Stolen Girls

by Elizabeth Searle

I write from obsessions, and my latest writerly obsessions have to do with “stolen” girls. My newest novel GIRL HELD IN HOME (2011) is based on a ripped-from-the-headlines crime in my town, in which a young woman was “held” as an unpaid servant in the home of a wealthy family. The case reminded me of other tabloid stories of girls or women being “held”– from Jaycee Dugard, the “Shed Girl” to the so-called “incest girl” case in Austria to kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart. These and other girls’ crowded my mind as I imagined my imprisoned heroine. I wonder if other HER KIND readers have noticed these sorts of disturbingly connected news stories and found them similarly gripping. What stories in the news obsess you?

For GIRL HELD IN HOME, I also used parts of stories of real young women I knew. One, like my heroine, went by the name of “One.” In real life, the woman held in the home believed the family there controlled her visa. I know from members of my own extended family the nightmare maze of immigraton laws. A new one-act play I am working on– STOLEN GIRL SONG— continues this Stolen Girl theme. Two orphan girls craving fame and escape are drawn into the glitzy, risky club scene in Amsterdam. One of the girls longs to be on TV and recites tell-all monologues to the audience inside her head (who are also the “real” audience).

So one influence I keep coming back to as a writer, for better or worse, is my addiction to tabloid news. This past year, I have had both a novel and rock opera that were inspired by “Ripped from the Headlines” tales. When a news story grabs you, do you wonder what is it trying to tell you?

To me, it is interesting which stories take on a life of their own. Some stories– like the Trayvon Martin tragedy– have clear ties to serious issues. Other (often celebrity-connected) stories take hold of the mass imagination for more murky reasons. The Casey Anthony trial; the Sandra Bullock divorce; the death of Whitney Houston. Maybe these stories fascinate in part by playing out extreme versions of situations we all can relate too. Nightmare larger-than-life “bad parents,” lousy husbands, mid-life crises. Have any celebrity sagas ever gripped you in a surprisingly emotional way?

This past year there was a new production of Tonya & Nancy: the Rock Opera (words and concept by me, music by Michael Teoli) which played in Boston. This is our second full production and the show always draws much media. The two “heroines” — based on scandalous figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan– are “trapped” in their own web. A book columnist for The Boston Globe tied my shows and my novel together by observing that I am a writer “inspired by lurid crimes.”

Guilty as charged. And isn’t there always a guilt element in indulging in tabloid addictions? Years ago, I took part in a “Guilty Pleasures” reading– works we loved but were ashamed to love. I chose to read about the Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie triangle. Later I chatted with super author Steve Almond (Candyfreak). Steve confessed to being “worried” about actor Tom Cruise, then in his couch-jumping faze. Steve felt Tom was having a midlife crisis. Steve and I talked about having an event where folks shared their secretly serious feelings for celebrities.

I started then to see how scandalous news stories can connect to our own darker issues. They can be a way in. With my own Tonya & Nancy, I was first inspired to go there by a remark from conservative commentator George Will. Amidst the actual Kerrigan/Harding scandal, Will decried all the media coverage and stated that this was “a ridiculous story that has nothing whatsoever to do with life in America today.” I thought: a ridiculous story, yes of course. But it has EVERYTHING to do with life in America.

In the scandal are all-American themes that I relate to. A desire for attention and success; a pressure to win at all costs. The story seemed to me poignant as well as darkly comic. It touched on such issues as abusive relationships and class warfare. And, as my friend Lesley Heiser observed, on the way women fight themselves and each other in a mad desire to be perfect. For me, digging into that particular tabloid obsession paid off, writing-wise.

So a twisty part of my writing journey– something I keep coming back to– is tabloid news stories, and the glitteringly dark depths I find in them. I am curious to hear from sister scribes about their own obsessions, from fellow tabloid addicts and from “girls” of all ages. Many thanks to Rosebud Ben-Oni, Arisa White and Vida for letting me be a Lady in their House!

Stolen Girls

A Slow Growing Tree: A conversation with R. Erica Doyle and Monica A. Hand

A friendship of nearly twenty years, Erica and Monica were writing on the walls of Erica’s apartment in Washington, DC, roomies at Cave Canem, and now are published authors who continue to believe in the power of poetry to provoke change. Erica’s first book, proxy is forthcoming from Belladonna* Books in 2013, and Monica’s me and Nina was published by Alice James Books in February of this year. Thriving and surviving as queer, black writers, Erica and Monica speak about their people-centered and person-rooted experiences from Uncle Nello’s barbershop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to the mid-90s DC lit scene to the Négritude poets, all which, and more, have made them the poets and brilliant minds they are today.

HER KIND: Erica and Monica, welcome to the Conversation. It’s so great to have your voices here! To get you all started let’s start with a quote from George Eliot: “Life is measured by the rapidity of change, the succession of influences that modify the being.” Has this proven true for you as a writer?

Monica A. Hand: Since the publication of me and Nina, it seems like events and opportunities have come steadily like new snow. But I have not forgotten the persistent effort and the sacrifices I have made to get here. It has not been easy and it has not been particularly quick. This is the winter of my life. Sometimes it has felt like I would never reach this milestone and now here I am. What I am learning is that I still must stay focused and diligent. Yes, I am blessed and many have helped me and continue to help me but it is my labor (risk taking and faith) that keeps me moving forward. When I feel low and challenged by the circumstances of my life, I think of those who have come before me who kept moving forward when faced with hard times, with loss, with health problems or even self-doubt. I think of poets like Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde who overcame plenty of personal challenges and still wrote the most amazing poems and prose.

But when I think of the succession of influences, my thoughts begin first with my mother who saw the potential in a shy, self-conscious girl. So she encouraged me to speak, to recite, and to write. These are the foundations to communication. Above all, a poem is a form of communication. As a girl, as a young woman, and as an aging woman, this ability to speak poems has sustained me and given me power when I thought I had none, and it has helped me empower others.

Then my thoughts go to my friends like you, Erica. Before I think of the teachers and the famous poets, I think of my friends, people I have met “on the road.” Yes, my mother introduced me to poetry and to poets like Langston Hughes and I found Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez on my own. But it was my poetry friends in workshops and at readings that introduced me to Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, Erica Hunt, Linda Hull, and Kimiko Hahn.

R. Erica Doyle: Monica, I read the above quote and I thought, what the hell? and laughed, because of how slow everything feels. I mean, I’m in my forties and you’re in your fifties and we are now publishing our first books within a year of each other. In fact, you and I had to have a conversation this morning about the shape of this “conversation”—the very nature of our exchanges has never been speedy. Our talk is hours filled with silences and stories, whether it is on the phone or in person. Our friendship is a slow growing tree planted nearly twenty years ago.
It’s weird because I can’t remember how we met—can you? But I do remember you bringing me flowers the first time we hung out in the mid-90s. I thought you were a real grown up—a mom, with a house and really good job. I was a teaching artist, doing slams and open mics, local workshops, and having an exceedingly rich social life in the black dyke community. I remember us having writing circles in my apartment in Columbia Heights in Washington, DC, with other women writers of color, laughing and writing and joking, and you teaching us renga. The DC writing scene was so hot then: It’s Your Mug, Kaffa House, Women in the Life, MotherTongue and others, where we met other writers and shared our work, and DC Writers Corps was helping folks earn a living doing their art with the community.

At one of those gatherings, in early 1997, I shared the email I’d gotten about the second annual Cave Canem retreat and we talked about what kind of space it might be—would it welcome our queerness? Some were skeptical. But we applied and got in and went together on a really crazy bus and train ride where I dragged you through Port Authority on the way to the Metro North and you complained the whole time. We were roomies! Remember how Sonia [Sanchez] was our next-door neighbor that first year? I remember her ironing and telling us to make our beds every day (very much a Virgo), her “Good morning, sistas!” I was so struck by her kindness and generosity, her compassion and humor. Her loving nature means so much to me, still. I remember the first night Elizabeth Alexander speaking so passionately about her friend and mentor Melvin Dixon and knowing that she had our queer backs. And certainly we both made friendships there that we will have all of our lives . . .

Like those linked verses we partied over, this was the time of my life—my twenties—where the parts were starting to come together. The idea of community, experimentation, a certain political urgency, and a kind of outsiderness were all part of it. More than books or school, my influences are people-centered, person-rooted. . .
So much has happened, and here we are, still talking about it all.

MAH: Erica, you still make me laugh. The kind of laugh you can have with someone who is so familiar, someone who you share so many back stories with you don’t need any punch lines. I think we met through DJ Renegade or at one of the Woodshed workshops Brian Gilmore led. I remember Yona Harvey was at those workshops and how I used to call her my grandma because of how wise she was and what a great insightful reader. Her feedback was so tight (and gentle). She would make a small suggestion and your poem was transformed and became better than before; her poetic concision as good as Lucille Clifton’s.

I remember the workshops in your apartment and how we wrote on the walls. You felt like my protector and even though I was bigger and older you wouldn’t let anyone mess with me. You knew I was isolated out there in the suburbs and constantly reached out to me. I loved you then and love you still for your strength and your kindness. And I am so grateful that you told me about Cave Canem. Outside of Its Your Mug, Woodshed, MotherTongue, and your workshop, I was mostly hanging out at the mostly white, mostly male centric The Writers Center in Bethesda and the open mic at Borders Books & Music at the White Flint Mall. This wasn’t all bad: in a workshop with Ann Dar at The Writer’s Center I wrote my first sonnet, “Reflections upon Julie Blackwoman.” Ann Dar published her first book when she was fifty and I remember thinking there was still hope for me. And in a workshop with Anne Becker, I completed my first manuscript, “Mother’s Milk.” I only submitted it to one publisher—a queer press—that told me the book wasn’t queer enough (or that’s at least how I remembered it).

It seems like I have always been bumping into that not black enough, not mainstream enough (aka not white enough), or queer enough. Cave Canem was the one place I felt it didn’t matter: there my work was judged on the merits of the poem not the identity of the speaker in the poem.
That first two years at Cave Canem were magical. The trees could talk and even though we were in the mist of Christian icons, the river called to us and we made that long walk in the dark like our ancestors must have. And I remember that workshop with Elizabeth [Alexander] when she conjured the spirit of Audre Lorde and when Lucille [Clifton], Sister Sonia [Sanchez], and Toi [Derricotte] took to the pulpit and we were like in church. To this day, I remember Toi telling us to confront and embrace our demons. Years later I thought she must have been referring to Lorca’s Duende. That is until I read her new book of poems, The Undertaker’s Daughter, and I realized she meant the darkness we each carried.

