Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz joins us today to talk about her narrative poetry collection How to Love the Empty Earth. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Vulnerable, beautiful and ultimately life-affirming, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work reaches new heights in her revelatory seventh collection of poetry. Continuing in her tradition of engaging autobiographical work, How to Love the Empty Air explores what happens when the impossible becomes real―for better and for worse. Aptowicz’s journey to find happiness and home in her ever-shifting world sees her struggling in cities throughout America. When her luck changes―in love and in life―she can’t help but “tell the sun / tell the fields / tell the huge Texas sky…. / tell myself again and again until I believe it.” However, the upward trajectory of this new life is rocked by the sudden death of the poet’s mother. In the year that follows, Aptowicz battles the silencing power of grief with intimate poems burnished by loss and a hard-won humor, capturing the dance that all newly grieving must do between everyday living and the desire “to elope with this grief, / who is not your enemy, / this grief who maybe now is your best friend. / This grief, who is your husband, / the thing you curl into every night, / falling asleep in its arms…” As in her award-winning The Year of No Mistakes, Aptowicz counts her losses and her blessings, knowing how despite it all, life “ripples boundless, like electricity, like joy / like… laughter, irresistible and bright, / an impossible thing to contain.”
What’s Cristin’s favorite bit?
CRISTIN O’KEEFE APTOWICZ
My mother—as the best mothers always are—was my biggest fan. As a writer, this would manifest in a many ways: she was my pushiest editor (“You mean you haven’t finished the book yet? What’s taking so long!?”), my most aggressive Amazon reviewer (always the first to review, and always under her Amazon pseudonym “S. McGoo” lest her review be stricken from the site for sharing my last name!), and the most ardent spokesperson for my projects (she literally walked around with totes bags with my book covers printed on them, and “MY DAUGHTER’S BOOK” emblazoned, all caps, underneath). And as a poet, she was also a rich source of writing inspiration: a hilarious, uncompromising Philly broad whose loving intrusions into her daughter’s life were endlessly quotable.
When my mother unexpectedly passed away in May of 2015, I was devastated. She was my north star, the light I guided my life by, and to move through life without her seemed impossible. Of my five member family, she and I were the only true book lovers, consistently recommending books to each other that we knew the other would love, or which could be useful in helping us get through life’s latest hurtle. One of my clearest thoughts I remember after my mother’s death was wishing she could recommend me some books to help me deal with her loss!
Luckily, my friends in the writing community filled in the gap, and gifted me the books I needed: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Dear Darkness by Kevin Young, the poetry anthology The Art of Losing edited by Kevin Young, and Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelson, among many, many others. Those books kept me afloat. And writing my own book about my experiences felt like giving back to the community of writers who held me together when it felt like my world was coming apart.
When I shared an early draft of my How to Love the Empty Air manuscript with one of my early editors, she gave me a note I wasn’t expecting: “I wish we had some more poems about your mother before she passed…”
The comment shocked me! Poems about my mother could be found throughout each of my previous six collections. The first poem in my first ever book was titled “Mother” even! But I knew what she meant. Readers coming to this book might never have read my previous collections, and before I talked about losing her, I needed to show them what made her so incredibly funny, and unique, and perfectly herself.
It was an interesting part of my grieving process to step away from my poems about her loss, and go back further in my writing, to the ones I had written before her death. My favorite of these is the poem “My Mother Wants to Know I’m Dead” (below) which was essentially a narrated transcription of an actual email my mother sent me shortly after I arrived at the Amy Clampitt House, a writing residency where I would be the soul occupant in snowy, rural Massachusetts.
The spirit of this poem feels so uniquely my mother: pushy, and blunt, and hilarious, but absolutely steeped in love. However, what I have learned in sharing this piece at readings is that this poem represents a lot of people’s mothers. Passive aggressive text messaging may in fact be the official preferred love language for 21st century mothers! And the joy this poem brings to people—who recognize themselves and their own mothers in it—warms my heart.
It also serves as proof that the joy that people bring to others doesn’t need to end with their deaths; as long as we remember them for how they truly, hilariously, and perfectly were, the joy they bring can be boundless.
My Mother Wants to Know if I’m Dead
ARE YOU DEAD? is the subject line of her email.
The text outlines the numerous ways she thinks
I could have died: slain by an axe-murderer, lifeless
on the side of a highway, choked to death by smoke
since I’m a city girl and likely didn’t realize you needed
to open the chimney flue before making a fire (and,
if I do happen to be alive, here’s a link to a YouTube
video on fireplace safety that I should watch). Mom
muses about the point of writing this email. If I am
already dead, which is what she suspects, I wouldn’t
be able to read it. And if I’m alive, what kind of daughter
am I not to write her own mother to let her know
that I’ve arrived at my fancy residency, safe and sound,
and then to immediately send pictures of everything,
like I promised her! If this was a crime show, she posits,
the detective might accuse her of sending this email
as a cover up for murder. How could she be the murderer,
if she wrote an email to her daughter asking if she was murdered?
her defense lawyers would argue at the trial. In fact,
now that she thinks of it, this email is the perfect alibi
for murdering me. And that is something I should
definitely keep in mind, if I don’t write her back
as soon as I have a free goddamn second to spare.
CRISTIN O’KEEFE APTOWICZ is the author of six previous books of poetry—Dear Future Boyfriend; Hot Teen Slut; Working Class Represent; Oh, Terrible Youth; Everything is Everything and The Year of No Mistakes— which are all currently available through Write Bloody Publishing. Her second collection of poetry, Hot Teen Slut, was recently optioned for a film adaption, and her sixth collection of poetry, The Year of No Mistakes, was named the Book of the Year for Poetry by the Writers’ League of Texas. Aptowicz is also the author of two nonfiction books: Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam (Soft Skull Press), which U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote “leaves no doubt that the slam poetry scene has achieved legitimacy and taken its rightful place on the map of contemporary literature”; and Dr Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Avery Books/Penguin), which spent three months on the New York Times Best Seller list. Recent awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, the ArtsEDGE Writer-in-Residence position at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Amy Clampitt House Residency. When not on tour, Aptowicz lives and writes in Austin, TX, with her family.