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.

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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.

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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!

JUSTICE FOR ANTWON ROSE JR.

Last night, bigot and murderer Michael Rosfeld was acquitted of all charges in the death of Antwon Rose Jr.

Antwon was unarmed.

He was shot in the back.

Rosfeld said he killed him to “protect the community.”

This community is no safer than it was when Antwon was alive. He was not the threat. Rosfeld and the East Pittsburgh Police are threats. The entire police system is a threat.

Antwon was shot in the back and the face.

Less than a six months ago a white supremacist walked into a synagogue here in Pittsburgh and slaughtered 11 innocent people. He is alive today. He will receive a trial and be judged by a jury of his peers.

Antwon was unarmed. He was running away.

May he rest in power and in peace.

May Rosfeld never rest another day in his miserable life.

No JUSTICE, No PEACE.

Painting

Hello again.

I said I’d be back with a list of the things I’ve been consuming and enjoying within the last couple weeks, so here it is. I am unfortunately the kind of person that reads five books at a time, so there will be a lot here. Get ready.

Books:

  • Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn Ward

    This is a great book regardless, but especially if you are someone that truly believes in spirits/hauntings/whatever you want to call them. Without spoiling the plot, it' is frightening and remarkable and touching. I felt that I was going to cry from the beginning and the ending left me gasping for air.

  • American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin - Terrance Hayes

    If you’ve never heard the voice of Terrance Hayes or seen his towering body, get your life to the point where you can. I have seen him read multiple times and each time is a masterclass in how poetry is expressed in the body. This book is written with a tongue that dances; Hayes’ language is so fun and playful, but easily transitions into a lead foot that settles everything. In one of the sonnets, he writes:

    “Even the most kindhearted white woman,

    dragging herself through traffic with her nails

    on the wheel & her head in a chamber of black

    modern American music may begin, almost

    carelessly, to breathe n-words”

    Such a seamlessly and scathing portrait of white liberalism. Like wow.

  • Whereas - Layli Long Soldier (I haven’t gotten too far in this book so I’m reserving my thoughts)

  • Bestiary - Donika Kelly

    if you’ve been on this page for any length of time you know I love Donika Kelly and spiders. Bestiary is animalistic in it’s grieving. The way it appears on the page like a wild cat or a doe emerging from a thicket of green, then retreating when you blink.

  • The Passage - Justin Cronin

    I started this book and flew through the first half of it with an immediacy. Then suddenly, there is a turn in narrative and tonal shift that takes me completely out of everything I’ve just invested in. I currently feel too betrayed to continue reading but its not my book and I have to return it to the owner so I’m gonna muscle through it.

  • When My Brother Was an Aztec - Natalie Diaz

    This is another book about a kind of grief, but also the love that supersedes and even weaves itself through that grief.

    “Please hang your charcoal three-piece suit somewhere

    else. Please stop

    dragging wire hangers across her arms and stomach”

    I’m a sucker for pleading, I love a good plea in a poem. There exist in every sister a piece of your siblings that you have tried to save from suffering and pain. This poem and this book gets at that feeling grandly.

  • Animal You’ll Surely Become - Brittany Hailer

    Brittany is my friend, but I’m not biased. I’m not finished with this book but I can say it’s really brilliant. The way she blends memoir, fairy tale, and poetry is truly something I haven’t seen before. We all have our stories to tell but Brittany just tells her better than most.

Music:

  1. Thanks to spotify premium I’ve discovered a new-ish artist called Joseph of Mercury who’s album I’m really digging. He kind of gives me more soulful Perfume Genius vibes.

  2. Jamila Woods - Way Up

  3. I try and start every day by listening to Free by Deneice Williams. Those fluttery vocals kissing my cheeks like butterfly wings really brings me into a place of gratitude for the day.

  4. Nina Simone everyday

  5. Kadhja Bonet has a song called Delphine that is so harrowing and haunting and I can’t stop imagining it as a part of a score for my horror movie.

