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.

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Published in: on August 19, 2010 at 9:46 AM  Comments (1)  
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The road of rejection

Let me begin by recognizing the historic ruling against California’s Proposition 8. A judge overturned the ban against same-sex marriage, and though we’ll have to wait through a long appeals process to find out if this actually changes anything, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Now, of course, I feel all this pressure to blog about it, but I’m gonna go ahead and take the pressure off and selfishly blog about myself in the midst of social change. I’m definitely happy about the decision, but for my thoughts about the marriage movement as the central focus of the struggle for LGBT rights and the idea that marriage rights mean “equality for all people,” please click here. I’ll have a response later, when I’ve gathered my conflicted feelings into coherent thoughts.

On to the selfishness:

Continuing what’s becoming a series on how to begin failing as a writer, so you can someday find success (yeah, I’ll let you know if I get around to that “success” part): Earlier this week, I got a rejection letter that came with a personal note. For something I’d written, that is, not some kind of dating rejection or a rejection of my being, or I might be feeling a little more discouraged.

Anyway, what began with a disappointing “We’re sorry that your submission was not accepted…” ended up sort of lifting my spirits by adding that they really enjoyed my story, and they hope I find a home for it somewhere because it just wasn’t the right “fit” for them at this time.

That’s the best I can ask for, right? Well, I suppose the best I could ask for would be to actually be accepted, but the eternal optimist in me (ha) says that the majority of what I submit at first won’t be accepted, so a rejection letter that comes with a personal note is the next best thing. I’m sure they get bombarded with submissions, and I’ve always heard that if someone takes the time out to recognize what they like about your work while they’re rejecting it, that’s a pretty good sign. Perhaps these particular editors write personal notes to everyone, but if you happen to know this, I’d advise against bursting my bubble. I’m gonna go ahead and revel in my rejection.

I’m sure this is just the beginning, and if I work hard I should soon have a pile of rejection letters to welcome the next acceptance one. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high — it doesn’t help that the first piece of fiction I submitted to a magazine was accepted and given an award, but I certainly can’t expect that every time. So I prepare my work for submission while expecting rejection, which might seem like a hopeless way to go about doing things. But I don’t see the wall of rejection as an unbreakable one. I’ll hold on to the little glimmers of hope: Oh hey, they liked my story. Oh hey, they used my name instead of just writing “Dear Reject.” Oh hey, they didn’t advise me to keep my day job. The little things.

And I’ll build my wall of rejection, made of flimsy pieces of paper and not-quite-right fits and comic sans (at least, I believe all rejection letters should be written in comic sans, that way I can giggle a little and not feel so bad about them). I’ll build it knowing how easily it can be knocked down. Knowing that someday, I’ll get a letter saying that the editors enjoyed my work and found it to be a perfect fit. Knowing that no rejection letter, no matter how impersonal or discouraging, could stop me from writing or getting my writing out into the world. This blog itself is a reclamation of personal power over my work, as I put work out there regardless of whether anyone wants to publish it (and find that some people want to read it). Even the act of getting up each morning to write, knowing that most of what I write will never be seen, is an act that declares that my writing means something to me, even if someone else chooses to reject it.

So, even while I’m failing to get my work published, I’m determined to define success in my own terms. And I’m considering myself a damn successful failure.

And now, some fiction to help heal my wounds.

__________________________________________________________________________________

They never called her anything but “the intern.” During the fall reading period, it was her job to brew their tea (three different pots of three different varieties). There were no coffee drinkers. If they had a guest editor who drank coffee, it was her job to get that, too.

It was the end of the reading period, and they’d given her a pile of letters for the rejects (they never called them anything but “the rejects”). Now their job was done, and she was alone in the office, addressing rejection letters to make sure nobody received one that began “Dear Reject,” as that was how they were formatted. She wasn’t supposed to write anything personal, though she knew each of their stories quite well, having familiarized herself with them so that she could understand the context of the comments made when she took notes during their meetings. They couldn’t be bothered to take notes themselves. The rejects weren’t worth removing their hands from their warm teacups.

But before she sealed the first letter, she hesitated. She recognized the name, Rupert Singer, and remembered his story, the one about the boy and his rabbit. Cliché, they’d called it. They hated that it ended with a sunset.

She took a pen and wrote by hand, bright blue ink sticking out like a moving flag against the black and white printed paper.

“Loved the images in this story,” she wrote. “The last one of them hopping into the sunset will stay with me forever.”

She looked at the stack of papers beside her. It would take all night for her to do this for each one. They wouldn’t pay her for that.

But it would be worth it to someone, she told herself as she picked up the next sheet.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 11:24 AM  Comments (2)  
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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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Words

I’d like to think none of my words have gone unheard.

Even the ones I tucked away into files I never intended to open have slipped away when I wasn’t looking.

They’ve found their way into tattoo parlors, where the artist, shaking his head as he inks “trash” on the customer’s body as requested, is surprised when he finishes to see that he’s written respect yourself instead.

Some have stopped violence, finding their way to a man who’s shouting at a stranger, fists clenched, ready to taste blood. He finds himself tasting the word peace instead, and he thinks it tastes like his mother’s blueberry pie.

The daredevil words, like fearless and powerful have gone on adventures, holding on to the bellies of planes, letting go and skydiving when they’ve reached their highest point. They split open when they hit the ground, then put themselves back together letter by letter and do it all again. The exception is powerful — I wrote that so it’ll never come apart.

Even words I’ve hidden away in diaries written at thirteen years old have gotten out, coming alive again by finding the diaries of those who are girls today, giving them words for their feelings so if they can’t hurl them at the world, at least they’ve written them somewhere.

Some words wrap themselves around the ankles of children who pass, like stray kittens who have found a home. Many are too big for the children, like oversized hand-me-down pants, but they’ll grow into them eventually. Like the little girl whose teachers won’t let her speak. The word oppression enters her mind, and she doesn’t know what it means but suddenly she understands how it feels. Her mother is surprised to find queer girls’ stories among the bedtime tales, but she reads them anyway, wondering why they haven’t been told before.

There are words that steal away into the night. Some settle into the craters of the moon, finding their way into the dreams of anyone who gazes above before sleeping. There are words that add light to the stars, and hop upon falling stars to give words to wishes.

My words bleed ink through paper, and rip through pages. Even the words I mean to keep to myself won’t let me be so selfish. They set out to fall upon the ears that need to hear them most.

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 9:53 AM  Comments (2)  
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Another world possible through… poetry?

On art and social change:

I’ve always had this crazy idea that I’m gonna somehow change the world through writing. If not through my writing itself, then at least by helping others find their voices and discover the power of words.

I’ve also always thought, of course, that I’d have to be a little bit crazy to think this way. Of all the various kick-ass ways of going about creating social change, could sitting down and writing really be counted among them?

Some folks at the U.S. Social Forum certainly seemed to think so. Many led workshops sharing their wisdom and inspirational stories surrounding creativity, the arts and social change. There was much to learn, not only about creative practices but also about where I stand on their place in social justice movements.

So I’m going to start small. Rather than try to answer the bigger question of whether I believe in art as social change, I’ll begin with what I know. This I believe:

  • We can speak through writing when our voices are lost. Whether we’re forcibly silenced or held back by our own lack of confidence, writing can help us find and project our voices when we don’t have any other way.
  • Anybody can write (shh…). Now don’t let this one get out, because writing is supposed to be my thing, but I believe that anybody can write. No amount of talent or training (or lack thereof) matters when it’s just you and the pen, and you’re writing from the heart, telling your story like only you could. Don’t believe me? Get in touch with me, and I’ll help you dare to try.
  • Writing has made change before. There are countles examples from history, and I really believe that the world would not be the same if not for writers like the Beat poets or those of the Harlem Renaissance, who insisted on telling their stories in ways the world had never heard. If nothing else, the literary arts can capture a movement from the point of view of those involved, so that their stories will not be forgotten.
  • Writing can help communities heal, reflect and grow. I believe that simply by telling our stories, we can shake off pain and shame, celebrate our lives and communities, and learn to love ourselves and each other. Facing injustice, being constantly put down and out, we can feel stuck, and become unwilling or believe we are unable to take on the hard work of making change, even if it is for our own good. Celebrating and sharing with our communities through writing can help remind us that we’re worth it, deserving of a world in which we can thrive as we are.

So, I guess the answer is yes, I am crazy. Crazy enough to believe in the power of writing to create social change, and to not find the idea so crazy after all. What do you think? How do you see art as social change?

——————————————————————————————————–

I must write,

for I find the call of the blank page,

like the call to revolution,

irresistible.

