Audre Lorde died twenty-one years ago today. When I first composed this post, I didn't realize the significance of this day. It's not a coincidence, I'm sure. The spiritual connection that allows black women to strengthen each other can't be broken, even in death.
Last month, I got the thrill of a lifetime with the chance to see a documentary film about Audre Lorde, my activist poet queen, at The New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years
was playing as the final feature film in the 2013 International Black Women's Film Festival
, an event designed to combat negative stereotyping of black women in the media by giving space for black women to tell our own stories. As soon as I heard the film festival would be playing this film, I knew it was the place for me.
It's just a movie, I know, but as I headed to the theater, I felt the giddiness of preparing to meet my idol in person. It seemed like the closest thing – when Audre Lorde passed away in 1992, I was a child unaware of her existence, and I have rarely seen evidence of her life in any form other than text. This text has felt, to me, like sacred traces of a mystical woman, echoes of divine footsteps that once walked the earth with us mere mortals. As I've read Audre's poetry, essays, and speeches over the years, I've imagined her as such a human being who is so extraordinary, she may not be human at all. In my mind, Audre Lorde has always been a goddess.
It remains true that Audre's spirit is divine and eternal. But the film showed many things, and perhaps most of all, it showed her humanity. Would a goddess walk through parks with friends, or laugh, or dance? Would she face the struggle of a cancer diagnosis? Would she endure the gentle teasing of her loving life partner? Maybe. But it's possible for any person, including me, to experience such things. Any of us could live our lives as she lived hers, with love and poetry as social action, with the capacity to change the world around us.
After the movie ended, I was a blubbering mess of joyful tears, and I didn't have the words to explain why. Maybe the sight of Audre Lorde dancing was something I never knew I needed to see. Maybe I'd been thirsting to hear her speak the words I'd read so many times. Suddenly, she felt more real to me than she ever had before. Maybe I needed to see her in the flesh. Maybe I needed to be seen.
It's strange to think that seeing somebody else on a big screen could help me
feel seen, but it's true. The film chronicles the final years of Audre's life, 1984-1992, when she spent time in Berlin and had a profound impact on the lives of black women there, challenging both black women and white women to think and write about race as they never had before. She mentored black women who had been silenced and isolated from one another, bringing them together to recognize one another and themselves as Afro-Germans. Many of these women testified in interviews that Audre's guidance allowed them to feel proud of who they are, for the first time in their lives.
The film sent me off with the exhilarating, terrifying feeling of seeing myself as Audre Lorde would have seen me. Not the goddess Audre Lorde, mythical creature of my dreams, but Audre Lorde, the human being, who really lived and breathed and saw a magnificent power in every black woman.
Now, I don't have to wonder what it would be like for me to meet Audre Lorde. Now, I know. I wouldn't have to prove my worth to her or ask her permission to step into my power. She would believe in me, simply because she could see me for who I really am.
I got to step into the power of my visibility later that day, when I read my poetry at Hazel Reading Series
, opening my reading with an epigraph by Audre Lorde: "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." Hazel's all about fostering the visibility of women, featuring women writers who each invite another woman to read at the next installment of the series.
Hazel's next event is today at 5:00 pm, at 1564 Market St. in San Francisco. My invitation to read went to Jezebel Delilah X, another queer black woman writer with divinity in her humanity. I can't wait to witness her sharing of magic through her words, continuing the legacy of resisting invisibility by lifting up our own stories to be seen.
Since my last post
about measures of success for a political poet, I've had several fruitful conversations about the potential of poetry to create positive changes in the world. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your perspectives to affirm my work and the transformative work of the artists I admire.
Recently, I've also had a couple of publications include my words in their projects to lift voices for social change.
The Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day Project
is producing a zine all about our creativity and collective power to resist the prison industrial complex. Everyday Abolition
is "an international political art collaboration between Chanelle Gallant and Lisa Marie Alatorre, collecting stories, art, and interviews highlighting the ways PIC abolitionists practice, and live PIC abolition in our work, organizing, and personal lives."
So for the rest of 2013, Everyday Abolition is posting stories and words about what it means to live abolition, everyday. A print version of the zine will follow, and until then, you can read the posts online. So far, pieces include The Creative Spark of Injustice
, my response to the acquittal of Travyon Martin's murderer, and Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation: One Survivor's Response to Sexual Assault
, a beautiful, brave post about healing, safety, and accountability, written by Blyth Barnow, a woman I'm proud to call my friend.
Read these posts and more on Everyday Abolition/Abolition Every Day.
My words also appeared last month in an article by Andrea Abi-Karam, published on openDemocracy's Transformation: Where love meets social justice
. The article, "Political Poetry Does Not Ask Permission,"
includes interviews with me and two other political poets, Jacqueline Frost and Wendy Trevino, on the transformative power of political poetry.
This piece begins: We long for the time when we took to the streets. But now, we take those words from the streets and transform our post-occupy political daze into poetry.
Poetry’s evasion of mainstream capitalism gives it a unique, charged voice for political expression in the public sphere. Compared to other art forms, books collect dust on shelves while gallery pieces sell for thousands. Poetry’s existence outside of “economic desire” gives it the power of a voice that doesn’t seek to please anyone.
“I feel like one thing that makes political poetry so impactful is that it doesn’t ask permission,” says Bay Area poet and activist Maisha Johnson. She continues: “A lot of political poetry says: ‘This is my truth, I’m not going to wait for anybody to allow me to speak my truth. This is what I need to say – I’m going to say it.’”
Read the rest of the article and watch videos of the poets on the Transfomation website.
It’s hard to find a measure of success for a political poet. I’m thinking about success now especially because of I’ve just received an amazing honor – my poem “island’s daughter,” which appeared in the latest issue of Eleven Eleven Journal
, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! And, in the spirit of my practice of feeling proud, I’ll just leave that honor there, without dismissal. What happens next? Life goes on.
What would success look like for a political poet? Like publication? Like winning an award? Those are great accomplishments, but in the grand scheme of trying to make an impact on social issues, it can feel like there’s still much more to be done. Sometimes, I feel restless trying to sit with the joy of good things, even the best of things
, while outside of the bubble of my poetry world, life goes on.
Yesterday brought an example of this dilemma. I was at home, delighted about the publication of three of my poems in the online journal aaduna
, when I heard a commotion outside. I looked out my window, and for the next couple of hours, I witnessed a mob of police officers aggressively pursuing and arresting a man of color.
With what I know about the alarming rates
at which people of color are being incarcerated, and about the school-to-prison pipeline
making their incarceration inevitable, I knew I was seeing just a small piece of a much larger, completely disheartening puzzle. And suddenly, publishing a poem called “Emmett Till Cry”
didn’t feel like something to rejoice about. I feel grateful for the publication, sure, for the sake of fostering conversations about systematic violence against black boys and men. But it’s hard to celebrate, knowing that this scene will repeat itself again and again. Knowing that life goes on.
I do believe in art as social action, though, so I believe these poems are worth writing, even as life goes on. As I read a piece like “alternatives to sentencing”
(see video below), I know the incarcerated youth I write about sit in their cells, unaware of and unmoved by my poem. But I feel that, by sharing that poem, I can offer a drop in the river flowing to create alternatives to incarcerating young people
. Let’s create something new with youth, I say. Let’s help them build other options for their paths. Let’s try anything but locking them up until their own minds turn against them as they suffer through trauma
that no young person should ever have to struggle to recover from.
I bring up this example because I need your help in getting this poem published. It was one of three poems I performed to win The Lit Slam in August (remember that? that was fun
). That means it'll appear in Tandem Volume 2
, along with such luminaries as Saeed Jones, Sam Sax, and Daphne Gottlieb. I’m just beside myself with the honor of being published alongside these poets, who all create work that touches on some of the most pressing issues of our time. For me, this is not just about the success of publication – it’s about the importance of these words and the conversations they create as life goes on.
