Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Christina Pacosz, Shayla Mollohan, and Charlotte Mandel Discuss Caregiving, Disability, and Writing

by Barbara Crooker

Christina Pacosz, Shayla Mollohan, and Charlotte Mandel are all part of the Wom-Po Online Poetry List. Barbara Crooker's question began the discussion.


BC     Give us some background on yourself, either as a caregiver or as a person with a disability, and how this has affected you as a writer. How has the Wom-Po online community made you more connected (or less, if that's the case) to the larger world of poetry?

CP     My BS in 1970 from Wayne State University is in education with a major in special education. I had a mentally retarded aunt confined in a state asylum who influenced my decision to become a special educator. My father and I visited Janina as often as he was able to find the time to take a train to do so. We were in Detroit and she was in Lapeer; he was a Ford factory worker. I was just a small child. I found out years later in doing research for an unpublished non-fiction manuscript (A Simple Story) that she had been sterilized by court order in 1933 by a Michigan judge when she was just 14. She died in that same institution. Many people do not realize that the eugenics movement that inspired the Nazis had its start here in the U.S. Henry Ford was one of its earliest and most ardent adherents.

My disability is of a late onset: fibromyalgia, and also of a chronic nature: spinal stenosis. Most of the last decade, my symptoms have worsened, until I knew I could no longer continue teaching. I was a special educator at a charter high school in Kansas City, Missouri. I started receiving Social Security Disability at 61, and I am one of the lucky ones. Here in Missouri at least 40% of the applicants are denied. I imagine the national stats aren't much better. Bailing out big companies is OK but providing a pittance for people who are unable to earn a living isn't in our budget, apparently.

One could say, and I do, that my awareness of disability issues began early and has lingered long, becoming very personalized along the way.

Though once I had been a North Carolina Visiting Artist and in my four year tenure impacted some 20,000 people, I could no longer do the travel or the schmoozing necessary for inclusion in a local writing community, though I did try on and off, but not consistently enough. Just getting to work was a minor miracle most days, and working with my students of all ages a mighty challenge. I had hoped that once I was no longer employed for a paycheck, I would have more time to devote to the personal touch needed to be included as a writer in the so-called "real" world. Alas, this is not so.

So thank goodness for Wom-Po!!! If my poem hadn't appeared in Letters to the World, for example, I wouldn't have had a recent reading at The Writers Place here in Kansas City (thanks to Wom-Po LouAnn Muhm who arranged it and to her wonderful family and friends who made up 99% of the audience). Doing this reading was such an outlay of energy, despite being accompanied by my husband and that it was being held at a venue less than 2 miles from our home. It meant I spent the remainder of the weekend recovering from post-exertional malaise, though I never recover totally and am always feeling like I have the flu, in terms of stiffness and soreness. I am always tired, too, but have learned to pace myself so that I still do involve myself in some activity, a bit of gardening, grocery shopping, some housecleaning, just not as arduously as I once could and not as often. And most occur in virtual reality.

In the almost dozen years I have been living in Kansas City, this reading this past summer was my first "real" reading. I read once at a local library in North Kansas City where I was then clerking when my book, One River, (Pudding House, 2001) came out, but this was more a focus on community members who brought their favorite poems to read, than it was a true book party/debut. I read earlier this summer as a stand-in at the very last minute at The Kansas City Literary Festival. I read for ten minutes because someone from NYC didn't show up. I had only been placed on stand-by by becoming quite aggressive—again by e-mail—when I found out in February when I inquired that there were no spots remaining for the likes of me. If I sound bitter, I am. But I don't let it define who I am as a person and a poet. Life is short, that's clear.

Again, thank goodness for Wom-Po! Without the daily posts from others and the ability to get to know several poets via backchannel e-mail over the 3 years I have been a member, I would have almost no contact with the writing world. Luckily even before Wom-Po I had made connections on line, particularly internationally, that have been a mainstay in my life, both as a writer and as a woman. Wom-Po has deepened the connections and opportunities—like being able to answer these questions!

SM     Diagnosed at five with a progressive neurological disorder, my faithful diversion became books and writing. My uncle Bill, formerly a teacher, kept me in reading material during my childhood and at some point in elementary school I was reading at high-school level. And like so many of us, I wrote all through my school years. It was Uncle Ken that rented my first typewriter for me in fifth grade to type my first illustrated book of poetry with a blue cover. My father, who didn't have the luxury of an education, read every day. I owe my love of literature to this rural-rooted family who passed on to me their hunger for and love of "the written word." And perversely, I must give a nod to this illness that has restricted me somewhat in the physical world and redirected my focus into the mental/creative one.

Being supported by Bonnie Roberts, I began writing poetry again after college and began to publish in the late seventies/early eighties. Gradually, the realities of making a living took most of my writing energy. The neurological disorder that had been fairly dormant for years "turned on" in earnest around 1993. I had to leave my job and was entwined in the "medical care machine" dealing with failing mobility and hand function, rupturing disks and spinal stenosis from loss of core strength, and the failure of nerves to my diaphragm that affect breathing. Luckily, even before my early retirement, I had become aware of the growing community of writers on-line. I joined workshops and discussion groups and Wom-Po was one of those. These connections have meant the difference between feeling present or absent in the world.

The difficulty that bears on me sometimes as I'm writing is being so free from external stimuli that the potential of becoming some kind of poetry anchorite is perhaps greater—creating in a vacuum—because sometimes it is these "distractions" of everyday interaction that are the meat of our work. That, too, is less a concern since I first began listening in on the Wom-Po discussion group and joining workshops. I feel there is a more balanced presence in my creative life. The education I'm receiving and poet friends I've made are invaluable.

CM     "It's a girl!" Welcome lifted me into my mother's world. As my two older brothers grew into independence, my mother kept me, her youngest, and only daughter, close. Boys were expected to seek education and training to become future breadwinners. My education was intended to improve my chances for winning a professional husband; I entered Brooklyn College at the age of fifteen and was married by graduation to a dental student about to serve in the Navy.

A mother at 21, I stayed home, avidly read prose literature (television did not exist), but poetry rarely. I'd been trained to please my mother, and I met her expectations fully. Her ideal for a woman was to be supported by a husband, keep a decent home, and to be free of work responsibilities other than to take care of her children (I have two daughters and a son) and, not least, take care of her own mother. She suffered from various illnesses, and by my teens, our relationship was reversed as I sat with her through doctors' office examinations and called her every day to monitor her needs.

At last, in my forties, the desire to write serious poetry emerged from burial within a deep silent void. I'd often "tuned out" while other people were speaking, not aware of what they were saying. I'd attributed the habit to sitting in boring classes from third grade onwards, coming "awake" just in time to raise my hand and state a correct answer. In truth, I'd been diving into the place I now call "the half-dream"—source of creative silence, that marvelous chaos from which we begin to articulate emotional knowledge and, with patience and work, create art.

Feminist consciousness raising was active then, and my own daughters were, in part, role models. Lacking background in the world of written poetry, I went "back to school" for a Master's Degree in English and Comparative Literature. It isn't easy to be older than many of one's teachers, but the young women in my classes valued my presence and felt able to speak to me with greater ease than to their own mothers. Concurrently, I enrolled in poetry workshops at The New School. I fell in love with literary research as well, and wrote my thesis on the role of cinema in the life and work of poet H.D., teaching myself fundamentals of cinema theory.

On my daily visits to my mother, by then terminally ill in a nursing home, she could not understand why I was knocking myself out to study and go through the anxious effort of taking exams. To her, a woman like myself could simply take life easy, and, of course, take care of her sick mother. Finally, she found an answer for herself, and shrugged, saying: "Some people play cards."

A fulfilled individual must have in her life both love and work. Fortunately, I had love—but my mother's training had deprived me of the joy of work. Every poem, as we know, sets up a challenge that requires work; such work opens constant discovery.

My first book, A Disc of Clear Water, offers a sequence of "mother" poems delving into memory and current feelings generated by her constant need of me. Once I had that book in print and "off my head," I felt free to work on the poem-novella which became The Life of Mary, a long poem seen through the consciousness of a young American Jewish mother who becomes obsessed with Michelangelo's Pieta and fears that her son may die. Some ask what could be my connection to this iconic image of another religion. The answer is that I felt my life as "good" daughter-wife-mother resonated with hers on the human level. But to complete that long poem, I had to get away from obligations and interruptions. I cannot overestimate the value to me of hospitality awarded to me by several writers' colonies over the years. In these oases, I assessed myself as viewed by those around me, respected as an artist.