Poetry I’m not supposed to write

I’m back from the U.S. Social Forum. And I’m not a poet, but this is what came out when reflecting on the experience this morning:

—————————————————————————————————

This Isn’t a Poem About Justice

This isn’t a poem about justice

I’m not supposed to write about wild and out there things

            that you can’t get your hands on

                        that might not really exist.

But if you promise not to call me crazy

I’ll tell you in a whisper

            that I felt justice.

            it was soaking the earth

                        in warm rain falling

                        and lightning bolts striking the Detroit River

                                    lighting up the sky

                                    like the eyes of a hopeful child.

Promise not to laugh

when I say I looked into the soul of a stranger

            Our eyes met,

                        our energies passed between us

                        like the shared tremble of an earthquake.

            No need to ask did you feel that?

                        I can’t call him a stranger anymore.

Promise you won’t turn me in

when I speak of bonds formed

            on darkened dance floors

                        between banners calling for revolutions

            I’m pretty sure what I did

                        violated some part of the Patriot Act

                        and if they lock me up

                                    and torture me

                                    and ask what I know about terror

            I’ll say her lips tasted like cinnamon.

We spit justice into microphones

            spilled it from paint cans onto canvases

                        wore it on t-shirts

                                    and fried it into foods,

                                    so it burned our tongues

                                    and slipped from our lips when we spoke.

I say justice is alive as the red rose of so many poems

            but its scent thickens the air like the heat of the sun

                        and its thorns are inescapable.

Published in: on June 28, 2010 at 9:20 AM  Comments (6)  
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Writing my way into history

There are many reasons why I write. I could call this part one of an epic series on the subject. But one reason that has been coming up quite a bit lately is to make a place for me and for others whose stories are often erased from history.

One of the recent events that inspired this post was Sunday’s Imagine How Free We Can Get: A Radical Queer Walking Tour of the Mission. It was part of the Queer Arts Festival, started at Modern Times Bookstore and was led by the wonderful Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Leah showed us vibrant corners of San Francisco’s Mission District that were rich with queer history. The only question was, why was this all a part of marginally recorded history? Why were so many of these stories, of places and events like the Catacombs and the Valencia lesbian stroll, made up of distant memories and attempts to recover what has been erased in the writing of history?

I’ve struggled with this issue a lot, feeling like I want to make an impact on a world in which the stories of people like me, women and queer people and people of color, are often silenced. So, though I’m not always consciously thinking “this will go down in history” as I write, I know that on some level each word I put on the page is driven by my need to put out the stories that won’t always be heard. They may not make it into history books or the canon of literature or any other realm usually dominated by heterosexual white men, but they’ll be out there, and the very presence of these stories in the world will declare that they matter. So that someday, maybe someone who has been told that her voice is unimportant will learn otherwise. Once we let our words be heard, they cannot be erased. They’ll keep echoing through our bones for as long as our communities’ hearts are beating.

This is adapted from part of a more personal piece I write in a Writing Ourselves Whole workshop:

I worry so much that my voice won’t be heard.

So then I write a stupid poem.

Go outside and read it aloud, look around and see people who don’t care about the world beyond their big toe.

Go home and throw away my stupid poem. They didn’t hear a thing.

Saw a house once where queer women used for fuck each other, just meet every Friday and fuck, as their way of getting their voices heard.

Had to put sound-proof glass in the windows, the neighbors heard their voices so much.

There’s a young white family living there now. Soundproof glass keeps the neighbors from hearing the wife’s cries at night.

It’s like I want my voice recorded as a part of history, but I’m afraid as soon as I speak, my words will go down into history’s basement, where queer voices, where voices of color can so easily be erased.

It’s like I’d rather not have them say, “this is what she said,” but “Listen up. She’s still speaking.”

How can I write in permanent ink? Ink that echoes, that trembles, that shakes so much it can’t stay on the page, but goes on and on to reach ears that haven’t even been born yet. To say, “Hey, baby. Someday you’ll feel different too, and that’s all right.”

Because if my words matter, then so do theirs. So does everyone who’s ever been silenced. Historians have erasers they use as weapons, but they’ve yet to meet the weapons of my words. If my words matter, then so do the voices of all those queer women who lifted their voices in ecstasy each Friday night, and so does the voice of she who cries within those walls now.

Once I was afraid to lift my voice. Today I say, Listen up. I’m still speaking. I never got to finish telling my story.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:35 AM  Comments (1)  
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