Instructions for Divorce

January 30, 2024

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Poetry Off the Shelf: Instructions for Divorce


Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I'm Helena de Groot. Today, "Instructions for Divorce." Caitlin Cowan took more than a decade to write the poems in her debut collection, titled Happy Everything. She got married and divorced during that decade, so the poems changed with her as she changed and saw her tendency to please, to accommodate, to take care of the household and the social calendar and all these things that so many women, even today, take on when marrying a man. But when I sat down to talk to Caitlin, she seemed almost as curious about the woman who wrote her book as I was, because of how much time had passed.

Caitlin Cowan: These poems, these are old poems now, you know? And I've got another whole book written, and this seems like sort of a time capsule that I'm like, returning to. But I have to keep remembering, this is brand new to people. It's just not brand new to me. And so it feels a bit like time travel in some ways.

Helena de Groot: It's interesting because the book itself is already time travel, right? And especially I think when you go through a divorce, you change so rapidly that the person who was in the marriage is not the person who is going through divorce, is not the person like in the wake of the divorce, like, you change and it's almost hard to imagine, like, "Who was this person who stayed in that marriage for so long," or for not long or whatever.

Helena de Groot: Tell me about it. And the thing is, too, is that I started . . . It's very bizarre, because I started working on this book during my PhD program, which I was in from 2011 to 2015, and I was married, and I started writing these divorce poems, but they were just conjectural. Or they had to do with my parents' divorce or, you know … But people started asking me, "Are you OK?" "Is your marriage in trouble?" Like, what is this poem, "Instructions for Divorce?" And I said, you know, it was just based on a story that I heard from a family friend, which is true. And they were like, "OK," you know, just checking on you. And then, of course, that next year things started to get very, very bad in my marriage, the year I graduated from my PhD. And then we got a divorce. And so the book kind of knew, before I was ready to know, that things were over, or going to be over. And so, yeah, that was a very weird and auspicious experience in that way.

Helena de Groot: Has that ever happened in your life, that what you're writing knows something before you do?

Caitlin Cowan: I think it has, but I mean, only in . . . it's only ever in retrospect, right? When you look back at the poem, it's impossible to write something and say, "Ah, yes, this is a premonition from the future," although I do think you get — my dear, dear friend and co-editor at Pleiades, Jenny Molberg, she says that sometimes we write a poem from the future. Like, this is a poem that is beyond where you currently are in your artistic development. But it's, it's like ahead of your own time, ahead of your own development. I'll show her a poem and she'll say, "Oh, this one's from the future." This is something beyond the limit of where you typically work. And we both feel that way. Sometimes we both get a poem from the future, which is kind of cool.

Helena de Groot: I mean, that makes me think of this idea of the writer as a vessel, where you open a channel and then something comes down or something comes from who knows where. How do you open yourself to a poem?

Caitlin Cowan: That's such a great question. I know it's always really irritating when — I find it irritating, anyway — when writers talk about their process and they say, you know, "I hear a voice or I just something comes to me." It just sounds, you know . . . I think we really want to talk about writing as a craft and as a skill and something you can develop. And some people are kind of allergic to the magic of it, or the juju of it, the vibes. But I really and truly try to listen when I'm writing a poem. And I'm just reading now Jami Attenberg's new book, 1000 Words, mostly aimed at fiction writers. But Ada Limón has a little section that she wrote in there, where she talked about listening and about, when was the last time you just turned off all the music, all the podcasts, and just took a walk with nothing? Or took a run with no music? When was the last time you just . . . no TV, silence, and talked about the importance of listening? And just the other day I did that. I turned off my podcast on my evening commute and just tried to listen.

And there was something there. There was this poem. And when I parked, I wrote it on my phone. And it's just — I don't know, I think there's a current that's there, that I kind of tap into, where there's like poems being written if I'm able to stop and listen to them in a certain way. It's very bizarre. It's not a thing that's cool to say to a group of undergraduate or high school writers, because it doesn't sound like something. It's not something I can teach them.

Helena de Groot: And do you feel like you've always had that?

