When Lynne Barrett, an Edgar-winning short story writer and creative writing teacher at Florida International University, became pregnant with her son, she began looking for literary works that described what she was experiencing. Instead, the material in the pregnancy books that she read seemed all too clinical and understated. In a recent interview with BTW, she explained, "I wanted to read work that explored the experience in all of its emotion, humor, and drama."
Undeterred, Barrett continued her literary search and was joined by her friend Kristin Kovacic, a writer and creative writing teacher at the Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh. The result is the new collection, Birth -- A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), which gathers in one narrative volume the sort of literary pieces about new parenthood that Barrett and Kovacic wish they had read before they had their children.
During her first searches for compelling birth-related literature, Barrett found an appropriate excerpt from A.S. Byatt's Still Life, which, ultimately, was included in the book, and a chapter on breast feeding from The Group, but not much else. "I remember rereading the section in Anna Karenina where Levin is outside while his wife, Kitty, is in the house giving birth to their first child. I thought about how, for so long, that was the limiting depiction in novels and films ... staying outside the door with the father," said Barrett. The editors' intent was to fashion a volume that was inclusive -- featuring both men and women, poets and prose writers -- because they believed that many of the books before this collection seemed segregated, moms talking to moms about being a mom.
Kovacic told BTW, "The news of new parenthood is not, generally, medical news
. It's emotional surprise, moment by moment. This is the kind of territory art covers best, and that medicine and fashion baby magazines cover worst. We wanted the collection to be an alternative to the book What to Expect When You're Expecting and other childbirth gospels, which prepared us for edema and whooping cough, but not for how we were going to feel."
A big challenge was finding enough literature about childbirth. But once the editors focused their reading exclusively on the project, the next goal became selecting appropriate pieces. Throughout, they worked in fashioning an anthology that "could become a clear narrative in many voices of the experience of crossing the threshold into parenthood. We wanted it to be a true companion, not overwhelming in tone. And it had to fit into a diaper bag," said Kovacic.
Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry has identified Birth as a new genre -- birth literature. Kovacic and Barrett also see it as a genre within a genre, similar to war writing. "You can now find more reportage and political writing about birth. But we were seeking literary fiction, poetry, and memoir that would reflect the significance of the subject and bring to it all the power of art. We were delighted to find that men as well as women were writing about pregnancy, birth, parenthood, and that both sexes have opened up to the subject's stresses and joys," said Barrett.
Notable poetry in the collection includes Galway Kinnell's "Little Sleep's Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight," Audre Lorde's "Now That I Am Forever with Child," and work by Sylvia Plath. Arranged chronologically -- from early pregnancy to late infancy -- the poems, essays, and other excerpts embrace all kinds of parents -- straight, gay, single and married, adoptive and biological.
"Experienced readers are happy to have this work collected in one place, so that it will be available to the reader who needs it most, right at the moment they need it," said Barrett. "I felt my own emotions and experiences as a new mother return to me as I brought these pieces together," said Kovacic. "So much of what you read about parenthood makes you feel like a bad one. Literature is not about giving advice; it's about naming and making meaning of the world. Most of what was difficult about becoming a parent was not having the words for what I was feeling. This book gave me those words. It's very satisfying to think it could do that for many other readers," she said.
Living over a thousand miles apart, Kovacic and Barrett forged the collection by shipping each other stories and faxing and e-mailing poems and stories. Ultimately, through the give-and-take they discovered a structure. Birth opens with works dealing with conception, then goes into pregnancy and labor, and ends with pieces on the new domestic life that begins when the baby comes homes.
The editors agreed that a major discovery was that they were not so much tracing the story of childbirth as uncovering the realities of the birth of the parent. Their final section, Now That I Am Forever With Child (the title comes from the poem by Audre Lorde), explores this theme, and it articulates the transformations brought by parenthood that last forever.
Given that insight, perhaps it is not so surprising that the editors say that they are receiving positive comments from some not-so-recent parents. "It's a literary anthology about a major human experience. I've found that a lot of people who have gone through [pregnancy] some time ago are interested in reading [the book]. As a couple of women recently said to me, 'These are our war stories,'" said Barrett. -- Gayle Herbert Robinson