Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? “My Mother Was 19” is about what happened the day the Nazis came to my mother’s farm in Poland and killed much of her family. It wasn’t an easy poem to write. I had been trying to write this poem for about thirty years.
And when my dad sometimes talked about what happened when the Germans came, it was mainly whispers and bits of information. I think he was afraid to tell the story because he didn’t want to burden me with the terror my mom experienced.
I wrote about the dry summer at the start of the war, the boxcars the Germans put my mom on, the landscape she passed through on the train trip to the slave labor camps in Germany, the work she did in those camps, and her liberation at the end of the war. I even wrote a poem called “Here’s What My Mother Won’t Talk About,” but it too was a poem that didn’t talk about what happened.
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great details. I remember where I was. I was teaching at Eastern Illinois University, a small school in a small town just south of the middle of the state. I was there only 3 days a week.
The rest of the time I lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky where my wife was the chair of the English Department at Western Kentucky University. In Charleston, Illinois, the small town where my school was, I was living in a boarding house. I had a tiny tiny room there with a really uncomfortable bed, so I spent most of my time in my office in the English Department.
The office was large, and I had a big desk that was always cluttered up with papers I was grading and books I was reading and an ancient computer that must have weighed 30 pounds.
The clutter was so bad that if I wanted to write something, I would always have to clear a space on the desk. Two walls were covered with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and I used every since inch of that space for all my books, the ones I loved and had loved for decades.
It looked out over 4th Street and the other side of 4th street there was a pond and woods and trails. It was like a park, and a lot of times I would sit in my office with my back to the door and my eyes enjoying the woods and the pond.
What I can say, however, is that I had a problem with the poem, and that problem was talking about my mom getting raped. In a lot of the drafts I tried to hide it. In fact, in the earliest draft of the poem, my mom’s getting raped isn’t mentioned at all. The biggest change I made in the poem was telling the truth about that. Once I did, I knew that the poem was done.