Obvious in Their Pink Plastic Wrappers: A Conversation With Writers Ebony English and Andrea S. Givens

My fear became foolishness. My desire of not seeming like a nag became my foolishness. My aggressiveness has become foolishness. —Ebony English

 

 

HER KIND: When has good sense failed you? And outside of Shakespeare, are there any wise fools?

 

 

 

Andrea S. Givens: A former boss used to frequently say, “Common sense ain’t that common.” I was in my early 20s when I worked for him, and although I was married, that was the only thing settled about me. Our office was just a couple of blocks from the federal building and, in their basement bakery, they made the best rolls—soft, warm, yeasty. I lusted after those rolls. One spring afternoon I walked with a co-worker down to the historic structure with its marble façade, and while we chatted, I put my purse on the conveyer belt and sent it through the security screener. The security guard asked me to step aside; there was something in my bag he didn’t recognize. Turns out I’d forgotten that weed and my pipe were tucked into the zippered pocket on the inside of my purse.

I’ve never kept a neat bag. The security guard removed and placed on top of the X-ray scanner: tampons, receipts, pens and pencils, a notepad, some Trident, a wide-tooth comb, two colors of nail polish, a lip gloss, and other miscellany. I was horrified, not because it was lunch time and a stream of people stared at me while they passed through security unmolested, and not because I was wearing my work badge with my company’s name and my name clearly visible, and certainly not because my co-worker kept asking me what was going on. No, I was mortified that my tampons were visible—obvious in their pink plastic wrappers—and strangers would know I had my period.

Ultimately, I was told to destroy the weed and disassemble my pipe and sent on my way. Banned from the federal building, I never got to have another roll, to savor its tender deliciousness. I did get to keep my job, which was incredible. My co-worker, who wasn’t wrapped too tight, never caught on to what was happening, and she didn’t tell anyone. I got lucky, considering my company’s zero-tolerance drug policy.

 

Ebony English: Funny as I read this, I think about how our oblivion can make us foolish. Your co-worker may have been incredibly intelligent and great in her career, but had no wit or intuition about her. Indeed, this is foolishness. Anytime we are not in line with our gut or ignore those red flags, we are voluntarily partaking in complete chaos.

Unfortunately and fortunately good sense has failed me far too often, particularly in relationships. I struggle with this dichotomy: a part of me is very assertive and bellicose while the other half of me is very much a people pleaser. There have been times when I was absolutely terrified to speak up for myself in a dating relationship. I don’t know how this happened.

I remember a time my sister and I were at a local drug store. It was the holidays and the store was packed. An agoraphobic’s nightmare: lack of available shopping carts, empty shelves, bustling aisles, and long lines. I drove my sister to the store that frigid night to pick up some extra wrapping paper and tape to finish up with a few last gifts. She barely found the items she needed when she headed onto the lengthy line. I didn’t have anything, but I stood with her. We chatted quietly as we waited our turn, when I noticed a small and frail lady appear irritated. I am not sure if she was irritated at us or the state of the store. Sighing deeply, this elderly woman shoved passed my sister, and stood directly in front of her. She cut! You never do that. We learned that in our days in primary school. My sister, who is much tenderer than I, brushed it off. “It’s the holidays,” she said. I didn’t care what it was, that old lady was going to feel my wrath. I quickly let my elder know that she was wrong for cutting the line and that if she knew what was best for her she would get back. Belligerent Ebony even got the innocent cashier into the mix. I told the worker that she better not ring this lady up because she cut my sister. That cutter was told where to go and how to get there without hesitancy. I wanted her to know how I felt. Why couldn’t I do that with men?

There are so many instances that I wasn’t my assertive and bold self. There are so many instances when there was something that truly bothered me, kept me up at night that I refused to voice to my dating partner. One time, I dated a guy for almost a year and never knew where he lived. I didn’t want to know why he never let me come over there. My fear became foolishness. My desire of not seeming like a nag became my foolishness. My aggressiveness has become foolishness.

 

ASG: Ebony, what is it about us as women, particularly as black women, that we have this issue? Of course, we don’t all have this meek interior protected by the “Oh, no, motherfucker” exterior, but many of us do. I, too, struggle with this dissonance. The innate desire to protect ourselves is a wise one: we don’t want to get hurt, emotionally or otherwise. But in that effort, we can demonstrate really poor judgment. Like how you went off on that poor old lady. Of course she shouldn’t have cut the line, but I guarantee you ended up looking like the asshole. You added a page to the “angry black woman” stereotype. (I’m not judging; I’m in that book too.) I find it incredible that, as intelligent as we are, we lose our damn minds when we think we’ve been wronged, but only when the stakes are low. How come you could go off on that little old lady but you couldn’t tell your boyfriend that not knowing where he lives is a deal breaker? Where is our courage when it matters?

 

EE: I honestly do not know. I wish I did. This exquisite foolishness we are discussing may very well be a lack of common sense. In the past, I just didn’t use it. I was raised to be strong and bold, but there needs to be balance. Currently, I am learning how to balance my assertiveness with vulnerability and tenderness.

You know, this entire conversation makes me think of a portion of the piece by Ain HD, “Fragility” where she said:

Common Sense is a fragile thing

Right between gibberish and poetry

Or pulled tight by imagination and reality

Until sense breaks

And transforms into something fatal

Like ignorance or

Intelligence or

Ugliness or

Beauty

I am certain in my case, my foolishness transformed into ignorance and ugliness. There is yet to be a time where my lack of good sense has turned into something beautiful. I have learned lessons from it, which is valuable but a far cry from beauty. How about you? Have you had this experience? Are you a wise fool? J

 

ASG: Eb, that’s a beautiful poem. For me, it speaks to that tender moment between calling forth the courage and strength to do the right thing, the wise thing, and allowing our reptilian brain—that primitive part of us—to take over, where we disintegrate into foolishness. That’s when things go sideways. But I want to go back to what you said about being raised to be strong and bold, and looking for balance. You know, somewhere between “You got me fucked up!” and being too afraid to speak our hearts and minds.

On the continuum, I think good sense lies somewhere in the middle: assertive, but not abrasive; direct, yet kind; honest, but compassionate. On the best days, these character traits are hard to practice, and honey, we know we don’t always have the best days. I wake up just below my maximum capacity for bullshit, so you can imagine how much it takes for me to move through the world in a gentle and loving way. I promise, I fail more often than I succeed.

 

EE: I agree. I believe that wisdom is having balance. You know, this is why I do not believe that there are wise fools. Wisdom is tuning into your intuition, understanding how and when to stay silent, and being able to be assertive in a tactful manner. Wisdom is a gift that every one doesn’t receive. We may have the opportunity to obtain it, but many reject it. I rejected it for years. I now understand wisdom. Always knew the denotative meaning of course, but learning how to make wise decisions has come with age for me.

As I know what wisdom means and what it looks like, I am with you in having difficulty some days navigating the world tenderly. It takes work. We have to be reflective. We also have to be forgiving. We need to forgive ourselves as well as others. This is what I believe good sense and wisdom are.

