My ability as a writer – yes, that exists separate from gender. But my voice, my insights, many of my themes – inextricably, these are tied to the fact that I am a woman. I write about being a daughter, my relationship with my mother, violence against women and girls, living as a lesbian, my love for my wife. Beyond these topics, my very existence in the world is as a woman, so of course, the way this impacts me always finds its way into my poems and essays.
Writing literally saved me. I enrolled in a workshop called Fearless Words for survivors of rape, incest and domestic violence during a very dark time. Partway through, I made a nearly successful suicide attempt, and was hospitalized. However, I kept my commitment, and wrote a poem. We had been invited to be part of a Women Against Violence reading in San Francisco. Just days out of the hospital, I stood up and read my poem in front of more than 100 people, about my past and the suicide attempt – my very first public reading. An ASL interpreter stood next to me on stage, signing my words. The whole experience was incredibly powerful, and it led to my promise to myself to never again try to take my own life.
It taught me three things. One, writing creatively has the capacity to heal. Because I lived this personally, I have carried the message on to others. I founded a program four years ago called Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence, through the YWCA Sonoma County, a local provider of services for abuse victims. I have watched women and girls (and men) transform pain into strength. It’s been an amazing and humbling journey.
Second, poetry is meant to be read out loud. When I stood on that stage, I discovered there are two aspects to a poem – its existence on the page, and its life in sound, as a song. At first, I was a timid performer. But slowly I became as enamored of the time at the microphone as I was of the time alone at my desk. The words need to be heard, not just read.
Finally, a writer must have community. The Fearless Words workshop participants were my first such group. Since then, there have been many others. Some are formal, meeting up in classes, workshops, retreats or professional organizations. Some are less formal, such as the peer critique groups I have been part of, or simply the writing exchanges I have fostered with good friends whose work I respect. Often, it is not even a critique I am looking for, but encouragement, or commiseration – just another writer who has walked this path. What I do know is now, even though I write alone in my studio, I never feel lonely. I am buoyed by, surrounded by, an entire cadre of women writers, popping in now and then to say hello via my inbox. I have never felt more rich.
Reading Cixous in Translation
Promethea sits in my lap
a book that is a woman
covered head to foot in a sheer veil
her beauty, her scent intoxicating
but her skin the touch of her
just beyond my reach.
As much as I stretch my fingers towards her
even when I am about
to cup her breast in my hand
it is not her breast
only a vision of breast defined
by silk, made of cloth
a weaver’s interpretation.
I hunger for her.
I want to lick each word
put my tongue on the nouns
take the nipple of her poetry between my teeth
and bite taste the salt
close my eyes and make long slow
mouthings of each phrase
pressing them up against the roof of my mouth.
Things That Stop My Breath
Raised bows before the first down stroke. A single harmonic note. The smell of Japanese incense. A kitten’s sandpaper tongue. “I think I love you.” The glacial water of a mountain lake. Chopin – anything by Chopin. Her lips at the back of my neck. Orange moonlight on an August vineyard. Crimson paint tearing across a large canvas. Stage fright at my first piano recital. The alarm clock, every morning. Hot coffee spilled in my lap. Shattered dish shards in the kitchen sink. A snake coiled at the base of the toilet. A lizard’s tail under the sheets. “This file is corrupted.” A power outage in winter. My ex’s name on caller i.d. The splintered smash of a chair against the wall. Thud of a dog’s body against my front bumper. “Your father has lymphoma.” A razor opening the skin of my own wrist. The moment Anna throws herself under the train.
Body on the Wall
They send me a slip of paper Anger Management — Certificate of Completion
And his name.
As if twelve weeks of one-hour sessions,
of talking about his feelings,
of tips on counting to ten,
could make him into a new man —
could undo the damage.
I know too well he can con anyone:
Police. Lawyers. Landlords.
And this piece of paper is the last slap
I am ever going to feel.
I walk to my closet, and get my dancing dress,
the little black one that twirls when I move,
that reminds me of freedom and the time before.
Do you want to know what he is like?
I’ll need some tools.
