reading list, writing

Being Shifty

One of my first professors was a compassionate gentleman with a triangular beard. We spent a whole semester arguing about whether gender mattered in my poetry. It was his stance I was too specific and I should let go of trying to paint the subject/object of my poetry with such clarity. He felt I had too much to offer to limit myself in this way. He also let me sleep in his classes, but would occasionally call on me to answer questions no one else in the class could answer. We had a strange mutual respect, and I suspect he had hopes I’d limit myself in different ways as I grew older. Classic poetic forms come to mind.

So, every few years I’m haunted by this argument. Instead of listening, both gender classification and stereotypical specifics increased in my writing. When I tried to write short stories for his class, I did the same. This continued long after I’d finished my program and moved on to two others. In my creative nonfiction class, I described an abortion procedure with clinical accuracy and in a fiction workshop I wrote from the point of view of a young girl having an affair. In these pieces, I scared two of my classmates and found a friend for life. Because I felt validation, I saw no reason to change my approach.

Then I found myself in the middle of two novels. One of them has three sirens on a stoop in Brooklyn trying to leave. The other, a young girl facing an impossible request as her bildungsroman. Only one of these novels is real and I’ve been trying to combine them or write out the false start. This quest has left me lost in my own voice for a decade. It’s not a case of losing my voice, but being unable to decipher what it’s saying; what I’m saying.

When I learned the medical term aphasia, I wondered if other writers had felt this way. It only took a moment to remember William Golding wrote The Double Tongue about Arieka who became a Pythia. She is a medium for Apollo, speaking in tongues deciphered by priests. Maybe I’m misremembering, but in many versions of oracle tales, speaking in tongues deciphered by men is standard practice. It’s a common thing for writers to talk about their ideas coming from somewhere else and so it’s not weird oracles are prominent in so many works. This one isn’t any different, but I read it at an impressionable age because I liked the author.

I’ve found myself haunted again, and I’m aware I should’ve listened when I was young. I’ve always understood basic mechanics of point of view; ways to pull a reader close or farther away. I haven’t often thought about the ways the author is pulling their characters as well. Second person can be closer, but blurry. Third person can substitute for too close. First person is often distantly focused. These aren’t the only options, but they’re a frame to play with other ways of using point of view.

With this groundwork, I read Nadja by Andre Breton. It lead me to thinking about the nature of realism, surrealism, fantasy, and point of view. I thought back to haunting short stories I wasn’t ever able to polish and wondered if this is what’s been missing. I still don’t have answers, but I suspect I’m finally asking the right questions about how to do this.

And on that note, here’s a poem from this week, because I still haven’t typed and edited that short story from a few weeks back.

Often, I Try Yoga

I still
feel your hands
on my throat.

I see
you kicking him
in the head.

I practice
keeping my eyes open
for your punch.

I hope you’re all feeling like enough this week. If not, here’s some inspiration.

I’m reading What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah and it is breaking my heart in all the best ways.

I picked up The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang and I expect it to break my heart. I’ll be thinking of my grandmother as I read, so I purchased a copy. I’m one of those people who write in margins when books change me. The notes help me create a map. It’s never perfect, but no maps ever are. I hope you’re honoring your bad habits in healthy ways.

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