Caitlin Cowan: I think so. I mean, I started writing poetry very, very young. I mean, I started writing it seriously when I was 12, but my first in the family lore, my first poem is when I was four. And we have like a construction paper, a piece of construction paper with the poem I wrote on it, and my broken spelling. So I've always been interested in it as long as I can remember. Really?

Helena de Groot: Wow.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah, absolutely.

Helena de Groot: And 12-year-old you . . . set the scene for me. Like, would you do it late at night, lying in bed? Was it something you [did when you] were bored in class? That's when you would, did you need your own special place? Could you do it anywhere? Like what was a 12-year-old poet doing?

Caitlin Cowan: It was a bored-in-class thing. I was a voracious reader and I would get in trouble for reading books. They didn't want me to do that while I was supposed to be listening or whatever. And so I would write poems, just flat out in front of me on my desk, because it looked like I was doing something productive with my time. But the bizarre thing is that when I first started writing at that age, I wrote my poems in a secret code language that you couldn't read just by looking at it. It was a very simple code that anybody could crack if you looked at it long enough, but at first glance, it just looked like gibberish. And that is how I wrote for a long time. And some of my friends and I started to write in that little language, to write our notes to each other.

Helena de Groot: What was the code?

Caitlin Cowan: It was a language.

Helena de Groot: Yeah. OK. (LAUGHS)

Caitlin Cowan: It was just shapes. I think the E was like an upside-down half-circle, or something and like, triangles or a line, but it looked sort of hieroglyphic in a way. And I still have — my mom snuck away and saved some of these loose-leaf pieces of paper with that secret code I used to write on it. I haven't looked at it in years, but I did not want anyone to see it! I did not wish to be perceived, as we say now. at all at that point. And then later, you know, as I got older, I would rewrite them in plain English. And then we got a computer, and I would start to use that. But I'm an only child, so I had plenty of time. I had plenty of solitude in my life to write and work on things like that, even when I was home.

Helena de Groot: It's so interesting to think about a poem as like a secret. That makes a lot of sense to me. What I find harder to imagine is how you then bring that into the official world of, for instance, doing a PhD in poetry. What was it like for you to come out and have other people critique your poems? And what was that like?

Caitlin Cowan: I think that what ended up happening is that I ended up constantly sort of bouncing back and forth between really being transparent in my work, like narrative, and being totally obtuse, and making it — writing sort of coded poems that were not in a secret code on the surface, but they were sort of harder to penetrate. They seemed cool and aloof. And for a long time, I felt like a poem should be or was a puzzle. That's not how I feel about poems now. But I think that movement back and forth throughout my education, I finally ended up somewhere that I'm comfortable with, where I do write in a fairly narrative fashion, but I still think there's plenty of sort of mystery, but not so much that you can't understand what is meant. Because when I was writing poems like that, I finally realized that there's no opportunity for connection with anyone. So, I think for a long time in my graduate courses — [in] my first early graduate courses in New York, I desperately wanted to be cool and aloof. And so that's the kind of poems that I wrote at 22. I went into my MFA right away. So, I mean, 22 years old now, it just seems like infancy to be set loose in New York City writing poems.

Helena de Groot: I know, and to be the professor who has to read these sort of . . .
"Let me be a cool poet in New York, like 22. No life experience." (LAUGHS)

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah, absolutely. Seriously. I mean, when I read the poems of middle and high school students, it's just my heart is so open and generous to them, because they are just beginning. But the 22-year-old who thinks they know something and knows nothing, has got to be very . . . it's much harder to read, you know. When I was working with college students, it was much harder.

Helena de Groot: And so just to get a timeline right, how old were you when you met the person who would become your now ex-husband? That was so complicated.

Caitlin Cowan: I was 19 years old. I was at the University of Michigan, and we were together 11 years throughout everything. So that was a very long time, and I was too young for all of that. But we just sort of hung on. And the college boyfriend became the grad school boyfriend, became the fiance, and that sort of thing.

Helena de Groot: So you mentioned the time capsule at the beginning. Can you take me there, can you sketch for me sort of what was going on with your life in your psyche when you started work on the book? And then how did you change?

