This Poem Belongs to You

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. 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.





Dear Kitty,

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: 

Dear Kitty,

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.