Posts Tagged ‘womanhood’
Traditionally, NYC Fashion Week impressed me as an exclusive event. The crème de la crème reveal and show off their dernier cri and totemic textiles. A-listers are awash in worship from photographic flashes. The illuminati offer praises like flowers at feet of fellow elite. Those of us who have no anchor in the sea of high fashion will rely on the reports of the select few broadcasts allowed harbor and entrance. Somehow this particular Thursday night the stars aligned, because I was given access to such a coveted event. What I would encounter was far from the images and assumption I initially endorsed.
At first, I felt as though I was “crashing” a selective soiree. Working in education, and now a stay at home mother expecting my second child, such pathways rarely make for opportune interceptions with the chic. It seemed irregular, unlikely, to sit alongside “those” who regularly lined the esteemed runways. I wasn’t a blip on the elite radar of the houses of Monique Lhuillier, Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, so being a guest would be out of the question, or even the assistant of esteemed stylists like Rachel Zoe. Benevolently, my ticket came from the heart of a sister editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, whose gratitude to her staff and writers at Bronze Magazine gave us entre into this grand world, landing us at the premiere Sarahi showcase at RSVP, which her magazine was sponsoring.
I didn’t go to be seen, temporarily immortalized in this week’s tabloids and newspapers. Attending for me was an honor, as I would meet fellow women writers, affix flesh and blood to online personality, whose fellowship was garnered mostly online due to our remote locations. Working as a contributing writing and copy editor, Shawn has given me unwonted space to transition from working as teacher, professor and consultant to fulfill my aspiration of freelance writing. Emelyn Stuart and I had been corresponding on Facebook in anticipation of our initial meeting; first reading about her in a previous issue of Bronze Magazine, her humor and receptive spirit made me excited to meet her. And others I would meet would become for me tour guides of dreams, unexpected touchstones of inner pain and the strength, courage, and wisdom that emanate from them.
I arrived early to RSVP, erring on the side of caution give my long commute by public transportation. I landed midst the hum of tuxedoed wait staff priming final touches and hoisting the poster of sponsors, greeters coordinating guest lists, and models practicing their many faces and stances. Photographers, writers, and support staff buzzed away in preparatory tasks. The hive was hopping. Yet in the mix I felt welcomed, as people scooting by me made time to pause, smile, and even say hello. They provided a welcoming atmosphere I was not expecting.
By chance one such smile came from VJ Ameliaismore, a local celebrity. Instantly we started talking. She became a guide for me that evening, not just for that event but as an example of someone diligently on a mission and living to fulfill a dream. Like a big sister to little sister, she shared her life history and work, funny stories about being the single mom of a son, and a short retrospective on her life as a teacher, model, and business woman. It was her intimate sharing against the backdrop of the busyness and buzz that powered the pondering of my own dreams, and hollowing a space to wish her dreams their deserved flight and height. Quickly disappearing backstage, she pointed me to where Shawn was. I embarked to meet my colleague and mentor.
I recognized Shawn as soon as I saw her. Her spirit casts an aura of welcome and receptivity, even while standing still in the chaos of patrons indulging the open bar and cocktail hour (alas, how I craved sampling the sushi and steak tartare). She shared her gratitude for the work I’ve done, particularly for last-minute copy editing. Here I was meeting the fountainhead of an inspirational magazine thanking ME. It was wondrous and wonderful to finally meet her, feeling far more like homecoming. Her grace and warmth were contagious, enveloping me, like dwelling in the company of a dear friend.
Standing right next to her was Emelyn Stuart. I recognized her by the cool confidence she exudes, and in the striped dress (inside joke). Media magnate and prolific film producer, her repertoire and resume remained quiet within her. She didn’t greet me with her resume or reputation. She doesn’t bring them into our conversation at all. Instead, she bestows an authentic invitation to learn about one another. In fact, she asks ME questions that have me since thinking about where and how I want to direct my future endeavors in writing. She offered advice on how to gain sponsorship for my blog to build its readership and reputation. Being around her was like being released to explore and dig deeper into one’s dreams, and I found myself rattling off all that I wanted to be and become in this new chapter of my career and life. She offered her phone number and suggested we keep in touch.
Even more than what I learned from the outpour of sisters like Shawn and Emelyn is learning what we can offer others. Before the start of the show, acclaimed model and business woman Njie Sabik informed us of the silent auction going on as well, with proceeds going to two charitable organizations. She bravely shared that one was created in tribute to her mother; the designer, Suzette Kelly, earlier informed us Njie just buried her mother days before the show. Such character to remain committed to participating in the show and disclosing such a personal tragedy marks Njie as evidence of resilience. After the show, she was swept away for a barrage of photos. Between the flashes I snuck in to share with her how I was moved by her celebration of her mother. I told how I too lost my mother to cancer (AML), and offered for inspiration that eventually better days do come. I relayed my admiration of how brave she was to disclose what she did, staying committed to the show, and that I believed her mother would be proud of her for her endeavors. Njie embraced me in a long understanding hug. It felt fulfilling to know that even in sorrow there is the root of kinship, and that even as strangers we can each be healing balm for one another. Not to mention her power on a runway. She rips it with methodical presentation and presence. She owns a room when she enters, and leaves it mesmerized when she exits.
The House of Sarahi definitely lit up the night. Yet this night proved more to be a walk through the power and potential of sisterhood than retinal reverie. Amelia, Shawn, Emelyn and Njie irradiated my soul. I returned home, and in high heels and red swing dress, resumed the maternal work of feeding my son and rocking him to sleep. Out of sheer gratitude I thanked my husband who worked from home that day for this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Back to work . . .inspired.
As a new wife and mother, I experience jubilee and juggling. I receive constant fulfillment yet expend breath and best guesses finishing challenges. I stand in an intersection of past/present/future. This triptych daily positions me to negotiate divergent responsibilities, prior obligations and new undertakings, obliging yet unifying them all. Hopefully my intimacies, epiphanies, and suggestions offer footstools into your own possibilities.
Professionally, my career spans being a high school ELA teacher, assistant professor, educational consultant and fledging writer. I’ve enjoyed fortune and mistakes on my own terms. Then I met my husband, and with him anticipated blessings and unanticipated compromises unfolded.
While single, we’ve been rightfully selfish with our lives, doing what we want to do when we want to do it and how we want to do it. Consequently, we’ve come to this goal of incorporating flesh and future with dissimilar tastes in music, different perspectives on how to manage money, divergent expectations on best uses of time, disparate notions around planning for the future, etc. You get the picture. It’s a clumsy walk. Now we have to collaborate in little and big decisions. Identify priorities for our relationship and agree upon ways to fulfill them. Budget money for immediate expenses AND allocate it toward long term goals. Learn what it means to be a partner while also honoring and providing space for each other’s independence. Accept flaws and mistakes without later using them as leverage against one another. Work in partnership raising our first child.
After the marital oath of cleaving as one flesh, our grafted limbs are evolving to thrive collaboratively. But we have to share in creating answers. What do we need to do to prepare for the future? What are the best approaches to solve problems? How do we nurture interdependence and maintain independence? What do we lose in order to gain? As woman AND wife, a pressing duality I constantly address is how to prosper us AND be true to myself?
Here’s what I am discovering . . .
Being a wife is a new role. Grow into it. You don’t simply step into the role of a wife like a wedding dress. You evolve to fulfill it. So don’t clutter your growth into this role with assumptions or comparisons. Let go of ideals and magazine exaggerations. Explore and invest in what it means for you to be a wife for yourself and to your partner. Give yourself permission and time to experience, evaluate, and even revise accordingly.
Dialogue. Devote space and time to broach and disclose fears, concerns, and dilemmas. Uncomfortable topics that go undiscussed (like money, parenting, a need for quality time alone, etc.) eventually fester. Making them transparent and in the open diffuses their cancerous potential to leach from your primary goal to grow as allies. But be careful not to bulldoze your partner into meetings. While I thought it efficient to have weekly conference calls while planning our wedding—agenda and all—my husband thought these meetings at times were burdensome overkill.
Preserve what is personally important to you. It is very easy (and implicitly expected) that upon becoming a wife to sacrifice personal happiness for the “greater good” of marriage and family. Yet if you are not happy, what fruits of yourself can you offer others? Marriage and parenting WILL impact the amount of time you can devote to fulfilling your passions, but foregoing and sacrificing them altogether is an unhealthy solution. Find ways to maintain what feeds your core. While now I have to fit writing in between schedules I have with my child and husband (like writing blogs at 2am), doing so maintains my wholeness.
I wasn’t tooled with blueprints to structure this marriage. At times I fray at edges and peel at margins. What I am learning from the daily walk is that I unfold the answers through folded hands (physical and spiritual). Surrendering to the unfolding helps me carry out and accomplish these roles as best I can.
(This blogpost occurs simultaneously in MBAMOM’s May 2012 newsletter as “Wife and Mother: What I Wonder”).
(Artwork: Woman Thinking by Stephanie Clair)
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In Part 1, the last blogpost, I chronicled how I came to write poetry. In this second installment, poems from different periods in my life are shared. The three poems are “Menstruation is My Poetry,” “One the Knees,” and “Scratched Scalp.” Each one is prefaced with an introduction of how and why it came into existence. Poems have become my life and death, the way I reflect on a moment in life, as well as how I bring chapters of experience to a close. The writing of them serves as a mirror, a way to see what I am thinking and feeling, to draw it out, and make sense of the pieces. To what grand puzzle do the pieces fit? What product am I to generate from processing this experience?
Menstruation is My Poetry
Menstruation is My Poetry is in homage to my mother and the struggle of women to reclaim their bodies from self-rejection, abnegation and humiliation. She was an advocate of my body as beautiful simply in its being. But as years passed, and the influences of what is beautiful in the culture began to seep in, I began questioning my worth. Does the shape of my hips, length of my hair, color of my skin, deem me worthy of recognition and affection? In addition, circling around my head and heart were several derogatory remarks about women and menstruation. That because of “raging hormones” we unhinge and become sensitive, hysterical, or overbearing. For five days each month we become physically and emotional incapacitated. References to the flow itself also become misnomers. Menstruation was paralleled with being “on the rag,” “the curse,” and “the monthly” as something nasty, fishy, and painful. And something that could “get you in trouble” (signaling to a young girl you are now able to get pregnant). As these influences converged on my body and psyche, I felt foreign to myself.
In my early 20s, there are books I read confirming my mother’s words of my body and myself transcending definitions given to it by the outside world. Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati, is a book of herbal remedies for myriad conditions, but one section that really touched me was about menstruation. There were inspirational writings, herbal remedies for cramping, as well as step-by-step methods for even making one’s own herbal pads. Its’ approach to the body was of healing rather than concealing or even outright rejection. Reading the book helped me feel a comfort with my body. It was not a thing to fight against. Another book was WomenWho Run with Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Reading stories, folklore and fairy tales from diverse cultures about the transcendental aspects of woman’s body and spirit gave me language and concepts I could use as tools against commercial exploration, stereotypes of limitations, or pornographic exaggerations
Such readings gave me a lens into thinking of my body not as something to shun, but a portal, a conduit, a channel of possibilities physical and spiritual. Informed by part spiritual beliefs and archetypes, I began understanding a woman’s body as being given the great gift of translating the divine into flesh. So the poem delves into how a woman’s menstruation is not an incapacitation, but a channel through which hers and others’ lives emerge.
Menstruation is my prophecy/
a talking galaxy/
a legacy of language/
that spells in five days/
the incarnation of my uterus/intone homage to
my hallowed region/my carnal reason that I am the gate
through which God passes to replicate/
my menses/my sabbath/reminds me
that for five days I am five Sundays/
recording the way woman can
translate God’s wishes into flesh/
menses is my monthly rest and test
to assess my worthiness to remain
the conjurer of children/the immortal porthole
where spirit becomes son
and man becomes multiple.
My menses are my melodies/
songs of ascending harmonies
brewing visions into victory/
chanting red rivers of inspiration
refocus my rejuvenation
for when I shall weave black nations/
each cramp a chord plucked for cleansing/
my holy harp mellowing/
the gospel of cyclical hatching/
not a dirge but to drench/
cause being a woman is a religious experience.
One day/summoned to reproduce reproduction/
bring forth the gift of giving
from orbits of eggs
housed primordial in pyramid/
eventually to rotate and spin
rhythms of moons named Malcolm and Iyesha.
So each month I prepare
as the old souls come down me/
remind me that
the health and heritage of my body and my people
are preserved by the shedding/
that these five days of closure and cleansing
anoint me before my journey.
is conversation with the universe,
imagining and rehearsing
made possible by
inheritance of a temple of eggs
buried at conception/
resurrected each month to return me from woman back to the edge of genesis/
to transport child into destiny and embrace.
