Continuing our effort to spotlight parents who are also pursing creative endeavors, this week we’re talking to Amanda Russell, a poet whose debut chapbook, BARREN YEARS, is coming out in June. Amandais a native East Texan who has been writing poetry for over 15 years. Currently, she lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and two children.
Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your first chapbook BARREN YEARS from Finishing Line Press. How long did you work on this collection of poetry?
The earliest poem in this collection is “Sonogram (16 weeks).” It was written in 2010. I started to envision this bundle of poems in 2012 when I wrote the poem “Barren Years.” I have been working on this collection since then, so for six years.
How are you feeling about seeing it finally in print?
Ecstatic! To be a writer has been my dream as long as I can remember.
What inspired this collection?
This collection started coming together when I worked in a writing lab as a tutor. I had just graduated, gotten married, worked at Barnes & Noble. I had been struggling to find my path and then my spiritual father challenged me to make it a practice, to write every day. That was the start of what I began calling my “writing experiment.” On the way home from work I would stop at the grocery store – it had a really cool back patio – and I liked the feel of it, so I would stop there and keep my pen moving for 20 minutes. Several things came from that practice, including many of the poems in the book. Sometimes I’d just be writing “I have nothing to say, nothing to say, nothing to say,” and I wasn’t writing with any specific goal other than to write. But sometimes I’d have a topic. I continued it for three years, and then I’ve been off and on with it since my first child was born. And whenever I start writing again after a dry spell, that’s the method I go back to.
BARREN YEARS covers a span of about five years of my life. The writing started out as just my own personal processing of these events. The most obvious event covered in Barren Years is miscarriage. I was 22, newly married, and pregnant with twins when it happened. I was completely devastated. I had never felt such a deep sense of grief, guilt, and loss. It caught me by surprise and I had no idea what do with it. I kept thinking I should be able to snap out of it. But I couldn’t.
According to the Mayo Clinic, miscarriage effects up to 20 percent of known pregnancies. That percentage goes up as women age. Common convention that I heard regularly after my miscarriage was that it impacts 1 in 4 women. Had you heard these statistics before your personal experience? What do you think of this information now?
I had no idea about the statistics. I felt so alone, and didn’t even have the words to talk to anyone about what had happened to me. I didn’t know if other people had experienced this same thing, this same guilt. In fact, I came across the same data in a middle of the night internet search after the miscarriage. The first time I read it, I remember being shocked. And since then, I have been friends with many women who have also experienced miscarriage. Now I just wonder, why it is that the topic is not discussed more openly? Why do we isolate ourselves and suffer alone?
How did you feel as you were going through the miscarriage and the time after? What sort of support were you able to draw on to help you through this tough time?
As I was going through the miscarriage, I was drawing immediate support from my husband, as well as other members of my family – especially my mom and mother-in-law. But it was hard because I found myself unable to talk about it. I started sleeping with a Care Bear every night. I often carried it around the house when my husband was at work. I cried a lot. It took me quite some time to realize I was grieving and therefore needed to be patient with myself. I wanted to snap out of it, but couldn’t. I realized I needed something to take care of, so my dear friend, Linda, taught me gardening. Taking care of my plants, together with writing and many long talks with some of my spiritual guides helped me through. It took me a good five years to begin feeling like myself again.
Many women struggle with feelings of guilt on top of their grief, feeling they must have done something ‘wrong,’ when, in fact, most miscarriages are the result of a chromosomal abnormality that occurs early in the pregnancy and is in no way preventable. The fact that it’s often a taboo topic means, however, that women struggle with these difficult emotions in isolation. What was your experience like? Was guilt a part of it?
The hardest thing for me was the lack of explanation and the helplessness of not being able to reverse it. I also felt a sort of distrust in my own body – how could this have happened without my consent? This was not my intention.
During the pregnancy I had a very hard time adjusting to all the changes that occur in the body – low energy levels, suddenly not liking things I’d loved – like apples – the changing shape of my body. I felt judged by people who had advised me to get on birth control before getting married when I desired a more natural approach to life. So, yes – the guilt. Was I not happy enough about being pregnant? Maybe I should’ve taken birth control? Maybe I would not have been a good mother? If only I had done….
The guilt was definitely there, and it was huge. And for me, at least, it lingered on until over the years I pieced together my innocence and worked through my grief.
That is such a powerful phrase “pieced together my innocence.” Can you elaborate on that and tell us how you did it?
