Observations, Revelations & Lamentations:

by Anastacia Tolbert

Roke is Here (1)

typhoon hits.
thought. wind.
thought. rain.
small things
lose control.
emergency
spins around
like a boy on
a tire swing.
if a window
breaks–
thought.
hymen washed
away too young.
thought.
too scary for
girls to play.
mended heart.
when the typhoon
hits thought.
can you stay–
put together.
if you can
withstand
beating rain
in the middle of
palms
like the
second grade
gym rope
you couldn’t climb.
when the
typhoon hits
all the sounds
tea kettle
cracked birds eggs
& jazz. favorite things.
sing–find shelter.
wonder where your
place is in the
land of now.
root for tree barely
standing
wind remembering
voice?
should you shake with
fear at the thought
of being swept
up, up & away.
should you shake
your groove thing
for the last time.
should you revel
in awe of
beautiful destruction.
when the typhoon
hits thought. about
dinner. what is
the perfect meal
calamari & soggy socks.
wonder if homework
is still important
if there is
nothing standing
no lessons
to be taught.


Train Station Ramblings in Japan

1.

the hand holdy thingies look like stirrups, like plastic handcuffs, like sad triangles
really wanting to be circles. today they are life savers. hold all the people up when
it feels like the world is moving too fast. too slow. running late. screeching. the hand
holdy thingies bring it all in perspective: if you don’t hold on to something, you will fall.

the train has its own sound

2.

my son says to me, “i could definitely see wd40 being a rappers name.” we make a rap about things that are rusty. machines that need oil. about things that get stuck. stiff. we keep this as silent as possible. when he realizes he is cold he slips his hoodie on. we pause.

no one snores on the train

3.

i envy people who can sleep on the train.
how much trust it must take
to know you will wake at just the right moment.
to know someone could be taking your picture.
to let your defenses down among strangers—& those you love.

big eyed babies eat crunchy snacks on the sly

4.

children under 3 on the train can’t help but stare at me. what on earth is a brown

woman doing here? where did she come from? where is her papa? & why on earth is she smiling at me? oohhh i like her earrings. how the shell dangles every time she breathes.

the next stop is m a c h i d a

5.

every stop is announced in japanese then english.  a monotone voice preparing you for what’s ahead. how i wish this could happen outside of the train. the monotone voice preparing me for my next stop. a big map to show me all the different ways i can get there

 

Tokyo Tower Visit

1.

we shrink ourselves behind elevator doors
our voices held over
our eyes moving a million miles per second                                         up
a small giggle hides in the corner
her body encased in an orange snuggie & awe

2.

up here
all the world is a board game
all the men buying up property
& begging to be banker

3.

two small branches
spread out on the look down window
no need for the base
no need to be rooted in fear
the layered shirts saying
i’m not afraid to see the world as it is are you?

4.

something about lady gaga
her face plastered on the walls
her video the wax museums national anthem
what would happen
if i walked through tokyo in gaga form
all the people wondering
if i was born this way
we love gaga because she is not afraid of earthquakes
she doesn’t treat us like the country with a plague or
talk to us as if we have no core.

5.

the sign says in case of an earthquake
& yet here i am
up high & wobbly
could it be i cast fear off
personifying fuck you in my blink  of tourist rage
after all we are not in love anymore
terrors pleasure a knotted stomach
sweaty palms melded in denim pockets

6.

we shrink ourselves behind elevator doors
our voices held over
our eyes moving a million miles per second                                         down
a small giggle hides in the corner
her body encased in an orange snuggie & awe


Deployments End

the daddy soldiers inhale leave time
uniformed asthmatics
huff for hot water
for home cooked meals
for gun-less snoring
for a nerf ball game with a newly potty trained son
& shopping with a daughter masturbating for justin bieber

the base is founded on imprints
all the stars & stripes bleeding
simultaneously singing the blues
prostrating to an uncle-god
photo album or chief
understand when the daddies come home
an offering had to be made

leave your soul at boot camp
hide your skin in a bottle
or fertile womb

 

Beginning at the End

.

when you tell people you are getting a divorce first the look. the poker face look. the look saying “what should i be looking like look,” a person has to first wonder if this is a good thing or a bad thing and is divorce in and of itself a good thing. it’s kinda like when you tell someone you had surgery. surgery itself is not a good thing but if the person needed surgery like let’s say to remove a huge boulder from your heart  then yay. the person should give the look of yay. but lets say you’ve been married for 18-years and it’s a huge investment and you have children and you still love the person but they are an ax murderer. jeffery dahmer in a way, going around taking your body parts and eating them in front of you while you suggest other dinner options. then yay. give me the look of yay. yay to divorce. and this is when people tell you things like “let’s have drinks to celebrate your divorce” and you don’t really know what to say—yay—is good but your heart, body, mind and spirit aren’t exactly feeling yay-ish so you say “cool!” and you mean cool, like you mean it’s cool that someone wants to celebrate your new freedom but you feel guilty that you are celebrating the end of a thing which you still can’t quite process is ending because you are just beginning to understand the end. yay. but then if you tell someone you are getting a divorce and they give you the look of “ohh”. the “ohh how sad for you look,” you don’t know how to react to that either because if they only knew the hell you’ve been through perhaps they wouldn’t be sad but feeling all yay for you. and this is the issue. what are you supposed to feel when it’s over. when this is no intermission or pit stop. when this is the end god damn it to hell and all sales final and shit. yay.

. 1/2

when your sons( the ones you and he made) hybrid teenage friends go 4-year-old and favorite blankie on you and ask you about the other half they especially like…the other half who interrogates them barney rubble style while drinking oreo cookie milk and plopping adult buns in the center of abercrombie and fitch and urban outfitter territory you might do the oh shit i have to tell them squirm dance: left hand hugs the right hand, lips lean on teeth and eye lids continue to try and focus. refocus. focus. refocus. blink. wink. you say something like—17-year old bullshit wrapped in but he will be here for your graduation. and they all say in unison yay then after a bit of post standardize test inference-ing say, ohh. and you pull it together like  michelle obama on christmas break and promise to make chai rice crispy treats. promise to still be the hang out house. promise to burp and fart and quote the latest jokes from family guy. as best you can. yay.

________________________________________________________________________________

dear sirs,

hide this letter. not like proverbs you hide in your heart. not like the tennis balls you hide from the family pet. not like you hide the rocky road ice cream in the back of the fridge next to her ice cream sandwiches. not like that. hide this letter in your folder of fabrications. family friendly. falsehoods.

if your mistress gets all weepy-woeful about your wife, comfort her. hold her close to your other heart. tell her your wife is a stripped dish towel but she on the other hand is a bounty picker-upper—scented floral print. passion pink.

if your mistress throws her one of a kind whatever’s at your face she’s insanely upset. because you block called at midnight & not 7 like you pinky promised in the service elevator—tell her you were playing daddy: daddy making pancakes, daddy at the movies extra butter & gobstoppbers, daddy dinner at that one place daddy, daddy read a story daddy. daddy.

if your mistress is sorta-kinda distracted while you makesex to her in your wife’s bed tell her you love it when she closes her eyes. when she blocks out everything. when she acts as if your wife & children do not exist. like poof. like never. like nothing. like nobody.

 

Do Not Die

how queen amina you are to still              post-surgery      post flesh debauchery
& beginning endings
to have the ovaries to feel love & compassion
after all the bludgeoning you’ve been through:

  1. first make the heart feel safe
  2. gently take the heart & cuddle it
  3. tell it words it needs to hear
  4. display some actions which point to the words & some which do not so as to confuse dear heart
  5. once dear heart is relaxed & safe find a large ax & cut it into tiny pieces
  6. take the pieces one by one & sometimes put them back together so as to confuse dear heart
  7. while dear heart is bleeding find 7 other dear hearts & treat them well: keep them refrigerated so that they will continue to beat
  8. return back to dear heart & slowly over a course of 18 years feed it to rats, cockroaches & snakes.
  9. Pretend it was a total accident
  10. Tell dear heart you are sorry & you wish you could put her back together                     still

after you’ve been murdered massacred mutilated & motherfucked
dear heart
& even if your beat is low
dear heart
you are still pulsating
& even if the pulsating is a metronome-ed scream
dear heart
no band aid or shea butter can slick away what you’ve seen
no retail therapy could ever skinny jean your scars
super star lady goddess
i’m sorry your love has been reduced to oatmeal
& the ________ you thought you had
is a b-rated movie where all the fairytale characters
are sleeping in each other’s beds
& all the happy endings
various characters being punked
how brave you are still
to have the ovaries to feel love & compassion
after all the lies you’ve taken inside your vagina
held them there as if you could stop them from coming
dear heart           & even if your beat is low             dear heart
do not die           do not die                                           do not die

Just Like That

we’ll just              take the               right fallopian tube &
fold the left one down—you know the part that looks like baby fingers wiggling

so this   kinda thing
won’t happen again

such a   fluke an anomaly             crazy medical mystery
now isn’t it

to have this happen
to you

now when you are                          40
& your tubes were tied in            1998

before you know it
you
will be your old self

in            a              jiffy
& you won’t even remember

for five months

_________________

& those skinny jeans
will just button right up

to where they should be
won’t that be good                         ?

Orphan (1)
when the body decides it doesn’t want a baby
makes her an outsider     on the inside
makes her blood  bebe beg
for life inside the throne                                                                                           sorry but…the uterus says you can’t           
makes her miniscule drop of blood in a jar of jam                                              come in

a biodegradable sack of would have been
in a world of is
when the body decides it doesn’t want a baby
doctors label her                   can you fuckin’ believe it
a medical anomaly to       chat about over carrot sticks & hummus
summons each other        behind expensive glasses
& stiff egg shell coats        barely legal voices say things like                            you didn’t want a baby
.                                                                                                                                      anyway right

                                                                                                                                     your tubes were tied long ago
_________________________________________________________________________________

egg         ectopic                 the topic              egg         a topic                   ectopic                 the topic              egg
egg         ectopic                 the topic              egg         a topic                   ectopic                 the topic              egg
egg         ectopic                 the topic              egg         a topic                   ectopic                 the topic              egg
egg         ectopic                 the topic              egg         a topic                   ectopic                 the topic              egg

Orphan (2)

when you get out of the shower
your nipples still the size of silver dollars
your glow now a black light
you try to dab
just dab they tell you
do not rub the incisions
do not irritate the little lines
do not make the little lines remind you
your house is wrapped in caution tape
your tenant died inside

when you get out of the shower
sobbing/snotting why & how come
& no one is there
& you try to dab
just dab they tell you
you imagine the conversation
muffled. static with blood & pink cigars in between

________________________________________________________________

you– why didn’t you stay for 5 more months

dead baby- i changed my mind or your house was inhabitable or too much caution tape stuck to my eyes or your relationship wasn’t steady or  you didn’t need any more kids or your zen was all fucked up or i’m expensive or i changed my mind or gas is too expensive or my father has 12 mistresses or you were going to be in a car accident or the world might end in 2012 or i have bornophobia or i changed my mind

Observations, Revelations & Lamentations:

Was It Good for You?: A Feminist Reflection on the Pleasures of Plot

by Rosalie Morales Kearns

Rising Action: Where Have I Seen This Before?

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or read a book about fiction-writing techniques, you’ve probably seen the Freitag triangle. Teachers like to use this diagram to illustrate the movement of the conventionally linear narrative. Basically the message is that a story, in order to be a story, has to contain rising action, a climax, and a denouement, although it’s agreed that in contemporary fiction the climactic moment is likely to be “quiet” (interior, epiphanic) rather than overtly dramatic, and the denouement may be brief or merely implied.

Now, is it just me, or does this pattern bear a remarkable similarity to the male sexual experience? Think about it. The story’s humming along, and things get more exciting, and more exciting, and more exciting, and it all builds up to a peak, an explosion of sorts (if you will), after which the story kind of droops (so to speak).

You may be wondering why I find this problematic. After all, some authors have described alternatives to the rising-action model. In The Art of Fiction John Gardner briefly mentions two. The first is what he calls a “juxtapositional” novel, whose parts “have symbolic or thematic relationship but no flowing development through cause and effect” (185). This seems similar to what Madison Smartt Bell calls the “modular” design, in which “narrative elements are balanced in symmetry as shapes are balanced in a symmetrical geometric figure, or as weights are balanced on a scale” (Narrative Design, 214). Bell’s modular examples include the Canterbury Tales; The Arabian Nights; Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra; Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine; and Faulkner’s novels Go Down, Moses; The Unvanquished, and As I Lay Dying. Perhaps we could also put in this category novels that I think of as episodic, quilt-like, or kaleidoscopic, such as Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, or Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.

Gardner also includes a brief but intriguing description of what he calls the “lyrical” novel, examples of which include the works of Proust and Virginia Woolf as well as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

What carries the reader forward is not plot, basically–though the novel may contain, in disguised form, a sequence of causally related events–but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key image or cluster of images . . . ; a key event or group of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the event of events; or some central idea or cluster of ideas. The form lends itself to psychological narrative, imitating the play of the wandering or dreaming mind (especially the mind troubled by one or more traumatic experiences); and most practitioners of this form of the novel create works with a marked dream-like quality. (185)

But as I read these books and articles on plot, it seems like the authors present an either/or choice: (a) either a novel is nonlinear (lyrical, juxtapositional, modular, quilt-like, etc.); or (b) it’s linear, that is, a “sequence of causally related events,” and therefore follows the rising-action model.

Here’s my question: can we expand Option B? Can we draw lines that move in other ways? If the traditional linear plot pattern imitates the male sexual experience, what are some alternatives?

One pattern that springs to mind is a sharply falling line: the climax is at the beginning, and the rest of the novel is spent exploring why the crisis event happened the way it did (Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones; Toni Morrison’s Paradise). How about others? Multiple climaxes? Long plateaus of intensity? Leisurely playfulness with no climax at all? Surely we can draw these lines, write these stories. Maybe they already exist, but we as readers/critics simply don’t see them that way. Maybe we as writers aren’t writing them because we haven’t thought they were possible.

The Plot Thickens

The other troubling aspect of plot, as it’s discussed in popular books on writing, is the focus on conflict as the driving force of a story. In the rising action/climax/denouement model, conflict is what makes the action rise. If you’re writing a story and you feel it isn’t going anywhere or nothing’s happening, throw in some conflict–an obstacle, a complication, an enemy–and hey presto, you’re on your way to the rising action and, you hope, a rousing good climax.

“Modernist manuals of writing,” notes Ursula K. Le Guin, “often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. . . . Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing” (Steering the Craft, 146).

Janet Burroway, whose excellent book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is now in its eighth edition and is often required reading for creative writing students, calls conflict a “fundamental element of fiction” (8th ed., 249). Burroway’s aesthetic tends to reflect the consensus among authors of popular books and articles on writing, and she is articulate, persuasive, and careful. Here she waxes eloquent on the dramatic potential of conflict (and rising action) for the fiction writer:

Just as a minor “police action” may gradually escalate into a holocaust, story form follows its most natural order of “complications” when each battle is bigger than the last. It begins with a ground skirmish. . . . Then one side brings in spies, and the other, guerrillas. . . . So one side brings in the air force, and the other answers with antiaircraft. . . . [She continues the metaphor, with missiles, rockets, poison gas, nuclear weapons.] The crisis action is the last battle and makes the outcome inevitable; there can no longer be any doubt who wins. (252-53; italics in original)

It’s useful to keep in mind the distinction between the rising-action model and the conflict-centered model, but the truth is they’re often conflated, as we see in the preceding quote. And that’s interesting in itself. Either Pat Benatar is right that love is a battlefield, or else war is erotic, take your pick. Maybe both.

Rewriting the Script

Burroway does offer some alternatives to the “all-the-world’s-a-battle” model of plot construction. Some authors, she acknowledges, “object to the description of narrative as a war or power struggle. Seeing the world in terms of conflict and crisis . . . not only constricts the possibilities of literature, they argue, but also promulgates an aggressive and antagonistic view of our own lives” (255). Besides discussing Le Guin’s critique of the “gladiatorial view of fiction” (255), Burroway cites the dramatist Claudia Johnson: “narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect” (255). What’s most interesting is that in earlier editions Burroway had suggested two additional alternatives to the conflict model. The first of these was to see “the shape of the story . . . in terms of situation-action-situation” (3rd ed., 43). The second is even more fascinating:

some critics of recent years have posited birth as an alternative metaphor. . . . Birth presents us with an alternative model in which there is a desired result, drama, struggle, and outcome. But it also represents a process in which the struggle, one toward life and growth, is natural. There is no enemy. The “resolution” suggests continuance rather than finality. It is persuasively argued that the story as power struggle offers a patriarchal view of the world, and that it would improve both stories and world if we would envision human beings as engaged in a struggle toward light. (43)

Birth as a plot structure is a breathtaking idea. We might say that “Someone is born” subsumes the two “classic” plot lines “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” And since the point of this discussion is to expand the possible stories, we can start with “Someone is born” and keep going. Someone dances, someone dreams. Someone weaves a web, pieces a quilt. Someone has multiorgasmic sex.

The Morning After

I’m sure most people enjoy a good Freitag triangle now and then. What’s not to like about build-up, release, turn over and fall asleep?

As I see it, the problem arises when we identify plot solely with the conflict-centered, rising-action model. A writer invested in that model won’t recognize other kinds of plots. If she’s a student in a creative writing program, or if she’s an editor or a teacher of creative writing, she may try to impose her own understanding of “plot” on less conventional writers. Even worse, she may impose a sort of self-censorship and distort her own art to fit the perceived mold.

We face two challenges, then: to picture linear plots that aren’t rising-action, and to conceptualize stories that aren’t based on conflict. To dream the impossible dream.

Was It Good for You?: A Feminist Reflection on the Pleasures of Plot

Now Please Do Your Janeway Impression: Conversation With Poets and Illustrators Emily Pettit and Bianca Stone

HER KIND: It’s so great to have you ladies here . . .your artwork too, which adds another element and dimension to the conversation. To you get you started, let’s take a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe who believes that “ . . .there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” Does this statement resonate with you as a writer? If so, what in particular?

 

 

Emily Pettit: It resonates with me. I believe in exploration. I believe in curiosity. I believe in discovery. I believe that “woman” could be replaced with any particular and that the statement would remain true. There are things about ourselves that only we as individuals can explore about ourselves. A cat can discover things about its tail, male or female, in a way that only a cat can explore a cat’s own tail or tale. I believe in exploration. I am not particularly interested in analyzing the limitations of exploration, as I believe doing so works more towards impeding discovery than engaging with it.

One female explorer I admire enormously is Captain Janeway of the Starship USS Voyager. Bianca, I thank you for pointing me in the direction of Voyager. Now please do your Janeway impression!

 

Captain Janeway and the power of COFFEE!

 

Bianca Stone: Perfect! When I first read the O’Keeffe quote I couldn’t stop going back to the word “unexplored.” Clearly this is a keyword for Captain Janeway of the starship Voyager. What’s so exciting about Star Trek is that it’s such a positive vision of the future, where often in sci-fi we have to deal with such negative inevitabilities for the human race. With Star Trek we have evolved into a people filled with genuine curiosity and deeper understanding of living (everyone in the military is a scientist!). It’s actually quite radical. I was taken with Star Trek: The Next Generation right away, but when I started watching Voyager (third incarnation since the original) I was completely blown away by the female captain character. It was so exciting for me to have that element in the show (especially since in the First Generation, Kirk is such an overtly masculine James Bond) of the female explorer. This is, I think, a good way to enter into this discussion because I agree with the quote figuratively and literally. There are certain things that cannot be explored character-wise with a man in the same way as they do with Janeway. In writing it’s similar. Now that I think about it, ironically, the episodes were probably written largely by men. But I think the point is that the female captain allowed something that I couldn’t get with the constant male captain character, and it interested me much more than anything else on Voyager.

I liked so much how you said “I am not particularly interested in analyzing the limits of exploration,” as I think this quote gives us pause to think about what it means to investigate, as women, this enigmatic material within. Do you think that’s something we’re always doing in our writing and art? Or is that something we have to consciously strive for?

 

EP: I think it’s occasionally something that must be consciously strived for. I think it is a constantly occurring reaction to living, to investigate the enigmatic. Engagement with it is not a choice. I think, I hope, I am investigating the enigmatic material attached to women, to men, to more than those two ideas.

 

BS: I was just reading about an inscription on one of Giorgio de Chirico’s early self-portraits: “What shall I love if not the enigma?” Truly investigating, we come upon something so important to our work that I think inevitably has to do with Woman. We come upon it, open it, unravel it, paint it, write it, turn it over and inside out—but it also remains entirely enigmatic. It is perhaps because it remains enigmatic that we cannot stop investigating, thus continuing to create and push ourselves further.

This reminds me . . . remember when I drew an Enigma Machine in your study? I was looking at your awesome spy book.

 

EP: The Ultimate Spy Book!

 

(concealed cameras continued)

 

I am not a good spy or detective it would seem. I know that Georgia O’Keeffe said “ . . . there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore,” in a letter to her friend Mabel Dodge Luhan, and that the context for the statement was regarding what O’Keeffe might want people to say about her after she died . . ..

 

BS: “Bess stepped back and looked at Nancy admiringly. ‘Your hunches are so often right it startles me.’ ”

Let us reiterate: I think we’ll never stop “stopping investigating.” As one brilliant young detective once shot back when asked just how the hell she got in:

“I came in at the entrance,” Nancy replied. “The larkspur is beautiful.”

 

EP:

The Whispering Shadow

 

BS: I wanted to actually end with something that I was just reading that seemed wildly appropriate. In Alison Bechdel’s new graphic novel memoir Are You My Mother? she writes about an essay in which Adrienne Rich cites Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, (which I’m addressing here, so it’s so layered with exactly the kind of investigation we’ve been discussing). Bechdel writes: “The essay in which Rich cites A Room of One’s Own covers some of the same ground as Woolf’s book. Like, for example, the woman writer’s particular challenge to cease being an object and start being a subject.” Bechdel then has a passage from the essay in question that says: “She meets the image of Women in books written by men. She finds a terror and a dream, she finds a beautiful pale face, she finds La Belle Dame Sans Merci, she finds Juliet or Tess or Salome, but precisely what she does not find is that absorbed, drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspired creature, herself, who sits at a desk trying to put words together.”

 

 

 

Emily Pettit is the author of Goat in the Snow and two chapbooks: How and What Happened to Limbo. She is an editor for notnostrums and Factory Hollow Press, as well as the publisher of jubilat. She teaches at Flying Object and Elms College.

 

Bianca Stone is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including I Want To Open The Mouth God Gave You Beautiful Mutant and I Saw The Devil With HIs Needlework. She is also illustrator of Antigonick, a collaboration with Anne Carson. Her poems have appeared in such magazines as Crazyhorse, Best American Poetry 2011, and Tin House. She lives in Brooklyn.

 

Now Please Do Your Janeway Impression: Conversation With Poets and Illustrators Emily Pettit and Bianca Stone

Magic Mike’s Pelvis Made Me Think of Literary Events

by Adriana Páramo

Last month I went to watch Magic Mike with two female friends and their girlfriends. The show, a week after its premiere, was sold out. The theater was packed. I was excited to be out of the house, away from my computer, but was more excited about being surrounded by women. And this bunch at the theater seemed to have their circadian rhythms fully synched.

When Mathew McConaughey graced us with those impish dimples of his, a set of chiseled abs, oozing jazzy erotic energy, the whole theater exploded in mmm-mmm-mmms of approval. And when he joked that by law no woman is allowed to touch a male stripper neither up here nor down there, but that he presumed that his audience was full of lawbreakers; many hell yeahs and damn rights were heard in the theater.

We didn’t get the full monty, a fact that seemed to disappoint no one because director Steven Soderbergh offered something better: Channing Tatum’s grinding crotch, hip-pumping studs in bare-assed chaps, trench-crawling soldiers, threesomes, and male strippers with tender hearts (which makes them immensely sympathetic), thus allowing the audience to choose their own fantasy. Soderbergh also quite shrewdly offered women viewers accustomed to seeing female strippers exploited both in movies and real life a subtle equalizer: a kind of get-even-feel-good layer by making the owner of the club, a drawling man named Dallas, a father figure, a trainer, a dreamer, and a heartless businessman with a shady agenda that reveals the unthinkable: men exploiting men. Men are also victims of sexual exploitation. Who knew?

Although I, a frustrated dancer, thoroughly enjoyed the high-energy choreographies, Tatum, a guy slightly older than my own daughter, didn’t get a sigh out of me. Sorry, young men just don’t get my engine going however prime beefcake they might be. I was more enthralled by what his thrusting pelvis did to the audience than by its raunchy gyrations. There were large groups of women, mostly middle-aged broads, girlfriends and sisters. In front of us sat a babysitterless bunch with three kids. Three kids! When Dallas introduced Magic Mike, a woman in the back shouted, “I want your baby!” and the theater rocked with laughter. Now, that’s titillating.

I’m a solitary woman by nature, which means, I’m a solitary writer. I write in the basement of my house where my only companion is Honey, our dog. And I write compulsively, in long stretches of time which are interrupted only by trips to the store to buy dog food or to the gym. I live in a semirural area in Central Florida, far away from any intellectual hub. My physical and academic isolation (I have very few writer friends with whom I never mingle socially and whose friendship consists mainly of exchanges and critiques of our writing) pose a fundamental challenge for LOL, Life Out Loud, a reading series of nonfiction which I co-founded and produce. The intention of the series is to offer local writers a space to share their personal stories; a kind of safe heaven where people can openly read diary entries, make confessions, share memories, etc. Since LOL’s inception it was implicitly decided that my co-founder and friend, Jaquira, would be in charge of anything public: contacting venue owners, alerting her students of our calls for submissions, inviting anyone with a pulse to our readings and MC’ing the events.  I work best behind the curtains.

We usually have a decent flow of unpolished submissions and a timid trickle of well-written stories. From the latter, we choose, edit, polish and make the pieces fit for a live audience. We rehearse them, and then we pray that people actually show up to the readings. On average, approximately 40 people have consistently attended our events. Out of those 40 people only a handful are genuinely interested in anything literary; most of them go for the booze and the food and because there is no game on that day or a country music concert or because their shopping trip got cancelled or because their boat is broken and couldn’t go fishing or because I’m their neighbor writer and they go to support whatever the hell I do. What is it that you write again? You are so lucky you don’t have to work. Don’t you get bored playing on the computer all day long?

Most of the attendees are women, I don’t know why. Maybe women are more receptive (and also more judgmental) to people’s personal stories, or maybe this is because the few people I’m close to are women. Also perhaps because I write with women in mind and about women’s issues. In any case, at the readings each writer takes a leap of faith by sharing an intimate moment with a crowd of strangers with personal quirks. Once, one writer read a gorgeous piece about drugs, sex and a toxic relationship that ended in an involuntary abortion, and a group of women attendees exploded in a fit of giggles. One of them had spotted a man in tight leather pants and the whole group was caught up in a high-school moment of mischief. They pointed their cameras at his zipper, snapped pictures of this well-endowed attendee and nudged each other while the writer offered her heart to the audience. They missed the best story of the night.

At another event, one of the women and her boyfriend engaged in such heavy petting in one corner of the venue, that after the make-out session, her companion took a nap doubled over the bar in exhaustion. At the last event, one of my guests fell asleep while I read my piece.  Producing a literary series in a nonliterary world is heartbreaking and frustrating; yet it is incredibly rewarding when it works, when the guests come at the end of the reading to hug the readers, to say thank you, congratulations, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Then everything makes sense.

In the darkness of the movie theater, I realized that this collective excitement represented, in a nutshell, the kind of enthusiasm I want to generate at LOL’s readings. Would it not be wonderful to be able to move in unison 200 hundred hungry-for-literature women? Would it not be fantastic to have them interject little hell yeahs and damn rights while one of the LOL writers reads a personal story about her childhood, or cheating on a jerkish boyfriend, or raising a difficult child, or hiding vibrators in her van, or gorgifying for profit the ass-broken-shit she finds at local yard sales? Would it not be something to see them queue up outside our reading venues the way they did for Magic Mike, giggling with expectation, ready to free-fall blindly into somebody else’s abyss, open-hearted and accepting, feeling that there was no other place they’d rather be even while hauling three kids?

While the credits ran, Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” played in the background. Women my age, with adult children and grandchildren at home, grabbed air microphones and sang along, eyes closed shut, swaying heads, left then right; it was high school and sweet hearts all over again. I liked the sight. I liked being there to bear witness to that universal truth that we all want to be young again, at least once in a life time, make out under a tree, let Johnny boy feel us up under the skirt and if Johnny happens to be buns-of-steel Channing Tatum, so be it. A fantasy is a fantasy.

But who was I kidding? It was a movie for goodness’ sake, five half-naked formidably built studs oozing testosterone, shaking their buns and thrusting their assets into women’s faces. Of course it is easy to lose oneself in the illusion, of course it is natural to let go and shout raunchy interjections at two-dimensional characters (although one of my friends is starting a petition for the release of Magic Mike in 3-D). But it is all a charade: Dallas is not a good man, the Kid is not a good friend, and Magic Mike is not a stripper at heart; he builds custom furniture. That’s where he is at his most authentic. Just I like I want LOL to be. I don’t really want horny women at the readings, moaning and licking their lips, crossing their legs tight while wriggling in their chairs. I want to remain true to what I do. What I want is a crowd of open hearts, a loving bunch of men and women who flock to our literary events because they recognize themselves in other peoples’ falls and triumphs, because it’s safe to let their inner voyeurs out of the closet, because they are willing to take a journey with a stranger. What I really want is a crowd coming to our readings hungry for life and leaving the venue shining with the humanity they borrowed from other people’s lives.

Magic Mike’s Pelvis Made Me Think of Literary Events

Lady in the House Questions: Anastacia Tolbert

What has been your ultimate journey?

my ultimate journey is not at a linear journey. not like a: super cool neat mathematical equation where all sides balance ending in numerical epiphany kind of journey. my journey is not a perfectly folded floral sheet with experienced hands nor a happy ending love song riddled with couplets. not like circle yes or no if you like me. not like any of those things.

my journey is happening as i type.  as i remind myself to breathe. my journey is not about endings but a woodland of beginnings, ah-ha/oh no/yes yes moments, recollections and conjuring’s. along the way benchmarks flashing neon purple reminding me to do and undo. my ultimate journey—happening now, in real time, in real breath is about allowing myself to ride shotgun with this lifetime’s version of my complete self. who that goddess/woman/warrior/unicorn/peace fighter/writer is (or is not) is an embryonic elder.

if the organization police arrested me and told me to sticky note arrange my journey as it has been for the last 40 years, i would say that the last half has been the most challenging  and the third eye opening. living in japan for the last year and moving back to seattle just over a month ago (a tremendous amount of life can happen in 365 days) has made me feel born again. not like religiosity born again. not like go off into the woods and come back a perfect creature born again. not like newborn baby. more like—lotus. lotus in a pair of jeans and tank top. lotus writing.

i am not afraid to skip away from the me i loved. i’m not afraid to carry sections of her and amalgam her up with the newness of myself. with the parts i boarded up in an abandoned vagina.  my. self.  free gyrl.  my journey is also about meeting other sheros along the way who have been infected with a disease called, who me? you mean me? you mean i’m amazing?   you mean i didn’t lose my wings? and share a mirror. a hug. a talking too. a listen. a booty bump. a manuscript swap.

my ultimate journey…the one that is ever evolving and whooshing itself around is also about going on a scavenger hunt for pieces of my big picture life collage that have been systematically discarded or shoved in a coat closet and proactively deciding if those pieces need to join me or if i can leave them peacefully in a blue jean notebook, a refurbished recycle bin or a salted margarita glass.

nope. this journey is not linear or square or elbows off the table.

______________________________________________________________________________

 

me + japan= a years’ worth of life lessons

a few life lessons/experiences

(1)  i am a spoiled brat sometimes. i missed my “space,” but i didn’t really need all the space i missed. i wanted a big house, big bathroom & wide roads but i didn’t need any of that. i learned about internal space. filling my lungs with space. filling my heart with space. filling my eyes with space. filling the page with space.
(2)  it’s very hard to be your total self or to overcome trust issues when language barrier is bullying you. i was ready to trek japan & all it had to offer except in the beginning i didn’t speak one ounce of the language and if you can’t ask where to pee, what you are eating or when the train stops running your ____________.
(3)  i am a very affectionate person. i’m a lifelong hug practitioner. japan wasn’t very accepting of my hug practice. this at first was a great blow to my arms, heart, and chest. but living there i grew to understand that affection/love/honor/respect & even hello can take on many forms just as heartfelt as a hug. i packed my hugs away for a bit & became deeply involved in being a better listener, observer, writer & bower. i also came back with a greater appreciation for below the surface hugs & distaste for phony/let’s do lunch but not really hugs.

excerpt from a conversation with a lovely, amazing japanese woman about hugging:

me: i rarely see people hugging here. but i haven’t been everywhere so…
lovely woman: well, when i visit the states i see everyone hugging and think to myself why strangers would want to exchange full on/body to body contact with no prior knowledge of each other? weird. but i did not go to every state in the united states, just nyc, la, and idaho.
me: hm. good point.  but it is always wonderful to greet people you love with a hug or  sometimes, not all the time but sometimes two strangers can indeed connect through a hug even without prior knowing each other—anything.
lovely woman– (silence)
me: (reaching out to hug)
lovely woman–  (kind of receiving hug)
me: (nervously backing away)
lovely woman: (laughing)
me: (laughing)
me: okay that was awkward.
lovely woman: yes it was.

after we chatted it up i hugged her goodbye and she bowed back. it was perfect.

(4)  you think you have read all there is to know about a place until you get there and you find out a. all of it was true no matter how ridiculous it sounds or b. all of it was bullshit no matter how ridiculous it sounds.
(5)  sleep is indeed a luxury. i learned how to treat it as such, getting it in ways or in places i never thought i would.
(6)  it is actually a good idea not to walk around with food and drink in hand—and yes, it makes malls, streets, and bathrooms look a whole lot cleaner. did i want to order my latte and traipse around the mall? yes. did i? yes.
(7)  remember when your grandparents told you pointing was rude? use an open palm.
(8)  i learned that i am picky about food even though i claimed i wasn’t. sometimes i didn’t know what i was eating and sometimes it was labeled and i wish it wasn’t. i can’t say for sure if i really wanted to know i was eating_________________ before i ate it. after…not so bad.
(9)  i suppose i am not a bathroom care-er, as in, i never cared who heard me pee, i mean that’s what i do in the bathroom  number one or number two. i was amazed that in many bathrooms music was attached to the toilet to accompany your peeing or pooping and a lovely fragrance spray for afterwards …as well as many liquid spritzers for your vaginal and anal sanitation. in the end, i’m just an old fashioned toilet squatter who never cared if the next door stall heard what i was doing. get in. take care of business. get out.
(10)  elders are important. i know that going and i came back with an even greater appreciation for them. i understand more clearly how valuable they are. japanese culture helped me take that thinking to a higher level.
(11)  saying bless you after a sneeze is not done in japan. it was a hard habit to break but as i researched the history of “bless you…” it wasn’t a hard habit to break any longer. (yall will have to forgive me if i don’t say it anymore.)

 

How do you start? How do you end?

inhale. i give thanks. exhale. i remind myself not to remind myself about my visible and invisible imperfections—this is followed by doing a kindergarten teacher “quiet coyote” sign to the negative chatter in my head/in the media/on my street/in my mirror/ and in my_________________. inhale. i follow this ritual with an attempted baritone hum/om/whisper and clearing my throat. (sometimes there are words, stanzas or thoughts left over from the day before.) exhale. i end by giving thanks that in this lifetime i get to be this particular me. i end with me standing naked and letting all my body parts know how much they mean to me and how beautiful they are. this is followed by doing a kindergarten teacher “quiet coyote” sign to the negative chatter in my head/in the media/on my street/in my mirror/ and in my_________________. exhale. i end with a colossal white candle and an ancestor role call. (sometimes between the how do i start and how do i end, i tell cancer, poverty, relationship ptsd, fear, white privilege, pillaged villages, isms, heartache, and hymen hijackers to kiss my ass. please.) inhale. i begin again but this time writing. at first free range thoughts running around like chickens. then unborn thoughts like__________ or ____________. then some kind of shape/form/text/p  o   e   m. exhale.

 

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

once upon a time i did. i forehead line worried because i knew i didn’t really fit inside one box but i didn’t want to unfit in a box either. i believed the box i fit in accompanied the owner’s manual attached to my belly button. i thought that if i fit into a box/category/group/roman numeral iii in an outline, that it would be fine as long as the box was all these different things. in the last five years i have realized there’s no need for a box fitting and in the last year i’ve realized i can’t worry about those on the edge of the box beckoning me to come in or those  who speak black sharpie forbidding me to enter. the politics of classification is always around in the way somebody doing lawn work is a steady presence just when i settle into a poem or a new character. the politics of classification is perpetual background disruption be it a whine or shrill. presently i am in a state of allowing myself to be declassified and unclassified. i classify myself as a free womyn embracing change (some days with open arms and some days with twisted lips and major attitude), self- love, words, sexual awareness, vulnerability, ocean talk, divine counsel, proactive activism, less plan, plan “see,” and more do, do, do.

 

When do you knock a wall down? When do you leave a wall intact? 

i knock a wall down when i can’t breathe. unfortunately that might mean i am suffocating from myself. it might mean i am the wall and the one knocking down the wall—which can make me tired as __________.  i knock a wall down when the wall hurts. when the wall threatens to hijack my body, spirit, divine wisdom, healthy future or love. i leave a wall intact when i’m not sure what to do yet. i leave a wall intact when there’s a message graffitied on it like you are on the right path or if the wall is asking me to move forward without fear. i leave a wall intact (but kick it) when i know i have to finish a manuscript not because it needs to be published necessarily but because the words have to be out into the world.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Anastacia Tolbert

Generation Basement: Exploring a Room of One’s Own

by Elizabeth Searle

Our niece lived in our basement for years. First because she was in college and later because she was paying off or trying to pay off her massive student loans. Virginia Woolf famously said that what a woman needs to write is “a room of one’s own and 500 a year.” Both of these necessities are harder than ever to come by for the new generation of women, eager to launch their literary explorations yet mired in debt and stuck in family basements.

Generation Basement: that’s my nominee as a name for our own Lost Generation. I have heard them dubbed “Generation Cupcake,” “Generation Facebook” or “Generation Twilight,” according to author Libby Cudmore on my own blog.

Whatever we call them, many recent college graduates like my smart and talented niece, have found themselves becoming a new ‘indentured servant’ class. Of course, many less educated women are in much more dire straits. My novel GIRL HELD IN HOME was inspired by the real-life story of a young woman truly being “held” as an unpaid servant by a wealthy family who convinced her they controlled her visa. While college-educated women have more options, they too can find themselves trapped.

How can young women looking to explore a career in literature or any other profession make their way without reasonable hope of finding “500 a year” when their loans alone cost them $500-plus a month?

Recently on HER KIND, Raquel Goodison wrote movingly of her struggles— despite advanced degrees– to simply find an affordable apartment. Her plight reminded me of my niece, who holed up in our carpeted but cave-like basement throughout her college days and beyond, serving as a sitter and ‘big sister’ to our young son. We were happy to have her in our home. But we’ve been sad to see how she’s struggled for financial stability after working hard for her degree and graduating college.

As a Woody Allen character warns in the futuristic spoof Sleeper, maybe all the things our parents told us were good for us have turned out not to be: “milk, eggs, college.’

My husband and I remember our own ‘salad days’ when our young grad-student marriage was launched in a single room studio apartment we nicknamed “Sky Lab.” Living on the edge in New Haven, CT (a city without pity that we nicknamed “No Haven”), we at times had to sell boxes of our precious books to have money for groceries. Our travails were typical for students of our era, but there was light at the ends of our tunnels. Once we got our degrees, we got jobs and paychecks. We explored the country a bit, taking trips to Florida and San Francisco and beyond. We began the slow climb toward settling into a house of our own.

Not so for our niece. Lately, she and various family members have been relentlessly harassed by threatening calls from the loan organization as well as by emails explaining that we are not being “harassed” and defining “harassment” versus “due diligence.”  True, students could have made wiser decisions instead of being sucked in by predatory loan groups, making it all sound as easy as signing on for another credit card.

My son wonders why his cousin should be allowed to sink in debt when Wall Street barons receive government bail-outs to cover their own bad decisions. A hopeful note for the future is that savvy teens like my radically-left son are growing up with a deep distrust for the big financial organizations that rule our country. My 13-year-old son has already attended “Make Wall Street Pay” and “Occupy” rallies as well as fundraisers for our state’s bold Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has Wall Street’s number and, if elected, has a real chance of rewriting the rules for the next generation.

When our niece first moved into our basement, she tackled the overgrown bushes of our back yard with shears to give her basement windows more light. I remember admiring her work and seeing the enthusiastically chopped down branches piled outside her little windows, forming a pattern like a net. Luckily, our niece did have a ‘safety net’ to land in and a place to form her temporary nest. These days she, like so many, is caught in a wide net not of her own making.

Is it any wonder that rather than exploring the world in their twenties, Generation Basement tends to turn inward, “exploring” Facebook and the worldwide web as they seek escape from their webs of debt?

How can this Lost Generation make their own explorations and own marks when they can’t afford that elusive “room of one’s own”?

Generation Basement: Exploring a Room of One’s Own

Nobody Needs Another Mad Woman in the Attic: A Conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch and Vanessa Veselka

HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. Let’s get the ball rolling with Georgia O’Keeffe. She once said that “there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” Does this statement resonate with you as a writer? If so, what in particular?

 

 

LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: Yep, I’m down with that idea. It’s also one echoed by Anaïs Nin, Virginia Woolf, H.D., Kathy Acker, Louise Bourgeois, Hélène Cixous, and Marguerite Duras, among others. I do understand there may be a little bit of a Second/Third Wave Feminism divide on questions like this. I’ve noticed women and men in my age group (meaning 40-50) feel more okay about agreeing to this idea than younger women and men, whom seem to feel that it smacks of essentialism. That is, if I understand their objections correctly.

But from my point of view, and I’m not shy about saying this LOUDLY, I think some art, books, music, film, could ONLY be made by women.  The exploration, discovery and questions that a woman has, as well as the processes by which she makes art, from my point of view are fundamentally different than non-women modes— with the possible exception of Walt Whitman. Ha.

If we put the question of “essentialism” aside for a moment and just talk about being practicing women artists, I know that the kinds of aesthetic questions I’m interested in and the kinds of characters I create and the kinds of strategies I employ in writing have at their center what used to be called “women’s ways of knowing.” That phrase lost its hipness value over time, but it doesn’t change the importance of the idea.

Another way to look at the question, and one that I take delight in is to ask: Could a man or anything not a woman have written The Lover?  Or Frankenstein?  Or Empire of the Senseless?  Or Zazen?  My answer is a big fat no.  And those books I listed all have gigantoid HUMANIST plots and questions – not just confessional or pigeonholed “womeny” issues.

The exciting part to me personally about [O’Keefe’s] quote though is not the debate that shoots out of it (and by the way, I’m glad we don’t all AGREE on these topics. how dull and static that would be)… The exciting part is the process of making art— of entering the space and motion of making art as a woman, with my full corporeal truth, not only part of it.  I tried to write about that “journey” in an essay called “On Being a Woman Writer.”  It’s a real place we go. And we go differently.

Yes, I know many, many, many women writers whom would not agree with that.

When I read Vanessa’s work I don’t think her characters experiences are EXCLUSIVE to women, but I do glory in the wide expanse of her female characters’ traits and experiences. For instance, Della in Zazen is thrilling to me because she is full. Real. Embodied. She is not a wimpy half woman character that sits still and behaves locked in the clean and proper body. That’s why I love her. She’s us.

 

VANESSA VESELKA: I agree with much of what Lidia said but feel like the idea of female territory quickly becomes too much of a separate sphere. While there are books that could only have been written by a woman, we can also say that there are books that could have only been written by Marguerite Duras with her particular set of experiences, aesthetic sensibilities, sentence rhythms, etc. I think it’s an issue of scale.

The more particular the art, the smaller the egg from which it hatches. So if we see these things as circles within circles, WOMAN is a big damn circle, and if you don’t have that in your canon, you are (we are) missing a huge range of work to describe the human experience.

I do worry about essentialism at the community level, though. I worry that “women’s writing,’ like “literary fiction” is fast becoming a genre, at least at the funding level. Women writing about rape and going back to school after marriage and learning to find themselves within a relationship or to accept life’s challenges through heroic feats of internal growth–these kinds of stories seem to get funded through grants, awards, fellowships while other work by women less so. We seem to have an anxiety about moving away from the more simplistic resistance narratives we inherited. My problem is that each one of these storylines, the rape, the bad marriage, the navigation of a male dominated academic field, they all have too much to do with men. They are the stories left behind by the male experience. And they are important, but I want stories where men may or may not have any critical role to play at all. I want more human.

Trans-literature is raising some really glorious questions about what it is to be a woman, and that will certainly add more breadth, but that too can slip into a more retro-essentialism. I am a women because I like heels and lipstick. I am how I present/ perform. I am how others see me. Personally, I don’t feel like my gender shifts when I where overalls, which I do quite a bit. So if I were Goddess, I would say that while we need those stories that can only be told by women, we also need to let what “woman” is become more nuanced. The specificity is where I believe we’ll find the gold. Not just stories that can only be written by women, but stories that could only be written by this one, particular woman. Frankenstein couldn’t just be written by a woman, or even by a woman on the edge of The Enlightenment with anxiety about transgressing on God. It had to be written by Mary Shelley, daughter of Wolstoncraft, orphan, teen lover, goth.

 

LY: Yes, that’s the essentialism concern…but I also worry about how much energy and cartwheeling in language we have to do to NOT call women’s writing writing by women…that begins to be silly to me…I think there is an equal danger in erasing gender in discussions of great art and literature that truly itches me.

 

VV: Yes, you’re right. And it’s easy in a highly nuanced conversation to get contrarian because you’re trying to fine tune a point when the real point (misogyny, patriarchy) is so large that minor calibrations are more like hobbies than real changes to discourse. Regarding the pavilion of Women’s Writing, I feel the need to quote the immortal Dan Aykroyd: “It’s desert wax and a floor topping; it’s a red tent and a banishment.”

But it’s probably more of a red tent.

Still, I wish there was more variety at the level of funding and publication in journals and grants earmarked for women.  Sometimes it seems like only our victim stories are welcome. And Lidia, as you know from early reactions around Dora, people are often uncomfortable with violent or aggressive complexity in women narrators, and many of those ‘people’ are women.

But back to Duras, Shelley, and the many others. They don’t just voice different experience; they radically alter “men’s writing,” I.e. the dominant tradition because they usher in unease, almost a sexual ‘uncanny’ to the forms that were missing.

And I do not believe in erasing gender or that it is simple performative. I think we on the west coast are living in a time and place of privilege where those explorations can flourish— and hooray for that— but it is not a privilege enjoyed around the world or even in 99% of this country.

 

LY: By the way: my definition of “woman” is Vanessa in overalls absolutely…as well as any person who inhabits that wide and wonderful and contradictory territory, with heels, balls, you name it.

 

VV:  I love that! Does that make me a psychological pin-up?

You hit it on the head with “contradictory territory.” I think I’m just arguing for more contradiction and less propaganda. Propaganda in the sense that when we are afraid to write freely, to present complexity because we are afraid that  “they” will find an ideological or experiential weakness in our female characters and take away birth control or health care or change rape laws–we are buying in to a legal standard humanity. One flaw in the argument kills the argument. One contradiction in the woman kills the her credibility. We can’t write for credible. And nobody needs another madwoman in the attic. We have to write our way into new vibrancy.
AND I will forever have a soft spot for the straight up no apologies hardline woman identified feminist. It’s the core of what inspires me and I think the great dilemma of 3rd Wave discourse was summed up aptly by Bitch Co-Founder Lisa Jervis when she said: “I have seen the best minds of my generation ogling shoes.”

Nothing against shoes.

 

LY: Precisely. Preferably wearing overalls…

This “new vibrancy” OUGHT to have all our drives and intensities and contradictions and pleasures and conflicts and violences UP FRONT. One of the reasons I champion your work is that you do that. Without apology. And without slipping into confessional fuzz or caretaker goo.

 

VV: You’re such a sweet talker, and you know I love your work as well.

 

LY: Part of the problem is when we refer to women’s writing AS women’s writing, it gets too quickly and easily marginalized by the market and the literary hierarch— both forces of patriarchy and capitalism. That’s bad. Boo. And yet, if we let GO of the power to be self-referential, to say, for instance, “I am a woman writer,” then we leave the terms open to discourse of market and literary establishment—  both forces of patriarchy and capitalism. That’s boo too.

Since I believe there are actual artistic and writing practices that are woman-born, which I write about all the time, I’m searching for a space of identity, articulation, and practice where I can say “I am a woman writer” — where than act of enunciation can carry voice and body and art weight— and NOT be subsumed by marginalizations or too-easy essentialisms.

Maybe it’s in the phrasing, Vanessa?  “I am a woman writer god damn it loudly without apology in overalls and sometimes lipstick and when I yell or cry or fuck or eat or drink it motherfucking COUNTS. So pay attention while I teach you how to read.”

And another thing: a question, really. Vanessa, given everything we’ve said so far, how can we talk about being women writers and not be subsumed by the various nefarious traps we’ve detailed?

ONE of my answers to that question has always been: write fiction. Make art. I’ve always believed fiction writing to be a radicalized space of creation–I don’t mean what the consumer or markets “do” with fiction, I mean the actual space and process of writing it. More than nonfiction (though people want to shoot me when I say that).

 

VV: I agree with you 100% about fiction. It is a different mental space. It’s not like a choose your own adventure, it’s more like a hologram–you plug in some basic things and it’s suddenly there in front of you in 3d, a whole world. It is derived from mystery. Period. (Now people can shoot me too). It makes sense that fiction is then, by its nature radical and that women’s fiction would be even more so.

 

LY: I write a lot about psychological “spaces” (so does Vanessa) and emotional spaces and corporeal spaces and imagination spaces — I do that because they are more real to me a lot of the time than what everybody else seems to think is “real life.” there are territories of being and knowing and feeling that come alive by and through art.

A concrete example that makes people worry about me I know is when I talk about the space of psychosis. when my daughter died I lost my marbles. But I didn’t die. I went away. And the place I went was real, and I write about it all the time. It’s not that different than dreamspace.  Now to be honest, I became a writer emergent from that space of grief and psychosis. Literally. I went nutbag, and I wrote. Like I couldn’t stop writing. Like Ted Kaczynski teeny writing pages and pages.

From her death, writing came into my hands. In some ways, it’s that simple.

