The madness of me as a poet

I’ve been writing like a mad woman. Meaning both that I’m writing a lot, and that I’m writing things only a mad woman would. Pieces that assume that my characters are real people, and I’m bound to run into them one day, for instance. Pieces that read like creative non-fiction, but account for events that never happened.

And lots of poetry.

I know I’m going mad when I’m writing lots and lots of poetry.

Here’s something raw, from this morning.

_________________________________________________________________

i didn’t expect to have such a hard time finding a place to write today

i go into a café i’ve never visited before,
approach the sour faced man behind the counter,
who eyes the latptop i’m carrying.
you’re a writer, he says with a sneer.
yes! i chirp. how did you know?
he sweeps his arm across all of the heads
bent over computer screens.
you’re all writers, he says.
yes, i say, wanting to show him my writer’s charm,
we come in bunches, like grapes.
don’t you use your metaphors on me!
he shouts,
and his head is a round, red dodgeball.
i duck to avoid it.

i find another café and i think it’s fate:
in the window there’s a sign that says

vacant position: seeking writer
to sit in the corner, looking profound.

i’m settling into the corner when an employee walks up to me.
what are you doing? he asks.
i point to the sign. trying out for the part.
the position has been filled,
he says,
and when i try to ask to stay anyway,
he says louder, the position has been filled!
the other employees nod as he escorts me to the door,
even though i’m pretty sure the old white man who comes in
is there for the same reason, and they let him stay.

at the park
i take a seat in the green,
start to unload my writing tools when i hear,
Oh. a woman pushing a stroller has stopped beside me.
my dog was going to pee here, she says,
and both she and the dog are looking down at me
over long, thin noses, waiting.
even the baby is fussing from the stroller,
aware early on that i don’t belong.
i leave the dog’s toilet and
i wander for a while,
trying to find another seat in the green,
but sure i’d choose wrong.

i end up back home,
where the only person to fill the position
of thoughtful writer
is me.
i’d be anywhere else if else if i could,
but here will always work just as well.

Published in: on August 19, 2010 at 9:46 AM  Comments (1)  
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Pep talks and perfectionism

Well, August is here. It crept in all slow and stealthy, like the fog over the Richmond District. This would be about the time when I’m worrying that I’ve wasted the summer as the beginning of a new school year approaches, but there will be no school for me this fall. It’s kind of strange. I’ve been a student nearly my entire life and I still feel like a student, so I guess August without school will remind me that I’m not right now. I’ll have to figure out another meaning that August can have for me, besides scrambling to have last-minute adventures and finish some leisurely reading before the school year. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Yep, it’s August, and according to San Francisco weather, summer has yet to begin.

Anyway, I mentioned that I’ve been working on pieces to submit. I’ve only recently, and very tentatively, begun the process of submitting my work to places like literary magazines and readings.

I find that I have different relationships with different pieces that I’m working on. Some will sit quietly, waiting for me to return to them, even if I never do. Others call out to me, demanding attention, usually at inconvenient times like when I’m traveling between places or trying to sleep. They usually have the best intentions in mind, I think, like reminding me of looming deadlines or keeping me committed when I’m feeling discouraged, but sometimes they’re just being obnoxious. Here’s a conversation I’ve been having recently with a newly “finished” piece:

Finished Piece: Okay, what’s the problem?

Me: What do you mean?

FP: I finally get you to come back and work on me, and now you’ve been sighing and shaking your head at me for the past hour.

Me: Yeah, I know. Okay. The truth is, I know we’ve spent a lot of time together, but I’ve decided that you suck.

FP: Well, if I suck, you suck. Besides, I’m the best you’ve got, and I’m not getting any better.

Me: Forget this. I don’t have to settle for you.

FP: Yeah? What are you gonna do, abandon me to go write the next great queer girl novel?

Me: Maybe I will.

FP: Ha. I’ll believe that when I see it. And I’ll be here waiting when that falls through.

Me: Not if I get rid of you.

FP: Tell me again what’s so wrong with me?

Me: Your dialogue’s all wrong. You’re way too sentimental, and I don’t know what I was thinking with the setting. And I’ll never get that last sentence right, I know it.

FP: Here’s some news for you: everything you write is sentimental.

Me: Don’t go there.

FP: Anyway, you felt okay about me a week ago. I think this is just you being afraid to submit. I think this is you being crazy.

Me: I’m not afraid. And I’m not crazy.

FP: Girl, look at who you’re talking to, and then tell me again you’re not crazy.

Me: There have been plenty of successful writers who are crazy.

