Strange, Unkempt Houses for Our Words to Live in: A Conversation with Mia Ayumi Malhotra

Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Notes from the Birth Year, winner of the Bateau Press BOOM Chapbook Contest; and Isako Isako, a California Book Award finalist, and winner of the Alice James Award, the Nautilus Gold Award, a National Indie Excellence Award, and a Maine Literary Award. She teaches and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

During the initial phase of the pandemic, I joined a writing group with three other writer-mothers, one of whom was Mia Ayumi Malhotra. Like everyone, we were trying to rise to what Gavin Newsom described as “meeting the moment,” but instead found ourselves seesawing between dissociation and panic, struggling to parent our children, and having difficulty locating ourselves in time and space. Against this backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty and dread, what began as an exercise in accountability evolved into a multifaceted ritual of late-night virtual get-togethers, occasional masked gatherings in which we used our hands to make things and sometimes dared to share food, and a text thread that became a communal commonplace book. Mostly, we mothered each other as we were mothering others, and in the process relived how we’d been mothered as children. My conversation with Mia about her chapbook Notes from the Birth Year feels very much like an extension of that process. In it, we discuss transgenerational haunting, origin stories, aesthetic lineage, and the complex, often paradoxical relationship between motherhood and poetry.


Heidi Van Horn: We’ve spent the past couple years sharing fragments and weaving an associative tapestry from the textual artifacts of writers we admire, and it’s clear that Notes from the Birth Year is in dialogue with the work and thinking of many other creators. It’s always felt to me that this engagement and openness is an integral aspect of your poetics. I’m curious how you think about intertextuality with respect to your work (and life!) and how you went about integrating other voices, textures, and tones into these poems. 

Mia Ayumi Malhotra: After becoming a mother, it was a real struggle to locate myself in language; along with any sense of normalcy in day-to-day life, my poet-self had come dramatically undone. “Birth and motherhood upended everything and fractured my sense of self as a constant, whole entity. Doubled and broke me open and split me into two selves and then gave selfhood to one and wrenched that self away,” says Rachel Zucker. When I did begin writing again, the work was tentative and overwhelmed by the necessity for a new form. The writers I quote in Notes from the Birth Year are the ones who guided me through this period of profound upheaval, and I suppose I needed their voices to appear on the page directly, rather than as mere shadows or influences, because it was they—Rachel Zucker, along with Sarah Manguso, and Heidi Julavits, and Rivka Galchen, and so many others, whose words gave me footholds and handholds as I grappled with what felt like impossible questions: How to exist? How to think? How to put myself into language? Slowly, I began to locate books like The Folded Clock, Little Labors, and Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which traced for me the outline of a new body of work. And then I discovered that these remarkable narratives, with their investment in dailiness, miscellany, and fragmentation, had literary precedent in writers like Bashō, Sei Shōnagon, and Kenkō, whose textual (and in some cases actual) wanderings insist on a whole different set of formal and aesthetic values than the ones I had been trained in. Instead of smoothness, perfection, and rhetorical virtuosity: fragment, ambiguity, and the unfinished. This new-old way felt intuitively right to the poet I was becoming, as well as the poet I already was, back in the mythic past “whence my mother’s mother and her mother and her mother before her came,” to borrow from my poem “On Form.” And so, like a toddler learning to talk, I came into Notes from the Birth Year through the articulations of others—first by listening, then imitating, then attempting my own imperfect speech acts. As Emily Odgen says, “Language, like life, is gestated. One person’s language is temporarily grafted onto another’s until autonomous speech is possible.” 

HVH: Gestation brings to mind temporality, another concept that your work engages with in a wide variety of registers. (This is another topic we thought a lot about over the course of the pandemic!) In Notes from the Birth Year, I experienced time as layered and prismatic rather than linear. Yet there is also compositional time—the transfiguration of language into a poem, or light and shadow into a photograph—taking place in a fixed moment, a space of attentiveness anchored by the everyday and the act of making. Can you talk about temporality in these poems?