So, I humbly ask you to pre-order your copy of Tandem Vol. 2 now by backing The Lit Slam’s Kickstarter campaign
, helping to bring this incredible collection to bookshelves all over the country.
CUAV's Spiderweb of Self-Love
Throughout my quest to get to know my feelings
as part of my healing process, I've managed to get quite cozy with some emotions that seemed terrifying before. I've invited anger
to sit beside me as a partner in my social change work. I've cuddled up with sadness
over a bowl of callaloo soup. But one emotion still beyond my grasp is somewhat surprising to me. I’m having a hard time with pride.
I know this because I've had a few reasons to be proud of myself lately. After graduating from my MFA program
in June, I've written a chapbook
, won a lit slam
, and had my work published in a few journals. And even listing those accomplishments, I cringe a little, not wanting to seem too full of myself.
See, I know that pride has an ugly side, and if I found myself on that side, I might see my accomplishments as all my own, instead of acknowledging the mentors, community members, and historical heroes who have made all of my achievements possible. I don't want to do that, and I know that's part of why I find it so difficult to sit with pride.
I also know that, as a survivor of violence, pride isn't something I'm used to. I'm more accustomed to shame and self-doubt. I'm used to dismissing my achievements as not good enough, or as simple strokes of luck.
And so, with this in mind, I see that a necessary step in my healing journey is to practice letting pride in. I'm going to practice looking at what I've done and saying, Damn. I did good,
and sitting with the discomfort of how that feels to me, until it gets more comfortable. I'm grateful for everyone who has helped me get to where I am, which must also mean that I'm grateful for myself.
For me, it's all about the practice of self-love. This year at CUAV, we're closing the year with three months focusing on self-love, and last week's awe-inspiring performance event, Color of My Spirit
, was the perfect way to kick it off. Together, our members and the event's attendees created a Spiderweb of Self-Love, with messages of love to ourselves and our communities. My message said, "We are strong." "We." I guess that means me, too.
So, here I am being proud of myself – I’m published in Eleven Eleven Journal! Eleven Eleven is a highly-respected literary journal, and the latest issue includes my work alongside heroes including badass poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, my professor from San Francisco State Toni Mirosevich, members of my community including Portuguese Artists Colony's Caitlin Myer, and Evan Karp, who edits the journal that accepted my first published poem. In other words, this is big for me, and the perfect opportunity to practice feeling proud. You can celebrate with me at the Eleven Eleven Issue 15 Reading/Release Party, happening at 7:30 pm tomorrow, October 9, at the CCA MFA Writing Studio in San Francisco. Check out the details of that and other upcoming events on my events page. I also have a new page here, just in time to remind me of my reasons to be proud. On my new publications page, you'll find some of the places where my work has appeared, in print and online. You'll also find a link to purchase my new chapbook, Split Ears. You can get it for a low price, because really I just want to share it with you, and by purchasing it, you'll be encouraging me to practice self-love, so I'll owe you one.
What do you have to be proud of? I know you've got something. Sit with that feeling today, and show yourself some well-deserved love.
Today's a big day for me! The autumnal equinox is here
, ushering in fall, my favorite season of the year. I can tell just by looking out my window, where I see, instead of late summer sunshine madness, the familiar calm, gray sky of the Bay Area's characteristic overcast weather. I feel ready to welcome any changes this autumn brings.
Especially because the first change is this: I am now the proud author of my first chapbook, Split Ears.
And today is my big launch!Split Ears
is the result of a collaborative project that's been brewing for the past couple of months. As writer-in-residence at West Oakland's Aggregate Space art gallery
, I've been writing on conversation with artist Christopher Burch
's exhibition, The Missed-Adventures of Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Death in the Land of Shadows.
What does it mean to be a writer-in-residence? Well, to put it simply, it means that I've been on an adventure of my own. I've had the chance to use words to play with the incredible multi-media experience of taking in Christopher's work, an installation and and graphic narrative that includes floor-to-ceiling illustrations, found art objects, and a documentary film. The exhibit examines the folktale character of Br'er Rabbit
, and focuses on Christopher's own reimagined character of Br'er Death, whose presence reveals a darker side of Br'er Rabbit's antics, the subversive resistance within his comedic gestures.
The work is stunning, but don't take my word for it – you'd really have to see it yourself to believe the whole truth of it. And today is your last day to do so, as the gallery closes the exhibit with the Featherboard Reading Series, also known as the moment of take-off for my chapbook. I cannot even begin to capture Christopher Burch's work on the page, but I stepped up to the challenge by incorporating what I already knew of trickster figures and the legends of resistance. The poems in Split Ears are like none I've written before, influenced by blues music, oral storytelling, and mythology of Native American, African American, and Trinidadian cultures. The title of this post comes from one of my Split Ears poem titles, and similarly, I feel a certain overlap between my chapbook and other areas of my life – the need to speak my truth, to remember my communities' shared histories, and to be unafraid of embracing my own subversive side, to walk in my own land of shadows.
You can read more about the Featherboard Reading Series writer-in-residence project in the San Francisco Chronicle
(yes, that's me in the Chronicle!), more about Christopher Burch's exhibition on Oakland Art Enthusiast
, and more about Aggregate Space on SFAQ Online
And don't miss my chapbook launch tonight at Featherboard Reading Series! Today, September 21, 2013 at 5:00 pm. Aggregate Space, 801 W. Grand Ave (entrace on West), in Oakland, CA. Also featuring readings by Cedar Sigo and Mary Burger.
Catch up on my events page
for other opportunities to hear my read from my new chapbook, and if you can't make it to a reading but you'd like a copy of Split Ears, get in touch!
Thank y0u, thank you, thank you, for all of the inspiration and support.
The post below is cross-posted from the CUAV e-news. I wrote it to address S-Comm, the harmful program that has law enforcement and ICE officials collaborating to hold people in jail, with no regard for the basic principle of due process. Anyone, regardless of immigration status, can be detained on an immigration hold, even without charges against them. That means this program affects everyone, including people of color, LGBTQ people, and survivors of violence.
To help say no to S-Comm and yes to Due Process for All, come out to San Francisco City Hall tomorrow, Thursday September 5th at 11:45 am, and add your name to this growing list of voices. "What is a witch if not a woman blind to all except surviving?"
- Gale P. Jackson
What might someone find if they burst into your home today? Would they hear the stories the walls have been holding for years?
When I was growing up, my father told me about immigrating to the United States from the islands of Trinidad & Tobago at the age of seventeen. He told stories about two families sharing a one-bedroom apartment. Stories about my grandmother separating from her family, hoping to support her children by working tirelessly in domestic work. And some of my favorite stories came from Trinidadian folklore, such as the tales of black magic women called soucouyants. It seems like every culture has its own witch stories.
These are the stories the police would have unearthed if they had raided my father's home back then. And if the police came to my home today, answering a call for help, or seeing my dark skin and profiling me as a criminal, they would find the altar I've built to honor my grandmother, who passed away one year ago
. They would see a photograph of me with an old, wise woman, alongside candles, stones, and a small replica of a steel pan, an instrument created to celebrate the survival of Trinidadians
And what would they think? Would I be the witch, the danger to society? Would they confine me to the custody of immigration officials, just in case?
I don't want warnings of witch hunts to become part of my family stories, or the stories of my communities.
What I want is what we deserve, due process for all, so I'll be showing up to San Francisco City Hall on September 5 at noon
, to help make sure the board of supervisors votes to restore the rights we all deserve. Can we count on you to be there? Will you help turn the story of S-Comm into our story of survival?
