How To Be a Better Reader

I find that when I talk to people across many fields and practices, many of us share the common history of being avid readers as children. We reminisce about the days of the Scholastic Book Fair, libraries becoming hang out spots, staying up and trying to read with our book lights under the covers.

As we’ve grown and become busy adults with jobs (yes, plural) we find that reading becomes a chore and not something we look forward to. Many of us achieved four year degrees where we read hundreds of pages every two days, and so the thought of sitting down to read for fun seems futile. Others may not be readers, because they can’t find a practice that suits their lives.

This year alone, there have been so many beautiful books released and you probably want to dig your teeth in too. I spend most of my days reading, writing, and stalking Instagram when I should be doing either of the two. Reading is not just listening or watching as words pass by us as if on a conveyor belt. Even when reading for pleasure, there are practices you can engage in that will make your reading experience memorable. I read in many different ways depending on the length of the book I’m reading, the genre, and the reason I’ve come to it. So I’m here to provide some types on how to be a better reader who gets more out of each book.

  1. Set the Mood

    There are certain environments that aren’t conducive to reading. For me, I can’t focus on particularly noisy and raucous bus ride, or if I’m in an uncomfortable sitting place. Often, I want to read but I’m tired, and so I slowly shift positions until I’m lying on my bed crushing my glasses. When you sit down to read, try sensory elements to keep you locked in like lighting a candle that isn’t nauseously sweet or herbaceous. I love scents that mix floral/fruity with woodsy such as lavender and sandalwood, etc.

    If you like sound during reading sessions, put on some ambient nature noises or a playlist of songs that don’t include lyrics. You can search them by instrument (piano, harp, violin) or genre. I created a playlist of songs that are jazzy, romantic, and soothing for when I’m reading and writing so I can get lost in my work instead of the world around me.

    If you’re a homebody like me, put on comfy clothes or get a big, fluffy blanket to wrap yourself in, make a cup of tea or a warm (light) cocktail and settle in.

  2. Bring Your Tools

    Even if you aren’t reading for work or school, taking “notes” on your book is still a fulfilling exercise to keep you engaged. If you are anti-dog ear, invest in some sticky tabs to mark pages you enjoyed and would like to revisit. This is also a great way to keep track of words and ideas you’ve learned while reading. If you have to stop and grab the dictionary when you encounter a word, stop and mark of the page so you can come back to it.

    Hand in hand with this is keeping a pen on your person at all times. Sometimes prose strikes you on a cellular level, you need to mull over and swim through sentences that tease and open you. When you come across lines that you find beautiful or poignant, underline, bracket, or even highlight it. if you don’t own the books you’re reading, use the sticky tabs, note the page and passage on a piece of paper or in a word document, or take a picture. This is not only great for remembering swaths of your book, but also will allow you to drop random quotes during dinner parties and impress everyone within ear shot.

  3. Discuss/Discourse

    I love hearing about the books my friends are reading. On the flip side, I also love droning on and on about the books I’m reading. If you have a willing friend (or a blog with a captive audience) talk about what you’ve read with someone else. Discuss the things you found alluring, displeasing, and challenging about the text. What’s working, what isn’t, what do you think is going to happen later on? Talking about literature is how many of the greatest works have maintained their relevance for years and years. A lively discussion will keep a book alive in your as well.

  4. Modulate

    Set goals for yourself. Especially when reading larger works, set a 30-50 page limit for each day that you plan to read. Sometimes I get a novel and read 200+ pages in one day and then spend the next two months trying to find time to finish the last 50 pages. Pacing yourself through a novel ensures that you’ll have something to look forward to, builds anticipation and excitement, and reduces the guilt of not reading as quickly as other people.

    Furthermore, when you are reading, modulate your reading speed. When a book is good, it’s easy to speed through the things we like and skim over the things we don’t. Slow down every few pages but especially over places that have confusing bits.

  5. Read About What You’re Reading

    Book reviews can be helpful resources for when you come across a new book. If you read before you start your book, look for reviews that don’t contain spoilers or read “praise” from other authors. Don’t just stop there, research the author and the history of their work. What themes appear in their writing, who do they read? Going into a book with this knowledge will give you something to grab on to and note when you find parallel themes.

  6. Listen to Your Body

    If you’re tired, have a headache, are hungry or agitated, don’t be afraid to set the book down. It’s not a failure to take care of yourself before indulging in the rich world of literature. Grab a nap and a glass of water, take some time off, and get back to it if you’re ready.

For more tips on reading, writing, and being a better lit nerd, subscribe to my newsletter on my editing website! There I give more in-depth and detailed advice on improving your writing and reading.

Thanks for listening and Happy Autumn

xo

DJ

The Bareback Cuntessa

Hello friends,

This is a new feature on my blog, I’m hoping it will be a monthly recipe with a little bit of blogging mixed in. I don’t want to become one of those recipe blogs where you scroll for 2 minutes to get to the “meat” of it, so striking that balance will be interesting but really fun all together. I’m vegan, so everything featured here will be as well, but feel free to use the things you want and eat in your versions. With that said, on to the recipe:

Vegan Date Caramel Cups

8-10 medjool dates, softened*

8 ounces of coconut milk or oat milk

a pinch of sea or pink salt

1 tsp of vanilla extract (i used non alcoholic)

*the dates need to be softened so they blend well. This can be done by setting them out on the countertop in a warm room for a few minutes, or set them in hot water for anywhere from 5-20 minutes.

Steps:

  1. remove the pits from your dates and let soften

  2. add your milk of choice to a blender with the vanilla extract

  3. add dates and puree on low setting for ~ 5 minutes

  4. switch to high and continue to blend until all lumps have been removed (add extra milk if needed)

  5. Once your caramel has reached the right consistency, add it into a sauce pan and cook on medium heat for 8-10 minutes.

  6. Pour the caramel into a loaf pan lined with parchment paper and let set over night.

THE NEXT DAY

  1. Melt a bar of semi sweet chocolate over a double boiler.

  2. Using a muffin pan w/ paper liners or a chocolate mold, add about 1/2 tbs of chocolate to the bottom and spread it evenly

  3. add a dollop of caramel to the center, spread it evenly

  4. top with 1 tbs of melted chocolate

  5. sprinkle top with cracked sea salt, pink salt, or crushed red pepper flakes

  6. Let set in the freezer until chocolate is solid

I made about 7 caramels with this, but they are about the size of Reeses cups, so if you used a smaller chocolate mold you could probably get a lot more chocolates out of this. If you have left over caramel you can add it to ice cream, make a vegan caramel frappucino, use it as cake filling, etc.

Enjoy!

Marilou is Everywhere, But Most Importantly, She's in My Heart

“Marilou is Everywhere” is the debut novel by author Sarah Elaine Smith. It tells the story of Cindy, a 14 year old girl living in rural PA with her two older brothers and a mother who is always gone or in the process of going. Cindy lives a life that envies the pallor of her hair. She spends much of her time dogging truancy agents that have come to ask why she hasn’t returned to school until Jude Vanderjohn goes missing. Jude, a beautiful teen from a more affluent family leaves an almost Cindy-sized place in her world, and it doesn’t take long for Cindy to find herself there. “Marilou is Everywhere” is a book about choices, pain, and the things we do to avoid them.

I used to be the kind of reader that only sought out stories that aligned with mine. I wanted more lesbians, more black girls, more tales of lost children. Now, as a more mature reader, I like to think I’ve moved away from that desire. A book isn’t good because I relate to it. In fact, I think a good book can take a character I don’t entirely relate to, who’s decisions I don’t understand or condone, and make me grieve for them. Marilou does this seamlessly.

I don’t know anything about Greene County, or growing up white and poor in rural PA. I do know something about the difficulty of mothers. I do know something about the silent and arduous process of emptying. When I found out the plot of this book, I knew the mother bits were going to resonate with me, and it was part of the draw toward me reading it. However, the most emotional and profound moments in the book are when Cindy has even a passing recognition of her own emptiness, the realities of her life that she can’t touch with words so she becomes a keen observer of everything else around her. Other times, Cindy takes her suffering off a clothesline and lays it over something unrelated. It seems that when it is separate from her she is able to name it: “Sometimes my sorrow lay over all I saw, like a neon light.”

The prose in this book alone will make you cry. Many reviews have pointed out that Smith is a poet with lines in the book reading like poetry. It feels to me that this is the only way to capture the internal dialogue of Cindy, her questions and hurts. I’ve often said for myself that poetry is a different language, one that is adjacent to whatever mother tongue but with added dimension. Cindy’s language for her life has this extra dimension because she is an observer, poised above her life and the things that happen to her. It isn’t until she steps into Jude’s life that a different language is called for.

The question of Jude, the disappearing girl, is one that haunts the book. We as readers don’t get to forget Jude as we watch Cindy surround herself with books and exotic fruit preserves. Jude is ever present. Jude is also the only black girl in town. Here in 2019, we know that when black and brown girls go missing, the narrative is steered toward runaway: of course she left, that’s what they do, if you were living her life you would run away too. The people of this town are no exception, it is easier to believe racial stereotypes than to put any real effort into finding a lost girl. This is where Smith as an author really excels. It would have been easy to craft Cindy or any other character into a hero, a white savior, someone who would stand and say “we’re wrong here! Something’s wrong! We have to look for her!” Listening to Smith talking about the process of writing the book, there is a point at which the character’s are no longer an extension of the author’s mind and morals; they become figures that make their own decisions even if the writer does not agree with them. This story does not allow itself to become a “woke” tale or a petulant finger-wagging at rural Americans. It is a stunningly humane portrait of the lives of its characters.

The big choice that Cindy makes in this novel, the one with the most dire consequences, is one that hurt me. Reading it, as I saw and felt it coming, my throat got tight, my breath grew rapid and coarse, I was screaming in my head. I put it down for a while. That reaction (I’m romantic and prone to dramatics so forgive ME) is what carries the book. I have so much empathy for Cindy but watching her do the things she does pisses me off. Reading her rationale in the aftermath is almost infuriating because I’ve said similar things to myself when I have made decisions that hurt other people. I just can’t stress enough how beautiful and real this novel is. To illicit such a response from me that I feel betrayed by it’s protagonist. That’s damn good writing.

This choice brings me back to emptiness and the drastic things we do to survive. Cindy survived by being Jude. Others, like Bernadette, turn to drinking until there is barely a human left to inhabit. Alistair, Jude’s father, leverages his money into power, offering up a $50,000 reward for Jude’s safe return. Would that amount of money make any of the people of Greene County look harder? No. Cindy chooses to become Jude to avoid facing the more daunting choice of telling the truth about her pain. To become a different person seems an extreme decision but for a 14 year old without the support or language to face her truth, it may have been the easiest thing to do.

The novel closes with what might be some of my favorite lines ever written:

“I do not care to stand in the doorway of myself, making a list of punishments. I’m the kind who can only see the road ahead so far. I’m the kind that has to get empty somehow. I tried all the other ways. The only one that wouldn’t kill me was taking care of friends and wildlife. I’m no martyr, I promise. No savior, no hero, no saint— I eat too many figs to qualify, I’m afraid. Neither do I think some tally will be balanced. I’m not sure I can be forgiven in full.”

