Let’s All Please Applaud Her Efforts: The Funny and Feminist Poetry, Labor, and Domesticity of Monica Fambrough
Kathleen Rooney | February 2016
Monica Fambrough is a poet, parent, and former book publicist whose debut collection, Softcover, is strikingly good: direct, honest, funny, and full of clarity and grace. The poems are lovely in their techniques and structures, but the content, too, is fascinating for the way she seems to execute a kind of reverse imitative fallacy: Fambrough takes potentially boring things and makes them captivating. In her poem “Midpoint,” she writes, “Our domestic lives. Are dull. / It is about magic or it is not,” and each of these poems errs on the side of magic; she consistently makes even the most banal and mundane things shine with a weird light.
In late November and early December of 2015, Fambrough was gracious enough to steal some time away from her current full-time job of caring for her young son and even younger twin daughters to do this interview about labor, identity, support systems, time—particularly how it passes and what we spend it on—as well as how she writes “not in spite of my kids but for them.”
Kathleen Rooney: First, I want to start by saying how much I love your book Softcover, out this past fall with Natural History Press. How did you settle on them as your publisher, and how many years in the making was this book? Why did you decide to call it Softcover?
Monica Fambrough: Thank you so much. It has been a long time in the making. The oldest poems in the book were from when I was at graduate school at UMass Amherst. The newest poems are probably from about 2012 or 2013. So that puts it at about ten years in the making, plus the year or two between acceptance and publication. Natural History Press was an easy decision for me. I used to work in publishing, and I felt like I had very high standards for how the book would be handled, in terms of the editorial process, the design, printing, etc. I was pretty protective of it and didn’t show it to many people or subject it to any contests. The publishers of NHP were also the editors of the online magazine GlitterPony, which had always been very supportive of my poems. I had known Jon [Link] and Natalie [Lyalin] for a long time. They asked to see the manuscript, and when they said they wanted to publish it, I knew they would be the perfect shepherds. And they have been.
The book had another title for a long while, but in the process of finishing it, two other poetry books came out with very similar titles. So I knew I had to change it. I think Softcover is inspired by my work in publishing, and my endearment to the kind of book you can carry around, keep close to you, maybe even give away. I like things that are thoughtfully made, but not necessarily meant to last forever, in the concrete sense.
Rooney: You used to work for Wave Books, one of my favorite poetry presses, and actually one of the first places I heard your name and started to be aware of you as a poet. What did you do for them, and how, if at all, did that impact your work as a writer, and how and when did you decide to move on?
Fambrough: Wave Books is my poetry family. I went to work there in 2005, when they were transitioning from being Verse Press to Wave Books, and they hired me to be the Director of Marketing and Publicity straight out of graduate school. I was very proud to have a business card with my name and title on it. Because I was there from the beginning, I did a little bit (or a lot bit) of everything. It was a magical place to work, while at the same time quite rigorous. The people who work at Wave, from the publisher down to the newest intern, are people who care very deeply about poets and poetry. It is a rare thing to be able to work with such devoted, intelligent individuals. I am most proud of my work there helping to organize the Poetry Bus Tour in 2006, and of my efforts to create a good internship and volunteer program in their Seattle office. In 2007, I became Managing Editor, so I got to learn all about the production process, and I was working more closely with the editors, authors, and designers. All of this made me more of a perfectionist, I think. It gave me a huge amount of respect for the process of putting a book together, which is probably why I took so very long to finish mine. I left the Seattle office in 2009, for mostly personal reasons (my husband accepted a job in another state, and I felt like I would be able to take some time off to write, which I did.) I went back to work for Wave on a contract basis for the next several years, until I gave birth to twins and really couldn’t keep working.
Rooney: Something I love about this book is how it talks quite openly about the challenges and also the frequent boring-ness of domestic life, both in terms of being a wife/partner and being a mother. In “Midpoint,” for instance, you write: “I am the wife. I am a doe, / I am a trophy. // I am a wageless worker” and then on the next page you list some of the wageless work that you do: “I am […] // A baby maker. // A caretaker. // I get up and make pancakes. // Monica is pancakes are awesome.” The whole book seems to meditate, on and off, about pursuits that are largely unpaid, but that many people do any way for more subtle kinds of pay-offs, like being a parent and maybe even being a poet. Can you talk about how your life as a poet and your life as a parent complement or compete with each other, and how these themes found their way into your poems?
