Historical Persona Poetry and the Challenge of Authority

This month, I am pleased to introduce guest blogger, Kwoya Fagin Maples, author of the new poetry collection, Mend, which I just pre-ordered on Amazon. You should, too! 

Historical persona poetry is poetry written in the voice of someone or something else other than the writer. It is unique in that the voice recalls a particular history. The scenes and situations may be imagined by the writer, but they are based on real people and events.

In Turn Me Loose: the Unghosting of Medgar Evers, Frank X Walker writes in the voice of Medgar Evers’ murderer, (Byron De La Beckwith), De La Beckwith’s wife, Medgar Ever’s wife and even the bullet that killed Medgar Evers. In Brutal Imagination, a poetry collection by Cornelius Eady, Eady writes in the voice of an imagined black man who was created by Susan Smith to cover up the murder of her own children. In this case, Eady uses an imaginary person/character who never existed to reveal the real story of Susan Smith, and to highlight the injustice and effects of the accusation. More recently, Jeanie Thompson explores the rich life of Helen Keller in The Myth of Water.  I could list others, but these books were my chief companions for my own collection of historical persona poetry.

My own collection, Mend, tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. It is based on a case of medical experimentation that occurred in Mt. Meigs, Alabama, between 1845 and 1849. I didn’t set out to write such a collection. I was simply intensely stunned by the story when I encountered it. More than anything, the lack of information and records about the women is what compelled me to write about them. The first poem I wrote for Mend came in the voice of a traditional “speaker” of a poem. It was suitably titled “The Door,” and later, my editor chose it to be the prefatory poem for the book.

Doubt was my loudest enemy the entire time I wrote this collection, particularly because it was historical persona poetry. I wasn’t writing in my own voice. I was trying to imagine the experience of people who existed in a different time and circumstance than myself.  I couldn’t help asking, who was I to write this story? Did my blackness and my gender alone authorize me to tell it? The answer I gave myself was no. After writing “The Door,” I stopped writing and conducted research. It was a year before I would begin writing poems again. I poured through hundreds of slave narratives and read several books surrounding the case, including Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, which related several cases of medical experimentation conducted on people of color in the United States. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other unnamed women of Mt. Meigs were not alone. I found that medical experimentation was commonly practiced by doctors and slave holders. In her book, Washington uses the term “medical plantations,” arguing that what yielded for these doctors (instead of a traditional crop) was advancement and wealth in their respective fields. (The poem I wrote in direct response to this idea is “What Yields,” an eleven-sectioned sonnet corona.)

After spending so much time in research, when the poems came again for the book, they came in the voices of the women themselves. I still had doubt to fight—at every turn— but the unfairness of the story and it needing to be told pushed me forward. Some poems I wrote came in scenes that surprised me— tender scenes of catching lightning bugs and nursing newborns. There were also poems where the women pointedly held the doctor accountable and criticized his actions. Ultimately, the poems don’t just reveal the devastation of what happened to the women. I wanted to explore who they were as humans, and it became my purpose to display an array of human emotion. We are all complex beings.

Ultimately, I made a decision, not about who I was as a writer, but about who these women were to me. They were my elders. They wanted to tell me a story to remember. Like my own family members who make me still my body and listen, they called for my attention.  I made an effort to give it.

Mend is available for purchase at all major book sellers including Amazon. To purchase directly from the University Press of Kentucky, click here: bit.ly/MaplesMend.

Kwoya Fagin

KWOYA FAGIN MAPLES is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow. In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours(2010) her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend, was finalist for the AWP Prize and is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky. Edited by Lisa Williams, Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

Maples teaches creative writing and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.

 

 

 

 

Conjuring Autumn

This summer, my wife and I took our belated honeymoon to Iceland. (In the above photo, a group of us left our kayaks to climb a glacier.) The weather was in blissful contrast to late July in Alabama. We giggled as we packed our thermals, which neither of us had ever owned. (She is from Mobile, AL, and I am from Southern California. Even when I lived in Flagstaff, AZ, the snow storms, which are actually significant, usually melted within a few days. Despite the cold weather, the Arizona sun kept the place from looking like the midwest and me, from Seasonal Affective Disorder.) 

Visiting Iceland felt like going to a different planet, in the best way possible. During the first week, after we returned to the south, I dreamed every night of volcanic rock and steam, glaciers, black sand, and the Blue Lagoon. By and by, the south’s version of hell (also known as August) crept in, and I began to feel dull and antsy. I recall when I first moved to Mississippi, and my fellow grad student and I were walking across campus in late August. My skin felt like it was on fire but somehow, also wet. “What’s wrong?” asked my southern friend. “I feel like I’m in a little, jar of mayonnaise,” said I. 

Needless to say, I am looking forward to autumn, and I believe that if you really want to banish something, like August in Alabama, you should praise it first. Here is a poem from a wonderful anthology, that I bought in Iceland, called Icelandic Poetry, translated by Bernard Scudder.

I have taken a picture of the poet’s name so that I won’t mess it up! I was unable to find much information, so if anyone knows more about this poet, please tell me.

In the Love of the Sun

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You
with the fingerprints of the wind
on your skin
and the love of the sun
on your forehead

upon her touch
the roses burst into bloom
like red kisses
in the garden

you bring me one
I feel it touch my soul
eyes and hands

hot 
so hot 
like your presence

The next poem is my favorite by James Wright, “Beginning.” For a long time, I had thought of this poem as taking place in autumn, which shows you how much I know about farming. The darkness and peace always made me think of the weather getting cooler. However, I now know that wheat is harvested in August, at the latest. I do not relate as much to this poem as I used to, for I would never voluntarily leave the air-conditioning in August. Regardless, I’ll never get over the line “The moon drops one or two feathers into the field,” nor will I ever recover from the last two lines, which knock me over every time I read it.

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

And now, let us invite autumn to arrive as soon as possible! Below are the poems “Autumn” by Rainer Maria Rilke and “Eating Alone,” one of my favorite Li-Young Lee poems, which isn’t specifically about autumn but satisfies in its cozy, lonely tone.

Autumn 

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Eating Alone

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions. 
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold, 
brown and old. What is left of the day flames 
in the maples at the corner of my 
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes. 
By the cellar door, I wash the onions, 
then drink from the icy metal spigot. 

Once, years back, I walked beside my father 
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall 
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But 
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced 
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my 
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet 
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice. 

It was my father I saw this morning 
waving to me from the trees. I almost 
called to him, until I came close enough 
to see the shovel, leaning where I had 
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade. 

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas 
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame 
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness. 
What more could I, a young man, want.

—Li-Young Lee

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this month, folks! If you are a lover of hot weather, don’t worry, the fire shall return! I’m indifferent regarding the whole pumpkin spice phenomenon, but for pumpkin spice-lovers—cheers! And a happy upcoming Mabon to all!

P.S. If you are interested in more Iceland photos, my wife has included many of them, including some delightful short videos, on her blog, Notoriously Episcopalian. 

 

But That’s Not My Name

Growing up, the only other people I knew with the name “Shanti” went to my church (which I wrote about in “Christians and Buddhists and Pagans, O My!”). People always pronounced my name correctly there, but everywhere else, it was touch and go. For some reason, many people want to call me “Shanty,” which is an actual word that means “poorly built shack.” I’ve always found it strange that someone would assume that’s what my parents named me; however, we do live in a country that allowed a teenage boy to legally change his name to “Trout Fishing in America.” Meanwhile, in France, the law does not allow anyone to bestow names on children that may result in mockery. For instance, the names “Nutella” and “Strawberry” were nixed in 2015. Go France!

The mispronunciation of my name got more complex, as I got older. Once a man asked my name, and when I replied, “Shanti,” he clarified, “Shanita?” 

At a previous job, a co-worker called me a record-breaking number of variations of my name, over the course of several weeks. “Shantaqua,” “Shantell,” “Chantal,” and then, one day, “Shania!” I had grown accustom to responding to any “Shh” sound that came out of this guy’s mouth, and so I turned around. He proceeded to ask Shania on a date. 