This is the part where i really cried cried. Books just have a way of getting me. I knew I was gonna cry but I read that and thought “oop here it comes!” Cindy’s final choice is to move on, to forgive herself, even if not in full. In this small moment there is so much growth, and still pain, still a yearning for emptiness, but a happiness in-spite. I think most of us have to get empty sometimes, we’ve all disappeared in our own ways. Cindy understands this about herself but doesn’t make any grand promises about changing. What she does, what we all can do, is little things. Clearing a snowy driveway, apologizing, birthing some baby goats. No one leaves a star, as they say.

Hot Girl Sommar!: Midsommar Review (Spoilers Contained)

I finally saw Midsommar about a week ago and I am here to tell you that it is, in fact, the feel good movie of the summer.

The movie is about a woman named Dani who, after her family is killed in what seems to be a murder suicide, goes on an educational trip to Sweden with her boyfriend Christian and his grad school friends. Christian, like most men, is a hunk of trash. His behavior ranges from dismissive asshole to full on emotional abuse. As a DV survivor it was physically painful to see Dani apologize for having feelings, for asking to be seen by her partner, for being upset that he forgot her fucking birthday.

In relationships with his friends, Christian is equally manipulative. First, let me say, in the beginning it seems as though none of Christian’s friends like Dani either. One particular friend that has the eyebrows of an evil clown constantly calls her crazy and insists she needs a therapist, even though she already has one. In the first scene where we see Christian and his friends together, we’re made to believe that he’s just a sensitive guy trying to get out of a relationship he’s unhappy in. At a bar with his friends, they direct him to break up with Dani and spend their Swedish getaway fucking milk maids. The crew decides on Sweden because one of the guys, Pelle, is from a small village there and wants to take his friends back for the annual Midsommar festivities held by his community, the Hårga. Christian, lacking the emotional intelligence and empathy to have a real conversation with anyone in his life, solves the problem of his relationship by inviting Dani on the trip— much to the chagrin of his boys.

One thing that is made painfully clear throughout the movie is that Dani has some sort of panic or anxiety disorder. She takes medication at one point in the first act. She paces and stammers over her words, ringing her hands when she has to talk to Christian about anything. The trip to Sweden starts off with her refusing mushrooms because she needs to feel “settled” first (i.e. hallucinogenics and anxiety disorders aren’t the best mix). Pressured by Christian’s cohort of dicks, Dani caves, and goes on a pretty gnarly trip filled with flashbacks of her dead family and hallucinations of being laughed at by beautiful blonde mountain dwellers.

This brings me to cinematography and the score. The drug use sequences in this movie are out of this world. My favorite shots are of high-Dani with grass growing out of her hands or feet. The people surrounding her are panic inducing and completely dismissive of her needs, but in those moments, nature is growing inside her, through her. Her breath also becomes a part of the soundtrack, slow and coarse, it rings through our ears and Dani’s. The score is perfectly matched with these scenes. I’m listening now and listen to it almost everyday. As they drive into Halsingland, the camera does slow, sweeping turns and flips, moving with the almost mechanic moans of the track by the same name. When Dani goes on her bad trip, the music turns frantic, sharp and cutting strings that seem to have no direction but take you to a very precise place.

My favorite track from the score is The House That Harga Built. It plays as the group enters this pristine village with emerald greens, crystalline blues, and the most electric yellow you’ve ever seen. With the exception of one of Christian’s friends, Josh, and two french students named Connie and Simon, everyone is white with light blonde or soft red hair. It’s a beautiful nightmare. When you see that many white people you know they can be up to no good.

Without droning on too long, things start to get dark when a suicide ritual takes place. The villages oldest members, a man and woman aged 72, must kill themselves to keep the youth and activity alive. No one dies sick and suffering in this village, they take their own lives when they still have wits and vitality. This act is countered by a young girl finding a lover and commencing in a mating ritual that requires a love potion. What’s in that love potion? Glad you asked: a little lemon, some foraged herbs, water, and menstrual blood. To seal the deal, make your beau a pot pie with a sprinkle of pubic hair. In the film, Pelle’s little sister Maja sets her sights on WHO ELSE but local dud Christian.

While all this happens, Dani is off getting to know the village women and is crowned May Queen. Josh is trying to get the secrets of the village on camera and is promptly murdered in a brutal scene for it. Mr. Eyebrows aka Mark goes off to hook up with a girl he can barely look at because he’s such a dweeb and is not seen again until they end of the movie. Dani, however, is living her best life. She’s finally coming to understand her own strength, and deal with the pain of losing her family without looking to Christian for love and support he cannot give. In one of the movies most quotable moments, Dani cries on the bed wanting to go home after people have turned up missing and the suicide ritual naturally scares her. Pelle comes to her aid and puts his arms around her, he asks of Christian:

“Do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”

Damn.

The May Queen ceremony sees Dani taking a head seat at the table, and conversely, taking the front seat in her own life. It isn’t until she catches Christian engaging in a sexual ceremony with Maja that her world unsettles itself again. Once Christian has done the deed and supposedly impregnated Maja, he is pretty much useless. He runs off holding his dick like a scared little bitch and begins to find body after body of his disappeared cohorts. Christian is caught and drugged, and he opens his eyes to see the Hårga, and the truth of this whole trip: Pelle and his brother have volunteered to bring back human sacrifices for the future of their people. The breakdown is: four of the villages own, four outsiders (Josh, Mark, Connie, and Simon) and two specially picked from a draw. The first one drawn is some guy who doesn’t matter from the village. The second is….you guessed it, our boy Christian. And Dani makes the decision.

Christian gets sewn into a fucking bear and is placed in the stunning yellow shack with the drained and de-boned bodies of his friends. They have been turned into dolls of sorts, some stuffed with flowers and hay, others just bags of skin. Dani, as May Queen, watches clad in all her floral glory, crying with grief at her loss and possibly the guilt of sacrificing the person she’d spent so much time willing to love her. Dani watches as the shack is burned to the ground, and everyone in it burns as well. The last scene is our May Queen with a wry smile on her face, finally free.