I had so much guilt. I had so many questions. Did I do something wrong? And no one had any answers. But over the years, the pieces of information came together really slowly, and finally I was able to see the picture in retrospect and I was able to come to internalize that my intentions were always good and the miscarriage wasn’t my fault. There was not anything inherently bad inside of me. But I had to do a lot of self-work to get to know myself better. I had to do a lot of work to know that the miscarriage was not my fault.
Did you experience miscarriage as a taboo topic? Why do you think some people perceive it as such?
I do think it is a taboo topic. I never heard anyone talking about it. Most of the women who have opened up with me about it are those who have read my poems. I don’t know exactly why it is a taboo topic, maybe because it is so personal or because it is grief. Grief is something that does not get enough respect sometimes.
I didn’t talk about it either. I thought no one would want to hear about it. Or that it would bring other people down. Other times, if someone asked me how I was doing, I’d give a vague answer so I could try to move on. But it seemed I was confronted with it everywhere – hair dressers, co-workers, strangers, new people I’d meet – it seemed like everyone started out by asking, “So how many kids do you have?” I even had a co-worker congratulate me on my new baby – she was seeing me back at work for the first time in a while. I told her I’d had a miscarriage. I’m sure she felt bad. It was so close to the event, that I was still pretty numb, but over the years whenever the question about kids came up, I couldn’t help but get defensive.
How did pregnancy impact your writing? How did the miscarriage?
I don’t think I wrote much during pregnancy. Now I think of it as channeling my creative energy in a different direction, but at the time it was a little frustrating when the words wouldn’t come. The poem “Sonogram” is the earliest in this collection. It was written eight months after the miscarriage. When I saw it on the page, I shut my journal and did not re-read it for several months. Next was “Void” and “Failure.” I was not planning to share them with anyone. Ever. I had wanted to write about the miscarriage so I could begin to make sense of it, but so many times when I wanted to write, I was left completely without words. When the words started to show up for me, they came in stages. There was a discrepancy between what I wanted the poem to express and what it actually expressed. As it has happened with me in the past, I had to work at it to really say what I meant to say.
Communication is another theme that comes up in this collection – wanting to talk, to open up, and being unable to do so at first. I remember a writing group session I had in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the SPACE group. I shared a poem, and one brave soul said, “What are you wanting to say here?” I told her and she responded, “that’s interesting – I want to read about that.” So I went home and reworked the poem “Spinach & Broccoli” and I brought it back the next week. I had to pull out the fear of the dirt consuming me, which meant I had to scrap half of the original poem and then reconstruct it to what it is now:
From THE BARREN YEARS, Spinach & Broccoli, appearing in the forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press.
With my face close to the ground,
My knees sinking slightly in,
I think of all the things the earth eats.
When I finished reading it, everyone was excited about the work I had done. It was a great moment. I learned so much being a part of that group.
It was a slow process but cathartic and such a relief when I got it how I wanted it.
Grief is a powerful emotion. What was it like trying to capture it in words?
I’ve had people ask me, “Why would you want to publish these poems? Aren’t they very personal?” And my answer to that is, “Yes, it’s very personal, but the more I shared them with women I knew, the more I understood that I was not alone in my experience.”
I’ve had people tell me that they realized they were not alone when they read my poems. They felt validated in their own experiences. Reading these poems helped them process their own grief. To me, these are the highest compliments I could receive and the best feedback.
Writing is, for me, first and foremost communication, and as such, I work to make my poems accessible and relatable based on the human experience. So I hope people take away that they are not alone and I hope they feel empowered to share their story and honor their grief, even if it surprised them to feel it so strongly (like it did me). Also, I hope reading my work can help facilitate understanding between women who have experienced miscarriage and those they are in relationships with. I had a dear friend tell me that her mother had a miscarriage. Perhaps reading these poems could help her identify with what her mother went through and help her to gain greater understanding of her mother, even in retrospect.
This was years ago. You have two beautiful children now. How do you feel when you go back and read your poems from this time?
I feel compassion for myself and a strong sense that all these poems ring true for me. The poems are vivid for me, as I hope they are for others, so I cry, laugh, celebrate the small celebrations, and feel it all. In the end, at “Mirages,” I am so swallowed up in hope that I want to dance. There is a lot of grace that comes to me through that poem in particular.
What do you hope others will take away from BARREN YEARS?
Strength. Grace. Understanding and Hope.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, and your poems, with us, Amanda. BARREN YEARS is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. You can also check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @poet_russell.