Archive for the ‘women and creativity’ Category
There is always a lag time between acceptance of one’s work and publication. So, I was thrilled to receive the recent Oracle: Fine Arts Review, a lovely literary and arts journal, and see my poem, ‘The Shells of Pink Bodies’! This poem was submitted last September and accepted at the beginning of the year. Oracle is published annually by the University of South Alabama. It features fiction, nonfiction, poetry, painting, photography, drawing, sculpture, illustration, glass, printmaking, and ceramics. I enjoyed working with their editorial team.
This poem is my strongest one to date, both in terms of technique, structure and emotional resonance. I have not studied poetry in the obsessive way that I have studied novels and more recently short stories. Therefore, it’s such a joy when I write a poem that I immediately know works and sparks something for the reader. When I took a draft to my writing group and listened to their responses (unlike any other response to my poems), I knew the work was strong. I typically don’t decide to just sit down and write a poem. When I am compelled to write a poem, it is in response to a very strong emotion, usually something rooted in my childhood or adolescence. This poem contains some autobiographical material that has been reworked. It also takes up mother and daughter issues which is definitely emotional territory that I like to explore. Soon Oracle will have a pdf file of the issue on their website that I can link to. They produced a beautiful issue. Until then, here is my poem. Also, check out their call for issue 10. They would love to see your work. Enjoy!
The Shells of Pink Bodies
a girl sits in a fine restaurant
her mother across from her, martini in hand.
the girl knows that being there is a luxury.
what awaits them in the tiny hotel room
the chair, the stained bedspread, no fridge
but a hotplate.
small cartons of milk pilfered from school
placed outside on the window sill,
to keep them cool, and
tiny boxes of Coco Puffs and Fruit Loops
decorate the TV stand.
their lives away from the stepfather
not with him
but not yet
years later, the daughter will still loathe
small cartons of milk, and the cheery, sugary cereals
that everyone else loved, and describe their time in that room
as hand to almost mouth living.
And so a restaurant,
every now and then, makes the mother forget.
while the daughter practices
what it will be like
when things are different
in a barely imagined future.
the daughter wrings the napkin in her lap, eager
she takes her mother’s suggestion and orders what she wants
the most exotic thing on the menu.
she has seen their small, pink muscular bodies
lying on ice-filled platters
in late night commercials,
between the Johnny Carson show
and B movie reruns.
the waiter smiles at her,
“Another martini, please.
Yes the same as before, extra dry,
straight up, with two olives.”
the daughter’s platter arrives
and she eats and eats and eats.
the chewing though takes longer than she imagined.
the waiter looks at the daughter with a hint of surprise and just
as he is about to speak, the daughter glimpses a calculation
in her mother’s eyes,
the waiter sees it, too, hesitating.
a message, the daughter wonders
the waiter shrinks back.
the pink bodies finally surrender to the daughter’s jaws working,
chewing and snapping.
her mother is paying, so she must eat another and another
all that awaits back at the hotel is the dry crunch of cereal.
The waiter returns, rising on the balls of his feet, worried now
hovering, until the mother shoos him away.
pink bodies float in the melting ice, disintegrating.
the daughter’s throat is raw and she asks for another Coke.
her mother is quiet, drinking the next martini.
the waiter takes the completely empty platter away.
“You didn’t ask, did you? You just took,” her mother finally says.
the girl sees a meanness coming, shooting out from her mother’s eyes,
she checks the placement of forks, napkins.
“Don’t do anything,
in a restaurant,
without asking me.”
“You weren’t supposed to eat them with the shells on.”
the mother’s martini laugh, sharp and almost playful
rings in the girl’s ears.
her focus narrows
to the missing platter’s
indentation in the tablecloth.
“You always wait
and ask if you are unsure.”
“Next time, you’ll know.”
the bill is paid and they begin their journey back.
those perfectly pink bodies, those shells,
stay with her,
years later they remind her
of the ability to endure.
the caring, but quiet waiter.
she waits to know,
what is expected of her.
a different future
Posted July 23, 2016on:
Affirmations-366Days#205: My writing connects me to history and to people who were never given an opportunity to express themselves.
For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.
I have written in other places about the influence of my maternal grandmother on my desire to write. My grandmother used to read five to six newspapers a day and loved the written word. She had entertained high aspirations of becoming a journalist (already in full bloom in adolescence as evidenced by her securing an interview with Harlem Renaissance notable Countee Cullen for the high school newspaper). She did do some writing for The Amsterdam News, a black focused newspaper in NYC. However, she found it overall impossible to give her creative gifts to the world because of her skin color and sex.
This was true for many women of color of her generation. Barriers for many women rooted in the intersection of sexuality, race, nationality, class and disability still profoundly shapes the possibilities and trajectories of a creative life. I am aware of how privileged I am in the ability to contemplate let alone pursue a creative life. I write for myself, but also with an attention to telling collective stories that my mother, grandmother and others would have loved to hear. And, I do believe that as more women of color live fulfilling creative lives, at some deep inexplicable metaphysical level, we heal the unfulfilled karmic desires of female ancestors who came before us.
Affirmations-366Days#175: I make a literary pilgrimage as a purposeful act of devotion.
For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.
