That’s not how love works.

Yikes! It’s only day 6, and I’ve already fallen behind! I fell asleep while working on yesterday’s poem, looked at it this morning and thought … um … no. Maybe I’ll catch up. We’ll see.

Still not in love with this poetic form. It seems to highlight more than most just how much of a poet I am not. I don’t appreciate that. I have a hard enough time allowing myself to dive into this pool once a year. I don’t need the form I’ve chosen making me feel even less capable. Sigh.

I’m still wrestling with what this form is “supposed” to be. It’s not the first form to give me this kind of trouble. I struggled in the same way with prose poems. It would seem that in my mind there are little walls around “PROSE” and “POETRY” and the twain are never s’posed to meet. So poems made of prose or made to evoke a prose form … it’s like the way my brain can’t handle green tea ice cream.

Yeah. I’m not loving these poems. But on I go …


Desperate Joy
Eight Years Old

You didn’t understand the thing about friendships —
that they weren’t competitions,
no one’s affection was a prize.
You wanted them —
you always wanted them.
Were they beads on a string, shiny adornments?
You showed them off but never brought them in,
never made them part of your life.
You were jealous of their love,
coveted their attention,
yet gave them nothing of yourself.
And once you won them, you cast your lines elsewhere,
seeking, seeking,
the next, better friend.

Look at the photos from that party in third grade.
The hurt on Terry’s face
watching you hug and grin on Lynn.
You’d called Terry your best friend,
for two years, your best friend.
Then threw her over at that party.
And Lynn lasted no time at all.
You moved on to Beverly,
then Nora.

And not one of them allowed to fully embrace you,
not one of them a confidante, a sister.

I want to hear what you think you’re doing,
maybe help you see a different way.
You were on a path and I want to shift it.
Of course I’m too late, but you hurt my heart.
You were looking so hard for something,
looking so hard.

But I’m mistaken, aren’t I?
The disconnection was deeper than friendship.
It was love you didn’t understand.
Did you think it was finite,
that you couldn’t give love to one
without taking from another?
That isn’t how love works at all.
You could have loved Terry, Lynn, Beverly, Nora,
because love is the sky,
stretching on and on and on.

I look at that picture, that long-ago party,
the sadness on Terry’s face, the desperate joy on yours.
You could have relaxed, leaned into loving,
spread your arms wide —
embraced every friend and your own dear self —
and still had the infinity of your love left to feel, and to give.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Writing to My Past

Day three of what promises to be a dramatic slog through my bygone years. These epistolary poems are clearly planning to kick my butt all month long. Between the dredging up of less-than-lovely memories and the struggle with the form itself, I can see this is going to be a month of fun for me!

Some interesting things are happening, however. My first poem wasn’t at all the poem I was planning to write. I hadn’t even been thinking about those embroidered jeans. I sat down with 12-year-old me in mind and a very specific memory of that time that I wanted to explore in the poem … and the very first line set me on a completely different course, my first idea wholly forgotten. I’m always fascinated when that happens, when the writing refuses your control and just does what it wants.

I had a conversation about this with a boy last summer, this idea of letting the characters do what they will, let the story go where it’s going. He wasn’t for it, said he didn’t put much stock in characters charting their own course. (Probably that was the clear signal that he and I shouldn’t have been trying to date, but sometimes I am slow.) I, meanwhile, very much like the loss of control. Well, let me be most honest: I like the loss of control if, as with that poem, it happens so seamlessly that I don’t even notice it until the end. If I become aware of what’s happening while I’m writing, I tend to fight it. Hard. This usually culminates in either nothing getting written or something really inferior getting written, something that feels as mangled and manhandled as it has been.

Which, I think, is one of the problems I have with most poems I write. I struggle so hard to get them written that they feel pretty mangled and manhandled by the time I get to the end. Tonight’s is definitely no different.


Graduation
Five Years Old, St. Ann’s School

You’re still a baby,
yet there’s already so much I don’t need to tell you.
For example, you know these children are liars —
chief among them that boy, the one who sits behind you,
the one who tells you being Black means you’re dumb.

