Chapbook Interview: what mothers withhold by Elizabeth Kropf

I never can remember the first time I met someone who became a close friend. I know that I met Elizabeth Kropf at AIPF, and I’ve known her close to a decade, if not more. There have been periods when we’ve spent a lot of time together, and periods where work, school, and family meant we went a long time without talking. The death of our friend Wade Martin earlier this year provided a sad yet vital opportunity to reconnect. One of the first things she told me was that her first chapbook, what mothers withhold, had been accepted for publication. It’s now in preorder until November 6th, and I’m thrilled for her. To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to interview Elizabeth about her upcoming publication. This interview is inspired by the style of Divedapper.

[Allyson Whipple] I’ve always wanted to discuss the role that faith plays in relation to your poetry. I remember being shocked the first time you told me you were a practicing Christian, because back then I knew many people whose actions gave Christianity a bad name. While you don’t seem to write much overtly religious poetry, at the same time, I find that our spiritual practices often end up infused in our work. Does your spiritual life connect with your creative life, and if so, what’s your relationship to poetry and faith?

[Elizabeth Kropf] I take your shock as a compliment.  The graduate program I attended was Perelandra College, which is the name of a C.S. Lewis novel.  The philosophy of the college is that Christians should be good writers because we have access to the Holy Spirit.  Ken Kuhlken’s book Writing and the Spirit expanded on this idea. I took a course called “The Bible as Story,” which was about looking at Scripture as a story. I wrote my first published poem in that class, so I think responding to Scripture is powerful for me. There is one poem in “What Mothers Withhold” that is based off a verse in Exodus. Poetry is a way to wrestle with God and is an act of worship. My spiritual journey has been influenced by the writings of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans, and I highly recommend their writing to anyone struggling with faith. What I hope to accomplish in my poetry is to share my story without excluding anyone. I don’t want someone without a Christian background to feel alienated, and I don’t want someone who is not a mother to not have any way to connect to my work.

[AW] One of the things that fascinates me about spiritual practice is the ways in which form lies at the heart of worship. We can find form in the instructions for Islamic prayer, in Communion rituals, and in meditation practice. I’m curious as to whether the formal aspects of Christian practice connect in some way to your love of the sestina form.

[EK] I hadn’t thought about that connection. I didn’t grow up with a lot of rituals, but they are valuable to me now. I didn’t grow up celebrating Lent, but it is something I practice as an adult. Something fascinating about Lent is that you can just fast from certain things, such a sugar, or add a practice during Lent. That would be a wonderful exercise as a poet- to fast from something commonly used, or to add something for a period of time.  For me, I could abstain from writing in first person, or add an image from nature in each poem.

 I recently started practicing TaeKwonDo, which has form. My instructor said that no one would use form during a fight, but it is about practicing the movement and creating muscle memory. Form can be considered an exercise to make us stronger writers. I recommend The Poetry Dictionary by John Drury because it defines many forms and other poetry terms.

What I love about form is that it prevents poets from just bleeding into the page.  The sestina is my favorite because it creates a theme with the repeated words, but it is subtle enough that the reader doesn’t anticipate the next line. Ezra Pound said the sestina is “a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself.”

[AW ] I have always enjoyed list poems and how-to poems. Even though I’ve made the choice to not have children, the poem “how not to get pregnant” is one of my favorites because of the way it plays with the how-to form, since ultimately the desired goal doesn’t materialize, at least for a long time. I also think this poem speaks to something universal, whether you’re trying to have children or not: that is, putting all of your energy and attention into something, and despite doing everything right, it never comes to fruition. I can feel the sorrow and frustration that led to this poem, and yet despite those emotions, this poem also has moments of humor. The image of trying to remember your temperature until you find a pen and the imperative, “Don’t argue when you are ovulating” are funny, not because they are not serious, but because when we are in pursuit of our soul’s deepest desire, sometimes the things we put ourselves through are a little comical. Now that you’ve had some distance from the initial struggle that led to this poem, do you find humor in it? Has your relationship changed to the poem at all?

[EK] I’m glad you connected poem, and I remember that you write this kind of poem as well.  I probably copied the concept from you! I have a few “how to” poems, and two of them are about attending funerals.  A list or how-to poem can give some distance to be able to approach intense topics without just bleeding onto the page.  I recommend any poet try that as a way to write about something they are struggling to articulate.  It would make a fantastic anthology.

 I’m glad that the humor in the poem came through, as I was going for a lighter approach.  The process is quite absurd. There are literally apps to track ovulation symptoms. My relationship to the poem has changed because we were fortunate enough to have another child.  As I am looking at what is the final version of the manuscript (I have been sending the manuscript out for years), I see how it ties into the theme in other poems of my struggle to accept when things are different than I planned or expected. My delivery with my oldest was very difficult for that reason, and I wrote so many poems just to process it.

