On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme this month: 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?

 

STALINA VILLARREAL: Never would I consider the audience to develop the content of characterization. I think of the audience when considering accessibility and pacing, even formal poetics, but character itself seems to exude upon the exposure of rugged individuality, independent of others. For example, one of my poems has a female speaker that admits to having stained underwear from menstruation, and I have been thanked by females in the audience for saying such commonly unsaid truths. Originally, I had thought that the taboo I described with this character would have been unpopular, but as it turns out, the conflict of the plot helps fuel the character’s motives. The effect results in freedom of characterization. On the other hand, the challenge then is to answer: What kind of pursuit of freedom should the character have? I disagree with the screenwriting convention that each character only has one motive, for three-dimensional characters usually have more than one motive, even if the second motive is minor in comparison. The sister can be a mother and can be an enemy all at the same time, depending on the context. Transitioning is the key to taking turns with the motives, so I suppose that now I have contradicted myself by correlating the motives with the pacing. To be more precise, I should distinguish that I do not think of the audience when defining the character’s motives as I write, but I do think of the audience as I edit the proportions and sequencing of the writing.

Maybe I should also disclaim that my artistic background is in visual art, so my characters usually have a visual motive that I assign: a spiral, chicken scratch, a square, and so forth. This allows me to have what I call the dominant motive, but characters often have recessive motives. For instance, I know that I strive to have a circular motive, as it seems to me the most perfect shape, yet instead, I am bombarded with my spiraling, chicken scratching, cutting angles, holes, and stitches. Still, while my characters are usually fictional, I displace some of my emotional truths to make the characters molded to a vision that I can accept in existence, even if I disapprove of their potential popularity or infamy.

Perhaps I still haven’t answered the concern about the gender angle. I disagree with the double standards and the stereotyping, yet I actively pursue the feminist notion that women can be the subjects of desire rather than objects of desire. To me, this means rejecting the art history claims that circles are purely a feminine shape and that angular shapes are solely masculine. All genders have their moments of blurred behavior, hence the multifaceted characterization. I consider my gender bias to be queer.

Nonetheless, the majority of my work has what I call hidden characterization. Oftentimes, we do not know if the shy person became shy because of experience or if the person was born with a temperament that causes this person to be shy. Even when we think we have known a person for years, we sometimes still make an unintentional mistake that hurts because of a lack of understanding behind motives.

 

IRE’NE LARA SILVA: I don’t think ‘likeability’ matters at all. I don’t read or write to find ‘likeable’ characters. ‘Likeable’ characters aren’t often doing interesting things. Sometimes they are, but if you give me a choice between a character baking cookies and dreaming of love or a character waking up from a nightmare of killing their best friend, my interest is more likely to be piqued by the latter. What I want are characters that are compelling—characters dealing with situations that are pushing them to the limits of their comfort zones, their identities, their relationships, their coping abilities, etc. People living through those situations are often not ‘likeable,’ but we, as readers, empathize because we know what it is to live through those situations, and know that we were perhaps not always ‘likeable’ in those situations ourselves. Or, we’re fascinated by the unpredictability of the characters’ responses and what it tells us about them.

The gendered expectations of ‘niceness,’ of superficial beauty, of ‘keeping it together,’ fail to offer us opportunities to illuminate the human experience. I learn nothing—as a reader, writer, woman, or human being—if life isn’t illuminated, its brighter aspects as well as its darker and less likeable parts. Otherwise, I’m just being entertained. That’s not to say that I dislike being entertained—sometimes I want to read a romance novel or watch a sitcom or go to a movie theatre for a big summer blockbuster. And that’s perfectly fine—but to suggest that, as a woman writer, my foremost concern should be my characters’ likeability, is to limit me to use 3 crayons when I could have 128.

For example, I just finished working on a short story about a character with cannibalistic tendencies who’s deciding whether or not to give in to the desire to ‘consume’ her lover. Likeable? No. Compelling? I hope so.

 

SV: I agree: Transgression is welcomed in literature yet rejected in real life. Or at least we pretend to abide by our own norms yet tend to fall for temptations or to experience turmoil beyond our boundaries. Hence, literature has a purpose in this gray area of subversion, as even the most traditional Western literature depends on conflict to drive the plot and subsequent characterization.

I would even dare to say that humans find an attraction toward otherness, for obsessions of hatred and fear still inspire us to move or hide. The advantage is that an artistic representation of the grotesque is more approachable since it is more removed. The distance but exposure together allow for desensitization—or at least give us room to file more categories in our brain. Otherwise, we would never see monstrosity like the loving vampire or the endearing zombie.

As an audience member, I have always experienced the consciousness Brecht describes when he asserts that the audience never forgets reality, never fully gets lost in art, even with my escapist lens. Visually, this interplay can be seen like the localized color of painting: The shade of the pigment in a solid can be altered by its reflected light in the air. In other words, the artist and audience are simultaneously both codependent and independent. The latter of this duality concurs that likeability is irrelevant to any type of character selected for writing, and I believe this irrelevance should be the writer’s carte blanche. Worrying about the audience is futile because discomfort is already inevitable in potent writing in the same way that strong spices prick the taste buds. As a writer, I use revision as a way to rearrange the presentation for the codependence in the dining room, but acquired tastes seem to be too arbitrary to limit the writer’s choices in the kitchen.

Lastly, I agree that true learning requires a challenge, and that art can serve this necessary pain on a palpable platter.

 

ILS: I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made between an ‘artist’s audience’ and ‘the market’. When it comes to the ‘market,’ the work of art–book, painting, film, etc–is a ‘product’ and its value is determined by what people are willing to spend for it and/or by how many units of it will fly off the shelf. ‘Audience’ and ‘market’ are often conflated. Returning to those summer blockbuster movies–their goal is to attract as much of the market as possible, make as much money as possible, attract as large of a following as possible. And so, they use likability as a storytelling shortcut, often using familiar actors, and for the most part, sticking to established plot-lines and ways of telling a story. They have ‘test audiences’ and whole departments strategizing on behalf of their product.

But an artist’s audience is a different thing. I think of my audience all the time–before, during, and after writing–because it is my goal to tell a story, to communicate an experience, to invite a response. But I don’t conflate my idea of what audience is and what the market is. My work is not a product. I know this will sound idealistic/romantic/naive to many. How can it not matter how many books are sold? My ability to live off my writing depends on it. My work’s ability to reach a larger audience depends on it. A press’s or agent’s desire to publish/represent my work depends on it.

But I didn’t come to writing for any of those reasons. I haven’t poured time and energy and heartbreak and decades into my writing in order to have to deform/mutilate/hinder my vision, my language, or my stories. The audience I’m seeking, the one I’ve been writing for, is the audience that needs my work.

In Seven Nights, Borges makes an argument against the idea of compulsory reading. To roughly paraphrase, compulsory happiness only should direct the reader on their way. If the reader isn’t drawn to a book, then it’s a book that wasn’t written for them. Literature is diverse and rich enough that it will offer the reader something they will want to read.

Reading that passage, I had a revelation.  If literature was rich enough to offer something to every reader, then conversely, there was a reader for every kind of book. And books did not have to appeal to every reader. Books were written especially for some readers. And that freed me. To me, it meant that I would eventually find my readers. Find the ones I was writing for–who would find something they needed in my words.

I have been often humbled and awed by my readers’ responses. When you have elicited tears from readers or audience members, when you have had perfect strangers share their personal stories, pains, and triumphs with you–then the numbers on the page do not matter.

My life has been saved by poetry, by stories. I don’t say that lightly. I would not be here. I would not be who I am. I would not have enough heart or vision to care or to speak. I owe a tremendous debt to the work of others that saved me. My repayment is to strive to create work that may save others, that may help them heal, or that, at least, may enable them to go on.

I write from my gut. From my base chakra. From my vagina, as a friend once said. Personally, I have an affinity for the word ‘cunt.’ In my own personal act of language re-appropriation, I like to say (or at least think), I write from my cunt. To write from the heart sounds Hallmark-y, so I will stay away from that, but I mean that too–I write from the seed-filled center of my blossoming heart. All of this to say that I write from a visceral body. What I long for in art–as an experience and as an artist is the direct opposite of  Brecht’s consciousness. Give me the Stendahl effect–where all consciousness and all our ideas of separation cease to exist. As Stendahl wrote, “I was in a sort of ecstasy…Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul…” As a reader, I want to feel the minute and the infinite. I want to have new eyes. I want the world re-made. I want my senses sharpened. I want to feel that my heart isn’t the only one beating inside my chest. I want to feel the preciousness of life.

Transgression for the sake of transgression, monstrosity for the sake of monstrosity, pain for the sake of pain, pushing boundaries just to push boundaries is not what my work is about. Perhaps I should have used another story as an example—a few years ago I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a pregnant, almost suicidally depressed woman taking care of her terminally ill father. She spends most of the story speaking to her unborn child, walking along the ocean, and fantasizing about killing her father. The point of the story was not to transgress or to provide pain for the reader to consume. The point of the story was to share an experience as I felt it in my body. Returning to the idea of likability—there was no way I could see where I could tell this story if I insisted on a likable character to hold a reader’s attention.

 

SV: While the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘market’ is important, during my education in the United States, I was taught early on that the poetry industry loses money instead of gaining it, that poetry usually pertains to the gift economy more than the actual market. Perhaps the fact that my poetry has only been published in Mexico contributes to this bias. I never think of my work as sellable, although I do put a price on it simply because I live in a capitalist nation; however, this is mostly a compromise in the adaptation of my aftermath of having lived as a red-diaper baby in a contradictory atmosphere.

I’d also like to clarify that I do not associate only ‘likability’ with ‘audience’; on the contrary, I was loosely trying to explain that both love and hatred are essential in art, that the worst art is when the audience is apathetic. As I see art as a sensory form of communication, ‘likeability’ and taboo must combine for the audience to feel. That does not mean that the description of a panhandler on the corner has to be that of a famous violinist, but it means that the artist has to play with arrangement, whether the likeability-taboo mixture is simultaneous, consecutive, or a combination thereof. Again, I have been influenced by visual arts, in which most products are about arrangement rather than invention. Because I am a maximalist, variety within intense patternmaking is my goal.

