My poetry collection, the challenging and long overdue Beata Beatrix, has finally been accepted for publication. I am thrilled that it has found a home with Tightrope Books, a press that does such fine work. I began this manuscript, not knowing where it would take me, in 2000 when I took my first creative writing course at Humber College. I have always been fascinated by the 19th century and so I began writing poems about people I found intriguing. It seemed easier to me to write about other people, rather than myself. It gave me a bit of distance from the work. The finished manuscript is based on the life of Elizabeth Siddal, who was married to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Although an artist and poet in her own right, she is best known as a Victorian muse and the inspiration for her husband’s paintings. Although some supported her artistic development, including her husband and the art critic John Ruskin, they did so while upholding the doctrine that a woman’s primary duty was to her family. And so what began as an ekphrastic study of Rossetti’s art transformed into an account of the female artist’s struggle, and as a result folded me as a female poet into the content. The notion of distancing the “I” through a persona became harder to maintain and something I no longer needed. As my confidence increased as a writer, I found that I didn’t require a buffer. This process led me into more questioning and personal territory since the issue of how female artists value their own work is one that I still struggle with. I have always written, and still have the bad high school poetry to prove it, but it wasn’t until I started to take my writing seriously that the issue of balancing creativity and domestic life became very real to me.
The infamous Gloria Steinham statement, “I have yet to hear a man ask how to balance family and a career”, cuts to the heart of the issue of how we value labour. A career is paid labour, a necessity for survival, but also socially valued through its participation in industry and commerce. Raising a family, housework, carpooling to soccer, may also be a necessity, but as unpaid labour it is socially devalued. In today’s society the discrepancies between men and women in the workforce and at home are eroding, and so the balancing act is one that both sexes must negotiate. My point is, then what, if the statement is “I have yet to hear a man ask how to balance family and creativity.” Women typically spend more time with small children, feeding and diapering, and then when they are older, being on school committees, attending teacher conferences, and driving them to practice. I hear many female writers talking about how they divide their time, giving each other advice on how to manage it all. It is true I hear men discussing a similar issue — how to divide time between the unpaid labour of writing and the paid labour of a job. Do you write early in the morning before work or after work when you get home? In the evenings after the kids are in bed? Weekends? But for female writers the issue is a bit different. Since taking care of the kids and house is unpaid labour and then writing is also (for most of us) unpaid labour, the female author is saddled with a double guilt. And by “the female author” I mean me. Not only do I have no income-producing career, I am spending my free time on a labour that brings in no additional household revenue. When I am writing, there is also the guilt that I am taking time away from my daughter. This was especially true when she was younger. And for the first few years of her life, I pretty much stopped everything and focused solely on her. Getting back into it afterwards was hard and I still flounder at times. I have to remind myself that my writing time is not to be compromised and I have to remind others that I am working, which is not an easy thing to do when work is writing poetry.
Most of my family and friends view my writing as a hobby and something that can be easily postponed for more important things, like talking to them on the phone. They would never call their husbands at work and expect them to drop everything to have a little chat about the funny thing their cat just did. But in their defense, it is hard for them to see writing as “real” work. Hell, it is hard for me to see it that way sometimes. A necessity of my life, most definitely, but something that takes time away from other responsibilities and domestic duties is hard to validate. As with any art, people see it as work when you get paid for it, otherwise it is a hobby that has to fit around everything else. Unpaid labour is seen as wasted time, art an indulgence. An equal division of labour is, in fact, in many cases an unattainable ideal. For my part, I consider myself lucky that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with my daughter when she was young and the opportunity to publish so many excellent poetry books. In the last ten years or so I have published over twenty books through Palimpsest, yet I have written only one. It is hard to justify time for writing when the process for me is so slow going. Most people like to see the tangible results of work, such as a published book in hand, but for many writers this is a lengthy process and one that is unquantifiable.