FP: Not your kind of crazy. If they were your kind of crazy, nobody would’ve ever seen their work. They’d still be sitting at home talking to it.

Me: Well, there’s no way I’m submitting you as you are! I’d have to cut at least a hundred words. And I’d have to change that last sentence, dammit. I’ll get it right if it kills me.

FP: You’d die for me? I’m touched.

Me: Not really. It’s more likely that I’d kill you first, so you better help me with this last sentence or you’ll never get out of here.

FP: The word you’re looking for is “destiny.”

Me: Bullshit. I never use “destiny.”

FP: That’s not what those papers in the trash bin say.

Me: Yeah, and if I use “destiny” with you, that’s where you’ll end up.

FP: Geez, again with the trash threats. What’ll it be after you fix the last sentence?

Me: What do you mean?

FP: You know what I mean. After you fix the end, it’ll be the beginning that’s not good enough. And after that, you’ll need to change the characters’ names. And you’ll just keep fixing and fixing until you give up, and we’ll never get anywhere.

Me: Well, I have to get it right…

FP: Listen. Isn’t it the journey that counts? You’ve learned something while working on me, yes?

Me: Yes. Something about not having conversations with pieces of ficiton…

FP: And you improved your writing?

Me: Oh, yeah. You were atrocious when I first started working on you.

FP: And you had a good time? You remembered the whole reason you started writing, because it’s something you love to do?

Me: Yeah, we had some pretty good times together.

FP: Then it doesn’t matter what happens now, does it? Look, I might not be what you envisioned when you started writing. I may not be the piece that changes the world or touches lives. I might not ever get published. But I’ve been a part of your journey, and you’ve grown as a writer in the time you’ve spent with me.

Me: I hate it when you’re right.

FP: Hey, I come from your mind. I’m not saying anything that’s not already in there somewhere. Give yourself some credit. If I’m right, you’re right.

Me: Sure.

FP: And that last sentence? Switch the clauses, and it’ll be perfect.

Me: Wow, that is perfect. You’re brilliant!

FP: And if I’m brilliant…

Me: Then I’m brilliant?

FP: Don’t give yourself too much credit. I was going to say that if I’m brilliant, then it’s time to send me off! I wanna see the world.

So, this is what happens when I’m in need of encouragement. I turn to my writing, and it… talks to me. Hmm. This seems to be another one of those things that I meant to keep to myself, and ended up blogging about instead…

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 1:18 PM  Comments (3)  
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Blogging in public places

I’m trying something different today. I’m blogging from a public place. It feels a little like getting naked in public, except the woman at the next table isn’t shielding her children’s eyes and the police haven’t arrived yet.

I don’t know how this is supposed to be any different for you, the reader. I imagined there’d be something interesting about saying, “blogging live, from Bazaar Cafe!” But so far, I think, it’s only different for me. Not that I’ve never written anything in public, but so far I haven’t done a blog post this way.

Allow me to set the scene for you. Maybe that’ll make a difference. It’s a cold, gray July winter morning in San Francisco. For those of you from outside of the Bay Area, that description may have thrown you off a bit, but just use your imagination, from whatever enviably sunny place you’re in right now.

The dim lights and low jazz music are helping the scene come together. It also helps that I’m wearing a hat. I feel that this is an important part of setting the scene, or at least I did this morning when I decided I’d at least have to wear a hat if I was going to blog in public. That was silly, of course, thinking of it as a matter of appearances, because I’d look more like an authentic writer if I wore a hat to peer out from. I’ve since discovered that the hat actually serves the purpose of allowing me to hide beneath the brim and avoid eye contact when the employees stroll around to check that you’re paying for refills or buying your Internet use’s worth of food.

I’m just kidding about that last part. This is one of my favorite local independent coffee shops, and I wouldn’t cheap out here. It’s not like this is Starbucks or something, where I can stick it to the Man and make a slight dent in their profits, until they make it up moments later. I’ll make note of this for my next public blogging event.

I’m sipping coffee, even though I’m usually a tea drinker. See the above reasoning about authenticating the scene. I’ll be jittery soon, but at least I’ll know I did this right.

It’s feeling a little strange, addressing “the world” here but not interacting with folks in the public space around me. I’m trying to figure out how to connect this world and that one. Perhaps I’ll write my web address on some napkins, or on the dollar bills I’ll use to buy a refill. I’m trying to look intriguing enough, with my coffee and my low-brimmed hat, that someone will be unable to resist leaning over and asking what I’m doing.

