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HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

Sheryl Luna: What were some of the reasons the CantoMundo founders had for starting the organization? Does the banning of books by Chicano/a authors in Arizona affect CantoMundo’s goals and purpose in any way?

 

 

Norma E. Cantú: The reasons we felt that CM needed to exist are many: some are selfish (at least for me) as they speak to our individual need to come together with like-minded poets where we can speak our languages and do our work without being judged or silenced. In broader terms, we felt that it was high time that a Cave Canem kind of organization exist for Latina/o poets. Macondo is great, but it is not JUST poets; it includes other genres–fiction, essay, and even drama. The banning of our books in Arizona affects all of us who write.

 

Celeste Guzman Mendoza: The primary reason that I decided to become a co-founder was because I believed, and still believe, that Latino writers need a space where they can convene and be 100% themselves as writers and as gente, a space where they and their writing, no matter the style, could be accepted and supported unconditionally. I strongly believe that when we as writers have this center, this support, we create much stronger work, both in terms of its own emotional core and craft. The banning of books in Arizona only reaffirms why communities like CantoMundo are so important.

 

Deborah Paredez: I was invited by Pablo, Norma, Carmen, and Celeste after they had had a series of encounters wherein they wondered aloud, “Where is the Latina/o Cave Canem or Kundiman?” I answered the call because I believe that ideas of aesthetics and “professional success” are invariably racialized and gendered and that by creating this space for Latina/o poets, we could collectively identify and intervene in the prevailing (and troubling) assumptions that often undergird these issues in the poetry world.  I also was thrilled by the idea of being part of a community made up of the diverse array of Latina/o poets with whom I could learn so much and have some of the necessary hard conversations that can’t always be had in “mixed” company.

Luna: How do you feel CantoMundo can help Latina poets in particular, now and in the future?

Mendoza: Think I answered this in my reasoning for becoming a co-founder. I think I’ll add that when we feel supported we begin to feel more confident in our work and voice. We submit our writings to more contests, we enter our work into anthologies, we go out and look for opportunities…ultimately, the strength of the group helps us challenge ourselves. It is not the same for everyone but I do feel that for many of us it challenges us to improve every aspect of our “game” so to speak. We bring it in a way that is much stronger after we are in one another’s orbit.

Paredez: I think the particular challenges that female poets face in this historical moment (as opposed to even 25 years ago when I was just beginning my “adult” life as a poet) is the pervasive and insidious notion that we should be past or “post” any number of important aesthetic, generic, or theoretical categories: post-feminist, post-confessional, post-sincerity, post-race, post-narrative, post-language…post-nauseum.  This sort of teleological thinking is especially detrimental to women of color who are simultaneously (and systematically) excluded from publication venues or taxonomies of aesthetic value while being told that race/gender/etc. has nothing to do with the terms of their exclusion because we are all so over that.  CM provides a space to name this beast and encourages Latina poets to gather together to fashion the weapons to slay it.  We also insist on a feminist mode of engagement at our workshops: everyone is accountable and respectful and encouraged to examine the implications of the power dynamics in which we may be invested. Not a safe space—that is too facile—but a place of productive risk.  We are lucky that our co-founders include Norma Cantú and Carmen Tafolla who were instrumental participants in  Latina writers’ efforts as part of the second wave feminist movements.  This living historical memory insists we keep our eye on the long view rather than being distracted for too long by the mirage of post- anything except maybe the post office or the particular struggles a post-partum poet might face.

Cantú: CantoMundo can help Latina poets in three specific ways: 1.  networking so that the Latina poet doesn’t feel all alone—knowing that there are others out there supporting and believing in your work can be transformative. 2.  Offering a place to try out new work, to expose oneself to the scrutiny of other poets who will tell it like it is, who will be kind, but most of all will be HONEST about your work. And 3. By providing a space where we can leave our families and our daily demands behind and come and just be a POET.  In the future, I think CM can also grow and become an oasis for Latina poets who may be in a desert out there where there are no other Latinas writing—mostly here I am speaking of those of us in academia who may end up in geographical and cultural isolation.

Luna: What has CantoMundo already done to foster its mission?

Mendoza: I believe that the community of poets who have come and shared themselves and their work are benefitting greatly from one another in various ways, whether it is simply finding like-minded writers or being challenged to write differently, or helping one another get reading gigs, etc. I also feel that when we participate in the workshops themselves we delve deep and write from an emotional center that is very strong and shows in the work.

Cantú : The most important thing CM has done to foster its mission is to exist! Given the dire financial straits of the arts and arts organizations, we have been very lucky to have the funding from UT Austin to make the summer workshops happen. So, the workshops are number one—that is how most of our mission our goals are met.  I also think that having the readings and inviting major figures in Latino/a poetry as faculty and as readers has also been a fulfillment of our mission.

Paredez: Because we started out as a collective of founders, we are accustomed to the (often fraught) process of collaboration.  Each year, we’ve taken seriously the valuable feedback from our fellows and faculty to improve our ability to create an emotionally nurturing and creatively challenging space for Latina/o poets.  We work closely with our fiscal sponsors, The Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, to endeavor every year to keep costs down for fellows and to share with them the resources an institution like the university can provide. We are also really proud of the ways the fellows have taken ownership of CantoMundo by curating regional CantoMundo readings and events beyond the workshop space.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of CantoMundo?

Cantú: My own vision for CM focuses on a pivotal point: growth and maturity. As the organization continues to grow and mature, CM will become as well-known as Cave Canem or Kundiman. At five years old, we are probably still at the childhood level. We are not yet teenagers, but we have the energy and vision of youth. As CM ages, it will come into its own by developing the goals we have for the next 5, 10, and 20 years including publishing books, awarding prizes, and holding academic conferences on the subject of Latina/o poetry.

Mendoza: I envision CantoMundo continuing to be a space for Latina/o poets to convene and create community however we see fit at that time. My primary goal is for us to perfect as best we can the workshop experience. If we do other things like a publication or some other offshoot that will be exciting and new but our core is the workshop and supporting the fellows’ in their work.

Paredez: I envision CM taking part in cultivating a larger trend of Latina/o poets mentoring one another (imagine!) as more and more Latina/o poets achieve professional success and standing both within and beyond the traditional spaces within the poetry world.  Other goals and dreams include sponsoring a book prize and residencies and innovative outreach programming with Latina/o communities who’ve not yet had the opportunity to imagine themselves as poets.

 

Luna: What are some of the ways being a CantoMundo fellow has helped you as a poet?

Gloria Amescua: My poetic world exploded—in a good way, of course. I worked for years in isolation and then in small groups. CantoMundo unlocked countless doors for myself and others. I have grown from the supportive environment and the wonderful workshops led by invited poets and fellows.  Not having gone through a formal creative writing program, I was unaware of the many blogs, writing residencies, conferences and many other resources available for writers. The postings in CantoMundo Charla and elsewhere are extremely valuable. Fellows in this network share leads to amazing poems, books, interviews, and poetry readings. As a result, I’m tuned in to the changing literary world. I am in constant learning mode, trying out different styles, subjects, and forms as I access the diverse poetry of my CantoMundo fellows and those poets they admire. More than ever, I am motivated to write, send out work for publication, enter contests and be involved in various networks of poets. The organization encourages lively interactive discussions about Latin@ poetics, which I value highly. CantoMundo really has been transformational. I treasure the intellectual stimulation of this community of learned people and their willingness to share from their abundance. One vital aspect is being able to experience the poetry of CantoMundo fellows. The diversity and honesty of their poetry has pushed me to dig even deeper and to challenge myself. My writing has definitely improved as a result, and I am working on my first manuscript.  I feel that I am in the midst of an intellectual, artistic and literary revolution in poetry. CantoMundo has definitely been the experience of a lifetime.

ire’ne lara silva: CantoMundo helped me to remember that I am a poet and that I would always be one–even if several years of writing prose had made me start to believe that there was very little poetry left in me. It introduced me to writers I have long admired–as Fellows and as Faculty–and to new poets that have changed how I see the work of making poems, how we approach language, and how we weave our histories and identities into our work. CantoMundo made me part of a loving and supportive community and created a space for lasting friendships and artistic collaborations.

Luna: How do you feel about CantoMundo’s fostering of Latina poets?

Amescua: Since I became a fellow in CantoMundo, my circle of supportive Latina poets has expanded exponentially from the local community. I am so honored to be part of a national network, which includes incredible Latina poets. I communicate through email or Facebook with several Latina poets and have reviewed their poems and/or manuscripts, and they have given me feedback as well. I discovered Hedgebrook’s Writing Residency for women through Amalia Leticia Ortiz, whom I met during the inaugural workshop. She not only encouraged and helped me with my application, but several other CantoMundo poets have also applied and been accepted as a result. This is just one example of support for one another. We promote each other’s works, interviews and readings. I was motivated to organize a Southwest Regional CantoMundo Poetry Reading for the community in San Antonio, Texas. We have had several regional readings across the U.S. in 2012-2013.  As I’m sure many others do, I share many of the ideas and information I get from CantoMundo. I especially do that with Mujeres Morenas, my local writing group of Latinas. CantoMundo and its network expands beyond the fellows, which is especially helpful to Latina poets. I’m thrilled with my fellow CantoMundistas for their publications and their awards. I can see the tremendous output of my fellow Latinas and am encouraged by their success, not only for myself but also for other Latina writers.

silva:  I think that the very structure of CantoMundo lends itself to women poets. Beginning with the four-day schedule (Thursday evening-Sunday morning) which is more likely to allow women with children, other caregiving responsibilities, multiple jobs, or with fewer economic resources to participate. The organizational emphasis on respectful exchange, ‘checking in one’s ego,’ giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak as well the community’s acceptance of personal stories, emotional openness, and speaking in varying registers (from academic to performative to familial) makes a space for women to speak ‘from the heart’ and without having to downplay their wisdom or intellect.

It’s interesting to me to see how CM’s insistence on gender parity also works to support Latina poets. For one, it introduces us to male poets that we might not ever have met as part of a life-changing, art-affirming, close-knit communal experience. As poets living our individual lives, what keeps us persistently writing and continually developing are the networks we create. The more multi-faceted and unique they are, the better. And the bonds built during CantoMundo– at the retreat and year-round–are indispensable, whether between women, between men, or between women and men.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of this organization?

silva: In my vision, CantoMundo is still growing and developing decades from now–bringing Latin@ poets together and creating opportunities for connection and dialogue. I wish for CantoMundo all of the things that will provide more publishing and networking opportunities for its Fellows: CM book publication prizes, grants, and a literary review; a website that promotes CM poets; and cross-country readings and reunions for current and graduated Fellows.

