A Hundred Cheerios Rise like Balloons: Carrie Fountain on the Writing of Motherhood

In this interview conducted by Mindy Adams, poet Carrie Fountain discusses the challenges and delights of writing parenthood into the poetic discourse. She challenges patriarchal structures that would constrain the subject matter of women writers and puts her poems on motherhood into conversation with past and future generations of women writers. She offers keen advice for young women interested in writing about “womanhood, motherhood, the body” and explores the inexorable influence of parenthood on her recently released young adult novel.

Carrie Fountain is currently the writer-in-residence at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She is the author of two books of poetry, Burn Lake and Instant Winner. In July 2018 she released her first novel, Im Not Missing. Fountain also hosts the KUT radio program and podcast, This is Just to Say, in which she has intimate conversations with poets and writers.

Adams: Something that I find striking in your work, and what I would most like to talk to you about today, is your treatment of motherhood. I imagine you get a lot of questions about this.

Fountain: It’s funny. My husband is also a writer. When I’m interviewed, sometimes there is a way that people can ask questions about parenthood or motherhood that are interesting. Like: How has motherhood changed your writing, in terms of changing your perspective or your subject matter? And then there’s another way of asking. Like: How do you do it? How do you fit it in? How do you find time to write? or What do you do with your children while you write? Well, the first question my husband has been asked. The second question? He’s never been asked that question.

Adams: But you get asked it a lot—because you are a woman?

Fountain: All the time. Women get asked that question all the time: How do you find the time? Oh, you must be so busy; how do you find the time to write? It’s the same question that women politicians are asked: Whos watching your children while youre running for governor?

Adams: Do you feel like there is something slightly accusatory in that?

Fountain: I just feel that it’s gendered. And I think that it is just one more signal or symbol that women still have to justify their existence in the world of arts, in the world of politics, and, along with that, answer questions about it. I’m always open to talking about writing about motherhood, and writing about parenthood, and that existential shift, but I hate answering the question of, “How do you find time?” It is a fine question, I guess, and I wouldn’t mind answering it if my husband ever got asked it.

Adams: I feel that your poetic attitude toward motherhood is very celebratory, putting our parents’ generation in conversation with our grandmothers’ generation of women poets, the latter who seemed to see it as more of a conflict. I don’t see that same conflict in your work. Do you have any thoughts on what our generation of mothers has to say to their preceding generation about the balance of art and motherhood, and how those things can come together?

Fountain: To previous generations? Oh gosh, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I think maybe it’s going away, that old notion that to be a successful writer—a woman writer—you can’t have children, that you have to remain in some way pure of intellect. The speaker in Jenny Offil’s novel The Department of Speculation wonders about this beautifully as she considers parenthood. She talks about the push and pull between wanting to be a parent and wanting to remain an “art monster.” I love that.

Adams: Is it a struggle that we are moving away from? Where, say, in Plath or Rich, it is seen as a choice or a struggle. Have we reached a new place with that?

Fountain: I think so. Of course, both Plath and Rich were parents! They didn’t remain pure of intellect! They got their clothes covered in poop, in spit up, like the rest of us! It’s hard to identify—there are a lot of essays written about this and I tend to be not-that-interested in reading them—although, to find the language to talk about it, maybe I should. Sure, there’s still, I think, in the world of poetry, a sense that writing about motherhood is “less than”—that it is in some way sentimental, the purest form of domesticity, to write about motherhood. I really cannot wrap my mind around that. Maybe that’s because I grew up, in poetry, reading poets like Sharon Olds. Have you read her poem “The Language of the Brag”?

Adams: Yes.

Fountain: “I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman / Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing…” I did what Allen Ginsberg couldn’t do.

Adams: Take that!

Fountain: Those women poets—Olds and Laux and Lucille Clifton and Naomi Shihab Nye and Beth Ann Fennelly—really influenced me, long before I was a mother. I think that we have to go forward and say, “I’m not going to wait for patriarchal structures to catch up to women poets.” We just have to go forward, and if they are not going to read us in the way that we deserve to be read, then it’s not worth our time in arguing. And I do think things are changing, structural things are changing, but I do think that still exists. It definitely exists. People have written about it. The poet Maggie Smith has written about it beautifully.

What I have said a lot and will continue to say to young women writers who are thinking about writing about womanhood, motherhood, the body—if men could have babies, there would be no other subject of poetry. It is the most remarkable thing that happens on planet Earth, and they can’t do it. If they could do it, all the sub-genres, all the schools of poetry would be like different schools of parenting, different schools of child-birthing; breastfeeding would be its own category in the poetry section at the bookstore. Really. I don’t believe there would be any other subject for poetry. But anyway, I’m off on my tangent.

Adams: No, that’s great. I love it. But I do want to talk about this shift in your writing—your new young adult novel. You mentioned that there are no mothers in it.

Fountain: Yes! One of the premises of the book is that both of the girls—the main characters—their mothers have abandoned them, which was not really going to be a part of their story. And I realized about half-way through drafting it—when I was in the middle of writing it and trying to figure out how the story worked—I realized I was just really scared to approach the mother/daughter relationship. I thought I couldn’t do it justice, because it is so complicated. So, I think maybe subconsciously or unconsciously, I thought: Okay, Ill just take away the moms from the book; no one will have a mom and no one will notice. And, of course, when I was running into trouble farther down the road in drafting the book, I realized that once you do that—once you take the mothers out—they become the centerpiece of the story.

Adams: So even in the absence of mothers, you can’t get away from the subject?

Fountain: That’s what I was getting at earlier, yes. And I have to say that as a mom, it was really hard to navigate that reality in the book. I thought I was going easy on myself by taking out the mother/daughter relationship, but it was very hard to go forward sometimes in writing because it was so impossible for me to imagine abandoning my children.

Adams: Like writing a nightmare every day, in some way?

Fountain: Yeah. What would it really take? You would have to be so lost in your own life to be able to say, “I choose this over this.” Even if you are very unhappy in your life or in your marriage or your situation, it would be so hard to even imagine.

It’s interesting, my best friend is a social worker—also a mom—and worked for CPS for many years. She would have to walk me through “Why would someone do this?” She works with children, teenagers especially, whose parents, whose mothers, have done significantly awful things, most often not by choice but because of circumstances—drug abuse, mental illness, poverty, say,—and continue to, because they just don’t have necessary tools within themselves to be good parents. And time and time and time and time and time again, given the choice between a foster home and going back into a very bad situation, the children will always go back to their parents. They will always go back to their moms.

It was very helpful to have her. We had a lot of conversations about it because it is very hard to wrap my mind around it.

Adams: You have done such an admirable job of wrapping your mind around and putting words to the aspects of motherhood, which a lot of us thank you for, myself and others who have children, and especially aspiring writers. Reading so many of your poems that are about motherhood or take images from it, I’m like, “Man, she nailed it; that is such a hard thing to get across.” You mentioned Sharon Olds and growing up with Sharon Olds, having her as a model and an influence. You, I believe, to a younger generation, are going to be a model and an influence, as far as attitude goes. What do you feel are your responsibilities to them?

Fountain: I hope that future generations of women poets and writers don’t have to reckon with misogyny as much—misogyny, racism, homo- and trans- phobia—and that they can move forward and write about whatever they want to write about. There are some fierce younger writers—amazing writers and amazing feminist voices—and that gives me so much hope.