Becoming a Poet: Making It

This is the final post in the series.

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My mother has five children. She has always considered me her turtle. And I am–sometimes to my own frustration. But being a turtle works, too, because little by little, bead by bead, you are moving forward. All that matters is that you are moving forward—if only at a snail’s pace. Life is not a series of races to the finish line. I try to keep this in mind, but of course as a human I’ve often spent a lot of time frustrated that I wasn’t further along. The older I become I’ve made an effort to embrace my “turtle-hood” while also pushing myself to dive in.
What I want to say here is that even turtles make it to their destinations. For me, it was only by the love and grace of God. I’ve written a collection of poetry entitled MEND. These poems tell the story of women who were experimented on by Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, AL. Sims is known as the father of gynecology. It is heavy subject matter to be sure, but I was taken with this story. You can read more about MEND and my process of writing it here.
I made a choice to embrace and study what I was most passionate about. Every day I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.
I am pleased to say that last Thursday I signed a contract for MEND with University Press of Kentucky, as my book was accepted for publication in their New Poetry and Prose Series! My first full collection of poetry will be released in the fall of 2018!
To everyone reading this, your encouragement and acknowledgment have meant the world and made the difference. It has moved me forward and I thank you.

 

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Becoming A Poet: The MFA

I wish I was a better student and peer when I was in graduate school. I had an exceptional opportunity at the University of Alabama. I had free tuition and a monthly stipend. My professors in the creative writing program were kind. I finally had the chance to write and focus on the love of my life. It was a wonderful opportunity that I almost sabotaged.

Call it bad habits, depression or ADHD. Call it all of that. The bottom line was that I couldn’t allow myself to be happy and content doing what I could only dream of before. I was the first person in my family or social circle to pursue an MFA and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. My professors tried to help me, but they assumed I knew more than I did.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know (from what I can remember):
1) Spending time with your classmates outside of class is just as important as being present with them in class. The relationships developed with them are important because they could possibly be life-long editors and readers of your work and vice versa. (I met classmates I still love and communicate with, but I didn’t give of myself the way I was expected to.)
2) You pursue an MFA with the idea of a collection of some sort already brewing in your head. You write your work in themes that could possibly contribute to your first book. (I wrote poems of all topics, styles, etc., not realizing I should have been working towards a thesis.)
3) Showing up on time and being prepared are of the utmost importance.
4) Every “little thing” matters. 059
And so, suffice it to say, the hardest professional lessons I ever learned I learned in grad school. I was the only black woman in my program. I couldn’t hide or stay under the radar. I walked around not seeing myself and I thought others couldn’t either.
I’m thankful for the patience of my professors, particularly Joel Brouwer, for standing back and watching me grow. He had a quiet manner—in all things, really. His comments on my poetry were sparse and abstract, forcing me to stretch and grow as opposed to giving me direct guidance. It made me feel like I could be flexible with my work and with who I was–that there was room for me.

Here’s one story that still sticks out in my memory: One day I came to Joel’s office crying. I mean, ugly crying. I was taking a course in the English department with a professor known to be hard-nosed. One day he kept me after class to talk.  He was older, tenured and had written a ton of books.  He opened a text book and asked me a question.  In my brain, language—words, are flexible and come in categories. I often hear words and immediately see their homophones, or I am sent off thinking about how words compare to one another while someone is talking. The harder I try to focus, the worse this all gets. If I am tense or anxious it’s terrible. And I’m sure that day this was exactly what happened. I didn’t know what to call it then. The professor pointed to a sentence in the text and asked, “What do you call this?” I was already tense and anxious and I couldn’t answer him. I tried to, and he “clarified,” his question by saying, “no this,” and still pointing to the words. I couldn’t answer him. He was frustrated. He said I would have to withdraw. There was no way I was prepared to write the paper required for his class. I panicked.  I could feel the lump throb in my throat. I needed his class (it was a requirement to graduate) and he had never seen my writing! There was only one paper for the course and before I’d written it, he had told me I couldn’t write it. He made a snap decision about me that day founded on ideas that may have been partially true. The part that was true: I didn’t have a degree in English. I read voraciously on my own, but I hadn’t taken courses that required the level of academic writing he expected. The part that wasn’t: he had assumed, probably because of my background as a poet, my appearance and my lack of access to “his language,” that I wasn’t capable of academic writing. This experience cut deeply. That day when I burst into Joel’s office, he said, “What’s wrong, kiddo?” His arms opened immediately and I sobbed. He talked to me a long time that day, and again, I don’t remember what all he said, but how he made me feel. He made me feel I had value at a time when I didn’t see it for myself. Later, the aforementioned professor said he “would allow” for me to write the paper. It took several drafts, and I was afraid to turn it in, but I did, and I passed the class.
I’m not really sure why Joel believed in me, but I’m glad that he did. I still have no idea how he may have gone to bat for me. To be fair, other than this experience, my classes were informative and I was always excited to learn. I took poetic theory, forms courses, workshops and read poetry by a myriad of diverse writers, thanks to my creative writing professors.

A couple of years later I walked out of grad school beaten into shape. I had more to learn, but I was a professional. My writing techniques had sharpened and I’d added more tools to my poetic toolbox. I would continue to read and write, and I had a thesis!

Poetry as Protest (Protesting at the James Marion Sims Monument)

Read about James Marion Sims, here. Sims is known as the “father of gynecology.” He conducted gynecological surgery on at least eleven slave women without anesthesia from 1845-1849 in Mt. Meigs, Alabama. This case is the subject of my book of poetry.

It was the morning of the solar eclipse. I woke and started my day pretty normally—breakfast, dressing my daughters and doing their hair before they left for school. Between walking around the house with coffee and checking faces for crumbs, I mentioned the New York protest and  Steve Benjamin’s statement to my husband. Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, had just said he believed that of all the statues at the South Carolina statehouse, Sims’ statue should be removed.   Once the kids and Marcus were in the car and headed to school, Marcus called me on my cellphone.  “Let’s go to Columbia,” He said. “Do whatever you need to do, but let’s make it happen.” Since we have three young children together, Marcus and I always have to partner on all our ventures. We support each other’s careers and individuality.  We try to make it so that regardless of the fact that we have three young children, we both feel free to pursue the things that are important to us. I think honoring each other this way keeps our relationship strong.20170907183132_IMG_0476_1504971744566

After this call, my mind went in to overdrive.  I went to my computer. I started by finding the number of the mayor’s office. “Hello.” I said. “Uh, I read an article about how Mr. Benjamin is interested in having the Sims statue at the statehouse removed, and I wanted to offer my help.”

I awkwardly explained who I was and that I’d written a book on the case of Sims.

“Oh.” She said. “So you’re a poet, you’re a researcher…so, do you want to meet with the mayor? What’s your end goal?”

I told her I would call her back. I didn’t know what my end goal was. I didn’t know what form this need would take. I made calls and wrote emails all morning, trying to get in touch with a network of people I’d never met. I didn’t know anyone personally in Columbia. That day at work I was so exasperated and mentally worn out, I couldn’t even hold a conversation. I hate when I get like that. I call it hyper-focus. It’s when my mind gets so stuck on one thing that I can’t do or think of anything else, even if I want to. That night was the first of two weeks of sleepless nights.

“It’s just the first day,” Marcus said that night. “Of course nothing happened.”

But it did. I’d compiled a list of names— writers in South Carolina from a Cave Canem friend of mine. (Cave Canem is an organization for black poets.) Among this list of names, one stood out. Joy Priest. I contacted her on Facebook, found out she was at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and the wheels began to turn from that moment. I contacted the statehouse and Joy got an event form sent through by her department head. After we decided on a poetry marathon, we wrote an email to potential readers, and made decisions over the phone on how we wanted the event to go.