This year, I started working on a book of poems about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wrote “What’s in a Name: Picard Calls Lt. Barclay ‘Broccoli,’” (first published in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, V18, N1) after watching the episode “Hollow Pursuits.” Lt. Barclay, a nervous, annoying Starfleet officer, secretly nicknamed “Broccoli” by the annoying Wesley Crusher, has no friends and bad holodeck manners. 

On a side note, I don’t think anyone should have been allowed to conjure images of people already alive, while on the holodeck. I always found it interesting how STNG managed to thoroughly disinfect holodeck indiscretion plots. No amount of sanitation makes it less creepy to me, though. And to my recollection, only the dudes did it, and I thank the TV gods that holodecks don’t exist in other sci-fi shows, like the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, because that would have gotten nnnaaaasssty! 

Anyway, in my poem, I wanted, first, to identify with Lt. Barclay’s name issue, by sharing my own struggles with interpretative pronunciations. However, I also wanted to address the creepy way he used the holodeck to fulfill fantasies regarding the ship’s crew. In “Hollow Pursuits,” Barclay’s addiction to his holodeck storylines are further exasperated every time he clashes with Commander Riker or shies away from the attractive Counselor Troi. To make matters worse, after Picard does his darnedest to stop people from disrespecting Barclay, he slips and calls him “Broccoli.” 

In the last stanza of my poem, I wanted to focus on the darker aspect of the episode: how he dehumanizes his fellow crew members by rewriting them as flat characters who can never evolve or leave the parameters of his narrative invention. I also wanted to tie that idea to the way women, in our time, are similarly dehumanized to harmful and troubling effect. Women are often first considered sexual objects, but then, if any further dimensions are added to the woman, she soon becomes stereotyped as evil or undeserving, despite any reasonable notion of reality. In the poem, I liked the idea of entwining simple name mistakes with the much bigger problem of removing someone’s depth, which leaves them an easy target, and easily subjugated, at least in the mind of the objectifier.   

If you have any good mistaken name stories, anything cool to say about STNG, or anything generally cool to say, please reply in the comments!

To hear the audio version, click here:

 

What’s in a Name: Picard Calls Lt. Barclay “Broccoli”

I tell them my last 
name is pronounced 
“Why-land,” as in, why
is it pronounced that way?
But my first name stumps. 
They want to call me 
a broken house, some old
lady by the riverfront. They claim 
that some say it 
pahs-ta, some pass-ta, 
but I say, think 
of your favorite 
Sean or Shawn,
that man or woman 
who held you close, 
told you how clever 
you were the day you fixed
the water heater.
Now, give that person 
a cup of tea. “Shawn-tea.”

It’s different 
for Broccoli.
Even Picard 
screws that up.
Barclay’s nickname,
and creepy holodeck
programs, left us
zipping up our tops
higher than ever,
but I get it. Suspicion 
makes sense until they need you 
on the bridge.
Trust’s a virtue until they call you 
“Broccoli.” 

But your holodeck fantasies 
were blunt. Deanna’s your babe; 
Riker’s your bitch.
In my day, a poet named
Lucille Clifton once claimed
it’s only a matter
of time before a discussion
about women turns 
to witchcraft. You can see 
it, right? How my clear plans, 
in a world of men, well-lit
streets where all 
red riding hoods make it
safely to grandma’s, 
seemed dark to them?

Say Cheese, America!

Happy 4th of July, everyone! Today, I find myself remembering the year I spent overseas, after I had graduated from college. One of my English roommates told me that he could always spot a group of Americans from across the room. When I asked how he could tell, he took a slow drag off his cigarette and smiled slightly. “White socks and white teeth,” he said. 

There’s much about America to discuss, besides our sporty ensembles and bleached teeth, but today, I’m going to share one of my favorite poems called, “History with a Smile,” by Paul Hostovsky. I’ve linked the poem below. 