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah, when I came into the grad program, I was writing about my own life, but also about my family life, my family of origin. And so I was really sort of thinking a lot about that divorce and that family when I arrived there. And I continued to work on poems like that. I was living in Denton, Texas and going to the University of North Texas. It's a wonderful, artistic college town. And I was happy, at that point, to be in that program, to be working at that level, to be lucky enough to continue to study writing full-time. And my boyfriend — he was my boyfriend at the time — he had finished up his master's in public policy at the University of Maryland, and then he came down to Texas at the same time as me. My understanding was that he had been transferred down there, that his job had transferred him to their office in Dallas. And only once we started to pack up our things did he tell me that they had agreed to let him start working remotely, and that he would not be working in Dallas. And so he was working from our apartment. I was going to school full time, and more and more, it just seemed that our lives were separating. He's working remotely on his computer all day in the days before the pandemic and everybody worked on their computer all day. He was doing that. And I was having these incredible experiences with my cohort, meeting new people, writing, participating in the literary scene in Denton, and Dallas, and just really kind of coming into my own in a way that felt really wonderful to me, really good. But I would come home and I would want to talk shop, and I would read books because I had to read books, and then I wanted to read books, and going to class, and everything about my life was about poetry, and I loved it. But we were sort of not heading in the same direction in some ways. And in 2012, he proposed to me, I think he just thought it was time to do that. There wasn't any particular reason. And so we did that. And in 2014 we were married, and then we were only married 18 months before things ended. And I had been writing about relationships and about families and all of this all along. But once things started to get very bad in my marriage, and then eventually we were divorced, then I started to really see that in terms of any potential book I had been working on, which was my dissertation, that I was really at the bottom of a different hill. It was not finished because the stories I was telling weren't finished. And so it took me several more years after that and 115 rejections to see it published finally, in the form that it's in now.

Helena de Groot: Oh, God. Caitlin, how do you . . . 115, you said?

Caitlin Cowan: Yes.

Helena de Groot: When you're at like 85 rejections, how do you send the 86th email?

Caitlin Cowan: Well, I was getting finalist and semifinalist, acknowledgments from prestigious contests. And I kept working on it. I was getting poems from the project published, and then I was at AWP one year — God, I don't know what year — but there was one of those packed house panels for "How to Publish your First Book," your first collection of poetry, everybody's jammed in the room. Kim Addonizio is on that panel. I can't remember who else, but there was some discussion about Jake Adam York's Murder Ballads, and about how it had been rejected either 127 or 128 times. And Kim, at the end of the panel, started using that number as like a rallying cry, like "127! 127!" and I said, if I get to 127, maybe I'll really rethink something, maybe I'll just move on, or I don't know . . . but I didn't quite get there.

Helena de Groot: Wow, that's incredible though.

Caitlin Cowan: I mean, I kept working on it. I didn't just sort of throw it out there and say, "This is it, take it or leave it". I was willing to continue to learn and have trusted people read it. It never stopped evolving.


Helena de Groot: I'd like to get to a poem. Maybe a poem about poem writing.

Caitlin Cowan: Cool.

Helena de Groot: It's the one called “Best Order” on page 18.

Caitlin Cowan: It's so funny because I wrote this . . . The first draft of this was written when I was happily married. And then as I revised it, it started to mean different things to me. It actually won The Littoral Press Poetry Prize and was published as a broadside. And by the time that happened, my life looked a little bit different than when I had first drafted it. But . . .

Helena de Groot: Wait, so a broadside. So, you mean people could sort of hang it on their wall like a poster?

Caitlin Cowan: Yes. And it was published under my married name, which is a change that I made for a period of about 4 or 5 years. And I've since reverted to my maiden name that I don't plan on changing ever again. So now it's this ironic artifact of this broadside with some other person's name on it. Another version of me, like you were saying.

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah. Should I read it?

Helena de Groot: Yes, please.

Caitlin Cowan:

"Best Order"

A teacher once told me to hold a ruler

like a razor beneath my sentences,

up to the jugular,

a threat to make them stranger,

to see them for the first time, again and again,

so I might find the flaws and fix.

As I look at you,

as I have for most of the last decade,

through the bottom of my glass,

through a bedsheet of smoke,

I understand we must make each other

strange again each day.