In my extremist perspective, I have to say that I identify with the minimalist Philip Glass regarding art being a nervous compulsion. I tried to sell out many times because the life of an artist is taxing. In spite of my efforts to be part of the mainstream, I would have committed suicide if it weren’t for art, so I only live because art motivates me to get up in the morning. Because I have a day job, sometimes art is a long-term goal rather than an immediate one, but I have to think about art every single day, even if it’s in an abstract or brief moment.

With that being said, my artistic motivation is independent of the audience. My “hidden characterization” is actually quite unpopular. Some writers have even questioned how it is possible for me to have an MFA with my “wild” writing style. I just follow my code and hope that later someone else (an audience member) has a code that can overlap in a Venn diagram, not 100 percent of the time but at least enough to make the person feel (negatively, positively, or both) at least once. Even when audience has booed me off the stage, that behavior still requires energy. Both negative and positive energy electrify me because interacting with others is a shocking yet enriching process. I use the audience’s free energy instead of paying shrinks, curanderas, or churches. In a way, I am the vampire of human electrodes; I use both art production and audience consumption as a healing process for my synapses in everyday life.

Now that I have confessed that I am a selfish person seeking and sucking energy through art (as opposed to sports or other fueling mechanisms), I have to say that preciousness is not part of my style. Especially since I hide character, I have to engage in experiences that strengthen my own character—usually challenging myself uncomfortably—so that some of the character development can trickle into the writing, even if the writing is fictional. I write using my gross motor, engaging viscerally, but I revise with my fine motor, focusing cerebrally without erasing the rugged skeleton. To grow, I have to step out of my comfort zone, and my ultimate outcome, as my painting professor once suggested, should be to produce works of varying value to avoid a plateaued state of existence.

 

ILS: You’ve piqued my curiosity with a few things you said: first, about ‘wild’ writing styles and MFA’s. As part of my own journey as a writer, I had a brief period of being anti-MFA because 1) I didn’t have one, 2) most of the writers of color that I knew had had extremely negative experiences in MFA programs, and 3) I feared that my developing voice would be crippled before it could find itself. Nowadays, I would happily go to one if I had the time, energy, and financial resources to do so—because I have my own voice now, because more MFA programs are available in more diverse places with more diverse faculty, because I can’t think of anything more lovely than 2+ years to focus on my writing, and because of the increased access having an MFA would give me to writer opportunities. With that said, I also have to say that I often feel like an ‘outsider’ because I don’t have an MFA. I’m not an academic. I’m not ‘trained.’ As much as I have read, I can’t claim familiarity with the American ‘canon.’ To my bewilderment, my stories were often judged as ‘too experimental’ or ‘un-marketable’ by various presses that I thought would be receptive to my work. I still don’t understand how they are ‘experimental’. They’re merely stories I told in the best way I could—with an Indigenous/feminist/poetic sensibility, yes, but not deliberately ‘experimental’.

Recently, also, I’ve been re-hashing an old argument with myself about how ‘validity’ as an artist is determined. To what degree do we look to degrees and teaching positions and publications and life arrangements as markers of validity as artists? By life arrangements, I mean the ideas I consider to be antiquated or elitist—that a woman artist/writer must be independently funded, funded by a husband, spouse-less and child-less, or otherwise free of all care-giving responsibilities. In order to create, I constantly have to silence all the voices that say that I cannot be a writer because I am from poor, working-class roots, because I work seven days a week to support myself and my brother, because I am his sole caregiver, because I am not free to travel widely, because I don’t have an MFA, because….because…because…

I hear so many women struggling to claim their identities as artists/writers…as well as the struggle to claim time, energy, and resources for their work. How do you see this argument for validity as artists working out in your life and in the women around you?

And returning to the idea of ‘writing wild,’ what is it that makes some writing wild? I’ve had my writing called ‘wild’ as well and have been left wondering what it means to be a  woman writer whose work is called wild, raw, primal, etc…more specifically, to be a woman writer of color whose work is called wild and raw and primal. When is it what I would like it to mean—that I connected through words to my blood and my gut? And when is it that it denotes that I am being perceived as writing primitively? That my writing is accidental/instinctive/un-educated…and not the result of decades of contemplation, deliberate choices, and painstaking revision?

Another point that piqued my interest was the difference between perceptions of poetry in the U.S. and Mexico. While we are both queer-identified Latinas, I feel that our backgrounds are probably very different from one another. How do you feel that your background and your queer identification inform how you perceive the creation of your art—whether visual or written—and how you came to identify as an artist/writer?

 

SV: To answer your question fully, I’d have to be very narrative, which is not inherent in my nature. To apply what John Locke wrote of a restricted freedom, I usually live very reserved in terms of expression, for even my journals don’t fully hold my deepest desires. I hear the singer, guitarist, and songwriter David Rovics with a disclaimer: “It was no one that I knew who ran the plunger up my ass / It’s just that I was told to speak freely.” Although he inspires me to practice the First Amendment, my unusual upbringing quickly taught me that I offend and argue less if I just stay quiet. Marginalization was imposed upon being named after Stalin for my first name and upon being named (for my middle name) after Emmanuelle Arsan, who wrote erotic literature—among a myriad of characters, the one that mother points out is the one about the wife of a diplomat who slept with the wives of other diplomats. I think my parents wanted a daughter with character. To make my identity even more pluralized, I also had an epiphany during my formative years when I read Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension about cultural proxemics: I have some Arab tastes from my mestizaje that partially like to obscure the figureground. The latter impacts my aesthetics most, but that may be caused not from lineage but rather from experience—despite the gringa rhetoric of tolerance that my (also pluralist) mother instilled in my brain, the public seems to be very intolerant when confronted with lack of commonalities. My art, then, serves as my shield. I call my poetics partial poetics because I only share an assemblage of fragments and because I am biased.

As I was raised by a feminist, it has been my understanding that I have a fundamental freedom to defend but that the struggle for freedom is ongoing. My mother explained to me that when she was young, she used to attack with expressions like el tuyo and chinga tu padre, but that she later realized that succumbing to gender-associated insults means to stoop down to the level of the original oppressors. As a result, I refuse call a person words like bitch, but I have caught myself degenerating by using the word as a verb to mean to gripe. I’d like to diminish this behavior since the only linguistic difference between the genders that I’ve read about is minor. According the linguistics blog Language Log written by linguistics professors, women tend to apologize more. Is apologizing bitchy? Maybe slightly, but not in the way that the word bitch is used. While this misperception may seem trivial, it still shows the desensitization of language amid popularity. Society seems to be the one that oversimplifies, and my struggle is that I live in a country that likes to tag everything.

Among those tags are words like queer, Latina, and so forth, and I recognize that I was born in the seventies when some labels like Chicana were used to empower. Sure, I can use these existent terms to explain who I am, and I enjoy that pluralism allows me to adopt multiple identities. Nevertheless, predetermined tags are uncomfortable—I hate them. For instance, the word agnostic seems to supply the definition that others like most for my theism, but it does not satisfy my own delineations, as I am an intrapersonal theist but an interpersonal atheist. This search for answers using tags may be part of human nature, but it seems hypocritical that inquiry can be portrayed as being rude. For example, it seems unfair when people ask where I am from. I answer “Houston,” but they really want to know why I am not like them. My answer does not suit them, so further questions must be asked, even though it is impolite for me to ask about lineage in return when they, in turn, assert being natives. In other words, because I am an immigrant (Mexicana), it’s easier for them to ask me about location, but when I ask about the America of immigrants and lineage, the mood usually turns sour. Self-identification seems to be safer, but even so, it’s still more complex than it seems. Another example is class. Economically speaking, I fall under the upper part of the lower class, not rich enough to be middle class, yet that is not the type of term that I talk about in my personal life. I identify as a pinko, someone who is not communist but is sensitive to communists. I mention this because of my strong-but-nonstandard beliefs, yet demographics tend to ask about given-but-not-acquired standards. I do like that some of the tags mentioned above are more politicized and could be seen as acquired, but if I had to select one tag or two tags to flaunt, I would feel fragmented because I do not write just chic lit, only bi-chic lit, solely Chicana literature, purely poesía frontriza, or simply Marxist literature. To answer your question in its simplest form, description defines things without naming them, so characteristics of these tags in my writing and art are evident in sequence, simultaneity, or both.

I treat language as a material, and as much as writing is about the human experience, I still see it as an inanimate object that I forge, saw, solder, file, and sand like a blue-collar worker. Poetry may be a white-collar activity, but again, the supply supersedes the demand, making the profits look like an utter loss. Although in Mexico the government spends more money on poetry than its more affluent neighbor the United States, I don’t usually have access to these funds, as I was given the impression that more opportunities are given to young Mexican poets while the older ones need to have similar expectations of publishing as the poets in the United States. There is a possibility that I am misguided in regards to the very economics I evade. I do know that I am limited in my applications in Mexico by the types of identification documents I have, and one essential one has to be obtained by living in Mexico. Consequently, I disassociate the idea that I would receive money for my work, even though it occasionally happens sporadically, briefly, and marginally. For materiality, I still rely on the breadth my visual art, a mark of my hand, for the depth of my pencil-pushing and finger-typing writing; synaesthesia allows me to make poetry my primordial and primary form of communication.

The most obvious characteristic that the audience remarks is the code switching. This may be why it’s easiest for me to blend among Chicano poets and Mexicano poets who like bilingual work. Being part of the Generation 1.5, I partially use sound to cantinflear, a process I learned from my father but created by the popular Mexican comedian Carlos Cantinflas to gibber using similar-sounding words, which I speculate that in the United States could be accepted phonetically by slam poets but could be accepted lexically by poets familiar with modern and post-modern movements that emphasize abstraction as part of form rather than content. For form, I combine both Latinate and Anglo-Saxon rhythms and sounds to appeal to both my ear and possibly the audience’s ear. For monolinguals, I believe that readers familiar with Erza Pound are more likely to accept that I use more than one language, although the code switching probably creates a language barrier for many; however, for bilinguals, the wordplay is familiar when learning cognates and false cognates. Much of my work is a mistranslation about culture clash.

The gender part, on the other hand, when actually present, is the part of the content that is most graspable. I’m what some of my friends call futch, neither femme nor butch. I let the audience decide if my cyclone is a yoni from the heavens or a phallus from the earth.

I think that the reason why people call my poetry experimental is because I overtly force the reader to fill in the gaps, a process contrary to today’s information age. However, I feel that good art, even traditional art, has to challenge what has been previously created, and that this particular process requires experimentation, even if the experimentation is not deemed as peculiar. In essence, I disagree with the societal associations of the term experimental.

The word wild is usually used to describe fauna and flora that are not human, so I was insulted when my work was labeled with this subhuman adjective. Granted, I do animate art media like wood, but I sarcastically told a friend, “Bring on the antlers!” Perhaps I am unruly at times, but what I learned in art school is that every decision has to look intentional, even if there is a nonsensical part. I’m starting to move toward the use of the oxymoron, but I still allow for the juxtaposition of the unexpected, which sometimes appears to be nonsensical because I seek syncopated hyperpluralism. Who was is who said that Frost was not writing about the choice between two roads but multiples? The road is the erred ode is the era odd, ha!

I could not be an artist today had I not been formally trained simply because I started out green as an engineering major in college, but I do not think that a piece of paper legitimizes an artist—experience does. I lucked out that I started out at a school that did not require a portfolio. I knew in my calculus class when I was having emotional responses to the graphs on the board that I belonged in an art-history class, not a math class. Today, I am still pathos driven; as an English teacher, my students tell me that they enjoy my instruction when I make myself emotionally vulnerable in the classroom. Alas, I have not left academia, but I still feel that prose is a coercion of society, although I believe everyone should have access to utilitarian prose if the individual chooses so. I’ve just always been insecure about my prose because of standardized testing; I even think that, unlike the writers who take pride in honing their prose, I allow mine to wilt, leaving my own prose to be left boring unless it has poetic moments.

I do agree with you that having a few months to eat, live, and breathe poetry is phenomenal, but in the aftermath, you still have to reconcile with reality. After you overcome the post-MFA withdrawal of the writing community, you have to establish a writing community to interact with regularly. Further, not only do you still have to make ends meet, but you also have to deal with the fact that aging leaves a more decrepit body each day. For a loner like me, my mind yields my escapism.

And as you make the decisions that you live with, it is now my turn to inquire: How do you make your own decisions between identity and writing? Also, how much of your experience would you say is typical or atypical?

 

ILS: When I was a child and young reader, I had a thing for stories about foundlings—everything from The Ugly Duckling to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles to Jane Eyre. There was something about not being recognized for who you were that struck a strong chord in me. Whether it was the duckling coming into its beauty or how Taran the assistant pig-keeper became a hero or Jane Eyre’s insistence on autonomy, it was the tension between destiny/nature and the perceptions of the external world that fascinated me.

Growing up, I never felt like I belonged to my family. I didn’t fit. I wasn’t the quiet, obedient, pretty child my family and culture expected me to be. I talked back and fought with my brothers and was too dark skinned and ‘fat’ for that. I loved words and books and daydreaming, but my parents were illiterate, with only a first- or second- grade education. I was passionate about libraries and ideas. My siblings were into partying and football and tv and disco and erasing their culture so that they could become white-identified consumers.

My parents, most of my grandparents, and so on were born here in the United States, but due to that lack of education and living in South Texas, I spoke Spanish until I started kindergarten and we thought of ourselves as “Mexicans from this side.” I learned and claimed, in turn, ‘Hispanic’ and then ‘Mexican-American’ and then ‘Chicana’ and then ‘Latina’ and then ‘Xicana.’ What ran under all of those labels, though, was Indigena/Indigenous. This land is my homeland and the homeland of my ancestors. The dominant society may try to make me “Other,” but down to the marrow in my bones, I know this land is my home.

I was very defensive of my family. I’m not the oldest, but due to how much older my older siblings were, I often ended up being my parents’ translator with the English-speaking world. I was there when my mother was looked down upon in the grocery store because she couldn’t fill out a personal check. My father would have me call when we were migrating to a new town and needed to rent a house or apartment for a few months. The landlord or landlady would tell me all about the rental property, schedule a time for us to come over, sound glad on the phone that we were ready to move in immediately. And I was there when my father would knock on the door—they’d take one look at us and shout, “It’s not available anymore,” as the door slammed shut.

So there was that conflict between me and my family, the conflict between my family and the world, the conflict between some of my sibling’s desire to acculturate and my insistence on retaining my Spanish, on learning Mexican ranchera songs, on claiming my Indigenous ancestry—and that’s before even involving my desire to write and my identity as a queer woman.

I went to college firmly believing that writing would only ever be a hobby. But everything—my understanding of myself and the world around me— completely changed when I first read This Bridge Called My Back and other work by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga and bell hooks and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko and more. As for the queer identity—that took a bit longer to coalesce. I was comfortable with bisexual for many years, but I never felt the need to come out to my family. I was fine with the silence that kept the peace—and through those years, my youngest brother’s gay identity and the conflict that set off with our father and other siblings completely overshadowed my own journey. I came out officially to a few friends in 2002, but my perception then and since is that most people can’t figure out how to label me or where I fit within their paradigms of the masculine and feminine. The first time I heard ‘futch’ though, I thought, “I could work with that.”

I’ll agree that the tags and labels are a pain—in my opinion, mostly because they set us up for people’s expectations and shut down dialogue. Tags are an easy way for differences to be prioritized above commonalities. But I have felt kinship and connection with people from vastly different backgrounds and lives. When people are concerned with beauty, with language, with emotional/psychological/spiritual truths, there are so many more points at which to connect.

At different points, my being a queer Latina with my particular background might directly inform my work in ways that can be easily seen—but just as often, it won’t. furia, my first book of poetry, was much more about grief and loss and family than it was about anything else. My short stories—while they are about my cultures and my histories—are not autobiographical. The poetry manuscript I’m polishing up now is about diabetes, illness, and healing. And the novel I’m writing—about a Mexican-American hermaphrodite living on the border and trying on different genders and sexualities –may be the ground where everything collides…and who knows what I’m going to write after that?

It took me a long time to claim the label of ‘writer’ for myself. I still remember that moment in 1999 when I was taking an informal six-week writing class where the daily journaling exercise finally made me realize that I had an unlimited supply of words, ink, and paper at my disposal. Much more than I could ever exhaust. It took even longer to really claim for myself that I would see my dream realized—a shelf of different books with my name on the spine.

Books with wild writing inside—wild the way Natalie Goldberg describes it. I like the association of wild to flora and fauna, to the natural world, to the ways we are both animal and spiritual beings. To be wild and original and connected to the essence of things the way Lorca speaks of it in his essay about El Duende. I want to own primal, to speak words that penetrate and resound beyond solely the level of intellect and theory.

 

 

ire’ne lara silva has lived in Austin, TX since 1998. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival (December 2012). Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Acentos Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mas Tequila Review, Pilgrimage, Bordersenses, Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders, CIPACTLI, Kweli Journal, The Worcester Review, Rhapsoidia, Soleado; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Palabra, The Mesquite Review, La Revista Literaria de El Tecolote; Kalliope: A Journal of Women’s Literature & Art; among others. She is the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo member, a 2010 Cantomundo Inaugural Fellow, and the 2013 Fiction Finalist for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Gift of Freedom. ire’ne lara silva is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in October 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Aunt Lute Press will be publishing ire’ne’s first short story collection, flesh to bone, in October 2013. ire’ne and Rain C. Gomez  are currently co-editing an anthology titled, Chronically RED: Indigenous Bodies Writing and Resisting Chronic Illness in the Age of Paracolonial Occupation

 

 

Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal is a Mexican and Chicana poet, a translator, and an instructor of English. The book (H)emötoma by Minerva Reynosa has been the main focus of her translations, for which she attended World to World, Mundo a Mundo in 2009 to workshop poems from the book. She is also the translator of “Grace Shot,” by Luis Alberto Arellano in Sèrie Alfa: Artiliteratura, “Eight Fabulous Animals” by Ilan Stavans in Eleven Eleven, and nine poems by Minerva Reynosa in the latest Mandorla. She has an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stalina lives and works in Houston.


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On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

To the Water: Speaking of the Interior (Self)

by Melissa Buckheit

What are your ocean-crossing stories? If you were to describe your writing like a body of water, what body of water would it be and why?

I’ve always loved the Atlantic. I grew up near the Atlantic Ocean all of my childhood and into my college years. Its green-grey is very personal. My first collection, Noctilucent, is, in part, preoccupied with the absence of water. I lived landlocked in Colorado for four years and continue to do in Arizona since 2005. Darkness and night almost became a substitution for water, the ocean—almost. Both are very similar, which is why I can’t say one can stand for the other. To be outside at night and to be near the ocean—these spaces/experiences are kin. In the desert or the mountains of the West, one feels the absence of the ocean as keenly as one felt its presence near the harbor; here, memory takes over and my sense of this aspect of my home—water—is omnipresent.

For the past several years, I’ve been writing poems that have been preoccupied with the narratives of my family—immediate birth family, as well as extended family, ancestors, and relatives. In some sense, this means or includes narratives, patterns, scenarios, and stories that I’m aware of and perhaps play a part in—either as a witness, participant, or a “repository.” My sense of a “repository” is a bit like an archive in a library: I was given histories—family members’ perceptions, feelings, or memories—almost with the intention to hold or carry these narratives. One doesn’t always have a choice in the transmission of information; sometimes, one seeks the stories. Almost separate, but intentionally and organically connected, are the poems I’ve been writing about various migrations of sorts and thus, about lands, islands, oceans, and other bodies of water; countries and other physical and spatial demarcations; and preservation of culture, identity, and history. Somehow, these poems have been isolated and separated by time and place. Not surprisingly, there are these “waves,” as in energy (waves and particles), but also of water, which surround each of these times (historically), characters (relatives, family, ancestors, self), and places (the physical locales). These “waves” separate the poems by category but also connect them, therefore, by the intention and association of theme, sensibility, or kinship.

