overrun) by an eerie, dramatic undertone. It's not a kiddie spookiness that hides beneath the giggles of The Anybodies' opening chapter, but a feeling that, as the books jacket reveals, things are not as they seem. This feeling culminated at the end of chapter one in the revelation that Fern's mother died in childbirth:
… the mother, with large brown eyes, wet as pools, lashes soft as moth wings, began to lose blood. She would lose so much, in fact, that she would die.
While the book's comedy is its high point, it's Baggott's (or Bode's) ability to convey such solemnity with sensitivity and skill that gives these stories weight. Her reluctance to alter her writing style in terms of language and vocabulary to suit a child's ear and remain entirely accessible to those children is her true gift. She's direct, she's concise, and above all, her drive to make a role model out of Fern comes across as natural and unforced.
On the eve of The Anybodies paperback debut, Julianna Baggott spoke to PopMatters about girls, books, the joys of writing, and why she's not too concerned that Harry Potter continues to dominate the book charts.
[PopMatters:] When you first had kids, what books could you not wait to introduce them to?
[Julianna Baggott:] I was raised during the crazy days of the Little House comeback where girls were force-fed bonnets and prairie dresses. I confess I was completely into the bonnets, but when it came to books, I was going for something a little less devoted to realism and more interested in the unusual. I was dying to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to my kids, but I started in when they were way too young—the oldest antsy for more pictures, the youngest still relatively blobby. I had to put it down and be patient. Luckily picture books these days are astounding—A Day At Wilbur Robinson's House, Weslandia, A Bad Case of Stripes, Alpha Beta Chowder—so the kids and I were kept well-fed while awaiting C. S. Lewis and Dahl. I also loved Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary—and by thirteen had turned quickly into a David Mamet diehard
What makes a book or a story memorable? Why are we still reading for example, Charlotte's Web and Anne of Green Gables—or are we? Have the new age Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets erased those classics?
Charlotte's Web is a phenomenal book. It's easy to see how and why it lives on. But take White's Stuart Little. It's a messy narrative with no real resolution. But, still, it lives on for its situation—a baby mouse?—and Stuart's character and, I think, because the novel's inventive premise allows children's minds to riff off of it. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the tightest novels I've read—a tidy, bizarre, sadistic morality tale—but Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is a disaster. I think it only lives on because it's the sequel to something quite brilliant. Potter and Snicket haven't erased anything. In fact their popularity has brought adults back to the more wildly imagined terrain of books for kids—classics and new works alike.
Have you always wanted to join the ranks of adult writers creating for kids?
No, not at all. I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and to do so I was pretty sure that I should write like a man. I wrote like a man for years and published many manly stories. But it was my first story about woman that got the attention of an agent. When my agent sold Girl Talk, I was married with two kids, a third on the way, and, without hearing anything about the book, people assumed that I'd written a children's book—an assumption I don't think they'd have made if I'd been a man. When I told them that it was for adults, the second question was often asking if it was a romance novel … You see what I mean. It was frustrating. Books for children, like novels more geared toward women—literary or not—are dismissed in a way that novels written by men aren't. But, frankly, it's my books about women and now girls that have worked for me. The biases still exist however.
What broke me of my own bias against writing for kids—I was as much to blame as anyone—was reading the children's books to my kids, remembering that I'd signed onto the writing business because I loved magical realism; Marquez and Calvino, the poems of Adelia Prada. There a great quote from Michael Chabon—who made the post-Pulitzer leap into kid-lit with Summerland (2002)—talking about the age when he finally wanted to be a writer, 10 or 11: "Back then I didn't want to write a novel about an overweight, pot-smoking, philandering teacher whose mistress is pregnant; I wanted to write the books I loved to read, fantasy and novels about contemporary children."
I'd gotten tired of realism, tired of my own desire to be taken seriously, and wanted to go back to my roots.
How does having children influence writing for children? Could have written these books ten years ago?
If I'd wanted to really dive back into my own childhood, sure, I could have come up with novels for the younger set without children of my own. But there's something to be gained by being steeped in my kids' lives—seeing their drawings, listening to them recount bad dreams—that gives me a deeper insight and helps me remember my own childhood needs.
Can you pinpoint some specific differences between writing for adult and writing for kids? In both The Anybodies and The Nobodies, your language has hardly been watered down for a young audience—did you deliberately decide to blend a very literary style with that fantastic, simple language?
It's ironic but adults are a babyish audience who need a lot of narrative handholding. I have to warn them before anything unusual happens. I have to couch my most imaginative moves in metaphor. But the kid audience is always ready to leap. It's been really liberating.
I wrote The Anybodies using whatever language came naturally to me, knowing my editor would dumb it down when necessary. She never once changed a word based on the notion it might be too challenging. I found that remarkable and admired her for her respect for the kid audience.
Why do think it's important that Fern be a girl? Is there a lack of female protagonists in modern kid-lit?
I met with my editor before I wrote the book, and we both agreed that we wanted a book about an empowered girl in a wild adventure. The Anybodies is hugely feminist.
The first round in Hollywood, pitching the first book to execs, I was told point blank that girl movies were a hard sell because boys and girls go to movies about boys, but only girls go to movies about girls. As a result—a calculated move that actually gave me structure and turned out to work out very well for the series—Howard became more important in The Nobodies—a real buddy book.
What was your aim with Fern? Did you deliberately decide on her specific strengths and weakness?
