Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Kenyan Fertility Doll,” the doll is rendered in detail that shows us the speaker’s own hope and then despair in the final image of dust. What personal or cultural significance does this specific fertility symbol hold for you?
Shawna Ervin: I inherited this doll from my aunt, whom I loved dearly. When she died two years ago, I asked for the items she had purchased on trips around the world. She could sense stories in people and worked to connect in ways that let those stories live.
I picture her browsing stands and something about the doll’s seller intriguing her. I imagine my aunt buying the doll as a way to say, “Thank you for sharing yourself.” Each time I hold this doll, I feel as if I have been invited into the conversation between my aunt and the person who engraved this doll. I wanted to share that type of experience with my readers.
RR: We’re drawn in by the simplicity and sense of wonder in the poem, centered fully on a single image. How do you approach writing such a short piece?
SE: In writing this poem, I wanted to get as close to the experience of the sense of reverence I feel each time I hold the doll. In each revision of this poem, I removed words until all that was left was the figure. I wanted readers to bring their own experiences to the poem and create their own meaning. While I know my aunt bought the figure in Kenya, I can only begin to guess why a woman who had been a nun and never married would purchase a fertility figure aside from the human connection I mentioned above. I don’t need to know for the figure to mean something to me. I wanted to mimic that experience for readers.
While cutting words away to leave only an image worked for this poem, it may not work for all short poems. Formulas don’t seem to work for me. Instead, I try to listen to each work as it develops to hear its voice and what it needs. Some poems need to be short and others longer while still others are better as essays. My job is to get out of the way and let each piece be what it is.
RR: The poem hints at a variety of complex, emotionally layered themes from the point of one object. What other objects, places, or experiences have you drawn inspiration from?
SE: I draw inspiration from all of life. I see prompts in almost everything, from an impromptu snowball fight between my kids on an afternoon walk to the probing questions they ask at bedtime. My goal in writing is to capture bits of life as authentically as possible. I have written about daily life as the mother to an autistic child to adopting toddlers from South Korea as well as my experience in foster care as a teenager to figure skating competitively in my 20s and 30s. The longer I write, the more I look to the small moments for inspiration and moments that are layered with meaning, rather than larger milestones.
RR: We understand from your bio you’re an M.F.A. candidate with the Rainier Writing Workshop, and you’ve attended the Mineral School residency. How have these experiences influenced your writing process?
SE: The residency at The Mineral School changed my entire outlook about writing. Being one of only four parent writers selected in 2017 was a huge honor. I was around writers who far surpassed me in education and experience. They respected me as a writer and person. I had considered going to graduate school since I was in college, but it felt out of reach. In Mineral, it no longer felt out of reach. I was eager to learn as much as I could to improve my writing. I chose a low-residency program also in Washington State near Mineral. At Rainier Writers Workshop I have been challenged to read widely and write in ways I would have never thought of on my own. I take my writing seriously now. Rather than squeezing writing in around other obligations, writing goes at the top of my list. I am no longer afraid to call myself a writer or share the ups and downs of being a writer.
RR: You started off this year by publishing your chapbook, Mother Lines—congratulations! As the year draws to a close, how has your relationship with your writing progressed? What are your plans for the future?
SE: Thank you! It’s been quite the year. Not long after my chapbook launched, everything here in Denver shut down for COVID. I finished my second year of graduate school early to help my kids, who are 10 and 12, manage online school. Since my chapbook came out, I have generated new work that may or may not end up in future projects. I’ve also revised a memoir about becoming a mother after being unmothered. I will graduate in the summer of 2021 with my M.F.A.. The more I write, the less attached I get to my work. I am able to see my writing as art and make decisions to cut or add that serve the work rather than what I set out to say. There are always other poems and essays. I’m not sure what the future holds specifically, but I know I am a writer and will always be writing.
Shawna Ervin’s work in Issue 8.1: