For parents raising children who are on the autism spectrum, the poems in Angeline Schellenberg's Tell Them It Was Mozart (Brick Books) will hit close to the heart. Capturing the challenges, joys, and magic of the experience, Tell Them It Was Mozart tackles pressures internal and external, expectations and surprises, weaving together linked poems laced with humour and wit. A confident debut from a talented poet, the collection utilizes list poems, found art, erasures, dialogues, and many other forms to highlight the unbreakable bond of parental love.
Angeline joins us today for part of our Entitled series, which is fitting given the memorable and creative title of her collection. She tells us about why we should listen to whatever music we like best, the pleasure of getting to choose her own labels, and how her love of puns turns up in several poems' titles.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
Tell Them It Was Mozart is about raising two children on the autism spectrum. Because of the variety of tones and styles (from laments to oulipo), finding a title to sum up the whole book wasn’t a simple task.
In the editing stage, I reread my manuscript, listing phrases that jumped out at me, such as: love beneath the hoppers ugmart sign; the coolness of brick and the slip of pudding; play punk rock but tell them it was Mozart. The last one stuck.
New mothers receive so much advice on how to make sure their baby is healthier and smarter; e.g., “Play him Mozart!” Studies have shown that Mozart’s effect on the brain is a result of pleasure, not Mozart: so listen to what you like!
A bit of an odd duck (like the rest of us in this book), Mozart himself has a couple of cameos.
What, in your opinion, is the most important function of a title?
The title is the poem’s front door that tells you if the flowers you’re walking through are in a warehouse, an English garden, or a funeral home. A good title has mystery: it draws you in without giving too much away.
The “Imaginative Child” series of poems, inspired by my daughter’s antics, would have a very different feel if I’d called them “The ADHD Kid” or “The Exasperating Miniature Diva.” Autism families receive so many labels. Rather than eschewing labels, I found it very satisfying to choose my own!
Sometimes the title makes the poem. I have a found poem made from the therapist’s release form (“We will respect the client’s privacy and confidentiality except in cases where we believe the client to be at risk of willful self-injury or suicide”), which doesn’t feel like a poem, until you title it: “Why I Am Honest with the Therapist about my Part-Time Job, Waffle Makers, and Bon Jovi.” (For a book with Mozart in the title, there aren’t as many music references as you’d expect, but it makes me smile that Bon Jovi is in my book. Ooh, and Bono.)
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
I love puns, so the series title “Cycle-ogy” — about the fruitless loops one can get caught in by seeking psychological help — is fun. And I like the hopeful wistfulness of my first section heading, “Rhythmically, in the dark.”
I can’t actually take credit for many of my favourite titles in this book. My fellow 2013 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium participants came up with this fun title for the series of poems I created by searching “autism” on Amazon: “Autism for Dummies.”
And it was my editor Alayna Munce who suggested we call the found poem made from a ludicrous Facebook comment “(Sic).” I love it because it’s a way of distancing myself from the errors of online advisors, and it could suggest a playful retaliation with my own misspelling of “Sick.”
What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
The first that comes to mind is Anne Szumigalski’s poem, “In praise of my own breasts.” It’s surprising, dignified, exultant, and simply inviting. Makes me think, “You go, girl!”
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
Recently I heard Méira Cook says, “Poems are easy. Titles are hard.” The hardness of titles has certainly been my experience.
My first grant proposal for this manuscript was titled, “You’re Not Nisteling,” the phrase my preschool-aged daughter used (punctuated by pounding cutlery) when she wanted our attention. I liked the playfulness of it and the emphasis on hearing messages that come to us in unexpected ways. Unfortunately, most readers didn’t get that “nisteling” was a mispronunciation of “listening.” In the end, it didn’t fit because it’s in the voice of the child, whereas the majority of the book is in the mother’s voice; it focuses on a negative when the book’s primary message is joyful connection; and I never found a way to work it into a poem.
When the manuscript appeared on my publisher’s desk, it was called “Zippered Selves.” In this title, I heard both individualism and interconnectedness, both the sharpness of teeth and the comfort of zipped hoodies. But other readers heard mostly the isolation, so we scrapped it (but the words still appear in a poem).
During the editing process, Alayna and I tossed around “This One’s a Keeper” — a quote from the nurse who checked on my newborn son in my arms. Alayna and I liked the affectionate tone and the question it implies: why in heaven’s name would any baby not be a keeper? But the phrase felt too ubiquitous online, often in the context of evaluating a woman’s physical appearance.
Alayna also suggested, “Refrigerator Mother and Other Stories.” The “refrigerator mother theory” comes from a psychiatrist who attributed autism to mothers “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child,” an image I turn on its head. I’m glad the fridge made it on the cover; I think it packs more punch as the artwork than the title.
“Tell Them It Was Mozart” has the perfect amount of playful defiance for the book. I finally learned to trust my gut as a mother. But I never got to talk back to the sidewalk experts and professional naysayers. This is my chance! And I hope it gives others permission too.
What are you working on now?
I have a manuscript of elegies for my Mennonite grandparents called “Field of Light/Field of Stone” — a title Jennifer Still suggested when she evaluated the manuscript. (It used to be called “What the Aspens Whispered,” but there was more grit and grain than trees.) I’ve set it aside for a bit.
I’m working on a manuscript of prose poems about colour with the working title, “The Spectral Existence of Magenta.” They’re far more research-based than anything I’ve done before. And they allow me to let out my less fridge-magnet-y sides: the dark, the exotic, the sexy. But still with a lot of wacky wordplay thrown in.
The project started as a mental break from digging into the painful memories of adjusting to my children’s autism diagnosis or watching my grandparents slip away, but now that it’s my main project, I miss writing about my life: I’m a confessional poet at heart.
Angeline Schellenberg’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, CV2, TNQ, Rhubarb, Room, Geez, Wordgathering, Lemon Hound, and The Society, as well as in Cradle Song: a book of poems about newborns (Leaf Press). Her first chapbook, Roads of Stone (The Alfred Gustav Press), was released in May 2015. Her poetry won third prize in the 2014 Banff Centre Bliss Carman Award contest and was shortlisted for Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2015 Poem of the Year. Angeline lives and reads in Winnipeg with her husband, their two teenagers, and a German shepherd/corgi.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.