Poetry

New Nature

Women Poets Escape Family—And Convention

June 11, 2013
Axel Kuhlmann / Flickr (cc)

Women have always written poetry that does not have the traditional narrative of family and children at the center. The poems of Jorie Graham and Brenda Hillman (both mothers) never forget a larger political world. Louise Glück (also a mother) does the same with the aesthetic apparatus of myth. They follow in the footsteps of many others, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gertrude Stein.

Poems about motherhood, that monumental element of all of our lives nearly forgotten by centuries of literature, aren’t conventionally written simply because motherhood has been a traditional narrative. Motherhood, in the hands of a new generation of writers such as Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, has become a subject with the complexity of any other. In The Grand Permission (2003), an anthology of prose about motherhood, editors Hillman and Patricia Dienstfrey write, “There is something different about the mother/child bond that could affect artistic life, either because of cultural expectation or because of biological necessity.” But the eloquent convictions collected in the book can also sound like commonplaces. Toi Derricotte writes, “What I learned is that a poem is a living thing, and, like any living thing, we have to accept what we are given.” Even mothers who are not writers understand poet Pam Rehm’s position, “Time is that yoke I’m always straining to get out from under.” And so might writers who are not mothers. Instead, I suspect Camille Roy’s insight is the most pertinent: “Family is an organizer of psychic life.” Whether poems about motherhood are conventional or not, they are steeped in some aspects of this common psychic organizer, a common plot, which furnishes some of its own conventions.

But what about those poets who, in mid-career and mid-life, are writing at a distance from the nuclear family, and who are trying to find an alternate plot? Several women are now in the midst of mapping a particular and overlooked consciousness of time: not a biographical moment, but a sustained and gradual understanding of the lived possibility of remaining alone during a time in life when the possibility of natural procreation may be on the wane and the hope of meaningful partnership feels challenged.

It is not new for poets, men and women, to find themselves at the edge of civilization, alone, past cultural regard. But how many have found themselves there, explicitly articulating what Joanna Klink does at the start of “Toward what island-home am I moving”?

Toward what island-home am I moving,

not wanting to marry, not wanting

too much of that emptiness at evening,

as when I walked through a field at dusk

and felt wide in the night.

Klink begins this poem with her wish not to marry, paralleled in layered syntax with not wanting “too much of that emptiness at evening.” This might give married readers pause, though close readers of the history of literature will not be surprised. Marriage has never gotten a good rap from the canon: the Wife of Bath first spoke of the woe that was in marriage in the 14th century, and many more have since.

Seduced by a mood and not another person, Klink’s inwardness becomes integrated with the environment: “And it was again evening that drew me / back to the field where I could sense no boundary— / the smell of dry earth, cool arch of my neck, the darkness / entirely within myself.” The poem’s abrupt close changes that course:

Come, black anchor, let us not be harmed.

The deer leafing in the dark.

The old man at the table, unable to remember.

The children whose hunger is just hunger,

and never desire.

In these last lines, Klink turns outward and finds civilization. It is not exactly our world, but the world of the helpless: animals, the aged, and the very young. She unites all with a shared fear for safety, not with a government by laws. What had been a solitary meditation changes into a vision of a new social arrangement. But it is mixed with palpable loss: the children never grow up.

Poets who don’t put motherhood at the center represent an ethical intervention.

This vision of silently shared need comes after a renunciation of the institution that formalizes shared need: marriage. For Klink, not marrying brings about a distinctly lyric state of mind, occasioning a melodious and at times fluorescent style. The sudden imperative at the end cuts through a complex syntax. Perhaps the poet’s imaginary anchor comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and announces Klink’s intention to go toward the island instead of leaving it. In this way, she refutes the marriage plot and forgoes the vexed burden of children, instead opting for her own island, not as imperial kingdom but as (postcolonial?) home. A similarity between the poem’s terms and the poet’s own biography is only implied; such a similarity is not necessary to understanding the emotional core of the poem, the new plot she must make up herself.