Yes, we are still in Babylon and every day something is still trying to kill us. But we survive because of the community that we have built and that we continue to build.

RED: You know, I was reading Honi’s [Honorée Fanonne Jeffers] blog, Phillis Remastered, and thinking about how some people think we are exaggerating or making this up when we say something like “every day something is trying to kill us,” and then Trayvon Martin— a young black man who could be our son, cousin, brother—goes out to buy some Skittles and iced tea, and is attacked and killed, and his murderer doesn’t get arrested because the cops say there isn’t even a case for manslaughter. Lord knows I hope by the time this comes out there will be something different happening there, but the fact remains that he is dead and for nothing more than the crime of being black. There is an amazing quote by a woman who runs a rehabilitation center in the Congo for victims of rape, where she talks about being guilty of but one sin—that of being a woman. And we are certainly seeing these ridiculous pieces of legislation being pushed through once again regulating women’s bodies. Not to mention the wars seemingly without end, as the US seems to contemplate where else it can begin new wars even as we are on the edge of pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014. So I am thinking about survival.

Yes, and I am thinking also about how we thrive. How we use our work and communities to grapple, play, tease out. Having been someone whose life was literally changed by reading Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Jay Wright, Fanny Howe, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Forché, Walt Whitman, Erica Hunt, Harryette Mullen, Charles Bernstein, Allen Ginsburg, Eileen Myles, and others. . . Oh! So many delicious books— and I say that because I was feasting and hungry—I am not one to disdain the power of literature to change worlds. To create and fortify movements. And to give pleasure, fantasy, succor, escape.

But, you know, I have also been influenced by how writers I admired lived in the world. I love Cornelius Eady’s writing, but I think I learned most by how he existed in the world; same with Martín Espada, Elizabeth Alexander, June Jordan, Chrystos; Dionne Brand. They are/were scholars, activists, upstarts. Parents. Lovers. I remember Cornelius’ wife Sarah [Micklem], a tremendous fiction writer herself, talking about how she went to all his readings in these little dark bars and places for years, and that taught me about persistence and longevity. Elizabeth is a tremendous scholar as well as a loving mother and spouse, and that taught me about balance. I think for a long time I was trying to figure out what this writer life could look like, how I could put together what seemed meaningful to me. In the early 2000’s, I tried the adjunct to permanent faculty track—but it wasn’t me. So I think there is the work, and then there is the life you create through and around the work, and my influences guided me in that process, too.

I’ve always worked outside of the academy—except for a brief moment in the aughts when I took over a semester for Greg Pardlo who was going to MacDowell, I think, and I realized that I preferred working with younger students and in the public sphere. But in this respect, too, I had influences, from Walter Mosley who was an IBM exec before he was a full time novelist; Toni Morrison, who was an editor; and I always remember William Carlos Williams and figure if he could be a poet and a doctor. . .

I joke that I am Caribbean, so of course, I must always have more than one job. And I do
feel like I always have at least two jobs—as a writer and an educator—both of which I love. Sometimes I have more. I am wondering for you—how did you balance work with your kids, your management job, your writing? I’ve jumped around a lot here, but I think my theme is—how do you see yourself putting together surviving and thriving? What influences/influenced you in how to shape your writer’s life?

MAH: Right now, I am thinking it is 3am and even though I have retired from the Postal Service and my children are grown, I am still writing during the witching hours. Growing up, I watched my mother balance single parenthood and work. She kept a super clean house, and cooked most nights. I remember the washing machine in the kitchen—the kind that you had to feed the clothes through the wringer built on the top of the machine. I remember her hanging the clothes on the line to dry and then ironing everything. It seemed like she was always working. She taught me to provide and to keep moving forward even if life was hard. By her example, she taught me resiliency and persistence. She also emphasized the value of getting a “good” education. She didn’t get to go to college because when she was sixteen her mother died and there was no money and she was needed at home. As a result, my mother was determined that my siblings and I went to college. Education was considered a great commodity in our household. It was the way one could realize the American dream. Of course I know now that the American dream is a farce but I still value knowledge. My mother went back to school in her forties to get her teaching credentials and supported my decision to go back in my fifties to get my MFA. So most of my life skills that have helped make my way as a writer, I learned from my mother. The rest I learned working at the Post Office.

At the Post Office, I learned to choose my battles, how to get over disappointment, and how to manage success. I learned the status quo does not like to be challenged and racism, class bias, gender prejudice and homophobia are deeply entrenched in our society. I learned that sometimes life is not fair and that sometimes you will get the crappy assignments and sometimes you will do good work that never gets recognized. I also learned that being a team player and a follower are as important as being a leader. But most importantly, I learned that I couldn’t allow my self-worth to be defined by someone else. This has helped me manage the waiting and the rejection that comes with making your way as a writer.

The poet Ilya Kaminsky says the work we do today builds upon the work that has come before us—sometimes we are aware of our influencers, sometimes we are not. There are a string of poets whose poems I have consciously attempted to imitate: Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Gerald Stern, Carl Phillips, Kimiko Hahn, Basho, Sei Shōnagon, to name just a few. But as Kaminsky said, there are those influencers we are not aware of. Just recently during a talk I gave at West Morris Central High School [NJ] about the writing of me and Nina and how it fits into the legacy of African American poetry, I realized how much I had been influenced by the poems in Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water. As I was making my way through me and Nina, his was one of the books I looked at closely. I also studied Bhanu Kapil’s The Interrogation of Strangers.