  6. I’ve long since wanted to be the lesbian Teddy Pendergrass and I’m only working my way to it everyday. “You’re My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration” is such a sweet song that dissolves into this incredibly powerful ballad toward the end. FURTHERMORE “Feel the Fire” with Stephanie MIlls? A sexual masterpiece. I put that on and can’t resist myself. WOO.

  7. Lots of Gavin Turek, dreaming about her dazzling me with spins and her powerful fro.

  8. Sad Girls Aquatic Club, a local dreamy pop band featuring ultimate babe Marie Mashyna.

  9. This Brazilian punk band called La MIsma

Also, the most important thing, last night I went to a reading with Claudia Rankine and Carrie Mae Weems. Claudia Rankine said I looked like a painting, Carrie Mae Weems danced to Aretha Franklin and talked about the transcendent power of black art. I am full of love for black women, black lesbians, and the black poets that have come before me. So rich.

See y’all again in a couple weeks.

Launch

Within the past week, after spending a lot of time planning and thinking, I made the move and launched my own reading series. The Fig Widow Reading Series has it’s first event in April, at what I feel is the convergence of Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Sexual Assault Awareness month. For so long I’ve wanted to be the person behind the scenes, making moves, planning things, and I finally get the chance to help other poets and myself bring our voices to the light.

I’ve been writing for years. It took me until my sophomore year of college to be able to share those words with others on a stage, and until I was 23 to start going out on the open mic circuit in my city. Now, I’m working on a book and starting this series and feeling like the life I’ve wanted is finally starting to take form. The career I’ve wanted. Because writing is both my passion and the way I make a living, it’s easy to get a little burned out, tired, jaded. In these moments I focus on the feeling I get when I go to a poetry reading. Just entering the space where I know poets I admire and respect will be does something to the blood in my veins. It gets heavier and thinner at once, able to move freely through my hands, carrying something vital. I listen and see and write like I’m insatiable. That effect, that feeling, I want to be in it every day. I want other people to be in that space with me. Especially women, black and brown women and lesbians. I want us to feel the fire of creativity and kinship.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not terrified and nervous. I’m organizing this event and performing at it. I’m trying to find money for food and to pay the other performers. What if someone doesn’t show up, what if I bomb? What if I start to speak and my voice floats up and out of my mouth forever? I don’t know. I let the fear of being a disaster wreck me and hold me back for years and years. I want to acknowledge that fear and push through it so it can’t conquer me.

Most importantly I am so so so excited. Even on bad days I find a pearl to roll between my fingers, carrying it’s smooth opalescence to the core of me.

If you’re in Pittsburgh I have so many great events coming up that I hope to see you at. If you’re not, maybe I’ll be in your city someday soon.

I’m trying to be more regular about this blog stuff so I’m going to do a wrap of the stuff I’m reading/have read in 2019 within the next two weeks.

Blessings.

Eating in Bed

One rule that I have kept around for myself as an adult is that I am not allowed to eat in bed.

It used to be about cleanliness; not getting crumbs in the sheets and subsequently on my arms and thighs. It was also (and more honestly) about not leaving behind the evidence of my hunger. I was a fat kid, and I’m a fat adult. In my teenage years I learned that you could lose weight at a rapid pace if you just stopped eating. Hunger was mind over matter. You could trick yourself into not feeling the sharp pains in your stomach; eventually the growls and whistles would dim. As an anorexic teen, I would lie in bed and pull my fingers around my jutting rib cage and the sharp ascent of my hip bones. My bones, proudly announcing themselves through my skin, were my crown. I wore absence with pride.

As a poet, I am fascinated by two things currently: the mouth and what passes through it. In recovery from an eating disorder and in recovery from addiction, there are things that I don’t put in my mouth anymore after years of needing to. There are also things that go into my mouth that haven’t in years.

I am also writing about truth, and teeth, and language. What it means to say something for the first time and to say it again and again so that it no longer becomes foreign to me, so that it can pass through me. I am writing and speaking for the first time about things I’ve never acknowledged. This action is driven by hunger. Hunger for what? My body, my story, for an exhale, for relief.

A friend recently listed a few key elements to my poems. Two of them that stood out were “the fruit and the plea.” Hunger is a plea. It is the stomach screaming “please give me something more. No more air, no more silence. More.” Hunger is also as much about the brain as it is about the stomach. Not in the dismissive mind over matter mantra I once carried, my brain and mind are hungry for care that has been absent. They want to be listened to and taken care of instead of abused and shamed. The way that I fill that need and provide that nourishment is through poetry and therapy. I tell the truth. I let myself feel the things that scare and harm me, and I train myself to be good in the aftermath.

I am adopting a whole new language for myself.

Being an addict and having an eating disorder were both intrinsically about not knowing how to live in a body I was ashamed of. I was ashamed of it because it was black, it was scarred, it was fat, it was woman, it was too much. Now I am a long term occupant in this house and I’m teaching her how to talk and walk and shower and eat. Sometimes she’s hungry and that means having a bar of chocolate bedside, or a cup of tea that will undoubtedly go cold and be hastily guzzled in the morning.

I’m afraid if I keep going here I’ll reveal too much about the project I am working on, one that I am incredibly proud of. So I’m gonna go drink some tea while it’s still hot and try to savor this chocolate because it was on sale and it’s my favorite brand. But what I will leave you with is that for years I couldn’t have peanut butter in my apartment because it was my favorite thing to binge on. I don’t know if you know how hard it is to purge peanut butter, but it is disgusting and grueling. My body hasn’t fully recovered from years of training my throat and stomach muscles to expel whatever I forced down on command. I can, however, keep peanut butter around now. I can eat a meal and not tally the calories mentally. I can give myself what I’ve been asking for.

On the Loss of Mary Oliver and Living Words

As a poet, I’m sure many of us have felt the gravity of the loss of Mary Oliver this week.

I read her poem “Wild Geese” in college and instantly felt a comforting balm move over my body. Learning that I didn’t have to be good, from a poet nonetheless, felt like the answer I was searching for all my life. Later on, my friend’s mother would lend me a copy of Leaf and Cloud, and I began to understand that Mary Oliver was an ecstatic listener, an admirer of all things, of every little thing. That was something I thought had been taught out of us as children. The curiosity embedded in the act of stopping to look and really see something.

When I found myself falling in love for the second time, I ran back to Oliver’s work. The woman that I loved reminded me so much of her; they both shared that wonder. I would leave her long messages of Oliver’s poems, I think, my way of saying “everything this woman is writing is love, I want you to feel that and to know that I love you” because words that aren’t poems are very hard for me.

Oliver taught me to see things, to train my eye, to explore the things that made me pause with either fear, confusion, or delight. For that I am eternally grateful.

One thing that I try to practice and preach in my life is the importance of reading. I read poets, both living and dead. I try to make it to as many poetry readings in my city as possible. I listen to poetry podcast during work because I find that it’s easy to dissociate when performing repetitive, mundane tasks. I try to encourage people who don’t think they would like poetry to at least read it, because there is no one poetic voice that is identical to another. Yes, their are schools and trends, but no poet is the same as no person is the same.

On hard nights, I go back to my collection of Louise Gluck poems. She too, I think, is a poet of profound sight. Her poems bring for me, a sharper, almost intellectual view that I found powerful and grounding.

I always run back to Emily Dickinson when I feel I need a lesson on form and concision.

Claudia Rankine sends a fire through my veins that I don’t perceive as anger, but my body leaning toward action on a cellular level.

I turn to Terrance Hayes, to Toi Derricotte, to Angel Nafis, to Wallace Stevens, to Lucille Clifton, to NIkola Madzirov, or Sylvia Plath.

Really, the beauty of poetry is that it is a language that lives. For me, everything else is stagnant. Even when the poet is gone, the language breathes.

I recently purchased Donika Kelly’s collection, “Bestiary” and from what I have seen so far it is truly mesmerizing. These tales of the melding of human and animal are so mythic and familiar. As a girl, I worried that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t quite human like all the other little girls around me. It was something that I was ashamed of. Now, through my own writing, my connection to particular animals and insects is a source of power.

