Language, Connection, and Motherhood: A Conversation with April Yee


April Yee, the poet behind “Motherhood,” featured in the Spring 2022 issue of Shenandoah, offers her unique insight on womanhood and poetry. In a conversation with Shenandoah intern Susannah Birle, April talks about the importance of language, her work as a journalist, and her own experience as a mother. Check out her poem, “Motherhood,” here:


Susannah: April, thank you so much for taking the time to have a conversation with me today, I really appreciate it. First, I have three questions about your piece, Motherhood, that was featured in Shenandoah. What initially struck me the most about reading motherhood was the use of the imagery that’s created, especially within the first stanza – I pulled out the quote, “Candyfloss sloughing, from foiled waterpipes,” and a lot of very interesting imagery that I hadn’t really heard anything like before. It led me to wondering about your writing process when it comes to these images that are so clear. I was curious about if those images sort of come to you, and then you try to put them into words or if it’s more so as you’re writing, you have of a concept of what you’re going to write about, and then the images create themselves as you’re writing.


April: That’s a really interesting question about the process of thinking and language, does language predict the image or just create the image? That’s one of the things I’m actually quite interested in, because I’m raising a baby. It’s interesting as an actual mother I’m interested in how does his brain work. And how do those connections form? One of the things is it’s important for babies to learn language because you can’t think without language, so maybe the answer to your question is that images don’t exist without language. But at the same time, from my personal experience, I do think images exist outside of language. If we think about, for instance, images from a traumatic event, not that that relates to this poem specifically, but that things which exist in and around trauma often exist outside of language, which is not what makes them traumatic, but which is part of their definition of being traumatic, because we cannot put them into language. Back to your question about the images in this poem, the images do exist before the language because I definitely feel a sense of struggle when it comes to essentially translating images into language.


S: That makes a lot of sense. I feel like I have not even necessarily an image, as in something I can visually see, but more of a thought, or a feeling, or an idea, a sense of something in my head when I’m trying to write and I do feel like oftentimes it’s more difficult to put that into language than it is to be writing and create an image as you’re writing. My next question is that I was reading your piece from a post Roe v. Wade era, and I feel like it puts the reader in the shoes of a woman in a contemporary setting. Thinking about reproductive health and being dealt with by outside forces out of your control. One question that I had was how do you think that literature serves writers and readers, both regarding current events or contemporary struggles and issues that we’re dealing with? Do you feel some sort of pressure or responsibility to write or respond to certain things in your own work regarding things happening in the world?


A: I feel like your question gives a lot more credit than I deserve. Maybe you have a similar process as a writer, you write something and then it sits around for a while, and then you might return to it a year later and then shape it. That whole process for this piece probably started in 2020 or 2021. And then this piece was accepted before Roe v. Wade. That said, obviously issues regarding women’s reproductive rights existed before the actual decision. It’s so weird to talk about, it feels like the end of the world. With this poem, it’s really great to hear that it might resonate within that context. It’s really hard to write a poetry of activism explicitly, because oftentimes that leads to work that’s just not very good. For example, if we think about the work poet laureates produce, it can be good work in the sense of social good but from a literary perspective, it’s not necessarily very good. I was writing from that general sense of fear, not a political fear, but the general fear that women might feel regarding their body, which maybe gets to your question, but I wasn’t thinking about it within a legal context.


S: That makes a lot of sense. That ties into the next question that I was going to ask. I felt like this piece resonated with me about womanhood in general and the feeling of not being in control of your own body. I know that you are yourself a mother, so I was wondering if you’ve seen any impact on your work from the transition from womanhood to now motherhood? Or if there’s been a change in perspective regarding your work specifically?


A: I had my son this year, so the biggest issue is just not being able to work. I would say, the mind works in different ways. I find myself thinking in different forums, depending on my state. I went through a period last year when I was pregnant and I was I was really lucky, I had this scholarship to participate in the community of writer’s poetry workshop. For this workshop, I had to write a poem a day. I was generating these really weird hallucinatory, humorous, poems that were the constrained within a form, because I, myself, felt constrained by my body because your pregnancy makes everything about your body. You’re really trapped in it all the time. At the time, that was the way I was writing. Maybe now, because of the way that parenthood breaks down so many boundaries; the boundary between self and other is broken. You have this thing, which it was a part of you, and there’s this weird dynamic. That sense of hybridity has impacted the way I think. This year that’s resulted in writing that’s between those three forms that I worked on: fiction, essay, and poetry – moving between them. It’s weird to describe your own work, my thought process is little bursts, that may not be within any of those forms at all. Whereas last year during the pregnancy it was very much not just writing in poetry, but writing, specifically a sestina or a villanelle.


S: I saw on your website that you’d worked as a journalist abroad, and I’m curious about the transition from working in a journalistic capacity to fiction writing. For example, if there’s been experiences that you’ve had working as a journalist that have impacted your creative writing and how you found the two different forms to relate or intertwine or contrast.


A: What I really liked about poetry was its similarity to journalism, at least the kind that I practiced, which was mainly daily newspaper journalism. The idea of creating work on a deadline and making sure you write 700 words or 2000 words, something very specific, within a short timeframe. Really going deep into a topic and then moving on to a completely other topic. That way of thinking lent itself really well to poetry. The sense of also not being too fearful about the work because as a journalist, you’re fulfilling a demand or a need, and you don’t feel like your entire ego is invested in the words you put on the page. For a lot of people, that can lead to a lot of fear and sadness, but that helped me create a lot of work in the beginning. It wasn’t necessarily good, but it was an important part of becoming a poet or becoming a writer – just to generate a lot of work. That really helped.


S: That’s really interesting and makes a lot of sense when you put it that way. The last question that I have is that I also saw on your website that you don’t only do poetry, but also translation, fiction, essay, and criticisms. Do you have a favorite form of writing? And if so, why and in what ways? Does your writing process differ depending on what type of work you’re doing?


A: For a favorite form, I’d say poetry is my favorite form. It’s so difficult, they’re all favorites in different ways. With poetry, it’s what I would describe as the roundness to it. You have this thing, and it’s like a little package. With translation, it’s the fact that you’ll reach out to the person who you’re translating, or even if the person is dead, start reading a lot about them and feeling that you are getting to know some someone else really well. That’s really nice. With essays, I that’s probably more the way my mind works. Fiction is probably the one that is most aligned with the market. There are certain expectations about the way a story is carried out. Expectations are set up at the beginning of, say, a novel or are paid off in the end. Often there’s a kind of linearity, which is quite difficult for me, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like trying to get better at it.


S: Yes, that all makes sense and I love hearing your different input on each form. Those are all the questions that I had, but this was so nice. It was so good to chat with you and I really loved hearing your perspective, and I love your work so I’m very grateful to have been able to talk with you!


A: So nice to chat with you!

April Yee is a National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow and the University of East Anglia’s Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholar. She reported in more than a dozen countries before moving to the UK, where she serves on University of the Arts London’s Refugee Journalism Project and tweets at @aprilyee.