When a woman gets married and becomes a mother, what are the traditional expectations and societal pressures that might urge her to settle down and conform? What if the myth and folklore surrounding this tradition of taming could be rewritten into an alternate narrative of acceptance, where a wife and mother embraces her wild skin, rather than shedding it? In her debut full-length poetry collection, Swan Wife (Cider House Press, 2022), Sara Moore Wagner crafts a speaker who wrestles with these pressures to conform and gives up her wild skin for the patriarchal ideals of domesticity.
Using fairy tales, classical tropes, and Biblical characters, Wagner employs the voices of familiar characters to engage in conversation with the wife, and suggest a new kind of compromise, one where she can embrace all the facets of her identity and create an authentic existence within the tradition of marriage and new motherhood. This reframing creates a hero’s journey in its own rite, replacing the domestic identity with something complex and individually made.
Author of Hillbilly Madonna (2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript prize winner), and the chapbooks Tumbling After (Redbird, 2022) and Hooked Through (Five Oaks Press, 2017), Moore is the recipient of a 2022 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist, and the 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Sixth Finch, Waxwing, Nimrod, Western Humanities Review, Tar River Poetry, and The Cincinnati Review, and has been nominated multiple times for Pushcart prizes, Best of the Net, and Best New Poets.
I spoke to Sara Moore Wagner via Google Docs where we discussed how Swan Wife subverts so much of myth and folklore that feels patriarchal, how being a wife and mother has changed the way she approaches writing, and why a good love poem is always a little bit ugly.
The Rumpus: Swan Wife pulls from so many fairytales and myths. What is the origin story for this book, and this speaker in particular?
Sara Moore Wagner: I actually wrote a poem called “Swan Wife” before this book was fleshed out, when I was still just thinking about being a housewife and what that meant. Making my way through fairy tales and myths seemed to speak to the unrest I was feeling in my new role. The title Swan Wife comes from swan maiden stories that exist in so many cultures. This poem had the speaker get in the bath and return to her wild nature. I never got that poem to be just right, so it didn’t make it in the book, but it solidified for me what I was doing, which was trying to figure out how something wild can exist in a domestic space.
My speaker is that half wild creature who is meant to conform to something outside of her nature. I also think the speaker morphs. Some poems are more personal, others are persona—my speaker is someone trying on skins to find the one which fits best, which is ultimately the self.
I’ve always been drawn to story tropes, to folklore and myth. In some ways, this book started in my desire to explore and play with these stories that built me, and which will, eventually, shape my daughters in some way.
Rumpus: I love this idea that the same folklore and myth that built you will eventually shape your daughters. Do you think of them as readers when you’re writing your own work and how your contribution to this larger conversation could also shape them?
Wagner: It’s hard for me to think of them as readers, so I try not to. As all moms know, we edit ourselves so much for our children, in ways that can sometimes be erasing. I don’t want to do this with my children too much. I want to show them I’m human, that I have real feelings and desires outside of them, but I also think it’s not healthy to put too much on them. Before they do read my books, if they ever want to, I hope that I can build a foundation of what poetry is versus memoir, the concept of a speaker, of building “an imaginary garden with a real toad in it,” as Marianne Moore wrote.
That being said, they are still so little, just five and seven, and they get really happy when I put them in a poem. In “Reward,” I mention my daughter’s name, Daisy, and this absolutely tickles her.
My daughters and I read a lot of revised fairy tales and myths. Right now, we’re reading Liesl Shurtliff’s Red: The Fairly True Tale of Red Riding Hood (all her fairy tale revision books are fabulous!), Emily Winfield Martin’s Snow & Rose is one of our favorites. They loved The Land of Stories books, basically anything with fairy tales or myth, maybe because I’m also drawn to those books. When we read, we talk about tradition. These stories, the oldest versions, started with women. In her essay called “The Useful Dangers of Fairy Tales,” Amber Sparks talks about why women originally made these stories, specifically, for their daughters. She says back then, “you had to create something you could leave behind to light the path, to keep throwing those breadcrumbs, to clear the thorns from the thicket. A tree or a ghost or a bear or a good fairy—but something, something to outlast you.” I connect so much to this essay, where she talks about what she hopes her own daughter can get from these stories, which live in the past, and their more modern versions. My daughters love Disney, and even something like My Little Pony is full of myth and lore. I want them to understand that, and to see the things working for them or against them—which messages are okay to collect and make part of that great webbing that will eventually shape them into whatever kinds of adults they will be (I want this for my son, too—who is thirteen!).
So, I guess, to address how I want them to see me: In the most magical world, they might see me as like anyone else who approaches the past with curiosity and a desire to understand identity based on stories that survive, and that might one day embolden them to do the same.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating this collection? Did you always know it was going to be about the first year of marriage?
Wagner: I struggled with becoming a wife. I got pregnant with my first child when I was young, living abroad, not wanting to grow up. I came back to Ohio to give birth to him, which was my first transformation. I went to grad school as a single mom, and I was really trying to “find myself” again.
Of course, I had a lot to work through in my poems! I started writing all these poems while pregnant for the second time, exploring what it meant to be a wife through persona, which is a form and model I’ve always been drawn to. I didn’t really know what I was doing then.
Several years later, when I went to compile a full-length collection, I had a large body of poems to work from. I tried to force them all into one collection, stretching from childhood to marriage, but, after a long period of revision, I realized these were two books. The childhood poems were set aside and became the base of my second collection, Hillbilly Madonna. I’m not someone who has a lot of mentors or community, so it was a lot of trial and error and learning on my own.
I realized the remaining poems had an arc: marriage to the birth of my daughter (and the postpartum depression I suffered). It also felt like a story we all experience, a trope story, of that change that occurs when we marry. As someone suddenly, and by choice, filling such a traditional role, I inherited all the stereotypes and expectations of that role. This book is an exploration of that inheritance.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to think about that inheritance of struggle because I’ve heard you reference this collection as a long love poem, as well. There are also a few individual love poems throughout. In what ways do you see this book as a love poem? What is your relationship to love poems previously or now after writing this?
Wagner: Yes! I wanted this book to start and end in love. I always tell my husband I wrote this book for him and about him, and he sits at readings and beams up at me when I read the angriest housewife poems. He knows it’s about him and not about him. It’s about heteronormative marriage, what that expects of women, which is not at all what he expects of me.
I did make the conscious choice of having the “you” in this book always be him, or the husband figure. In this way, the poems are often persona and direct address, which I hope makes them intimate, whether they are love poems or otherwise.
I have always been a hopeless romantic. Yeats’s “When You Are Old” was one of my first favorite poems and the lines “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,/And loved the sorrows of your changing face,” come back to me over and over again. I love the idea of seeing someone, warts and all, seeing into the soul, as cheesy as that is to say. There’s a whole history of love poems to contend with, Sappho to Shakespeare to Keats to Jack Gilbert’s poems for Michiko, to someone like Matthew Olzmann and his “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” which is exquisite, to Lisa Ampleman’s recent book Romances, which is about her love story (and Courtney Love!). I love love poems, particularly those with immense vulnerability. Love is ugly—a good love poem should be a little ugly, should have little sorrows.
I had Levertov’s “Prayer for Revolutionary Love” as a reading at my wedding, a poem that gets at some of this. Towards the end of that poem, “That our love for each other, if need be,/ give way to absence. And the unknown.” This is kind of the heart of my desire to write a love poem. That giant “unknown” that we’re hurtling towards is so vast. One day we’ll be torn apart by it. In any love poem, that’s just around the bend and is linked to the longing to be seen and understood by another human. I think all my love poems in this collection are also full of anxiety. I hope that adds something to the long line of how we talk about love.
Love, particularly love as written by a woman, can be seen as overly sentimental or precious. In the introduction to Anne Sexton’s Love Poems, Diane Wood Middlebrook talks about how Sexton waited until later in her career to write poems about love because she was worried about being seen as a “lady poet,” which is ironic because who are the big “love” poets we think of?
Every poem is maybe about love. That’s something everyone says. When I write about love, it comes from a place of unrest—is this a subject I’m allowed to talk about? And, of course, if I’m not allowed to do something, I’m going to do it.
Rumpus: Your work is so often compared to Anne Sexton, and I can understand why! Do you see yourself as a confessional poet?
Wagner: I love that comparison. It’s amazingly flattering, and her work is foundational for me. I have a poem in this collection based on her poem “Her Kind,” and of course you can’t revise fairy tales without calling upon her Transformations. Anne Sexton walked before me with her poems about domesticity, and in her revision of masculine forms. I am also very inspired by Plath’s use of myth and history.
