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.

Saturday, June 25, 2011



I was adopted at two weeks old, always knew I was adopted, and searched for and found my birthmother when I was 20. One of the first things I did, when we met, was to hand her copies of the two literary journals I’d just appeared in, my first “quality” publications; I’d felt those appearances as a deeply desired validation of my writing. My birthmother glanced at the magazines, and without opening them, set them on a side table. Over the course of the weekend, I gathered she was more interested in my weight and career plans than my poetry, and our relationship didn’t go much further.

At 17, I gave up my own son for adoption. At first I wrote about it confessionally; at readings in L.A., where I moved at 19, I often read a poem about childbirth in the knowledge I was giving him up and came to consider it my “signature poem.” Once, following a reading, a woman approached to express her sympathy for the pain I’d experienced in surrendering him—and said the poem made her glad she’d gone through with an abortion. I’m pro-choice, but I was aghast at such a response and think it was the last time I read the poem publicly.

In my mid-twenties, starting my MFA at the University of California, Irvine, I started to dislike focusing my poems wholly and directly on personal experience, and so didn’t write much about my son. During this period, though, every couple years I wrote a prose poem imagining meeting him once he’d come of age. In 2005, in my mid-thirties and now living in England, I wrote two more such “imagined sons” and sent one to Michael Schmidt at PN Review as part of a larger submission. He turned down the group as a whole but expressed his interest in “the birthmother poem” and seeing more of the same. I sent another submission, with another “Imagined Son,” as they were now titled, and Schmidt said he’d like to see the series.

Series? What series? I realized at once that I wanted to write this larger, longer series Schmidt alluded to, and in the next six weeks I focused on the project exclusively; by the end, I had 30 I felt worthy of publication. Thirteen appeared in PN Review, and later another sixteen in The Republic of Letters, as I continued developing the series into a book.

A few months after finishing that initial 30, still working on it in every spare moment, I realized that the book couldn’t be composed solely of the imagined sons. There needed to be another element, some sort of contrast that showed other dimensions of what it is to be a birthmother. After some weeks, I had the idea of the sons alternating every so often with “birthmother’s catechisms,” where a question that runs through my consciousness repeats, with different answers suggesting the array of responses that might occur at different times.

In September 2009, Oystercatcher Press published a pamphlet/chapbook of the work, The Son (Oystercatcher Press), selected as the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for the quarter. The reviews have been heartening as I complete work on Imagined Sons, my third book of poetry.

Carrie Etter



A Birthmother’s Catechism

How did you let him go?

With black ink and legalese

How did you let him go?

It’d be another year before I could vote

How did you let him go?

With altruism, tears, and self-loathing

How did you let him go?

A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?



Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles at the age of nineteen and lived in southern California for the next thirteen years. She completed her BA in English at UCLA and MFA in creative writing at UC Irvine before beginning a PhD in English, focusing on mid-Victorian fiction and early British criminology. In 2001 she moved to London and finished her PhD in 2003.

In 2004 she began teaching creative writing at Bath Spa University and moved to “the West Country” the following year. Her first collection, The Tethers (Seren Books, 2009), won the London New Poetry Award 2010 for the best first collection published in the UK and Ireland in the preceding year, and her second collection, Divining for Starters, was published by Shearsman Books in February 2011. She has also edited an anthology, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010).


Wednesday, June 22, 2011



My younger daughter adopted two children, each arranged before birth, each put into her arms within a few days of birth—the first, 4 years ago in Massachusetts, and the second, 2 years ago in Louisiana. Both adoptions are 'semi open'—the new style. My daughter & her husband submitted the whole thing each time: a dear birth mother letter, the album picture story of their life, all to induce a pregnant woman intent on surrendering her child to choose them. They met the mothers and some family members and keep in touch through an agency in one case and a lawyer in the other—sending a letter or two with photographs a year. (The birthparents are told there's a letter and can pick it up or not.) Both daughters keep as a middle name the name given to them by their birthmother. A token they will be told about... Thus Evelyn Monique and Agnes Grace. Their first names are family too: Evelyn is a favorite great aunt of my son-in-law; Agnes is my grandmother, who meant a great deal to me in childhood.

In truth this separation is another fiction. The families could find my daughter and her husband in a flash...via address, last name, employer, etc. At least for now. But they don't. Everyone obeys the rules.