Even as the prying stars peer in

through the Venetians,

we must blind ourselves to that

star shine of sameness so we might

see, vex ourselves once more to

venture a straighter line, a sentence

that stabs and is kind.

Helena de Groot: Thank you. Yeah. I mean, I'm so interested in what you said about how you started this poem when you were married. And then, as time went on and your marriage disintegrated, how this poem just started to mean different things. And I have been wondering about that, like while reading your whole collection, you know. As we said earlier, when you're going through a divorce, you change so quickly. You go from this person who believes in this love, to a person who doesn't. You go from a person who might feel, I don't know, bitter and angry to a person who maybe gets over that. And so on this shifting ground of the self, how do you find your way to something that feels true in a more durable way?

Caitlin Cowan: I love that question. I mean, poetry is helpful during a divorce I think. Poetry is helpful during any kind of a life crisis, because I think there's something you can do where you can look to the poem as some kind of . . . not ultimate truth that will be true in the past and the present and the future, but something that sort of crystallizes one little moment or one facet of some argument or some issue. And all you have to do is be as true in that one moment as you possibly can. You don't have to speak, necessarily, for all time. I mean, I think throughout poetry there are many poets who have tried to do that. I've tried to make things that were to be thundered through the ages, but the kind of poetry that I'm interested in is something where it's like a little monument to a lowercase "t" truth for one moment. And so I try to figure out what the moment I'm actually trying to describe is, or what the little facet of a larger issue I'm interested in is, and try to just be as true to that piece of it as I can. And this is one of the more tender poems in the book. The least combative, the least bewildered. It was very important for me to make sure that I was including poems about a range of emotions and that I was honest to the part of myself that fell in love with this person.

Helena de Groot: I mean, that's why I love that last line, you know, "to venture a straighter line, a sentence that stabs and is kind." I love that. A sentence that can both stab and be kind.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah. I think that's what's required of us. It's hard. It's hard to love another person. And there's always some element of the duality that two things can be true. They can disappoint you and you still love them. And the poem is kind of urging us to — urging the reader to think about this, I mean, the writer to write, to think about perception. That's a real trick that one of my professors talked to us about in one of our writing courses, putting a ruler underneath a sentence to block out what else is there. So your eye sort of refocuses. Because you're looking at an essay. You just look at it. It's like you look at your partner day after day after day, and you become accustomed to seeing them in a certain way. And if you can force yourself to see them differently, even for a moment, there are a lot of different things that could happen if you're able to achieve that kind of perspective, I think.

Helena de Groot: I'm sorry I'm pressing you on this, but it's just such a hard thing to do. Because I think when you go through a life change like that, a divorce, I think there are these phases where you come to feel, "Oh, it was always already this bad,"
Right?" Or like, "I never really loved him," or whatever.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah. It's easier. That's simpler. That's, yeah.

Helena de Groot: Yes. And so, I mean . . . I'm just wondering like, you know, how do you know when you landed on something that feels more complicatedly true?

Caitlin Cowan: It's almost like a bodily feeling when you're writing. And sometimes I know it's right because I don't like it. I resist it like, "No, like I hate this," but it's correct. "I hate that this is the right word. But it is." Yeah. How do I know when I've arrived at it? Sometimes I read things out loud. It's like holding a ruler up to it. I read something out loud and I hear it. And if there's bullshit that I'm hearing now, I can hear it. And I say, "Nope, that's not what you mean. Why don't you say what you really mean?" And sometimes engaging the body in that way helps me. But I also think maybe, just the me that writes the poems is more mature than the me that moves through the world, has more wisdom. You know, the me on the page is more willing to have equanimity or grace. It's possible. It's highly possible.

Helena de Groot: It's reminding me of your secret language which you wrote poems in. Because I think if we write poems for just us, we can be honest, because we're not trying to defend ourselves, or we're not trying to make a point, you know? So when you are in the poem-writing space, how close or far are the voices of other people?

