The delight of this work
Women of color celebrate second books
*a linked engagement with:
Future Botanic. Christina Olivares. Get Fresh Books, forthcoming 2022
Experiments in Joy. Gabrielle Civil. Civil Coping Mechanisms 2019, 274 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-1948700153
A Constellation of Half-Lives. Seema Reza. Write Bloody Publishing 2019, 100 pages, $16.00, ISBN 978-1938912856
All the Rage. Rosamond S. King. Nightboat Books 2021, 112 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-1643620718
Miracle Marks. Purvi Shah. Curbstone Books, Northwestern University Press 2019, 82 pages, $18.95, ISBN 978-0810140387
The inception of this work is relationship.
Publishing is not pretty for women of color poets. Undue expectations. The need to speak on behalf of whole communities. Elusive second books.
We first came together to develop a panel called “Write on Time: Readings and Stories of Second Books by Women of Color” for the 2020 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference.
We sought to celebrate our milestones and share our pride and hard-won knowledge.
Aligned with our values, we especially aimed to highlight, activate, and foster community at AWP (a notoriously tricky space). Playing with the idea of seconds, we offered two two-minute writing exercises to the audience and each spoke twice about our second book experiences. While we missed Christina Olivares at the actual panel, her fierce wisdom accompanied us. And in the ghostly, final days of public gatherings, pre-COVID-shutdown, our interactive, multimedia session was a hit.
The delight of this work is relationship.
In the thick of pandemics, we returned to cocreate a second time. We dove more deeply into each other’s work. Laughed. Danced. Commiserated. Expressed concern. We investigated key questions together: in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, in the midst of uprisings over racial injustice, how could we practice intimate, collective conversation? How could we balance our constraints with play?
We shared a Google doc. Two weeks each to write. A word limit. And a round-robin order of response.
Together we cocreated a collective (re)view that disrupts conventions of standard book reviews, interviews, and features. Rather than competition, we embraced collaboration. Rather than a sole voice, multiplicity. Rather than silos or gatekeeping, a murmuration. A resistance.
With this second take, we preserve and circulate our love and care for each other.
* * * * *
Gabrielle Civil emailed us a screenshot of us — all either grinning or laughing — on Zoom on July 7, 2020. I keep the photo visible on my screen as I write this, the first step in our collaborative dance. Delight is a generous fuel. We are five women artists of color who have completed second books: Purvi Shah, who organized us; Rosamond S. King; Seema Reza; Gabrielle Civil; and me, Christina Olivares. COVID absented me from our first public collaboration, so we decided my voice would begin our second. I invoke the final line of Purvi’s final piece in her book Miracle Marks: “I’ve called. I’ve rung. Will you play?” Yes.
Reader, to open, I invite you to play. Wiggle. Sing. Choose a joyful act for your body that lasts several seconds. And release.
My own work is driven by my wanting to be alive, known, and contributing to an accurate and human record of who and what we are. Future Botanic recasts the Bronx as an “inverse américa” made botanical by the fires of the 1970s–’80s, with summer-grimy cousins transforming a messy lot into a community garden. Our guide is a brown queer girl who tastes the burned earth she is clearing for seeds. Her internalization of that earth — damaged, abandoned, and remade — provokes her rich, if uneasy, distance from the American dream/the dream of las américas. Because neither her girlhood, womanhood, nor her version of the Bronx exists in American poetry, centering her perspective in Future Botanic creates, for me, a set of sublime imaginative possibilities.
“Sublime imaginative possibilities” could subtitle Gabrielle Civil’s Experiments in Joy, named in part after the Black women’s performance festival Gabrielle cocreated and its call to create Experiments in Joy. Of utmost and tenderest importance throughout is the sanctity of Black girlhood and womanhood. “I can’t wait to see what we will do,” she writes to Zetta Elliott about building performance art opportunities for young Black girls. “We are actually already legendary,” she writes in “HYPERBOLIC.” From her own (sublime) experiment in joy: “when someone gave you a copy / of an article about black women’s dreaming, / you held onto it for dear life.”
Gabrielle offers me Mulatu Astatke’s “Tezeta (Nostalgia),” which I loop as I ready this writing to offer to her. Astatke’s music, new to me, is, like Gabrielle’s work, a gift of highest order. The trumpet’s swell causes in me an intimate nostalgia that scoops me back toward a reality my body registers but mind can’t. His lifetime engagement with — a rehoming of — diasporic Black musical traditions offers a parallel to Gabrielle’s “insurgent” multimodal collaborations (and solos), located in her radical, vulnerable artistic practice that invites, invites, invites. Experiments in Joy opens with Maya Angelou, names beloveds, centers the reader (“you”) in the preface, invokes ntozake shange. I’m grasped by the wrist gently, tugged into a room bursting with conversation and told to “get ready.” I do. My body already knows that I am home.
* * * * *
From one home to another, I am writing this in clouds, masked on a plane back to California. I am writing this now disheveled in bed, surrounded by poetry. Yes, both times, the body resounds in flight and in nest. Yes, Yes, to going second for our second time around. Allowing for the first to bring me here.
In her first book, No Map of the Earth Includes Stars, Christina Olivares outlines constellations of rupture and rapture (“ordinary turns bright / through your narrow veins”). This reminds me how my own first book unfolded into the second. Perennially rejected, Swallow the Fish took twelve years to appear, yet was accepted in only two days.
This was book magic. In “… hewn and forged …” at the Salt Lake City public library, I gathered one hundred deaccessioned library books and five thousand pennies. For four hours, I sifted coins and turned pages, invited passersby to play … This is my heart. These are my friends … I mouthed these words again and again, pressing books against windows, into people’s hands.
Earlier that morning, in the wee hours, I had sent off my manuscript just one last time with a heartfelt letter to publisher Janice Lee. On the second day, after four more hours of book conjure, I saw that Janice had responded. She’d stayed up late reading Swallow the Fish and wanted to publish it! Overcome with glee on the street, I started to stagger, so that a woman pulled up in her car, kids in the back, to ensure I was okay. The rupture, the rapture!
My second book sought to maintain that momentum. Channeling collaboration, Experiments in Joy offers a mixtape of voices, letters, and forms. And I love that an unknown mother witnessed the start of it all. As Seema Reza highlights in A Constellation of Half-Lives, an unknown mother can fix and destabilize what we know, project, and imagine.
“I am an American mother,” Seema begins her poignant collection. “For nearly two decades, my government has been sending my neighbors and their children to war in my name, against people who look like me.” To combat this reality, Seema writes poems to Khadija, “an imagined (though not quite fictional)” mother on the other side. Seema asks Khadija, “What is it to exist within the confines of your skin … / whose voice speaks to you / from the mirror?” Seema asks herself these same questions.
In poems about her children and veterans, lost loves and current lovers, drones and lakes, Seema offers insight about her own grief and otherness. She regards how we find ourselves flickering half-lives, caught on both sides of a coin, protected by a double-edged sword. Joy “does not want to be written,” she declares. Yet, isn’t her bravery joy? Reckoning with Khadija and her own life, Seema mines reflections and seeks reconciliation: “devotion and destruction in every scarred moment.”
* * * * *
I have been preparing for weeks: reading the work of the others in this collective, poring over their websites, squatting with the frayed fragment of a towel, moving backwards through the room by shifting my weight from one foot to the other, wiping the kitchen floor with soapy water. I prop Gabrielle’s Experiments in Joy open on the bathroom counter, squeeze white cream from a tube, spread it over my upper lip, my chin, my cheeks, my jawline.
For six minutes, bottom half of my face obscured,I read a correspondence between Gabrielle and Rosamond on collaboration, exposure, vulnerability, on sister artists encouraging daring and pushing one another. In this book, Gabrielle reveals the scaffolding of her creative work, the motion, the evolution, the aftermath. She examines the artifacts, lays them in the sun. She is Artist and Art Object and Witness.
