Stepping Out

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“Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.” Not the type of advice I would have expected from a mentor. Yet, that is what one of my mentors told me. I had enrolled in a certificate program at a nearby college after earning my master’s degree. I had begun to write poetry, yet had placed most of it in a desk drawer. I still wrote in notebooks, though, something I had been doing since childhood. But I didn’t see the writing as being central to my life. I knew I needed a steady job, one that paid a consistent wage.

 

I had grown up working class and Black in Brooklyn, New York, in the 50’s and 60’s. My father, trained as a carpenter, worked full time at a lumber exchange terminal in Greenpoint during the week and built bookshelves, cabinets, cabinets and various wood structures for relatives, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and friends of relatives, friends of neighbors, etc. evenings after dinner and on weekends. My mother worked in the public high schools with students and their families to help prepare and support them in reaching the goal of college admission. With these role models and those of my friends’ parents, I couldn’t help but gravitate toward, and worry about finding a full time job post graduation.

 

I’d held two or more part time jobs as I worked my way through graduate school, and knew it was time to find more sustaining and sustainable work. The dean of my college was surprised when we first met. “You have two part time jobs? Most people struggle with just one job!” Well, most people were not African American New Yorkers raised by two southerners who had grown up poor during the Great Depression. I was not most people. I am still not most people. I’ve learned to face this about myself.

 

I’ve never quite fit in with the demographic that I supposedly belong to, which is more accurately, the one that I am often placed in by others. This demographic placement is, of course, based on my appearance. Growing up within my nuclear family this meant I needed to suppress some of my ideas, my true feelings and my opinions. In other words, if I wanted to respond honestly to some things, I had to hide those responses. No freedom there. That was what I learned to do to survive.

 

So, I grew into an angry young woman. Except that I didn’t know I was angry because I wasn’t allowed to express anger. So, I turned the anger in on myself and it stayed buried beneath the surface during my teens and most of my 20’s. An angry teen isn’t an unusual occurrence. A teen with buried anger probably isn’t unusual either. Around my parents and the other adults in my life, my anger was hidden so well, that it was also hidden from me. Perhaps it wasn’t only my independence that drew me to hang out with boys who became my closest friends in high school. They were comfortable with anger.

 

I had plenty of help with suppressing my anger from the patriarchal behavior that my family and community operated with. The anger was buried pretty deeply and I didn’t discover it until I participated in a workshop, which used strategies and exercises from acting to support people in recovering their self-esteem. I thought that I would never survive the time that I felt ready to explore anger. I don’t now remember the details of the strategy that I was taught and which I used for this exploration. What I do remember is how much lighter I felt once I had come out the other side of the tunnel. Let’s call it the anger tunnel, since that’s what it felt like. Somehow, I emerged from the other side a lot lighter and able to laugh. My fear of expressing the forbidden emotion had encouraged me to dance around the anger until I could no longer stand it. There was nothing left to do but dive into the anger tunnel. Looking back on this now, I see just how brave I was to walk away from the socialization I had experienced and recover more of myself.

 

I discovered that I was angry with myself for holding back, despite the fact that I had done so in order to survive. It has taken me years to appreciate my strong survival instincts, which I believe are due to the excellent genes I’ve inherited. My parents, grandparents and all of my greats could not afford to express their anger outwardly as their lives could have been snuffed out as a result of doing so. The social systems of Jim Crow and slavery guaranteed this fact.

 

So, this no longer angry young woman decided to leave a private sector job and return to school for an interdisciplinary degree that merged religion, psychology and philosophy. She did this in her late 20’s and she was happy reading, writing papers, reflecting on what I was reading and what I experienced and doing research. And in the mix of all of her scholarship, she began to write in verse. This was a complete surprise and a thoroughly new experience. But when I finished my program and I graduated, I stuffed the verse into a desk drawer. I didn’t take it seriously and I decided to return to school again. But this return turned out to be not a good fit. This led to the conversation with my mentor that began this essay. The conversation during which he said to me: “Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.”

 

Poetry allows me to do just that. I step out there and make a fool of myself. I have no idea where I will end up as I begin to write. I just follow the stream or words and return to it later to pull out the words, themes and sounds that ring for me, the ones that I am intrigued by or drawn to. There is a lot of revision and wondering about what I intend to say, where I am going with a line or a stanza. The sense of wonder is one that I revisit over and over again.

 

To be honest, writing prose also allows me to “step out there and make a fool of [myself],” too. It brings me back to the writing I once did as a book and film critic, curriculum developer and education research writer. Writing prose allows me to stretch out in a different way as a writer. It reminds me that I have some flexibility and range as a writer. And that is like taking a good yoga class or having a fun session at the gym.

 

Yes, I really do find going to the gym fun (but still need to do it more often). And most of all, I am buoyed, nurtured and fed by the practice of writing. I am going to reconsider and more accurately call this work that takes care of me, in ways that nothing else ever has, the discipline of writing. Writing requires discipline and it is a discipline. And I am grateful for it.

 

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A Death

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As I was waking up, I was thinking that he was dead. He had died before Christmas, and he had died alone in Queens, in a home. I wondered why there had been no funeral, why I had no memory of one. I thought of his friends and wondered why I couldn’t remember any of their familiar faces and see them dressed up in their dark suits for him.

 

I wondered where our family things that he had placed in storage, were. I wondered whether his landlord had had to clear out his apartment. I knew I hadn’t done it; I’d never seen his apartment.

 

I lay there for a few minutes, turned on my side toward the windows and looked at the growing light through the blinds. I blinked several times. I thought about the winter holidays and I didn’t remember anything about his presence during them.

 

And after a few minutes, I realized that he was not dead. He was still alive and whatever dream I’d had was so powerful that my reality had shifted to a time after his death that had not even happened.

 

I’ve been reflecting on this dream off and on today and I’ve come to the conclusion that the dream was not about my brother, but about a system that persists in making him disappear, and from making me disappear as well. This system perpetuates dismissal, disrespect, silencing, demonization, and marginalization. It makes repeated attempts to make people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and the disabled small and insignificant. It has at its roots the desire to make people disappear through repeated attempts to limit their lives and to silence them.

 

I have lived in this system for six decades, and I have come to learn and understand that its survival has depended on my beliefs that I am not worthy and I will never have an opportunity to rest until I am dead. Its survival depends upon the belief that I will always have to push against the downward pressure of this system that was not designed with my living freely and breathing fully in mind. Three fifths of a white man did not include the descendants of enslaved men and women.

 

It is difficult to live within a system that exists because it regularly satisfies its urges to oppress. Those who are oppressed have to work consistently hard to free their minds, bodies and souls. As Bob Marley wrote “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but our self can free our minds/ Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?/Cause all I ever had/ Redemption songs ” (Redemption Song). Singing is breathing; it is inspiration, and expiration. One of the Freedom Singers said that even if people working during the civil rights movement couldn’t talk together, they could breathe together through singing together. We need to keep singing together and we need to keep writing together.

 

An intuitive and gifted massage therapist, with whom I have worked for several years, recently told me that I haven’t been getting enough oxygen. She encouraged me to pay attention to my breathing and make sure that I exhale completely.

 

I have witnessed my mother’s death, the result of a long illness, over the past year. I cared for my mom for nearly a decade and her decline and death have been enough to take my breath away. Being a caregiver and care manager altered my breathing, I’m sure.

 

I’m also sure that the high profile deaths and videos of so many Black people, such as Rolando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the many other children, women and men killed in connection with law enforcement haven’t helped me to breathe fully, either. Systematic killing and incarceration of Black bodies is an American practice that is not new. What is new is the technology that allows us to view what is disturbing, needs to be brought to light, and historic.

I have witnessed the 2016 U. S. presidential election and its aftermath, which continues to and beyond this moment. The events of the past 48 hours have been breathtaking, to say the least. Oppression is relentless, sometimes subtle, at other times blatant and always pervasive. Many individuals persist with their work toward freedom despite this. Many writers persist in their work toward freedom despite this. Every idea birthed and every word written is an act of resistance, an act of freedom, an act of bravery, and an act of uncovering something valuable for emancipation from an oppressive system.

 

Lately, I have been listening to the soundtrack from the play “Hamilton.” I hear layers of meaning in the lyrics that go a lot deeper for me than I originally thought. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time, why do you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time,” sing sisters Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler and other characters throughout the play.

 

Apparently the founding father who had been born a bastard, who became a penniless orphan, an immigrant, and who was a driven man who feverishly and fervently worked toward the revolution that eventually birthed what is now called America. He was a white man who created the roots of the financial system we now live with and he married into wealth in order to secure his status as he had a low status as a poor immigrant bastard. He had a keen mind and writing skills that were sharp. And he was driven I am most interested in his tendency to write like he was running out of time. I feel as if I am running out of time, like we are all running out of time.

 

My brother is not dead and I am not dead, but the systems that have been constructed to diminish, marginalize and extinguish our humanity have been unearthed and are in full view and the entire world is watching. Every breath I take and every word I write pushes back against this hurtful, hateful, corrupt and bankrupt system and leads to its dissolution. I must get on with it.

 

But I can’t do this alone. I need my allies to work with me. We must all get on with the work of singing the chains off and singing freedom into being.

 

 

 

 

Well-RED at Works/San Jose

 

On Tuesday January 10th I will be featured at Well-RED,  a monthly reading series in San Jose, which is a collaboration between Poetry Center San Jose and Works/San Jose. Works/San Jose is a gallery space, and I very  much look forward to be surrounded by art!

I will be reading with the fine writer Dane Cervine. Poet and writer Robert Pesich is the curator and host. Here is more information:

Works/San Jose

365 South Market Street
downtown San José

on the Market Street edge of
the San José Convention Center

 

Doors open at 6:30pm and performance begins at 7:00pm.
Affordable wine, beer and soda.
Open mic will follow the performance.

Admission: $2 Suggested Donation; No one turned away.

We hope to see you there!

Winter

This evening, the melody to “Winter in America” by Gil Scott-Heron began to play in my head. I found a version on YouTube and I’ve been playing it and listening more intently than I ever have to the lyrics, some of which follow:

“Yeah, and the people know, people know it’s Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to save,

Save your soul, Lord knows

From Winter in America”

I’ve been working on a poem about the “elephant in the room,” those things that are large and almost engulfing us, and yet we avoid acknowledging them, talking about them, sharing with one another that we see, feel and hear them. And something about it being “winter in America” and “nobody knows what to save” are anything but an elephant in the room for many of us these days. One of my mentors has encouraged me to keep going, to write the poem. And it’s not an easy poem to write. And this evening, I am once again putting one foot in front of the other, listening to Gil Scott-Heron and writing about that elephant.

Gil Scott-Heron begins the song with these lyrics:

“From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffalo who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain
Looking for the rain”

 

 

 

13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival at Berkeley City College – May 16th

I am both excited and honored to be one of the featured poets at this annual poetry festival held this year on Saturday May 16th from 11 am – 5 pm at Berkeley City College.

Many thanks to poets Sharon Coleman and MK Chavez for herding the cats and handling publicity.

There will be readings, publishers, poetry books, and lots of hometown pride! You won’t want to miss it.

Poet and activist Rafael Jesus Gonzalez will be honored for a lifetime of poetry and social justice.

The poster is gorgeous, don’t you think?

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Not a new poem for not entirely new situations

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Lizard

Lizard said, “It pays to use camouflage and observe carefully.” His tongue glittered in the light as he spoke and eyed me from the other side of the boulder. He teaches me that stillness pays and moving quickly when necessary is crucial, but the best thing to do in the city or in the country, is to blend in with your surroundings.

Sometimes, men and women in dark uniforms eye me suspiciously. My height, skin color and unisex, loose-fitting clothing are often identical to the description of the person they’re looking for, except that I have breasts. It is dark outside, so they say it is hard for them to tell that I’m not the perpetrator they’re looking for.

 My tongue shoots out in flames, quickly licking the air before the blue uniform in the patrol car sees it. I fold into the brick building on the corner of Alcatraz and Telegraph. My skin turns crumbly reddish brown and I freeze.

My poem “Lizard” appears in the anthology, New Poets of the American West, Many Voices Press, 2010. I thought it appropriate to post it on my blog at this time.

Far too many have not and are not able to blend into their surroundings or do whatever it is that would ensure their  safety and survival as they are hunted, ignored, devalued and stereotyped. This is my offering to them and to all.