Thoughts from a Writing Challenge
by Lisa Low
This January, I decided to write a poem a day for a month (à la NaPoWriMo) with a couple of friends. I thought of this as exercise—something I didn’t want to do but knew would be good for me. And like exercise, I wanted instant gratification and endorphins. Instead, I experienced daily writing as another way to approach myself, both the good and bad. Some thoughts from the month:
When the month is over, I’m spent. I celebrate with boba from the newly-opened Kung Fu Tea a mile away. I haven’t taken stock of the revision ahead of me yet, the inevitable cutting and throwing away—that I can’t just throw my poems up into the air and watch them fall into place, a manuscript. Right now, the sugar and treating myself are enough like endorphins.
Lisa Low was born and raised in Maryland. Her poems have appeared in Vinyl, The Journal, Entropy, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program, she is a PhD candidate and Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati.
*Low’s poems appear in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review.
by Emily Townsend
My senior year of undergrad, I took a nonfiction workshop twice. I was still getting adjusted to the genre, spilling out my secrets for classmates who barely knew me. I was also exploring experimental forms in essays: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. In both semesters, we covered Jenny Boully’s The Body. I remember one student (now a great friend and editor) brilliantly attempted the form in a different way, and I admired both essays so much that I wanted to try it myself.
“Shattered Self-Portraits in the Process of Restoration” borrows Boully’s form of total footnotes, and my adjustments are the equations in every footnote that is a multiple of 7. Because I broke a mirror twice in fourteen years, the second at the tail-end of the first’s seven years of bad luck, it seemed that the number seven was cursed. It conveniently lifted when I turned 21. Hence the maze at the beginning of the essay: each multiple of seven is like a path inside a labyrinth that I cannot get out. One multiple will lead to a different multiple that isn’t in a correct sequence, enacting a step forward or a step backward. The last footnote’s equation is 70-69, which leads the reader back to footnote one. Even you can’t get out of this chaos.
This essay opens up my first collection, originally set to be a sort of unconventional table of contents like Dave Eggers’ prologue for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but then I read The Body and made each footnote a foreshadowing to the rest of the book. The blank text is essentially the entire book yet it is expatriated, as I felt while growing up away from my hometown during formative years. What bookends this essay is a 40-page rebuttal: written a year later, I finally understood my pessimism was because I willingly put myself through pain, not because of a delusion with broken mirrors. I assigned blame to an object rather than to myself because I didn’t want to properly deal with it.
Sometimes I believed my body and my brain were two entirely separate entities. I constantly struggled with figuring out where I belonged during those bad-lucked years: I was displaced from my hometown due to my parents’ divorce, I was purposely making everything harder for myself as punishment. So I took this superstition of broken mirrors and blamed my unhappiness on the accidents of dropping cheap glass onto my bathroom floor. My brain falsely assured me of a lot of things—“after high school, you’ll move back home;” “don’t worry, people actually like you”—and made me imagine a distinct person I wanted to have been real, but it was a figment of my imagination so desperate to have someone fill in that space. The ontology of my brain on its own seemed to be completely detached from my body.
The most interesting thing about this piece, to me, is how I realized I was wrong and selfish. Rarely do essays make me change my mind on myself, but I had gone through such a colossal shift of feeling lonely to feeling loved back to feeling lonely and then back to feeling loved that the distance I went through both physically and emotionally forced me to see I took so much for granted. A month after I finished writing this I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to see if my love for the Pacific Northwest was still real after a hiatus of not living there for sixteen years. It turned out to be extremely lonely and solipsistic. When I returned to Texas for grad school, I realized my friends and the community were what made me happy and alive. My first two years of college were rough, but that senior year was actually beautiful and involved and I felt like I finally had a place to fit in. I’m a bit terrified to leave in a couple months.
I’m eternally grateful Cream City Review nominated this essay for a Pushcart; it’s a great way to feel validated for a life story that gave me so much pain yet I wanted to share it with anyone willing to read. When I drive between my mother’s house and wherever I’m living while in school, I often think that I wouldn’t have such a story to tell if I didn’t go through what happened, if I stayed in one place after all, if I chose to be optimistic and bright instead. My material would either be a lot different or nonexistent. I enjoy writing dark stuff to help me confront my issues and reassign whatever blame I pin on something else back onto me. It humanizes me, forces my brain and body to rejoin, and make me see the world a little more clearly.
Emily Townsend is a graduate student in English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her works have appeared in Superstition Review, Thoughtful Dog, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Santa Clara Review, cahoodaloodaling, Watershed Review, The Coachella Review, The Coil, and others. A 2017 AWP Intro Journals Award nominee, she is currently working on a collection of essays in Nacogdoches, Texas.
*Townsend’s non-fiction “Shattered Self-Portraits in the Process of Restoration” appears in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review.
by Maria Terrone
I grew up in a family and culture where we lived by the dictum, “Never tell anyone your business.” The assumption behind this warning was that to share confidences was to make yourself vulnerable to people who might use the information against you. Basically, very few human beings could be trusted, and so as a general rule it was wise to avoid discussing personal matters and one’s deepest thoughts and feelings.
It’s no surprise, then, that even as an adult, I gravitate to physical spaces that help protect me and my privacy. In our enclosed co-op garden, I seek out the bench that’s nearly encircled by shrubbery. Riding the subway, I’ll gravitate to a seat against a wall at the far end of the car. From these vantage points, I can look out and observe others without being seen or at least, remain inconspicuous.
Not being seen? Not sharing life in all its agonies, ecstasies and minutiae with 1,500 “friends”? In a world dominated by social media, my inclinations conflict with cultural expectations. Even so, I have a Facebook account that I use sparingly for practical purposes, and even a Twitter handle, but please don’t ask me what that is—I’ll have to look it up! I suppose this is my way of not isolating myself from 21st century communication but “sharing” on my own terms.
Where things get sticky is in my life as a poet. When I began to get serious decades ago about my then-uncirculated writing, the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was the much-admired norm. Given my upbringing, my initial reaction was to cringe in the face of naked self-revelation, to feel uneasy on the receiving end of the authors’ fury, pain, and trauma. At the same time, I had to acknowledge the honesty and courage of poets who brought the hidden and forbidden into full view.
Getting used to writing my own confessional poetry, though, didn’t come easily. When the leader of my first poetry workshop repeatedly urged me to “go deeper,” I understood her to mean that I should plumb my emotions and experiences no matter where that brought me. It’s not that I avoided the first person in my poems, but I wasn’t allowing myself to go far below the surface.
My learned and, I believe, natural reserve was being tested. But how could I write poetry that truly mattered, that touched readers on their deepest levels if I stayed with “safe” content The answer was, I couldn’t.
Like a new swimmer tentatively advancing one baby step at a time into a vast, sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating ocean, I began to write more self-revealing poetry. I’ve always had an aversion to poems that were too raw, as if thrown together in the heat of unrestrained emotion. A counterbalance to deal with difficult content, I discovered, was to focus on the poem’s form. What had moved me from mere acceptance of the confessional writers to admiration was that the best of them used their finely honed poetic skills to communicate the strongest emotions, transforming what could have been overwhelming for a reader into powerful, refined works of art.
In my own work, I found that using formal techniques to frame my poems was liberating. One example that comes to mind from my first collection, The Bodies We Were Loaned, is “Flesh That’s Signed,” a three-part, sonnet-like poem employing rhyme that deals with my childhood insecurities in my relationship with my mother. As a 16-year-old, I was profoundly affected by my summer job typing up psychiatrists’ reports and group sessions with veterans wounded physically and emotionally. I turned again to the sonnet form to grapple with the remembered feelings “of a girl who hadn’t yet known sorrow, men or war.”
I still get a visceral thrill from writing persona poems, probably because they allow me to employ the first person point of view while imagining and inhabiting another’s psyche (I’ve had fun being a queen in ancient Egypt, a ghost in a lighthouse, and a 19th-century teenager employed by a glass factory, to mention a few). I also like to write about historical subjects—a recent example is a poem imagining a meeting between Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Jefferson during the brief time that Poe attended Jefferson’s University of Charlottesville. But I recognize that some of my strongest work emerges in times of great duress, such as my beloved father’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s and his death.
Over the last few years, I’ve found myself reaching into my past and re-experiencing formative events from a new perspective through my poetry and, increasingly, creative nonfiction. When the Me Too movement opened its floodgates, memories resurfaced. Although the incident that I describe in the poem “Erased” had occurred a long time ago, I remembered it vividly. The fact that so many women had bravely disclosed physical violations far more egregious and traumatic than what I’d experienced on the street was empowering. Instead of keeping the subject buried, I knew the time had come to bring it into the light through my writing.
Once I made that leap, I realized that the form of the poem could reinforce my sense of being eradicated. And so, before the assault is introduced, the “I” is repeated and prominent. This is the self-affirming “I” in all its youth, innocence, and optimism. Then “he” enters the scene and only needs to be cited once because “he” dominates through violence. After the assault, the “I” has been replaced by a column of negatives—”not, no, nil, nada,” ending with the ultimate erasure: “no-thing.” The woman, the person—me—has been reduced not just to an object, but to nothing.
Ironically, by writing this poem and seeing it published—thank you, Cream City Review editors!—I feel that I’ve reclaimed a lost part of myself. As that poet advised in her workshop, I’ve “dug deeper” in my writing, and the result has been a breakthrough.
Maria Terrone’s poetry collections are Eye to Eye; A Secret Room in Fall (McGovern Prize, Ashland Poetry Press), The Bodies We Were Loaned, and a chapbook, American Gothic, Take 2. Publication credits: Poetry, Ploughshares and more than 25 anthologies. At Home in the New World, an essay collection, appears this fall from Bordighera Press. Terrone’s poem “Erased” appears in Issue 43.1 of Cream City Review.