Amescua: The founders of CantoMundo had a magnificent vision for this organization, and they have seen their vision embodied in the five years since its founding through their hard work. They have devoted time, energy and love to support and serve Latin@ poets. The promise of CantoMundo as a community will multiply as more fellows graduate. I envision an increased network of CantoMundo fellows who continue to promote the work of Latin@s and are increasingly recognized for their poetry.  I would like to see an increased web presence, more opportunities for instruction and publications by our organization—anthologies, single works, or media versions of readings. This past year we had several regional readings, and I can see these expanding and evolving into more than just readings, perhaps involving workshops for local communities, so that the learning doesn’t just stay within the CantoMundo circle. CantoMundo is an amazing force. I feel fortunate to be a part of the outreach to the community, where we are all planting seeds beyond the CantoMundo fields. The harvest: Latin@ poets empowering themselves and each other

 

CantoMundo Founders

Norma E. Cantú currently serves as Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri in Kansas City; she is Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her PhD in English from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and has taught at Texas A&M International University, the University of California, Santa Barbara,  and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

As editor of a book series, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo: Borderlands Culture and Tradition, at Texas A&M University Press, and Literatures of the Americas at Palgrave  she promotes the publication of research on borderlands culture. Author of the award-winning Canícula Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and co-editor of Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change (2002),Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001) and Dancing Across Borders: Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos (2009) and of Inside the Latin@ Experience: A Latin@ Studies Reader (2010) and El Mundo Zurdo: Selected Works from the Meetings of the Society for the  Study of Gloria Anzaldúa 2007 & 2009 (2010),  she is currently working on a novel tentatively titled: Champú, or Hair Matters/Champú: Asuntos de pelos, and an ethnography of the Matachines de la Santa Cruz, a religious dance drama from Laredo, Texas. She is founder and Director of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa and co-founder of the group of Latina/o poets, CantoMundo as well as a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collection, This Side of Skin (2002) and the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Mandorla, Palabra, Poet Lore and elsewhere. Her honors include an Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Paredez is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latina/o poets, and she is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin where she teaches in the New Writers School MFA program.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a Macondista, Hedgebrook resident, and co-founder of CantoMundo, a master writer’s workshop for Latina/o poets. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various anthologies published by Penguin, Calaca Press, Eakin Press and Wings Press. Her first, full-length poetry manuscript, Beneath the Halo, is due out in Spring 2013 by Wings Press. Her chapbook, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesia Tejana Prize in 1999. A performer and playwright, Mendoza’s plays have been produced in Austin and San Antonio. She is at work on a second poetry manuscript, and lives in Austin with her husband and three cats.

 

CantoMundo Fellows

Gloria Amescua is an inaugural member of CantoMundo, a national Latino poetry community. Gloria has been published in a variety of journals, including several di-verse-city anthologies, Kweli Journal, Generations Literary Journal, Texas Poetry Calendar, Acentos Review, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Pilgrimage. A workshop presenter for youth and adults, Gloria is an alumna of Hedgebrook’s Writers-in-Residence program. She recently won first place in both the Austin International Poetry Festival Contest and the Austin Poetry Society Award.

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, and is the author of two chapbooks:  ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Her first collection of short stories, flesh to bone, will be published by Aunt Lute Press in 2013. ire’ne is the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow.  She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

No Crying in The Barbershop: A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar and Zayne Turner

HER KIND: Why do we care so much about our hair?

 

 

 

Lisa Russ Spaar: I wonder if our being mammals has something to do with why hair—which can seem weirdly both animal and plant—is so primally charged, across time, place, and culture, with all sorts of projection and symbolism.

Hair (or lack of it) is associated with virility and strength (think Sampson and Delilah, think premature baldness, think Brangelina’s “heroic,” Byronesque tresses), sexuality and modesty (consider the marriage or religious veil, all those hirsute or shaved torsos, no-shave November, the popularity of French waxing or the full Brazilian, the so-called Holy Whores—Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt—whose hair grew to cover them), freedom (“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair. / Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen. / Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer / here baby, there, Momma, everywhere, Daddy, Daddy, Hair!”), personal expression (the mullet, the Mohawk, the faux hawk, My Little Pony hair dyes, dreads, the Van Dyke, the soul patch, Pippi braids), transgression (the bearded lady, fetishism, scalping, Medusa), sacrifice (think tonsure, think voodoo), mythology (Rapunzel, Godiva, Beauty and the Beast, all those apocryphal urban myths about ticks and handguns and mice hiding for weeks in beehive up-dos), illness (chemo hair loss, the lanugo of anorexia), aging (nose hairs!  The uni-brow), memento (a lover or baby’s hair braided into jewelry pieces, pressed into lockets, clipped and tied with a ribbon), humor and derision (wigs, clown tufts, toupees, comb-overs, plugs), and rites of passage (a baby’s first hair-cut, the growing of payot), not to mention the burgeoning commercial industry (salons, treatments, products, cures) that has grown up around it. Hair, like fingernails, can apparently grow after death, and survive in graves and on mummies for centuries. The potent, the rogue, the surprising, the transformative: this is also the stuff of poetry.

So no wonder hair holds a particular place in the poetic imagination. I’m not just talking about all those hair haiku websites. I’m thinking about Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” Sherman Alexie’s “Good Hair,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” Kiki Petrosino’s “Afro,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” Sappho (“But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair”), Debra Nystrom’s “The Haircut,” Robin Behn’s “My Hair.” And of Rumi (“I’m tangled, like the curls of my love’s hair”) and of Cate Marvin’s “Why I am Afraid of Turning the Page” (“Spokes, spooks:  your tinsel hair weaves the wheel / that streams through my dreams of battle.  Another / apocalypse, and your weird blondeness cycling in / and out of the march’ &c).

What do you think, Zayne? Hair. Poetry. Poetic Hair. Hair Poetry. A tautology?

 

Zayne Turner: When I first read the question, I thought: how do I care about hair? I cut my own hair—because I’d rather buy other things, not because I’m particularly good at it—and my mother’s repeated advice about hair is, “Once you walk away from the mirror, your hair becomes everybody else’s problem.” But you remind me, Lisa, of all the years I did care, very much, about the visibility of my hair. Curled, straight. Brown, blonde, red, or not. How much I just wanted my hair to not betray any sign of difference–style as invisibility, protection.

And now, your question of a tautology between Hair + Poetry make me think of style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access. Personally, I find that my desire to style myself into invisibility has waned—both in terms of my hair & my poetry. So I find myself reading & writing more in the liminal areas. But then I find myself thinking of hairy questions like: at what intervals do erudition, intellection, formal/procedural necessity become so tangled they become more about the spectacle of the mass, the physics of the impossible snarl? And if so, does that matter? Or what if someone decides to take a snarl & slather it in tonic? If we make snarls shiny, but do not undo the tangle, do we just make our knots able to be skimmed over, combed through? What of those who decide to keep everything in a ‘manageable’ style or length, where nothing can possibly tangle? And what of bun fillers, wigs, weave, extensions, Bumpits? Chewing gum or glue? What if the tangle is the result of materials & objects not entirely consisting of our own keratins?

Swinging back to a more closely literal orbit of poetry, I’m thinking of the conversation between Barbara Hennings & Harryette Mullen in Looking Up Harryette Mullen, how the politics of accessibility or aesthetic choice intersect with literacies, economic opp/ortunity/ression, gender, race, our aggregate identities. The brouhaha over the Penguin Anthology & subsequent reviews. Amy King’s “Poetry & the Beastly Po-Biz” (which gives us an allusion & flirtation with another hairy tale–), taking on conceptions/receptions/productions of group identity in poems, by poems, around poems. I’m thinking of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, and the ‘divide’ between page and stage in poetry communities. When is a trick (repetition or volume, perhaps) a stunt, when is it a device. A choice. A tool.

The near invisibility of visual and concrete poetries in all of these discussions. How even an adventuresome press like Siglio would like us to “Please note that we do not publish poetry.” Does poetry somehow not exist in the world of visual-literary hybrids? Or just The Last VisPo? The towers that be, that divide.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel. Let down your hair. Let loose. Loose women. Lack of moral fiber. Split ends. Now we’re in a tangle. A hairy problem. Pepón Osorio’s “En la barbaria no se llora.”

 

LRS:  No crying in the barbershop, indeed, Zayne. Clearly, it’s hard to think about any aspect of hair and hair culture that isn’t psychically italicized.

Your mentioning of the Osorio and of sites like The Last VisPo makes me think of other poet/artists who foreground hair as subject or material, or who privilege sheer process itself in their work. There are so many of them, but right now I’m recalling those hair-like red threads and flosses in Jen Bervin’s series on Dickinson’s fascicle scorings and variants, for instance (incidentally, Dickinson herself seems to have been obsessed with hair—not only her own auburn tresses, which had not dimmed by the time of her death, but hair in general, referring to the word itself some 27 times in her lyrics), and of course the temporal beatitude of your own luminous hybrid work, which evokes, by turns, meridian cross-hair grids and the ephemeral fletchings of border spaces.  Cindy Sherman’s perverse and haunting photo collage spread of the Grimm Brothers’ Fitcher’s Bird toys with the “humanimal” excrescences like feathers and fur.

Surely there is a language of hair. As Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde:  On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, “The language of the self would be stripped of one of its richest resources without hair:  and like language, or the faculty of laughter, or the use of tools, the dressing of hair in itself constitutes a mark of the human.” Just as our “callings” are signaled by our “hairy signs”—a military crew-cut, a skater boy’s flaxen mane, a butch girl’s crop, an athlete’s pony tail—Warner writes that “on the one hand, hair is both the sign of the animal in the human, and all that means in terms of our tradition of associating the beast with the bestial, nature and the natural with the inferior and reprehensible aspects of humanity; on the other hand, hair is also the least fleshly production of the flesh . . . [and] seems to transcend the mortal condition, to be in full possession of the principle of vitality itself,” connecting it with magic, relic, loss.

What happens to our hair reflects our helical dance with the mortal coil.  Zayne, do you know Stephen Cushman’s three-line poem “Story of my Life”?  It goes:

Light hair.

Dark hair.

Light hair.

And how we arrange, ignore, or style our hair (Warner mentions Joan of Arc’s fatal boy cut, Frieda Kahlo’s angry self-shearing in the wake of Diego Rivera’s departure) can help reduce (or exalt) us to our essential selves, allow us to express gender ambivalence, sexuality, anger—or permit us to be other than we are (Harryette Mullen in “Quality of Life”: “Tina Turner set fire to her wigs so she could wear all that burnt hair.”)

And so I’m especially intrigued by the related matter you raise about “style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access.” In his booty call poem “The Ecstasy,” John Donne writes that our bodies “are ours, though they are not wee.” Hmmm. But when he goes on to say that our bodies are our books, he may be on to something related to these issues.  In fact, I think your questions probing the interaction of “product” (conditioner, sea salt spray, dye, straightener, what have you) or embellishment (beads, dreds, extensions) (and here, in poetic terms, I’m thinking of elaborate syntax, recherché diction, cross-outs, collage, &c) and, for lack of a better word, a poem’s essential message or matrix, its “own keratins,” as you say, are at the heart of what’s at stake in thinking about poetic “style.” When does texture, gesture evince or reveal something essential, occult, and signature, and when does it lapse into or fail to deepened into anything more than mere surface glitter, dross, smoke and mirrors?

 

ZT: That is the question—or, at least, is something that concerns me quite a bit. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a craft talk by Dara Wier at work recently, and she asked all of us if there was some thing, some quality or event, etc. that only happened in poetry. That we couldn’t get in any other genre/medium. And my immediate reaction was a deep and sudden sense of discomfort. I think that’s one of the quickest ways to make a room of writers suddenly a wild and— depending upon who’s facilitating/speaking— divisive place. (And I appreciate that, in that context, the question was more about what we each got from poetry, more than what poetry is.)

I hate it— and I think many others do, too— when talk of craft or aesthetics devolves into statements about who is/could/should ‘be’ in poetry or art or whatever, and who isn’t or shouldn’t be. But also I think there’s something at stake with these kinds of conversations— especially/even just on the level of the individual practitioner/reader/entity. How we each define revelation or surface gloss or genius or careerist posturing crap for ourselves  says more about each of us than about the work. (Which is something I first heard from Brian Reed at UW Bothell’s fantastic Convergence on Poetics.)