I have oversized eyes and hair that sticks up wildly, rooster-like, on top of my head. Fern and I have much in common. I didn't think about her in terms of strengths and weaknesses. In many ways, I just thought of myself at that age—though with a deeper sadness.
Together, the books present a clear message that imagination and the ability see the world almost in an absurd, existentialist way, are the keys to discovering the magic of the individual's world. Was this the message you set out to impart from the beginning?
I don't set out with a message, but it's no surprise that this is the message that's come to light. I certainly believe that the world is a bizarre place and that each person's reality has many levels, and that if you pay attention to the world around you, you'll see truly magical thing.
The philosophy behind Fern's quest was heavy enough for me to follow—I'm thrilled at the possibility that kids could begin to investigate and interpret existence and life as Fern eventually does. Are younger readers understanding this idea?
This again was a criticism from Hollywood execs in the first round. What's the philosophy that governs The Anybodies? I had no answer. It was plaguing me when I sat down to write The Nobodies and I was determined to understand the book on a simpler but deeper level.
Now, my therapist at the time was a Buddhist, and although he turned out to be a crummy therapist, he was a good Buddhist, and the philosophies of Buddhism work very well with Anybodies—the idea that the world is always in flux and that Anybodies, who are truly in tune with this constant state, can enter it and transform themselves or the things around them—like books, making the figurative real, etc.
This vision was a huge relief on an artistic level, but it also worked for Hollywood. Now I had a more present boy character to attract the boy audience and I had a philosophy that made sense. It was in this second round that the series was optioned by Nickelodeon Movies at Paramount Pictures.
Do you buy into the idea that kids would rather go to the movies than read a book?
I'm inundated with stories of kids who love to read—fan mail, letter from parents. I think kids want to read and do, and there's no question that Rowling's books single-handedly taught an entire generation not only to love to read but to wait white-knuckled for, of all things, a book. Rowling's success also flew in the face of the publishing industry's claim that adult American readers want realism, and if not realism than at least something that acts like it. Rowling's success has forced publishers to reconsider the adult audience's appetite for more magical fiction, and it's certainly made more room in the children's section for magical fiction. Chabon has said that [he believes] his publisher would not have been so interested in Summerland if it weren't for Harry Potter. This is an interesting notion. True or not, I certainly feel it and believe I owe Rowling a debt.
Do you see any disadvantages with the popularity of the Harry Potter series? To you, other authors, other readers?
The publication of The Nobodies overlapped with the Half-Blood Prince hype and so it was harder to fight for review space. A columnist, and there aren't tons in kids lit, might do four columns a month but this July, three of the four went to Potter-mania. That said, I'll take the traffic I don't know the Potter stats, but when Oprah's book club was in full swing, readers who walked into a store to buy an Oprah pick also bought two to three other books on average. I imagine that the Potter stats aren't too far off. It's healthy for booksellers and that helps the industry, which helps my books as well.
Why do you think Harry Potter has been as successful with adult readers as with kids?
Stephen King wrote an essay that I've heard about though haven't ever seen with my own eyes, in which he speculates at what point Rowling stopped writing for kids and turned to the adults as her main audience. I think that the books have gotten hugely complicated which can be a natural consequence of writing in series. The Somebodies becomes much more complicated than the first two [in The Anybodies series]. I think that Rowling's books exploded in a way that no one could have ever predicted or masterminded. But I do think that she didn't stagnate with the age group—whereas Lemony Snicket's books remain true to their audience, which is good and bad. I see Snicket's books literally as a series of events—brilliant and hilarious—but not accumulating much in terms of real character growth from book to book.
How do you think your books differ from these others? Do you get tired of the comparisons?
The Anybodies series is truly American and full-color. Potter and Snicket are both gothic and British in tone—thick with the feel of capes and quills and antiquated dramatics—even with the contemporary references. I think of The Anybodies as fully contemporary—magical like Rowling with a smirky tone like Snicket—but now, really and truly. I don't mind the comparisons—at all.
What age did you aim The Anybodies at? Do you keep up with modern kids and YA books? Has your response to these genres been generally positive?
The Anybodies was written to suit a seven-year-old in a read-aloud setting up to 13 or so when The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants should take over. I still write adult fiction, and poetry, and for kids, and I'd love to do something non-fiction, so the answer is no to keeping up. I don't feel like I can keep up with any of those genres as I should—especially since most of my reading [as a teacher] consists of manuscripts that have yet to be published. But I try to. Again, I'm picky and slow—I do so admire [Neil Gaiman's] Coraline and many [Terry] Pratchett books.
How did you find Peter Ferguson? Did you work together throughout the illustrating process? What do you think of his interpretations of your characters?
His portfolio was the first take on the characters. It's spooky how much Fern looks like me and my daughter, frankly. He'd never seen pictures of us but through my descriptions of the giant eyes and the wild hair and scrawniness, well, there we were. I love his drawings—even more so in The Nobodies, which I didn't thing was possible. My editor edits his drawings so they work with the text, but I don't interact with him at all really. I just sit back and see his translations. It's an amazing process to be translated visually like that.
What did books mean to you growing up? What's it like, if such is the case, to see your own children discovering the magic of reading?
