Emily Pérez is the author of “What Flies Want,” winner of the Iowa Prize and a finalist for a Colorado Book Award; “House of Sugar, House of Stone”; and two chapbooks. She co-edited, with Nancy Reddy, the anthology “The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood,” also a finalist for a Colorado Book Award. A CantoMundo fellow and Ledbury Critic, she’s received support from Hedgebrook, Bread Loaf, The Community of Writers, and others. She teaches high school in Denver, where she lives with her family. Find more at www.emilyperez.org.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Emily Pérez: In 2018 poet Nancy Reddy invited me and several other poets — Carolina Ebeid, Chanda Feldman, and Chelsea Rathburn — to be on an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) panel called “Writing Motherhood: Difficulty, Ambivalence and Joy.” Though the panel met in the earliest morning spot of the first day of the conference, the room was packed.
Panelists spoke on postpartum depression, on whether mothering was the enemy of art making, on the tyranny of the idea of “getting your body back,” on parenting a child with autism, on finding models for motherhood in the work of other Black authors. In the days after the panel, audience members kept approaching Nancy and me, asking that we do more with these ideas, that we continue the conversation.
Two days later, Nancy and I decided we would put together an anthology, despite the fact that we barely knew one another and neither one of us had ever edited an anthology. Uncountable emails, phone calls, texts, edits, successes, and failures later, we had a published book.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Pérez: “The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood” is a poetry anthology that includes essays and writing prompts. There are four main sections in the book, and this excerpt comes from two of the introductions. The introduction to the whole book explains why this book needs to exist. The introduction to the first section of the book — Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy — gives an overview of what the reader will encounter in the opening set poems, essays, and writing prompts.
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Our contents list is phenomenal: It contains a mix of emerging and established writers, a mix of aesthetics and tones, and a mix of so many approaches to motherhood. I would love to publish an excerpt from our poems and essays, but, as I learned in editing an anthology, every piece requires a separate set of permissions. These intro sections, written by Nancy and me, are the ones I could gain permission to use most quickly! To read the rest, you’ll have to get a copy of the book.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project? And once started, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
Pérez: There is a wonderful anthology of essays by poets published in 2003 by Wesleyan Press: “The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood.” Our title, “The Long Devotion,” is a nod to that important work. We admired the work of previous anthologies, but we’d seen a sea change in how poets were writing about motherhood from about 2010 onward.
First, literary journals were actually publishing motherhood poems. Second, poets were centering whole collections around motherhood. There was increased diversity in the people who were writing motherhood poems as well as increased diversity in the kinds of experiences they described. We wanted to capture this moment in time, to gather together the poems that went beyond what had been centered before — mostly poems written by white, heterosexual, upper-middle class women raising healthy babies in a traditional family.
“The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood”
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SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
We sought poems by poets of varied race, class, and ethnicity, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and members of the disability community. Our book includes poems and essays on single-, step-, adoptive- and foster-parenting; parenting through illness; in vitro fertilization; losing a child to miscarriage; choosing abortion; and choosing to remain childless.
We have work that focuses on parenting teen and adult children. We have work that investigates parenting through the lens of political upheaval and climate change and war. Finally, we have many pieces on the breathtaking beauty of being a parent, of how parenting rewires one’s whole outlook.
SunLit: What did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Pérez: Both Nancy and I have published full-length books of poetry and chapbooks. A poetry book usually has to be complete before you seek publication, and publication often comes through a contest system. There is no book proposal.
Anthology production was quite different. This book required a book proposal that we pitched to various presses. Once the University of Georgia Press picked it up, we worked with them and their peer review process to continue to shape the book. We had a lot of back-and-forth with the press and with individual writers. The whole process felt like a series of ongoing conversations and negotiations.
Since one of our goals was diversity — of voices, of subject matter, of aesthetics — I learned a lot about deliberately accounting for what material we had and where we had gaps to fill. I did not want to be limited by my own world view and tastes. I also learned whole new aspects of the publishing process.
We had to seek permissions and negotiate with authors and presses to pull so many pieces together. Sometimes I felt like a private investigator, trying to find a poet’s contact information. As for the subject matter, I learned there are no absolute truths about motherhood, except for maybe this: Anyone who is engaged in caretaking feels pressed for time.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in putting together this book?