Klink’s lyric circumstance addresses convention (marriage) on its way toward something else entirely. Likewise, as Christina Davis writes in her unpublished poem “Matrix”:

I am of nothing the mother.

 

I have cradled many things,

and none has become a child.

 

In the fields

where my daughter

does not run,

 

in rooms where my son

does not live and the love

he won’t withhold

or give, I have contributed

 

to a new nature. Must it really be

 

a human

               nature?

 

Klink’s language is generous, while Davis’s is a language of scarcity. But both feel they have to reassemble words and turn a negative into something positive using circuitous locution. A slightly peculiar diction, as much indebted to singing as to speech, pervades both poems.

If we look in particular at women poets who don’t put motherhood at the center, or can’t, or won’t (and many of these poets are, biographically, living where their poems say they are), we see women in the midst of their own self-made narratives, murky but dynamic, unpredictable but full of self-understood value. They are engaged in a subversive project of renaming. The privilege I claim for them is a lack of a common plot and an ethical intervention that comes from a form of solitude that’s both imagined and lived, with all its consequences. That version of solitude—written about, looked for, happened upon, or wandered into—offers lyric poetry a form with its own conventions and aesthetic history.

In getting a bit free from prescribed social roles, these poets must become tricksters of a kind. But they do so in order to turn toward new ways of life, new ways of mind. The extravagant nature of their preferred styles testifies to this. By “extravagant,” I mean heightened in drama and in desired effect, tuned in to the pleasures of excess. These poets are less compelled to clarify through style than they are to enjoy, create, and destroy.

 

• • •

 

The sly title of Tanya Larkin’s My Scarlet Ways (2012) brings to mind a number of literary figures who take an alternate route, including Hester Prynne and Emily Dickinson, whose poem “To Put this World down, like a Bundle” provides both epigraph and title. Dickinson’s poem celebrates a kind of renunciation as heroic effort: “To Put this World down, like a Bundle— / And walk steady, away, / Requires Energy—possibly Agony— / ’Tis the Scarlet way.” But renunciation doesn’t exactly mean abstinence. The last part of Dickinson’s poem, which Larkin doesn’t quote, gives some tasting notes on the blood of Christ: “Sacrament, Saints partook before us— / Patent, every drop.” For women, renunciation has often ended up a sensual event: repression in life leads to sensual investigation within the ritual space of the poem. To put it more playfully, it suggests the old adage: when you talk about sex a lot, it’s because you’re not having any.

Larkin’s poems tend to take a similar pose. Her mood is more playful than ferocious. Though she always appears to be arguing with someone, she seems to have a great time doing it. “Heaven and Hell Are Real Places,” Larkin begins one poem, and then starts a fight with herself: “Goody for them but I’ll keep walking.”

These renunciations ask the poet to remember constantly what she was always supposed to be. And we all belong in families, right? When Larkin writes her own birth myth, “Foundling Wheel,” she has to rewrite a story of family for her adult and female self: “Since no one remembers my birth I must part myself / like a curtain and walk through it again and again as long as it takes / to accept I am my own big baby.” She eschews imagining herself as a mother, and instead, imagines who—or what—her mother might be:

A mother image whispered in my ear,

o hothouse orphan we nearly grew from seed,

your sweet suckling mouth was always astray of the source.

Assume your proportions and make mamma proud.

The mock-heroic epithet “hothouse orphan” combines a sense of managed growth (something organic but cultivated) with a sense of abandonment. The results are epic. Though the collation of high and low diction might not be anything special, the convergence of intricate, well-crafted sentences with a clear, emotional tone—and surrealist images that yield rather than obscure—is. The predicament grounds the surrealism in a real problem. The goal is to write a new birth myth—one true to Larkin’s experience right now, not true to her experience as a woman in historical time. That she continues to grow big, and to be fostered by this “mother image” into an image of her own, implicitly addresses the traditional narrative of child-having, family-raising, partner-keeping.