I think, at it’s core, Midsommar is about finding home. Dani starts the movie with a devastating loss. Both her parents and her sister are killed after her sister gasses the house. Her home is now a crime scene, the people she called home dead. Naturally, she leans on the next closest person to her, her boyfriend, a man that at every turn is trying to find a way to leave her. Actually, no. Christian never tries to leave Dani, he leads her on and makes a misery of her life. After her family is found dead, he limply holds her as she wails, his face expressionless and hard. There is never any love present for her from him. She is a tool, just as his friends are tools. He gets a cool trip to Sweden, steals his friends dissertation topic because he doesn’t have enough discipline to find his own. The tables are truly turned for him when Maja sets her sights on him. He is now the tool, serving the need of impregnating her and continuing to the grow the population of this remote little village. Christian who has spent so much time lamenting how emotionally Dani is and how he just wants out, now gets an out through dead-eyed Maja.

Pelle is Dani’s first taste of care, and while he does it in a twisted, murderous way, he still sees her in suffering and offers a hand. He remembers her birthday and nudges her shitty boyfriend to get her cake, he draws a lovely portrait of her, he really sees her. Far be it from my nature to praise anything a man does, but Pelle is either a renaissance man or a murderous mastermind. But back to the real star: not only does Dani break away from abuse, she begins to allow herself to feel her emotions full force without cycling into self-blame and degradation. In stark contrast to the beginning of the film where she rants on the phone to a friend about how she is “too much” and Christian will leave her because her feelings are too big, Dani finds him cheating on her and falls to the floor wailing in pain. Instead of being weakly held, she is surrounded by the woman of the village who scream with her. The mirror her grief and echo it back to her, the sound of other voices communing with her own makes it more real, more valid. When she is crowned as the May Queen, she is adorned with bright flowers, met with sweet and passionate kisses, whisked away into brightness. She gets to feel joy. The drugs are still in her system but she is no longer panicking, she feels a oneness with something greater than her: community.

Dani, who has spent the first two hours of the movie groveling and looking to get even an once of attention from her boyfriend, is crowned and hailed. With startling determination and finality, she sends him to a painful death. She was the only one in the group besides Pelle that knew something wasn’t quite right the whole time. Josh, who was doing a goddamn dissertation on these people, somehow missed that sacrifice is a part of their culture. Eyebrows is too busy talking a lot of game about bedding women but skimpering away from eye contact with any of them. Christian is just a sociopath. Dani has a watchful eye and sees things going on that others miss, ask questions, and seamlessly dives into this foreign culture enough to make her way out alive. Even without Pelle’s adoration, a newly single Dani can now stand in her power. We stan a resourceful queen! It truly is a Hot Girl Summer, City Boys will not recover.

This movie was visually stunning, haunting, and gleefully wonderful. I walked away and fell more in love as I talked and thought about it. I think I’m becoming a major Ari Aster fan and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

My buddy ki11erpancake did a very sweet illustration of me as the May Queen that I’ll add to this post. Follow the link to view her work!

Karma

Almost four years ago, I visited a friend and sat on his couch singing Radiohead’s Karma Police. He was a musician in a band that played pretty decent music, and I had confided in him that I loved singing and always dreamed of being in a band of my own.

As we sang, he kept urging me to be louder, to hit the high notes that my lungs and chest were not ready for. As a sheepishly shied away from pushing myself there, he got angrier. He would abruptly stop playing the guitar so his fingers made a sound like a muffled whine on the strings, then turn toward me and gruffly say no no, like this, you have to try. Stop being so afraid.

I was afraid that night, it was the most mean I had ever seen him. A few days later I went back after he had been texting me heartbroken over his ex wife. I didn’t want to go but I made myself because he needed a friend. That night, July 18, 2015, seemed calmer. That night, I was drunk when I walked in the door to meet with him. He told me he was sober but seemed agitated. He said he had one beer earlier in the night, but because of his DUI record, he couldn’t drive me home so I was welcome to sleep on the cot in his music room or in his bed.

In the music room we played piano together and I listened to him sing original songs he was working on. He offered me glass after glass of white wine, and in between, Xanax. He told me I seemed depressed and that I needed something to take the edge off. I declined each time and watched him walk away with my glass to fill it up with more wine, supposedly. Within an hour I felt exhausted—not even exhausted—a place beyond it, like I was slowly slipping out of my body. My eyes were heavy and my lips felt numb, my jaw hung open and I struggled to stay conscious and keep it closed. Before I blacked out, he turned to me and said

you know, I’m sure it seems like I’m trying to take advantage of you with all the drugs and alcohol. But I’m not, I love you and I would never do something like that.

I woke up to him raping me, between my legs saying things that I can’t repeat here and that when said to me, trigger an immediate flashback to this day. My arms were spread across the pillows of his bed and I couldn’t move them, so I tried using my knees to knock his head away. When he penetrated me I screamed inside but could only manage a whimper from my mouth, followed by pitiful crying. It was only then that he stopped, climbed beside me, and wrapped my arms around him in a forced embrace.
__

I’ve thought about that night over and over again this week, even when I didn’t want to. I try to remember my exact words, to pick apart the truth and find the speck that maybe suggests I was asking for it. I say

well i could have walked home

I did say yes to the wine
I did say yes to sleeping in his bed but he told me he would take the couch

It’s horrific to remember every detail, to struggle to say them in writing or out loud. Going through the trial process, I had to give specifics, to talk in clinical and explicit detail about what he did to me. It was humiliating and shameful.

That rape changed the way I felt about my body and my desire to live in it. First I disappeared into alcohol and unsafe sex. Then, into an abusive relationship. I blamed myself every day for being the kind of woman that was “prone” to being abused by the men in my life. Radiohead is one of my favorite bands, and I couldn’t listen to Karma Police without having panic attacks until 2018. That fact is small and to most, irrelevant, but to me it signifies what I lost in being raped. I couldn’t listen to one of my favorite songs anymore. Something as simple as the beginning chords would set me off. When I was intimate with someone after that night I exited my body, in the same way I did before blacking out. It was like I was watching myself from above through a pair of heavy eyes.

The man that raped me still lives in my city. He plays shows. He’s told people that asked about his criminal history that it didn’t happen, I was just “confused…or something” even though his defense team tried to argue he really did drug me because I was depressed and he was trying to help me. The american justice system allows for these sorts of ridiculous arguments to persist, allows for a sitting President to be an accused serial rapist with no repercussions.

This country was built on the murder and rape of black women. Sometimes I sit and think about the legacy of suffering women, especially black women, have inherited and endured. It puts me in a place beyond exhaustion. I have survived, I have endured and gone on to do wonderful things with my life, but I’m tired. I can’t escape what my body remembers.

I wish I could end this in a high, positive place, but that isn’t where I am now. Right now I’m barely moving. I spent most of the day in bed or lying on my couch. My heart hurts for myself and the women who were raped by the President, the women suffering at our borders and in detention centers, the women suffering in my city.

Please find some compassion and empathy in your heart for us. Please find some action in your body for those of us who can’t move.

-DJ

Pride/My Review of The Perfection that No One requested

I already did my layout/review of all of my favorite horror movies awhile back. It’s June, which means it’s Pride month, which means I don’t want to see or be seen by straight people for the next 30 days. So when buzz around Netflix’s The Perfection started up, I got excited and decided to give it a watch.

Before I had watched the movie I saw the trailer online and was not thrilled at all. From the outside it looks like a film where Allison Williams plays a blue-eyed devil hellbent on destroying the life of another black person. But upon watching, the movie unfolds and reveals itself to be a really complex and twisty horror thriller that I’ve wanted for awhile (though it doesn’t fully live up to my expectations.)

spoilers ahead:

We spend roughly the first 30 minutes of this movie thinking it’s a straight up contagion style “virus outbreak” film, which can be thrilling in itself. Allison Williams plays Charlotte, a cello prodigy that had to give up her dream to take care of an ill mother. Logan Browning plays Lizzie, the young protege of the academy’s head, Anton Bachoff, who takes her place. Lizzie launches into fame while Charlotte is left in reclusiveness until her mother dies and she is free to return to her dream at the Bachoff Academy.

There is sexual tension between the two women from jump, which is rare even in lesbian movies written by actual lesbians. We are always sold the story line of a straight housewife who falls in love with some mysterious dyke that swoops into town, the professor that has an inappropriate and manipulative relationship with a student, or the lesbian couple that has been together for so long they’ve forgotten to have sex and so heartbreak and drama ensues. I really loved that there was zero conflict around the sexuality between the two of them. They are into each other, and they have amazing sex that is split with scenes of them playing cello as a duo (maybe the hottest thing I’ve ever seen? when did cello become sexy? the fINgErsSS)

After the movie escapes it’s first plot of outbreak story, it seems to veer toward “predatory lesbian jealousy story.” On a bus trip, Lizzie falls incredibly ill with explosive diarrhea and vomit laced with maggots. The tension culminates with Lizzie deep in psychosis that has convinced her there are bugs crawling under her skin. Charlotte, the ever-helpful girlfriend and obvious dyke, somehow has a meat clever on hand and convinces Lizzie to cut her hand off. Through a weird and poorly done rewind scene, we see that Charlotte has drugged Lizzie with medication she stole from her now deceased mother, leading her into a hallucination that she has been infested by bugs, so that she will cut off her hand and never be able to play the cello again.

This plot direction falls apart fairly quickly though, because Charlotte does not return to Bachoff to reclaim her throne leaving Lizzie to die. Finally we get to the real motivation: after leaving Bachoff and dealing with her mothers illness, Charlotte is able to leave the grip of Anton, who is revealed to be a serial rapist that preys on the young students at his academy. Charlotte gets Lizzie to cut her hand off because she “knew she needed to do something dramatic for Lizzie to see the truth (paraphrasing here).”

I’ll be honest, the scene where Anton is revealed as a true monster and he steps in front of the camera naked is one of the most chilling scenes I’ve seen in a movie. I instinctively trembled and jumped back from my laptop when I saw it.

Rape revenge is a controversial genre. I think much of the controversy comes from the idea that revenge for all rape victims looks the same. I’ve seen a few reviews on line that have called it “male-gaze-y” and a patriarchal view on what women victims of sexual violence want as justice. Speaking for myself, I loved it. When I was raped, I had daily violent fantasies of what I would like to see happen to the man that raped me, much more violent than Anton’s end. Some of us want to see our rapists in jail, others want a head on a stick. Rapists can never experience the emotional turmoil and violence they have inflicted on their victims, and it’s natural to want to see that violence reflected externally. One thing I also want to point out is we never see the rape on screen but can still understand the trauma and pain of it. Toward the end of the movie, a new young student is brought into Bachoff, and we as viewers are left to fear for her fate. But, she escapes the violence of Anton and the violence of watching he and his accomplices murdered. Many rape revenge stories fall victim to the problem of balance: the movie spends most of its time with the woman being victimized—and gruesomely so—and finally gets to the revenge at the very end. Though the revenge plot line is revealed to us later, in the timeline in the story it has been happening for the entire film.

