Where did the poems come from? What I mean is, how did I come to be a poet? The beginning goes back to infancy.
It all started in my little bedroom on Trimble Street. We moved there before my first birthday, and we didn’t move away until I was 8 1/2, mid-way through 3rd grade. Some of my earliest memories are in that bedroom–in fact, in my crib in that bedroom. I would have been younger than two.
I had a little blue music box that my mother would wind up and play before she put me down for a nap or bedtime. When it wound down, sometimes I would fall asleep. More often, though, I would call to her and beg her to rewind it. The music was haunting and dare I say addictive! Two years ago I wrote about the music box, which I still have, and asked if anyone could identify the song it plays. Nobody could at that time, but the other day a reader found the post and told me that the music is “La Paloma,” composed in 1863 by a Spanish Basque man named Sebastian Yradier. It might be the most well-known tune in Spanish-language countries, especially Mexico!
Here is “La Paloma” (the Dove) as played by a fancier antique music box.
And here it is played as a guitar solo:
Here is my little music box:
Hearing that music over and over again was the foundation for poetry. The next layer, added over the few years before I began school, was nursery rhymes, folk songs, and picture books that used poetic devices such as rhyme and repetition. These were all found in my room. The books were not expensive–merely Little Golden Books from the grocery store. The records were little 45s played on my plastic children’s record player. Probably the biggest influence after that music box tune was the lullaby lyrics in a picture book my mother read to me: “All The Pretty Little Horses.”
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have,
All the pretty little horses.
Blacks and bays, dapples and greys,
Go to sleepy you little baby,
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby,
When you wake, you shall have,
All the pretty little horses.
There were layers after this that included a children’s poetry anthology my mother gave me, teachers who let us recite poems without analyzing them, and eventually I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poetry on a record which I found as a teen at the public library. I was mesmerized by the poem “Renascence.” Here is a recording of the poem she wrote at age 19!!!! although, alas, not recorded by Millay. I sure wish I had that library record as Millay reading it herself was phenomenal.
I know that poet XJ Kennedy wrote the following:
The goose that laid the golden egg
Died looking up its crotch
To find out how its sphincter worked.
Would you lay well? Don’t watch.
Nevertheless, now that it’s come to me what the greatest influences were in making me a poet, I can’t “unknow” them.
I’ve put my memoir on the back burner again, but feel I am so much closer with it. Now I am writing a poetry chapbook that explores the “Red Riding Hood” stories.
Did you hear or read fairy tales when you were a child (besides Disney)? If so, which ones influenced you the most?
Almost exactly a year ago I pulled The Destroyer from the Wild Unknown tarot deck. Yesterday it was time to pull another card. My life has taken some shifts this year, and I wanted to see from what angle I should examine it all.
This time I pulled another really important card: The Mother.
I love the art on this card: nest, rope/snake, cupping hand, egg, pearl. WOW!
The Mother is represented in traditional tarot by The Empress card, but in this tarot deck, The Mother is more akin to the Mother archetype. Perhaps even The Earth Mother archetype.
Positive aspects: Feminine energy and power. Benign. One’s inner mother. Of the earth. Abundance. Creation. Sustenance.
But one’s inner mother develops when a child is developing. Is your inner mother nurturing and supportive or critical and judgmental?
Why did I draw this card at this time in my life? That is what I will be exploring over the holidays. I do know that seeing this card gives me peace.
If you live in the U.S., may you have a peaceful Thanksgiving! Otherwise, make it a special (peaceful) week anyway.
Today’s post is on Tuesday instead of Monday because I am participating in a pre-publication book tour of poet Arisa White’s Who’s Your Daddy through Poetic Book Tours.
Here is a synopsis of the book
Who’s Your Daddy is a lyrical genre-bending coming-of-age tale featuring a young, queer, black Guyanese American woman who, while seeking to define her own place in the world, negotiates an estranged relationship with her father.
After my review, I will share advance praise for the book, as well as information about the author, Arisa White. Then there is a list of blog tour links, including interviews and guest posts so you can learn more about Arisa White.
This hybrid is specifically memoir, but Who’s Your Daddy? shapes itself as a prose (and lyric) poem collection. I don’t know why we don’t have more books available to us that are a long narrative told in poetry. They are rare and yet so compelling, perhaps because poem series elicit more complex mixtures of emotions from readers than linear traditional memoirs do.
What attracted me to the book before I read it was the feeling of connection (my memoir-in-progress has to do with my father’s estranged relationship with his father) and the ping of curiosity about White’s life as a “young, queer, black Guyanese[-] American woman” since I fit only one of those descriptives.
From the first page I was captivated by the story. In the first section, the writing is succinct with a smattering of specifics that bring White’s childhood to life. She imagines or fills in what she can’t remember—the ride to the hospital for her birth, what life was like in the first few years. She grows up without her father, Gerald, a married man. She does experience love from her mother and her uncles, but life is still difficult. The book skips ahead to White at the time of her post-graduate studies. She has difficulties with relationships, but manages to forge one with Mondayway. White feels there is something missing. Halfway through the book, she realizes she has been running from something.
Deep breaths open my
tight chest, and I feel how running has taken more than
given. I rub my heart with the heel of my palm, and my
heart stays voicing,
Find your father
Find what’s missing there
Find what is enough
Find yourself whole
Forgive and be forgiven
In the second half of the story, White tries to get to know her father. He has been deported back to Guyana from the U.S. for participation in a crime. White and Mondayway visit Guyana to spend time with Gerald, but also to get to know White’s roots. Her movement toward acceptance and growth is a bit back and forth which feels realistic and painful. Again, powerful words that mark another epiphany are set apart from the prose poem form:
I got her back,
who I abandoned
in his going.
she is enough.
Arisa is enough. She doesn’t need her fantasy of a father to fulfill her identity.
There is so much I could write about this book, but I just want to give you an idea of why you would want to read it. The prose poems are short. The organization is helpful, as are the brief Guyanese proverbs and quotes from thinkers. I found references to even an old standby like the Bible and Shakespeare or Eliot (the pearls that are his eyes from The Tempest or The Waste Land—I wasn’t sure which one she was referencing, maybe both). But much of the book is punctuated with more contemporary thinking, such as the context of toxic masculinity. Gerald is a tragic example of that phenomenon. In fact, near the end of the book I realized that I can’t stand Gerald. I was willing to try to get to know him “while” Arisa did, but when he continued to do harm to her through his selfishness and misogyny, I could no longer try to tolerate him.
The book can be read in two sittings, but you will want to mark passages and go back to them. You will be thinking about Arisa White’s story for days afterward.
Those of you who know I have been working on my memoir for 1,000 years might be interested to hear that I found White’s format super inspiring. I’m trying out writing my memoir in prose poems instead of traditional prose. In some ways, I feel that I am going back to the beginning of my project a bit, when I was writing in “scraps,” but it’s a world away from what I’ve done before, too.
“…absence breeds madness, an irreconcilable relationship you know is there but can’t call it by its name…” In these crisply narrative poems, which unreel like heart-wrenching fragments of film, Arisa White not only names that gaping chasm between father and daughter, but graces it with its true and terrible face. Every little colored girl who has craved the constant of her father’s gaze will recognize this quest, which the poet undertakes with lyric that is tender and unerring. -Patricia Smith, Incendiary ArtArisa White channels the ear of Zora Neal Hurston, the tongue of Toni Cade Bambara, and the eye of Alice Walker in the wondrous Who’s Your Daddy. She channels Guyanese proverbs, Shango dreams, games of hide and seek, and memories of an absentee father to shape the spiritual condition. What she makes is “a maze that bobs and weaves a new style whenever there’s a demand to love.” What she gives us are archives, allegories, and wholly new songs. -Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future AssassinsSomewhere nearing its end, Arisa White says of Who’s Your Daddy, it’s “a portrait of absence and presence, a story, a tale, told in patchwork fashion…” This exactly says what Who’s Your Daddy is, though it doesn’t say all it takes to do justice to the mythic paradox an absent parent guarantees a child, young or grown, or what it takes to live with and undergo such birthright. There’s not only a father’s absence and presence, there’s a mother who says you raise your daughters, and love your sons, there are stepfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, a grandmother, brothers, lovers, all of whom leave their marks and give and take love. Surrounding the whole book hovers the questions do I forgive him, and is forgiveness possible? This beautifully, honestly conceived genius of a book shook me to the core. -Dara Wier, You Good ThingHow does a lyric memoir—a queered-up autobiographical hybrid of prose and poetry—become a real page-turner? Well, for one thing, its speaker uses her authenticity and open-heartedness to generate a rib-cracking amount of courage to look for, find, and emotionally confront a missing Guyanese father who ends up being the “unhello” of a “nevermind.” What’s so moving about this discovery is the speaker’s lyric response. It’s a shrug that’s a song that’s the speaker telling it experimentally-straight about how it feels to have “arms free of fathers.” It’s a story that’s a song that’s the speaker’s “gangster swagger” that beautifully tells of how to confront one’s relation to “a culture of deadbeats, wannabes, has-beens, what-ifs, [and] can’t-shows” without succumbing to despair. One really wants to quote Plath’s line here about “eat[ing] men like air.” Oh, I love the courage of this book. The whole “black heart” and love-strength of it. And you will too! -Adrian Blevins, Appalachians Run AmokA lyric anthem for the fatherless, for seekers of the places and people that made us, for the artists ready to unearth and reshape their own stories. I gulped this exquisite manual like precious medicine, a spell that made me more myself. -Melissa Febos, Abandon MeCollaborative, interactive, this work of poetry and memoir offers life as a recurring question. Who’s Your Daddy is a study of how power and loss work on the intimate scales of daily living and queer loving. Read this with compassion for your own defining questions and the raw texture they have left upon your heart. -Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dub: Finding Ceremony
Who’s Your Daddy is striking and gorgeous. “I’m born into a bracket of boys,” White writes, framing a portrait of fatherhood that shutters and aches; it enthralls. I wanted to lap it up. A reflection on family that permeates via knitted prose with deep verse—my favorite kind. White’s work is sonic, lyric, and important. I can’t wait for y’all to read this book. -Emerson Whitney, Heaven
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, Post Pardon, Black Pearl, Perfect on Accident, and “Fish Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won the inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. Published by Virtual Artists Collective, her debut full-length collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was a finalist for the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards, 82nd California Book Awards, and nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Awards. Her second collection, A Penny Saved, inspired by the true-life story of Polly Mitchell, was published by Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press in 2012. Her latest full-length collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, was published by Augury Books and nominated for the 29th Lambda Literary Awards. Most recently, Arisa co-authored, with Laura Atkins, Biddy Mason Speaks Up, a middle-grade biography in verse on the midwife and philanthropist Bridget “Biddy” Mason, which is the second book in the Fighting for Justice series. She is currently co-editing, with Miah Jeffra and Monique Mero, the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart, which will be published by Foglifter Press in 2021. And forthcoming in February 2021, from Augury Books, her poetic memoir Who’s Your Daddy.
When I first pulled a card from the Wild Unknown tarot deck, I got The Destroyer. My feelings were mixed. Mostly I felt very negative toward The Destroyer archetype, but I also felt the satisfaction of truth because 2020 is nothing if not The Destroyer.
I was reminded of a poem that I wrote years ago about my father and how I saw him as a destroyer type of personality in some respects. I say that, but at the same time, I think he also nurtured and modeled some pretty cool things for me. He never made me feel bad about what I wanted to do in life, whether it was being afraid to do cartwheels or asking to take art classes or just hanging around the house watching TV after school. But as I began to write more poetry, I realized that I saw him as a destroyer of sorts.
For the purposes of writing poetry inspired by The Destroyer, I analyzed the artist’s image of The Destroyer on the card. When I begin to write, I will go back to those notes.
But I figured I needed to look deeper than this to understand The Destroyer archetype. I admit I had a really hard time with this for the last few weeks. I didn’t want to deal with The Destroyer. Still. Here are a few of the many things I discovered as I read:
Although some people might be more associated with The Destroyer, we all must have bits of every archetype somewhere within us
The Destroyer is one of the 3-part Trio of Existence: Creator, Destroyer, Sustainer (Caregiver)
The Destroyer upends everything stable: jobs, relationships, any type of security
The Destroyer is often unexpected or rejected, even savage
Nature can be an antidote to The Destroyer
All archetypes have good parts to them
Destruction allows for rebirth
Even The Destroyer offers gifts and lessons
The Destroyer archetype is about endings and closure, of letting go
The Destroyer challenges the status quo
When confronted with The Destroyer, one should look for closure where it is called for and for rebirth where it will lead to a new positive.
Although the Wild Unknown tarot deck contains 78 archetypes, there are a smaller number that consistently show up in many books and teachings. I found a fun quiz online that identifies your own major archetypes from a group of twelve. I like this type of quiz because it’s impossible to see “where it’s going” while you’re taking the test. I like this because you (I) can’t inadvertently influence the results. I was not at all surprised when I calculated my results. (Here is the quiz: Archetypes Quiz–the traits of the archetypes are listed just after the quiz).
