Hoems are tiny poems about home. They explore the isolation, intimacy, and incompletion that take place in the midst of housekeeping, caregiving, the domestic everyday. They contemplate what these challenges mean in their extremity and have meant for art-making for as long as women have been relegated to the domestic sphere. Where are the children while the art is being made? Who keeps the house while the books are being written? Who washed John Donne’s breakfast dishes? Who made Frost’s bed? Who cleaned Coleridge’s underwear? What poems would that person write?
I began posting hoems on Twitter in 2012. That winter I had moved to a new city and given birth. I wanted to write poems regularly, but found that my time to write came in fleeting fragments, and my progress was mostly limited to the diminishing space available in my short-term memory. I wanted to find a poetic form that would make it possible for me to say at the end of the day that I had written something. I wanted to say things about the reality I was actually living in, but I had not read much poetry that reflected anything about the domestic. Is the domestic taboo in poetry? In art? In public? With these tiny poems, I was looking for a language for all the labour that goes unseen and unacknowledged, the work that’s only noticed when it’s left undone.
At that time, I wrote the following about the project, mostly to myself, to articulate what I was attempting to do:
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Winter. While breastfeeding I try to reread Einstein’s Dreams. For the most part my son won’t stand for it, but every now and then, when he’s particularly engaged with my breast, and I have enough dexterity to manage him in one arm and a book in another, I get through a chapter. This is a good book for breastfeeding, because the chapters are usually about 3 pages long, and also because they are about how time alters like breath. And new parenthood is all about that.
Amidst the isolation and exhaustion of new parenthood: the compression of available writing time into minutes of naptime. The compression of time in general. A race against the clock to shower, to eat. A gamble against his good mood to accomplish this or that task that six months ago would have been done without thought.
When you don’t have a kid, it seems like people are talking all the time about how hard parenting is. But once you do have a kid, it seems like it’s all forced smiles and stiff upper lip, like no one you know is honest about their exhaustion, their ambivalence. Winter rolls into spring, and I am most surprised not by how hard it is, but by the lack of support so total that when my mother-in-law shows up to visit for a week I actually weep for joy.
But then, no one talks about the difficulties of home either, other than advertisers. Advertisers are the only ones who talk about it, and sometimes sitcoms. If television is to be believed, my husband is a mouth-breathing knuckle-dragger who would inadvertently strangle himself with the cord to the vacuum cleaner if I weren’t around to supervise him. Also, I am a long-suffering harpy. I smell laundry, worship my dishwasher, and fantasize about other people’s kids wanting me to be their mother. Mom is The Ultimate Consumer. My husband and I watch television at night in a stupor and feel like visitors from Marx. — Typo. I mean Mars. But either one works. We find late-phase capitalism confusing. But then, we’re not getting a lot of sleep these days.
You know that saying, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle?” It is true. The battle is against trash day and toilet augers and diaper laundry and the landlord and and and… Whether we are married, single, widowed, breeders, or childless, there are things that have to be done daily, sometimes difficult things, sometimes boring things, sometimes things that are no big deal on their own, but when you add up all the time you spend doing them, you spend more time washing the dishes, wiping handprints off the refrigerator, scooping shit out of the litter box, than you do drinking wine, contemplating the tea kettle, or having sex. Yet I’ve read way more poems about teakettles and sex than I have about trying to clean the gasket around your dishwasher. I mean, have you ever tried to clean that fucking thing? Why aren’t people talking about this bullshit?
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Somehow, I continue to review books for a few publications. This is perhaps foolish of me in the early days, as I have not yet figured out a reliable shower routine let alone carved out time for anything resembling thought. I will have little memory of what I have read once the reviews are published. But it is nice to have some intellectual pursuit when everything else is so…physical. I read in fits and starts and stolen naptime moments. The books are good, or rather, it’s good to read books.
Time passes. Not a lot of time. Weeks. It feels like a lot of time as it’s passing, but it’s really just a couple of months. The baby sleeps through the night. I sleep through the night. A fog lifts, and I realize the full extent of my exhaustion. But I also begin to manage it. The baby is open to routines. He becomes more predictable, forgiving. With greater confidence I agree to some more reviewing. Reading is good, isn’t it?
Maybe it’s just a rough batch of books, but I’m surprised to find a lot of poetry cloyingly…contemplative. When did everything get so freakin’ deep? Maybe my boredom is petty: why should I expect that the life I’m living — intensely, without pause, and with great difficulty — to be visible in other people’s writing? That’s not fair. It’s not about me. (Sometimes I think that’s going to be on my headstone: “It’s not about me.”) But as I read on I start to feel like it’s not just an absence of my reality in these books, but an absence of just plain old reality. In a book of, say, seventy poems, how can all seventy be the product of some kind of uninterrupted reverie? Doesn’t this poet’s phone ever ring? Doesn’t he ever have to go to the bathroom? I find these omissions distracting.