In the midst of these stories—places and times, all felt sensorially as if they were the present—is the act of moving between places, of moving across water and oceans, to arrive at a new place, to return to an old home. This act is almost what we do, isn’t it? Whether literally or of the felt sense (in mind, body, memory, words, movement, image), we embark and we return. I think sometimes it is something like trying to remember a past life or another self—the sense of a place or of a self is so familiar we almost can’t describe it without great effort. It is em-bodied and re-membered, so perhaps the mind has less need to carry it as something separate. Places, times, and people hold this for us—and writing is often landing on these small islets or knolls of land, isolate, almost empty. As the writer, we are alone but populated very distinctly by what lives there, in sense and memory.

Yet, I hate to have the ocean be mostly metaphor. I feel the ocean, personally, in the sense of my aforementioned analogy—it is a homeland, solitude, and release. When I was a child (think about 8 or 9), I always thought the best way to die would be to choose to stop breathing, while floating under the ocean. I felt that if one chose to let go of breath, that holding and attachment, it would be completely different than the struggle of drowning. I do not know this, but I still feel it to be true.

I think many people feel that a homeland is not a specific or defined country. The Atlantic Ocean was this ever-present sense throughout most of my childhood. It will always be my familiar, as I have lived on and in Long Island, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I love the Atlantic, its color, its cold, its harshness, and sharpness, its power and very nature. It is not a quiet ocean, it is not becalmed or soft by nature, although small shoals off Cape Cod in the summer can be gentle, to buoy face up to the sun-dazzled sky in July. Stars glint off of the water’s surface.

The “ocean-crossing story” that fills my brain most these days is quite common: it is the story of my relatives who came to America from Ireland, and also the Netherlands, Germany, and England, across the Atlantic, by boat around the turn of the century. A poem published in the April 2012 issue of Shearsman Magazine (UK), aptly titled “Narrative,” addresses my ideas and feelings around the sense of this movement:

Across the wide sea

I came

and you did not recognize me

for what I appeared to be:

the rust and grey water

with its broken remnants of seaweed

rocking, slapping against the side of many pilings anchored

in the vast and realist Atlantic,

which never lied to a soul

who drowned in its waves

or pretended to be anything

other than it was—

barren at times, welcoming, others

—a challenge to the people

who settled there.

In a sense, the story of this ocean-crossing, meaning those embodied in the poem, is about the narratives created in the transition from one country to another, from a homeland to a new homeland or foreign land, from culture left to culture found, supplemented by the aspects of self and community which make the trip with us. Sometimes, the immigrant or foreigner finds herself transformed; sometimes they find themselves lost or found or altered beyond recognition. Sometimes they are recognized in the new place, sometimes not. Although I am not an immigrant, at least not yet, I feel the depth of this even in the sense of where my ancestors, rather recently, came from (about a hundred years and a bit more ago). I feel the confusion at their confusion; I feel the loss here in the United States, as well as what was gained, which is much. I feel the strangeness at my return to a land and country (Ireland, for example), which is not mine but yet I have ties to, which knows and does not know me, which was referenced by some of my family often, in stories, memories, jokes. Yet these places remain utterly different and far more complex than the references we receive as repositories. And yet, in the felt sense, the Atlantic is the tie between two lands for these histories. The poem continues, ending:

Inside the vast sea,

I existed for centuries,

until I came to be born

and landed on a narrow

expanse of island—as after a long trip.

We were waiting to come to America,

my parents and I . . .

We came up through the Atlantic

but we were changed

and could no longer speak,

we had to learn language again,

Our sounds were rough and harsh to unfamiliar ears,

but with each other, intimately

we were shyly gentle,

our voices soft like honey.

I can’t say my writing is like a body of water, for the Atlantic is, itself, a thing that I cannot equate with another thing. I can say that the Atlantic is like sleep, an intimate. For me, this is largely due to its beauty, which is in part violent, and its truth, which is of the most honest nature.

Your first time at the ocean and how did you engage it?

I was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, very close to the ocean. I don’t remember my first moment there, but as a child and still as an adult, I love to watch the sea for long periods of time, particularly in the off season when the beach can be less congested. There is something like oblivion and emptiness in the horizon that draws me—the unrelenting distance; on the East Coast, one cannot easily see it, and the ocean is one of the only unencumbered views available. My parents often took me to Jones Beach (NY) to play; I remember the sand was soft and a very dark brown. I remember the sounds of Cicadas, Crickets, and Tree Frogs near Long Island Sound at night. I like to think that my first moment with the ocean was in utero, in the salt and water balance of my mother’s womb, before birth. I remember this as a quiet and serene space; our cells also contain a constant balance of water and salt, akin to the ocean, where life first coalesced.

After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water is connected to your consciousness? Have you ever drowned in one way or another?

The video, “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” was interesting in its intention of understanding and exploring the idea that realities and energies exist beyond the traditionally quantifiable world. I think that water is as much a barometer or rather a compound in a fluid state that is or can be altered or affected by a variety of things. I’m not sure I completely align in my belief with all of Dr. Emoto’s ideas about the causality between words and intentions and the effects on the crystalline structure of frozen water, as if the water had a sentient consciousness. It seems somewhat too literal, as if forgetting that water need not be a sort of Rorschach test with direct implications, almost black and white ones, but is part of the whole of our beings (and any living thing, in fact). We know that emotion, energy, and communication affect all beings—for why would they not?

When I think of the self, consciousness, and water, I arrive again at the written word—poetry or fiction or non-fiction—and the nature of immersion (in water or writing or what is required to get to the writing). Your theme for July is “To the Water”; for me, this phrase was very potent, ripe with references and meaning. Virginia Woolf, who has been a great influence and voice (in the sense that many have read her in order to know or follow their own path) for many female writers, says in The Second Common Reader, “The other side of the mind is now exposed—the dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company.” This was in an essay titled, “How Should One Read a Book?” She was speaking in part about what is necessary to write and, therefore, read literature truly, i.e., with truth. I believe that to write or dance or make art—any art form that seeks to communicate in some way about human experience—one must go “to the water” and in “to the water.” Woolf knew herself to be different in some ways in company (around other people), than alone (in solitude). Many writers are like this—I am like this.

One must go into the self, alone, free from pretense, without judgment and despite fear, to write, and this side is dark, not because it is “evil” or related to some other dualistic understanding of human nature, but because it is private, in shadow, internal. I think poetry must have a particular privacy in order to accurately communicate with truthfulness, and not ego, a desire for fame, or co-optation. Then, the poem may succeed on its own; it becomes art, afloat, and independent from its author. This dark side or shadow is akin to immersion in water, whether ocean, lake, river, bathtub, or the body’s own, because, like water, the consciousness we enter to create is interior, another world. It is of the unconscious, what is dreamt, and what is known, often beyond language, in body, mind, and spirit.

In the dark—in the dark we hear the most precisely, do we not?

To the Water: Speaking of the Interior (Self)

Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?

 

 

Sally Deskins: First off, of course, thanks for introducing me to Sally Ball and her work! I’m honored and thrilled at the opportunity to have this conversation with her! As well as Nina Cassian’s poem, what an honest delight….

I had never heard of Nina Cassian or “Summer X-Rays.” Before reading the poem in its entirety, my immediate answer to the question “what draws you to the water?” was simply: “peace.”

I thought of my summers spent visiting San Clemente State Beach and Doheny State Beach in Southern California. My mother’s family lived there; each visit was a few weeks of utter respite—the beach to me was a place of peace not only because of its literal tranquil qualities (albeit frigid water itself, sand rough, who can’t resist looking out into nowhere, recognition of your smallness to the vastness, splashing all wild and uninhibited), but because my mother, too, was calm, herself home, back where she was planted.

My first real memory of the beach, was at age three or four, when we just arrived; I was without my swimsuit yet, and immediately undressed to get myself enveloped in the heavenly waves. My mom laughed, smiled, took my picture—something I surely wouldn’t have gotten away with back at home in the Midwest. That photo sat framed in my family’s home for years, which alone I adored, but loathed in front of company—curious, the sense of comfort of nudity in one place, and absolute shame in another. Who wouldn’t choose the former? Why does the latter even matter?

After reading the Cassian poem, I was taken aback—I felt she wrote my experience with the water (which, when I think of “water” I think of the beach—even more specifically, “my” beach in Southern California). The tiny moments, the dread upon leaving, how the beach literally makes you feel humble, content and free no matter whatever else is going on. And savoring that moment, for it’s quick. (This is the inspiration that I’m drawing on for my current series of artwork—my prints are made quickly; I paint various ocean-inspired colors onto my breasts, do a push up, and it ends with a pleasant abstract image embracing this seemingly simple, satisfied feeling.)

I have lived most of my life in the middle of America, far away from the beach water. Still, being born in Oregon, and from my serene summers, I too, feel like being near the water is blissful, home. A few days ago, I moved to the opposite end of the country—near the east coast, I’ve found myself bits closer to the water, but also engulfed in hills, where it seems a trip to the beach—to anywhere—is just out of reach. It isn’t, of course, and this bliss is really simply in my state of mind. Is it possible to have this feeling somewhere else? As they say, “wherever you go, there you are”—then why do I feel so different near the water? And, how can I bring the water feeling to wherever I am?

For, of course, this water I write of, also causes wretched destruction. This is, thankfully and fortunately for me, not what I immediately think of when I think of “water.” Still, it lingers. Which is why I never go out too far . . .

What draws you to the water, Sally B.?

 

Sally Ball: I think it’s both of the things you mention too: I’ve been around the ocean all my life (or all my summers, now that I live most of the year in Arizona, ocean of dust), and I’ve always been drawn to the water’s edge—for the way it makes us small, and for the allure of that vast body when it’s peaceful, the alternate thrill of seeing it chopped up and dangerous. The ocean is so much, so big: you can’t help releasing your sense of being In Charge. My poem “Tributary” is about this; these are the first few stanzas:

 

About the sea we love the combination

comfort and menace, the sense of water

gently holding us, of depths engulfing—

 

we love to be the smallest particle,

germinal, relieved of any prowess

or conviction about prowess,

 

about control. Inside the sea I know

I love the salty shoring up; I love

the way a wave will take my body

 

and cleave the foam with me

as with a post. My almost

running out of air.

