Inventive Observation

by Sally Deskins

As art critic John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing that seeing and recognition come even before words, and the opposing manner in which men and women are culturally represented is vast. Representations of men and women in visual culture entice different gazes. I believe art illuminates, has the power to alter perspective, and thus society, for the better—even if it starts with one set of eyes. With this photo essay, featuring my work and the work of others, I am working in whatever small way to encourage inventive observation of the female figure and its peaceful significance to human life, perhaps beginning with motherhood.

I use quotes in my body prints from my own musings and from famous and infamous friend-artists and mother-artists, and some who have questioned my way of mothering and artistry: “Art was the only way I knew of coming to terms with the psychic shock of becoming a mother—a role that uncovered the angriest, weakest and most self-seeking, and in turn the most tender, gracious and devoted parts of myself. I knew that if I buried that creative urge in myself, it would only re-emerge in some ugly and distorted form; that it would not, in fact, make me a better mother but one full of bitterness and frustration—a recipe for martyrdom. Or, perhaps worse, turn me into a monster whose own thwarted ambitions have been transferred on to her children. Sometimes I looked at my baby and experienced his gaze as a challenge, as if he more than anyone would recognize all my terrible failings. I did not want his mother to be a woman who gave up, who didn’t strive to become all she might have been.”—Rachel Power

“Split Self,” acrylic and pencil on board; Sally Deskins, 2012

Someone once told me Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” was inappropriate to hang in my baby’s nursery. Today, children are flooded with images and stories of gender violence and female objectification. Artistic perspectives of the female that challenge such perspectives are refreshing and necessary. Life is fragile—instead of being afraid or denying this, it can save us.

 

 

 

The expressive act hurts no one, and can only do well by sharing, even if one person relates.

“Third Egg,” acrylic on board; Sally Deskins, 2012

What do you really see?

 

With my children’s craft and playful imagery, I connect with them through the literal process of expression, and its outcome. We paint and draw together freely and daily, abstract and sometimes more realistic. The artistic process then is also time for bonding. The resulting pieces are works of art we can together enjoy—the sense of conception and accomplishment, remembering fondly each stroke, each moment of creation.

Art by M.H & Sally Deskins

No matter how much we distaste it, our bodies are at root, bare objects. Underneath our layers of smiles, hairstyles, makeup and garb, we are at origin all naked humans trying to figure it out—the relation of our inside to our outside, amongst it all. Fifteenth century viewers of “Birth of Venus” are said to have had Neo-Platonist perspectives of the nude; when viewing it, they felt their minds “lifted to the realm of divine love.” When viewing Saville’s work, like “Mirror,” surreal, distorted, and new perspectives lift the female form to the celestial.

“Mirror,” Jenny Saville, 2012

Instead of turning up our heads to our bodies that we all have underneath various layers, let us look at them straight on—with inventive observation.

“POV Orange Blossom,” Wanda Ewing, 2010

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Inventive Observation

Beyond the Folkloric: Sheryl Luna in Conversation with Cynthia Cruz, Christine Granados and Carmen Giménez Smith

Sheryl Luna asked three questions of three Latina writers—Cynthia Cruz, Christine Granados and Carmen Giménez Smith—on the state of literature and the literary publishing scene for women who happen to be Latina. Their diverse answers are a testament to the fact that Latina writers cannot be pigeonholed into one monolithic simplistic category. Latinas are writing and interacting with each other all over the country, and it is exciting. Varying aesthetic approaches are also evident. Overall, Latina presence in larger literary circles has, in Luna’s opinion, often been minimal due to a tendency of the mainstream to look to men as representative of minority voices.

Another issue that helped Luna create the three questions asked is the fact that Latina writing has often in the past been tokenized with one or two writers in the contemporary American spotlight. The questions albeit brief were meant to be open questions that allowed writers to explore what it means to be writing as a Latina in contemporary American literature.

 

Sheryl Luna: How do you feel about the state of the contemporary literature scene regarding publishing opportunities for Latina poets and writers, particularly in major traditional venues such as Poetry, New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Paris Review? What if anything should be done by individual Latinas writing and/or publishing about this issue? How might our voices be heard by the larger literary communities writing today?

 

 

Cynthia Cruz:  I do think Latina poets can have their work published in some of the larger, traditional venues but it’s certainly hard. Deborah Paradez, Emmy Perez, Desiree Alvarez, and Carmen Gimenez Smith have all had poems published in Poetry, Carmen has also had her work published in the Boston Review and Carolina Ebeid has had her work published in the Kenyon Review. Ada Limon had been published in The New Yorker. The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult for anyone to have their work published in these venues. The only thing I know to do is to continue writing and continue sending out.

Early on, I realized that not having connections would make it difficult for me to have work published– but not impossible. I realized I needed to put poetry first, before everything else. My husband understands this. If the work is good enough, I do believe it will rise to the top. So our job is to work as hard as we possibly can at our craft. What happens when the poems arrive on the editor’s desk: that’s out of my control.

I think the best thing I can do to support other Latinas, aside from mentorship, is to try to publish my work in journals that will reach as many people as possible. This way other Latina writers will see that it is not impossible for someone with Cruz as a last name to have her work published in these journals.

 

Christine Granados:  I don’t think the venues you mentioned offer Latinas any opportunities for publishing, except for an occasional woman of color whose ethnicity happens to be trending in America that year. Of course, I’m angry about it. However, I temper my anger when I remind myself that people are only human.

Traditionally, those institutions mentioned have had male editors and, well, those editors tend to publish, review, and interview likeminded individuals. This means that men with similar geographical location, education level, social economic status, and cultural sensibility will get their voices heard in those venues. The editors’ circle of influence, like mine, is limited. Going outside that circle requires a diligence that is difficult to maintain on daily basis, especially if editors want to have a family and life outside of work.

Consequentially, someone like me from the heart of the Southwest, who was public school educated and attended a local university, can’t break into those platforms. First off, I’m not physically in their space at parties, at lunches, or at readings with them. Secondly, my pedigree isn’t Princeton, Yale, or, even, Iowa. It’s Texas State University and the University of Texas-El Paso. Add to that, my working-class background and I’m being elbowed out by a more politically savvy and a more fortuitously situated writer. Finally, the cultural landscape I write about is foreign to East Coast editors.

