Because I can’t walk in heels.
Because my food pyramid is built of donuts.
Because my father with bad cancer is still an ass.
Because I never wish my stepmother a Happy Mothers Day.
Have you heard the one about a man, his wife, and all his other women who walk Into a bar…?
Have you heard the one about a girl, her father, and the invisible tether?
Because I always forget to drink water.
Because I always forget to turn off the lights.
Because I prefer the dark.
Because I sometimes call my mother dear albatross.
Because its been 24 months since I cried.
Because my name’s too tight.
Because I’m not enough.
Because I’m too much.
Because I cried too much when I was a girl.
Because lies are thicker than blood.
Maybe I don’t want a husband.
Maybe I don’t want a husband!
Maybe I don’t want a husband?
Because I don’t deserve a husband.
In 2011 I participated in Quentin Bomgardner’s Imaginary Family Project. Quentin sent me a selection of vintage family photos and I used one as the inspiration for a story. I was quite excited last week when a bound collection of the stories from the project showed up in mailbox. I look forward to getting to know the other 51 imaginary families.
Here’s the photo I wrote about and an excerpt from my piece:
My mama Frankie Jean was a church girl. She sang in the choir, but what did Jesus know about being 18? About the pride welding up in her like sap because of shapely ankles and flaring hips and an abundant behind? Her first night down on Freeman, Frankie Jean had looked at my daddy—12 years her senior—and thought, “With him I won’t have to be a white lady’s girl forever.”
“Daffodil,” he’d tell her, squeezing her waist in a dark corner of the bar, “In Paris—you can’t believe how many lights there are in Paris. And nighttime is as bright as day, and pretty as diamonds. You can just sit at a table right on the sidewalk and watch people go by. In the middle of the day, you’re just sitting there doing nothing but drinking coffee and the white folks don’t care.”
My mother wasn’t lazy, but she was old enough to understand about the work of women. That it was a heavy sack you tied on soon as you were grown enough. A heavy old sack that no one ever offered to carry for you. She wanted to set it down for a moment, find out what coffee tasted like or how it felt to take a walk by the river if there wasn’t anyone waiting for you.
You can read the rest here.
Reasons why I can’t see my friend Philippa Hughes anymore:
1. At the artist salon she hosted last night, I made contacts with a performance artist who I hope to interview for my day job, an art consultant who I’d like to learn more about, and reconnected with an arts PR person who I’d met briefly several years ago who I think will be a good colleague in organizing some sort of regular meet-up for arts PR folks in DC.
2. After the presentation, when I was talking to Philippa, she reminded me that I’d been talking about starting a magazine for nearly a year, encouraged me that there did need to be a space focused on post-40 “late bloomers,” and offered to start the magazine with me. So today, in between getting my regular work done, I’ve been starting to think about my action plan for getting the magazine started.
3. When I arrived home from the artist salon, although it was nearly my bed time I wrote a list poem/blog post inspired by something the performance artist said and put out a call on Facebook for other poets/writers to join me in a month-long writing marathon on the subject of “place.”
4. I then stayed up until nearly midnight listening to a couple of episodes of the radio show—the Van Gogh Sessions—Philippa does with her good friend Karen Yankosky, which not only made me laugh but reminded me of how important it is to dare.
In other words, after a few hours with Philippa I was inspired and fired up!
I’m joking, of course, about not hanging out with Philippa anymore. But as I was thinking about last night’s burst of creativity, the old adage popped into my head: ”You are the company you keep.” In other words, if you want to live a more creative life, if you want to have the courage to dare when you’d rather sit on the blue couch, then you have to hang out with those who are also daring and dreaming.
I’ve been fortunate that throughout my life, I’ve had groups of creative friends around me. In Chicago, it was my writing group—the Divas—most of whom I met because I dared to sign up for a poetry workshop on the very last day that registration was open. In the last couple of years here in DC, I’ve dared to do things like go to artist salons and performance events. I’ve dared to join virtual groups, like the online writing group I do poem-a-day challenges with several times a year. I’ve dared to reach out personally to artists I’ve met professionally and with whom I’ve especially clicked. And when I saw that in January, Philippa and her friend (and now my friend, yay!) Karen were doing a blog-a-day challenge, I invited myself to join them.
I think I’ve written before about the true meaning of networking: it’s not about finding the person who’s going to get you your next job with a big promotion and tons of perks (though that’s always nice). It’s about finding those people who are traveling down the same path as you so you can help each other—with advice, with encouragement, with support, with wisdom.
The older we get, it’s harder to meet those people. In my 40s, it feels so much more intimidating to even say “hello” to someone I don’t know at a gathering. It can be uncomfortable, you can spend time feeling like an outsider, and it can be a little dispiriting if the coffee date with the person you met at that cool event turns out to be a dud, or if you send out e-mails to the folks you met at the event and no one even wants to have coffee. But it’s worth it.
