Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011



Where to begin? I have adopted cousins, a husband who was adopted by his stepfather at a very young age, his cousin's wife, who was adopted and not told until she was 16 or so, and I have two adopted children, Sangha (11, born in Cambodia, adopted at 12 months in 2000) and Radhika (9, born in Nepal, adopted at 3 years in 2004). We adopted Sangha through Hawai`i International Child, a large agency, and Radhika through a woman in Ohio who only does a few adoptions each year through the state-run orphanage in Kathmandhu. We traveled to Cambodia and to Nepal to adopt our kids; Sangha and my husband's mother came with us to Nepal to adopt Radhika. We know something of Sangha's history and we see Radhika's birth-sister, adopted by a woman who now lives in Walla Walla, Washington, approximately once a year.

I can hardly frame my answer around “my adoption experience” as so much of my experience since 1999 is described by that phrase, even as it utterly fails to encompass larger issues and feelings and thoughts about family. So many aspects of our experience, such as deep ethical issues involved in our adoption of Sangha from Cambodia, were all-consuming 10 years ago, but are now back-chatter to household talk of baseball scrimmages, dyslexia, astonishing growth spurts, the onset of puberty. Those questions (large and small) have not yielded answers, necessarily, but they have been the rigorous, ambiguous, and—yes!—often joyous curriculum to my education over the past decade.

Radhika, Susan (with Tortilla), Sangha & Bryant Webster Schultz



Poetry is about naming.
We gave Sangha (referred to us as Rath—or orphan—Seyla) his name, after looking at a list of Cambodian names on-line. We are sometime Buddhists, loved the resonances of the name, which means “spiritual community.” When we got to Cambodia, people laughed when we called him “Sangha.” In Khmer, you see, it means “handsome.” Radhika came to us with her name; she was three years old and we didn't want to confuse her. We have since found out from her birth-sister, who is a year older, that they had both had names before they were given new ones at the orphanage. My husband changed his last name(s); his cousin's wife made up her name; adoptees seem to have more fluid relationships with naming than, for example, do I, who made a vow at an early age never to relinquish my last (birth) name. The sense of a name as a way station rather than a monument strikes me as poetic in the way of so much flux.

Poetry is about coming into language. An extension of the last! We adopted Radhika at 3, when she was talking up a storm in a language we do not know (Nepalese). We placed her with a Nepali baby-sitter in Honolulu, but she quickly gave up that language in favor of English. I would drive her home from day-care at rush hour and she would yell, “TRAFFICS!” from the back seat. (I knew then she was not a patient being!) I wrote about her language acquisition (and about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's DICTEE) here: http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2010/02/language-acquisition-dictee-and-radhika.html
Her coming into English, as someone who knew what words are for, was an amazing experience, and one that made me think even harder about words as matter, matter as a kind of mothering. Just as we cannot possess matter, we cannot possess our children; this is a lesson many parents could learn, and adoption, I have found, facilitates that perception.

Poetry is about relation. Early on I realized that people regard my relationships with my children as being different from theirs with their (bio) kids. They want to know if my children are siblings. (Of course they are!) Our culture's adoption imaginary, as one might call it, is extremely narrow. We are fascinated with likeness, with resemblance, with sameness within families. We are discomfited by differences, by discontinuities. I can see this in myself in the way I discover my mother in my daughter and my father in my son. Not that this is a bad thing, but it fits the typical narrative of family, one that I have tried to re-cast in a lot of my adoption-related poetry (the prose poems in And Then Something Happened, in particular). In more recent work about my mother's Alzheimer's, I came to realize that I am now the adopted mother to my mother. When first I tried to get her care, which she was refusing, I went to court to become her legal guardian. As the papers were signed and handed over, I realized I'd been there before, that this was—in essence—my third adoption.

Poetry is about quotation. I incorporate (the verb is “appropriate,” but that's not appropriate in this context!) a lot of overheard and over-read language in my poems. A poet from whom I learned a lot about quotation is Denise Riley, who was adopted. So the link formed in my mind between quotation and adoption. Just as no poem is utterly original, so no poem is not without its adopted language. The ways in which such adoptions occur has fascinated me for a long time. I wrote an essay on Riley having to do with this question: http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_1/cambridge/schultz.html

Teaching poetry is involved in adoption. We “adopt” books for our courses. This is a term I don't like any more. After all, at the end of the course, most students will sell their books back. So a word like “fostering” might make more sense. We foster books, as we foster the creativities of their readers, during the brief months we spend with any class. But in another sense, we do adopt our readings. Our relationship to them is familial, though most of them do not “resemble” us. We do not share the family nose with our favorite poets, though we might adopt/adapt a rhetorical feature now and again. My poem, “The New York School,” which is in large part about realizing that the Babar book I was reading to my Cambodian-American son was racist imperialist crap, goes like this:
“We've been taken off the track, but it did come up, this vexed issue of kinship, which poet gets assigned which umber and waits her turn in line, my mother myself. But to return to Babar (aka Mary Rowlandson), beset as he was by savages, yet saved by the French army, their funny hats. Please adopt this book for your course.” (ATSH, 106)

“Adoption” needs to be parsed out. We adopt children, which is a different act from “adopting” books or lines of thinking or roles.

Poetry is about work. When my daughter told me a couple of times that I was not her mother (under the influence, I suspect, of friends who ask innumerable questions about adoption), my half-adopted husband told her that “mother” is a function. Mother is a worker: it is she who feeds you, puts you to bed, makes sure you get to school on time. Just so is a poet a worker: it is she who writes this down, notes her surroundings, tries to care for them, creates the possibility for empathy, if not its fact. The poet/mother/worker tries to make the world larger, even as forces conspire always toward its constriction.

Poetry is about lack of chronological necessity. My prose poems are stories, but they are not narratives. They come out of episodic memories, with emphasis on episodes, which are often divorced from causal relationships. We have friends whose middle child came last; our daughter, who is two years younger than our son, came to all of us four years after he did. Adoptive families have histories, but the histories are not grounded in the same time-zones as are the biological ones.

Poetry is about extension. Since adopting my two children in 2000 and 2004, my sense of family has stretched out. This is true for other adoptive families I know. We think more about other cultures—those from which our children came—and about people we may or may not know who are related to our children in other ways than our own. Or at least we think of them in a different way. Ironically, it's blood that links us to these other places, but that blood-link makes possible other connections, those less dependent on a literal notion of relation. Many of my poems, collected in And Then Something Happened, tried to configure poetry and family in this other way. That most of them were more critique than celebration is a problem, but perhaps an inevitable one, as our culture is so bound to certain notions of itself. In Dementia Blog there's a brief section that records my daughter asking why she doesn't live with her sister; because she has another mother, goes the response. “What names do we have for this family: two sisters, three mothers, one brother to one sister, (and then another), and a father to sister and brother? (I forget a father, a mother.) Nuclear will not do” (65). What word is there to describe the relation between me and the adoptive mother of my adopted daughter's birth sister? I think a lot about these questions now.

Poetry is about imagination. If there are “imagined communities” based on the printed word, then surely there are also imagined families. We are based on paperwork, after all, the many forms, most of them notarized(!), the airplane tickets, the messages we print out, the passports and visas, on and on. This is our ground. It is blood to us. But from there, and I notice this more and more, we become something else, something less grounded. Something more ordinary and day-to-day, like baseball and soccer practice schedules, the dropping off and the picking up. Our poems, too, are involved in this ordinariness. And so the poetic lineage, adoptive as it is, continues through us as we write our poems that originate but do not end in adoption.

Poetry is about history. Denise Riley told me that she found her birth-family because she wanted to know her history, not because she put stock in the myth of origins. (I invent my quotation liberally, as it's been many years.) Families are historical. As another person wrote for this feature, families arise from habit. So do poems. Poems come to me because that is my habit of thinking and feeling. In family, as in poem, I repeat myself in my doing (whether it is care or creation). My family and my poem do not appear alone on any page. They are not formalist projects; rather, they reach out to the world, they are of it, and it is always larger than we are.

Poetry is about love. I don't usually say so, but it is.



Creative Memory Consultant

I love to help people organize their memories. Imagine the following film: Being Dr. Kissinger. There's no light at the end of that tunnel. Lala lost her ball: aw down, aw down, Sangha says, waves hands, palms cupped up to signify the nothing that is there. And then Po her 'cooter. Clouds like vast pockets of lint over the Ko`olau. Write to the rhythm of the pile driver. If lyric is material, how to reconcile its obsession with what is forgotten? Does that explain the moose with a head cold, bedded down amid animated rubble? Bomb crater where a wedding party was? What memories my son carries are physical: the touch of foreheads, particular curve of the hand when he dances. What he has forgotten is an entire language. I'm eager to show you how to organize your adoption scrap book, the consultant writes. Your snapshots are testimony, remainder, the excess that spills over in long division. Revision by reduction, memory plants—a glove still grows in the garden. And they all live together in the big red barn.


Magic bones haunt Takeo province, await validating experts to analyze. The villagers who took bone parts to their homes reported becoming dizzy and feverish, according to Radio Australia. The dead of Takeo are archived on-line. The photographer was only following orders. Tripped his lens. They were bludgeoned, as bullets were too dear. The archive perpetuates before, not after, blurry as Schrodinger's cat, though we see its eyes. Ai! he says, seeing the picture on a box. Vision contained, domesticated. Cooking as self- or other improvement; value innovation, the president tells cadets. I imagined an erotics of starvation in the Khmer Rouge cookbook; she returned home dressed in black, a broken mirror. Lend me your ears and eyes, oh my editorial conscience. Her words were excess, invention, surcharge on memory's credit line. The wedding hall collapse was due not to terrorism but incompetence, articles of impermanence inscribed in cement. They're accustomed to terrorism, not accident. Do you know where your other is?

(both poems first appeared in { Material Lyrics } (Tinfish Limited, 2001) and then And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004))

Links to other adoption-related poetry:
Material Lyrics: http://tinfishpress.com/free_stuff.html

And Then Something Happened: http://www.saltpublishing.com/books/smp/1844710165.htm



Susan M. Schultz grew up on the east coast, but has lived in Hawai`i for over twenty years now, where she teaches American poetry and creative writing at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa and edits Tinfish Press. Her books of poetry and poetic prose include Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets, 2001), And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004), and Dementia Blog (Singing Horse, 2008). She is also a literary critic, baseball fan (St. Louis Cardinals), and fervent blogger (http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com).


1 comment:

EILEEN said...

Wooooot! That essay on Denise Riley is fabulous! So glad you're here,