Writers who live near the equator are at an inherent disadvantage in the literary world because our formative literary studies are skewed toward European and East Coast literature. The works of celebrated authors like Thomas Gray, Graham Greene, and our beloved American, Jack Kerouac, reinforce negative views of the west and the color brown. These writers come from places filled with green and white, not brown. Is it any wonder that a person, who grew up in an oftentimes cold and rain-soaked land, would see the desert as a prison where the fragrance of a flower is wasted in the air, or, worse, where people from the desert are seen as sexually charged, exotic. Think of all the positive connotations the colors white and green have in literature. Now think of the connotations the word brown has in literature. A person can see what women of color are up against from the get go. This is happening even before writers put pen to paper. Editors from these journals, through no fault of their own, are predisposed to view the desert/Southwest as a dangerous, isolated, and foreign land filled with people from a different culture and not as Americans living in a vibrant, thriving, and loving community. These are obstacles Chicanos must overcome in the larger literary world.

In addition, we have put up our own roadblocks by folkloricizing too much of our literature and cheerleading so many of our writers rather than critiquing. To be fair, cheerleading is a national trend right now because of the precarious financial place the book industry is in during this technological revolution. However, intellectually it’s a dead end.

What I do feel good about is that there is a solution or counter-statement to those male dominated East Coast establishments through informative statistical information like “The VIDA Count” and journals like Huizache MagazinePalabra Magazine, The Acentos Review, andVandal. The information from VIDA brings to light bias in the system and these magazines, with Latina editors, are offering opportunities to the larger and unknown literary community. Visit their websites and join in the conversation.

 

Carmen Giménez Smith: So many exciting Latin@ writers are publishing widely these days, and I think that will continue to be true. In terms of how we make our voices heard, I think Latin@ artists should continue working to be larger actors in the world of publishing. I hope more Latin@s start small presses, magazines like elena minor’s palabra, Nayelly Barrio’s Ostrich Review and the Acentos Review. I’d like to see more Latin@s reviewing books, like the prolific and brilliant Rigoberto Gonzalez does.

 

Luna:  Given the current trajectory of small press publications and literary magazines and the many various styles and communities out there, how would you describe the work you are currently doing as a Latina?

 

Granados: Shrewd. I mean that glibly and seriously. It’s shrewd in that it’s not the stereotypical Mexican crossing the border or mother cooking up pots of beans that the Chicano literary canon has been seeping itself in for the past 40 years. I am hoping to write honest stories like my literary heroes–Alice Walker, Tillie Olsen, and Estela Portillo Trambley. These women, from working class homes, have written praiseworthy stories about flawed people raising families in America. Like them, I am trying to write candidly about where I come from. I love the desert Southwest and it’s painful to read and watch movies that don’t do the place justice. Oftentimes, writers take the easy road and go with the obvious, cliché, and simple when it comes to the people, place, and environment of the Southwest and Latino community.

 

Giménez Smith:  My most recent work as a poet deals with my feminism, and that identity is inextricably tied to my identity as a Latina. As a publisher, I am co-curating a book series called Akrilika, which will put out books of poetry by Latino/a authors residing in the U.S.

 

Cruz:  When I sit down to write a poem, I never know what I am going to write about. As a result, the subject matter of my poems tends to be drawn from whatever obsessions I am being haunted by when I sit down to write. Each of my books circles a different obsession. Ruin was made while grappling with the myth of childhood; The Glimmering Room was my attempt at ventriloquism as well as writing about gender, drag, poverty, war and drug abuse. When I was working on my third collection, Wunderkammer (forthcoming from Four Way Books, 2014) I was thinking about clutter, collecting, archiving and how these relate to trauma and memory. Being half German, I was, of course, thinking of German artists who have worked with these issues: Dieter Roth, Hanne Darboven, and Gerard Ricter, and I was also thinking of Sebald, Aby Warburg, and, of course, Walter Benjamin. These poems are cluttered and claustrophobic, enacting the subject. Working on my fourth book, How the End Begins (forthcoming Four Way Books, 2016) I was thinking of belief. I had been thorough a series of traumatic events, I was grieving: I was brought to a new bottom where I was hit with a new understanding of faith, a new understanding of God. Things had come full circle. Having said that all of this, I have to say, too, that subject matter is becoming less and less important to me the longer I write. I am more interested now in sound and music and in how this relays information, how the sound of a word or the sound of one word next to another word, sounds and what this/these sounds communicate. The work I am doing now is reflective of this and the poems I am making, as a result, are taking much much longer to create. I liken the work I am doing now with beadwork. I choose a beautiful bead and then try in vain to find another that will create, along with the first, the sound I am after. Again, it isn’t about conveying meaning through the meaning inherent in the word(s), its about conveying meaning through the sound of the word(s). This is taking me much much longer. In the past year, I’ve completed, maybe, four poems I am happy with.

 

Luna:  There is often a great deal of talk about building communities of Latino/a poets that is a united front against the marginalization of our voices. Organizations such as Canto Mundo are combating this situation. Do you feel Latina poets and writers in particular need to forge their own separate alliances and opportunities? In other words, is there a sense of Latino male masculinity that sometimes marginalizes Latinas by the Latino community, as well as the larger poetry and fiction communities in this country? Why or why not? How do you think Latinas can negotiate the current landscape as individuals and as a collective? What, if anything, needs to be done?

 

Cruz:  I think it is true that Latinas are marginalized in the same way I think female writers in general, in the US are marginalized. What can we do about this? I think, again, that 1) each of us can, to the extent that we can, make writing the most important thing in our lives, but also, I think we can help one another by mentoring other writers. In order to be mentored though, one has to be open; one must to be willing to accept help. Sometimes I think we’re all so scarred from our experiences, when we finally come together, we can’t let our guard down. This is imperative. We have to let our guards down. We have to be willing to be vulnerable.