 

ASG: Ebony, when we connect with our spirits, that’s when we discover the wisdom within us. We all can make this connection, but I agree that not everybody does. We are doubters. We second-guess ourselves even when our spirits are speaking loudly to us, imploring us to listen and respond. We use our rational mind or our emotional mind, forgetting that the intersection of the rational and the emotional is the wise mind. This is where we can be reflective, where our grace and love reside. This is where we can set boundaries for the good of others and ourselves. Our wise mind gives us the strength to respond instead of react, to forgive instead of steep in resentment. For years I have said I don’t believe in forgiveness, that there are actions too egregious to forgive. I’m still there, but I’m opening myself to the idea that there is a way to commit to healing without sacrificing my need for justice.

 

Ebony English is a writer and educator based out of the Midwest. She studied at Purdue and Mercer Universities. Ebony’s work can be found on a variety of online publications. Her recent endeavors include finishing up her first book, a collection of poems and essays.

 

Andrea S. Givens is a non-fiction writer whose work somehow finds its way from soul to page despite juggling work, school, and family. She struggles with the dissonance between being ridiculously private yet requiring complete nakedness in her writing. Her work has been published in My Baby Rides the Short Bus, and Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, anthologies published in 2009 and 2012, respectively, by PM Press; Conversations Across Borders, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and others.

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Obvious in Their Pink Plastic Wrappers: A Conversation With Writers Ebony English and Andrea S. Givens

Mowing the Lawn, Thinking About God

by Anne Hays

When I was younger (middle school, high school), it was my job to mow the lawn. And this is perhaps when I started meditating, though I suppose “meditate” is not the accurate word for this: traversing the yard in steady, concentric circles, shaving down orderly slices of yard and letting my mind wander wherever it wanted—which for a few years meant I thought about god.

I did not grow up in a religious family. I can’t, in fact, recall my parents ever mentioning god at home. We went to a Presbyterian church every Sunday I think because my parents enjoyed the sense of community, and because they found the preacher kindly and articulate, a wonderful speaker. I can’t confirm his speaking ability, though, because I spent my time in the pew staring up at stained glass depictions of people rowing boats and sowing fields, and I made up stories about them. I also spent a lot of time glancing upward and curbing my thoughts. “You know I didn’t mean that, right,” is something I thought to myself often. I don’t recall anyone explicitly telling me that god found most of my thoughts wayward and inappropriate, but I arrived there somehow. I kept myself in check.

And so, when I mowed the lawn thinking about god, my thoughts formed an extended debate: what kind of god would make a hell, and are these moral outlines consistent, and why would god have an opinion on human sexuality, exactly? My own sexual desires were so muddled and burrowed down in my chest I had no idea that this last point was the most crucial one, to me. I was my own personal debate team, arguing against a societal conception of a narrow god in favor of an open-minded one. I thought a lot about the Greek myths, mowing the lawn, how amazing it is that a modern culture can say with certainty a dead religion wasn’t “real.” How could my singular god be more real than their many gods were? And then my family moved to a farm town up north where we had an even bigger yard—the extra acreage led my thoughts to: humans created their own conception of god in an attempt to rule others from the narrow vantage-point of their own minds. I hesitate to say it, but it was like a light went on in my mind when I had that thought.

I came out as a lesbian the following year, in college. That’s when it felt like I entered an explicit battlefield—Christians verses Queers—whose lines were drawn long before I arrived on the scene. The year was 1996, around the time the movie The Celluloid Closet went to video, but a few years before Ellen came out, and long before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy made it seem normal (advisable!) for straight guys to take style advice from gay men. At that point I decided it was my responsibility to live in a small town environment, not a liberal one; I thought it was my duty to go out into the hard cruel world and show straight people by example how wonderful queer folks are. I didn’t think that my life should be easy. If a queer deity had put me here on earth for a higher purpose, I was certain it was to engage with the unsuspecting unqueer “other” and open their minds by example.

I moved to Ocean City, NJ, the summer of my sophomore year, pretty shortly after I came out. I was twenty. My buzz-cut hair was growing in; it was maybe three inches long and formed a tight bob. I guess you could say I looked like a gym teacher. I wore my cords as low as possible on my hips, so it looked like my body went straight down from my armpits to my ankles, and I wore loose waffle-knit t-shirts that de-emphasized my breasts. Ocean City is a clean town and a “family town” and a Christian one. So many Christian missionaries from around the country flocked there to convert the heathens (which was exactly the opposite tactic I was taking, moving there to convert the straights). I got fired from a job because “my friend visited too often” which was crazy because my co-workers’ friends camped out there like personal groupies. Wherever I walked, boys yelled comments at me out their windows: bitch, dyke, man-hater (becoming one, thanks for the suggestion), homo, fag (Yes. So, so many people called me a fag.) along with more conversational taunts, like, “Do you want to be a man?” or, “Maybe you just need some dick to straighten you out?”

Meanwhile, the eight-year-old girl whose family lived in the apartment next to mine found me freakishly fascinating and kept up a daily debate with me over my essential gender:

Girl: You’re a boy!

Me: Do you say that to all the boys, or just to me?

Girl: I’m telling you because you’re a boy!

Me: Okay, thanks for the info.

NEXT DAY:

Girl: I know you’re not a girl! You’re a boy.

Me: How can you tell?

Girl: You have short hair! I have long hair, that’s how you can tell I’m a girl.

Me: Got it. So if I grow my hair long will I turn into a girl?

Girl: No! That’s weird!

NEXT DAY:

Girl: Why do you think you’re a girl?

Me: This could be a long story. But why don’t you tell me why you think you’re a girl?

Girl: Easy! My mom told me.

Me: Well, my mom told me I’m a girl too. I guess that makes us both girls.

Girl: No, your mom lied.

And so on.

Even well-meaning folks (well-meaning taken liberally here) mistook my gender, which I wouldn’t have minded if they were polite about it. At the post office I left my change and so the postal worker yelled louder and more urgently at my retreating figure, “Sir, sir, sir, SIR!!!” Another man in the post office ran after me and grabbed my shoulder, pulling me around like I was a wild animal on the run and shouted, “Young man why don’t you LISTEN?” It was a disorienting summer, not what I had in mind when I set out to tame the ruffians at the Jersey shore.

So by the end of the summer, when a fourteen-year-old boy took to following me for blocks, yelling a series of unmitigated insults at me from across the street, I’m ashamed to admit I lost my shit. I justlost it. I made a hard and decisive turn in his direction and bolted across the street—beelined right up to him—and whacked him in the face. It was terrible—he started bleeding. It was awful, I couldn’t stop shaking and screaming; I screamed a torrent of curses right into his bleeding face. His face turned white, and he started crying. And then I started crying: a shoulder shaking, chest-heaving kind of crying. I walked home crying and crumpled down on a chair in my kitchen weeping for about an hour after that.

I still don’t believe in god with a capital G, but more than that, I don’t believe that god dictates from above our petty human problems, or our suffering, or our casual or systemic violence. I want to tell you that my thoughts about god are a lot kinder now, softer. I want to tell you this because it feels important. That summer was the last time I lived in a small town; I prioritize my own safety and happiness over any delusions that I am here to change anything. I want to say that open-mindedness goes both ways, and that knowing your own self deeply is more righteous than teaching (or preaching) anything to someone else. When I meditate now, I don’t mow the lawn; I sit on the wooden ledge of my windowsill, which looks out onto a church parking lot (of all things), and I breathe. When I think about god now, I think in terms of my own tolerance—for others, for myself. I think about how homophobia and intolerance hardened my heart so hard that I’ve walked around with a nugget of pain in my chest for most of my adult life. There is nothing special about my hard heart. When I think about god now, I breathe deeply and let my chest open up. I think about being open, what “open” really means. I sit still and let the scribbles in my mind unravel. I pause for a long, long time before taking any action. I sit still.