Scissors to slash the hemline.
Blades to rip open sleeves.
A lighter to torch the fluttering strips.
Dirty boots to grind out the flames.
Then a razor, to nick my forearm
so I can smear blood across his name
and pin that piece of paper to my ruined dress.
I bandage my arm, find a hanger –
It is my body on the wall, bruised and battered,
and nobody, nobody, can say they don’t see.
That One Time
Rule number one: behave.
Rule number two:
(directly related to the above)
don’t ever embarrass your mother.
Futile to say a teacher
treated me unfairly,
or a coach pushed too hard –
that a doctor wasn’t listening,
or a Sunday school teacher
Except that one day, when she came
alone to my hospital room.
I was no longer a child.
After years lost and broken,
trying to get better, in and out
of psych wards and clinics,
I asked for help, checked
into a private institution
near their home.
She and my father visited, brought
lattes, tried to understand,
to make up for time, to learn
this new language.
But a few weeks into therapy,
my doctor declared I was an ideal
candidate for electric shock therapy –
not to worry, it’s so much
better these days.
Mom found a different place,
other options, set things in motion.
As I waited for her that day, the doctor
swept into my room, large and angry.
Leaving was “against medical advice,” he said,
then turned away as if I were an insect.
My mother found me in a small heap of tears.
Like a growling she-bear, out to the hallway
she went, in search of that man.
We checked out together,
her face still flushed with indignation.
Oh, my heart. What wild love was there.
Poem bump bump bumping across the page,
mirror is cool slick on cheekbones
and your elbow smells of wet gardenias.
Walk in circles, walk in, circles,
coil into my spine and stop
sign a dance for us into the palm of my hand.
Move over, move under, take off your clothes,
creep into the new night skin,
soak in the hum drum drumming sound.
There is no high, no low, no midway or roadway,
only the taste of lime on fingertips
and a sharp true voice in a sky of birds.
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?
If you had asked me this question twenty years ago, I would have said my goal is simply to be a writer; there should be no difference between women and men. I was afraid that saying “woman writer” meant second-class citizenship. Now, though, I see there are two ways of looking at this. My ability as a writer – yes, that exists separate from gender. But my voice, my insights, many of my themes – inextricably, these are tied to the fact that I am a woman. I write about being a daughter, my relationship with my mother, violence against women and girls, living as a lesbian, my love for my wife. Beyond these topics, my very existence in the world is as a woman, so of course, the way this impacts me always finds its way into my poems and essays.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
I have struggled much of my adult life with mental illness, so Virginia Woolf has been a significant influence on me. Some might regard her as a cautionary tale, a person who failed in this sense, because of her suicide. As someone who myself has been in that place, where it finally becomes too much to bear, I understand. Woolf suffered deeply from her illness as a young woman, and was very sick in her early thirties. But she did not give up then. Her entire body of work follows that time period. She wrote in spite of, through, and perhaps even because of, her illness. Beautiful, world-changing words. Knowing this, I find strength on the hard days. Also, for sheer inspiration, I turn to Hélène Cixous, with her daring poetic prose, in particular The Book of Promethea; to Adrienne Rich for courage; and to slam poets like Patricia Smith, to shake up my style and bring it new syncopation.
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 spent many years wanting to become a writer, without being one. Much of that was about fear: fear I would not be good enough, fear that I dare not tell the stories I must tell, fear no one would want to read what I wrote. I hated that cocktail party question – what do you do? Because I would have to answer, “Work as a paralegal,” or something equally unsatisfactory. Then, at one such gathering, I met a woman who said, “I’m a puppeteer.” Intrigued, I asked for details. She had a regular job, but wanted to create a show telling Jewish folk tales. She made large puppets, practiced, and then, whenever the question came up, she said, “I’m a puppeteer.” Before long, she landed her first job – and now, it’s how she’s making a living. It was all about self-identification.
Right after that encounter, I went to the Castro in San Francisco and got my first tattoo: the Japanese symbol for poet, on the underside of my right wrist. I claimed it. That’s when everything changed. I said, “I am a poet.” I finally began to write.