Utter Your Words

During the spring semester of 2018, I enrolled in Creating the Poem with Dr. Iliana Rocha here at the University of Central Oklahoma.  Before entering the classroom, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew nothing of poetry besides the few guidelines to some forms covered in half of a week’s span while I was in high school.  I honestly walked in the classroom on the first day thinking, This should be simple.  Roses are red. Violets are blue.  I couldn’t have been any more mistaken.

Dr. Rocha explained that we students would be creating and compiling a chapbook of our own for the semester.  What the hell is a chapbook? I thought to myself.  Normally, I’m not one to freak out when it comes to a required page count either, but when she told us the final chapbook portfolio was to be 20-25 pages, my brain went into panic mode.  I’m screwed.  Why did I do this to myself?  I’m good for one world-changing poem, if that.

But then, she made each student pull out a piece of blank paper and number the paper 1 to 13.  She told us to list something similar to the following: the street you grew up on, your favorite beverage, a cartoon character you remember from your childhood, an item of clothing, a dream destination, etc.  On another blank sheet of paper we were instructed to write, on line number one, a line of poetry using one of our 13 facts. Next, the person to the right, on line two, would continue the poem with another one of their 13 facts.  Together, the class created (for the most part) a cohesive and sentimental poem about their lives. (One line about an exploding toilet lightened the mood though). I soon began to think the class wouldn’t be that bad.

Until I heard the first poems about dying animals, war in Afghanistan from the eyes of a soldier, and growing up in a neglectful home as a child slightly older than a toddler.  I can’t write about red roses and blue violets? One evening, while in class, Dr. Rocha explained and discussed with us a term called the unutterable. Some students nodded their heads in understanding while I sat imagining how I must look like an animated cartoon character with the three bouncing question marks floating above my head.  As the discussion progressed, I came to understand that the unutterable was any raw emotion or uncomfortable writing from any given writer. Also, it’s simply subjective. The readers’ catharsis is based upon individual and personal experience. Who wants to talk about poop (Chen Chen) or menstrual cycles (Rupi Kaur)?  Such subjects that can bring out a quick shiver or shudder is successful in creating the unutterable.

The very discussion and encouragement from Dr. Rocha and my peers opened up a new pathway for my writing.  Just after a few months in the class, I was able to write about an assault that occurred in my youth that I never thought I would be able to verbally express to anyone. Poetry, and its mechanics, allowed me to write to everyone and no one in particular. The fact that Dr. Rocha explained to us that poetry is purely subjective encouraged me to write to other victims solely for my extended support and encouragement.  Roses aren’t always red and the violets I see are broken—petals forever flowing in the Oklahoma breeze.

Who Art Thou Mona Lisa?

I was giddy with unspent energy as I traversed the halls of the Louvre. People shedding their winter coats walked down the checkered hallway, pausing to snap pictures of the headless Nike statue before moving on. Glass skylights illuminated a grand hallway with towering ceilings embellished in ornate carvings. I followed the congested flow of people, my school friends in tow, as we rushed past life-sized battle scenes, mythological images, and picturesque landscapes rendered in remarkable detail. The crowd slowed, and the top of a dark painting rested with a glass case on the wall. I saw Da Vinci’s famous lady, surrounded by people scrambling to get near, and I laughed.

She was small, and her colors were muted, but she monopolized everyone’s attention. She sat across from a grand painting ten times her size with ten times her vibrancy of color. She was underwhelming. Or perhaps, I was just very young.

I would later learn that my approach to art, and to the world, was still developing past its shallow stage. Appreciation of the arts was more complex than its surface level, and that to access something beyond a superficial approach was key in understanding not only the world, but myself as well.

I grew up on TV, fast ads, and colorful cereal boxes. My attention span was here and then out the window watching a cat climb a tree.  But I was living in a society that fostered my behavior. There was sugar in my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Colorful signs trying to sell me something fast. Time was money, and money made the world go around. Worship it, worry over it, waste it. But do not waste time.

I didn’t have time to be staring out windows. I had to be focused on my grades, on sports, on my friends, on my social media. I had to worry about how my life appeared to colleges and how my face appeared to the world. Because those things were important, right?

It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned that I worry too much about the world’s perception of myself. I worry about the words I write on this page. That they will never be good enough. Never perfect.

But to create art in any form involves leaving yourself at the mercy of others’ scrutiny. It is my primary reason for writer’s block. Why I am constantly conflicted, because I am a writer that does not write as often as I should. Can I call myself a writer and admit that I sometimes hate writing? I tell myself to stop trying to fit into a box of what a writer should be and to just be me.

