Writing

“when any heat at all rises,/ and becomes a visible thing”

When I was 24, my car broke down in Cherokee, Oklahoma, about 60 miles from my parents’ home, one week before I hopped on a plane that would take me to Fairbanks, Alaska. In Fairbanks, I would meet the poet Derick Burleson, who was born and raised in Cherokee, Oklahoma. There aren’t many people who have lived Oklahoma prairie and Alaska boreal forest. Derick lived this. He also lived Texas and Montana and Kansas and Rwanda and many other places. There aren’t many people who have lived a life as varied and rich as Derick Burleson’s, even though that life ended too early, at the age of 53, just a few nights ago.

I last saw Derick at AWP in 2014. I heard his laugh first, big and a little cracked. I followed the sound until I saw his beard, and then the rest of him. Like his facial hair, the man was bold and brilliant and slightly wild. He brokered no small talk, immediately moving to the horrors happening at UAF, and from that to championing the poetry of Marick Press, and of Alaska poets, and of Oklahoma poets, and of any other poets he could manage to champion in our short chat. We said we would try to catch one another later that week for a drink, perhaps while seeing Eddie Kim, whose poetry we were both so happy to see getting support and recognition at Kundiman.

We didn’t catch one another that week. And, aside from a few scattered emails over the last nine years, we didn’t really catch each other at all. I won’t pretend he and I were terribly close personally, because we weren’t. I was not, and am not a poet, and when I was in Alaska, and to a lesser degree now, I was/am a judgmental shithead, and he quite rightly didn’t really want to hang. He was very close to many others, though, and the outpouring of love for him across social media has been a heartening thing to see.

I did take a class with him, Forms of Poetry, and before the semester began, I met with him in his office and told him I was taking it so I could better teach an undergraduate Intro class, but that I had no delusions as to my poetic ability—I was not, and would never be a ‘real’ poet. He squinted at me until I finished talking, let me sit in a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, then told me that everything I had said was bullshit. I needed to celebrate taking that course. I needed to take that time to be a ‘real’ poet. That being a ‘real’ poet was about a way of seeing, a way of living. How privileged was I to be given the chance to spend time as a poet in this life?

That’s my paraphrase of our conversation, anyway, filtered through time and memory. But I do remember specifically that he used the word privileged.

Derick taught English in Rwanda from 1991-1993.  His first book, Ejo, bears witness to the community experienced before the genocide, the lives of those murdered, and the lives of those who survived. Most remarkable, I think, is his ability to celebrate and mourn with equal vigor, to see the joy and humor and sadness and horror and articulate it all. He brings this same honest eye to his books Never Night and Melt, which also celebrate the beauty and joy in life even amid its horrors, whether those horrors be enacted by the intimate violence of child abuse or by the global violence of climate change. Through all three books—throughout his life—Burleson kept his eye vigilant and steady, and he rendered, beautifully, what he saw with words and with paint.

I believe real harm is done by flinching away from life. Flinching happens in several ways. Sometimes it is the refusal to see life as it is at all, to close our eyes and make our own realities. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the joy. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the horror. But to do any of this—to flinch—is to bear false witness. Art of any meaningful kind cannot flinch.

On election night this past year, like so many, I sent this poem to friends (pardon the GIGANTIC screenshot font, there is not a great deal of editing going into this post):

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-2-22-06-pm

 

I wasn’t as surprised by the election results as others. I grew up among the stone throwers. I have lived among them elsewhere, as well. But even within places where the stones fall in hailstorms, I have found people building shields, mending wings, working to help the people taking aim question why they do so.

In this poem, whether there are good bones or whether this is solely a sales tactic is not explicit. In the weeks following the election, I found myself waffling over whether America has good bones or if social progress is simply a sales tactic of capitalism. I still do this waffling at times. I won’t pretend otherwise.

Right now, I think America does have good bones. There are also some shitty old pipes and entire walls that need to be demolished, and a helluvalot more work to be done as well, but the popular vote count has helped to reassure me that there are good bones, meaning, of course, that there are enough good people to get the work done.

Progress is not a solid, forever forward-moving process anymore than a house, once built, is forever sound. Both require diligent, vigilant, difficult work. The damage sets in, I think, when we flinch.

My adult New Year’s Eve tradition (barring the few times I have been persuaded out into the world, which have mostly ranged from disappointing to disastrous) is to light some candles, make several pots of tea, or pour several glasses of wine, or tip several measures of whiskey (usually all of the above), and write and read until I absolutely can no longer do so.

And while New Year’s Day belongs to writing and reading fiction (and eating black-eyed peas, which is a thing, I promise), New Year’s Eve night belongs to poetry. There is something more contemplative, for me, about the form, and I am at my most contemplative on this night, a natural enough response, I guess, to a communal marking of the passage of time.

I read again Heaney’s “Beowulf.” I read again the poems I favored in childhood, like Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and certain Shakespearean monologues like Edmund’s bastard speech. I dig back into Richard Hugo’s letters. I go honky-tonking with Carrie Jerrell and head into Katrina with Natasha Threthewey. I let Claudia Rankine school me on my white privilege and fragility. I mosey back to Oklahoma with Joy Harjo and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and John Berryman and B.H. Fairchild. I find poems from old friends on ancient computer files and read Jacob Robert Stephens, Brooke Sheridan, Lisa Janout, James Raines, Eddie Kim, Damien Cowger, and so many more. I pick-up books by newer friends like Melissa Range and Anne Barngrover. I spend some time just trawling the Poetry Foundation’s website with words I love—myopic, cleave, scurry, hollow, etc…

This year. This night. I will be reading Derick Burleson. A few poems of his—“Ejo” and “Never Night” (from which I pulled the title of this post)—are part of the yearly refrain, but this time I’m going to sink into all I have with all I have. Through child abuse, alongside genocide, beside melting glaciers, and more, Burleson looked at life and saw the good bones amid the real shithole. He saw it and he did what I hope to do this coming year and all my coming years. He kept a steady eye. He did not flinch.

