Marjorie Tesser with Cassandra Neyenesch
Last year I participated in a festival called Mamapalooza, and this year one of my stories was published in its journal, The Mom Egg. Both times, I felt a little guilty, like I was pulling the old “I pushed a person out of my body” card just to get a gig. Still, it was a lot of fun to see Mommies I knew being raunchy, lyrical, and musical, among other things. I talked to Marjorie Tesser, co-editor of The Mom Egg and poet in her own right, about my quandary.
Marjorie Tesser: Sorry I didn’t catch your call before. I misplaced my cell phone.
Cassandra Neyenesch (Rail): I haven’t been able to find my landline for a week.
Tesser: Yeah, my sons carry mine all over the house and I never know where it is.
Rail: How old are your sons?
Tesser: My older son is 21 and my youngest is 15. My daughter is turning 25 next month but she’s out of the house.
Rail: I thought they were toddlers, the way you said they carry your phone all over the house!
Tesser: Yeah, well, they do it, too.
Rail: Do you ever feel conflicted about The Mom Egg, as if we may be ghettoizing ourselves by calling ourselves “mommy” writers?
Tesser: The traditional feminine things have been marginalized by male hierarchies. Mamapalooza in general was founded to joyfully acknowledge women’s creativity and the creativity of mothers; while parenting is important it’s not the whole of us.
Rail: Do you think you’re a writer first or a mother first?
Tesser: What am I? I don’t know. Motherhood is a strong, shared identity, as much as my ethnicity or my religion. Like motherhood as a subject for writing … it’s something that we can reclaim as a valid subject. Joy Rose (Mamapalooza’s founder), said something in an article a few years ago to the effect that making art and parenting are both creative acts, but society isn’t sure of how to deal with women who serve their own needs as well as their families’.
Rail: Do you find that the work is somehow different because of being informed by motherhood?
Tesser: I guess a lot of the pieces are about mothering. It really takes up a lot of our days.
Rail: I’m thinking of something I read—maybe it was Kenneth Clark’s book on the novel—where he talks about how we spend a third of our lives in bed but novels hardly deal with the subject of sleep at all. That’s kind of like childrearing. It’s very marginal in novels.
Tesser: I once picked up a book of literary criticism at the Housing Works bookstore about how women poets fit into the tradition of poetry. One of the poets said, “Don’t write too many kitchen poems.” I threw the book down and didn’t buy it. There’s an idea that if you deal with that subject matter it’s somehow less important. But you can write about parenting and you can be dealing with our place in the universe. Or using the facts of parenting to talk about other things.
Rail: I’m always amazed now when I read books by writers from the 50s by people like John Updike and Andre Dubus about how their characters have a million kids and they still have the time to go around having affairs and drinking martinis in the middle of the day and stuff. Like the mother will drop the kids off at a neighbor’s house: “I’ll be back in a few hours, I’m just going to meet my lovuh.” But maybe that’s because those books were written by men?
Tesser: I think we live in a more child-centered society. When I was a little girl that was the 50s and the images you saw were very different. Of course, they weren’t very realistic.
Rail: How is your experience of balancing writing and child rearing?
Tesser: Believe it or not it’s still tough. When the kids are here they want my attention. Certainly they like it that I write and they’re proud that I write but they want their mom’s attention.
Rail: At least your kids like you enough to want your attention! When do you write?
Tesser: Mostly early morning. My son goes off to school early and I have to be at work at ten. But I always have a notebook with me to write down snippets, and a lot of my stuff is sort of a patchwork. When do you write?
Rail: On the days my son is at school—he goes to school three days a week—I write during my daughter’s naps. I often go to a café while she’s asleep in the stroller.
Tesser: I know, I love coffee shops. Nobody bothers you.
Rail: I feel like I get some kind of resistance from the noise and music, like an extra level of concentration.
Tesser: I do know what you mean. As you defend against it you carve out your own little space there. My co-editor Alana Ruben Free goes to the Writer’s Room. She has a ten-year-old.