Caitlin Cowan’s new poetry collection observes holidays and special moments alongside capitalism, the division of labor, and an impending divorce


A headshot of Caitlin Cowan and her book Happy Everything, which has a white background and a white women's long coat on it with colorful circles coming out of the top and bottom of the coat.

There are many ways for a marriage to go wrong, and Caitlin Cowan’s new poetry collection, Happy Everything, records a number of them. The poem “Instructions for Divorce” recommends to “Know that there’s no manual / for this.” One must make one’s own path and “weld yourself / to the world’s blue ache.”  

Happy Everything contains poems masquerading as holidays and special days, though these writings do not veil how everything is awry aside from the book’s title and the supposedly happy occasions. The multi-part poem “Happy Halloween” looks at the “awful mechanics” of “film after unrated film because Mama / thought unrated meant the same as safe” and asks:

Why do we make them this way,
these open-mouthed wailers, 
these summer-camp slaughterers,
these we have to go back-ers. 
Because they are us. Because
they are not. The frames churn. 

The frames keep churning through weddings, birthdays, places, and observations in these poems because the poet does go back and consider the scenes. For these poems, the cabin in the woods is the marriage bed, and the monsters are the poet’s ex, memories, and family trauma. 

The clarity with which Cowan dissects a marriage and the past is one gained by distance because the “Big girl doesn’t hold hands anymore. Big girl knows what hands can do.” The poet describes the circumstances in the poems in such a way that conveys their inappropriateness and how someone raised in the situation might feel and what reflections the poet develops in retrospect. The journey is draining and time-consuming: 

                        We never know
how long we’ll have to rest,
how long we’ll nap in the terminal
of not good enough before we run, 
out of breath, to board something better – 

I wouldn’t recognize myself 
for years, had so far to go until
I could become a woman I’d want to know. 

Still, the trajectory eventually swings upward—from the anger of how “I would dream of beating / a furred mascot with a stick, driving him from the arena” in “March Madness as Mamuralia” to the reacquaintance with oneself during “The year of losing face & remembering that I have a face / But let me yet utter another truth / That too was the year of god damn / I’ve never been happier than I am now” (note that the slashes in this quote are part of the poem and do not indicate line breaks as in the other quotes) in “Happy New Year.” Then we reach the poem “Jobs I Am Willing to Do If They Mean Getting Free of You,” when:

she’ll leave
it she’ll leave
him & everything
will taste of grass
she’ll mow
one ordinary
afternoon herself

She—the poet—takes control. 

I interviewed Cowan about her writing and Happy Everything

Q: You studied English and creative writing at the University of Michigan for your bachelor’s degree. How did you decide to continue writing, and where has that path taken you? 
A: Thank you for this question and for all these wonderful questions! I don’t think of writing as something I “continued” to do or even “decided” to do in the first place, funny enough. 

I studied English and creative writing at the University of Michigan because it was the only thing I cared about at 18. In some ways, it’s the only thing I care about now: language, art, creativity. I know that mystical answers from working artists can be frustrating, but the art form really did choose me rather than the other way around, and I followed that obsession into college. For reasons I may never fully understand, I just started spontaneously writing poetry as a child. I loved to read and enjoyed the small secrecy of working on little poems, which I wrote in a code language to evade understanding. Thankfully, the University of Michigan provided me with an incredible English education and creative writing foundation. It was wonderful to finally bring my writing out into the little worlds of our classrooms and begin to receive feedback in a meaningful sense.

I chased the subject matter all the way to a Ph.D., which I earned at the University of North Texas in 2015. But as I often tell the students I mentor through U of M’s Residential College, where I studied, I didn’t think much about how I would pay the bills until I was already deep into graduate school. I taught at the university level for many years as a teaching fellow, visiting lecturer, and ultimately as an adjunct professor, but contingent faculty life was a great deal of work and instability for very little pay. 

When the opportunity to make a career change into the arts nonprofit world arose, I jumped at the chance. I now essentially work as a professional communicator, and my life as a writer dovetails nicely into things. 

Q: Now you work as director of international tours and chair of creative writing at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp near Michigan's Manistee National Forest. Tell us what that involves. 
A: Blue Lake is an arts nonprofit and a summer school of the arts. My work is dynamic and tied to a seasonal cycle: In the fall and winter, I recruit students to travel to Europe in performing arts ensembles, during which time they reside with host families. In the winter, I travel to Europe to meet with colleagues and lay the groundwork for upcoming and future tours, and in the spring, I prepare students for travel. My summers are spent managing students remotely while they’re in Europe and beginning recruiting preparations again. I also oversee the European campers who come to Blue Lake to study, which includes assisting with their travel preparations, meeting with them remotely, welcoming them personally on camp, and matching them with American host families. I was a student at Blue Lake both as a summer camper and as an international tour member many years ago, and directing this program—and working at my childhood happy place—has been emotionally and intellectually restorative, even though the work itself is demanding.

In my work as chair of creative writing at Blue Lake, I direct the major and minor creative writing programs, teach some creative writing classes and masterclasses, and hire and manage my creative writing faculty. I’m very interested in the question of how young writers are made—for reasons you can imagine—and founding the creative writing program here has been life-affirming work. Programs for young writers like this one are rare, and I’m honored to be at the helm of this one.

Q: Your new book, Happy Everything, chronicles marriage and divorce with poems titled after holidays and special occasions interspersed throughout. How did the holiday theme emerge? 
A: I used to throw the best parties. I learned how to do this from my mother, who learned from her mother. Sprinkled through the year are flashpoints where women and their hearthcraft are on display. Cooking, decorating, organizing, and merry-making typically fall to women and femmes: we are The Celebrators of Things.

But I’m a feminist who believes that gender shouldn’t define roles within relationships or society. As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve begun to understand the work women put into relationships and homemaking as work—as real labor that goes unwaged. The cooking and cleaning and gift buying and invitation lettering are the domain of Instagram and Pinterest, but only a select few creators are monetizing all that celebrating. Most women who make holiday magic for their families are doing so as part of a long tradition that expects women to take on this role. The question for me was what it means to participate in capitalism as joy, to examine a patriarchal relationship through the lens of wedding registries and Groundhog Day-esque birthdays where the speaker keeps getting presents and getting older but nothing ever changes.

As I worked on the poems that would become this collection, I saw that many pieces were tied to the cycle of the year, chained to the expectations we have about holidays and seasons and the role that women are asked to play in marking time and celebrating its passage, even in relationships and situations where they’re suffering.

Q: The titular words happy and everything make appearances in the poems, too. Was Happy Everything your working title already, or did it arrive after the collection came together? In other words, did the title spring from your poems or another way? 
A: The title sprang from the poems, and more specifically, from the title poem itself. “Happy Everything” is titled after a real phrase my mother once told me she dreamed—the events of that dream are described in the poem’s opening lines. As I worked on draft after draft of the book, I began to understand that the extent to which women are asked to make everything “Happy”—to prop up unhappy relationships and unhappy, unhealthy institutions and male partners—is a doomed legacy from bygone eras of so-called “traditional” marriage and gendered labor. It dawned on me as I was revising the book, which had several other titles, that the poem “Happy Everything” contained the entire book in microcosm, or it could if I were brave enough to write what is now the poem’s last couplet, which tied the speaker’s family history to her disintegrated marriage.

Q: Holidays are naturally connected to food. The poem “Self-Portrait as Maillard Reaction” covers “the night / you called me to ask how to brown the beef yourself” after “I let you go. You let me go.” Excerpts from an etiquette guide also mark the book’s sections. How do you see the threads of food and manners working in the collection? 
A: The preparation of food and the domain of social relationships have been areas of almost sacred feminine knowledge for millennia. But during the transition to capitalism—bear with me!—paid labor outside the home and unpaid labor inside the home began to be understood as two separate realms as women were pushed off the land that was undergoing enclosure—land they once had access to as a means of production but also as a meaningful kind of “third space” where they could have contact with other women. Therefore cooking, a critical human task, became expected unpaid labor for women and celebrated paid labor for men outside the home. Times have changed somewhat, but not as much as you’d expect. Silvia Federici writes brilliantly about these ideas in her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulationa book that has been deeply influential for me. The poems in this book question the assumptions we have about food and cooking within the context of heteronormative relationships. This idea sounds fussy, but I promise it isn’t on the page: the poem you mention has to do with the learned helplessness of men who lack basic cooking skills. Other poems consider the holy act of eating alone.

Food and etiquette are braided into holiday celebrations, including weddings, and therefore become central to our conception of what makes a home and a couple. In the book, meals become loci of conflict and expectation: women cook and men eat, and when the roles are reversed, tension arises—a tension between what we want and what we have. That tension, of course, is deeply gendered, as are expectations for how women and men act.

The etiquette guide that provides the book’s section epigraphs is Practical Cookery and the Etiquette and Service of the Table: A Compilation of Principles of Cookery and Recipes With Suggestions for Etiquette for Various Occasions, a 1930s American homemaking guide. I don’t know how or when this book came into my possession, but its long presence in my home and its suspicious provenance has always felt like an eerie reminder of the things society has expected, and still expects, from women. The etiquette epigraphs feel to me a bit like a choreographed dance between a man and a woman who ultimately leave the stage separately rather than together as a couple.