The Négritude poets—Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guianan Léon Damas and their rejection of French colonialism in their writings; the writings of Paul Celan in which he struggles against the ambivalence of having to write in the language of your oppressor; and M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem, “The Discourse on the Logic of Language,” speak to the alienation I feel as an African American poet writing in the English language within a culture that is predicated on destruction. “In whose language am I?”

I think we are often influenced by work that we love. I used to worry that I couldn’t settle into one particular style. Now I love that each poem I write is an experiment. So I am attracted to poets whose work play with form and language and still have something to say about what is going on with Black people, like the work of Harryette Mullen, Evie Shockley, and Thomas Sayers Ellis. And I admire queer poets like Ching-In Chen who are poets and activists and Saeed Jones who is defining queer aestetics. Saeed writes, “queer implies a slipperiness, a subversion of expectations and conventions, and inability to sit still, a refusal to obey.” This so perfectly defines how I see myself today as a writer.

I learned years ago when I was rejected from the first low residency MFA program I applied to that I had no choice: I am a poet even if I never publish a poem or get accepted into any MFA program. I’m beyond that now—I have the MFA and I have the book and I’m discovering there is still so much work to be done. As cliché as it may sound, I want to write poems that do battle with the bullshit that is going on in this country and in the world, poems that destabilize colonization and provoke change.

So, Erica, now that we finally have those first books where do you think we will be five, ten years from now?

RED: What a question! I have to say my head is still spinning from the writers you’ve mentioned. Reminds me of my familial influences too, of the Pan Africanists and Black Nationalist, independence-minded adults in my family; of being in Uncle Nello’s barbershop in Bed-Stuy listening to my father and his friends and cousins talk about international liberation movements. I grew up reading The Black Jacobins and They Came Before the Mayflower and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Going back to my family, where creativity was admired and my strangeness was accepted, and there was always, always a critical consciousness about what it meant to be who we are, culturally, politically, and ethnically. Someone asked me in a Q&A recently about vulnerability, privacy, being afraid to share. It certainly helps that my family modeled this unconditional acceptance of me as a person when I take a risk and “go there” in my work. Artists who push boundaries have always been of interest to me—whether it was performance artists and critics like Guillermo Gómez-Peña or Coco Fusco or lately Clifford Owens, or my dear friends and co-conspirators Ronaldo Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Torkwase Dyson. Or people who do such exquisite work with sound like Julie Patton, the late and wonderful Akilah Oliver. Or Tisa Byrant’s hybrid crossover experiments.

When we say “go there” we are talking about pushing past the limits of what is expected and acceptable into some outrageous, possibly dangerous, zone that approaches a sort of truth; when someone “goes in” we mean they are taking themselves to another level of depth, that might be painful like a turning in a wound. I remember reading some poems of yours in me and Nina and thinking, “Oh! She just went in!” I was talking to Dawn [Lundy Martin] tonight about the kind of work that excites us—that is formally interesting, but at the same time contains some kind of driving emotional force. I think that what interests me in your work, and hers, and Ronaldo’s, is that there is a concern with formal innovation, with the limits and promises of language, but there is a beating heart at the core.

So, you ask about the next five or ten years. I laugh again, because who knew what would happen those nights when we were drinking honey wine in my apartment and writing on the walls? Sometimes I feel weighed down by the archaeology, all the layers of silt. Our mothers have died. I’m the end of my maternal line. I do hope we can shake our heads and say, oh those bad, past, war-filled times. Yet, here we are. Our conversation on somebody’s blog. Reviews. Editors meetings! You’re a grandmother, I’m a mom, we’ve both got decent pensions, and the books are coming out. But we’re still running around doing readings. We are still giving each other refuge, advice, and yes, sometimes financial help when we need it. We’re still talking on and on about the same three things: love, politics, and art.

R. Erica Doyle’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best Black Women’s Erotica, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, Ploughshares, Callaloo, and Bloom. She has received grants and awards from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and Poets and Writers, and she was a New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellow. Erica is also a fellow of Cave Canem: A Workshop and Retreat for Black Writers. Her first book, proxy is forthcoming from Belladonna* Books in 2013. Erica received her MFA in Poetry from the New School, and lives in New York City, where she is an administrator in the NYC public schools and facilitates Tongues Afire: A Free Creative Writing Workshop for queer women and trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

Monica A. Hand is an award winning poet and book artist. Author of me and Nina, her poems have also appeared in numerous publications including Aunt Chloe, Black Renaissance Noire, Naugatuck River Review, The Sow’s Ear, Drunken Boat, Beyond the Frontier, African-American Poetry for the 21st Century, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade and American Creative Writers on Class. She has a MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and is a founding member of Poets for Ayiti.

A Slow Growing Tree: A conversation with R. Erica Doyle and Monica A. Hand

Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP)

Founded in 2009, AWWP supports the voices of Afghan women with the belief that to tell one’s story is a human right. By documenting these stories, AWWP hopes that women will begin a national dialogue on issues such as job and educational equality, healthcare, and more.

