In conversation with “Word: On Being a [Woman] Writer”

- From Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman"

Moving my eyes across the pages of Word: On Being a [Woman] Writer, edited by Jocelyn Burrell (2004), I felt as if I were glancing at black-and-white photographs of my ancestors- I felt familiar with, comforted by, and reassured through the statements of the female writers.  Mothers, they may be, to the practice of my own text-tual expressions.  I find the following format (quote-response) to be a reoccurring practice within my studies.  Reading is a participatory action and there forms a relationship between writer and reader.  These conversations, in turn, inform my paintings and contribute to my holistic artistic self.

(My own responses, ideas, and continuations of thought at in bold.)

Hammad explains “A story begins in the margins.  It’s where we do our math.  Where we check our spelling.  Where we dream (p. xi).”  I say it’s where we manifest.  Where we find ourselves.  Where we say, “Welcome home, now take a breath, and live.” She says, “Only readers write…we write out of our bodies (p. xiii).”  I respond by stating that only artists truly know how much of their soul becomes a part of pigment, canvas, paper, performance, twirls, speech, or ink, bodies aside, let’s think about our essence.

(My literary grandmother) bell hooks writes:

Often writing is the task saved for the end of the day.  Not just because it is hard to value writing time, to pace it above other demands, but because writing is hard.  Oftentimes the writer seeks to avoid the difficulties that must be faced when we work with words.  Although I have written many books, writing is still not easy.  Writing so much has changed me.  I no longer stand in awe of the difficulties faced when working with words, overwhelmed by the feeling of being lost in a strange place unable to find my way or crushed to silence (p. 23).

To hooks I say, “thank you.” No other woman’s writing has come close to affecting me as her powerfully articulated, yet gently placed words have.  I once only found my home along a singular path- some days I’d run, some days I’d skip, and some days I’d dance my way long the well trotted meandering trail, but I always found the canvas, now I know where words live as wellForaging through the tall grasses and jumping over streams, I now wander.

Meena Alexander admits, “I cannot keep up prose anymore.  I turn to my first love, poetry.  I do not want to write about childhood.  I do not want to be swallowed up in the past with so much molten and flowing.  I need to bear witness to what is now, and the poem will allow me to do what I can (p. 31).”

Today I was lost

in an experience of all senses

without time

(I cannot express my immediate mental flashes as easily in prose as I can in a poem).

Alia Mamdouh shares, “Fine: I am a writer of the sensual. I trust my senses.  I listen, I taste, and I take in smells, and that is the way I know how people and how cities work.  Creative writing must order things; it must repair and rebuild homelands, the nations we have left behind for places of exile, as we set ourselves to refurnish them anew (p. 39).” I am alive: I feel her earth.  I cannot separate my worlds.  I live and I write.  I experience and I reflect.  I research and I find relationships, correlations, questions, wonder, and the continuously extending threads of my being.  The tapestry spreads into my pen and onto the paper and the paper provides a setting for who I am.

Aboriginal writer, Eva Johnson, confesses, “Writing became my partner in the war against injustice.  Writing became a therapeutic balm, using words of creative expression to expel negative thought, writing words of self-affirmation, love and wisdom.  Writing became a part of my spirit, the very core of my being…Writing is he most daring thing I’ve ever done and the most rewarding (p. 52).” I never sought out to form a relationship with writing.  Scribbling thoughts in my journal was simply what I did.  I never said, “I am going to write to change the world,” or “My writing will become an integral part of who I am, therefore I must write.”  The immersion into words was natural and my reliance upon communication via text grew like hair from my skull- changing with the seasons, sometimes worn tightly and sometimes free flowing, sometimes a sense of pride and sometimes an uncontrollable disappointment.  Much of my writing is me-writing (writing that others may never witness).  I do not seek a return from my expression but the benefits have been long forming.  Yet, the strength of my word has led me to enact change and to weave conversations of other authors, other land fighters, other women, other artists, and other souls.  How exact Johnson is- often the most daring things we do can be the most rewarding.

Jennifer DeMarco states, “..I reclaimed my power, my energy and my life with a passion.  I wrote until I cried, until I laughed out loud.  I wrote about dispelling pain, darkness, hate.  I was suddenly looking at the world, looking at fear and prejudice with an overwhelming need for justice (p.66).” Within the philosophies of energy healing, emphasis on a sore muscle can stimulate more blood flow and increased healing.  On the written page, focusing on personal thoughts or memories can often lead to prolonged pain.  The act of writing itself is not always curing.  But suffering can enhance our vision.  I’ve long struggled with the political-corporate-profit above humans- chemicals over more costly naturals- building over preservation- selling of family farms- additives of sugars, colors, flavors, and 16 syllable words, which no body can pronounce- and so I write.  I read about these topics and I read about meditation, about Frida Kalho, about displaced groups of souls, about the cycles of the seasons, about my family ancestry, about African American women slaves, about one man’s mission to build schools in the Middle East, and about Kabbalah.  And I find others who share my pain; thinkers who lead me towards justice.

Joy Harjo insists, “I am still on that journey. The stuff I need for singing by whatever means is garnered from every thought, every heart that ever pounded the earth, the intelligence that directs the stars.  The shapes of mountains, cities, a whistle leaf of grass, or a human bent with loss will revise the pattern of the story, the song.  I take it from there, write or play through heartbreak of the tenderness of being until I am the sky, the earth, the song and the singer (p. 78).”  Joy, I will join you.

Jeanette Winterson sings, “Art coaxes out of us emotions we normally do not feel. It is not that art sets out to shock (that is rare), it is rather that art occupies ground unconquered by social niceties…art works to enlarge emotional possibility. In a dead society that inevitably puts it on the side of the rebels.  Do not mistake me, I am not of the voting party of bohemians and bad boys, and the rebelliousness of art does not make every rebel an artist. The rebellion of art is a daily rebellion against the state of the living death routinely called real life…Against this fear, art is fresh healing and fresh pain (p. 105).”   Look at a Mark Rothko painting without blinking for (even just) one minute and try to tell me that you did not feel your stomach knot up, your pulse increase, your forehead crinkled by your lowering brows, and your memories churning.  Art awakens our ability to release feeling, therefore experiencing emotion. I have written term papers about art in the everyday, arguing that visual culture bears no barrier other than the brick and mortar of “high art’s” museum walls.  But if you cannot see the vibrating sunlight in Rothko’s yellow hues, you also cannot see Rothko’s quivering blues within a bed of flowers.  With this recognition comes an authentic connection beyond the “reality” of our routines.

I will close with a few sentences from June Jordan, whose words are as poetic as they are honest-to-god-fact: “A poet writes in her own language. A poet writes of her own people, her own history, her own vision, her own room, her own house where she sits at her own table quietly placing one word after another word until she builds a line and a movement and an image and a meaning that somersaults all of these into the singing, the absolutely individual voice of the poet: at liberty.  A poet is somebody free. A poet is someone at home (p. 168).”



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