 

I’ve just arrived back at the Jersey shore, where Sandy’s destruction dominates the landscape. My mom’s house is still here, but lots of people I know lost everything. Or lost more than they can recover from any time soon. Last night I drove north about two miles, and there was a crew dug into the middle of the main road, in a trench as deep as they were tall, five feet wide and as long as a school bus, lit by klieg lights, that they’d dug in the late afternoon, and which was closed and paved over this morning by 8. AmeriCorps volunteers worked in a friend’s garage all day yesterday. People trade stories about the kindness and muscle of the National Guard, and groups of veterans who appeared right after the storm to help. There is still heaps of debris in people’s yards, vast open spaces where yards and houses used to mark off the landscape square by square. So many trees and plants are gone, washed away, and among what’s left most evergreens are brown and brittle. Teenagers ride their bikes around the detritus (broken clapboard, washing machines, hunks of torn concrete, stuff you can’t tell what it was. . .). Sunday afternoon my kids pulled a florist’s square-sponge base and its glass bowl (wired together, still trailing some sturdy stems) and a leaf blower out of the bay. Someone’s kitchen table, someone’s garage.

So I have been expecting mixed feelings about the water.

Today I went to the beach for the first time (usually I go on Day One: I must’ve been —scared to see it? scared to love it (or not love it?) after all this?) I turned out to be alone; a lot of New Jersey is still in school, making up the days Sandy shut them down. I stood knee deep in the cold water and tried to think about it à la the pathetic fallacy, à la the objective correlative, and it just didn’t work: the water doesn’t care, has no will, etc., etc. Uh duh.

I’m reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent Theseus to my youngest son right now. So as I went in a little deeper, I thought about Poseidon, about Greece’s need to have someone moody to appease.

The water distracted me with its beautiful not caring.

The water rippled past incredibly clear and clean (almost no shells, no seaweed, no fish today, nothing) crisp bubbles and docile crinkled waves. I went out further, dove into it, tasted the salt. The first plausible wave I paddled with, rode without thinking—whoosh. This is my ocean, I thought (like you, “your” beach!), relieved, maternal and daughterly at once—not despite but because of knowing how much itself it is.

Sally, I want to see your paintings! They seem like they would exactly match this it’s mine, it’s utterly itself sort of feeling (not to mention the pleasure of lying down in the sand, which yields a little—quick to relinquish whatever shape we press into it.)

 

SD: First of all, I love “Tributary”; even the excerpt you shared is so lovely to read—“comfort and menace . . .depths engulfing . . .relieved of any prowess”—just perfect! Thank you for sharing that! I hope to read more of your work.

And you are from the Jersey Shore—wow—I cannot imagine what it has been like going there. I really had no idea there was still such destruction and need for rebuilding—disappointing not to read more about it in the media, as I’m sure you are as well. Still, the way you described your solo visit to the water was calming—“the water doesn’t care”—so simple yet so profound actually! I never thought of it that way, but exactly! And, “maternal and daughterly” is, too, right on. I am so honored to read your words!

On the note of my work—I’ll include one or two examples here. I started about a year and a half ago, doing body prints inspired by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” which I knew of, but when I saw them in person in an exhibit in D.C., I was speechless and had to do it myself—in a feminist way, of course: myself as model, director, and artist.

Anyways, my first series focused on womanhood and body perspective. I used quotes from women I’ve interviewed and various colors of paint—more just expressive and fun.

 

“Objectivity is Myth,” acrylic on canvas, Sally Deskins, 2012

Then, I did a motherhood series exploring my body/sexuality and motherhood roles, which I did body prints and nude drawings along with childhood imagery. One of my pieces, I decided to just print my breasts a number of times for practice on one sheet, and a friend saw it, and said, “hey, you should draw those into monsters or something.” And I thought, hmm, that’s cool, but they kind of look like fish swimming around in a fishbowl. So this was the result, which has been by far my most popular piece—it sold last year in Philadelphia, after being in a few shows and published twice:

 

“Breastfish,” tempera and pencil on paper, Sally Deskins, 2012

 

So, though it wasn’t my favorite, I thought more about what fish meant to me, and a whole series came to fruition—sea life, the blissful fleeting beach feeling, and the ironies/humor of women’s bodies and imagery.

I’ve made over 100 prints to get drawing on, in my new oceanic color scheme. Here’s one that you can kind of see the fish shape already taking shape.

 

Untitled in progress, acrylic on board, Sally Deskins, 2013

 

And one I drew a rainbow fish on.

 

“Rainbow fish,” acrylic and pencil on board, Sally Deskins, 2013

 

I plan on drawing more—octopus, jellyfish, maybe some sharks, seahorses and other types of sea life. I planned them as singular for a commission who requested a series of six single fish—though at this moment, water is taking on a more singular role.

In this apartment complex where we’re living, there is a rather small community pool, which, of course, my kids love. Usually it is packed. None of the kids care, though, still running into each other, jumping in where they almost land on each other, using everyone’s toys, yelling, splashing, etc. It is amazing to me—I hate crowds and would rather (since as long as I can remember) stay inside than go to a shoulder-to-shoulder place (though I prefer cities to countries, not when they’re jammed!). However, this is, to them, bliss. This tiny patch of water, which to me feels so confined, is heavenly to them, no matter how little space—and water they have.

So I guess, with the second part of that question, “how far out do you go?” I would say, just as far as I can go, on my own.

I wonder how your week is shaping up. And how far out you like to go!

 

SB: Sally, wow: the fish! I love them.

Also I love the description of how your work began and how it moved to where you are now—

I’ve been thinking all day about that kind of shift: from willful to fanciful, from shocking to normal (today is goodbye DOMA day). This morning my son Oscar said he was amazed by his own acceptance of the wreckage here. He said, “At first, it was just awful, scary, everywhere you look, OHMYGOD. Now, it’s, like”—shrugging—“you’re used to it, you don’t even notice.” He’s eleven. (So the “you” suggests maybe a little potency remains in the mounds of broken everything.) We talked about the brain for a little while, the way it gets used to stuff, and about Theseus constantly thinking things will be hard that turn out to be easy.

How far out do I like to swim? Far enough to get a little scared. Far enough to feel that cuspy space between home and lost. Less far than before I had kids!

Cassian’s poem is especially moving because her perfect day by the sea occurs despite some darker knowledge: “I know what’s awaiting me—/ the winter of my discontent./ I have a reservation/ outside on a hard bench/ holding a bag of frostbitten potatoes.” Her poem is about recognizing, even claiming, joy in the fleeting moments where it’s possible to feel it. I think her obstacle to joy was the repressive Romanian regime. The water’s edge seems to be where the usual certitudes break down, a site of great paradox (it’s peaceful AND wild; it’s “mine” and it’s NOT; I’m safe here or it’s menacing—); the water’s edge brings us to the edge of ourselves, too. The brink.

Theseus is sent to fight the Minotaur, and he promises his father he’ll sail home with a new white sail if he wins (instead of the black one under which he sets out). In the excitement of his victory (which occurs thanks to crafty-but-oafish Ariadne, whom he ditches at Naxos on the way back to Athens), jolly Theseus forgets to make the switch, and as the ship approaches, his father sees the black sail and jumps miserably (mistakenly) into the rocky sea.

How far out shall we swim? What have we got to lose? What do we need to let go of?

Sally, I don’t know about you but I think these are impossible questions! I also think that’s why coming to the water’s edge is so appealing. Cassian wonders if to live without fear is a trap, but her poem savors its fearlessness. I think we reckon with our fears, with their hold on us, with the possibility of breaking free of them, when we go out into the water. I like to go right to where the waves are breaking, dive down under them, fly up the other side.

(Caveat: yesterday they found an unexploded WW2 British MINE in about a foot of water along the beach near here! And the Navy came and blew it up! I’m not sure I can assimilate worrying about mines into my fears of sharks, riptides, giant storms…)

But I’m over-emphasizing the fear, because the most seductive thing is the opposite of that, the sense of being at one with the universe even if you also know you should be cautious. Do you know this lovely paragraph from a speech JFK gave at the America’s Cup in 1962?

I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.

 

SD: Oh wow, isn’t that exactly right? No, I had not read or heard that excerpt of JFK’s but it’s right on. Funny how you think you’re so alone or special with your thoughts sometimes, and conversations like this make you feel so much less alone and humble. I just love that quote and think I can also utilize it when thinking about my work and the body’s connection to the sea. Thank you!

I cannot believe—or maybe I can—how your 11 year old is now accustomed to being around such destruction. No doubt the experience has opened his eyes and made him tougher than most people can imagine. Yes—I love Cassian’s referral to the knowledge of darkness, too—its like, even when you’re in a great place, you know (or at a certain point in your life perhaps) it won’t last, and/or that bad things/happenings can occur anytime.

Its been raining here in Morgantown today, the pool is locked, the kids walking around the apartment complex with their little umbrellas. My son searching for worms, my daughter hoping not to find any. Rain, too, is comforting, I think, like a renewal, sometimes a forced rest, time to sit and reflect. Also, it causes destruction—I saw on Facebook someone’s whole sunroom was ripped off. This is, obviously, very small compared to what you have witnessed in New Jersey.

Though still, just like JFK said, just like the sea, rain makes us feel human—alive and connected. Being an Oregonian, rain never bothers me—in high school for one year, I woke up at 5am to go swimming at the pool in town every morning. One morning it was a terrible rainstorm, and a tree had fallen on the road—I couldn’t see it and drove right over it. Didn’t hurt my little Hyundai. After the sun came out and I finished my laps and went outside, I saw the flooded parking lots, school had been canceled; my road was blocked off for the destruction. Woops! Oh well, I got home after all. . . .

