Marita Dachsel on Poetry, Parenting, Polygamy and Writers Behaving Badly
The life of a writer and that of a mother intersect in many ways; in some aspects, one has become nearly as central to our definition of humanity as the other and, yet, the process of each remains predominantly entrenched in the private sphere of life. Marita Dachsel is living proof that simply because parenting and poetry tend to happen primarily in the private sphere, one need not come completely at the expense of the other.
In her latest collection, Glossolalia, Dachsel brings to the public, in poetry, the private thoughts of thirty-four different women as she reanimates the wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of the church of Latter Day Saints. Preceding Glossolalia, Dachsel’s poetry has been widely published, including the full length collection, All Things Said and Done, which was shortlisted for a ReLit award. Recently WONK had the privilege and fortune to ask Marita a few questions about her latest work and the process of living and writing that helped bring her to it.
WONK: Sometimes when I come home after a long day away, I see spinning within my wife’s eyes all of the chaos that unfolded during her day at home with our two kids. As a self labelled ‘mother of boys’, how does the inevitable chaos of parenthood slip into your poetry and, when it does, is it usually something that you embrace or is it something that tugs at your sleeve, pulling you from your writing, asking for another peanut butter sandwich? How do you balance the world of mother and writer?
Dachsel: So far, the chaos hasn’t entered my writing. The chaos has prevented me from writing many times, but when I have the time and space to write, I don’t let it in.
I’m still in the trenches of early motherhood, so there is no such thing as balance. Time to write is incredibly precious and can feel to be incredibly rare, although that is changing. Before becoming a mother, I was clueless to how much time I had and how I completely squandered it. But once my first son was born, I panicked and feared I’d never write again. Carving out writing time became essential for my sanity, and I’d get it when I could. At times it would simply be revising a poem while nursing. Last year, thanks to the amazing gift that is the Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre, I had two afternoons each week to write. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but a regularly blocked time like that was a godsend.
My husband is very supportive. He’s also a writer and understands not only the need for time and space, but also that the writing process is much more than getting words on paper—staring off into space doesn’t have to be justified. I have been very fortunate that Kevin is able to be so flexible with his work. At times, I’d get a day or two to just write while he parented full-time. If I wasn’t married to a writer, it would have been impossible to attend the Banff Writing Studio last spring for five weeks when my boys were one and three. I wrote more in those five weeks than I had the previous three years. But now that Kevin’s contract at the university is over and I’ve been very fortunate to get a grant, we’ve switched roles. He’s the stay-at-home parent and I get to write. We’re both excited about the change.
WONK: I read an interview from 2007 in which you mentioned that you had yet to become an Edmontonian. Now, two and a half years later, do you feel like you have become a local or are you still somewhere on the outside, looking in? What are the major differences between being a Vancouver poet and being/becoming an Edmonton poet? What is it that defines each experience for you?
Dachsel: Edmonton has been very welcoming. It is a city full of kind and generous people, and I’ve been able to elbow my way into a small place in the poetry community. Despite this, I still don’t feel like a local. It took me about seven years of living in Vancouver before I could confidently call myself a Vancouverite. Edmonton and Vancouver are very different cities, so I don’t think it would take seven years here, but I know I’m not there yet.
Because Edmonton is a smaller city than Vancouver, there is more fluidity between the camps and poets here truly do go to everything despite the type of poetry one writes. I’ve been exposed to much more spoken word, sound and experimental poetry than I had in Vancouver. It’s not that it doesn’t exist there, it’s just that there are so many more events happening in Vancouver that you can be very active in the community and still choose not to attend those events. It was very easy to become complacent.
I was very comfortable in Vancouver. Almost all my friends there were writers or theatre artists, and most of my writer friends I had made through the UBC Creative Writing program. I didn’t have to work to find community or a place in the city. When we moved to Edmonton we didn’t know anyone and I had to seek out like minded people.
Moving to Edmonton has been incredible for my writing. My writing has improved exponentially and it’s thanks to a cocktail of new opportunities (the arts are blessedly and generously supported here), the isolation of not knowing anyone initially, and being exposed to new artists and ideas. The city has been great to me.
WONK: I have been enjoying several of the interviews from your Motherhood and Writing project and have found so many of the responses to be incredibly honest and complex. With that in mind, I have decided to lift one of your own questions and turn it back on you: Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?
Dachsel: Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed it, too. Those women are so smart.
My mother kept a scrapbook type of book that chronicled my public education. Every school year I was to check what I wanted to be when I grew up and almost always I chose “author” (although architect, fireman, and lawyer were also chosen at times). When I was very young, I didn’t know what that really meant. I knew that I loved books and wanted to write books so I wrote stories all the time, but what the actual life of a writer was continued to be a complete mystery until I became an adult.