MAM: Along with the deadening exhaustion of early mothercare, there’s a fragile beauty to certain moments of the birth year, mostly because they will pass—and quickly. Notes from the Birth Year opens and closes with poems about going to see the cherry blossoms in spring: “A moment before there were no blossoms. A moment hence there will be no blossoms,” says Soetsu Yanagi. This relationship between ephemerality, loss, and beauty turns every poem into an artifact—or elegy, even—of a lost time. Right now I’m thinking about your book Belated Poem, which is built around the idea of belatedness as a meaningful after, the stretching of a moment that, through a kind of temporal elasticity, persists into the now. It’s not nostalgia, necessarily—I’d characterize it more as an orientation or perhaps a mood in relation to time, wherein the present is imbued with a sense of a lapsed, or past moment. I appreciate your attention to the feeling of edges: dawn, dusk. In your work, I experience these edges as variations in light, in shadow. There’s an “aliveness of traces,” as you say, which is precisely the language I’d hope to use in describing how temporality functions in Notes from the Birth Year. I’m also interested in time as assemblage, as something material that accumulates like dust or castoff socks in a family home. Time as matter, which accumulates like dirty dishes, laundry, smudges on a windowpane. I think a lot about this kind of maintenance work—about dailiness, which is one of the forms that temporality takes in the context of mothercare. Finally, there are the questions framed by “A Death Diary,” which ventures a whole different set of questions about the openness of time beyond time, about what it means to inhabit the diary or daybook form when time no longer exists, when the work’s original author, untethered from both corporeality and temporality, has become instead a presence that permeates the room. With this, the collection veers toward the span of the eternal, a space in which “there appears no beginning nor end.” But then again, what about the cherry blossom, whose lifespan is so bound to time that its ephemerality is precisely what makes it beautiful? Somewhere between these two poles, in its ache and contradiction, is where the poems exist. 

HVH: I’m very interested in how the “different set of formal and aesthetic values” you reference above influenced the composition and structure of individual poems in this book. On most pages, long lines of occasionally doubled-spaced prose poems spill across the white space—but these are interspersed by single-spaced, columnar poems of enjambed lines. It felt to me that this was very intentional, that each subject matter required its own form of representation, each poem its own container. This mutability impacts the reader’s experience in so many ways: with pacing, how quickly or slowly the eye moves over the page, how the words themselves interact with the white space. I’d love to hear more about this. 

MAM: For me, the capacity to inhabit multiple forms at once, to be flexible and to invent new means when necessary, is central to the work of poem-making. I think I used to feel the pressure to be one kind of poet, but in the writing of my first book, I realized that shifting from one form to another, when done purposefully and, as you say, with attention to the sort of container each poem’s subject matter requires, is something I need in order to inhabit a full range of expressive possibility. I didn’t consciously work toward this end in the writing of Notes from the Birth Year, but after setting all the poems next to each other, I realized I had created a body of work with some very clear variations in forms. I had a collection of poems about mothering in the context of family life that were mostly in traditional, lineated narrative verse, but I’d also been experimenting with lyric fragments, which ultimately became the sequence of “On ___________” poems, taken from my actual, original notes from the birth year. These longer-lined “unkempt houses,” as you’ve described them, tend to be a little more interior, a little more discursive and/or fragmented, and they exist mostly in the space of uncertainty, resisting closure as they shift through various stages of unknowability. They represent, in some ways, the formal self I discovered as I tried to reenter language as a poet-mother. At the same time, however, I’d been writing from moments that felt, in their fullness and ache, like the sorts of poems I’d been trained to recognize: lineated, image-resonant, and perhaps, in rare moments, rhetorical or discursive. I experienced them first as linguistic rhythms, though, almost like scraps of remembered song, and so the craft work felt necessary rather than prescribed, as though in order to capture the quality of feeling I’d experienced in the moment, I had to construct the poem in a certain way, with the “tools of the trade.” I’m also thinking about the question of formal composition in relation to your text-image work, where, depending on the visual layout of the page, the eye travels linearly along lines of text or multi directionally across an image. At times, the relationship between text fragment and image is illustrative, sometimes it’s parenthetical—and sometimes the text appears to glance at the image and then look in the opposite direction, which creates the overall effect of, as you say, a work where “words are a school // of small / shimmering fish.” I may be overreaching here, but I’d like to think that some of these same principles are at play in Notes from the Birth Year, in its measured shifts from one form to the next.

