Breaking my Silence and my Happy Mask – Kelly Fitzharris Coody, Author

All the Things I’m NOT Supposed to Say – so be it, I’m biting the fucking hand that feeds. – Kelly Fitzharris Coody, Author of Unhinged

 

I won’t and can’t apologize for the minor editing errors that slipped through the literary cracks; not when I look at the whole of the process that was writing, editing, and taking on the responsibility for “professionally editing” my own manuscript, with the help of my longtime friend, Marisela Mitchley. (Despite what was promised to me by my publishers in my contract.)

Yes, I got a damning review over the weekend of my book, Unhinged.

(Psst: please, no need tell me over and over again that “you are going to get these bad reviews, Kelly,” because I KNOW THAT. I have a few things I need to address.)

The “errors” that were called out in said review aren’t actually even grammatical errors – to so confidently call out a writer for “assaulting the English language” and for “possessing bad grammatical skills” warrants a manuscript that is consistently poorly written, by a writer who uses the wrong “your” or “there” and doesn’t understand how commas or semicolons work. Not a few sentences ending in prepositions. Or for the way I used the word “idler.” To say that M.B.Reviewer has grossly exaggerated her assessment of my literary abilities is putting it lightly.

Sitting in my author’s seat is very frustrating; I’m not allowed to defend myself. It comes across as whiny, defensive, and flags me, by proxy, as weak and thin-skinned, along with possessing an inability to take constructive criticism, not to mention it pegging me as difficult to work with, when that could not be further from the truth.

What I consider to be an assault on the English language are words like, “obvs,” “OMG,” and “guyliner” not only existing in pop culture, but being added to the Oxford Dictionary. THAT is an assault.

You may read the review here: Review on Amazon of Unhinged

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ending a sentence with a preposition is “not a grammatical error.” And, according to http://www.dictionary.com/browse/idle, the way I used the word “idler” in the prologue is 100% correct. The statements that this review made about my abilities as a writer are defamatory, unnecessary, and flat out bogus.

A successful constructive critical review might look something like this: Coody’s book provided great literary insight into a different type of protagonist, giving the reader layers to peel back as they discover different aspects of Agnes’s personality and background. While, at times, Agnes is a character I can identify with and root for, there are other times that I feel Agnes is written to be too aggressive, detracting from the main plot and story-line, making the reader side with those around her who are out to get her. But, then, at the same time, is Coody attempting to make an overarching statement about how a protagonist doesn’t always need to be someone we identify with? While a few minor typographical errors made their way into print, they weren’t enough to distract me from the story and the characters. Unhinged is a solid, thrilling, unique book. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the way the book ended, and feel that it could do with a bit of revision, it’s nothing that a second and/or third edition wouldn’t be able to address and/or fix. Overall, Unhinged is one hell of a psychological thriller that will stay with you long after you read it.

Here’s the other part:

I’d love to share a story with you.

No, not a fictitious one; not an anecdotal, humorous holiday tale, either. But I’d like to share with you the ridiculously unprofessional process I endured and underwent with the publishing of my first book, Unhinged.

I was saddled with an editor whom shall remain nameless and gender-less in order to protect their identity. This person broke my book; they made unnecessary changes according to their style and/or taste, added errors and sentences that made no sense with the story, and repeatedly asked me to dumb my book down for the readers.

To be frank, I tried my hardest with the shit I was shoveled and I’m not the least bit sorry that more than a few shitty bits of grammar edged past the editing process and made their way into the final manuscript.

This has been an optimal outcome for me: through dedication and hard work, my friend and I made my book a cohesive, solid manuscript in a short amount of time, after playing clean up with what nameless editor had done to my manuscript. (One example: they changed Rolling Stones to Rolling Stone’s.)

Given this unforgivable lack of knowledge, competency, and professionalism, this editor was “let go” from “their” position at said contracted editing company.

NOW, mind you, I, like my good friend Marisela Mitchley, am not given to brevity. So stay with me.

After “Rookie Editor” soiled my manuscript, I looked over the PDF that was about to be sent to print, “Ready-to-go!” The further I read, the worse it got. Rookie Editor fucking annihilated my book, ADDING IN grammatical errors, changing my correct grammar to incorrect.

Guess what I was given as an alternative to “Rookie Editor?”

NOTHING. A half-hearted, ‘I’ll try,’ from the CEO of the contracted editing company, whose email to me was RIDDLED with typos, which I politely turned down. I was also given the same offer by the men who own the publishing company which published my book. They said the same thing, ‘This isn’t really my area, but I can give it a try.’ 

WHAT THE FUCK? 

At this point in the process, I’d become so jaded and disillusioned with not only the publishing process, but with everyone’s lack of concern and competency who were the supposed “experts” and “professionals” surrounding me, when it came to my book.

So, guess what I did? Guess what I had to do?

Not trusting the two people who freely admitted that they would probably fuck up my book even more, I enlisted the help of an old college friend. We were initially given two weeks, which was extended to about six. the fact that we were able to fix all of the many, many added typos, grammatical problems, and more than a few apostrophe problems, along with editing it the way it should have been done the first time around is nothing short of a miracle.

As for the remark in this review regarding the book’s premise being “not so unique?” This book is based on my life. Yes, I’ve mixed fiction in with it, but the premise is my life. Me. I don’t know how much more unique I could have gotten than that.

I’ll tell you something, though: despite the few “errors” that you feel discredit me as a writer, I am a damn good writer, I am proud of the book, and I have excellent grammar.

(“errors” = they aren’t, by definition, grammatical errors)

I’m not an idiot, guys. Some of you have even told me that you hated thrillers and that’s why you weren’t a big fan of my book–then, two weeks later, I saw that you posted something about how much you love thrillers.

This week has been a hard one for me. Forgive me, but my family has lost two important people; two close, dear, family friends, and it has thrown a crack into our foundation. So, in between the daily sexual harassment I deal with, along with the hypercritical stone-throwing pertaining to my literary merit, I am grieving, and am so, so deeply sad for my friends and their families during this time, along with feeling violated and stepped on for a long time now.

Don’t worry though: I love proving people wrong. I’m actively working on The Undoing.

Kelly Fitzharris Coody

(Just to show you another instance of utter incompetency on my publishers’ part, when they first listed Unhinged on Amazon for sale, they added a hyphen to my name. This is a pseudonym, for God’s sake. I don’t have a hyphenated name, nor have I ever. My legal name is Kelly Marie Coody, because I changed my name after I was married 9 years ago.)

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Let’s Talk about Unhinged… – MARISELA I. MITCHLEY

I suppose that propriety demands certain things be left unsaid, and though it doesn’t come naturally, I try my best to bite my tongue. I’ve had to dislodge my foot from my own mouth more times than I can remember, but I think that as I get older, I am learning how to more deliberately walk the line between, “Oh shit,” and, “Pertinent.” I ardently hope that this “little” tangent falls under the latter heading.

 

First of all, I have known and been Kelly’s friend for just over 13 years now. I cannot say whether I was the first to read Unhinged, but I was lucky enough to know it in its original inception as a short story titled The Girl in the Angora Sweater. I think one of the reasons she feels comfortable sharing parts of her soul with me is because we share a lot of the same demons. I, too, know how easy it is to become lost in the seemingly infinite mental quagmire of self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-defeating thoughts. When I am stuck and can’t see the forest for the trees, she is there to keep me focused and on track. When all she sees for miles around are the hyper-critical sneers of others who seem to judge her as harshly as she judges herself, I step in to offer words of encouragement: “It’s mostly in your head; you’re making it worse than it is,” as well as the ever-helpful, “Fuck those people, you just keep doing your thing.”

 

So at this point, at the risk of saying too much—as I am wont to do—I must step in and address the literary elephant in the room.

 

I helped her edit Unhinged. I am not an editor by trade or training but I do enjoy writing, and when my dear friend needed help, I felt compelled to do my utmost to ensure the success of her first novel. Mind you—most of my help came in the form of encouragement and motherly orders to persevere. I read the original short story in its unfinished entirety, and snippets of the book here and there, but remember that this process unfolded over the course of years. I didn’t see anything like a completed manuscript until sometime in early 2016. Even then, I didn’t read the entire thing. I wanted to read, and hold, the actual physical copy.

 

As her publication date neared, though, she was so excited. She sent me the first five chapters as a teaser. I couldn’t bear to deflate her enthusiasm, so I started reading during the lulls at work. Eventually, as I got further into the story and found a few more errors than I was comfortable with, those lulls lengthened into breaks, and eventually full-blown work stoppage. As far as I knew, this manuscript was print-ready. I dared not say anything that might make her unnecessarily frantic so close to publication, especially if there was nothing to be done. However, I finally came across an error that, while small, I knew would incite the wrath of grammar-Nazis and casual weekend readers alike: “Rolling Stone’s.” I pointed it out to her and she was horrified, swearing not to have written it herself. So I flipped back through my emails and the documents folder on my laptop, looking for an earlier draft. Sure enough, the apostrophe had been added between the original version and this “print-ready” copy.

 

Up to this point, I had seen other smaller errors which I swore I couldn’t remember reading before, but I just chalked them up to human error and the fact that I am not Data (from Star Trek—come on guys). I now realized something was grievously amiss and, by some miracle of circumstance, learned that it was not too late to put a pause on printing. So she halted the entire thing and I rooted around in my life to make the time to read the rest of Part One.

 

The errors were many, but mostly small things; things a good editor should have caught, but might have been forgiven by a generous client. When I asked her about said editor, I got an earful. This person (who shall remain nameless and genderless for the sake of anonymity) was responsible for inserting the apostrophe into Rolling Stones as well as screwing up the text’s consistency (I cannot even attempt to count the number of times I saw the lower-case formatted “mom” or “dad” mixed in with the unjustifiably mismatched “Mom” or “Dad”—instances where the word(s) did NOT appear at the beginning of a sentence). Like I said, these errors were startlingly many, but forgivably small, and we combed through the entirety of Part One relatively quickly. Part Two, however, was a whole other animal.