 

Granados:  I can only speak to the Chicano community because I don’t know the Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Central American writing community that well. I also don’t know about Latinos marginalizing Latinas because I haven’t had that experience. Chicanos have been helpful and encouraging to me as a writer every step of the way. Overall, I have had a good experience within our literary community. The bad experience I have had is an ideological one. What does worry me and keep me up at night, is that many of our people, writers, reviewers, critics, bloggers, literature lovers, males and females, banalize our literature. What I mean is that we, as critics and scholars, are cheerleaders of any and all Chicano writing. Gone are the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s when it was exciting just to see one of us in print. Back then, it didn’t matter how cliché the topic or crudely constructed the prose or poetry was; we championed it because family backs their own. However, it’s time for us to grow up and become strong individuals. We need to call out trite and tired Chicano literature. Many of our people wrongly believe that negative feedback stifles creativity but we’re tougher than we think. We cannot expect to grow intellectually without critique. Someone once wrote that “critical analysis forces us to look at concepts because we want to improve them and in this way comfortable associations get left behind.” I couldn’t agree more. With criticism the all-knowing, nurturing, tortilla-making females and gang-banging, abusing, hard-drinking macho males in many of our stories will get rounded out or abandoned altogether for a more accurate representation of our community. We must debate these ideas, instilled in us through our Eurocentric schooling, in order to unleash the potential of our community.

I think all writers need to forge alliances and opportunities, because there are so few of us to begin with, and we’re all competing for the same readers. That said, there is an even smaller percentage of people who are into Chicano literature. The more we can help one another the better. Debate and critique are a part of the equation to help, which is where I differ from other Chicanos. When we can critique one another openly and not blacklist, blackball, or backbite those who do find weakness in a piece of writing, we will have grown intellectually and we will see a more diverse sampling of Chicano stories than what is currently in favor.

 

Giménez Smith:  Attending CantoMundo was a deeply gratifying and transformative experience for me as both a poet and as a Latina. I felt that my circle of support and connection widened significantly and I was also thrilled that I could be a resource to my colleagues. Organizations like CantoMundo, Kundiman, and Cave Canem aren’t so much separate alliances as they are occasions to connect with writers who share some common history. These groups are aesthetically polymorphous, which means poets get to hear and see the gorgeous range of contemporary poetry. The conversations about how to negotiate the challenges of being a writer of color are also invaluable, and I think they should be ongoing.

 

Sheryl Luna received the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize for Pity the Drowned Horses, which was published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2005. Her second collection, Seven, is forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press in 2013. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the Anderson Center, Ragdale and Canto Mundo.

Cynthia Cruz is the author of Ruin (Alice James Books) and The Glimmering Room (Four Way Books) and the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and a Hodder Fellowship. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review and others. She lives in Brooklyn.

Christine Granados was born and raised in El Paso. Her collection of short stories, Brides and Sinners in El Chuco, was published in 2006 by the University of Arizona Press. She has been a Spur Award finalist and winner of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award from the Macondo Foundation. Christine’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the Evergreen Review, Callaloo, NPR’s Latino USA, Texas Observer, El Andar, and others. It has been anthologized in several college textbooks and anthologies.

Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds and four poetry collections— The Devil Inside Me, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. She now teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.

 

Beyond the Folkloric: Sheryl Luna in Conversation with Cynthia Cruz, Christine Granados and Carmen Giménez Smith

The Depression Van

by Ali Liebegott

I wish someone had told me a long time ago, beware of a sliding scale that slides too low.  Then I could’ve avoided that five-dollar-ex-postal-worker-piece-of-shit therapist I had in Providence, Rhode Island. The first thing I thought when she told me she used to work at the post office was, “What did you do to get fired?”

“Why are you here today?” she asked when I came in.

“I’m depressed.”

The truth was I’d been depressed forever, but I’d become especially unraveled when I quit drinking a few months before.

She blinked a few times slowly and said, “Depressed, huh?”

But she said it in this far away voice, like she was the most depressed person in the world. For the rest of the intake she made small talk as I sat awkwardly across from her like a stranger at a bus stop. When I left her office, I had the same bad feeling I’d had when I left the offices of the thirty-three lousy sliding-scale therapists before her. Only desperation, poverty, and my ridiculous hope that people are capable of change led me back to her office the next week.

“I saw this in the paper, and it made me think of you,” she said, handing me a tiny rectangular newspaper clipping the size of a personal ad.

When I reached to take it, she pulled it back and said, “Let me read it out loud to you.”

Her taupe armchair faced my taupe armchair and I watched her giant Rhode Island frost-and-tipped hair bob up and down as she read the newspaper clipping to me.

“The Depression Van is coming to Providence, Rhode Island! It will be parked in front of 700 Hope Street from 5 PM to 9PM every Wednesday in January to provide free screenings for Depression. No appointment necessary.”

She blinked a few times quickly and then handed me the clipping.

I took it from her.

“I think this is for people who don’t know they’re depressed,” I said.

She sat silent, blinking.

I continued to break it down for her.

“The Depression Van helps people find out if they’re depressed. I already know I’m depressed,” I said, handing the clipping back to her.

The clipping hung wilted between my fingertips—a contaminated piece of trash neither of us wanted to touch.

“Well, you can keep that in case you ever need it,” she said, nodding at the clipping.

If I needed it in the future that would mean I’d forgotten I was depressed, which in turn would mean I was cured, right?

“Tell me a little bit about your depression,” she said.

This was the first normal thing she’d said since I met her. I took a deep breath and started to tell her my psychotherapy history. About three minutes in, she interrupted and began to read me random paragraphs from a self-help book in her lap. Each time I began to talk, she’d interrupt and say, “Oh, hang on a second. I read something in my book about that.”

Then she’d flip through pages aimlessly looking for a passage while I sat courteously enraged, watching the snow fall steadily out the small window behind her. I don’t know why I believed somehow she’d turn into a good therapist. My eternal patience frequently works against me.

Each week, at least twice a session, when I told her I was depressed, she asked me what I did for a living. And each week I told her I taught ESL. Like clockwork, the conversation ended there. She flipped through her book. I watched the snow. One day during her page flipping it occurred to me, if I dove out the window behind her and fell three stories to my death that would probably stop her from becoming a therapist.

During my third appointment she said, “Tell me again, what do you do for work?”

I wanted to say, “I can’t remember what you do either.” But instead I said, “I teach ESL.”

“ESL?” she asked.

“English as a Second Language.”

“Huh?” she blinked.

“I help immigrants learn English so they can get jobs and housing and—”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” she said, disgusted. “Those people always came into the post office. ‘Me no speak, English. Me no speak English.’ But they always knew how to count the money.”

I’m not sure how long I sat frozen in my taupe chair before I excused myself to the restroom. I walked down the hall past the bathrooms, into the elevator, and out into the snowy day. I began a two-mile march home. So this was five-dollar therapy. I could’ve done better driving fifteen minutes to the local dog track/casino and feeding a five-dollar bill into a psychotherapy themed slot machine called Bonkers! Get three psychotherapist couches in a row and you win. Freud, Freud, Freud! You’re rich!

Since I quit drinking, I’d picked up gambling, but we never went that far in therapy for me to tell her. My breath came out of me in angry puffs as I headed up a steep hill, and when I looked behind me, I only saw one set of footprints in the snow. And they were mine.

The Depression Van

WTF?

by Jennifer Cruté


Jennifer Cruté started writing comics in 2003. She is featured in a Current TV segment about women in comics called “Kapow! The New Comic Book Heroines.” At the East Coast Black Age of Comics convention (ECBACC), her strips were nominated for “Best Rising Star” in its Glyph Comic Awards (GCA) category. Her cartoons were featured in Bitch magazine’s 2009 winter issue. She was a finalist in Lambda Legal’s “Life Without Fair Courts” contest and was also a speaker on the “Dark As Ink” panel at Skidmore College. Jennifer is also a painter and studies at the Art Students League of New York. She continues to develop a body of work in oil and mixed media. She has shown her work at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and the Ocean Hill Arts Sanctuary, both in Brooklyn; and The Limner Gallery in Hudson, NY. She also works as a freelance illustrator, and her clients include Merck, Tanqueray, Nabisco, and Sony. www.jennifercrute.com

WTF?

Lady in the House Questions: Ali Liebegott

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR ULTIMATE JOURNEY?

In 1998 I took a road trip from Brooklyn to Idaho with my Dalmatian, Rorschach. I was really unprepared. I didn’t know how much motels cost and I didn’t have a credit card. We ended up on this three-week trip. That’s how I accidentally wrote my first book, The Beautifully Worthless. It felt like this vision quest in a way. I wasn’t expecting Idaho to be so beautiful. After that, every year on Rorschach’s birthday I would take a road trip. Another time we drove from San Diego to Caslbad Caverns. Poor Rorschach. Her birthday was May 28th. So I kept dragging her to the desert in hot seasons. The dog I have now isn’t the same kind of car traveler so we haven’t done anything as epic. But I hope to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pyramid is a place in Felicity, California, on the way to Carlsbad Caverns. It is the Official Center of the World.

HOW DO YOU ___Relax_____? HOW DO YOU ___work_____?

I have a very hard time relaxing. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it can be attributed to being a person who has often had more than one job in addition to having the mostly unpaid job as writer. In addition to teaching, I have had jobs in restaurants and grocery stores and the kinds of jobs where you have to pick up shifts and never have a regular schedule. So sometimes I’ve worked some ridiculous amount of days in a row and then when it finally comes time for a day off I don’t know how to relax. I’ll be enjoying myself, napping in the sunbeam, and then I’ll get filled with panic and feel the urge to work again. It’s horrible. It’s really a goal of mine to have at least one day off in the week where I do nothing. I used to have a practice about ten years ago that at night I would listen to a baseball game on the radio and draw. I loved this time. Drawing used to be very relaxing for me. To be honest, I wouldn’t let myself “just relax” and listen to a baseball game. Because a baseball game is three hours long. So I felt guilty just listening to baseball for three hours. So I told myself I could draw while listening to baseball. One day it is a dream of mine to hold season tickets and go to every baseball game that I have tickets for. Did I mention I had a job selling cotton candy at a baseball stadium in my early 30s. It was another way I combined work with pleasure. I thought I’d be able to watch the games and make some money. Umm, instead I trudged up and down the insane stairs of the upper deck and would crawl to the bus stop after work because my legs hurt so bad.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE SWEAR WORD AND WHEN DO YOU USE IT THE MOST?

Maybe fuck. I think I use so many swear words they don’t even register as swear words. I notice this when I’m in the classroom teaching. Or when I’m around children. I’m rarely around children so I forget you’re not supposed to say fuck.

DO YOU WORRY ABOUT THE POLITICS OF CLASSIFICATION? HOW DO YOU CLASSIFY YOURSELF?

I always used to think American lesbian writers were at the bottom of the barrel until I met this woman who was like, oh no—I used to be a lesbian modern dancer. You think you have no opportunities. I laughed. I guess it is all about perspective. A book that was really important to me was Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind—especially the chapter “The Gentrification of Our Literature.” It really spells out exactly what happens to writers when they write authentically about queer content, especially lesbians. It sucks. You follow their erasure. I classify myself as a queer writer. And I insist on writing queer content if it’s organic to the story I’m telling because sadly we’re still in that place where a tiny percentage of authentic queer content is allowed to be in the public eye. What really gets me is when agents or publishers who are in the closet or filled with shame try and get their writers to remove queer content to make their books “more marketable.” It’s so crazy. Or when straight writers act like you’re crazy for suggesting there are inequities and say, “It’s just hard for all writers right now.” Uh. Maybe. But I promise writers from marginalized communities are not being given the same opportunities. And then if you mention any kind of inequity—you’re being crazy or hysterical or angry. We do live in a racist, sexist, homophobic culture, and it makes me insane when people think that we’re post everything. That all of that is in America’s past. The great thing about having no expectations is you can just write whatever you want. It’s kind of like how I feel about the fact that I’ve had jobs since I was legally able. I know I’ll always be able to support myself and scrap.