I’m feeling more at home here every day and thanks to this conversation, more excited about this series of work—the wet paint on my body, a connection to feeling it in the ocean or rain, and the quick imprints, the fleeting calm moments. The drawing of fish over them, well, okay, still getting used to that idea. I have such an ego for the “naturalness” of the original prints, it’s still hard to draw over them. But I guess that’s the release, the water’s edge, and my extent to how far I go! Shall I? Or shall I stay in comfort? I don’t know . . . the water doesn’t care, right?

 

SB: The worm search! The umbrellas! And your young self swimming through a major storm. (Louise Glück: “You’ll get what you want. You’ll get your oblivion.” That’s also a water’s-edge poem—) It’s been a real pleasure talking with you about all of this. I’m lingering with the fish question: your attachment to the naturalness sans-fish, and the imposed clarity of the sketches on top of the abstractions. How important is it to know how the painting was made? More important with the fish than without them?

Here’s part of another favorite poem, from Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, the opening of “Night”:

 

The cold remote islands

And the blue estuaries

Where what breathes, breathes

The restless wind of the inlets,

And what drinks, drinks

The incoming tide

 

I think I’m winding up here because the poem suggests that the water’s edge makes demands on us. There’s a kind of reckoning that happens there, shaking us out of ourselves and into the world.

 

SD: I just love these quotes and excerpts you’re sharing! You raise a good question, the importance of how the painting was made . . . with or without the fish . . . I don’t know. For some reason, though, I just thought of a totally irrelevant quote I remember seeing on T-shirts in the 1980s: a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. . . . Ha! Maybe I should make them into fish on bikes…hmm, I suppose what I have to do, is just breathe, drink in . . . and start! Now, back into the rain puddles . . .

 

 

Sally Ball is the author of two collections of poems, Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis. She’s the associate director of Four Way Books and teaches in the MFA Program at Arizona State University. Her website is saralouiseball.com.

 

Sally Deskins is a writer and artist who examines the female body and identity in her work. She keeps a journal on women in all forms of art, Les Femmes Folles, and lives with her husband and two young children in Morgantown, West Virginia. See more of her work at sallydeskins.tumblr.com.

Its Beautiful Not Caring: A Conversation With Poet Sally Ball and Artist Sally Deskins

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

by Sheila McMullin

Science reasons we came from glass. Water vapor trapped in glass, encapsulated in an asteroid leaving Mars crashing into Earth. Water stimulating growth on Earth. We may have come from Mars, not just men, all of us. Earth is defined as a water-based planet needing the sun, needing the water more. To be living means we traveled a long way to be prosperous. I think of feminism like water, and water like camaraderie. Love is said to connect us all… water seems more tangible, physical, material, transformative; engaging all our senses, is divine, spiritual, cleansing, life-giving. Water is a currency. Water unites, and it is ravaged.

::

I wanted to let my hair shine weightless in the pool. Knowing only some of my hair was there. Knowing if I wanted my hair to grow back, I would receive scores of cortisone injections into my skull. This procedure doesn’t work for everyone. Knowing my fret over losing my hair was deemed cosmetic and uncovered by insurance. Knowing losing one’s hair is only a side effect of alopecia. The root of the problem was more emotional, more stress-related. Perhaps under the care of a therapist to work on relaxation strategies I could realign my immune system without the injections. Knowing long-term emotional health care is also cosmetic and uncovered. I was in high school.

It was there in the water where no one could really see me; I fell in love with floating. Being outside, with the sun on my skin, holding my breath, and concentrating on sitting on the bottom in a weightless arena. I would do anything to keep close to water.

::

1946: At the moment the light traveled and hit their eyes, the far away sky heard compliments. Then the far away sky heard the explosive sound, which had already seen bulldoze the palm trees. Sound came as a shock wave on the ocean top, and knocked like a thud against the wooden chests of all the observing soldiers. Huge fire and ocean dirt rolled up into the skies.

It was said: it reminded me of the setting sun, it was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen, greatest thing I had ever seen.

::

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government chose to experiment with the atomic bomb over the water. Their location: the Bikini Atoll.

The U.S. government employed military duty to explore the offensive or defensive power of this weapon. A Harnessing of the Basic Power of the Universe, it was called. Under the guise of the benefit of mankind.

::

Operation Crossroads at Bikini.

While the American military explained to the Bikinians they would have to leave Bikini (so the bomb could be dropped on their home in front of cameras as God’s calling), Bikinians were unaware what the camera was. A Native Bikinian recorded in the 1988 documentary Radio Bikini is quoted to this effect.

Cut to stock footage: Take after take of admiral explaining the dropping of the bomb in multiple inflections in front of a quiet, sitting Bikini audience.

The Bikinians were boarded to sail to the island, Rongerik, an uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands. Leaving their home, they watched the military burn everything into the sand.

::

“One of the most important, and one of the most dramatic elements concerned with the dropping of the bomb is the photographic aspect,” says Operation Crossroads Military Personnel.

As human beings in an inter-connected global economy we focus on sight. What are others doing and how does it compare to what we are doing? We need this coverage to keep progressive. So often our coverage fails to awaken us to an underlying damage being done.

::

It was awesome glory being a spectator in this waterscape. But future be told, no one was just a spectator at Bikini. Especially those merely 20 miles away.

“Do as you’re told and nothing bad will happen to anyone,” says Operation Crossroads Enlisted Soldier, John Smitherman. None of the soldiers had any real knowledge of radioactivity—a word not yet in common vernacular. Before Veteran Smitherman died in the late-80s, he suffered from incredibly swollen ligaments and amputated legs. He died of cancer.

Marie Curie had coined the term radioactive barely 50 years earlier.

The displaced Bikinians still in harm’s way, still unable to go home, suffer today from disproportionately high rates of cancer and diabetes. More data and testimonials can also be found at Unnatural Causes.

::

Cut to stock footage: Huge fires pirouette into the sky. Able detonates, makes fish into birds obliterating every test dummy battleship in the bomb’s radius.

To my knowledge, only slight reparations have been given to Marshallese Islanders and Operation Crossroads veterans.

::

A slow war of pollution at levels never before imagined entered into the waterscape.

Within ten hours of detonation soldiers were at ground zero. They continued to wash, drink, and bathe in the water their ships and islands floated in.

The animals aboard the test dummy military ships were ravaged by the radiation. The animals’ skin was tested for causal reactions to radiation—as if not enough evidence was found in Japan.

::

Waterscape: Within two months of their displacement, the Bikinians were starving on their new island, Rongerik, with inadequate food and water supplies. Military escorts visited to display pictures of the bomb exploding over their home. Baffled by what they were really seeing and reasons as to why they could not go home, a U.S. soldier is over heard saying: “At least they admit it.” The Bikinians he means… to not knowing exactly what is that atom bomb?

Rongerik was an already uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands, so why bomb Bikini? If a bomb needed to be dropped, why Bikini?

::

1946: The term bikini for the swimsuit was coined by Louis Réard, the same year as the nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll. In a design race to create the world’s smallest swimsuit, he found inspiration in the smallest atom creating the most destructive earthly force.

What I am to write, I hate, because it is the saddest thought I’ve ever had. Why did a bomb need to be dropped on Bikini? Because people were there. Cultural constructions demand the need for a human presence, so beginning operations can be valued as important, after which, those people can be ignored.

Réard was not making an anti-war, anti-nuclear testing protest with the naming of his swimsuit. Taking advantage of the already exoticized island body and culture, the built-in fame of the word bikini, and its proximity to water, the bikini swimsuit was born de facto propaganda.

Waterscape: When we talk nonchalantly about our “beach bodies” or “bikini ready” what are we then saying? Bodies devastated by cancer? Homes burnt to the ground? When we get a biniki wax, what are we waxing? Ripping away Earth. To be clear, I wear my two piece because I want the sun on my body. But because I want, cannot mean a forgetting or ignoring of this history. I’d do anything to keep close to water.

Wearing a bikini hasn’t become an act of protest quite yet. I know some wear suits decorated with radioactive symbols, but most of our conversations of the female body in this highly sexualized suit does not focus here. A sexist hyper-active focus on the female waistline displaces the history of Bikini.

And then I wonder: What else is tiny? What else is polluting our water?

::

Plastic is a miracle product providing cheap resources for over 7 billion people. But plastic never decomposes, only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that sea creatures and land animals eat. Or plastic absorbs into our soil and skin, which then affects our hormones and biological composition. General disregard of waste finds its way into our oceans—oceans which are now huge trashcans.

On a readily visible level, sea creatures ingest these molecule-sized plastics and begin the process of self-embalming because they were eating what looked like their natural food source.

Do you know where the plastic things go? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Gyres. A great displacement of our belongings right into the ocean. There is no “throw away,” only a throw into.

I fear plastic on my worst days, and ignore it on every other day. I fear a tasteless, scentless, clear poison in our water. Drink the water and slowly mutate into the immortal Barbies and Kens. Soon, this won’t be a choice, it hasn’t been for our animals.

::

As we become more artificial we lose our love. As our water sources become more polluted, water quality becomes an even higher concern, becomes more valuable, and less people receive access to clean water sources and healthy, prospering environments.

Place is not free of plastic, of radiation, of our use of water. We have a lot to do. Not only do we have to prepare and plan for a sustainable future, reduce our dependence on plastic, re-evaluate our need for massive destructive weapons, we have to be filled with historical knowledge. Knowledge, like water, can fill every gap in us.

In my 13th year I was baptized in the ocean, in the dull waves under a cliff in California. We come from water, inherit water, and I wanted to pay my respects. After my baptism I wore my first bikini.

::

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

Closed at Sea

by Michele Christle
On the ship, there were 23 men. I was not one of them. I was one of them. The vessel was a container ship, carrying thousands of tons of cargo across the Pacific Ocean. The ship was 906 feet long. My father was the Chief Mate and I was the only passenger, along for a fancy, exploration, and to behold the environment that shaped my father for the past thirty-odd years as a merchant mariner.

