Guest Post, Johannah Knudson: Three Difficult Names

In the summer of 1991, I visited Saint Petersburg, Russia, with a group of “youth ambassadors.” The Cold War was melting, the Soviet Empire was crumbling, and efforts were being made to forge personal and political connections between two regions long divided by competition and suspicion.

The city had recently returned to its original name. In 1703, Peter the Great had founded and effectively named the city after himself. Then, in 1914, at war with Germany, the city became Petrograd—a distinctively Russian, rather than Germanic, name. Almost a decade later, after the Bolsheviks took power, the city was dubbed Leningrad, which it remained until 1991.

I stood in the city in the midst of this transition, its attempt to reclaim something of its former self by returning to its former name.

The Irony of Leningrad

The irony of Leningrad is that Lenin itself was not the original name of the man it referred to. It was a name intentionally acquired by a revolutionary with big ambitions. The man in question was born Vladimir Ulyanov. To cover its bases, in 1924, the Soviet Union designated a different city Ulyanovsk.

In fact, three major figures of the Bolshevik Revolution had all changed their names. While working to subvert the Russian Empire, Lenin wished to avoid capture by hiding his identity-not coincidentally choosing a pseudonym that was both terse and memorably alliterative. Lev Davidovich Bronstein became Leon Trotsky to distance himself from his Jewish ancestry, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful, despite even his own antisemitic rhetoric. And Joseph Dzhugashvili became Joseph Stalin because—well—Stalin means steel. It was a statement of personality and philosophy. It was a kind of one-word manifesto.

My Own Contrivance

When my grandfather was born in 1905 in Miskolc, Hungary, his parents gave him a last name different from their own. While my great grandfather’s surname was Rosenzweig, my grandfather’s was Racz. Together with his first name, Zoltan, my grandfather’s name was consummately Hungarian.

I used to think that the name change was an effort to hide the family’s Jewish identity in an atmosphere of antisemitism, but this explanation doesn’t quite compute; my great grandparents were highly religious and my grandfather became a rabbi, hardly an effort to hide his religious identification. Though the family was undeniably subject to antisemitism, the name change in 1905 Hungary most likely was an effort to assimilate in terms of nationality, not religion, in a society that elevated Hungarian national identity above all others.

Ironically, outside of Hungary, the name Racz is a mark of ethnic and national difference. In the U.S., it is typically encountered as unfamiliar and unpronounceable. In effect, because my family immigrated to North America, it became a different name, not one of belonging or sameness, but one of separation.

I’ve spent my life both correcting others’ pronunciation of my name and deciding how to pronounce it myself; would I roll the r, would I say the cz like tz as done in Hungarian—a language I do not speak? Would this be more authentic than an Americanized pronunciation such as Racks or Race or Rahz or Rocks?

I was trying to find my original, authentic name, my “real” name.

But I could not find it. There was no “real” name—by virtue of my grandfather’s name change and then my family’s change of country and context. My name was wholly my own, connected to a history but not predetermined by it.

And then I changed it.

My last name is now Knudson. To be clear, the K is audible, pronounced almost as if it were its own separate syllable, but not quite.

The reason I considered changing my name at all when I married was its history, which taught me that a name is not identical to that which it names. My name was—is— a point of choice rather than an inevitability.

The Name of God

In Hebrew, the most sacred of name of God is never spoken. Rather, one way to refer to God is HaShem, literally, the name.

Within this is an acknowledgement of language’s propensity to limit, the way its inevitable connotations make it unsuitable to refer to that which is beyond definition: God, the infinite.

In this way, theoretically, either by remaining beyond speech, or, alternatively, by being the name instead of a name, God can exist apart from circumstance and context, from concerns of nationality or politics or culture or campaigns for power or control—while also encompassing it all.

The infinity of God remains.

Being There

As human beings, with names, we can’t remain infinite. We take names with histories and connotations, and intentional and unintentional meanings that locate us within a social, political, and historical framework. When we learn someone’s name, it becomes inextricably linked to our sense of who they are.