Recently at work, it came up that I perform my poetry at events. The women I worked with balked because I’m so quiet; they laughed about how they weren’t brave enough to do something like that. In truth, poetry is the only space where I feel brave. I hope this doesn’t sound silly or offensive, but it feels like my first language. It’s hard to speak in the normal context of small talk, work talk, catching up. When someone asks me how I am doing, sometimes the answer is a poem. I am grateful and in awe of the poets that have come before me and those that are still hear with me, speaking that language proudly and in their own voices.

Pause: On Writer's Block and Inspiration

One question I get asked frequently by other writers is how to deal with writer’s block. Writer’s block can be a curse if you’re on a deadline for publications, school, fellowships, etc. However, it can also be a gift if you let it.

Right now in my writing it feels like I never have a shortage of things to say. Am I going to write another poem about the woman that broke my heart even though I said the last time was the last time? Probably. Am I going to spend all night researching the history of going from single-item food dishes to recipes? Without a doubt. There’s a lot going on in my physical and emotional world, so I’m allowing myself the time to ride this wave and see what comes out of it. If you’re not in the same space as me, here are some helpful practices and tips to get things going:

  1. Read

    one of my college professors used to say that the only way to be a good writer was to be an avid reader. I meet a lot of poets now that don’t read other people’s work and that is exceptionally puzzling to me. There is something magic about the life force that comes from diving head first into someone else’s work, it’s an almost instantaneous fix for me. Read other poets, read fictioneers and nonfictioneers, read scientists and chefs. It is all good.

    With that said, the poetry world has been stunned by some recent plagiarism scandals so I feel the need to say this: If you’re going to be reading a lot, you need to read critically. When that wave of inspiration hits you just after you’ve turned the page in your book, sit with it for awhile. Awhile meaning a day, maybe thirty, maybe a year. Sometimes reading something you enjoy shakes loose a feeling that you’ve been trying to capture, and that’s okay. Before you move forward, you need to trace back and see if that feeling isn’t really just a direct line toward someone else’s words.

    If you don’t want to read, you can also listen! There are so many videos of poets reading their work online. Your local universities might have a reading series available to the public. There are even poetry podcast now (I highly recommend VS with Franny Choi and Danez Smith, if not for the poetry stuff, just to hear Danez Smith laugh). The Poetry Foundation routinely puts up great interviews and readings for featured poets. Anything you could want, all at your fingertips, so go.

  2. Eat

    I really like food. I really love to cook. One of the biggest motivators behind the poems that I have written in the past year are my culinary adventures. If you can’t tell by the name of this site, I think about figs often. What they mean mythically, sexually, ecologically; they are really an exceptional species. They also taste fucking good. The feeling that eating a fresh fig gives me is vastly different than the one I get from dried figs. Sometimes I get an entirely floral palate. Other times it’s straight honey butter.

    Engaging your senses, especially smell and taste, is a great way to get your mind working. How do you describe a grapefruit beyond saying it’s bitter and juicy? What does it recall? Take your research a little deeper: how do the seeds of your favorite fruit germinate?

    Right now, I’m eating kettle corn that I got from work as a holiday gift. It makes me think of how as a kid, my father would make kettle corn in the microwave and top the bag with Lawry’s. If you’re a black american as well, you know Lawry’s is a staple in our spice cabinets. See, I just went from kettle corn to the experience of being a black girl growing up in Pittsburgh. If you’re afraid you can’t make the connections, just go there anyway, play around, see what you can dig up.

  3. Form

    Most of the writing I do is free-verse. When I was younger it was all sonnets, tankas, villanelles. As I have uncovered my own poetic voice, I find it hard to engage it within the confines of form, but sometimes that restriction is a good thing. Forcing yourself to ask “what can I say in exactly this way, in exactly this amount of syllables and lines, no more, no less” can yield some wonderful results. If you, like me, find yourself sticking to free verse most of the time, challenge yourself with a form. You can go to the basics or make up your own rules,

  4. A prompt

    The other day after a particular grueling therapy session, I gave myself the task to write one poem about absolute pleasure, and another about extraordinary pain. Being that I had just spoken about it, I wrote about the pain of childhood sexual trauma. Before that, I had written a piece about desire, lust, pure want. For me, those things can be in conversation in ways that are shameful, frightening, and strange. I know other survivors that have had moments of intimacy ruined by painful memories. This writing exercise yielded something that I had known, but never given much thought to: that pleasure and pain are not the polar extremes that we think them to be. Sometimes they are in conversation, as our bodies are in conversation with anything around us, every day. Just something to think about.