Today’s blog is short, as is the history of our country. 

https://bestpoem.wordpress.com/category/paul-hostovsky/

Screenshot 2018-07-04 17.02.22

Women and Demons

A few months ago, I wrote about the way I’ve been remembering Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Security Chief, Tasha Yar (“Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives”) as a much stronger character than she was actually written. I’m glad to look back and see how narratives about women have improved. Even in the year between the release of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, I see a shift from using women’s strength as a punchline (Wonder Woman) to expressing it as a simple fact (Black Panther). 

The other day, I watched the first episode of Picnic at Hanging Rock, an Amazon Prime series based on a novel that, I admit, I have never read. The show seems ripe for drama, with a seemingly overstrict all-girls finishing school in 1900, run by a mysterious widow, played by Natalie Dormer. 

SPOILER ALERT FOR EPISODE ONE AHEAD:

In the first episode, I felt creeping dread as I watched the young women get sexually harassed, assaulted, and generally treated like a decorative side dish. (Although I didn’t mind that one of the girls stuck a pitch fork in that jerk’s foot.) It’s not that I’ve never seen or read this type of narrative (and it is, indeed, a valid narrative that is lived by many women, even in 2018) but I’m tired of it. 

I believe that words cast spells. While I do think it’s important to recognize the wrong direction, it is equally important to steer the ship toward the desired destination. So, imagine my relief, when I learned that the true villain in Picnic at Hanging Rock appears to be just some sort of demon. Somehow, it was a great relief to me that the dark and drunken force that lures the vulnerable teenage girls into…well, wherever they are…was not another misbehaved dude who needs anything from sensitivity training to a prison sentence. Demons, I can handle. Maybe, later in the series, the demons will reveal their misogyny. I don’t know. I may or may not finish the series; I’ve recently gotten into Samurai Jack. I’m a bit TV flaky, these days.

This month, I offer you two performance pieces: Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution” and Joy Harjo’s “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear.” Both poems describe moving forward in a new and improved direction. Enjoy!

UPDATE: I finished Picnic at Hanging Rock last night. Apparently, it was inner demons and the relentless patriarch and corsets. Fair enough.

 

Cats!

I suppose most people long to be where they aren’t. I grew up in Glendale, CA, which is about twenty minutes from Hollywood. However, what I really wanted was to live in the woods. The picture below is of the first apartment building that I remember living in (although those blue panels were brown in the 70s). Our apartment unit was the one in the very back, on the second floor. At the time, it was the only apartment building on the block. 

Screenshot 2018-04-21 21.03.14

Those were the days when “free range kids” were just called, “kids,” and I roamed the neighborhood by myself, when I was four or five years old. Being the smallest kid in the neighborhood meant that either the kids took care of me, or they picked on me. Usually, though, I was content to play alone. There was a parameter that I was allowed to play within unless my mom let me go around the corner to the liquor store to buy a root beer and a 3 Muskateers candy bar. Our neighbor, Helen (her house is on the left in this photo) an elderly woman who wore an old-Hollywood-style turban, graciously allowed me to play in her front yard, since my family did not have one.

One summer, my mom and dad and I flew to Indiana to visit my mother’s side of the family. I was dropped off at my Aunt Doris’ house for the weekend, while my parents visited friends. My aunt had a small farm and a barn. One morning, she said, “Ok, go outside and play.” I asked where I was allowed to play outside, and she looked puzzled and said, “Anywhere outside.” I took off running and weaved through the corn fields. The world seemed limitless. 

At some point, it started to rain, and I headed for the barn. All the while, my aunt’s cats had been following me. In the barn, we hung out together on some hay. Earlier that weekend, one of my older cousins had taken me up a ladder to the barn’s loft and had guided me over the wooden planks, that had huge missing pieces in them, so that I could see the newborn kittens. They were wiggling and crawling over each other in a box. I have a vague memory of being allowed to gently pick up one and hold it, as long as the mama didn’t get upset. They looked like little hamsters. 

As the rain fell outside, I crept up the ladder by myself and carefully stepped over the child-sized holes of the loft to watch the kittens nurse. After it stopped raining, I returned to the house, and my aunt and I sat at the kitchen table, snapping peas with my cousins. My magical cat-friends remained outdoors, which to me, felt like the wild.