Q: Places have a role in the poems, such as in the poem “What’s Left of Michigan” where we hear “the ticking of frozen bark on maples” and in “Love Meter” set in San Francisco where “the cold drizzle halts / at the shore of your whitecapped smile.” The poems also go to Dallas and Atlanta, as well as take place in airport terminals and the “Bad Love Museum.” How does situating these poems in places ground the poems, along with the other themes of holidays and food? 
A: This is a great question. Just as I do with the variety of holidays, I aim to illustrate that the generational pain and patriarchal containment described in the poems infects and affects every aspect of life: every month of the year, every vacation destination, every meal from weeknight burgers to wedding cake. You can’t just change your zip code and hope to escape a poisoned institution. 

Q: In the blurbs for Happy Everything, poet and Pulitzer Prize-winner Diane Seuss describes the collection as “Plathian in its ferocious truth-telling.” The poet takes on the first-person perspective. Do you consider this book confessional? How so? 
A: I suppose the first thing I’ll say is that I would only ever consider it to be post-confessional, since for me “confessional” refers to a group of poets publishing during a specific historical moment: Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Snodgrass, and others who wrote highly personal poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. This poetry dissolved the boundary between poet and speaker at a time when so much was still taboo or undervalued: the emotional lives of women, mental health, divorce, etc. And so if my poetry could be understood as working in that tradition, it is only as an echo of their groundbreaking work.

I think that women are subjected to this question more than men. There’s this assumption that writing about the capitalist and patriarchal confinement of marriage can only ever be a personal sentiment. For many, the term “(post-)confessional” still comes with a hint of dismissal: the literary equivalent of “that’s just your opinion.” The idea that I could be attempting to write about larger ideas that apply to our culture, that I could be gesturing to the world beyond my own doorstep, seems easier to brush off when the work is classified as (post-)confessional. “Did that really happen?” you might ask of the events described in a certain poem. My answer is, “Who cares? It happened in the world of the poem.” The truism that the plot of a novel is or should be the least interesting thing about it comes to mind. 

I also think that the vast majority of poetry being written today might qualify as post-confessional. Poets of my generation, at least, seem to routinely mine their own lives for material. Once we realized the subject matter of our own lives was valid, we never looked back, in some ways. We’re rightfully suspicious of persona poetry, particularly poetry that claims to understand and represent the lived experiences of those whose race, socioeconomic status, gender, or sexuality is different from our own. And so our own lived experiences present themselves as the stories only we know how to tell—or rather, the basis of the poems only we could write. 

But poetry’s relationship to the truth is nonlinear. Even literary nonfiction has a relationship with the truth that isn’t entirely clear-cut. Poetry is even less beholden to the little "t" truth. What we’re after is the big "T" Truth: the Truth about what matters, not just the facts of what happened. And so I hope the degree to which these poems conform to my biography is the least interesting thing about Happy Everything

Q: The description of Happy Everything calls it “a deranged wedding registry of various poetic forms.” Some of the poems are even placed perpendicular to the standard direction of the text on the page. How did you go about choosing and writing in the forms that you used? 
A: Every form has its purpose, and I really do believe in the marriage of form and content. When the narrative is more important than the line, I use prose poems. When an element of fixation exists, I attempt a ghazal. I never sit down and say, “I’m going to write in trimeter,” as I do in “Happy Father’s Day.” The music of it came out of the writing process itself. Once I begin to hear the rhythms I’m being drawn to when writing about my subject matter, I sometimes write toward it and at other times write away from it. I also try to consider what conversation the form and the content can have. In the case of “Happy Father’s Day,” I was pleased that the trimeter reflected the images of the three people in the poem, and the rigidity of the primarily trochaic form felt a bit like a demented nursery rhyme, which was also appropriate for the subject matter. These considerations reflect how I tend to approach my choice of form.

The perpendicular poems came about from my insistence that my longer lines were not “broken twice” by the limitations of the printed page. Because of the subject matter of this book, which is a bit like being through the looking glass during a year of marriage, I appreciated that it gave the book a bizarre feeling: things are upside down, topsy-turvy. For the speaker, things are not quite what they should be. That feeling of disorientation was welcome.

Q: What is on your nightstand to read? 
A: Diane Seuss’ Modern Poetry, of course! When life calms down (ha!), Jordan Peele’s anthology of Black horror and poet Kaveh Akbar’s first novel, Martyr!, are next up on the pile. 

Q: With your first book out, what is next for you? 
A: Because the first book took so long to write and publish, I’ve accrued quite a backlog. The manuscript for my second collection of poetry is circulating among publishers, and I have a first draft of an essay collection and a book of photographs and poems. Farther afield are the third book of poems, the screenplay I’m dabbling with, and a series of craft essays that are coming together. I’m also interested in the potential to turn my PopPoetry Substack into a nonfiction anthology. Who knows. With this book finally birthed, “everything” really seems possible. 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.