In Larkin’s recent chapbook Hothouse Orphan (2012) these transformations intensify. In “Satyr” she writes, “Now that my life as a woman is coming to an end, / it is time to resume my life as a satyr.” Her fear, that her life as a woman is coming to an end, may have something to do with getting older and not fitting into a prescribed social role. From “Grasshopper”: “Sometimes I get sad / at how little mischief I made as a girl. / Had I been a boy, I’d have been / a solitary one.” The truth about this poet of “swagger” is that her best work shows off her candor in a kind of mess: the transformation continuing. In that mess, she presents not the vivid ambivalence of making choices, but rather of undergoing a variety of experiences. In her hands, a poem can give an account of a life passionately lived and also lived in great confusion. “The Greatest Un-Metaphysical Question”:

This summer I was a terrible gardener.

All I did was go out dancing. I mean that

metaphorically of course although

I really did dance myself to pieces

and wake up miraculously whole in my bed.

But just to be safe, I should have stayed home

where the greatest un-metaphysical

question was always “To read or to weed?”

I did neither. I fell in love with married men.

Larkin’s bad choices may end in dead flowers, but they also tell a story about personal resilience. It is notable that the choices articulated by the poem are as boring as other people talking about china patterns. The speaker is not interested in choices, a legible narrative of preferences, but in the real metaphysical questions, which lie, instead, in the human pursuit of sometimes-unmanageable compulsions. But the speaker must travel through her own feelings of obligation, her sense of accountability to what she should be doing, before she can reach those questions.

In order to make judgments of value, women have to investigate how they have been judged. Sandra Lim’s poetry engages with the world’s fantastical, historical, and mythic stories, as if the women of those stories were overexposed celebrities. The best poems of her first book, Loveliest Grotesque (2006), eschew the inner lives of mythic female characters: scoffing at self-scrutiny, French revolutionary Charlotte Corday tries a hairstyle à la Marat—a coif in the style of her famous victim, the revolutionary monster Jean-Paul Marat. But it is the inner life that interests Lim—or rather, the difficulty of having one. Lim writes in the unpublished poem “Gryphons” of both the monstrosity of expectations and the expectation of monstrosity:

What do you understand about monsters & girls?

Just that something revoked them before they were born.

 

What’s forever championed is the stirring

beneath their bellies, an imbecile glinting.

 

When Lim evaluates what the world says a girl should understand, what she finds is frankly stereotypical:

 

The world says she must know something of love

& something of mothering.

 

She learns the first best by the light of its going.

As for the second, violets have dropped their lights

 

with hardly a sigh & so, it seems she fishes for

varieties of love again with a crooked pin.

 

All she knows is that she gives herself to it,

but in this case, the feelings have no style.

The poem’s odd locutions reveal a “she” caught in the language and logic of a fairy tale. The global nature of the tasks, love and mothering, can only be known by their failure—love “by the light of its going” and mothering by the departure of the issue. Both tasks require total submission and end in complete failure. This is what a girl should know by this point in her life, since the character speaks from the perspective of someone on a long journey, not someone on a quest with a determined ending. And this failed quest must continue because life continues, even if it has no “style.” Likewise, the traditional script of love and mothering continues to exist, imposing itself upon the inner life.

Individual secession changes your relationship with the human family.

