A Place Where Complication Can Live: A Conversation with Callista Buchen

Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), and the chapbooks The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015) and Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM‘s essay contest and the C.D. Wright Conference’s Nan Snow Emerging Writer Award. She teaches at Franklin College, where she directs the creative writing program and the visiting writers’ reading series.


Lisa Grgas: Thank you so much, Callista, for speaking with me about your debut full-length collection, Look Look Look, out from Black Lawrence Press in October. To echo Maggie Smith, your book is a deep exploration of the body and self through pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. It is, at turns, physical and metaphysical and communicates the relatedness of beauty and pain as experience in a transforming body. Can you speak to your inspirations and motivations for writing this book?

Callista Buchen: Thank you so much for having me, Lisa.

In the beginning, I didn’t know that I was writing this book. Rather, I had written a lyric essay, “Belly Sea,” while pregnant with my first child, in which I had tried to articulate what I had thought of as the strangeness of pregnancy. For me, pregnancy was full of disorientating contradictions: exhilarating and exhausting, empowering and erasing. I started writing to try to make sense of the thing happening to me, reaching for language that might help me organize the strangeness I couldn’t shake, as well as the expectations that can be impos­ed upon and internalized by parents to-be.

When my daughter, who is now eight, was born, I was lost and overwhelmed, and this was true again when my son, now five years old, came along, though I knew it was coming by then. My shocked post-partum mind convinced me that I had two choices: I could stop writing altogether, or I could try to write about what I was experiencing, building upon and expanding beyond the work of “Belly Sea.”  In this process, I could record and analyze a sometimes-terrifying fluidity of self. That record functioned as a kind of personal anchor, as well as a springboard for further poetic imagining. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but while it was easy to hold what I had gained (literally, with my children in my arms), I also needed to document what was lost when I became a parent, to point to the hole of my old life, in order to find what (if) it might become.

Early on, I was in a workshop with a colleague who thought that what I was writing was too much “women’s writing,” irrelevant for male readers. I wanted poems that would speak back to that critique, that would demand to be seen. Even before I had children, I’ve always believed that the domestic experience, including the experience of becoming a parent, is eminently worthy of poetic attention and imagination. The question of what it means to be human doesn’t disappear at the threshold of a domestic space. Rather, it was zooming in on my parenthood and the gendered experiences of my parenthood that facilitated an exploration the body and trauma and transformation.

LG: These poems read so honestly, I found myself assuming the collection is purely autobiographical. What is the relationship between the poetic voice and your personal voice?

CB: Oh, I hope they read honestly—that is the goal, I think, for any piece of writing. And certainly, my specific experiences as a mother have informed and inflected everything in this book.

Yet, the extent to which the collection is autobiographical feels separate from the extent to which the poems are honest, as well as how the poems work to convey a sense of that truth. The poems rely on different approaches to voice, using a mixture of first, second, and third person, as well as on including pieces that draw on different prose poem traditions, like deploying the tools of realism or surrealism. This speaker is not always ready or able to express what she experiences or to describe what she feels, even to herself. But by exploring different angles, by letting the poems circle what is, for her, unsayable, the book tries to get closer. Variety in voice, narrative distance, and poetic traditions allows Look Look Look to say as a collection what a singular, consistent “I” voice might not be able to express.

LG: I’m interested in the poetic voice—which is often angry, depressed and isolated/isolating—and how it butts up against common stereotypes about motherhood. I’m not a mother myself and often find myself on the receiving end of unhelpful (and un-asked for) advice about the positive, transformative experience of becoming a mother. There’s an idea that pregnancy and childbirth arouses feelings of devotion and awe that is supposed to surpass real experiences like exhaustion, detachment, or boredom. I see some of the latter reflected in many of your poems, like “Piece of Rough.” Can you tell me about this poem (or others) and whether you see it contributing to a more inclusive dialogue about motherhood?

CB: Ugh. I’m sorry that you’ve had that “advice.” We are so weird about notions of pregnancy and motherhood, and so eager to universalize experiences. Plus, this insistence on an awe-inspired narrative is dangerous, preventing people from getting the help they need or from having their concerns, health, and bodies taken seriously. Look Look Look is the truth of what I experienced as a new parent, as close as I could get it at the time when it was written. However, my perspective is incredibly limited (as a cisgender heterosexual white woman, any trauma I experienced doesn’t make me any less privileged), and such issues are intensified for parents who face multiple sources of oppression (the maternal death rate for Black women, for example, requires immediate action).

I want people to have their magic if that is how it is for them (and I’m so glad they’ve had a positive experience)—but, for me, transitions and transformations have rarely come without pain, and not having a ready vocabulary for that pain made my transition to parenthood even more challenging.

In terms of what the poems are doing, “Piece of Rough” records how I desperately didn’t want my daughter to be born once labor started. Sometime after the contractions started, it occurred to me that I had no idea who I would be once she lived outside my body or how I would protect her. Twenty hours into a difficult labor, I lied and said I didn’t feel pressure when I did. I’d say, No, no, not ready to push. Of course, all of this was irrational, but maybe it wasn’t. It doesn’t really matter. “Piece of Rough” is about that feeling, about going from being two people in one body to being one person in one body with the other person missing, about the vulnerability parents feel with a child out in the world—and how that vulnerability doesn’t have a name. I believed that to name the dread creeping over me to anyone would mean my potential competence as a parent would be called into question. Likewise, poems like “To Hide” show the speaker’s further reckoning with her role as a mother, what it means to perform as the mother (“I put on the body,” the speaker says).

LG: Several poems undertake a large challenge of communicating the experience of miscarriage. I’m drawn to these poems in particular, in part because I had snooped through my mother’s journals as a teenager and was startled to find several poems written to or about her own miscarriages. Themes I recall from my mother’s journal surface in your work. For example, the repetition of “I’m sorry” in the poem “After” and the horrible physical realities in “Remnants.” How did you find your way toward these poems and toward releasing them to public audience?

CB: I’ve never been cautious about talking about a pregnancy (I never waited the 12 weeks you are “supposed” to wait before telling people, for example), so writing about my miscarriage for a public audience never felt like a violation of the social code.

In general, I’m frustrated about the expectations surrounding miscarriage, about how one should feel this way or that way, just the right amount of sad but not too sad, or just a little relieved but not too relieved. We are always being asked to grieve quietly, if at all. Or we are treated as though our experiences didn’t happen as long as nobody mentions them, because to mention them is to make other people uncomfortable; and we are taught to avoid, at often great personal cost, eliciting the discomfort of others. Who does it serve to ignore a desired pregnancy that happened but then is no more? If it serves that particular parent, I’m all for it. Otherwise, let’s grieve in community. Wanting parents to be “private” about whatever their complicated feelings might be only fosters shame and embarrassment about something that should be neither.

There are birth story poems in Look Look Look, about my daughter’s and my son’s births, so it felt natural that I’d also write about my miscarriage, too, (which, for me, felt like a birth, both physically and emotionally). In poems like “Loss,” which details the birth experience, I wanted to push against the notion that miscarriage is no big deal, even routine. Lots of times, language about how common miscarriage is gets bandied about, and while maybe that is meant to reassure parents that they haven’t done anything wrong or aren’t alone, I just felt like I was being told that what was happening to me was so every-day I shouldn’t have feelings about it. But, people welcome children into their families all the time, too, and just because it happens often, it isn’t any less meaningful or transformative. Miscarriage can have a similar impact. “Remnants” was a later reflection, and I was thinking about how, when you have a loss, you lose not only the thing or the person, but also the future you’ve imagined (after all, imagining is itself an act of creation). I would have a totally different life had my second pregnancy led to a birth—and this is complicated (my son likely wouldn’t exist, for example, though I’m so glad he does). Poems feel like a place where complication like this can live, fully, without having to sort itself out.

