You just go on your nerve, Frank O’Hara said about the lyric poet. I think J. Hope Stein understands this notion, but she brings to it a kind of astonishment that’s vulnerable yes, brave yes, but also containing a belief in magic, in humor, in humanity that’s flawed yes, but ours. There is so much love of life in these poems of family but also a larger look: Here we are a too familiar species whose bodies also contain elements from long dead stars.
I have read J. Hope Stein’s poems for nearly a decade and I am always impressed by this poet’s brilliant verbal skills: She might write about motherhood—as she does in this new book—or about politics or science or young marriage, but whatever her subject, it is delivered via striking metaphor and music. What also characterizes this poet is her ability to create a book-long sequence that isn’t merely a collection of separate lyrics but an echo chamber where one thing leads to another, sparks of connection arise, page upon page builds into the large whole that shows us how to look at our lives deeper, and yes, with more astonishment.
I had a chance to chat with J. Hope Stein about her latest collection, little astronaut, and I hope you will enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
The Rumpus: The book has various poetic modes—lullaby, love song, commentary, etc.—and various formal strategies—long lines, short lines, tiny poems, longer poems, call-and-response poems. Which of these felt natural for you and which came as a result of a challenge, and what did you learn in the process?
Hope Stein:I don’t know if you remember this: When I first had a baby, I said I wasn’t writing much, and you recommended that I start a new email account and email myself one email a day. You said it could be an image, a word, a feeling, a description. And that by the end of two months, I would have seeds for a book.
I thanked you and said that I had no intention of writing a book about motherhood, but I appreciated your suggestion and said I would try it. I set up an email account—the now defunct [email protected] (named after Shakespeare’s character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)—and those emails did in fact end up being the seeds for the book. And I have given this advice to a couple of artists who are about to have their first kid. So thank you for suggesting that!
What I got from that process was very in-the-moment observations, heightened by sleep-deprivation and an intense sense of wonder, combined with hormonal highs and lows, mixed in with tears, blood, urine, scars, milk, poop. The range of what I was sending myself was charged, distilled moments of intense intimacy combined with full rants.
And they would have just stayed there on my computer to this day, but when my husband (Mike Birbiglia), was working on his show, The New One, about parenthood, we naturally fell into a collaboration. I shared the emails with him. I had started to shape some of the shorter poems and Mike started reading a couple of my poems onstage as part of his off-Broadway show.
When Mike read my poems onstage, he was reading from a notebook which I prepared for him as an official prop of the show. There were three “jenny notebooks” where I wrote the poems Mike would read on stage. Every night there was a moment of surprise in the theater when suddenly, toys would fall from the ceiling all around Mike. Along with the toys fell the three “jenny notebooks.” My task was to make the notebooks feel real and lived in.
I knew they were just props but a poet can’t fake a notebook. I fell in love with all three of them, experimenting with new lines and poems in each. These notebooks were alive to me and part of me and they would fall from the ceiling eight shows a week and Mike would read from them on stage and then I would beg him to bring them home to me on his day off so I could reconnect with them and continue where I left off. Those writings ended up being more poems for little astronaut including a long prose piece, a lyric essay, called “As Close as Food” about weaning and about how my boobs wouldn’t stop making milk. One day of writing a week. Then six days of deprivation.
After the Broadway show, Mike was working on [the essay collection] The New One and our collaboration continued. He convinced me to go on stage with him and read poems while he did comedy. In that period I wrote the “toast” poems that would end up in little astronaut (“A toast to something beautiful flapping in the wind;” “A Toast to the Crooked Nipple;” “A Toast to the Third Arm;” “A Toast to My Husband”). They are longer-lined, meditative pieces. I was still working with the seeds from the Monsieur Cobweb emails and I was engaging in Mike’s process, which is to go on stage and read some material that is done and mix in some new material, see how it goes, revise, do it again the next night, and again and again. I did a few shows with him at Largo in Los Angeles and twenty-four encores with him at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York when I was writing that batch of poems.
The final poems, which I wrote a few months before publication, came out of a listening process. I did this by reading the book to myself after not looking at it for a while and asking it what it needed. I attempted to deepen the metaphors and imagery as well as more finely tune rhythms and flow. I wrote most of the space poems then. I revisited Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars and read Paige Lewis’s Space Struck. Both meditative, zooming into the intimate and out to the cosmos in a line. I spent some time with Carl Sagan, The Golden Record and the Voyager expedition. As well as the brilliant and complex works by Alexis Pauline Gumbs: M Archive; Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Animals; Dub.
And the very last poem I wrote was called “morning song.” I was traveling and had no poetry books with me and went to the library and they didn’t have much but had Plath, and rereading the lines from “Morning Song” as a mom—the pure sounds and accomplishment just stunned me anew and inspired me to write my own morning song.
Rumpus: How did the book’s structure come to be? More specifically, the book is a collection of lyrics but also can be read as a long poem. Might you discuss this?
Stein: There was also a time that I thought of little astronaut as an illustrated book and I had very carefully laid it out with a poem here…space for an illustration there… But the schedule didn’t work out with the illustrator and so I had to rearrange the book, pulling out the pages that were meant for illustration. And when I rearranged it, I began to see the experience of the reading of little astronaut in terms of two-page spreads. A love poem about my husband and I being tethered together on the left side, and short distilled poem about toilet paper strewn across the house by our two-year-old on the right side of the page so that the poems themselves act as loose illustrations for each other. And so the two-page spread and the rhythms of turning pages became important to me in the final arrangement.
I can feel this in Gwendolyn Brooks’s books, Notley’s The Descent of Alette, and your Deaf Republic. I find these works satisfying down to the syllable, down to the breath. As well as across the journey of the page, the circumference of the planet of the book.
For me, composing poetry this way comes from mostly an inability to effectively communicate in any other way. I am a terrible person to speak to at a party or take a standardized test (or answer an interview question) because there are so many possible answers to a simple question, so many truths alive at the same time.
In person, if someone asks me a linear question, I wish that my honest and present response could be a book of poems. Instead, what comes out in person is a whole bunch of nothing. You’ve met me, you know. The way I structure my books I think comes out of this need.
Rumpus: The book is so rich in tonalities: pure lyricism, humor, high and low styles, romantic poems, poems refusing romance, a more somber tone, a lighter take, a take on the state/distress of the world, a hope for the future, etc. It works as a link of panorama/stained-glass-window made of human emotions . . . all coming together as a portrait of one person’s life. What was the composition of that like?
Stein: I think that goes back to the many truths at once, and I just wanted to grab as many as I could.
I have a poem about breastfeeding which is more of what you are describing as pure lyrical: “little milk-breath of morning you sip me as day-bread.” Whereas in my poem titled, “When my daughter learns to use the toilet we sing to her poops to coax them into this world,” it’s literally a song my daughter and I sang about poop. It’s important to me to pair the ethereal with the mundane and see them as equally sacred. Because I want to make sure that the book feels alive. And because it is all subjective: From earth’s perspective, poop is all our species is worth, perhaps. But also because in Auden’s Book of Light Verse, in the introduction he explains that he included street song, sailor song, graffiti, jokes, nursery rhyme, and that really stuck with me as part of what is possible in a collection of poems as an expression of language and life. And Brooks again does this and shows how to make it art.
As far as what the composition was like, I was listening to the sounds of my daughter. Each night she got into bed with a few books and built a rocket ship with her pillows and would do a countdown . . . “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . blast off . . . into reading space . . .” The sounds of her wobbling footsteps in the morning. I was focused on the shapes we made together. Whether it’s a scene with my husband and I having sex for the first time since we had a baby and me stopping him in the middle to tell him the milk is for her, or the puddle of urine forming on the floor as she dances naked or the three of us dancing together as the presence of a forming dictatorship is outside the home.
I try not to make my daughter the subject of my work anymore out of respect. She’s seven and makes her own artistic decisions. But it’s not easy. Where there is a young child, there is always wonder circling and a poem is not too far away. The other day she asked Mike and me in the same breath:
What’s the difference between sports bras and regular bras?—
What’s the difference between Jesus and God?
Rumpus: What other poets have influenced your work and how?
Stein: For this particular book, when I was writing those first sets of short poems I was looking at Sanskrit love poems which conjure up emotion in just a few lines and Cid Corman’s The Famous Blue Aerogrammes. I had been reading various translations and memorizing the poems of Paul Celan, and reading the graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, which is full of heart and expansive. The visual artist SWOON. I was reading Yoko Ono’s books Grapefruit and Acorn. I had this poem in mind: “First Kiss” by Kim Addonizio. Your short poem, “Lullaby,” that starts: “Little daughter /rainwater” . . . “Child of my Aprils” stayed with me when I was pregnant and writing the first few poems of little astronaut. (My daughter was due in April). For the longer sequences of the book I had Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God in mind. I think of the way (singer-songwriter, harpist) Joanna Newsom and (singer-songwriter, pianist) Regina Spektor compose with many movements within their songs, many complexities, that find each other, and somehow hold together in repetition and variation and from there go places. The Marriage of Figaro helps me get things sorted.
While I was writing the breastfeeding poems my friend recommended that I look at the ending of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And I also read a devastating short story collection by Akiyuki Nosaka: The Cake Tree in the Ruins. And I think the panic of those stories, combined with the time we were living in, entered me and some of the pieces in relation to the hard time I had psychologically with weaning.
Much of the material that enters my lyric essay, “As Close as Food,” came from the many trips we took to the Natural History Museum. I was thinking of the momentum of Clarice Lispector’s prose as well.
Rumpus: Inevitable question: How is it living with another artist? Do you perhaps learn something for your genre from another genre in the process? If so, what?
Stein: Living with Mike was transformative for me. Mike is a magical sounding board and support for me and for many artists. He also pushes me outside my comfort zone, having me read poems on stage with him to a comedy audience. I never could have imagined that.
When we first got married, he encouraged me to quit my job and focus on poetry, which was a great privilege. I didn’t show him a single poem for two years. And then one day I left a copy of Poetry International on his pillow that had a love poem in there for him. I was very private about the work and still tend not to share until I have something substantial. Meanwhile, I was learning by watching him develop his first, long-form show, Sleepwalk with Me. It’s a stunning show that works on a syllabic level, a joke-to-joke level and on the level of a riveting emotional story. Sometimes Mike and I work very closely and sometimes we give each other a lot of space. With Sleepwalk with Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and The New One, I got to participate in the process. And worked with him on his films, Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice.
Ultimately, I see what we do as similar. I don’t take stock in the idea of genre and think of art as fluid. Mike’s work is packed with jokes and is also poetic. And in my work, if there is humor, it’s not something I’m deliberately doing. It comes from the pursuit of precision in trying to make a piece feel alive.
Rumpus: Another inevitable question: The book was composed during the years of America’s wars, Trump, the pandemic, and now the disaster of the Roe v. Wade repeal. And in its own very private lyric way the book does in the end show us what it is to live at such a time, to be an artist in this moment. Care to speak more on that?
Stein: I never overtly talk about politics in this book. But when I am weaning Oona, I have a flurry of fears: “What if the economy dives and we have no money or food?—or a natural disaster? Or the dictator comes to power or some kind of attack? –or? How will I feed her?”
In the poem “We learn to dance before we learn to speak,” the concept of the dictator returns and our response is to dance.
In the early days of COVID-19 we did a lot of dancing. We would just put on Diana Ross and go nuts. I got Mike and I dance lessons for his birthday this year and we learned to swing dance. It made me smile. I don’t know why; I’m a terrible dancer. But I think it has something to do with the development—our bodies figuring out how to bob around to music before they figure out how to speak.
As far as Roe: The reality of someone getting pregnant and not being able to make decisions about their body is a nightmare. And I value fetal life. I am in awe of it. I have poems in the book about this. I obsessively tracked the development of organs from week to week, I was counting down the days until she could live outside of me on her own, worried my body wouldn’t be able to carry the full pregnancy. It was a difficult time. And yet I loved my pregnancy and miss it every day. And I was able to make decisions about my body, as every pregnant body should be able to do.
Here’s something that came up on Ezra Klein’s podcast a few weeks ago: If there is a fire in a room that has a baby and five embryos and you can only save one life, what would you save? Without hesitation, everyone on all sides of the issue would save the baby. That seems like an honest place to start the conversation about what life is.
You know what life form can live outside the body and is sacrificed by the millions daily? Sperm.
Rumpus: This is both a love poem and a book of motherhood. What are depictions of motherhood in poetry and/or other arts that are most moving to you? What do you want the reader to take away from this work of yours, as it now stands in the company of those other creations?
Stein: I have a line in the book which means a lot to me: Always be pregnant with something.
And another line, which I had in the book but ultimately didn’t have a good place for: you are the mother, you are the mother of your time on earth.
For me, little astronaut is less as a book about motherhood and more of a metaphor for the phases of “pregnancy” and “infancy” and “mothering” and “weaning” we find ourselves in in life. Incubating something that can give us morning sickness and then a few months later feel like a birth. Learning to crawl and then learning to walk with a wobble. It’s not a book of motherhood affirmations. It’s more of a book about my body doing messy things without my permission. And it’s my particular experience, capturing my state of mind in a moment in time. One of the most gratifying things that has happened since I started posting some of the poems on Instagram, is parents write to me and say that it inspired them to write their own poetry.
There are a lot of breastfeeding poems in the book. And one of the contemplations of the book is what it was like to be life-dependently nourishing to someone and to wean from the intensity of that relationship. And who’s weaning who and from what?
When Oona and I weaned we recited our plan to each other each night, until finally we weaned. The poem wean came from this, but to me it’s a poem about knowing you need to let something go:
a little less and a little
less and then
but tonight, a little more.
a little less and a little
less and then
but tonight, a little, a little more
Author photo courtesy of author