Our editor-in-chief, Rebecca Starks, recently spoke with Issue #2 featured poet Artress Bethany White. Here’s what she had to say about her writing, her inspirations—and the art of approaching parenting with humor.
You have been a parent for 17 years, I believe? What inspired you to write these poems about parenting—your parents’ and your own—now?
The most important feature of a poetry collection is having a clear rationale behind why these particular poems have been collected. There must be a unifying theme. As I began to think about my second collection, I considered where I was in my life and what was consuming my thoughts.
I had just married a man with three children, from preschool age to high school, and my own daughter was in high school. My thoughts were filled with resurrecting past parenting skills and strategies and creating new ones.
While doing this, I also found myself reflecting on my own childhood and where I had departed from those traditions. My biggest challenge to myself was to write poems that dealt with parenting in creative and surprising ways, and I hope I am achieving that goal.
What do you hope readers take away from your poems?
Oh, I’m easy on that score. If they laugh or see themselves reflected in what I write, I am happy. For me, writing poetry is really about reaching your scattered community.
What are you working on currently?
I am working on finalizing this collection of poems and finding a press interested in publishing it. I am also working on an anthology project and various essays on contemporary poetry.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Not to force a poem to be what you want it to be. The poem needs to tell its own story in its own way. I have gained so much from letting an idea gestate before attempting to put it on the page.
Describe your writing process. How do you make room for creative writing among your responsibilities as a teacher, academic writer and parent?
That’s a good question. Any time I find time to create, I consider that a good process! Sometimes I grab a few minutes while the slow eaters are finishing up at the dinner table and negotiating with my spouse for extra play time before bed. I have revised whole poems in those precious ten minutes! I am also grateful to the Knoxville Public School System for full daytime hours, when the children are away and I can have time to read and stay abreast of what is going on in the field.
And I will admit, sometimes I take an extra day to grade papers so that I can squeeze in a little bit of writing time. When deadlines are looming, I do have to push myself to stay up that extra hour or two to get the work done. And when the work gets done, I treat myself very well afterwards.
What is the first poem you remember writing, or who is the first poet you remember inspiring you to write?
Sylvia Plath. I had a lot to confess, too.
Your father didn’t want to raise you in the South, so—as you describe in “New England Rebel,” the first poem of your book Fast Fat Girls in Pink Hot Pants—he moved your family from Florida to Massachusetts, where you grew up. What made you open to returning to the South, and how do you think about your family history as you raise your children in a region that has such a racially loaded history? How have the issues of race and regionalism—of regional racism—you address in your first collection changed for you (if they have) when viewed through the lens of being a parent?
The irony of my father’s conscious decision is that I was not called the n-word until I moved to the Northeast. I was ten at the time, and I remember coming home and seeing my father in a quiet moment reading the newspaper. I went up to him and asked him what the n-word meant. He put down his paper and asked me where I had heard it. I told him at school.
Fast forward to 2011, and my oldest daughter stepping off of her school bus in Knoxville in tears. I, of course, thought someone had tried to beat her up on the bus. Through her tears she told me that someone in her high school had called her the n-word and she didn’t know who it was. In short, she was afraid to go back to school because she didn’t know who her friends were anymore.
Racism exists in the North as well as the South, but the legacy of the antebellum and postbellum eras in relation to slavery are more pronounced in the South. When you are driving down I-75 South, you see large Confederate flags billowing in the breeze. The Civil War is discussed as recent history.
These may be key differences. But my family consists of both black and white children, and I am determined to raise them with a knowledge of American race history and the current race issues this country is still struggling with. It is not as simple as crossing the Mason-Dixon Line and suddenly reaching the Promised Land. My six-year-old already knows what the n-word is from her parents, so she will not be surprised if ignorance falls from the lips of one of her classmates.
You noted in your cover letter to us: “Parenting is a frightful subject that can only be approached with a sense of humor.” Of course that strikes a chord of humor, but could you say more about that “frightful”?
Sure. Being a parent is exhausting work. Really. One night I found myself putting dirty dishes on top of clean dishes in the dishwasher, and I was too exhausted to take them out, so I just washed the whole lot again. To me, that was frightening. Sometimes you literally use up all expendable energy to make it all work.
Or you go into your kid’s room and her pet rabbit is humping his chew toy, and your child says, “It’s okay Mom, he needs a mate too.” On the one hand you kick yourself for not finding out if the rabbit could be neutered, and on the other you marvel at the compassion you have instilled in your child. Seriously, you never know what the day will bring in your struggle to raise good citizens.
What makes something poetry for you—how do you recognize what will be your next poem?
If I have an idea and can squeeze a poem out of it. If I can’t, I put it on hold until I am ready for it, or it is ready for me.