 

At this point, we both realized that the editor contracted by her publishers had all but skimmed the second half of the book and given a completely unfounded thumbs-up to the print department. We were astounded, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and aghast—ALL of those things. Sometimes all at once, others in quick succession. Formatting inconsistencies, continuity errors, oversights in punctuation and typography. You name it, we found it.

 

Now, I understand and fully agree with the sentiment that in the end, beginning, and throughout the process, it is first and foremost the writer’s responsibility to make sure the story makes sense, that all changes to previous drafts have been implemented throughout the ENTIRE manuscript, that the book’s geography and timeline make sense, etc. But on the other hand, when that same author has spent years looking at the same manuscript—going back and forth, keeping some changes and rejecting others, editing and re-editing for errors in typography, spelling, syntax, continuity, consistence, grammar, punctuation, and formatting—it is more than understandable for certain things to slip through the cracks. With a 100k+ word manuscript, even 1% of the entire work is still more than 1,000 errors—if we’re equating errors to word count, which is not really now it works.

 

So yes, it is ultimately Kelly’s job to ensure that her book is in ship shape before it goes to print. But if that were easy to do, editors wouldn’t exist, let alone receive a tidy little paycheck at the end of the day. Everyone needs help, even the masters of their craft, and EVERYONE improves as time passes. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. You create, you err, you identify, you fix. Then you move on and try to do better next time. So when we dove into the second part of Unhinged, expecting approximately the same amount and sort of errors as littered the first part, we were dumbstruck to discover that this half of the book had seemingly NOT BEEN TOUCHED by an editor, except for a few notes here and there where we found unjustifiable, unnecessary, absolutely perplexing, and seemingly token revisions. After a few days of reading, I felt—and still feel—very firmly that this editor gave the second part of the book no more than a cursory glance. I can only speculate as to this person’s reasons for such shoddy workmanship, but I won’t do that here because most of it is unfounded and fired by sheer bias and outrage.

 

But then, on top of the litany of mistakes this editor tacked onto her manuscript, Kelly’s publishers offered nothing in the way of actual reparations. Despite the contract she had signed, that THEY had offered, she was not made whole. Instead, she received some sort of half-hearted, half-assed, completely transparent apology in which one of the publishing partners offered to take a look at the manuscript for her, even though he admitted up-front that this was not his area of expertise. Now I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit. You don’t open a business, advertise a professional service that you charge people money for, and then duck out of holding up your end of the deal when it becomes apparent that—because you did not thoroughly vet your subcontractor—your client’s livelihood has been all but T-boned. In fact, if you operate a small, nascent, independent business which cannot afford to make such mistakes, then you work double-time to a) make sure such expensive errors don’t get made in the first place, and b) fix all such errors so that your completely satisfied clients have no other thought but to rave about your company, which will hopefully increase business and profits. You don’t say, “I’m so sorry and I understand that it’s our fault, but we can’t make it right because we’re just getting started and that will cost more to fix than we can afford to spend. Maybe I could look at it for you even though I have however many other responsibilities associated with running my own business, along with however many OTHER clients who need my attention as much as you do.”

 

All of that is to say: Kelly did not get what her publishers promised her. The editor they hired to do the job phoned it in. No—scratch that; that editor cut a perfectly good cord connecting the mouthpiece to the actual mechanism and said, “Here, I upgraded it for you. Now you have a cordless phone.” Newsflash: That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

 

So I helped her. Out of necessity, we stretched the initial two week timeline into six, and at the end of the entire process, we were dazed and exhausted and sick to death of the manuscript. I don’t wonder that more than a few errors made it past us, and I’m so thankful that the first run won’t be the only run.

 

And that is the story behind the printing of Unhinged.

 

Now, I didn’t go off on a tangent just to complain, or to beg forgiveness for editing oversights, or to excuse those errors that made it through to print and ask the reader to try and get over it. I wrote this in an effort to inform you of the fairly bumpy and unplotted road we traversed in order to ready this book for public consumption. I wrote it because the thought finally occurred to me that perhaps some people might gain insight (of debatable value) from a behind-the-scenes look at our uphill struggle to edit the book.

 

Every reader is free to think what he or she will of the finished product; your criticisms and opinions are your own. And while they may hurt our egos, feelings, and sense of worth (especially if they are well-founded), even the negative criticisms are valuable and appreciated. In order to grow and improve, an artist must receive input—both good and bad. But in the end, even having taken such considerations into account, I still felt it necessary to tell our story. Let it color how you assess and judge the book or don’t take it into account at all. That is your choice as the reader and I leave it to you.

 

But I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the catalyst for this epic spiel. You will find it here, in the form of an Amazon review, the writer of which I trusted was more than capable of supporting his or her criticisms. This person’s words hurt a great deal because when I read them, I felt like I had let my friend down by overlooking such glaring errors—among many others. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was just off, so I finally decided to look into these errors again. As it turns out, “idler” is a form of the adjective “idle.” In fact, “idle” is only defined as an adjective or verb (not a noun), and “idler” is a strange word. It does stand out to me and I remember reading and being struck by it many times before. But I also distinctly remember giving it the “ok,” because it’s a correct use of the word. Just because something sounds strange to my own ears and is not commonly used does not make it incorrect, and I cannot in good conscience allow my personal preferences to color someone else’s voice. So I chose not to omit it during the editing process.

 

And as to the other error this reviewer chose to showcase—ending a sentence with a preposition—I adamantly maintain that such uses of the written and spoken word are justifiable and should not need to be defended in the first place. Personally, I do agree that if at all possible, one should avoid or severely limit such instances.

 

Once more, with feeling: I, personally, do not like to end my sentences with a preposition if I can avoid it. Of course, that assumes the fact that I am always conscious of writing with better grammar than I speak (which I am not, because I am fallible and I accept my mistakes, loathsome thought they may be).

 

BUT—language is a living, breathing thing; it changes and grows to suit the needs and demands who we who use it. If it didn’t, God only knows how we would communicate today. Through a series of grunts and signs and visual cues? There are some things I feel I will never be able to get behind, like officially adding widely used popular words like “manscape” and “YOLO” to the English dictionary. But on the other side of that argument, without incorporating new words and the novel use of old words, any language would be woefully unequipped to adequately express and articulate the ever-changing world or our lives within it (if you’ve ever “googled” anything, you’ll know what I mean). It was not so long ago (1954) that the “like” vs “as” debate entered the public arena in the form of a Winston cigarette ad. Who has the power to exercise absolute judgment on such matters? I, for instance, adamantly support my purposeful and deliberate decision to start certain sentences with “and,” “so,” “or,” or “but,” because in some cases, it just works.

 

Of course, some rules should be adhered to, because otherwise how could one ever hope to govern the eloquent and proper use of written language? And in the same vein, it would be all too easy to defend and completely dismiss poor writing with the individual, purposeful choice argument.

 

But I fail to understand how one can conclude with supreme certainty that an author has inexcusably assaulted the English language and committed an indeterminate number of grammatical sins when one refuses to accept or even entertain the idea of language as a fluid and changeful thing. Nor do I understand how one can draw such a broad conclusion without first securing an absolutely unassailable argument. This Amazon reviewer does not have such an argument.

 

Like I said before, what I feel matters most is that we tried. We didn’t just slap something together, throw a cover on it, and call it worthy of purchase and consumption. We tried the best we could and if errors are present, trust that they will be remedied in subsequent printings (insofar as they do not begin to re-write the book). And if you don’t like the story, or think the writing is sloppy, or have any number of other valid criticisms, that is your prerogative as the consumer. You may choose to read another of Kelly’s books or not. But regardless of your ultimate decision in the matter, I do hope that you don’t issue final judgment upon Kelly—or any author—because of how you felt about ONE of her books. Especially if that book happens to be her first.

 

In closing, please, PLEASE, allow me to emphasize: I don’t expect a free pass because language is adaptable and everyone has their own writing style. No one should simply excuse the style of the book or any aspect of it they dislike simply because the editing choices we made were deliberate, calculated, and suited to our own personal tastes. What I am saying is that these reviews matter, especially for new authors. If they didn’t, Amazon would not have recently shored up the rules they have in place to fight the fake ones.

 

So, in light of the fact that in an ideal world, reviews should exist to provide a necessarily biased but hopefully accurate assessment of a product’s usefulness, the purpose of this entire tirade is simply to implore you, the consumer, to review and communicate with discernment, honesty, and objectivity. To break it down to the barest of bones: I don’t personally like goat’s milk. But I will NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, allow my opinion to color my four year old daughter’s impression of it before she has even tried it for herself. To offer any sort of negative input might affect her ultimate opinion; and in the very worst of scenarios, it could very well affect how she approaches all new foods for the rest of her life. I will tell her what I can to give her an idea of what it will be like, but I will try not shape her opinion before it even exists.

 

And finally, if you don’t take anything else away from this rant (which I genuinely hope was not a massive waste of your time), I hope you DO go away with this one sentiment: We’re human, y’all; sometimes we fuck up, and sometimes we fix it. People can and do change, often for the better. Everyone deserves a second chance (sometimes more) or the benefit of the doubt. Be kind, and be open-minded.

 

Peace out.

M. I. Mitchley.

 The Ascent Of Feminist Poetry- by Charles Bane, Jr.

(Cover art by Laura Grover)

 

Acknowledgements

The germ of this book lies in essays that appeared online at That Lit Site, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and New Black Man, curated by Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American studies at Duke University. Professor Neal has never failed to make me feel welcome as a contributor. I feel gratitude also to Dustin Pickering, Publisher of Transcendent Zero Press who accepted the following work for publication before it was completed.

For Ann, always

 

 

 

1.

“And she laughed secretly, saying: After I am grown old, and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure?”
Genesis 18: 12

 

Not long ago, noted literary scholar Harold Bloom read the passage above and realized it could not have been written by a man. Bloom, sensitive as a tuning fork, recognized the writer’s wry mockery of the eternal male belief in his prowess. In November, 1991, Bloom published The Book Of J, called his finest book by the New York Times, and in which he identifies one of the key authors of the Hebrew Bible, “J” ( for her reference to her Creator as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” ) as a woman. We cannot know J or her times but we can marvel at the special place of women to the Hebrew sages who wrote in the Talmud that ” God counts the tears of women.”

It is the argument of this short work that feminist poets have not merely exploded the traditional male, all- white Western Canon but are creating a golden age of new verse that is being ignored, sometimes willfully, but more fully because Americans no longer read contemporary poetry. We are literally lost without it, because the ancient Greeks recognized that poets serve as our historians, and secular prophets.

There are many reasons for poetry’s collapse: children are required in the classroom to read poets who do not speak in their voice, or to their times. This is tragic because there are serious, working poets in virtually every community or nearby who would gladly visit and beckon them to poetry’s recesses.

The corporate power supporting wealth inequality decimates legions. Only Farrar, Straus And Giroux among major publishing houses remains interested in poets.  And the large- scale publishing firms that produce popular fiction and nonfiction are themselves part of media conglomerates the media that advertise their authors, and  against which small presses can’t compete.  The fastest way to have a query ignored by a literary agent is to write in the subject line ” My book of poetry.”

Finally, academic poets are a separate class who continue a tradition of believing the general reader will not understand their work ( “Yeats”, T.S. Eliot remarked in an interview with the Paris Review, “that Gaelic writer). After E.E. Cummings’ death, his wife, Marion wrote a friend, ” Academics hated my husband because he only wrote short poems, but above all, because he was popular.”

But poets , working as cashiers or waitresses, or juggling multiple jobs as they pursue a Master’s degree, still write, even knowing that the indifference of  the public overspreads them like winter cover, and, unlike J, whose radical gift was harnessed  to a narrative, gaze up and long to be pleasured by the cosmos:

 

 

“Stargazing” by Ariana Nadia Nash

The stars are all the skin

I’ll never touch. They are

the bright points of years

I have not lived, the names

I do not know. They speak

to worlds inside myself

I will not learn. They shock —

this spread of stars, these motes

of fireballs, this milky

conflagration. In their depth

and beauty, they are

the most intricate map

of the unknown, the most

wild moan of silence.

 

 

 

2.

 

When a recent CNN poll noted that only 7% of Americans had read a poem in the last year, a  new introduction , using all the language of polish on my shelf, is where I look for remedy. I do not want feminist poets whose gifts are dominating contemporary letters, to be spirits, flickering near us unseen:

 

 

Vastness of dusk-after a day.

what is a person? Too late

to ask this now. The court has ruled

a corporation is a person.

Persons used to be called souls.

On the avenue, a lucky person

stands in a convenience store

scratching powder from his ticket —

silver flecks fall from his thumbs

to galaxies below.

 

Brenda Hillman*

 

 

 

Poetry begins, and I’m writing from personal experience, in the unconscious and those who are chosen randomly to write it begin their craft in childhood. ” ‘Dragoon’ ‘”, Dylan Thomas said to his sister as small boy, “isn’t that a wonderful word?”  Sylvia Plath was published at eight.  Susan Sontag self published her poems at nine (“I got through my childhood in a delirium of literary exaltations.”).  At fourteen, Edna St Vincent Millay wrote: “in the hush of the dying day, / The mossy walls and ivy towers of the land of Romance lay. / The breath of dying lilies haunted the twilight air / And the sob of a dreaming violin filled the silence everywhere.”

I believe the unconscious  – which we know from dreams does not record time – stores a culture’s collective memory of its art. This explains the impetus and inexplicable confidence every poet feels as they write.  There’s more: when a poem is finished, its writer – and this is a common experience – often feels they are not its creator.  The poet reads a superior artwork but feels no part of it, though he/she may have wept through its setting down, so deep were the feelings stirred.

Without doubt,  women felt this impulse and longed to “wrestle with the polis” (a critic’s compliment of Brenda Hillman’s work) throughout the worst  of times.  “Whenever you read anonymous at the end of a poem”, said Virginia Woolf, “it is woma

Feminist

poets have not only overcome the suppression of traditional Western literature, they are adding new discoveries to its foundation stones. In the 1970’s, “Songs Of The Troubadours” appeared in print, translated from Provencal by Anthony Bonner. The work of the jongleurs had first come to the notice of Ezra Pound, the champion of all that is worthwhile in literature. Pound was astonished by the modernity of the poems which would not be equaled until the appearance of Yeats. And there scholarship might have ended were it not for Matilda Bruckner’s seminal  ” Songs Of The Women Troubadours”, published in 2000 ( Garland Library Of Medieval Literature), followed in 2013 by Meg Bogin’s ” The Women Troubadours ” ( Norton Paperback ).

But for the male lot : critics, academic advisors and peers who wish to smother feminism as it’s expressed in poetry, the way is closed:

 

We Never Remember The Last Argument | Sarah Bartlet

The smell of your mom’s dress is closed.

A magnolia’s heavy unlatched tongue is closed.

The bitter scratch at the back of your throat is closed.

Your childhood’s rebuttal is closed.

The road holding up an arc of trees and their strange covenant is closed.

Disappearing on schedule is closed.

A field of rabbits spreading their fur around is closed.

I am easing myself daily closer to the ground is closed.

I am easy on paycheck night is closed.

Lying next to you in a box of bourbon-soaked cherries is closed.