Pérez: One of the biggest challenges of being an editor was feeling responsible to so many authors, knowing that if anything about their work did not appear the way they wanted it, that was my responsibility. We had an excellent copy editor (fortunately!), and in the last stages before publication I spent every night after work combing through the final drafts to make sure the changes we’d requested were reflected and that there were no glaring errors.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Pérez: Whether or not we identify as mothers — and that word encompasses so many different experiences — we can all learn about our relationships to humanity through the words and wisdom of mothers.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Pérez: Books are mirrors and windows to the world. We should all have access to as many of them as possible, because they teach us how to be human.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Pérez: In addition to my many familial roles (mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunt), I work as a high school teacher and administrator. I am also a book reviewer. Because I don’t have a lot of free time, I cannot wait for “ideal” conditions because they will never come.
Instead, I write while waiting during a kid’s sports practice or right before I go to bed. If it’s the weekend sometimes I have the luxury of writing in the middle of the day. I write by hand, in prose, in lined notebooks. I return much later to those pages and look for moments that feel significant, usually because I like what the words are doing (much less often because I think the message is important). I pull out those moments and start crafting them into poems either on another page or in an electronic document.
Those “poems” are usually written as one long stanza with no breaks. Once I’ve typed a draft, I start reading it out loud over and over, finding where it needs space, and then I start shaping it on the page. I do this over and over again until the poem feels ready. There are long periods in which I don’t look at the poem so that each time I return to it, it feels new.
SunLit: How do mother-writers who often have other full time work find the time to write?
Pérez: You have to be forgiving of yourself and let some things go. I do not micromanage my kids’ time. They watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games, but I’m okay with that because they are also delightful, intelligent people. I do not have a super-clean house. I figure when I reminisce about my life, I won’t remember what my baseboards looked like on any given day.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Pérez: I do not have any current plans to edit another anthology, so the project I’m working on is my next collection of poetry, which is about productivity culture and the need to achieve. I’m interested in how we use time, how our time use is tied to money, and what being “driven” drives us to do.
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Pérez: Both of these are true. I usually love the act of writing, as it brings me the best elements of meditation and creation. However, if I’m just feeling stuck or if I’m on a deadline, I have to steel myself to do it and remind myself that even when it is drudgery, I can make it into something meaningful, beautiful.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Pérez: I wrote a poem about Oregon, after a family trip there when I was in 4th grade, and my teacher displayed it on the wall of the classroom. I was quite proud.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Pérez: I feel that any published writing of mine gives a snapshot of what interested me and how I approached craft at a particular time. So no, I’m not embarrassed. I’m grateful to that past writing for helping me build a set of skills that led to whatever I’m doing in the present.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Pérez: I’d choose three writers who live or have lived in Colorado — Steven Dunn, a thought-provoking writer who is equally incisive and hilarious; Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose novel and stories are gorgeous and draw together humanity, land, and history; and Carolina Ebeid, a poet who is currently making poetry films, because she is forward-thinking about craft and genre.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Pérez: Many writing teachers have told me that if you don’t surprise yourself while writing you will not surprise the reader. This idea has helped steer me clear of over-explaining or over-determining meaning.
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Pérez: I prioritize poetry over all other genres. These days I still love reading works of fiction, but I do not need to own them. I check them out from the library, often as e-books or audiobooks. Poetry collections are books I want to own, to read in book form, and to return to.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Pérez: I especially like ambient noise, like a café. I like listening to music (if I get to choose it) and I also like silence. I live in a really loud household with family members who are musicians — so I’ve had to be flexible about the soundtrack to my writing.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Pérez: I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age, but I thought I wanted to be a novelist because novels were the books I read and loved. When I was in high school I went to an event where poets Carolyn Forché and Rita Dove read. This was the first time I’d heard or met a living poet. I realized on that day that you could still be alive and be a poet, and that I could also be a poet.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Pérez: I love to start my poetry composition process with writing by hand, because of the physical connection of my hand to my arm to my body to my heart and mind — a connection that feels a little more distant when I type. Sometimes I fear something happening to my hand, like debilitating arthritis, which my grandmother had. However, I know I’d find a way to adapt.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Pérez: I am satisfied when I recognize that my work has power, whether that’s power in its music, its message, its vulnerability, or some other quality.