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.