The cost of modern American semi-open domestic adoption is not all that high in money terms. There’s lots of false information circulating on this. Also stories, totally outdated most of them, about the insecurity of domestic adoptions. That a court may demand return of a child to the biological family, for example. As a life-long conspiracy theorist, unconscious conspiracy, that foulest of all, being paramount, I speculate reasons may have to do with deep distrust of many white Americans for people with African heritage—plus class issues, of course, plus fear of exposure, all of which are ameliorated when a baby comes from a culture far away. Not even the prospect of being present at the baby’s birth, of bringing that baby home within a very few days, is enough to overcome a widespread preference for adoptions from Asia or the Caucuses by those with the resources to effect them.

The actual cost of the “domestic semi-open” is invasion—and the presence of a birthparent in the adoptive family’s collective imagination. Like all adoptions, this parenthood doesn’t start under the covers, in the back of a dark van, in a hot private midnight no one else knows. Grief enough. As in foreign adoptions, institutional grey-blue florescent light bathes every move. Domestic adoptions go still deeper. Not only the “Dear birthmother” letter and the photo album depicting the ideal childhood promised to the baby, but also social worker home studies, employment and medical histories, financial reviews, Homeland Security clearance, pre-adoption counseling, and enough certified paperwork for a Fortune 500 merger, all provided for uncounted strangers to review, copy, file and, oh yes, lose and then demand replacement of. Topped off by a required live performance before the birth: the face to face meeting of prospective parents with pregnant birthmother along with agency rep and whomever else birthmother has requested to be present.

Remember, parents, this is not an interview. We social workers have done all that. This is a meeting, a chance for you all to know each other a little more. (Why?) This is not the time to press for facts. (Why not?) The sibling question for example, is not to be touched. (Why?) In part, I think, this performance is structured to protect birthmother’s self esteem. She is not to feel incompetent, stupid, crazy or sick—though she may be some, all, or none. But she is also not acknowledged to be desperate or even in trouble. This decision is to be seen by all involved as an act of altruism. For the visit, birthmother is pulling on a face of respectability so the adopters will think well of her. To protect herself from any hint of scorn she’ll make coffee and serve something sweet, tell lies about herself and her circumstances, tell her visitors she is sure she has made a wonderful choice. This is the first step in a process that will continue during her free counseling sessions in the weeks following the surrender. Her story will be processed, justified, dewormed and buried in clean wrappings. In my family there are now two such women. I think about them. So does my daughter. My son-in-law operates on a stricter sense of denial, so if he does too, the fact isn’t shared with me. But we all agree that someday there may be contact with one of these women and their birth child, if their daughter, my granddaughter wants it.

The aim of all this is to make a good story about of two bad ones…and surely this is more humane than any adoption process used in the past. I now have four grandchildren, and I could not imagine my life or my family without any one of them.

(Martha’s daughters Hetty and Mallory, and granddaughters Satrianna, Aggie and Evie)

(Martha and her husband artist-poet Basil King)


I haven't written about this explicitly...but the adoption has certainly had an impact on my world view, on my emotions, on my "family" feelings, on what I've observed of the dance of nature and nurture (which sounds so academic, but believe me it's not!). Essay to come perhaps? Impact is here and working. I never suspected the impact would be this profound, that's for sure. Initially, adoption only seemed to offer relief of the pain of childlessness...after too many miscarriages.

I have wrestled all my writing life with the shifts between memory and inventions, family (and social) lies and conspiracies, ethical demands of loyalty and ethical demands of art, the impossibility of telling a “whole” story, of writing itself as a need to be seen and yet to hide. My family circumstances and the choices my daughter made have confirmed my instinct that these are worthy issues to contend with…and, perversely, conversely, delightfully, they have helped me decide to leave off memoir and consider poetry again. With a willful dissolution of boundaries at my disposal. With an eye to humor always lurking in the quagmire underneath the logical bridge. With a huge hello to Satrianna, Kirin, Evelyn, and Aggie!



“Impact is here and (still) working.”



Martha King was born in Virginia in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and married Basil King in 1958. She began writing in the late 1960s, after the birth of their two daughters, Mallory and Hetty.

Living in Brooklyn since 1968, King produced 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle in the late 1980s (sent free to interested readers). She has worked as an editor in mainstream book publishing, for Poets & Writers, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and currently for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Her collections of short stories include North & South (2007), Separate Parts (2002), and Little Tales of Family and War (1999). Other stories have been anthologized in Fiction from the Rail and The Wreckage of Reason. A collection of her poetry, Imperfect Fit, was published in 2004. Currently, King is at work on a memoir, Outside Inside, chapters of which have appeared in Jacket #40, Bombay Gin, Blaze Vox and New York Stories.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

kim thompson


more thoughts on what can or cannot be...