Similarly, I always knew I’d have a family. When I was young, it was just a given with not much thought behind it. I’d go to university; I’d be a mother. When I became an adult, I never, ever fantasized about babies. I’d imagine a large table with lots of kids around it sharing food and stories, and I’d long for it. I still do. I hope when my boys are older there will be afternoons that live up to that fantasy. I think it’s reachable.
Both writing and motherhood are given a false veneer in society. The writing life is portrayed as glamorous and passionate, when the reality is sitting alone at a desk for a long, long time doubting yourself almost every step of the way. It’s a job with long hours and little reward. Motherhood is supposed to be full of beautiful nurturing moments backlit by golden sunshine with flitting butterflies and chirping birds. In reality there are soiled diapers, meltdowns, sleep depravation, and again, a lot of self-doubt.
WONK: In some of your latest work, including the piece published in WONK, you have showcased and extended the stories of the wives of Joseph Smith, the polygamist founder of the Mormon church. Where did your interest in these women originate and have any of the women’s stories and historical personalities surprised you or taken your poetry in a different direction than you had expected them to? Who was the most influential of Smith’s wives upon your writing and why?
Dachsel: I have always been interested in fringe religions and about six years ago I became quite obsessed with the FLDS in Bountiful, BC. It was apparent that their practice of polygamy kept them apart from the rest of society. Sure, it was easy to be titillated by it or vilify it, but I wanted to move beyond that and understand why it was so important to them. I started researching and soon discovered that polygamy was secretly practiced by Joseph Smith. I wondered about his wives. They didn’t have generations of this tradition ingrained in them. Why did they agree? What did this mean to them? What were their lives like? And of course, I wondered what I would have done if I had been in their situation. I came across a book that had biographies of thirty-three of his wives and another biography of Emma, his first wife. Of some of the women, very little is known, while others ended up being extremely important to early Mormonism with many biographies.
I was often surprised by details of their stories. He married a few sets of sisters, and one mother/daughter pair. Also, about a quarter of his wives were married to other men and continued to be. This still boggles me.
Very early into the process, I knew that I wanted to do a full manuscript—give each wife a chance to voice her story. Just the magnitude of the project forced me to approach the material in different ways. These are women who mostly married Smith between 1840-1843, came from similar backgrounds, had the same belief system. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be writing the same poem thirty-four times, and really worked on voice. In a way, they are as much monologues as they are poetry. There were some women who I heard instantly and others with whom I’ve struggled immensely. I also wanted to play with form. In a few instances I found texts where the women told their own stories. I had never created poems from found text before but knew it was something I needed to do. They were quite challenging, but I’m happy with how they turned out. Lucy Walker was one where I tried at least ten different forms over three years based on her words. She was such a struggle. But finally, inspired by Jen Bervin’s Nets, I found what I hope will continue to feel like the perfect form for Lucy: the blackout. I wanted to throw a parade when it all came together.
I am very close to being done, with just one wife left—Emma, Joseph’s first wife, the only who married him monogamously. I’m having the hardest time with her and I think that’s because she’s the one I feel for the most. She married this man against her family’s wishes and less than three years after their elopement he started the church. She faced hardship after hardship and seemed to struggle between wanting to support her husband by being a dutiful, obedient wife to a self-described prophet and what was best for her and her children. The more I read about her, the more I respect her. I want to write a poem that reflects that struggle, but be as interesting and as engaging as I imagined her to be.
WONK: Of all the people that do insane things, few illicit as much attention as do mothers and few as much romanticism as do writers. Being both a mother and a writer, who do you think has more of a right to act out: the creatively brimming writer or the mother with one (or two, or three) too many kids, and why?
Dachsel: Hands down, give it to the mothers. I’m not a fan of bad behaviour, but I think mothers are restrained to a higher standard than the rest of the population and it’s just not fair. Yes, they are raising our future citizens and leaders, but so are the fathers and we should all be modelling good behaviour.
I have a very hard time with the tortured artist syndrome. Being a writer is not an excuse for wallowing in self-pity, drunken binges, or drugs. It’s a job. I hate the stereotype and I hate even more those who use it as an excuse for being an asshole or a wanker. I have zero patience for those who play this role.
Marita Daschel’s poem “Fanny Young” appears in the now available WONK5. A special, limited edition of her poem “Elvira Cowles Holmes” will also be included in the print subscriber version of WONK5.
— Frans Erickson