Yet it is the inner life—some privacy of mind, not necessarily autonomy but an authentic secrecy—that Lim is truly concerned with. “Privacy,” a right increasingly threatened in our highly observed world, is also uniquely desired by a female consciousness unable to hide completely from cultural ideas of how it should look—not just how it should be, but how it should look, what style it should have. So it is privacy that Lim finds lacking when she reconsiders a distinctly American fairy tale, the story of Anne Bradstreet—the mythic first poet of our national shores—in “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”:

 

We follow her past childhood, and a sea-voyage,

past the smell off the shore like the smell of a garden,

past an English girl bearing American children,

past burying the children of her

children, beyond domestic work

and ceaseless illness and into middle life,

 

still grave and meek in middle life, and this is

what I see in the leaves:

 

a woman once more contemplating seasonal change

stained with a privacy that was always in view,

The version of Bradstreet Lim conjures is not exactly the version we are familiar with, and it owes a debt (and a title) to John Berryman’s unruly epic Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1959). To Lim, Bradstreet is no stranger to domestic labor, a middle-aged immigrant who may raise her children but who becomes distinguished by burying her grandchildren. Seeing Bradstreet this way, Lim identifies with her outside the traditional script of wife and mother. (Bradstreet is, in her work, a famous multitasker, an early success story for the juggling act.) Lim follows Bradstreet into middle age, into the depths of an inner life observing the passage of time and being observed at the same time.

Looking for a model, Lim finds one. But in order to pursue an act of feminist identification, she has to transform her subject with an act of liberating imagination. She does so because she feels time passing. Since this doesn’t frame itself as a dramatic lyric moment, Lim must find and determine her own moment—which is, perhaps, why she’s more attracted to the types in fairy tales and the typology of the Puritans than to a more exposed record of her own life. In a retelling of “Bluebeard,” also unpublished, Lim writes, “I long to be unhurried in the blue story, / where time itself might be sad or content / or even uncomfortable, but for once it won’t feel // as if it is going through me looking for something else.” Her interest in the historical is an interest in the artificial and is occasioned by her conviction that there is no natural place for her—a Korean-American woman alone and thinking in the privacy granted by lyric poetry—within the social script of national femininity.

On the surface, Klink’s poems do not do battle with the judgments of others in the way Larkin’s and Lim’s do. But Klink’s departures from culture never forget the consequences of difference. Individual secession changes your relationship with the human family. In “And Having Lost Track,” she writes:

And having lost track, I walked

toward the open field. Now transparent,

now far, the day-moon burned through the waste

air. I passed a scientist, his hands

holding cinders to the sky.

I passed a pile of corroding metal,

a young girl with a ring of keys.

The sound of a flute came and went.

I passed a garden under snow, a half-open book,

a man unaccustomed to grief.

And thought: what must I do differently.

Klink’s recognition of her own isolation comes twinned with a consciousness of a world that has left her alone. She eloquently marries, in her own peculiar diction, the world’s languages of scientific discourse, casual idiom, and communication: “To be outside the classifiable world, / and having lost track, and having heard / no message.” For Klink, the field—an expanse in the natural world, outside the limits of civilization—is the primal location of the work. She goes back to learn to pay attention, and also simply out of joy. But her journey isolates her.

Klink’s most recent collection, Raptus (2010), places the emotional aftermath of a significant breakup against a background of natural, mainly Western, landscapes. But she has been writing about detachment for years, and her work is a record not only of the ecstasy of engagement with the natural world, but also of the mixed and passionately felt consequences of detachment from a noisier, more chaotic world. Personal identity ceases to be important in these matters, as in “Study for an Estuary,” where looking at the ocean eloquently diminishes her “until I am required to be someone else, and the water follows some course perfectly / uninvolved with me.”

In “Sea by Flowers,” she again frames this detached state of mind not simply as an ecstasy in nature but as a way of realigning her values:

Traveler, show me some place where I matter least,

a shoreline as it arches toward horizon close as

 

attention, always turned to you, sweet in your soundproof

movement, gold-cordovan glow.

In her luminous work, Klink often addresses strangers with great intimacy and tenderness. “Soundproof” they might be, but that does not mean they have nothing to teach her. The point is not that this kind of intellectual and ethical gesture swerves against the value of a family, but that it is made possible for the poet when she imagines herself outside a “normal” story. Not only does she need to go to the edges of fields, to frozen rivers and northern bays, she needs to go toward structures of human relation that enable her to evade the roles of wife and mother. This focused solitude seems less the result of a set of choices than an original act of intellectual necessity.