My two highest-scoring archetypes were tied: The Caregiver and The Creator. (Cats and poems?) LOL, I doubt anybody who knows me would be surprised at this. In fact, I had my husband and daughter independently guess and they both came up with 3 they thought would be tied: The Caregiver, The Creator, and The Seeker. They probably thought The Seeker because I am constantly asking questions. Drives everyone nuts.
After The Caregiver and The Creator, I scored high on The Sage and then The Magician. The first is about knowledge and the second is about spirituality.
The rest of the archetypes I scored much lower, and it makes sense to me. They are: The Warrior, The Ruler and The Lover (tied), The Orphan, The Innocent and The Seeker and The Fool (all 3 tied). Lastly, with the lowest count of all, is The Destroyer.
At different times in my life, the results of the quiz would have been a little different. For example, when I was a teen, I am guessing that The Orphan and The Warrior might have played a much larger role, whereas The Caregiver and The Magician would have been less. For some people, the results could be vastly different from one life period to another.
Possibly the reason I had such a hard time grappling with pulling The Destroyer card right off the bat is because it is the archetype I find the most difficult. It’s the most alien to me, but also it frightens me. I don’t like the upending of my secure world. I like change, but only what feels warm and cozy and pretty right up front.
I am beginning to feel so much better from the Valley Fever. My exhaustion is lessening. To keep from overdoing it, though, I’ve been binge-watching Schitt’s Creek, recommended to me by my friend Sheila.
One of the first epiphanies that I experienced from The Artist’s Way occurred at the first meeting of my local group. I wrote about it in a blog post for the Brevity blog. I’m so excited to see it up there today, in such great company. If you want to read a variety of voices on the craft of writing, be sure to follow their blog.
The Ekphrastic Review has reprinted another poem from my first collection Doll God. As I mentioned last week, the journal is a very unique literary magazine. The emphasis is on publishing writing that responds to visual art. Thus the name of the journal. Check out this article for explanation: Ekphrasis
Thank you to editor Lorette C. Luzajic for choosing my poem “Debris.” There is a strong connection between the poem and my mother-in-law’s art.
The photo above is the cover of the book that is a story of The Birdland jazz club illustrated by my mother-in-law’s Birdland murals. That is where my photos on the journal site originate from–not the actual murals themselves.
That wraps up a full week of five poem publications. I hope you’ve enjoyed them and aren’t jumping out of your tree to get away from my postings. Closing comments, but you are more than welcome to post at the site. Thank you!
The Ekphrastic Review is a very unique literary magazine. The emphasis is on publishing writing that responds to visual art. Thus the name of the journal. Check out this article for explanation: Ekphrasis
I was thrilled to see the poem “Fishing” from my collection Doll God published there today. This is the first time that the poem is shown with the art that originally inspired it. It was this print that I own and is in my house that began this poem.
When the ice maker repair person was leaving my house the other day, he said something that forced me to think about a writing problem I have. I didn’t bring that to his attention. Instead, I just laughed and responded with “You got that right!”
After discussing the repair to be made with this repair person, the gardener had waltzed off to the treadmill. Since I was pan frying dinner (ahead of time–my favorite time to cook), I was left overseeing the repair. My overseeing consisted of complaining to said repair person that the food was falling apart because it didn’t have any gluten in it. Anyway, when he was done, he shook my hand and said THIS. Watch for my italics.
“Say goodbye to your husband for me. Tell him it was really fun talking to him. You probably hear that a lot. He’s quite a character!”
THAT. He’s quite a character. You probably don’t know he’s a character because I don’t make him much of a character in this blog. Or in my memoir-in-progress. I present him sort of flat and static–not multi-dimensional or dynamic.
Why is that?
Well, I’ll tell you why! It’s because he would overshadow the other characters (including me, of course).
I first realized this when I was around 150,000 words into my memoir (don’t panic–while I have about 400,000 by now, only 80,000 are currently in play). Because my father was quite a character, and my story is about my father and me, the gardener has to be a very two-dimensional confidant. According to yourdictionary.com, a confidant is described this way:
One to whom secrets or private matters are disclosed.
A character in a drama or fiction, such as a trusted friend or servant, who serves as a device for revealing the inner thoughts or intentions of a main character.
And, truly, that is who the gardener actually is in my life, along with a whole lot of other things, such as best friend, lover, and most worthy antagonist. But he’s also a pain in the you-know-what to write about–unless, of course, I were to write about him. Putting him front and center. I am not prepared to do that. The thought of that project is beyond daunting.
In case you’re wondering if I am a wilted violet in the face of all that personality, never fear. The kids are waiting for our family reality TV show because they know it’s coming.
Last week I went to see three grande dames of literature at Arizona State University: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, hosted by Natalie Diaz. These are writers whose works I taught to college students for years, but this was the first opportunity I had to hear them talk in person. They were seated on stage in a conversation area–a couch and armchairs. What I hadn’t realized was that they are all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has long been considered to be the top place to earn an MFA in writing. These women all know each other–and Harjo and Cisneros were friends in grad school. I felt I was eavesdropping on their conversation with each other.
Since these women are all poets, but have published prose as well, I was fascinated to hear what they had to say. Their voices come from disenfranchised groups–Harjo is Native (Muskogee Creek), Cisneros Chicana, and Dove African American–so it’s important to listen carefully and sympathetically in order to hear things from a variety of perspectives. They were also talking about timing, and how timing was very helpful to them in achieving the level of success they have had. You can look them up if you want the deets. In fact, Dove mentioned that when she was a grad student she didn’t know the work of a lot of poets who were mentioned in her classes. She would surreptitiously write down the names so she could find them in the library and read their work. In that way, she was partially self-taught.
I’m leading up to something here.
Of all the wonderful ancedotes and tips I heard that Saturday afternoon, the one that stood out the most to me is one from Harjo. She said she teaches a course about poetry ancestry. It’s studying the genealogy of your poetry writing. You look at the poets who most influenced your own writing. Then you see who influenced them. And go back as far as you can, studying the work that turns up in your research!
I wanted to see where I could go with this, but it will take time. I’ll just start by mentioning some of my poetic influences. Keep in mind this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means.
Sylvia Plath: there is no doubt that I found her big mouth and aggressive imagery very liberating
Emily Dickinson: her spare and sometimes wry writing appeals to me, but the downside is she keeps herself out of most of her poems, and that is too convenient for me
A. R. Ammons: I so admire his oneness with nature and spirit and his very smart use of language
Gerard Manley Hopkins: his spirituality and fresh imagery speak to my heart
Linda Hogan: like Ammons, her oneness with nature and spirit inspires me
Adrienne Rich: she broke the ice at the top of the ocean she dove into in Diving into the Wreck
Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe the first poem not written for children that captivated me was Millay’s “Renascence.” When I was a kid, I took an LP record out of the library and listened to her read it over and over and over and over and over again.
classic children’s poetry of the 20th century, as well as nursery rhymes: these are what first instilled a love for poetry
Do you notice anything about my little list? Lots of women, not too much diversity (except Hogan who is Native and Rich, a Jewish lesbian). But what else? The poems I read that first inspired my writing were written mainly before 1980 all the way back to Dickinson who was writing before and during the Civil War! Of course, I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry over the years, but poets who first influenced me were not my contemporaries or even those just a little ahead of me. They were considered masters when I read them, except for maybe Hogan.
I’m thinking I need another list of poets whose works next influenced me–people writing after the poets listed above. That might then offer more of a platform for the “family research.”
Do you know who your first influences were for your own writing? Have the type of influences changed over time? For instance, if blogging is your main writing format, who were your first influences?
Blogger Theresa Barker has been posting about what she sees when she looks up (and down a bit, too). We were chatting about not noticing some things that we pass regularly and how we tend to miss seeing the same things over and over. I commented that I want to pay more attention to what is up and down and in the gaps.
That made me think of those things that I actually do see over and over and continue to appreciate. These are the things we miss when they go away.
For years I’ve been passing a house with a big cactus out in the big front lawn. It might be an organ pipe cactus. In the Sonoran Desert where we live, it can sometimes freeze at night in the winter. We usually get warnings, and then we have to cover all our flowers, flowering bushes, and cacti with sheets or other covers. Because this cactus is so large and has so many stems, there are many tips that can freeze. When I first saw this cactus it was in the winter, and each tip was covered with a styrofoam cup, which is the usual remedy.
Then the owners decided to put Santa hats on the tips, and my life was enriched. I love driving past the cactus that has been transformed into many little Santas. My face opens into a big grin.
Last year the house was vacant and being remodeled. I was worried that with a new owner, the Santa hats would be gone. It’s funny how empty I felt when I would drive past the house, thinking it was the end of an era.
But then last week the hats were back. Actually, these are new hats, not the same ones by the previous owner, and I like them even better.
I wonder if the owner realizes how happy people have been made with this simple and whimsical twist on a necessity.
Is there something that you have no control over that you see every week or every day that makes you happy? Something very small that seems to make life a little better.