It’s a popular mantra now days. Just be yourself. And through living it, people are breaking down barriers not only in literature and writing, but in all facets of life. This freedom of expression allows for a plethora of diverse perspectives and allows us to look beyond the surface level to find greater understanding and greater human connectivity.

“Where are you from?”

While easy enough to answer for most people, it exists to some of us as one of the most complicated questions in our lives. It’s an impossibly loaded interrogation that has been long embodied in the small-talk canon, not taking into account a large number of factors that may distort the reply, and not caring. It demands a simple answer, a recognizable place on the map. It doesn’t take into account those of us that just don’t know, whether it be lost to history, or left enigmatic by circumstance.

In my case, I can’t establish or trace back to home-base. I never lived anywhere long enough to really set up camp and lay claim to a cultural or regional piece of identity. I’ve also come to learn that identity is everything to a person, and knowing where you are from is one of the largest pieces of the puzzle, and when absent, can leave you feeling blank.

 

Where is home?


What is home?

 

What am I?

 

Who am I?

 

However, my passport tells me I have a home — Guanajuato, Mexico. And while I can show you beautiful, postcard-like pictures of my little birth-town, and maybe tell a tourist brochure’s slogans worth about it, claiming it as my own would be a fallacy. I was never able to own it; I simply never lived there. And when I’ve tried, the cut-throat nature of Mexican culture has prohibited me from laying claim to it, not having met enough of its criteria: I have printer paper white skin and speak none of the language.

The reality is that locations are often just stops to people—distant memories. Nomadic as that is, a lot of us yearn for a “home” of our own — an answer to the ever-present question that we can just yell out with excitement and dignity. A “home” is a place which we can embrace and say, “that’s me.” A place whose colors and histories you can stand by, good and bad; a place that fills in the missing piece.

Really, we draw too much validity from places. Like children trying to conform and make friends in the classroom, always worrying about being ostracized and ignored because we’re the most different face in the room; but also, that we are not different enough, concerned that we may be boring and lost in a sea of average.

I can’t help but feel like we’re misconstruing diversity, diversity always being heritage and appearance, but seldom this implicit thing that can’t be categorized in absolutes. We can’t always be expected to look the part, and part the look, and more often than not, most of diversity can’t be seen. Living a wandering life has made me realize that. We can’t expect people to be pigeon-holed, or to pigeon-hole themselves. I’ve always been “American,” not by my own creed but because I look the part, despite only living here for the last couple of years and way out of my formative period.

We, as people, are collages of experiences, and that should be reflected in our writing. We are seldom token characters, and it pays to reflect the reality of what really creates diversity among us. The real world is complex, and so are we; we should all be making an effort to portray mélange in both the characters we create, and the real people we talk about—humanizing those we know little about, and avoiding cheap attempts at emulating or portraying pseudo-authenticity.

So, when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them “I don’t know.” Because I don’t. I blank on the thought, and a big enough part of me is tired of giving one line lies or convenient truths that codify my life into something appreciably short enough: “I’m American.” “I’m Mexican.” There’s no way in hell I’m accepting the grand total of my genetic lineage as what I am, or where I’m from.

But I’d love to tell you who I am, and ultimately, I think that’s what diversity actually comes down to. Not a blip on the map, and not my skin-tone.

 

A Little Like Magic

An orange flyer hung on the wall, it’s bold words issuing a challenge. Read one hundred books; win one hundred dollars. I was a third grader with fifty-two cents in my pocket and only a Razor scooter to my name. One hundred dollars sounded like a fortune. Little did I know, I would be getting something worth more than a hundred dollars.

The school librarian dropped a stack of stapled papers on the table and called us to attention. Entry sheets for the reading challenge were now available. At the end of the school year, one student would win a hundred dollars at our last awards ceremony. I could see it now; while my classmates were getting awards for their exemplary grades and acts of kindness, I would be accepting what really mattered in a nine-year old’s mind: money.

The librarian explained the challenge. No picture books allowed. Each fifty pages equaled one “book” for entry. And the importance of integrity—a quick threat of we are all knowing.

I was already an avid reader, so the idea of cheating never crossed my mind. But I was in severe need of book recommendations if I was going to read 5,000 pages. So I planned out my strategy. Find the biggest books in the school library and read them all. My eyes caught sight of a massive green spine, situated in the Fiction section. But it was a sequel, so I turned my eyes to the first book in the series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The synopsis intrigued me, and I checked out the book to take home.

Closets under the stairs, flying broomsticks, three-headed dogs, and why hadn’t I read this before now? I devoured the book, becoming a witness to Harry’s journey and his escape into a magical world. I returned to school the next week needing the second book. I had to know what would happen to Harry and his friends. I had to escape into the Wizarding World just as much as Harry needed to escape from his life with the Dursleys.

I went with Harry to Potions class, watching cauldrons simmer and bubble over. I felt the air rush through my hair as I flew beside him on the Quidditch field. I tasted butterbeer and ate chocolate frogs. I laughed with Hagrid and grew perplexed at the headmaster’s odd words of wisdom.

I had found solace in Harry’s world—an escape from my own normal life. I was shocked that something as simple as words on a page could inspire my imagination and transport me to new worlds. I was the captain of a ship, and fiction was my sea of endless possibilities. And I determined then that I wanted to share my adventures with other people through my own writing.

I didn’t win the hundred dollars. I can still remember staring out at the crowd of students sitting on the gym floor and feeling my heart drop when someone else’s name was called. But I realized that I earned something significantly more important than money. Reading Harry Potter encouraged me to imagine more and to dream bigger. The experience was a type of magic that existed not only in the imagination, but in the real world.

 

Being the Black Girl

Writing has been a part of my life since I learned cursive in the third grade, but I didn’t fall madly in love with it until well into my high school years, where I was often known as the “Black One” or “That Black Girl with the Weird Hair.” Writing became the channel that I never knew I needed. I struggled with my identity as a Black girl and what it means to be black. People often tried to quantify my blackness; my classmates or some of my family didn’t believe I was black enough because I went to a predominately white school. Through my writing I was able to find myself, and it illuminated the person I am today. I don’t know the kind of person I would be now had I not fallen for writing. Something as simple as writing my feelings on a blank page could extricate me from any bad mood or bad day.

Black.

Is the starless night

A hole in space that absorbs all that can fall within.

The colorless color fabricates as rubbish to the blind.

The sign of evil and frightening reminder of sin,

The magic of silver tongued casting witches twisting the mind,

Devils, liars, mystics, cheats, and criminals all absorbs in one,

Distorting the color, policing the image is man who places the bind.

 

Embrace your beauteous form whose curves thy dark caress on light ought,

Enthrall those who shun your essence in ignorance, for the future is fluid to sight.

A resilient experience has made the child in me wise,

Your pain knit in every fiber and strand within my heart and soul forever sown.

Black, is my pride, armor, culture mixed in a bowl, the essence that creates my mind,

A woman painted an image of a man, woman, child in thy color refined.

My identifier, the absorbing shroud over my mirror,

For one so illustriously dark and ebony, my opinion is ever clearer.

Thy inky hand caresses my hair and face sweeping down to my feet.

Acceptance, the windy cold mountain challenge, the greatest feat.

I am you, and you define me.

Black.

This poem created a vacuum for all the thoughts of what it means to me to be black, and how I should move forward, despite all the labels added to my race. Writing is a way to find one’s self-awareness, and I think that bleeds into my works often. To quote the well-known author Enid Bagnold, “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything… It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

How to Make a Million Bucks

I discovered my passion for writing by accident. I didn’t have a passion for writing right away, but I had the confidence to be the best. Writing was a huge part of my life during high school. In high school I won a poetry contest celebrating Oklahoma’s centennial celebration, which culminated in earning a college scholarship for creative writing. With my scholarship secured, I decided to pursue a church music degree at a Christian university instead of a writing degree.

If you’re wondering, I’m not a worship leader now. As an undergrad, I left the Christian school, and I went to the University of Central Oklahoma where eventually I dropped out. I partied too much, and I didn’t attend class. I started at UCO with a 3.5 and I left with a 0.08. I was determined to fail. What I needed now was a career change.

My career of choice was a maintenance man at my local church denomination. I spent my days fixing light bulbs, changing toilets, and fetching tools for my boss like an obedient dog. Eventually, this direction bored and it offered no purpose to my life. Cleaning toilets, helping old women move light stands, and stealing snacks from department break rooms didn’t suffice anymore. At the time I needed change, and I needed it fast. This epiphany hit me one summer day. 

This summer day was hot—one hundred degrees with one hundred percent humidity. Cleaning windows forty feet above the ground, for the umpteenth day in a row, is enough to make any man rethink his decisions. I said to myself, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it anymore.” Then, I concocted a plan to attend school again. Hot, hard labor made this man want that cushioned desk job. This epiphany wasn’t the only factor in deciding to be a writer; listening to sports radio was inspirational too.

One day I drove down 36th toward a postal office located on the service road. I was listening to The Sports Animal, waiting for recaps about the previous night’s Thunder game. A commercial came on before the recap. It was narrated by a Methodist preacher, and he told a story about how a woman discovered pie making. She made pies out of necessity to support her family, and she started selling them to the public. Eventually, the business was sold to a large corporation for nearly a hundred million dollars.


The preacher asked her, “How’d you make so much money?”

She replied, “I found something I was good at and did it.”

“That’s it!” I shouted, thinking back to how I received a college scholarship for writing in high school. After that, I decided on to go back to school. I started my journey as a writer and finally obtained my bachelors in English.

I’ve now worked several jobs as a writer or pertaining to writing. I’ve been a photojournalist, writing tutor, editorial intern, freelance writer, freelance editor, script editor, copywriter, copy editor, social media manager and marketing intern—where I discovered a passion for graphic design. Each position has challenged me as a writer and challenged my creativity. Currently, I am a grad assistant for the New Plains Review, which is a literary journal at the University of Central Oklahoma. This is my grandest achievement out of all my attempts at being paid as a writer.

That damn radio commercial has influenced my decisions for the past decade. Don’t ask me how to make a million bucks just yet. So far, I’ve only made a couple hundred. But I guarantee, I’ll let you know when it happens!

Review: Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic

Source: siblingrivalrypress.bigcartel.com

(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017)

The spider weaves the curtains

in the palace of the Caesars…

—Saadi Shirazi (1210-1291)

From the start, Kaveh Akbar makes it abundantly clear who the audience is for Portrait of the Alcoholic. His debut chapbook is dedicated simply “for drunks.” Writers as alcoholics is a trope older than feudalism, and is codified all over this past century, from the exploits (and death) of Dylan Thomas to the better (and worse) tomes of Bukowski. Akbar’s collection is rare bird in that it seeks to navigate both the unapologetic excess of alcoholism, the regretful questioning of when it first took hold, and the desire for release from its dependence.

If art is not a little dire and shocking in 2017, it probably does not deserve life. Akbar’s manuscript is presented by Little Rock’s Sibling Rivalry Press, an imprint whose mission statement derives from an Adrienne Rich quote stating that good art can both disturb and enrapture. Good poetry also does not hand the story to the reader, but rather suggests it to them, leading them this way and that with a dossier of symptoms, conditions, and maladies, so that the general diagnosis may be deduced, but only the author/patient can foster the cure.

The alcoholic of Akbar’s poems has a mother ill with cancer, a father whose Islam he emulates as a child, and a host of lovers he cannot quite have. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating In Space With Severed Umbilicus,” published this last fall in Poetry, the speaker leaps into a pond “with a lonely blonde boy,” and is smitten by the youthful abandon. “I could not be held responsible/for desire he could not be held at all.” Such scenes as these do the romantic drunks posit as the early stages of their illness.

Akbar also cites culture as a grand donor of genetic disease, quoting the great Persian poet Rumi, another wine-splashed wordsmith, but then dismisses the quote as “surely a mistranslation.” In the early months of 2017, it is nigh impossible to divorce the current political climate from the subtext of these poems, however personal and apolitical most of them might be. Akbar, and our titular alcoholic by extension, is the scion of Iran, one of many countries under the near-constant lens of scrutiny in the pre and post 45th administration Unites States. The great American pastimes of bigotry and fear are peripheral to most of the poems, but are best honed in “Desunt Nonnulla,” which likens the crippling of intemperance with the wonder of learning English secondhand… and the otherness it generates in the view of one’s peers. The poems of Danez Smith, another great Poet of Color in this dark age (Ocean Vuong may well make it a trinity) are laden with black bodies made ash and loam. Akbar’s identity as both an Iranian-American and an addict seem built of spider webs, a fragile détente between selves. He writes, “if you teach me something/beautiful I will name it quickly before it floats away.”

In the collection’s final poem, the Alcoholic seems on his way to some recovery, but such is never directly stated, same as all of life is never certain of its safety and comfort. The final poem finds the alcoholic on a desert island, a citizen apart in all cultural identities, building a boat

that “will never be done.” Just as peace has never touched the Middle East, has never fully united the Abrahamic faiths, has never balmed all addicts and fiends into waking tranquility, the alcoholism of Akbar’s poetry is open-ended. The history of struggle, singular or mass, is marked by its great battles, which exists thereafter in time as fixed points of collision, the moments in which no common understanding could properly blossom, where no solution was evident. To begin what already promises to be one of the most poignant careers in modern poetry in such a fatalistic rut means that what comes next must be better, must elevate itself. To see where they will go, the survivors of conflict—and there are so many conflicts in today’s world—must first look at the drunken nights behind them. The clarity is always just ahead.

Book Review – Krampus: The Yule Lord

From Gerald Brom, a man known for painting horrifying monsters, comes a novel that is quickly becoming a Christmas tradition in my household, and a perfectly bittersweet antidote for the usual saccharine Christmas stories. Let me put it this way, if Charlie Brown and the Grinch are the cookies and pie you have after Christmas dinner, then Krampus: The Yule Lord is Christmas dinner itself. Literal (literary?) soul food.

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