LG: Much of the collection is comprised of prose poems or prose fragments. How did you choose the form? What is the significance of the lineated “Flashes” pieces, which recur in each section of the book?

CB: Oh, I really love the prose poem. I’ve been thinking about the prose poem for a long time, first as a grad student a million years ago studying with F. Daniel Rzicznek, the co-editor of Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry, and since then, I’ve continued on in my study of the form.

What makes me excited about the prose poem is its essential slipperiness, how it slides between and around genric conventions, how it is its own unique space of possibility, even if that possibility is hard to hold (as anything slippery is). Such a form is well-matched with the content in Look Look Look. The early days of parenthood are a slippery time—I didn’t often know what day or night it might have been, much less the hour, or if I’d eaten or the last time I’d showered. I kept unreadable lists and forgot names. My senses of self, reality, and relativity were all in flux, and the prose poem feels like the right form in which to capture and explore that time. It can do things other forms cannot.

The “Flashes” poems, on the other hand, which are pieces made of single-line stanzas, serve to link the present with moments of the past. I wanted to think about memory, like the body and the self, becoming more fluid and fragmented during this slippery time. I’m asking, in those poems, what it means to parent while also confronting one’s own childhood. In the The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, Patricia Dienstfrey says something similar, writing about how, as a mother, she experienced “a sense of overlapping times,” the kind of blurring that meant it seemed as though she was both playing with her children and playing in her own childhood. The “Flashes” poems serve to explicate that blurring.

LG: The speaker’s tone begins to shift later in the book—I’m thinking metaphysically in “Luna,” where you write, “There isn’t a dam you can build that I can’t break. Charisma, chiasma, power. See what I will do.” There’s a physical transformation, too, in the subsequent poem, “Release.” In this poem, the speaker gives birth kneeling on the hospital bed. I love how the doctor is pulled from the hallway shouting “Do you intend to give birth in this position?!” I read these poems as the speaker reclaiming part of the self and part of the body. What are you hoping to achieve in these pieces?

CB: Ha! Me, too—I love that moment. I really did give birth on my knees on the hospital bed as a random doctor, grabbed from the hallway, dashed in (my poor nurses had not seen many women laboring unmedicated, and therefore had no idea I was about to give birth). What makes a moment like this one important for the book, I think, and drives that shift you mention, is how the speaker finally seems to relate to her body in a different way—she does indeed intend to give birth in that position!—and this has a healing effect. “Release” is the story of the son’s birth, a moment where the speaker’s body makes sense to her and she is not afraid of it, where this time she can look at the baby, at the placenta, at everything her body made and did, a direct contrast to the detachment and despair after the daughter’s birth documented in poems like “After” and “Piece of Rough.” Though motherhood remains fraught—things are still hard—she finds ways to claim a sense of self or reconcile with what has changed. Even when the people around her don’t understand what she’s doing (her birth position or the way the nurses are asking her to sign forms as she’s laboring), she’s connected to herself and her body in more profound ways, and, perhaps most importantly, she knows it.

LG: “Sadness” is slightly unusual in that it focuses on the father’s feelings of sadness; as I read the poem, I wondered how your family supported your writing. What do you hope your children will extract from the Look Look Look when they are old enough to read and appreciate it?

CB: Right—the husband is a peripheral character in Look Look Look. The poems don’t even call him the father, as his role in that way isn’t interrogated. Rather, the focus is on the mother, giving her the voice she feels she loses. This is not to say the husband’s story doesn’t matter, but rather that it doesn’t matter for this particular project. I feel like “Sadness” reflects the different ways the mother and the husband respond to (and are conditioned to respond to) difficulty—his sadness is all over the house, while she tries to bury hers.

