Beyond a book review: Footnotes in Jenn Givhan's Belly to the Brutal

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Shawna Ayoub moves "beyond the book review" in not only recommending great books by diverse writers, but highlighting a technique to apply to your own writing.

Belly to the Brutal, by Jenn Givhan

Writing the facts of our lives is so multi-layered, it can feel impossible to start. Good thing we have good books to serve as our guides.

How to know what to say and what not to say? In the beginning, it feels like everything is the meat of our work. Life is messy and complicated. There is no way around it. Many of us who turn to writing are seeking a way to impart order on the chaos of our lightning-fast thoughts, to pin down a memory while retaining both its ugliness and its beauty. To clear the path through to understanding.

Belly to the Brutal is a book of poetry by Mexican-American and Indigenous writer Jenn Givhan. This collection explores the exquisite and complex beauty of motherhood across generations, using plenty of writing techniques to brilliant effect. (If you are unfamiliar with enjambment, look it up and make a study of this book for line breaks and movement.) But what I want to talk about here is a less-used technique outside academic papers for sorting the bloody guts of personal experience: footnotes.

Using footnotes to clear the writing path

If you cocked your head to one side in confusion, don’t worry. I’ve got you. And so does Givhan, beginning with the title of “Endtimes Meditation on Mothering Self-Care.”

This poem is a great showcase for the flexibility of footnotes. If you want to deep-dive, do the following:

  1. Read the poem through, pausing to read each footnote as marked.
  2. Read the poem through without reading any footnotes.
  3. Read the footnotes through without reading the poem.

What you might notice through this exercise is that the footnotes change the base poem considerably, and vice versa. Additionally, the footnotes work as a poem or a prose piece on their own. And most importantly, the footnotes offer up complications and beauty that otherwise could be overlooked in the measured lines of the poem they accompany.

An example is Footnote 7, where “self-care” is defined through the actions prevented by the speaker’s child. Going next door with a cake to greet a man who has shown violence poses danger. The speaker’s impulse to go is to lessen the danger, “to try to smooth things over.” Because of the footnote, along with the speaker, the reader both learns and unlearns self-care through the footnoted encapsulation of events.

When I first read this poem, I was struck by the power and possibility of footnotes as a writing exercise. What if we footnoted the ideas that diverge from the meat of what we’re trying to write? This could allow us to generate more work as we write, even to forgive ourselves for bypassing thoughts we feel we should follow by quickly jotting them down and moving on while keeping them connected to the context of why they showed up. There are so many thoughts that don’t make it into our work that deserve attention.

Or what if we allowed ourselves to include everything that comes up while writing without burdening the piece we are working on? How much more space would we have for craft? How much more opportunity would we have to be witnessed by both ourselves and others?

Using footnotes to reference global and personal histories

In another poem, Givhan uses a footnote to create the social historical context for why the speaker has just learned of Marìa Izquierdo—she is the source for famed Frida Kahlo’s style of painting.

Ultimately, these are the only two poems using footnotes in this collection. However, Givhan also uses in-line asides that work very similarly to the footnotes by taking the reader out of the poem to consider additional information. This is executed with the use of brackets to aside the text. 

Because I teach Writing through Trauma to Truth, I am always on the lookout for useful techniques to engage difficult topics safely. The use of footnotes and asides speaks to me in the sense that both methods can be used to separate or quiet what might otherwise be harsh. Looking back at Footnote 7, the reader can interpret the act of appeasing a man with a cake in order to lessen his danger as a response to having been exposed to violent men. 

In other words, the footnote can be read as a history of trauma offset in a way that allows the reader to engage it with less of the immediacy it would be granted if present in the main lines of the poem.

If this offset works for the reader, it likely also works for the writer. A heavy topic is made lighter by its partitioned inclusion. And when we can move harder topics to the side, we are clearing the way forward.

There is so much to learn while reading Belly to the Brutal, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak to the obvious care with which Givhan created the world within these poems. This collection is worth reading for far more than its ability to educate a writer. However, if you are looking for something to show you new ways to engage what might feel mundane in your own writing, this collection is worth your time.

Purchase Belly to the Brutal on (and support independent bookstores across the U.S.)

Visit Jenn Givhan’s website

Will you read Belly to the Brutal? Ever use footnotes in your creative writing? Share with us in the comments.

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