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah, I mean, I especially for this book, when I wrote . . . I mean there are moments when I'm writing where it's just me, and maybe this voice that I'm contending with, but I'm always in this collection. During the revision process especially, I was asking myself, "How can this matter to someone else? How can what you are writing matter to someone else? Because you don't have to put these out into the world. But you are and you have and you want to." And part of me believed that there was something there for other people to find interesting or moving or useful or instructive. And if you're going to do that, I mean, that's the hard thing that I work with students on a lot. They're excellent at talking about their own feelings and what happened to them, and reportage and all of those things. But the question of what your work could mean to somebody else is more present to me now as an adult writer. And so I spend time thinking about what my situation might have to say to somebody who is not me. And I hope I'm answering your question a little bit. Am I getting there?

Helena de Groot: I mean, I feel like you're going further than what I asked, which is great. That's very exciting. What I hear you saying is me having a conversation with myself is not the problem, you know?

Caitlin Cowan: Correct. Yeah. And I think that also is, you know, being an only child, I'm my best company still. I mean, I travel alone quite a bit for work, and I'm not scared of being by myself, and I'm very comfortable in that space. But I tend to question that comfort sometimes, and say, "Does anybody care? Is this just you? Is this one just for you, or is this something that could go out into the world? Or is this just [staying] in the notebook?"

Helena de Groot: But that is such a hard question to answer, because often, the things that are most singular about you are somehow also the things that others will connect to most deeply.

Caitlin Cowan: I absolutely agree, and I try to explain this to students, and they just get so frustrated, because relatability is king to young writers, right? They say, "Oh man, that's so relatable." Or the slang terms, "Same, same." We want to feel like we're the same, the same, relatable. But when you write toward relatability, it has the opposite effect, and it's maddening. It's maddening to students and accomplished writers alike. But when you are specific, you know, that is when people connect. It's bizarre that being specific about your unique life should make you somehow more relatable to people who are nothing like you. It's bizarre.

Helena de Groot: Is there a poem that is so specific that it surprised you that that was the poem that others related to so much?

Caitlin Cowan: Oh, that's a good question. Well, one of the poems, "I Am, Because We Were," which is sort of a litany, in some ways, of specific details about this particular relationship. It seems like the totality of that would not add up for everyone, but somehow they do. And it's also a poem where I attempt to be generous to the past and the past version of me and of people that I've known.

Helena de Groot: Yeah, let's read that one. "I Am, Because We Were."

Caitlin Cowan:

"I Am Because We Were"

This is the one where I try to love the way he'd fall asleep at parties or the way he'd smell his hand after jamming it into his cargo shorts. He played video games 50 hours a week while I earned degrees, kept house through the best and most raucous parties. What did he offer me beyond a lonely decade? I stroke the hair of my young self, say, "Every error has brought you here."

But he could be funny and sometimes kind. Rubbed ice on my back when I shook with fever. Played the Gomez to my Morticia. At our rehearsal dinner, I gave him a dread-heavy watch inscribed with a continence, said, "I want to see the world with you." And somehow knew I wouldn't.

It turns out good marriage is like good business partnerships last when they're mutually beneficial. Our terms became unfavorable, soaked with her knockoff perfume. But like everyone else, we did what we were supposed to do. We tried to make life's gall taste sweeter. I remember that first summer we ate only pancheros and jammed to Peter, Bjorn, and John on the drive to Traverse City. His old yellow lab bared her teeth at me, a warning I ought to have heeded. But he frisbeeed me a slice of baloney, helped me learn to appease her instead.

That year, I stood at his mother's grave, cleared its weeds, plucked those that flowered and put them in her pot. He didn't cry or say a word. I learned the terms in an article I edit for cash two summers after I leave him, broke but wonderfully free. Ubuntu.

There was love there, once. I take that to bed like a lover thought lost at sea. I am, because we are, somewhere still out there, half-buried at West End Beach. Him taking my picture and saying, "You look like a mermaid." Me leaning back, long hair snapping in the wind, saying, "Don't get my cigarette in the shot." Keeping the uglier truths out of frame.

