Bent Over Backwards

by Teilor Good

Much of my work is about a transformation of some kind, external or internal, positive and negative. I find telling a story through the use of animal imagery to be so pure and clear. They, by appearance and behavior, symbolize so many human emotions. I am drawn always to the giraffe for its quiet, awkward beauty and master of adaptation, while birds symbolize the duality of emotions for me. A caged bird, unable to fly is so vulnerable and tragic while a free bird is completely liberating and joyous. The journey of life is always a dance between that which holds us back and that which liberates us.

Bent Over Backwards for Love.

The Golden Road

The Ritual

The Sacred Nothing

Bent Over Backwards

Facing the Knife

by Nancy Gerber

Caucasian, Latina, African-American. Each of us waiting in the auditorium of St. Michael’s Hospital has something in common. Once we were beautiful. Now we are obese.

I am not the only who is nervous about the upcoming informational seminar on bariatric surgery. The woman to my left scans her cell phone as though expecting a call from God. The woman to my right has been tapping her foot for the past 15 minutes. The woman in front of me rocks back and forth in her seat muttering to herself

There are 20 obese women and five men, none of who are overweight.

Two doctors approach the podium. They are part of a larger practice that requires that people interested in undergoing bariatric surgery attend one of these seminars. They are nice-looking fellows in their forties, wearing expensive suits and smiling as if they’re about to tell us we’ve just won a vacation to Antigua. I would have preferred them older and less polished, wearing scrubs and looking more like surgeons than sales executives.

Their PowerPoint presentation begins by telling us we are at risk for serious health problems like stroke, diabetes, heart disease.

Next we are shown a digitized image of a stomach. “It’s the size of a football,” says a doctor. “In people who are obese the stomach stretches to hold much more food than it needs.” I stare at the football size stomach, wishing I were Joe Namath instead of a 5’2″ woman with an inappropriately large abyss.

The doctors tell us effective long-term weight loss cannot be achieved without shrinking this stretched-out organ. “That’s why the obese have so much trouble losing weight. Their stomachs are constantly sending ‘feed me, I’m hungry’ signals to the brain.” It takes much more food to fill this demanding, insatiable maw. It’s not our fault, they say.

The surgeons describe the gastric bypass, the sleeve gastrectomy, and the Lap Band. They show slides of the bypass, where a tiny stomach is created along with an intestinal network that has been cut and rerouted. They show slides of the sleeve, a newer surgery that lops off and discards three-quarters of the expanded stomach. These two surgeries produce rapid weight loss.

They are careful to list possible complications like infection. Any surgery has potential complications, they remind us. But they are so enthusiastic about their successes that I am almost ready to sign up for the sleeve, which seems less drastic than the bypass and which I hadn’t even heard of before I entered the room.

Then they come to the Lap Band, which is why I am here. But the surgeons’ enthusiasm markedly drops. The Lap Band produces the slowest weight loss. It requires frequent office visits to adjust the amount of saline that regulates the tightness of the band that encircles the stomach. The band can erode and adhere to the stomach wall or slip out of place. People who have it removed may gain up to 30 pounds in a month.

Q&A. A woman on the verge of tears says that her Lap Band failed and wonders if she is a candidate for the bypass. Another woman asks whether a tube is inserted through the mouth to perform the gastric sleeve. The doctor says yes and I’m surprised he left this out during the talk. What else haven’t they told us?

The room is quiet but there’s a current of energy among the women. The statistics are terrifying, and time is running out. We have doctors to open us up and family and friends to put us back together. But the decision to choose surgery and to live with the consequences is ours alone. What other choices do we have?

*   *   *  *   *

The doctor closed my chart, laid it on the counter, and looked me in the eye. “You’re pre-diabetic,” she said. “In five to ten years you’ll have diabetes. You need to lose 40 to 50 pounds.”

“I’ve tried,” I told her. “Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, South Beach. Every time I lose weight I gain it back and then some. I’ve hit rock bottom.”

She nodded. “When people say they’ve hit rock bottom I tell them it’s time for bariatric surgery. You should have the Lap Band.”

I was relieved when I heard this. I’d been asking for a magic pill and was told there was no such thing. I thought surgery would be like taking the magic pill. But four months into the process of signing up for surgery, I’ve found out I was wrong.

Surgery is not a cure for obesity. It pains me to use that word, obese, in relation to myself. It sounds so ugly, so pathological. But physicians consider obesity a disease that leads to greater risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes. People who are obese have a shorter life expectancy of nearly 10 years. Obesity is associated with a range of co-morbid conditions like arthritis, depression, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea.

My father died of complications from Type II diabetes after suffering a massive stroke. The damage to his circulatory system caused paralysis of his left leg, macular degeneration, kidney failure, and gangrene, which eventually led to the amputation of his paralyzed leg. His suffering was so terrible that I wrote a book about it. It’s not a story I want to repeat.

Bariatric surgeries are tools to help people restrict their calorie intake. Post-surgery, people must comply with a low-calorie diet, a process that is aided by restricting the size of the stomach, which helps people feel less hungry. But these procedures can be circumvented, by consuming high caloric beverages like alcohol or milkshakes, because fluids pass through a constricted stomach more easily than solids. To be successful, the surgery requires compliance, motivation, and hard work.

Obesity is defined as a BMI (body mass index, based on the ratio between a person’s weight and height) as 30 or more. People who have a BMI of 39.9 or more are considered morbidly obese. In a July 2, 2012, article in The New York Times, Gary Taubes described a recent study that links obesity to a high carbohydrate diet which stimulates insulin, the hormone that stores fat in our cells. A sedentary lifestyle and genetic predisposition to gain weight are also factors.

I have been struggling with my weight since the birth of my first child, 27 years ago. I gained 50 pounds during that pregnancy, taking seriously the notion of eating for two. I lost 30 pounds of that weight and gained 35 pounds during my second pregnancy, of which I lost 15. So after the birth of my children, I weighed 40 pounds more than I did before I became a mother. In 1994, at age 38, I went to Diet Center and lost 35 pounds, which I did not maintain for very long. In 2001, the year my father died, I weighed the same weight I did before I went to Diet Center. I was overweight, not obese. Since then, I’ve gained 50 pounds. Somewhere along the way, I lost control. I stopped paying attention to the amount of bread and sugar I was consuming. When I stepped on the scale and saw the number, I told myself the scale was broken.

*  *  *  *  *  *

I am sitting in the waiting room to meet a surgeon. I have decided to consult someone who is not part of the practice whose presentation I attended at St. Michael’s. This surgeon was recommended by a woman I know. I am hoping he will be more positive about the Lap Band.

A tall, elegant dark-skinned black woman approaches me. She is a wearing a long black dress and has a graceful, willowy shape. She starts to talk and I learn she lost 100 pounds after her gastric bypass. She has been hired to welcome newcomers, answer questions, offer encouragement and support.

I stare at her in disbelief. I thought I could tell when a woman had bariatric surgery by a certain roundness in the face and hips, indicating she was once much heavier.

“Don’t people who’ve known you flip out when they see your transformation?” I ask. She acknowledges this happens and says she tries to concentrate on what’s important, which is maintaining her weight loss through careful meal planning and daily exercise.

I believe I understand. It’s important to focus on what matters. An obese person is like a recovering addict. Abstinence from overeating is a lifelong struggle.

In a few weeks I start a pre-surgery bariatric support group. I am looking forward to meeting my new sisters. The Centers for Disease Control reports that obesity affects men and women in equal numbers, but these statistics do not match my experience. There were no men at the St. Michael’s presentation, and I’ve seen many more female than male patients in the surgeon’s waiting room. Do the emotional issues of obesity—shame, guilt, feelings of isolation and unattractiveness—affect women differently than men? I don’t know, but I do know this: we are all facing the knife.

Facing the Knife

Divining the Lasso of Truth: A Conversation with Author Heather Fowler and Visual Artist Elisa Lazo de Valdez

HER KIND: Heather and Elisa, Welcome to the Conversation. In “A Hand Jane Hirshfield writes that: “[a] hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question. / Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.” What, for you, might be that question? Are their parts of the body that ever invoked such meditation? Or perhaps the body as the whole?


HEATHER FOWLER:  I love that poem in particular since the line that precedes your quoted lines reads: “What empties itself falls into the place that is open,” and if I had a solitary transparent question about what the body  or the open hand with questions offers up in art, it would be: What role does skin or the body corporal play in desire and conquest, physical action?

By that, I mean conquest or movement of any sort.  As a writer using words to represent the body, to move the body in a narrative, I find that that a character’s movement is significant, sometimes more so than his or her words. Often the dialogue is an obfuscation of the feelings, partially vented, but the most painful and present scenes in books and stories are those where the action is excruciating and defining.  I use, as example, my favorite short story by Vladimir Nabokov entitled “Sounds.” At the start of the narrative, near the beginning, a woman is playing a piano: “Every now and then, through the frenzy of the fugue, your ring would clink on the keys as, incessantly, magnificently, the June shower slashed the windowpanes.” This sort of thwarted passion during a storm, this radiant act of expression regardless, begins a piece that will end in heartache for the “you,” due to the lack of returned love from her paramour.  After some narrative acrobatics on Nabokov’s part, that thick, svelte velvet of his images, the movement of the plot’s escalation, the tragic scene in this story is also brought home by the gestures of the woman’s hands–not on the body of her lover, but on the doorknob she struggles to open in order to escape his regard:  “You said, ‘Good. Now you may leave.’ You turned and ran quickly up the steps. You took hold of the glass door’s handle, and could not open it right away. It must have been torture for you.” I think the body and the gesture are constantly offering up transparent questions and then diffusing.

This is one thing that Elisa’s photographic work, which I’ve been blessed enough to work with for two literary projects in recent months, illustrates so strongly.  In every image, the posture is so important to the viewer’s understanding of the scene.  Elisa, how does that work when you have models? Is there a mood during the shoot–or coaching? How do you get the bodies to say so much in the visual frames?


ELISA LAZO DE VALDEZ: The first challenge, particularly for shooting figure work, is to find someone who can express themselves beyond their physicality. Often models who have worked in a more commercial field have trained their bodies to communicate a very specific way. Their interaction with the camera lens is quite formulaic, and falls into the awful cliché’ of “make love to the camera”.

I tend to seek out people who have very little experience in front of the camera, who think they are being awkward because they don’t relate to media-centric imagery. This allows them the freedom to hold and move themselves honestly. Some of the most dynamic poses come about from the models stretching, a very natural, unselfconscious act. For this reason I never put the camera down. My most successful collaborations are usually with other creative: painters, other photographers, and writers are already in a creatively expressive mindset. Their craft informs their physical nature. Their art will manifest itself in physical expression if they have an environment to move freely in. My primary input is “If the pose hurts or feels bizarre, it will look great”. This can be very liberating for people, who will often show off some part of their body that is double-jointed. It becomes a game of exploration and extremes. In contrast to that there are the moments of in between, when the model is at rest and thinks I am fiddling with camera settings. They are calm, distracted, chewing their hair, cracking their knuckles. These shots can be wonderfully expressive as well.

The tactic I employ most often, especially with new models, is to cover the model’s face, either with hair, a mask, body paint or fabric. The psychological effect on people when they don’t think the “real them” can be seen is amazing. It’s an interesting idea considering their entire bodies can be exposed to the eye, but their personal identity and all the restrictions and hang ups that go with it are eliminated when there is no face. The body is the instrument that personifies the theme; the eyes are no longer the window to the soul, the bellybutton is, or the shoulder blades, or the crook of an elbow and the bend of a finger. Whatever the mask may be, I have to trust the model to express it; they are a storm cloud, a deer, a primeval goddess, the Queen of Hearts. I think this is why Heather and I connected so immediately on a creative level, the magical realism that informs both of our work, though the mediums differ.

Heather, you often use your character’s bodies to express a myriad of emotions and situations as very blatant physical transformations.


HF:  I love the idea Elisa articulates above of “a game of exploration and extremes”—that embodies a lot of my creative process in terms of making the cerebral-surreal, where the mind lives as it creates, feel more concrete by connecting it to definitive body parts or symbolism or movement, the way “realism” follows “magical” in the descriptor.

In my first book Suspended Heart, the title story is about a girl whose heart falls out at a local mall and her life gets instantly better.  When her heart is returned to her involuntarily by a janitor, without the benefit of the return of the relationship that may have salved her wounds, she weeps and discards a diamond that was once to have been her wedding jewel.

Suspended Heart also houses a story entitled “The Girl with the Razorblade Skin” in which a budding woman must develop defenses that cut and deflect her abusers in order to reclaim her rights as a human being. In both Suspended Heart and my newly released magical realism collection People with Holes, I find myself using the body again and again, in different ways–more aggressively and sexually in the second collection, where men have penises that are detachable lab rats or pheromones that cause women spontaneous orgasms and smell like newborn babies.  Transformations are key for me, bodywise, characterwise.  Another story in People with Holes is entitled “With the Silence of a Deer,” and follows a woman accompanying her metrosexual lover to his man-cabin in the woods, where her head becomes the head of a deer, but not a female deer.  In her case, her head is the head of a young stag–a male head.  This imagery and skewed transformation becomes key in the piece because after he has sexual relations with her, she takes a role of agency in the piece to escape and refuses her victimhood or subjugation, regardless of the man’s misogyny and attempts to make her believe that to leave him or discard him are “wrong.” I do think that my magical realist work, unlike that of many other modern magical realists, is more about sex and gender exploration than political commentary.  That said, it’s possible that the surrealistic urge to manipulate the body so cerebrally, so vividly, is in direct contrast to my own disengaged feeling, often, of being solely a “brain in a vat.”  My own body surprises me daily. Hardly ever am I not surprised at what it can do.  Bleeding–or breastfeeding, for example. I thought I had a superpower at first when I breastfed my baby daughter and then my son. Both times, I wanted to squirt milk at everyone. For fun.  Shout, “Behold, I am an amazing goddess of making milk!” You don’t even know.

With Elisa’s work, I felt immediately aligned with the visual transport of her narratives. The deer woman story, for example, was done as a challenge to write content for a photography exhibit of work by photographer Adriene Hughes (; I wrote and submitted that story on the basis of her photographs and was chosen to read at the gala.  By the time I was approached about working with Elisa, I was already ready to really go to town with the fusion of words and visuals.

What I particularly love about Elisa’s work is that it does not shrink from the depiction of women as mysterious and multi-faceted.  Like the image from her website, for example, with the beige cloaked woman who has what appear to be leafless golden branches emanating from her fingers. I love that image.  The placement and gesture of the hands in particular, to hark back to the earliest part of the conversation, like casting a spell.  Elisa, can you speak to your thoughts as an artist while you fashioned this piece?  Is it connected to anything theatrical?


ELV: Here are four photos that I feel illustrate what I discussed in my previous response. Calm, anthropomorphic, surreal, and contorted.

Also these next following images were shot with one of my favorite models of all time. She is wonderfully athletic, wildly sensual and very dynamic in her stillness. When I connect with someone that can personify my ideas without having to say a word, it is a miracle. Lilly is definitely an extension of my ideas made flesh. This particular shoot actually had a theme, when most often I’m just doing a stream of consciousness thing. She was to represent power and magic, directly tied to the mythology of Circe. It is one of many examples of my love of draping the human form like a Greek statue, and of adding on bits and pieces to create something more than human. Branches, feathers, flowers, smoke; anything that speaks of metamorphosis. I tend to split my imagery into two primary categories: those that fall into the realm of magic, mythology, transformation and fairy tales; and those that fall into realm of surrealist, creepy nudes and the exploration of texture on skin. My main role models growing up were Wonder Woman and Catholic martyrs from my little “Lives of the Saints”. I never doubted for a moment the emotional strength and physical power of women, the magic of our bodies and the mythology of our origins. I return to that magic and strength of form again and again in my photography. I’ve found that I rarely shoot men; I find their bodies to be rather boring and concrete, although they are certainly beautiful in their own way. They seem to be missing the kind of ethereal, supernatural quality I find in women. I love what you said about breast milk. It’s such a common, mammalian thing.

I think the idea of perfect flesh is incredibly dull. Freckles, scars, bruises, dimples, etc. – I hear models apologize all the time for these imperfections, but I often like to emphasize them if I can, especially freckles or veins. The history of the body and the natural expression of its individuality is important. I find scars to be particularly fascinating as they can represent trauma, adventure, crisis or triumph.


HF:  Oh, I am fascinated with just about all bodily functions.  Everything the human body does is so complex and yet necessary to keep an individual alive.  And, Wonder Woman, yes!  As a child, I wanted that Lasso of Truth quite intensely. Many, many would have been roped.

Scarring and visual imperfections charm me. I remember wanting to map a female body quite intensely in the narrative–be a mapmaker of features–and, interestingly, I remember I mapped that frame by flaws (and topography), but I say “flaws” here with a special sort of reverence: these are my histories, my insecurities, my senses of torture by myself or others, my rites of passage or identities in this world.  Since you work in a visual realm, Elisa, I love that you embrace these aspects of your models.  For me, as a writer, I take the exterior but also penetrate internal flaws where possible.  Flaws in the psyche.  Or, flaws in the psyche causing flaws in the body–for example a piece I’m working on called “The Fat Woman Pauses Briefly in Her Binging, Due to Suitor” about a woman who overeats on purpose, continuously, so she’ll be left unmolested by men who desire her.  She ends up unable to escape this quandary, thin or fat, and is left with some masochist submissives serving as footrests on the porch.  I like to explore attraction and repulsion in the erotic, which really seduces me with your images. I also like to use all the naughty words with my literary art, but subversively–as a photographer might use all the naughty parts yet provide the visual props of unusual contrast or framing to create the art filter.

I know you do a lot of high-end work with book covers and projects that require more of a commercial, marketed aspect. I’m thinking, in particular, of the covers of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs or the Laurell K. Hamilton’s Hit List, among others (Elisa has a beautiful list of covers she’s done)–but if you could spend three months shooting the most ambitious project you can think of, with limitless funds, what would it be? (I am obsessed with how time and fiscal factors impact projects artists would like to do, so am always curious.)


ELV: Ha, if only. Although I do have a small list, the first thing I would probably tackle (aside from updating all my equipment) would be to shoot a modern surrealist series of “Lives of the Saints” along the line of Bettina Rheimes’ “INRI” or the Pop Art work of Pierre et Gilles, with Colleen Atwood on stand by to make all the costuming. I would find abandoned theaters, asylums and hotels all over the globe where I could work with unrestricted access. I would also have a private chef. Can you tell I’ve pondered this before? As a writer, your creative fantasies probably differ a bit from mine. What would be the ultimate writing environment/project for you? Would you hole up in an inspirational location like a rock band in an old castle, or would you expose yourself to some new and unusual cultural experience?


