{sensitivity, cultural portrayal, and revisions}

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

{p7 takes on the ekphrastic}

Happy August!

Today’s Frost quote reminded me of the poem “Mending Wall,” and the repeated thought, “Something there is that does not love a wall, and wants it down.” Just now I’m working on the season ticket brochure for the chorus in which Himself and I sing, and our first concert next season focuses on Central and South America – and the hope of creating a bridge beyond our experiences rather than celebrating a wall between us and what is unfamiliar and new, thus intimidating. Something there is that does not love a wall…

This month, we’ve Sara Lewis Holmes’ gorgeous photographic eye to thank for the image accompanying today’s poem. Sara took pictures of her trip to Israel and selected three from which we were to create a poem in any form. Look for Sara’s gorgeous open-hearted paean here. Here Laura turns a bowl skyward, while Liz explores our common humanity. Tricia surprises us – and herself, while Kelly crows a bit. Andi adds airy caverns here, and we may find Rebecca later.


The location in this picture is the wall surrounding what is known as the Temple Mount, where the old, old, old temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in something like 700 C.E. The remaining wall, where traditionally Jewish people came to pray after a pilgrimage to the temple, is commonly known as The Western Wall.

This is a wall that is disputed territory, as are so many things which are divided by lifeless barricades and blocks of stone. Something there is that does not love a wall, and wants it down. A holy place for the Muslim faith as well, Islamic peoples call it the Buraq Wall, and for many years kept it for themselves. Jewish people know the wall as Kotel ha-Ma’aravi, and while some believe it is a place of prayer for all faiths, some in the ultra-orthodox community believe women shouldn’t be praying there at all. Despite all the controversy, united in fervency and purpose are the pray-ers, those individuals who write out an anonymous request and shove it between the cracks in the stone for safekeeping, taking their hearts in hand and mutely appealling to the power of miracles.

Jews, Gentiles, Israelis, Americans – people from all over, and of all faiths come to pray, wish, and hope in a place of perceived holiness. In a world of walls and conflict and confusion, may they find what they’re looking for.


Poetry Friday is hosted by Heidi Mordhorst at Heidi’s Juicy Little Universe.

{pf: the p7 try a triolet}

Ah, summer. Surprises around every corner… including the plum tree which has netted us a ten gallon bucket of plums so far and it’s still not finished bearing. And the apricots are coming ripe. As are the peaches… and the persimmons… and soon, the pomegranates… and the apples…

Did I kvetch about it being 103°F the day we moved? I stand by my whingeing, but apparently, the trees loved it. I’ll take the fruit and quit complaining now.

Our theme this month is HEAT, and our poetry challenge is the triolet – the deceptively simple form with which we’ve dabbled previously. As always, it’s one of the tougher repetitious poems for me – I feel like my timing is wonky or something – but this round, it was a bit easier. That may have been down to the discovery of a triolet generator. Having a little program keep track of your line repetitions can help you create sensible couplets (though I advise you copy to another document or don’t use the edit button; it erases the whole thing). Never feel like using any little aid is “cheating;” poetry is heart breathed into words – get your pages breathing any old way you can, bravehearts.


Sara’s gorgeous words breathe here. Here are Liz’s stunners, and Tricia’s beauties. Here are Rebecca’s radiant words, Kelly’s charmers, Laura’s lovelies, and Andi’s inspiration here. Hit that generator! Your words can breathe, too!


In the quest for one I halfway liked, I wrote a ton of triolets, but wanted to say something unique about the theme instead of “wah, wah, wah, it’s too hot,” which is the basic theme of all my summer discourse (not even kidding). Here I’ll share three which I thought spoke to the theme in the most interesting ways:

Vitally Vernal

My summer self is big and wild
Untamed, unbound: essential me
I’m barefoot, wander like a child
My summer self is big. And wild
I drift in whimsy, brain beguiled
By heated schemes I oversee
My summer self is big! How wild
Untamed, unbound, essential: me
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I am going to use the camping stove (aka the summer kitchen) for canning the plum preserves outside, but summer indoor cooking really brings on the heat, especially as I do as much as I can all at once to prevent turning on the range again…

Can I Give You A Taste?

Jammed tight with pots, our kitchen’s heat
Makes love – and meals – with hints of spice
Right in the flames – it’s hot and sweet
And jammed with pots. A kitchen’s heat
Welcomes each lover, saves a seat
For (piquant gossip) tasty bites –
Jammed tight with pots, a kitchen’s heat
Makes love – and meals – with hints of spice
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Sara reminded us that triolets were often devotional, so I gave it a shot, playing with a traditional Christian imagery of God as artisan metalworker. I also tried for fourteen syllables to give myself some room.

Foundry

“refined by fire” vital furnace; breathe, o breath of god
be cleansed within the crucible, heart clarified by heat.
For this I prayed. Now mettle, tested, twists – a lightning rod
“refined in fire” vital furnace breathes. o breath of god
I, unalloyed, am brittle, wracked with weaknesses and flawed,
But cast and molded, forged by passion’s art, I’m made complete
refiner’s fiery, vital furnace blasts its breath – o god
come clean. within the crucible there’s clarity in heat


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Poetry Friday is hosted at the blog of that very, very, very busy professor, writer, and math-admirer Miss Rumphius. We’re lucky to have you, Tricia dear – happy writing retreat.

{pf with p7: what’s the skinny?}

June, and the chaos has been unleashed. I won’t bore you with all of it, but our friends’ baby came – two and a half weeks early, so none of the handmade gifts we’d started were finished in time (like the baby cares), my deadline is this month, and I didn’t realize a week ago, the Monday of Memorial Day, that I’d be moving house. I am! Next Monday, in fact. So, yeah, it’s barely June, yet a lot has happened.

Fortunately, somehow poetry happened, too.

This month’s challenge is Skinnys. The Skinny, invented in 2005 by poet Truth Thomas, is a short form with eleven lines, the first and eleventh of which can be any length. The eleventh and last line use the same words, in the same order or rearranged. The second, sixth, and tenth lines are identical. (Skinnys have a linked form, which would be amazing to play with too.) And all other lines but the first and last are a single word – thus the name of “skinny,” as they appear rather narrow. Unless you’re me, and cannot stop yourself from using really long words.

Le sigh. Yes. Once again, I struggled with this form. Things that restrict my word count/usage are hard – but things without restrictions? Very hard. Poetry: challenging, every single time. Ah, well. Thematically, Skinnys are often on serious topics – but with so few brief words, they can easily slide into moroseness. I tried to balance my depressive tendencies with short verbs and punchier topics. It helped to just keep writing, and keep experimenting – I got to where I was literally waking up to write Skinnys after dreaming them. The neat thing about this form is that you can write a great many poems in a short amount of time. Today I’ll share just a couple.

Hypnagogic

on the edge of sleep, a dream of falling
sudden
start
abrupt
spasm
sudden
heartbeat
acceleration
another
sudden
falling of dream, of a sleep on the edge

Malignant

metastasis, a silent sword, speeding
spreading
poison
spiteful
blight
spreading
baneful
toxic
fright
spreading
silence. Metastasis, speeding a sword.

This last woke me to remind me of Miss Phine, an infant who gifted me with new wonder for my species.

Homo Familial

sometimes I love them so much
occasionally
humanity
inherently
baffling
occasionally
incredible
relatable
invaluable
occasionally
instinctively
Love times Them. Sum: so much I.

This June chaos has unleashed itself all over, so a few of the Sisters will be poetrying along into next week. You’ll find serious and silly from Laura, a last minute but determined Tricia’s best, here; a very sweet return to the ring from Kelly, and the one who challenged us, Andi’s poem here. Sara, Liz, and Rebecca will check in later in the month.

Poetry Friday flourishes under the love and care of Cousin Mary Lee; if you haven’t signed up for a week to host, and you’re feeling brave, join the party! Poetry Friday this week is hosted at the blog of illustrator Michelle Kogan (do check out her work) who gathers us this week to celebrate poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Meanwhile, June rolls on. May you ride out the chaos into the middle of a summer calm. Just remember:

{april 19: in memoriam, year 26}

To Daffodils

Oakmont 4

By Robert Herrick 1591–1674

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see

         You haste away so soon;

As yet the early-rising sun

         Has not attain’d his noon.

                        Stay, stay,

                Until the hasting day

                        Has run

                But to the even-song;

And, having pray’d together, we

Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,

         We have as short a spring;

As quick a growth to meet decay,

         As you, or anything.

                        We die

                As your hours do, and dry

                        Away,

                Like to the summer’s rain;

Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,

Ne’er to be found again.

{npm 2019: sixteen}

notre prière

conflict. plague. World Wars.
long nights of grief and fire
mais, voir – the smoke clears

The news is a bit easier to bear today for the Parisians of our acquaintance. Knowing how often Paris has had to rebuild heartens; they know how to do it and doubtless had all the plans in the world in place. But what a horror for those who had to execute them.