Me & my shiny new degree
School's out! One week ago, I graduated with my MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. It's hard to believe that my first residency there was already two years ago
, and now, my turn to walk across the stage as a graduate has already come and gone. Tonight, I'm showing off what I learned at Oakland's Beast Crawl, not by reading poems from my MFA thesis, but
by reading brand new work, all about vengeful sex. What can I say? I guess I needed some kind of release. If you can, come hear me read during leg 3 of Beast Crawl at Anger Management & Revenge: Dirty Trixxx
.I do have plenty of reflections about what my new degree means for my life and writing moving forward, though. I'll have lots more time now for sharing about this life here on the blog, but for now I'll leave you with
this – a version of the graduate presentation I gave at my last MFA residency. It's edited to remove the poems I included (gotta keep those to myself for now, in case of publication), and it doesn't quite carry the full effect of me delivering all this truth-telling in a little chapel hall full of people, of all places, but you'll get the idea of my journey through all of the learnings of the last couple of years. Click below to read more.
(the real thing)
I got down in the kitchen recently. I love to cook, so I do it fairly often, but there’s a difference between throwing dinner together for myself and getting down in the kitchen. It was a whole Caribbean-inspired feast – seafood sizzling in lemon juice, veggies coated in curry, cornbread sweetened with honey.
It was all for my grandmother, who just passed away. Or, as I like to think of it, she just found peace, after fighting many battles. One of her most recent battles was with Alzheimer’s disease. Another was her effort to live out her final days in her home country of Trinidad. In that fight, she claimed victory.
Now, I say that the food I cooked was “Caribbean-inspired,” because it was not quite authentically Caribbean. Cooking here in the U.S., I didn’t have the ingredients to make the dishes just right. I didn’t have the wise guidance of somebody like my grandmother, who could’ve helped me craft the meal like they do in Trinidad. So I had to substitute ingredients, and find my own path to the flavors I sought.
The most obvious of this inauthenticity was the callaloo soup. Callaloo is a popular dish in Trinidad, a green puree of delightful flavors, made with vegetables, coconut milk, and many times, crabmeat. I had to substitute leafy greens found in Trinidad for those at my local market, and I left out the crabmeat. In the end, my soup was more yellow than green, and considered callaloo by name only. It was delicious, and completely inspired by the real thing, but my soup was not real callaloo.
Sometimes I feel that my writing process is similar to this cooking endeavor. Lately, I’ve been feeling all kinds of things that exist beyond my grasp of words – grief, love, passion. For a moment there, these things threatened to shut me down with a bit of writer’s block. I mean, what could I really say about feelings that burst through the containers of the words we try to give them? Is it even worth the effort, when I’ll always fall short of capturing what I really want to say?
A moment in Trinidad
Well, the food was worth the effort, despite the flaws. It filled my home with an irresistible aroma, filled my mouth with delectable flavors, and fed a few people I really care about. And it also gave me a chance to honor and celebrate my grandmother, to send her off with a tribute to her life. I don’t have the right words for this, and I couldn’t find the exact flavors for it, either. But it feels good to create something that represents, in a way, my search for an expression of all I want to say.
A poem I wrote in 2010 for my grandmother:
This morning I tuned my radio to KPOO
, a local station I love because of the way it lifts up the power of the people, moving away from the usual misrepresentation in the mainstream media to address complex issues. My reasons for listening today were quite simple, though - KPOO was playing the blues. And I sure am grateful for music that moves with the hard times. I'm thinking about that old saying, when it rains, it pours, because that's kind of how my life feels at the moment. Only in San Francisco, the rain is different. Sometimes, like this morning, when it rains, it mists. The water doesn't fall to the ground, but lingers in tiny droplets around you. You're not sure if you can really call it rain, and sometimes you start to wonder if it's raining at all or if it's just in your head. That is, until you get inside, to someplace warm and dry, and you realize your clothes are all wet and your skin is slick with something that's not your sweat. That works a little better as an analogy for my life right now. It feels like things have been trickling in, little by little, and I didn't really notice how much it was all building up until I felt soaked in my skin.
And now, I believe I'm slipping into a bit of a funk. Last Monday was The Siwe Project's No Shame Day,
aimed to encourage folks to talk about mental illness and break through some of the stigma
that often holds black folks back from seeking mental health treatment. Poet and Siwe Project founder Bassey Ikpi said, “We’re encouraging people to tend to their mental health that day without shame."So that's one of the reasons I'm trying to keep writing, without being ashamed of how I feel. Usually, a funk affects my writing in one of two ways. I might feel paralyzed, unable to create, and then I hate myself for it, sinking deeper into that bluesy feeling. Or I use the funk as fuel, writing my way through it. I'm trying my best to do the latter this time, to tend to my wellness by honoring how I'm feeling.
My hope is that someone else can get some wellness out of it, too. It works that way for me as a reader, at least. Just like I sometimes need to hear the blues, at times I need to read about how others are struggling. I can find hope in happy resources like the Happy Black Woman blog
, but personally, I wouldn't feel honest if I wrote about my healing
without also acknowledging the hard things I'm struggling to heal from. So I hope I can add to those stories, like the ones from No Shame Day
, which help us to feel not so alone. Writing keeps me grounded. It weaves some invisible thread through me and back to the earth. I can write to get perspective on the bigger picture. I can write to feel like somebody else cares, even if it's only my notebook listening. Without writing, I don't know what I'd do. I might just tune into the blues and out of the world, taking flight like a bird and forgetting that there are reasons to come back down. Here's one of my all-time favorite blues singers, Bessie Smith, singing "Backwater Blues."
She was one fierce artist, known as "Empress of the Blues,"
who certainly had no shame in her struggles.
I'm having an emotional week. It feels like I've been crying for days. I don't like crying in front of people, let alone admitting to doing so on a public blog, but I've been trying to push myself to sit with my vulnerability, so there's a start. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I certainly needed a release. And this is certainly the time for it -- add miscommunications, car troubles and other frustrations to three days of intensive training about the issues surrounding child sexual abuse, and I really have no choice but to let the tears fall. I think I can allow myself this one -- there's no harm in needing a good cry, and getting a great one instead. Part of forgiving myself for being so full of emotions involves understanding why I'm crying and what it's doing for me. This kind of reflection can build up more emotion, but it's building in the best way. I'm checking in with my body about where the tension is, where it's coming from, and how my crying is helping me let it go. I've been doing the same thing with running, another way to release. Not always -- sometimes I run just to run, and I feel release then, too, but I also feel
a sort of emptiness in wondering what it was, exactly, that I lost. On the other hand, there are times when I run with an awareness of my body, of the way each muscle flexes and stretches, of what feels good and what feels hard and what feels nothing at all, as my skin pours sweat, as if my body's weeping.For me, like crying and running, writing can be a release. This is nothing new, of course. Writing has been used to express our feelings ever since the world's first angsty teenagers created paper upon which to spill their tears. But I'm wondering what it would look like to be more intentional about it, in the same way that I get in touch with my body when I'm running. I center my body and mind, remembering that I am in my body, feeling the connection from the roots at my feet to the threads of my fingers. I think of what's brought me here. Thinking back to the tension of the day, and then back further, to the tension building in my life, and then back further still, to the tension in my communities and my environment, and further still, to those who have come before me, to the history stirring in the ground below me... and then?Release.
Wine and words awaited us here
Ah, the life of a writer.
Mornings spent listening to the masters of craft spread their words of wisdom, putting the life you've dreamed of within your grasp. Afternoon workshops, finding that one of the best ways to learn and grow is to grow in community. Evenings, drinking wine and listening to the masters read their breath-taking work. Nights connecting with those who are as passionate about the written word as you. And early mornings - real early mornings - curled up with a notebook, furiously scribbling the ideas that have roused you from sleep after the previous day's inspiration.
A girl could forget this is some fantasy writing camp, and not really everyday life.