If that happens, of course, I’ll have to come up with something more interesting that I’m blogging about. More interesting than “You’re asking what I’m blogging about? Ohmigod, I was just blogging about that!” Something like world peace, thrift store shopping or the plight of baby sea turtles in the oil spill. And if I hand them a napkin with my web address while I tell them this, then I’ll probably have to actually make a blog post about it. So if this post is followed immediately by one about baby sea turtles, you’ll know why.

Everybody else seems too worried about keeping up appearances of what they’re doing, though. Like the guy in the corner, whose jiggling leg keeps catching my eye. He must not be a regular coffee drinker, either. But he’s wearing a collared shirt and won’t take his eyes off his computer screen, so he must be running a business. Either that, or looking at porn. And the two women a couple of tables over, one of whom seems much more enthralled by their conversation than the other. The one who keeps glancing at me is clearly more intrigued by the idea of what’s going on over here, beneath my hat. Maybe I’ll drop off a marked napkin as I leave, to satisfy her curiosity.

I wrote some fiction while I sat here too, but I’ll spare you that. I tried to match appearances with that as well, writing the type of fiction one might write while sitting at a coffee shop listening to jazz music and wearing a hat. You can imagine the pretentiousness that resulted.

So that’s all, for now. Signing off, live from the Bazaar Cafe. Tune in next time, when I might try blogging live from the gym. Not working out, of course. Just sitting in the corner. Towel on my shoulder. Brooding. See you then.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 10:42 AM  Comments (1)  
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Another me

Sorry, I took a break from writing for a couple of days. Now I feel guilty for neglecting the blog. Here’s what I wrote this morning, after an odd experience the other day…

———————————————————————————————————

I was downtown the other day when I saw myself. Or rather, I saw another version of me. I’m sure of myself enough to know that I was me, standing on the corner, but I’m pretty sure that was another me, sitting on the outbound 5-Fulton bus that went by.

Needless to say, it was a strange experience. I don’t even take the 5.

I couldn’t really see her very well, just the outline of her hair and her shadowed face, and I wouldn’t have been so sure that it was me if it wasn’t for the fact that she was facing me, staring too, seemingly equally enthralled. And there was that strangely familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was reuniting with a long-lost soul. If you ever come across another version of you, know that it’s not like looking in the mirror, knowing it’s a reflection of yourself. It’s more like watching a video of yourself that time you got blackout drunk at your cousin’s wedding, and you don’t remember it at all and you’re sure you’re incapable of such behavior, but there it is on the video, a person with your face and your voice, smashing things with strength you never thought you had, until your uncles subdues you. And you have to admit that it could’ve only been you.

Only it wasn’t me, there on the 5. I figure that momentarily she or I crossed into some parallel universe, the Other Me existing in a universe where I take that bus. I’ve seen it in the movies so I know it must be possible. In the movies, of course, there’s always a good guy version and a bad guy version, and while I’m used to thinking badly about myself, I’m trying to change that, so I decided to think badly about the Other Me instead.

She must be the bad version. I bet she didn’t even pay for that bus ride. I bet there’s an old lady standing there, hanging on to a pole for dear life, wishing she could sit down, but the Other Me is only sneering at her as she sits comfortably in her seat.

Sitting on that bus going in that direction, I bet the Other Me lives downtown and goes to school at the local private university, instead of the public one I graduated from. I bet she affords it by selling out to some corporate place, getting on her high horse every day as assistant manager at some place like Pottery Barn, decorating her downtown apartment with the same pastel colored rugs she sells to ten customers a day.

I bet she has a dog, instead of a cat. I bet it weighs 8 pounds and lives in her purse.

Then I start to wonder about her writing. I can’t imagine a version of me that doesn’t write. She’s bold enough that I’m sure she’s already gotten at least two books published, because she wasn’t afraid to break into the business writing something like erotica. I bet she puts her writing on a self-indulgent blog.

Now, of course, the lines between good and bad are beginning to blur. Nothing wrong with writing erotica, and at least she’s gotten published. So she’s bold. So what? I bet her boldness is good in some situations. I bet she’s unafraid to speak her mind. I bet she doesn’t do things like shrink away from confrontations or apologize to the guy who runs into her. I bet she’s unapologetically out about being queer, in all situations, like making the most out of Mother’s Day at her grandmother’s church by taking the pastor’s daughter home without even trying to pretend it’s for further “Bible study.”

I think maybe I’m starting to get down on myself again, thinking this other me is so much bolder and more self-assured than I am. Or maybe she and I aren’t so different after all. Maybe she just didn’t have to wait until she saw another version of herself to realize the possibilities of who she could be. Or maybe that’s not true at all. Maybe she was staring in awe of all that makes me, me. Maybe she didn’t know what was possible until she saw me.