I am almost the same taste and timbre as the empty field is closed.

Our eyes staying closed in proximity is closed.

Telling me this child isn’t my child is closed.

Telling him he belongs where belonging means absence is closed.

When you try to identify the poison it is closed.

The ravine raising its mouth up to the sky and swallowing the last horse is closed.

A review of the maximum leverage available here is closed.

My hands asking to release this fistful of air is closed.

Try and make another decision without me and you’ll see what I mean is closed.

Reporting back on a dream’s dialogue with awakening is closed.

I want to get on an airplane for the last time is closed.

I want to never come back here except to you is closed.

Crows dropping chestnuts and letting us crack them is closed.

Fists of flowers punching through the dirt no matter what the air says is closed.

You plus I plus you plus I plus you plus you plus constant fucking is closed.

Like a tail in the door being able to take it all back is closed.

The olden days where ships hefted the seas apart like god is closed.

Access to regret too pristine to share leaving its knife out is closed.

An element of surprise is closed.

Ask yourself where your blood is and say it’s right here is closed.

Your grandmother’s curtains refusing to move for a casual breeze is closed.

My great-grandmother swallowing her death down is closed.

Taking the land for ourselves is closed.

Erasing an entire year of a bed nailed to the floor is closed.

Making you the bed is closed.

Making you an object of forgiveness or sparkling teeth is closed.

Making this unremarkable is closed.

Narrative that reflects absolute truth is closed.

Believing in truth as fact under trees at night after a fire takes the stars away is closed.

The scissors we use to make snowflakes stay sharp is closed.

Another year of windows softening our gaze is closed.

Holding my breath under water to panic the heart is closed.

Tell me one last time please is closed.

Our mouths together dredging words thick as oil is closed.

The hatch over the mouse in your chest is closed.

Being small in the arms of myself is closed.

Holding on to a rock with a child holding on to me in a running tide is closed.

Looking for mistakes like feet look for glass is closed.

Body as fist as ship as celestial navigation is closed.

Brick by brick this hole in the side of our house is closed.

Won’t you wait somewhere just out of sight while I do this is closed.

Which of us was left holding the bag is closed.

Believing it’s possible to run the clock out is closed

Please oh please oh please oh please oh god is closed.

3

 

So far, I’ve painted a bleak portrait of  feminist contemporary poetry and its lack of place in the life of the American reading public. I have a particular gripe with public libraries that have given themselves up to the tidal wave of detritus ( shelves of eight copies of the same unread book ) that floods them from major publishers, and which neither seek out or give space to the amazing poetry being offered by small presses. Nor do libraries subscribe to many of the literary journals that are the lifeblood of American poetry.

But against this weight, we can balance the lighted open spaces of the internet where important work can be found and where its authors can find a sense of support and community on social media. They are there as one, on Facebook or Twitter or both: Sarah Blake, Susannah Nevison, Erica Jong, Jamila Woods ( recent winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. They are all here, as well as literary journals publishing in English around the globe. Submitting to these journals is only a keyboard away, and American women poets are appearing, online and in print, in Sweden, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia–which has a close-knit feminist community.

In the United States alone, there are (at the last count) over 400 small presses, some long standing (Copper Canyon Press was the first to publish Pablo Neruda in North America) and others as new as bread from the morning oven. And these in turn are branching out, publishing exclusively the voices of women, queer, bisexual and transgender and gender-fluid poets, some making themselves heard for the first time in literary history:

 

 

 

 

 

Can’t Sleep

 

Can’t sleep

sitting up

typing

wiping

at tears

(shed for fears)

My fingers bleed.

I don’t know who i am

I don’t know what to say.

Each day

I am different

and have to meet myself

for what feels like

the first time in a long time.

I battle with the boy

inside me

The boy within

who can’t seem to see

a way

to emerge/become

submerge/just be.

I am he

as much as i am me.

I can’t sleep for the fear,

my heart murmurs

and strings pull deep

and sinew

inside of me.

I ache

as i rest

body quiver,

I am displaced

disgraced,

lost and weary.

To sleep

in peace,

to be

and be free.

He cries silent

inside

within

heart and mind and body and soul

He makes me whole

complete

He is beside me.

Cloaked and daggered

he weeps tears

for all the years

he has spent

in the dark

and without

an identity

to identify.

He is me

and together we sit

awake

and silently.

In the darkness we cry.

– Jacqe Matelot

 

These “prophets of the invisible” ( Wallace Stevens) find solidarity in their talks across the ether with women who are experiencing the same struggle. And they are fed courage and creative nourishment from the works of other poets, posted daily by journals or fans.

This reminds me of an imperative of  creating poetry I did not mention earlier, but which is its high- borne standard: a master- poem is beautiful. A poem cannot be malignant and be a poem. It cannot be read and understood by only a few but must affect every reader with the same touch:

 

 

 

 

Sea Foam Palace

(Bubbling and spuming

as if trying to talk under

water, I address you thus:)

Must I pretend not to love

you (in your present bloom,

your present perfection — soul

encased in fleshly relevance)

so you won’t believe me

just another seabed denizen

vying for your blessed attention?

Some of us (but not you)

are so loosely moored

to our bodies we can

barely walk a straight line,

remaining (most days) only

marginally conscious.

We stagger and shudder

as buckets of   blood or sperm

or chocolate mousse or spittle

or lymph or sludge sluice

continually through us…

 

I love the way you wear your

face, how you ride this life.

I delight in the sight of you,

your nervous, inquisitive eyes,

though I try to act otherwise.

Being stoned out of thy mind

only amps up thy fearsome

brain wattage. Pardon my

frontal offensive, dear chum.

Forgive my word-churn, my

drift, the ways this text message

has gotten all frothy. How was it

you became holy to me? Should

I resist, furiously? Is this your

true visage, shaken free, flashing

glimpses of what underlies

the world we can see? Do not forget me

murmurs something nibbled

by fish under the sea.

 

After dark you’re quick-silvery,

wet /slick /glistening. Don’t

make me chase you, dragging

my heavy caresses, a pair of

awkward, serrated claws,

hither and yon. Give me a swig

of   whatever you’re drinking,

to put me in tune with the cosmos’s

relentless melt, with the rhythms

of dish-washing, corn-shucking,

hard-fucking, bed-wetting, and

the folding of   bones of other loves

into well-dug graves…    may we

never become lost to the world.

By Amy Gerstler

 

 

 

 

4

 

“Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You ( white women) fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reason they are dying.”    Audre Lorde

 

In its June , 2014, issue – made available online, The Atlantic published Ta- Nehisi Coates’  “The Case For Reparations.” It electrified Black America and the public at large as had nothing since the 1968 Kerner Report which declared that White and Black America lived lives separate and unequal.

It would not be enough, Coates eloquently argued, to balance the ledger for the descendants of slaves who had created America’s enormous foundation of wealth under the lash for two hundred and fifty years. What had followed “Reconstruction” was a systemic racism that virtually assured that African Americans would remain a permanent underclass, with no recourse to finance or political power.  The payment of large scale reparations to Black households would not be only just, but the only measure that would allow African Americans to eliminate inequities in employment, housing , health services and education in a single generation.

Nothing about the dangers of being Black in the United States was piecemeal  and the murderous impulse to body and spirit of racism was evident in the tens of thousands of Black men, many non- violent offenders, who historically had worn chains and now were locked behind iron bars. In the street, unarmed Black men were being shot or choked by the police.

Over these  grounds flared poet Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric”. It illuminated the soul crushing reality of her experience:

from Citizen: “You are in the dark, in the car…”

By Claudia Rankine

 

/

 

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

 

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

 

Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

 

As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens 
and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.

 

/

 

When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in 
silence you are bucking the trend.

 

/

 

When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers. Hey, I am standing right here, you responded, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you.

 

He is holding the lidded paper cup in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say.

 

Now there you go, he responds.

 

The people around you have turned away from their screens. The teenagers are on pause. There I go? you ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile.

 

/

 

A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet and be brushed off, not brushed off  by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.

 

The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of  bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers.

 

/

 

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

 

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

 

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

 

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

 

/

 

 

In its first four months of publication by Graywolf Press, Citizen sold 40,000 copies, an astonishing number for a small press. The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award, and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. There is nothing comparable to Rankine’s talent, save perhaps for the poetic-artistic genius of Matthea Harvey. The two have in common that both had collections entered for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. But the anonymous panel of judges gave the award to a male poet, from an all- male list of Finalists.

Latina poets, Native American and Asian- American women, and a constellation of others: their body of work has reached the critical mass that will add diversity to anthologies and swell the Western Canon:

 

 

 

regarding the yellowface poet

[ Poem in response to m.d.h., white poet who used a Chinese pseudonym to get published in Best American Poetry. ]

 

choi jeong min

for my parents, Choi Inyeong & Nam Songeun

in the first grade i asked my mother permission

to go by frances at school. at seven years old

i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name

butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew

to let my salty gook name drag behind me

in the sand, safely out of sight. in fourth grade

i wanted to be a writer & worried

about how to escape my surname – choi

is nothing if not korean, if not garlic breath,

if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps

during the lean years – could i go by f.j.c.? could i be

paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,

boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain

& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?

my father ran through all his possible rechristenings –

ian, issac, ivan – and we laughed at each one,

knowing his accent would always give him away.

you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice

when she answers the phone this is grace, & it is

some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself,

some lightning made of chainmail. grace is not

her pseudonym, though everyone in my family is a poet.

these are the shields for the names we speak in the dark

to remember our darkness. savage death rites

we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper

to each other to keep warm. my korean name

is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae

to follow home when i am lost, which is always

in this gray country, this violent foster home

whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard

riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin

& sell it back to your mother for profit,

land where they stuff our throats with soil

& accuse us of gluttony when we learn to swallow it.

i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen

for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.

a stone house. i confess: if someone has looked

at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,

i’ve accepted. if someone has loved me more

for my gook name, for my saint name,

for my good vocabulary & bad joints,

i’ve welcomed them into this house.

i’ve cooked them each a meal with a star singing

at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient

to follow home when we are lost:

sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name

given by your dead grandfather who eventually

forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:

i’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine.

i promise: i won’t forget again.

— Franny Choi

 

 

 

 

 

 

bird’s nest by Jamila Woods

 

after max sansing

 

when daddy says my head is a bird’s

nest, he means a momma bird might find it

inviting. my hair: a place to raise her first eggs,

a place her first babes might call out to her, a place

she might fly back to from the wet morning dirt, chewing

a worm in the side of her cheek, so her baby might swallow

it down easy, so her baby might fall asleep with a full stomach

and never dream of falling, so i might rise from sleep

on a Sunday morning, come downstairs dressed

for church with a head full of morning songs,

uncombed hair, hear my daddy chuckle,

search for words, and call it wild

 

 

 

5

 

The internet is many things, but its extraordinary, all- encompassing power is on display at any mall where young people walk with their faces glued to I-phones. It is also home to the counter culture of feminist poets who, shunned by traditional publishing, must become marketers of their work, and slip around the corner and ahead of major media outlets who are too monolithic to take notice of individual social media phenomena. “Major” authors don’t appear on podcasts, that reach thousands. Desktop publishing allows a poet to create “ads” from Google images that they can post on  their Facebook, Twitter accounts  and their own websites to let the public know that a poem has been accepted by a journal, with links, and that a manuscript has been sent out, and then accepted by  small press. Every achievement is a victory, and the web is no place to be modest about them.A network on social media, for every poet, should be more than just cliques of other wordsmiths, and literary bodies. It should include all who long for culture, the beautifully expressed and the substantive that bears no resemblance to the tabloid present.

Small presses have no marketing budgets or public relations staff. The poet must take on the role of partner in their dreams with the publisher who accepts them. Copies must be sent out to reviewers, not of major newspapers or magazines that ignore poetry, but to the growing legion of book bloggers/ reviewers on the web. Whatever large or small town the poet lives in deserves the added luster of a poet-in-residence and laureate. Publication of a first book of poetry ( and no pleasure equals the first box of copies of  one’s first book delivered to a home address) is only the start of a promotional journey that requires the same energy and imagination that sparks creative artistry. Readings are often welcome at public libraries ( that frequently pay the author) as well as independent bookstores that are thriving.

Poets must beat major publishers who distribute poetry collections fractionally, at their own game. Poets should insist that their manuscripts, however and whenever possible be published, in the same volume, in Spanish and English, not only to address America’s changing demographics, but to have the ability to sell their books to the Latin American market, in whose culture literature is prized. In Spain, Cervantes’ birthday is a national holiday and banners celebrating it hang from lamp posts in Madrid ( Would that we did it here for Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain). China Mobile.com distributes English language books to the millions o English- speaking Chinese who crave to read books from the West, and where English is mandatory in grammar schools.

” Poets”, wrote Shelley, ” are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. ” This is not hyperbole. Jamila Woods, whose poetry was quoted here, and who was profiled in the online Blavity:The Voice Of Black Millennials,  is the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and a founding member of its Teaching Artist Corps. The revered Nikki Giovanni has acquired so many awards for her activism that they take up a full page on her website.

Poets are notoriously insecure about their craft and many starting poets worry they will not be published: they will,  and later poets brood and worry also that their legacy will not be remembered. It’s a baseless fear, as the dynamics of poetry creation prove. Once it is expressed, a poem cannot be lost;  and if the Western Canon must be hugely expanded to not become obsolete, it nonetheless contains poets who unknowingly sensed a future more welcoming than in the past. Tennyson’s Ulysses was content to ship off into obscurity, but Virgil’s pen brought another band to a foreign, unknown shore. At first, the men of Aeneas are afraid of the strange landscape but then their leader finds a stone- carved artwork. ” Do not be afraid”, he says, ” these are mortals such as we, and mortal things touch their hearts.”

 

***

About the author:

 

Charles Bane, Jr. is the author of three collections of poetry including the recent ” The Ends Of The Earth: Collected Poems ( Transcendent Zero Press, 2015 ) as well as “I Meet Geronimo And Other Stories”  ( Avignon Press, 2015) and ” Three Seasons: Writing Donald Hall ( Collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University). He created and contributes to The Meaning Of Poetry Series for The Gutenberg Project.


 

About the artist:

 

Laura Grover believes art is for everyone.  She enjoys drawing animals, people, and flowers but her true love is comics.  Laura lives in the woods of Maine with her roller derby life partner, just enough cats, and a baby-on-the-way.  You can see more of her finished work (or hire Laura) at www.lgroverdesign.com and also follow her misadventures in pregnancy at her comic diary, “Unexpecting” : apregnancycomic.tumblr.com

 

***

charles bane jr - bust

Charles Bane, Jr. is the author of three collections of poetry including the recent ” The Ends Of The Earth: Collected Poems ( Transcendent Zero Press, 2015 ) as well as “I Meet Geronimo And Other Stories”  ( Avignon Press, 2015) and ” Three Seasons: Writing Donald Hall ( Collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University). He created and contributes to The Meaning Of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project. His most recent publication is “The Ascent Of Feminist Poetry ( Transcendent Zero Press, 2015 )