These women poets, not having children and families, turn toward acts of mind in solitude that are potentially valuable for poetry. It is not that men have no stake in this kind of consciousness. Shakespeare framed it brilliantly in the sonnets: “And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.” But the sonnets were written in a world when the besiegement of the brow by time was seen to take hold with greater alacrity. With longer lives to live, and more possibilities for how to live them, both men and women should be moved to read, and write, a lyric poetry that does not simply judge choices, or represent people at the mercy of them. Lim, Larkin, and Klink deliberate among cultural imperatives, their own changing desires, and the true circumstances of our lives: it is a juggling act worth fighting for.

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Comments

I can't say I follow perfectly all of the arguments in this essay, but I appreciate the writing for three main reasons: it invited this reader to examine more critically ideas and feelings about "motherhood"/motherhoods and poetry; it prompted me to reread Toi Derricotte's splendid essay, "On Writing Natural Birth"; and it generated the questions below:

 

1. Was motherhood not "a subject with the complexity of any other" before Zucker and Greenberg wrote about it?  

2. Why does the writer invoke Zucker and Greenberg, but immediately move on to discuss Hillman and Dienstfrey's 2003 book, The Grand Permission?

3. Is it the writer's opinion that motherhood was previously approached in a singular, prescriptive, or stereotypical manner? Or that more complicated poems were overlooked? Time period?

4. Where are the writer's examples of a lyric poetry that actually judges "choices, or represents people at the mercy of them"?  In other words, which poems does the writer perceive as counter to works by Klink, Larkin, and Lim?

5.  Is it the writer's view that "women poets not having children and families" are more often judged, marginalized, or misunderstood?  Or unjustly boxed into a prescribed poetics?  Less likely to be published, which may account for the “unpublished” poems presented here?

6. Why out of the 32 poets represented in The Grand Permission are Rehm and Derricotte negatively singled out?  

7. Why does the writer extract one sentence from Derricotte's seven-page essay and use it as the basis for declaring this poet's convictions "commonplaces"?  

8. Was it commonplace for a black American woman in 1976 to accept her poetry in that moment (and the circumstances that helped create that poetry) as a "living thing" as opposed to, say, William Carlos Williams's "machine"? I'd note, too: there's not a hint of coercion in Derricotte's essay that suggests any poet must choose living things over machines.  Her essay falls in the "Social and Historical Context" section of the anthology, and it seems very much to deliver its social and historical experiences.  What's the problem?

9. Even if women's poetry today were afflicted with some kind of motherhood-family problem (is it?), how does that impede the work of women who choose to write in other ways?  Is there a scarcity issue at hand?  Does the writer perceive a confining motherhood-family poetry trend? 

10.  Klink, Larkin, and Lim are interesting in their own right. Why assume motherhood-family prescriptivism impedes the way readers interpret them—or whether they’re read at all?  Can't we handle (haven’t we handled?) multiple takes on poems by women? Or am I misunderstanding?

 