HF:  I love this idea of the trip to the asylums and hotels, not to mention the fashioning of the costuming. Interestingly, I think what I would do would be to have an experiential window. To connect the body to the mind, without writing. To travel and taste all manner of things, to enjoy the kaleidoscope of life via fully living that life. Give alms to the body, pleasure, joy, satiation. The financial angle would be used only to control the risk factors. I have a theory that the body is a chalice for the mind and vice versa. Due to this, one can write from memory forever, provided one has made this memory in reserve. My goal, then, would be to make the new memories in such a way that the tiny gray cell (metaphorical) in which I write would carry the festive and laden decorations of times remembered and enjoyed. So, I suppose I would do both, hole up in an inspirational location like an old castle AND expose myself to some new and unusual cultural experiences or hedonism. As a single parent, however, one must very careful. It’s never one life in the balance. In addition, time is precious and fleeting. Nonetheless, I’m an advocate of Robert Herrick, who wrote,

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today,

Tomorrow will be dying.

I firmly believe that the return to joy for the body, for my body, would be the return to joy for my art.  Though I have chronicled heartbreak and given all proceeds for my first two books to causes that support women’s health and rights due to my sadness about women’s maltreatment, I need not get lost as a chronicler of heartbreak.

I would like to do this with a host of creatives, as you’ve discussed. In a frenzy of artful pleasure.  The next book to be released this spring, a feminist dystopia collection, This Time, While We’re Awake, and the one I currently work with a graphic artist to finish as an illustrated collection, literary traditional work and historical fiction, Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness, are both quite dark.  So, I’d like to dance in the light as soon as possible, if that makes sense.

As a writer, and once an actress, I think it rather suits my nature and inclination to A. wear any and all costuming that suits whatever role is necessary, with pleasure, B. display natural flaws and foibles as an open portmanteau for the world’s dissection of reflection, and C. hold very uncomfortable poses for seemingly interminable amounts of time–like, say, that which it takes to write a collection or a novel.   


EL: I think your writing appealed to me so much because you have a great gift for strong visual impact that is ripe with subversive symbolism. I love shooting writers; they can really relate well to expressing an abstract concept. Actors, however, are much more of a challenge. I think they are used to becoming people other than themselves and for some reason on a photo shoot tend to play the part of a model playing the part of (insert whatever the shoot concept is). They are two steps removed from the idea of just being themselves. They are also the most concerned with how their makeup is holding up. Painters and illustrators are my favorites; they inherently understand the significance of a subtle gesture as well as the visual impact of an extreme one.

With my Saints project, I am more interested in the mortification of the flesh, as it were, and the oddly sexualized depictions of the martyrs with their gaping wounds posing calmly with their torture devices. The orgasmic looks on their faces while they bleed out. You can easily see the influence on my work, the models gazing off beatifically. Mind you, the collection that inspired this idea ages ago is a children’s book that I have kept close to me since I was nine years old. Fascinating images of regular people with holy super powers that enabled them to exist outside their bodies as they were being flayed alive, etc. Having been raised Catholic with a Latin American point of view there were always wonderful stories of miracles, sacrifices, lots of blood and agony. My home is currently covered in Catholic iconography, the Sacred Heart being my favorite symbol. So basically my main decorating choice is bleeding hearts all over the walls. It’s such a fascinating image though, to literally rip your heart out of your chest and offer it to others. Even those saints who lived full lives were prone to whipping and cutting themselves to be more Christ-like. It’s so wonderfully disturbing.


Elisa Lazo de Valdez (aka Visioluxus) has been creating her own visual realities for over a decade. Her work reflects dark sensuality, mythology and luxury of form, and is often described as spooky, dream like and surreal. Her work is featured globally on book covers and in magazine editorials, as well as photography collections and the occasional exhibit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon in a house full of eclectic objets d’art, and her photo studio is an appropriated walk in freezer in the basement.

Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Suspended Heart (Aqueous Books, Dec. 2010), People with Holes (Pink Narcissus Press, July 2012), and This Time, While We’re Awake (Aqueous Books, forthcoming Spring 2013). Her work has been published online and in print in the US, England, Australia, and India, and appeared in such venues as Quarterly West, PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, JMWW, Short Story America, and others. All author proceeds from her recent collection People with Holes are to be donated to Planned Parenthood to combat the current war against women. Please visit her website at



Divining the Lasso of Truth: A Conversation with Author Heather Fowler and Visual Artist Elisa Lazo de Valdez

Lady in the House Questions: Teilor Good

Teilor Good, a San Francisco native, has been a practicing artist in the Bay Area for over a decade. Inspired by her love of animals and rendering the female form, she has created her own unique pantheon of “beastly goddesses.” Her style is strongly influenced by Egyptian art and storybook illustration. Playfully transitioning between sculpture and painting, Teilor’s work ranges from simplistic stylizations to realistic depictions of the “whimsically macabre.”

 She received her BFA with distinction in ceramics from the California College of the Arts in 2003. In addition to participating in the East Bay Open Studios, Teilor shows her work locally, in both solo and group exhibitions. More of Teilor’s work can be seen at

Here, she offers a visually stunning take on our Lady in the House questions.


1. What has been your ultimate journey?


2. Where do you start? Where do you end?


3. Do you worry about the politics of classification?


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

Lady in the House Questions: Teilor Good

Behaving Naturally: A Conversation With Playwright porschia l. baker and Poet Laura Solomon

In a lively exchange, that will leave you swirling, prompted by the quote from Patricia Hewitt— “The accusation that we’ve lost our soul resonates with a very modern concern about authenticity”— porschia and Laura’s metaphysical and philosophical take reveals the deep questions of and about the soul. What we are left with is an understanding of how art making is a part of a creative and universal energy that belongs to no one, is shared, and available for those willing to risk the self. HER KIND is honored to welcome porschia and Laura to the Conversation.


porschia: I’m not preoccupied with thinking about the idea of authenticity in my writing. As I write, I’m centered in my being, I respond, I’m calling for a response, I deconstruct and puzzle my comprehension of various aspects of life as I transform; I’m birth, and I feel my life force move me. I probably can continue to list the aspects of my writing that obsesses me. However, tomorrow my response may be different. What is most important is for me to use words to service what I believe. Audre Lorde speaks to this in one of her essays. As long as this is my fuel then I make no space for wondering about authenticity in my writing because “it” innately exists. What does soul mean to you, Laura?


Laura: Mmm . . . I think whatever definitions I might be holding for that word would have to be eased into. I guess there is a part of me that wants to argue that there is no soul, not because I think there is no soul but because I think there is no self, that the self is a construction, but constructed by whom? a self? other selves constructed by other selves ad inf.? I guess I think of the universe as one. I believe with my mind that it is one, and at times I experience it that way, though the majority of the time I experience it as if I were a completely separate entity from anything that is not my body, though sometimes yes even my body does not seem to be me. I do think my experience of having a self is an illusion made possible by a provisional form (my self or soul or body) which contains a little of the universe inside its space. Consciousness makes it seem as though there were another universe inside that form, which there is? I’m very interested in science, in particular what cosmology or quantum physics may reveal to us with regard to selves/souls, that the entire universe may just be one infinite expression. But I’m off-topic already or on it because the topic is so big.

What I want to say about writing is that I do think we can talk about greater or lesser authenticity in art just as we can talk about greater or lesser truths. We may never touch truth with a capital T but we certainly can distinguish between what is more or less of a lie. When I write, I know whether or not I have been more or less faithful to the poem (which is not about me, can’t be about me even it is). I know when I have written something to please someone else or to show off or to jerk off or have written from some other location that is not poetry itself. Authenticity is possible in a poem only when I shut up and listen to what words are trying to say among themselves. Meaning has to happen on its own, not because I impose it. When I am writing authentically, I am not a meaning-maker so much as a meaning-enabler. I hope I’m not being too vague, but I’m sure I must be.

Now coming back to the other hand of that first question, I do think the word soul can be very useful if we are also going to use the very useful word (if somewhat dubious concept) self to think about selves. So long as we’re talking about selves, why refuse the word soul which operates in a not dissimilar fashion? People need metaphysical language precisely because life is a metaphysical experience. It is not merely a physical experience, or rather it very well may be merely physical. In other words, there’s nothing “merely” about it. And meanwhile here we are alive in these bodies we believe to be our own but which will someday die and drift off into some other kind of matter. Something in us must mourn that eventual loss of self (even if it were always and only a dream), why not call that thing the soul? And maybe authenticity in writing revolves around the greater or lesser willingness to lose that illusion of self while simultaneously allowing a self to perform, giving chance a chance, giving the universe its due, making way for the poem to happen. . . .


porschia:  For me authenticity is a stagnant word similar to when a person calls themself a master artist, which has its psychic limitations in that the word “master” creates a mental block in artistic evolution. However, calling self a master is also driven by the balance that an ego can provide—if insecurity is part of the psychological stream of thought. At the same, I’m unsure I’d call my work authentic because my work is an unfurling of variations of work that equates to life in its entirety. Whether it comes from my spiritual practice, academic work, or dreamtime, for example, the inspiration for writing is continuous so it is not authentic to a particular cadence. Its pulse is many and expands the path as well as adds an extension to the path from which I learned. There is the booked definition, but its a word that does function too well. Soul or spirit on the other hand is in everything, wholly connects us, and reaches beyond our borderlands for the union of what is innately lived in our being. Or perhaps, experienced by our being. There is something lost as I write. Perhaps, it’s the illusion you mention. I know any fear or doubt that I once embraced is lost or rather transmuted in the process. The process is very liberating. Writing allows me to make space within space for other visions and itself gifts a place to analyze, grapple, build, and embrace.


Laura: I agree that focusing too much on the word authenticity or taking the word or concept too seriously could be paralyzing. Over thinking might indeed be the quickest route to inauthentic work, generally speaking, in all of the arts as well as in life. I have an actor friend whose teacher had defined acting as “behaving naturally under imaginary circumstances,” and to me writing a poem is a similar experience (when the work is authentic). A certain kind of interpretive intelligence may be fundamental but so are reflexes that function faster than that intelligence. I think most people recognize bad acting pretty immediately and would hardly be hesitant about criticizing a performance for its greater or lesser authenticity. Or a more extravagant analogy: imagine two people involved in a kiss. If one person is indifferent to the kiss or is trying too hard or is otherwise unconvinced of the act in which he or she is engaged, the inauthenticity of that kiss is apparent to the other party, at least if that other has any previous experience of authentic kissing. A reader similarly can feel what’s authentic and what’s not, if he or she has been ravished (so to speak) before, and the writer can feel it too while he or she is writing, again relatively speaking. You don’t have to debate it with yourself or consider the concept of authenticity in order to realize you’ve been betrayed, if you are the reader, or that you have betrayed the poem or yourself, etc., if you are the writer.

You know when you’ve fibbed a poem into existence, when it’s not a poem really, and maybe you don’t even think about it. Maybe you simply get a little angry or frustrated and delete or wad up what you’ve just written. I guess when I use the word authenticity I’m more or less referring to the greater or lesser presence of the author (and by that I don’t mean the author’s personality or expression of ego but his or her being) or, more precisely, the presence of his or her creative experience that the work contains, the work being a kind of artifact of that experience, real existence crammed inside it, or a lack thereof. I don’t think authenticity in this sense depends on the source of inspiration or even the means by which a poet arrives at a poem; what matters is the sort of release from fear or doubt you mentioned (as well as from one’s desires)—that experience of freedom from the self. And if that were the case, a beginner would be just as likely capable of producing authentic work as a master. Perhaps the beginner would even hold the advantage. Now I’m thinking though of the expression “fake it until you make it” and want to ask you what roles you think the fake or the false play in poetry or art making? Do you think there is such a thing as an authentic or an inauthentic fake?


porschia: My first thought is, that is a trick question. My second thought is the question itself is loaded. I recall reading an article about a person whose so-called master paintings were detailed replicas of scenes from video games. Or it was the other way around. Either way it wasn’t their art or the work personally channeled. And if the impetus was to receive fame, then it was well received. In art making, deception can be felt and even seen. What immediately comes to mind is when the “gleam of a culture” is witnessed, extracted, and utilized to create art inspired by “the gleam,” but the people who are the breath of that culture, its essence, are seen as culturally irrelevant. That’s serious thievery and . . . false play. It occurs all the time in music, writing, art in general, in our communion with one another. An example of false play in art is Picasso’s Cubism series in which his figures are exact replicas of African sculptures and masks. His series isn’t a new idea. He simply took images of masks, placed it in a different environment, changed its context, and called it something different. I slightly grapple with the question only because fake should not be given a place marker, but Fake Ones are paid monetarily very well for the ability to incite the populace.

In poetry, false play is a stagnant pool with its own infestation. I’ll engage work, by June Jordan, Cherríe Moraga, or Audre Lorde for example, and be inspired to respond and add onto their insight. In my response, somewhere is acknowledgement of their resource, but that’s part of my practice. I want to acknowledge who wrote before so that I can expand the discussion and thread additionally.

As I continue typing, my answer has become: the only role of false play or deception is its ability to inspire more artwork, but within its inspiration is a low humming possibility of transmutation. In using your words the “artifact of that experience,” I would ask how deeply does the artist desire their artifact of their creative process to resonate with their audience, their reader, those who are witnessing as they are being witnessed? What is their spirit speaking? What does the artist know, from his or her own experience, which is useful enough to inspire creation without having to fake it? What is the person willing to risk releasing? Is the artist willing to live to know an aspect of their highest self? Simply being willing to will yourself to make effort in life is creative. It’s a curious hybrid of desire, intuition, hunger, and letting go. My question is what do you risk giving up, when you write?


Laura: There is so much to respond to here. Firstly, forgive me, no intentions of trickery on my part. I don’t think I knew what I myself might have meant by “fake” or “false” in those questions, but I did want to know what you thought about those words, since at first glance they seem opposed to “authentic” and much of the time probably are. Still, I’m not sure that I understand what you found to be tricky or loaded and now I’m doubly curious. Leaving that aside but hoping you’ll come back to it, I appreciate the examples you bring up.

I don’t know if I would consider anyone’s sampling or thieving activities as inauthentic by virtue of repetition alone, at least not aesthetically speaking (there is an ethical question however), since repetition is not the same thing as replication. Two singers may sing the same song and bring to it entirely different meanings, both of which may be authentic. Ultimately, I would argue that authenticity has less to do with originality (which I think is another nebulous concept, where a work of art begins . . . perhaps any poem I happen to be writing today originated thousands of years ago in some other first manifestation of the mind . . . perhaps nothing I write is mine or perhaps it is no more mine than it is another’s . . . perhaps it belongs equally to someone who is not yet born) than immersion within the act of making and what transpires accordingly.

The sort of immersion I think that creates art or poetry necessarily involves personal risk, which brings me around to your question, what does one risk giving up? I would answer the self, the self I already know, an identity with which I am perhaps comfortable, thoughts I was content to think, illusions of control and/or invincibility. The risk is always utter change, potentially unwanted, hazardous change, hazardous to the self that is. You may write a poem and no longer be capable of being who you were before you wrote it.

Maybe it would be helpful to give an example of what I find to be false or inauthentic art. Returning to the visual arts, I find myself often infuriated, have left museums and galleries livid, by artists who hire others to carry out their work, not because others carried out their work (perhaps I learn that later) but because the work was vapid. At the same time, I am a huge fan of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films require the participation of hundreds of people. There is a tremendous amount of collaborative work I find to be brilliant. Perhaps that’s the issue I have with much of the work of Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol . . . other people were involved but collaboration never occurred. An idea is dictated and carried out, and the lack of discovery by the various makers, both by the originator of the idea (since he or she isn’t forced to be changed by the creation process) and by those who carry out the labor (since they are not able to alter the course of the work through their own interpretive faculties as the work might demand of them) is why in the end I’m left feeling cold and generally pissed off. When I look at art, or listen to music, or read a poem, what I want above all is to connect with other people. I want to experience another’s or others’ experience. You brought up audience earlier, and I find that oddly I cannot think of audience when writing or I will risk trying to please someone rather than “acting naturally under imaginary circumstances”. . . though maybe I sometimes write to a single individual, the person with whom I feel the most intimate in the moment, but it’s never a conscious decision. Do you consider your audience as you write, and who do you believe them to be? Is audience an abstraction for you or is it something tangible? If yes you do consider this audience as you write, how are you able to avoid self-consciousness?


porschia: In my process, whether it’s before or after I’ve completed work, part of my practice is to acknowledge those who have inspired me. I can’t be inspired and thereafter say the source of inspiration is irrelevant. It’s the person’s experiences and various levels of being, i.e., the conscious and subconscious, spiritual, physical, and emotional that make and enliven the work. It is their being, experiences, and solutions to those experiences that intrigue me because in some manner their breath encourages mine or rather adds fire to my fire. There’s definitely a difference between sampling and thievery. Some artists do steal in the sense that in their making they refuse to acknowledge precedent. Without that precedent their work may or may not exist in the particular framework in which we view it. Yet, their work would exist, but its’ outpour would potentially be different. Our experience is the sight we ride to arrive at insight. For an artist or person in general to say I arrived here, at this point in life, on their own is an ironic statement because every moment-in-passing changes. And changes us. (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.)

I do agree with you that if two singers sing the same song, they each may bring an entirely different meaning. However, in that statement is the basis of my point. Acknowledgement of the essence of the gleam . . . the reasoning is in the liner notes. I will myself here, at this point, because of various occurrences in life. Some artists’ work is not their own. Some creators are really clever in the moment, but of course the liner notes always meet some eyes. If not the liner notes, then its vocal fluctuations will traverse the boarders. Yes, I do speak to my community or audience with my work. Words are a tool of transformation for me so I’m speaking with a specific audience as well as a person or myself. It’s both subconscious and conscious. I churn the makings of my own roots, knowings, and experiences before I offer it. When I write, I analyze, question, comprehend, witness, and reflect. If that is a self-conscious affect, then the impetus is to make home. Transform it. My audience is tangible. However, I never write to entertainingly please people. That would be a waste of my being and occupy too much space in my body. I’m not willing to risk myself in this manner.


Laura: Your words . . . “their being, experiences, and solutions to those experiences” have sent me flying in two directions that seem to converge in the end. Firstly, the revelation within the ambiguity of these final lines from Ted Berrigan’s poem “Red Shift” come to mind:

I am only pronouns, & I am all of them, & I didn’t ask for this

You did

I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing

will ever change

That & that’s that.

Secondly, suddenly newly resonant to me is something my father told me a few days ago, that the most popular song of the twentieth century, with regard to the number of recordings by various artists, is “Stardust.” I haven’t verified this possible fact but if it’s true, isn’t it eerie that this song that belongs to so many begins with these lines:

Sometimes I wonder why I spend

The lonely nights dreaming of a song

The melody haunts my reverie

And I am once again with you . . .

In the context of our discussion, the way I interpret these lyrics today, the “dreaming of a song” (I hear implied here “into existence,” the creative act in other words) suggests to me rather that the song or the poem already was before it was, and that it was always as much yours as mine, its “melody haunts my reverie,” that at its very essence, the song or the poem is a momentary but actual dissolution of the one who conjures it into existence, a dissolution that results in an automatic reunification with our beloveds, with our communities, a communion among all possible yous and mes, a glimpse of the universe as is etymologically implied. So long as it is being dreamed, it is the song or the poem that is, rather than the lonely self and its concerns, though our mental solitude seems necessary for the song’s dream to take root. “Stardust” was composed by Hoagy Carmichael [in 1927 with lyrics added in 1929 by Mitchell Parish], but doesn’t it belong equally to Nat King Cole and Willie Nelson and countless anonymous others, those who have contributed to the song’s meaning even by the way they listened to it?

There have always been far too many unsung heroes of culture, and these are times of unprecedented plagiarism, it’s true. Let there be liner notes! But I can also see how acknowledgement of inspiration, attribution, the concept of authorship itself, all belong to that world of separate selves, selves that the song’s, the poem’s, or the work of art’s dream proves to be illusory, at least temporarily so. It seems likely that I both do and don’t have a self; that I both do and don’t exist. While my existing self certainly doesn’t like the idea of someone else thieving my poems, the poem is nevertheless always teaching me that nothing is mine, that there is no I, but only all, one universe, one song, “love’s refrain.”

I know we have to finish this conversation, but I also know it isn’t finished. Lately, I have been reading Mary Ruefle’s new book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, and on the first page she paraphrases Paul Valéry’s saying (which she informs us “is also attributed to Stéphane Mallarmé”) that “no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.” I feel that way about this conversation; it is so far from being over; rather it feels as though it is only beginning. Hopefully, others will take it from here. It’s been a sincere pleasure to think alongside you, porschia.


porschia: I’m moved by what you said about the song belonging to the writer, the plethora of singers, and those who have listened to it. Yes!! It reminds me of how vast reflections ripple from being to being. Similar to when we smile at one person and in turn that person smiles at another and so on. It’s variations of continued response, ripples as water. What occurs above, in the waves, can be seen but the worlds below the crash are always mysteriously making. This conversation has swirled me for days. I do agree that our conversation isn’t over. It’s an amalgam of discussions we’ve had before arriving here. When others read it, perhaps, it will scion more discussion, work of art, or simply supernova because it served its purpose. The universe(s) is a continuation of herself that transforms upon her transformations. For me to be fascinatingly captured by creation, writing, and journey—this discussion validates art’s vital necessity. The essence of this conversation is that it expands our community and my spirit. This expansion is part the pulse of my work. Even sitting here breathing as I type is another level of work. Thank you for this conversation, Laura. It has challenged me, gifted laughter, and allowed space for me to dilate.


porschia l. baker is an interdisciplinary artist writing an existence in her own vision. She’s an MFA-Interdisciplinary Arts candidate at Goddard College. Baker’s poetry is included in the book CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape. Currently, she is working on completing her full-length play.

Laura Solomon was born in 1976 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her books include Bivouac, Blue and Red Things, and The Hermit. Other publications include a chapbook, Letters by which Sisters Will Know Brothers and Haiku des Pierres / Haiku of Stones by Jacques Poullaoueq, a translation from the French with Sika Fakambi. Her poetry was recently included in the anthology Poets on Painters, has appeared in magazines across North America and Europe and has been translated into ten languages. Most recently she has lived in Paris, Philadelphia, and Verona, Italy.


Behaving Naturally: A Conversation With Playwright porschia l. baker and Poet Laura Solomon

Where Beauty Lies

by Dana Wildsmith

Mama is ninety-one and a half. I believe when a woman has made it into her nineties, she has earned the right to again claim her half-years, as she once did when she was five-and-a-half or ten-and-a half. Halfway to her next birthday, Mama is on the verge of moving to a life stage every bit as edgy as first grade or middle school: she is halfway to becoming a ninety-two-year-old. On this steamy September day when I’m writing about her, Mama still drives and gardens and oversees the care and feeding of five cats and gets annoyed with politicians and stays informed enough and remains savvy enough to know when she’s right to be annoyed about politics, but like any almost-middle-schooler, Mama knows there is no guarantee that all will continue to go well when she reaches her next milepost.

At Mama’s age, things have a way of disappearing: the book she had almost finished reading, one of her morning pills, the insurance bill she put in a “safe place” so she’d be sure to pay it today, the tailless orange cat we all loved, a bit more of Mama’s high-frequency hearing, the use of her right index finger. Who’s to say that by next March she won’t have lost the ability to see well enough to drive to Publix for cat food, or to understand the political scene astutely enough to gripe about it? I live a few hundred feet away from Mama and see her every day—I would understand better than even my brother and sister in South Carolina and Arkansas might understand if Mama worried and mourned over such possible future losses.

But yesterday she blindsided me when she wistfully reflected on the winding-down of a lifetime of being “not beautiful.” I’d been sympathizing with her over her arm having almost healed from a skin-cancer procedure, only to have one of the cats catch a claw in her tissue paper skin and rip it open again. “I know it must be discouraging,” I said, shaking my head, “to know your arm will look nasty for a while longer.”

“Oh, I’ve never paid any attention to how I looked,” was her shoulder-shrugging reply. “I was never beautiful.”

Never beautiful? That auburn-haired colleen, stretched out, swim-suited on a rock in the North Carolina mountains the summer I turned five, and captured by my daddy that long-ago morning in a photo cherished by me all through my childhood as displayable proof that my mama did not look like a mother at all, but like a calendar girl—this is the same woman who was never beautiful?

