Three years ago, Rachel Zucker stood in midtown Manhattan with a packed rolling suitcase and a cell phone in hand. She called her friend Arielle Greenberg in Chicago to report in: “I’m ready.” Nine months pregnant, Arielle was ready, too, but she told her friend to wait, nothing was happening yet. “Somehow she knew, though,” says Greenberg now, of her friend’s prescience. “My water broke that night, Rachel flew out the next morning, and Willa was born five days later.”
Zucker, who already had two children of her own, had trained to become a certified doula in order to attend Greenburg’s labor and birth. Since then, she’s participated in eight births and opted to have her third son at home. Despite these powerful connections, the women consider motherhood to be a happy addition, an almost coincidental part of a friendship that is built around a mutual love for words. They are members of a very small and selective employment sector: published poets.
Many of us can identify poets from the past and have reverence for their work. But you’d be hard pressed to find many people, outside of the most hardcore New Yorker readers, who can readily name three living female poets, much less the titles of their works. Novelists, no problem. But Jorie Graham, Mary Karr, Mary Oliver, and Brenda Hillman—some of the best-known possible responses—are far from being household names. Along with name recognition, successful novelists receive decent paychecks; if you’ve “made it,” you can quit the day job. But a very scant number of poets, even those who are award-winning and multiply published, can afford to write full time. Add to the situation the challenges of motherhood, and it’s understandable why many women either give up poetry or sideline it for years.
There’s also the matter of people simply not getting what a poet does. When Zucker put her children in daycare, many friends were baffled. Didn’t she have enough time to care for them herself? Surely, she didn’t have the income for it. “It is hard enough for any writer to explain his act of self-isolation, the hours spent making words seem real to a society that is suspicious of low-paid or unpaid work, of silence, of language, of spellcasting, of art,” Zucker has written. “Add to that trying to explain to a culture that idealizes and sanctifies motherhood why I would chose to spend time away from my children in order to write.”
So, poetry is on several levels an isolated, potentially lonely art. Motherhood can be the same. It’s not surprising, then, that Zucker and Greenberg, who is expecting her second child, consider their friendship to be one of the most significant emotional and intellectual anchors in their lives. They met eleven years ago when Greenberg was the only person to respond to an ad Zucker posted looking for poets to form a writing group. “We didn’t even like each other’s poems at first,” allows Greenberg. They managed to form a larger group and over time became advocates of each other’s work, which is very different stylistically. (Just a glance at their respective Web sites, rachelzucker.net and ariellegreenberg.net, speaks volumes as to their aesthetic differences.)
When Greenberg left New York City for graduate school in Syracuse, they were still little more than professional acquaintances. But when she graduated in 2001, a passionate friendship formed around events both poetic and domestic: they both had first books coming out, Greenberg was engaged, and Zucker was having her second child. Since then, they’ve had what Zucker calls a “spiritual sisterhood.”
These days, they are in daily contact, not only with each other, but with a wider group of poets and mothers who Greenberg brought together three years ago. “I was in my second trimester of pregnancy, and I was thinking about Plath,” Greenberg says with a dark laugh. What ambitious female writer, especially poet, has not thought of Sylvia Plath and her act of self-abnegation? The terrible isolation. The gaping oven. The children sealed in their rooms. It’s a grim picture of literary longing and motherhood.
“What was it like to be that talented, that driven, that isolated?” wonders Greenberg. Determined to create her own community and spare herself even a smidge of that kind of misery, she started the Poet-Moms listserv, a small, invitation-only listserv. It didn’t take long for her to compile a group of about fifty women poets who were already established in their careers and also had young children or babies on the way.
Like any young mother-to-be, Greenberg was hungry for practical information. Her visits to mothering Web sites and listservs, steeped in cute acronyms and emoticons, had left her cold. She knew that as someone who works with words all day, she needed to have advice on burping presented with eloquence and wit. The listserv she created deals with all the usual new mama conundrums: stroller brands, solid foods, sleeping. There are topics that seem to percolate more frequently among the poets than in the general population. “We’ve spent a lot of time on anti-depressants during nursing and pregnancy,” says Greenberg. But the members also swap publishing advice, share kid-friendly poetry titles, and compare stories of taking babies along on book tours.
Each year, some of them meet at the Associated Writing Programs conference, including a drop-in, kid-friendly hotel room. Mostly, though, the relationships remain cyber-based. Even though a few of the poets live in Zucker’s Manhattan neighborhood, she rarely sees them, mainly because everyone is so sensitive to one another’s very limited writing time.
Through the listserv and their friendship, Zucker and Greenberg continue to carve space for each other and their mutual concerns. Sleep cycles and verse cycles are of equal importance. They have co-edited an anthology, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections, which contains essays by more than two dozen younger women poets on older living women poets and is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press. More recently, they began writing a lyric essay together about homebirth.
“We’d talked about writing creatively together, before,” says Greenberg, “but hadn’t found the right subject.” When she began writing about her homebirth, Greenburg called Zucker and declared with characteristic excitement, “I think this is the thing.” After reading her friend’s prose, Zucker replied emphatically, “This is the thing!”