This week’s pick: J. Hope Stein, a poet based in New York City. Her latest book, “Little Astronaut,” is brimming with endearing poems about first-time motherhood.
Why we selected her: Stein may have written about her own unique experiences in “Little Astronaut,” but her poetry is electrified and elevated by its universal quality. Poems like “I don’t have a bed” and “The closeness of food” oscillate between dry humor and tenderness, eventually finding a comforting middle ground wherein readers can immerse themselves. The first poem, for which the book was named, acts as a powerful thesis for each entry that follows: “a newborn rests her head on the earth of mother and father,” she writes, “everything else is outer space.”
ALL ARTS: How did “Little Astronaut” develop?
Jennifer Hope Stein: I was working with Mike Birbiglia (my husband) on his show “The New One,” which is on Broadway now at The Cort Theatre. And I was referencing my journals filled with notes, lines, poems and observations from pregnancy, early motherhood and weaning. Three of the poems ended up being in the show. “Little Astronaut” includes those three pieces plus additional writings from that time period.
AA: You previously said that the poems were written when it seemed as if the country was being “torn apart.” Can you expand upon that? I’m wondering how those external tensions came through in — or influenced — your writing.
JHS: It’s hard for me to find the language to answer this question without being a part of the divisiveness that plays into the hands of those who thrive on our division. There are so many ways of communicating now — email, interview, social media — but they feel broken to me. I think maybe only in poetry is there hope of a human exchange. Poetry or a long road trip.
I am thinking of the poise and power and master linguistics of Gwendolyn Brooks to cut through this noise and speak in a way that people can hear.
AA: You’ve mentioned that the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ilya Kaminsky were fresh on your mind when writing “Little Astronaut.” In what other works did you find inspiration?
JHS: I was reading about planetary extinction. And writing a series of poems called “Conversations With Earth” for another book I’m working on. Parts of “Little Astronaut,” including the poem titled “little astronaut,” came from that manuscript and leaped over to this one. But mostly I was listening to the sounds of [my daughter] Oona. Each night she gets into bed with a few books and builds a rocket ship with her pillows and goes… “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.. blast off … into reading space…”
I was also inspired by “First Kiss” by Kim Addonizio and the visual artist SWOON. I was looking at Sanskrit love poems and Cid Corman’s “The Famous Blue Aerogrammes” for form. I was probably also thinking of Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets” and Anne Carson’s “Glass, Irony and God” when writing the longer piece about weaning, as well as The Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Biodiversity, Marine Life, Dinosaurs and Origin of Man. I had been reading various translations and memorizing the poems of Paul Celan, and “HERE” by Richard McGuire. I was reading Yoko Ono’s books “Grapefruit” and “Acorn.” They were very influential.
AA: If your child were to one day stumble upon these poems, what do you hope they’d come away with?
JHS: Well, she knows some of the poems. She was there when I wrote them and I read the ones I thought she would like to her, like “lullaby” and “little astronaut.” She was a part of writing a few of them. “Wean” was a plan we recited together to get us through weaning. And she knows there’s some of them she can’t read until she’s older.
But she is much more interested in her own book of poetry: “Pickles, Pickles, Pickles, Times Squares.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Top Image: Courtesy of Claire Keane