I pause.

Mowing the Lawn, Thinking About God

A Conversation of Bones

by Imani Sims

“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.”—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I believe that writing is a conversation with those that guide you to your highest potential, or your highest self. Which leads me to link my writing with my spirituality. It has become a ritual of sorts, something I do every day whether I feel like it or not. I use it to process the world around me.

Natalie Goldberg talks of the fear of your own voices, those that guide, inspire, and write through you. In my mind that is a fear of your own power as creator. What a horrible thing. (Fear is instilled in women in multiple ways. There are countless societal chatterboxes telling us how to be, who we are, and how to show up in this world. Sometimes we listen to those voices, and other times we find it more beneficial to discover our own wisdom. I would argue that the more we learn to silence those voices through our own wisdom, the more we’ll discover the power of our presence on this planet.) I understand that it is something that can be terrifying: the power to create, destroy, and interpret a world.

I have always felt like a god, of sorts: convinced that I hold the power to create and use my imagination as sacred. It allowed me to escape the harsh reality of growing up poor, black, and woman in Seattle. It afforded me the opportunity to thrash about reality in color, whatever color I decided. It returned the power I so often felt was stolen from me, via the common experience of being a girl who played with Barbies and looked nothing like Barbie; via the less than common appearance of women who looked like me on television; via the pressures to appear uneducated at school, because that’s what girl’s were supposed to do.

As I matured, my understanding of this power also shifted. I began to notice a cycle of death and rebirth, directly connected to the changes in my writing and the maturation of my spiritual expression. (I do not ascribe to any particular religion, but rather experience my spirituality as it relates to the world around me and my connection to my allies and ancestors.)

Profound things to note on spiritual growth and expression:

1. Transition sucks. It is painful and necessary and sometimes hard and sometimes sweet and sometimes I want to skip the transition and land on the other riverbank without getting wet, but we all know that we have to escape the sinking ship with breaststroke movement and the hope that we do not tire once we reach fifty strokes. Transition is the current carrying us towards a new version of ourselves, necessary but sucky sometimes.

2. As I contemplate the consequences of asking, a tightness in my chest shows up. The law of attraction is: we attract what we reflect. So the work begins in ourselves. We are directly responsible for what shows up in our lives. Talk about accountability. More often than not, I use my writing as a way to begin manifesting the reality I desire or to begin processing what is happening in my life currently. My writing is a way to reinvent the now.

3. Count the steps. I count the steps forward it took for me to reach this new height, this place, this acceptance, this yes—showing up artist, black, and woman fully empowered. Small celebrations are in order. Those steps were hard when toe to earth caught up and momentum was the outcome. But as wind kicks up, the steps begin to fade and I begin to forget the lessons and my emotions swing open like wings, catch wind.

4. Flight is a funny thing. It is the reckless abandonment to invisible gusts. Some might call this insanity, you know that “oops, I didn’t mean to;” “was that your ventricle I just burst?” So often, I have found myself wanting to escape a situation, but the Universe has another plan for my life. When this happens, I find it more beneficial to surrender to the truth of my bliss (that joyful place reminding me why being an artist is important). To avoid running, I always find some way to confirm how I show up on this planet, whether that be attending an open mic or walking through a park, my acquiescence of will is necessary in order to accomplish the greater good.

5. Ask questions. What is the greater good? Who determines what is good? I never thought that I would be pondering my own self worth through four letters and sometimes the g, one o, and the d look more like l v e and sometimes it’s hard to stick with the good with the love because it just keeps pressing against my skin until I find. Find myself pitted but still fleshy like split peach succulence and juices running to waiting lips. Here I’ve found that if I swallow my own self whole, there will be no time to divide the parts, and this, this is what I was after all along.

Wholeness.

Like brass to fire or iron to iron (whichever text you’ve picked up at the time) it takes extreme conditions to shape an everlasting bond. Spirituality is something you do everyday. I create the space for my spirituality through my writing by making sure to experience writing in some way every day. That is the key to moving through tightness: do it anyway. Create even when you feel uninspired and unhinged. Create when you feel like you have nothing left to express. Create. Create. Create.

It is ritual, experience, breath, every moment. Much like my writing, I cannot escape it.

A Conversation of Bones

Writer’s Well Retreat Day 1: “As God is My Witness, I Will Never Be Silent Again”

by Norma Iris Lafé

Except for the vicarious viewing of Scarlett O’Hara’s sprawling Tara Plantation backdrop in her torrid, tempestuous love scenes with the handsome Rhett Butler in the classic movie Gone with the Wind, I never experienced the deep South. Nor had I ever personally met an African American actress of stage and Hollywood fame. But Atlanta was always on my bucket list of places to see—next to another unfulfilled wish to one day become an author. Both paths converged into one memorable writer’s journey to the Writer’s Well retreat, the summer of 2012.

It all began the day I won the Writer’s Well Literary Competition from all the way in the boonies of the rural South of Puerto Rico. An “almost America,” languishing in America’s own backyard, abandoned from neglect. As was I. Living a pitiable existence—the lonesome caregiver for my aging and dying parents, not a soul was caring about me.

Without the support of my distant and dispassionate siblings, I would, alone, endure the Herculean ordeal of caring for both ailing and bedridden parents. Under the weight of such vile indifference towards our parents, the Rock of Gibraltar of la familia fell asunder. But I was the Phoenix who rose from the ashes reborn, determined to survive, if only to tell the story and save other families from disintegration (no family unity at all). Writing became my saving grace and arbiter of my unfulfilled destiny.

If not for the call for entries passed on to me from a friend and homegirl Carole, from NYC, on the internet, I might have never heard the calling to be a writer. I entered an excerpt from my story of a Nuyorican ghetto girl (of mixed African, Indian, and Spanish blood) born to poor Puerto Rican migrant parents, who in the twilight years, journeys back to her roots to la isla del encanto.

I returned in 1999, with my aging parents and daughter. I was on a personal quest to pass on the wholesome family values and cultural traditions of the proud Boricua to my troubled California-born teenage daughter. Only to arrive in Puerto Rico to find that a modern day “real life” Sodom and Gomorrah took root, instead. A generation lost to drugs and rampant crime poses a threat to “the Puerto Rican family” as a whole.

I did what every passionate, socially-conscious writer does in remembrance of such a journey to a place unknown (Atlanta) and unforeseen (the new Puerto Rico)—freeze frame the life-changing moments in a time capsule for posterity, ponder the fate of mi gente, draw inspirational strength from Ghandi’s truth: “I must be the change I wish to see in others,” and prepare myself to break the silence, unveil certain truths.

