Sunday, July 7, 2019

Paving the Way, Paying it Forward

Originally written for and posted on Straw Dog Writers Guild website:

My interest in writing emerged when I first relocated to Western Massachusetts in 2007.  Joining a writing a performance group as a way to learn more about the area and make friends, I discovered a hidden passion for scripting story through poetry.  From there, I began writing plays, maintaining a blog and even writing articles for local newspapers.  I uncovered a gift that laid dormant for some time…as I did win a statewide poetry competition in third grade back in Michigan.

Fast forward to 2011.  I had a substantial amount of writing and thought to start submitting for publication.  Like many writers, I got rejected from countless journals, emerging writers’ competitions, retreats and workshops that required an in-depth application and intense screening process and anthologies geared towards supporting writers like myself.  I gave up for quite a bit, not practicing art for several years.  Though returning back to writing in 2017, I stopped submitting as I was told that I needed to learn the science of getting accepted.

Frustrated, I reached out to friends and acquaintances who have been published before to inquire and identify what I was doing wrong and what I needed to understand about this very competitive process.  I was told things from find a mentor to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing to just continue blindly shooting your shot. All of these things cost something, whether it’s time, dignity or a lot of money – as I possess an MFA in another field and have already acquired a significant amount of debt.

Later in 2017, my life was suddenly derailed unexpectedly. By Christmas, both parents have died (both sudden). As many loved ones do, my mother and father left behind money so that I can care for myself beyond their days.  Thinking back to all of those rejections, I decided to take power in my own hands in order to garner exposure of my work.  In 2018, taking all of the work that I’ve written since 2009 I self-produced a spoken word album.

Thinking of all of the lessons my parents had taught me, I felt the need to do something for other writers who may not have the means that I do. I am taking the income generated from album sales to create a fellowship program for emerging women and gender nonbinary writers of color – people like me who may be experiencing similar hardship in finding their foot in the door in this industry.

I specifically chose Straw Dog Writers Guild to host this program as not only do they support writers of all stages, they have welcomed me and my work with open arms helping me to get the exposure my labor of love has deserved for so long.  Under Straw Dog’s auspices, I’ve been a featured reader at open mics and have served as an MC for several events including Voices for Resistance and the Dead Writers Dance – multiple opportunities to have my work finally heard.

We will be hosting our first fellow in 2020.  This program, which will run 12 months, will occur on a biennial basis.  We will recruit applicants from all four counties, those represented by Straw Dog membership:  Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden.  With the intent of meeting the needs of the fellow and their current writing goals, we will provide mentors to assist with craft and other guidance on the business of the industry. The fellow will also receive a stipend and will have access to a one-week residency at Patchwork Farm.  At the conclusion of the year, the fellow will share their work during a public reading.

We would love your support!  There are several ways to get involved in this initiative.  Through volunteering as a mentor or making a financial contribution, you will have an opportunity to get in on the ground level of supporting a groundbreaking program in Western Massachusetts. You can either make a direct donation to the Emerging Writers’ Fellowship Fund or purchase one of my CDs as I will continue donating proceeds to this cause. We anticipate opening the application submission process in early August and will announce our first fellow by November.

To purchase my CD, please contact me directly.  I'll be more than happy to autograph your copy as well!

I would like to personally thank everyone who has contributed thus far to this program and to those who will give in the near future.  It means a lot to have the support of my community in embracing our next generation of writers.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Whose Body is it Anyway?

For those who know me well, you'd find it very ironic 
that my blog post has this photo (my deathly fear of snakes).  
But this image captures so much with so little.

"Putting yourself on the market" is a reference mainly associated with the act of dating.  When you think about the hustle that comes along with looking for "the one," this sentiment makes complete sense.  For those of you who (like me) are mostly meeting people through sites and apps like OKCupid, Bumble, Plenty of Fish (one I haven't tried yet for a host of reasons), Match, Tinder, and FetLife (yes, I've been on this site and will dedicate an entire blog post to this "adventure"), you have to think of strategic ways to sell yourself.  Write the perfect profile introduction.  Post the most desirable, yet tasteful, photos to catch someone's attention.  And then, be cautious about what you choose to share with that person once you've started conversation.  Dating is more than a game.  Dating has literally become a system of commodification - people going above and beyond (and in many cases, doing things they find unfavorable) to be taken off said "market."

I thought about this concept as I reflected on a charged exchange from a particular Facebook post from a few days ago - one that I posted, of course.  I wrote the post in response to recent legislations passed in Missouri and Alabama around abortion.  I stated something along the lines of how can cisgender, heterosexual men these day proclaim to want unprotected sex (well, their words usually are "I want to cum inside you" or "shoot my huge load in you") with lack of commitment all the while conservatives are trying their best to abolish women's rights to choose how to proceed with an unwanted pregnancy or one where her doctor and her family may find not be in the best interest of the "carrier" (said future mother) and the child.  The person challenging my statement said (paraphrased) what about both sides and both people when it comes to this act.  I asked for more details but the conversation went off course.  While I wasn't able to gather enough information to garner a meaning behind what the responder was attempting to say, I did think about this notion of "both sides."

What I think this person meant is that it takes two people to partake in an act that could lead to an unwanted pregnancy.  While a man can propose wanting to have sexual intercourse without a condom, the woman would have to oblige in order for said act to take place.  Here's where I'd like to call b***s*** on the notion that the woman has the right to back out and say "no."

Patriarchy, unfortunately, defines many relationships.  I highly believe that women who are interested in dating men create this persona so that they can be found attractive, henceforth taken off the "market".  I'm definitely guilty of it.  The women of Uppity Negress podcast calls this group the "pick mes"where cis women interested in dating cis men do particular things for men to find them desirable.  I've fallen into this trap a million times!  

Men who I've met online have all given me the same story upon the initial meeting.  They can see me as a potential long term romantic partner and they can make good on the ills left behind by those before them...the numerous men who have rapped the same lines before and left collateral damage because they've hurt me so badly (this is going into my memoir but when men who have gone out with me more than once end things, they tend to give an unsolicited exit interview offering the reasons why I suck as a girlfriend and why they've decided to date a specific other woman...and in many cases, they share explicit detail on who the woman is and why they deem her better than me). 

We go out on the first date.  Things go swimmingly and then the end of night dating ritual falls upon us.  They mention wanting to have sex with me, which honestly, I'm game to having one night stands and have offered this many times...but men continue to say that what they want with me is much more than that but in the end, it becomes the one night stand as they vanish after the first date.  And, they tack onto the "proposal" how badly they want to have sex with me without a condom (of course, using the choice constructed sentences I mentioned earlier).  Along with other words and displays of affection, many of them I rarely hear as I don't think that I fit the stereotype of what I think men are looking for, I give in.  Following those who have came before them, they have completely vanished immediately the next day.  I log onto the dating app where I initially met them and they've blocked me (with OKCupid, you can tell because your message thread vanishes and you can't find them on your "like" list) and when I go to contact them via the cell phone number they've provided, I call and get transferred to voicemail OR the text message is never "delivered" as many of these men have iPhones.  So, I've been blocked from any and all communication.  And what's extremely upsetting about all of this is if I were to come up pregnant or contract an STI from our "one nighter," I have no way of reaching these men to let them know the news.  While I could have said no to sex, these men need to take more responsibility for their actions...either by insisting we use a condom, not have sex at all or completely tell the truth and be honest about what it is they're looking for as oppose to misleading me to believe that there could be more.

There's been this major shift in the culture, one that I hope to identify as there are so many other women like me who have and continue to share in these experiences.  What is happening?! What has changed?! Why are men like this?!

Though not directly related, yet it could be as I suspect many of the men who move through the world in this way are also some of the men pushing for these laws, I find it quite strange that there's so many cisgender heterosexual men who are 1) willing and wanting to have unprotected sex, 2) disengaging with women upon completion of desired sexual act, AND 3) pushing legislation preventing me from making the decision that I need to make if the unlikely outcome of the one night of splendid bliss is what I'm being blocked from having the autonomy to make the best decision for myself.  I cannot believe that in 2019 I'm asking the question "whose body is it anyway"?!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Process is Progress: Discovering Yourself Through Writing

Originally written for and posted on Straw Dog Writers Guild's website:

I’ve always been involved in the arts in some way but never would I have ever thought I’d become a writer. I picked up my first musical instrument at 8 years old, started off as a music education major in undergrad but left with a degree in theatre.  I’ve been on stage as an actor, worked behind the scenes as a stage manager, director and producer, and have played in several pit orchestras for musicals but never would have thought that I’d take on such a solitary form of creating. It wasn’t until I arrived in Western MA over 11 years ago that my subconscious would hit the pen and paper for public consumption.

Being 27 years old and living in a college town, it was hard to make friends.  It was recommended to me that I join a writing and performance troupe for women of color in the area.  I had no clue what I was getting into yet was open to whatever results followed.  From this experience blossomed the need and desire to write even more beyond the material generated just for the group.  The same woman who made the recommendation for me to join the troupe also suggested that I then enter a playwriting competition.  Acting, directing and stage management were skills I was most comfortable with.  Spilling my soul to paper again beyond the form of a monologue was yet another challenge I was willing to face.  This play received an important accolade, one that encouraged me to continue writing.  It was an award named for my favorite cultural critic, essayist, playwright and poet James Baldwin that came along with a nice cash prize.  This recognition gave me the permission to explore further this newly discovered trait.