But I DO NOT want to get trapped into the dreaded Madwoman in the Attic discussion.  I’m talking about “spaces” of extreme experience— pleasure, violence, grief, psychosis cusps – as CREATIVE places – places absolutely generative of meaning. And for women and minorities, you know, we are still encouraged to be quiet about those spaces. Clean them up. Hide them or make them pretty. I’m not for that.

I’m for amplifying the places we come from and illuminating how it is that extreme experience in relationship to language and image –  in relation to art and making – are creative and radical places to be from, to go to, to leave and return to.

Similarly, when I was a kid, I had an eating disorder called Pica. It’s when you eat non-nutritive things like dirt or paper. Trust me when I say I ate a shitload of dirt, but even more paper.

Before I learned to talk, my sister was trying to help me learn to read, so she’d put all these pieces of paper around the house with words on them to help me learn. Kind of hide-and-seek with paper words. Which is beautiful, right?

Then one day my dad came home, and he thought she’d made a big mess, so he slapped her a red blotchy one. I was so scared (I think I was 4) I hid in a closet and ate most of the pieces of paper with the words on them.

Now on the one hand, that’s a sad as shit story — scared abused girls. But on the other hand, it’s MAGNIFICENT. Look at our imaginations! How brave and cool and strong she was, how filled with delight and adventure I was! Some of the words on paper I ate were him:  architect.  It was like I was eating language, like Popeye ate spinach. Because I sure as shit emerged from that closet eventually. And I had something he did not.

 

 

Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been at various times a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, and a mother. Her work appears in The AtlanticTin House, the FSG anthology Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, and Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll with work forthcoming in GQ and Zyzzva. Her debut novel, Zazen, is a 2011 finalist for the Ken Kesey Prize in fiction.

 

Lidia Yuknavitch is a writer. She wrote the memoir The Chronology of Water, and her debut novel Dora: A Headcase is forthcoming September 1, 2012.  She’s written a lot of other stuff too.

 

Nobody Needs Another Mad Woman in the Attic: A Conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch and Vanessa Veselka

For Rwandan Women, a Grassroots Approach to Change

by Jessica Lott

In early 2010, while researching another project, I became interested a small, U.S./Rwanda–based organization Global Grassroots, which I then interviewed and followed for much of the next two years. The organization partners with some the world’s most vulnerable women—genocide widows, HIV-positive women, and those living in severely impoverished areas of post-conflict Africa—to build self-sustaining nonprofits dedicated to the safety, education, and advancement of women and girls. Through the program, Rwandan women have launched social justice projects that are entirely community-designed and run, and after an initial training period and small start-up grant from Global Grassroots, also self-funding. They are reinventing the traditional approach to international aid, as well as demonstrating how dedicated local women are healing their own communities, overturning the post-genocide legacy of fear, conflict, and suspicion.

The program is called the Academy for Conscious Change, and it offers participant groups an ongoing partnership with Global Grassroots.[1] Successful applicants are teams of women (sometimes men) who apply with a general idea for a community-focused project, such as education or access to clean water. In the initial two-and-a-half week training session, team leaders refine their idea through discussions about social justice work and compassionate action. They are also equipped with the hard skills necessary to launching a nonprofit—creating a mission and vision statement, as well as drawing up an operational plan, budget, a set of fundraising strategies, and a code of conduct. Leaders re-teach these development strategies to their teams as they work offsite for the next three to six months. The element of re-teaching is very important in the program—classroom educators are former students, and the founder herself, Gretchen Wallace, is re-circulating her U.S.-earned MBA, her background in international project finance and social entrepreneurship, as well as years of participant feedback on the curriculum.

Global Grassroots began its work in 2004, in a country very receptive to the changing role of women in its future. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda left the country almost 70% female, and women were considered less to blame than men, largely victims instead of perpetrators. President Kagame, looking to foster ties with Western nations, recognized the benefit in politically empowering women in the new government. Consequently, the revised 2003 Constitution stipulates that the Rwandan Parliament be comprised of at least 30% women. Currently 51% of Parliament members are female (to put this in perspective, only 17% of the U.S. Congress is composed of women). The country’s Vision 2020 development plan supports a continuous updating of gender laws, parity in higher education, and affirmative action policies to promote women’s educational and social advancement.[2]

But it takes time and effort for this type of policy to become part of the cultural fabric, particularly in rural areas where poverty remains an enormous impediment to social progress. Applications to Global Grassroots’s program, three times the number they’re able to accept, reveal a raw intimacy with suffering, and the deeply entrenched inequities women and girls still face in the country. Rwandan women’s lives are often gruelingly difficult, and gender violence is widespread, even in schools. Nearly thirty-five percent of the country’s women are illiterate (in rural areas the illiteracy rate jumps to 60% or higher). Unable to read, these women are prevented from exercising the rights, particularly property rights, guaranteed them under the 1999 Inheritance and Marital Property Law and reinforced by the new Constitution.[3]  Illiterate women are unable to vote or open bank accounts—they’re vulnerable to scams by people in their community who offer to “read” legal documents for them.

In response, many of Global Grassroots’s Rwandan teams have developed projects focused on literacy training. There is a team dedicated to the construction of school bathrooms to replace unisex latrines, where girls are liable to be victims of sexual assault and harassment; due to a lack of sanitary products, they are often unable or too ashamed to attend school during menstruation—chronic absences that contribute to high dropout rates. Several projects have the goal of safe access to clean water, AIDS prevention education, reducing domestic violence, and teaching former sex workers marketable skills, such as tailoring, so that they can re-integrate themselves into the community.

These are ambitious projects, conceptualized by women who have themselves been victimized. So in addition to social venture skills, healing and self-empowerment are key aspects of the Global Grassroots curriculum. The program begins not with the project, but with the often-neglected “me” for Rwandan women: “What do I love?” “What am I good at?” and also, “What am I most afraid of?”

In Rwanda after the genocide, there was no national infrastructure for dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout from participating in, being a victim of, or bearing witness to massive horror on an incomprehensible scale—beginning on the morning of April 7, 1994, and continuing for the next three months, in a country roughly the size of Maryland, 800,000 people were hunted and slaughtered by their neighbors and co-workers in a well-organized, locally implemented effort structured like a workday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The majority of victims were hacked to death at arm’s length with machetes and many were tortured, often in front of family, before dying. Half a million women and girls were raped. [4] The psychological and emotional fallout—the post-traumatic stress, anxiety, night terrors, obsessive behaviors, and depression, would stretch over the next two decades and beyond. One of the greatest paradoxes of human suffering is that pain almost always outlives its event. In the survivor’s mind, 1994 and yesterday happen within seconds of each other.

In Rwanda, after the genocide, the notion of trauma was stigmatized, for fear of its echo of blame and possible reprisal. Even now, the subject is often framed in the rhetoric of forgiveness and the dawning of a new national unity free of ethnic divisiveness, not Tutsi or Hutu—all Rwandans are Rwandan. Although the Western model of psychotherapy has emerged as the dominant treatment, especially by foreign NGOs, it hasn’t been wholly embraced—its focus on the individual as opposed to the collective runs counter to Rwandan culture.[5] Global Grassroots favors mind/body connection techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and forms of yogic breathing that are easy to re-teach, can be practiced in groups, and have proven to reduce stress and aid in the proper functioning of the nervous system disrupted by trauma. The organization also makes use of the support group model, as women, together in teams, are sharing their experiences while getting their community-focused projects up and running.

The nature of the work these women are doing is itself an essential part of what the organization has identified as a means of healing not only individuals, but entire communities. One of the genocide’s most lasting and widespread consequences was to destroy the concept of neighbor, especially in agricultural communities where everyone knows, and by extension, depends on each other. It tore apart familial, professional, and community ties, and caused a seismic shift in demographics: the mass murder was followed by the mass exodus of two million Hutu refugees into Congo, then their return, imprisonment, and in 2005, their release and re-absorption back into their communities. The result is a largely unspoken resentment and distrust that runs like an electrical current through many interactions. What the Global Grassroots program is attempting to create is a new relationship, not just between individuals, but between the individual and a community that once failed to protect her, that continues to fail.

Once a team’s nonprofit business model is completed, and evaluated for impact and sustainability, the organization awards it a grant, usually around $5,000, to cover all startup costs. Over the next year, the Global Grassroots staff assists the teams in attaining local permits and fundraising in a country where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line.

One of the most successful teams in Global Grassroots’s history, “Hard Workers,” located on the outskirts of Kigali, is now in its fifth year. The team’s goal was to stop the sexual exploitation of the disabled—women who are genocide victims, missing limbs, or HIV-positive. Unable to collect their own water (a daily four-hour round-trip walk carrying ten-gallon jerry cans), they were bartering sex for water delivery with men who owned bicycles. The team also wanted to remedy the high incidence of water-born illnesses from drinking from the contaminated river.[6]

Hard Workers received a start-up grant of $2,600 from Global Grassroots, which they used to construct a tank that collects water draining off the roof of a local church during the rainy season, and during the dry season, holds the weekly delivery of drinking water bought from the city. As part of their financial sustainability model, Hard Workers sells the water to those who can afford it, and with the proceeds pays the school fees for local children orphaned by AIDS and the genocide. The money is also used to buy health insurance for women and their families. The community’s disabled women, as well as the elderly, the orphan-headed households, and anyone else in need, now receive their water for free.

The team has radically altered the demographics of illness in Gahanga. Global Grassroots recently provided the project with a second grant, allowing Hard Workers to build two additional sites, with a third site currently under construction. The project currently supplies safe drinking water to more than 4,000 people, with another 2,000 people estimated to benefit once the additional site is finished. The team’s leader, Seraphine Hacimana, has a first-grade education. She ran the project while raising eight children. [7]

The effectiveness of Global Grassroots’s program can be attributed to a formidable combination of self-empowerment and smart business-skill training, its focus on inner transformation, its on-the-ground flexibility, its emphasis on re-teaching. But in a deeper sense, the organization’s success is due to the change it’s affecting in its participants, who consistently report a dramatically greater sense of confidence and power in their home lives and communities, and, in many cases, an enormous shift in how they perceive their surroundings and their capacity to impact them.[8] Graduating teams face a staggering amount of obstacles in launching and maintaining their social justice ventures, but they are also powered by a fierce commitment—our common human need to be of use, to see our ideas come to fruition not just in service for ourselves, or our families, but for the good of an entire community.

What does community mean for us in our advancing digital age? We are currently adapting, psychologically and emotionally, to a new definition of accessibility, and closeness, and social responsibility. But the same technology that is offering communication, publicity, countless ads, and exciting access to information, is also providing the means to really see and understand what’s happening in a global, communal context, and to share resources—to take part in these community-based projects that are helping to move the world in a more equitable and peaceful direction. This is the promise the Internet holds out to us—something truly great, to change the way we understand the concept of neighbor, our inherent responsibility to each other.

To find out more about Global Grassroots’s projects and how you can become involved, please visit: globalgrassroots.org


[1] Although the length of the partnership is indefinite, determined by the individual needs of each project, it begins with an eighteen-month social venture program. Since 2004, Global Grassroots has graduated 300 women and men from this program, who have launched twenty-one social ventures, with an estimated yearly impact on more than 15,000 women and girls. Six new projects are currently in development.

[2] Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in National Parliaments as of June 30, 2012,” http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm (accessed August 5, 2012).

[3] CIA World Factbook, “Rwanda,” www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rw.html, (accessed August 5, 2012). See also Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009), 211–12.

[4] A series of books by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld offers one of the most comprehensive and moving collections of accounts of the genocide by both the survivors and perpetrators: Life Laid Bare (New York: Other Press, 2000), Machete Season (New York: FSG, 2005), and The Antelope’s Strategy (New York: FSG, 2007).

[5] In 2010, Global Grassroots conducted a comprehensive countrywide study into trauma healing resources currently available to Rwandans along with their relative rate of success, interviewing governmental organizations as well as local and international NGOs operating in Rwanda, and drawing from the extensive evaluations from the women who go through their own program. The healing process is largely confined to the two-week national mourning period in April, when the genocide moves to the forefront of the national consciousness. Memorial events are scheduled, films and documentary footage shown, and genocide-inspired songs played nonstop on the radio. Trauma workers are positioned throughout the crowd to help, and remove, people who become hysterical, often sedating them. There is no follow-up treatment. But there is a growing understanding of what post-traumatic stress is, symptoms that were once attributed to poisoning. According to the organization’s report, in 2000, six years after the genocide, 8,000 Rwandans sought treatment from professionals for mental health issues; by 2009, that number was up to 34,500.

[6] Rwanda’s hilly terrain has posed a great challenge to the installation of public water systems, and women are rarely consulted on how to solve this problem, even though they are the most knowledgeable about the best placement for water access points.

[7] This is just one of many projects which have succeeded in the organization’s history. Team “Let Us Build Ourselves,” which had the goal of providing literacy training for women, overshot, to its surprise, all of its own benchmarks for achievement in its first year. Trying for 60% of its initial class of thirty to be able to read and understand civil marriage laws (essential to exercising their property rights), a year later, 90% were able to. With the goal of having 70% of its illiterate class able to read the newspaper, 97% of the women now can, and 70% have opened bank accounts (up from 3% of the starting class), and with an additional course in basic accounting, can now manage their own finances. Its graduates have become avid ambassadors for women’s education, enrolling their own daughters in the new class, and speaking at community meetings. This team, which often makes home visits to talk to families about the importance of their daughters’ education, is the brainchild of a group of Rwandan men.

[8] An in-depth, fifty-page independent assessment study, “Global Grassroots Program in Rwanda: Impact Evaluation,” was conducted by Julia Oakley from Columbia University in August 2011. After graduating “ninety-four percent of women respondents to the Global Grassroots follow-up survey indicate that they give their point of view and opinion at community meetings; 76 percent of female respondents say they have an equal role with their partner in decision-making, and 100 percent of respondents say they think they should. Both women team leaders and beneficiaries of Global Grassroots-funded programs share feeling an increased sense of confidence because of their participation.”

For Rwandan Women, a Grassroots Approach to Change

Embrace A Borderless Life: A Conversation With Poets Karen Biscopink and Maria Miranda Maloney

HER KIND welcomes Karen Biscopink and Maria Maloney to the conversation. Meeting each other for the first time, they share what it means to be a twenty-something emerging writer, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a middle-aged writer, mother, and organic gardener in the desert of El Paso, Texas. Read on and leave room for the unexpected.


Karen Biscopink: I struggled just now to create a subject line for our email conversation. I feel so certain that this will be fluid and energetic and beautiful. To title our correspondence (before it has begun) felt premature and scary. So for now, I’ll open simply with a hello and a virtual hug, with a sense of excitement to now know you.

The last several weeks have posed an interesting challenge to my poetry. I’ve begun a new job at a start-up in San Francisco. The days are rigorous and lengthy, and the parameters of my job require me to exercise intense organization, supreme focus. In essence, the hours I spend in the office are a constant embodiment of the verb “to control.” An office manager and executive assistant, I need to keep the machine oiled and, if it the machine does break, I must minify the disruption as quickly as possible.

My coworkers, who know me primarily in the context of our office, are both aware and supportive of my dual life in poetry. A few have asked how these two (seemingly) dichotomous aspects of my identity function together. The answer to this question, I feel, is so perfectly embodied in the quote Arisa sent us:

“To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.”—Virginia Wolfe

The restraint and intensely left-brained focus of my workday has resulted in a beautifully separate writing space. It is in fact because my job is so supremely of “control” that my poetic life has begun to flourish after hours. My psyche craves the balance of creative release after a day at the office, and the time I capture at night, in my studio apartment, becomes a verdant, nurturing thing. There is an intricate hinge between freedom and control, and for me, it is called balance. To have discovered this has opened my poetry in surprising ways.

I wonder, Maria, about your writing life—how it interacts with your daily life (or if they are one and the same), how control factors into your poetry, what motivates your creative explorations. . . . I feel that I’m uncovering new truths about process and form on a daily basis, so I’m really excited to learn with and from you.

To freedom!

 

Maria Maloney: It is early as I write this. The house is quiet except for the hum of distant traffic and the chirping of waking birds. I woke up with a sense of urgency after realizing it is now the 11th and I’ve yet to tackle the subject of freedom and self-control—subjects that seem to elude me at the moment as I struggle with the distracting aspects of middle age. It appears that I have finally reached the perimenopausal milestone, and my body, this body that I have known so well is suddenly a stranger.

I find myself “out-of-control” as I struggle to keep my body and mind connected, because there is no freedom when the body and mind disconnect from each other. Anxiety over the aging process quickly demoralizes the body, as I am quickly learning, and while I am no stranger to milestones and transitions, I am suddenly left with the uneasy feeling that this circumstance will require more than a change of diet and exercise. It will require purposeful thinking and serenity—agents that demand a sense of sense-control.

Here is where I stand at this point in my life, Karen. Add three growing children, a husband, a press, a house, a garden. The act of self-control, therefore, becomes imperative in my life if I am to enjoy the abstract connotations of the word freedom, and if I’m to continue to create an artful life.

I will write a bit more later, and to answer your question, Karen. There is so much more here to shift through . . . .

And I wonder, Karen, what truths you are uncovering?

 

KB: Maria, I have been thinking about your email all day. It came at such a good time.

The relationship between age and control (personal, artistic) has also been very present in my consciousness lately. I feel like we are approaching the same challenge from shifted landscapes. What you said rings so very true, and I find myself nodding aggressively at my computer screen: “Anxiety over the aging process quickly demoralizes the body.” On Monday, I turned 27 years old. As you mentioned, these types of milestones are laden with meaning, and every year I find myself reflecting heavily on the ways in which I transition as a woman and as a writer.

Inspired by Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit,” I’ve been writing a poem at 11:59pm each year, one minute before I am “officially” older. (This year the poem was, of course, called “turn 27 as you write this poem.”) The poem itself is a tangible marker of a self-evaluation I find important. What I’ve noticed, in reading these poems consecutively, is that I find myself suspicious of my mind’s clout. What could I, at 27, possibly say with certainty?

I have read often that people consider their twenties to have been entirely without control, a period of time that they shudder to recall. Certainly, I have been no stranger to the ridiculous missteps of the urban twenty-something, and I find that I judge myself harshly for moments when control has been lacking. This intense awareness (fear?) of my age plagues my writing as well; themes of uncertainty, self-censorship, and shame recur like the chorus of a hymn.

I wasn’t aware that this was part of my work until I was enmeshed in my thesis, something I worked on ceaselessly and more lovingly than any other endeavor in my life. The rift between mind and body, then, became my obsession. My mind yearns for a place of control, which I have always associated with age. But my body is participating in a decade of (hyperbolic) disaster, which perpetuates a sense of childishness.

Someone pretty recently told me, “You will be a great writer when you stop trying so hard to grow up.” I think about this too frequently, and while I’m not entirely certain I have untangled its meaning, the advice did open a tiny door in my writing. I am trying, as many do, to sit within myself, to be present and mindful of the current “Karen” that is poet, that is person. The result has been surprising, in that my poems have become more outward facing. Environment plays a greater role than confession for me now; observation and abstraction have taken over for emotional unloading. In short, there is a new peacefulness in my poetry, which has formerly been fraught with an undercurrent of worry, worry, worry.

I love the determined, solid way in which you speak about what lies ahead. Your call to arms for “purposeful thinking and serenity” have given me a great feeling of encouragement—this, too, is exactly what I need to channel.

Will you tell me more about your press, your garden, and your poetry? I imagine that there is much beautiful linkage between all of the rotating pieces you’ve mentioned, and, after waking up to the gift of such a thoughtful email, I’m really excited to hear as much as you have time to tell.

To serenity!

 

MM: I smile as I read your email, for you touch upon a subject that is ageless—the relationship between age and control, and the desire to constantly re-evaluate the self and one’s writing. The latter is perennial, and with every calendar year upon my shoulders, the writing becomes a reflection of my years. The law by which I govern my daily life is re-evaluated and re-negotiated. What I deemed important yesterday no longer applies today.

It is evident, then, when I reflect upon my writing how much I have changed. This doesn’t trouble me as much as it used to. I accept that “change” cannot be controlled. I accept that part of being in control is giving oneself permission to feel out of control. My day is filled with such moments, and my poetry reflects it. I leave room for the unexpected—cognizant that I can pull it back together, if needed. I don’t think I could do what I do if I didn’t balance my day with such moments. I don’t think I could have reached my middle years, sanity intact, if I had not allowed room to meddle in and around confusion. Even as I tackle (often impatiently) some of the most distressing aspects of middle years, I am aware that my mind-set, negative or positive, will ultimately determine my quality of life.