A sequence of three names identifies me, Johannah Racz Knudson, each term of which is commonly considered difficult to pronounce. Each is subject to misunderstanding or doubt, which reminds me constantly that no name is identical to its owner. I’m constantly negotiating the distance between my self and my name. Even as I’m asking the world to get it—to get me—right, the experience itself shows that there is no perfect union between name and essence.

Via my “difficult” name, I am inscrutable, but also undefined.

A Slippery Medium

As writers, we work in a slippery medium, one that points to something but that is, in essence, nothing. Names, words, are carefully arbitrarily selected. When we write them, we believe we know what we are saying. We do our best. We write and revise. We name and rename. We write a poem and then another.

Regimes rise and fall. People move across borders and oceans. Names change. Languages. Words flow, in flux.

And we write them down, as they are, right now, in this moment. If we’re lucky, someone, somewhere, reads them, and understands.

Guest Post, Ramona Reeves: Seeing Buffalo

The buffalo blocked the two-lane road. Barely six-years-old, I had no notion of the rarity of this intimate sighting. In the distance a herd of the mythic beasts gathered in clumps across the Oklahoma reservation to eat pale, ankle-high prairie grass. The car’s engine hyperventilated in a get, get, get rhythm. The open sky and expansive plains mocked us. My mother sheepishly honked the horn once or twice, but the buffalo (technically a bison) held its ground. It may have been five or fifteen minutes until she finally surrendered and cut off the engine.

The next time I saw roaming buffalo was more than four decades later in Caprock Canyon, a remote state park in Texas. The buffalo ran toward a lake for their morning drink in early July as we circled the park both searching for them and surveying the available hiking trails. Again, a regal beast blocked the road. Behind the lake, brown lumpy hills of short grass and Mesquite transformed into orange-red cliffs dotted with green. The buffalo came and went as they pleased, and soon I realized we were the ones in the way. But it wasn’t until that moment that I recalled the first encounter in the avocado-green Oldsmobile accompanied by my mom, my grandmother, and the friend we were visiting.

I’m no expert on the brain, but I wonder about such trigger points and the workings of memory. I especially wonder about them in connection to writing, how on the best days the words flow and unexpected links appear, as though risen from the dead. Such memories do seem to move like ghosts across my mind, the actor in those memories both me and not me. Specific details often elude, but the feeling and some truth of what happened remains.

I’ve read that our brains experience a recalled moment the same as if it is happening in real time. That the brain can accomplish this feat hints at the illusory nature of time and the connectedness and layering of experience. Amazing, yes, but the downside of the brain’s indiscretion is not without trepidation; there’s plenty most of us don’t want to relive, but for writers maybe there’s an upside. During the process of telling a story, we are given the opportunity to make more sense of derailed experiences, the ones that both wounded and defined us. Maybe writing allows us to grapple with those experiences in more satisfying ways, even if the result remains the same.

After I began writing this, I went to New Mexico for a weekend. While there, a dear colleague, who is part of indigenous culture, gave me and several others a buffalo tooth. She knew nothing about the large animals recently populating my memory when she told us the buffalo is a sacred animal, majestic and symbolic of gratitude, abundance, and blessing. Recalling the buffalo at Caprock Canyon and the one that blocked the road when I was young, I can understand why our indigenous neighbors ascribe greatness and meaning to the brown-bearded giant, an animal capable of running 35 miles per hour and surviving harsh winters. An animal capable of surviving near-decimation in the nineteenth century and reclaiming its place in the world.

It’s strange how a new event can call past memories through a different doorway where a new light catches the hidden layers, revealing what we didn’t know at the time and assigning deeper meaning to what we do know. Much understanding seems to pivot on these moments of illumination. I didn’t know until my grandmother died, for example, that she wrote the occasional essay or poem, which deepened my understanding of those moments when she encouraged me to write.

In his book Narrative Design Madison Smartt Bell discusses modular design. Bell says, “What modular design can do is liberate the writer from linear logic, those chains of cause and effect, strings of dominoes always falling forward.” He goes on to say that modular design has less to do with motion and more to do with shapeliness. And he mentions that “modular design allows the writer to throw off the burden of chronology, as much as possible.”

Although Bell is referring to structure in fiction, it seems to me these observations might just as easily apply to nonfiction. Perhaps this is something many nonfiction writers know, but as someone who’s written mostly fiction, I was struck by an idea: Modular design, with its ability to move more freely, to be shuffled and reorganized, may come closest to mimicking memory, which is anything but chronological.

That a structure might exist to corral memory is appealing, though I’m hesitant to completely let go of its wildness. Lately, memory seems to me its own bearded beast, both majestic and mysterious in its ability to run alongside our lives when we are not paying attention, and to help us see and make connections when we are.

Guest Post, Josef Kuhn: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

Love and Existentialism in New Orleans: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

“On this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.” So says Binx Bolling, the ironical hero of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. At one time, Walker Percy was a literary superstar. The Moviegoer, his first book, was published in 1961 to glowing reviews, and it won the National Book Award that year, establishing Percy as one of the foremost voices of Southern literature. Since then, the novel has been included on numerous “best novels of the century”-type lists. Yet whenever I mention Percy’s name to friends today, nobody seems to have heard of him (except those in Catholic literary circles, for reasons that will perhaps become clearer below). I’m here to say that this is a crying shame.

The Moviegoer fuses the philosophical complexity and spiritual intensity of a Russian novel with the Southern tradition of the “familial decline” plot. Think Dostoyevsky meets Faulkner. Binx Bolling is a boyish thirty-year-old from a genteel New Orleans family who could do virtually anything that he wants with his life—and yet, faced with such freedom, he chooses to live in a featureless suburb, selling stocks and frittering his time away with pretty secretaries. His step-cousin Kate is similarly aimless, caught in a dialectic of mania and depression caused in part by her overbearing mother, Binx’s aunt. When this aunt puts pressure on Binx to make something more of his life, it forces a crisis that sends him and Kate careening on an ill-advised Mardi Gras journey.

For one thing, Percy’s prose is scintillating, some of the most finely tuned I have ever had the pleasure to read. He depicts the subtleties of landscapes and scenery with a painterly attention to detail: “A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight.” (Given Percy’s frequent attention to the qualities of light and atmosphere as well as his spiritual themes, it’s not a surprise that filmmaker Terrence Malick almost made a screen adaptation of The Moviegoer.) Percy has a talent for finding the exact metaphor or simile that, when you read it, convinces you that no other metaphor or simile would possibly do, as in “The blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the water like a knife.”

Physical description may be the lowest rung of mastery for a writer, but Percy brings the same level of acuity and subtlety to his observations of human character. For instance, Binx observes about his cousin’s fiancée: “What is funny is that Walter always starts out in the best brilliant-young-lawyer style of humoring an old lady by letting her get the better of him, whereas she really does get the better of him.” In a dinner-table scene involving Binx’s family, every gesture and line of dialogue seems to reveal some new element of the intricate subtext. Even in the briefest sketches, the most minor characters stand out as fully realized and lifelike:

“As he talks, he slaps a folded newspaper against his pants leg and his eye watches me and at the same time sweeps the terrain behind me, taking note of the slightest movement. A green truck turns down Bourbon Street; the eye sizes it up, flags it down, demands credentials, waves it on. A businessman turns in at the Maison Blanche building; the eye knows him, even knows what he is up to. And all the while he talks very well. His lips move muscularly, molding words into pleasing shapes, marshalling arguments, and during the slight pauses are held poised, attractively everted in a Charles-Boyer pout—while a little web of saliva gathers in a corner like the clear oil of a good machine. Now he jingles the coins deep in his pocket. No mystery here!—he is as cogent as a bird dog quartering a field. He understands everything out there and everything out there is something to be understood.”