WHAT UNTRUE THING DID YOU HAVE TO UNLEARN?

I quit drinking alcohol and taking drugs twelve and a half years ago. Nothing has changed my life more profoundly. I thought life would be very dull and boring if I wasn’t under the influence. I also thought I was a better writer and performer when in an altered state. I think a lot of that outlook was informed by the people and community I wrote with when I first moved to San Francisco. Almost everyone WAS under the influence and we all had this crazy fuck shit up attitude. It was a lot of fun. Until it wasn’t. But I remember after being sober for a few years and going to readings where the reader was totally fucked up and unintelligible or drunk—and I had this kind of awakening where I saw myself in them and that bubble burst. Instead of thinking, oh, that person’s such an amazing performer, instead I just felt like I was being held hostage in the corner of a kitchen by a drunk person. Time moves different for people when they’re fucked up. They think it’s fine to read to you for forty minutes at an open mic!!! I know I did. All this said, I was a very sloppy drunk. So there was quite a distinction in my reading style when I sobered up.

WHEN DO YOU KNOCK A WALL DOWN? WHEN DO YOU LEAVE A WALL INTACT?

In general, I’m a conflict-avoider. While there are some advantages to this it’s not always productive. I think I probably knock a wall down ten years after it needs to be knocked down. When it’s folding in on itself and all the rebar is sticking out. Then I walk up to the wall with a feather and wave it and say in a very calm voice, “I’ve had enough.”

Lady in the House Questions: Ali Liebegott

Twenty-Six Trashy Novels

by Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

In Heiwadai, Tokyo, I read nearly thirty American romance novels in just under six months. Each followed a simple formula: introduce a tragic heroine, who’s been hurt and can no longer trust. Introduce a love interest whom the heroine instantly detests. Allow the heroine’s abhorrence to falter—diluted by an undeniable attraction—until the love interest betrays her, and she regrets having warmed to him. Reveal that the betrayal was not in fact a betrayal, but a misunderstanding or rough patch. Let the love interest shudder with passion—the heroine clutch him to her breast in an incendiary confession: at last, their love is spoken.

I’d come to Japan in early spring, on an academic exchange program, to escape just such dramatic circumstances. Back in the States, I’d finally given up on a tumultuous relationship, and I couldn’t stop spotting my ex: approaching on the street, sipping coffee in a crowded café, barely sliding through a closing train door. Of course, it wasn’t him. He was on the West Coast; I, on the East. I’d blink and he’d evaporate back into a passing stranger—but the ache would stay. The ache was real. And, dishearteningly, it had followed me to Japan. So, gripped with homesickness (less for any city than for the relationship that I no longer inhabited) I ended up devouring these frayed, English-language paperbacks that someone had donated to the apartment complex’s modest library.

Initially, as I acclimated to Japan, I was unhappy. Despite the impressive cleanliness of the subway lines, everything seemed slightly tawdry. The tinted windows of Tokyo’s vending machines hid “used” schoolgirls’ panties. The elevator girls, singing out storey numbers in their hats and white gloves, smothered poor complexions under caked layers of makeup. The local video store carried Faces of Death I-IV. Two leering hentai tried to grope me while I walked home alone; a third cut a ragged circle in the back of my friend Aki’s skirt, on a crowded Yurakucho train; and a fourth whacked my only American neighbor over the head with a two-by-four, dragged her to the middle of a tidy neighborhood farm, and clumsily attempted to rape her. Month 1: I detested Japan.

Slowly, though, it dawned on me that Heiwadai was gorgeous: miles outside of Tokyo’s busy urban center, it was a mixture of city and outland. Narrow streets curved between squat buildings. At night, moist winds combed the little farms that dappled the prefecture. Hotaru clustered as the moon rose, their bioluminescence attracting both mates and prey, and morning glories nestled in veridian leaves.

My days in Tokyo proper went smoothly—I deboarded the train amongst skyscrapers, attended classes on Sophia University’s serene Yotsuya campus, trained with the swim team, dried off and headed straight to my tutoring job at the Tokyo Friends’ Club—but each night, I hurried home. I wanted to weave through Heiwadai on my bicycle; eat dinner on the roof of my apartment complex; wake up in the white light that shone through my patio door. On Saturdays, I strolled to the bakery and bought chocolate bread. On Sundays, Aki cooked fish, I folded a scratchy blanket, and we picnicked in a new place. Month 2: Japan seduced me.

There were potholes, of course—real and figurative—and unfortunately, my foot found one. I twisted my knee and had to quit swimming. At work, someone served me a rock-hard cookie that fractured my tooth, and due to an issue with my medical coverage, I was unable to have it repaired. Aki’s father fell ill, and she devoted her Sundays to him.

When I wasn’t in school or at work now, I found myself stretched across my twin mattress, knee propped up, with Anastasia and Pierce or Dawn and Lance; and when I couldn’t take another quivering kiss, I watched the entire Faces of Death series. Death, it turns out, looks the same on every face. Month 3: Japan had betrayed me.

As my knee healed, I started getting out again. I dated a Japanese slacker and an African-American Marine—each of whom, predictably, asked whether I’d been in an interracial relationship before him. “I’m biracial,” I answered. “That puts me in an interracial relationship with everyone, including my parents and myself.” I ditched them both amicably, and became distracted by never quite kissing Sharon: a gorgeous musician who taught me Maori songs and extolled the arguable virtues of Marmite versus Vegemite. When she suddenly returned to the jilted fiancé who’d been waiting patiently in New Zealand, I felt she’d given up too soon—on me, and on Japan.

But no matter: I traveled north to Hokkaido and east to Matsue. My Japanese had grown fluent, and I enjoyed interesting conversations in every city. I did touristy things, too, like sliding naked into steaming onsen, visiting Roppongi nightclubs, and touring a Shinto shrine where I caught two priests donning wigs and zooming away on BMW scooters after hours. Despite my student status, I was constantly aware of being a tourist. Months 4 and 5: looking back at Month 3, I saw that Japan had not betrayed me. Japan was fabulous; we’d just hit a rough patch.