And I think that it’s dangerous to go about without knowledge of self. On a micro to macro scale, with various kinds of ‘dangerous’ consequences for various arenas. Halliburton, George Zimmerman, NSA. Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus. Egg on my face, my fly undone.

One could argue that knowledge of self is really what’s at the heart of the VIDA Count.

I’m thinking now of Paradise Lost, how Eve is described as turning away from the outside world (aka Paradise) “with unexperienced thought,” and preferring her own reflection, the “answering looks/Of sympathie and love” she finds there.

 

LRS:  I love your turning toward Eve here, Zayne, in the context of your meditation on the difference between what we get from and what is, and especially in relation to “knowledge of self.”  Hair is revelatory of female agency and selfhood in Paradise Lost, I think; here’s a familiar passage describing Eve’s hair from Book IV:

Shee as a veil down to the slender waist

Her unadorned golden tresses wore

Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d

As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d

Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,

And by her yielded, by him best reciev’d,

Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,

And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (4.304-311)

In John Milton:  Language, Gender, Power, Catherine Belsey calls Eve’s hair in this passage “both a glory and a snare.”  Leaving aside whatever Milton’s own conflicted feelings may have been about the paradoxes of Eve’s nature, I’ve always responded to the electric balance between the language of traditionally “modest [female] pride” (“veil,” “unadorned,” “ringlets,” “gentle sway”) and the language of wild and “wanton” (archaic meaning:  “ungovernable”) naturalness (“dishevell’d . . . / As the Vine curls her tendrils”).  Rather than finding in this description a woman who coyly seems to be one thing but who is also already guilty of a fatal susceptibility and inevitable lapse, I read instead, in that barely pent, “sweet reluctant amorous delay,” a signal of volition, an ownership of desire.

And speaking of ownership and desire, could Cher and her new blonde tresses be a kind of low (or high)-end parallel to my discussion of Eve?

In Milton, though, Eve’s hair manifests the multitudes she contains, and is at the heart of her mystery and her power.  She is her own answering look.

 

ZT: Mmmm. Yes. I love the reading of Eve via her (vexed!) hair. Paradise Lost is one of my favorites—not just because of the textures/language, but also all the complex characters and Milton’s own thorny logics.

And—after a quick nod to the platinum connection, which is hilarious—Cher is absolutely an example of being multiple & full of volition. The Cher connection also makes me think of survival—of pulling yourself up & through this post-lapsarian (a phrase you definitely mine for all its worth, Lisa!) world by your wigs and Bob Mackie originals.

Also, speaking of amazing things on the internets, have you seen this, Lisa?

 

LRS:  Heh.  Wonderful.  Future jobs for poets!  Naming the cardigan shades at J. Crew, the haircuts of the future.

Seriously, though, this conversation has been a joy.  We got us, Babe, &c.

You:  Swoopy bangs?

Me:  Acoustic feelings?

 

ZT: Looking back, I’m realizing that we didn’t even address hairlessness. Or hair replacement therapies. Or really, the whole world of body hair. We might have to keep this going off-line, Lisa!

 

Zayne Turner grew up in the rural High Desert of Oregon. She is the author of the chapbook Memory of My Mouth, available from dancing girl press. She has received grants and fellowships for literary & visual arts from the Arteles Creative Center in Finland, Oregon Arts Commission, Vermont Studio Center and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Her literary work can be found in places like Ancora ImparoCaketrain, ColdfrontPoecology and Terrain.org. She also sometimes makes things on Storify.

 

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012).  She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night:  Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart:  London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse:  Annotations of Contemporary Poetry appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Blackbird, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

No Crying in The Barbershop: A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar and Zayne Turner

Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

HER KIND: Let’s just get down to it. Why do we care so much about our hair?

 

 

 

Beth Gilstrap: I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since I made the big cut. Hair is deeply tied to our sense of identity, both cultural and personal. Hair has emotional memory and, as with anything, society has its ideas of appropriate and normal for gender and culture.

My grandma cut hair. Old white women were in and out of her chair with the same “set” and cut. Even then, the hive mentality bothered me, but my grandma’s in-house hair studio was my playground. I’d stick my hand in jars of awful blue jelly and spray Strawberry Shortcake’s hair into spikes until I cut it down to nubs and took the scissors to my own. I’d cut right down the middle of my part turning it into a sort of mohawk without the side buzz. Mortified, mom had my grandma fix it into the same cut as my brother’s, cowlick included.

People said, “Oh, what a cute little boy.” I corrected them, hands quick to my hips, never afraid to sass.

The sub-conscious fear of mistaken gender stuck. Now of course I know gender is a social construct, but as a youngster, it messed with my head. Maybe that’s why I kept it long for most of my life. People complimented my long hair and little else.

At 17, I dyed my hair. I colored it every 8 weeks for 19 years. Self-induced burgundy. Black. Blonde streaks. Cherry red. Any shade but my own. Kool-Aid. Manic Panic. Henna. Professionals. At that age, my hair hung past my shoulder blades not brushed as much as it should have been. Still a virgin, rocking my army jacket, smoking my Marlboros and weed, I worked hard to wear the uniform of a girl who didn’t give a damn about depression or panic attacks or breaking apart razors to cut lines in my leg. Yeah, I was that girl, with that hair. Put the apparel on and make it so.

Last December, I suffered a series of losses. My 16-year-old dog, Mia, who was more mother, sister, and friend than any human could have ever been. Within six weeks, I also lost two senior cats. I still don’t connect with many people. In the pit of grief, I no longer recognized myself. Going through old pictures, I found a black & white 15-year-old me. Eyes down. No smile. Long hair with bangs. At 35, I had the same haircut, the same despondence. Off it went.

 

Imani Tolliver: I can’t remember a time when I did not care about my hair. As a child, it was my mother’s nimble hands and my father’s heavy ones that would straighten my dark hair into ponytails that never quite reached my shoulders, try as they might.  I remember the handful of coils, never artfully festooned with barrettes and colorful rubber bands like the other brown girls that I went to school with.  Rather,  their main mission was to keep the follicles together – some kind of brown, crowned community atop my head.  This wasn’t about style, functionality was the point. I barely remember thinking about my hair until the bun that my mother artfully pinned to my scalp morphed into the mid-seventies mushroom bob.  It wasn’t the shape that was so topical with the black girls who were mystified with the way I spoke, dressed and ate, that I as I look back, I probably seemed more like an international exchange student than a girl who only lived around the corner. Victim to the constancy of the California sun and the chemicals used to straighten my hair; it bleached.  I was rocking ombre decades before I could define the word.  The girls insisted that had I colored my hair.  No, I cried.  No I didn’t.  You dyed your hair!, they countered.  My mother didn’t even color her hair; the most revolutionary change that my she made to her hair (exempting her brief afro phase in the early 70s) were her small assortment of wigs that she would sport from time to time.  For kicks, I placed her pageboy on my 5 year old brother.  He would sway his head back and forth, tossing the brown tresses from his shoulders.  I laughed as I imagined him the darker and cuter member of The Beatles. Yup, even cuter than Paul.

As the late 70s manifested into window pane jeans, rabbit fur jackets, and playboy gold-front silhouetted grills, all I cared about was my armpit hair. When would I be able to use the pink Flicker razor, the blades of which were wrapped with a fine wire to keep inexperienced and eager hands like mine from nicking my adolescent pits?  Pubic hair was a mystery.  It came in slowly, without much notice; it wasn’t there, then it was kinda there, then…full bush.  It was my armpit hair, the managing of which would made me into a real teenager.  Mysterious management of blood and mood and underpants was to follow.  How I wished to be one of those girls, shaving, superintending my woman self.  These days, knocking at 50s door, I am shocked at the sight of silver on my head, and yes, down there too. In fact, silver hair on my pubis happened first.  What did it mean, I wondered? Grief?  The mark of trauma?  Or wiser…is my vagina wiser than it used to be?  If so, I wish that she would share what she knows; sit me down in front of a toasty fireplace and impart that warm, woman talk that my mother’s friends whispered to each other when I was sent to bed.  Imagine it, your own vagina (ahem) imparting knowledge.  I’ll bet she’s got some stories.

 

BG: Why is it that hair can be so revolutionary? When women or girls step just left of what’s deemed normal, other women often barrage them. Natural is a loaded word, full of pocks. When my stylist cut off a foot of my hair, her assistant said, “What will your husband say? My boyfriend would never let me cut mine short.” I let her comments sink in, twisting the gut of so much pain. I’d never have a partner that would “let” me do anything.

Cultural expectations shape our shaved pits, legs, and vaginas, too. I never talked to my mother about managing my woman self. One day a pack of razors and shaving cream showed up on my bathroom sink. At 13, my cousin wanted to compare pubic hair. Uncomfortable, I pulled my bikini bottoms out. “You have more than me, dammit,” she said, looking at her own.  Frankly, all that business terrified me.

In college, a full year after I’d been sleeping with my boyfriend, I was shocked to learn I was supposed to landscape down there. A friend said, “The other night when this guy was going down on me, he asked me if I’d ever thought about taking a pair of scissors or a razor to my bush.” My pubic region was grateful to him.

To get back to the central question, I care so much about hair not only because it threads memories of my mother and grandmother and the fright of my sexual development, but because it makes me vulnerable. Perhaps hair is the definition of vulnerability, our attempt to control some aspect of our own physicality and external lives when all else is so difficult? Our shapes. Our minds. Our bones. Our diseases. Our losses. All so elusive, but baby, we can hack away at my hair.

 

IT: Hair as the definition of vulnerability…such a compelling thought.  Is hair the signifier, the inner part that tells on the outer part of us.  It enables the judging of others and ourselves.  We manage the sprouting of our faces, our heads, legs, toes, pits and pubis. It’s the surgery that everyone can afford.  The storyteller, the reimaginator, the blessing, the curse.  Our hair tells on us; revealing how well we are taking care of ourselves, our social status, our political beliefs, who we belong to.

Once, when I was in college, on a slow Saturday night, a friend of mine and I decided to straighten my hair.  Up until then, I had always worn my hair in natural styles in school; twists and braids, mainly.  I had even prided myself on sporting one of the largest afros on campus.  When I was really feeling revolutionary, I would pick it out to its fullness and tie a long scarf around my head, just behind my ears to reveal huge silver hoops.  After we did the deed – and I remembered the trauma of a scorched scalp, the fear of burned ears, and that awful smell – my friend and I paraded me down the dormitory hallways.  Some of my friends loved the look, others wondered if I was feeling alright in the head by making such a deliberate choice in contradiction to the nouveau panther hippy style that I rocked on the daily.  One friend didn’t even recognize me.  I mean, he knew my face, my body and my name, but the hair did not jive with the balance of the me that he knew.

These days, I wear my hair in locs. They are long enough to curl, put into ponytails, and even a bun that I haven’t worn since I was a little girl. I’ve intentionally colored my hair pink, black, auburn, blond and back to brown. I’ve sewn in shells, beads and charms.  I’ve even wrapped my locs with embroidery floss, creating rainbow textiles on the ropes that I’ve worn for over 15 years. I was never the girl (or the woman, for that matter) who got her hair done in salons. Over the course of my entire life, my hair has been professionally styled a handful of times; my locs, only three times. But something got into me; I wanted my hair “done” and done right. For the past few months, I’ve been getting my locs washed and groomed by a professional loctician in a salon. Oh, the luxurious warm, wet of the water. The tender scrubbing of my scalp. The agility of my stylist’s fingers as she separates that locs that become entwined at the root.  The styles that she creates by braiding my hair into itself. I must say, there is nothing that I’ve experienced like it. When she’s done, I feel liberated, beautiful, strong…and like the others, the other women who take the time to get their domes managed.  Am I one of them now?

