I cannot shy away from whatever truth I find within myself or out in the world no matter how difficult it is to look at it. I seek to make myself as vulnerable on the page as possible. It is through showing my fallibilities with all their ugly splendor that I can connect with readers who grace me with their attention. And at the same time, I want my words to be compassionate and loving, to offer up human kindness.
Outside, on the sidelines, marginalized…these words speak loudly to me. For much of my life I have felt like an outsider beginning as a child moving from state to state, house to house. I went to a different school every year from kindergarten to fifth grade. Those moves cemented my feeling of isolation, of being apart from others. They also gave me what every writer needs: powers of observation. Standing on the sidelines in schoolyards with my hands pressed against walls, I watched my classmates closely, not knowing I was developing a gift.
Double Dutch, 1963
Pigtails flapped their black wings tied with small plastic beads like
bright gumballs. I watched those girls rise from earth, their jump ropes
dividing us. Not knowing how to cross that line drawn long ago. Slapping
blacktop, their dirty Keds in need of white shoe polish, rubber soles kicking
up puffs of schoolyard dust. Their feet flew, left, right, left, right, so quick
I expected them to lift off any moment like small jets. Pleated plaid skirts
floated in the breeze made by ropes that rose and fell in mirrored arcs.
The girls at both ends watched each other, brown arms swinging round
and round. First one leapt in, then another, doing their two-step dance,
eyes focused on the far distance. They waited for the next arc, next swing,
bodies in tune with each other, feet in perfect rhythm.
Books were my friends, and my favorite heroines wanted to be writers: Jo in Little Women, Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books by Maude Hart Lovelace. I told myself I would be a writer like them, but except for one poem about the sunset in 5th grade, I wrote nothing.
Who was I to fancy myself a writer? Deep down I didn’t believe that someone like me, a girl from a working class background could do that. My doubts battled with the desire that kept whispering inside me.
I grew up poor
Poets were not like me –
didn’t eat fish sticks and tater tots or
fancy canned black olives or
sweet pickles served on a fake crystal dish.
They didn’t wear blue jeans or
pick green beans for supper or
scrape grease from the plates each night.
Poets used all the synonyms for red:
crimson, vermillion, scarlet, ruby.
They could quote Shakespeare and
knew who Pound was – not the cake.
I found out about him because
I went to college and started reading
poems by poets who
were not like me.
I had never met such words before
and I craved more.
Starvation made a glutton of me.
It was only a matter of time until
I wrote my first poem
with crimson in it.
Yet somehow that desire kept burning, and I kept struggling. In college I first tried writing fiction to copy my boyfriend, but I never could find the words or passion for it. One day in desperation I tried writing a poem. I can still feel the fire of that moment when I wrote my first poem (or second if I count 5th grade).
In “La Poesía (Poetry),” Pablo Neruda expressed what I too felt: “And it was at that age…poetry arrived in search of me. / I don’t know, I don’t know where / it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, /no they were not voices, they were not/words, nor silence,/but from a street I was summoned…” (L 1-7)
I didn’t know where poetry came from, but it came and gave me the form I needed. And all these decades later, here I am, still writing myself into the world. Still searching to express what and who I am, still trying to make sense of what I see around me. And sharing what I find with others.
Spelunking, Oregon Caves
I stumbled into a chamber, cool and moist,
marble glistening under rows of electric bulbs.
My steps rang on the metal walkways
above a trickling stream. Stalactites like long arms
reached for their twins rising from the floor.
Rangers warned against outstretched hands.
Human touch sours pure walls to yellow.
Just for a moment they flicked off the switch.
I gasped; I could no longer breathe,
buried in that pure black, as if my fire
had gone out. Then I heard water gurgling,
felt my heart beating. I listened
for what had not yet been unearthed.
What I could carry with me.
To temper: to impart strength or toughness by heating and cooling
Life folds us over and over,
heat and cold makes new metal.
Moon’s shadow side is blue,
sun side glows orange: I too
am halved. Let me learn the art
of going into fire, the journey
I must take to end the wary dance
begun in childhood, forge self
in sorrow’s blaze, plunge headlong
into what I fear, become a spark dancing
to the sky. Before my bones mingle
with earth, may I temper into one.