Helena de Groot: Thank you. Yeah, this motif also comes back of this kind of woman who learns how to please. So there's this dog that, you know, "bared her teeth at me, a warning I ought to have heeded, but he frisbeed me a slice of baloney, helped me learn to appease her instead." It stands in for so much of what we do. And one of the things that I found so fascinating and it's, I don't know, it's a question that is a little bit too big, So, forgive me for saddling you with it. But reading your book, I was thinking, how do we learn that? Like truly like, OK, you can say patriarchy and all that, but how do we learn, as a woman, that appeasing a man, and being there to clean his mother's grave, like, why are you doing that? Why is he not crying or saying anything? And I'm wondering — I'm not asking you as a sociologist, I'm asking you as a poet — like throughout your life, as a kid, let's say, what are one or two moments that you remember, oh, this is where I was told how to behave as a wife.

Caitlin Cowan: I mean, that's I mean, why indeed, right? Why do we do these things? Why do we appease? It is a huge question . . . you're right that, you know, patriarchy is the answer, but that patriarchy doesn't live in your house . . . But your parents do, and so I suppose that's partially where it came from. I mean, part of the question of the whole book for me is, "How did someone like me, even me, in the year of our Lord 2014, come to that? How?" Someone who considers himself to be a feminist, how did it become so stereotypical? I mean, I learned how to throw a great party from my mother. She's a great hostess, and I think that she taught me how to make things nice, how to keep a house, how to clean things, how to arrange a plate of food in a way that looked good. If you look at it through a different lens, it looks like kitchen witchery, or hearth craft, and all the many things that I do believe in. You know, there is power there and there is. But she was born in 1957. She was certainly still raised with a certain set of expectations for what a wife does for a husband. And she is disabled. And she stayed at home. She was a stay-at-home parent. And that was what she could do. That was the realm she had. And that was consequently the knowledge she had to pass on to me, was how to, you know, "If you're throwing a party, oh, what if you also had themed cocktails?" I'll say, that's a great idea. To this day, I mean, she's great at doing stuff like that. There are still women now doing this, but now they have made it their brand and they are called tradwives, and they are on the internet making sandwiches for their husbands. It's now an aesthetic to do such things. And so I don't know what it will be like for the next generation to think about these things.

Helena de Groot: Yeah. I was wondering if we can go to a poem where your parents' marriage is also part of it. It's the poem called "Happy Father's Day."

Caitlin Cowan: Oh, yeah.

Helena de Groot: On page seven.

Caitlin Cowan: Sure.

Helena de Groot: But maybe before you start, can you tell me a little bit more about your parents' marriage?

Caitlin Cowan: Sure. My parents met in an anthropology class at Michigan State University in the 70s, and they were married in 1982. I was born a few years later, and I'm their only child. My father went on to graduate from U of M, and then went on to get his PhD, and the plan was for my mother to do the same, to sort of take turns. But then she became disabled when I was just a very, very young child. So she stayed at home and he worked a great deal. I have few memories of him in my childhood, to be honest. He was not there, even when he was there. And then they divorced when I was an adolescent young teenager. And it was a very contentious divorce. Very, very difficult, also because I was an only child, and sort of didn't have any refuge with anyone else except these two people who, for various reasons, just kind of weren't able to parent me in the way that I think I needed.

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah.

Helena de Groot: And can I ask you about your mother's disability?

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah, she has rheumatoid arthritis, and she's had it since I was just very young. She's not been able to work because of that. She has chronic pain. And when she's in situations where there's a lot of walking involved, she uses a wheelchair. Yeah. That happened just when I was about a year old. The initial accident she had, she had a slip and fall and damaged her knee. And then after that things started to develop and deteriorate. Yeah.

Helena de Groot: And your father didn't believe, always, that the pain was real. What was that?

Caitlin Cowan: A very bizarre element to the story of their divorce is that the divorce actually went to a trial. It was so contentious. And during the course of that, he claimed that she was fabricating her illness or exaggerating it, or that it wasn't real, to the point where my mother had to engage her own physician to sort of counter that and say, "No, she's not." But I mean, now that I'm older and I can draw some parallels. I know that ascertaining whether or not people were being truthful about their pain was part of his job. It's part of his work. And once I realized the connections between all these things, it started to open up more room for me to think about things in my own work and my poetry, but also as a human being and realizing the ways in which I was sort of taught to question pain, or was something real. And when you grow up in a house with someone who's disabled, there is nobody who has it worse than the disabled person. I'll be very clear about that. However, when there's always somebody in acute pain, there's not a lot of room for anyone else to feel things sometimes. And so that's something that I've grappled with more as an adult.

