"My aim is to let us black women know that we have value, worth, and a voice that is just as imperative as everyone else." Jasmine FarrellRead More
"I have two hopes: the first is that queer readers can see a different part of their lives reflected [in my poems], and the second is that straight readers can read these queer poems and, just as I did with the poems of straight writers, find themselves there, as well." Jessica JacobsRead More
"[T]he crux of what I’m seeking is a continuation of what I’ve always done—using poetry to attempt to find words for those who have no voice of their own, to try to save stories that don’t have a language, at least not a kind of language with access to the kind of words that will save it in this world." Nickole BrownRead More
"An MFA is not required to be a good writer, nor is it necessary for publication, but it opens so many doors; not only in a networking sort of way, but in one’s own mind. It absolutely changed my writing—and my life—for the better." Rhonda Browning WhiteRead More
April, as it often does here in Eastern NC, went by in a blur of mornings so clear and green and beautiful that it was almost possible to forget…everything, even the shitshow that we currently call the news. Well, ok. Maybe not that.
But April went by in a blur of thunderstorms and packed lunch boxes. A blur of graded papers and bills and laundry. A blur of workshops and readings.
All of this is to say that I have not had such an epic fail in keeping up with NaPoWriMo in years, and Fierce Friday had to go on hiatus. But I want to get back to it, as much as I can, because I miss it. I miss reading the responses to the questions by amazing women. When I wrote the questions, I don’t think I fully understood how important reading their answers would be.
Question one asks: “Out of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of and why?” One of the women I featured told me that I had asked a question that made her very uncomfortable right off the bat. Why? Because she has been conditioned to think of being proud of herself and her accomplishments as negative, as something women shouldn’t do.
I started to think about the times I have been shamed for for being proud, for talking about and, god forbid, posting about the things I have done. Among writers on social media, there is an ongoing discussion about whether or not one should “brag” about publications, readings, awards, etc. Whether or not one should “advertise.” In my experience (see how I tried to minimize negative reactions by qualifying my statement there?), this question comes up mainly in reference to women writers.
After announcing my graduation from my MFA on Facebook, a male colleague of mine commented “Congratulations on all your many accomplishments.” As positive as I generally try to be, I know this was not meant as an actual compliment. It was a “shut the fuck up about it already.”
But isn’t it possible that he meant it as a compliment?
But surely you’re misreading it?
But of course you’re overreacting.
You know what? I just had two poems accepted in two different journals on the same day. I worked hard on those poems. I worked hard submitting those poems to journals. And you're damn right I'm going to post about them when they are published. But I consciously did not post about them being accepted because, somehow, that might be "too much."
Fuck. That. Noise.
Fierce Friday will be back next Friday.
"One of the underlying principles that guides my moral framework is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that people don’t have to meet some kind of threshold, they don’t have to look like me, think like me or worship like me in order to gain their worth, it is part of them just because they exist." Jennifer ThielenRead More
"I want the next generation to grow up embracing feminism as a word and concept--women, trans-people, and men alike. I believe in the intersectional ideals of third-wave feminism--the need for all civil rights movements to collaborate with each other, to build strong coalitions." Julie Marie WadeRead More
"It seems sort of crazy to say that my proudest accomplishment is being stubborn. But without stubbornness (or its kinder cousin, perseverance) I can’t imagine that anything I value having achieved would have come about." Leslie PietrzykRead More
"[I]t is refreshing to me to listen to [...] screaming examples of women’s voices in action. It reminds me that women have been creating discourse around the realities of sexism and other atrocities for as long as we have existed." Mel SherrerRead More
"I grew up on that kind of [second wave] feminism and thought, with Hillary in the White House, I would be in the zeitgeist. Little did I know I would instead be part of the resistance." Denise Duhamel
Six years ago, I met poet Denise Duhamel at the Pine Crest Inn in Tryon, NC. It was my first residency for my MFA, and I was nervous and a little afraid. This was it; I was either a writer, or I wasn't. Denise taught me to trust my instincts, but to also actively think about them. She taught me to be brave in my writing by being brave in her own. I would not be the poet I am today without this wonderful, fierce woman.
Out of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of and why?
That is a hard question, but I would say I am most proud that I “stuck to my (poetic and therefore metaphorical) guns” and didn’t give up on poetry when so many rejections kept coming. I went to school (both undergrad and grad) with extremely talented classmates who, for one reason or another, stopped writing poetry. There is no judgment as many have gone on to have happy lives outside of literature. I just knew that, for me, writing was my way of being in this world.
What are you currently working on? How long have you been working on it? How did you become interested in it/ where did you get the idea for it?
