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.
So I guess it’s really time for this. When I began writing this presentation, it all felt very surreal, like I was just pretending I was about to graduate, and I wouldn’t actually have to give this speech to anybody. But now, here you all are. So, I guess, here we go.
My first residency came one year after I completed my Bachelor’s degree in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing. It came seven years after I moved away from my hometown at the age of seventeen, and seven years after I came out as a queer woman. It came two and a half years after ending a two and a half year relationship, during which I was physically and emotionally abused. And four years after an unexpected but fully welcomed pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. In other words, I’d been through quite a bit in the years leading up to my time at Pacific.
My life also changed quite a bit during my time here. I landed my dream job. I fell in love with a fellow poet who inspires me to be my best self. I lost my grandmother and my aunt, who both died within the past year. In a way, I also lost another family member, who left my reality not physically but mentally, overcome by mental illness.
But before all that, I arrived at Pacific with a haunting sense that I was an impostor. I didn’t know how I’d done it, but somehow I’d managed to sneak my way into a program full of real writers who were seriously studying their craft, and I was already convinced that everyone around me was a way better writer than I could ever be. And, as if questioning my writing abilities wasn’t enough, I also started to question whether I belonged in the program because of who I am. I have to admit, I felt a little out of place when I first arrived, being queer, tattooed, urban, child of a Caribbean immigrant and one of the only dark faces I could see. I felt different. I wondered if this was the right place for me. For years, I’d read poetry and struggled to see myself represented in the traditional Western canon of literature. So what was I doing trying to be a poet?
The way I see it, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that Patricia Smith was a visiting writer at that first residency. She talked about her efforts to define herself as a poet, caught between the deceptively distinct worlds of “academic” and “spoken word” poetry as others tried to peg her into one category or the other, thrusting her into settings in which hers was the only face of color. Her voice felt like an affirmation to me: yes, you will have challenges. And yes, you will overcome them. And you will grow more into your authentic self as a result.
Kwame Dawes was my first advisor. I guess it’s time to admit the truth: there were many reasons why I chose to attend Pacific, including the impressive faculty, the friendly calls from staff, and the Pacific Northwest location. But when it came down to decision time, the real reason I chose to come here was Kwame Dawes. No place else would I get the chance to work with such a living legend, or with a Caribbean poet who could help me connect with my own Caribbean ancestry. I admire Kwame more than I’ve ever had the courage to admit to him, and so naturally, since he was practically my whole reason for being here, I was terrified to speak to the man.
I did manage to speak a little to him, and it was easier for me to correspond with him in writing over the course of that first semester, which is so like me. But you could say I was a little intimidated, in awe over the idea that I had the opportunity to work with the Kwame Dawes, and I could only come up with what felt like awful poems to send to him.
To illustrate my path through Pacific, I have to point to my original goals here. I came here with big ideas about what I would accomplish with my poetry. Simply put, I just wanted to change the world. An easy feat, yes? Sounded simple enough to me. After the violence I’d been through, and the intersections of oppression I’d endured as a queer black woman, I thought of writing as a way of shifting the conditions around me, illuminating those universal truths that would prompt any reader to be the change that I wished to see in the world.
But Kwame thought that universality was not quite what I should aspire to attain. He wrote in one of his letters of feedback to me, “When poems or stories manage to capture the detailed reality of a single person, it allows us all the capacity to see that person as a full human being—and thus to empathize with that person. The effect is what we like to call universal appeal. But the quest is not for that. The quest, in the writing, is for individuality, specificity, the moment.”
Well, when Kwame told me he wanted to hear poems from my own voice, just from lil’ ol’ me, I straight up did not believe him. I just knew it wasn’t my story that mattered, but the stories of the people, and not my own voice, but some voice that seemed just beyond my reach, that would capture all of the voices within all of the communities that mattered to me.
Over time, Kwame’s wisdom chipped away at those crazy ideas of mine. I couldn’t argue when he pointed out that my strongest poems were those that were specific to the details of my own life and experiences. The poems that aimed for universality were vague, and couldn’t really connect with a reader, or even with me as the writer. Kwame encouraged me to say what it was that I really meant, always having the sense for when I was not quite saying it.
He got me to deepen my ideas about what I wanted to achieve. There was a time when I would’ve wondered – does it get any deeper than the idea of trying to change the world? Actually, it does. Over the course of that first semester, I realized that by seeking such grand ideas through such vague words, I was actually creating what felt to me like a safe distance between myself and the subjects I really wanted to address. It was the difference between violence as a human rights issue and violence as my own experience. The difference between stating that something happened and getting into the gritty details of a moment in time. The difference between reflecting on the universality of painful emotions and recreating my own emotions on the page.
Another great thing about working with Kwame was the chance to read the work of Caribbean poets, such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and Grace Nichols. I often found them writing about exile, about liminal spaces, about finding oneself in spaces between different places and times. Reflecting on these poems helped me write my own in which I journeyed to find myself by connecting with my father’s home country of Trinidad & Tobago.
During my second semester, I got to work with Marvin Bell. Marvin and I were sort of an odd pairing in some ways. Just as I was arriving at the recognition of what it meant to write as my whole, authentic self, I began to work with an advisor who doesn’t exactly know from experience what it’s like to be a young queer woman of color. I had a few doubts early on. Would Marvin get me, I wondered? What would he think of my weird poems?
The start of the new semester wasn’t the only change in my life at this time. This was right around the time when mental illness really leapt up and took its toll on my family. Our lives would never be the same, and this change left me feeling lost.
This was also the time when I started that dream job of mine, working as a counselor and community organizer with an organization that serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) survivors of violence. I came on staff three years after I’d joined as a member, seeking help healing from my own experiences with domestic violence. I was thrilled, but also more than a little anxious about the responsibilities of my new role. Working with primarily black and Latino LGBTQ survivors of violence, who had no money, no resources, and in some cases, no homes, I faced the daily reality of the massive impact of inequitable social conditions. Who was I to think I could improve these conditions? It seemed that I’d hardly make a dent by working forty hours a week, let alone by writing some stupid poem.
So, you could say that I was feeling a little bit of self-doubt when I was working with Marvin. Actually, you could probably say that I was drowning in self-doubt, letting it sink into my pores and fingers until my hands felt useless in creating anything, let alone a world-altering poem. At the previous residency, I’d heard Marvin say, “A writer is someone for whom writing is a normal, everyday activity,” and as he patiently waited for me to deliver the proof that this was true for me, I sat at home experiencing writing as an agonizing, soul-crushing activity. I felt defeated. I was no writer. Nobody could convince me so.
Well, as we all know, Marvin Bell is not just anybody. Continuing with my new commitment to speaking my truth, I let him in on the fact that I was on the verge of a meltdown. I don’t know how he did it, but Marvin simultaneously offered me both comfort and a kick in the pants. Of course, he encouraged me to “write with abandon,” and he even wanted me to write bad poems. At least I was confident that I could do that much.
And, like Kwame, Marvin wanted more tangibility, more grit, less explanation. He prompted me to notice that I’d always felt the obligation to explain, as an effort to justify what I was writing about and why. But Marvin wanted me to leave all of that out, and just write. Was it enough, to just say what I wanted to say, and nothing more? With all of the injustices out there in the world, was it worth it, to just write about me?
I’m still working at my dream job, and I’ve uncovered some eye-opening truths during my time there. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned can be summed up in a crude, but accurate, statement: Shit happens. It’s how you deal with it that counts. It’s true, nothing I can do can make it so that people don’t struggle with racism or homophobia or homelessness or pain, but I can help them see their power and thrive in spite of it all. And just doing that much, just being a part of a community that rises up with pride in spite of the pain, can erode some of the power of the oppressive systems at work.
And I guess I’ve learned something similar at Pacific: Shit happens. It’s how you write about it that counts. It’s more complex than that, of course, but at a moment when I just needed desperately to get through the daunting wall before me as a poet who hoped to make a change, that simple lesson helped me see that my power isn’t in some remarkable ability to articulate a universal truth. No, my power is in telling my own truth.
By my third semester, the time was just right to work with Ellen Bass. I was so ready. I’d shaken off many of the doubts that plagued me when I began working with Marvin. I just knew that Ellen would get me, really get me, like she’d understand my work, as well as who I am, and she’d help me write and heal and grow even more into the kind of writer I wanted to be.
And I turned out to be right, about all of that. The only problem was that I’d completely underestimated how petrifying it is to work with someone who gets you, who really sees you in that piercing way of clearly recognizing all that you are and all that you’d like to be. I was totally unprepared for how difficult it would be for me to hear criticism from Ellen, a woman I admire so immensely. This time, though, the difficulty motivated me to rise to the challenge.
It rattled me some to make the shift from using my writing to try to heal the world around me into writing to heal myself. What the hell had I gotten myself into? Was I ready for this? I wondered. As it turned out, I was ready. As it turned out, I’d been waiting a long time to make this shift.
All of these invaluable lessons lead me to my final semester at Pacific. I was excited to finish my time by working with Sandra Alcosser, but by now, of course, there was a predictable pattern – I began the semester full of fear and self-doubt. I couldn’t fathom that I’d be able to put together a thesis until I started really listening to Sandra, who saw my pile of poems as a book manuscript. I looked a little closer, and I began to see what she saw. I revised some poems, took some out, put new ones in. I knew I was seeing a story in there when I took out what I once thought were some of my strongest pieces, for the sake of telling the story that was trying to come through. I even took away some that Kwame had once called “fine poems,” and we know that’s the highest compliment a poet can hear.
Sandra was more interested in hearing my own voice than in any others that I’d try to include in my work. I think that was the biggest surprise for me in constructing my thesis. When I was finished, I found something there that I was proud of, something that felt right to me, something that felt…well, it felt like me. I traveled through many different voices during the course of my writing at Pacific, and traveled in time, and traveled into all kinds of different minds, and in the end, I came back to myself. My original goals still mean something to me – I still want to speak up about injustice and violence and the need for change, but now I know I don’t have to reach so far outside of myself to reach those things.
The thing is, I don’t have go out of my way to write what may be considered “political” poetry. Writing those poems that only I can write, from my perspective, means writing as a black woman, as a queer woman, as a child of an immigrant, as a survivor – so if writing from that perspective means I’m writing politically, then I just can’t help myself.
Only I can write about the world as I see it, so only my voice can make the sound I hope to hear in poetry. It’s like June Jordan wrote – we are the ones we have been waiting for. I am the one I’ve been waiting for. I see that now. So now I’m free to write. I’m finished waiting.