Rachel Bower is an award-winning writer from Bradford. Her poems and stories have been widely published, including in Anthropocene, The London Magazine, Magma, New Welsh Reader and Stand. She is the author of Moon Milk (Valley Press, 2018) and a book on literary letters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Rachel won The London Magazine Short Story Prize 2019/20 and the W&A Short Story Competition 2020. She has had work commissioned by BBC Radio, the British Library and Poet in the City, and she is currently editing an anthology with Simon Armitage (Faber & Faber). She is also a beekeeper, a wild swimming enthusiast and the founder of Wild Writes workshops.
Where did you get your inspiration for writing your collection? I noticed a lot of seemingly astrological, mythological and some modern day references throughout. I'd love to hear more.
The collection grew out of my first poetry book, Moon Milk, published by Valley Press in 2017. Moon Milk explored experiences of pregnancy, loss, and early motherhood. The final poem in that book opens out: it is about making connections between experiences in Sheffield (UK) and Aleppo (Syria). The poem seeks to explore the ways in which, if we push towards encounters in which people understand each other as more fully human – even if they are in radically different situations – we might then be able to envisage different kinds of society: less unequal structures in which people are treated with dignity, respect and fairness. The new collection, These Mothers of Gods, attempts this kind of work – I see it as a project which takes inspiration from people like Edward Said (on critical humanism), Martha Nussbaum (on the power of empathy in literature) and Priyamvada Gopal (on agency and resistance). It is about approaching some of the experiences that have been erased from official histories; about trying to expose the connections between different people and places, and to bring neglected stories to the fore.
You have said that “the book seeks to recover the lived experiences of women who have often appeared only fleetingly in official histories, and also pushes towards a more expansive understanding of ‘motherhood’, inclusive of broader urgent issues about gender and our collective responsibilities for lives, environments and natural worlds.” Can you tell me why you wanted to focus on these areas/issues as a writer?
Yes, thank you. There is a welcome and growing body of poetry on motherhood and related issues. This marks a shift (a fact that is still surprising) –I wrote a review article about this which explains more about this a couple of years ago for Wild Court: (https://wildcourt.co.uk/features/1869/)
However, this body of work is still very partial, and I wanted to write about those figures and experiences that are often pushed to the margins – or who only appear in historical traces. In a way, my work remains very influenced by Amitav Ghosh’s project of painstaking imaginative recovery in In An Antique Land: attempting to creatively recover the lived realities of those people who did not have the power to inscribe themselves physically on time.
At the same time, I wanted to write a book that connected this project up with our wider collective responsibilities for each other and our environments: an intersectional poetics that connects issues of race, gender, class and sexuality. There is a very conservative impulse which often rears its head when we think about the notion of ‘our’ children – and the collection tries to make a case for rejecting this individualised concept of protecting the privileges of one’s offspring. The collection also rejects rigid biological notions of the ‘mother’, and instead hopes to think more broadly about the many different kinds of labour that contribute towards collective ‘mothering’ in our communities – inclusive of the work of teachers, cleaners, neighbours and librarians, for example. I hope that this might help us to dislodge these rigid notions of the mother, and open all of this up for discussion and critique.
While reading, there was a sense of claustrophobia or being trapped in places. Was this something you wanted to portray?
This is interesting. I am not sure. I think there is an intense claustrophobia that comes both with young children and the rigid expectations of how mothering should take place, whether this manifests in being stuck in particular physical spaces, or in something more like one’s own head. The poems seek to explore this, and to think about how it might be cracked, or forced open somehow.
One other theme I noticed reoccurring in the collection was loss. Can you tell me more about this?
I think it is important to talk about those experiences which have been historically shrouded in shame or secrecy, and loss is one of these. On an individual scale, it seems that hiding issues like miscarriage and baby loss, which are more commonly experienced than most people realise, only serves prejudice and taboo. I hope that contributing to an open conversation around these issues might allow more people to connect - and that we will be stronger for that.
There is also the less obvious kinds of loss that we all experience in relation to those we give our care to – and some of the poems relate to this.
And there is also, of course, the incredibly traumatic experiences of loss that are the result of the systematic oppression of particular groups or communities, as with colonialism. The collection tries to approach and address these legacies of colonialism, without appropriation. I am obviously aware of my own privileged position as a white cis woman, and the ways in which I, like so many women, continue to benefit from this. We can’t have gender equality without racial equality; we can’t have racial equality without economic equality; we can’t have economic equality without gender equality. I am not sure if I always get it right in the collection, and I still have a vast amount of work to do, but I hope that by careful research, thought and reading, I can continue to improve my efficacy as an ally.
On a practical note, how do you find time to write as a parent?
I squeeze it in the gaps! It is definitely difficult, and I don’t always manage it, but I write when I can – any words are better than no words!
I know you teach Creative Writing. Do you have any tips for parents who want to fit writing into their busy routine?
I find that planning ahead (i.e. looking at when a 30 minute gap might arise) and planning what I might write in that can work. There is also what some people call ‘snack’ writing – writing whenever and wherever you can. Take a notebook with you/ record ideas on your phone/ write it on receipts – any writing is better than no writing!
Free writing (writing without stopping without censoring yourself) can be great for freeing up ideas, and producing words in a non-pressurised way. I also think that the advice about leaving your writing on a ‘downhill slope’ is great – so that you mark exactly what you will do next time you come back to it. Try not to beat yourself up about it – write ten words a day and eventually they’ll add up!
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