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).


No comments: