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.


Becoming a Poet: Before I Found Poetry

This is the beginning of a series that tells the story of how I became a poet and why I love poetry. That’s me (second from the left) standing (very) awkwardly with a group of friends. young kwoya

When I was in elementary school, I looked around at my classmates and saw budding musicians, gymnasts, and confident leaders and I thought: Where do I fit in? I’m not particularly good at anything. Except reading. Of course at that time, I’d only found books…fiction mainly. I loved fairy tales (I read stories from all around the world) and soon finished the entire shelf of fairy tales in our school library. One of my parents’ favorite jokes is how I mistakenly thought I had to read 20 books in two weeks for “BOOK IT,” a reading program that was sponsored by Pizza Hut during the late ‘80’s. I managed to meet my goal, but nagged my parents to their wits end in the process. Needless to say, my journey as a poet began with being an avid reader.

My first book publication came in the form of my 4th grade teacher “publishing” our books by binding them and putting them in the school library. The title of my book was “SAY WHAT???” and it told the story of me finding out I was going to have a little sister. I wish I could find a copy of it now and repackage it to be the Caldecott Prize winning book I thought it was at the time! In middle school my language arts teacher read a descriptive paragraph of mine and left the room to show it to another teacher immediately. She didn’t say much, but she told me I was good at descriptive writing.  Back then, moments like that meant a lot to me. I wasn’t a student who demanded or even sought attention. I often chose to stay in the background and under the radar. This is part of the reason why now as an instructor, I call on students who are reluctant to speak up because I know there is part of them that desperately wants to share, and yes, be noticed.

By 8th grade, I’d read all of the fiction books in my library that I thought were worth reading. Our school librarian had even begun to lend me her personal books.  She knew I was desperately serious about reading. I’d seen the books of Maya Angelou’s poetry on the library racks, but I always avoided them. I thought it would be boring. When I finished reading Angelou’s autobiographies, however, all that was left was her poetry. I checked out my first book of poetry, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and began reading. I was immediately struck with the realization that this was another world of language I wasn’t aware of. There existed a “secret code” within the English language that the people around me didn’t know. If I could learn this language, I could understand and experience things others couldn’t. That impetus is what began my love for poetic language. Poetry wasn’t boring. It was mysterious, captivating and edible, like all good art should be.

Is Black Motherhood Radical?

IMG_0015.JPGAs you may know I have three young children. Whenever I have them in public it’s always a gamble. Sometimes they are calm and quiet, and sometimes they frustrate me,  leave me frazzled and feeling like a failure. I receive looks of all kinds, namely from people who either pity me or wonder why I tried to bring my children out in the first place. Then there are other looks…beyond judgement, that come mainly from white people. I’m alone with three kids, black, “a single mom”–and I’m obviously struggling. Because I’m aware of the many ideas people may have about how I handle my four year old tantruming and screaming in the middle of the aisle, I choose patience. I talk calmly and quietly to my kids. I don’t shush them when they are singing a Moana song as loud as they can from the grocery cart. I don’t order them to “act well” in public. I try to allow them to be themselves. Do I teach them manners and how to conduct themselves? Absolutely. But I’m not going allow my children to be diminished for the sake of people who are inconsequential to their lives, and frankly for people who don’t value their lives. Cray white people, here’s what I want you to know: I love my children as much as you love yours. They are not less than your children because they are black. I am dedicated to their health and wellbeing. Black mothers are just as gentle, kind and patient with their children as white mothers. All children deserve that.

Don’t Wait (Bad title, I know.)

coy fish

I’m 34, and I’m just learning how to swim. I grew up in Charleston, and visited the ocean often, but I never learned to swim. I walked on my hands near the shoreline, even spent time holding my breath underwater, but I couldn’t survive in the 6 foot end of a pool. I kept promising myself I would take lessons, but I put it off.

Last year in 2016, I went through a time period when I was really down. There were so many things I wanted that I wasn’t accomplishing, and most of it had to do with my physical health. I have so many excuses—I’m a working mother of three young children, I’m a writer and a full-time teacher. It’s understandable if I don’t make it to the gym, or take good care of myself. But suddenly I got tired of my own excuses and decided to do something about what I wanted. I decided to live the life as close to the one I wanted as possible.

Last October during the low emotional point I mentioned above, I began to work out. I promised myself I would work out five days a week, and I did. I forgave myself days I couldn’t make it. I didn’t hold myself to a diet. The idea was just to develop the habit of working out Monday through Friday. It is now March 2017, and by the grace of God, I am still in practice. I try my best to take it one day at a time.

But back to swimming. A friend of mine, Daron Drew, knew that not being able to swim was a barrier. She is good at recognizing things that are holding me back. She arranged for me to get swim lessons and what a gift! I can now say that I know how to swim! I can breathe while doing the front crawl. Last week I swam in the 12 foot end of the pool!

I hope you begin something new today that you’ve wanted to do for a while. Call who you have to call, do your research, but begin.

Locker Room Talk

This is non-fiction. Trigger Warning: assault. 

Now imagine you are a Carolina girl in a navy blue and rose-colored dress made of the softest fabric. You’d bought the dress that very day in White Plains, exploring the city before heading back to your host’s estate. Imagine your shoulders are bare in the dress and the sun is going down in Tarrytown, New York, where you are a writer-in-residence. After attending an outdoor ballet performance and reception you are wandering in a sculpture garden admiring antique roses and stonework a century old.  You cannot contain the joy you feel, and it spills off in your conversations with strangers, while the dancers mingle with their private audience.

When monsters come to steal, they come for the life within you, the light within you. And suddenly, in front of a sculpture of David (you, lost in its beauty) the monster appears in the form of a security guard a retired police officer, he says, and you feel safe. You feel embraced, protected—you are behind gates. The guard calls for someone to drive you back to your guest house, itself a work of art. You are living in art. Your dress trembles in the shyest breeze as you climb into the truck. The guard holds the door open, like a gentleman, and in the opening between your thigh and dress, he inserts his hand. He squeezes your bare butt cheek twice, then slams the car door, quickly signaling for the driver to go. You freeze, stunned.  The night comes falling down around you in blue sheets. Words with nowhere to go pile up in your cheeks.


On Boldness

I nursbreastfeedinged my baby on the sidewalk. In the shadow created between two cars, I bent down and sat with her in the crook of my arm, lifted a breast out of my dress, and fed her.
I’d brought her to her first poetry reading. She was almost 5 months, so inside she’d been cooing and was starting to whine. Oh, the looks!
I decided to feed her to keep her calm, to buy more time for us to be there, so I ended up on the sidewalk. It was my first academic reading since having another baby.
Truth was, I was still healing from a c-section, still in awe of how quickly I was alright after giving birth a second time. (I’d had twins the first time.) I’d written a poem I call “TEETH” about this process, and I was going to read it. I’d dressed my baby in the same color dress as mine, a periwinkle blue. As I read a series of poems during the reading, my sister held her. My heart pounded the entire time I read, the way it always did when I did any form of public speaking. I had done my usual practice of focusing all of my nervous energy on not appearing nervous. Anxiety fluttered through me the entire time.
When it came time for me to read the poem “TEETH,” I had my sister bring my baby, whose name is Maya, to the stage. As soon as Maya was on my hip, pulling at my earring, her familiar weight in my arms, my entire body quieted. In me rose this sensation of ferocity, and I read the poem with a power purely motivated from living through bringing her and her sisters into the world.

Other than giving me strength, reading with Maya in my arms was something I needed to do. In my profession as a poet and academic, there are attitudes that are not supportive of parenting. As artists we are taught that our work is our primary focus and that anything that distracts from it is to be avoided. With each additional responsibility, our work suffers. And in some ways, it’s true. But having my children made me value the time I had to write. No more loitering in the bathtub or a coffee shop for hours! When I have opportunities to write, I do. There is no such thing as writer’s block when you have limited time. I’ve produced and published more work in the years since I’ve become a mother than any other time in my writing life. At the time, I needed to bring Maya to that reading and into that space with me to prove to myself that it wasn’t over. My work wasn’t over just because I’d become a mother.

I wish I could harness this power every time I read or did public speaking, but the truth is that most of the time I struggle. I consistently challenge myself in this area–I speak or read at several places a year, taking every opportunity I can, usually. I push myself by learning helpful tips and information about it. It’s always hard, and having a baby on hand is very rare! (And now–at their ages– my children would be screaming my name the entire time.):-)

What are some uncomfortable and bold things that you’ve done? What area(s) do you challenge yourself in?

See the reading I mentioned above here: (The first words missing in the recording are, “This body.”) Catch Maya and I around the 6 minute mark.)

Lena Dunham and I


LENA Dumb, man. But I think if I was sitting next to a young professional football player who was completely ignoring me, I may have experienced similar thoughts— that he discounted me as interesting, as a woman—and it would have made me feel bad, I’m just saying. I wouldn’t however, talk about it publicly, as if my thoughts were fact. Of course the most problematic part of this story lies in the fact that Lena Dunham is white and he was black, and that as a white woman, she was telling the story. And who is telling the story is so important; it is such a position of power. (See TedTalk,See History.) Lena Dunham needs more information.

The truth is, many women often feel entitled to men’s attention. (And I know this isn’t always played out noticeably. It’s usually all mental.) We want to be perceived as attractive and viable love interests. The more un-evolved and emotionally immature we are, the more hurt we are when we don’t receive that acknowledgement. I don’t want to relate to the men I meet by wondering whether or not they’re attracted to me. It’s ultra-ridiculous. I still have to consciously rely on my faith and check my thoughts regarding men. I like to think I’ve come a long way.   I want to be seen as human–first. The older I’ve become, I’ve recognized how necessary it is that I am seen as human, especially as a black woman. Not super-human, not on-fleek, not extraordinary, not the exception, not your kind of black woman, just human. See me like that. See me.