  5. Let It Pass

    I bet you don’t like this already, but really, maybe that silence is trying to teach you something. As writers in this moment, there is always something to be said, something to talk back to or yell at. There is definitely a pressure to get your work out to as many publications as possible, to get accolades and awards, to win at this somehow. If you’re finding that you haven’t been able to write lately, perhaps it is because you need to take a moment to find something more to say? Plan a vacation, go fall in love again, go to whole foods and marvel at the misshapen, pockmarked vegetables you’d never heard of. It’s okay to be still every once in awhile. Give your brain and fingers a rest.

    I wrote a poem about three years ago that I let myself walk away from when I hit a wall. Coming back to it this year, I found myself washed over with this feeling of oh, okay, I know what to do now. It might not take that long for you, but don’t be afraid to let time pass.

  6. Talk to Someone

    Cross-discipline contact is an extremely under-utilized tool. I’ve had eye opening conversations with my friends who are visual artists, strippers, drag performers, athletes. You are also probably a multitude of things; it might fair well if you engage one of your other muscles while your writing ones get some much needed rest. There are people out there (some not too far from you) with a great deal to say. Allowing yourself the space to learn might ease open some doors you’ve been wrestling with in the midst of your writer’s block.

To piggy back off number five, patience is also a fairly under-utilized tool. Think of writer’s block like an upset in the body. Is this a tear that you need to work through with a little elbow grease to let the muscle rebuild itself, or do you need to prop your leg up with a bag of frozen peas and call it a night. If you listen hard enough, it’ll tell you.

My Horror Story

For the month of October, my birth month, and the month of Halloween, I decided to watch a different horror movie every day for 31 days. Halloween is my favorite time of the year, and has now become synonymous with horror releases across the US. It’s only natural that a child of Devil’s Night would find herself at home in the haunts of that season.

This is an endeavor I have attempted years before, but things and people often got in the way. This year, I succeeded (sort of) and had promised to compile a list of my favorite horror movies of the past 100 years or so. Before I dig in, a little background about how I came to the genre and why I appreciate it so much.

As a kid, I had horrible, recurring nightmares. There was one that came once a year, on the same day, at the same time: June 17, at 7:20 pm. In the dream I was chased and mutilated by a group of clowns that had brought me in under the guise of being on a game show. When I won a game in the dream, I was given a prize that wasn’t a prize. Sometimes it was a clown’s nose, a noose, or—in my worst nightmares—a man’s genitals.

At some point in this nightmare, I would wake up, but I wouldn’t be able to move my body or open my eyes. Even so, I knew that all I had to do was open my eyes and I would be awake; safe from harm. More often than not I could open my eyes before death came. Other times I wasn’t so lucky.

One year, as the fateful day came creeping forth, I sat in my living room to watch movies with either my father or by myself. I came across a creepy movie about a man with blades for hands that haunted peoples dreams, and I thought I had found the answer to all of my problems.

It was him! Freddy Krueger! All I had to do was make it through the movie and figure out how the kids defeat him so I can too!

If you’ve watched Wes Kraven’s 1984 classic A Nightmare On Elm Street, you know it doesn’t end in a victory for the afflicted. Many unnecessary and less impactful sequels later and we all know Freddy didn’t die on the first go. Still, watching this movie began my excursion through the world of monsters, devils, and ghouls. My longing for a solution transformed into a longing to control my fears: a movie ended in under 2 hours but the real horrors of the world lasted years. I liked having an off button. In college, I studied Gothic literature and horror along with poetry, and it has had a massive effect on my writing today.

First, criteria: there are a few things that make a horror movie good for me:

  1. diversity of characters: the more women and gays the better

  2. suspense and surprise, I don’t want to see the ending coming 15 minutes in

  3. number of frequency of kills

  4. method of kills

  5. a movie aware of its cultural and historical context

  6. does it make me jump or scream? if I have to pause before I can continue watching, that’s a good sign!

  7. a damn good score

  8. for me, horror includes: ghosts/demons/hauntings in general, creature features, vampires, body horror and torture, and the occasional psychological thriller.

The List: (In no particular order but starting with my absolute favorite)

  1. Nosferatu (1922): F.W. Murnau

  2. Let The Right One In (2008): Tomas Alfredson (don’t watch the American version “Let Me In” it’s bad. Endure the subtitles and step outside of your comfort zone a little

  3. Carrie (1976): Brian De Palma, I did not watch the remake because CGM is not Sissy Spacek

  4. Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock

  5. The Haunting (1963): Robert Wise, Claire Bloom as Obvious Dyke Theo is one of the best characters in a film, she really steals the show but maybe I’m just gay.

  6. The Shining (1980): Stanley Kubrick, Stephen King. SHELLEY DUVALL

  7. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Jonathan Demme

  8. Candyman (1992): Bernard Rose, one of the first horror movies I saw with black people represented.

  9. 28 Days Later (2002): Danny Boyle, fucking killer score, Naomie Harris, zombies like I’ve never seen them before. Horror movies featuring “the infected” often focus so much on making the living undead ugly and scary in a way that cheapens it. This movie really gets it right

  10. The Girl With All the Gifts (2016): Colm McCarthy, Read the book. God Bless Melanie. Thinking of her brings tears to my eyes.

  11. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014): Ana Lily Amirpour, Again, killer score, vampire western. my brand of feminism.

  12. Raw (2016): Julia Ducournau, an ending that sticks with you. I told every woman I went on a date with to watch this movie for weeks

  13. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Wes Craven

  14. It (1990): Tommy Lee Wallace

  15. The Descent (2005): Neil Marshall

  16. The Eyes of My Mother (2016): Nicolas Pesce. one of the spookiest opening scenes of all time. Ultimately a revenge flick in my opinion

  17. The Hunger (1983): Tony Scott

  18. House of 1000 Corpses (2003): Rob Zombie

  19. In My Skin (2002) Marina de Van

  20. The Babadook (2014): Jennifer Kent. really fucking sad. Had me BabaSHOOK

  21. The Strangers (2008): Bryan Bertino. When I watched this again recently, I had to check all of my windows and doors five times before going to bed. Home invasion flicks really do it for me

  22. The Witch (2015): Robert Eggers

  23. Sleepaway Camp (1983): Robert Hiltzik. (It’s transphobic, I know. But some of the most memorable kills and strangely terrifying ending)

  24. What Keeps You Alive (2018): The newest one on the list. What I love about this movie is it rewrites how lesbians have been portrayed in horror for years. Lesbianism isn’t the villain, the villain is.

  25. The Exorcist (1973): William Friedkin

  26. Dracula (1931): Tod Browning. Bela Lugosi’s glowing eyes, homosexual subtext galore

  27. Ginger Snaps (2000): John Fawcett. That transformation scene. Woo.

  28. HIgh Tension (2003): Alexandre Aja. A recent watch, I admit. It does all the things I said “What Keeps You Alive” doesn’t do, but this movie absolutely devastated me. It’s devastating.

  29. Get Out (2017): Jordan Peele. This is a great movie to watch after you’ve left an abusive relationship with a white woman, trust me.

  30. The Wicker Man (1973): watched this far too young.

  31. Hereditary (2018): Ari Aster. I can not say enough about how much I fucking love this movie. If you’ve seen it, THAT SCENE left me stunned in front of my computer for what felt like 5 minutes. The Horror, the trauma, the grief, the deaths, I love everything about this.

That’s 31 for the 31 days of Halloween. I’m sure I missed many, I have many more to watch. If you make your way through this list please let me know what it does to your dreams.