 

BG: When you get down to it, our hair tells a story, fiction, non-fiction, or maybe even when drastically changed and pumped full of so much emotion, it even aspires to poetry, but we craft it. We craft hair into some expression of who we think we are or who we long to be. I am the tough, unconventional woman who don’t take no shit off nobody. Maybe, if my hair’s right, I can even convince myself.

Perhaps because I grew up with a cosmetologist, had close friends who did hair, and now, a talented younger sister who crafts hair, I never thought much about the implications of being able to get my hair done. It seemed ubiquitous to me, but it is a luxury and you tapped into what an intimate experience it is when someone washes your hair. Ever the introvert, I’m never sure what to say when a stranger has my head in their hands, but I am thankful for the warmth of the exchange. Yesterday at my salon, I got to witness a 4-year-old girl getting her first big haircut due to her own handiwork. What I heard was a child afraid of what it meant to have her hair cut and a mother and cosmetologist explain, “You will have a thousand haircuts in your lifetime, and the magical thing about hair is it never quits growing.” In the mirror, I saw her at the shampoo bowl, eyes closed and smiling, her hands crossed in her lap. When I took off my smock, I leaned over to her and said, “You will be beautiful and fierce.”

 

IT: A luxury, indeed. The warm clean water, the perfumed soap, the heavenly touch from another human being – whose purpose in that particular moment – is to make us feel something different, something more beautiful and fierce. Fierce. This makes me think of our drag queen sisters. RuPaul says that “…we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Indeed.  =The queens teach us how lucky we women are, born into a culture that supports and encourages our radical transformation; makeup, clothing, and most certainly, hair.  =Our appearance is a language unto itself, teaching and translating, signifying place, letting go, and letting in.

At night, I oil my scalp and locs. Tying the long scarf around my head, I place my hair in an order before I lay down to dream. When I awake, my hair is softer and more pliant, ready to endure the constant combing of my fingers, the bands that break and pins that bend, as I attempt to harness it while working. Mostly, I think my hair just wants to be free. It wants to be brightened by the sun and captured by the wind. It doesn’t mind being caught in a rainstorm, dressed in silks or sparkly, pretty things. Perhaps we are more alike than I have imagined, my hair and me. We take up space, our bodies, abundant. We have the flexibility and silence of the Tao, yet a bodacious gesture, so beautifully looms, around every corner. Blessed be the strength and resiliency of our lengths, our endless possibilities.

 

Beth Gilstrap was a recent writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Blue Fifth ReviewThe Minnesota ReviewSuperstition Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.

 

Imani Tolliver is a poet, visual artist and educator. 

She has been a consultant for several museums, educational institutions and has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation by the City of Los Angeles for her work as a promoter, host and publicist in support of the literary arts in Southern California.  She also served as the 2007/2008 Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles, California.

She has been a featured poet across the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, The World Stage Performance Gallery, University of Southern California, California State University at Long Beach, California State University Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Central Library. Imani also volunteers, marches, and pitches in whenever she is able, in support of the vibrant and beautiful LGBT community of which she is wholly and happily a part.

Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap

A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?

 

Minal Hajratwala: I have to say that my first response to this prompt is kind of “Meh.” I’m not sure how much I resonate with the term bitch at this point as an identity, personally. It’s important as part of the range of female expression, of course, and I think in my angry 20s I was very excited about claiming bitch-ness as a right. But at 42, I find I’m more interested in how to be kind AND free. Which requires having a spine, of course. But at the risk of offending our publisher here, these days I think of bitchdom as more of a transient, and maybe even, adolescent stage or posture in undoing the conditioning of patriarchy—not necessarily a full-fledged, healthy, adult persona. I don’t think Claire Messud was being a bitch, really, just giving a sensible and real response to a stupid question.

Bitches as characters are super interesting, though. I’m writing one now in my novel and it’s so much fun. She gets to do and say very exciting things, and her destructive force is quite glorious to watch. I don’t think anyone would want to be her friend.

 

Sophia Starmack: I hear you on meh. When I heard the theme was Bitches, I felt a bit of oh-fuck-what’ve-I-got-myself-into, wondering if we were going to be asked to write on some sort of 90s-style bitch-as-insult-or-reclaimed-identity prompt. I’m younger than you at 32, but old enough to be a bit bored of that particular strand of ra-ra Third Wave feminism. Bitch isn’t a word I identify with, nor one I feel particularly triggered by.

I liked what you wrote about your primary interest these days being “how to be kind and free.” I think a lot about kindness, myself, and freedom, and wonder what it might mean to be truly both. What is the largest, most expansive state I can imagine for myself and the world? How do I practice living it daily? I must say though, being socialized as a super-girl from day one (be polite above all, be kind, be pretty, be sweet), and as someone who as an adult earns a living as a teacher (a traditionally female, caregiving role), I grapple with the concept of kindness. In my personal and professional lives I often feel I’m too accommodating. Real kindness must entail some amount of what you call “spine.” Real kindness must involve upholding some standards, I think, and lovingly (but not necessarily “nicely”) speaking up when those standards are not being met. And real art, of course, requires some space and time. I still need practice on that.

I don’t think Messud was being a bitch, either. What she did was speak up and raise the bar a bit during that interview. I admire her for turning the question to her own purposes. It reminds me of Anne Hathaway’s trenchant shutdown of Matt Lauer’s “dress malfunction” probing: http://feministguidetohollywood.blogspot.com/2012/12/anne-hathaway-shuts-down-matt-lauers.html (Whatever about AH and Les Mis, but she didn’t take that one lying down.) I admire people who can think on the spot!

I used to dream of having a consciousness-raising workshop where I’d get a bunch of women together and we’d all share the moments where we’d felt temporarily speechless in the face of some harassment or idiotic comment, and then we’d reenact them, changing the ending of the scene to include all the fantastic repartee and insightful lines we wish we’d zapped back with.

Messud’s novel is about a woman who’s deeply unfulfilled, right, who grapples with those sorts of “my needs or their needs”, “nice or real,” “art or survival” dichotomies that often attend a woman’s psyche, or maybe everyone deals with them, regardless of gender—I would like to believe are no longer relevant or simply the product of a repressed mind. But statistically women are still earning somewhere around 77 cents to the man’s dollar (women of color earn less than white women), women take the lion’s share of the childcare, housework, and domestic labor in a state that provides little to no public assistance, and a lot of traditional “women’s work” (teaching, caregiving, housekeeping) is grossly undervalued and underpaid. It does put a bit of a damper on the creative impulse, on the ability to dream big and wild of that state of “kind and free” you so beautifully named.

And yet, of course, the further you get from the center of privilege the sharper you see, and the more you’re able to imagine other ways of being. I’m not trying to make good here, but that keenness, so often either experienced or read as rage, is where I, at least, want to go. Not only women, but humans in general, are constantly being encouraged not to think, told our thoughts and dreams are impractical or offensive, or told to shut up and be grateful for what we’ve got. We must be sharp and clear if we’re going to move beyond the current desperate state in which we find our planet.

Tell me about writing bitch characters. Did you relate to the part of the prompt that asked if you find yourself censoring? Do you worry that you’ll be too closely aligned with your characters?

As a poet, my first thought was, “Um? I write poetry? There are no characters?” But of course, the poem is always speaking out of the self. Even if the poem is written in the third person, the implicit character is “I.”

Do I worry I’ll come off as a bitch? Not particularly. One of my jobs as a poet is to go for the discomfort, to live in the place where I don’t necessarily come off as a fabulously moral person.

However, I remembered that in my MFA program an enormous number of women-student poets fiercely resisted using the “I” in the poem. They would come right out and say how uncomfortable they felt in the first person. Uncomfortable in one’s very self! It was as though they were trying to write poems that literally effaced the speaker. When I tutored undergraduate and graduate students, I found that many women had the same struggles in analytical writing. They would come up with incredibly convoluted syntactical structures, all to avoid the occasional authorial “I.” I have not undertaken a scientific study here, but I haven’t come across any male writers who feel that writing the word “I” is such a deeply ingrained taboo.

Write back as you see fit, or if you’d like a “prompt,” I wonder:

  • What “bitch” characters are you writing about or have you written? How did they come to you? What do you enjoy about them or writing about them?
  • What do you find puts a damper on your imagination? What liberates it? How are these related to your lived experience? To your personal, family, geographic, cultural histories?
  • What’s your relationship to resentment?

I’ll wrap up with a poem; I write from a deep Catholic inheritance—ha-ha can you tell?

The Wisdom of the Virgins
Matthew 25:1-13

Not because they remembered to dress nice
—but not too nice—for the party.
Not because they kept their make-up natural,
or because not one of them outshone the bride.
Not because of the fork-and-knife lessons,
the nightgowned waltzes late in the parlor.
(In fact, they were somewhat bruised from studying,
and at least one had gone all the way.)
Not because their flasks were so chastely filled,
their wicks so respectably trimmed,
not even because they slept so slightly
the whitest sigh would wake them.
It was because they kept their oil to themselves.

They’d given so much already, the gesture hollow like a lamp.

 

MH:  I love your poem so much.

I am considering your prompts and meanwhile—wonder if you have something to say about virgins and bitches . . . bitchy (frigid?) virgins . . . being immaculate, staying pure, holding oneself apart?

I appreciate what you have said about the “I” and as it turns out today’s poem of the day is titled “I”: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=15897

I want to send you some poems too . . .  if that’s OK?

 

SS: Hmm, virgins and bitches, bitchy virgins. The real-life matters of virginity never much intrigued or troubled me. (For that I must plug my friend Therese Schecter, whose fabulous film and blog on virginity can be glimpsed here: http://www.virginitymovie.com/blog/.) That said, literary virgins have always fired me up. I’m looking up “virgin” in Merriam-Webster right now, and interestingly, the first definition is “an unmarried woman devoted to religion.” Funny, nothing about sex in there. That doesn’t come in till definition two, “an absolutely chaste young woman,” or definition three (ha!) “VIRGIN MARY.”

I like this idea of a virgin as one who’s devoted to something, to her own vision? That’s what got in under my skin about Jesus’ parable. I happened to be at a church service one Sunday, and the text was Matthew 25, the wise and foolish virgins. In the story, there’s a big wedding celebration, and all the young girls have to go out with their lamps to meet the bridegroom, who’s due to arrive late that night. Half of the virgins are prepared, but the other half are late and lazy and their lamps go out. They ask the first set if they can borrow some oil, and are quickly rebuffed.

The moral of the story is supposed to be that Jesus (the bridegroom) could show up any minute so you’d better keep on your toes, but the whole thing made me so upset. Why wouldn’t the first set share? Weren’t they being selfish? Wasn’t the whole point of Jesus about sharing and doing unto others, etc.?

I had to write the poem to reconcile myself to all this, and in the course of the writing I discovered a certain virginal wisdom in, if not selfishness, at least a healthy self-interest, a willingness to not give it all away.