[AW] I’m thinking now about how I saw Vievee Francis speak on a panel at Poetry at Round Top, and she talked about how the process of creating her poems and books was not necessarily therapeutic. The writing did help her process and make sense of the life she’d lived growing up Black in rural Texas, and yet they didn’t necessarily provide closure. Natalie Goldberg has said that writing practice isn’t therapy. It’s clear that poetry has been part of your healing process. I’m wondering if it gave you the closure you were expecting, or whether the work only got you so far.

[EK] Poetry absolutely has given me closure. There is something beautiful about crystalizing an experience and saying, hey, I would have liked for this to turn out differently. Part of my healing also was sharing the poems with others. There are tragedies that there cannot be closure for, and in those instances at least acknowledging pain is powerful. I wrote a poem about the mass shooting in my hometown of Thousand Oaks, California and I don’t have closure about that.  

Poems about a lack of closure can also be powerful. I remember a poem from Round Top about a woman whose adult daughter died, and she had a metaphor about how she would be okay and then pain would come back like a piece of glass in her foot. I think the poem was called “Smithereens.”

Since having my youngest daughter I have worked with a life coach, and I realize now that I could have had closure much sooner with some things. I was creating more suffering for myself because I was struggling with the idea that what happened should not have happened. With my first daughter, I very much did not want an epidural, but was induced and ended up getting one. The epidural was incredibly painful and didn’t work. If I had been able to let go of my anger over that, I would have had closure on that aspect of the birth much sooner.  I recommend the website https://thework.com/ for more about challenging our thoughts. That itself would be an amazing workshop, to challenge our thoughts about something we don’t have closure on.

[AW] On the Commonplace podcast, poet Rachel Zucker has often talked about her attempts to write an essay about the poetics of motherhood, and ultimately finding she could not write the essay she intended. It wasn’t because motherhood and poetry were incompatible, but because she found that the nature of motherhood was not something that could be neatly tied up into poetics. What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s possible to have a poetics of motherhood, or does motherhood defy that kind of categorization? How do motherhood and poetics connect for you, if at all?

[EK] My strongest poems are about motherhood. However, there are things I have not been able to write about yet. I have very few poems about my youngest, even though she is delightful and exuberant. It is hard to write about certain things without being smarmy.  I also try to have a “turn” in a poem, which I learned from Cindy Huyser. I don’t remember who she said stated it, but she believes every poem should have a turn. There are things I want to write about but I haven’t figure out how to do it well.

Motherhood has brought the most intense experiences I have had. For me, poetry is a way to tell a story and connect to the reader. You don’t have to experience their story to relate to the emotion. I’m reading David Meischen’s poetry book Anyone’s Son, and it is incredibly moving. I like the concept of a poetics of motherhood as a verb. How do we mother? How are we mothered? Can we mother the reader?

[AW] That leads me back to Rachel Zucker’s work, because she also has spoken and written in defense of sentimentality. In the essay “Terribly Sentimental,” she writes: “I have less and less patience with poems that don’t in some way engage human emotion. Poems in which I do not feel the presence of a feeling (as well as thinking) human being. This preference is, I think gendered. I hear my students talk about their fear of sentiment (they seem as afraid of sentiment as of sentimentality or do they just not distinguish between the two?) and I can’t figure out where this is coming from. I used to be afraid of writing poetry of witness, a sort of AA poetry, but now I think I prefer that to the mechanistic poetry that wants to be person-less. Is this about age? Gender again?” Is smarminess different from sentimentality? I think “Chocolate Chip Cookies with Madeleine L’Engle” and “heel-click” are poems that are sentimental without being smarmy. What is your relationship to sentimentality, and what kind of potential do you think there is in being willing to engage with it?

[EK] I really connected with this essay, and it drew attention to many of the ideas I have about what I was not prepared for with birth specifically. I do have some sentimental poems, and I selected the poems you referred to in order to balance out the intense themes in the other poems.  “Chocolate chip cookies with Madeline L’Engle” is one of the most recent, if not the most recent, poem in the collection.  Even though it is not as personal as the other poems, it still draws on the theme of wanting to protect others, which might be seen as sentimentality.

There is value in engaging with sentimentality, and I always will. My previous answer was more from a place of examining what I feel I am able to succeed in accomplishing.   I am more drawn to poems that have a human connection, as talked about in Zucker’s piece. I’m not drawn to poems about nature. I recognize the skill in their writing, but it’s not what I’m drawn to read. I enjoy being outside, but I have almost no poems about nature.

[AW] Is there anything you never get asked about your work that you’ve always wanted to talk about?

[EK] I wanted to talk about the cover art for my book.  Tamryn Spruill is an amazing artist. When I found out I got to select the cover art for my book, I asked her to create something. She asked what I had in mind and I said “I have no idea.” She read my manuscript then created this sculpture. She asked me what color my anxiety was and I said orange. The thread around the woman is orange, and the belly is covered with images from the book. I am grateful she created such an exquisite sculpture.

Note: Preorder your copy of what mothers withhold by November 6th. Poets depend on preorders more than ever. If you know someone who you think would resonate with this book, preorder a copy for them as well! This chapbook is scheduled to ship on January 4th, 2021.  

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