My new book Scald is out any day. My last book Blowout was so personal that I wanted to leap into something else. The book is arranged into three sections dedicated to Shulie Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, and Mary Daly—three controversial second wave feminists. I grew up on that kind of feminism and thought, with Hillary in the White House, I would be in the zeitgeist. Little did I know I would instead be part of the resistance. The post-Scald poems seem to be about feminism and pop culture as well, but it’s too soon to tell what will develop. Like so many others, I am writing about Trump and most recently cast him as a Legally Blond figure in “Lethally Orange.”
What issue are you currently most passionate about? What is the one thing you would like people to know or understand about this issue?
I am constantly trying to articulate my views on feminism to people who think “humanism” is a better term, people who think I am a nag. This is the first time in a long time that there are fewer women on the planet (some say because of China’s “one-child policy” and the preference for male heirs.) In any case, this is a big problem—women live longer than men on average, so there should be more of us. I truly believe that the feminization of culture could lend itself to a healing of the planet, especially when it comes to climate change.
What book or film with a female protagonist would you recommend and why? What female author’s, artist’s, or musician’s work would you recommend and why?
Lisa Glatt’s novel The Nakeds is a hilarious and poignant take on what it is to be female child in a body cast with a mother who joins a nudist colony.
I absolutely love the film Blue is the Warmest Color in which there is a beautiful and sexy teenager who actually eats two bowls of pasta.
As for musicians—Margaret Cho’s “I Wanna Kill My Rapist” is terrific.
As for poetry, Amy Newman’s re-writing of Howl is simply brilliant.
Aria Watson, only 18, has done a photo series of women using Trump’s own misogynist words.
Name one woman who has influenced you/ had an impact on you, perhaps as a mentor. Why and how did she impact your life?
My friend and collaborator, the poet Maureen Seaton, is a woman who lives with integrity and grace. She was “ahead” of me in terms of publishing and poetic maturity when we first met in 1987, but she always treated me as an equal. She and I talk endlessly about feminism and poetry and social justice through literature. She is often fearless when I am afraid—and has always believed in me, even when I didn’t truly believe in myself. She is a shining example of Poet!
A dear friend once described writing, the attempt to create something that might be considered art, as a life affirming act. I know that, for many of us, the campaign/election/inauguration and the recent threats to cut funding to the NEA and other cultural programs have blocked our creativity, have made it seem impossible at times to produce a single line. And without that spark, without that feeling that you are channeling something elemental through your words or your art, without that absolute magic that happens when something you’ve created feels just right, it becomes more and more difficult to get through the day. It makes it difficult to feel wholly alive.
I, myself, have been having trouble gathering enough focus to write, to really write, to get in the zone. But while I was thinking on this today, I thought about reading a friend’s work-in-progress, and it came to me that I am so lucky to have so many creative friends, to have so many writer friends who are willing to share their works-in-progress with me. I thought how wonderful it is that I can say, “I read _______________ before it was even published.” How cool is that? And I realized that reading other writers’ works-in-progress helps me feel centered again. It makes me feel that it is possible to create again. So I thought I’d share something I’ve been working on with you.
About two weeks ago, I wrote the line “I get your rain a day later.” That’s it. That is as far as I got with that thought for two weeks. I found that line again on Tuesday, and I sat down to try to work with it. I wrote about rain, how it hits different surfaces on my deck — the folded umbrella, the covered grill, the strings of globe lights — and then I wrote about smelling the rain coming. And it turns out that that was the thing I needed. I wondered what that meant. How do we smell rain? Well, it turns out that light rain releases aerosols containing dust and oils such as plant oils, and any wind pushes the aerosols ahead of the rain. So when you smell rain coming, you’re really smelling the dust and oils that collected on surfaces far from where you are. And I thought what a romantic notion it is that rain falling on a someone who is somewhere else announces itself to another someone far away.
That research brought me this gift of a word: “petrichor.” Petrichor is the name for the smell of rain falling on dry surfaces. Its etymology is equally wonderful: petra + ichor. Stone and the fluid that is the blood of the gods. I mean, come on! I get your rain a day later…AND the smell of it is the blood of the gods? Yes. Yes. Yes. Right now, all I have are notes, but I have a concept that I’m excited about.
And so I’m back to life.
What are you working on?
I don’t know about y’all, but 2016 was what I imagine being a meteorologist during a particularly bad hurricane season feels like. Category 5’s everywhere, crazy spaghetti tracking models, standing outside on a beach with rain pelting our slickers sideways and an ocean behind us where every wave has a face. An angry face. A face with foaming jaws cracked open and ready to chew.
Yeah. Like that.
But, there were good things, too. Like those fried green tomatoes at Willy Taco in Greenville, SC. Like watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with my kids at the theater where absolutely zero cell phones went off. Like getting a thoughtful letter in the actual mail from a dear, dear friend. Like lighting my grill on a sunny spring afternoon.
Oh, and I published a book.