The truth is I was a reluctant reader—slow and picky. I would start ten books to find one I might want to finish. Discerning would be a euphemism. Dunderheaded might be more on target. I still am slow and picky. And frankly, my daughter just stopped hating reading this year. She's ten, and she's had a really hard time with the words on the page. So I've worked hard on all of this and have a defense of the reluctant reader on my website—a letter to parents. I started out giving my daughter all of these magical books and funny books—things that I loved as a kid to get her going. But found that she really wanted serious biographies (Harriet Tubman and Joan of Arc), and books on the development of animal species. She loves research. Recently, my son was reading to himself and stopped, looked up, and said: "Listen to this.", And then he repeated the line—a description of snow. He just liked the way sounded and the image, and wanted me to hear it. That was a fantastic moment.
Source: Nikki Tranter, "Magical Things: An Interview with Julianna Baggott," in PopMatters, August 29, 2005, pp. 1-8.
In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Baggott's work.
As a young writer, Julianna Baggott watched as many of her contemporaries headed for the publishing capital of the world, New York City, to make their mark on the literary scene. After receiving her master's degree, however, Baggott and her poet husband headed for a small Delaware city, where she went to work writing short stories and then poetry as she began to raise a family. Baggott wisely wasn't all that interested in the literary scene. "I just wanted to write," she told Dirk Westphal for an article in Poets & Writers Magazine. "I didn't want to ‘be a writer.’"
The distinction paid off for Baggott. In 2001 at the age of thirty-one, her first two books, a novel and volume of poetry, were published within months of each other. Baggott had arrived on the literary scene whether she liked it or not.
Baggott's novel Girl Talk, which appeared in bookstores a month before her collection of poetry titled This Country of Mothers, is a mother-daughter, coming-of-age tale in which thirty-year-old Lissy Jablonski, pregnant and unmarried, reflects back to the summer when she was fifteen. That summer, Lissy and her mother took a road trip after Lissy's father had run off with another woman. During the trip, Lissy and her mother engage in nights of "girl talk," and Lissy soon discovers secrets about her mother's past, including the fact that her mother once tried to commit suicide and that her biological father is actually the dwarfish Anthony Pantuliano, who is her mother's only true love.
Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Abby Frucht found the novel charming but lacking in substance. Although she described Baggott's novel as "clever," Frucht noted that the novel does not lead "to anything truly persuasive." Most critics, however, praised the book for its serious subject matter, which the author handles with humor and flair. "Baggott's biting, darkly comedic, and brutally honest narrative takes a sardonic look at suburbia and family dysfunction," wrote Carolyn Kubisz in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel a "touching … story that delivers more depth than its title might imply." The reviewer went on to note, "Baggott's multilayered, psychological tale is told with a deceptively light tone." Jan Blodgett, writing in the Library Journal, commented that the "juxtaposition of stories" between Lissy's present life and her mother's past "turns this first novel … from just a thirty-something coming-of-age tale into a wise look at mother-daughter legacies."
This Country of Mothers is a collection of poems in which Baggott reflects on her experiences as a mother and as a daughter. In her poems, Baggott talks both about love and destruction in a manner that seems entirely personal while, at the same time, embracing universal themes. For example, in her poem "What We Didn't Talk about at Fifteen," Baggott writes about the discovery of a drowned girl who was "found naked and raped." The poem's narrator comments, "Didn't each of our mothers warn it could have been us?"
In her interview with Westphal for Poets & Writers Magazine, Baggott related that she turned from focusing solely on fiction to writing poetry, in part, to explore her feelings after giving birth. "I felt kind of betrayed by the animalness of it, and the physicality of [having kids], and the huge emotion of it," she told Westphal. "I wondered why no one had mentioned this to me."
In her second novel, The Miss America Family, Baggott once again focuses on a dysfunctional family. She tells her story from the views of two characters: Pixie Kitch, who was crowned Miss New Jersey and longed to become Miss America, and Pixie's sixteen-year-old son Ezra, an awkward teenager who is trying to make sense of a world turned topsy-turvy after his mother shoots her dentist husband and Ezra is sent to stay with his biological father, only to learn that his father is gay. "Baggott takes family dysfunction to a new level," wrote a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, noting that Baggott uses "wit and humor" to explore the failings of a seemingly perfect family. Carolyn Kubisz, writing in Booklist, called the novel "darkly comedic, and brutally honest." In her Library Journal review, Karen Traynos noted that The Miss America Family "establishes Baggott's remarkable talent for creating characters who resonate with readers."
As for her own reading preferences, Baggott told Westphal that, although she "fell in love with the novel as a form," she loves reading poetry. "If I'm going to get a book out of the library, I get poems," she said. "Poems have the ability to make me read them for pleasure. They demand it. They say, ‘You have to love me.’ Whereas other things don't; I read them because I'm taking a clock apart."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Julianna Baggott," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.
Joanna Smith Rakoff
In the following essay interview, Baggott discusses the process and business of getting published, motherhood, and writing.
Julianna Baggott doesn't miss a beat. When Theo, her chubby-checked nine-month-old, begins to fuss a little. Baggott picks him up and begins to nurse him without losing her train of thought or even pausing for a breath. But then again, we're talking about her favorite subject: poetry. Not about the ephemeral stuff, the hard stuff, not about the making of poetry, but about the making of poets, the behind-the-page dirt that no one wants to discuss. We're talking about money.
When Baggott recently discovered that one of her favorite writers—an established and highly respected American poet who publishes with a major publishing company—receives a mere thousand dollars for her lauded volumes, the news sent her reeling. Baggott is outraged and, in a certain way, energized by such injustices. For though she would never describe herself as an activist, Julianna Baggott—novelist, poet, screenwriter—has something of a mission. Poets, she believes, don't market themselves, don't fight for their work, don't make themselves nearly visible enough. And in behaving so meekly, she feels, they harm not only themselves but potential readers of poetry. Baggott, by virtue of example, is out to change all that. "I want to apply marketing to poetry—and that's really looked down on," she says. "The poems are the poems, but once you've written them you go and you sell them. You have a book, you promote the book. You act intelligently and business-like and professional. I feel like there's a certain lack of professionalism among poets."
Indeed, what's most intriguing about Julianna Baggott, aside from the sheer talent evident in her work and her warm, generous personality, is this hyperprofessional attitude toward both the act of writing and the work of being a writer, an attitude noted by both her editor and her agent, who sing her praises with undiluted awe. "Professionalism" to Baggott doesn't mean that she places her writing—or her self-promotion—above all else in the world, but rather that she treats writing as though it's a job, as opposed to a lifestyle.
This spring Baggott has the rare pleasure of seeing her first two books—Girl Talk, a novel, and This Country of Mothers, a collection of poetry—published within a month of each other (the first in mid-February, the second in March). This is no small feat considering, first of all, her rather tender age (she's 31); secondly, that she wrote her first poem three years ago; and finally, that she has three small children: baby Theo, four-year-old Finneas, and six-year-old Phoebe.
The story of Baggott's success incites from most writers the same rash of questions: Is she in possession of an independent income? Good connections—perhaps she's the daughter of an editor or a famous writer? Did she have full-time child care? And how did she end up with three kids, anyway—by accident? The answer to all of the above is no.
Baggott's story—the way she's decided to live her life—defies all conventional wisdom about young writers. Which is just as she intended it.
In 1994 Julianna Baggott completed her MFA in fiction at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G). The majority of her friends from graduate school moved, as is the wont of young writers and artists, to New York City to complete their novels or collections of poetry or memoirs. Or, some might say, to live the writerly life: drinking Jameson at book parties, hobnobbing with editors, embarking on careers in journalism or book publishing. But the literary life of myth and legend—as immortalized in too many memoirs and novels to name—held little appeal for Baggott. "I just wanted to write," she explains. "I didn't want to ‘be a writer.’" Baggott chose UNC-G's solid but not terribly well known MFA program precisely because she wasn't interested in the more unpleasant side effects of high-profile programs: competition among students, gossip about agents and advances.
Upon arriving at UNC-G, Baggott—then 22—met and fell in love with David Scott, a poet in the class ahead of her. The courtship was quick—after four months of dating they were engaged; they married the following spring. Not long afterward Baggott became pregnant with Phoebe. By choice.
"We wanted to have a family, and we wanted to write," she recounts over sandwiches at a café populated largely by University of Delaware faculty. Scott is at home watching the kids. "If we didn't have a family, we would resent our work. If the kids stopped us from writing, we would resent our kids. The only way for us to not be bitter was to do both, to be bullheaded about it."
And so, while their friends headed to Manhattan, Scott and Baggott settled in Newark, Delaware, a small city known less for its arts community and more for being home to corporate chemical giant DuPont. It was a move based completely on practicality: Baggott's parents live in Newark, where she grew up. "We came back to Newark because we had no money and if I wanted help, which I knew I would need in order to write, I would have to be near family. My parents have been extremely helpful. There's no way I could do it without them."
During the first years of their marriage, Baggott and Scott tried desperately to find ways to earn money that would not impinge on their nearly nonexistent writing time. "Dave and I were living under the poverty level when the first two kids came along," she says. "To make ends meet we ran a boardinghouse of sorts, renting two bedrooms in our house to foreign students and cooking meals for them. It paid for the house." For a while, the two worked as tag-team freelance writers, mainly writing for local magazines and newspapers. "Dave would go out and get the story," Baggott says, "then he would come home and write the story up. He's the fast writer. I would come in and rewrite it. I would be the hay-to-gold person."
Previously, the two had rarely shared or critiqued each other's creative work, a dynamic established soon after they became involved. "The very first thing I ever showed him, he read the first sentence and said, ‘You know, this sentence doesn't work.’ And I said, ‘Oh no. Put it down. You'll never read anything of mine again. Never.’" But collaborating on articles led to an epiphany. "That system taught us a lot about how much we need each other. We realized that we are assets to each other and we need to exploit that."
And exploit it they did. They joined workshops together in Newark and, perhaps more important, found a balance—due, in part, to Scott's taking a full-time job in print production—that freed up Baggott's time, allowing her to write despite the constant din and interruption of the kids. But when she turned back to her writing, she found that she "couldn't write short stories anymore." It was simply too difficult to "enter" a short story in the little snippets of time she had while the kids were napping.
But there was more to it: The emotional monsoon of giving birth altered not only what she wanted to write about but how she wanted to write it. "I felt kind of betrayed by the animalness of it, and the physicality of [having kids], and the huge emotion of it. I wondered why no one had mentioned this to me." Poetry seemed the right vehicle to explore these feelings, in part because Baggott had found "role models in poetry: female poets writing about birth and menstruation and female things."
Just as she began publishing her poetry in magazines like Poetry and the Southern Review, Baggott found herself pulled out of poems and, as she says, "screwed into writing a novel." One afternoon in the fall of 1998, she received a call from literary agent Nat Sobel. He had read her story "Girl Talk" in New Delta Review and was impressed. "Lots of times I can tell from a short story whether or not a writer has the storytelling ability to sustain a novel," Sobel says, "and Julianna's story led me to believe that she was a real storyteller. It was filled with funny, interesting characters. Little did I know that Julianna is a fireplug. She can do anything."
Sobel's call took Baggott completely by surprise. "I gave the kids a jar of jelly beans so that I could talk to him," Baggott remembers. "He asked if I was working on a novel and I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I am.’" Baggott, however, wasn't working on a novel. "I had no intention of ever writing a novel. I was strictly a short story writer." But Sobel's call came at a time when she was beginning to feel frustrated with the market for short story collections. "I was having trouble getting my collection published," she says, "so I thought as an act of love for my short story collection I would maybe write a novel. I was at that point where I felt I really had to do something—as a first-time author I just couldn't get the collection published."
And so Baggott told Sobel that she needed about a month to polish the first 50 pages of the novel that didn't yet exist. Baggott and Scott agreed that this was a huge opportunity for her and that she should simply throw herself into it. "I have a great husband," Baggott says. "He said, ‘Okay, we're just going to buckle down.’ The first fifty pages I wrote with no baby-sitters. Dave would get home from work, and I would begin to write immediately. My office was in my living room, so I would write whenever I could during the day, when the kids were napping. I would work late at night, and as I was falling asleep I would take notes about what I was going to work on the following day. I always knew exactly what I needed to write the next time I sat down." Sobel liked the first 50 pages and asked Baggott to send on the rest. Which meant, of course, that she had to actually write the rest. And she had just found out that she was pregnant again.
Battling morning sickness, Baggott set out to write the bulk of Girl Talk, letting almost everything else in her life fall by the wayside. "The house was a wreck. The bills were not paid. Green Mountains Review had sent me galleys—I found them after I had finished the novel. Everything just went completely undone. I just did what I had to do with the kids and didn't lift a finger in any other way. I basically went underground. My friends never saw me. I disappeared." As she had been almost exclusively writing poems—short pieces—for two years, she eased herself into the novel by writing it in short segments. "There was no other way to get through a novel. My attention span was tight and small, a coiled spring. Once I went back to revise I joined things together and made things bigger."
Filled with characters both comic and threatening—characters who inevitably reveal strange and startling secrets—Girl Talk consists of three interwoven episodes in the lives of the narrator, 30-year-old Manhattan advertising executive Lissy Jablonski, and her mother, Dotty. The novel's plot begins in the present, when an unmarried and pregnant Lissy finds Church Fiske, the family friend with whom she lost her virginity as a teen, at the door of her dilapidated Chelsea apartment. Church's appearance sends Lissy back to her 15th summer—"the summer that never happened"—when her dad ran off with another woman and her mom took Lissy on a trip to Bayonne, New Jersey, during which Dotty both revealed "the bare, naked truth" about her past and taught Lissy "the art of omission, how to tell the perfect lie, or … how you can choose the truth … from the assortment of truths life has to offer."
Though it's anything but autobiographical, the novel was inspired by Baggott's relationships with her mother and grandmother. Sobel was correct in her suspicions that Baggott possesses a strong feel for storytelling. "Both my parents are storytellers, and Girl Talk is definitely about how you teach people through stories," she says. "My mother and my grandmother, especially, tell stories to teach lessons, to pass on history. But the novel is just as much about what is not told and how such secrets affect those who are kept in the dark.
Soon after starting in on the body of the novel, Baggott miscarried. "I was three months along. At that point, I was so ready to fall in love with that child. And the child wasn't coming. So I fell in love with my characters. I wrote the rest of that book very quickly." She finished in April—about six months after Sobel's initial call. Baggott was determined to finish the novel before Sobel's interest in her faded. "I thought, ‘I have an audience, even if it's just one person, and I'm going to keep it.’ But I also didn't want to get lost in a novel for five years. I just know too many people who go into novels and never come out. I refuse to do that, because how many poems am I not going to write; how many short stories am I not going to write?" She signed a contract for Girl Talk a few months later with Greer Kessel Hendricks at Pocket Books, an editor only slightly older than Baggott who has a proven track record with young and first-time novelists. The entire process took less than a year.
Hendricks, who fell in love with Girl Talk after reading the first 50 pages ("I sat and read it at my desk. I never have time to read at my desk"), described Baggott as being "cool as a cucumber, self-assured and confident" during the interviews that led up to her novel's auction. "She just was very smart and savvy about [talking to editors]."
After Girl Talk's sale, Baggott immediately went back to work. She continued to send out her poetry manuscript—which had been a finalist in the Bread Loaf and Kent State first-book contests—and after a few months was notified that she had won second prize in the Crab Orchard Review Award and that her book would be published by Southern Illinois University Press. Soon after, she completed and sold her second novel, The Miss America Family, to Hendricks (it's scheduled for a February 2002 release, to coincide with the paperback release of Girl Talk). "I thought, ‘I have an audience. These people are interested.’" Last fall, she finished a screenplay, The Madame, a fictionalized biography of her great-grandmother, a bordello-keeper. Sobel helped her find the Los Angeles agent who is currently shopping the screenplay around.