During a moving Wellness Wednesday group at CUAV
yesterday, we wrote poems about finding love and the skills to survive within our own bodies. Here's Jane Springer's poem, "Mules," which inspired our work. Mules
by Jane Springer
When they told us Don’t speak until spoken to,
ears the size of corn.
When they forced us to eat everything we swallowed
their hurt whole.
When they hit us for drawing on the wall we painted
doors that opened behind curtains.
For generations they lived like this. Wanting badly to
save us—not knowing how.
& all the while we found love in unlikely places: In
the ravaged church of our bodies & our faces,
refracted in their long faces.
Women prisoners have been on my mind all week.
Maybe it's because it's now October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
. And there's a tragic connection
between violence against women and the incarceration of women. The vast majority of incarcerated women have experienced violence throughout their lives, and many of them are serving time in prison for the very acts of self-defense that they had to use to stay alive. So when I think of raising awareness about domestic violence, I have to consider the ways we might shatter the myth that women's prisons are full of villains who deserve to be locked up – No. Women's prisons are full of survivors, who deserve freedom from the violence in their lives. So today, my Friday Friends are the fierce women of Fired Up! Fired Up! is
"a grassroots network of people who have been or are currently, behind the walls of SF County Jail building community with others who are committed to breaking down the barriers those walls produce." Every week, the Fired Up! women gather to grow together, heal together, and share the strength it takes to survive the system that continues to traumatize and dehumanize them.
I know from personal experience that the vibrant energy of this community of women can add a dash of hope to a dreary place. A few weeks ago, they invited a co-worker and I to visit the group as guests from CUAV, and even within the jail's cold, concrete walls, we found laughter, joy, and the undeniable spirit of resiliency. Visit the Fired Up! blog
to read more about what happened when CUAV and Fired Up! joined forces. You can also help celebrate the one-year anniversary of Fired Up! at a screening of the film Still Time, which tells the story of
LaKeisha Burton as she rebuilds her life after twenty years in prison. That screening will take place on October 20, and it will include snacks, a raffle, and a discussion with the filmmaker and with LaKeisha. You can find details about the event on the Fired Up! blog
as well. Fired Up! meetings began
with members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). To learn more about incarcerated women and how you can support the vision of liberation and healing from violence, visit the CCWP website
And if you have twenty minutes to spare, watch "Strength of a Woman" below. It's a documentary "created by the Violence Against Women Committee of the Coalition For Women Prisoners and filmmaker Allison Caviness about the experiences, resilience, and strength of formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors and the devastating impact that the criminal justice system can have on women's lives." These are heartbreaking stories, but the fact that someone is telling them offers some hope for change.
Sometimes, you just need to pause and take in some art that's good for your soul. That's what I needed this morning, so I'm passing it on. Here's award-winning poet Iyoeka Okoawo using music, song, storytelling and spoken word to bring a message of hope.
We joke about it sometimes – writing as a mental affliction. Experiencing life from a different viewpoint than non-writers would. Three writers witness something horrific – The poet sees only a new metaphor. The fiction writer gets an idea for a story. The non-fiction writer thinks, Hey, this’ll be great for my memoir.
From an early age I took on the role of the observer, which became the role of the writer. Sometimes, I think it’s helped me survive, building my creative capacity to hold traumatic events as poems and stories, rather than crumbling beneath the frightening truth that those moments are part of my reality. It can also be a way to learn from life, always seeking to express how even the most dreadful or mundane or bizarre experiences can teach us something that we can share with others.
And sometimes, I think being a writer just means I’m crazy. Take now, for instance. At the moment, both of my grandmothers are in hospital beds, fighting for their lives. I can’t do anything about it, except sit around and wait for updates. Maybe I should be crying or talking about it or something, but all I can do is write.
It sort of feels like I’m writing to avoid facing my fear of losing these two woman warriors in my life. But I have a feeling the reality will catch up to me eventually. For now, I write. It’s my own crazy way of telling myself I can get through this and remain whole.