You already know he’s inconsequential,
he and the girls who make fun of your skin.
And your teacher, who always takes care not to touch you,
showing age doesn’t have to mean wise.

It’s good that you know — it spares and prepares you —
I’m glad that you know, though I wish that you’d waited,
that you could have stayed ignorant …
at least through first grade.
I want to say it’ll all be worth something,
your annoyance, your sadness this kindergarten year.
Ugh. I hear myself writing you aphorisms:
This adversity will make you stronger!
Yeah. But sometimes, what doesn’t kill you
still kills you.

I’m not wrong, though.
This bullshit will plant a seed — deep in your center.
You’ll come away knowing you can trust yourself.
You’ll know that, when you see racism, it’s real.
This will be one place you can’t be gas-lit.
That’s a gift … a shitty and also a great one.
So maybe we can thank St. Ann’s for it.

As is often the case when I write to my past,
I have the need to point out that we have survived.
That, too, is worth something —
of course it’s worth something.
But I’m left with the sadness I see in your eyes.
In that famous photo of you and Cecelia —
Cecelia, the one child who dared to befriend you.
You’re seated together on the last day of school,
seated together in your white caps and gowns.
It’s a snapshot of an instant
but seems very telling.
Cecelia looking away, her mouth a straight line
and you making a smile, but your eyes don’t agree.

I long for a second shot of you and Cecelia
one with you both collapsed into laughing.
I want a look on your face that’s not resignation
a look that says: “Look at us! It’s graduation!”

Five years old and you’d learned that you could be hated,
hated, for being a little brown girl.
The thing that I want and don’t want to tell you
is how that hasn’t changed —
has not.
And never will?

I long for that second shot of you and Cecelia,
a look on your face, maybe knowing, maybe sure.
A look that tells me yes, you know
all the things I wish you did not have to know —
and you’re still a little girl laughing,
still five, still fine.

Graduation Day


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Equilibrium Shift

Epistolary poems, eh? That’s what I wanted? That’s what I wanted? Why?

Yes, this is a familiar place for me: choosing a form for April … and immediately regretting my choice because the form presents challenges. Yeah, sounds about par for the course.

I got lucky yesterday. Luck … and reading the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s “The Famous Blue Raincoat” are what got me through that poem. Today, I’ve already hit a wall. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with an epistolary poem. Am I talking to younger me? Am I just reminiscing? I am just painting pictures of the past? I’m stuck before I even start.

Needless to say, I’m not thrilled with tonight’s attempt. My fingers are crossed for some growth and change for tomorrow.


Equilibrium Shift
Nine years old, Troy

You’re not going to love it here,
but it’ll be okay.
You’ll be here two years.
You can hold on for two years.
And you’ll be smart here — you’ll trust fear.
You’ll recognize danger
and steer yourself wide, away.
You’ll be bullied here
but remember — it’s just for two years.

It won’t be all bad.
You’ll learn to climb trees.
You’ll meet a crazy, kind old woman
who’ll treat you with care.
(How you knew she was a safe place …
I still can’t fathom.)
You’ll have your first for-real best friend.
You’ll rediscover the power of words,
wielding them deftly, both shield and lance.
They will build you an arsenal
a fortress
freedom.

It won’t be all bad,
but it will be bad.

One day your mom will miss your signals.
She’ll agree to a playdate you want her to refuse.
That will be a bad day,
a choose-your-words-carefully scary day.
You’ll feel the shift in your equilibrium,
a strange internal shudder,
and it will tell you —
the people smiling into your face intend to harm you. Yes.
But you’ll come through.