But even more than Percy’s technical virtuosity, what I find most remarkable about him as a writer is his existential audacity, the boldness and originality of his intellectual vision. He is ever attentive to the particularities of history and geography, yet in The Moviegoer, he also dares to stride right past such temporal concerns to grapple with perhaps the most fundamental question faced by conscious being: How does one deal with the freedom of one’s own existence? This, in fact, seems to be the whole point of “the search,” an idea that recurs to Binx throughout the novel. Binx has a whole private lexicon of terms that seem ripped right out of Kierkegaard (e.g. “repetition,” “the malaise”) to describe his little phenomenological “researches.” Both he and Kate are acutely aware of the flimsiness of the solutions that modern society offers them—Binx claims his “only talent” is “a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies,” and Kate pokes fun at the shallow pedantry of her therapist, whose name, Merle, is suspiciously close to merde. What they’re dealing with is an emotional-intellectual problem that, as Kate describes it, is beyond the pale of 1960s psychotherapy:

“[Merle] got interested and suggested we look at the reasons. I said, Merle, how I wish you were right. How good to think that there are reasons and that if I am silent, it means I am hiding something. How happy I would be to be hiding something. And how proud I am when I do find secret reasons for you, your own favorite reasons. But what if there is nothing? That is what I’ve been afraid of until now—being found out to be concealing nothing at all.”

Percy is an ironist and a contrarian who takes pleasure in puncturing the banal pieties of his day, especially those of educated society. In one of the most hilarious passages, Binx lampoons a radio program called This I Believe in which high-minded celebrities state their personal credos. “If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared,” Binx says, “it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of niceness. … Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.” By the end of The Moviegoer, it becomes clear that Percy’s primary satirical target is a kind of shallow, toothless scientific humanism that is replacing people’s ability to independently contemplate the meaning and purpose of their own lives. It is a brave new vision of the world in which “needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead.”

Percy converted to Catholicism when he was about 30 years old, and Catholicism is present in a muted fashion throughout the book. But the novel rarely comes across as preachy, at least not in a religiously sectarian sense. I first read The Moviegoer when I was still nominally Catholic but teetering on the edge; the second time I read it, I was a non-religious agnostic. But if anything, I liked the novel even better the second time around. If the foregoing rant against scientific humanism sounds a tad reactionary, it’s worth noting that Binx is just as alienated from the thoughtless, conventional Catholic piety of his mother’s family as from the lofty universalist sentiments of his father’s. Percy never clearly comes down in support of any particular creed; Catholicism is just one more phenomenon that Binx is trying to make sense of as part of his existential search.

The book does, however, have a tendency to wax philosophical; if you don’t like your fiction with large doses of existential musing, then The Moviegoer is probably not for you. Reportedly, Percy’s later novels became increasingly dark and didactic (though probably no more so than, say, Sartre’s or Dostoyevsky’s). Perhaps this later didactism accounts for his relative obscurity today. I cannot vouch for the later work, but I can attest that The Moviegoer, at least, is a masterpiece of American literature that feels every bit as relevant in today’s fragmented, decentered social world as it must have in 1961. For any craft-conscious writer, or for any reader who enjoys dwelling on existential themes, this book is not to be missed.

Guest Post: William Cordeiro: Once More, with Feeling

Feel? Let the reader feel!
—Fernando Pessoa

James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, David Kalstone, and a couple others were once at Merrill’s house in Key West when they each decided to write a poem that morning. When Merrill came downstairs to show his work, Wilbur said, “Well, Jimmy, it’s very fine—very formally sound, it’s just… missing something.”

“Oh right,” Merrill said, “I forgot to put in the feelings!” He raced upstairs, and, in another hour or so, doctored his poem. He then read the new version to the delight of all.

I remembered this anecdote while down in Tucson a few weeks ago, attending the UA Poetry Center’s Bagley Wright Lecture Series. Timothy Donnelly made a comment that’s stuck with me; he claimed he was more of a “constructivist” poet, as opposed to an “expressivist” poet, meaning that he often didn’t have anything particular to say—he just liked building things, tinkering, working with the materials of his chosen medium. Constructivists, like Merrill and Donnelly, can sometimes forget to put in the feelings.

The impulse of a constructivist is to make patterns. Three rocks scattered in the woods might not seem significant, Donnelly said, but three rocks stacked in a cairn do. We observe the imposition of human consciousness. However, we don’t necessarily know what such patterns signify—turn left, straight ahead, or look out for the poison oak. Likewise, in poetry, patterns create music and architecture, arrangements which suggest mood and sensibility: penumbras inflecting and leaching out into the tone, the heft, the configuration of a poem beyond its ostensible content.

Expressivists, on the other hand, tend to have something specific to convey. Language acts as a medium of communication by means of which the author’s ideas, experience, or emotions can be transferred to the reader. An expressivist poem is thus a more chiseled version of the way we use language in everyday life. In some cases, it strives for a message, a moral, and it has designs to incite political action.

Every poet, perhaps every poem, must figure out how to reconcile these divergent motives. The results of this balancing act contribute to one’s style. Although there are limitations to this (or any) binary, Donnelly’s distinction proves useful in observing a trend and unpacking the forces behind it: American poetry is having an expressivist moment.

In the ’90s and 2000s, the pendulum swung away from the Confessional poets. New Formalists and LANGUAGE poets, New York Schoolers and Ellipticals alike could be deemed constructivists while Slam poetry, as an example of expressivist work of that era, infrequently saw the pages of literary journals. One might argue, too, that the immediacy of Slam poetry is suited for the voice and stage, rather than the drier archival pages of journals anyway.

Today’s poetry scene, with journals now mostly online and many hosting video content, values immediacy. Expressivist poems appear urgent, direct, sincere, visceral, approachable, and woke. They’re bone spurs and gut-punches, shivers and fist bumps. Constructivists poems, by contrast, will always have critics who accuse them of being empty, academic, confusing, oblique, or baroque. Constructivist poems can be ponderous, requiring interpretation and repeated readings, though a handful of constructivists have developed enough panache or sprezzatura to avoid this fate. A certain elitism prevails among constructivist poets, since their work, whether harnessing traditional modes or disrupting them, appeals to what Milton called a “fit audience… though few.” They require the reader to pick among the stones they’ve set and wander in the runes, as it were. The reader must construct and deconstruct along with them.

That said, the expressivist poem, so popular currently, faces the dangers of being obvious, too literal, a tad boring, blunt and underwritten, and ultimately little more than dressed-up journalism. Expressivists foreground the author over the work. Thus, expressivists can develop hang-ups about authenticity. An expressivist poet may fall to repeating herself, boxed in by her own voice, the work shrinking to the size of a single viewpoint instead of expanding to encompass the multiplicities of the imagination.

The trend toward expressivists might, of course, result from a political climate in which readers are spoiling for poems that give voice to their anger and disorientation, as well as greater institutional awareness and efforts to expand the variety of perspectives represented at all levels of publication. Also, poems that spill their guts might rise to the top of slush piles: blood floats on ink. Busy editors sometimes just don’t have time to re-read and interpret delicate, challenging, or more subtly structured work before casting it aside in today’s clamorous marketplace.

A counterargument to my own analysis above, however, is the state of creative nonfiction (CNF) today. CNF has been trending more constructivist lately. The heyday of the echt memoir was the 90s and early 2000s—think Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, James Frey. As opposed to straight narrative, today’s CNF is lyrical, collaged, broken, braided, collated, curated, speculative, or anagogical: it emphasizes its structure and shifting registers and embedded texts; it’s by turns hermetic and punchy, colloquial and precious, erudite and rude. Given this newfound stress on form, and the play that form affords, essays are increasingly like poems—at least, poems with a constructivist bent—and it’s no accident that many of our major essayists are bona fide poets: Maggie Nelson, Ander Monson, Anne Carson, John D’Agata, Kevin Young, Lia Purpura, Nick Flynn, and Claudia Rankine, to name just a few.