Friday, June 3, 2011 at 11:44am

"as an adoptee, i..."

and then where does one go with that statement...

its like when (non adoptees) say "but arent you glad that you grew up in the west? i mean if youd grown up in korea as an orphan or with your mom you would have been so poor and you wouldnt have gotten to do everything youve done"

they say this as if i have never considered this...
they ask this as if i could ever really choose the goodness of the life i know over a life i do not know... they ask this as if i could really choose if i want to love my umma or if i want to love my two aunts pat and kathy and have loved my beloved grandparents—jerry and loretta... "you can only choose one"
they ask me this as if i could really choose between the things i can do with english and what i most likely would have been able to do with korean...
they ask me this as if i could choose between being my umma's daughter or being my mother's daughter...
they ask me this as if i could choose between having been able to see so much of the world and live so many places or grow up in the city that i was born in and know it like the back of my own hand and understand my relationship with the river that runs through it...
they ask me as if whatever my answer is, is somehow representative of the other 199,000+ adoptees...

they ask me as if i somehow have an answer to questions that
(im beginning to believe)
were not necessarily meant to be reconciled with an answer of knowing.

sometimes "i dont know" is the best answer

and so, i say that more and more:

Q: "how are things with your umma?"
A: "*sighs* its a very complicated relationship. i dont know what to say about it except that some things are not necessarily meant to be reconciled."

Q: "how is it living in korea? it must be nice looking like everyone else."
A: "i love it here but it is also such a complicated relationship. and i dont look like everyone else, but yes if an aerial shot were taken of me standing at a crosswalk in a crowd waiting for the light to change then you wouldnt be able to find me and that feels nice. but no, i dont fit in here... not all things are meant to be reconciled."

Q: "that must be hard for you being as you are in a place that is so conservative"
A: "i dont know. its ok. sometimes it makes me crazy and sometimes it doesnt. sometimes minneapolis made me crazy and sometimes the liberals there made me crazy... and sometimes they didnt and sometimes minneapolis didnt... i dont think that everything can be reconciled, when so much of my being who i am, in a place like this, is so full of complexities."

Q: "it must be so nice having found your umma. you're so lucky. do you see her all the time?"
A: "*long sigh* i am beyond fortunate and i know that. but its so damn complicated and has led to 2 plus years of insanity that im only recently just coming out from... i dont know that something that is so full of complexities and balls of string can ever be fully reconciled... the past cannot be undone ... she is dealing with her own things and i am dealing with mine. some things take so much time..."

Q: "so your korean must be really good. has it been easy to learn?"
A: "for me, as an adoptee, i find that learning the language is also a constant reminder of how i have lost this language. which then for me, as an adoptee, i end up getting angry at my umma which leads to getting angry at korea and the west and every single person who gives their kid up for adoption and it spirals out of control and then i have to spend the next minutes saying 'breathe kim. calm down. your teacher is just asking you to answer if you have milk in your house, in korean.'
so no, it is not easy... it is a daily uphill struggle that cannot be explained... but within it, as an adoptee, i am finding the joy of doing plays on words between korean and english ... but no... it is not easy and i doubt my relationship to the language can ever be fully reconciled."

Q: "does you umma wish she'd kept you?"
A: "does your mother wish she hadn't kept you?"

but no one seems to ask the things that "as an adoptee, i" spend a lot more time thinking about and working through... like:

"what is your relationship to the han river? is that why youve always lived in cities or villages that have a significant body of water running down their middle?"

"what is your body's relationship to the physical geography of the place? is that why youve often lived and have always preferred to live and have always felt most at home in places that are comprised of mountains and rivers or oceans?"

"how does it feel to know that your body is so much of this place. your genetic history is all here and you are returned to it and yet often all you can feel is the loss of all of these things?"

"how is it that almost all of your friends in the states are white and you love as you love your own life, but here in korea you tend to avoid making friendships with white foreigners? what does this say about you? are you internalizing some kind of racism? or are you simply enjoying the fact that you have a choice that you didnt have before? and do you ever feel badly for thinking that?"

"do you see any possibilities of making it as a full time artist there just as you did for years back in minneapolis? do you ever get lost in this? do you ever grow despondent in this? do you ever feel like youve given up so much to be here and wonder if and how this is going to work out?"

"are you being changed by the place? what are you learning about yourself?"

"are you confronting and acknowledging just how deep your attachment and abandonment issues go? or are you still doing like you used to when youd always tell us 'im not affected by that shit that just for weak people who end up on tv talk shows' ?"

"do you see other adoptees as some kind of distant relatives? even the crazy ones? do you have love for the crazy ones?"