The voyage took 35 days. Crossing the Pacific took 10. We hit Long Beach, Oakland, Busan, South Korea, Yokohama, Japan, Shanghai, China, Yangshan, China, Okinawa, Japan, Busan again and back across the Pacific Ocean. To a veteran sailor, 35 days at sea is nothing—some go out for four or five months at a time. One sailor told me he liked sea voyages, because in contrast to his hectic life on land, every voyage has a foreseeable beginning, middle, and an end.

Two members of the crew were young cadets from an exclusive maritime academy. Most were older, many were veterans, quite a few were alcoholics, some practicing, others dry. Some kept their distance. They were mostly white, North American, self-proclaimed as happily divorced or remarried to women from the Philippines half their age. There was one man from Yemen, one from the Philippines. Former addicts, former convicts, former husbands, former fathers. Current sailors; all other identities could be left behind. These were storied men with jokes and nerve—my only company for the voyage.

My father began shipping out shortly after he married my mother. First, as an Ordinary Seaman and eventually as a Chief Mate. Some merchant mariners choose to live near a port, so that they can keep a close eye on incoming ships and jobs posted at the union halls. My parents chose to live near a lake in New Hampshire. When the money ran out, my father packed his sea bag and headed to the union halls of Boston, Seattle, or Oakland, ready to jump on whatever ship was coming in and never knowing where he would end up next. He went to Nigeria, Brazil, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Liberia, Panama, Kuwait. He took pictures of icebergs and brought home parasols, jewelry, and masks. Every time he went back to sea, he promised my sister and I that one day he would take us with him.

My quarters were on the second-highest floor, hundreds of feet above sea level. Many rows of containers were stacked between the ship’s house and the bow. They rested in towers, high above the deck, secured by hatches and dogs. We carried electronics, medicine, copper pesticides, and ice cream for the American military in Asia.

The days were divided into four-hour chunks. At all times, an officer and an able-bodied seaman stood watch in the wheelhouse, their eyes behind binoculars, fixed on the horizon. My father worked the 4 to 8 watch. During the second half of the later watch, I joined him. The sun was always setting.

What kind of things are you looking for? I asked.

Something wrong. Something strange. Something out of place, they said.

A good day for a sailor is when all systems are functioning normally and there is nothing on the horizon to catch your eye.

My time was loose; I had no duties. I wandered the decks as if I were the ghost of a cruise. It took seven minutes to walk from the bow to the stern. At meals, I ate in the duty mess, where both the officers and the crew could lawfully sit together. With time, I was invited to wash down the deck with the gang. I followed my father deep into the cobwebbed bowels of the ship to monitor a malfunctioning bilge pump. I sat in the hot engine control room with the engineers. The deck department tried to get me to jump rope with them using the mooring lines on the stern. At midnight, I went ashore to Texas Street in Busan, visiting the fondly dubbed “Four Floors of Whores.” I followed the sailors wherever they would go, wherever they would let me be.

All merchant mariners will tell you that things have changed since the industry’s heyday when ships spent weeks in port to allow local dockworkers to manually offload their cargo. There were beaches to roam in Madagascar, girls to meet in Brazil. One sailor told me about making love during a monsoon to a girl he met in Calcutta and the thrill of reuniting with her there a year later. Another bragged about finding his way into bed with the mistress of a cathouse—it was forbidden but she couldn’t resist him. The longer they had to spend in port, the easier it was to develop relationships to the land and people. Merchant mariners often romanticize these days, and along with it, the camaraderie they felt with their fellow sailors.

Coordination and cooperation are still a requisite part of the job. Hands still work together when the mooring lines are being laid out or the anchors are being dropped. The problem, if you would call it that, is that little is done with these bonds when the day is done. On this ship, instead of laughing or nodding about a day of hard work, a night in a storm, the sailors retreated to their rooms, as did I.

One sailor blamed the phenomenon of cocooning—people holing up in their rooms with technology in order to avoid conflict. Nearly every bedroom on the ship has a television. Flat screen televisions still hang in the lounges—the unlicensed workers occasionally hosted Wii-bowling tournaments. The only sailor I saw in the officers’ lounge was T. making popcorn to take back to his room. T. was a mountain of one-sad-turned-mad experiences piled on after another—a trail of wives and vast knowledge of various Asian cuisines remaining from each. The only thing he brings to sea with him these days is a photograph of his daughter. He brought it up on the bridge one day to show me.

She lives with her mother. I don’t see her much but I think we have a good relationship, he said.

She’s beautiful, I said.

She must take after her mother, an eavesdropping sailor said.

T. ignored him.

Did you hear me? I said she must take after her mother. Because she sure doesn’t take after you.

T. returned the photograph to his wallet and slid it into his back pocket. A familiar weight. He withdrew to his room, patting his pocket on his way down the ladder.

The longest time we were in port was about 20 hours. The average was 10—just enough time to get to the closest bar, Internet café, shopping center, or cathouse. There is massive pressure to stay on schedule, keep costs low, and come up under budget. There are mandates regarding how many hours the sailors can work and how many hours of consecutive sleep they should get, but by the end of the voyage, they were overworked and we were all crazy.

They had warned me of the inevitable threat of boredom and the dangers of going mildly or extremely insane. There were stories of hallucinations. Men overboard. Angry crewmembers taking axes to doorways. To combat this, it was understood that you should have some sort of hobby. So they studied real estate and transcendentalism. They read books about the Tuskegee Airmen. They wrote to their wives, lovers, and children. They probably watched a lot of porn.

But around me, the boss’s daughter, we’re keeping it clean, they said. My presence was an interruption to the flow of their conversations. Their sense of propriety was based on a loose interpretation of political correctness and company policy. It did not mean that they wouldn’t use the term “woman” as an insult.

What do you do to stay sane? I asked a man whose walls were plastered with breasts and derrieres.

This, he said, cracking open a can of beer.

Many sailors are loners by nature. Some report that going to sea has made them even more so. The divorce rate among merchant mariners is unbelievably high.

The best relationship I ever had, said one of them, was with a girl whose father was a sailor. She kind of understood.

I have known few other children of sailors. In this rare account of a parallel woman, another sailor’s daughter, what could I learn? What was familiar? The notion of reliable absence. Winters with women. A perennial resignation to the idea that men need to go away so that we could eat and live and have opportunities. The question I had then, as I have now, is how much of these choices are financial and how much is about desire for a life outside and beyond? Or, a desire to flee?

You’ve got to have something to live for at home, the sailors said. If you don’t, that’s when the problems start.

Why do you do it? I asked again and again.

For the money and the time off, they all said.

Why are you here? They asked me.

 

 

My prepared response was that it was both for experience and to provide context that would allow me to comprehend the work my father had done to support our family. I wanted to understand the pressures of life onboard a containership and the effects of those pressures on the crew. Beyond that, I wanted to understand how the crew brought their experiences home with them and how those experiences affected each sailor’s relationships and families. I wanted to understand how my father’s protracted absences affected my own potential to love when I never trusted or expected my lovers to stay. I wanted to see if the place to which my father had withdrawn for so many years could offer me any clues to my own solitude.

One sailor told me about sleeping next to a sex worker who reached for him in the night. He woke up to find her pulling his back closer to her while they slept. There was something else there, he said, something that gave him pause. While his confession of relief at this unexpected intimacy did not erase my sense of the potential violence and exploitation of the sex trade industry, it gave me pause as well.

During the last week of the voyage, the ship threw a pizza party, both as a morale booster and to celebrate a voyage without incident. Our ship had pitched and rolled on the edge of a typhoon but we delivered our cargo safely. Several presents were presented to me during the party—a mug and baseball cap sporting the ship’s logo, as well as a certificate of “nautical excellence” that they had all signed.

You are part of the crew now, they told me.

One sailor gave me a handheld mirror with inlaid mother of pearl. He looked like a movie star—a chest of steel and furtive obsidian eyes. He called me the Pacific Princess. He brought his own salad dressing from home and ate his meals in his room. He had done time in prison. Halfway through the trip, he stopped taking his medication and was keeping people awake at night, yelling and thrashing against the bulkhead. When we passed each other in the hallway, he always called me Sunshine. He was the only one who dressed up for the party—his bulging back muscles resting underneath a freshly pressed lavender button-down shirt.

What the fuck are you wearing, man? One sailor yelled. You smell good enough to fuck!

This mirror, you can use it for an SOS signal, he said, if you are ever in an emergency and you need help, you can just flash it up to the sky. If there’s a helicopter. You can make a distress signal.

He grinned at me and I back at him. He equipped me with a tool to use if I am ever in an emergency. To see myself. To flash at the sky.

Closed at Sea

Lady in the House Questions: Karen Biscopink

If you were to describe your writing like a body of water, what body of water would it be and why?

A creek in western Kentucky, in some hilly woods, that is kind of scarily isolated but also kind of beautiful in the type of way where you know you could drink sangria there at midnight with a bunch of friends, but you would probably be too afraid to try doing by yourself.

A crucial part of my aesthetic is presenting eerie, or unsettling, places and experiences in a way that becomes ultimately beautiful. There is a fluidity to the ways in which this manifests; like the creek, sometimes the inverse is true: that which is beautiful can also be unsettling.

 

along the paths lie

our iterations: glistening

 

skins dead yet

able to be touched.

 

there is a magnitude

to our

shedding,

 

great animal underbelly

of growth. of this, I

 

am certain – nothing

so fragile

                                           exceptional us

 

              corrodes.

 

What do you think about the bottling of water? 

A confusing convenience. A surprisingly elaborate procedure, particularly in terms of energy consumption in how it’s manufactured as well as shipped.

As a San Franciscan, my relationship to bottled water is largely couched in terms of impending earthquakes. I’m told I need to create a stockpile, but to do so feels strange to me, maybe superstitious. I should likely do what I’m told in this regard; I will likely be very thirsty during the Apocalypse.

 

After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water is connected to your consciousness?  

Emoto’s studies and findings are phenomenally interesting. The idea of water as both attentive and responsive? Mind blowing. For me, this video opens up all kinds of thought spirals about the power of suggestion, the effectiveness of intent.

I dream with a pretty alarming intensity. Water, in its many iterations, is the most consistent imagery that crops up. Frequently, water’s absence is the heart of the dream sequence (arriving as thirst or untamable fire). In my waking life, I am less aware of the body’s intricate relationship to water, a blindness that means I am fortunate for having my needs met.

 

Who are your favorite water gods and why? 

Ran, the wife of Aegir (the Norse god of the sea) is beautiful and cruel. The couple hosted parties for the gods at their enormous underwater hall and were responsible for the ocean’s behaviors.  Ran, in particular, amuses me because of her rather confused lustfulness. So desperately did she seek the attention of sailors that she would drag them down to her palace, not realizing that the result of her affection was their immediate death. This makes me think of the sirens of Greek mythology, similarly luring sailors to destruction but with sheer malice (where Ran was mostly just naïve). The force of these women, the capacity to which they are ruled by desire, is a literary thread I enjoy exploring.

 

Your first time at the ocean, how did you engage it?

My entire body responds to the ocean with a feeling of awe, even now that I live on the coast and experience it with frequency. I don’t remember my first trip to the ocean, but can’t imagine that my response would have differed. For me, it is the measuring rod of everything’s immensity or the one accessible, visual clue I have into the definition of “possibility.” My engagement with the ocean, then, is largely observational, thoughtful, quiet.

 

Have you ever drowned in one way or another?

During college, I spent January at Crystal Waters Eco-Village in Queensland, Australia. I studied Permaculture, did an intense amount of farming; learned best practices for establishing and maintaining sustainable communities. The sheer physicality of that month (working all day in the Australian summer heat) was the most exhausting and satisfying I have ever experienced.

One of our last weekends there, several of us hitched a ride to Noosa Beach for a farewell to the coastline. The word “riptide” had little weight in my brain as I ran into the water that day. (I laugh now, remembering the words to an Ani DiFranco song I sang out loud as I started to swim: “I am an all powerful Amazon warrior.”)

Things went wrong quickly. My lack of familiarity with riptides (in which I eventually found myself) meant I tried swimming directly toward shore. The exhaustion of fighting waves and the downward pull of the tide coupled with my panic as I was pulled out farther from the land (which I could no longer see at all). What fascinates me is the way time changed, then, in the water. I still have no concept of how long this went on, with my mind churning back through the last two decades, turning up prayers and advice and regret and love: anything that could possibly be of use as I struggled to keep breathing.

Clearly, I’m incredibly fortunate for having been rescued that day. I’ve tried many times to recapture, in poetry, my brain’s gymnastics in those moments; I’m not sure I’ve yet succeeded, but it’s become a strangely grounding, meditative exercise to which I often return.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Karen Biscopink

Telling Stories

by Lisa Piazza

This is fiction, the writer said, sorting through the papers in front of her. You don’t have to worry about me. Then she dipped her voice deliberately, sounding out each push-pull syllable—each open o and empty i. Half a page in, mid-phrase, she tipped tightly into the rote dispatch of someone else’s scene: someone else’s white dishes, edged in baby blue. Someone else’s salad plates stacked by the sink, someone’s saucers thrown against the wall, shards aimed like arrows at the ankles, flecks of porcelain grazing someone else’s face.

At the table, two writers down, I pictured brown cabinets. Dark lights. Not my mother’s kitchen, not my own. A steep staircase, a hard push; suitcases taken and torn. I pictured harmful arms, tender necks, broken glass; tokens too fragile to last.

This is fiction, we remembered, stunned into silence after her last word—the usual post-reading pause times two.

You don’t have to worry about me.

I was nineteen. And I believed her.

At that time MFA candidates at Mills College were mixed in with undergraduate writing majors, so I was the youngest in the room by far. We met Tuesday evenings around a long seminar table in the Lucie Stern building to read and critique each other’s work. Each week, like a new page in a lift-the-flap book, never knowing what we would find. Revealing, by degrees, what we dared to share.

There was Susan, whose teenage daughter had taken a horse out bareback with some friends and fallen off. She was in a coma now and would be dead by the end of the semester. Early December, Susan read a sparse page describing in stark detail how she had given her daughter permission to die. We knew this was not fiction. She admitted too plainly the mixture of relief and despair of that hospital room, that side-sitting chair, that breathing machine. That exact moment. I expected more feeling—some weight to the words. I didn’t understand then no metaphor could possibly coddle her pain. Any clause would only hold her loss like a futureless child, cradled by commas too far apart.

Mia’s piece, set on a remote Greek island, read like an independence anthem: sentimental boasting about leaving a lover for good. Tossled sheets, warm skin, silent goodbyes. (Images of motorcycles zooming through the hills of Kythnos, overlooking the crystal sea, would lure me to this island the following year during my study abroad. I would find goats, not love. Goats and ripe tomatoes; rocky beaches, empty towns.)

Alison, the other undergraduate at the table, was quiet but confident. She had long blonde hair and peachy skin and wore plain cotton turtlenecks with ankle-length skirts. I guessed she had moved from Utah or Nebraska—some place more chaste than here. She always smiled with her mouth closed so that we could only assume she knew more than she let on—more than she was ever going to share. Her story started with a subtle knock at the door and ended with a bloody stain on the floor. No one expected murder from her.

That year I wrote a short story about a girl in a car, driving the highways at night. Except she wasn’t driving. She never drove. She was always the passenger in her boyfriend’s overhauled sports car. She would stare out his window at all the lights—all the lives—lit up across the Bay or nestled neatly into the East Bay hills. Whole worlds she leaned close to imagine. The story ended with an image of the seashore: a father and daughter collecting shells. There was some kind of final metaphor involving hovering elephants. It made sense at the time. Something about memory—time before time. Easy lines. Simple story, half-thought. I didn’t know the extent of the arc then. It felt like fiction.

You don’t have to worry about me.

Our instructor, Sheila Ballantyne, was patient and generous. She asked questions and allowed for pauses, encouraged without pushing. Twenty years out I can still place myself in her office, nervously watching as she pulled her pencil toward my pages, marking in the margin what worked, cutting into sentences what didn’t. I sat by her desk, too shy to ask questions, too inexperienced to consider myself writer-enough. Too young to see how the purity in fiction can overpass truth, too scared to ask what truth isn’t, in fact, magnified by fiction?

Before Mills, my main experience with critique sessions had been a small dysfunctional committee of my own concoction: part older sister, part neighborhood best friend. Together they processed each story-start, sanctioning the ones that could go on. We sat in a circle on the blue carpet of my bedroom and they wrote “can it” or “yam it”—our codes for no way or keep going on each draft. But they were readers, not writers, and didn’t understand my commitment to characters. Whole paragraphs were laughed at, isolated words tossed between them like a crazy game of four-square, or worse, skimmed briefly then neglected entirely. I don’t know why I showed them anything.

In high school I lucked into Jane Juska as an English and Creative Writing teacher. She tolerated the sentimentality of my lengthy girl-meets-boy stories, typing out page-long letters in response to my portfolio—a simple manila folder filled with my best work. She wanted to know why the girl always needed to be rescued. She prodded me to write from the male perspective. I got it almost right—but I was one of three girls in my family and over-romanticized all things boy. Jane treated all of her students’ pieces with a seriousness that legitimized our efforts in storytelling and verse. She brought in coffee and tea and put on music to mask the conventionality of our suburban public high school classroom; she wanted to give us a café-style experience akin to her Berkeley neighborhood. I sat next to my friend Vrinda and we mostly goofed off all year, pretending to write. Vrinda did manage to produce one poem that year that Ms. Juska admired enough to tout. It was called “Sarah, Sarah Backyard” and had something to do with observation and perception, bugs and blades of grass. It made a crazy kind of sense that earned Vrinda all sorts of esteem in the class. I don’t think she wrote another piece all year, but that poem carried her through. Sometimes one poem is enough to prove a poet.

Now that I lead my own writing workshops for kids, I understand that talk of technique and poetic structure is ancillary to what I can really offer them: the permission to write. They don’t come for answers or wordplay. They come (on a Saturday, no less!) because they have a story or a sound beating against their brain and there is very little room on a Scantron sheet to eke out a verse or develop character motivation. They come wound-up and leave freed, because there is comfort in sitting around with other poets, other perceptive kids who cleave to words the way athletes cling to balls or actors clutch their scripts.

This is how it felt when I first met with Sheila at Mills. I didn’t have to explain my crazy compulsion; she shared that same writers’ madness. It was the closest I had ever come to therapy, with her tasteful display of black and white photographs, abstract postcards tacked to the wall; a desk, a chair, a window, a wanting. Words lined up belly deep, secrets to keep. Each meeting felt like an unveiling—a blessing. Phrases chosen to dedicate the day, stories crafted for the ultimate audience.

Would I turn to her now? (Though she is many years dead from an obscure neurological disease.) My current therapist, a marriage counselor who expects much more than fiction from me, wears similar sweaters but heavier make-up. She doesn’t bother with my syntax, but she sometimes talks about helping me construct a “new narrative.”

I can only bring up the old stories.

And not mine either.

I tell her I’m teaching Gatsby to my high school juniors again and she nods. I tell her this time through I am stuck on Daisy Buchanan. I say, some years, when I read her, I can’t stand that vapid trill. But some years, I get caught up in the billowing whiteness of her sitting room—in the heat of her afternoon, the romance of her loss. Everyone loves Jay the first time around, I tell her, the tragedy of his dream gone wrong. But for Fitzgerald, Daisy is only an easy target. And I don’t want to end up like her. The stasis of her situation. The meanness of her marriage. A woman pale enough to be called wan.

How bad is it? My therapist asked at the start of our first session, but today she is casually alarmed by my literary intensity. I have escorted extra characters into the room, introduced a new thread she can’t weave into her version of my life.

“That’s fiction.” She chides, as though the distinction is clear. Invention versus truth. Falsehood, deceit, lies. Not fact.

“That’s only fiction,” she says again and I think about the way my mind slices time sideways, intersecting narratives, pausing one reality to play another. How sometimes I sit staring at both sides of the same mirror. And maybe I am only telling stories here.

Telling Stories