Hear at an interview with AWWP founder Masha Hamilton and AWWP County Director at Wisconsin Public Radio’s Here on Earth—Radio without Borders.

Get involved with AWWP.

Discover more: read Zohra Saed’s introduction to the poetry’s impact on the country’s cultural, historical, and religious identity and a selection from Afghan poets.

Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP)

Elizabeth Searle: Lady in the House Questions

1. What has been your ultimate journey?

To keep playing pretend, any way I can– and to impact the real world. Like many writers, I fit the so-called “Highly Sensitive” diagnosis of being both an introvert and an extrovert. My creative life started when my sister and I played elaborate, pretend acting games, which lasted well into my teens.

My first ‘writings’ were scripts for the silent movies my sister and I shot on the family’s ratchety Brownie Camera. We acted out a long-running soap opera called What a Way to Live which were “broadcasted” on walkie-talkies.

So when in my early forties I began to write for the theater after years of writing fiction, I felt in a way that I was coming home, playing pretend actress games again. Play is the place that I– and most writers– need to keep returning to.

2. How do you start? How do you end?

“I first began acting, I’ll tell you when you ask, in dress-up games I played with my sister till I was– body-wise– a woman.”

That is the first line of my first story in my collection CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE. While the story is fiction, the first line is true to my life. After having then published three books of fiction, theater somehow felt like “coming home.” I find there is a spirit to the theater world akin to an old Judy Garland movie: “Hey let’s do a PLAY! My Dad’s got a BARN!”

While I hope this is not “the end” for me, it is true for me that I’ve circled back to, “returned to,” performing and theater in my creative life. And it’s also true (speaking of The End) that if I have to ‘go out’ some way, I’d rather go out onstage, with a bang.

3. Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?

Although I am a worrier by nature, I do not in fact worry about the politics of classification. Maybe I should, but I don’t because the genre I started out in– literary fiction– is frankly in such dire straits right now. So for the last several years I have been happily hop-scotching across genres.

“Irons in the Fire” is my motto. It’s my hyper nature to always have multiple projects brewing. I find I like to “spread myself thin.” I’ve heard if you are ever being shot at with a gun, run away in a “zig-zag pattern.” That way you have less of a chance of being hit and “felled.” In my writing career, to evade capture, I keep running in a zig-zag pattern.

In terms of classifying myself, I’d say I’m a fiction writer who also writes theater and film. I love fiction in a long-term-married way, but like an unwise late-in-life affair, scriptwriting keeps seducing me.

4. When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

Good question– and one that reminds me of an Annie Dillard essay on writing in which she takes carpentry and house-building as a metaphor. She urges novelists not to be afraid to recognize when you need to ‘knock down a wall’ of your structure. She points out that if you put off that decision and ignore that instinct, your “house” may never be sound. I think I have made that mistake before and stuck with novel MSSs that had some fundamental structural flaws which I stayed blind to.

These days, I feel more relaxed about trusting the processes of rewriting, scrapping material and sometimes setting aside projects and trusting that if they need to be completed, I will ‘come back’ to them. I have four published books now, so I feel less frantic about needing to get another one done tomorrow. I hope with age there does come wisdom or at least patience. Because yes, sometimes in a writing project– or a writing career– you really need to swing a wrecking ball.


Elizabeth Searle: Lady in the House Questions

After All This Time: Revisiting Poetry First Loves

by Lucy Biederman

There is nothing like the feeling I get when I re-read the poems I loved most passionately when I first fell hard for poetry. Looking at these poems again—the ones I memorized and recited to myself constantly a decade ago—is a little bit like hearing my own voice on a recording, or seeing a reflection of myself when I don’t expect to be faced with my own image: a back-to-earth smack of me-ness.

The line-break in “Done? / It lives in me” from Louise Gluck’s “Hesitate to Call,” for example, is as familiar to me as the crook of my own elbow. What a dream come true, having the space and silence and captive audience to pose that livid, hypothetical question, and the icy indulgence of answering it in the same tone. It embarrasses me to read it, because it reminds me of how much I used to want to sound like that, and how much I thought I did. And—though I name-check other (usually male) poets as influences instead—how much, after all this time, I still aspire to sound like that.

Among the poems that are most fundamental to me, many are from first or second books by women. Though “Hesitate to Call” originally appeared in Gluck’s first book, Firstborn, I discovered it in a single-volume edition of Gluck’s first four books that Ecco put out in 1999 under the title, The First Four Books of Poems. I found a sense of permission in early-career contemporary female voices, but along with that, sounds from my life, or my dreams of life, that I knew well but hadn’t thought it possible to articulate. When I return to these poems, I am reminded how many of my inner landscapes are lit and paved with their sound and sense.

Before I knew to—or knew how to—scan the iambs and dactyls that power Carolyn Forche’s “Joseph,” for instance, I was affected by their incantatory punch:

… your voice
slung on the wires that lapse
scalloping the cold length
of the country between us.
It is another voice that calls me after all this time.

I was entranced by the multiple state-names the poem lassoes and lets go, its noun-heavy descriptions of work and pain, all that the love and regret and looking away—the profligacy of it all. The book in which “Joseph” appears, The Country Between Us, Forche’s second, is notorious because of its journalistic engagement with the ongoing civil war in El Salvador, which Forche had encountered while working as a translator and for Amnesty International. But when I read it, 20 years after the controversy, Forche’s blithe admixture of poetry and journalism was one of my favorite things about it: it’s another example of all Forche allows herself. She applies such gorgeous lyricism to the hard lives she describes that they undergo a sort of phase change, becoming something other than themselves. The steel mill in summer, your thighs / through waist-high fields, a long bar night of smoke and poker … “Joseph,” indeed the whole book, is a romantic mash-up of lyricism and realism.