Why write you now?
If everything’s fine, why focus here?
There’s something you know, something about you,
something I need to accept, to protect.
I should have advice, helpful things to tell you,
instead, I look at you with surprise.
You’re such a puzzle to me —
who are you?
Nearly 50 years later and more worldly wise,
I’ve yet to process the secrets you’re holding.
I can tell you which choices I’d make differently now
as if you might care what path I’d choose.
I can tell you again that it won’t all be bad …

In the end, I want to tell you I see you,
take you back to that day when you saved your own life.
I want your hand in mine as we walk down the street,
your hand in mine all the way across town
back toward Burdett Avenue — your house, your family,
toward as much safety as that town could allow.
I know it works out. I know they don’t hurt you.
I know you get home. I know that you’re fine.
Still,
I offer my fangs, my claws —
you needed a lioness that day, and I want to be her.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Ages and Stages

It’s April first, the start of National Poetry Month … and of National Poetry Writing Month. I’ve decided not to keep going with the pantoum, not to keep breaking my heart with #SayHerName poems. I’m not saying I’ll never go back to one, the other, both. This isn’t that year, though. Today, in our time of pandemic, I’m choosing not to sink myself into such a deeply painful place.

I looked at a lot of poetry forms and narrowed my choices down to three and sort of had my eye very particularly on one. And then last weekend I went to a poetry salon, and the homework assignment we were given was exactly that same particularly form. And then I opened today’s prompt for Souleika Jaouad’s “The Isolation Journals,” and it was talking about the same thing. And so here I am, with epistolary poems.

It’s hardly surprising, right? We’re all cut off from one another. It seems only natural that we’d be craving comforting contact, comforting forms of contact. So of course: letter writing. When we first went on lockdown, I made a list of people who are far from me and decided to write a letter a week. And I’m certainly not alone. I’ve read so many posts about letter-writing in the last few weeks. So, to have my salon homework be writing an epistolary poem, to have Souleika Jaouad’s first prompt be to write a journal entry that’s a letter … well, it all just fits. This is where we are. This is where we’re going to be for some time.

In the salon, we were asked to write a to a past self, to pick an age and focus on who we were then, and write to that someone. I’ve had that prompt before, writing a letter to my child self. It always appeals to me. And it appeals to me now.

And that’s my challenge for April: to write an epistolary poem to long (and not-so-long) ago versions of myself. Maybe I’ll play around with meter or rhyme scheme, maybe not. I’m not going to bother with chronological order. I’ll just pick whatever age calls my name each day. And maybe there will be more than one poem for certain ages. I mean, God knows some years are so full or so butt-kicking that they’ll demand more than one poem.

And so, we begin. Happy poetry month, y’all!


Stitched into Silence
First day, junior high

Do you remember those jeans you embroidered?
You worked so hard, spent weeks getting them right.
You covered that denim in flower-power and peace signs
stitched S.W.A.K. over your right ass cheek,
a Black Power fist across the left.

You wore them once.

Do you remember? You worked so hard,
stitching, stitching, stitching long into those late-summer nights.
You couldn’t wait for school to start.
You couldn’t wait to be seen.

Junior High!
And weren’t you practically grown?
You’d had your first kiss,
you’d read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
          (though not yet The Bluest Eye.)

Junior high.
And you’d be ready that first day,
your jeans and their story,
jeans that would announce your arrival,
jeans that would wink and wave as you left.

You wore them once.

Because your sleepy, backward town couldn’t see you,
wasn’t ready to know you,
was so stuck in its 1950s timewarp
it had no place for your flower-child fantasy.

Even your friends laughed.
Even your friends.
At the end of the day, you took off the jeans,
folded and hid them in the back of your closet,
folded and hid all those possibilities,
stitched yourself into the background, into silence.

I’m here to tell you that those jeans were fire.
They were all the things you believed them to be —
cute, flirty, smart, funny
and that ivy down the side made your legs look so long.
I want to go back to that day in September
to say you were right and your friends were all wrong.

Grab those jeans from the closet, hop on your bike.
Ride down Westcott singing at the top of your lungs.
Who cares if your friends laugh —
who are they to judge you?
Stand up on the pedals, flash that fist in the air.
You are magic. You are magic. You are magic.