This tendentious bifurcation between “constructivists” and “expressivists” aside, as writers we should perhaps recognize that all expression must be constructed; all construction yields some expression. So, writers whose temperament is mushy might benefit from thinking how to give shape and definition to their sentiment through more attention to structures, logics, forms, and outward facts. And those, like myself, who tend to dawdle over form for form’s sake, need to circle back to ask: What am I bothering to say? Does it matter? And, importantly, am I giving my reader the feels?

Guest Post, Angie Macri: The Gifts We Give Our Children

My oldest daughter confessed she wanted to study writing in college. I say confess because she struggled with feeling guilty, as if she was supposed to choose something better. I had never encouraged her to pursue this path. “But Mom,” she said, “I grew up drawing between the lines of your poems.” And this was true; all four of my children used my drafts as scrap paper to fashion airplanes, to experiment with shape and color, to publish household newspapers.

In the farmhouse where we moved when I was four, my father built one room full of books, floor to ceiling. It was little—you could touch both walls when you stood in the middle—but it seemed a kingdom. I never realized how hard reading was for my father. He marked up his books, underlining, circling, drawing arrows, writing questions or key words in the margins. I know now this was the way for a first-generation American who never read anything but comic books as he was growing up, who wasn’t taught to read or write critically because it wasn’t thought necessary, to engage the text.

My mother, a reading specialist, never read for pleasure, except with children or when she was studying how to help people learn to read. My oldest child, my daughter, read easy as breathing. My second child, my oldest son, didn’t. My mother gave me a crash course in Reading Recovery, a white board with markers, and a jar of alphabet tiles so we could explore language in a way he liked, with his hands. He and I spent hours in the recliner after school, taking turns reading with each other. He turned a corner thanks to a book my mother gave us, the first of the Henry and Mudge series, where he met a child who felt lost sometimes. The other night, as he was struggling to finish To Kill a Mockingbird for his pre-AP English class, I asked, “Would you like me to read a few chapters to you?” To my surprise, he said yes, and he listened, just like before, suddenly all eyes, what seemed a jumble brought clear.

My first two children becoming young adults leads me to look at the second two with even more wonder. My second son, in the seventh grade, just scored a 32 on the science and English portions of the ACT. He wants to be a writer. For him, writing seems an adventure, a puzzle to put together, but I suspect that like his oldest sister, he sees it as a way to change the world. The youngest, almost nine, began reading her older siblings’ books as a way to connect with them. Calvin and Hobbes, Magic Tree House, 39 Clues, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, from these, she designs her own games. But her favorite is any kind of mythology, old stories that try to help us understand the human condition. “Mom,” she asked, “what would you do if Zeus was after you?”

What I wanted for my children was for their world to be better than the one I grew up in. But we aren’t working on eradicating the biases in our systems. We aren’t focusing as a whole on curing diseases or developing new technology that is more conscious of our environment. Instead, our society yearns to regain a glory and a simple time that never existed. We feel so afraid that we try to achieve invulnerability rather than realizing that we all, as mortal creatures, are vulnerable, and that this gives us a common ground from which we might truly see each other and move forward together.

What I have given my children, I hope, is what my parents gave me, a kind of faith they can return to no matter what the world is. That in the beginning, was the word. That little books hold big ideas. That writing has revolutionized the world before, and can again. That literacy brings loving and thoughtful voices into our lives especially when love or thought seems far away. That stories encourage, with the weight of what that means: stories don’t make a problem go away, but they can inspire you for what you must face.

I hope that in time, my children know I tried to change the world for the better for them as best I could, when I worked outside of the house as a teacher, in the choices I made as I raised them, in each piece I wrote. I kept writing and reading to explore, to realize, to defy, and to advocate as I believe we are intended, with love for each other. I took a chance and joined the chorus of voices, in large part because I loved my children. This one word, love, arches over chaos. Love, a simple commandment so hard to keep, is our salvation.