My husband is incredibly supportive of whatever I write. While he’s not a writer himself, he is a caretaker of writers and an excellent literary citizen, as well as my first reader. I want to write poems that impress him. He keeps me focused on craft and clarity, which is what you need in a trusted reader, and he’s also never so much as hinted that I ought not to say something because of privacy or decorum or whatever. If it belongs in the poem, it belongs in the poem, and our conversations about content end there. The relationship obliquely described in Look Look Look is suspended in that particular moment, while my real relationship with my real husband continues to evolve. He’s an amazing father and spouse, and I’m grateful for the life we keep building together.

When it comes to my children, when they find this book, I hope they are proud of me for making it.

LG: I’d like to learn about your editing and re-writing process. What was it like revisiting trauma with an editorial eye?

CB: I think that writing about trauma allowed (forced?) me to create distance, to hold the experience at a remove, through which the writing came, and then the revision, and then the editing.

Revising is the real work for me. For Look Look Look, revision was its own journey of unpacking and distilling and imagining. I wrote a lot of poems, and most required extensive revision to get right, though some rare pieces arrived on the page in the form that they appear now. It took me a while to figure out what mattered and what belonged in the book, because in the midst of difficulty, I had trouble knowing (many, many poems didn’t make it into the book). However, once there were poems and once there was a manuscript, it wasn’t really about me anymore, but about what the manuscript wanted to be.

LG: I imagine, too, that it’s difficult to transition from writing poetry as a way of coming to terms or gaining a better understanding of personal experiences to commercial considerations like finding a publisher. How did you decide it was time to bring your book out into the world? What was the experience like?

CB: While I started writing to understand something I experienced, early in the process I also realized I was writing something that seemed to want to be a book manuscript, so I was always writing with a sense of audience. Once I had around a dozen pieces, I sent the poems out to dancing girl press, which picked up those pieces as a chapbook. This was tremendously encouraging and suggested that there might be readers for this kind of work.

After that, I finished a draft of the full-length manuscript in about ten months. My son was just six months old at that point, making me awfully close to the content, so I let the manuscript sit for a long time, revising and writing new poems at inconsistent intervals along the way. I sent it off to the odd contest here and there every few years.

Finally, about five years after that first draft, I spent a spring break working intensely on the manuscript, during which time the project seemed to open up more and I had a better sense of the book’s overall arc. By the end of that week, something felt different, more complete. I sent it off to Black Lawrence, and I was so thrilled to hear that they believed in the manuscript. They’ve taken incredibly good care of the book at every stage of the process.

LG: Which poets or poems inspire you? What did you read to help sustain you through the process of writing Look Look Look? I noticed Mary Jo [Bang?] and James Kearney are included in your dedication…

CB: Goodness, it is such an exciting time for poetry these days, and writing Look Look Look was such a long process, so there was a lot of reading along the way—reading continues to get me through. In the beginning, I read a lot of Rachel Zucker, Arielle Greenberg, and Carmen Giménez Smith, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, Naomi Shibab Nye, Alice Notley, and Camille Dungy, among others. I read Mauricio Kilwein Guevara, Mark Strand, Ray Gonzalez, Anne Carson, W.S. Merwin, and Maxine Chernoff, as well. Near the end of the process, H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald, not poetry but memoir, which has the most devastating beautiful, poetic sentences, and Ada Limón’s remarkable books The Carrying and Bright Dead Things, were particularly sustaining.

Mary Jo and James Kearney are my parents, who parent(ed) me so well when I became/become a parent, too. I wanted to honor that gift, particularly because there is a specific, difficult pain of knowing one’s child pain.

LG: It may be too soon to ask—but what is next for you (writing or otherwise?)

CB: This project took over my writing life for a long time, and I’ve been tentatively working my way out from it for about a year now, which is scary but liberating. I’ve been writing lots of new poems, experimenting, and listening (here’s one from the new manuscript). I learned a lot in the writing of this book that didn’t necessarily apply to it, and I’m so excited to see how these new ideas and tools work in the next project.


Lisa Grgas

Lisa Grgas is the supervising editor and associate poetry editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Atticus Review, Common Ground, Black Telephone, Ki'n, Luna Luna, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken, NJ.

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