National-Poetry-Month-2020

Fleshing Out the Five: Lost in the Woods, Part 3

And, as I got into writing the story of being lost in Thatcher Park with my younger sister’s Girl Scout troop, I realized I was telling that story as if it was the first time I’d been lost in the woods … only to have a memory of an earlier experience of being lost. And so …

First memory of being lost in the woods: When I was 12, I was at summer camp in the Adirondacks. It was my sixth and final summer at camp. It was, in fact, my last night at camp. And a boy I liked who liked me asked me to skip that evening’s farewell event and sneak off with him to climb a rocky, wooded, giant hill we called a mountain. The mountain was on the edge of camp property, blooming up behind the ceramics studio.

It was crazy that anyone would ask me to sneak off and do anything. I was a painfully good girl at 12, and breaking the rules so dramatically should have been an impossibility for me. Should have been. But it was the last night of my last summer. There was no possible punishment anyone could hand down. And, even with the risk of punishment, I really liked The Boy. And I’d never see him after camp. That hike in the woods would be the only time we’d ever be alone together. I made a strong show of agonizing over his invitation — talked a girl friend, talked to a guy friend — and then I said yes. I mean, of course. Because that was always going to be my answer.

The mountain we were set to climb was the first serious hike many campers went on. It seemed kind of like a baby climb, but it was trickily steep in places and the trail was awkward. It was a small mountain, however, a baby one, and it seemed reasonable to think that, if we slipped away after dinner, The Boy and I could climb it and get back to camp before lights out. The Boy had arranged to borrow a friend’s watch so we could chart the progress of our evening against the timing we imagined for the big event happening in the Quonset hut.

And so, after dinner that night, The Boy and I — circling from different directions, naturally — met up near the big kilns, joined hands and headed into the trees.

It was nice. We talked, we made jokes, we wondered if anyone might have noticed our absence. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I might be moments from my first kiss.

We stopped holding hands when the trail narrowed and we needed to walk singe file. And we stopped chatting when the climb got steeper and we needed our breath. And then we reached a small rock face and looked at each other and acknowledged that we’d never seen it on any of our times up the mountain in the past. We sat on a benchlike outcropping in the rock and determined — quite calmly, as I remember — that we’d gone off course and hadn’t been following the right trail … or any trail at all, perhaps, given how rough the path had been.

We sat for a while to look at the pretty view — trees, trees and more trees — and then decided to keep climbing. Yes, despite knowing we were lost, we chose to go back into the woods and wander around some more. Don’t try to make it make sense.

Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a bad idea. We didn’t find the top of the mountain, and we didn’t find the trail. And, when we finally decided we should head back, we didn’t find anything we’d seen on the way up, including the rock face where we’d sat.

It bears noting that I wasn’t scared. As I said in the last story, I wasn’t afraid of wilderness when I was a kid. Being in the forest with no idea of how to get out and the sun setting … probably it should have frightened me. I even knew that bears lived in those woods. I’d seen bears more than once in my time at camp. I surely should have been scared, but no. I was fine. I was annoyed to be lost because putting energy into finding our way seemed sure to mean no first kiss. I was annoyed, but not scared.

As luck would have it, The Boy and I wandered around in a kind of perfect way. When we finally stumbled enough out of the trees to see civilization, we were right near The Boy’s tent. Who knows how we’d managed to walk horizontally across the side of the mountain when we’d thought we’d been walking down the mountain, but there we were.

And, upon checking the cleverly-borrowed watch, it turned out that we weren’t lost for as long as it had felt while we were lost. We had time, in fact, to sit in The Boy’s bunk and talk about how much we liked each other and would miss one another … and — HALLELUJAH! — share the all-important first kiss! All that before running down to the Quonset hut and slipping into the audience (from different entrances, of course) without anyone noticing we’d been missing.

And that was my first lost-in-the-woods story. A few firsts that night: breaking the rules in a big, kind of technicolor way, getting lost in the woods, kissing a boy. Quite the trifecta for meek-and-mild me.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot