Poets in Conversation: Anna Laura Reeve
How did the poem “The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale” come into being? Tell us a little about the origin, inspiration, or circumstances surrounding it.
A few years into parenthood, I was still trying to figure out what had happened to me in the first year of my daughter’s life. On the surface, I was lucky to have a healthy kid and stable finances and a loving—if not always available—partner, and those pieces of “luck” ran on a loop in my head whenever I wondered if I was supposed to be happy. Like most mothers, at least where I live in the South, I was terrified of being called crazy, ill, unstable, incompetent, or selfish. I had tried for a year to get pregnant, and I was also afraid of being shamed for my ambivalence about something I had wanted for so long. Ultimately, though I definitely had postpartum depression and/or anxiety—and serious long-term sleep deprivation and pelvic dysfunction from birth trauma—I never got a mental health diagnosis of any kind.
Once I started to catch up on sleep, I started writing again. I’d been kicking around the idea of returning to this mental health screening that different providers had handed me in early postpartum, and I knew it would be generative, because I hated it. I hated that this screening was so vague, confusing, brief, and disconnected from (my) reality. I hated that it was so easy for providers to administer and score that it had become our medical system’s primary way of “caring” for new mothers’ mental health (without having to care at all). I hated how its design allowed some of the sickest women to easily and silently slip through its cracks. I had so much anger as a new mom that I didn’t know how to safely express, and while I’ve been writing for a long time—and have had my life changed by the angriest poems of our feminist foremothers—I wasn’t used to writing into anger myself. But one week when my daughter was 3, I joined a poetry sprint with my friend, poet Mary Romero, and wrote one poem as an “answer” for every question on the scale.
How did the poem find its form, this kind of self-evaluative retort to the Postnatal Depression Scale? Did you begin with the scale or weave the scale’s form into something you'd already written (or something else)?
This questionnaire for new mothers, the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, is a self-reported instrument that’s supposed to relay mental health red flags back to providers. But postpartum depression is so common, so poorly defined and studied, so dangerous (to mom and baby), and so stigmatized, that self-reported evaluations like this are often such trash. Here in the deeply evangelical South, especially, mothers are not only deprived of a safe place to talk about tricky mental health issues, they are also deprived of the vocabulary they would need to talk about what’s happening to them, or warned away from using it. The dark side of motherhood really didn’t exist in public, where I grew up, except as horror stories about transgressive mothers, meant to inspire fear and a definite sense of what a mother is allowed to be, do, or feel. For a couple years after becoming a mother, I felt stuck, a bit gagged, and finding this structure was really freeing.
It seems like “list” poems and essays are falling out of favor, but for the sleep deprived, creatively blocked, or individuals at a life crossroads, lists and other simple structures can be so good at getting frozen gears moving again! In many ways, I felt like I was starting my poetry practice over at zero, and writing a poem from a “list” of prompts felt, initially, like writing an acrostic, or abecedarian, like I was starting over with the alphabet. I didn’t know what I had to teach myself, but I needed to teach myself something, I needed to experiment, and feel out the edges of my experience. For me, it was perfect.
How did/has being a new parent affected your practice of poetry? To what other poles–other poets, other practices–did/do you look to in the new season the poem describes?
For me, the best writing breakthroughs happen during life shifts when I feel unmoored and lost. I end up switching forms, tone, spacing, and even writing spots to help me get traction. I guess it’s a truism, that desperate times require desperate measures, etc., but about the time I was working on this poem I participated in one of Ellen Bass’s virtual workshops—this one was on revision. She quoted a Chinese proverb (I’ve tried so hard to find its origins online and totally failed—if you know more about this saying, please tell me!) that says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, go by a way you don’t know.” I quote it in another poem in my debut collection coming out in April, Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility, in a poem called “Vasilisa.” It stuck to me, because of course this is what I do with poetry: as I am reborn into a new time and a new body, I need new ideas and symbols to sound out, to see what they can tell me about my transformation. So, experimentation with writing and thinking have been my biggest gifts from parenthood.
When the BPJ editorial board gathers for selecting poems, it has been our tradition to cook and share soups and stews. Do you have a favorite comfort food (or food tradition) that sustains you? Would you be willing to share a recipe?
While the best soup I ever made was a Tuscan white bean soup (with homemade stock, heirloom vegetables, and sourdough bread), and my favorite food is pizza (after all this time? Always), when it comes to comfort food I have to give you that classic staple of the South: beans and cornbread. I grew up eating pinto beans with diced sweet onion sprinkled on top, and a tall, unsweetened skillet cornbread with really crunchy edges—probably at least once a week. Historically, as you may know, it’s really a clever way for cash-strapped families to get that amino acid combo that beans and corn make together (like any of the classic grain-legume combos across the world), but cleverness aside, it’s delicious.
My cornbread is only a little different from my mom’s—I use buttermilk instead of milk, and fine, flavorful heirloom cornmeal from corn I’ve grown, or my farmer friends have grown, instead of coarse-ground yellow Hodgson Mill cornmeal. It’s frankly killer, and—since neither my husband nor my kid like it that much—when I make it, I make it as a gift to my own soul. And I eat the whole thing, with butter and sorghum. Here’s my recipe:
Buttermilk Skillet Cornbread
makes one 8” round
1 ½ cups buttermilk
¼ cup mild-flavored oil
1 ½ cups fine cornmeal
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp butter