TBIn 2004, I was grappling with the notion of single womanhood and what the unmarried, independent state says about me. In fact, I questioned whether being single was my fault or something was wrong with me. Such an assumption is not uncommon among many women that I have seen flipping cartwheels, raising children, getting degrees, washing dishes, doing their best to support and love their partners, and working for social change on one level or another. The superwoman syndrome rears its well-coifed yet muscular head again.
TBAs these thoughts raced through my head then, and occasionally do now, I found myself in a position to teach a workshop at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library’s annual poetry festival. Honestly, I had a few ideas stocked in the back of my brain, but I was not completely sure what I wanted to do, even as people streamed into the room.
TBAfter a series of vocal warm-ups and sharing some poems, discussing point of view and the use specific details in writing, I pulled out a plastic bag. While passing out slips of paper, I asked them to write down the names of 3-5 characters that appear in their neighborhoods and memories, especially those who have a distinct voice. I told them to pick one character that stands out in their memories. Is there an eccentric character or a musician on the block, the street or in the community? I then asked people to write down questions and phrases that might begin a sentence on the slips of paper. I mixed the slips in the bag and asked each participant to pull a slip. Once each person pulled a slip, I explained that the “character voice” that they chose would be the voice of their poem inspired by the prompt written on their slip. Some people looked shocked. Some of the participants immediately sparked the kindling of pen against paper.
TBAs the participants wrote, I sat cross-legged on the carpet and wrote my own response to an unfinished sentence that I pulled from the bag. “The real reason…” was the phrase resting in the palm of my hand. As a workshop leader and teacher, I think it’s valuable for writers, especially beginning writers, to see that the teacher writes with the students. So, I sighed looked at the names on the page that I had chosen. Part of me was making up this exercise as I was going along. The circled name that jumped up from the page was Prince. His music was influential in making me feel like I could shape my own identity when I was growing up in a small town.
TBSo, imagine the voice of Prince belting out “the real reason, baaaay..be” to the tune of “The Beautiful Ones”. Think about the longing when he asks “Do you want him or do you want me?” The question swells his voice with tension. The question is usually “Why?” when any relationship ends. So, is there really a reason for a dissolving union? Sometimes there is no answer that really explains an ending. In fact, a reason isn’t even necessary because each person still has to resume life without a partner, which can be a new beginning. A person can acknowledge qualities that they possess and try new things that they might not have tried before.
TBA poet is always trying to do something new when they avoid clichés. So, the challenge spinning in my head was writing about relationships without sounding like a tired R & B song or a hokey New Age language that rings falsely in my head and on the page. I thought about images that represented the destruction of a breakup—an exhausted well, a dangerously hot kitchen utensil or a linch pin that keeps heavy machinery from collapsing. I do not say “the breakup”, but I gather the images.
TBThen the poet can remember something makes a person lovable and desirable in the first place. The mirror can be personified by loving the person who looks into it. Smiles can be gathered in a pile. The entire body becomes a stalk of sugar cane unchewed. The bed is replenished with words and not just another warm body replacing the one that left. This poem really made me think about the blues tradition of Bessie Smith and poets like C.D. Wright who create a scene by gathering a seemingly random collection of objects and pictures sketched inside my head. This accumulation stacks up enough items to create the mood and tell the story.
TBThe blues, and other musical genres with narrative potential, can tell a story, but to use the words blending from so many possible points of view to create one hybrid voice that stands confident in its own beauty, perhaps like one of those women flipping cartwheels that I have seen.