For a few years now, working on a collection of epistolary poems, addressed to my estranged father, I’ve been pronouncing epistles like “epistols.”
It is a vulnerable making process to write to a father who has been absent from my life for over three decades—an absence that has required me to listen, and therefore write, in a new way. The collection, dear Gerald, is me talking to the silence, out of it, around it, but always aware that it is there, unknown and important and a critical part of my personal history.
I know a smattering of details about my father, Gerald. His father and brother were in the police force, and from my research on Guyana, the police force is a paramilitary arm of the government. The “epistol” evokes this family history. Maybe I need a pistol on this journey; one that’s loaded with words and unexpressed emotion, and when the trigger is pulled, my voice is liberated. Ringing through the air, announcing I am here. There is a report. Father, do you hear me?
My mother reminds me
of a time when I bumped
into you on Nostrand Ave.
I was near graduating
elementary school and
don’t remember this.
Not a beard or brow,
style of shirt doesn’t
come to mind, how
you said hello moved
northbound with traffic.
Where you stood, blank
and scent of curry.
My eyes look
and in looking
they find nothing and
that nothing is everything.
Musk and incense,
knotty-dread chewing bark—
knock-off handbags, bootleg
held inside his coat. He’s
tempted to find my need,
so he can make a sail.
Is it true they deported
you back to Guyana
for killing a man?
Your countrymen risked
their lives, stowed away
in refrigerators to American
land to stand on.
When I tally kerchiefs
of your kin, flagging pockets,
heads, antennae clearing waves,
it must have been a sweet
conflagration that took
the avenue to ash.
I’m a woman born to widow
and eat veils. I herd my self
through smoke and bells,
sky-sure when seeing my departed.
bell hooks writes in Talking Back that
“Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice.”
My mother asked me the day of my 33rd birthday if I wanted to write my father in Guyana, his homeland, where he was deported for involvement in a criminal case. She had an address. My father is part real and part mythology for me—he’s made up from a pastiche of stories, collected from others. What to say to a man who is my father and my imagination?
dear Gerald is biomythography, a term coined by poet Audre Lorde to describe her book Zami. Ted Wharton describes biomythography as “weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form, a style of composition that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.” The intertexuality of the genre provided an approach for translating the degrees of silences nestled inside me, the preverbal unsaid and things I’m afraid to say. There are typographical poems, prose is used, free verse and formal, and references to the Torah, Obama’s 2012 election speech, popular culture, mensuration, oh my.
Addressing these poems to my father, a patriarchal and absent figure—the model for all our governance—is an act of empowering myself and holding my lived experiences as universal truths. I put myself at the center of the narrative, as well as those like me, and I’m transformed by this shift in consciousness. I declare my presence with the force that made abandonment possible. I’ve learned my power. Father, you will see me. I will speak in metaphors, lyrically, subject-verbs in disagreement, from the vestiges of English creole you left in my three-year-old ears.
I’m one of those people who find letters on the sidewalk, left behind on public transportation, read them and keep them as if they were written to me. The letters are always addressed to lovers: making a plea to stay, making a case for leaving. It’s terribly romantic, even in how those letters aligned themselves with the literary tradition of Romanticism—colloquial language and powerful feelings. I never found the final draft of a letter, instead what I got were missives with paragraphs crossed out, no signature, and the writer was very clear in her emotion. She wasn’t concerned, as much I was with dear Gerald, about how to translate these emotive responses into poetic form. For the following, excerpted poem, “rain,” I played with the idea of how to make a poem cry. There’s something very sentimental about that, but I wanted each drop, each fragment, to be it’s own unit of meaning; it’s own tear:
In Talking Back, hooks, brings up the issue of audience:
“To make the liberated voice, one must confront the issue of audience—we must know to whom we speak. When I began writing my first book, Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism, the initial completed manuscript was excessively long and very repetitious. Reading it critically . . . my words were written to explain, to placate, to appease. They contained the fear of speaking that often characterizes the way those in a lower position within a hierarchy address those in a higher position of authority. . . . Writing this book was for me a radical gesture. It not only brought me face-to-face with this question of power; it forced me to resolve this question, to act, to find my voice, to become that subject who could place herself and those like her at the center of feminist discourse. I was transformed in consciousness and being.”
My father, as an audience, called up fear. A fear of rejection, primarily for being a queer woman in an interracial relationship, and I would hit up against that anxiety when I started to write about my romances. I have a natural impulse to share, unless I’m fearful in some way, and therefore don’t feel safe. It became all those homophobic voices I heard, especially from those closest to me like, “We don’t need to know who you sleep with,” yet all around us children and the heteros that made them. The same kind of anxiety when talking about getting my period—the feminine/queer details of my life felt taboo and there was the protective urge to quiet them. When you speak up or speak about yourself, you talk back to all the narratives that have mastered you, so that you can be centered in a voice of your own authority. I countered the censors with “What is there to lose? He’s been out of your life longer than he’s been in it;” as well as made connections through cultural and personal history, using what little I knew about him to mend the foundation of our relationship. In the end, what took priority was creating an honest portrait of a poet and a woman.
Why do I partner up with women who can’t find their things?
These aren’t things they seldom use—these are objects for the daily.
Keys and wallets, agendas and phones. My things have their places
and I’ve a strategy for bringing them back into my possession.
If I need her help, that’s the final option; and what irks me
is finding her things in the open, in her jacket she wore
the night before, or on the table, peeking from underneath
the cable bill.
All their stuff in nooks, spread and sprawled, commands attention,
requires care, and they can’t keep their eyes on it. These fatherless
women I love, my mother included, on the daily make their selves lost
to be found and I retrieve what’s missing, which reminds them they
haven’t been abandoned.
I don’t entrust them to find what belongs to me. I don’t expect them
to get stressed out, neck tight, and shallow breaths to look for what’s mine.
I resent their empty hands when I pretend these expectations don’t exist,
and I ask, Are you my daddy?
Send me your “epistols”: I know there are others who are estranged from their fathers, who are bastards, forgotten, or who have lost a father who was never present, and I want your letters in exchange for a copy of dear Gerald. Seriously. Your “epistols” will be inspiration for a second collection, which I’m considering to title: Who’s Your Daddy? Visit http://atoguyana.wordpress.com/dear-gerald-letter-submissions/ to learn about how to submit.
ARISA WHITE is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon. One of the founding editors for HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA, she is a Kore Biters’ columnist at Kore Press. A native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her wife, Arisa is an advisory board member for Flying Object and a BFA Creative Writing faculty member at Goddard College. She was awarded a 2013-14 Cultural Funding Grant from the City of Oakland to create the libretto and score for Post Pardon: The Opera, and received, in that same year, an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to fund the dear Gerald, A to Guyana, project, which takes a personal and collective look at absent fathers.
“We are over the moon with joy to announce Rebecca Hoogs as the contest judge of this spring’s poetry contest! Rebecca has published books of poetry on subjects ranging from language play and myth revision, to the self-portrait and personal understanding Such books include Grenade (2005) and Self Storage(2013). She has also closely examined the role of the love poem in Jeremy Richards’ “How to Write Love Poems.”” — A.K. Padovich, StS’s Poetry Editor
Rebecca Hoogs is the author of a chapbook, Grenade (2005), and her poems have appeared in Poetry, AGNI, Crazyhorse,Zyzzyva, The Journal, Poetry Northwest,The Florida Review, and others. She is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony (2004) and Artist Trust of Washington State (2005). She is the Director of Education Programs and the curator and host of the Poetry Series for Seattle Arts & Lectures and has taught poetry in Rome for The University of Washington. Read Rebecca’s work here.
We are looking for poetry that formalistically, stylistically, and linguistically engages with the feminist world in some way. Please send us up to 5 poems (not to exceed 10 pages) and a cover letter, through our Submission Manager. The reading fee is $15 and can be paid through our Submission Manager.
All entrants will receive a free copy of our Spring 2015 issue.
Deadline: October 15, 2014
Filed under: Announcements, Contests, Fiction, News, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Starring Local Feminists
Like many people who love school (or have residual nightmares of it), for me, January 1st has never felt like the start of a new year. Rather it’s September, the time of backpacks and book buying, that signals a fresh start. Whether I’m a student, a teacher, or working in a non-academic job, the new school year signals a time for reflection. How do I want to be this year?
Now, as I begin my first autumn as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak, I wonder, too: what kind of feminist do I want to be? Initially, answers are easy. I want to be a strong feminist. I want to treat others—women who are and are not self-identifying feminists, men, myself—equally and with respect. I want to challenge the patriarchy and stand up for equality. I want to spread the message of feminism with both gentleness and strength, through words, actions, and my own thoughts. I believe that feminism, though often made up of individual choices, is also a communal paradigm, movement, and experience. As with empathy, generosity, and random acts of loving kindness, individual feminism—my feminism, your feminism—increases through being a shared experience. It can inspire others, make them think. That is what I want to do: I want to be a “good, strong feminist,” to inspire others to consider or adopt or increase their own feminist lives. I want So to Speak to do that.
But here’s the reality: all through high school, Septembers passed and I never stopped procrastinating on my Spanish homework. New Januaries turn to Februaries and I never get around to eating more kale. And I know that, most likely, October of this year will enter with its orange leaves and swollen pumpkins and I will still be struggling to be the kind of feminist that I want to be.
I’ve identified as a feminist for going on fifteen years, since high school. I can speak of Helene Cixous and Simone deBeauvoir; I support pro-choice causes; I feel comfortable with the notion that one can be feminist and be a stay-at-home mom, and also that one can be a feminist and burn her bra. The concept of what feminism is, and how open it can be, is not especially troubling to me. What is troubling is doing it: turning beliefs and intellectual knowledge into action and attitude.
I am a feminist, but the other day I still thought nastily that another woman shouldn’t wear her short-shorts because of her body type. I routinely make stereotypical assumptions about what men want women to be—agreeable, needless, pretty objects—which are disrespectful and condescending toward all genders. I catch myself thinking that my female gym instructor is bossy and annoying, while accepting a similarly tough male instructor as motivational. But I want to be better. I want to not have these thoughts, and the first step to not having them is acknowledging that I do.
My point is that being a feminist is a journey. It’s filled with obstacles and struggles. Feminism as a movement struggles, and individual feminists struggle within their own minds. We are all on a journey to be better feminists and better people. As a new (school) year starts, I realize that that’s what I really want to be: someone who takes steps on her journey.
That’s also what I want So to Speak to do. Stories of empowerment and success are always welcome, but so are stories of struggle. I invite you, readers and writers, to share with us your stories of setbacks in your feminist lives. Perhaps you’ve taken steps to overcome your problems. Perhaps you’re just acknowledging them for the first time and beginning your walk toward being the type of feminist, the type of person, that you want to be.
So to Speak is a feminist journal, which to me means that at its core it is a human journal. It is a place that celebrates humanity in its various forms—the beautiful and good, the ugly and difficult. I look forward to hearing your stories and engaging with your art, however it explores the complexities of life, and wherever you are on your own journey.
Our reading period is currently in full swing. Click here for submission guidelines for our blog, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry categories. And don’t forget to enter our Spring 2015 Nonfiction Contest!
Filed under: News, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Summer Online Issue, Uncategorized, Women's Health
As Americans we like to rage over the outrageousness of news like this summer’s case of a six-year-old in India who was raped by school staff–a security guard and a gym teacher–while on school grounds. It’s a safe kind of rage–much like pretending that longer hems and looser silhouettes protect us from sexual violence, we can huff and puff over treacherous things happening to poor, uneducated, usually dark-skinned folks in some “third” world nation unlucky in their lack of, well, America.
Yet, as a country, we’re still debating whether “no” really means “no.” Especially if the two individuals in question have a sexual history together; especially if she or he “technically” said ”yes” at some point during the act. Sadly, educated young people and university officials in campuses across the nations are apparently among the really confused still. In fact, this past May, the U.S. Dept. of Education named almost 60 schools which investigations of sex crimes had come under close scrutiny.
In California at least, the question of what consent is and isn’t could be cleared up once and for all as soon as September. The state’s senate has passed SB967 and if the governor signs off on it, college students will have to have true ”affirmative consent” before getting on with getting “some.”
“Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” — SB967
Until then, I leave you with Laura Passin’s “In Stubenville,” published in our online issue this summer. (Haven’t seen our summer issue yet? Click here. Ready to submit your own feminist poetry, prose, or visual art? Click here.)
They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead,
because someone pissed on her.
—Michael Nodianos, laughing
The boys have been boys.
They’ve gone to boy jail.
The girl, they thought as good as dead.
You can do anything to the dead:
we only remember them when they are useful.
But the dead girl was not
dead—she was a girl
instead. To be a girl at a party in Ohio
is to be as good as dead.
The boys will be boys
until they are men.
The girls will be dead.
The girls are anatomical
you dissect the body, here is where
the flesh splits clean open.
Here is where the heart used to beat.
Here are the pearls that were her eyes.
The girl was dead.
The girl was a thing
that once, if you looked at it
from just the right angle,
may have been a person. Not a
boy. The girl was slung
and carried, hands and feet,
The girl woke up naked, shoeless,
in a basement. Surrounded.
The boys were shocked: they had held her
funeral. The boys had been boys.
The girl raised herself up, Lazarus,
She told us what it is like:
It is like being a girl
where boys are boys.
It is any basement,
Filed under: Announcements, Art, Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Uncategorized
As of today, August 20th, and until October 25th, we’ll be accepting submissions for our print spring issue. Look into your feminist archives for your best work of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or visual art, put it through a last round of tough love, and submit!
We know you know this but let us show you our love with a friendly reminder that we recommend reading past issues for a feel of what makes our feminist hearts swell and minds soar. If you simply cannot endure waiting for your subscription to kick in, may I recommend our fourth annual summer issue, gratis and online for your reading pleasure.
Most important, take a moment to look over our Submit page where you’ll find guidelines for all genres, including the So to Speak blog.
Now begins the waiting game! Happy submission season!