It has been a complicated struggle to separate my own self from the role my daughter has referred to as "assistant liver"—a kind of necessary organ in the body of my family. When I was invited by Yaddo for the first time, I was exhilarated — but then, devastated at the last minute because my father had a stroke, and I had to take care of him instead. During my moment of despair, a poet friend said something to me which saved my artistic life: she said, "Use it as input." And so I worked to translate the silence and despair into poetry, eventually the chapbook titled Keeping Him Alive. In more recent times, my husband needs me to be home, and I can no longer leave to work full time at a writers' colony, or even overnight for a conference. But I remember those words: to use what is happening as input. I have always written poems on marriage—and the theme continues to enter and play into various forms.

The Wom-Po listserve has become an invaluable human and artistic connection for me. I go eagerly to discover what are the latest posts on the list. So many names are now familiar to me that I feel a sisterhood even with those whom I've not yet met in person. I vibrate to their poems, as well as to the poems they recommend by foremothers and others. The individual voices in the anthology Letters to the World speak to me in harmony with feelings of my own. The words within its pages are completely honest—what a blessing in this world of political manipulations of language, of Orwellian doublespeak. I receive encouragement, assistance, and validation of my need to work at writing poetry. Via Wom-Po, I now have sisters who share with me the gift of their own joy of work.

BC     I started my writing journey being completely unconnected, a stay-at-home mom, mother of three, the youngest one with autism. I don't have an MFA or a mentor, and I've never studied with anyone. All of my writing has been done, as Maxine Kumin says, "in the interstices of family life"—during naps, preschool, and the like. Because I couldn't get out, I knew very few other writers, and got my news of poetry happenings via Poets & Writers. But the internet, and more specifically, Wom-Po, changed all that. I got to know names. I became familiar with what other women were writing. I made new friends, even though I've not yet met some of them in person. [As someone who started writing on a manual typewriter, I'm still (a) astonished by computers, and (b) amazed that I have friends I've never seen]. I felt like I was part of a dialogue, part of the river of writing that feeds the lake of literature (Jean Rhys' analogy). While I still couldn't go to things like the AWP conference or the Dodge Festival, I could read about these events when the "wom-ponies" came back from them, and posted reports.

Then my husband took early retirement, and I was able to travel, a bit. Money, though, was an issue. As Christina noted, there are not many social services left in this country (for adults with autism, this is a particularly pressing issue, as there no longer is funding for group homes, transportation, etc.), and so we feel we need to save as much as we can for his future, the one where we're not living. (My social worker has said, "Don't die.") But some things have come up that I couldn't resist, like when I won the Rosebud Ekphrastic Poetry Prize, and was invited, as part of the prize, to do a reading in Madison, WI, with the painting projected behind me. The money that I won wasn't enough for plane fare, hotel room, car rental, so I threw it open to the universe, or rather, the Wom-Po list. And boy, did they come through! Marilyn Taylor picked me up in Milwaukee and drove me to Madison, and she and Wendy Vardaman treated me to lunch. Shoshauna Shy brought me to her house to spend the afternoon, then treated me to dinner, and Susan Elbe put me up overnight. This was the best 48 hours in my writing life! So, being a Wom-Po, for me, is like joining a wonderful sorority of women, seen and unseen. I've gone from being alone (Emily Dickinson in rural Pennsylvania?) to feeling like part of a tribe. And Lettters to the World shows off our crazy quilt of voices, rich and varied, near and far, traditional and experimental, all the voices women have, all of our stories, all of our songs.

Over the years, the list has become sensitive to the fact that many women can't, for various reasons, attend writing conferences. So, we are announcing the very first Wom-Pherence! Here are some of the treasures you will find: BOOK PUBLISHERS' BOOTHS, the WOM-PO POETRY OASIS DAILY, with a poem-a-day from members, OUT LOUD: Wom-Pos Read and Perform Their Poems, with links to recordings online, BOOKSTORE with over 117 titles by Wom-Po members, a slideshow of Wom-Po Authors, a SHOWCASE OF WOM-POETRY JOURNALS of both on-line and in print magazines, INTERNATIONAL POETS: Women Poets from Around the World, PAPERS AND PANELS: From the Classrooms: Women's Poetry from the Academy, From the Back of Beyond and Women's Poetry Outside the Academy.. Also, we have WOM-POS ON-LINE: The Directory, a listing of names and faces; the Sudden Inspiration Writing Gallery with several writing studios; and much more!


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