The statehouse offered electricity so we brought five heavy duty electrical cords that would stretch from the statehouse outlet out to the monument. Once I arrived in Columbia we had to buy three more electrical cords because the ones we had didn’t reach. We sped all the way to Lowe’s— I was driving and broke a few traffic laws, including running a red light to make a last minute deadly left into the Lowe’s parking lot, and thankfully Joy only nervously laughed while gripping the dashboard.

I wasn’t prepared for seeing the statue of Sims. For years I’d researched this story and never seen the monument in person. It was moving to actually stand in front of the depiction of a person who I knew had caused so much trauma to women whose voices I’ve sought to reverence.

I didn’t have time to process how it made me feel. The marathon began at two and lasted six hours. Ten readers read poems all day on women’s pain, histories, and empowerment. Lucille Clifton was there with her love, and Bettina Judd’s poems were read again and again.  Instead of a traditional protest, this was a meditation on the black female experience, and of course, in particular, on the experiences of the eleven unnamed women that were Sims’s experimental subjects.

Becoming A Poet: Belonging

Even though I practically slept in the computer lab on campus so I could write, I still wouldn’t call myself a poet. I didn’t own a laptop. Real poets looked cool, spoke cool, and wore cool shoes– not to mention they were mega-talented and mysterious. Real poets were bold. Would you be surprised to know that I still struggle with being bold? I’ve been reading and writing for almost twenty years and I still experience intense kfreeperiods of self-doubt. My nervousness threatens to overtake me every other time that I share my work.

By way of my creative writing classes, I’d discovered the reading series on my campus. A reading series is where a group of writers of various genres visit (usually a school campus) at specified times throughout the semester to read their work. A UA’s reading series, I heard the work of fiction writers, poets and creative non-fiction writers. Harryette Mullen (a black poet) came to U of A to read her poems and she was the first black (established) poet I’d ever met in person. I don’t remember our conversation but I remember her signing my copy of her book and as Maya Angelou would say, I remember how she made me feel. She made me feel as if I were already part of the writing community I desperately looked up to. She made me feel as if I already had what I wanted.  At that same reading I met Joel Brouwer, who would become my mentor and thesis advisor when I entered grad school. It was the first day we’d ever met, but he lent me a copy of “Sleeping With the Dictionary.”

I mentioned the awards I received during my junior year in an earlier post. That spring they were awarded in a formal ceremony. My parents and family surprised me by driving up from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend the event. After I received the awards from the creative writing department, Sandy Huss took me aside and said the words that would change my life: “All of the faculty here awarded these unanimously. If you apply to the MFA program here, you’ll definitely get in.” The “MFA” she spoke of was a Master of Fine Arts—in creative writing. An MFA was an opportunity for me to finally devote my life and learning to the art of poetry. There was a place for me. There was an opportunity to do exactly what I had always loved and needed to do. Poetry had never been my side-chick. It had always been the love of my life.

Becoming a Poet: I Choose You

I wasn’t a spoken word artist. The words moved out of me with a tangible rush as I read, but as much as I loved vowels I didn’t stretch them out over my tongue and colorfully use my hands and body while I read. I wrote poems we writers call “for the page,” about childhood, the color green, riding on the bus, or a tree that fell outside my dorm during a storm. I sat in the crowds of spoken word events, marveling at the performers that entered the stage, bravely and confikpearldently commanding the room.

By the time I entered my first poetry workshop, I was in emotional recovery as stated in an earlier post. It was fall and while I was still struggling, I looked forward to every class. I’d wait for my poetry class on a bench outside the building for as long as an hour. I wanted every drop I could squeeze from it. My instructor was Abraham Smith, a fierce-eyed man so in love with poetry it left one with no doubt of its importance in the world.  Abe was a poetry-zealot. Everything he wrote, from our class assignments to an email, appeared in poetic form. He even spoke poetry. I soaked it all in. How blessed I am that he was my first poetry instructor.

When the class was over, Abe offered to continue responding to my poems. I would put a poem in his box every week or so, and he’d put it back in his box with comments. Then, I didn’t understand what a sacrifice that was of his time. (I thanked him, of course, but I had no idea.) By spring semester I was taking my second poetry class with Joyelle McSweeney, and a fiction writing class with Maraya Cornell. Maraya was aware of my interest in poetry, and she nominated me for a departmental writing prize. Imagine my astonishment when a few weeks later I received an email that read: “Congratulations: Best Undergraduate Creative Writer.” And a few minutes after that, “Best Undergraduate Poet.” I couldn’t believe it! The University of Alabama’s Creative Writing faculty had awarded my poetry two significant prizes in one day.

Becoming a Poet: The Side-Chick

At 17 years old I made a decision that would change the course of my life. I moved eight hours away from home (Charleston, S.C.) and began my college education in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  I didn’t know anyone. My biological father lived in the same town, but he would continue to be MIA for as long as nine months at a time.

After my first semester, I declared my major as English. However, askwater I took courses, I realized that analyzing literature wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to create it. I changed my major three times. I switched to Journalism, and then to Human Development and Family Studies–finally deciding on being a marriage counselor. Poetry would have to be my side-chick.

The thing is, I didn’t know that creative writing existed as a genre. I knew what I wanted, but I thought I had to take English literature classes in order to get it. One day leaving class I noticed a flyer in Morgan Hall that read, “Creative Writing: 15 hours that could change your life!” It detailed classes for poetry and fiction. I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I signed up for my first poetry class the next semester.

It was the spring of my sophomore year when I heard this news, and that summer I decided to go home and stay until fall. I quit my part-time job as a collector at Wal-Mart Corporate Office and traveled back to South Carolina.  Here’s where the story changes and I’m sorry that I can’t give many details: while there I experienced a traumatic family event that knocked me off my feet. It was so personally devastating that it left me clinically depressed for months.

I didn’t want to leave my bed. I woke crying. I hate to sound cliché, but I was so miserable I thought I was going to die–mainly because I felt I didn’t deserve to live. Alone and away from so many people I knew, I floundered. I stepped out of who I knew I was meant to be. And I wrote. I wrote crying on the greyhound bus that took me back to school. I wrote in the computer lab on campus, in the library, and even in the gym. I wrote until I couldn’t see the computer screen anymore.  It felt like something I had to do. To get it out how I needed to, in the words I didn’t always say out loud.

Becoming a Poet: Just Messing Around

little kMaya Angelou was the balm to my loveless and desperate teenage heart. She knew what it was like to love and not be loved back. She wrote about black womanhood in a way that inspired me. One of her well-known poems, “Phenomenal Woman,” changed the way I saw myself. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, I’d read Angelou’s autobiographies, so I knew about her struggles with her self-esteem and how she was often put down by others concerning her appearance. At thirteen I wondered: How could person who spent years not speaking grow up to be so powerful? I knew I wanted that. And because her poetry was so accessible, I felt like I could do it, too.
So just like that, my work as a poet truly began. I practiced writing poems the way she did.  Beginning writers would think of this as a form of plagiarism, but it’s actually a way of practice. You have to read to write. You have to know what’s out there, and practice your favorite “brush strokes” until you perfect them, and then make something altogether unique.
By high school I began to have dreams of being a writer. And by dreams, I mean just that. The idea felt lofty and far away. How would I make money? How would I get a book published? I needed a real job. The only full-time writer in my family was a journalist. Maybe I could be a journalist and write poetry on the side. But of course for me, poetry wouldn’t stay in its place. It would refuse to be my side chick, though I didn’t know it at the time.
The poems I wrote by senior year came every day. I wrote so many poems I gave them away. They were silly poems about random things like cheese or pee. Seriously. But they were so satisfying to write and they amused my friends. They were so playful and fun, I didn’t know I was exercising my poetry muscle. I still have a friend from high school who read most of these poems. Every once in a while he posts something silly on my Facebook wall that makes no sense, just to remind me of them.
Poetry was already making a way for me by adding joy to my days, and I began to see writing as the gift it was.