My favorite literary virgins (besides Mary—I mean, come on!) were Joan of Arc and Jane Eyre. Joan of Arc (like Mary!) was not only mysteriously powerful, but she had this incredible sangfroid, an insane but beautiful faith in what she’d seen and heard. When Joan came to court everyone mocked the little peasant girl, but unfazed, she calmly said her piece and then ratted out the dauphin, who’d disguised himself to play a trick on her. It’s that unshakeable confidence, that unflappable adherence to one’s inner voices and visions, that I think makes her loveable to so many young women.

Jane Eyre of course shacks up with Rochester in the end (“Reader, I married him”), but she doesn’t give it up easily and there’s something in the torment she feels at love that I find archetypical. She’s a misfit, an intellectual, a poet, and as there was no place in her world for such a thing, she mediates her internal and external worlds by becoming a governess (a virginal profession, of course, and like Mary, she raises a child but doesn’t bear one). When she experiences passion, her whole world goes up (literally) in flames. She doesn’t know how to navigate that one—how to be the idiosyncratic, independent, deeply moral Jane and the Jane who longs to love and be loved.

I remember Joni Mitchell speaking in a documentary about wanting to get married and then suddenly being beset by the memory of her grandmother, who’d kicked in the barn door at age fourteen because she’d wanted a piano so badly, and knew she’d never have one. Joni said that in that minute she froze, terrified that if she went deeper into the relationship she’d end up beating the barn door over and over.

These days we’re supposed to believe that we can have it all, but these questions always plagued me, too. Can I be an artist and be in a relationship? I can, I am, and yet, the fear runs under the surface like a plucked thread in a stocking, always just noticeable, threatening to unravel the whole thing. What about all my women ancestors, who struggled to negotiate dreams and realities: my great-grandmother, who danced and laughed and drank and spent her life running her husband’s bootlegging business, later his bar; my grandmother, who wanted to be a scientist and settled for nursing (though her father found even that too risqué); my mother, who went to music school while raising three children? I often feel that I’m writing in conversation with them.

And on that note, another poem, one written (though she doesn’t know it) with my grandmother.

Yours very warmly!
SGS

***

I Interview My Grandmother

Q. What happens when we die?
A. Something leaves the body at this moment.
But don’t trouble yourself looking for its traces. It is colorless and odorless.

Q. Why is death so difficult?
A. It doesn’t have to be. Morphine is a wonderful thing.

Q. It seems to me that men die and women linger.
A. I don’t like to make generalizations.
But if you don’t tell anyone, I’ll agree with you.

Q. Why do we rage so against death?
A. Let me tell you this.
The universe is large and magnificent and follows an order we cannot comprehend. After death, we’ll see just how insignificant we here on earth really are.

Q. I see. I suspected this.
A. I hope I haven’t confused you. You still have to do a good job while you’re here.

 

MH: Yay! I am going to read this in more detail soon.

And also, wah! Our deadline approaches!

I feel like I’m still having trouble connecting to the center of this topic and I am wondering whether some sort of collaborative exercise would be fun/interesting to offer. I was re-viewing some writing prompts for another purpose this week, and wondering if you would like to do something like exquisite corpse or a cut-up collage or the surrealist dialogues (Q&A format) . . . that we could do via email or perhaps more expeditiously over a Google chat / Skype session? Something open and poetic and creative/assemblage-ish as a shared response?

If you want to talk or chat live as a way of developing or wrapping this up, I am in India, which is 9.5 hours ahead of NY time, so your mornings up till about 12-noon work well for the time difference. I am reasonably free Sunday, Mon, or Tues at that time.

Also I am interested in your teaching work and have been thinking about how as a teacher this question of the female student’s confidence/voice/right to tell her story or any story at all is such a terrible & predictable constant. Currently I am teaching an online course with 20 students, of whom two are male. This is a pretty regular ratio in my workshops, by the way, whether live or online. 🙂 The two men have no trouble posting, critiquing, etc.—they have their own writing struggles of course, but their right to be present, even in a place where they are a decided minority, is not contested. Among the women students, and this is a constant across courses & situations, a good portion of them are so paralyzed that they never or almost never share their work with the class, thus losing out on the entire workshop aspect of receiving peer feedback and affirmation. And those who do often preface their work with apologies and disclaimers.

In a 90-minute session, if I don’t explicitly ban them from apologizing before they speak, I have counted the number of “sorrys” from the women students and it is often in the double-digits. When called on in discussion: “Oh, sorry, is it my turn?” When sharing work: “Sorry, this is really rough, but OK—.”  When engaging in dialogue: “Oh sorry did I interrupt you, go ahead . . .” Ceding, ceding, ceding so much space and authority.

I am not totally sure what “bitchiness” has to do with this but it is certainly an antidote. And also, the female student who takes up “too much” space is much more likely to be labeled a bitch within her cohort—especially, I think, in competitive contexts like certain MFA programs—vs. the male student who takes up too much space, who at most is considered to be a bit egotistical or somehow lacking in social skills. (Another version of boys will be boys?) But even the occasional woman who cheerfully claims the title bitch for herself will still, usually, be plagued with the same uncertainty & hesitation.

So as a writing teacher & writing coach I feel like a lot of my work with women who are writing is really just to encourage and hold space and say, “Yes, you DO have the right to tell your story as you see it.” And I also went through this process myself in writing my own family’s story—so many doubts and fears and questions—some of which could really only be answered in the end by a firm “FUCK OFF” to the internal(ized) critics who were telling me that I could not tell certain stories or give certain interpretations because it wasn’t nice, it wasn’t good to spread family secrets, it wasn’t my right, people might not like me, etc.

Shedding the fear of being disliked, or of not getting (authority) (parental) (teacher) (peer) (critic) (etc.) approval for one’s writing is, I think, the key to growing up as a female writer. At least for some of us (obviously—this trajectory doesn’t apply to everyone). Growing up from the talented youngster who has something special that others approve of and like and encourage, to the adult writer who says whatever she needs to say without regard for how many people will be tweeting her praises. That desperate desire for approval, which social media can really feed, is necessary to outgrow. Or else it becomes a noose—another version of the “good girl” syndrome.

It makes sense to me that any woman who is grown, as a writer, will have developed this strength and fuck-off-ness to some extent. From Toni Morrison to JK Rowling, y’know!?

I am also interested in and think it’s important to note how bitch-ness is racialized. What it takes for a Black woman to be called a bitch is often so tiny, for example. Like, just existing. What are the things that different women get away with or not, based on race, gender presentation, class, age, and so on? As an Asian American/South Asian woman, perceived as being from a so-called model minority, when I express anger it is sometimes very surprising to white folks. I remember being in a poetry workshop, when I was quite young, in my early 20s, and I read a poem, and one of the other students, an older white South African woman, looked at me and said, “But you look like such a nice girl.” HA! Adrienne Su has some great “bitchy” poems that are stunning and tight and poetically superb.

Also: The relationship between bitch-ness and cute-ness. Like, the more perceived/standard cute-ness you have, the more bitchiness you can get away with. Maybe? A working thesis.

OK, that was all super stream-of-conscious but given the deadline, I wanted to just put out a bunch of text to then massage and work with (somehow—how?!) .

OK some writing—

***

Angerfish

…who ‘wrap up’ anger—that is, wrap around [themselves] repeatedly the anger based on the thought ‘he reviled me,’ and so on, like wrapping up the pole of a cart with thongs, or putrid fish with straw—when enmity arises in such persons, it is not appeased, pacified. —Dhammapada I.4

I.

On the first day
the fish wrapped in straw
starts to stink.

On the second day
if you walk by the barn
it enters your clothes.

That evening your wife
sniffs your suit
but says nothing.

On the third day
dressed in your skin
the fish begins to walk.

Your friends know
to hold their breaths.
This is not the first time.

If nothing else happens
the fish retreats
to its mean nest.

You shower.
It sleeps
waiting for you.

Fish oils
soak the hay
of the whole barn.

The chickens begin to dream
of seaweed,
of roe.

II.

In the middle of it
the fish
is the wisest
truest thing you know.

It whispers
sweet sauces—
We are brought here to love, yes,
but not blindly.

Its jelly eye
winks at you
codes of Morse—
No remorse.

Every oracle
takes its price,
skin for scales,
gold for gills.

Some days
it is a bargain.
Or else it costs
everything you have.

III.

I was raised without the fish
as some children are raised without candy
or time.

No one in my family spoke of it
as no one spoke then of cities
or queers.

Somehow in the cradle, rocking,
I caught a whiff; or in the crib clutching
at rails

a bit of fish caught
rough in my scream.
Swallow.

Since then the fish has grown in me
like bubblegum or seeds of water
melons.

Since then we’re bosom tight
thick as thieves sealed with a
kiss — kin.

Is this what I meant
when I longed for teeth?
Is this what they meant

when they named me fish?
Soon I shall slit my
belly

to stroke its silver scales
bilious, slippery
as love.

IV.

At last the fish
swallows its own tail

scale by creamy scale
orgy of self-

righteous     lips
on sharp bone

tongue sucking spine
vertebra by vertebra

teeth shredding
gummy ovaries

ripe with black meat
millions of living

egg of fish.
Belly full of self

soft pulsing
heart of fish

parallel eyes
forehead

white gills
filled

with the last sea.
When the fish

is all jaw
row of incisors

grinding plankton
coral     salt

churning oceans
like milk

into sweet fat
gold

then I will be ready
for you.

***

<Below is a snip—the first section of a longer prose-poem in several parts>

 Archaeologies of the present
“. . . a trained student can master the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months.” —Margaret Mead
“Everything, everything is cinema.”  —Jean-Luc Godard

 

1-2000 The Beautiful

Luxury at this time in America meant white robes with hoods, made of plush terrycloth, the material used in bathing towels, found in five-star hotels. The stars were a rating system indicating the quality of accommodations, food, fame & so on.

To be a star one had generally to be photogenic, emblematic, blank enough to be projected upon: dreams, desires, even terrors. Homicides were enacted & reenacted for entertainment. Many means existed to simulate blood.

A sweetened, tomato-blood chemical sauce was the nation’s most popular food.  Others: Grainstuffs elaborated as stars, flakes, O’s. Dried strips of cow meat sold individually or trussed in plastic.  Tasteless tablets of all sorts containing nutrients & chemicals designed to manipulate the body’s reactions, at the cellular level.

At the cellular level the people had no awareness. The living world was mute around them; some wore devices to enhance their hearing, while others plugged their aural orifices with synthetic music. Synthesizers simulated joy, art, sex. Love was consummated not in stamens & pistils, but in leather & lace. Each woman’s thighs were obscene. Breastfeeding took place only in closets.

Elaborate & costly systems of organizing closets were available. Entire stores existed to sell containers for items sold in other stores: clothing & other forms of body decoration, scrubbing tools, pig fat in hundreds of hues to dramatize the lips. It was rumored that the color of a woman’s lips indicated the color of her labial arches. Archbishops denied all knowledge of the topic. Sexually transmitted disease was rampant among celibate priests, & debates raged over their homo– or hetero-sexuality.

Homogeneous vitamin-fortified milk was sold in dozens of varieties to account for varying desires for fat, allergens, growth hormones, pesticides, etc.

All varieties, even chocolate, were white.

