It’s that time, right? Red rocks, cactus margaritas, whatever signifies vacation to any of you. I suspect what counts as vacation depends on where you’re from, what media you consume, and what you can afford.
This poem, like my other Mustang Sally poems, is a persona piece, one in which I get to try out an alternate life where those conditions are somewhat different for me. As Sally does, I came from a Midwestern blue-collar town where racial and class tensions significantly overlapped. I took the name, “Mustang Sally,” from the old Motown hit because, in spite of (because of?) the racial difference, Motown music has always resonated with me. The industrial world, the class values, the family stuff all sounded a lot more like home than the farm life idealized by the country music of my youth. In my poems, Mustang Sally is a trailer-trash white girl, with origins not so different from my own.
The salient difference ultimately being money. The combination of my scholarships and my folks’ hard-won savings paid my way into the gentrified existence I now enjoy. And I’m aware almost daily of differences my own child takes for granted. The genesis of the Mustang Sally poems is often in those points of class difference.
This poem, “Mustang Sally Takes a Vacation,” though, springs from similarities between me and my alter ego. I’d like to think whoever I’d have been either in this life or the one I’d have put together without the money to leave home, the comforts of sunshine and alcohol, the bewilderment of connection and the loss of it, the curiosity about a larger life would all still be part of the deal.
As a feminist, I value the awareness, the politicizing, of such differences in class, race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and any similarities that might crack or underscore those differences. The examination of such issues forms part of my work as a writer, as a citizen, as a life partner, and as a parent. While I think it’s problematic to borrow an icon out of African-American culture as a namesake for my alter ego, and I think it’s problematic to be a married heterosexual with a literary persona who indulges in the occasional girl crush, I hope such blurrings of identity can be seen as boundary crossings, not boundary violations, as me writing in who I’m not while I live out who I am. Perhaps, too, it’s a measure of how much Motown shaped my imaginative life growing up and how much feminism, in its many manifestations, has shaped my imaginative life as a woman.
Food for thought. So, I’m stepping down from the soapbox now, and wishing you all a great vacation this summer, whatever form it takes!
I was recently notified that a piece of writing I had submitted months ago to So to Speak would be published in the summer online issue. There are things about my submission which had led to an initial rejection, and I am unaware of what internal decision-making had been performed which resulted in the work’s final acceptance. Perhaps they simply like the work. I am also, considering my background, uneasy about broaching this news prior to the publication’s actual appearance online; prior training in hesitation, prior places and types of employment, prior promises of love and adoration, all lead me now to suspicion.
I raise this topic for an entirely different reason, however: So to Speak is a ‘feminist’ publication with university staff and funding and support, and that may or may not mean many things. I was invited by the publication’s contact person to complete and submit an ‘interview’ form that would also be published. I was excited at that prospect, less so than the selection of a piece of mine potentially being published, but excited at the possibility of replying in ‘rant mode’ to a list of things some anonymous interviewer might ask of me. There would be no, “What’s your favorite color, Mandy?” questions; and certainly none of the questions repeated to me over and over while working as an adult sex site chat model, none of which I will repeat. I took a quick look at the survey questionnaire, and paused. I paused beyond the required submission for publication date. I thought about the implications of the venue, of the questionnaire, and what I would say in answer.
As a ‘person,’ there are things about me which I suppose might classify me as ‘feminist.’ This is a condition of mine, and frequently reflected in my writings; it’s hard to explain, but the point, I think, is that I am not convinced that I am classifiable as belonging properly to any category. I once had the statistical universe of behaviors and combined attributes of the sapien species described to me thus:
“Picture an aquarium, Mandy, filled with tiny motes of dust, each a person. There are clumps and a glowing bright swath of them running mid fluid center. Mandy, somewhere in that aquarium, where each mote is an individual, somewhere in that mix, is a mote that is you. It is not in the center mass, Mandy; it is far out on the edges, where the darkness gathers. It is, on that two-dimensional, statistical thing called ‘normal distributional curve,’ at an end where the others will always seek to destroy, for their own safety.”
Margarita Ríos-Farjat‘s, “Cafe in Pioneer Square” has a special place in my heart because it was my first: the first poem Margarita sent me, and the first I translated. I was fairly new to translation at the time, having only worked with the poetry of two other poets, and had a lot to learn then (still do, of course) about the Spanish language and its unique poetics, about poetry in general (my primary training is in fiction), and about Margarita herself. I had the fortune of meeting Margarita and her family about a year into our partnership when both of our travel itineraries happened to converge for the same weekend in Boston, but while I was translating this first poem, I knew almost nothing about her personally.
While there are different schools of thought regarding what biographical information about a poet is useful or necessary to the reading of a poem, I have always found it helpful. Especially when translating. Even fiction, told through the hand and eyes and experience of its author, is informed by the writer’s life, and poetry is usually even closer to its author than fiction. I think it is telling that this was the first poem Margarita sent me, and only now having worked through the poem as well as having met Margarita and gotten to know her do I understand why. Early in the poem, I struggled with the first line: “Five years ago I had a round afternoon.” It wasn’t an issue of the Spanish, that’s what the line says, but I didn’t know what she meant by that. Despite several other obvious (in hindsight) references in the poem, Margarita had to tell me directly in our revision process that the theme of roundness was referring to her being pregnant at the time of this memory. It wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t a language barrier, I just didn’t know Margarita well yet and didn’t understand how her family informed her writing.
Of course, once she told me that detail, everything else clicked into place, and as a poem itself, this is one of my favorites. The sensory details and imagery that Margarita creates to capture this winter afternoon are wonderful: the sky “a cotton bedspread / thick with dreams and caught upon the fingers of the winter branches” and the “clusters of lamps on each pole” glowing in the fog while she and Gabriel are warm inside the cafe. And then the poem turns, and her thoughts about life and new life and “the grace of turning in the spiral of time,” which is “sometimes difficult to discern, as in the fog” I have always found particularly insightful, and still faithful to the poem’s imagery, not waxing overly philosophical.
Sometimes the most difficult element of translation has nothing to do with language, culture, or poetics; it has to do with intention. It takes a lot of work with language, culture, and poetics to finally arrive at the point where you understand the poet’s original intent for the poem, and once you find that, then you’ve successfully translated the poem into your target language. You can run the original poem through an internet translator all you want, but there’s more to literary translation that switching between languages. You have to work your way into the poem, find and understand the heart of the work, and then work your way back out to allow the poem to reflect this understanding; this is one thing Google will never do for us.
Filed under: Poetry, Post by: Sheila M, Summer Online Issue
Start off by showing your love for our poet, Medeia Starfire!
In her shining evocation of paranoia, obsession, and oppression in relationships (in this case, a mother-child dynamic) she controls voice through writing short bursts of poems as a mother who has little control of her own. Through the mother’s conversation, it is easy, and rather uncomfortable, to feel the conflicting tensions of her anxiety and ideas about herself and world transferred onto the child. Through witnessing these uncomfortable moments, we are asked to be aware of our own treatment of people. Why do we get upset and when do we blame others for our anger? Here’s an excerpt from “Wake Up You Sleepyhead”
************Mommy did something wrong
************Mommy hates this world
************Mommy’s sorry she yelled at you
************Mommy loves you, she does
************whatever you say
“I am interested in the complicated nature of female connection. How women feel about themselves and why they feel that way often translates into how they cultivate their relationships. I am concerned with where dysfunction begins, how it grows, and the strength it takes to accept and change.”
Why is contributing to feminist literary reviews important to you?
I am who I am due to the battles fought by earlier generations: Title Nine, women’s right to vote, the work of early women cyclists to rid us of corsets. Women in the US have such freedom today, so much that I have the luxury of living and often forgetting that boundaries still exist. But things come along that remind me that the US is in ways far behind other nations, nations we eschew as oppressive to women. Take a woman presidential candidate, or even vice-presidential candidate for that matter, why should she not be able to campaign without gender even coming up? In their very existence, feminist journals bring together the voices that remind us we still have much to accomplish.
How do you think your work contributes to feminist discourse?
Honestly, I’m just trying to write good stories. If they stick with people and bring up issues that start people talking, all the better.
What does being a feminist in today’s world mean to you?
I feel being either male or female in the US today is a challenge, and it saddens me, frankly, this never-ending battle between the sexes for dominance. When did it start? When the first caveman dragged a woman into his cave by her hair? I tend to see the world in its long history, and women seem to be still suffering from the rise to power of patriarchal religions. My daughter loves to play soccer, the world sport, but if she is good enough to play after college, her options are limited. It’s interesting, really, to note the countries that have national teams and professional women’s soccer leagues and the ones that don’t. Similarly, she wants to be a doctor. Having a girl heading out into the world makes me consider how fairly the world will treat her. Being a feminist manifests itself in my daily life through my tireless work to ensure her chances are equal to a boy’s. In my fiction, it never stops surprising me.
Who are some of your feminist influences and why?
Dora Rinehart. Did you know that in 1896 she rode her bicycle on over one-hundred centuries? A century is 100 miles. And she rode that far about every third day on one of those early, wooden-wheeled bikes, mostly on dirt roads. She was always required to be accompanied by men, who were often hard pressed to keep up. Annie Londonderry, a mom, rode her bicycle around the world near the same time. These are my type of feminists because in pursuing what they loved, they forced reform. Those early cycliennes were incredible accelerators in all aspects of the women’s rights movement, from forcing common-sense apparel, to nudging out confines on chaperones, to redefining male attitudes and defining “The New Woman.” And don’t get me wrong, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are right up there too, as are all the women who have tirelessly lobbied for change. I just tend to be more like those cycliennes.
How do you interpret your relationship within the feminist movement and how do you use poetry or other art forms to represent your politics?
I have only recently considered myself a feminist writer. All my life I’ve been an athlete, especially a cyclist, and I have spent a lot of time training and competing in the company of men. Additionally, growing up, I identified with my father, who always told me I could achieve whatever I wanted to achieve―a gift really. The result: I have a very male way of thinking, am comfortable in a man’s world, and often, I don’t even recognize the limitations on women until I run into them headlong and am stunned. The survey results of VIDA, that wonderful, brave organization that supports and speaks out for women in literary arts, for example. Or heading out to teach a ski lesson and noticing in the computer that the client has requested a “pretty instructor.” My first MFA advisor at Pacific University, John Rember, told me I had a lot going on with gender in my stories, and at that point I started to understand that simply by viewing myself as an equal, by writing with a man’s orientation and sense of freedom, I push the boundaries that do, indeed, exist. My politics? I guess they’re represented in my commitment to keep writing as if those boundaries are not there.
How do you subvert, celebrate, complicate identity/gender roles, power structures in your art form?
I honestly have no idea. It’s sort of like that Far Side comic, years back, of the complex math proof filling an entire chalkboard, and step thirteen or something says, a miracle occurs. But here is a pattern I’ve noticed: whether writing a male or female character, my unconscious, the part that writes the draft, tends to look at all the complex ways society expects a particular character to behave, and then it tends to turn some aspect of that expectation on its ear. Therein lies the character’s conflict, but it can also become the reader’s conflict, because it may make him or her uncomfortable. My conscious mind isn’t smart enough to figure this out, but after it’s on the page, I often see it in an aha! moment. That moment might take months of studying and listening to the static of a story. Once, it took me two years. From there, I hone the story’s elements to best support that inversion.