Another of my early favorites is Lucie Brock-Broido’s “Magnum Mysterium,” a similarly mashed-up landscape, this one a Midwestern locale somehow more vibrant and more serene than any I’ve known. Revisiting the poem, which appears in Brock-Broido’s first book, A Hunger, I recognize just how deeply I have internalized its phrasing. I often reach for its dependent sentence structure in the hope of evoking something like the successive shots of warmth and chill that Brock-Broido deftly administers. Every time I read it, or even when I recite it to myself, I feel it again creaking open the door, widening the possibilities for what one can imagine and say in the space of a poem. I am in love with its interplay of real and pretend; it is an Easy-Bake Oven of a poem, an Ant Farm.

Brock-Broido’s dependent clauses give “Magnum Mysterium” a dream-like feeling even as they depict a seemingly accurate Great Plains scene. Every sentence in the poem’s first three-and-a-half stanzas starts with a lyrically heavy inverted clause that has the effect of throwing a long late-day shadow across what comes after. For example, the poem’s first stanza:

Since I’ve lived in many places, it’s odd
That I continue to waken in Nebraska,
Wandering into the sunroom where the wheat
Has come up wide overnight.

That first line seems to point backward rather than forward, charming and mysterious, so that even as the word “continue,” with its present tense, brings us into the here and now of the poem, the hazy past looms over the ensuing lines. “Wandering into the sunroom,” it is though we are stumbling with the speaker into some moment between the past and the present, rubbing sleep from our eyes.

The extraordinary between-space in which “Magnum Mysterium” takes place—a space between present and past, between real and fake, between sincerity and irony—seems to be in the service of saying, the poem you are reading is the only such place on earth. Looking now at “Magnum Mysterium” and other poems I first adored, I see in them women writers creating space to speak where there was none before.

It’s popular to talk about the importance of publishing a wide diversity of voices, but, as VIDA’s 2011 Count starkly shows, few editors of high-circulation literary magazines publish nearly as many women as men—and anecdotal evidence suggests minority authors are similarly under-represented. Those editors do us all a terrible disservice; they restrict even our inner worlds. When I was a beginning as a writer, scanning around for useful tools and methods, sure, Merwin and Ashbery spoke to me, but they didn’t show me. For that, for me, there was and is Nickole Brown’s Sister; Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form; Mary Szybist’s Granted; and Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ The Gospel of Barbeque.

In those books and three-dozen more, I heard traces of the poems I wanted to learn to write, and models for how to write them. When I re-read these poems and books, I get excited all over again: I get to write poems. Poems as sad and weird, as angry and amazing, as mean and disgusting, as imaginative and beautiful, as only I can be. In some fundamental way, it doesn’t matter if the poems I write are good, or if they get published, or win prizes. Reading other women poets and following their lead in my writing has given me an inner place to live—a place with the same freedoms male poets have to speak, fail, succeed, and be heard.

What a place, even if it’s just pretend.

Lucy Biederman lives in Chicago. Her chapbook, The Other World, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in May 2012. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as No Tell Motel, The Journal, PMSpoemmemoirstory, MiPOesias, and Shampoo.

After All This Time: Revisiting Poetry First Loves

Getting off the Fence and Building Passageways: A Conversation with Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay

Though Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay are authors who defy genre, there is a social consciousness that resonates in their respective works. Chadburn is both an activist and a writer; recently, American Public Media’s Marketplace featured an excerpt of her piece “i heart taxes,” originally published on The Rumpus, which explains what it means to value one’s community. Gay, co-editor of PANK Magazine, has a widely-followed blog ( in which she candidly discusses her experiences as a writer and a witness to the world-at-large (her recent piece on The Rumpus, “A Place Where We are Everything” concerns Trayvon Martin). HER KIND talks to both authors about the various influences that have not only shaped them, but those they’ve resisted: change, control and the comma.

HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the Conversation. Let’s begin with a quote to get the ball rolling. George Eliot once said, “Life is measured by the rapidity of change, the succession of influences that modify the being.” Has this proved true for you as a writer?


MELISSA CHADBURN: I think this proves truer for my characters than for me as a writer. As a writer I crave no outward change. I crave a room plugged into a pile of snow somewhere. I crave being chained to my desk. I heard or read that Aimee Bender actually ties her legs to her desk when she writes. Anyhow I crave captivity to get the words on the page. But with my characters I demand change. A surprise. A change of events. An inner change. Something to keep us all entertained.

But then again when we talk about influence this has held true for me. If I’m stuck. If I’m not writing and I’m in that place of stagnancy we all fear – which can happen a couple times throughout the week or even throughout the day. Then the solution usually lies in another novel. Another writer. A need for influence. It doesn’t have to be writers; it can be Ted talks or podcasts of the Moth or some other form of storytelling. Just the other day I got full of motivation from Notorious B.I.G. I mean a man that can rhyme “birthday” with “thirsty—” you gotta admire that.

Lastly a fear of craving change and being unable to set forth that change either because of a lack of power or influence or economic means or physical limitations is by far my greatest motivation. More specifically I had two jobs in Berkley in the late nineties. In the morning I was an attendant to a quadriplegic and in the afternoons I was a barista at a café. The quadriplegic was a woman named Toy. I got her ready for her day. I washed her body. I shaved her legs. Sometimes the clippers would bump up against her catheter and the small sensation she got caused her legs to spasm. She told me not to stop them. She liked it. It was the only movements she had. I emptied the bag that held her urine. I cleaned out her rectum. I parted her hair. I dressed her. I picked her up and put her in her wheelchair. We gossiped. I served her breakfast. And then I would leave. Or attempt to leave. But she always thought of something else. One more thing. She wanted me to stay. Eventually I left to my next job. I ran. If anyone asked me why I ran I said, “Because I can.” So this is what I mean when I say I write for my ancestors or the illiterate or the censored. This is what I mean when I say an incapacity to change inspires me.

ROXANE GAY: In looking at my writing, you can definitely see the shape and trajectory of my influences. There’s definitely a degree of measure there because as my influences have become more sophisticated, so has my writing (I hope). I am well beyond where I started as a writer, and I am better for it. I also see how broad my influences are.

I’d say my influences are more aptly described as sources of inspiration. I tend to find inspiration everywhere which may account for my omnivorous approach to writing. There are few things I am unwilling to try when it comes to the written word and that comes, in large part, because I am open to all kinds of influences. What I crave is no outward control. I don’t want to be labeled as this kind of writer or that kind of writer. I don’t want to be limited to only one genre. I want to write what I feel like writing, and I want to do the best I can.

I am quite different from Melissa in that I love changing (where I consider change growth) as a writer. I love the ways my writing moves forward because no matter how my work evolves, there’s always a core voice that remains steady regardless of what inspires me in a given place and time.

What changes in my writing is how I present my voice or how I reflect how I’ve been influenced.

MC: Oh yeah I agree. I mean I agree with me too but I think I was talking about exterior change, I dig interior change. I am in a constant state of revision. If I look back at my earlier writing I can definitely see growth since then. I have a very dicey competitive edge but it’s with myself in the past that I’m competing with.

Yet still I have had many teachers and friends tell me that if they were walking down Olympic and Hauser Blvd. and came across a piece of paper with my writing on it they would know it was mine. I think I have a distinct voice, (one that apparently lacks commas). My colleagues jokes that I suffer from comma blindness, like some folks are color blind— I’m comma blind. This is a change that I look forward to absorbing. Another change is structure. I’m geeking out on structure lately in a way that I think is indicative of positive growth and maturity in my writing. I am more aware of the skeleton of my stories and novels than I was even two short years ago.

I also am influenced most by whomever I read last and experienced a little writer’s growth spurt when I learned how to read like a writer as opposed to just casually reading for kicks. Reading became much more sniperish. I would get in take what I needed and get out. I have blocked out chunks of time to read with an agenda. Is that gross? Is it gross to have an agenda?

I think it’s kind of kismet that this discussion is taking place between Roxane and I because actually I’m very much still on the emerging side of my career. Roxane’s PANK Magazine was the first place where someone I didn’t know published me and I was over the moon. I was ecstatic. I printed out the letter of acceptance and thumb tacked it to my wall of hope and greatness and joy. In addition to this little secret delight that I think will always color my perception of you, Roxane, is that you’re witty and opinionated and write commentary with a breadth that actually has the capacity to shift people’s consciousness. When you do this do you write with an agenda– is it intentional?

RG: It brings me such pleasure (and pride) to know PANK was one of your first publications because I love your writing so much. It feels like such a fine confluence of events to have found your work in the submission queue and now here we are talking about influences.

I too tend to think of myself as having an emerging career. I’ve been writing for a long time, and also publishing for a fair amount of time, but my work being taken seriously is a recent phenomenon. I still very much see myself as being located closer to the beginning of my career than closer to a more established place. I think that’s why I approach things so relentlessly.

The older I get, the more I try to be intentional. My twenties were a wasteland for me, and nothing I did had very much intention behind it. There were plenty of reasons for this, most of them perfectly reasonable, but when I turned thirty, I started to change and hopefully become a better person and one of the ways I’ve tried to become better is through intent. Whether I am living my life, teaching, reading, editing, or writing, I do it from a place of giving a damn. Yes, I do give a damn and I am increasingly comfortable admitting that. This notion that having an agenda or having intention is a bad thing drives me crazy. Is having an agenda gross? Absolutely not, unless of course, the agenda sucks.

When I write, most of the time, I am experiencing some kind of intense emotion about something. If I have an agenda, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, it is to move people, to make people feel and react. In the past two years or so that I’ve taken up essay writing more seriously, I’d also say I am writing to make people open their eyes more carefully to some of the important issues facing our culture. I never used to be the kind of person who wanted to take a stand on anything but the way the world has shifted as of late has compelled me to finally get off the fence. I may not always be right, but I am always coming from a passionate, honest, human, and admittedly flawed place. Ultimately that’s how I would characterize my agenda–trying to create change and emotional reaction in deeply felt, relatable ways. I hope that sometimes I succeed at this.

How would you characterize your voice? When you write, do you have an agenda? What is that agenda? How do you read with an agenda?

MC: I hope that my voice is gritty and soul punching in some way. I like musical voices like that, grimy, dusty, whisky drenched, tobacco-induced voices. Voices that are affected yet loving. Yes I have an agenda when I write. I’m very deliberate when I write. I try to consider the unintended consequences. I’m mostly aware of this when I write essays. I consider the audience. I consider the frame. Overall my intention is often as wild as shifting public consciousness. I also just want to make sure that no one gets hurt.

I got so many amazing emails and comments in response to an essay I wrote, but my favorites were emails that reflected that people looked at taxes differently. That was important to me. Because words really are the most powerful tool and it’s so fucking beautiful and amazing to see them at work in favor of justice.
I read with an agenda when I turn on my critical mind. I read with an agenda when I purchase a book of essays or poems or stories or a novel by artists that contribute to their communities with this shared interest.

Recently Brad Listi at The Nervous Breakdown interviewed Lauren Groff on his Other People Podcast. When she spoke about Ayn Rand she mentioned that her issue with her was that she said “the novel is the most powerful instrument that we have to be able peer into other people’s heart what she does is she takes this powerful tool and she uses it as weapon it would be as if I were to hand you a pencil for a purpose not to draw or to write but to poke someone else’s eye out. She closes down the human heart.” So when I read with an agenda I look for words that are heart opening and shut down those works that are heart closing. I also hope that in my own writing. I’m not a builder of barriers but of passageways.

I have a saying: Go to where the love is. I hope I continue to build a place where the love is. I hope that when I’m in pain I reach for places where there is love. It used to be a practice to be in pain and reach to where there was more pain. That’s a yucky bad old habit that I want to stop. It’s a present I wish I could have given my 8-year-old self or my 10-year-old self or my teen-year-old self or my twenty-year-old self.

HER KIND: Has a particular place or space been a lasting influence in either of your work? Do you think the idea or physical reality of space is different for women rather than men?

MC: Los Angeles, more particularly Palms, more particularly Westminster Blvd. off of Sawtelle and Palms. Los Angeles is all over my work because it’s where I live and I love reading about apartment living on the West Coast. Also since I grew up in foster care I think I’ll be obsessed with writing about this group home experience until I’m done. I mean I think my first book will be a Los Angeles group home novel and then I’ll have gotten it out of my system and I’ll be happy to move on to other things. I get more obsessed with a theme than a space. But I think everyone has a moment in their life that separates everything that occurred before that moment and everything that occurred after that moment. Personally I have several of those moments, but currently the most defining occurrence in my life was when I was placed into foster care.

Well, [space as different for women and me] is an overgeneralization but I am geographically fucked. I have a very poor sense of space and distance. I’m clumsy. I have no motor skills. I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 26. If I go out with others I am almost always the passenger never the driver. Video games are not my thing. For this reason my relationship to space is very slow but astute. I can describe a room the people in it with a high level of patience and acuity. But is this gender based? I don’t think so. My girlfriend drives anything with wheels. We have a Harley Sportser and Ducati in the garage. She grew up around a lot of wide-open spaces with dirt. She likes everything that goes vroom. I’m tense. I don’t like anything that goes fast or is too high off the ground. I think that I run primarily on fear and worry. I always have ready-access to imagining my demise. This makes my internal life rich and dense but my external life pretty bland. So typically I think men’s physical reality of space is more akin to that of the hunter while women’s experience is more of that of the hunted, but there are exceptions all around.

For some strange reason this question brings to mind an image of a woman walking at night in heels. Unfortunately this is the lens in which I view the world, What if I’m being hunted right now? What would I do?

RG: I have moved a lot in my lifetime, by virtue of my father’s job as a child and by virtue of a number of different things as an adult. Every place I’ve ever been has been an influence of some kind in my work. Because I was rarely in one place for long I always knew I’d have to keep some piece of every place with me. I am also fascinated by how place shapes people, and how everywhere I’ve lived people are as different as they are the same. I am also influenced by Haiti, the country of my parents because it is such an intriguing place. I’m always struck by the contradictions: the beauty and the brutality and how both of those things have shaped the Haitian people. Place and how it shapes people is increasingly one of my writerly obsessions

I would suspect that the realities of everything are different for women and men though certainly not as different as various rhetorics about gender difference would have us believe. How people experience space seems to differ based on the individual more than on one’s gender. I know that when I am in a given space, I am generally considering how I can be least conspicuous in that space, how I can hide, because I am, despite popular belief, still very shy. I don’t like to draw attention to myself though I can fake sociability very well at this point in my life. I like to know that there’s some kind of safe hiding place in a given room. I also look for exits. I need to know how to escape from a room or space at all times. I never want to be trapped in a place, ever. This interests me because Melissa notes that the lens through which she views the world is: “What if I am being hunted right now? What would I do?” I cannot say I disagree.

Melissa, I love what you say about building a place where the love is. I hope that’s one of the things I am doing in my writing, or at the very least I hope I am building a place where compassion can thrive. We don’t have enough of that in the world.

*    *    *

Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, SLAKE, Northville Review, The Rumpus, and she is a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. She interns at dzanc books and runs social media for SLAKE: Los Angeles. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) or follow her on twitter!/melissachadburn She loves your whole outfit right now.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.

Getting off the Fence and Building Passageways: A Conversation with Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay