Why childbirth?

A question for Holly Melgard

Holly Melgard, reading at Grey Borders, St. Catherine's, ON

Sometime around late August/early September, I had lunch with one of the young women writers I see often in New York. She told me she had recently been to a reading in Philadelphia where Holly Melgard had, as she described, “performed childbirth, not actual childbirth, obviously, but just like made noises like she was in labor, and it was really loud, and people were really upset by it.” This performance apparently caused a great reaction. A number of people were furious, some felt insulted; why would some young girl who has never had a baby do something like that? That's what it seemed to boil down to, according to my friend.

Well, only Holly Melgard can answer that. But let's not pretend the WHY question is really just about explanation. Discussion about a controversial choice made by an artist opens up opportunities for all kinds of analysis. And with the sharp increase in people choosing to not bear children, emotions on this issue seem to be running high in our culture. From what I'd heard, Melgard landed herself squarely in the middle of it when she performed in Philly.

The question of child-bearing doesn't come up often in the poetry context, but sometimes it can feel all too central to the daily conversations of women. That's how it sometimes feels to me, a person with a few gray hairs who could produce a revealing conceptual poem listing all the “guesses” people have offered about my reasons for not having children. But I've also heard pregnant women and new mothers say they feel aggressed often and as such. This all plays a part in why I am interested in the intensity of reaction to Holly’s piece.

One could be tempted to ask, has the decision to bear children ever been so politicized? Short answer: probably yes. Even Emma Goldman's essays on the matter show she was of several minds on the issue. So, knowing nothing of Holly Melgard's thinking on this, mostly just hoping for more dialogue on the topic, I asked her “Why childbirth.” Here's her response:

For some reason, this question has been coming up ever since my poem “Divisions of Labor” received disapproving sentiments at the Philly reading last summer.

“Divisions of Labor” is a transcribed, alphabetized list of sounds and phrases from childbirth scenes on Youtube. The first page of the poem (composed for sound, not yet available in print) reads, “a/ ah / ahh / ahhhh / ahhhhhhhhhhhh / am / an / anesthesia / are / arrrrrrrrrrr / asshole / ayahhhh / aye / ayyyy” and so on.

The vocal audience feedback was surprisingly generous: Laughter, groans, and stink-eyes during the reading, followed by reports that it was “fun”, “boring”, “sad”, “ambient”, “offensive”, “scary” and even “unwelcome”. Minus the details on process, to me the poem sounded generic, like just another Dada sound-poem, alphabetized list, transcription or conceptual poem. But friends and acquaintances told me afterward that “a poem involving childbirth” is “brave” for a “woman who has never been in labor” and “has no children of her own.”

I don’t get it. Was the poem “brave” because it wasn’t an authentic representation of childbirth? As one who participated in my own birth, have I not been in labor before? Are there any subjects who have never been in labor, or just subject positions for claiming that labor? Is poetic labor only authenticated through given subject positions? Although female labor has been historically aligned with the not-yet-articulate feminine, it sounds like the mother speaks louder than any other in the birthing scene. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? I’m told a poem that says “fuck you” at a reading is somehow a different poem when said directly to a child. How do babies manage to trigger so many reflexes? If the political category of “labor” is a construction site, then what forms of labor go undocumented when “articulation” is only read through single subject positions?

Uncertainty is a liminal but essential ingredient in experimental writing. The sheer range of attunement to the work audible in the acoustic feedback from the Philly audience was an encouraging welcome for the poem. I mean, why not childbirth?

For more, check out Holly's amazing book Shapes for Baby, or listen to her on Pennsound.