Then, before I was ready, late summer came. It was Month 6: at last, love was spoken. Despite the tinted vending machines and hentaithe time lost to injury and longing for my mother tongue—I’d fallen hard for Japan. I’d come to grips with its contradictions and quirks, and wished I could experience the remaining two of its four distinct seasons; but I’d stayed past what I could afford. My flight was booked, my bags were packed, and my carry-ons were bloated with thoughtful gifts (books, a locket, and a Daruma doll). Still, I searched for something more to take home: something whose texture, scent and appearance would transport me instantly back to Heiwadai.

So I stole it, leaving twenty-five others behind on the shelves. And sometimes, when I want to remember the fact that anyplace can become home, or that our moods embellish everything—strangers on the train; confused, Marmite-loving musicians; our thoughts and acts; our experience; an entire country—I pull it from my desk drawer. It smells like a musty library, and dust rises from its pages, sparkling like winged hotaru. On its cover is the handsome love interest, a full moon rising beyond his chiseled form. The heroine, in an implausibly torn dress, clings to him as though to bind them eternally. Both wear wistful expressions.

Twenty-Six Trashy Novels

Fierce Commotion: A Conversation With Poets Robyn Hunt and Tania Pryputniewicz

Aren’t we lucky we get to range, roam, and hunt one another in this sun-field of longing, a culturally acceptable lifelong pursuit between women. . . .?!—Tania Pryputniewicz

HER KIND: In the essay “Chi/Ori, or, the Mother Within,” Chikwenye Ogunyemi writes: “From a literary perspective, Chi as inspiriting muse gives the writer the courage and determination to institute, identify with, or counter a discourse. Traditionally, it is the mother who teaches the child to express the self in words and to develop the tactics to cope successfully in conflict, hence the primacy I accord the Chi as mother.” Was your mother (or a mother-figure) your Chi?

 

RH: The very simple response is yes. My mother was, and remains, an empowering example of what is being here described as Chi. My mother grew from a small town preacher’s daughter to the unrelenting force that she is today. Among her life’s professions are those of government administrator and crusader for people with special needs. She divorced my father in the ’60s when I was ten. She was propelled into a new life as a single mother with three children and one thousand miles from any family supports. She quickly returned to her native New Mexico, where her parents lived, took a full-time job with the state, and, eventually, re-married. That second marriage, however, was not without snares. Through it all she maintained her strong will and spitfire individuality, going on to establish a non-profit organization that she spearheads still today.

One memory I have is that when I was perhaps 11 or 12, armed with educational flyers given to us by my mother, I traipsed through town with my little sister distributing said handbills to businesses about providing equal access for individuals in wheelchairs. To this day I can hardly look at a handicapped ramp and not think of my mother. Surely as a result, the picture that I witnessed, and subsequently, the language associated with this reality, was one of full inclusion of all persons and things. I learned that it was not necessary to distinguish between types of people on this planet and that each holds an important song inside them. My own personal song sprang forth as poetry.

Today, my mother is among my strongest advocates for promoting my voice. Poetry is not a genre for which one can anticipate a broad audience. But my mother’s weekly input by telephone or words spoken across the dinner table—we live in the same city—is always supportive and reminds me to project my very best in all things at all times. This statement just made me laugh a little to myself. Something to do with the “Golden Rule” that she taught me and that she learned from her parents before her. The cast of characters that my mother assembled around her was a disparate crew; some of them were not easy to navigate with or around. Still, in this presentation of both smart and troubled souls, I found fodder for the stories that my poetry might reveal. I found that I could talk to, and give access to all. In living this kind of an expansive life, I gain access to powerful buildings and my way into important rooms.

 

TP: Robyn, your mother sounds like a strong, resilient person. I love how you framed your discussion of her second marriage as “not without snares;” I think as daughters we watch our mothers and their predicaments so carefully, tracking the good as well as the hard, taking to heart and building on their lessons once fledged from the home and having to navigate our own loves and lives. I also love the generous way you came to see the people in her orbit (“the disparate crew”, “both smart and troubled”) and that you glean/ed inspiration from them. And how lovely that your mother so actively supports your writing life and comes into that room with you on such a regular basis. Does she write (poetry or other writings) aside from her writing in service of the special needs community?

I struggled initially with this question. My early relationship to poetry stems from my connection to my father, nighttime dreams, the piano he played for us as we fell asleep. Wordplay was king—nailing exactly the right phrase with oddity and texture. He loved (and still loves) to concoct “freeze-dried poems” (Archipelago, Rutebaga, Winnebego) and has kept alive a running dream of “An All Night Polish Bakery,” shepherded us in countless hours of artwork on the wooden kitchen table after he and my mother divorced (I was12). So he stood for all things spiritually spectacular and possible, artistically, to be made radiant with words.

But to get back to this question of Chi, in the realm of my body, the Chi I need to withstand the circumstances of my life, and thus bring this body to the table in order to write, comes directly from my mother. When she and my father got jumped in the park as newlyweds, it was my mother’s fierce commotion that scared off the thieves. When I was eight or nine and the car slid off the icy road in Illinois and we walked for miles through the near white-out back to the farmhouse, the sound of her voice anchored me, talked me past the biting pain of my toes against my boots.

The early marriage dynamic I witnessed between my parents, likely more a generational side effect than premeditated, juxtaposed my father’s brilliance as a musician against her subsidiary, lesser (according to society) intellect; for example, she didn’t get a license to drive a car until right before the divorce. As a mother myself now with three children, operating often as a single parent, I marvel at her, how she raised us three children in a remote Illinois farmhouse. We moved to California, she learned to drive, started a caning business with a girlfriend, and after so many other transactions that belong to the private story between my parents, ended up divorced from my father. To help care for our family, she started out as a janitor and worked her way through various jobs in sales until she became a successful real estate agent. I remember vacuuming the bank’s carpets, emptying out the trash in the house of money, proud of her for finding her way to solvency and independence (which she pulled off with a wicked sense of humor and spunk I had to leave home to fully appreciate).