Maybe it’s the fault of Rachel Zucker, whose article in The Believer I had recently read over a week’s worth of naptimes. Maybe her unease was contagious. Within the same week or two (who knows; the compression of time), I had also read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I had problems with the piece, mostly because I think my husband faces a lot of the same challenges I do as a parent and worker. Also, I am not high-paid or high-powered. But I was interested in applying her ideas and arguments to an artist’s life, family, finances. I didn’t know I was interested in that as I was reading, but reading all this epiphanic, freaking transcendent poetry, I am realizing that these articles scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.
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I think about silence. The silence of feeding him in the middle of the night, alone, watching the trees move in the dark outside his window. I think of his silence, the parts of him that are locked away until he has language. I think about the silence I keep, all the things I’m not supposed to say about motherhood. I think about all the things my husband was never told or taught about babies or caregiving because he was a boy, a language he wasn’t given. When I am walking to the park or feeding my son or falling asleep (it is always in those last moments of the day that my brain trembles with the desire to be used), I think about what I would write if I had time to write, if there were time to be something other than silent. I don’t write, not yet, but I think about a poetry of the unimportant.
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I actually think this is a tension I’ve felt for a long time about poetry. It seems like a problem of class. As someone who grew up in a working class home and has grown up to work in the arts, I have spent a lot of time wondering how people in the arts manage to pay the bills. I have read whole poetry books with the thought lingering at the back of my head, ‘Yeah, but how are you paying the rent?’, ‘How can you afford to live out there in the woods?’, ‘Does your wife support you? Your parents?’ These omissions are distracting. I tend to chalk up my distraction to jealousy or voyeurism or anything that’s a sin and not a virtue. I think about a poetry where people talk about their account balances.
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I have great respect for single people. I was one for a long time, and for a long time I thought I would remain one. I respect the unique challenges of living life without a partner, the stigmas one faces and the uncertainties about the future. I don’t begrudge single or childless people their relative freedom or their relative abundance of free time. But it is silly for me to write poems as though I am still a single woman.
When I want to take a shower, I consult with at least one person beforehand. Sometimes the same goes for when I go to the bathroom, when I eat, when I use the telephone, and it certainly goes for when I sit down to write. Shouldn’t a trace of those negotiations, which are now part of my writing practice, be somewhere evident in my writing? Shouldn’t my poems look something like my life? What does life look like?
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I am grateful when a friend far away emails me a poem. I feel remembered, and I feel remembered as someone who likes poems. The poem is by Joe Brainard:
oh, I don’t know.
I read it over and over again. I circle back to my desk throughout the day to look at it on my screen, so short and, more excitingly, so lacking in ambition. I am doubly grateful, as the little poem gives me the grand permission* to be brief and to say something unimportant. I decide to write little poems. I decide not to think about their quality or their import. They will be an experiment. I decide to post the on Twitter, in case there were other parents or poets or people who are interested. I decide to call them hoems.
(*Another friend gives me a book for my birthday called, “The Grand Permission: new writings on poetic and motherhood.” It is a thick book. I haven’t finished reading it yet.)
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When I first started to post hoems, I was interested in the shocks of insight that come from child-rearing, housekeeping, and all things domestic. Now I would say almost the opposite: I am interested in a slow revelation, a gradual putting of words to what one already knows, what one takes for granted in the monotony and immersion of the domestic sphere. There will be no shocks here; they may even be no insights. This is a poetry of routine.
How do we talk about the very, very familiar? Or, more precisely, why do we resist talking about it? What would happen if I obeyed the urge to write about my son’s naps and diapers, how my husband and I negotiate marriage and parenthood – in short, my true circumstances? If I don’t write about those things, what am I saying about their importance, their place in my life? How am I dishonouring parenthood, homemaking — these pursuits (vocations?) that I have in common with generations of women (and some men) in my family and outside my family.
Why is letting my spouse or kid or parents or insurance agent show up in my poems the poetic equivalent of dropping the boom into the shot?
Where does this leave a writer?
And where does it leave readers? Is this part of why people don’t read poetry? Maybe people don’t want epiphanies or vicarious journeys into the woods. Maybe they just want somebody to say how life sometimes, if just, oh I don’t know.
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I make mistakes. I change my mind. I feel embarrassed. I think about editing. I think about it as another kind of silence.
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In their brevity the hoems might resemble tanka or haiku, but they are more like jokes. One-liners.
Are jokes undignified? All of this is undignified. Or it is the most dignified.
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There is no such thing as unskilled labour.