(Psst. Need inspiration? Here’s Wikimedia’s Commons’ images of woods.) (Ignore the golfer.)
It’s NPM, wherein we celebrate having our way with words. March lasted forever, but someday we’ll look back at it with longing for how good it was, I’m afraid. I’m definitely sticking to haiku this week, as I search for something to say that isn’t… what everyone is saying. I don’t want to make yet another journal of a plague month – but neither do I want to forget everything that’s going on. Instead of chronicling what I’m feeling – which is the same thing everyone is feeling, existential dread – I’m instead going to try very hard to finding something new to see – or a new way to see it – every day. There’s no point promising not to be morose or sad, but I’m encouraging all of us to try and really see things just now – things we should remember.
Something I wrote for a virtual concert our choir is having: It is a paradox that as the pandemic forces us as the world into our separate corners, it highlights the ways in which we are all interconnected. We have all become woven into a tapestry called ‘society’ without even really noticing how our threads cross… and it’s painfully evident how broken we become when we abandon that interdependence and try to live without it. Homeless or homed, rich or poor, infected or well, are all in the same leaking boat. We need to see what it is that put us here, critically examine the leadership that kept it going, and look for a way out – together. Tall order, but, I think, doable.
People have always been walkers in this neighborhood – we have a lot of families who walk as a group – and now they’re circling all hours of the day. Sometimes they chat, and always, we wave, but it’s both uplifting, and heart-twinging. When they’re out of sight, sometimes their voices float back. How we stretch to listen to conversations not our own! I feel like we’ve all turned to ghosts; only our voice carrying proof of life…
Poetry Sister Liz is also doing her annual haiku project this month, as is Sister Tricia, Sister Laura, and Poetry Cousin Mary Lee. Don’t miss their original poetry this month.
A morning near the end of the last gasp of my revision:
It’s been an interesting process to me with my newest work in progress to use a sensitivity reader in conjunction with a publishing company. While I have used one before – a previous manuscript included me hiring someone from The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) to check out a black character with albinism – I’ve never had one paid for by someone other than me, nor have I ever dipped into trying to portray a culture wholly other than my own. My other character was black – I can write a black person of at least similar class and education as my own. Writing someone from an Asian culture with which I thought I was familiar has been a revelation. My reader was positive – I hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but I hadn’t been more than not disappointing.
Cultural representation is …tricky.
What we may think of as just… tchotchkes in someone’s house, for instance, might be a representation of cultural pride. What we might assume is just a stereotype of ‘everyone from this place eats this food,’ may be, in fact, another touchstone that connects a people to a place of importance to them, their parents, their grandparents, and generations back. Shoes left outside? That’s what people do. Also what I found out? What I thought was going to be a slam dunk… isn’t.
I’m grateful for my reader’s direct words. She was straightforward and helpful – but I find I’m smarting a bit that I’m not as smart about this as I thought I’d be. I’ve never served as a sensitivity reader – the potential for emotional labor and the recoil from a bad rep and a tone deaf author is REAL – but someone bravely and graciously stepped up to the plate for me, and I’m so grateful to this person I want to send them flowers. Reading for cultural representation is a difficult job.
Because what is cultural representation, really, but a collection of… little details that are nearly imperceptible to outsiders? It’s hard to put a finger on, hard to define, hard to say “THIS” is cultural rep done right, and “THIS” is not… because everyone’s personal culture, expectations, educational levels, class and aspirational class is wildly variant. For instance: I grew up in a home with the Ten Commandments on the wall – and a framed copy of “Amazing Grace,” while other black Americans grew up with photographs on the wall of Martin Luther King, Jr., “black Jesus,” the Lord’s Prayer, and during the holidays, “black Santa.” We were vegetarian in the 80’s when few people were, and my parents were vegan off and on in our lives – so while I’ve never had fried chicken, have no particular opinions on potato salad, baked mac and cheese and dislike bbq sauce, I’ve had tofu and vegetarian gumbo my whole life. We were discouraged from using slang or swearing, but had a family… shorthand dialect of things probably only we said. I have some family members who can fall into African American Vernacular English with ease, and some who have no intuitive understanding of its rules.
I know that some people – and I’ve seen sweeping statements like this routinely on social media – don’t believe that a black character can be correctly portrayed if they do not eat the “right” foods, use AAVE, and have none of the “right” pictures. And yet… not only were those images not in my house, they were absent in the home of my maternal grandmother as well. (My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had… hundreds of porcelain roosters, a prayer card Jesus looking kind of emaciated, and sad clowns on velvet in the bathroom… her cultural aesthetic being another blog post ENTIRELY.)
Writing a cultural representation which would feel “normal” to me would have walls crammed with bad family photos and a couple of religious touchstones, but nothing representative of “black America,” exactly, except… a washboard. My great-grandmother’s washboard, which she still used well into the time when people had washers, hangs as a reminder of the extreme poverty of the past, but the assurance that one can manage. At least, that’s what I take it to be – a reminder that Miss Emily made do with her own two hands. Is that properly “black?” Is that Americana? Cultural representation is personal – and specific. And honestly? There is no way to get it right for everyone. NONE. There is nothing that will protect the writer from criticism and disappointing someone.
That is quite a thing to sit with, friends.
So, we sit with it.
And then, we take the word of the lived experiences of others and spoon in generous helpings of their good sense, and … leap alone into the ether from there.
Now all of my own nitpicky little revisions have been laid to rest, and today I embark on the most difficult ones of all… And yet? Looking more closely and trying to see through a cultural lens just provides opportunity to lean in… and open my eyes wider. I am grateful to my reader for another chance to get it (closer to, in the neighborhood of, adjacent to) right.
I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.
And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book. And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying,”This guy’s okay. This guy’s fine.”
Yeah, remember that? 2014, the National Book Award, televised on C-SPAN and elsewhere. People are so heartened to see African Americans on the National Book Award finalist list. Poets and writers and people of letters are tuning in. In the children’s lit community, we’re thrilled that Jacqueline Woodson, one of our steady bright lights in YA literature, has won. She’s earned that BIG award, one which will thrust her outside the quieter waters of children’s lit, and… in that moment, the professional crowning pinnacle of her success thus far, the presenter makes …a watermelon joke.
“In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from.” – Jacqueline Woodson, quoted in the New York Times.
He had an hundred million reasons why, later, he had remarked so disparagingly on the poets who were nominated, why he had told jokes and tried to wrest the attention of the crowd from the nominees onto his vast and hungry ego. But, it wasn’t personal; he cried no foul, she’s my friend! a thousand times, and yet, that moment, those sly, knowing words sliced thousands of us to ribbons, as the audience laughed, and a tall, serene woman had to stand – and yet again, endure. Endure. Endure, with her face at peace, as if the buffoonery of the man before her didn’t reach her.
I don’t support hate, and yet, in that moment, that dizzyingly visceral emotion shivered in my sight. Gut-punched, I wanted to both hiss and claw, scream and spit. As far as I was concerned, that man was finished, and I was done with him and all his works, forever. I never bought, reviewed, read, or talked of anything else he said or did. It made no difference to his life, I am sure, but it seemed right, to me, to simply use my internal Wite-Out and blot him from my notice for the rest of forever. I was fully over this “problematic” favorite.
It’s clear that I’m still sitting with our current moment in the children’s lit industry, trying to work through it, and thinking about the last time that so many voices came together to exclaim in disgust. It was for our Ms. Woodson, and rightly so. The commentary was sharp, and loud – and ultimately… was placated by the huge monetary donation Handler gave to We Need Diverse Books. And then, most of the voices were hushed, pressing their hands against the shoulders of those who still rose up, and their hands over the mouths of those still bitterly protesting. He apologized. He made it right. You can’t judge people on what they say.
But, yesterday, after Handler wandered flat-footedly into the pages of children’s lit history again, this time into the earnest signatories of the #ustoo pledge, wherein members of the children’s lit industry pledged to hold accountable conferences and gatherings, and not attend those which have no clear sexual harassment policy, people took him to task for his very clear participation IN the harassment. The very innuendo-laden jokes, in front of children and adults. The demeaning sexual talk. But — he apologized. He made it right. You can’t judge people on what they say.
It seems clear that you can, unless what you say is racist.
In my small and petty way, I blocked Daniel Handler from my sight years ago – but he’s still been doing things, writing, being invited places, feted within the industry, and I’m the doofus who didn’t realize that his “little faux pas” on Ms. Woodson’s big night had long been forgotten.
But, as Heidi so succinctly asked, didn’t we figure out this guy was trash after the watermelon thing? What are we doing still courting that kind of person to be a speaker and to visit classrooms? Why don’t we seem to take the humiliation, shame, and harm of racism as seriously as we’re all endeavoring to take the #metoo harassment thing?
In all seriousness – is a #metoo movement going to actually succeed if, once again, racism is instructed to take a seat at the back of the bus?
1897. “The day before the inauguration of the nation’s 28th president the Congressional Committee of NAWSA hosted a large parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The idea behind this was to maximize onlookers who happened to be in town to attend the inauguration. Woodrow Wilson expected a crowd at the train station to greet him; however, very few people actually showed up to greet the president, the largest part of the crowd was his staff. The parade was led by the beautiful lawyer Inez Milholland Bouissevain upon a white horse. This image of her as a warrior atop a horse is what made her an iconic image in the fight for womens’ right to vote. This massive parade consisted of no less than nine bands. It also included four brigades on horseback and close to eight thousand marchers. The parade was cut into sections: working women, state delegates, male suffragists, and finally African-American women.
The point of the parade was “to march in the spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign in the late nineteenth century, organized the Alpha Suffrage Club among Black women in Chicago and brought members with her to participate in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. The organizers of the march asked that they walk at the end of the parade. She tried to get the White Illinois delegation to support her opposition of this segregation, but found few supporters. They either would march at the end or not at all. Ida refused to march, but as the parade progressed, Ida emerged from the crowd and joined the White Illinois delegation, marching between two White supporters. She refused to comply with the segregation.”
– Excerpts taken from One of Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black and White Women by Midge Wilson & Kathy Russell, Anchor, 1996, and PBS.org.
I think I’ve been naive, and pretty quiet – but it’s clear the time for my naive assumptions is way over.
O Me! O Life!
~ by Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892
O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
You will contribute that verse, no matter what. Curtain’s rising. Time to shine.
“There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of god.
And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.”
― Mary Oliver
Arise. Shine. LOOK.
From A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard: “Thomas Merton wrote, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.
I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.
Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
May you live all the days of your life.
“…When you do not sing, you keep the rest of us from getting to know you—know your voice, a voice that has never been heard ever before in the immeasurably vast history of the cosmos and will never be heard again after you die, which could be any day, any moment. How can we love you fully unless we know you, know your voice? If you choose not to sing, we are left with your silence. We have to do the work of filling in the gaps, guessing at what you’re song might’ve been if you’d chosen to sing. Who are you, all of you? We want to know, those of us who recognize the tragedy for what it is.
There’s more, so much more. When your song goes unsung, you keep yourself from knowing yourself—knowing how your voice can sound, what it can do. You become a stranger to certain parts of yourself, certain sounds and the emotions those sounds can carry.
When you abort your soul’s longing to sing, you are choosing to distrust us, the ones surrounding you, distrust that we will love you and accept you and be grateful for whatever your song turns out to be. You are living as if we wouldn’t honor you and celebrate you exactly as you are. You are choosing to believe that we are not capable of holding you in the way that you deserve. Please, give us the chance.When you believe that you cannot sing, you are hoarding yourself. You are not giving your songs away, freely, unconditionally, those songs which only you can give, those songs which someone might be desperately needing right now. Creation needs your songs just as much as you need the air, the water, the earth and all its bounty. Creation does not deprive you of that which you need to survive. Why do you deprive creation of your songs? Why were you given a voice if not to sing yourself back to that which gave it to you?
– Andrew Forsthoefel, “The Tragedy of Believing You Can’t Sing.”
One of my favorite songs Jules introduced me to from Lost in the Trees is “Artist Song” from the 2012 album A Church That Fits Our Needs. In the song, there’s this poignant, repeated phrase which reminds me of this essay.
A fearful song
Played by trumpets for our heart
Oh, oh — I have a fear of darkness.
Your hymn of faith cause I have none
Oh, oh — Your song is my fortress.
What would we do if we needed to hear your song, but you’d decided not to sing it? Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear… The song you have may indeed be whetstone for a sword, armor for a battle, faith, and fortitude, and fuel for a lamp. A song. A fortress. So, sing out.
I tweeted this yesterday, but the drawback of Twitter, of course, is chopping things up into tiny bits. This quote needs to be seen and savored in its entirety. It’s from the legendary dance diva, Martha Graham in a 1973 interview. She was interviewed countless times throughout a long and brilliant career, of course, but one of the biggest things she’s ever said that stuck with me was about struggling as an artist. She told the Christian Science Monitor, `You are unique and so am I. If you do not fulfill that uniqueness, it is lost to the world. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, you must pay your debts to the life that has been permitted you. And to do it with as much courage as possible.’
It’s the COURAGE that stood out to me.
It’s odd how some people seem to equate being a writer with suffering in some vague, indefinable way, as if the suffering itself, the self-deprecation and the, “Oh, I make no money with it,” is part of the gig. The attitude some people bring to the work really has nothing to do with the writing, the desire to write, or why we do so specifically for young adults. I distrust a writer who gets too involved with The Struggle (TM), this idea that The Arts and The Life are some sort of all-caps calling to which they’re supposed to sacrifice everything. Part of me constantly chafes at myself for indecision and nonsense, while the other asks, “Did you choose this life, or not?”
“There is no place for arrogance in the arts, but neither is there room for doubt or a perpetual need for affirmation. If you come to me with doubts about a particular move in a piece, or if you come to me and ask if what you’ve written has truth and power in it, these are doubts I can handle and respect. But if you come to me and moan about whether or not you really have a place in the dance or the theatre or in film, I’ll be the first person to pack your bags and walk you to the door. You are either admitting that you lack the talent and the will, or you are just looking for some easy attention. I don’t have time for that. The world doesn’t have time for that. Believe in your worth and work with a will so that others will see it. That’s how it is done; that’s how it was always done.”
Emphasis mine, of course.
I don’t know the origin of the phrase, “Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise,” but this quote pulls that to mind. Oh, the self pity, the “look-at-me” posting of daily word count (I know that for some people, this is a necessary part of keeping themselves accountable, but not only is it really painful sometimes for other people who write very much more slowly, but daily word count is really… significant of nothing), the sort of whingeing of worrying aloud we do, when we see someone else “stealing” our plot or idea – all of this is unnecessary. Terry Pratchett always said that there are stories simply “sleeting” through the Universe. There’s enough for all. There is room for all. There is art for all. It only requires that we reach out and embrace it. Believing in our work, our worth, our will. Which is just kind of huge.
“The world seethes with ideas the way a week-old carcass seethes with maggots, and they are individually just about as valuable. Standing atop the carcass shouting, “The eighteenth maggot on the left belongs to MEEEEE!” is well… bless your heart, as they say around here. And even if both you and I, creative carrion birds that we are, grab for the same maggot, we’d get very different results.
…so, stories are like dead whales. One falls from the sky every now and again, and we all jump on it.”
– Ursula Vernon, on why writers really shouldn’t worry about story ideas being “taken” because there are stories out there, forever, like there are whales washing up on beaches forever, which will nourish all of us bottom-feeder writers forever, amen. Really, it’s a charming analogy, just as charming as whalefall, which is whales washing up dead on beaches… Okay, so NOT charming, but whatever. Circle of life. Just like ideas, and writing, and all of this work. Circle of life.
So, the next time I find myself in the presence of undue “suffering” in my chosen profession, I’m going to imagine Ms. Martha plié-ing across the floor to escort that person OUT of the field. (At least out of my hearing and field of vision, if nothing else.) Gracefully, of course. Because nobody has time for the transparent bids for sympathy in a job we took onto our own shoulders. Believe in your work and your worth and go on.
It is the same song, second verse — I am always whinging how each challenge we set ourselves as Poetry Sisters (plus Sara’s brother JC, who is our collective plus one poet) during this 12 Months, 12 Poems thing is challenging in a different way than the last. I fully expected the three classified ad haiku to be easy-peasy; after all, I do a daily haiku or senryu every National Poetry Month… however, after my learned sisters talked about the form – its purpose and meaning, and the lazy people who just worry about syllable count and not the punch of the final line nor the precise wording nor beautiful language — I started feeling like this was a little beyond me.
Granted, I have been in the U.S. now for a solid week, and am still slightly travel-fuzzed, so I kind of have an excuse. My brain hasn’t caught up; I seem to want to have lunch in the UK, so am waking up between 2-3 a.m. for my usual 1 p.m. repast — it’s doing my sleep no favors. Despite the shortness of the form, the classified theme seemed really overwhelming. I don’t remember ever placing an ad in a paper in my life, and even the simple language – which pay by the word, right? – seemed to elude me. Fortunately, when we opened the group document where we share our work, other people admitted to struggling, and “threw” haiku at the group wall, to see what stuck.
One of the goals of this 12 Months, 12 Poems exercise, for me, at least, is to make friends with failure — to be best mates with mediocrity and intimate with imperfection, — and to move on. I am just going to do that, okay? I don’t really love any of these, except a little, in the way one loves a lost tooth, or a gallstone one has passed. (Not that I’ve ever done that, but when I was in college, my boss… had hers put… in a baby food jar. And brought it to show her student workers. I’ve often thought she probably needed… hobbies…) My feeling on these is that they’re mine – I did them – but it’s still not quite… what I’d call a great job. But, the point is to DO it, right? *sigh* Meh. Whatever.
$.05 per word
Caveat emptor, people.
for sale: one wardrobe
once owned by True Believer
oak. no secret door.
arc, plot, characters: Greatest
story never told
hard-backed bookie seeks
shelf-conscious thriller for close
Local papers in the Poetry Sister Cities are making a killing on ads this week.
The Sara Quarterly has some great ads this month.
The Kelly Traveler has wildlife, and cabana boys – can’t beat that.
The Tricia Courier offers optional head-losing for any boys in the area,
The Liz Intelligencer has an offer on stolen hours,
The Daily Laura offers wrecking balls, and buzzes about personal ads.
And finally, Andromeda Planet is in search of everything, in cheese sauce.
It was so funny how such short snippets of poetry – when we finally managed to get them on paper – revealed so much. That’s the beauty of a shorter form. So much is packed down into succinctness.
More poetry can be found this Poetry Friday at The Opposite of Indifference, which is always an intriguing name for a blog. Cheers! May your garage sales and classified scouring go well this week.