—After the painting by Marc Chagall
Beside the open window,
she floats free, right hand over her heart.
Mouth open, an ecstatic sigh, she gazes.
Flowers burst open, deep indigo in their vase.
Her hair waves like a fish tail,
white wings like fins signal her advent.
A dress of water breaks from waves
sparkles into the blue, blue world.
In a dream-swim under three crescent moons
a house is floating or sinking or settling
into sediment on the sea floor.
It is a blue house; it is always a blue house.
She is my angel and no one else’s.
I can keep her my secret or let her free
into the world. I don’t care whether
she has flown in the window or out.
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?
I know this isn’t a popular term with many women. It makes us uneasy. We ask, can’t we just be writers? The very question proves I need make a stand: I am a woman writer. I claim that title as a political as well as artistic statement. As long as women are underrepresented in literary magazine, at conferences, in the publishing world, I claim this title. I carry forth this banner so other women can write about any damn thing they want without worrying that children or cooking or caring for aging parents or house work are not good topics, are too “domestic” or womanly, and therefore deemed lesser. Women have made strides to make our words heard, but our fight isn’t over. I feel a great responsibility to be a beacon for fledgling girl and women writers so they don’t have to struggle to find their voices, so they don’t doubt themselves like I did for so many years. I am a woman writer.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Ellen Bass, my wonderful poet friend and mentor Charlotte Muse (with the best poet name ever), Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison (whose novels are beautiful long, trailing poems), all the wonderful women writers of AROHO I met in the high desert of New Mexico. And even a few men: Pablo Neruda, William Stafford. Their words give me courage and inspiration.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
I struggled for years to take myself seriously as a writer. Then I found a community of writers who encouraged me. My doubting voice didn’t go away for a long time, but whenever I felt weak, I remembered those writers took me seriously. But first I had to have the courage to take my place among them. Finding a community, attending conferences, going on retreats, taking classes was an important step for me.
I had to learn to keep going even though I worried my work might not follow popular trends or what others might think it should be. I worried that my poetry was too accessible, not enigmatic enough. Then a friend gave me the poem “Thinking About Being Called Simple By a Critic” by William Stafford. Any time I doubt my own style, I remember that even a poet such as Stafford faced criticism and doubts.
Mostly, I have just kept on writing even when I am convinced every word is garbage, even when I feel foolish to call myself a writer. I write in spite of those moments. I try to remember those doubts mean I really am a writer – because I’m doing the work.
Keep writing. Let people read it. Share your work. When people respond to your words, you will find courage to write more. Don’t let anyone (especially yourself) tell you No. Keep writing.
I believe as an artist I must be brutally honest. I cannot shy away from whatever truth I find within myself or out in the world no matter how difficult it is to look at it. I seek to make myself as vulnerable on the page as possible. It is through showing my fallibilities with all their ugly splendor that I can connect with readers who grace me with their attention. And at the same time, I want my words to be compassionate and loving, to offer up human kindness. I struggle to do this with imagery that spreads across on the page with clear, simple dignity.
Lisa Rizzo is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work has also appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies such as Calyx Journal,13th Moon, and DoveTales “Nature” An International Journal of the Arts (Writing for Peace, May 2015). Two of her poems received 1st and 2nd prizes in the 2011 Maggi H. Meyer Poetry Prize competition. She blogs at Poet Teacher Seeks World.
Lisa manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. She spent 23 years as a middle school English/Language Arts teacher. Now she works as an instructional coach, helping teachers improve their reading and writing instruction. Born in Texas, Lisa grew up in Chicago and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 36 years ago. Even though she has almost settled down, she still travels as often as she can. You can find her at lisarizzopoetry.com
A Note on Texts
“Poverty” was published in In the Poem an Ocean.
“Blue Angel,” “Double Dutch, 1963,” “Spelunking,” and “Temperance” appear in my full-length collection, Always a Blue House forthcoming from Saddle Road Press in December 2016. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon.