Lieutenant Yar on Vacay: Secret Longings and Writing the Death Scene

My mother used to go to a particularly woo-woo chiropractor in Malibu, CA. I tagged along one evening, and as we wound cliffs that overlooked the Pacific and into his long, gravel driveway, huge amethyst geodes glinting across his lawn. I never forgot this scene, not because of its beauty or because of the chiropractor’s eccentric personality; rather, I remember it clearly because it is where, a week earlier, my mother met Denise Crosby, the actress who played Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. She had gotten Crosby’s autograph for us kids, and my fourteen-year-old heart could have burst.

I recently wrote about my childhood affinity for Tasha Yar in “Well It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives.” When my mother met Denise Crosby, Tasha Yar’s character had already been killed off in an episode where some sludge monster offed her in the first twelve minutes (“Skin of Evil”). Later, they brought her back (“Yesterday’s Enterprise”) only to kill her again in a more guns-blazing fashion. The latter was a better move since they were able to write Denise Crosby a role as Tasha Yar’s part Romulan daughter (long story) who is the same age as Tasha would have been, in the “current” Enterprise’s timeline (temporal rift + math = headaches). 

I have been writing a book of poems about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not surprisingly, I’ve written several poems about Tasha Yar. Recently, Cahoodaloodaling published my poem, “Tasha Yar At Her Best” for their “Joy Sticks” issue. As I was looking for poems that express finding joy without using the word “joy” (which was the requirement of that issue) I thought of this poem’s take on Tasha’s true desires. 

I thought Tasha was usually portrayed as either particularly hard or particularly vulnerable. When not flipping around men and telling off Q, she’s crying in the penalty box and catching the sexy disease that makes her hot for Data. In my poem, I wanted to write her character as more complex, which in my mind, means “normal.” I gave her mundane life challenges:  unreasonable family expectations, a difficult daughter, and a father-figure she could never quite please. In the show, Tasha Yar wanted to die in battle, to lose her life for the protection of others, but I wanted her to harbor a secret wish to die by the pool, while in the midst of a pleasant holiday. I wanted her to relish the idea of peace and pleasure, to soften her without diminishing her strength. I also wanted her afterlife to be exciting instead of assigning her the usual “rest in peace” trope.

Writing about death is challenging since most of us have no proof of anything. My favorite life after death poem is Langston Hughes’ “Sylvester’s Dying Bed.” During most of the poem, the last of Sylvester’s life is filled with “moanin’,” “cryin’,” and “beggin’” (mostly done by all his “pretty mamas”) until the very end “When the Lawd put out the light. // Then everything was darkness / In a great…big…night.” I love the contrast between noise and silence, chaos and calmness, and the way he slows the poem with ellipses after Sylvester’s death.

Instead of slowing Tasha’s afterlife and illustrating a dark calmness, I gave her “colored panels, / indigo and reds, the fire-pink / of cherry blossoms,” and let her slip “into the deep / and changing sea.” 

Considering Tasha’s various incarnations, coupled with the strict regime of Starfleet, I think a colorful, flexible afterlife would begin a proper adventure, hopefully, immune to sludge-monsters and defeating time loops!

To  read “Tasha Yar At Her Best,” click here.

Or listen to it here…

 

To read “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” click here.

To hear an awesome jazz version of “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” click below!

Samhain and The Art of Being Weird

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday for two reasons: costumes and the fact that it in no way involves my family. Back when I used to go home for the holidays, I lamented November 1st as I packed away my wigs or wings and ate the last of the pumpkin seeds. Soon, I knew, would come the descent into family conflict and inevitable loneliness. However, I felt much better once I simply stopped going “home” for the holidays. I began enjoying Friendsgivings, Christmas potlucks, even holidays I spent alone. One of my favorite Christmas days was during the first year of my Ph.D. program in Mississippi. I spent the day merrily hanging pictures in my new apartment, eating stuffing out of a mug (sorry, Southern Californians call it “stuffing”), and watching movies on my comfy futon. I didn’t even mind the gloomy winter weather.

During the last few years, I’ve paid more attention to seasonal changes and my physical environment. I moved to Birmingham, AL in 2014, and although I now live in the middle of the city, I find myself surrounded by more wildlife than I ever experienced in the rural town of Northport, AL. I have enjoyed the turn of each season and walking around my yard to see what has bloomed, or in the winter, what has hidden itself away till spring.

After studying the seasons and the nature around me, for a couple years, I recently felt inspired to read about Pagan holidays, which very much revolve around seasons and, more to the point, farming. In addition to farming rituals, such as canning what one will need for winter, celebrating Samhain involves honoring one’s ancestors on October 31st. It is believed that the “veil between worlds” is thinner on that day, and therefore, it is easier to hear messages from the beyond. This holiday is rather internal: remembering the past and preparing for the scarcity of winter.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it was like to live off the land. Most of us don’t need to can food (nor would most of us even know how) because we can drive to a grocery store that supplies nearly all types of food year-round. As for ancestors, I originally liked the idea of observing a day that honors them. However, as the 31st grew near, I felt a stressful gloom. I decided, finally, that I have enough trouble with my corporeal family. I honestly don’t even want to know what my ancestors think of me.

So, Samhain came and went. I dressed as Mother Nature for Halloween and my wife as a woodland creature. We went with some of our neighbors to take their kids trick or treating. I love the street we live on. It feels like the good kind of familial, a healthy family that knows one another but gives them space to be who they are and grow, as they will.

I think part of the problem with ancestors is that they’re not here, moving forward with us in the same way. As in winter, they’re living the part of the cycle that’s invisible to us. Perhaps their spirits are still here, but we can’t hear them anymore than we can see the green grass, hibernating until warmer weather. For instance, my grandmother and I were very close. She died when I was in my late twenties, several years before I started dating women. In my mind, our relationship remains where it physically ended. I never disappointed her by marrying a woman, and I know that, at least when she was alive in the flesh, she would have been disappointed. There is so much about my grandmother that I love. She taught me how to crochet. We read poetry together. Most importantly, she knew how to make me laugh, especially when I was overwhelmed with the grief of home life.

Who knows? Maybe she would have evolved with the times. Maybe not. It makes me feel a little weird sometimes, having two relationships with the same person—one in my memory and one that I currently cannot prove I’m having. The latter I experience when I feel my grandmother’s presence or the delight I used to know when I visited her Hollywood apartment or when a hummingbird flies so close to me that I can see the glint of its feathers.

However, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t feel weird, especially when it comes to family. The School of Life recently released a good video that explains one reason that everybody feels weird and disconnected from others. (To watch, click here.) They hypothesize that, because no one ever fully reveals themselves, people think they are the only ones who feel or think “weird things.”

That most people feel weirder than others is perhaps the weirdest part of weirdness, especially when family, friends, and society do everything they can to trim us down to what can be considered “normal” (by weirdos). And, back to Paganism, as much as nature helps ease my own feelings of disconnect, I see no evidence that societies of old did much better in connecting, loving, and honoring one another. Maybe that’s why it is easier to honor the dead: they are no longer around to disagree or to disrupt the image you’ve assigned them, be it benevolent or otherwise.

I don’t really know if there’s an art to being weird, but there certainly is art about weirdness. Today, I will leave you with two poems. The first is Lucille Clifton’s “i was born with twelve fingers.” The second is a poem that probably everyone can relate to: Philip Larkins’ “This Be the Verse.”

Blessed be, y’all!

Click here to listen to “i was born with twelve fingers”

Click here to listen to “This Be the Verse”

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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