In the poetry world, they say that if you have a folder full of rejection letters, you’re doing it right. It means that you’re engaging, you’re trying, you’re putting your work out there because there’s no chance at all of publication if it just sits in the drawer. I think the same is true when it comes to building a creative community around you. Not every interaction will be a success, but eventually, if you persist, you end up with a friend—and hopefully a group of friends—who inspires you, challenges you, and keeps you going when it feels like the creative well is going dry. Friends who remind you of your goals, your dreams, and will do what they can to help you get to wherever it is you’ve decided to go. And that, I’ve learned, is absolutely worth the risk of rejection.
I went to hear Bill Drayton, CEO/Founder of the Ashoka Foundation, speak the other night. And he said that what’s holding us back from all being change-makers (or artists, or creative people or whatever your particular goal is) is that we just don’t give ourselves permission. So go ahead, give yourself permission to talk to that artist at that party, comment on that blog post, politely barge into that conversation because you know you have something to offer. Go ahead, I dare you!
p.s. IMHO you should sign up for the Pink Line Project mailing list so Philippa can inspire you too.
p.s.p.s. The performance artist from last night is Kathryn Cornelius. I believe she has a couple of shows up right now, and you can learn more on her website.
miss the deadline
hate all the pens except the one that’s lost
borrow someone’s text
borrow someone else’s text
kill all your babies*
re-define the verbs
don’t remember what happened the right way
write so objects in the mirror are farther away than they appear
write with one eye closed
write with ears full of sealing wax
measure the distance from your desk to the coffee pot in unwritten pages
write all the wrong words
mispronounce everything especially around line breaks
write only with pencil shavings
read too much
read too little
read books that are not yet written
bring snacks to the book club
never join a book club
club the books you don’t want to read
sell out each time you write a story
make a story from each time you sell out
keep a list of favorite best sellers
add “in bed” to all your motivational quotes
keep a common place book
burn the common place book every night and start again
never sleep at night
sleep at night only when you should be writing
jump off the cliff with a notebook strapped to your back
write like nobody’s listening or will ever listen
write like books are dead
write like English is your 3rd or 4th language and you sometimes speak with a lisp
write like a motherfucker**
*I promise I’m not promoting infant genocide here. “Kill your babies” is the phrase writers use when they’re talking about a line or phrase that they absolutely love but, for whatever reason, doesn’t belong in the piece of writing they’re working on
** I don’t usually swear when I write, and I’d probably be too mortified to say that out loud, but come on, that’s one of the only true things in this list….with many thanks to Cheryl Strayed and the Rumpus for coining it first
Here’s me reading “The Hunters” at Monday Night Blues. It’s one of the poems I read on-air today on Questions That Bother Me So with Katrina Murphy.
This afternoon I was on Questions That Bother Me So, an Internet radio show hosted by my dear friend Katrina Murphy. Somehow Katrina and I have actually only known each other for about two years, though I don’t know how that’s possible as we have such a rich connection. Perhaps we both recognized that God put us in each other’s lives for a reason, and so we were immediately open to each other. Whatever the reason, I am grateful to have her in my life and was delighted at the luxury of chatting with her for two hours.
I just read a Facebook post from the writer Anne Lamott. She was writing about a reading she just gave in a small bookstore. Not having yet published a full collection, I have read at numerous small venues—churches, bars, a classroom on an HBCU campus, the back room of a store that used to be a restaurant.* I am used to the intimate audience, the audience that shows up because they truly love you or they truly love poetry or, in the best cases, both.
Katrina and I met at such an intimate venue—Charleston’s East Bay Meeting House, where the indefatigable (and talented) James Lundy, Jr. hosts Monday Night Poetry. My MFA classmate and ace poet and occasional cocktail buddy and sweet friend Sandra Beasley had read there, and she posted a Facebook note encouraging folks to find their way to Charleston. So I sent Mr. Lundy—as he used to be known once upon a time till I started affectionately and joshingly just calling him Lundy—an e-mail asking to read there, chock full of the assorted credentials I’ve pulled together over the years. Surprisingly he said yes, and I found myself heading to Charleston that October.
Katrina read at the open mike portion, and afterwards warmheartedly invited me to go out for cocktails with her and some of the other poets and friends of poets who were there. I can’t describe how well taken care of—to borrow a phrase from Katrina—I felt. These people who had not known me at all the day before, and knew only what they could know of me after listening to roughly 45 minutes of poems (which included the fact that I could carry a tune, write about blues musicians sometimes, and have a perennial crush on Christian Kane) welcomed me as if they had been waiting for me to come along and be their friend the whole time.
That’s the beauty of small venues—that you can make those connections, some for a lifetime (no way am I ever giving up Katrina) and some just for a moment, but all authentic and real and powerful and lasting in influence. It was at another small venue that I, for the first time, viscerally understood that something I wrote could be meaningful to someone else. It was at a small church on Cape Cod, and I can’t imagine for the life of me how I received an invitation to read as I hadn’t yet even published a chapbook. I think perhaps someone heard me on a Provincetown radio show that had been kind enough to have me on while I was living in town on a writing fellowship.
One of the poems I read that night was called “Poem for the Two Jemimas,” inspired by a beautiful story quilt by Faith Ringgold that features two robust, colorful women. The poem is a blues mourning the loss of identity that can be one of the down sides of losing weight. I myself had spent the better part of about a year, or maybe a year-and-a-half losing 75 or so pounds. I had moved from the city I’d lived in for six years to this little town on the edge of the world, and I was still coming to terms with my new body and how I was perceived by myself as well as others. All of that had percolated into this blues. After the reading, many in the audience—which was mostly women—offered kind words and congratulations. One woman asked if “The Two Jemimas” was published somewhere because she wanted to share it with a friend. I was so touched that I gave her the copy I’d read from. More than a decade later, I’m still stunned that she wanted to give someone else a page of my poetry.
On the show today, Katrina asked how a little girl from Queens grew up to be a poet. As I answered her, I was so aware of all the hands that have pushed me, prodded me, pulled me forward as I have loved, hated, grappled with, and cherished this talent God’s given me. I am grateful for all those many touches—some fleeting, some continuing, all profoundly life-changing. Ultimately, that’s why I write, to honor what they have done for me. The poet Sterling Plumpp once told me that for every poet and poem, there is a reader. I take that to mean that I may never command large audiences, or be invited to read for an hour at the National Book Festival. I may never even publish a full collection. But even as I long for those things, I keep in mind that the important thing is not that I have the world’s largest audience, but that the poems find their way to the people who need to read them. And, perhaps a bit selfishly, that the poems also help me to find the people who I need to keep pushing, prodding, pulling, and making me know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am well taken care of.
*Full Disclosure: I did read in Barnes and Noble two or three times when I lived in Chicago. But Chicago is an unusually receptive city for poetry events. People there have been known to given readings in the middle of restaurants standing on chairs while diners make their way through their courses. Ah, if only it weren’t so cold there…
Sorry for the late notice but I’m on Katrina Murphy’s Questions That Bother Me So talking poetry in honor of National Poetry Month! We’ll be live from 1-3 pm ET., and you can listen online!
I believe there’s also an archive so I’ll post that later today or this week.
As always, thanks for hanging out with me on the blog!
It’s hard to believe that this poem is more than a decade old. I wrote it during my fellowship time at the Fine Arts Work Center. I’d always enjoyed going to museums but this was the first time I’d ever lived among visual artists, visited their studios, engaged with art work outside of a museum or gallery space. It was the beginning of my long conversation with visual work, although I didn’t know then that I’d get to the point where I’d hear poems speaking to me the minute I walked into a museum show. But that’s another post for another time….
As I re-read the poem now, I realize that it captures some of my discomfort in my late 20s/early 30s at being an “artist,” of having a way of looking that was different than most of my friends. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the way my brain works, and to know that there are people who appreciate my brain precisely because of my way of looking.
Oh, I should mention that as I remember Ellen’s painting, it was a gorgeous close-up of a tree trunk in a forest of trees.
“The Painter’s Small Wife”
(after an untitled painting by Ellen Altfest)
Yes, I said, I’m really looking,
not looking, wanting
nothing to remain
of the moment, nothing
to shred into something.
I wondered how
you saw it like that,
close-up of plates—
blue, white, yellow, pink—
that were the bark.
I saw that it was muddy.
And maybe there were three trees.
Your brushes, relentless,
drowned out everything.
Here, I wanted to say,
here I am,
blocking your light.
You painted the shadows,
I’m not sure if I hated you
then, or after.
Everything to me
simply brown or green.
When deep within its nebulous corset
the poem dares disturb the peace
for God’s sake, do not make eye contact.
At best it’s an axe-grindy tattletale
at worst a begloomed pilgrim wandering
the road less traveled. Poems are,
of course, notoriously short on epidermis.
Dylan Thomas used to describe a poem
as walking over glass on your eyeballs.
Unpigeonholability’s one of the forces
that makes poetry the raspberry in the face.
These vowel movements—combative,
dopamine-inducing, stabby–will help
a poet grow up, immediately make him want
to do something else.
(Found in Poetry review of Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism by Michael Lista and Gwyneth Lewis)
Editor’s Note: Writing this poem made me giggle.