”The Perfection” was written by two men and one woman, and directed by a man, which is another criticism of the movie. I have no bits to argue there. When dealing with the violence that women face it is always best to have women in the know at the helm. As outlined earlier, the movie jumps genre, it is sometimes laughably bad, incoherent, and impossible. I found the dialogue to be a bit painful and on the nose at times. Still as a survivor and a black lesbian I saw a lot of my desires reflected in it. When I first started talking to people about being raped I was dismayed to find that no one would let me be angry. All of the conversations were about being tender and healing and moving on, but I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to break shit and scream and hurt him beyond repair. This movie gave me that, which is why most rape revenge movies do well or get obliterated, because they do not portray a realistic view of the victim’s choice after the fact. Having been through the trial process myself, it is arduous and often dissatisfying. Realism is tired, let me live out the life I wanted through films on Netflix!

Another point of contention in the movie is that Lizzie has to endure great physical pain and trauma that changes her body’s ability, questioning why that was necessary for the plot to move forward. Honestly, this was very upsetting for me too, and I don’t have a precise answer except that this is in a universe of an almost campy reality. The movie is outrageous, the name of the prestigious composer academy is Bachoff for fucks sake. If you’re still on the hunt for some reason though, I’ll offer this: a friend once told me that leaving an abusive relationship is like breaking your wrists to free your hands: you have to go through some incredible pain to ultimately be free. The wrist-breaking for LIzzie is ultimately a very literal severing of her flesh and bone, but she eventually sees the truth and is able to get away from Anton’s manipulation and control. The final scene is her and Charlotte playing the piano in tandem, both of them missing one hand (Charlotte lost hers in the final fight scene), and staring satisfied at a limbless, incapacitated Anton. It’s a truly beautiful ending, and even though I still have conflicting feelings about the amputations, I can kinda see why they happened.

overall, we stan two dykes that get their revenge and get to fuck each other while playing cello in tandem.
________________________________________________________

I didn’t do anything for Pride this season but I’ve seen a lot of online discourse from so called radical queers that has upset me so I wanna say:
Lesbian is not a bad word, it is not synonymous with TERF, being a woman that sleeps with men and women doesn’t make you more enlightened or woke than the lesbians out here. Fuck y’all.

Kink is an integral part of pride. People in leather collars is not the same as having full on sex in public. Stop repackaging homophobia and espousing it as some new radical take when really you just hate gay people as much as the straights.

put on your vegan leather chaps and be safe out there

signed,

A dyke and her tarantula.

Negro Swan

In the weeks before I left the abusive relationship with my ex, there were days where I couldn’t breathe because I didn’t feel like a being anymore. I had lost myself completely in a world that simultaneously alienated me. In that community, I was one of (maybe) two black people, and so constantly tasked with assuaging the guilt of the white people around me, assuring them they weren’t racist. While I had maintained a connection to my blackness, I would often have to shelf it for the comfort of those around me, and for my own safety. Any critique was labeled “identity politics” are worse, betrayal.

I was recently in a situation where I was made to feel like the outsider in a pristine, white reality. Casting a hurried goodbye over my shoulder, I left shaking and wondering where in Pittsburgh can black people truly be ourselves? Where in the world do I find my people? Is there a way to escape or re-imagine this reality?

When I get asked to do readings, I am often the only black poet in the space, and I find myself doing on the spot edits in order to make my work less confrontational, or more palatable to the audience. I’ve been working with a therapist on not performing this labor anymore, and it has made me reflect on how often I deny myself the right to exist in a full and realized capacity. Black women especially are taught to carry the burdens and feelings of everyone else around us without paying any mind to where our needs lie.

I’m tired of carrying and biting my tongue

tired of having to be polite before I am myself

tired of being swallowed and silenced.

I think this was the driving force behind creating Fig Widow. Going back to the story of Anansi, I think black people have had a kinship to spiders, As a writer, I can’t help but see the connection between poets and arachnids. Orb weavers are some of the greatest artists that exist in this universe; the deliberate nature with which they move is a testament to how we choose our words. No space, no energy wasted. As I watch my tarantula Della move around her enclosure tonight, I’m chilled and in awe of how her limbs move as individuals acting on the part of the whole. They seem to have their own direction in mind but they know exactly where to take her. To food, to water, to shelter. Figs, to me, are sex and abundance. Fertility. A wealth of small things that create a rich and textured experience. They are so tied to my understanding of sensuality and sexuality, but also to my growth as an writer and a woman.

Fig Widow. Giving it a name, getting this tattoo on my body, is about bringing things to fruition. About taking space in my hands and willing it to suit me.

I hope to spotlight more black poets, more lesbian fiction writers, more women in art with this project and this new chapter in my life.

See y’all in June

-Dani & Della

No Thank You

If you’re a writer, late March into early April is a period that I like to refer to as “rejection season.” Suddenly, the fellowship you’ve been dying to hear back from or that poem you forgot you submitted are knocking at your door. In these times, you get one of three responses;

Yes

No

(and in rare cases:) We liked this, but no thank you

I’d say for about every poem I get published there is a trail of five rejected poems in it’s wake. Which is a generous assessment. I started submitting my work more seriously around 2016 after being referred to a certain magazine by a friend. Before that, I had maybe one or two poems in college creative writing journals. The first rejection feels devastating. I remember closing my eyes and trying not to show the dread and failure on my face. After that, I didn’t submit another poem for about three years.

Now that I’ve been doing this a little longer, rejection still stings, but t doesn’t stop me. It’s like dating: maybe I didn’t go on that second date, we weren’t a match, and that’s fine, I just have to find the woman (or literary journal) that sees the value I see in my work. Searching for those journals does require a bit of research. I don’t submit to places that publish more white men than women of any color, places that don’t have a LGBTQ voice, and those that aren’t aligned with my style of poetry. I tend to be of the confessional school of poetry, A lot of people in the community don’t respect that kind of poetry, but it won’t stop me from writing it.

