In 2016, comedian Mike Birbiglia and poet J. Hope Stein took their 14-month-old daughter, Oona, to the Nantucket Film Festival. When the festival director picked them up at the airport, she asked Mike if he would perform at the storytelling night.
“The theme of the stories is jealousy,” the director said.
“You are jealous of Oona,” Jen quipped to Mike. “You should talk about that.”
And so Mike began sharing some of his darkest and funniest thoughts about the decision to have a child. Over the years since, these thoughts have shaped into the book, The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad. Along with Mike’s personal stories, it includes Jen’s poems about new marriage and parenthood.
We invited them to discuss the book with our own Ilya Kaminsky.
ILYA KAMINSKY: How did the idea of the book originate in the first place?
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I was journaling privately, and Jen was writing poetry privately about the same topics—
J. HOPE STEIN: In an extremely uncoordinated unbeknownst-to-us fashion. And I think we were writing things we thought we’d never share. And then one night we got drunk.
MB: Which means we shared one glass of wine.
JHS: And after that, Mike started writing the live show, which ended up on Broadway, and then the book. Month by month, more and more of my poems were finding themselves a home inside Mike’s prose.
Two excerpts from
The New One
DATING MY WIFE
I don’t remember the exact conversation we had the first time we hired a babysitter, but it was something like:
“I think we’re gonna stay here.”
“So you don’t need me?”
“No, we do need you, but we will also be here.”
“We’ll be in the next room. We’ll be back in eleven minutes.” We make it back in six minutes out of respect for her time. The sex post-Oona is awesome because it feels covert. Like we’re getting away with something. But it’s also laced with insecurities that are nearly impossible to overcome.
When we leave the babysitter and enter the bedroom, I take Jen’s hand and she says, “I look like a monster.”
I say, “No, you don’t, you look like the most beautiful—”
She interrupts me and says, “MONSTER!!”
I say, “Please let me finish. It’s a little unfair for you to alter my sentence midstream. You’re so beautiful you’d scare monsters because they’d be like, ‘We didn’t know that level of beauty was possible,’ and they’d start comparing their weird monster bodies to yours and then they’d do sort of a group monster-suicide thing because they’d know they could never be as beautiful as you. Also, I’m deeply and animalistically attracted to you and I’d really like to have sex with you.”
I’ve never been great with pickup lines, but that one worked pretty well.
WE PAY FOR SEX
by J. HOPE STEIN
We agree that the sex is better when we pay for it. That we are getting away with something while living under the oppression of a little tyrant. We pay Anna Norman from my yoga class 20 US dollars/hour to hold our baby while we have sex.
I remind him be gentle… I remind him be slow… with the pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding everything is tender and somehow new.
Your ass, he says… I’ll give him that,
I do a strengthening workout so I can be a stronger mother.
Gentle, they’re sensitive.
I remind him the milk is for her…
… by the end, neither of us is gentle.
He tells me I am an angel… I put my shirt back on while he is still inside me… time is money.
IK: The book has quite a bit of tonal variation. It is musical in its composition; there’s call and response between verse and prose. How did you arrive at the form?
MB: We were lucky to have very smart and honest readers. Artists like Liz Allen, Rena Mosteirin, Seth Barrish, and our editor Gretchen Young, who all read many early drafts. Jen is sometimes shy about her poetry, and she would say, “I don’t know. I think the poetry might be boring to people.” And then I would say, “No, I think it’s gorgeous.” But she doesn’t trust me because I’m her husband. Then we’d show it to a third-party reader, and the response was always “please put more poetry in it.” That’s what they were responding to emotionally. So in some ways, I think the poetry does this thing where the book has the laughs of the prose and the emotion of the poetry, and every now and then it swaps. So it’s the laughs of the poetry, emotion of the prose, and that hopefully keeps the reader on their toes. On their, wait for it… prose toes. Also, in terms of the composition process, a big part of my writing process is experimenting in performance.
JHS: Mike will write something in the day and put it on stage later that night, which always amazes me. Night after night, he’ll work through the possibilities on stage. And my process is writing into my computer and never sharing it with anyone.
MB: Jen and I first performed together at “Paul Muldoon’s Picnic,” which is a literary event. Paul had published Jen in the New Yorker a few years ago. He was familiar with her work, and had seen the live show off-Broadway. Paul asked us if we wanted to come up with something, so we put this mash-up of comedy and poetry together.
JHS: It was kind of a one-time thing we were doing.
MB: And then we were in California after the Broadway show ended. I was performing new work at Largo as I was writing the book. One night we did one of our poetry/comedy mash-ups on Pete Holmes’s show.