"are you sometimes jealous of kyopos for being able to speak korean?"

"do adoptees have a lot of in house fighting and differ greatly on their opinions towards international adoption and being adopted?"

"does it ever make you sad that sometimes people seem to misunderstand what youre saying, and take it to mean that youre bitter when really youre saying, 'i love my life. but i think the system is corrupt and needs to change as its not right to sell children whove been stolen from their families and its not right to deny adopteees access to their own records and its not right that there is and has been such little support for single mothers who are the 'source' of 90% of children being put up for adoption -- but NONE of these things change the reality that i love the life that i have been given and feel immensely blessed each and every day and i am learning to accept that not everything is meant to be reconciled.'"


"how do you feel when you eat the food and hear the chatter of people and take everything in and just feel like youre constantly discovering this part of you that you spent the majority of your life denying that it even existed?"


"do you think that all adoptee literature and plays are good?"

"do you think that some adoptees are dealing with their inner demons in some very unhealthy ways, even though they appear to be such impressive individuals? do you think that YOU are dealing with your issues in some very unhealthy ways? do you think you are learning how to deal with your issues in healthier ways?"


"do you think that there are enough counseling services and support systems in place for adoptees especially in terms of post-reunion?"

"what is post-reunion anyways?"

"do you ever feel like youve just committed to a form of insanity? do you ever worry that maybe this is going to be your undoing? do you ever feel like this might be the path to your own enlightenment? do you ever feel all of those things at the same time? what is that like - to live with so many conflicting emotions all at once each and every day?"

and then...

"what are the things that you believe may not be meant to be reconciled both within yourself, in your relationship with your umma, in your relationship with the people, city, the river, and the country?"

to which i would answer

"all of them."

followed by a "and accepting that is making all the difference in the world for the me who is 'as an adoptee, i...' "



i was adopted and i am an adoptee, so whether i am writing specifically about such themes or the smell of bread coming from the baker's at the end of my street or how i mistook the moon for a street lamp—i view all of my writing to have been and to be affected by my experiences as an adoptee. i do not view it to be my all defining point just as i do not view my spiritual beliefs or sexuality or the fact that i love meat to be my sole points of definition... but, i do ... view each thing as being a part of who i am and who i am then shapes how i speak and write ... and how i speak and write then shapes how i am and how i live as a queer meditating (yet non full fledged buddhist) meat eating korean american adoptee who has wandered about the world ...



Note: i wrote this on mother's day this spring whilst i was visiting in mpls... *originally the word "umma" is written in hangul/korean in my poem but have romanized it for easier viewing and readability.

for (my) umma

the past cannot be undone...
it is not a string that can be
unknotted ...
nor unwound

and yet (i) have stood before you
unraveling since the moment that
you let me
(halfway) in

and the half of me thats still outside
and the half of me thats been let inside
are divided into broken splinters
my heart a human form of flowering

but i love you
and have done so
since you carried me sight unseen
back when your flesh was my shield
back when we stirred each other into waking
i have loved you always
even in the midst of every righteous tantrum fit of anger/pain for all you did
and did not

and our past is the world's largest ball of seemingly unworkable yarn
but the train keeps speeding forward
and the solitary street lamps
are shining down on this
slowly knitted path

so today
just like back in the beginning
and all throughout the middle...
i love you with the heart
that you and he
made for me.

Image from kim's 2006 solo work at Intermedia Arts, Mpls, MN where she was a recipient of their "Naked Stages" grant. The title of the piece was: "timeline autobigraphia: everything that is..." Photo by Usry Alleyne



kim thompson is an interdisciplinary artist who was born in seoul, s. korea in 1975 and sent overseas for adoption in 1976. she grew up in s. florida, wandered around europe for most of her 20's, and is currently residing in seoul. before moving to seoul she lived in minneapolis, mn where she was the recipient of several state and national grants including the 2008/2009 jerome travel grant for literature. her style of writing falls within the genre of the jazz aesthetic, hence the seeming "lack" of caps and punctuation as she uses such things to denote—emphasis, space, and breath.

she has been published in the O.K.A.Y. (the Overseas Korean Artist Yearbook) book vol 6; G.O.A.L's (Global Overseas Adoption Link in Seoul, S. Korea) publication "The OAK Newsletter," where her work was also translated into Korean; and the Playwright's Center in minneapolis, mn "Notes From Rehearsal" website.

along with other poet adoptees residing in n. america, s. africa, and korea, kim runs a korean adoptee poetry blog at: www.thursdaypoems.blogspot.com