This was no ordinary literary contest win. I entered my memoir’s prologue, “Secrets of the Yo Soy Boricua Tree.” And it was no ordinary retreat in Georgia, either. But an extraordinary tour-de-force divine intervention from the heavens up above. The retreat’s proprietor, Adilah Barnes, beamed me up to that new frontier where dreams dwell on the cusp of a new reality. She is a natural-born teacher, author of On My Own Terms, an avid reader and bibliophile, actor’s mentor, and sensitive writer’s coach. From the warm embrace and joyful reception at Atlanta Airport, to the spellbinding tour of history she presents newly arrived guests en route to the guest house, and other historic sites in the surrounding Atlanta Georgia area, I stepped into the pages of my Hunter College black history books—Black and Puerto Rican Studies was my major.

Inside my imagination, my body materialized in the Antebellum South, in the Civil Rights era, as the hero of my South Bronx idealistic youth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bone-chilling “race memories,” that you can never heal from, made me tremble. The ghosts of hatred past floated outside my car windows: “massuhs” and runaways in the Underground Railroad, scampering through thickets, amid lifeless bodies dangling, in the dense forests we passed on the freeway. I swore, then and there, to use the might of the pen and the written word to thrash injustice, inequality, intolerance, and cruelty.

My literary competition prize was a week-long retreat, which I redeemed three weeks after my 92-year-old mother released me from 5 years of being a dutiful caregiver, and I was free to go.

Ensconced in the backwoods of the quaint town of Sharpsburg, Georgia—at first feel, it was as though this holy dwelling was for me alone. A sacred place to anchor the heavy heart I hauled from my distressed Caribbean island, where my mother, six feet under in a Puerto Rican grave, rests next to her beloved, my Papi.

I was to seek a new life’s purpose now, and fine-tune my voice as a writer—orphaned but never alone. Just as serenely, a weary and forever-resolute Mami crosses those heavenly arches to, at long last, catch up with the vanilla father of her café-au-lait children on the other side (and give him hell for leaving her behind when he did, two years before)—que’n paz descansen, may they rest in peace.

I knew then, my writer’s journey was preordained. The time had come to reap the harvest from my labor of love. I was blessed to make it to Atlanta with the support of my daughter, family, and friends, and arrived just in time for my initiation into the “Village Gathering” that evening. I found myself in the blessed company of other socially-conscious, gifted actors, writers, filmmakers, painters, playwrights, producers, and poets of the African American aesthetic and diaspora, each ceremoniously dressed in white, a color of peace and love—a sign that God was in the house.

I was not a fan of all-white (a traditional requirement) but I donned the white ankle-length skirt and peasant blouse—image of la Santería priestess—capped with the signature head wrap, I never left home without. I refused to “git ma hair did” at el beauty, only to see my freshly coiffed red hair turn into brassy Brillo in tropical heat. Humid Hotlanta was no different.

No longer the party animal of back in the day, I’d matured and mellowed with age. By the time of this retreat, I didn’t need to make a beeline to the booze counter for the shot of courage to mingle in a room of strangers. Reserved, internally, but on the outside, a gregarious chatterbox after a few.

Adilah did not touch the stuff and ran a smoke-free house (and kindly didn’t mind me smoking in the outdoors). I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even left my woman cave in Puerto Rico to attend a party. Writing was my drug of choice. I’d become as reclusive as a Tibetan monk, only a computer laptop to inspire and keep company. Lord knows (though men proved anathema) solitude is not my natural state!

I hungered for community, missed the soul food of my Christ-filled black sistahs and bruthas in the States, and the time and space to inform them, and anyone else who cared to listen, about the social ills ravaging our proud and noble Puerto Rico. (A lovely actress in dreads said I reminded her of Angela Davis.)

I began the process of self-healing (no grief counselor and no sleep-inducing or mind-numbing drugs) by immortalizing the memory of my parents in my book. Thanks to the Writer’s Well, as God is my witness, I will never be silent again.

Next in the series: Writer’s Well Retreat Day 2: “The Woman in the Mirror”

Writer’s Well Retreat Day 1: “As God is My Witness, I Will Never Be Silent Again”

Take No Suga Honey Iced Tea: A Conversation with Poets JP Howard, Anastacia Tolbert, and Qiana Towns

“Over the years I’ve taken the things I’ve learned from these women and thrown their lessons and stories into a cauldron.” —Qiana Towns

“Like God is in the kitchen frying potatoes in a purple Mu Mu!!!” —Anastacia Tolbert

“I realize now that in my family my Mama Pearl was the original and true ‘Chi’ presence whose strength and warmness still live on through my mom and I.”—JP Howard

HER KIND: In the essay “Chi/Ori, or, the Mother Within,” Chiwenye 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?

 

JP Howard: In retrospect, I believe that my mother was definitely my “Chi.” She was and still is (though elderly now) a strong African American matriarch. Growing up as a child in Harlem, my mother had this larger than life persona because she was literally a Diva, having been a fairly well known African American model in Harlem and throughout New York, before my birth. I think for me there was often a bit of searching for the Chi in my mother because of her strong personality and presence. We are both also Leo’s so there were these two strong female personalities learning to co-exist in the world. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes a downright challenge! My mother, who had me well past forty, learned for probably the first time in her life that she had to “share the stage” so to speak. So we had to work through those growing bumps together as mother and daughter. However, with time, and because I was an only child and she was a single mother, I grew to realize that it was my mother who gave me the courage to find my voice, learn to speak up for myself, and to break out of my extreme shyness.

My mother loved language and words and encouraged me to spend time at our local Hamilton Grange public library in Harlem exploring the Black Poets section. I recall early on at church functions and family gatherings how my mama would encourage me to recite Margaret Walker’s poem, “For My People.” I LOVED that poem and I could see the love and admiration my mom had for me when alla the church folks complimented us after I would recite it. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but I remember loving the power of those words and the reaction they incited in folks in the room. My mother had spent years on runways loving that attention, but when I found those poems and fell in love with Nikki Giovanni, Margaret Walker, June Jordan, Langston Hughes and experimented reciting their words out loud, I knew that I too wanted to write and have a chance one day to stand on a stage and share my own words with others. It was my mama, who gave me the courage to find my voice. I was extremely shy as a child, so having this outlet to read and sometimes recite poetry, helped to build my confidence. Ladies, who would you identify in your lives as your Chi or “mother/nurturing” spirit? I know for many of my friends it is not necessarily their mother that serves that powerful, necessary role but another female spirit in their lives.

 

Qiana Towns: JP, your mom was a model? I didn’t know, but I can definitely see her ripping the runway. I have too many Chis and not enough time to talk about them all. Of course, my mother was the first to encourage me to express myself. She was a stage actress and I reaped the benefits of it. I was constantly surrounded by artists of all kinds: singers, painters, actors. Everybody. My mother had me reciting Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son,” when I was three! But by the time I was eight years old, my mother had passed away and my sister and I were sent to live with my maternal grandmother, Jean Johnson. Grandma Jean had been a gospel singer, a bartender, a cook, a housewife, a maid . . . she’d done everything. She became my hero in 1985 when she returned to school and graduated with her high school diploma some 20 years after dropping out. She was larger than life. So was my Aunt Selene (my grandmother’s middle child). These women were loud and bold and brave and I watched them give racist people the business and let a black person or two have it! Store clerks, passing motorists, neighbors. No one was immune. When I was a teenager my grandmother even got into a fistfight with our next-door neighbor. She beat the brakes off the lady for being disrespectful to her children and grandchildren. Jean Johnson didn’t play around. She wasn’t about putting on heirs or anything like that. She let things be the way they were.

And for many years I was the same way. I was known to fight a bit and I never held my tongue. Anastacia and Juliet, I know you two will probably say I still don’t! But I’m calmer now and there are two other women who helped temper me: my paternal grandmother, Ernestine Towns, and my stepmother, Carol. These two were very different. Grandma Towns, who I referred to as Lady, was a very soft-spoken woman. She was slow to anger, but very firm. She wasn’t a confrontational person. Not one bit. Now, my stepmother wasn’t as calm, but . . . I feel like she provided me with the options and gave me the choice. She certainly didn’t back down from anyone, but her response varied depending on the situation. Carol wanted me to know what was out there. She’d give me books to read and talk to me about the real, real world. Nothing was ever off limits. That helped me because it gave me the opportunity to view the world through different lenses. Carol helped me realize that not everyone in the world was out to get me; she helped train me to spot the people who may have been. She taught me to protect myself. Over the years I’ve taken the things I’ve learned from these women and thrown their lessons and stories into a cauldron. Guess I’m a mishmash of all of that!

 

JPH: Wow Q! I learned a lot about you just now. I can see how alla those fabulous women role models helped to make you the fierce sista that you are today. You are a beautiful mishmash girl. Yes I think Anastacia and I would totally agree that you still don’t EVER hold your tongue and I love that quality about you. Don’t ever change. I love learning about those strong matriarchs in your family. Growing up, my family was very small. I was the third “only child” in three successive generations on my maternal side. Though a small crew, my family was made up of these incredibly strong sistas who consisted of my maternal grandmother, who everybody in Harlem called Mama Pearl and my mama, Ruth, the Diva.

Q, hearing the stories about your grandmother reminded me of both my mom and grandma and their fierceness. My grandmother was a domestic worker who cleaned, cooked, and cared for white folks and their children. She worked well into her 70s and passed away almost six years ago just days before her 99th birthday! She was barely five feet tall, but she didn’t take no sh*t from nobody! Like you Q, she was brutally honest, but also like you and like Anastacia, she had this real nurturing and supportive side as well.

As a child, I lived with both my mom and grandmom in Sugar Hill, Harlem, who both raised and nurtured me. I remember the sacrifices my Mama Pearl made for both my mom and I. During the week she “lived in” with the white families who she worked for on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and on weekends she came home to my mom and me to our small Sugar Hill apartment. I’ve finally begun to write about those memories as a way to honor my grandmom. She would come home to us and cook these ridiculously delicious meals from scratch every Sunday, fried chicken, string beans with hamhocks, rice smothered with gravy and sautéed onions, drop biscuits, peach cobbler, and the sweetest ice tea! She fed us both literally and spiritually.

My grandma had traveled up North from Haines City, Florida, a tiny little town not far from Orlando where she had essentially been “kicked out” by the church folk because she had my mother at sixteen, out of wedlock and had no support from her little community. The crazy thing about that is she had been the victim of sexual assault from a respected church deacon and instead of receiving support from folks in her community they judged her instead. Her own mother had passed away when she was only five, so from what I understand she had no “Chi” or maternal role model to support her during that difficult period. My grandmom was an intuitively smart woman, though she only had a sixth grade education. She told me how she travelled up North to New York by herself at the age of seventeen, with my mom in tow, to find a better life for them away from “gossiping folks.” How deep is that, when I think about it! She was just a child herself, didn’t really “know” anyone up North, but she knew there would be greater opportunities ahead. She found extended relatives, because in African American families we all have “aunts, uncles, and cousins who may not be related to us by blood but who help get us through tough times.” So this extended family cared for my mom in New Rochelle, a suburb of NY, while my grandmom headed to New York City to work as a domestic; and each weekend she would travel to New Rochelle to pick my mom up and bring her back home to her apartment in Harlem.

I’m sure she was exhausted from working in white folks homes all week long, but she made that trek every weekend out of devotion to my mom. She made clear that her goal was for my mom to get an excellent education and graduate high school, where she attended a public school that was primarily white. And my mom did exactly that! When I think back to your original question Arisa, I realize now that in my family my Mama Pearl was the original and true “Chi” presence whose strength and warmness still live on through my mom and I. Outside of my mom, my grandma was my biggest advocate and hooped and hollered with each degree that I received from high school to college and law school. I know she would have also jumped for joy had she lived to see me get my recent MFA degree. Sometimes when I’m going through my own struggles in life, I think about my Mama Pearl and all of the obstacles she confronted and knocked down every day of her life and her strong “Chi” essence really helps to propel me forward. Especially as it relates to my own two sons and mothering and nurturing. I think to myself, “If Mama Pearl could do it, then so can I!”

 

Anastacia Tolbert: When I think about my “Chi,” I definitely think of my own mother whom I affectionately call Umi. Immediately following I think about my grandmother, my aunts, and immediately following that weirdly enough to some, I think of Mother Earth. Like you Q, and you Juliet, I come from a strong stock of women. They are the “take-no-suga-honey-iced-tea” kind of women; the nurturing protective women, the sassy classy women, the Divas and the Hippies. When I think about it all, I feel incredibly blessed to have all these women in my life/heart and circle. I also think of my close friends woven into my “Chi.”

I was born in 1972 and the only child for eleven years. During that time with my mother I learned about being an artsy woman and being a free woman. My mother was a staunch advocate for the written word and reading. When other children wanted games, Barbies, and Slinkies, I wanted books of my own. I was in love with the library but I remember wanting MY OWN books. My mother allowed this book junky behavior and I am so glad. I remember looking at my bookshelf with such pride and talking my mother’s ear off about the books I was reading as if the characters were real. She took the time to engage me in this and ask me deep questions about these “people” and their lives.

My mother was and still what we call a “pistol!” She wasn’t/isn’t one to be meek and mild. I didn’t get that tendency per se (perhaps it’s latent and will spring up now that I am 40) but I remember thinking to myself that I love the way she stands up for herself and me. My other set the foundation for all things artsy. I remember waking up to her either painting, in a purple leotard in the downward dog position, playing old school jazz, or mesmerized by a book. She also laid the foundation for my connection to Mother Earth. I practically grew up in Kansas City’s Loose Park. We went on countless walks together. She taught me the gift of “collecting.” We collected everything from acorns to fireflies. She instilled in me a sense of respect for the earth. We were guilty of being tree-huggers and walking barefoot in the grass. She wasn’t the Diva in the sense that your mother was Juliet or actress like yours Q, but there was like a natural Diva-ness if that makes sense. She strutted in sandals and yoga gear.

My grandmother Osceola was Cherokee Native American and lost her mother at seven. She had no clue how to mother properly having had no role models, but she rocked it out with four children. I remember thinking of my Grandmother kind of like God. Like God is in the kitchen frying potatoes in a purple Mu Mu!!! She taught me about the importance of putting your foot in the food. About bringing the family together through the stomach. My Grandmother’s home was almost always busy. Relatives coming or going and the kitchen always the center of attention. You would of thought I was part of the kitchen fixture as much as I followed her around. She was the one who got me hooked on coffee! In her cabinet I had a small special coffee cup and saucer. She’d put a tiny, tiny bit of coffee in it, fill it up with milk, and I would add so much sugar! It wasn’t exactly the coffee that I fell in love with at that age it was the way she sort of put her heart in the fixing of the coffee.

She was a wonderful gardener too. I remember wanting a big gardening hat and gloves just like her. She explained to me the difference between this plant and that plant and was always very pleased with her tomatoes. Again, I connected her green thumb to God attributes. I thought, Wow! She can presto grow a dinner with those hands, from that earth, in that hat!

It’s really interesting to read about your mothers and grandmothers. In our homegirlship I never sat down and thought about WHERE we’ve come from. How our past stitches have woven us into the women we are today. My life has suddenly hit a whirlwind and now, more than ever I also think of my friend to strengthen my “Chi.” I have always been the queen of “Chi,” the nurturer, protector, healer—I am learning in my adult life that “Chi” and the need for it can reshape, transform and the ebb and flow of needing it doesn’t end with age.

 

JPH:  Anastacia I so agree with your statement that “in our adult life that “Chi” and our need for it can reshape, transform and the ebb and flow of needing it doesn’t end with age.” I find that to be true in my own life. Especially since I’m an only child and my mom is elderly now, there’s been a tremendous amount of role reversal with me often assuming the caretaking role as it relates to my mom; I find that I’m often drawn to friends who can be sistagurlfriends, yet who also nurture and support me in life’s challenges. I think certainly in our sistagurlship, Q and Anastacia, that we each offer those varied roles, always a listening ear, (or in our case a “text” since we are all miles away, yet I feel our friendship has grown over the years) an honesty that remains constant, the ability to make each other crack up but also to always provide a safe and nurturing space where it is OK to cry and be sad or angry as hell and just vent!

Anastacia it was great to learn about your Umi, a natural Divasista. I can see in your being, how you carry yourself in this world, how your mama’s “Chi” has greatly influenced and shaped you into the beautiful and natural sista that you are today. I feel the same about you Q, your strong matriarchs have shaped you into this dynamic and beautifully honest woman. I love how the “Chi” figures in all three of our lives encouraged the arts, from Q reading Langston Hughes’ poetry at the age of three to Anastacia’s mom allowing her to be a “book junky” from a young age to my own mama letting me explore my own love affair with the Black Poets section in the local library.

I have embraced the role of “Chi” as “nurturer” in my own life as I’ve matured. Since I co-founded a literary Salon within the last year, I find that it gives me great pleasure and fulfillment: to help introduce new and emerging writers to resources that they may not have been knowledgeable about previously and to be a sounding board to young sistas who are beginning to find their own literary voice. “Chi” to me represents the caretaker and caregiver in each of us, and I feel that those dual needs to be nurtured as well as to nurture, often ebb and flow. Since the three of us are mothers, I think we often get used to caretaking and always “being there” for our children, but as I’ve “grown up” I also realized that we have to be our own “Chi” source as well. The bottom line is if we don’t nurture ourselves, then it may not happen! I’m learning that it’s OK to take time to nurture myself, because if I feel nurtured and more balanced in my daily life, then that makes me a better mother/partner/person in this crazy world. (And to nurture ourselves can manifest itself in the simplest ways: time alone in a café to write, a long walk in nature just “being” with self or something more extravagant, like a Spa Day.) But I will admit that’s not always an easy task and not something that society makes easy either, because of expectations folks often have of us as “mothers” or “Chi” nurturers.

 

QT: Question for the two of you: What do you think your children would say about you as “Chi” of their world? How do you think they perceive you?

 

JPH: I think their answers would probably be very different, in part because of their age differences and their very different personalities. Jordan is 15 and Nicholas is 8. Both my boys are AWESOME if I say so myself. Lol! Jordan is a strong Leo personality, like you Q! He is this incredibly intelligent, musically inclined and ridiculously independent teenager who is extremely focused. I admire those qualities and sometimes joke to my friends: “If this brotha didn’t need his moms to pay bills, feed him, and provide a roof over his head, what purpose would we serve?” Lol! Because of his amazing ability to advocate for himself, complete his goals and tasks without me having to nudge him, I don’t think I’m the absolute “Chi” of his world. He has a lot of “Chi” qualities of his own: he nurtures his baby brother and has a quiet confidence about him. Because he is so independent, I’ve noticed that when he needs me to nurture him, he’ll reach out to me for life advice or whatever’s on his teenage mind, but I don’t think he necessarily seeks out my “Chi” energy in the same ways that Nicholas does. Nicholas, who is extremely inquisitive and a great artist with a fabulous sense of humor, would definitely say that I’m the “Chi” of his world. He’s constantly giving out sweet kisses and hugs and definitely enjoys and seeks the nurturing aspect of my personality. Sometimes he will just sit with me quietly and cuddle and let me bask in just being a mommy. I definitely cherish that sweet time together because I know in a few more years I won’t have that mushiness. Just as the need for “Chi” in our own lives can ebb and flow, ladies, I find the same with my two boys. There are times when Jordan needs his own space to grow and find himself as an African American young male in this complicated world and my partner and I try our best to give that to him, but I’m confident that he also knows that he can come to either one of us, when he needs that extra nurturing. As he matures and evolves over time, so does my role as mother.

My sons have two “Chi” forces in their lives since they have two moms, so I’ve learned over the years to share my role as nurturer with my partner, Norma. My ability to share my “Chi” energy with her has been liberating. She is the stricter, no-nonsense kind of mama who would do absolutely anything to protect our children, so it’s a pretty awesome experience to co-parent two children and share that “maternal/Chi” energy. Ultimately I think both my boys do perceive me as a “caregiver,” since I’m the mom who cooks primarily and provides that “literal” sustenance.  I’m sure they also perceive me as the more laid back of their two moms, based on my generally calm and laid back personality. Ultimately, I manifest my “Chi” by encouraging them in their passions, allowing them both space to grow and explore, yet at the end of the day, always providing a safe and welcoming environment to be themselves. Q: I’m interested in hearing how your “Chi” manifests itself with your two girls? Do you think it manifests itself differently since you are raising two daughters as opposed to Anastacia and I who are raising two sons?

 

AT: Funny story, when I was a little girl I asked God for boys. I had gone through trauma as a girl and was trying to process the relationship/lack of relationship I had with my father and in a furry of pre-teen angst said, “If I ever have any babies I hope they are boys so I can raise the kind of men I think should be on the earth.” And so it was! The Most High have me two boys. And I must say, Juliet, like your Jordan and Nicholas, my Brandin and Joshua are completely different. My “Chi” relationship with them is also different. Brandin is very logical, super self-confident, list-y, slow to show his emotions. Joshua is a dreamer of some sorts, free spirit, bubble map-er. They both are extremely creative and excellent writers. I think, they think I am a perfect balance of whatever the “ideal” woman is, although we have talked extensively about the media’s take on womanhood and what that means and doesn’t mean, as well as cultural stereotypes, etc. I believe from their point of view that they have seen me cry at commercials, lose my mind over babies, cook gourmet meals, and then turn around and hold it down during one of their fathers deployments, change the oil in the car, counsel someone through death or a hard time, bring the family together, and pick up a caterpillar. From their point of view, they can’t place me in a box and I like it that way. I know they believe I am supportive and will always be around no matter what, and at the same time they would say I expect A LOT from the both of them.

The children are extremely fortunate because both their father and I worked hard at helping them nurture their own “Chi,” with themselves, with each other and with the world. Unfortunately, this concept of giving brown boys “Chi” isn’t as popular as giving girls “Chi” training at a young age. Having been a young mother at a time when none of my peers had children, I worried everyday about how my boys perceived me. I suppose with time, age, and watching them morph from babies to young men, I don’t have those same worries anymore. Q, like Juliet, I am curious to hear your perspective with having two girls.

 

QT: Baby Stace, I’d asked God for boys, too. No luck; I ended up with two girls who were born nearly eight years apart. They aren’t so different from one another. My Sam was a toddler when I entered graduate school. She watched me work full time in Lansing, MI, attend classes full-time in Mt Pleasant, MI, and live full-time in Flint, MI. Years later I was on the same schedule as I finished up the MFA in Bowling Green, Ohio. I commuted from Flint to Ohio, sometimes up to four days a week. I hope she learned that every dream is attainable, and that there are no excuses for not finishing what she starts. I hope she learned that life is hard, but it offers some great rewards. Sam has her own mind and no matter the punishment, if she’s made up her mind to do something, she’ll do it. She loves everybody. (Except Selena Gomez. I’m working on that.) She has this appreciation for the arts that blows my mind. She wants to read my poetry and she loves visiting the Flint Institute of Arts. She’s enrolled in drama classes and told me just yesterday that she wants to play violin (I played flute for a number of years). The kid is becoming a clone of her mother and I love it!

My baby girl, Gizmo Glitterfox, is not very different from Sam. She loves people, she’s extremely polite, she’s well-spoken for a three year old, ya know? I’m a music lover and her dad’s a musician so she LOVES her music. If I have to listen to that Kidz Bop CD once more. . .

I like to think they see me as an artsy-fartsy, hardworking, strong woman. I like to think they’ve learned from me the importance of building up other women. I like to think they’ve learned from me the importance of education and good grammar. But maybe they’ve just learned to laugh hard and often. That’s OK, too.

 

JPH: Ladies, I think all six of our children are fierce! Lol! I suppose it is true our children are often a reflection of us, but also I can tell that we all also enjoy celebrating their differences as well. Anastacia, your Brandin reminds me so much of my Jordan, incredibly logical, extremely focused, very “list-y,” as you say, and extremely self confident, as well as an awesome self-advocate. I love those qualities and know they will serve our sons well as they evolve from young teenagers into grown men in this world.

We want our brown boys and brown girls to be able to fend and advocate for themselves, even if the “Chi” figures in their lives are there, by their side, constantly ready to advocate for them. As a mom, I guess I feel there’s no greater gift to give children than the confidence to stand up and advocate for themselves. I definitely learned that from my mom and pray that all of our children hone that important skill. I think a lot of the lessons our children have learned really come just from observing us in our daily lives. I think all three of us, ladies, have nurtured and educated them by example.

I returned to school a few years back, in the evenings, in order to pursue my passion— “creative writing and poetry.” I continued to work full time during the day, co-parented Nicholas, who was a toddler during part of that time, while working towards my MFA in creative writing in the evenings and I began to put tons of  energy and time into my poetry passion. I’m proud that I’ve accomplished these goals at this point in my life and that my children get to observe what it is that makes their mom “tick.” My partner has also returned to school to get another advanced degree, so I think it’s great for our sons to see that no matter what age we are, education is important and can also be really interesting! It doesn’t have to be a chore, is the lesson we’ve taught by example.

I think both your girls learn so much, Q, just from watching you do all the amazing things that you’ve done: work on your degrees, work full time, and nurture them. Anastacia you are an awesome mom, often balancing work, raising your boys when their father has been deployed, and holding down the fort. All those tasks ain’t no joke! Ladies, I think I’ve learned in this conversation that our individual “Chi” serves many purposes: to nurture ourselves, to nurture our families and our friends and also be able to reach out and ask for help and nurturing from others, when we desperately need that “Chi” force in our own lives to guide and protect us. Thank y’all both for often being that “Chi” force for me.

 

JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is a poet, Cave Canem graduate fellow, member of The Hot Poets Collective and native New Yorker. She co-founded Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon and Blog (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. WWBPS hosts monthly literary Salons in NY and the blog accepts submissions of poetry. JP was a Lambda Literary Foundation 2012 and 2011 Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow, as well as a Cave Canem 2011 Fellow in Residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was a 2009-2010 finalist in the poetry category by the Lesbian Writer’s Fund of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.  She was also the recipient of a Soul Mountain Retreat writing residency in 2010. Her  poems have been published or are forthcoming in: The Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias iPad Companion, The Mom Egg 2013 & 2012,  “Of Fire, Of Iron”, “B” an Anthology, Talking Writing, Muzzle Magazine, Muzzle’s 2011 “Best of the First Year” Print Issue, Connotation Press, Brown Girl Love, an online writing project for women of color, TORCH, Queer Convention: A Chapbook of Fierce, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008-2009, Cave Canem XI 2007 Anthology, Promethean Literary Journal, The Portable Lower East Side (Queer City) and Poetry in Performance. She was awarded an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York in 2009, holds a BA from Barnard College as well as a JD from Brooklyn Law School. She lives with her partner and their two sons in New York. womenwritersinbloompoetrysalon.blogspot.com

 

Anastacia Tolbert work is a trellis of twilight, ultramarine ache and lowercase loam. She is a writer, Cave Canem Fellow, Hedgebrook Alumna, EDGE Professional Writers Graduate, VONA alum, creative writing workshop facilitator, documentarian and playwright.  She is writer, co-director, and co-producer of GOTBREAST? Documentary (2007): a documentary about the views of women regarding breast and body image. Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have been published in: WomenArts QuarterlySpecter MagazineCrab Creek ReviewEveryday Other ThingsTheblackbottom.comWomen Writers in Bloom, Saltwater Quarterly, The Poetry Breakfast, Things Lost, Midnight Tea Book, Reverie, Alehouse Journal, Women. Period., The Drunken BoatTorch, and many more. anastaciatolbert.com

 

Qiana Towns earned a MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a MA from Central Michigan University where she served as poetry editor for the online literary journal Temenos. Her work has appeared in Tidal Basin, Milk Money, and NotellMotel. She is a Cave Canem fellow and Assistant Editor for Willow Books and Reverie: Midwest African American Literature.

Take No Suga Honey Iced Tea: A Conversation with Poets JP Howard, Anastacia Tolbert, and Qiana Towns

Postcards to the Body Politic

by Margo Berdeshevsky

Listen toPostcards To The Body Politic_by Margo Berdeshevsky

i

But there’s more. First, I cannot write dear. I cannot call you dear. I am too deeply, deeply  — and I have never believed in. Before. But now so much less. No. So much less. Dear illusion of dear. Dear I-could-not-write. You will not mind. You do not love.

Dear body. Dear if-my-right-hand. Dear how can you love only your own soul? Dear why would you feed only one eye? Not the hand. Not the belly. How can you love the head, not skin, not the water?

You make me cry. You make me sadder than women, sadder than men, even sadder than your —No. You, and your guns. Do you even love your hands? Can you love your mind? Body dangerous. I try to call you dear. Enraged at your arms, enraged at your desire, enraged at your eyes. If I am too angry to love you — what, what will we do?

ii

If a body meet a body. Where the body of the state falls. Or, because what not-to-be-trusted gods— refuse to fall.    …twirling on the horse, blowing kissesindefinitely into the grey future, and if this entertainment were to continue. Body politic: How can I trust you? Fall. Because, I say: blind. Because the vulture can. Because the words of my mouth. Because if my hand offend me. Because if my diseased or broken—   needs no teaching.    All night, only the fallen wind.    A  breeze that needs no visa. A country to not belong to. Because I want — not to die. Because—us— or not at all. You make me cry.

iii

Just ahead of sleep. Soul to child-flesh on her sheet—like that frighten-me drop from—  as if by falling—  to reach the world. If the body meet a body. Teach me blood, and water. Every shell.   Nested voices, I say, kicking open. Torn, from too much believing—  cut out my swelling tongue. If I torture. If my right hand offend. Or my left. If my peace-cell be broken—  let me be no human. Heartbeat. And skeleton. Please. Please. Teach me.

iv

If some child of an un-ended time—    is also my “I.” If some deviate boy of an evil-flower-mind. If savage-souled, and peace-broken.   Blowing kisses—Whip-cracking boss twirling on the horse—  Tireless spectators by a merciless—  A tottering mount in front of—  Round and round the ring on—  If some frail consumptive equestrienne were— 1   Some god, I say: If no such country. If ashamed. If I choose to belong to none. Because the wind needs no passport. Wants none. Some god, I say: Don’t you know an old or a new tongue? Can’t you teach me a country that cannot lie? Bruised lips—un-sewn: what nest of voices sings in its shell in the groaning birch between thorn trees?

v

To be  saying—  if you do not love me I shall not be loved
   if I do not love you I shall not love. 2   To be the left-hand cupped with “please” or belly, or spleen, or hope-hungry jealous of all the good I’m not  —stopped.  Just ahead of sleep, to child-flesh on her sheet—  like that frighten-me drop from soul  as if by falling—  to reach the world and body     Or

With so much need. With such desire.

1 Franz Kafka/ In The Gallery
2
Samuel Beckett/ Cascando

Postcards to the Body Politic

Lady in the House Questions: Imani Sims

1. Do you pray?

Prayer is communion with the ancestors. It is conversation with the divine. For my birthday last year, I tattooed a double gong hanging from an OM symbol so that I would always have access to the divine. Essentially, every time I speak, walk, bend, move about in this world, I am in conversation with the ancestors.

So, yes, I pray. I find that prayer is a great way to commune, without the whole bloody mess of human sacrifice in a chalice and a wafer like bread product that is to resemble the body of a man. Prayer offers sacrifice of syllable, shakes the dust from rounded sounds of gratitude, and opens the portal for wisdom: a twelve course meal digested in parts.

Sometimes prayer comes out like poem, crusted in line breaks and sloughing off like flake topped biscuit:

There are times when conversation
gnaws at tissue wrapped acid

It is well.

in an effort to arrest
joy’s soft shimmer magnificence.

 It, is well.

no conversation is too large
to grow through like sequoia root to branch.

 It is wEll.

She is the soft lens mirror
cradling the stitched together pieces

Itiswell.

in her hands I unfold safely
perfumed blossom of plump brilliance

           It          is well.

sweet abandon to tender palm–
love adorned eyes.

               It is              well.

May we find the chuckle
of fourth center deep joy.

       We are well.

May liberation spread wings against
our ribs: a pulling toward adventure.

       We are well.

May the purist nectar spring from
lips to baptize with cherished intent.

      We are well.

 

2. What is the truest thing you know?

We are one drop into a pond.

standing on the shore of Lake Washington,
I tossed a silver dollar sized
rock into the depths.

It sank.

I breathe long enough
to desire the sunken.

deep dive to uncover depth of character
sometimes
I need to sink.
let my arms fall to wayside,
stop creating current.

ride the ripple
because one human being can only make
so many flailing motions to float,
yield to ocean.
know change.

I am one drop into tide
and breathe long enough
to ride the ripple.

the only reason
I feel my own impact
is because I collide
head first into the ripples
next to me, hoping
that they feel my push,
and for once don’t feel alone.

rock into the depth
of each wave created by sinking,
the extend and curve of energy
swelling to surround and implement impact.

Current creating stop,
the halt of progress
when each ripple has reached limit,
I call it the dying,
last blink of purpose.
Know change consists
of the next stone thrown,
new purpose.

I am one drop into tide
and breathe long enough
to ride the ripple.

the only reason
I feel my own impact
is because I collide
head first into the ripples
next to me, hoping
that they feel my push,
and for once don’t feel alone.

Sometimes knowing that we are not alone is the only knowledge we need. We are the held. The cradled. So much lineage behind and before us, it is a wonder we ever stay in the moment.

 

3. Are you superstitious?

Definition of SUPERSTITION

1

a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation

—–Ignorance is a matter of perception. It is the thing that, if left undiagnosed, will eat away at your soul, tearing your power to shreds, (3) layers deep.

—–Is fear not almost always the culprit? Leather-gloved grip ‘round throat, silencing what would be magic from throat.

—–Magic only surfaces when you believe in it. (Unless you happen to be of witch root voodoo moon ancestry…in that case…you have no choice.)

—–Conception? Isn’t that how some established their religion? Funny.

b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition

—–If I am irrational for staring into still and conjuring littered past, inevitable future, and the current state of your -ness, let it be so. There are far worse things than being irrational.

2

: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary

—–If we do not examine what is contrary, how then do we discover the truth?

 

4. What is your spirit animal? When do you find you embody it the most?

To Grandmother Grizzly:

Open paw like lifeline telling, guardian
sometimes ferocious, often fur lined cushion
for those of like mind.

To the fairies who come on butterfly wings:

Wing-ed thing, short-lived beauty,
lasting impact, gentle flutter
against the forest of mind,
chase the light.

 

5. What is sacred to you? What is taboo? 

“Keep your feet tightly together like a woman who knows decency.”—Malidoma Patrice Some, Of Water and the Spirit

Ruth: holy.
Jezebel: holy.
Ester: holy.
Bathsheba: holy.
Mary Magdalene: holy.
Brown gyrlz: holy.
Queer gyrlz: holy.
Gyrlz who identify as bois: holy.
Cunt: holy.
Pussy: holy.
Snatch: holy.
Every cracked lip tween thighs sticky: holy.

I

Have never been the definition of a lady.

But who wants to be decent, lady submissive,
Stitched voice to patriarchal palm,
Shut up you stupid bitch, I’m watching football,
Ass slapped to get my breakfast type shit—

This is not my definition of Womyn.

We are not built to simply bare foot bear children
And raise them in silence to be good
Little citizens, but rather we train them
For revolution slit throats with syllable
And magic manifests the epitome of love.

To be Womyn, creator,
Goddess in water womb perfect,
We
are the divined galaxy against curve of body,
Healer when others are weak,
Total medicine woman wisdom tucked
Compassion in our whisper and strength
In our song.

It is hard to consider the sacred without the taboo. Both walk the line of definition like a tight rope, hoping someone’s opinion won’t be the breeze that plummets them—no safety net—to death. Each keeps the other in balance, a partnership.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Imani Sims