Guest Post, Martha Zweig: Backwards

Poetry calisthenics: Chain words together so that the end part of one word becomes the first part of the next, ad infinitum: zippercentralalalandscapersonarrowboat… (zipper; percent; central; tralala; lalaland; landscape; caper; persona; sonar; narrow/arrow; rowboat…)

Even better is to link words and idioms of common speech such that one bleeds into the next upon contextual shifts of the words’ meaning: “…everlovin’ blue-eyed hurricane to witness God’s will leaving you for dead wrong.” Hurricanes do have blue “eyes.” Eyes witness. A last-will-&-testament needs a witness. The will leaves something to the beneficiary, but God’s will, ever contrariwise, abandons Its beneficiary, leaving her for dead, and dead wrong to boot (from my poem Invocation: Monkey Lightning, Tupelo Press, 2010).

Write your list of rhyme words first, then decide where to put them. Not today at the ends of lines. Maybe at the beginnings? Maybe in the middles? Let the placement of those rhyme words provoke and determine the rest of what you say.

Collect fifteen of your fragments many years old and never used. Put them on the table in random order. Change the order. Cut each fragment in half and repeat. Fill in the blanks until they’ve made you say something you never would have thought of in a million years—but which you will recognize.

***

For a period of fifteen years I wasn’t able to write anything. I did try. I sat on the floor and thought about subject matter: what do I love and why? Memories? Gratitudes? Consolations? Convictions? Some wisdom I might convey? Jeezalu, can’t you just describe something out the window, anything? Nope.

People ask, where do you get your ideas? What inspires you? Nope. Not a thing.

I did find some support. A local group of the then-national organization No Limits for Women Artists took me in, a writer, though all the others were visual, paintings and pottery. Meetings consisted of our glorious leader calling up each person, one by one, to an individual standing interrogation: What is your vision? (Answer.) What is your vision for the next three weeks? (Answer.) What’s the next step? (Answer.) What makes it hard? (Answer.) Then the leader guided the woman-on-the-spot along to develop a personal affirmation addressing the difficulty. (Affirm!) Next-and-last, What help do you need? Any answer OK– Nothing. Babysitting. An item to borrow. Most popular: send me a postcard of encouragement. No guarantee that anyone would do anything. But—how hard is a postcard? I loved it. Each local group ended after 6 sessions. Good, it didn’t go on long enough to turn phony.

At some point language personified itself to me: it was royally pissed, all these years I’d spent whining and hadn’t made any poems! Eff you, language. I’ve had a hard time! We circled and growled for a while. I’d offended language expecting it to conform itself to my power-point agendas of blah-blah subject matter. Meanwhile it had all these words to spill out wanting to play and do mischief, wanting to surprise me!

***

An only child, I grew up in white suburbia in the talk of a doctor father who orotunded like Shakespeare and/or the King James Bible. “Pontificating!” my mother hissed. She romped about in her own astonishing range of diction, mixing high elegance with gutter-demotic expletive sometimes in a single sentence. She dubbed the hospital where my father worked the “horse-pittle.”

Formative years of such yackity-yack? Who could ask for more? Thunderstruck still, I invoke loops of language as Higher Power flapping around out there like a pterodactyl, so indiscriminate in its associations that it may, from time to time, descend to build a nest in my hair. I woo language. I scavenge words. When I have nothing to say, I start with words. One word leads to another. They rough-and-tumble noisily, dragging me into their brawl and peeling out living bits of (who knew?) my own soul stinging and giggling.

How do I know what I think til I hear what I say?

Lugging groceries up the lengthy path to my house, I mutter to myself,  “Krakatoa; asterisk; flip…”  Bits of more or less and pinch of something else.

Guest Post, Caroline Chavatel: Dear Voices of Resistance

TwitterOn February 14th, 2018 when news of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting broke, my immediate reaction wasn’t to continually check the updates or to phone a loved one. I cried. And then I logged onto Twitter. And why? Because I’m a good millennial. But, more seriously, because whenever tragedy strikes, my Twitter feed fills with poems to cope, poems on the subject matter, and poems from victims, both current and previous. Through this work, I’m able to transcend the current context and feel hopeful about what might come from this, whatever this may be. The possibility for art within spaces of tragedy becomes clear and, on some level, we are just trying to make it through—some more so than others.