***

 

Minstrelry

My sisters & I write all day & night about silk
its delicate weft      golden peacocks & parrots
rush of wind through dark hair      waiting.       Just the word

chanted like a sutra     silk      silk      silk      silk
brings the poetry buyers to their knees
stoned on musks of exotic suffering.      Whatever

we say       love      war      race      hate
if we wrap it in silk they will take it
home, unminding.      It will live in their rooms amid demons

of jade      throw pillows      Chinese funeral papers
marble dust from the Taj Mahal.       At night
we will wriggle out in ribbons of soft meat      like worms

feasting.

***

*

Novel scene of bitch character getting her comeuppance—

 

Re: your prompts—a quick thought/note: I have loved writing this character and seeing the inside of her suffering. Although she is a total bitch in the story, I see the deep roots of trauma in her, and so she is also beloved to me.  And fascinating. She gets to behave in ways I never would, but maybe sometimes would like to.  (Since she’s a vampire, for example, she often just kills people who irritate her. Full entitlement & unchecked power — that’s sexy!!  As pure fantasy.)  The violence she does is intense but also teeny in proportion to the violence that has been done to her.  So she is a victim as well.

One theme I realized today I am exploring in this novel:  the actual & imagined victimhood of the powerful &privileged.

<Editor’s note: Novel scene excised by Minal because she doesn’t want it published at this moment.>

 

MH: Sophia, sorry to email you again without even waiting for a response! I got excited and wrote a poem (rough-rough drafty draft!) for you.

 What we bitch about when we bitch about “bitch” or What kind of question is that?
for Sophia Starmack

“Meh” to the old debate about rights,
the dated defense, the fuck-you to fuck all yous,

transient/adolescent posture for undoing
patriarchy, her destructive force

quite glorious to watch. Today bitch
is a verb & bee-yatch a joke/mace young men

hurl to bond with each other
over our bodies—swelled battlegrounds

ripe with blood, fat but intact,
lumpy like pickles, preserved in rage-brine.

I’ll give you Mina Loy’s virgins + curtains,
the slow testifying of Rachel Jaentel,

streak of women who claim the capital “I,”
stone in the throat of Juror B37.

You give me the wise & the foolish,
a series of prompts,

questions of liberation
& resentment. So much more to explore

than the -archy’s twisted mirror,
that evil genie grin:

Would you like to be my friend? Please will you be
my friend? We couldn’t friendbook her could we?

Let’s take our three wishes and run.
Let’s picnick on islands where kindness

is no excuse of doormats, but a spine
risen like datepalm into hot free nights.

 

Notes: Barbara Kruger, “Your Body is a Battleground.”  Mina Loy, “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.”  Rachel Jaentel and Juror B-37:  women involved in the Trayvon Martin trial.  May 2013 Publisher’s Weekly: Claire Messud, to interviewer who remarked that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s protagonist: “What kind of question is that?”

 

SS: I love this poem, and I feel so gifted. Thank you. I am drawn to your vision of giving as a sharp vision, and I love the closing image of a savage-spikey kindness growing out of the dirt into the wild sky.

I woke up this morning thinking about language, about limitations, gaps, lacunae. There you are in India, hours, miles, existences away from me here at the sticky kitchen table in Brooklyn. Yet, we are sending each other packets of language, hoping that by paying attention to words, by entering into the logic of our poems, embracing their anti-reason, something will be created. It’s 6:30am here, and I’m skimming the NYT, glancing at the NYC sanitation guidelines posted in the foyer, steeling myself for the morning peek at the friendbook. Language. It offers infinite opportunities for dulling, creating easy and false connection, of soothing me away from seeing. It is also the dimension where with attention, I begin to touch the unknown. I write my way closer to you; we hold the space, we know and not-know, we write ourselves into being.

And here is a poem for you, too!

The Angry Ugly Feminist in Poetry School
for Minal Hajratwala

was just so exhaust—try—a letter with missing—
what wanted was—no—this too was cliché.
again. wanted to tell—no.
wanted to pour a long—glass—of milk?
deserved nothing but everything owed.
a story with missing—once was told upon a time—
god like the sun. shone. what wanted was forward—and burn.

 

Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach and author of the award-winning Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, which was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by The Washington Post. She is the editor of Out! Stories From the New Queer India, a groundbreaking anthology of contemporary LGBT literature since the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. Her first book of poems, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, is forthcoming from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, of which she is a founding member. minalhajratwala.com

Sophia Starmack is a poet and teacher. She received an MA in French and Francophone literature from Bryn Mawr College, and an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work appears in This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, Best New Poets 2012, and others. Sophia lives and works in New York City. sophiastarmack.wordpress.com

A Savage-Spikey Kindness, Growing: Conversation With Poets Minal Hajratwala and Sophia Starmack

Being Bad: A Conversation with poet Cassandra Dallett and writer Karyn Polewaczyk

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?

 

Cassandra Dallett: I don’t write fiction, so I don’t create characters. My character is myself. I certainly do not write myself, or my family and friends, with any thought of likability. You will identify or not and I don’t really care. My younger self did a lot of stupid things—most people do—but I continued doing them longer and am probably more honest about the fool I am than most people would dare to be.

I am often published with a lot of men. Some of the content, in some of the magazines I have been published in, is pretty objectifying; but I like being the woman who talks about men as objects. It’s how we often talk between ourselves. But I talk about them out loud—about their small dicks and premature ejaculations. I beat them to it, and talk about my fat thighs and slutty behavior. Things that caused me enormous shame growing up—everything caused me shame in my life—now I’m happy to own it. I get a really positive response from men and woman, which is amazing, therapeutic, and free!

I do doubt that a male writer would be asked about the likeability of their characters—these are the mind frames we need to blast out of. With all the amazing woman writers in the world, it is absurd that we would be held to a different standard or expectation. Why should our characters be likeable? And more important, likeable to who? I am a fan of realness; I like to read things that ring true and I write truth, as I know it. My experience is only my own.

Sometimes in workshops, people say I can’t believe this narrator would do this thing and I say, I know, I know, but I did. I did do those crazy, stupid things, acted too tough and too weak, vulnerable and fierce. I shoot these tales out into the world and trust that somewhere, someone will identify with them.

 

Karyn Polewaczyk: I write mostly nonfiction—and to boot, a lot of the stuff I’ve worked on (pieces for women’s lifestyle magazines/websites) tends to be service-oriented, with the reader in mind. It’s not always about whether I’m likable as a writer as, it is whether what I’m producing is likable and relatable. There comes a point in every artist’s life, though, when she (or he) has to decide if she’s creating for herself, or for the public. The inherent wont to create something tends to be extremely personal, and doesn’t stem from the desire to please, but to make.

That said, though, I’ve published pieces on Jezebel and xoJane—two highly-trafficked female-focused websites that are as well-known for their content as they are for their notorious commenters (especially on the Gawker sites, where commenting is a sport), who will rip a writer to shreds. It’s why I often don’t read the comments, and it’s why I think anyone who wants to share their work publicly, whether it’s online, in print, or spoken aloud to a room full of strangers, needs to develop a thick skin (but not so thick that her vulnerability, which helps an artist connect with herself and her audience, is diminished). Writing for yourself is different than writing with the hope or intention of being published. Know what I mean?

 

CD: I do know what you mean. It is true, it depends a lot on the genre, and if I was writing a novel, say, I might want a character that more people could connect with, because as a reader, I like to fall in love with and miss the characters in my favorite books. You and I write in very different places, so of course yours is much more driven by what the magazine or site wants and needs.

I think staying away from comments on the internet is always a good idea. It can get very depressing reading how much racism, sexism, and general nastiness still exists when people can hide behind their computer. I really like what you said about having a thick skin and retaining our vulnerability—that is absolutely what makes a writer good and also successful, in my opinion. I agree there is a difference, but I would still say that I write for myself and hope to be published.

 

KP: Have you ever seen the TED Talk by Brené Brown? She talks about the power of vulnerability. Here’s the link, if you haven’t: ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

I’m really particular about my fiction reading. My favorite book, for a long time, was The Catcher in the Rye, but after discovering The Dud Avocado last summer—seriously, it’s so good, my heart beats for it—it’s since reached second-place contender status. Most of the books I love have a female character who’s strong, unnerving, unwilling to settle, fierce—and so on. I’ve always been able to relate to the bad girl, in books or elsewhere, and at the risk of sounding morbid, I get why Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven. (I’m sure my therapist would have a lot to say about that.)

 

CD: I’m glad you like bad girls because I am certainly one!

I have seen the Brené Brown TED Talk and I love it! I thought of it immediately when you mentioned the importance of vulnerability. I have also put The Dud Avocado on my reading list. I love a good recommendation. I have been reading mostly poetry and memoir because that’s what I’m working on.

But back to bad girls. My stories are about being a sexually promiscuous, alcoholic teenager in the punk scene of the eighties. Dabbling in drugs, managing to try most of them before the age eighteen. I had no adult supervision or direction, no goals or good education, so I floated through life landing where I did. I lived through some very violent situations. I didn’t know how to communicate without the physical and I found myself in some very abusive relationships.

It’s hard to know how your reader will react—admitting these things that are very vulnerable, but there is a toughness too. I’m the girl that buys a gun at the end of the story (which is of course the beginning of another disastrous story). I write about being the cheater in a relationship, which is not a likeable character by any means. And I write about things people don’t want to think about, like being a single mother working shitty low-paying jobs, and the pain and hopelessness of living in a community whose young men are getting shot and jailed at an alarming rate. These are things that should be talked about—I am no heroine, just someone who bumbles her way through, reporting on what not to do more than anything.

 

KP: I think it’s interesting that you affiliate, what some might call deviant behavior, with being “bad,” especially when you say you write about what not to do. To me, that signals someone who maybe just lost her way for a bit. Being bad, in my mind, is something inherent; it’s more about defiance than deviance. Bad can also be manipulative or seductive; at the risk of sounding like a misogynist, I also like the idea of a “bad bitch” (via hip-hop culture), which suggests a woman who owns her shit and makes no apologies about it.

Here’s a question for you, then: do you think you can “create” a likable character, if you’re writing memoir with a focus on situations that may rouse readers’ judgment? Do you care?

CD:
I did come up heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. My relationships have been with men who were misogynist, that is probably where I get the bad label from.

I am defiant, and I am a “bad bitch” to be sure. I am not the “good girl” my ex had hoped I would be. I tried but I am, in the end, very rebellious and only like to do things for someone when it is not expected. I have certainly lost my way many times, but in the end, I write about it unapologetically. I am only sorry for the harm I caused myself—much of which, in hindsight, was unnecessary.

To answer your question, yes, you can have a likable character that rouses readers with their actions—absolutely, that is probably the most common outcome. But I don’t think you should write them with that in mind; you write with honesty and the honesty tends to be what the reader likes about the character.

I certainly have an inherent need to be liked, but I try not to think about that when writing. I stick to the facts: this is how it actually happened. I leave it up to the reader to take away what they will. Every time I read in public, people come up to me afterwards and say they loved the honesty and found it brave. I’m sure there are people who judge as well—they just tend to keep it to themselves. If it were a blog, I would probably get pages of nasty comments.

I recently read the book Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso; it’s about her and her molester. They had a very complicated relationship that continued well into her adulthood. I read it with a group of woman. Everyone loved the book; it was one of the rare times we all agreed. We loved the writing; it was very good and the honesty brutal. She owned her part in the whole dysfunctional situation. She said things most people wouldn’t dare to. It confirmed my belief that you should just tell your truth no matter.