I’m curious to hear what you have to say about your mother’s relationship to words (first paragraph) and also, has the relationship to your mother made its way into your own poetry? If so, will you quote me a few lines?

 

RH: Tania, we are meeting at a like place. I hear you evoking the same questions that I feel now raised in my body the way one taps a melon in the market to test it’s ripeness. I think the “starter question” we were given about the power we witnessed and, subsequently, may have absorbed from our mothers is not an easy one to answer. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a prize in a tiny paper envelope in a Cracker Jack box or a startling vision as viewed through a pinhole camera pointed at a rare solar eclipse. There are layers and layers—the good and the bad taken to heart, as you said. What is most poignant for me, I am thinking as I write this, is the understanding that my mother’s power may have, on the one hand, poured into me with promise, and on the other, that her power may have taken her farther from me. The end result may have been the same, however, and that is, for me at least, that even the very busy absences—of both my mother and father—formed in me a solid place in which to work. Does that make sense? In watching my mother push back against the difficulties (her second husband’s alcoholism, for example) she only came more into herself. She had to bring all her body and heart wisdom to the table. I admire her for this, but I also wonder, even forty years later, why she put herself through the daily trials.

I have written much about my mother. And yes, she is a writer as well, though her writing forms as newspaper columns and in books she has written about projects that were initiated as a result of the New Deal in the 1930s. But let me find a few lines written, as you requested, about my mother to share. The poems I have written about her, just like this current dissection we are sharing, range from tender to not so. The poem that comes to mind is a mild one, but one that is weighted in its imagery of multiple generations of women/mothers in my family, and perhaps that is the power in my mind as I write this—the way my mother has carried forward the strength of a particular lineage of which I am part. The following lines are lifted from a piece whose central “character” is a christening gown that has been worn for four generations:

 

. . . This dress smelling of cedar that my mother saved

wrapped in tissue in its yellowing box is a testament

to the mothers and fathers who came before—

Oakies and Texans on a trajectory for New Mexico and to the future

where they will deliver the mail, stitch necessary quilts, and teach . . .

 

Like your own mother’s “fierce commotion” that startled thieves in the park (what a fantastic story!), it’s the perseverance and the noise too that my mother has made through the years, even when she wasn’t perhaps making a single sound, that I respect and that I repeat. It’s also the fight maybe, for lack of a better word, that I see welling up in my 16-year-old daughter. Startling as it is to watch at times, I know that my daughter carries the anvil of righteousness that will ultimately give her tremendous fuel. She has learned this from her mother and her grandmother.

What are the good and the bad witness that you have learned? Do you still find “countless hours” for your artwork? What do you think precludes your creative indulgences?

 

TP: I love your metaphors (melon tapping, pinhole camera, eclipse). I love your epiphany here: “the understanding that my mother’s power may have, on the one hand poured into me with promise, and on the other, that her power may have taken her farther from me” and how that contradictory truth formed your own “solid” relationship to your work as a writer.

I like that way of looking at the perceived gaps in attention from one’s parents—a beautiful example of calling on one’s positive witness. I think writers, poets especially, tend to be empathically predisposed. Hungry to assign meaning to events. Unfortunately, for me I often track the unfair, the painful, the mind-rifts I witnessed my parents navigating—poverty, the borders of mental health and security—with greater weight; some of that has to do with early sexual trespasses I experienced in my pre-teen and teen years. Moving into my forties, I find I am less haunted by trespass, more drawn to the challenge of arriving at the imagery of epiphany. Shifting perspective like that takes time, and tracking it, maturity as a writer. I’m ever struggling for the wider perspective.

To be a little more fair to the poetry I currently write and its obsessions, I’m fascinated with personae poems about iconic women—I “try on” their power story, sifting through the imagined day-to-day details for some truth about the relationship between charisma, danger, and female perseverance, asking how can one be female, absolutely grounded in one’s power (sensual, strong, intelligent), and remain independent? I remember in 6th grade reading The Cinderella Complex, and My Mother/My Self, books my mother left on the back of the toilet in our house.

But I also distinctly remember being confused: ok, so I am not supposed to want a prince. I am supposed to take care of myself. But what does that look like? And then I watched my mother go through her separation from my father and land on her feet, watched myself reject (with a healthy dose of skepticism), then finally accept (gratefully, with relief, in my 30s) the structure of marriage. One thing my mother passed on to me was the conviction that I needed a focus outside of a relationship that had nothing to do with that relationship. For me, that focus has been writing.

In jostling with my 11-year-old daughter (witnessing our strings of words, the intensity of them, how mercilessly they push us through our emotional paces) I’m reeling in the testing ground of power and love, and thinking about Chi as fueled in part by desire, longing. For a bit, I was taken aback. Until I remembered. My own ferocity. Kaliedoscoping back to the earliest desire to sit lulled in the circumference of my mother’s lap. Maybe I came into this incarnation with that ferocity, maybe it has little to do with my mother and how she loved me or didn’t, maybe it has to do with my brother, born ten and a half months later, who feels often like a twin, and split her attention so early on. But what daughter ever thinks her mother’s love is enough?! Especially, a first-born daughter.

Here’s one of my favorite summations of this dilemma, from a poem in the collection, A Different Beat (edited by Richard Peabody). Poet Brigid Murnaghan wraps up “For My Mother” with the following stanza:

 

As the wise old woman said to the king

“Be your first born a girlchild

She shall know the love of men

But will search an eternity for

The love of a mother.”

 

Aren’t we lucky we get to range, roam, and hunt one another in this sun-field of longing, a culturally acceptable lifelong pursuit between women (especially between mothers and daughters)?!

Right now, I’m aware of a darker Chi (a sort of projected fear of my daughter’s longing) I’m struggling to balance as my daughter nears the age I was when I experienced two sudden events: my parents’ divorce and certain physical trespasses. I want to shepherd my daughter across this threshold with perspective, not fear at the fore. I’ve gradually channeled my own backwards reaching “mother longing” towards spirituality, such hands-on experiences of divine heat through the medium of Reiki and the lifelong pursuit of poetry where the questions matter as much, if not more, than any arrival at some final truth. But trust me, I still need my actual mother . . . nothing like her voice on the other end of the phone line during a crisis to calm the nerves. How can just the sound of a voice, a resonance, a pitch, do that?! Lovely.

One of ten children in an Irish Catholic family, my mother spent a great deal of time on her older sister’s hip. Think of the cacophony of voices in that home! For my two siblings and I to war over her love and attention seems paltry by comparison. I’m grateful for this conversation, with you Robyn, for it has caused me to stop and take stock. What will our grown girls some day decide we passed on to them? Makes me want to open my heart a touch wider to my children, when I can bear to, against the current strain we live under (my husband works in a city, an airplane’s flight from us most weeks; home on the weekends).

And no countless hours for raw creating, thanks for asking Robyn, but the few I have count. . . .I consider my three children the great focusers of my life. There’s no courting the muse anymore, I write wherever and whenever I can (outside of ballet lessons, in the parking lot, mostly in the kitchen where the laptop lives and I can simultaneously make dinner). And now with my third child finally launched in school, the challenge has been budgeting time between my own private writing and the other hats I equally adore wearing as editor, instructor, blogger, interviewer, etc.

How does your daughter experience your mother? How do you see the lineage (tender, or not) most viscerally felt, by her? By you? Are there other gifts you wish to pass to your girl, in the window of time you have left with her under your roof? Does your mother know what she gave to you? (Forgive the barrage . . . feel free to choose a few and cut others, if you wish . . . I’m just playing, making up for lost time . . . .)

 

RH: I strongly suspect that the haggard muse is reading up on tips (no doubt via a variety of blogs these days) to court us anymore, rather than the other way around. Anxious mother trying to get the attention of a distracted child. I primarily write now too when a small snippet finds its way to me and then often between tasks; generally this happens when someone says something lyrical that resonates; but sometimes it’s something ordinary that I carry around with me until it breaks free. I have a piece inside me not yet written, for example, about the image of my mother as seen from behind as I enter the house. She’s ironing. The television is on. President Kennedy has just been shot. Lately, I am sketching other poems too as portraits—the picture of a homeless man with all his belongings on his back and another of a woman whispering to her husband she has no intention of dying as she is taped to a ventilator only to succumb four days later. One of these characters is real; the other sprung whole from my imagination. It’s likely these mythic players—mythic, that is, as I craft their wings and clay feet—are derived in part from the troupe to which my mother introduced me or, in the present day, arise as a result of the permission she granted me to see the larger world. Even the world that is not always easy. And maybe she didn’t actually give me permission. Maybe I just took it and she ultimately understood, even as I talked back or skipped piano lessons, fought with my siblings, moved away when I was a teen. Maybe it was the hard in life that brought me to a creative life.

Writing is perhaps my way of stretching the “lineage” to incorporate both strangers and friends, which I learned from my mother. Maybe this is the poet’s prerogative or even her responsibility, the task of creating modern fairy tales for our children. Maybe these tales will circumvent the threat of divorce and alcoholism. Maybe the fables will create options, if only in the imaginations of our listeners, for alternative orbits. I think truly the gift I can present to my child, and that my own mother brought wearily home to me, day after evening after day, is the raw and tender mix of the real and the made up. I understand that a children’s story is best written incorporating a monster and/or a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In this way the story’s hero is allowed to eventually master and overcome the impediment, and in doing so, will find the power that she holds inside—her Chi. Hallelujah to the soundtrack you articulated, the resonance and the pitch in the very voice with which we grew up, the heartbeat of the mother, the “lull” and the “cacophony.” What an epic poem our daughters are growing into with their own “string of words, the intensity of them”—be it high-wire excitement or angry-adolescent angst. But then, they are hearing our voices as well as weary, winged mothers.

The epiphany you have written in your last post is a stunning and simple one: “For a bit, I was taken aback. Until I remembered. My own ferocity.”

One on-line dictionary gives the definition of Chi as the circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things; in traditional Chinese medicine the balance of negative and positive forms in the body is believed to be essential for good health. Whether you learned it from your mother directly, or from witnessing her life as it is now superimposed on your own, I believe that you have described Chi precisely in your recall of your parents walking “the borders of mental health and security.” We have, and continue, to learn balance. It was my mother’s presence as well as her absence that built the house I live in today. Where would I be but here if not, in large part, for her?

 

TP: Arisa, and the women of VIDA, thank you for pairing us to engage. The conversation turned into an integrative mirror (in which to appreciate what my mother gave me as well as a pause in which to consider what I wish to pass on to my daughter as a mother and a poet). Robyn, I’m breathing easier under your insights about this dual pilgrimage (grueling and rewarding by turns, both of us daughters who are mothers to daughters). I take to heart your final reminder that Chi encompasses the beautiful and the dark, how true that the pretty half alone won’t suffice: “Maybe it was the hard in life that brought [us] to a creative life.”

I’d love to see an artist’s rendering of the “haggard muse” trying to court us busy mothers, would be curious to read her fairytale. I’d subscribe to a blog titled, “The Haggard Muse.” Wouldn’t her posts vacillate between funny, gritty, angry, exhausted, and exhilarated? Here’s to “weary, winged mothers” everywhere, and “the raw and tender mix of the real and the made up” you remind us to offer up in our work.

 

Robyn Hunt once ran printing presses, assisting in the production of poetry books. Today, she lives in Santa Fe with her husband and daughter and works in social services. Her writing is found in various publications, including, Mothering Magazine, New Mexico Poetry Review, Sin Fronteras, and Written with a Spoon.

 

Recent poems by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Tania Pryputniewicz appeared at Blast Furnace, Prairie Wolf Press, and Stone Canoe. Her photo-poem montages, made with photographer Robyn Beattie, won Juror’s Best of Show at the 2012 2D3D Visual Poetry Exhibit, LH Horton Jr. Gallery, San Joaquin Delta College. Poetry sculpture and posts in support of the book she is writing for women bloggers based on her Transformative Blogging courses appear on her website: taniapryputniewicz.com.

Fierce Commotion: A Conversation With Poets Robyn Hunt and Tania Pryputniewicz