How Lisa Ampleman Became a Mom in Space

Her new book of poetry mixes personal themes of birth and loss with explorations of NASA, Star Trek, lunar cycles, and Neil Armstrong.

Lisa Ampleman’s new poetry book Mom in Space was published by Louisiana State University Press in January. The managing editor of The Cincinnati Review and poetry series editor at Acre Books has published two other poetry collections, Full Cry and Romances.

In Mom in Space, Ampleman explores her struggles with infertility, the birth of her son, and the loss of another child by miscarriage while also delving into moon landings, lunar cycles, NASA’s complicated history, and one of Ohio’s own astronauts, Neil Armstrong. In this interview, she talks about motherhood and space and why she wanted to bring the two seemingly unrelated topics together. 

Lisa Ampleman
I know this is kind of a big question, but how does the language or idea of outer space contribute to revelation or representation of motherhood?

In part it’s through metaphor. The moon is often linked with fertility and women’s cycles, even today. It’s funny, too, about language: NASA has their own language, but sometimes it connects to motherhood. For example, a spaceship is attached to a rocket for lift-off through wires and pipes that enable the flow of liquid oxygen, and those connectors are called umbilicals.

You can also think about the connection in the imagery of astronauts cradled in the capsule, and so on. I was also inspired by the overview effect—the cognitive shift reported by astronauts while viewing the Earth from space. Some people just have an almost religious experience of awe, which reminds me of motherhood, which can be an experience that combines awe and extremity at the same time.

I love that answer, because motherhood is so awe-inspiring and extreme! In the book, you mention that it was really an interest in space and space exploration that brought you back to writing after the birth of your son. Can you share more about that?

When my son was born, I was very tired. I don’t do well with sleep deprivation. As he grew up, I got a little more sleep and it was also at that point I finished up my second book project. In early 2020, I was invited to a residency at the Hermitage retreat in Florida. It was the boost I needed. Right before I went there, I went to the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Apollo 11 exhibit and found a book I liked. I found a way to be curious, and I think that was a big thing. Being curious is exciting, and it can take you to a different place.

You talked about learning about Neil Armstrong at the Cincinnati Museum Exhibit, and you wrote about him in the poem “Neil and Me and Work and the Body.” What did you learn about him?

I remember looking carefully at the handwritten notes he’d made for the speech he gave at the opening of the Apollo 11 exhibit, and I read his biography First Man, which later became a movie starring Ryan Gosling. I began to really see Armstrong as a person. He was an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati later in life. He wasn’t a huge public figure, but he was a philanthropist and served on the Museum Center board. He was a leader within his generation, which got me thinking about my grandfathers.

While you identify with Armstrong, I like that you also trouble that identification by considering who was left out of history of space exploration.

Even as a space enthusiast, I can’t just look at the history with dazzled eyes. The Apollo program and the NASA programs were a product of their times, but that doesn’t give them an excuse. There were opportunities to have women be part of the Mercury program, for example. And there were people who were passed over, like Ed Dwight, who was Black and went through Chuck Jaeger’s flight school. Dwight never became an astronaut, a story that’s recounted in the new documentary The Space Race, which is available through National Geographic/Disney Plus.

The poem “Mae & Nichelle, in Space & on Earth” juxtaposes the story of actress Nichelle Nichols as an actress on Star Trek with the story of Mae Jemison, who became a NASA astronaut and eventually made a guest appearance on Star Trek.

So much of the composition of this book was me finding something crazy and thinking, I have to find a way to put that in a poem. The Mae Jemison thing was like that. And Nichelle Nichols lived an amazing life—she was friends with Maya Angelou and performed in the debut of a play by James Baldwin and was encouraged to stay on Star Trek by Martin Luther King Jr., who told her, “For the first time, we are being seen the world over the way we should be seen.”

This is a book about bodies and babies—both babies born and babies lost. I like how this book takes those sorrows and experiences really seriously but also doesn’t make them out to be terribly unique.

We don’t really talk about those sides of motherhood—the unspokenness of pregnancy loss, miscarriage, or even “We’re trying to get pregnant.” It’s related to the body and sex, which our culture sees as very private, but that makes us feel alone and perhaps not as supported as we could be. I admire Leila Chatti, who has been so honest about her fertility journey.

It’s hard because, like the book says, it is my “deepest sadness” and it’s still not over. My son’s personality is formed by the fact that he’s an only child. When he’s an adult, he won’t have siblings to deal with in a good or bad sense. The experience doesn’t really end. Some of the poems I would have a hard time reading aloud, even though they are “in the past.”

I love the book altar made by Flower Conroy, which offers such a stunning visual representation of the book. Do you know her personally?

I’ve seen a few others of hers, and I’ve been wowed. Having her do this for me just felt like such a gift. We’ve been at two different writer’s conferences in the early 2010s, and we’ve kept in touch and rooted for each other. She started doing Ephemeral Altar series as a way to celebrate fellow authors as well as to keep track of the reading experience, almost an alternative to a Goodreads review.

It’s an altar in that it’s uplifting the book, in a way, and ephemeral because it’s going to be taken down. The level of reading that would be required to make this altar is amazing. I love all of the tiny details: the empty crib; the playful lava lamps; and the small, curated details that reflect her representation of little moments in the book such as the snowflakes, the giraffe, and the jellyfish. I love the generic space stuff, too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s those small details, like the matryoshka dolls, that really make me feel like she got the book.

It really grabs your attention when you see the altar online, and I’m excited that Flower gave us permission to share it here. I also love how she introduced the altar by naming what lines from the book inspired her.

She says some of the lines inspiring Ephemeral Altar 25 include: “the full/ moon, whose gravity is anemic,” “bamboozled by biological urge,” “There is no/ Empty-Cradle Club,” “Each imagined child is a talisman,” “Phoneme, syllable, syntax,” “This schism is sweet,” “she’d/ smell like nothing,/ ghost weed,/ snow-in-summer. White-flecked/ loner,” “current—artificially generated/ or the others’ wakes—mostly/ resting on the bottom, clearly/ dead,” “The work of civilization/ is also laundry,” “vestibular weirdness of microgravity,” “I want you/ to be able to hold two opposing/ truths about yourself consonant,/ the dread and the rapture,” “revealing/ different primordial mysteries,/ galactic cargo,” “Invisible on the eerie gray crescent of/ the ultrasound, you peeled away,” “just stardust/ and antineutrinos,” “My deepest sadnesses are completely ordinary,” “In space, even with the joint-easing reduction of/ gravity, I would ache, stiff as a store mannequin,” “My own disasters have been mostly of my body’s making,” “a history with the astral,” “into the dark freezer./ I dream a psychopath,” and “should/ I tell you again about the disasters?”

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