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Cop a Bradstreet Attitude

Messy Nest

a monthly feature by

Amy Alexander

Cop a Bradstreet Attitude

It’s the new year.

To the animals and trees, this is just another day when the planet is bathing in long or short light at different poles. Yet humans feel the need to take a long look at what they did last year and want to do this year.

I always find myself tottering between two feelings: One, that I should place my parental and family duties before all else.

And two, resenting the hell out of the washing, the fixing, and the putting crap away, wishing I could while away the hours before the fire with my notebooks, a stack of books, and a computer screen locked on one of several new online journal issues.

This “Do I make art or dinner?” line of thinking got me digging for other poets who might have strained against family duties and managed to create, anyway. (You should know that I research for procrastination and also to give myself pep talks.)

I landed on poet Anne Bradstreet.

Bradstreet (1612-72) had five children between the ages of newborn and 9 when she put quill to paper to write "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America" (1650), the first volume of poetry published by a North American.

Bradstreet had three more children after she inked "The Tenth Muse," yet she kept filling notebooks with carefully crafted poems and also having more children.

"Very often, her husband traveled," Bradstreet scholar Sheila Willard said. "She would be home alone with the eight children, running the household. ... You made your own soap, you sheared the sheep, spun the yarn from their wool, then you loomed it, then you sewed your clothes. The work must have been nonstop."

By candlelight, after the household had gone to bed, Bradstreet wrote with full abandon.

This very act of a woman expressing herself at that time was radical and dangerous:

Women in Bradstreet’s era (think Salem Witch Trials) were considered to have the mental capacity of squirrels. If they thought too much, the masses assumed, they'd go nuts or become evil.

"She must have endured painful reproaches from some quarters," said author Cheryl Walker.

In 1650, Bradstreet’s brother-in-law stole her poetry manuscript and peddled it to publishers during a trip to England.

This, in itself, seems an act of extreme violation. One of the chief freedoms an artist has is in whether or not to send work out. Lately, the Twitterverse has been all abuzz with this topic--how much work should a writer submit to publishers?

Imagine being cut out of that part of the process completely. It makes me shudder.

For Bradstreet, it ended in fortune. That book went on to become a bestseller.

But it was not without backlash. Some said there was no way such brilliant poetry could have come from a woman. Was it stolen?

In response, she continued to write, and asked well known thinkers and writers to blurb her work and vouch for its originality.

Bradstreet composed new poetry and prose until the end of her life, in the face of constant household demands, and often inspired by this tension.

It’s good to think of her when considering whether to scrub toilets or write.

The answer, always, is to write. While Bradstreet had no choice but to do both, and risk her hide in the meantime, I’m allowed to put my art first.

From now on, then, I’ll put on a little Bradstreet attitude when I sit down before the page.

She wrote: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue who says my hand a needle better fits.”

An Excerpt from "In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth":

Nay Masculines, you have thus taxt us long, But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong, Let such as say our Sex is void of Reason, Know tis a Slander now, but once was Treason.

(Read the entire poem here.)

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