HVH: These measured shifts in form are paralleled by a shifting subjectivity, or rather a porous, intersubjective, and relational subjectivity. I was especially moved by the inclusion of other matrilineal voices—your aunt’s and mother-in-law’s—at the book launch for this collection, and what I found most evocative about the poems is what you described that night as “coming into lineage.” I feel this happening on so many levels. The (re)birth of a poetic voice within an aesthetic tradition. The Winnecottian notion of holding, in which the child’s psyche begins to take shape in the mother’s arms. Yet there is another kind of holding taking place here: a making-space for the stories of ancestors, honoring the experiences of those who are no longer here. The polytemporality we discussed above crossing generational thresholds: an “imaginary” at once discovered and co-created, and an unfinished archive of collective familial memory in which the present and the past converge, in which the space between self and other includes the living and dead, in which the stories of ghosts are revitalized, in which the inheritance of trauma is transformed. Another kind of “mothering tak[ing] place on the page.” 

MAM: What an extraordinary reading, this framing of the aesthetic journey as a kind of developmental process. What you’ve articulated here is a matrilineal poetics, a creative and even spiritual ethic of mothering that holds together all the pieces of writing and parenting I’ve struggled to reconcile in the past few years. I especially love how you reimagine the poet as a memory worker, as a medium or perhaps mediator between generations. The poet-mother becomes a living archive who holds and transmits generational knowledge, a site where ancestral realities are touched by futurity. This feels true in a physiological sense as well, though of course lineage is never purely based on biology. I’m also moved by how you’ve framed poetry as a “making-space”—this proposes a writerly ethic I haven’t encountered before, though perhaps it’s the one I’ve been working toward all these years, without having the language for it. For me, this locates the embodied labor of mothercare in the work of tending the gap between generations that, if nurtured with care, can grow into a co-created poetic field. This helps me think about writing practice as mothering and vice versa, and now I’m wondering: in your life, what is the relationship between “mothering” and “the page”? Do you write and mother with a sense of intersectionality between these two identities/praxes?

HVH: Wow! This is such a rich answer, or rather, such an evocative answer-question! I wonder if I experience the tension between mothering and poetry differently—because, unlike you and many of the poets I know—I was a mother long before I dared to write poetry. My poet-self grew in the shadow of my mother-self, (e.g. it took seven years of part-time classes to get my MFA). It was an evolution, a slow process of building up courage and confidence and integrating two identities, in some ways growing into both at the same time—rather than trying to maintain an already-existing creative practice amidst the abrupt, impossible-to-plan-for upheaval that becoming a mother brings/wreaks. That said, in my early years of writing, when my children were very young, I struggled to carve out time and space: to nurture my poet-self rather than my obsessive-compulsive expectations of what kind of mother I should be. I wrote a lot of angry rhyming poems during that time—about the “best minds of my generation” washing legos in a salad spinner and sorting them according to shape and color, for example, or pumping breast milk in a bathroom stall and reading aloud historical fiction about an American Girl doll. (Though Ginsberg’s “best minds” likely did not include women.) As you describe, often mothering and writing didn’t feel like they could exist in the same life—but for those of us who inhabit both identities, they do, sometimes gracefully but more often fraught by ambivalence and a sense of inadequacy. 

MAM: Your comment about “growing into both at the same time” feels so much like my own experience; this makes me wonder if our respective paths may not actually have been that different, at least on the level of feeling. Yes, I had finished my MFA by the time I had kids, but for years, I struggled simultaneously to publish my first book, to teach full time, to try to be a good enough mother (speaking of Winnicott)—and I experienced all these struggles in parallel. I’m wondering now about motherhood as a necessary condition for poetry, about poetry as a vital context for motherhood. Maybe it’s this impossible dialectic that has shaped our poetic selves, why we write and speak and feel in language as we do.

HVH: Yes! Dialectic, paradox, struggle. Though in other ways these two roles feel congruent. There are intersections, parallels, resonance. For example, how is writing a poem different from dressing a toddler in snow clothes? A wrestling with language and love. Poetry and Motherhood as embodiment of the space between Self and Other, one of the definitions of embodiment being “to invest or clothe a spirit with a body.” 

But I’d like to return to your question about the relationship between “mothering” and “the page,” this time in the context of one’s early life and the impact of that experience on the kind of writer—and reader—one becomes. This brings to mind an essay by Daisy LaFarge in Poetry London in which she says, “insofar as I felt wildly unmothered; I sought mothers—nurturing and distant, warm and angry—in reading, and made a cradle out of words in writing.” (The title of the essay, “Wildly Unmothered,” is from Adrienne Rich’s 1976 book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.) 

Your poem “In a Time of Pandemic” describes an interaction with your daughter following a frightening experience, in which, unbeknownst to you, she slips away and ends up at a nearby neighbor’s house. “Tell me a story of how I was lost, she says, now that she knows the feeling of faraway.” It felt to me that this collection, “this cradle out of words” could be the response to that imperative, were it uttered by your mother instead of your daughter. So much of how we engage with the world—and how we create—originates when we are still tethered to another body, before language, in what you so beautifully and aptly describe as “that tender wrecked moment before a duck is a duck.” We feel this in our bones, but don’t always have an awareness of it (or words for it), especially of the ruptures, gaps, and transgenerational inheritance of a repressed experience of suffering or trauma.  

MAM: It’s true, what you say about that line from “In a Time of Pandemic” being in either my mother or daughter’s voice. The boundaries between our emotional lives are so porous sometimes, and in many of my poems, my grandmother’s losses become my mother’s losses, which, inexplicably, I feel as my own. And yet, I find that I write more easily about certain generations than others. It’s almost like I can see the space their lives inhabit, apart from my own: my grandmothers’, my daughters’. Their experiences feel contiguous to my own, rather than continuous. But my mother—I flow from her in ways I can’t even begin to articulate. She is my mae nam, as you say in Lao—my Mother River, my headwater. My life originated from her in the most intimate, embodied way possible, and in my innermost, feeling self, I begin in her, even as I chart my own course through the world.

HVH: This brings to mind the line in “On Form” from Sei Shonagon, “Things That Are Distant Though Near.” Though you engage so deeply with the overlapping histories and “ghosts” of your family’s past in these poems, you don’t often explicitly reference your mother’s life. I’m curious how you understand her experience and if you would step into her subjectivity as it might relate to the following question: (which I’ve borrowed from Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Integration of Strangers): “Tell me who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?”

MAM: Speaking as (or for) my mother, I might say: The loss of her father. The loss of the war. The loss of the Emperor’s divinity. The loss of her daughter. The loss of her mother. The loss of her motherland. The loss of her place in the world. And as for my mother’s own suffering . . . I don’t even know if I can answer that question, except as a sudden welling-up of feeling, a violent constriction in the throat. Maybe this is what inherited trauma feels like: the feeling of pain without the capacity to speak of it. How to make any kind of utterance in the face of complete dependence, powerlessness, rage, fear, love? Lacking the ability (or . . . permission?) to construct a narrative about my mother’s suffering, maybe the only possible response is to weave a nest or a vessel, as Jennifer S. Cheng puts it, “to hold / gestate the interior narrative,” to cradle its unspeakability in a home fashioned to fit its form. A shelter woven from “debris, atmospheric conditions, spatial relationships, contortions.” Maybe this is the next book!

HVH: “To weave a nest or a vessel,” or as Jennifer so aptly describes, “to hold / gestate the interior narrative.” That’s exactly how I see your ethics as a writer. A poetics of tenderness and tending inscribed in every line, a hopeful, reparative, emancipatory praxis.

MAM: You know, I think the work is so much wiser than I know. Reflecting with you in this way has helped me to see how these poems, in their making, have mothered me, restoring my understanding of what it means to give and receive care in the context of utter dependence. Only by living and writing through this extraordinary life passage have I learned what it means to be “of woman born,” like Rich says, what it means to have originated in another’s body and to live a life continuous with her. Recuperating this knowledge, clothing its spirit with a body—yes, the body of the poems, but also those of my infant daughters, my pregnant self—has brought the birth year to life for me. Maybe it’s the work that makes the mother, and not the other way around.


Heidi van Horn

Heidi Van Horn is a poet, editor, and book designer. She is the author of Belated Poem (Drop Leaf Press, 2019) and co-creator, with David Makaaha Kwon, of “House of David,” a poetic assemblage exploring the personal and political geography of mass incarceration. She was raised and still lives in the Bay Area, where she is a co-editor at Drop Leaf Press, a women-run poetry collective, and a founding member of the The Ruby, a gathering space for women and nonbinary artists.

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