 

 

Cassandra Dallett occupies Oakland, CA, she writes of a counterculture childhood in Vermont and her ongoing adolescence in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published in Slip Stream, Sparkle and Blink, Hip Mama, Bleed Me A River, Criminal Class Review, Enizagam, among many others. Look for links and chapbooks on cassandradallett.com.

 

Karyn Polewaczyk lives and writes in Boston. Her work, which focuses largely on women’s lifestyle topics, regularly appears in columns at Boston.com and Dig Boston, and has been published in Jezebel, xoJane, LearnVest and More.com, among others. Follow her on Twitter @KarynPolewaczyk.

Being Bad: A Conversation with poet Cassandra Dallett and writer Karyn Polewaczyk

Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan

HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the conversation. In her poem “Photo of a Girl on a Beach,” Carmen Gimenez Smith writes: “Try being/a figure in memory. It’s hollow there.//For truth’s sake, I’ll say she was on a beach/and her eyes were closed.//She was bare in the sand, long,/ and the hour took her bit by bit.”

Looking back on your own relationship to the water, how has it influenced your own work?

 

MARGO LANAGAN: I was trying to think what my relationship with water was. Early memories of the Hunter River flooding; we lived over looking some fields that flooded regularly, and it was always a wonder when they disappeared under that sheet of water. Also, we weren’t madly coastal, even though we were near Newcastle. I was quite afraid of the sea until my early teens, when I guess I got strong enough and brave enough to cope with surf. I’m still pretty nervous in the sea. Only just learned to snorkel, which has opened up wonders, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to scuba dive.

 

KIRSTEN TRANTER: So you grew up with the river as a primary reference point for a big body of water rather than the ocean?

 

 

 

ML: Yes, definitely – it was the Hunter River; crossing it on the ferry, ambling around the fields near it, always having it in sight, hearing speedboats buzzing up and down on a Sunday.

 

KT: I admit to sharing your fear of the sea, Margo. I got caught in a rip when I was a kid, and was not a strong swimmer, and it was very scary. Deep water still terrifies me in some primal way. Lisa, I imagine you must be a diver, given how much you write about it in The Sunlit Zone? What’s your relationship to the water?

 

LISA JACOBSON: I love water as an element, although my relationship to the sea is ambivalent. I find that I am frequently writing about it but not naturally drawn to it in that I don’t head off to the beach on long weekends like many Australians do. I did spend many holidays at the small coastal town of Somers, Melbourne, however, with my family. My grandmother had one of those classic holiday houses just across from the beach. My best friend Melinda would always come away with our family on these holidays and the beach was very flat and safe – so we spent many hours on the sand and in the water. This place has always held a kind of enchantment for me, and was firmly in my mind when writing The Sunlit Zone.

Quite some time ago I had a travelling scholarship to visit Israel and write about my Jewish heritage, but I was somehow drawn instead to the Sinai desert and the Red Sea, where I did a scuba diving course. I too am fearful of waves. I often look out to the horizon and imagine a tsunami coming, kind of an intrusive involuntary thought. But the diving course was amazing. Like dipping one’s head into an alternate reality. All that magic going on beneath the surface of the sea, that we are not usually aware of. And it exists!

 

ML: I remember loving the beach and the sea for just a couple of summers when I was 14 or 15; the beach seemed a very romantic, wild place. I liked the idea of the winter beach, and striding up and down that with my hair blowing. But also the summer beach, that can be a damn’ sexy place. 😀

 

KT: It’s interesting that our childhood and adolescent experiences with water are so profound and shaping. There is something fundamentally nostalgic about the beach for me, always.

 

ML: I think, not being a very physical person as I went into teenager-hood, the fact that being in water let you move any way you want, and in secret, was a very powerful thing. Also, the beauty of watching a wave from underneath; diving under it and finding that safe place beneath it, were very powerful impressions.

 

KT: I was thinking about this question and wondering if there’s something about growing up in Australia that establishes a certain relationship to water and the ocean in particular – the sense of being on an island, surrounded by water – and also with so much desert in the middle… so much of the Australian population is clustered in coastal cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. Growing up in Sydney there’s the beaches, so beautiful but with all the beachy culture that goes with it. And the iconic harbour, this piece of water that defines the city but also divides it. It’s an ambivalent relationship, especially for a bookish girl who didn’t really learn to swim; it was a kind of alienation from something that I felt I was supposed to be really connected with, as a proper Aussie. I did have something of an epiphany though when I stayed at Clovelly one summer a few years ago and learned to snorkel, and made friends with the incredible blue groper who lives there. Though there’s that horrible, fear-filled moment of sticking your face in the water and trusting that you will breathe through this plastic tube…

 

LJ: That is so very true. For the first few lessons my instructor was exasperated with me, because I would be breathing underwater through the device (it’s called a regulator), and then I would think, “Oh my goodness I’m breathing. I can’t be breathing, I’m underwater!” and then I would panic and shoot back up to the surface.

 

ML: Snorkelling has been a revelation to me; my partner has done a taster dive and raves about it, and it sounds as if there are even more wonders to be discovered that way. Just…my ears! And all that water above! I already have mild claustrophobia nightmares…

 

LJ: Margo, yes, the beach can be both melancholy and sexy. As my best friend and I grew into teenagers, our experiences of the beach became less childlike and more exploratory with boys. But she was very beachy, lean and tanned. I always felt like the short slightly chubbier friend tagging along. 🙂

Diving can be claustrophobic. You can also get vertigo where the water is very clear, and your brain tricks you into thinking you are in air, not water. Jacques Cousteau writes beautifully about all this in his book The Silent World.

 

ML: But yes, Lisa, that sense of having entered another world is amazing. So many creatures, and so various. And you can just fly around there, like dream-flying.

 

LJ: And as in a dream, you can also go too deep, and just want to keep going deeper and deeper. A bit like Margo’s characters being called into the sea. It’s called nitrogen narcosis.

 

KT: Lisa, there’s a passage in The Sunlit Zone where your protagonist North is stuck underwater trying to save her sister Finn, and she seems to be under there for such a long time, in such an extended, dream-like state – were you thinking of nitrogen narcosis when you wrote it? I thought it also had affinities with the idea of fairyland, a place beneath the normal world where time moves differently.

 

LJ: Actually, I don’t think I was thinking of nitrogen narcosis whilst writing that passage – although I can see why you did. I did, however, stick my face in the sink and inhale water to see what it felt like to drown, sort of. That was an odd and challenging day. And I have always been fascinated by stories about places where time moves differently, such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Narnia.

Cousteau’s book with all those salty “men of the sea” and their hefty equipment got me thinking about how we are so unequipped to live in water now, although we originally clambered up its shores so many millions of years ago. Unlike seals, which move so easily through it and in it.

 

KT: Margo’s comments about the sexiness of the beach made me think of the way the beach in The Sunlit Zone is definitely a sexy place, but also very dangerous, and those two things are connected so strongly.

 

ML: I didn’t mean actual sexy. I suppose I meant sensual. I suppose it’s just where, there’s very little between you and nature, and you’re plunging your body into moving surf, then hauling it out and having the sun dry you off, then plunging back in, flinging yourself on the mercy of this big cold creature.

 

KT: Margo, this description helps me understand what might have drawn you to selkies. It’s really interesting to me that you have this ambivalence and claustrophobia about the sea, and yet you were drawn to writing about these creatures.

 

ML: I think I was always pretty envious of seals. They had the breathing thing sewn up, for a start; but also, they were so smooth and fast in the water. Humans could never quite achieve that degree of swimming expertise. Otters the same, of course. (This is visits to the Melbourne Zoo speaking – didn’t see a seal in the wild (or a sea otter!) until very recently.)

 

KT: Margo, can you describe the central elements of the selkie myth for us, and explain how the story that became The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape?

 

ML: I think I always knew the selkie myth; I can’t remember not knowing it, so it must have been a very early story that was read to me, or that I read as a very young child. The main component is that seals change into humans – male or female – they come up on land for the purposes of, I don’t know, just dancing or trying out human bodies. Then humans catch them at this, and in the case of the female selkies, most tales have the observer (male) falling in love with the selkie and immediately needing to prevent her returning to the sea, which he does by stealing her shed sealskin. The male selkies, of course, generally tend to have more self-determination; I don’t recall any versions where women entrap them quite the way men do female selkies. Then there is a romance of some kind. Usually reasonably happy, except that the woman is constantly yearning for the sea. Then at some point the woman accidentally finds her skin, and returns QUICK SMART to the sea. Sometimes she comes back and visits, you know, every Midsummer Eve or something. Sometimes she just goes and leaves her husband and children pining for ever.

 

KT: My impression is that male selkies are seducers of human women.

 

ML: Yes, male selkies are just more active all round. The female selkies’ allure is usually very passive; there seems to be very little intention in their seducing land-men. They’re just irresistibly gorgeous. But as for how The Brides of Rollrock Island took shape: It took shape as a novella first, and that ended up being the “Daniel Mallett” section of the novel, where the hybrid son of a selkie and a land-man organises to get his mother (and eventually all the selkie-mothers in the town, for there are no other women BUT selkies) back into the sea, for her happiness. Then, when it came to turning it into a novel, I poked and prodded at that witch figure, Misskaella (except she was called Messkeletha in the original novella, and I rather wish I’d kept that name for her) to find out what had motivated her to bring forth all these selkie-wives for the men of Rollrock Island, and the rest of the novel came from that search. It really turned into Misskaella’s story in the end, though it had begun as Daniel’s.

All sounds so simple now, when there was in fact a lot of switching and changing and trying-out of points of view and wondering, “What the hell is all this about anyway?” : D

 

KT: You’ve connected so strongly with the element of the stories that is about children, and the way these women are torn between their incredibly strong love for their children and their need for the sea. I like the way Daniel is so much at the center, the hybrid child who acts from deep compassion and love for his mother. This felt reparative to me in relationship to the selkie story, which I’ve always found to be such a tragic sort of myth about the incommensurability of male and female, masculine and feminine.

 

ML: I think the children’s point of view was the most powerful thing about it for me. The blokes who brought the selkies onto the land, they kind of deserved what they got, and they had the wit to know that their wives might leave at any time if they didn’t hide the skins properly. But the poor children, it must have seemed utterly mysterious and awful when their mothers disappeared. So I kind of let Daniel and his fellows have their cake and eat it, spend a bit of time in the sea with their mums and experience that life; know, to an extent, why she chose it over the land life, why she belonged there.

 

KT: Yes, at first the sea and the land seem like utterly separate incommensurable environments – but Daniel and the other boys manage to move between them. Did you also have The Little Mermaid fairytale in mind?

 

ML: Not strongly, no, although certainly there’s something of the mermaid’s pain at being on land that afflicts my selkies. In that story, her misery is much more highlighted than in selkie stories. Generally selkie women suffer silently. And selkie men don’t seem to suffer at all.

 

LJ: I think for me the notion of being drawn “back to the water” has several levels. It is about the way we, like the selkies, yearn to return that state that Daniel in Margo’s novel says was his experience of the sea – utter lack of anxiety, or time and all human things like worry and the general daily challenges of what it is to be human. Also, that we spend 9 months of our lives in amniotic watery fluid. So the sea is a returning of sorts. And then we evolved from the sea, grew feet and clambered up the shore.

 

ML: Lisa, I never thought about Daniel’s spell in the sea as being a return to the womb, but of course!

 

LJ: Yes, I was most struck by the oceanic sense he experienced quite literally in the water. The twins in my novel are in a sense joined – North is a “land girl” and Finn, who is born with fins and gills, is a “water girl”. But when one goes too far from the other, there is a tug, like they are joined in some way. So in a sense we all live on thresholds, those liminal spaces between land and sea. Always returning to the sea and leaving it. The pier is a good example of this, neither in nor out of the water.

 

ML: I think also we’re just set up to yearn. Possibly it’s an evolutionary thing; the yearniest humans get to survive. But all this searching for the perfect placement in the world, the perfect state of being, the trying out of different roles, the disappointment with what we’ve got and what’s easily accessible to us; all that’s going on in this type of story, in the background.

 

KT: I really like this idea of evolution selecting for yearning.

 

ML: “Yearning” may just be a nice way of saying “competitive” : )

 

KT: But makes competition sound so much more poetic! Lisa, Finn struck me as being something like the Little Mermaid or a selkie herself – literally a fish out of water.

 

LJ: I think that for Finn, at least, there is a sense of homecoming in returning to the sea.: For me, seeing goldfish out of water is one of my big phobias! I once came home to find our large fish tank had cracked open and all the fish were lying gasping in the room, some up against the wall, on the carpet, behind the couch. And I had to run around putting them all back in a bucket. It was terrifying!

I love these lines about water, from the American poet Mary Oliver, from her poem “Some Things, Say the Wise Ones”: “But water is a question, so many living things in it, / but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming / generosity, how can they write you out?”

 

ML: Water is a question, I like that. I found it much more of a question before I snorkelled in it; the sea was just this lid, hiding things. Now that I can see some of them, it’s less closed-off from me. But yes, still, swimming in the local pool, in this handy resisting-but-yielding matter, the question arises! And I tend to think it’s living, in itself. But then, I remember even when I was REALLY small, assuming things were living, things like grains of sand, and stones. So I’m just naturally anthropomorphic in my thinking. 😀

 

KT: And/or seeing the world as a writer of fantasy fiction might tend to see it… Lisa, I love all the Mary Oliver lines that you use as epigraphs in The Sunlit Zone – that one about the soft animal of the body is one of my favourites. You also use a marvellous epigraph from Winifred Snow that seemed so right not only for the section it heads, but the whole novel in a way: “The ocean is tonic incarnate for the technological world.”

 

LJ: Yes, Winifred Snow is one of my favourite poets…as I worked deeper into The Sunlit Zone I became more aware of the ecological layer of the work, about how in mid life I stand astride two worlds: the world of fast-paced technology and the slower world of the past. Jack’s slow art of boat-building in the novel (couta boat building is knowledge passed down the generations), the fact he reads “hard copy”, and North’s parents’ resistance to technology and hybrid vegetable crops etc is part of this. I worry about the fast pace of our world, at the same time as I enjoy its benefits, like being able to do a three way skype interview…So the ocean as a tonic is really, for me, about a returning to the natural world that we have become so distracted from, and lost touch with.

 

KT: Lisa, sci-fi/speculative fiction is not a genre often associated with verse so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

 

LJ: Yes people have been asking me if I know of any other verse novels that draw on SF and spec fiction,  and I don’t. I didn’t sit down and think, now I am going to write a verse novel using those genres. But I guess it is an instinctive way to write for me, to blur the line between reality and enchantment. Also, the work usually tells me what kind of animal it wants to be, rather than the other way around.  I had been writing spec fiction short stories before this also.

Because The Sunlit Zone is set in 2050 in Melbourne, I also wanted to create the kind of world in which the reader could easily slide from our present way of living to the future, without feeling the gear change. So iphones become skin fones, real whales are now cloned whales, resort sand is coloured pink, floral goldfish are the norm to match the decor of your couches, that sort of thing. Margaret Atwood does it in Oryx and Crake and she was a big influence.

 

ML: I’ve been reading a lot of Australian history for my next novel, and last night I came across a wonderful section on water in a book called Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends, by Pamela Lukin Watson: “A clan or person of this totem must regard all water as sacred, and similarly water-bearing things such as hakea trees and certain water birds; each must be acknowledged as sharing the same substance as the person or tribe involved. People of the water totem needed to be very circumspect in their behaviour to any body of water; they could not shout before it, but had to take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink; they could not foul the water, nor could they tramp angrily about the creek banks.”

 

KT: The complexity of the water totem is really fascinating to me. Some Aboriginal people in Northern Australia have a very specific water totem, the sparkle on water.

 

ML: Yes, she’s talking about Indigenous people of the Channel Country in Queensland. I always think of a visit to the beach as a form of rinsing out my head; the noise and repetition of the waves, and of course the fact that they look very much as if they’re intent on scouring the beach clean. It seems like a naturally healing thing.

 

LJ: That’s nice – the ebb and flow of the waves as cleaning the beach and cleansing us at the same time. And I think, at least in the west, we are at risk of losing our capacity to be able to talk to elemental things such as water. That is why Mary Oliver is such an important poet to me. Also, I love the way those waves just keep on rolling in and out, in and out, no matter what. The way river water runs around stones in the same pattern for years on end, without changing its course.

 

ML: Yes, Lisa, the attitude of having to “take care to speak to it in a quiet voice before squatting to drink” is so un-Western, yet seems so right to my mind. The idea of acknowledging the whole system that you’re contributing to and taking from, every time you do the taking. Just this morning when I was on my bike ride, it was a misty morning and several people had come out and hosed down their cars to get the condensation off them. Water all over the road, no one using the cars yet; it seemed very profligate. Wouldn’t have used that much more energy going over the windows with a squeegee. <–Curmudgeonly thought. But there was no respectful speaking to the water before using it, that’s for sure… (Not that I do, every time I turn on a tap. But perhaps I ought to.)

 

KT: I guess the drought is really over! Lisa includes “Water Police” in her future – very convincing.

 

LJ: Well, I thought of the roller coaster at Luna Park in Melbourne, and how close it is to the sea shore there. That was when I was writing the book. Then after I finished it, I saw all these maps people have been drawing of rising tide levels that are predicted to actually cover this area and flood it in the decades to come, and then I saw a photo of the roller coaster washed out to sea in NY when Hurricane Sandy hit. I think the water police are not far off!

 

ML: We definitely had patrolling rangers monitoring water usage during the drought.

 

KT: I remember that. No hosing down the driveway, etc. I still have that attitude, which I think is particularly Australian in some way, driven by that drought consciousness.

 

LJ: Yes, and I think all these things are very important. But do not go deep enough into us establishing a more profound connection with environment, the way indigenous people have. One of the things I’d like to say about Margo’s book is that after I finished it I felt like I was still in its world, in the dreamy underwater word of the selkies, and also in the town.

 

KT: Yes, Lisa, and this is exactly what I want from a book, to take you under and let you stay there, like a dream.

 

ML: That’s a lovely thing to say, Lisa! I did want it to be very intense – I think because the selkie tales (and a lot of fairy tales) are so very matter-of-fact about their magic. Outrageous things happen – people turning into animals, ghosts, magical swords – but in fact the stories relate them as if purposely avoiding evoking a sense of wonder; they’re just the baldest, barest plot devices to move things along in the right way. I really wanted the weirdness of the change between animal and human (and I guess between animal and human environments) to come through strongly.

 

KT: Margo, what you’ve just said about the everyday-ness of magic as it’s represented in fairytales is really interesting – your work definitely has a sense of uncanny estrangement about it, an almost uncomfortable sense of going into another very different world. I wonder if you have read Among Others by Jo Walton? I love the anti-climactic low-key descriptions of magic in that book but in her case it actually elevates the sense of weirdness I think.

 

ML: I totally love Among Others, for exactly that reason. Love those prickly, cantankerous fairies! And it made me think, oh, maybe there IS a way to write the more memoirish story-ideas I’ve been having, without being as literal as memoir generally is…

 

KT: That sounds very interesting and makes me wonder if there will be cantankerous seal people in your memoir.

 

ML: Oh definitely. Possibly a cantankerous sea elephant or two as well!

 

KT: Bring on the cantankerous quotidian fanciful creatures of memoir!

 

ML: *embroiders that on a sampler and sticks it above writing-desk*

 

KT: Lisa, I wanted to say how beautiful the cover is for The Sunlit Zone – I used an image by the same artist, Samantha Everton, on the cover of The Legacy, my first book. I love her work.

 

ML: Have either of you seen Martine Emdur’s paintings, of people floating in water – mostly women? Beautiful things.

 

KT: Uncanny! They are so like Samantha’s pictures. Margo, do you have any pictures of selkies that are particular favourites?

 

ML: There aren’t many very good ones – they tend to be a bit My Little Pony in style. But my selkies scrapbooks Flickr set gives a good idea of the kinds of images that inspired me. Selkies tend to be very sentimentalised-over, bit like mermaids. It’s hard to find really good images that capture their mystery.

 

LJ: Margo’s selkie figures are so dark – I think her book cover also captures this. I love the idea of creating a scrapbook like this, Margo. I have collected a few images myself, mostly news items (but striking images) from the world that have occurred after I wrote my novel. I have one of the rollercoaster submerged in the sea after the New York floods

 

ML: Phoargh, that rollercoaster is terrific, especially the wrecked-ness of it. Did you see the flood picture of the lit-up merry-go-round, surrounded by water? Similar kind of weirdness.

 

LJ: Oh…my…god. Thank you – that is truly haunting and amazing….

 

Post script

KT: a couple of days after we spoke, the submerged roller coaster is finally being dismantled.

 

 

Margo Lanagan is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels and short stories. The Brides of Rollrock Island, a modern versionretelling of the traditional selkie myth (published in Australia as Sea Hearts), won the two 2012 Aurealis Awards (for Best Young Adult Novel and Best Fantasy Novel), and was shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize and the a 2013 British Fantasy Award. Her short stories have garnered many awards, nominations and shortlistings. Black Juice was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, won two World Fantasy Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. Red Spikes won the CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year,  and a Horn Book Fanfare title, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s’ Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her novel Tender Morsels won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was also a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Margo lives in Sydney.

She maintains a blog at www.amongamidwhile.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @margolanagan.

 

Lisa Jacobson is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. Her new verse novel is The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands Press, 2012). This book was recently shortlisted for the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize, the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the 2012 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize (University of Melbourne) and, as a manuscript, for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work has been published in Australia, New York, London and Indonesia. She shares a bush block in Melbourne with her partner and daughter. More at http://lisajacobson.org/

 

Kirsten Tranter is a co-founder of The Stella Prize and the author of the internationally published, critically acclaimed novels A Common Loss and The Legacy. The Legacy was a Kirkus Reviews Debut of the Year in 2010, and was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, the Indy prize for debut fiction, and the ABIA literary fiction award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Kirsten completed a PhD in English Literature at Rutgers University in 2008, and is widely published as a critic. She grew up in Sydney and is soon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. More at kirstentranter.com

The Stella Prize is a major new literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing, awarded for the first time in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds. It is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. The Stella Prize rewards one writer with a prize of $50,000 and recognizes writing across genres by women that is excellent, original and engaging. Extracts from The Sunlit Zone, The Brides of Rollrock Island (aka Sea Hearts), and all the shortlisted works are available at thestellaprize.com.au

Water, Writing and Submerged Fairground Attractions: Kirsten Tranter talks with Australian authors Lisa Jacobson and Margo Lanagan