Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Comment Box

Missoula is a baby crazy town. It doesn't help that I work in the Good Food Store, which could also be known as the Good Parent Store. Everyday I see mothers toting their kiddies around in plastic red car carts or new mothers maneuvering produce with a sling of a baby at their breast and parents together are often overheard in aisles silently shouting to their two year-old, "do you think that is a good choice, Willow?" My favorite are the kids with dreads who are dressed like cast members from Planet of the Apes. I have seen a few who play this game of running through the store finding something like a watermelon to throw and then hide under the bulk wheat germ. I don't recall playing that game myself as a child. Call me crazy, but coming from a household where you couldn't say the word "fart," this behavior seems pretty extreme. 

But what seems more extreme to me are the parents. Sure, I don't blame Sunbeam for wanting to play the old "chuck and duck" game in the store, but what I find baffling are the reactions from the parents or rather, the lack of reactions. Once after a cooking class--around 9:30 pm--a family came in and let their kids run. Yup. Run around the store like it was some park and somehow one of the kids wanted to play a version of "find something heavy and throw it on the floor." Again, another game I don't remember being allowed to play. While standing next to the child, the parent, witnessed the antic and stood back and said in a flat bored tone, "Felix, please stop," and processed to walk away. Maybe Felix's dad was tired and worn out from working, getting organic food for his family, and somehow maybe tired too of being the best hipster parent on top of it all. 

And it must be hard to want to be the best parent ever--but who doesn't? Even those of us who might not have children still foster thoughts of "when I have kids I'm going to" as if we all imagine standing in front of a large audience with a sash around our torso in cursive saying, "Best Parent of America" while we eloquently answer the question of "how will you create the most responsible and creative child this country has yet to see?" What is the answer? I am not sure, but I bet there is a new baby book titled, "Nurturing the Socially and Environmentally Responsible Baby in a Crumbling Economy." I don't have any intention of writing this book nor do I have any direct experience in rearing anything more than a hermit crab or an egotistical cat. What I do know about parenting, I have learned from poetry workshops.

Poetry workshops are a different breed. It's usually a group of people who are trying so hard to not take themselves so seriously, but they are poets and show up with something that screams, "this is me, please, will someone please validate me, please?" Even if they bring in a haiku. It is often a room filled with painfully articulate people and sometimes someone comes just dressed in their ego. I should know, I have been a poetry student in many workshops. Luckily, I have had some wonderful professors who used humor with tact and sensitivity always to model how to take on the task of teaching poetry. Under their tutelage and from my own painful mistakes, I have learned a lot about teaching poetry. I have learned that when working with poetry students, follow the same maxims as working with four year-olds.  Here are my top ten:

 1.) Be a good listener, an active listener while someone reads their work or tells a story about their pet that has recently died.
 2.) Monitor the group and don't let one person dominate i.e. take all of the toys or ballooning egos, but give them back when they leave for the day.
 3.) Give time to those who are quiet, try to allow equal time for everyone to speak.
 4.) Have patience for all sorts of emotions that might arise, but don't let one person indulge in too much of themselves which might make the whole room feel awkward i.e. don't let someone destroy someone else's poem or block tower
 5.) As the instructor, don't be afraid to take control, but don't respond or react from your own ego i.e) never hit a child or student even if you want to.
 6.) Encourage freedom of expression, but set clear expectations i.e. being naked isn't allowed in public places.
 7.) Be genuine in both your criticism and your praise i.e. sensitive people and four year-olds can snuff you out.
8.) Don't be afraid to say when something is inappropriate i.e. boundaries are helpful for everybody, especially poets and toddlers. The idea of " you can say anything"  is a myth.
9.) Have compassion i.e. really try to have both empathy for whatever someone brings to the table even if it is a dead gerbil, literally this can happen.
10.) Eye contact i.e. it is the simplest on the list but it sets a tone of understanding, attentiveness and helps everyone feel they are being heard. 

So maybe all of you (three people) who are reading this might think, what do I really know about parenting or maybe even about poetry for that matter. I don't have any kids or a book tour. I really don't know much, but what I do know is that children and poetry are both gifts. Simply, they are both gifts to this world and what they bring surprises us all. The complexity of both are beyond me and we humans don't seem to stop having children and thankfully haven't stopped writing poems either. I just wish we could have our own comment box for both.

This past week my husband and I have witnessed so many young couples merge into the role of super-parents. The new book shelf in their homes with editions of parenting 101, the stressed smiles while they tell me, "this is great." They are all working so hard and doing a great job. We are also related to some of these super-parents and feel lucky to be uncle Greg and auntie Em. But Greg said to me, "wouldn't it be great if each parent could have some kind of comment box, some card where people could write things like, hey you are really trying hard, don't take yourself so seriously people have been having babies for a really long time. Spend time as a couple. Don't take turns skiing, ski together, and always find time for a hot date." Comment cards are great, you can give criticism and praise and you might even learn something too. 

But it's not likely that new parents will have a comment box anytime soon. And besides, who am I to tell people how to raise their kids. My husband and I can't even keep plants alive. But accepting this fault isn't as devastating as criticism from something as personal and permanent as parenting. This blog, on the other hand, welcomes criticism and it even has a comment box. Don't be afraid to leave some comments. Or tell your friends to read my blog and they can make their own judgement too. Bottom line, criticism is how we learn, it's an opportunity if nothing else. Like this poem, it might be a different way to look at the Madonna and Child than just the pastoral Raphael painting of il bambino, called the Cowper Madonna. Enjoy.

The Vendor

I might give up my life to sell candles 
in Urbino, maybe scarves or small prints
of Madona il Bambino. Days bartering a gaze
of perpetual boredom, an orange haired Mary
in crabapple only shares the same nose
and faint halo as her son, who looks more man
than infant in his nakedness and well-kept hair.
There is no bounce to her lap, no single red flower blooms
in the spring she waits in. She sits heavy
like a walled city. More bored tourist 
than Madonna, she's just a snap shot
with a stone cross in the horizon. Maybe
Mary is just tired of being so good.
Even in Italy, women want more than portraits
of complacency to hang on their walls or frivolous jewelry
to wear like a heavy baby, some souvenir. 


  1. Emily,

    So good to read you, to see you again (even if it is via the internet). First, although I don't want to monopolize your blog, I have to say: Congratulations on your marriage! Happy news. I hope you're well (you look happy and sound good).

    This is a great post, especially your rules about poetry workshops. Spot on. And I love the poem, too. Here are my thoughts (since you said praise and criticism are good):

    Love the first line--the draw in, the break, the rhythm from "I" to "Bambino."

    I also love from "There is no bounce" to "good."

    I get hung up in the length of the lines and the variation in rhythm from "Days" to "hair"--perhaps it could be tightened. Maybe one less commonality between the mother and son? I like nose, I like halo...nose strikes me weirder, though if I think about it, everyone compares noses from mother to son (then, not everyone's comparing this mother to son).

    And the end ... I do love the end and want to love the end more. "complacency" throws me out. In such a literal poem, I feel there should be something more literal there.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts, for what they're worth.

    Again, really good to read you.

    Take care!
    Lisa Fay

  2. You shameless Hussy! Self-publishing indeed!

    Hey my Darling, great work. I always love the unexpected connection.

    Can't stand those brats in the stores. I fantasize walking up to the parents and saying, "What the fuck are you thinking?"

    Let's talk soon.

  3. #5. Yeah, that's a tough one. It sure would feel good though.