My menses announces my arrival
from bud to bloom/
nothingness to anew/
a gift of life to giver of life/
its language narrates my legacy of
dawning from girl to retiring as elder/
my adoption into a sacred tribe/
my rites of passage.
My menses is the museum of my mind/
a curator of my mission/
in destiny and divinity
my menstruation is my poetry/
my period of honest speech
where I write on cotton
the record of what has
stretched and strengthened,
strained and strangled me/
hindered my horizon from spreading/
my birthright from telling.
Each falling vessel
speaks of the vision
my rightful place under the sun will come/
the capture and collection of my closure
on cotton tells me so/yet the collection
has wrongfully been called abominable/
assessed evil and unclean
yet the period is so much more than the symptoms/
it/is not an it/but of her/of me/a gift/
it is a mine/it is mine/
it is our course and not our curse/
comes from the place where we are
first/songs commune in my canal.
© 2011 TMY
On the Knees, Where Macedonia was Born
“On the Knees, Where Macedonia was Born” emanated from a request from a fellow church member asking me to write something to commemorate Macedonia Baptist Church’s 70th Anniversary. To write the poem, I interviewed people to learn about the church’s history. But I also wanted to conjure images of growing something from nothing, literally. Recently I had seen the movie “Beloved” produced by Jonathan Demme. While not a fan of the movie’s interpretation compared to Morrison’s masterpiece, one scene that resonated with me was the one in which the slaves congregated and “held church” around a tree stump in the wilderness. During slavery religious expression was institutionally restricted; our ancestors were stealthily resilient in practicing worship and maintaining tradition. This history and the offshoot of resilience upheld by the founders of Macedonia became the impetus for writing the poem.
Later I found a book that chronicled the making of the movie through several writings and images, of which the aforementioned image was one. As well, other images in the book showed the suppression of speaking (the use of iron bits) and the affliction imposed as a consequence of knowing too much (whip marks on the back), moved me too (so much that I incorporated them within the actual performance of the poem at the anniversary service). Another movie that impacted me was “Sankofa” produced by Haile Gerima Mypheduh Films, Inc. Its Anka- inspired admonition of remembering the past in order to move forward, and its message liberating oneself regardless of the cost, resonated with me. The movies and images and history of the church converge in the poem. Being able to show the resilience and perseverance of a people is its impetus.
I. Call to Worship
Buildings can stand yet not be churches,
but churches can stand without four walls.
This is the beauty of being a displaced African.
long before the privilege of walls,
inching into communion/
embarking The Word,
championing The Word,
seeds in vacuum contradicting circumstance.
This church was built
not by the purchase of materials
but under the hems of walkers
worshipping/wielding/being wounded for The Word
across contesting border, armored indignation and soil called soul.
The beauty of unfolding a Christian.
Preaching and converting/
engaging the mouth/symbolizing the body/
the Word recruits/
a building does not recruit heights and hundreds/
only belief of being and doing more
than the confines of skin and persecution does.
The beauty of becoming faithful.
Mouths harboring Savior’s song/
cleansing others’ feet/
affliction churning blood into silt/
casualties of inflicted misery/unyielding mercy.
The lineage of crusaders/
forging for us following as their longitudinal kin.
Tree barks would not betray our trust.
Our seedbed, sown deep in the forest,
builds from tree-stumped pulpits/rooted seats,
burning bush/instruments of hands voices feet/
domed by dusk/ canopies of leaves poring/ submitting with us/together
rotating around common axis,
unbraiding mouths/ soldered iron bit melts from tongue/
vaulting victory/ nooses lost their intimidation in strangling our praise/
rallying redemption/ shackles fraying into thread/
power indwelling/inhabiting us.
The beauty of purchasing life with purpose. Not by sight.
By surrendering hollowed
the skies within the founders’ hearts
clustered stars/ bodies as galvanizing vessels/
souls/portholes through which the harvest unfurled.
The beauty of relationship churning into religion.
Robed with word and will,
the charge now/again/is to
build and be built.
as with ancestors,
as with our founders,
unsheathes the vocal blade,
readies earthen fields.
So with the charge of building a church,
the founders did not look first
for a building or lot
but inward for the first brick.
Their hands wrapped not around
building tools of cement or dirt
but around bibles and palms/
to pour Macedonia’s foundation.
Cords of the throat built the church/
of prayers watering the ground,
and with focused fertility, Macedonia was born.
Walking on visions,
pews and pulpit were
carved from ancient ambition/
Bricks were mortared word by word /
All purchased by prayer.
The church has crossed the marking of a new century.
Their words and works echo in remarkable sculptures/
Full now with newer warriors and students seeking sight.
Their convictions our footbridges,
the old voices recruit again/spinning His threads,
Continuing us in the cloth/
their elixir, continual/
His Will, realizing . . .
© 2011 TMY
“Scratched Scalp” evolved from an experience of writing and performing with a group of phenomenally talented women. From different religious, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, we converged to create a multi-poem performance piece that galvanized our experiences as women. I was honored to be adopted into the group, as the women had already worked together previously. This poem was originally written as a call and response, with the group and me alternating reading portions of it.
In terms of content, the struggle with hair is one experienced by so many women of color. Used to relegate the beauty of women (thinking of the song “Good and Bad Hair” from Spike Lee’s movie “School Daze”), hair has become for many of us a prism and prison. But instead of capturing the affliction of how we maintain and wear our hair, I wanted to get to the root of the matter (pun intended). I wanted to explore how doing one’s hair is a loving and sensory act, whereby the touching of the scalp makes for deeper relationships between the conjurer and the conjured. My mother enjoyed when I did her hair. There was a pride I felt in Mom wanting me to do her hair, from washing to relaxing to styling. There was an honor I felt that she trusted her locks in her daughter’s hand. I felt both great honor and great responsibility. Before every shampooing, Mom always asked me to scratch her scalp. And like clockwork she fell instantly to sleep. Her sharing this vulnerability with me as her daughter touched my heart, still resonating in my memories.
Another tradition of hair Mommy and I was styling my hair (as do many mothers and daughters). As a little girl, the ritual of daily bringing all my instruments, grease, bows and ribbons, then cuddling between her thighs as she parted and plaited my hair, was the foundation for how I would later reciprocate such loving care back to her. This bond of how she cared for me, and later I for her, harnessed my hands to weave these memories into the tapestry of a poem that follows.
The poem is also tinged with a somewhat erotic goal. I have always wanted a man to scratch my scalp and comb my hair. I wanted him, metaphorically and literally, to transcend and share in this original bonding ritual typically enjoyed by mothers and daughters. I’ve had the experience of men doing my hair (those that worked in salons and those in relationships), but these experiences did not reach the trust and intimacy I was looking to emulate (to no fault of their own).
Housed in hut of long legs,
head to thigh, summoned
as when my mom did this little girl’s hair/
the surgeon began.
First at top and center of crown,
small pressure and with complete patience/
toning with surgical precision/he began
pulling the ACE comb
down the middle
top to nape, ear to ear/
to deforest my scalp.
Descending, spreading into sections,
clamping them securely,
long searching fingers
parse the four parts/
follicle by follicle
loosing from each mouth/snow to fall/
scratching briskly/is hypnotic/
eyes closing/slumber imminent/
loosening/the Milky Way/is shedding
on toweled shoulders.
cushions face and balances neck/while he
continues purposeful walk through garden
to dislodge debris/the scalp the instrument of conjuring.
with each combed dissection
unzipped astral bodies,
unveiling the troubles of the galaxy/
investigating and discerning with each gentle rake/
supernovas of stress/excited and confessional,
collapse ghosts onto awaiting bath towel/
goose bumps profess in explosive force/to finally
expel pimpled planets.
dashing star ice/
luring me into a cosmic trance,
crumbling into communion caused by his hands.
Galactic children now all disarray, I am
unwoven from the debris of my scalp and hair/
some places are scratched raw and a little bleeding,
but I am returned a scalp that can breathe again.
Sleep cued to cure the journey, such that
when I tried to speak
of my mouth.
© 2011 TMY
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This two-part installation is a chronicle of how and why I started writing. I’ve been stuck in a rut about where to go and what to do with my poetry. This first part is a kind of exploration into the origins of what has inspired me to write poetry. I’m thinking the second part will be the sharing of the actual poems that have come out of this experience . . .
A Mecca of Stretch Marks
the bend of my waist,
cross my oceanic pelvis/as
wild wandering weeds
simmering under the canopy
of dark-splashed vines/as
lightning bolts raging/
scattering and bursting
blooming luminescent fission/
in thighed sky/in
for each ovarian warrior
who will spring/to travel/
ready for war/for
babies’ fingers to trace upward
to consult with kindred/that
leap and bend
with conjured joy
when his tongue
whose mud phoenixes
return to die,
submerge, and arise . . .
so many rivers/are
transporting from my stomach,
rimming my pelvis,
anchoring my thighs/that
I should not
think myself less
than being a delta
© 2011 TMY
My body is changing rapidly in this seventh month. My stomach expands and stretches outward to accommodate the inner life. Especially present and growing are stretch marks. Some darkly punctuated, others sprawling blond and blooming branches, they serve as symbols of incubation, as road maps my body travels to a destination called birth. Their traversing exhibits the migration of life from inception to conception to initiation to commencement to resurrection. They are wrongfully regarded as an abomination to be creamed and oiled away.
The stretching of marks has been a metaphor dancing in my head for awhile, which catalyzed into a life reflection emanating from a recent conversation with my husband. He shared an epiphany about a relative’s behavior, namely how this relative’s consistent behaviors seemed attributable to the yearning to fit in, to be publically recognized and affirmed, even if the reflection is retracted in shallow waters. Every time we visit, we’re propositioned to attend some form or another of a social networking event, but it takes the pulling teeth to get him to come to family events. This metaphor and epiphany have stuck with me for weeks. They seem to capture my “poetry rut.” I finished my most recent manuscript this past December, but have only done two poetry performances so far this year. It used to be different.
In earnest I want my poetry to be a public artifact, something sought after and devoured. When I step onstage, I want the inhabitants in thunderous applause, the cacophony of noise and adulation brimming to overflow, and when I exit, riotous applause becomes my cape. Who doesn’t want fame and acclaim for performing and publishing? Well, that’s what my ego wants. The humble side of me wants nothing more than simply to share a truth about what walking this life for four decades has been like. To offer poems as mirrors for kinfolk to bear witness to reflections chosen and not chosen.
My husband’s analysis of my relative actually compelled me to turn my pen inward, to publish what was within that was “off.” I told him that the last visit with this relative made me contemplate my own selfishness harboring deep in the marrow of my intentions and ambitions doing open mics and finally (hopefully) publishing. And this kind of coveting is keeping me from being both at peace and blooming.
I’m trying to be careful in not summoning an audience to a pity party, but maybe pondering together the origins of my poetry can help me move back to center, recalibrate my intentions. There is a gift inside me, and yet competition. How to get it out, and for whom? To what end? The one answer I do know is that I do not want to fade to black.
Poetry began for me in part from immersing in worlds harnessed by stories and sounds, reading mythology (Norse Gods and Giants), the “make your own adventure” books, the Bible and Prince songs. Each steered my imaginings about what could be written about, encompassing love, battles of good versus evil, and the explanation for how and why things came into existence. I tried my hand at emulation. Writing Battle sequences, tragic love stories (my 6th grade teacher called my mom about what I was being “exposed” to at home because of a Prince-inspired story I wrote): these were some of the topical curiosities my pen sprawled on paper.
My most private lamentations were housed within my adolescent journals. Conventional complaints and suspirations about growing up, crushes on teachers, the lack of a boyfriend, the quirks of bodily changes, friends, parents, etc. I churned them into poems as a way to translate my feelings into “high art” (I smile). Pivotal to harvesting “my art” was my mother’s making of me to study the dictionary. After doing my teachers’ homework, Mom assigned me to learn new words and apply them to the compositions she made me write as practice. While tedious, thank God she made me study the dictionary, because it became (ironically) a source of inspiration. The rote conquest for vocabulary expansion and SAT success led to something wonderful. A love of words. A love of words as portals. The possibilities that could unfold from just one word, the worlds that could unfold from one word (some of my poetic experimentations include words like tohubohu).
Add to this lexical love an attraction to particular sounds. I tried practicing how to put words to the sweeping music, and mimic the depth and complexities of the emotions enveloped in the songs. Teena Marie’s lamentations of love living and dying like supernovas in songs such as “Casanova Brown,” “Out on a Limb,” and “Yes Indeed.” Riveting and haunting classical recordings such as Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, and Prelude in C-Sharp, Op.3, No. 2. Playing clarinet in the Bronx Borough-Wide Bands and Orchestras for years also inspired my ears and written translations. Music such as “Caravan” by Duke Ellington, and “1812 Overture” claimed my attention, fueling future wants to learn how to capture such sweeps and battles of sounds in words. This fondness of words fused with the aforementioned themes, and the sounds and power of music that make for it a resounding and resonating force to be reckoned with, collided on paper. My first canvas. Yet to this day, this poetry still slumbers in journals, old loose leaf binders, and manuscripts dusking, untouched by the light of others’ eyes.
Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, my high school drama teacher, gave me a text that would catalyze my writing. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf inspired me, serving as the impetus for my writing ever since. Its first person accounts lathered me in symbolic colors and confrontational narratives. Reading them gave me a lens into how poetry could be a tool to exhume life experiences, excavate silenced testimonies and allegories about gender, ethnicity, and life itself, and place them on the stage of paper for us to witness. As part homage/part apprenticeship/part discipleship, I began situating my poetry as an instrument of social change and self-exploration.
During my undergraduate stage, my evolution as a writer was spawned by gravitating toward the literary, religious, feminist, and African-American literature surrounding me. I read The Qur’an cover to cover to conceptualize other interpretations of what is God and how best to obey God (while toggling being a Christian minister and medical doctor–I aspired to become a doctor of the spirit and doctor of the body). Toni Morrison’s and Maxine Hong Kingston’s melding of mystique and the female experience left me spellbound, imprinting upon me transcendental interpretations of what it means to be a woman of color. Morrison’s novel Beloved captured my heart and ambition for how to capture and synthesize the human and holy experiences of Black people on paper. Her classical writing, her mastery of a complex register that is both brutal to read and yet both beautiful and brilliant to witness, made me want to be just like her. Kingston’s The Woman Warrior fascinated me in how myth and memoir marry and divorced throughout one’s life. I read Shange’s other poetry collections (The Love Space Demands, A Daughter’s Geography, Ridin’ the Moon in Texas) as mentor texts for how to write about experience. Reading This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color showed me how words can serve as an impetus and agent of change. A class on Romantic writers connected me with Blake’s poetry and Milton’s Paradise Lost, immersing me more deeply into explorations of the relationship between morals and mayhem, between man and God. The sonic and lyrical revolution of Public Enemy compelled me “to keep it real.” Bram Stoker’s Dracula impaled my fascination of writing horror through the genre of letters and diaries.
Poetry became a centripetal and centrifugal tool to search myself, to explore and view myself bone by bone for what and who I was becoming, and learning what I could build bone by bone to later export. Poetry for me evolved as tool for activism, to make a forum for exploring gender issues, my growing interest in feminism and learning about my African roots. I began sharing poetry at open mics and began building a credible reputation. I also began writing yearly letters to friends and family during Black History Month (in homage to Marcus’ example), using words to share gratitude for them being in my life, and words to inspire each year as a year where anything and everything was possible. People wanted to hear what I said. These experiences galvanized in me a passion for writing as a means for change. Consequently I wrote an honors thesis identifying patterns in the ways female characters negotiated silence in Ntozake Shange’s texts, and a collection of poetry that expanded on this theme as well.
There was a series of events on campus that moved my poetic pen from paper to the stage. The catalyst was twofold. There was the posting of advertisements for an upcoming male and female revue with the eyes and mouth of the latter blacked out with a marker. Another was publications in the campus newspaper by one columnist admonishing how women need to respect themselves by dressing appropriately (one statement being that some women wear their clothes so tight you could see their pubic hairs). The overt objectification of what I believed as sacred—in mind, body, and spirit–compelled me to put pen to paper to stage. Compelling me to write an original choreopoem compiled from the poetry I was writing for my thesis, and to take action by both directing and producing it. Having no formal theatrical training, this endeavor was blessed by recruiting several classmates, the phenomenal talents and blessings of strangers and professors, and the benevolence of strangers who donated time, talent, and money. This choreopoem (“Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”) debuted in 1994. The underlying goal was to take all that I had learned from my readings and writings, and channel them to galvanize others’ voices, to spawn a larger conversation of what it means to be a woman of color. The play sold out both nights. There was such receptivity, words received and exchanged as gifts, where both I and the audience were moved. During the Q & A several audience members said they never saw anything like this. Neither had I.
This lesson has taught me about the power of poetry as the building of bridges and bonds with others.
The next phase was a kind of return to confessional poetry, but also a honing of how to channel the craft. Using poetry as confession, I would write about what I thought and felt about relationships. There was my erotic self, the one who wanted to understand love and the physical sharing of it as something earthly and spiritual (differing from the sexualized “do me baby” kind of poetry, though there’s a placeholder in my history where that occurs). I had started exploring this part of myself beginning in my early twenties, and took time now to invest in it more. I also began being a tabula rasa, writing for particular themes and purposes, such as Soul Kitchen (a monthly open mic), church commemorations such as pastoral and foundational anniversaries (and even a collection of hymns), and exploring journalistic/archivist poetry writing. I began writing about what I was witnessing in life and the news, spanning the rise of ultrasound clinics in India, the infibulations and genocide occurring in Africa, the impact of violence on culture, and translating experiences of friends into poems. A friend of mine who formerly was a state trooper told me a devastating account of a young boy who he stopped on the highway and the horrific cargo he was later found carrying.
What also marks this period in my writing is the prayerfulness within which I engulfed my words, that the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be divinely inspired by something other than ambition, amorous inclinations, or ambivalence. This emanates from my belief that the authenticity of my poetry comes from a force greater than me. Not to say that what I wrote was never carnal, selfish or hurtful, but this at least was (and still is) my goal. Before writing poems I would pray, and before performing them I would do the same. I wanted my poems to honor the audience of an audience. It was really important to me (then and now) to not exploit the ears and hearts of others. This also marks a time when I started to forge writing in a different genre. I started a novel, trying to fuse the worlds of jazz, poetry and narrative in a multi-generational epic about a family.
Now looking back, I am not any clearer about the rut that was the impetus for this blog. But writing this helped me free up space. To trace the stretch marks of my poetry to read the autobiography they produce. At the core, I KNOW that I love the feeling of home that comes from writing and being at poetry venues. And the education that comes from both. There is something that feels both like homecoming and a harnessing to do more with your art when surrounded by fellow artists. To give context, there is the welcome that Starski brings to the mic and venue that is infectious. The unbridled power of Michael Richardson when he hijacks the mic to spit truth. The fire Backdraft blazes about life and love. Helena is precise and bombastic on the mic, and harbors an uncanny ability to laugh and cry reflecting on life as a social worker. Elijah is pensive and meditative. Shadokat is surgical with sound. Charan weaves stories with transcendental truths. Back in the nostalgic and phenomenal days of Soul Kitchen, Mojave preached for the audience to liberate from self-incarceration, Fisiwe’s voice excavated gold from muddy waters, Dee mellowed the crowd with melodies about love, and Dallas evangelized with the electric guitar. Attending the Urban Juke Joint made the sharing poetry a holy sacred art. Poets like Definition blessed the mic with visions. Hosting poetry readings was also a kind of homecoming. I hosted them for my high school students so they would have a forum to explore and share themselves, while also passing the baton to teach them how to host a home for others (thanks Kristen and Kyle).
Finally, there is the ultimate giving that comes with no coin-based profit. There is my sister friend Carla who self published her first book of poetry because it was just that important to give a gift back to the world. And now, there are my family and friends who have volunteered to read my most recent manuscript.
Now this moment makes me think to why I write poetry. It is a gift to give others. Though I still feel a kind of hesitation to be seen, I know my poetic bone still manufactures marrow. I feel like I am at a three-way intersection of wanting to contribute to different spaces, to experiment as I used to, and to shape and mold a new space and place altogether. Maybe because I am in a stage I can’t yet describe or perform yet on a stage. Maybe because of the changes occurring in my body and in my body of work. Writing this blog, I begin to understand from where I have traveled, and now where I could stand. As I watch my body of work change, it’s fascinating to see how it stretches and changes to accommodate new life. I’m moving from . . .
To Carla, Crystal, Donna, Kerwin, Marcus, Miles, and Terence, a special thank you for your investment and involvement.
A special thank you to Terry Matilsky for the original photography.
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