Just recently I had a conversation at a dinner party with friends who expressed their dislike of Twitter. I felt—well—personally attacked. Okay, okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but it did later make me consider the strong visceral reaction I had to their statements about the site. They communicated the uselessness of it and I raised my voice and crossed my arms. I called bullshit and felt myself clenching my teeth, trying to swallow the rising fuck off. I then went silent as if in childish cold-shoulder protest. What do you mean you hate Twitter? How? When did this start? Why?

Why did I urgently feel this need to come to Twitter’s defense? As I reflect, I suppose I did, and do, understand where they were coming from. In the past, Twitter has actually sat idle and permitted my own harassment. I’ve seen them remove photos of female menstruation and breastfeeding but happily conserve racist threats. I’ve seen teenagers be told to end their lives from total strangers. I’ve seen transphobic hate speech. Twitter does, after all, actively contain and maintain the same evils of performativity and trolling present in most social media.

The day after that dinner disagreement, I felt uneasy. embarrassed—Was my reaction too strong? What did it really matter? So, I decided to consult the Internet. I found Maya Kosoff’s piece in Vanity Fair, “Just An Ass-Backward Tech Company”: How Twitter Lost The Internet War,” which detailed the vast complications of Twitter, the violence committed regularly on the site, and what’s been done (or rather, not done) about it. Comedian and SNL repertory player Leslie Jones essentially got chased off by a bunch of white nationalist trolls’ racist vitriol surrounding her part in the most recent Ghostbusters film. At any moment scrolling through comments one might see someone receive anything from sexually violent threats to unsolicited dieting advice. Maybe I did over-react in my own quick confrontation? After years of objections of the continued abuse on the app, Twitter higher-ups countered with increasing the character count per tweet, essentially giving trolls more space per post to utter their hatred and ignorance. The site often officially verifies self-proclaimed Nazis and repeatedly ignores hate speech. Sigh. Still, I couldn’t rationalize the incredulous reaction I had to their opposition of Twitter in that moment. It was as if they had insulted my own livelihood and hadn’t just critiqued an app I use.

Perhaps I responded as I did because like so many other poets and writers I know, I rely on Twitter to feel supported and occasionally revived in the never-ending hellscape of the Trump presidency. I’m often greeted with screenshots and shared links of reminders of what other artists are putting out into the world. And, when I’m feeling dissatisfied with my own writing, teaching, reading, and the chaos of Everyday Life—I suddenly feel as though it’s possible to create within structures that are regularly seeking to obstruct artistic consumption and production. I am living in a kind of echo chamber—one that celebrates art and good humor, social justice and reproductive rights, underrepresented voices, tiny political wins and killer line breaks. It’s the same echo chamber that made the news of a 2016 Republican victory even more alarming because I couldn’t have possibly predicted it given the material I had come to expect in my feed that essentially just agreed or aligned with my own interpretations and outlooks. As someone I know always says: It’s dialectical.

I’ve cultivated a feed I look forward to logging in to—poets, writers, artists, comedians, left-leaning politician and activists—and these voices reassure me, daily, that EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY. They write, resist, post, repeat. Those friends had made claims that Twitter was where their peers and non-peers alike used the platform to perform or push agendas. But I frequently log onto praise and promotion, publicity and appreciation, shouting-from-the-rooftop excitement toward and of my comrades’ art. And this, I now realize, isn’t something inherently virtuous about Twitter itself—au contraire. I have no doubt that these poets and writers, artists and activists, would and could carve out these spaces anywhere they needed to.

And this is all to say: I get it. I also resent the site’s lack of acknowledgement of its own severe harms. I now realize that when I jumped to Twitter’s defense, I was actually defending the artists and writers I feel I’ve come to know and not defending the site itself. Twitter is, at large, often painful. But, for some of us, it’s a means of day-to-day survival. I now realize I had been conflating the online apparatus with all the voices, known and unknown, who greet me daily in my feed. I am thankful for those who make it all less painful and cultivate online presences that encourage, promote, and shape positive artistic discourses. Dear voices of resistance, I’m so thankful for you.