Helena de Groot: Yeah. Do you want to read the poem, "Happy Father's Day?"

Caitlin Cowan:

Sure. "Happy Father's Day"

How to crook a pinball.

How to lose at chess.

Daddy taught me how to air guitar and drum the back headrest.

Cars, he wasn't much for. That was granddad's thing.

So daddy wasn't there when I learned to brake that spring.

But I learned the word "malingering," making up your pain.

Daddy said his patients did it almost every day.

"Did I make this up? I" thought the night that I came home and found a pot of early peas pebbled on the floor. "Does this really hurt?" I thought, thumbing broken plates. "Is this feeling just a hungry fake?" I was quiet as I swept the shards into the trash. Silent as the shush the man I married fed me with. Try to stop without a stutter. Try to stop without a sound. That's the trick that granddad taught me. How the rubber kissed the ground.

Helena de Groot: Yeah. And this poem, you talk about two generations of men silencing women. You also talk about this thing that I think today we're learning more and more, or this is getting more and more known that a lot of doctors tend to minimize, especially women or people of color's pain.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah.

Helena de Groot: You know, being shushed, sort of being told that what you feel is not true, not real, whether it be by sort of society at large or by your husband or by your father, that is pretty deathly for anyone as a person, but especially also for you as a writer, when you don't get to trust your own perceptions, your own interiority. And so going through that process of extricating yourself from the marriage and sort of questioning all the ways in which you have been shushed throughout your life, how did you come to unshush yourself?

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah. How did I push myself? Oh, I love it. I mean, it really and truly was poetry that helped me climb out of it, because around the time when things were just getting worse in my marriage, I went to the Sewanee Writers' Conference for the first time, and I was gone for several weeks, just immersed in people who are like me, who understand the work, who care about poetry, just my people. And then coming home from that really threw what my home life was like into relief. And that was part of the beginning, where I said, the way I felt there and the way I feel here are diametrically opposed and, should it be so? Should you feel this way, coming home to the person you have married? And I started to spend more time with other poets in my town and in my cohort, and just gorging myself on poetry and reading love poetry and realizing there is no universe in which the person you have married could ever think this thought that this poet has had about his wife, about you. That is not where you are, and that is not the love that you have. Are you okay with that? Can you accept that? Are you willing to accept that? And I remember also, was it, Mark Doty? I was reading an essay that involved the image of two poets lying in bed together, reading poetry. And I just started sobbing because not only was my marriage having trouble for lots of reasons, my ex-husband did not care one lick for my writing, did not think it was valuable around that time, asked me why I bothered writing when it didn't make any money. So that precipitated an enormous fight that really showed me the exit sign.

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

Caitlin Cowan: And, you know, just realizing that there, hoping and wishing that there might be someone out there who felt differently. And poetry was the sort of ladder I climbed in so many ways, and again, did not realize it at the time. But now I see that it was by following the light of what I knew was good and right and beautiful and what was most important to me, I saw my way out.


Helena de Groot: Do you want to read one last poem?

Caitlin Cowan: Sure. I'll read one last poem. What should I read?

Helena de Groot: How about "After 18 Months of Marriage?"

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah. This is written for my friend Jenny Molberg, whom I mentioned before. And it's. It's after Dorianne Laux's "After Twelve Days of Rain." It's inspired by some of the moves and imagery of that poem. It's in a few sections.

"After 18 Months of Marriage," for Jenny. 


The day after the wedding, we roamed Ann Arbor in party garb. He listened when I spoke, sequins winked along my waist and it felt like a new life. I said I'd always thought he was bad at driving, and he agreed. All honesty, now possible, at least for a moment. He held my hand in the quiet of a cellar bar. He called it his paw, his little white biscuit.

Each day after that one was worse. The fights, the breathless panic, the lies and paperback sex. After 18 months, it was over. But it felt like we'd been married for just one frozen day. My magic was used up, my fingertips sparked but refused to light. Denied us their burst of rose-white vim.

I couldn't make him happy. I couldn't even make dinner. The hearth I once tended could only sigh great breaths of cold snow.

I returned to the city where we met and married, and every bricked facade reminds me of him the night he hoodwinked a cop into believing I was of age. The night he hood slid a whole block of cars in the new snow, like childhood toys and most first kisses, he is more real in memory than he ever was in life. Back then, I knew I was too young for love, but fell in anyway. Would you rather look at a thousand paintings for one second, or at one painting for a lifetime? I wrote in a journal back then. I shove quarters into the pinball machines that used to dazzle us. Remember his tight-lipped kisses, perfunctory as a finger pressed against a red button.

I drink at our old haunts, douse my debtor's heart. He would take pleasure in my pain if he knew, a little bird crying "Told you so, told you so." But I keep going. I love and am loved again, wary as a feral cat that comes inside. Friends marry, and I am near. What else to do but toast and try? I noose the top pearl of my best friend's ivory gown.

Watch its tulle lift her above herself. Alabaster bird, little darling. She will leave him in 26 days. And somehow I already know. I grin and tell her she is perfect because we are our mother's daughters. She smiles right back, a vision.

Helena de Groot: Thank you.

Caitlin Cowan: Thank you.

Helena de Groot: I want to ask you about that ending.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah.

Helena de Groot: There's the friend getting married. Um, "she will leave him in 26 days, and somehow I already know. I grin and tell her she's perfect because we are mother's daughters. She smiles right back, a vision." So I found that so interesting, because here we are again, sort of back to that theme of how these stories about marriage are perpetuated.

Caitlin Cowan: Yeah.

Helena de Groot: Right. How it's this weird play that we just all keep playing, even though we know better. We know that this is a play. We can see it a mile away when a friend gets married and you're like"Mhm." You know. And you got married again last September.

Caitlin Cowan: I did.

Helena de Groot: And you have a little girl?

Caitlin Cowan: I do.

Helena de Groot: How old is she?

Caitlin Cowan: She is almost 17 months now.

Helena de Groot: So, 17 months obviously is too young to talk to her about marriage. But then people do the weirdest things with babies and put them in sort of marriage-like outfits. So, like, look.

Caitlin Cowan: Yes. Yeah, they do. They say, oh, you know, "He'll be a heartbreaker."

Helena de Groot: Exactly. It's so weird. But so knowing what you know, having gone through what you've gone through, what is something that you want to tell her? Or want her to know as she grows up, or what is a mistake you don't wanna repeat? Or what is something that you wanna teach her?

Caitlin Cowan: I am somebody who I know will always ante up again, and that's just who I am. She may or may not . . . Who knows what kind of person she will be, or how many or what kind of people she will love? But I suppose what I would one of the things that I'll . . . or I don't know, some of the things that I would try to impart to her would have to do with making. . . . You can't make sure, but attempting to really look at your relationships critically to make sure that they are honoring all of you, and that you can be whoever you are with whoever you love. And that they truly — not just accept you. Acceptance is too low of a bar to set for a romantic partnership. If you are going to spend your life with somebody, I would hope for her that they would relish everything about her, not just accept it. That's not enough. That's not good enough to tolerate it, to be overjoyed with who she is. And as for marriage, don't get married until you're in your 30s. A marriage, who knows what things, how things will be by then. But if she chooses to partner with somebody for life, I would just want them to really . . . I would want her to think long and hard about it, and take a long time to decide, and to not feel pressure to do anything. And I hope that she'll have a good example of what it ought to look like. I think that I have finally arrived at a place where I am with somebody who relishes who I am and doesn't just tolerate it, and that's what I would wish for her.


Helena de Groot: Caitlin Cowan's debut collection is titled Happy Everything. She is the recipient of the Littoral Press Poetry Prize, the Mississippi Review Prize, and an Avery Hopwood Award. Ilya Kaminsky also selected her poem "Flight Plan" to win the Ron McFarland Prize for poetry. Her work has received support from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Vermont Studio Center. Caitlin is the director of international programs and chair of creative writing at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. She also serves as a poetry editor at Pleiades and writes a weekly poetry and pop culture blog titled Pop Poetry. To find out more, check out the Poetry Foundation website. The music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.

Caitlin Cowan on rejection, tradwives, and poems from our better self.

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