It’s funny when we talk about confessional poets, because I’ve not really heard people talk about Robert Lowell in the same way as Plath and Sexton, and it makes me feel like they mean one thing when they say “confessional.” Usually, it’s a reference to women poets writing about the personal or trauma in a precious or under-skilled way. It’s dismissive.
I’ve had people note my use of “I” in almost every poem, and I wonder if they notice how often men use “I,” if they allow men’s use of “I” to be the speaker more. In many ways, the speaker of Swan Wife could have easily been “she,” but “she” feels less authentic, more detached, less vulnerable. It’s also clearer to use I when there are many characters (wife, daughter, mythic figure, husband, etc.) My speaker is not always me, per se. My husband knows my “you” is not him, even though it’s the husband, and my “I” is not exactly me, even though it’s the wife. There are elements of our real love story, of course, but I didn’t write this book to talk about the private intimacy of our love. This book is an exploration of the ways we use tropes and societal expectations to erase women in marriage, especially housewives, and how to shake that off.
That being said, I don’t want to shake off the confessional. I don’t think Plath and Sexton wrote only personal, private, diary-like poems where their speaker was always the self, either, and so much new scholarship is exploring and proving that. They were complex storytellers, focusing on the domestic and patriarchal tropes. Of course, they aren’t entirely unproblematic in other ways, but I’m happy to follow them. I don’t want to be like Sexton was about love poems. I’m happy to be a “lady poet” if you need to call me that.
Rumpus: How has being a wife and mother shaped the writing of this collection? Was this balancing act surprising at all? Has it evolved?
Wagner: I had to write in little pockets of time, during naps, early in the morning, after bedtime. Every moment I stole away felt like just that—like stealing time from my two, then three children. When I got married, I already had a son, as I mentioned, but my son would spend a third of the time with his father. This was and still is difficult, but it gave me a good amount of time to do things like complete my coursework for graduate school and focus on my own art.
I got married when my son was five, and pregnant on my honeymoon, which was the genesis of this collection. When I just had my son, I felt an intense amount of drive to follow my passions and “make something of myself” for him. Before him, I had no motivation at all.
Getting married and having my first daughter changed things so much. Suddenly, I didn’t have time and my body didn’t even feel like mine anymore. I gave birth to her before our first wedding anniversary, and when she was just fifteen months old, I got pregnant again with my second daughter. When she was born, I stopped working. It was a journey to locate my identity in so much change. I also noticed how differently the world treated me when instead of “adjunct professor” or “teacher” I’d write “stay-at-home mom” on things like doctors’ forms. That got me thinking about societal expectations of what I should or should not be, grappling with that guilt of taking time away from my children.
I attribute a lot of this project’s success to having a support group of other mothers who write. We self-make retreats, and that feeds me so much because we understand how precious and borrowed that time is. I miss the children when I focus on my art, but I also deeply believe I’d be a half person if I didn’t take that time. My daughters especially need to see me take that time and build myself as a person outside of them. A lot of that is the heart of this collection.
Rumpus: This book gives such a raw and honest look at what that first year of marriage can look like. What do you hope this book adds to the conversation about womanhood and becoming a wife and mother, now that it’s out in the world?
Wagner: When I was a stay-at-home mom, I noticed people would never ask me about myself or my interests. We would talk about our kids, what our husbands did, but it felt almost like everyone had another secret self they had to let go of. I hate that idea. Talk to moms—they have interests, they are interesting, complex humans with flaws and desires. We want to sanitize the mother figure, maybe because we all have mothers, and it’s easier. I am not the first to gesture to the grotesque aspects of being a wife and mother (hello, Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Nancy Reddy, there are so many), but I hope to add to that tradition.
There was a viral social media post a while back about a Christian group of “wives” who put on their husband’s shoes as an exercise, to teach them how they shouldn’t try to “fill” their husbands’ shoes—he works so hard! These things are still being taught to women and girls.
My hope is that this book will make a woman who feels confined by her role reconsider what that means and challenge patriarchal erasures of women. I also hope it makes everyone think about identity. We create our own identities within the webbing of history, and it’s possible to cut ourselves out of that, to find a revolutionary love, to fight for a pure union with another person and for ourselves.
Author photo by Christen Noel Kauffman