The picture above was one I took from the back corner of an auditorium where I was lucky to get a place to sit on the floor, with my back against the wall, behind the speakers, to hear some of my literary heroes talk about process and feminism and the body in literature. That crowd, which made the room uncomfortably warm, was also a really beautiful thing–all those people willing to cram together to listen to a conversation that is so dear to my heart, a conversation that I couldn’t even begin to have with most of the dearest people in my life. That’s the thing about this conference–on the one hand it makes me feel unbelievably lonely and lost to be in such a crowd and on the other hand it makes me feel like I’m lost along with some other really cool people. Because it’s National Poetry Month, I’m going to make a little bit of a leap to connect my first poetry love to this post.
I got “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” a book of poems by Sandra Cisneros from my mother when I was thirteen. I think it’s clear she didn’t read it before giving it to me–I was a huge fan of Cisneros’ work and this was the book I did not have. When I was eighteen and just married (that’s right–eighteen and married), I lent it to a friend and never got it back. When I was twenty-nine and divorcing, someone I love gave me a new copy.
That year I went to AWP, a conference that is magical and dreadful by turn, and got it signed by Sandra Cisneros herself. She hugged me (she hugged everyone, but that doesn’t make it less special).
When I read the book again, some smoke of a past self rose from the pages. Rereading something that impacted you can do that, like a ghost of some other self is sitting next to you. In the preface poem (below), she characterizes these poems as coming from a chunk of her life, a “Who-I-Was-Then,” which I think encourages honesty which then (you know where this is going) defeats shame. Because we make mistakes, and we try to grow and change and learn and do better. We can be held hostage by the lapses, or we give that era a name (“The girl grief decade”) and then try to figure out what we were trying to figure out during that time, by doing those things.
You came here for a writing prompt, so here it is. Read the poem below. Then set the timer for 20 minutes and think about the height of your self destruction. Remember? How you used to be WAY worse than you are now. What was that person running from? What were they searching for? Who were they trying not to be? Was there a turning point, a moment you knew, not because someone told you, but because something clicked into place, that you needed to make some changes? Write about that too. You can do anything for 20 minutes, quit being a baby.
One day, you will look back on these days that you’re living now and be able to see a story emerge from this too. I promise.
“I can live alone and I love to work.” –Mary Cassatt
“Allí esta el detalle.”—Cantinflas
Gentleman, ladies. If you please–
are my wicked poems from when.
The girl grief decade. My wicked nun
years, so to speak. I sinned.
Not in the white-woman way.
Not as Simone voyeuring the pretty
slum city on a golden arm. And no,
not wicked like the captain of the bad
boy blood, that Hollywood hood-
lum who boozed and floozed it up,
hell-bent on self-destruction. Not me.
Well. Not much. Tell me,
how does a woman who.
A woman like me. Daughter of
a daddy with a hammer and blistered feet
he’d dip into a washtub while he ate his dinner.
A woman with no birthright in the matter.
What does a woman inherit
that tells her how
My first felony—I took up with poetry.
For this penalty the rice burned.
Mother warned I’d never wife.
Wife? A woman like me
whose choice was rolling pin or factory.
An absurd vice, this wicked wanton
I chucked the life
my father’d plucked for me.
Leapt into the salamander fire.
A girl who’d never roamed
beyond her father’s rooster eye.
Winched the door with poetry and fled.
For good. And grieved I’d gone
when I was so alone.
In my kitchen, in the thin hour,
a calendar Cassatt chanted:
Repeat after me—
I can live alone and I love to…
What a crock. Each week, the ritual grief.
That decade of the knuckled knocks.
I took the crooked route and liked my badness.
Played at mistress.
Tattooed an ass.
Lapped up my happiness from a glass.
It was something, at least.
I hadn’t a clue.
What does a woman
willing to invent herself
at twenty-two or twenty-nine
do? A woman with no who nor how.
And how was I to know what was unwise.
I wanted to be writer. I wanted to be happy.
What’s that? At twenty. Or twenty-nine.
Love. Baby. Husband.
The works. The big palookas of life.
Wanting and not wanting.
Take your hands off me.
I left my father’s house
before the brothers,
vagabonded the globe
like a rich white girl.
Got a flat.
I paid for it. I kept it clean.
Sometimes the silence frightened me.
Sometimes the silence blessed me.
It would come get me.
Late at night.
Open like a window,
hungry for my life.
I wrote when I was sad.
The flat cold.
When there was no love—
to distract me.
No six brothers
with their Fellini racket.
No mother, father,
with their wise I told you.
I tell you,
these are the pearls
from that ten-year itch,
my jewels, my colicky kids
who fussed and kept
me up the wicked nights
when all I wanted was. . .
With nothing in the texts to tell me.
But that was then,
The who-I-was who would become the who-I-am.
These poems are from that hobbled when.
11th of June, 1992