Warning: this isn't a proper blog post. It's not something from a real professional writer, the kind who has something profound to say after spending the last week and a half soaking up the brilliance of the likes of Leslie Adrienne Miller, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and guest speaker Charles Johnson. I'm not pretending to be that person. I'm seeking the essential me-ness
, so this is a blog post from the real me. This is a blog post about kittens. As we near the end of the Pacific University MFA residency,
I'm trying to decide on a defining moment for this experience. And it's not the moment when Joseph Millar, Dorianne Laux and Ellen Bass shared what they learned from reading Lucille Clifton. It's not when Kwame Dawes read his poems, or when he read the work of Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes, two poets whose words
are tattooed on my body
. It's not
even when Marvin Bell used one of my poems to illustrate the points he made about poetic strategies.
These were all incredible moments that will remain with me, undoubtedly, but if I had to choose just one moment of all of those that are sticking out in my mind, this would be it: Standing on the corner of the farmer's market in Forest Grove, holding in my arms one of the kittens from the free kitten box I've just come across, as Ellen Bass rubs his tiny head and we giggle over his absurd adorableness. I know, I'm ridiculous. That moment had nothing to do with the residency. But to me, in a way, it had everything to do with why I choose to be here. I choose this moment not simply because
I'm crazy about animals, although it's true that I am, and not just because I have immense admiration for Ellen Bass, though that's true, too. I choose this moment because Ellen and I weren't standing apart as student and teacher, or as emerging poet and established poet. We stood together, no expectations between us, just united by our appreciation for cute creatures, a real, down-to-earth, essential part of who we are, not just as poets or lovers of the written word, but as people.These are the moments that make my MFA experience so unforgettable. I am just deliciously delighted to say that Ellen Bass is my advisor for this
semester, which means that from now until January, I'll be working with her one on one to craft an essay and continue to grow in my poetry. I just adore Ellen, as a person and as a poet. She writes the loveliest poems about some of the subjects I care about most, including love between women, healing from trauma, and spirituality. And I've already worked with her in workshop so I know that she "gets" me, and really supports my poetic vision. And kittens. She also shares my love of kittens. She understood my longing
as I reluctantly faced the truth that the kitten in my arms couldn't come home with me. But before I put him down, we all shared a moment - Ellen, the nameless black kitten, and I. And though it may seem silly, in that moment I knew that Ellen Bass understood an essential part of me. Watch this clip of Ellen reading her sweet, funny poem
"Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh." You can visit her website
By Archibald Motley Jr
Between being caught up with school and writing, I’ve been spending some time over the past few days composing and deleting blog posts reflecting on the Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance
performance. Most of the posts have just been rambling and raving about the show and queer black history. After trying to come up with something more eloquent, I’m just going to go with some of the rambling. I am, after all, thinking about truth telling, and what better way is there to get to the truth than to get there uncensored?
Last weekend’s Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance
was nothing less than fabulous, of course. And what was really exciting was that we didn’t have to do as I expected
, traveling back in time to celebrate the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance. The lives and legacies of folks including Gladys Bentley and Langston Hughes came to the stage through artists of today, like Kirya Traber
and Earl Thomas
. The sense I got as the audience flooded the space with cheers at the end of the night was that the applause from the Harlem Renaissance never ended. At some point, that period of history may have been over, with the Great Depression bringing the lively Jazz Age to a close, but those who created the art, literature and music of the time left a drumming in our hearts that hasn’t stopped beating.
It was very uplifting, to witness people whose struggles go back for centuries rising up with pride. But my question today is about the moment that occurred before the show began. When Celeste Chan
and KB Boyce
, the show’s delightful directors, appeared onstage, they offered some of the usual pre-show chatter – a warm welcome, hearty thanks for our presence, a request to please silence our cell phones. Then, they added something not quite so common – a gentle reminder that the subject matter of the show can bring with it stories of oppression, violence and trauma. They informed us that counselors from San Francisco Women Against Rape were in the audience, and briefly turned the house lights on so the counselors could identify themselves in case we needed to check in with them after the show.
I really appreciated this moment. I appreciate anyone who can pause to recognize the potential impact of their words on violent subject matter, especially when they also take the time to offer some healing directly afterward.
Still, it brings up my question – why does our joy have to come with a trigger warning?
After an event that’s simultaneously so powerful, joyful, and heart-wrenching, I’m thinking again about the possibility of simply letting go and having fun
. Has suffering played such a substantial role in the histories of queer people of color that we can’t celebrate our histories without being reminded of our anguish?
I think it’s true, that in order to share our whole stories we must hold both the joy and the pain. Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance reminded me, however, that I don’t believe this is a bad thing. If anything, reflecting on our histories in this way can help us relearn how to be our whole selves, without shame or regret. We look back and laugh, though we may at times have tears in our eyes, not lamenting our struggles but rejoicing in our triumphs over trouble.
This is truth telling in its truest form. Big thanks to everyone involved in Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance. Thanks for your truth, your heart, your spirit. I can’t wait for the show’s return next year.
I've been thinking about what it means to be, as Langston Hughes said in the words I shared
in my last post, free within ourselves
. Do we find the labels that define us, categorize ourselves
and find our people to feel free? Or do we dare to step outside of our comfort zone, being free within ourselves even in the face of danger
?One of the reasons I love Hughes' poetry so much is that it reminds me to love myself for who I am, regardless of the danger. I love this video, which includes Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues," one of his classic celebrations of his people.
No Friday Friends today
. Instead I'm working on putting together all of the blog posts I've been neglecting this week (sorry! deadlines are calling!).First up: showing off my new tattoo, mostly because I'm really excited about it and also because it's relevant -- it's literary, I promise.
Everything from how the tattoo was paid for to the meaning of the tattoo itself relates to writing. So here's the story. The fantastic people of a fantastic literary magazine called Fourteen Hills throw a fantastic party.
In December of 2009 I attended their release party. I was blown away by the readings,
and of all the coveted raffle prizes, I came away with the one I wanted most, a gift certificate to Green Apple Books
. So when the same party came around in December 2010, I couldn't wait. And I had my eye on this year's number one raffle prize -- a gift certificate for a tattoo from Body Bazzare in Sacramento. The party itself was a prize,
with thrilling readings from Jason Bayani
, Myron Michael
, Stephen Elliott
, and more
covered the event, complete with videos of those great readings, in this article
. Then came the raffle. The tattoo was mine, and I let it be known, figuring putting the energy in the air that this tattoo and I were meant to be couldn't hurt. They called my name...and I won dinner. I don't remember where to, and I probably didn't even look, because I was too busy trying to figure out if a tattoo artist might be willing to trade dinner for work. When they called a name for the tattoo, the woman who went up to claim her prize did not look much like a tattoo aficionado -- and my good friend and Fourteen Hills intern Matthew James DeCoster
asked her if she was one. A good friend indeed. When she answered "no," he and I asked if she'd like to trade with me, and so the tattoo was mine. I did a little dance, witnessed by many, and got started planning my tattoo. It's technically two tattoos. I've been thinking of the words for a while, from Langston Hughes' essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
At first I planned
a longer quote, but in the end I shortened it to just the last three words from the end of the essay:
"We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves
© Langston Hughes (emphasis mine)These words mean a lot to me and my sense of pride in myself, and they've been especially meaningful recently in my life. So my tattoo includes those words, as well as birds to symbolize freedom, hope, community. But this barely scratches the surface of what this all means to me, so maybe I'll revisit that at another time. I also have another literary tattoo, words from an Audre Lorde poem, to show off at some point. But without further ado, here's my newest tattoo! Thanks, Fourteen Hills!