I use a dull plastic tool to scrape off the depilatory and with it, the fine armor of hair my body grew. The nerves on my face sing assimilation. I press a cold washcloth to the mottled red skin for thirty seconds. I sit at the table to write. My son brings a deck of cards and says ‘let’s play a game.’ I push my open notebook aside.
This is my writing life. The deck of cards, the kitchen floor, doubt, envy, reading my poems into the mirror and to audiences, cutting the thin skin behind my knee while shaving, my own bright blood dripping down my leg.
My books and art and rows of shoes are tucked neatly inside a townhouse in the middle of a row of identical houses. I walk briskly on the suburban sidewalks and trails, certain I don’t fit in. Worried that I do. I wrote the poems in A Constellation of Half-Lives to make sense of being an American, of funding both harm and aid for people I love through tax-paying obedience. The complicity. The bright joys balanced against the thickness of impending doom.
In All the Rage, Rosamond writes:
we are compliant
: biting down hard until teeth crack
: taking all the dispensed medication
we are silent when you grope us
; we are a good fit; we never question
we are good Americans; we eat everything on our plate
Compliant. Complacent. Complicit. The poems contain the sharp smell of rust, the bloodthirst of America. The lens of the poems blurs then comes into focus, pans then comes into focus. The poems sparse across the page, and the images of Rosamond, draped in an American flag, performing her piece “First Ladies” are vibrant. All of it in motion, dripping and breathing. Documenting. Refusing. Incanting:
: Imagine what we can do
* * * * *
Rosamond S. King:
I am writing this shortly after Eric Garner’s birthday — what would have been his fiftieth. I was honored with an invitation to read poems on that day at a vigil/party/rally hosted by his mother, Gwen Carr.
The seeds of All the Rage, my second collection of poems, lie not in the death of Eric Garner but in the day the police officers who murdered him were not indicted for their crime (in legalese, when the grand jury declined to indict). I decided I had to do something: I wrote a poem. Bubbling rage and choking despair. I marched, I taught, I shared, and I wrote poems.
As it had for so long, USAmerica kept killing my neighbors and cousins, and I kept writing poems. I set them in an abattoir, a factory of blood where I and my siblings and neighbors and cousins are both the workers and the product. In the abattoir, police officers think Black people sweat blood. T/here, as gentrifiers move in, blood is the new hot sauce. I regularly slip the noose, though, and write about the pleasure of existing with the sun on our faces, with furious dancing, with the sly imperative of desire. Though we live in an abattoir, we still laugh and make love and savor spoonfuls of lusciousness.
So much of my creative work — like so much of my life — has been focused on the immigrant experience, one of many variations within race that the term African American doesn’t fully describe. And still, that bruising ism permeates every aspect of my life in public: working, shopping, eating, teaching, breathing, walking, being — an ism boils my wide swath of experience down to a single trait. Recent recorded spectacles highlight lethal examples of the deep, recurring desire of police to turn the dark gloss of my skin to shroud. So I confront and reflect USAmerica in the “Living in the Abattoir” series, the core of All the Rage.
“When you speak, a star tremors. It remembers / its own light,” Purvi Shah writes in Miracle Marks. We can feel our tremors and trauma, all of our rage, and still remember our own light, whether it shines immediately or takes years to reach and light up a stranger sky. Purvi, too, knows how to codeswitch between despair and delight. Watch her challenge abuse and teach restorative justice while her brightly lidded eyes dust you with glitter as she dances. Miracle Marks holds these simultaneities: a woman kills her children and then herself; goddesses love and speculate. They long to be more than brides, and they inspect their own foreheads.
Again and again, Purvi reminds us that the Sanskrit word lila means “divine play.” In Miracle Marks, she makes each of us a tributary to a vast river coursing through us all, then strikes the tinder that, with a gust of air, keeps us going, growing, grounded in the loam of our collective imagination. Purvi asks you to “Bring your compass, your compact, your curious” — bring them, and rage and laugh and play and dance with us!
* * * * *
Terror of sound, landscape of danger: the community fleeing together, a phalanx of protection. As I witnessed a flurry of red-winged blackbirds, a train rumbled along the Hudson on a late-September Wednesday.
When I envision Miracle Marks, I envision generations of missing girls creating sound, their tongues as wings, wings gathering into a circle of women dancing. In a landscape of dangers — femicide, communalism, intimate violence, hate violence, xenophobia — what Mirabai in translation might call, “my social body,” I write against absences and erasures, hear and t/here.
I first saw red-winged blackbirds in Iowa, in grass that could be as tall as me. As the red-black glistens in flight, I tremble as if a woman jangled her bangles, as if fire sprung alive into blush of a beloved. In a culture of reincarnation, in the potential of new bodies, what does it mean to be a woman?
What does it mean to be?
What does it mean to be marked?
What is a beloved?
In Future Botanic, Christina Olivares roots questions to bloom the beloved community of the hijx, defined in multiplicity: “Child of these américas. Genderless and queer at root. Noted in a colonizing language, hijx is singular and/or plural.” And: “Us: the dream-within-a-dream of these entire américas. Imagine these américas circle back to be the dream in us.” And: “Whose work it is to locate our roots” And: “A hijx is a girl is a plant that grows around a wall.” And: “Hijx are genderless, pre-gender. Still, daughter is everything.” And: “cómo se pronuncia hijx?”
Lineage is emergent, lineage is rupture — the archive of oneself in the gardens crafted from burnt lots in the Bronx: “To rear the self taken root: a queer, / livid coiling that couldn’t be bludgeoned / or picked apart.” Archive is creation is archive, the cyclical wonder of resistance to gentrification, resistance to the white American Dream, resistance to heteronormative desire, resistance as desire, as “A kick against extinction, / to imagine closeness where there is only cosmos.”
In Future Botanic, unearthing is not dainty, for it is real — the marks of an “inverse américa” that, from fires, blooms being. A community garden tended from flame where re-membering from trauma (racial, familial, national, patriarchal, and, and …) is creation alongside ache: “How to / dress a wound and send it out into that world to / be.” And so we grow: spit, bones, sweat, a tender of community, an insistence of presence.
Lineage is circular, a transmission across islands, an unlegislated connection across bodies that resists white supremacist boundaries: the hijx who, when Christina cannot travel to Cuba for a tío’s passing, in Puerto Rico lays “flowers in the sea that faces Oriente” in his honor.
In the land of my birth, a pandemic. Where I am, a pandemic.
Yesterday (and perhaps today in this country) my dad’s eldest sister passed in India. She is/was ninety-one. I fear for my Ba, who at ninety-three is skirting transition’s portal.
Another September passes — I return to this writing not with fear but knowing: Ba accepted the portal. Can I accept the distance of continents?
For all the bodies that cannot land, for all the travel that cannot be, for all the translation of selves of t/here that cannot be woven pretty, Christina offers a “burnt or rubbled earth,” hope, resistant blessings bestowed with hijx: “Instead, I ask” — and “She does.”
* * * * *
… I’m not healed, but I’m better and full of joy
writing this as another woman, from one home to another
country, for today (perhaps tomorrow)
missing sounds: hula hoops, horse-laughter, a metaphor of ghost
traces, ache of #SayHerName, echo of Breonna, ecology of our mirrors — our flock
of disobedient characters swarming into murmurations — or as you speak, blessings.
this is our (writing) life; we want to be alive and well
the river rushes on, leaves stone pounded to sand, grit in our shoes
the trail is soft: dying branches of fallen trees hung with shreds of plastic
we gather the debris/avert our eyes/marvel at what has survived
including us, miraculous experiments, ungovernable rage,
and joy, a constellation of remarkable lives, not half but double time.