To answer your question, I started Mouthfeel Press (MFP) four years ago, not only because I’m a poet and I love poetry, but also because I have a publishing background. Furthermore, I was aware of the under-representation of certain groups in the poetry-publishing world and the lack of publishing opportunities in the Texas borderlands. With this in mind, I set out to create MFP, and my world. Inspired by Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands: The New Mestiza, I wanted MFP to reflect, or be a metaphor for and of open borders. MFP was created precisely with the word “freedom” in mind. Freedom to push the boundaries of form, language and subject. (And I will write more on this again tomorrow.)

I garden early in the morning. It is impossibly hot after 9am. Also, gardening early gives me an opportunity to mentally schedule my day before my children wake up. I tend to my organic garden like I tend to my children and poetry—tenderly, lovingly and patiently. There is a sense of order and disorder in my garden. I mix and match, group opposites together, flowers grow alongside vegetables and giant sunflowers shield the more fragile plantings. My garden is what I would call an “intuitive garden.” I do the opposite of what the gardening experts advise, and not because I’m a gardening rebel, but because gardening in the desert requires highly intuitive and drastic measures—in other words, a new set of rules.

I would love to read your birthday poems, Karen. Already, I love the approach and exploration of your method.

It takes discipline and self-awareness to be able to do what you have already done, Karen. I’m wondering how much time do you devote to poetry? How do you disengage from running an office to being a poet? How do you negotiate your roles?

 

KB: “I leave room for the unexpected.” I love that you say and do this. Your quote reminds me a lot of Kathleen Fraser and her poetry, which incorporates “error” as something exciting, surprising. Her work has been really influential for me; she writes about trying to break her habits as a poet by constantly shifting techniques, approaches, and writerly rituals. Using her work as an invitation to explore the unexpected, I was able to extend my understanding of poetry well beyond the realm of the narrative. Leaving room for the unexpected seems so akin to the joy of poetic experimentation!

Speaking of joy, I think of your question about navigating as an office manager and poet. I’ve found this interesting, humorous space where I let the two fully interact. In short, I’ve written poems about my working life since my first Silicon Valley job as a receptionist. I sent them to my co-workers as little, funny gifts and couldn’t believe the response. People loved them, printed them out, kept them in their cubes. I hadn’t anticipated this response, largely because non-poets frequently tell me they feel disengaged from the poetry world. But when I wrote a sonnet about flushing my security badge (accidentally!) down the toilet, I suddenly had a group of people clamoring to read more. My co-workers (past and current) have been so supportive of my writing, and that makes all the difference when playing these two (quite different) life roles.

Since finishing grad school, I’ve had to work hard to carve out a writing practice. Admittedly, there were a few months post-thesis when I barely wrote at all. I felt so satisfied with what I had accomplished, but also devastated to no longer have such urgency about writing a collection. And as so many had predicted, the loss of an immediately accessible workshop (or group of kindred spirits) left me feeling a bit “at sea.” It is only in the past few months that I’ve started gathering myself up again, striking out in the quiet of my apartment against a self-inflicted writers’ block. Finding a community, through conversations like ours, through readings and events, has made me feel welcomed into a whole new writerly scenario, one that extends well beyond the confines of a particular campus. Thank you for helping me feel this sense of community and conversation again!

I know we are reaching the end of this particular dialogue (which I hope will be one of many!), but I would love to hear about your interactions with other writers. I know you have the beautiful artistic community created by your press—does this extend to your personal poetry as well? Do you have a group of readers you keep close to you? I read a quote recently (whose source I regrettably cannot recall) that one should be careful in discussing writing projects, as the discussion can negate the need to do the actual writing. I wonder about this and would love to hear what you think.

To community!

 

MM: We have approached the end of our conversation. I hope we can continue in some shape or form our discussion. Feel free to write anytime the need strikes you. Part of the freedom is to write when the necessity of it is there.

I live in fragments, Karen. My day is filled with pockets, bits, shifts. I have been utterly lucky to have my community of poets who accompany me through this journey and who embrace who I am as a poet and as a person.

I’m uncomplicated and direct. I’m not a philosopher and my poetry does not pretend to be anything but of language, a recording, and presence—at least I hope it does. I embrace poets like Brenda Coultras, Julianna Spahr, Rosa Alcala, Emmy Pérez, Susan Briante, and Dolores Dorantes. I love poetry that has a sense of immediacy, where the language unfolds (or appears to) unfold organically, a pointing to—

I was never interested in pursuing a career in academia. I wanted my world and writing to flow outward and unfold into a larger, organic community. Here is where form takes place, and here is where our limits are tested, and it is so easy to fall prey into not writing. I have survived the outside, unsheltered by academic walls, by being part of a community of poets, and through my press, I have sustained my relationship and conversation with the academic community as well.

I applaud you for balancing your poetic life with your work at the office. How wonderful that your colleagues have stood steadfast with you and supported your poetry. In short, you’ve created a community of readers. Creating a writing life outside of academia can be taxing because the boundaries between writing and the quotidian are well-defined, and yet, it’s the space you’ve chosen to occupy and create.

Like me, our challenge is to blur the boundaries, to redefine our border, or embrace a borderless life.

 

 

Karen Biscopink is the managing poetry editor for Switchback. Having just finished her MFA in Poetry at the University of San Francisco, she is creating an intricate balance between dual roles as start-up office manager and poet. Her work has recently been published by the Hayden’s Ferry Review, and more of her writing can be found at her blog, Conceptual Reception, conceptualreception.blogspot.com.

Maria Miranda Maloney is founder of Mouthfeel Press. She is a poet and writer from El Paso, Texas. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various national journals and newspapers. She contributes regularly to the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum blog and organizes virtual writing and poetry workshops. Her chapbook, The City I Love, was published in 2011 by Ranchos Press. Maria is married and mother to three children. Between writing, publishing, and photography, Maria enjoys growing her organic, vegetable garden. She comes from a long line of women healers, entrepreneurs, and migrant workers. Maria has a BA in journalism and an MFA in bilingual creative writing.

 

Embrace A Borderless Life: A Conversation With Poets Karen Biscopink and Maria Miranda Maloney

My Writing Projects Will Wait . . .

by Elisa A. Garza

I am not what you expect from a feminist writer. For the past eight years, I have devoted most of my time to mothering rather than the working and writing life I built as a single person. I do teach Women’s Studies, but part-time. I have spent very little time writing, even though writing is one of the most fulfilling ways to spend my personal time. While my husband supports my achievements as a poet, he often suggests that I should prioritize paid work and family needs over my writing projects. He would never ask me to stop writing, but he does not fully understand my dedication to an activity that does not provide a paycheck, given our budget conscious lifestyle. Like many women, my obligations as a wife, mother, professor, daughter, friend, sister, etc. leave me very little solitary time, which brings me to my main topic: freedom.

For women, freedom to direct our lives into artistic pursuits is not a given. Despite the enormous changes that women and men have experienced while more and more women combined working with family life, such changes do not include allowing space for women to pursue the artistic professions. Women artists and writers who are also mothers often find the demands on their time leave little space for artistic creation. This can be true even for women like me who understand how gender dynamics encourage women to give to others instead of themselves. I must admit that I have not succeeded in allotting myself the writing time feminism suggests I should, nor that I hope to have. The little time I do have is available mainly because I currently work part-time. Unfortunately, the economic climate deems that I now need to secure full time employment, and I fear my writing time will disappear.

I am not complaining: motherhood is the most important and fulfilling work I will ever do. I have previously written about my choice to prioritize mothering from a feminist perspective. What I wish to discuss here is that even though I focus my time around mothering, I still attempt to carve out writing time. And, despite my feminist understanding of the world and our society, the time I seek is constantly under negotiation. I know I am not alone in this dilemma. Our society has not yet changed enough to give women the leeway from gender roles that would enable them to write. The situation is different for men, who always have leisure and solitude available to them. In a world where women are allowed little solitary time, writing and artistic creation are still the domain of men.

While I do manage to write, I must steal that time away from the other areas of my life: my children, my household duties, my husband, my family. As a young writer, before I started my own family, I jealously guarded time to write, spending hours and days in solitude. Now, I multitask by planning and thinking about my writing while doing household chores or driving my children to dance class. I must decide which writing project deserves attention because I cannot write regularly. When my children are busy, I sneak a few minutes to write here and there. I revise the most urgent project at the library while my children participate in a learning program with visiting owls. I must sometimes shelve writing to give my children, my spouse, my house, and my students the attention they need. While many writers, including men, share this dilemma, men are not tasked as primary caregivers or housekeepers the way women are; men do not feel the scorn of society, spouses, children, or other men the way women do when they do not fulfill their “proper” role. Men are freer than women to meet their expected role, as breadwinner, or not, to be a good father, or not, to keep their yard neatly trimmed, or not, to write, or not. Women are given “freedom”, i.e. “permission” to write, as long as their houses are well kept, their children are well cared for, and their spouses are given attention. The freedom of women is conditional: “of course, you can choose any profession you like, but don’t neglect your responsibilities.”

In a world where many women pay others to provide care and clean house, freedom to write can be bought, if you can afford to delegate your gender responsibilities. Some women would not choose this option; others cannot pay for quality care. In addition, the creative mind can be stunted, worn out, and used up by full time paid work. Many writers I know teach; it is flexible, it is rewarding, and it pays forward the education others gave to us. However, the pay is dismal, the hours are long, and the stress of encouraging your students to learn can affect your emotional readiness to create. As an adjunct college instructor, I cannot afford to pay a caregiver to watch my pre-school child while I teach. My mother-in-law does this for me, in exchange for translation services, help with computer usage, and advice about interacting with medical professionals. We have negotiated this informal exchange over time, but it is sometimes tenuous. Last year, I left my daughter with her an additional day per week so I could revise my chapbook manuscript. This year, that extra day of care has not been available very often. Because I understand the many demands on her time, I seek to avoid taking my mother-in-law’s availability for granted. My writing projects will wait until my caregiver is again available.

The idea that women have other things to do instead of writing is infused in our understanding of gender. Indeed, when women with small children do manage to write amidst mothering and paid work, people will tell us, “I’m surprised you are able to write at all.” The frequency that I hear this comment reiterates that men are considered the cultural producers in our society. Removing this mindset is necessary if we wish to encourage a flurry of writing activity in the next generation of women.


My Writing Projects Will Wait . . .