In 1998, a young New Yorker editor named Deborah Garrison published an acclaimed first collection of poems, “A Working Girl Can’t Win,” wryly detailing the life of a New York sophisticate in her twenties coping with romance, work and marriage.
Garrison has returned with her beautifully crafted second collection, “The Second Child” (Random House, $20) where her heroine has moved to a pretty New Jersey town and is juggling children, work and a harried commute into New York City to work as an editor. Garrison may have fond memories of urban grittiness, but she embraces the domesticity of raising three small children with her husband. After leaving New York, she experiences the overpowering love a new mother feels for the baby at her breast. Garrison addresses romantic love, as well as the desire to have another child after September 11th. In the heartbreaking “I Saw You Walking,” she encounters dust-covered survivors of World Trade Center arriving in Newark, and fixates on a businessman missing his jacket, briefcase and even a shirt sleeve, but still defiantly alive. “The Second Child” is a rich exploration of motherhood, love and work in the poetic form.
Garrison, 42, was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan and educated at Brown University. She was a senior editor at the New Yorker until 2000, when she became the poetry editor at Knopf and a senior editor at Pantheon, two venerable Random House imprints. She lives in Montclair with her husband and three children. Garrison spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at her office in New York City.
Q. Is it fair to assume that most of these new poems are autobiographical?
A. It is. “Working Girl” is more of a dreamy book, in a way. Even though it is partly autobiographical, there are more fantasies in that book than this one. The new book is about the life that I am in now. There are some artistic exaggerations, but it is certainly autobiographical. “Working Girl” has projections and fantasies about the self. There was a poem about being a seductress and the other persons I could have been. I’ve limited my options. I know who I am and who my family is.
Q. Do you see a shift to chronicling responsibility in the new poems?
A. I didn’t write poems for a while. When you start having children, you adjust to seeing yourself as a monster You’re a parent, but you are still a working person and you are still trying to be yourself. I couldn’t figure out how this could be combined with poetry. I thought to myself, I’ll keep the door open to whatever comes in as subject matter.
I was a little embarrassed. I remember saying to (New York Times writer) Chip McGrath, a dear friend of mine from the New Yorker, “Please shoot me if I write poems about bodily functions. Please don’t let me write nursing poems.” Well, guess what? Now I’ve written nursing poems. I did exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. I think I was embarrassed that I would become that messy person who nursed babies. It is actually the most wonderful thing in the world. You have emotions you have never had before. I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy it.
Q. You open the book with a farewell to New York but then shift to the beautiful domesticity of Montclair. Could you explain the change?
A. Part of what I had embraced as a poet was writing about a certain kind of New York experience and life. I had to write “Goodbye, New York,” which was a piece of light verse. It was important to me to say goodbye. It catalogs some of the things that I’ll miss forever. I come into New York everyday, but it is not the same as living here. It’s just not. I also had to write about once being that girl in “A Short Skirt on Broadway.” It is not a deeply serious poem. It is a salvo. Moving out of the city was an adventure in a different way. Of our friends, we were the first to move out to New Jersey. We didn’t know anyone in Montclair. In a way, it was kind of wonderful. It was also a little romantic. You put the child to bed, then you have a whole evening together, snug in your little house, not knowing anyone.
I may now have totally shifted to being a suburban person, going home to a house and commuting. There is a lot about commuting in the book. You have to laugh when you find yourself angry at someone for blocking your way on the Port Authority escalator. There is the question--how do you make poetry out of putting children to bed? Some of the poems are about the weird joy of ordinary conversations at home with children. It is hard to know with your own work if you’ve lifted up the subject matter to the universal.
Q. Could you describe your September 11th poem, “I Saw You Walking”?
A. It was the day of 9-11, and I had a hard time getting home like everyone else. In Newark Penn Station, there was this amazing scene. There were these weird, ghostly people who had clearly come from the World Trade Center. They were still covered in dust. This one man, I could not get him out of my mind. He was dressed in Brooks Brothers. One arm was totally bare, the sleeve having been ripped away. Every poet who wrote about 9-11 did it in their own way. That was my only way in there. It was to say, “Somebody walked out of there.” Otherwise, I couldn’t touch the subject.
Q. Do you find it difficult to write about domestic bliss?
A. Yes. I wonder if there is any way to explain why family happiness is such a hard subject. I think it may be because it is intimately bound up with our fears of loss, of losing what we love most, and so it is not an “easy” happiness. I really wanted to express that in the poems--how you can’t have one without the other. Loving as much as we love our children is kind of perilous.