Of course now, more than halfway through my first Pacific University residency
(already?), I'm trying to figure out how to continue as much of this life
as possible once I return home. Some of what I've heard has been helpful in the practical sense. Marvin Bell gave a talk titled "How to be a Writer Every Day," calling us to be writers by setting and meeting writing challenges, each and every day. Today's talk was an interview, Heather Sappenfield leading a discussion with Bonnie Jo Campbell about how even someone who hears early in her career that she is "everything wrong with writing today" can go on to find her voice as a writer, and become a very successful one at that. Mostly, though, I know
that I'll continue life as a writer not simply because I'll have advice to follow or assignments to turn in, but because this experience is reminding me of how I long to write, and to write better each day. For me, growing as a writer means growing as a person, because for me, writing is a daily reminder of my reason for being. It's all so easy to remember in the moment, of course, and I can only hope that after this experience is over,
I won't forget the invaluable lessons I've learned here. I get the feeling, though, that even if my conscious mind forgets, my writing reflexes will always remember. So long as I continue to be a writer every day.
I wrote this short piece of fiction this morning, mostly to try to motivate myself when I was feeling weary.
A Weary Poet's Words
I woke to my words rolling from the mouth of a stranger. I opened my eyes, and through the blades of grass beside my face I watched him standing over me. My purple notebook was in one of his hands, his thick fingers covering the smudges I’d left over time with my own hands. His other hand was gesturing wildly as he read.
from the moment we were born we knew we belonged on this earth/we breathed the air though nobody showed us how/filled our lungs with it and raised our clenched fists into the sky above us/knowing we can reach for more, screaming like we were born to be heard,
“Stop that,” I said. “That’s mine, you have no right to read it.”
The man paused, and I thought he’d stop, but he only flipped his fingers through more pages and began to read again.
know your tears aren’t for nothing/let them fall to the earth/to water the seeds/that will grow the roots/to anchor the trees/that cannot be moved./know that you, too,/cannot be moved.
I sat up. At this angle, the world felt new, like I was trying to orient myself to the gravity pulls of an alien planet. But I had enough balance to reach up and snatch my notebook back. So I did. I pulled my knees to my chest, my words tucked into the folds of my body.
“Why aren’t you celebrating?” the man asked, gesturing toward the group of people waving flags and howling with glee. “You know that motherfucker’s dead, right?”
“I’m tired,” I said.
Now he gestured toward my notebook, and I tightened my hold on it.
“Then why aren’t you writing about it?”
“I’m resting,” I told him.
I rubbed my eyes, hoping he’d be gone when I opened them, so I could sleep again. Instead, I heard his voice once more. More of my words.
there never were words for this…
In an instant, I was standing, my face so close to his that I could smell the breath of his pores. He smelled salty as the sea.
“Where did you get that?” I said. “That’s not even in this notebook. Nobody’s supposed to read that.”
The man smiled, stepped back with a sheepish look like he knew he’d taken one step too far. I looked him up and down, noticed for the first time that he looked nothing like the people who were out celebrating. He was barefoot, and dirty, his skin stained with a red, earthy tinge. He carried nothing, but looked somehow like he’d been traveling.
“You’re right,” he said. “Nobody’s supposed to read it yet, anyway.”
He gazed beyond my head, as if he was looking to see where he’d go next. Or where I’d been before.
“Rest well, weary poet,” he said. “But don’t lose your words. You’ll need them now, more than ever before.”
As I watched him walk away, his feet shuffling through the growing grass, that poem bloomed in my mind. The one I’d been putting together in my head, but resisting the urge to write down.
there never were words for this… the poem began. I settled back down into the grass, and began to write the rest of the words.
'Women of Wisdom' by Deborah Koff-Chapin
This morning, instead of my usual freewrite
, I’m getting my creative juices flowing in a different way by doing some visual art. I’m not great at drawing, it’s never something I’d show to anyone else, but I love to do it. It’s just another way to exercise those creative muscles that ache if I don’t use them, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of stories like this NPR article
, about how dabbling in other arts can help with writer’s block.
This has always been true for me. Though lately writer’s block has been the opposite of my problem (writer’s diarrhea is more like it), when I find myself blocked sometimes any other art than writing helps, whether that means drawing or playing the keyboard or singing (in the shower or in my room – that’s another of those “talents” of mine I’d never subject other people to…).
Is this true for you? Do you have a main “art” you focus on, until you’re blocked enough to turn to the others? Artists can support each other in these things too, and I’d love to hear from anyone with experience from outside of the writing world. Best wishes for you in finding your art today, in whatever form it takes.