As I learned more to exist in this space, one quite different from the one of vital formative years, I became more open to pursue writing on my own.  I took on journaling, which I now have several bookcases dedicated to the journals I’ve accumulated over the years, as a way to reflect on writing projects past.  From the time of being a member of the writing and performance ensemble to the themes that emerged from the play, I realized that my writing assumed a very important mission.  I discovered that I was writing about how my identity has changed through “growing up” in Pioneer Valley – and that was through the world of dating.

Unlike most people, I didn’t begin seriously dating until I moved to this area.  One would think that I would have pursued love earlier on in life but through attending undergraduate and graduate school years prior, I was more determined to make my parents proud with degrees in hand and a substantial way to support myself.  The things I learned about myself through dating were very eye opening.  I didn’t want to acknowledge the harsh self-awareness to myself yet I was willing to share it with the world through the monologues I wrote for the performance group and the play (which deals with interracial dating and my qualms with its associated issues).  My writing also became more of a social justice issues as only negative stereotypes about women who are like me (both women of color and plus-size women) are relegated to hyperinvisibility in mainstream media as it pertains to romance and dating.

Sometime in late 2016 after dealing with the sudden loss of my mom, I needed to dive head first into a project.  I collected all of the free write poems and journal entries I’ve written over the years and saw how multiple themes around the person I’ve become while living in this area emerged.  At now 39 years old, having now lived on both sides of the “tofu curtain,” My writing reflected the experiences of a very proud, still single plus size Black woman with natural hair and a very statuesque figure living in an area that is extremely monochromatically different than where I spent the first part of my life and of someone who spent a lot of time out in coffee shops, restaurants and movie theatres alone.  Born from all of this was In/Put. 

In/Put, a self-produced spoken word album, was recorded live at Click Workspace earlier this year in March.  Instead of looking to get the poems that became this project published, I thought to recite them for people to listen to them as a way to pay homage to my earlier theatre training.  Plus, I love to hear myself on the microphone.  The idea of the live recording was inspired by stand-up comedy, a form of entertainment that I absolutely love yet have found the courage to take it on.

After a successful Indiegogo campaign, relying on very talented friends and having my parents’ indirect support (both of my parents have since passed on as of Christmas of 2017 and I was fortunate enough to have access to an inheritance), In/Put:  Live from the Valley will be out in February of 2019.  One of the most important things that I did for this project was to hire a dramaturg/script advisor.  Though poetry, I wanted to create an experience for listeners – as I’m a storyteller, I needed all of the work to make sense together as a collection.  She, the dramaturg, helped curate the order of the poems and gave some very good feedback on the work.  I did several rewrites on some of the poems before the recording.  And also given my theatre background, I wanted the work to flow like a monologue as it is easier for me to perform rather than recite poetry. 

I am very much looking forward to sharing this work with others and continuing to still learn more about myself as others experience this work for the first time.  I’m unsure what types of writing I’d produce next which I’m finding it rather difficult to write about any other subject than dating and identity. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Being Neighborly: Reflecting on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in These Times

It's been a very long time since I wrote a blog post.  So many things have happened since my last post including the sudden passing of my dad.  What better way to return to this type of reflexive writing by writing on one of my favorite shows from childhood and its subsequent documentary.

Following a longstanding tradition that I created for myself years ago, I went to see a film at Amherst Cinema on Independence Day.  Seeing the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor did my heart and soul some good on a very rough holiday.  I've always struggled celebrating the Fourth of
July due to my racial identity and also being so far from "home" where my family barbecued every year up until recently, of course.  Since living in Western Massachusetts, with the exception of my first year in the area, and one year going to see the fireworks in Boston, I've "celebrated" Independence Day by going to the movies alone.  One of my favorite outings was when I saw Away We Go for the first time.  Not anticipating the film's ending, I cried (literally) walking down the streets of the center of Amherst until I gathered the courage to find a place to have lunch.  Wiping away tears as I browsed through the menu of one of the few restaurants open that day, I used that time to self-reflect on what the day could mean for me and how to best use my time along.  Being the overthinker I am, the day became time for me to journal and enjoy the best date I've ever been on - spending time by myself.  I've become more of an introvert wanting to spend time alone as I've gotten older.  Not necessarily because of my personality, as I love to socialize, but more so as protective armor.  People tend to be nastier these days.  Some people say that the current political climate has permitted those who've heard back for decades to say what's truly on their minds.  Sometimes, just like the past few days, it's the very hot and humid weather causing everyone discomfort and their actions towards others to follow suit.

This brings to me my experience watching Won't You Be My Neighbor (for the second time actually since I also went opening weekend- BTW, please support films opening weekend as those ticket sales do determine how long a movie will stay in theatres) and all of the thoughts going through my head.  Though I'll be referencing the film, I promise that they'll be no spoilers here.  For many of you who are fans of Fred Rogers, none of what I'm about to mention should be new news.  I took the title phrase and actually asked myself "won't you be my neighbor," of course, referencing myself.  Am I a good "neighbor"? Would people want to live near me?

Fred Rogers, affectionately known as Mister Rogers, knew how to soothe people, especially children, at times of need.  The film recalls episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and it's subsequent themes during the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy's assassination, and a special that was taped post-9/11.  These episodes were really good at staging similar situations in the Land of Make Believe (i.e., King Friday XIII wanting to build a wall to keep danger out of the kingdom) and the younger characters (many times that being Daniel Tiger) talking with adults to work out their emotions and rationalize what was happening in the world around them.  Through the safety of projecting and the magic of television, viewers were able to work out emotions and feelings without having to experience situations first hand.  Through the intersections of representation, subjectivity and spectatorship, television has the power to empower those who need to feel a part of a community.  I know for myself, Mr. Rogers made me feel like I and my feelings mattered.

How could I be more like Mr. Rogers?  How could we all be like Mr. Rogers?  Is a simple "hello" to a complete stranger as you pass one another in the grocery store enough?  Is holding the door for the person behind you as you each attempt to enter a coffeeshop in the morning, getting that necessary brew to start your day enough?  Is following traffic laws and actually following all of the rules that you've learned in drivers' education instead of intentionally speeding and cutting off other drivers enough? Is a smile to people as you pass one another walking down the street enough?  I know for myself, having these small things done to me make me feel important - putting me on the top of the world for the day, not just that brief moment.  Why.....because I mattered to someone.

I haven't lived in a true "neighborhood," well one by Fred Rogers' definition, since I was a teenager in Detroit.  The children who attended the same school participated in a carpool with parents and grandparents alternating days of when they'd drive the brood early in the morning and pick them up following band practice and sporting events.  My mom or dad could knock on any neighbors' door to ask for a cup of sugar or even to watch me while I played outside late into the evening.  We also didn't have to worry about intruders such as home burglaries and potential car thefts as we looked out for one another - visitors took notice of those of us on the porch as they search for things to take.  Luckily, none of this happened in this neighborhood.  Every time I go back to visit this neighborhood, my next door neighbors would tell fond stories of watching my parents attempt to teach me how to ride a bike (even in my late 30s, I still don't know how to), play with friends from across the street or even play by myself as being an only child for a long time (as my brother didn't come along until I was 14 years old), I had a clan of invisible playmates.  What's funny yet special about all of this is that despite the Motor City having a "not so good" reputation today, I hold my hometown close to my heart as many others thought to take care of me and look out for my well-being.  I am definitely proof that it "does take a village to raise a child" as I wouldn't be who I am today if not this many people cared for me.

Fast forward to my brief return back "home" to attend graduate school.  I lived in what was then the Cass Corridor, now heavily gentrified "Midtown" (FYI, I will never call it that).  I lived in this area from 2004-2007, still a prime time for heavy car thefts on Wayne State University's campus (where I earned my MFA), home invasions and random people being held up at gun point.  My apartment was broken into during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2004.  Days after the discovery and reporting it to the police, two of my neighbors approached me and said that while they heard and saw suspicious activity, they didn't feel compelled to say or do anything because they didn't want anything to happen to them.  I'm not going to lie:  this wouldn't have happened in my old neighborhood.

There's no need for me to go into what my experience has been like living in Western Massachusetts for the past ten years as I've spent several previous posts going into how what has happened has changed my perspective of progressive, college towns and regions.  What I can say is that now I believe that there's many more factors to consider as to why it's hard to feel and be "neighborly" in this area including the prestige and privilege that comes with the intellectualism associated with these types of places and also living so far from our neighbors being in a rural area and homes not being so close to one another.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood also holds a special place in my heart because it's one of the few things that my parents and I shared and also something that I share with today's young people.  This show is one of the few that aired over a span of decades.  My parents were around 10 years old when the first episode aired in 1968 and when I was a child, new episodes were still being produced.  And, I got to see many of the episodes my parents watched in syndication as well.  And while I'm unsure if Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is still available in syndication, children today can experience Fred's brilliance through the animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which I didn't realize was a thing until I stumbled upon this article in the Huffington Post after doing my usual Google research upon watching the documentary.  Daniel, of course, is based on the puppet from the initial Mister Rogers' Neighborhood television series, and the show is set in the Land of Make Believe.  And, I must say, watching the theme song brought tears to my eyes as the show has identified an important piece of nostalgia from the formative years of multiple generations.

The theme song to the animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

Considering all that we have going on in society that makes us question our own humanity, please take some time to go see the documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor.  I hope that you connect with it in the same ways that I have:  asking yourself how can I be a better "neighbor".  To find a screening near you, visit the website for the film.