Though I’ve never tried it myself, I know of other poets who have contacted journals to ask why their poem didn’t get selected. Perhaps I’m just not bold enough for that kind of behavior, but it might be helpful to you to get some answers and closure. The questions around “why” leave us space to tell stories about ourselves and our work. We tell ourselves that we aren’t driven or talented enough, that there is no space for what we have to say. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A poem will always have a home with the person that wrote it. Even if a journal or magazine never picks it up, it has a place to rest it’s head with us.

This is why many love the personalized rejection so much. We feel seen— maybe not entirely understood— but someone took the time out of their day to tell us our work was appreciated even if it wasn’t a fit. If you’re really lucky there might even be some notes hidden in that rejection for you.

If you do get the computer generated “we received many submissions and unfortunately blah blah blah” please, hold space for whatever grief comes with that. Poetry is tough. Our hearts are in every last word. It would be silly to suggest that we not take rejections at least a little bit personal. But, when that grieving is over, look at your work again. What is there that you love? What inspires passion in you about what you’ve written? If there are moments in your work where you don’t feel as though you’re creeping upon a surprise, or have just uncovered it, think about changing them. Revision is a faithful lover. Submit it again, and again, and again. Read it to yourself allowed. Fall in love with it all over again.

//

thank you to everyone that came to the first installment of my reading series. My first go at event planning and hosting went over very well. A typical Pittsburgh storm kept some folks at bay but I am so grateful to those that showed up and came in. I’m hoping to bring the next event to you all in June.

//

In other news, the essay that I wrote for Public Source (which you can find under the writing section of this website) one a Robert L. Vann Media Award! I’m super proud of the work I did, and the work of the other contributors who did a wonderful job of shedding light on what it is to be black in Pittsburgh. Now I can start calling myself an award-winning author.

(Got 2) Give It Up

Poems are, in part, an extension of ourselves. A reflection of our deepest fears, desires, and needs; both as individuals and as a society. Poems are wishing wells and mirrors. At some point, a good poem extends outside the self while maintaining its roots in you, the writer. Sometimes the things extending— the flora, the fronds, the cedar—rot. They are misshapen and threaten the survival of the rest of the poem. Those things have to be let go.

Yes, I’m talking about “killing your darlings,” becomes someone needs to hear it.

Sometimes we write things that we believe are so ideologically pure and aesthetically devastating that we assert that they have a place where they do not. That piece you’ve been working on that doesn’t seem to be quite there? It’s lacking something, feels disjointed? Go back and look at the phrase or word that started the poem, the one you think is genius, guaranteed you should cut it. You’re attached. I get it, believe me. As a Scorpio I know a thing or two about obsession. But sometimes those obsessions hold us back from getting to the true landscape of our art.

I had a conversation with my friend Eric a few weeks ago about leaving an abusive relationship, and how my leaving was inspired by finding someone new that I developed feelings for. That new person gave me hope, made me realize that there was a life after leaving my ex. Eric said something that I still hold on to today.

“oh yeah, she was your raft relationship”

I’m sure this line came with a very meaningful parable that I have forgotten, but the gist is: a raft is a person or a thing that gets you from one point to the next safely. It’s something to keep you from being pulled under the water. That line that you’re clinging to is probably your raft. It’s the thing that got you from empty page to poem, and now that you are at poem, you can deflate that raft and toss it aside.

Let’s not stop at lines, though, sometimes you need to put the stanza in the trash. Sometimes the whole poem. Rethink the scaffolding even. Poems are not pure, they can be misguided just as easily as us. As the one with the pen, you have the power and opportunity to save it.

I want to say this, and I want you to say it too: not everything I write is good.

Nothing is so groundbreaking that it can’t withstand a revision. We are not dealing in strict dichotomies here; something that isn’t good isn’t necessarily bad. It is an opportunity for betterment, to strengthen both the poem and yourself. Okay, enough preaching. Now, how do you give it up?

  1. Find the poems heart

    • this will come with more than one reading. Read your work over and over again. Alone and aloud. Find the seed of the idea that started your poem, it will be the point at which your shoulders relax, and your head leans slightly—a sign of familiarity. When you’re reading other peoples poems, it’s the part you circle or underline. Maybe you’ll do the same with your own work.

  2. Find the obsession

    • When you find what you are trying to say, the obsession will stick out like a sore thumb. Or it won’t. It will be the part at which your eyebrows furrow, your jaw tightens, or gets so lax you stutter over the words. Its the thing that draws a Blues Clues sized question mark in your head. What does this say? You ask because it seems to be completely disconnected or mildly adjacent to the seed.

    • It may fit thematically, but not structurally. In this case, it is the thing that is interfering with the poems severity. A line or a stanza can’t hit with a bunch of fluff around it. To revisit to the raft metaphor: perhaps your raft is so filled with air that when you get to the shore, you’re buoyed back into the water because of the big, orange, rim impeding you. These bits tend to be harder to deal with because they work, but the question is, are they working for or against? Often they are the latter. We are afraid to get rid of them because they sound pretty. I once went to a talk with poet Rachel Zucker, she spoke about a poetry that resist being confined by “beauty.” Poetry does not have to be gorgeous. It can have edges and spines. Let your poem have texture.

  3. Figure out if you are the butcher or the carpenter

    • Butchers take a cleaver to shit. Cut off the fat. Get to the lean pink.

    • If you’re a carpenter (alternatively a sculptor) you can take that individual thing and shape it until it is new. Enough of a deviation from the start that it now is a compliment and not a hindrance. One practice that I have found helpful in revision is to contract and expand. Read-cut away-read-add more. Repeat until you are in the vicinity of Finished.

    • I have found that modern free verse poetry has drifted away from the tenet of meter. Not all, but some. Poetry is sound too. The sound that the words make when you say them, the sounds that are echoed around them, the sound of a well placed enjambment. If you want, take it back to elementary school: speak slowly with your hand under your chin and really listen to the rise and fall of each word. This too will tell you when something is off, too much or too little.

  4. Ask for Help

    • A second or third pair of eyes is always better than one. Ask a trusted confidante to give your poem a look. Be specific about your needs. Do you want a simple yes or no, or do you need a line by line close reading of what’s working and what isn’t. Ask for help.

  5. Repeat this process.

    • If you’re thinking this is a lot of work, welcome to the practice of poetry. When I was in college studying literature I often heard from science and math majors that getting an English degree must be so easy, all I had to do was sit down and write “roses are red, violets are blue”? A Cake Walk. Rarely do those nerds understand the kind of introspection that comes with creative work. It is discipline and practice. We must remember that as well.

  6. Transmutation

    • some pieces only need to be re-homed. I extract these bits and put them in a google doc entitled (cleverly) Bits. When I’m stuck in writer’s block or need a little something to chew on, I open it up and see what I haven’t used yet, and put it into something new. I scroll through pages and pages until something ticks. Your genius line that you couldn’t wait to use, so you put it somewhere it doesn’t fit? Save it. In journal or a google doc of your choosing.

Okay, I have given you some great tools here. If you want anymore it will definitely cost you, can’t be given out these nuggets for free.

Poetry is not so serious that you can never have fun. Mary Oliver was a poet of great fun. Ross Gay writes with exuberance. Shira Erlichman always talks about the world in a way that seems fraught with wonder. You can too, but there is also work to be done. I write because I have to in order to live, to speak with any sort of knowledge of self and comfort in the world. It is all that makes sense to me. I hope this is received as a passion for poetry and craft and not judgement.

Who Are the Ghosts?

Recently, I had the opportunity to do a reading with my friend Colin Hagendorf (author of Slice Harvester: A Memoir in PIzza) and musician and poet Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. The night was hilarious and lovely, and I am still so honored to be asked to read with such a crew. During her reading, Sadie said something that caused me to reflect for days after.

She said that often, when people use the word “ghost(s)” in poems, they are using it as a filler word, merely as poetic device and not as people who truly believe in the existence of the supernatural. She got a laugh when she said that this was disrespectful to ghost, and while I did chuckle I also evaluated my own use of the word.

For a long time, I was that kind of science nerd that laughed at people who believed in the supernatural, life after death, anything that was beyond the tangible reality of chemistry. Even as that science nerd, I had been having interactions or experiences with ghosts since I was a kid. I’ll say here that I don’t care if you don’t believe. Go flex that intellectual superiority elsewhere. Even though I am a believer, for me anything that is capable of dying can have a ghost. Sadie’s introduction to her poem made me ask who are the ghosts in my poems? and I’m here to ask you the same, and also to answer that question.

To figure out who the ghosts in our poems are, and if we are doing them justice, we have to ask:

  1. Who or what has died?

  2. Why have they stayed?

I jumped into my manuscript and searched the word. I’ll sample a poem here and break down it’s use:

from Black Death, originally published by Slush Pile Magazine:

Sometimes my breath is

     a tulip of fear.

dark hue of bruise; skin

like a plum, so sweet the world

surrenders its jaw to the flesh.

i see hung ghosts in the spit.

This poem in particular is about Antwon Rose Jr., but in a greater sense about violence against black people. The world I speak of is the white supremacist beast that “surrenders its jaw” to the people it views as both disposable and beneficial. The “hung ghosts in the spit” are the ghosts of black men, women, and children who have been lynched. I chose to keep the action of hanging here because the lynching as a practice has not disappeared, it has simply become more modernized. In Jesmyn Wards, “Sing, Unburied, Sing”; the past, present, and future exist simultaneously, on the same timeline, able to interact with one another. Though I wrote this poem before I read the book, the same concept is expressed here. The I in the poem is watching the past swallow the present, from the standpoint of the future (hung ghosts instead of hanging).

The ghosts in Black Death are imagined and painfully real. In some poems, maybe who or what has died is an idea, a love, a tightly held belief. In a different poem, I am in the kitchen preparing food when I hear this loud, sharp ringing. It was as if someone had struck a bell at the same pace for days. The sound started appearing after I had performed a ritual to cast a love out of my heart (I know, dramatic and gay, such a Scorpio). I looked everywhere and could not find the source. As I wrote the poem, I didn’t know that it was going to come to this end, with the ghosts of this love appearing, but it only made sense. I had to ask myself why she was still lingering, and still being in love with her was too easy of an answer. The poem ends with the ghost singing to me, in an almost taunting way, because she knows the ritual was desperate and perhaps a bit disingenuous. She knows I didn’t want her to leave, or at least not that way, that i was taking a route that drove me right past the heart of my feelings for her. In this case, the ghost stayed because I truly wasn’t ready to let her go.

As I look over my manuscript I ask myself again and again, who are the ghosts and why are they here? I become at peace with the reality that some ghosts can not be willed away or forced out with incantations and sage. Some of them have to stay and be put into poems until we figure out how and why they died, and what their purpose is.

Look at your essays, your poems; look at your words and ask if any of them are wasted. If you find that they are, inspect the space around the gap you are trying to fill. It will tell you something if you listen. As for ghosts, they are everywhere. I have a ghosts in my apartment right now. She’s a trickster. She hid my glasses case from me for months only for me to find it under my bedside table, where I had checked dozens of times. Whoever they are and whatever they do, show some respect. They are likely here for the same reason that you are.


ps: buy Colin’s book and Sadie’s book: Mouthguard!