JHS: For a comedy crowd, I was pretty terrified. I was sure I was about to ruin the night. All these lovely people came out to laugh and I read a poem about a miscarriage. It shouldn’t have worked. But, yeah, something worked that I never knew could. I was surprised by that. And I think that convinced me to keep pursuing this creative process. It was all Mike’s idea. I really didn’t see it until we did it. And then Flanny [Mark Flannigan], who runs Largo, was so supportive, and he was telling people that were doing this comedy/poetry mash-up thing. So we did Judd Apatow’s show, and then Sondra Lerche’s show and the Milk Carton Kids show. We were learning a lot about how our voices work together.
MB: Also, the idea of doing a poetry/comedy mash-up in Los Angeles is very counterintuitive to what you’d think of as Los Angeles.
JHS: Then when we got back to New York, Mike was doing four to five shows a week at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan, working out a lot of material for the book. And I did the encores with him. 26 shows. I am not a performer, and this is not my process, but it was artistically undeniable in serving the book.
MB: And then I convinced you to join Instagram.
JHS: That happened like a year later, but yeah, you know, Mike pushes me outside my boundaries. I would have probably just been sitting in my living room hanging out with my daughter, and just typing poems into my computer, perfectly content. But, I have to say that being on stage really did change the chemistry of the book. I felt like we were more confident in what needed to work between the prose and the poems, how our energies could remain distinct within the cohesion of the book.
MB: We were finding our feet. Our, and I apologize in advance, prose toes.
Two more excerpts from
The New One
I’d be remiss if I chalked up our decision to have a child to one single moment.
Nothing ever is.
In movies and plays it’s always a moment that determines a major life decision, but in life it’s more fluid — a series of moments that form an evolution.
Years ago, after a series of hundreds if not thousands of discussions about marriage, Jen and I decided to go to city hall and take our vows. But those weren’t the real vows. Our real vows took place in our bedroom and on our green/gray couch, where we talked for hours about what we wanted in our lives.
Our informal marriage vows broke down to three basic tenets:
A. We would never hold each other back.
B. I would be allowed to talk about us onstage.
C. Jen could disappear when she felt like it.
Now we were in the same bed and on the same couch talking about having a child and breaking open the aforementioned seven reasons that might present obstacles to maintaining these vows.
Jen said, “A baby wouldn’t have to change the way we live our lives.” I knew it would. I was willing to go for it. I wanted to be with Jen. I was committed to her. She was committed to us, though neither of us had met the new us.
But we were about to.
by J. HOPE STEIN
Husband is food. I mean good or roof.
Which husband? Men,
women and snowmen — Where…
is my underwear? Husband wakes me
with licking cheeks. I make pillow
of husband’s shoulder & husband.
Sousing the dishes topless for husband:
I douse the mugs & bowls with warm
lemon froth & bubble; I sponge
our utensils: spoon, knife & prong,
for food we will eat next Tuesday
& Sunday & Tomorrow; I scrub
& bristle & muscle the pig-headed pans
with sporadic splash & suds to skin;
I rinse & fill & rinse & empty & fill & empty
& fill & empty to the music of water on twice the dishes.
Husband puts his face in a bowl of afternoon
cereal & we sing: Where, where is my underwear?
In the phenomenal sock project, I watch husband place lone socks
across the kitchen table:
could be inside a pair of pants or suitcase.
In the earth of blankets, I gladden husband by the glow of lamplight
through the sheets. (Where is my underwear?) The sky drools sweetly
to the ear, the purring animals in our bed. Light snore, the seashore at night.
IK: Lurking behind this story of marriage and parenthood is also a story of our country. Which is to say, the book was written in the era of Trumpism. What does it mean to be a poet and a comedian writing about private life in a time of crisis?
MB: I’ve just doubled down on the idea of the personal because I don’t want to give him, even in this interview, any oxygen. I think giving him oxygen is one of the worst things that we can do. Cause all he wants is attention. He doesn’t want to lead. He just wants people to look at him pretending to lead. Yeah. So fuck him.
JHS: While the book is not overtly political, there is deliberate hyper-concentration on the intimate in most of my poems. There’s an unnamed dictator in a couple of the poems. Little things, like weaning a child from feeding from your body, feels like an enormous thing in uncertain times. That was written when our country was separating children from their parents at the border. Thinking if a government would do that, what else would they do? Or what wouldn’t they do? The book to us is less about parenting and more about change.
MB: One way to think of the book is that the protagonist is flawed and our country is flawed. It’s sort of coming to grips with things about yourself, and the country coming to grips with things about itself, and finding a path for change.
JHS: It’s kind of like, it should be called Be Best.
MB: Yes. Be Best was the working title, but when we found out it was taken, we went with The New One.