I have been told, more than once, a statement that begins, “it must be nice that you have the time to…”. The truth is that I didn’t and still don’t have the time. But for people that are driven to create art, whatever their medium, they just do it. There are times when the dishes are heaped in the sink, the laundry piled on the floor, and I am writing at four in the morning. And it makes me wonder about Elizabeth Siddal. Here I am, in the 21st century, with all my conveniences, a microwave, dishwasher and so on, and I am struggling to find the time and to give myself permission. I’m in awe of this woman who faced such enormous challenges. How did she, in the Victorian age, find the strength to move out of her father’s house as an unmarried woman and pursue her own artistic interests? After her death it is true that biographers whitewashed her reputation and put her more in line with that of a domestic Victorian muse, but she wasn’t so passive, at least not in the beginning of her romance with Rossetti. This was a woman who had the audacity to have business cards printed that identified her as an “artist.” This, in a time, when male artists had a precarious reputation at best. All this is to say that in the past women’s creative lives demanded fearlessness and a certain amount of spunk, and yet even now they continue to be a challenge. The question of how to balance creativity with domestic life remains an important issue. Having supportive family and friends is vital, and yet I find it difficult to ask them to give me the time needed when I have to convince both them and myself that my creative life is more important than ironing.
The one creative act that women have been honoured for is childbirth. And this is where the Siddal story becomes so fascinating. Siddal was sick with an unknown “female malady.” She became weak and suffered recurrent bouts of depression. There was no known biological root to her illness, and recent historians have suggested everything from anorexia to bi-polar disease. Physicians suspected that she was draining her energy through the creation of her art, and when she became pregnant she was strictly ordered not to work on her drawings and to remain in bed. She was not to direct her creative energy into anything other than the new life developing in her body. As a poet in the 21st century it is easy to see the death of her stillborn child as a metaphor for her repressed creativity. Her art was dead and so was her child. Of course, as a human story it is much more tragic. A woman with so much potential, driven to a life of volatility, filled with personal betrayals, depression, drug addiction and suicide. I am left wondering how many others there were like her. So many other women, then as now, who crave a life of fulfillment, a life filled with art and passion and love, and they end up defeated, both metaphorically and literally. Certainly Siddal’s Victorian world played an important role in her gradual deadening, but that isn’t the entire explanation. Is it the artistic calling itself? Do artists possess a certain disposition that leads to self-destruction? Am I romanticizing tragedy? Am I complicit in idealizing the muse? What makes a person creative? How is value assigned to works of art? These are just some of the questions I grapple with in my collection. And in many ways the questions go unanswered, and yet I feel they are important questions for any writer to wrestle with. At some point all writers should look back to those creative individuals who came before and try to answer basic questions about art and living as an artist. While I don’t think there are definitive answers, looking to the past demonstrates how the artistic life can take its toll and reveal the sacrifices that have been made. While some have suffered for their art, others have been able to negotiate this slippery terrain with determination and grace.
Perhaps lessons can be learned, and at least for me, my exhumation of the past has shown me that repressing who we are has tragic outcomes. I am no longer going to be a closet poet. My creative life has value, even if it is merely a personal one, and I should nurture it and protect it as I would something else of great value. I have never doubted where my passion lies, and yet I have struggled to find acceptance in who I am and the choices I have made for as long as I can remember. This inner conflict is due in no small part to the labels I have been saddled with over the years — emotional, melodramatic, unstable — in other words, a 19th century description of woman. I now realize that other’s opinions don’t really matter. I have always been raw in my emotions, and as self-defense, I have unsuccessfully tried to bury them. People will always label behaviours they don’t understand. I shouldn’t expect others to understand why I invest in a business that consistently looses money, why crowds of people cause me anxiety, why nightmares stalk me in the daytime, why I write poetry at four in the morning, or why I write poetry at all. The truth is that behind the façade of normalcy we all have our particular brand of insecurities, fears, passions and compulsions. It is a matter of habit now for me to hide behind my own well-crafted façade of distancing silence. But if I have learned anything over the years, it is that trying to explain myself to others is a useless endeavour. Living a life of authenticity has always been of the utmost importance to me, although I haven’t always been able to live up to that ideal. I should view myself as fortunate that I live in a place and a time that gives me such opportunities. I can list dozens of female artists who had to face overt sexism and overcome family objections to their artistic pursuits. My small tribulations and inner conflicts seem minimal in comparison. It’s true that my family and friends haven’t always been supportive of what I do, and yet I have never tried to impress upon them how important it is to me. Siddal’s story continues to remind me of that importance.