In a few days I will travel to London for both work and pleasure. I’m super excited. The last time I visited London was 25 years ago, right before I started graduate school. How time flies! Unfortunately, the last time I was there I didn’t get a chance to explore much of London’s great literary history. That won’t happen this time. I can’t wait to walk the same streets of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf and be immersed in their specific histories. My upcoming trip reminded me of the importance of making literary pilgrimages, hence my affirmation. Pilgrimages are purposeful trips meant to show devotion and help foster insight and gratitude. Making a pilgrimage in service of our creativity is fortifying. My trip also reminded me of a post that I wrote on this topic in 2014. Below, I share the powerful experience I had of taking my first literary pilgrimage to learn about the remarkable Harriet Jacobs, escaped slave and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Tips for Writing at Mid-Year: Make a Literary Pilgrimage
I decided to use a recent visit by my godsons as motivation to make a literary pilgrimage to visit the town of Edenton, NC where Harriet Ann Jacobs lived and made her escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. I read about her remarkable life in college and have been fascinated with her story ever since.
A literary pilgrimage can take many forms. It can mean a visit to a deceased writer’s home or estate, or a walk about their favorite town or city, exploring places that were important to them. It can be refreshing to take a break from your writing routine and connect with a writer that you admire by visiting places that shaped them.
Not all literary pilgrimages are arduous, but this one had elements of difficulty. My partner Tim and I were going to begin our trip with our godsons (visiting from Minnesota), by first going to Edenton and then ending up on Ocracoke Island. When I initially called the Historic Edenton Visitor Center to arrange a tour, I discovered that they would be closed on the first leg of our trip. And, I also discovered that only certain docents conducted the Harriet Jacobs tour and work on certain days. So we rearranged our trip so that we could get there later in the week, thus ending our sightseeing in Edenton before heading home. A few days into the trip, I called a second time to arrange a tour.
During this call, the person explained that the main ‘Harriet Jacobs docent’ was out on vacation, but perhaps another person who occasionally did the tour could fill in. But, the person on the phone sounded skeptical that this other docent was going to be available. She said that there were materials available for a self-guided tour. I thought OK, we’ll just show up and do the self-guided tour. Not ideal, but doable.
The afternoon we arrived in Edenton, we were tired and it was already close to 90 degrees. This the last leg of our trip after watching wild ponies in Ocracoke, seeing the Lost Colony play in Roanoke, and feeling the exuberance of invention at the Wright Brothers’ exhibit in Kitty Hawk. It also looked as if it was going to rain which made me doubt everyone’s willingness to do a self-guided tour.
We were in luck, however, for when we arrived at the Visitor Center, we were met by an older woman named ‘Miss Carolyn’ (a native of Edenton), and she graciously walked with us and gave us a thorough 90 minute tour. Although not the primary docent on Harriet Jacobs, she was a great resource and an enthusiastic guide.
The brief story about Harriet Jacobs goes as follows: Although they were enslaved, the Jacobs family had a great deal of relative freedom in the small town of Edenton. Her father was an accomplished carpenter, her grandmother, a well-known cook. After her mother’s death, Harriet went to live in the home of her owner Margaret Horniblow; Margaret taught her how to sew and read. It was assumed by Harriet and her family that Horniblow would emancipate her. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Harriet and her younger brother found themselves in the home of Mr. Norcom (there seems to be some historical evidence that Mr. Norcom somehow interfered with Horniblow’s wishes and/or will). Mr. Norcum became obsessed with young Harriet and made many sexual advances on her. At the time it was common that enslaved women were often sexually brutalized by any white man that lived on the plantation (or off).
After dealing with this terrible situation for several years and trying other remedies (including beginning a liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried, powerful white lawyer and future US Congressman), Harriet ran away and went into hiding. She first hid in the homes of friends, in nearby ‘Snaky Swamp’ and later in the home of her grandmother Molly. Harriet hid in her grandmother’s small attic above a storeroom for six years and eleven months. Norcom continued to search for her and briefly jailed her children (children from the liaison with Sawyer), her brother and an aunt hoping to flush her out. She successfully escaped in 1842 and made a life in New York. Norcom and other members of his family continued to search for her.
She was able to buy her children’s freedom and became prominent in the abolition movement. She completed Incidents in 1858. She had bad luck initially as two book publishers who acquired the book both went out of business before it came to print.
Harriet purchased the plates of her book and had it printed in 1861. This endeavor I imagine cost a small fortune. I had forgotten that self-publishing options were often a route for disenfranchised people to make their voices heard. She published it originally under a pseudonym as to protect the living members of her family still in slavery.
We were able to visit the church that Harriet and her family attended, the jail where her family members were imprisoned and the harbor where she escaped as part of the Underground Railroad.
We also walked and looked at places where houses once stood that Harriet hid in. The property of the Visitor Center has created a replica of Molly’s attic where Harriet hid.
She was able to sit up, but could not stand up. She had a small peep hole to look out of and the entire area was about 11 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet high. Her grandmother would bring her food and occasionally she could come down, but the majority of the time was spent there. I can’t imagine the ways in which Harriet had to keep her mind occupied. Amazing.
My eldest godson Andrew, who is 14, had read the book last year for class, so he knew many of the details. It was so nice to share a piece of history with them.
The power of the word is remarkable and has often been used to fight injustice. I felt truly moved walking around Edenton and thinking about Harriet. If any of her family members’ graves had been marked, I would have left something on them as an offering, but unfortunately that was not the case. I have only scratched the surface in recounting the highlights of the life of Harriet Jacobs. For more, read Incidents in Life of a Slave Girl, and visit this site.
I’d love to hear if you’ve gone on a literary pilgrimage or are planning one.