Fambrough: It’s funny, because this book was all written pretty much before I had any children (I now have three). So I really had no concept of how intense the role of wageless worker could be. But I have always been interested in emotional labor and domestic labor. I like babies and baking and making birthday cards. I think I am in that category of women about whom people in power might say, “You are better at this kind of underappreciated, menial, repetitive work. You seem to actually enjoy it. Therefore you should always do it, and for minimal reward.” I am not always good at resisting that pressure, but I do try in my poems to validate that kind of effort. Both the work and the resistance to always doing it. I am also genuinely entranced by things many people find inane (toddler babble, morning television, community newsletters.) I am an intensely local and domestic person. I am highly reassured by rituals and am genuinely inspired by a lot of the in-between, everyday stuff. And even if it is not inspiring, I feel it is important to give artistic space to the kinds of thinking that domestic labor requires. I have to work not to put too much of it in my poems. (Let’s just say I am not too far off from having a poem in my book called “The Best Way to Fold the Towels So They Look Nice but Also Maximize Space on the Shelf.”) I am a full-time mom now, and it is harder than office work—very physically demanding, very long hours. I have found it doesn’t hinder my ability to write poems, but I have had to change my process. I write more episodically and in a style that I think can stand up to less rigorous rewriting. What I have a harder time keeping up with is the “poetry life,” submitting to journals, giving readings*, attending readings, even reading poetry books.
*I am writing these responses on a plane, on my way to Denver, to give a reading. It was necessary to wrangle three childcare providers in order to be gone for a weekend. Luckily I have wonderful family support. My mother works full time, but she will use her vacation days to take off work and watch my kids, so I can travel to do a reading. This generosity is the kind of feminist act that I feel deserves wider acknowledgment.
My kids do not inspire me, particularly. They are a black hole of energy and effort. My four-year-old is the kind of human who will ask for “the top half of a room temperature banana, cut into half-moon shapes.” But in general, I write not in spite of my kids but for them. I want them to see and remember a mother who not only cooks, cleans, works, finds missing Lego bricks, cuts the banana properly (or not), but also as a person who makes art. And not in a precious way, but in an everyday, serious, and thoughtful way. I hope my kids have a wider perspective of what an artist can do and be. And that they see that much of life can be a creative act of love: the cooking and the poems are not that different.
Rooney: In the lovely long poem “The Anniversary” with which you end the book, you write “Whenever I have to / send someone a bio / for a reading or whatever / I always wonder whether / I should tag on / any tantalizing details / at the end, like ‘She / lives in Seattle with her husband and cat,’” adding “There is something / kind of braggy / about that kind of / divulgence.” Then you get even more funny, critical, and self-referential by writing “Monica Fambrough is the / author of numerous collections / of poetry, most notably / ‘I am Married To / The Writer Travis Nichols’ / for which she was / awarded the Prize for / Feminine Achievement for Satisfaction / in the Domestic and / Professional Spheres.” Finally, in your actual bio at the end of the book, you conclude with: “She lives in Marietta, Georgia with her husband and three children.” How did you decide what to include there and how consciously did you or did you not try to match that up with the content of the book?
Fambrough: I did not try to match it up consciously at all. So that is a funny observation. If I wrote that poem again now, it would say ‘She lives in Marietta, Georgia with her husband, a four-year-old and one-year-old freaking TWINS. Let’s all please applaud her efforts.’
Rooney: To follow up a bit, another of the many things I admire about this book is how it seems to be something of a family affair—in the acknowledgments that precede the poems, you thank your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, and you also say, “Thank you to the babysitters, most especially Jesse Price and Bridget Wood.” How did you find time and support, amid all your family and other obligations, to write, and how do you still? Any advice for other parent-poets on how to proceed? Also, have Jesse and Bridget read the book? Do they like it?
Fambrough: I have a heroic family. It is a peculiar thing, to be a poet, but they all act as though it is perfectly normal. I have a mother and a sister who could probably run modest nations, but they run businesses and families, and help me out, instead. I have dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, and they have all, pretty much to a person, done things for me that have helped me to be a better person, writer, friend. I have friends who are essentially family. I have it really good.
I don’t have time or advice or time to think of advice. I should be sleeping right now but I am typing. That is what you do when your life becomes overfull. You realize time is accordion-like, and you sleep less sometimes, but it is worth it. You wonder what you ever did before you had all this stuff to do. Then you cram more stuff in. And you are grateful for the people in your life who pick up the slack. Then you pick up someone else’s slack when they need it. I am reading an E.F. Benson book right now, and it says, “My dear, it is just busy people that have time for everything.”
Because of my three very young kids, I am sort of a “high-need” person right now. People are constantly making sacrifices. Bridget and Jesse both read the book and have at least been nice enough to say they liked it. Jesse is my cousin and is someone without whom this book would not have been possible. He read it as soon as I gave it to him, and he told me it was “aggressively unassuming, in a good way.” Which I would use as a blurb, if I could. I can’t think of a nicer compliment.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! She is the coeditor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, forthcoming in fall of 2016. Follow @kathleenMrooney.