I tell time by counting teeth-marks around the crooked nipple: A Conversation with J. Hope Stein about little astronaut — curated by Tiffany Troy

J. Hope Stein is the author of little astronaut (Andrews McMeel, 2022) and Occasionally, I remove your brain through your nose (Poet Republik, 2017). She collaborated on The New One (Grand Central, 2020), a book of prose and poetry, with Mike Birbiglia. little astronaut is a poetry collection about the vast universe that is the female body, pregnancy, motherhood, and the bond with the earth, the space, the beloved, and the daughter.

Tiffany Troy: How does the opening poem “prologue: maternity pants” set the reader up for what is to follow? 

To me, it sets up the tone of the poem, as sparse and yet always about to surprise the reader with a revelation! It is rooted in the body, meaning the physical body, but also the body as earth, as space, and as motherhood.

 J. Hope Stein: I agree with you: “Maternity Pants” is about body and some of the sillier aspects of what I was going through. It’s almost a series of one-liners that makes fun of myself—the surprise of helplessly being governed by my hormones. I guess there was part of me that thought I wouldn’t be that. But I was. And that was funny to me.

I placed “Maternity Pants” as a prologue for a couple of reasons. The book is mostly sequential and pregnancy by its nature is prologue to parenthood. I had a lot of pregnancy poems I wanted to include but didn’t want to start the book tonally with them. They were mainly about some of the difficult times I had in my pregnancy. “Maternity Pants” is a much lighter poem. I wanted to tease the pregnancy at the start of the book in one way and return to it later in the book in another way.

TT: Can you describe the process of writing the book? Do you write the book with your husband/ your daughter in mind?

JHS: First—a frantic kind of writing—just lines and rants and moments of frustration and wonder—whatever I could get down one-armed in the dark.

Many of the prose pieces were the first to be written from these seeds, including the poem, “little astronaut.” Some of the longer “toast” poems came next. They are more mediative and have more air in them. I shaped them through a process of live readings.

When my daughter and I weaned at age 3, I wrote the long poem “As Close as Food.” It contemplates what it’s like to be nourishment. I was the most mammalian I have ever been in this time period, the most inside my body. I began to understand an intimacy between the eater and the eaten. Becoming part of the digestion of another, the growth of their bones. There was a comfort in being eaten that I couldn’t get over psychologically and my body couldn’t get over it. And when we weaned, my boobs would not stop making milk. I couldn’t be in a room with a baby or they would just start producing milk. I began to understand a notion I describe as “The Closeness of Food.”

TT: How did you organize the collection into its five sections?

JHS: The arc of the book is my daughter’s physical dependency on me. From pregnancy through weaning, which in our case was age 3. It looks at the physical and psychological relationships between 3 bodies: mine, my daughter and my husband, across those 3 years and the way everything seemed to be trying to find gravity, trying to find our orbits.

The first section “Little Astronaut” has poems about early infanthood/parenthood. There are poems about breastfeeding and about being intimate with my husband after birth. A lot of scars and milk and nipples and sleep deprivation.

“Voyager” is the 2nd section, there are poems about my daughter being more mobile. Crawling and walking poems. And in parallel my relationship with my husband also finding its way, crawling, wobbling a bit, falling. And so that orbiting continuing as she grows and finds some independency from my body. There are also poems about the Voyager space expedition in relation to our psychological and physical states at this moment in time.

The “Confetti” section is a flashback about some of the scarier moments in my pregnancy, paired with moments when my daughter is about 2 years old, when she is starting to talk and have more of a personality. I paired poems in the spreads of this section so that the flashbacks, not knowing if the pregnancy will work out are directly followed by present-day moments, when I am overwhelmed with the magic and strength of this little person.

The “Tethering” section continues the orbiting relationships between my husband, my daughter and I as she is getting a little older. And my husband and daughter finding each other a bit more.

The “As Close as Food” section, as I discussed earlier, is a lyric essay I wrote after I weaned my daughter and my boobs wouldn’t stop making milk. It’s grounded in evolution and natural history.

TT: How does form inform your collection? (For instance, for the recurring motif of the crumpled, leaking nipples.)

JHS: I play with a few forms in this book. They come from what musically feels right. And the musicality of most is repeated and weaved through with variation. There are short prose pieces, there are short-lined lullabies, a couple of long rants which come earlier in the book—in form they are echoed in the denser lyric essay of “As Close As Food” at the end, airy mediative “toast” pieces, images of crooked nipples throughout, and a song about poop.

TT: How do you bring in the voice of your daughter into the collection? The Museum of Natural History with live dinosaurs blew my mind!

JHS: That was a typical conversation with my daughter at that age, when she was about 3 years old. Kid language is alive, being created in the moment. There is truth in the imperfections.