So, yes. My very first book of poetry was published in October, and it has been a bright point in my life. Everything from the notification from the publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson, to editing proofs, to requesting and receiving blurbs, to working on the cover, to signing preorders, to the book launch on October 4th at Starlight Cafe in Greenville, NC, to all of the readings since the launch; everything has been wonderful, and I have been amazed by the things that can happen.
Here are 5 things I have learned:
The model in the photo that you and your publisher love and chose for your book cover could back out. You could need to come up with something else, quick. You could meet up with the fabulous photographer Dawn Surrat and spend a fun afternoon in an evening gown posing with her collection of insects and animal bones. You could end up with a cover you love even more, and a back cover even, and a new friend.
Be open to change.
You could be nervous as hell about sending out requests for blurbs to poets you respect and admire. You could send the requests anyway. They could agree to write the blurbs. They could send you their blurbs that say things that make you cry. In a good way.
Send the requests.
You could have lots of friends who are indifferent to poetry. They might even say they hate poetry. They could come to your reading anyway. They could tell you afterwards that hearing you read your poems out loud changed how they view poetry. They could buy your book. Or not.
Lots of people have never heard poetry read out loud.
Social media friends from high school and junior high and elementary school could buy your book. They could message you to tell you that your book is on their bookshelf in their home in Denver or San Francisco or Baltimore.
Knowing your book is on the bookshelf of someone you haven’t seen since you were eleven is pretty damn cool.
People who hear you read from your book could contact you to come and read at their bookstores, at their book club meetings, at their open mic nights. Famous poets could be at your readings and they could buy and read your book and then send you an email saying how they had “a helluva time” and then analyze one of your favorite poems from the collection that never got published in a journal but you didn’t change it because you love it, dammit.
You never know who will be at your reading.
This book, and the process of the book, has brought me joy. I can’t wait to see what else I learn from this wonderful, slightly crazy thing called writing.
Sometimes, you need a good prompt to help you write that story, that poem, that essay...you know the one. The one that wakes you up at night. The one that scares the shit out of you. The one that must be written.
The Poet's Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux has a ton of great prompts and writing advice in it, but my favorite section, the one that has been most useful to me, is the chapter titled The Shadow. It is about writing what makes you uncomfortable, about getting "past the voices that tell you what you 'should' write, the voices that say you want people to like you, to think you are a good person" (57). I first read this book five years ago, and I have been trying to make myself uncomfortable ever since.
I love hearing how a story or poem came into being. When a writer says that the inspiration for a piece of beautiful writing came from a snippet of conversation overheard in line at Starbucks, or from misreading a billboard while driving, or from a pair of abandoned shoes at the beach, I am always fascinated. And the leaps that come after that initial inspiration, well.
A poem I am particularly fond of was published by the good folks at Cider Press Review this morning. I say particularly fond because it's one of those poems that announced itself, channeled itself through me like lightning, like light. And I am particularly fond of it because it was inspired by friends.
Here's how it started. I posted the following prompt to social media: What do you value most in a friendship? Here are the replies I got:
"Honesty." "Compassion." "Flowing conversation." "Many of my dearest friends live far away. I value our ability to pick up where we left off, that feeling that we've never been apart. Of course, that makes missing them when they're gone really hard." "Able to be completely myself, and ^. To be ourselves as if no time has passed." "I value that palpable easiness that is a hallmark of several friendships - that feeling where it doesn't matter what you do, it just matters that you are together." "honoring what's broken in us" "Unspoken understanding." "Unconditional acceptance." "I'm looking for a word that brings together all of these things for me, because, yes, all of the things people have said. Maybe connection. Or heart." "Trusting them enough to be completely myself, knowing they understand me, knowing they accept me as-is, sharing geek squee." "Gifts. I like when they give me gifts. Just kidding...everyone's pretty much summed my feelings up, so I thought I'd say something ridiculous and shallow just to inject something different!" "All these. ..plus a shared sense of wonder."
At first, I had no idea what to do. When I have no idea what to do, I try to write a sestina. Something about the form, the rules, helps me to begin. In order to write a sestina, you have to pick six words. So I picked the six words that stood out to me the most from the replies. They were: wonder, mask, broken, missing, gift, and heart.
And then I thought about Wonder Woman. About masks. About Batman. About secret identities. And then the poem struck.
My friends, this poem was inspired by you; it belongs to you. I thank you.
Last Saturday night, after having been unexpectedly denied entrance to an event I traveled five and a half hours to attend, I was faced with a rarity: time. Alone. All by myself.
I was not at home alone where there is laundry and cleaning and weeding and grocery shopping and bill paying and making breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. No. I was alone in a hotel with nothing I had to do and no one I had to worry about but me. So I did what many poets and writers would do. I went to the bar.
Don’t tell anybody, but we writers listen to everything, and we take notes. Overheard conversations become dialogue, mannerisms become characters, drink choices become writing prompts. Write a poem about a person who orders a round of Laphroaig with a Coors Light chaser. Go.
I sat down on the high bar chair, and the bartender took my order. She sat my nine ounce pour of sauvignon blanc in front of me on the black marble bar top and went to the end of the bar to my left to help a group of three men in suits. I turned my ears on and readied my mental pen. And here is what I heard:
“Hey, hey Kitty? Let me get a round of good scotch this time. I’m trying to teach these assholes the difference between cheap scotch and good scotch.”
Kitty said, “My pleasure,” and turned around to the gleaming shelves of liquor bottles.
“I’m liking the view from here, Kitty,” said Suit #1.
I tensed and watched as Kitty turned back toward them, smiled, and began to pour their drinks.
“Kitty? Is that your stage name? Your stripper name?”
“No. My mama gave it to me twenty-seven years ago,” Kitty said, not missing a beat.
This went on for about fifteen minutes. The three suits finally left, and they were promptly replaced by three more men in suits attending a wedding in the courtyard off the bar. After they ordered beers, this is what I heard:
“Hey Kitty? Is that, like, your stage name?”
I shit you not.
This went on for several hours with several different groups of men of varying ages. At some point, I asked Kitty how she did it. How she handled it so well. As I was speaking, the mug shot of the Stanford rapist came on the muted television. And I realized that I was commending Kitty for her ability to take it.
I wanted to punch every last one of those men in the face for their words. For the lifetime of conditioning behind those words. For making Kitty’s work environment an uncomfortable place for her, and for making the bar an uncomfortable place for me. For the fact that, if I were to say something to them, to call them out for their behavior, they would most likely say something like, “What? It’s just in fun. It doesn’t mean anything. Chill out. Jeez.”
I wanted to write a poem about this, and I tried. It started like this:
You are not my daughter. My daughter is ten, and you are twenty-seven. My daughter’s name is Aurora. She responds to “Oh, are you named after the princess?” with “I’m named after the goddess of the dawn. I put away the stars.” Your name is Kitty. You respond to “When did you get that name?” with “My mom gave it to me twenty-seven years ago.” To “Is that your stage name?” with a practiced laugh. To “You should really change your name” with the blank smile of a woman used to this.
Then I realized that, someday, someone might think it fun to ask my daughter if her name is her stage name. To make some slick comment about women who are princesses. I couldn’t write. All I could do was think I was going to have to have “The Talk” with my ten-year-old daughter, and probably soon. You know the one. My mom had it with me after a stranger stopped her in the parking lot outside the Stop-n-Go to ask what time it was and, while she looked at her watch, he grabbed her breast. It’s the “Don’t scream rape, scream fire. People will run to see a fire” talk.
It took the police forty-five minutes to get there. They took my mom’s statement, and here’s what happened. Nothing.
I wanted to write a poem about Kitty and my mom and the rape victim whose letter to her rapist has touched so many of us. I wanted to write a poem for every woman I know who has been raped, beaten, choked, verbally assaulted, or made to feel wrong in her own body. I wanted it to be a poem because, as author Leslie Pietrzyk put it in her blog, “think of poetry as Kafka thought of books: ‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ A single poem can wield that force.” But I couldn’t. Not yet.
But I will.
Today was my first weekday free after the end of the spring semester. So when my daughter's teacher texted me at 6:17am to ask if I could come in today to work on the class mural, I said yes! And fell back asleep for ten minutes, and woke up, and got the kids ready, and made lunches...you know how it goes. And then I was in the classroom facing a very large, very blank canvas drop cloth.
At my kids' Montessori school, Kidsfest is a huge deal. Every class chooses a country to study. They study it on and off all year leading up to one glorious, international afternoon of projects, food, activities, costumes, and dancing. This year, my daughter's class studied Sweden. They had the idea to create a mural depicting a Viking ship in front of which parents and students could take pictures during Kidsfest. My daughter popped up and said, "My mom's an artist!" Which leads me to this morning.
After a quick internet search for a suitable image, I took off my shoes and went to work. After about a half hour, I had the ship done and was working on the Vikings and all of their horned hats. One of the kids came over to look.
"Wow!" he said. "That's really good! How'd you do that so fast?"
I said thanks and that I was just sketching it out. They would do the painting later on. And I remembered the first painting I remember working on as an adult. I wanted it to be perfect. I spent hours on lines and shading. I trashed the whole thing, disgusted. At some point after that, an artist friend told me to stop trying to make my art look like something. To stop trying to make it look "real."
Kids (and adults!) learn a lot through observation. I hope that my daughter's classmates saw me being quick and messy, there on the floor of their classroom with my shoes off sitting in the middle of a giant canvas drop cloth, having a great time. And I will try to remember this more often in my own art and in my poetry: stop trying to make it perfect and just start.
So here I go. A new site, a new blog. I hope you'll come along with me!