Although busy with her numerous projects, Baggott always had Girl Talk on her radar screen. And when Pocket began having problems with the cover—Baggott liked the first design, Hendricks hated it; Hendricks liked the second, Baggott hated it—she geared herself for action. Fearing that the third design would be no better than the second, she and Hendricks collaborated on a letter to the art department explaining their thoughts on what the cover should look like. Then Baggott took matters into her own hands. "I turned to Dave and said, ‘Look, we're screwed. We have to come up with something that's excellent right now. Today.’" After their evening workshop in Newark, Scott returned to his office—a 45-minute drive—and picked up his iMac and digital camera. "He took a picture of me, designed the cover, laid out where the text would be, and the next morning we e-mailed it in." Both Hendricks and Pocket's marketing department loved the design—which is simple but striking—and decided to use it. And so Baggott—or part of Baggott (her face is turned away from the camera)—adorns the cover of her book.
The early reviews of Girl Talk—in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly—were favorable, and initial sales were strong: Two weeks after its release, both Barnes & Noble and Borders had restocked. One can only imagine that the success is due, at least in part, to Baggott's vast network of friends and acquaintances in the writing and publishing world, to the sleekly designed Web site she launched to help promote the book (www.juliannabaggott.com), to the national tour Pocket Books has sent her on, and to a blurb in the February issue of Glamour magazine. And it is Girl Talk—a breathless novel that manages to be both funny and bleak, both poignant and bitchy—that will make Baggott famous.
Still, though she says she unexpectedly "fell in love with the novel as a form" while writing Girl Talk, her heart lies more with poetry. "I love to read poems. That's what I read. If I'm going to get a book out of the library, I get poems," she says, explaining that she first started reading poetry because of the availability of her husband's extensive collection. "Poems have the ability to make me read them for pleasure. They demand it. They say, ‘You have to love me.’ Whereas other things don't; I read them because I'm taking a clock apart."
Back at Baggott and Scott's charmingly disarrayed home—"total Americana," she calls it, sounding like the smart-alecky narrator of Girl Talk—Baggott is the epitome of patience. She and Scott feed me birthday cake left over from Finneas's party that morning. The kids cavort around us while Baggott feeds the baby and, miraculously, manages to continue our conversation, telling me stories about UNC-G. "When I was working as an editor at the Greensboro Review I would think, ‘Nobody's called me to see where their manuscript is? I've been sitting on this thing for three months. Why hasn't this writer called me?’ I would write rejection letters saying, ‘I had to struggle with this piece. I really liked it. Send me something else.’ And then I would never hear from them. I mean, when you get a letter like that you send something. The next day! Somebody wants it. You have an audience. There are so few times when people are listening. You have to take advantage of it."
Source: Joanna Smith Rakoff, "Julianna Baggott: How to Be the Next Big Thing," in Poets & Writers, Vol. 29, No. 3, May-June 2001, pp. 32-37.
In the following interview, Baggott talks about being a writer and mother and how being a mother has improved her writing.
… Julianna Baggott does double duty as a poet and novelist, as well as triple duty with her children: oldest daughter Phoebe is six, son Phineas is four, and baby Theo is nearly one and a half. A resident of Newark, Delaware, Baggott appreciates the proximity of her parents, and it isn't hard to understand why.
When Julianna got a bachelor's degree in creative writing and French from Loyola University in Baltimore, her father called it "a degree in starvation and poverty." She is more philosophical, reflecting that at least she finally got to put her foreign language skills to use when she went to France to promote her book. An MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1991 further honed her writing skills.
Julianna began publishing stories while in graduate school for her MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she was a Greensboro Scholar, studying fiction. Her work has appeared most recently in magazines such as Poetry, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, and Cream City Review. Andrew Hudgins nominated her book for a prize sponsored by the Sewanee Writers' Conference.
Her collection of poems was a 1999 finalist in Kent State's first book contest and Middlebury College's Bakeless Prize through Bread Loaf, where she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference for summer 2000. In the last two years, she has placed nearly thirty poems, in addition to publishing fiction. She's been awarded two fellowships from the Delaware Division of Arts, one in poetry and the other in fiction. Few of us will ever top her accomplishments in the year 2001: two of her books, one collection of poems and the other a novel, were published.
Her poetry, in This Country of Mothers: Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), won the university's prestigious prize, which provided her with cash as well as publication. That book has currently gone into a second printing, which confirms the publisher's belief that poetry can be profitable. In addition to selling well, In This Country has garnered glowing reviews from an array of established poets. Linda Pastan, author of Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), comments that: "Julianna Baggott has a fierce imagination which probes the ordinary details of a woman's life and lights up both the sacred and profane." Poet Andrew Hudgings describes her work as possessing "a full vision," and says that: "In these large, passionate, compelling poems, the speaker's family and the holy family merge in love and suffering—wholly family, wholly loved, wholly suffered for." Another well-known poet, Rodney Jones (Elegy for a Southern Drawl, Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), comments that: "Against a backdrop of family stories, Julianna Baggott draws themes as sharp as razors. She is an accomplished poet of the eye and ear, of the definitive feminine experience, and her poems of private life are expansive enough to suggest a vision of a political and historical era."
Her novel, Girl Talk: A Novel, was also published by Simon & Schuster in 2001, and is currently being released overseas. Reviews for it were equally positive, Booklist says: "As much as this story is touching, Baggott's supporting characters succeed in making it funny and entertaining, as well. Publishers Weekly describes the book as: "a touching coming of age story," while Poets and Writers notes that: "And it's Girl Talk—that manages to be both funny and bleak, poignant and bitchy—that will make Baggott famous." The New York Times review of her debut novel claims: "The title misleadingly suggests that this novel will have a good-natured, gossipy tone, but Baggott's brand of witty, psychological observation is dark and corrosive."
[Cheryl Dellasega:] What inspired you to write?
[Julianna Baggott:] I was raised to be a writer in some ways. My mother's family is Southern, so I came from a strong storytelling history. Stories were used for everything: cautionary advice, passing history, entertainment. Also, when I was younger, I got to go to New York City to see all the plays my sister was in. She's an actress who is nine years older than me, so that taught me about drama. My parents took me everywhere, and that developed my ear. I was in church every Sunday, which was a great lesson in literature and symbols, and what they mean. I knew very young that I wanted to be a writer.
My first job was teaching grades six through eight after I graduated from college. The next year, I did odd jobs to support my writing, including ballroom dancing and raking leaves. It was another year and a half before I could start graduate school, which is where my first short story was published in Farmer's Market, a western literary journal.
After graduate school, I met my husband, who is a poet, and got married. We knew we wanted to have children and write, but we needed to be close to my family to do so. An artist's grant from Delaware enabled us to move back to my hometown, where I was soon pregnant and living below poverty level. My husband and I ended up taking in boarders and he worked as an editor, which gave him a lot of different skills (including the ability to design the cover of Girl Talk).
Still aspiring to reach poverty level, we did freelance work together for six months, and made good money. Our process was smooth: he would go out and get the story, come back, write it, and give it to me. I would add the finesse. That experience gave me a huge amount of confidence. By the time I decided to write a novel, I felt I could write anything. Around this same time, my husband got a job developing publications for a private school, which meant we finally had enough money to move into a bigger house and make an office in the living room, but we still couldn't afford babysitters.
After my second child was born, I began writing poetry, partly because my time shrank, and partly because I found my writing becoming more autobiographical. Being a mother and a daughter was a big theme for me. Then I became pregnant with my third child, was very sick, and had a miscarriage. During this time, I realized that when I'm upset, I write. I worked through a lot of grief in poetry. All the love I was preparing to lavish on a child, I lavished on my poems and novel.
How did you get an agent?
I had a short story collection but couldn't get a publisher interested, which was really frustrating. At my moment of despair, an agent called who had read my short story "Girl Talk" and discussed developing it into a novel. I wrote the first 50 pages, and he liked them.
How old were you children when you started to write?
I was writing long before they arrived! In fact, I had my own journal before I could write. I would dictate to my sisters what I wanted to write.
From a practical standpoint, how has being a mother affected your writing?
At times it has been frustrating, especially with Girl Talk, since I didn't have sitters. My husband was extremely supportive, so I knew I could count on having time to write. He was crucial, as was living in my hometown. My parents are near the library, so lots of times I would drop the kids off on my way to write.
My kids are used to going to Kinko's and stuffing envelopes. Anything I can include them in, I do. When I was writing Girl Talk, I had a one and a half hour block of time I could count on when one was in preschool and the other napping. Of course, there needs to be family time too, so I used weekends to write. Not that children imprison me, but sometimes, I felt like a prisoner with a spoon. I could dig away, doing little bits at a time, hoping I would see the light. A small amount every day added up—two pages a day, and in 30 days I had 60 pages.
I constantly think of what I can do here and there? I read while the kids play on the playground, and am very good at musing. Before I fall asleep I sort of untether myself mentally and think about what I want to work on the next day. I keep paper next to the bed.
We all went to the Breadloaf Writers Conference while I was still nursing. I had been nominated for a scholarship and applied. When I got accepted, we decided to go as a family. We rented a house nearby; everyday my husband would drop me off, and then he took the kids. When it was time, he would bring the baby in to nurse. We managed to muddle through. It was crazy but worthwhile. I also went to a writers colony at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts which was very bucolic. I went in two week stints, just to write. When I was six months pregnant, I went to Ragdale writers colony in Lake Forrest outside of Chicago, but I wasn't as productive. I couldn't fall in love with writing because of being so concentrated on my pregnancy.
Does it make your children uncomfortable to have a mother who is a writer?
My oldest gets a little more frustrated. When all the hoopla for Girl Talk was going on she would get upset at times, and ask if we had to talk about the book so much. At my premier in Newark, she was there handing out cookies, though. My older son thinks everyone is a writer, since his parents are both writers, as are most of our friends.
In spite of the writing, our priority has always been to have one person at home. There was a time from February to May where I was on a big tour for Girl Talk and we had to get a sitter. We weren't living our priorities, which is why my husband decided to work from home. Still, it's very hard to do a tour with a family.
Has there ever been something from your child's life you wanted to write about but didn't for privacy reasons?
My poetry really reflects the kids. Girl Talk isn't about my kids. My second novel, The Miss America Family isn't about them either. But they're in the poetry.
Actually, my kids make their own books all the time. Phoebe loves stories, and draws pictures to go with them. My son is a narrator. There's the world and then there's what's going on in Phineas's head. He always has a story in his head.
How did your own mother influence you as a writer—if at all?
My mother was a concert pianist and a stay at home mom. My dad was an engineer and corporate lawyer. They were both very encouraging of my writing and having a creative life, but that runs in our family. My older sister is an actress, my brother is a musician who works with computers, and my other sister paints.
My third novel is called The Madame. It's based on my grandmother who was raised in a whorehouse. She had three kids she put in an orphanage. To understand how she could do this, I had to put myself in that position and my kids in that position. It's so very different from the way I am, the only way I could write about it was to project myself into her situation. So she influenced me in an indirect way.
Any other thoughts on how being a mother has influenced you as a writer?
Motherhood has helped me become a better writer for several reasons. I thought I had a depth before, but children mine that so much deeper. I have so much more love than I ever thought myself capable of. The success and failure of my writing often hinges on my ability to fall in love with it. That takes so much generosity, which children give you. They develop your capability to love. Being a mother brought me to a deeper level in my willingness to give to my characters and be aware of how much attention they needed.
Being a mom has also improved my concentration. The amount of time I wasted before I had kids astounds me now! That old saying, "If you want something done, ask someone who's busy" is really true for me. I've gotten so much better at a zen mindset, turning it on and off. Where I used to need a lot of time to get into a short story, I now juggle a huge to-do list and stay within a story as well.
Other kinds of jobs take up your musing time while filing, typing, etc., but with children, you can muse while nursing, chopping apples, or making peanut butter sandwiches. Rocking my youngest to sleep is good musing time for me. When Phoebe, my oldest, was born, I had to go away to a writers' colony after she was a year old because I couldn't write. With my second it was six months and poetry until I could write, then with my third it was five days.
What are you working on now?
My second novel The Miss America Family is the story of a former Miss New Jersey, the point of view of a 16 year old who is coming of age, like Girl Talk with bipolar disorder. I've also been doing some screenplays. Because my family stories are so complex, I actually wrote The Madame, my third book, as a screenplay first to get a handle on it.
What are your writing habits?
I have done a lot with writing groups off and on, which is especially helpful for poetry. I led a women's writing group for about five years until I wrote Girl Talk. My husband is always in groups too, but now, with him home at home, he reads my work. Sometimes what he says is brilliant but I don't realize it immediately.
Do you have any advice for other mothers/writers?
I try to be encouraging. Once I was in a chat room where I said writing was "doable," and a woman got upset with me, because she felt I was saying if you don't get it done you've failed. That made me feel really bad, because that's not what I meant.
Be kind to yourself. If it's not getting done, be gentle. Recognize your priorities. If it's not getting done, understand that it's okay. Wanting to be a writer is compatible with motherhood. Being an astronaut or lawyer with long hours wouldn't work, but writing can. Don't impose your schedule on them. The closer you can get to their natural rhythms the better your writing will be.
Source: Cheryl Dellasega, "Mothers Who Write: Julianna Baggott," in Writers Write: The Internet Writing Journal, October-November 2001, pp. 1-6.
Baggott, Julianna, "What the Poets Could Have Been," in This Country of Mothers, Southern Illinois University Press, 2001 pp. 57-58.
Blake, Robert W., "Poets on Poetry: Writing and the Reconstruction of Reality," in English Journal, Vol. 79, No. 7, November 1990, pp. 16, 20, 21.
Dellasega, Cheryl, "Mothers Who Write: Julianna Baggott," November 2001, http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/nov01/baggott.htm (accessed December 11, 2006).
Dickinson, Emily, "This Was a Poet," in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown, 1955, p. 215.
Horace, "The Art of Poetry," in Horace: The Odes, Epodes, Satires, and Epistles, Frederick Warne 1892, lines 55-56, 64-65, http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/horace/horacepo.htm (accessed December 13, 2006).
Jones, Rodney, Review of This Country of Mothers, in Southern University Press, 2001, http://www.siu.edu/%7Esiupress/titles/s01_titles/baggott_mothers.htm (accessed September 27, 2006).
Preyer, Robert, "The Prejudice against Poetry: A Diagnosis and an Appeal," in College English, Vol. 18, No. 2, November 1956, p. 84.
Rakoff, Joanna Smith, "Celebrating the Joys of Poetry," in Book Page, April 2001, http://www.bookpage.com/0104bp/nonfiction/poetry_roundup.html (accessed December 11, 2006).
Wickett, Dan, "Review of This Country of Mothers," in Emerging Writers Forum, August 27, 2002, http://www.breaktech.net/emergingwritersforum/View_Review.aspx?id=197 (accessed December 11, 2006).
"Working Families," in Bernie Sanders: Vermont's Independent Congressman, http://bernie.house.gov/economy/today.asp (December 11, 2006).
Behn, Robin, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, Collins, 1992.
This book is ideal for anyone who wants to learn to write poetry. The book consists of a series of exercises designed to help would-be poets begin writing and finding their own poetic voices.
Germin, Pamela, Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework, University of Iowa Press, 2005.
This appropriately titled collection of poems focuses on what women most often do in the home—housework. Many of the poems in this collection, which includes a poem by Baggott, make readers laugh, but many more will cause readers to notice the exceptional female poets included in this book, who can turn even housework into art.
Mullaney, Janet Palmer, ed., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets, University of Michigan Press, 1999.
This collection of fifteen interviews includes a broad spectrum of women's voices, representing diversity in race, ethnicity, and age. Although Baggott is not included in this collection, these poets speak of the same topics that interest all women poets—women's stories and women's survival as poets.
Prins, Yopie, and Maeera Shreiber, eds., Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, Cornell University Press, 1998.
This book is a collection of feminist critical essays that have been interwoven with poetry. The book includes the work of female poets and feminist literary critics, who explore new ways to write and think about poetry.
Rankine, Claudia, ed., American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
This book presents a collection of ten contemporary American women poets and focuses on the issue of whether gender influences the work of female poets.
Rees-Jones, Deryn, Consorting with Angels, Bloodaxe Books, 2001.
In this collection of critical essays, Rees-Jones examines that different ways that twentieth-century female poets have tried to create feminist poems within a cultural and societal framework that confines what female poets can write.