Complicit Complacent

This is the most uncomfortable post I’ve ever written. (Why not come out of hibernation with a bang, right?) I’m going to make some mistakes with this thing. I’m not even proofreading it before I publish it for fear that I will put it in a drawer. But in the wake of something that occurred in my office this week, amid so many other events that are occurring across the country, here goes.

Over the past month, led by students at the University of Missouri, black students at colleges and universities around the country have begun demanding their institutions recognize and rectify the racial inequality inscribed in and on their ivory towers. This past week, a KU professor was put on leave after saying n***** in her class. Or at least this is the soundbite that is being used. Read the open letter. The accusations against this instructor are actually far more substantial and wide-ranging than an isolated use of a single word. Of course, the people outraged at the Instructor’s dismissal, those calling these students fascist and spoiled and everything else that has been thrown at them, won’t read the open letter. And I’m not entirely certain doing so would help, as those people probably don’t think colleges and universities participate in institutionalized racism. But let’s step out of the hypothetical. Let’s talk about what happened in my office.

It was morning. I sat down at my desk and a colleague, obviously upset, asked if I had heard that a professor was being asked to resign after using “the n-word.” When I shook my head, the colleague immediately threw hands in the air and cried “free speech!”

I asked for the context, which this colleague did not have. A 2nd colleague stopped by. Colleague 1 repeated the story, then said, in dooms-day tone, “if this is successful, this is the end of academic freedom.” I responded with something along the lines of, “no, this is the beginning of universities being forced to admit and grapple with the systemic racism on their campuses.” Colleague 2 also wanted the context. Colleague 1 pulled up what the KU instructor had said, though from what source this was pulled was not clear and the actual letter asking for the dismissal of the instructor was not pulled. Colleague 2 stated that if the professor had said this word in response to students expressing the experiences they had with racism on campus, then she should obviously be fired. No matter what, it wasn’t wise, but if there was a discussion about the word, or if there was some other context, well, in short, Colleague 2 needed to know more.

I tried to make an analogy. I tried to say that if the KU professor was reporting something that had happened, that if it were, say, the word kike written on a wall, and she had said, “the word kike was painted on a wall”….and then I stopped talking because I recognized even as I was talking that this was not an effective analogy. I also began to recognize that I was doing a helluva lot of rhetorical and intellectual gymnastics not to call the KU professor a racist who deserved to be fired and not to call Colleague 1 the same.

We were interrupted by something or someone. Colleague 2 left. Colleague 1 and I avoided eye contact for a little while and then began talking about, I kid you not, puppies.

Then another colleague, Colleague 3, popped a head into the office and said, “well, I guess we can’t say n***** anymore.” In my silence, Colleagues 1 and 3 both began saying “academic freedom” and “free speech.” Colleague 3 also called for end times, citing an instance when a faculty member had been asked to clean-up his language when he said something was a “fuck-up.” I was in the corner of the office. Colleague 3 was blocking the doorway. I felt trapped. I was working pretty hard not to scream. I directed everyone’s attention to the puppies. After everyone left, I texted my friends on campus who I knew would be as outraged as I. I took comfort in their responses. I started student conferences.

Okay, so let’s talk about what happened. Or at least as much of it as I, with my limited ability, can talk about what happened. And don’t worry, after the obvious shock and censor of Colleagues 1 and 3, I’m going to get to my own terrible self.

I mean, there’s the shock that an instructor at a college actually said, “I guess we can’t use n***** anymore.” That shock and outrage doesn’t need explanation.

And there’s the bizarrely false analogy of someone being told not to say “fuck” as the same as not using n*****. That doesn’t warrant a response.

And there is the bizarre reaction of “free speech” and “academic freedom.” Jelani Cobb has already written eloquently of this idiocy. On this blog, I’m going to get into my own response in this situation because, well, my experience is the one to which I can speak.

Like how all of the people involved in this conversation, including myself, were white, and yet all of the people in this conversation, including myself, felt absolutely empowered and justified in our opinions about the use of a racial slur. We all felt perfectly comfortable having this conversation in a room filled only with white people. At no point did anyone in that room say at least this much, “maybe as a group of all white people, we can’t have the right conversation about this.”

Let me begin by saying, having had other bizarre and, quite frankly, abusive and irrational experiences with Colleague 3, I have no idea if Colleague 3 would have said n***** had there been black people in the room. I do know Colleague 3 assumed saying that word was just fine because it was a room of white people. And that Colleague 3 assumed that our institution is one where this speech is not questioned. What this also tells me is that I have not clearly signaled to my colleagues that I do not welcome this. I have not signaled that I am a black ally. For all that I cannot change about the campus, this is on me.

It’s also on me that I changed the conversation. I let it go. I diverted. I talked about puppies, for fuck’s sake. It’s a shame I will forever carry. And let’s be clear that this is not the first time I have been a passive racist. There are too many times to count. And, in fact, in my rural, white youth, I was sometimes actively racist.

When I was about 16 or 17 I gave a speech in front of a class about how rap music was responsible for spreading gang violence to areas where it had previously not existed. I am not kidding. This was something I had heard from (white) people in authority, and with my limited reasoning skills and lack of any real contact with people of color, I parroted. There was not even a twinge of a realization that what I was saying was idiotic, much less racist. And I promise I was a kid who would have adamantly claimed to not be racist based on such incredible evidence as knowing the KKK was bad. I don’t want to have ever been the worst of white folk. But I was (and still am) an ignorant white girl. And back then, no matter what I did or said, everyone around me told me I was smart.

Because I was smart. Here’s the thing we sometimes forget when we talk about intelligence: it is not equivalent to wisdom. Smart people can be ignorant. The smartest people in our country can be ignorant. The most lauded professors at the most elite college campuses can be ignorant. Oftentimes these people are ignorant of the experiences of Black Americans. Sometimes, because they have been told their entire lives that they are smart, they do not know they are ignorant. And because so much of their self-identity and worth, because their very livelihood, is built on being smart, having someone highlight their ignorance feels to them like a personal attack. Rather than responding to an observation of their ignorance with vulnerability and humility and apology and willingness to learn, most academics get defensive. On the topic of their own ignorance, academics are quite reactionary. They need no peer-reviewed sources to support the idea that they are infallible. The ratio of “actually” to “I don’t know” in any academic’s life has got to be about a billion to one.

So let’s return to a room of ignorant white academics throwing our ideas around without any real knowledge of that of which we spoke. Let’s talk about how my initial reaction was to ask for more context. This was a ridiculous response. Why was I waiting around for the context in this situation? It’s an important response in certain times, sure, and as a sometimes embattled educator, I usually want to know more about a student/instructor tension. But in this case? In this case my desire to gain the context in which this instructor operated was me enacting the very systemic racism I was at the same time decrying. There is no acceptable context here. Rather than have me talk about how this word in particular means this instructor was in the wrong, no matter the context, go read this and this and this and this and this.

Now, anytime I find myself in a contentious situation, my instinct is to rely on analogy. Like when I wanted to discuss the casual way people discuss rape. It’s a rhetorical tool that allows people to agree with you for a little while. It keeps the conversation open. So I tried to make an analogy, but realized as I spoke that this rhetorical strategy fails when it comes to this word. This wasn’t my first time realizing n***** has no analogous word, just the first time I had ever found myself embodying through rhetoric the idea that it did. It was really weird. It was like an argument switch had been flipped in my brain to the exclusion of the actual content of the argument being made. I was listening to the system of racism come out of my own mouth even as I was trying to fight it. Then I tried to find some other way of approaching this subject that did not involve me attacking or running away from the colleagues in my office.

I pointed towards puppies. I derailed. I still am the worst of white folks.

Why did I derail? Cowardice. It’s that simple. I am afraid that by doing so I will lose my job. I work at a place that implicitly, and at times explicitly, supports racism. I have no hope that a confrontation between myself and tenured colleagues over racism would go my way.

In a class this summer, someone brought-up the flying of the confederate flag. There was one black student in the room. There were no black teachers. The teachers and everyone else in the room cited the flying of the flag as an act of free speech. The removal of the flag was an attack on free speech. The black kid never spoke. The black kid was brought to tears. No one, especially the teachers in the room, gave a shit about that black kid or the hostile learning environment they were creating for him.

Or how about the “training” that was part of my faculty development this summer, one where they brought the (white) school lawyer in to discuss race. The conversation did not center on creating safe learning environments for marginalized students or ways to recognize our own enactment of the racist policies or procedures embedded in academia. The entire conversation was about protecting racist white students from legal action and making certain racist white students can get jobs in the future by understanding that their racist language isn’t “professional.” At the break I said I wasn’t actually all that dedicated to making certain racists get jobs, that I am, in fact, perfectly okay with racists being excluded from the workforce entirely. This comment was not met with approval.

I’m afraid if I say anything about the racism of my colleagues, I will lose my job. Writing this, in fact, probably guarantees that I will. But writing this is also my way of trying to make certain my greatest fear isn’t realized.

What I fear more than losing my job is that I am going to put my head down and get through the last few weeks of class by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll keep my head down and get through the next semester by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll get through the next thirty years by staring at the floor in silence.

So I wrote this. I published this. This is me holding myself publicly accountable. This is me maybe losing my job.

This is me doing my best to lift my head.

 

 

Image by Suzanne Viktor

that I cannot move my arms is my complaint

As mentioned before, last summer I lived in student housing at UMaine for 15 days. I was 33 years old and a college instructor and I was living amid college students. I had a roommate.

Yep. CREEPY. I know.

To alleviate some horror thoughts, know that there were separate rooms, on separate sides of the apartment. I had, thank the Gods, my own bathroom.

So, I didn’t really get to know the gal with whom I sort-of shared a living space. We had a few conversations, but they were of the most basic social-mixer kind: Where are you from? What are you studying? What do you do? What brought you to Maine?

What I do know of her, I know from a kind of removed observation. Here is what I observed—

A deeply depressed young girl doing her best to get herself together.

Or at least this is my take. I am not a clinician, but it seemed like the signs of depression were there. The borderline personal hygiene. The filth of the living space. The sleeping for the majority of the day, then going to work, then coming home and going back to sleep. The utter lack of friends. The diet that seemed to consist entirely of black olives bathed in Italian dressing. The drinking.

There was also the list stuck to the refrigerator titled “Goals.” On such a list made by one so young, one might expect to see items like a desired GPA or internship applications or world travel. There were no such things on this list. I won’t include the actual list here, as I do not want to expose her private life, but there were items like—

  • Get trash out of bedroom
  • Wash bedding
  • Shower
  • Don’t sleep more than 9 hours a night

This is the kind of list depression makes of a life. Simple, small tasks seem to take a great deal of effort. Sleep seems like the only release.

I know I spent the first two years of college full of expectation and thoughts of the future and a genuine zeal for all the classes and theatre productions and people who were a part of my life.

And then? Well, I grew depressed, deeply so. I don’t think anyone noticed. If they did, no one said anything. I can’t blame them. I myself didn’t notice, or at least I had no idea what to call the anxiety and isolation and overwhelming sadness. I did what I knew how to do to get through it, which was work harder at my studies. Take more classes. Volunteer more.

And then I plummeted.

I still remember the look on the face of a friend from high school who stopped-by to visit one day after I had fallen. He saw the days-old dishes caked in egg yolk. The shades drawn against the sun. My inability to focus. I remember he looked as if he couldn’t get out of there fast enough, as if he thought I might be contagious.

My GPA dropped. I gained a great deal of weight. I withdrew from social activities. I drank far too much. I stopped sleeping or I slept for 12+ hours.

And yet I never, ever would have called myself depressed or admitted that I needed mental healthcare.

There is another time I clearly should have realized I needed help. During my last winter in Alaska, I would wake-up, plug-in my truck, return to bed, and lie there chanting to myself—

Brush your teeth and your hair. Brush your teeth and your hair. Brush your teeth and your hair. These are important.

These two, quite small human acts, seemed to require a great deal of energy. And I had to convince myself to do them by chanting this mantra to myself every day.

Every. Single. Day.

I can’t tell you how long it lasted. I can’t tell you why I didn’t recognize that I was depressed until far too long inside of it.

This girl, though, this temporary roommate, she at least had some recognition that the life she was living was no life at all. Her list also included—

  • Make therapy appointment.

She was aware of the mire in which she’d become stuck. She was doing what she knew to get out of it.

Which is far more than I can say for myself at any age or time. To this day, I have never sought therapy. My aversion is maybe a hangover from my mid-south, blue collar upbringing. It is maybe fear of admitting there is something wrong with me.

Typing those words, just now, made my stomach clench. I’ll do it again.

There is something wrong with me. I am not okay. I need help.

It’s a difficult thing to admit.

But an eighteen year old girl admitted it. I saw that girl. Shuttered in her filthy apartment. Anxious. Alone. I saw that girl and I saw myself. Not as I am now, but as I was, and as I could be if I do not start making a conscious effort to tend my mental health.

It’s a cycle, after all. Feeling anxious and alone makes me depressed, which makes people not want to be around me, which makes me anxious and alone….

This last year and a half has been a tough one. Just about the saddest things possible have occurred. In my own misguided way of dealing with it all, my anxious and alone sirens have been on full blast.

Luckily, a good friend let me know I was not myself. She looked at me and was genuinely scared for what she saw. Not a woman dirty and alone, but one spinning in anxiety and neediness. Rather than running away, this friend let me know I needed help.

This past weekend, I made a list. (Actually, I made a color-coded spread sheet, but, ya know, same deal.) This item is right up top–

  • Make therapy appointment

It’s taken me to the age of 34 to do this. It’s taken a friend strong enough to challenge me to get better.

And it’s taken me not being able to write.

If you’re curious about the long blog-post hiatus, well, this is why. I began slipping away sometime this Spring. By last week, when I sat down to write anything, even a journal entry, even an email, I couldn’t. It was like my own voice was missing from my head.

I have always disdained the term writer’s block as a crutch of the lazy. And there are those people, of course. People who run around claiming writer’s block because the real work of writing, the long hard slog of it, is more effort than they are willing to undertake.

But there is also being blocked from one’s own voice. I know this now. And I know that writer’s block, in this sense, is not the stuff of amusing coffee mugs or casual reference or excuse. It is a powerful symptom of something wrong. It is terrifying. There is no “work harder and you’ll get through it.” I don’t have the tools to do this kind of work. Not yet.

I know addicts use the phrase rock bottom to mean that point when they realized they needed help to change. The stories they tell are of waking-up covered in vomit, or someone close to them overdosing, or exchanging sexual favors for one more hit.

My rock bottom? The point I had to reach before I realized I needed help?

My rock bottom was silence.

Image taken from here.

Earth, receive an honored guest

I once attended a talk on elegy given by a fellow graduate student, one of the true scholars of our pack. He spoke of elegy as an act of resurrection. To speak of the dead, he insisted, is to animate their spirit.

Spirit.

Spirare. Spiritus.

To breathe. Breath.

To inspire is to breathe a truth into another.

To be inspired is to accept that truth.

We live only by another’s breath.

This is the truth I accepted from a man who no longer lives.

But in this truth, for me, he breathes.

 

 

The Nose Picker’s Daughter-Wife

On a flight a few months ago, a woman in the aisle in front of me was reading a book called The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Let me be clear that I have zero issues with the book or its author. I don’t know anything about it, aside from its title.

Which is all I need to know to start cursing.

For fuck’s sake, can we please stop giving books titles that define women by their existence in relation to men?

I mean, come-the-fuck-on, I didn’t even do any real research or spend more than a half hour, and I came-up with this list:

The Shoemaker’s Wife

The Aviator’s Wife

The Headmaster’s Wife

The Traitor’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife

(I also found The Lost Wife and The Silent Wife, but I’m letting these go because while they do still define the character as “wife” they do not specifically state the profession of the husband)

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

The Blood letter’s Daughter

The Baker’s Daughter

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

The Baker’s Daughter

The Hangman’s Daughter

The Merchant’s Daughter

The Frenchman’s Daughters

The Sorcerer’s Daughter

The Mummifier’s Daughter

The Doctor’s Daughter

The Rancher’s Daughter

The Tutor’s Daughter

The Captain’s Daughter

The Ice Captain’s Daughter (I guess she wears a thicker coat)

The Profiler’s Daughter

The Madman’s Daughter

The Ambassador’s Daughter

The Apothecary’s Daughter

The Vampire Hunter’s Daughter

The Vampire Pirate’s Daughter (Hope these two don’t’ meet!)

The Tyrant’s Daughter

The Daughter of the God-King

Oathbreaker’s Daughter

A Daughter of Warwick

An entire series called Gangsta’s Daughter

An entire series called The Hangman’s Daughter

An entire series called The Scavenger’s Daughters

An entire series called The Billionaire’s Daughter

An Entire Series called The Treadwell Academy wherein each book is called something like The Tycoon’s Daughter

An entire series called The Daughters of Lancaster County wherein each book is called something like The Bishop’s Daughter.

Some of these books are young adult and some of these books are literary and some of these books are genre. Regardless, they all follow the pattern of:

 The (Male’s Profession) (Female Relation)

All the words in all of the goddamn English Language to put together for book titles, and yet here we stand. I mean, look, it’s not as if we don’t have a history of great books with such titles, The Bishop’s Wife, The Optimist’s Daughter, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, etc..

But sweet pity that’s a lot of books within the last few years. And I think there are several reasons for this trend (and I’m gonna go ahead and call it a trend).

For starters, there is the popularity of the books The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

So part of the reason for this title pattern seems to be a result of publishers wanting to capitalize on the popularity of these books. I understand that there are market forces at play here. I do.

Another factor is that stories traditionally told by and about famous men are currently being re-examined through the eyes of women. The Paris Wife is a fictional take on the romance between Earnest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson. There’s a nonfiction book called The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. I think you get what it’s about.

Sweet. Keep-it-up. I dig new perspectives on familiar tales. (I myself am going to get into it about Edith, aka Lot’s Wife, at some point)

I also enjoy when authors take marginal fictional women characters and create whole worlds for them. Ahab’s Wife took a teeny passage from Moby Dick and created a deeply compelling heroine from it.

Let’s be clear, though, one doesn’t have to use this title pattern to write from these perspectives. The Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in Jane Eyre. And Betty Shabazz: A Journey of Strength from Wife to Widow to Heroine isn’t titled Malcolm X’s Wife.

But most of the books I’m talking about aren’t telling us about the women in the lives of famous men, and most are not telling the stories of marginalized fictional women. Most of these books create new fictional worlds, and most of these books feature women as the main characters, and yet these books still carry titles that define the main character by their male relation.

Look, it makes complete sense for some of these books to be titled in this way (The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example). I am not in any way saying any individual book’s title is problematic, nor am I saying that any individual book has an improper title or a derivative one.

I’m talking about the trend. I’ll keep repeating this throughout: I am discussing the trend, not the individual. This distinction between a discussion of the personal/individual verses the group/cultural seems to get lost sometimes. Like when someone says “rape culture” or “culture of misogyny” and people respond with “Not All Men.”

Here’s something else I’m not saying: I am also not saying that I never want any story to be about a character whose male relation is the most formidable force in her life. I’d have to give-up A Doll’s House, for starters, and I’m not willing to do that.

So, sure, title it The Man with an Occupation’s Female Relation.

But if you’ve got a book about a woman, even one who is primarily formed by a male figure, why not give a few other titles a whirl? Just to break out of the pattern?

You could, you know, title it Anna Karenina.

Okay, that one’s taken.

I should probably get to the part where I talk about why this bothers me as much as it does. I guess I’m still working this out (though I’ve been ranting about it for a few years now).

For starters, there’s just the sheer boredom of having so many things titled in the same manner. Remember when Nathan Englander wrote that great story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank as his way of connecting his stories to Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?. And then remember when every fucking thing in the goddamn universe started using a variation on this title?

Yeah. It’s like that.

For me it is, at any rate.

And let’s keep in mind, yet again, that I have zero beef with the actual articles I’ve linked to themselves. Some of them, particularly this one, are good (and if you haven’t read the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay to which this one refers, do yourself a favor and get to it).

But do all of these articles need some variation on this title? “What We Talk About When We Talk About Minimalism”? Really?

So, yeah, one reason why The Man with an Occupation’s Female Relation titles bother me is because there are just way too many of them. But maybe I wouldn’t be quite so perturbed by the trend if I didn’t also think it might be one teeny-tiny sign of a cultural idea that women only hold interest/value in as far as they are related to a man.

To me these titles say “Here’s a book about a woman who is interesting/compelling/important because of the occupation of the man in her life.”

We can see this in the rhetoric about the treatment of women that states things like “Hey Fellas, remember she’s someone’s daughter, sister, mother, wife,” or “treat her like you’d treat your own daughter.”

Which is so prevalent that it is still echoed in even the most well-intentioned statements:

Obama women as wives

 

The idea, as “Men Against Violence” states on the linked site, is “Mentioning her connection 2 others is a good way to engage men.”

No. No it isn’t. Just in case there is any doubt, you can hear a kid in the Stubenville video ask this, and the response from the rapist is “she’s not.”

We desperately need to get to this place in our culture

yesallwomenshessomeone

 

Now, to bring this back to literary characters and book titles, I’d d say that this trend in book titles echoes that same line of thinking: women are only valuable in their reltionships to men.

I can hear half-a-dozen people firing-up their laptops to ask if I want all women characters to be single orphans.

The thing is, I don’t want all women in books to be any one or two or even three things. I want variety. You know what a list like the one I half-assedly assembled above tells me? Variety might just be a little lacking.

Again, I’m not talking about individual books here; I’m talking about this trend. And lest you think I’m the only person calling this a trend, others have written about this as well.

Two years ago, Emily St. John Mandell wrote a much better piece than mine for The Millions that focused specifically on the “daughter” titles. It includes research and graphs and all kinds of wonderful stuff. If you’re interested in just how all of this really breaks-down, you should check it out.

Alma Katsu also discussed this trend two years ago, having been brought to breaking point (and who could blame her?) by a book called The Sausage Maker’s Wife She includes a re-titling of literature about women using this pattern:

Anna Karenina– The Bureaucrat’s Wife
Tess of the D’Urbervilles– The Peddler’s Daughter
Emma Bovary-The Public Health Official’s Wife
Olive Kitteridge– The Pharmacist’s Wife
Anne of Green Gables– The Farmer’s Adopted Daughter

Slightly less compelling, right?

So it’s been at least two years since people began noticing and publicly commenting on this trend, and yet here we are, still pushing-out these titles in droves. One would think the list of occupations might grow thin. (Which just might be the case, if The Sausage Maker’s Wife is anything to go by)

What to do then? Other than write ranty little blog posts only my friends will read?

I would ask publishers to stop giving books these kinds of titles, but I’m pretty sure if people were tending to buy books with the words “armpit hair” in the title, publishers wouldn’t flinch at releasing book after book with this phrase. Publisher’s don’t give a shit how ridiculous this trend is as long as it sells. It’s not their job. It’s our job as readers.

So maybe what we can do is start talking about this more. The more backlash we gather, the more publishers have to consider how much they are willing to piss-off their readership. (And I contend that anyone who cares enough about books to get pissed-off about their titles makes-up a decent part of most readerships.)

Or maybe this won’t do anything. I don’t know. I just really, really hope that the next few years doesn’t see this trend continue.

The fancy reason is because these titles support the cultural idea that a woman’s worth is reliant on a male relation.

The non-fancy reason is because they are boring the ever-loving-fuck out of me.

 

Notes:

Before you think me completely biased (though I most certainly am at least somewhat so), I did try to find titles with “Son” and “Husband” and “Father” in the title. I mean, I used the same bullshit “research” method that I used to find the other list, meaning I typed these words into Amazon and Google and Goodreads like a good little college Freshman. These books do exist, of course, but they do not seem to exist in the numbers that the “Wife” and “Daughter” titles do. Emily St. John Mandell (mentioned above), who did real research, found the same.

And yes, there are books that identify a mother in the occupational role. I’m pretty sure I weeded those out of my list above, but I might have missed a few. It’s far more common for the occupation-holding position to be a male one. Two books with a female in the occupational role that I did find were The Heretic’s Daughter and The Witch’s Daughter, and I would submit that “Heretic” and “Witch” aren’t exactly on-par with “Captain” and “God-King.”

 

Special Thanks to Brooke O. Sheridan for creating the image I used for this post. She’s just one of the most talented people ever, and such an excellent friend.

Dear Carolyn (A Sort-of-Response to Mary Miller)

Dear Carolyn,

Aside from the occasional contact regarding the Colgate gig, we haven’t really communicated at all over the past several years. This, despite all the various means of communication available. It’s not as if I have to kill a goose and squeeze a squid to reach-out, after all, but I fail to do it all the same.

I know via FB that you have accomplished a great deal over the last few years, including your PHD at Tennessee. This does not come as a surprise, but I do congratulate you all the same.

But though my congratulations is long overdue, I do not write now for this reason (I’m sure you guessed as much, since I could easily write an email and achieve this purpose). I write this to thank you. I could also do this through email. But I wish to do this publicly.

For what I am thanking you is a little difficult to put into a single phrase, so I’ll share two moments in hope that they might clarify things a little.

Way back in graduate school, Eric Heine solicited the opinions of graduate students on how he might frame his American Modernism course. He had two options: one would discuss class/money, the other would focus on women writers of the time. To his surprise, I told him I “wanted to read good authors, not just authors who happened to be women.” I was very proud of myself for responding this way, for not being that kind of woman. The kind, I guess I thought, who wanted what I viewed as special treatment.

You learned of my response and came over to my cubicle and stated how disappointed you were. You pointed-out the dearth of women writers in most of the graduate courses. You made some sort of brilliant statement about American Modernism being a particularly great class in which to focus on women writers because of the historical intersection of the Women’s Rights Movement.

I, in my stubborn and dull-witted way, repeated my “good writers, regardless of gender” statement, and you left the topic alone, certain, I’m sure, that I was incapable of hearing the ignorance in my own words.

The class, as we both know, was titled “Money in the American Imagination.” I believe we read two women authors.

Another time—

Someone, I believe Carrie, organized a camping trip for the women of the English Department. Nothing strenuous, just a few days in a cabin. When invited, I said something like “I am not comfortable in large groups of women.”

You overheard and, once again, came over to my cubicle to discuss how disturbed you were by this comment by me. You tried to tell me things about women and community and cultural misogyny. In my awful, terrible, too-cocky-by-a-thousand-percent way, I believe I explained that I had zero interest in giggling discussions of movie stars, and fashion, and diets, and orgasms. I said being stuck doing so for two days seemed about as much fun as plucking the eyelashes from my face and then sewing each one back onto my eyelids with a rusty harpoon.

Actually, I doubt I made that analogy; it seems far too well-thought-out for the kind of response I had—a gut-response pulled from a gut full of sexism and self-hatred and, this having been grad school, probably the previous night’s Jameson.

These are two very small moments. I doubt you remember either of them.

I remember them as embarrassing/heart-breaking times when I dismissed other women, specifically women in the literary community, out of my own ignorance and prejudices. Your response to this dismissal was intelligent and compassionate and personal and private. And even if those conversations we had did not immediately cause a complete transformation in my horrid little worldview, I know now that they did open a possibility for this change to occur.

These conversations we had, however brief, are important to me because I have been working hard these last few years to recognize, understand, and overcome my own misogyny.It has taken, and continues to take, both public and private conversations for me to do this.

Having read the Mary Miller post, I can see where I was ten years ago in where she is now. And for all the articulate, intelligent public responses she has received, I also hope she has someone like you in her life. Someone with whom to also have a personal and private conversation. It seems to take both for change to occur. It has for me, at any rate.

So whether you remember these moments or not, thank you.

Thank you for understanding misogyny as a cultural force to which women are also susceptible.

Thank you for recognizing misogyny’s hold on me, and for trying to help me see my way out of it.

Thank you for speaking-up.

Best,

Amanda Bales

 

The image is by artist Marina Graham.

Like It Is

I went trolling back over some oldMissouri Review Blog posts the other day. As a resident of Columbia, I know some of the contributors, and I always find what they have to say about literature interesting. (I was also avoiding student research papers.) I read a few posts by Michael Nye and Anne Barngrover. I let Wes Hazard expand my ITunes. I even went back and picked-up a few Austin Segrest musings.

Then I stumbled across a post from someone I do not know, one that is part of the Literature on Lockdown series, a series that “shares narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either.”

I read an essay titled “Flossing with Razor Wire” by author Tim Boland. It’s a pretty good short piece, and I’m interested in prison narratives (for various reasons), and so I looked this guy up, thinking that he might have publications elsewhere. I also admit I was curious as to what the “colossal achievement in idiocy” that he lists in his author bio might have been—I admit it, I wondered what he was in for.

What I discovered is that Tim Boland was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the brutal beating to death of a woman.

Now, please don’t think that I stand shocked at the crime itself. I was reading a blog written by someone in prison, and I am not entirely naïve about prison. While I have never so much as been arrested (thanks white skin!), on any given day of my life I have had relatives doing time for everything from meth, to spousal abuse, to murder. That kind of violence, while thankfully not part of my immediate experience, is not so entirely alien to it.

I am also not shocked because this appears on the blog of a highly-acclaimed literary journal. Frankly, it would be shameful and pointless if the Missouri Review vetted the contributors to the blog via the crimes of which they had been convicted. The point, I think, is to provide a forum for often-dismissed voices, and people convicted of crimes are dismissed more often than not.

But I do find something deeply troubling about how Boland is representing himself in his Bio.

Maybe I am troubled because the crime includes violence against a woman. The other day I watched CCN spend hours reporting on Monica Lewinski’s newest statement about blow jobs she gave to President Clinton nearly twenty years ago, all while young girls remain missing in Nigeria. It seems pretty obvious that people care more about a woman who fellates a powerful man than women who are actively trying to be educated. Want people to know your name? Close the books and get on your knees.

Jesus, even my handling of this is misogynistic as hell. Why am I slut-shaming Lewinski? What I should have said is: Many men, especially powerful and charismatic men, have convinced a good portion of people (including women) that a woman’s primary value is sexual, and that this must be a sexuality in service to their needs.

Or something like that. I’m still working on articulating what I think about this, and I probably won’t ever do so publicly, as writers and thinkers far better than myself have done so and continue to do so. My deepest thanks to you all, by the way.

But as you can see, this is an issue that’s looming pretty large in my brain right now, so I have no doubt that the impetuous to write this entire blog is built off of the anger and frustration of being a woman in a world where women are not valued. And I have no doubt that this will seep into my writing, and that it colors my perspective. But I’m going to work against this to the best of my ability. Or work through it, at any rate, because what I want to talk about here is not the case itself exactly.

I read various accounts of the case, from the mild to the much more dramatic. But I haven’t done any real investigation into it. I wasn’t present for any part of what occurred. I don’t know the people involved personally or casually. I have not conducted any interviews. I have never even been to Minnesota. Also, I have never studied Law, so I’m not going to try and deconstruct what happened in legal terms.

What I want to deconstruct is Boland’s Bio.

Now, author Bios are tricky things. A standard one goes something like:

Bob Jones received his MFA from Elite University where he was a Famous Dead Author Fellow and a recipient of the Local Hero Author Award. His work has appeared in The Fancy College Review, The Hip Online Journal, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Small Liberal Arts School and lives in Quaint Town with his wife Lilly, their daughter Euphoria, and Jackson, an irascible Boston terrier.

Okay, okay, I’m being an asshole.

What I mean to say is that the standard author bio (rather than the quirky ones) gives the following information: education, publication, awards, current residence and job. Sometimes, particularly if the place adds validity to the work being produced, it might also mention where the person grew-up or where the person lived in the past at some point. For example, in the past my author Bio sometimes included that I grew up in Oklahoma because my work was often set there, and I felt like I needed to legitimize myself as an insider.

And it’s this need to be taken as an insider (or a quirky outsider) that I think informs pretty much everything that goes into an author Bio.

So let’s imagine that the Bio I produced up top (the one where I am being a classist asshole) seems to be the standard one that I read over and over again in journals. I’m probably going to then assume that these are the kinds of people journals want to publish, and that the journals do so because these are the kinds of people who read journals.

These are not inaccurate assumptions.

Now, let’s imagine that I am someone who never finished my undergraduate degree, much less a graduate one, and that I have no journal publications, and that my current residence is a prison cell. Let’s imagine that I what I have to say and how I want to say it (through creative work) has been repeatedly dismissed by my culture (and probably even my own family and friends). I want people to listen. I fear they will not. I know if I can show them we are alike, that I am an insider, they just might.

This is the context I imagine Boland working in when he wrote this Bio.

Now, I have some (limited) experience in being told to sit down and shut up, not because of what I am saying, but because of my twang, or my gender, or my not-all-that-impressive educational pedigree.

It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. There have been times when it has made me fearful to speak at all for fear of being shouted-down. So while I do not understand the pain and frustration of being silenced to the degree of many others, I have at least a teeny inkling as to what that feels like, and it feels like fear. What I want to do is try to see Boland’s Bio as being constructed within a context of this fear.

So let’s take a look at what Boland constructed in this context.

Boland begins his Bio by telling us what he isn’t, rather than what he is (much in the way I began this post claiming that I did not want to discuss the case itself).

He is not “a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser.”

This, Boland seems to assume, is what people who run and read literary magazine blogs believe all prisoners to be, and he wants to begin by disclaiming this identity because it is one that will not be heard fairly. It will position him as an outsider.

Again, these are not inaccurate assumptions.

Now, what exactly constitutes a person as being a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser, I’m not sure. Violence? Repeated arrests? Sociopathic tendencies? I guess the image Boland denies that comes to my mind is someone like this man:

 

white supremacist prisoner

 

Boland denies being this man because he assumes the literati imagine that men like this man aren’t worth a listen. Instead, he claims himself to have been something closer to this man:

frat guy

 

A kid just like his assumed readership, one with a future, “who went to State (St. Cloud) on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams”

Mentioning the fact that he went to college and majored in creative writing is his listing of education. Mentioning that he wrote for the campus paper is how he fills the “publications” part of a bio. Insider. Insider.

The noble dreams? I’m not really sure. Surely there is no assumption that all writers have noble dreams. Many, it is well known, have quite the opposite.

I’m also confused as to what kind of noble dreams this kid aspired? Racial equality? Better public schools? Universal access to clean water?

It certainly doesn’t seem to have been women’s rights, as even years later, when he is trying to prove himself to be an insider, he uses the phrase “chased tight skirts.”

He doesn’t even say he chased girls or co-eds or Phi Beta Kappas. I could handle dames. Christ, at this point in our culture, I think I’d take chicks.

But no. He says tight skirts. He thinks of these young women as articles of clothing. And those articles of clothing are not even dresses, which at least cover the entire body, rather than one specific area.

Okay, that might be a little too far into the psycho-analytical realm for one not trained in psycho-analysis. I warned you that my just-beneath-the-surface anger might pop-up.

But even if we completely take-out the phrase chased tight skirts, I do think we can see Boland insisting that he is ‘just a standard, healthy, heterosexual male who was even a little bit smarter and more thoughtful than his peers’ You know, just like you and your friends, reader.

And hell, maybe that’s who he was. While I’m not convinced that this equals a voice I want to hear, plenty of other people do, so it is not an unwise strategy.

Nor is it unwise to then develop this ‘good kid lead astray’ story by letting us know that he “then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a ten-year cocaine smog.”

Cocaine. The downfall of so many good kids, right? But a drug people bounce back from, unlike those dirty cousins—meth or heroine or crack.

I’m not sure I need to take-on words like drifted and smog because they remove a level of clarity and personal responsibility and choice. That’s me not knowing the circumstances that lead Boland to drug use. And it’s me not understanding drug addiction.

And I readily admit to you right now, that this is me having certain prejudices to the harm drug addicts cause their loved ones.

I would never claim to understand either drug addiction in general or Boland’s story in particular.

Which is why, in this particular case, I am less concerned with Boland’s drug habits or what lead to the events for which he was convicted than I am with the way, years later, he soberly phrases these events. These events to Boland are “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

Man. I just really can’t get over it. Every time I type the phrase it sends chills down my back.

I arrive at two possible reasons why he might call his role in the death of Natasha Waalen something this innocuous, though my imagination is limited and there are probably others.

1) He fears his guilt will make the reader dismiss him.

2) He believes himself innocent.

I’ll tackle the first reason first. In order to do this, I’ll go back to that context of fear. I’ll do my best to get back to empathy.

Okay, so I’m a prisoner worried that I will be dismissed if people discover that I have been convicted of a violent crime. I’ll call this the “dismissal of the unvirtuous voice,” and it definitely exists in our culture.

People with a history of mental illness are dismissed as crazy.

Women who openly engage in sexual intercourse are dismissed as sluts.

People convicted of felonies are dismissed as ex-cons.

If I am someone convicted of manslaughter, I know that the most direct and honest version of my Bio might be: Amanda Bales was convicted of manslaughter in 2011. She is scheduled for release in 2015.

But I am worried that my manslaughter conviction will cause readers to dismiss me. Maybe as a way to avoid this dismissal, in my Bio, I do not mention being convicted of manslaughter: Amanda Bales was sentenced to prison in 2011. She is scheduled for release in 2015.

This is a tidy aversion, especially since the brevity of my prison sentence would make a reader assume I had been incarcerated for something non-violent. If my fear of naming the act is so strong that I find I cannot do so, then resorting to not naming it at all might be one way to handle this fear.

But instead, Boland names the manslaughter; he just calls it something else. Instead of manslaughter, it is “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

If he admits to that he bludgeoned a woman to death with a baseball bat, then to call this “an achievement in idiocy” is horrifying.

This seems as bad, somehow, than not naming it at all. To not name his actions is to try to erase them. To name them in this manner is to mock them.

So maybe it’s not a matter of simple fear of dismissal. Maybe it’s the second reason, that Boland believes himself innocent. This means he believes himself either innocent of the act itself or of his culpability in it.

Maybe, as it seems from his essay, he might believe the latter. Maybe he thinks he isn’t responsible for his actions because he was high at the time he committed them.

But that’s what manslaughter is, right? The taking of another human life without malice aforethought? The intentional killing of another person in the heat of passion and in response to adequate provocation? To claim innocence would be to claim that you did not commit the act. Being high might remove the rational intention, but it doesn’t remove the act itself.

Which leaves being innocent of the crime itself.

So maybe Boland genuinely did not bludgeon Natasha Waalen to death with a baseball bat. For this crime, he did not plea a straight-up guilty, but rather an alford plea. This, from what I understand is like saying “look, I didn’t do it, but I’m pretty sure all the evidence is gonna say I did.”

Maybe someone else bashed-in Natasha Waalen’s skull.

Okay, but Boland does admit to trying to conceal the murder. And, by his brother’s account, this concealment included placing Waalen’s body and a motorcycle into the back of a truck, then driving down a highway with the tailgate down and jerking the wheel until the motorcycle and the body fell out.

Even this, the best possible scenario for Boland’s culpability in the death of Natasha Waalen, does not excuse phrasing his part in her murder as “a colossal achievement in stupidity.”

Whether under mind-altering medication or not, whether as the perpetrator or as a witness who tried to cover-it up, referring to even the smallest part played in the brutal taking of another human life as an “achievement in idiocy”? As if it’s on par with a Jack-Ass skit?

Unconscionable.

Let’s be clear. This is a blog post, not a researched interview or news story. I don’t know Boland. I have never spoken to him. I have no real idea why he chose this as the phrase to convey the reason for his incarceration.

There I go, “the reason for his incarceration.”

I have no idea why he labels the part he played in the death of Natasha Waalen as “a colossal achievement in idiocy.”

Nor do I know why it bothers me so much that he did so.

Except that I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance and power and hard, hard work of honest naming lately. 2014 has been a tough year so far. A loved one died. A friend committed adultery. A student overdosed. A man I loved told me he did not love me in return.

All of this occurred before May 1st.

And all of this has left me trying my best to be honest in the naming of what has occurred and how I feel, no matter how hard it has been to do so.

Most of us spend our lives trying not to do so. Loved ones do not die, they pass away. Those who cheat on their partners rarely call themselves adulterers. Alcoholics get a little sideways sometimes.

At one point in my life I ate fewer than 500 calories per day and at no point, not even after developing a thyroid problem, did I call myself anorexic.

Rapes are incidents.

Wars are military operations.

This avoidance of naming, and the intentional misnaming, has hurt me. Has hurt others. Continues to hurt us all.

And I believe that is what hurts about Boland’s phrase. Even understanding the deep context around it—the the slippery surface of self-representation and the dismissal of the unvirtuous voice—even knowing this, the phrase grieves me.

And yet, in all my grief, would I want to silence Tim Boland? Get him to apologize? Make him change his Bio?

No.

Boland chose this phrase, for whatever reasons, and his phrasing has a right to be heard, no matter how much it offends one woman in Central Missouri.

And I am in no way advocating that TMR begin fact-checking the bios of any contributor, especially those in the Literature on Lockdown series, as this would create an immediate place of judgment and mistrust—certainly the opposite of the intended effect of a blog that tries to give people too-often dismissed a chance to be heard.

Silencing others, dismissing others, seems to be at least part of the problem.

Maybe after all this rumination, the only thing for which I advocate is this—

That we all do the difficult, painful work of naming the hurt that we’ve done, no matter the fear that others might dismiss us for our honesty.