I just hope that from now on she sticks to her own universe, or at least she stays away from my buses. I can only imagine what we might think possible if we put our heads together.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 10:49 AM  Comments (5)  
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Dad meets the family

I wrote this as an opening scene for an end-of-semester reading a couple of semesters ago. Recently I found it again and I’ve been working on it more, developing the story further. I’ll share it now and see how it feels.

———————————————————————————————————————

As soon as the music began, I knew it was a mistake, bringing my father there. The audience had grown silent, the cold air still as the lights went down and some overeager mom began to pump shrill, lively tones into the auditorium. She apparently believed that the less rhythm a song had, the easier it was for children to dance to it. The spectacle on stage said otherwise. Two dozen kids were bumping into each other, their eyes wide as they looked up at the teacher who led them and gazed past her bobbing head to see the dimly lit faces of their parents behind her.

I tried to imagine how my father, standing beside me, was seeing it all. His eyes falling upon his grandkid for the first time, frosty white lights beaming onto the stage to show her standing out like a fly on a potato salad. One side of her white dress was tucked into the side of her loud orange underwear, and as if she didn’t look alien enough already, her braids were standing up on her head like antennae. The other folks’ kids were picking up the dance pretty quickly, doing what looked like four easy steps and repeating them over and over again. My kid, on the other hand, was bouncing around on her feet in any old way, to music that only could’ve been in her head. I’m not saying I was jealous or ashamed of my kid or anything – kid’s seven years old, and what man is cruel enough to be ashamed of a seven year old? No, I wasn’t ashamed, just wished I’d practiced a little with her at home or something is all. I could see what all the other parents saw when they looked at her, a kid who couldn’t even tap her feet to a beat, probably the product of another absent black father.

More importantly, I could see what my father saw when he looked on stage. My wide-set eyes and sturdy jaw on the kid’s dark round face, each misstep a sign of bigger mistakes, the tapping of her feet sending out thunderous echoes of many years of disappointment. Since I’d picked my father up at the airport and driven him to the recital he’d had a strange look about him, his narrow eyes wrinkled in the corners as if everything he was seeing was a part of some joke and only he knew the punchline. As I glanced over to see the look still fixed on his face, the audience began to stand.

Standing. Really? My father stood with them, and I rose only because I couldn’t see over their balding heads. My wife Elsie, of all people, led this premature ovation. She stood on my other side, opposite my father, and though she’d shaken his hand briefly just before the recital began, I knew this moment would sear itself into my father’s mind as his first impression of my wife. Elsie thought our kid was perfect. She was convinced that kids were flawed because they were kids, and couldn’t grasp that maybe our kid would be better off if she didn’t have a mother who was so willing to accept her flaws. Elsie was gaping at the stage, her eyes bouncing with joy, her hands clasped in front of her like she was uttering a prayer that was being answered as she said it. Thrilled that our kid was standing out, Elsie was too dense to realize that standing out for being the black kid unable to dance among white kids isn’t a good thing.

I’d always hoped to help the kid out before she turned out like her mother. I never liked kids, but of course I loved my own, and I knew that if she followed what her mother told her, all that crap about being herself even if it got her off track, then she’d end up being stupid. Happy, maybe, as they say ignorance is bliss, but stupid. And if she got smart enough one day to realize I didn’t let her turn out that way, surely she’d thank me.

She stopped dancing. Music still playing, white kids swaying around her, and the kid stood still as a tree on a windless day. I looked at her big brown eyes and saw that they’d found mine. She grinned, teeth glowing, reached up her hand as far as she could and started waving, not at Elsie or anyone else, but at me. For some reason this kid thought I’d be glad to see her up there waving like a fool.

Through the corner of my eye I saw my father look at her and look at me, and I was sure I felt the lights above me grow brighter. A chill rushed through my body. Should light be cold? The kid’s eyes were locked on me and I didn’t break their gaze. It was the only way to avoid eye contact with my father, and with the other audience members who had surely turned to look at me. Beside me, Elsie was shrieking her high-pitched giggle. It was all too much – the lights, the music, the eyes on me. I watched the kid as I sank back down into my seat.

All I could see now above the audience’s heads was her small palm, pale under the spotlight, as she slowly brought it down to her side.

This was my father’s introduction to my family. It was the first glimpse he’d seen of my life since he’d vanished from it nine years earlier.

Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 9:25 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Conversations between places

Fiction from this morning (practicing dialogue, if you couldn’t tell)

———————————————————————————–

It was the only real conversation I ever had with Josie, even though she was my roommate Arnie’s girlfriend and I’d seen her sitting on our couch almost every day since I’d moved in. I didn’t count my parents’ only visit, when I ran inside moments before they did to give her a warning.

She was in the living room, the space I told my parents I used as an office, sitting on the couch wearing only Arnie’s yellow moose t-shirt and purple underwear and drinking beer from a can.

“My parents are here,” I said before I ran back outside to stall them.

When I returned with my parents shuffling in behind me, eager to see evidence of the magical life they envisioned for me, Josie was standing by the refrigerator in the kitchen, her arms piled with beers. Her purple ass was bright and distracting as a baboon’s backside.

“Had to stock up!” she said with a grin before slinking into Arnie’s room.

I was angry enough that I thought those were the last words we’d ever say to each other. Not that she’d notice. Maybe they would’ve been the last if I hadn’t had such a hellish day, if I hadn’t trekked into the apartment with feet so heavy they couldn’t carry me to my bedroom, only dumped me off beside Josie on the soft blue couch.

We sat at first in silence. I watched her frowning from beneath her long light brown bangs as she dug at her fingernails. That was one of the reasons I never spoke to her, because she was usually concentrating on something like her nails or a magazine with such intensity that you’d get the feeling distracting her might pull her away from her entire life’s purpose.

Minutes went by before she looked up at me and blinked, as if she only just noticed I was there. She looked around the room, as if she’d only just noticed it too. It was bland and undecorated except for what I’d added, the photographs on the wall from San Francisco, and shot glasses, clean and collecting dust, sitting on the mantel beaming rainbow flags and smiley faces.

“Is one of your roommates a lesbian or something?” Josie asked.

The apartment was small, the kitchen and living room sharing one cramped common space between the two bedrooms. How many people did she think we fit into this place?

“That’d be me,” I said.

Her light eyes widened, dancing across my face as she stared at me.

“You? No!” she said. “But you’re so pretty and girly. My friend Pete told me how to look out for lesbians, he said to look for short hair and man-hands.”

I pulled at my ponytail.

“Yeah, the long hair is all just part of my disguise,” I said. I was trying to make a joke, I guess, but she nodded and continued staring with those wide eyes, as if I was saying something profound.

She kept nodding as I shifted and coughed.

“Am I the first one you met or something?” I asked.

“The first what? Black person?”

I paused.

“No. The first lesbian.”

“Oh.” Josie shook her head. She went back to staring at her hands, only at her palms this time. “No. I didn’t meet a black person until I was twelve, I’d never thought about it, just thought I’d seen them in person ‘cause I’d seen them on TV, but no, Myra was the first. She cleaned my father’s house. She was nice.”

Now I was staring at her, and the way she was peering into her palms had me leaning forward to look at them, too.

“You’re the first person like you that I’ve ever met,” I said.

This delighted Josie. “Really?” she said with a grin, looking up at me. “Thanks.”

I nodded. “I mean it.”

“Why did you sit next to me today?” she asked.

I thought of work, the layoffs that seemed to be creeping toward my position, the possibility that I’d have to move. Again.

“I was tired,” I said. “Needed to rest.”

“Oh. I’m leaving today. I thought maybe you knew or something.”

She was sitting on the couch, like she always did. There were no packed bags around her. She didn’t even have any shoes on, her pink toes wiggling above the coffee table.

“Leaving?” I asked.

“I’m going away to San Francisco. Haven’t told anyone.”

“Josie. You know that’s where I’m from, right? Why haven’t you asked me anything about it?”

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I just gotta do it on my own.”

“Should I tell Arnie?”

“You don’t have to. He’ll figure it out.”

I bit my lip, unsure if I should ask my next questions. But when I thought of our conversation I felt like I needed to. “Are you sure you’re ready to go, Josie? Are you… are you gonna wear shoes, at least?”

Josie laughed. “Of course I’m gonna wear shoes, silly.”

She stood up and stretched her arms backwards, curving her body down. She looked like an acrobat and for a moment I thought she’d keep going and fold her body into itself in a way I never thought possible. But she righted herself and put her hands on her hips like a superhero.

“Of course I’m ready,” she said.

I nodded. Once I had that look about me. Once I was sure I could do something that sounded crazy to everyone else. Who was I to doubt her? Now it seemed like she’d been sitting on that couch preparing for this day since before I was born.

“Of course you are,” I said.

It felt like her questions were answered so I began to think of my own. I opened my palms and looked to them for the answers.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 1:26 PM  Comments (2)  
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