I had met cats before, of course. I loved my Hollywood grandma’s tuxedo cat, Muffin. I had been charmed by my grandparents’ neighbor cat, a Siamese who bit everyone but me. However, there was something magical about being released into the country with them, speeding through fields and cuddling them in the barn.                 

I have had two cats of my own, Mouse and Iggy, both of whom performed magic daily. They apparated around the house, edited my poetry, and slinked in and out of my dreams. I still believe that, at least one of them, maintained a secret blog. 

7635E2ED-B5E9-4E33-9F13-BE89811E0BA5
Iggy and me, earlier this year.
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Mouse Cat Weiland and me, early in our adventure together. (Circa 2004)

As it is finals week, and I am busy herding metaphorical cats, I will simply leave you with a website that features cat poems; photos of Ernest Hemingway with his babies; and a somewhat disturbing Cats number, which is based on T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Naming of Cats.” If you have a favorite cat poem or a picture of you with your little fluffball, please share them in the comments! 

http://www.mustlovecats.net/Cat-Poems.html

 

 

New Moon, New Nightmare

Recently, I was sitting outside with my neighbors, Rhonda and Rachel. We were enjoying infused vodka and joking about the frisky birds and bees, weaving around our drinks like drunken teenagers. Spring had sprung. Rhonda reminded us that the new moon was that night, which meant it was time to release the past.

I remembered a yoga teacher telling me the same thing, the week before, and figured that, if two people had mentioned it, I’d give it a go. I looked up at the pale, blue sky and thought that I’d like to let go of neediness. My neediness isn’t particularly blatant. I like spending long stretches of time alone, and I need my independence. I can take care of myself. But, for the last year, I have been wanting stronger relationships with people who, put simply, are just not willing to play. I finished my vodka and hoped the new moon would take care of the rest.

That night, I had one of those long, multi-faceted dreams that seem to last through morning. I dreamed, vaguely, about a family member who recently dropped me from her life; friends in the recent past, and from a million years ago, whose behavior left me confused and hurt. I’ve always found it interesting that every time I silently declare a shift, my subconscious delivers backlash in the tone of “Oh, you mean this pain?”

Oh, you mean this pain

Also, once I start thinking about a topic, it shows up everywhere. Lately, I keep hearing conversations about aging, which is not unusual, I realize; this is America. My peers are mostly 40-somethings, and from what I’ve seen so far, women tend to fall into two camps regarding growing older. The first group can’t stop whining about it, and the rest of us just want to be happy.

Is that assessment completely fair, though? When I first saw my wedding photos (I got married when I was 42) the thought popped into my head that I would have looked better in that dress ten years ago. However, I also remembered that I did not want to get married ten years ago. If I had done so, I would have gotten the photos back and noticed the look of anxiety and defeat on my taut, symmetrical face. And really, what’s the point in that? Still, society’s unreasonable demands find their way into our heads and ask us to cling and need what is already gone.

It’s easy to recognize large shifts in life: going away to college, beginning a new career, getting married. Many times, though, the little shifts are more profound. Below, I’ve included Tony Hoagland’s “Beauty” and Louise Glück’s “Here Are My Black Clothes.” Both poems deal with leaving behind what no longer serves.

If you know a poem that deals with moving forward (or have written one) please share with us in the comments below! Also, tell me if you have a good new moon story!

Beauty

When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

Tony Hoagland, “Beauty” from Donkey Gospel. Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Here Are My Black Clothes

I think now it is better to love no one
than to love you. Here are my black clothes,
the tired nightgowns and robes fraying
in many places. Why should they hang useless
as though I were going naked? You liked me well enough
in black; I make you a gift of these objects.
You will want to touch them with your mouth, run
your fingers through the thin
tender underthings and I
will not need them in my new life.

Louise Glück “Here Are My Black Clothes” From The House on Marshland The Ecco Press 1975

Photo Credit: Kelley Hudlow