 
Dear Yona Harvey,
Thanks for your terrific and focused quesitons and comments. I'm even more aware now that this argument raises a number of problems. Since the intention of the essay was specifically not to talk about poems about motherhood, but to talk about other kinds of poems, many of these threads got cut, or lost, in the process. I go question by question below to try to give some clarificaitons of the essay's perspective - and mine. 
1. Was motherhood not "a subject with the complexity of any other" before Zucker and Greenberg wrote about it?  
Surely not - but perhaps it's accurate to say that there's simply less writing in previous centuries specifically about motherhood as a subject, especially as a subject tackled by mothers themselves? (since many of them simply couldn't write for so long?) Of course, much writing, and much work in the oral tradition mentions/ alludes to motherhood. I was simply trying to register the fact that it's been a topic in lyric poetry that's been less traveled (and as the anthology The Grand Permission speaks to, less acceptable, less respected, easily trivialized, and potentially subversive, as the cult of domesticity is subversive). And to gesture towards a generation of women poets - a capacious, diverse generation, that deserves more names and more attention than the essay provides - that takes this "subject" on with immediate relevance and energy. 
2. Why does the writer invoke Zucker and Greenberg, but immediately move on to discuss Hillman and Dienstfrey's 2003 book, The Grand Permission?
The focus of this essay is not on poems about motherhood. But the essay needed - wanted to - speak to what I do consider the "conventional" narrative of a woman's life. By conventional narrative of a woman's life, I mean what Adrienne Rich, Eavan Boland, Alice Walker, Mary the mother of God, my own mother, and lots of other people mean as women having children. This may be a more controversial point than I intended to make. In order to speak to the lives of women not having children, I wanted to speak first about the lives - and the work - of women who have children. Just because this may be a conventional lived narrative doesn't mean it feels like a conventional narative to women who write poems about family. I singled out Zucker and Greenberg because this issue of narrative itself (The Last Clear Narrative) comes up so clearly in their work - how you tell a story. This was not meant to be exclusive. I think The Grand Permission is a rich and important book, and its capacious intelligence has something, also, to do with narrative - with how narratives are told. The quick switch may be inelegant. I take all blame, and give all credit to the wonderful editors at BR who tried very hard to put the pieces together. A greater distinction should be made between 1) the idea of a conventional lived narrative, and 2) how conventional a narraitve might feel in a poem. 
3. Is it the writer's opinion that motherhood was previously approached in a singular, prescriptive, or stereotypical manner? Or that more complicated poems were overlooked? Time period?
Absolutely not. But is it a stretch to say that maybe less people wrote about it? My comments about contemporary women poets writing about motherhood are not intended to champion their efforts as best. I don't think literary history is teleological. But wriitng about women's lives is complicated. Rich often uses the phrase "coming to light" to describe sites of biographical reality that can be seen with greater clarity in a "now" than in a "then." The essay doesn't make a claim regarding motherhood and this predicament of reperesenting women's lives. It does make a claim about these women who are some kind of "independent operator" in their poems, in terms of how they're seen by social convention (I like to think all poets are independent operators of a kind at the core) and how this site, this time in biography, may not have come to light with as great clarity as it has, and can, right now. 
I'm pretty much always sure more complicated things are overlooked and there for the finding in literary history, known and unknown. 
4. Where are the writer's examples of a lyric poetry that actually judges "choices, or represents people at the mercy of them"?  In other words, which poems does the writer perceive as counter to works by Klink, Larkin, and Lim?
I think I was actually thinking of how culture judges women's choices, rather than how another poetry might.  And I was also thinking about how our culture is really invested, at least as far as I can tell, in the notion that we make a lot of choices in our lives. The word "choice" appears and re-appears in feminist language, in feminist politics. Poetry is a great art form in part because it can place us past this quesiton? in front of this question? in a different place than this question? It would be a misunderstanding (not one you're making AT ALL, but I'm just saying) to say that the kind of poetry I'm taking about is about women "choosing not to have children." I was trying to speak to the sense of a lived narrative that doesn't feel like choices are about free will, total agency, individual empowerment, etc. Poetry is adept at seeing life NOT as a series of choices. I see in Larkin's "The Greatest Un-metaphsical Quesiton" a kind of satire of the rhetoric of choice-making for empowered women who are supposed to "lean in." 
5.  Is it the writer's view that "women poets not having children and families" are more often judged, marginalized, or misunderstood?  Or unjustly boxed into a prescribed poetics?  Less likely to be published, which may account for the “unpublished” poems presented here?
No. I'm not interested in talking about who's more judged or misunderstood. Honestly, I think it's pretty easy for women to be accused of selfishness in the midst of any of their choices, and part of the reason why I wrote this essay is because I think that's an accusation thrown at single women of a certain age (the Republican party's been doing it all year, women without children are selfish voters, etc.). I don't think these women writers are more often judged or misunderstood. I'm not even sure they are misunderstood. I'm just glad people are reading them. I don't think they're unjustly boxed into anything, but I think they're analyzing the unjust boxes culture places them in. I don't think they're less likely to be published. They're all published. Sandra Lim's exquisite book just won the Barnard prize. 
6. Why out of the 32 poets represented in The Grand Permission are Rehm and Derricotte negatively singled out?  
Again, that may have come off more negative than I intended. I think Rehm and Derricotte have written wonderful essays in that wonderful book. Rehm's is highly attuned to the rituals of daily life and their somatic vagueness and enjoyment. Derricotte's writing lucidly and energetically engages its questions. The book itself, in the introduciton, talks about how different from each other the responses to motherhood are - how hard it is to say one thing, or even a small set of things. I was looking for what was said that was different from poetic anxiety, or life anxiety, generally described by poets. I was trying to say that much of what was said, however contextualized in the event / set of events of motherhood - seemed approachable by all citizens, when talking about a life narrative, or anxiety about a narrative. This is the controversial point (a few of my friends who are mothers disagree) but it's not at all meant to be a disparagement of the book or of these wonderful essays. I love the book. The purchase of THIS essay is on something else. 
7. Why does the writer extract one sentence from Derricotte's seven-page essay and use it as the basis for declaring this poet's convictions "commonplaces"?  
It was perhaps poorly done, but I'll try to make the point more completely in my own words: many of the things women said specifically about writing and motherhood, specifically in the "ars poetica" realm in the anthology felt like they could have been said about writing, or writing and death. What makes the anthology an amazing piece of work, besides the beautifully written introduction, the diversity of selections, and the beautiful writing, is that these statments are accompanied by lived narratives of great sensisitvity as well. In extracting I was trying to talk about what the difference might be between "writing and motherhood" and "writing and non motherhood" at the same age, how they might feel different, how they might create different senses in the poem. 
8. Was it commonplace for a black American woman in 1976 to accept her poetry in that moment (and the circumstances that helped create that poetry) as a "living thing" as opposed to, say, William Carlos Williams's "machine"? I'd note, too: there's not a hint of coercion in Derricotte's essay that suggests any poet must choose living things over machines.  Her essay falls in the "Social and Historical Context" section of the anthology, and it seems very much to deliver its social and historical experiences.  What's the problem?
Again, I'd defend myself first by not defending myself, and saying what I tried to do with the anthology is provide a collaborative context for these poems by women alone. I don't think anyone's feelings, interpretations of their own narratives are "commonplace." I said the statement began to feel like a commonplace, a noun I wished to invoke for two reasons - because it means a statement of the obvious (for poetry) and because it invokes a "commonplace book" from the 19th century and before. I'd specifically mention the women poets' commentary about time. Parents may live flourescently in time in a way that non-parents don't (many parents I know say this to me, as did my own) but I'm not totally convinced parents live more flourescently in time than poets tend to. I most certainly do not think that Toi Derrocote is a common thinker. But does she think that poets must choose living things over machines because she's a mother? Couldn't a non-mother think that too? The brilliance of the essay - and of the book - is in not separating biography from philosophical investigaiton, but I'm simply not at peace with saying they can't be separated and leaving it at that. I'm interested in if certain biographical condtions - like motherhood, or singleness, or poverty (Fanny Howe's essay in the book) lead us to certain states of thought or whether we might approach them from any position. 
Motherhood, as far as I can tell, has always been a controversial subject for writing. But I'm also not convinced that poetry really investigates "subject matter" the way painting appears to. Poetry, as far as I can tell, is more interested in experience, states of mind and heart. 
9. Even if women's poetry today were afflicted with some kind of motherhood-family problem (is it?), how does that impede the work of women who choose to write in other ways?  Is there a scarcity issue at hand?  Does the writer perceive a confining motherhood-family poetry trend? 
I don't think women's poetry today is afflicted by a motherhood-family problem. I don't think that such a problem impedes the work of women who chose to write in other ways. I don't know what the scarcity issue you're talking about is, but I suspect it might have something to do with the VIDA charts and the fact that women still publish less. I don't perceive a confining motherhood-family poetry trend. I think poetry is one of the safe spaces we stll get to go to do dangerous thinking and there's a lot of different kinds of thinking to do. I don't think the poets involved feel judged by other women's poems; I think they feel judged by cultural ideals of femininity. As do mothers. Great critics (like Stephen Burt, in this journal) have talked about women with children and busy lives and the great poems they are writing. I wanted to speak to something happening alongside that and give it a space, test it out, see if it had a space. 
10.  Klink, Larkin, and Lim are interesting in their own right. Why assume motherhood-family prescriptivism impedes the way readers interpret them—or whether they’re read at all?  Can't we handle (haven’t we handled?) multiple takes on poems by women? Or am I misunderstanding?
I don't think that motherhood family perspectivism impedes the way readers interpet these poets and poems, poems which I suspect many readers have not read. I want readers to read the poems because they are beautiful and inquisitive about women's lives. I wanted to try to place the poems in relation to the "traditional" narraitve of a woman's life because the poems speak, on their surfaces and at their depths, about the anguish and freedom of engaging with those judgements. In doing this they connect aesthetics and ethics - they connect aesthetics and ethical judgement. The speakers in this poem make value, make values.
I think we can handle multiple takes. It was not the intention of the essay to argue anything but that. But as long as an understanding of a woman's life is accompanied by a sense of that life being judged by others (you're a poet, but you should be a mother, you're a mother but you should be a wage-slave, you're a single 40 year old but you should be married, you're a Korean but you should be American), as long as gender itself is an "ought" not just an "is," I won't be surprised to see poets speaking both sensually and argumentatively about their lives. These women poets occured to me as a group for several reasons - but one of them is that THEY, the poets, are acutely aware of the other narratives they "should" be living. I'm sure women who are mothers and poets are also acutely aware of the other narratives they "should" be living as well - but perhaps in a different (not better or worse) way. One of the narratives they sometimes register as a narrative they should be living is that of mother (another is wife). 
Do these comments clarify a little bit? I'd add that even if the first paragraphs of the essay seem adversarial, there's really no commentary against poems about family or motherhood here. That commentary isn't here because there's no argument against those poems here either. 

apologies for the typos! 

As a female poet, a mother, and to frost my own cake of anitquity, a woman fast approaching 60, I have watched women writers, poets, trim and wash and massage hard words they did not have the courage to throw down on the page when they wrote about their real lives. It is a hard thing to tell the truth; that not every minute of motherhood, wifedom and marriage is a Hallmark moment and even if we have truly let go of the other possibile roads our lives may have taken, it does not mean that we do not, on private afternoons, take them out and try them on to see if they still might fit onto/into our different shaped lives in middle age. Hard words from young firm women are cool and edgy and feisty. When I throw down the truth on paper and someone young reads it, knowing my age, my truth becomes too real, too harsh, too emotional. It becomes that, in the same way that no one wants to see a senior citizen in the throws of sexual orgasm on a giant movie screen, yet a nubile girl in the same clutch of passion looks "hot", we, the crones, must tone it down. keep it tame and reign it in for fear that we may freak out the youngster when they realize that we know all the bad words too and every secret thing they are doing, right this moment, in the private spaces of their lives, we have done a thousand times in our many decades. T.M.I. is where we are asked to shelve our passion and our truth. Screw that. I write and throw down on paper whatever moves me. This isn't Freshman English class, when we put our fingers to the keyboard or lift our pens to write. This is the arena and we are word warriors using images on fire to burn a picture on the page.  WordNinjaGirl.com

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