During the seconds after her comment, I was too bumfuzzled by her assessment of her looks to even know how to argue against it without sounding placatory. Finally I said something about how Daddy had always called her beautiful to all and sundry within hearing, but she knew that already. And besides, judging by the ease with which she moved to discussing what to cook for dinner, she had apparently just been stating what seemed to her a demographic; she hadn’t been wheedling for reassurance.

Yes, but, (my mind carried on the line of thinking her statement had started) even after ninety-one years of living in a woman’s body, she is still carrying around the idea that we women must all be classed as beautiful, or not. Otherwise, she would not have said what she said, right?

Maybe. Or maybe I of a post-women’s lib generation am the wrong-headed one, for presuming out loud that Mama might be saddened over her skin not looking perfect, rather than simply being dismayed over the more basic realities of pain and possibility of infection. Maybe I am the one presuming all women in some deep corner of their thoughts classify themselves as beautiful, or not.

I needed to think this through. I tend to do my clearest thinking outdoors, so after I crossed the road to my house I let the dogs out and sat on my porch to watch my ugly-as-homemade-sin boxer mix, Lily, stretch herself out on the sun-warmed grass. Okay, I thought as I looked at her. For starters, I should quit telling people how “Lily is a sweetheart of a dog, but she’s no beauty.” Obviously, if she has a sweet heart, she is a beauty. Her sweet nature is the best part of who Lily is, and where our best part lies—it came to me then—there our beauty lies, also.

The battle to keep us women from classing ourselves as beautiful or not beautiful will not be won by denying beauty, but by expanding our vision of what comprises beauty. I needed to start with myself, to practice what I suddenly knew I should be preaching. I happen to have always looked on my mother as a classic Irish beauty; she does not share my view. But, I realized as I sat on my porch thinking all this through, when she said she was never beautiful, Mama had been referring only to her opinion of her skin and bones. She was not saying that she didn’t possess beauty in any form, which is why she threw her comment out as if it wasn’t terribly important. It wasn’t.

I know she knows where her truest beauty lies: when my mama sings, she is beautiful. The beauty that is inherent to music calls to the beauty inherent to her singing, even if she has never consciously thought of it in that way. All of us are happiest when we join hands with the possibility of beauty, and make it so. That’s why Mama sings.

That’s also why Lily, who must have fought ugliness every day of the year or more—she survived as a street dog before she came to us—now is a peace-maker dog. Lily’s sweet gentle nature has found a home where it can join with my old dog Max’s need for gentleness. It’s beautiful.

And so is Mama, but I won’t make a big deal about it around her.

Where Beauty Lies

In Favor of Women as Objects: Propositions

by Kate Durbin

  1. A gun.
  2. A Chanel shoe with a gun heel.
  3. If you look for an abstraction in the pure form of an idea, if you look for a method of rescuing women from their own objecthood, you will not find it in the world of dirty objects, which is really just the world.
  4. A pile of soiled panties litters Sunset Boulevard. Most people walk past, ignoring it. But one old woman in a large, black, straw hat and mourning clothes delights at the treasure she stumbles upon. She stops, she stoops, she picks through the panties, touching them with care. She sees in the panties a miracle of life. She takes the pairs she favors and stuffs them into her big, black purse. She does not seem to care that they smell and are unclean. She walks away from the pile slowly, smiling radiantly.
  5. This woman has the right attitude.
  6. The right attitude is more important than the right idea. (The right idea, in clouds and not earth, floats on past.)
  7. A lunch bag with a crudely drawn Chanel logo on it.
  8. A teenage girl’s cheek with the Chanel logo drawn on it in eyeliner.
  9. The typical definition of “objectification” connotes a kind of flattening. The thing in question, a woman, is rendered property, non-autonomous response-unit, sexual pleasure machine, stroke-dude’s-ego machine. But this view, which attempts to explain the way objects labeled women are viewed by other objects labeled men (or more precisely a system of culture that distorts and limits the vision of all), fails to embrace the reality that on the physical plain we are all objects in a world of objects to be used and enjoyed, to use and enjoy, two yous and in joy.
  10. A Chanel shoe with a light bulb heel.
  11. A Chanel shoe with a light bulb heel turned on.
  12. That historically and presently women are flattened culturally is true. That this is negative and limiting is true. Yet the subsequent discussion of how women’s humanity has been hijacked by patriarchal objectification supports binaries between “us humans” and the world of objects at large. It promotes the idea that humans are at the top of the Totem Pole, as opposed to totem: interconnectivity, atoms, miracles.
  13. That objects exist—that there is any thing where there could be no thing—is life’s miracle.
  14. A faux flower. A Fiat. A cotton candy wig. A rope. Scissors. Angel wings. A princess tiara. A pink 1950’s rotary telephone. Star tattoos. Mint green Lime Crime lipstick. Chanel No. 5. Skin. Succulents. These are objects d’ Kate Durbin, but the whole list—the treasure pile—is endless as I.
  15. Just one object on my list is endless as I.
  16. A woman can, anytime she likes, enter the world of objects, by virtue of her cultural relegation to that world. Again, when I say world of objects I mean the physical world, our world. Being object, a woman is generally closer to this world and its ornamentation, and therefore closer to death, the ultimate fate of any glittering box or bee.
  17. A woman need not consider herself other than object, but rather, instead of rescuing herself from the objecthood inscribed upon her by culture, heroically fighting ideas in the clouds, she may find freedom in the low world of things, in making love to things. Then she may laugh at anyone who thinks they can flatten her, for she knows she is not flat but multiple, trail of diamonds, mountain of dead flowers, part and parcel of all that is.
  18. Never forget that an object might transform her indefinitely. Just as any thing in the physical world might mutate, melt, morph, die and be born, crawl and then fly.
  19. If we are objects fused to other objects fused to other objects then our life goes beyond this one tiny body, this one prescribed gender, this one old sad song.
  20. Into our rococo cathedrals, overgrowth of our flesh.
  21. Into our flesh, overgrowth of our gardens.
  22. If we love our objects we will know to become our guns when the time to defend our objects has come.
  23. Or as a rose.

In Favor of Women as Objects: Propositions