Preview Poem…

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am about to finish my poetry collection. Unfortunately, it has been pushed to the back burner with the beginning of the new fall semester, but I still plan to finish with it by the end of the fall.

One of the most important poems I’ve come up with lately is the following about Sienna. When I was in graduate school, one of my major professors suggested I read Anne Sexton. I was really into writing about the female body but a great deal of what I was working with was too provocative; I lacked the refinement and sophistication needed to write such material. Some of those poems are in the collection. I think it is important to give an accurate view into how I grew as a writer, poet, and person. To be true to that, the immature, titillating for the sake of being so material has to be included.

The poem I’ve attached here is important to me for many reasons. The first because it is a chronicle (or part of one) about Sienna’s move into womanhood. The other is that this poem is the first one that I set out to write where the refinement and sophistication I lacked before started to emerge, making it a pivotal piece for me as a poet.

So, here it is:

My Budding She- Beast:

Cultivating the Garden within

My daughter, my string bean

Hah!

My daughter, my she-beast

Breast buds, hormones, grunts of frustration…

Where has my baby gone?

Replaced by a little demon.

Un-

recognizable.

She maneuvers through

Change she does not understand

And did not ask for.

My mother, resentful, of

My pubescent body

Demonstrated reluctantly how to wear a

Kotex,

Whispering a generational echoe-

Timeless, unwavering-

Open your legs, put it here, change it every four hours

Don’t let the boys see it- guard your purse.

 

But, I’m not allowed to carry a purse,

We don’t get to go to the bathroom but three times.

So much newness-

Barely understood, unsolicited.

Barely ten, no comprehension of the power

Contained within developing breasts, hips,

A husky lilt.

Barely a woman, misunderstood, unsolicited potential

My Daughter, my love, my she-beast string bean,

Cultivated.

The missing puzzle piece…

Sienna is home!!

I cannot explain how happy I am that Sienna has come home from Louisiana. I also swear that child grew a foot over the summer. She is 4’11 1/2. Wow!!

I think one of the best things that happened this summer is that this is the first summer that Sienna was gone, and I didn’t gain any weight. I usually put on ten pounds while she is gone, quite easily, then I spend the entire year trying to lose that weight. This year I ended the summer five pounds lighter which never happens. While this is a small and happy feat, it isn’t the best thing I figured out upon Sienna’s return.

I’ve spent the last few weeks stuck in my own woe-is-me pity party concerning my job, and I forgot to enjoy the people around me. Having Sienna come home has helped me realize that I did check out for a minute, focusing on my own self-indulgent dreams and contemplating what I could have done or should have done. While my attention was diverted, I forgot how great my family is; I forgot how strong I am; I forgot how important I am to these two little people, Sienna and Dexter.

After I found out I did not get the job at the community college, I called my mom. It was Isaac’s birthday, and I did not want to impact his day. I think, in retrospect, that calling mom was one of the best things I could have done. Parental strife aside, I don’t always let my family support me. I tend to internalize everything and when one does that a great deal, it is easy to forget the wonderful people around you. My mom has the ability to talk me down like no one else; she is even more effective than Isaac sometimes. She told me that I can’t define myself by my job and that like a cat I always land on my feet. At first I was dismissive of what she had to say. Then I realized that she was right. This took me several weeks as occasionally I can be quite stubborn and dense in the head.

But, while I was temporarily checked out, I discovered that I am strong, I am a good mother and wife, and despite my inability to find a more stable position, I am a good teacher. So, I hold onto that. I have never been interested in great fame or moving up the food chain. I’ve been most concerned with making an impact. And, I forgot that, that is just what I’ve been doing. I try to remind myself by holding onto the moment when a student tells me this is the first time I enjoyed an assignment, thank you for helping me enjoy writing. I hold onto the moments when Dexter first wakes up and all he can say is “I want Mommy hair” or “I want Mommy bed.” And, then I pick him up; his little body sleep warm and wiggly, he tucks his head beneath my chin (which is getting difficult as he is getting taller too), then buries a fist in my hair one on either side of my neck. Clinging to me like a little monkey, his own cloud of hair tickling my chin and neck, it is apparent to me that I am his whole world right now. That won’t last much longer. I hold onto the moments when Sienna and I are able to bond over the trials and tribulations of being female. Our relationship is moving to the next stage as she approaches adolescence and instead of feeling outright terror, like I expected, I have been able to embrace the changes and recognize that she is an amazing and beautiful person and having a hand in who she becomes is a privilege but also a great responsibility.

It has been difficult to decide what I want when I already have all that is important. I have my children, happy and healthy, I have a wonderful husband, and a supportive family. I have been writing and while it is coming slow, I will publish my poetry collection. These are amazing things that I need to hold onto and appreciate instead of bemoaning how unfair my university’s policies are.

Artist?

Cajuns are truly innovative people. Everything my parents have been able to achieve, they have done so by their willingness to create and follow through. My mom wanted a Christmas village; we built it. When my brother was born and we needed a bigger house, my parents added on and then built the ‘big house.’ I have to give credit where credit is due. My desire to make something out of nothing is ingrained: the result of generations of Cajuns making the life they want from whatever they have.

I have been an artist for as long as I can remember, grooving to my own beat, writing what I want when, creating whatever comes to mind. But, I haven’t always felt like an artist, and it took many years to feel comfortable identifying myself as such.

Through the years I have questioned my identity and what actually defines me. Am I a mother, a wife, a daughter, a cutting edge poet, a flake with too many interests? My poetry collection, which still feels like it needs 7 more poems or so, deals with my questions of myself: my multifaceted and eclectic self. I have been struggling with these different persona for at least ten years.

It wasn’t until this summer that I came to terms with that fact that being an artist who is I am. I am a flaky, smart, intellectual, tattoo addicted creative individual. I embrace who I am more so now than ever before.

And so, like Alice Walker in “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden,” I have been searching for my own garden but also my mother’s, my sister’s, my aunts’, and my grandmothers’ gardens as well. What I discovered is that Walker, along with Virginia Woolf in “Shakespeare’s Sister,” were right on. Women are primarily all artists in one way or another. We create. Biologically we are equipped to create life. That in itself is a huge responsibility. One that women have been celebrated and scorned for, for generations. Frequently, within the female community, we are unforgiving of those who have chosen a different path: to be a mother or not to be a mother, to be a career women or not to be. And, frequently those of us who are really conflicted and feel an obligation to both paths try to do it all, often at our own detriment. I would be a better teacher were I not a mother; I would be a better mother were I not a teacher.  Stretched as thin as I am, I have even more trouble valuing and sometimes finding the artist within.

Since graduate school, I have thought that to be an artist, one must be published, have artwork in a museum, or in the very least have some sort of following. But, then I remembered that when an artist experiences commercial success, he or she frequently does so at the sacrifice of artistic vision. I have NOT been willing to do this. The end result for me: inability to finish my PhD and a collection of poems that may be too personal, too visceral for readers. This is of course a simplified list. But, the actual and literal soul searching I have been doing has led me to these primary results of my Cajun ‘stubbornness.’  One of my biggest faults is my inability or rather refusal to sacrifice what I think it cogent and right. And, it has imbued many of my decisions in regard to my professional and creative lives.

In my creative life, I have made many terrible decisions. It is unfortunate to admit, but it is also true.  Creative energy has been my fuel of choice for so long, but once I moved to DC and got even more firmly embedded in the world of academia, I lost a part of myself. I was so entrenched in the teaching, the research, that I forgot who I was. Well read and overly educated, I am.

When I was briefly working on my PhD, I was conflicted. As a creative writer, one usually has the insight into the written word to pick it apart, identify each metaphor, each carefully placed word; but as a creative writer, one’s explanation of those things is frequently too muddled to be considered true product of the academy. These pieces aren’t muddled because we creative writers are muddled. We just think differently than most other scholars; we see an interconnectedness that many are too jaded to even consider. Many times throughout history, these differences were valued and touted as necessary for the human condition. But, as the world around us has become more technologically driven, place for the artist has become minimal and devalued and respect has waned.Now, the vision of the artist has become a vision which includes internet fads, viral video craziness, and the ability to gain the ADD attention span of the American public.

Through this conflict, I sought the advice of my department chair, my then boss and professor. She gave me the same advice that she had given to one of my grad student peers who was experiencing the same struggle. She told both us: “If you are a creative writer, this program will ruin you.” And, she was right. That semester was the last one that my peer and I were actively in the program. She quit and went back home; I threw myself into my teaching, not officially withdrawing from the program.

What I found out while doing that program was that I needed to decide which side of the fence I should sit on because I was too creative to approach concepts in the desired manner and too stubborn to put aside my creative self and just do it. If one were to talk to my husband, he’d say I didn’t finish the PhD, not because I am not smart enough or too creative, but because I am too stubborn to do what I am told. I say I have too much integrity to sacrifice my view. Whether it be right or wrong, it is still mine. My interpretation is that we are all entitled to our own interpretation. I just did not want to play the game. I wanted to find my garden.

In search of my garden, when it became glaringly clear, like a streak of sun on the windshield, that I was not going to find that dream job in time to avoid this last year as a professor and the impending unemployment, I began to write again. Slowly at first, a poem here, a poem there; I forced myself to write when my students were writing. I encouraged them to write everyday, but I was not doing that. What I found as I began to write is that that is what makes me happy. That is what I create well. Poems. And these poems are harsh; they are filled with all the thoughts and feelings that roll around in my head that I do not always voice. (Yes, those of you who really know me are shocked…you mean there’s stuff she holds back on?) The sheer nakedness and rawness of these poems is staggering to me, and I wrote them. They are frequently too visceral for even Isaac, who is quite a handful all on his own. But, despite the rawness, I am about to put myself out there. I am so close to finishing this collection that I can literally taste accomplishment. And, it tastes nice. I want more.

As a result, I have this secret fantasy where I work diligently this year and do everything I’ve set out to do. Teach a 4/4 schedule at the university and a 2/2 at the community college, build up some sort of savings from the extra classes, and then go gentle into that good night. Be in a position where I can fully embrace being an artist, being a writer and just write, just create. Putting words on the page is what keeps me going. I have realized this, and I am devastated. Writing full time is not practical for me and my family.

We do not live in a time of patronage where artists and creative individuals are allowed to follow their dare I say ‘calling.’ We live in a time of technological advancement where logic and the race to the finish is all that is important. So, still I wait. I wait for that time when I can focus on myself and what truly makes me happy. I keep meditating for patience. The patience to hold on to it for 15, 20 more years when the kids are in college, when my husband makes more money, so that I can just write.

Despite the mediation, I am impatient. I have waited so long and life is so short. I don’t want to spend my life waiting. I want to do it now. But, I can’t ask my family to make that sacrifice. I can’t ask Isaac to move to the private sector; I can’t ask the kids to do without while mommy chases pipe dreams. So, despite the impatience, the hunger to create, I wait. Impatient and unfulfilled.

Toddler trouble…

I love my son.

Ok, I had to say that before I highlighted his recent escapade. This child is amazing in so many ways: amazingly cute, amazingly smart, amazingly stubborn…and amazingly smelly!!

Yesterday, Dexter came home early from daycare because his dad needed to go to the doctor. So, we are chilling after rousing water play on the back porch: he standing mesmerized right in front of the TV (yes, mom of the year award I hear you calling) and I on the couch. He quite appropriately toddles over to me and instantly, my eyes water, my is breathe cut. I glance at him supsiciously.

He looks so cute in all his gloried stinkiness. He has a couple of fingers in his mouth. He is munching on those, looking at me “like what’s your problem.” Meanwhile, I am literally out of breathe, scared to breath and wondering what in the hell was he fed that came out with that odorific scent.

I check the diaper and low and behold, it just got worse. Their was a BM in that diaper worthy of his father and larger in diameter than his head. Sigh… the joys of motherhood.

Luckily, he lay down quite peacefully and let me take care of the source of nasal offense.

 

I apologize in advance to you non-parent sensitive types who can’t enjoy a little poo talk…

 

Language and Identity

I am reading a new book that I’ll need to start teaching next week. The book is titled Something Torn and New by N’gugi Wa Thiongo. And, boy is it giving me a helluva time! And, it’s terrible. Not in the realm of “I can’t read this” terrible but in the realm of “I can’t believe I have to teach this to undergrads” terrible. The book is actually quite stunning in its complexity of thought and prose; N’gugi is an amazing writer, but he rambles, which is the product of having a brain so full of knowledge that he has to qualify almost every other assertion with copious quotes to cultural and social philosophers and occasional fiction and poetry. The end result is a stellar piece of social criticism that I need to make accessible to Facebooking, Tweeting freshman. Knowing that to adequately teach this text I could spend the first week and a half of classes muddling through the first 30 pages, defining terms like linguistic famine and europhonism, does not make this endeavor seem more plausible.

I’ve been brainstorming all day to come up with an approach which initially started with scouring the internet for relevant You Tube videos and other research, in addition to actually reading the text. What I began to realize is that there is similarity between the eurocentric influence on Africans to that of Cajuns. With each new generation Cajuns are becoming more Americanized. Yes, I know we are all Americans, but Cajun culture is so different and isolated from others within the US that it feels like a separate country. Or, as my husband says, “Louisiana is a parallel universe where nothing makes sense.” His being Jewish and from the east coast, probably makes that statement an easy one for him to utter as he is confronted by customs and language variations he can barely, and sometimes literally not, understand.

N’gugi uses Irish immigrants during the industrial revolution to construct a similar metaphor. I know this may sound crazy and frequently, there seems to be a race by prominent minority groups to see who is the most disenfranchised and so on and so forth. That is not my intent here, and typically it is motivation to keep my mouth shut; but, I am fairly certain I have but a handful of readers.

And so, what I am coming to realize is that being Cajun makes me a minority. So many of us Cajuns grow up thinking we are merely white, but as I have been living in a more culturally and ethnically diverse area, I have come to realize that Cajuns are very far from being white, especially in the pejorative sense that it is often assigned as a generalization for those of European descent. Many of us suffer from the same educational drawbacks and inadequacies as inner city black and hispanic peoples, as many of us ( in my generation) are first generation college students that do not understand the system of higher education or how to best maneuver within or benefit from it. Many Cajuns are also misunderstood and the importance of our means of communicating with each other is dismissed as non-standard English, much like African-American English is dismissed for the same variance in patois.

What I found most compelling as I was reading Something Torn is the idea of “language dismemberment.” This is something I quite willingly did to myself, and still do. Much like the African-American students that I teach, I made a decision one day. Many of my students have told me they choose to speak “white” or they are accused of “being white” or being an “oreo,” if they speak what is considered proper English.  I often choose to not speak Cajun in the classroom and with my colleagues. If you understand the importance to language and identity, then you understand that this is a denial of a part of myself.

Granted this is frequently difficult for me and is still quite a conscious decision. Because it is something I have to consciously do, I tend to slip into “ova dere” and “up front,” language variations and connotations that only another Cajun would understand. I tend to speak as properly as possible when I am in the company of people who are seemingly more educated than I. Alternatively, I speak as “coon ass” as possible when I am home, constantly using terms and turns of phrase that I remember from my childhood. The result of this for me has been a self-induced “double consciousness,” which I frequently resent; I am terrified of not being able to communicate and relate to my own people. And, so I find it difficult sometimes to feel like I have a place within my own culture and also difficult to find a place within not only my professional culture but also the city that I live in.

I am a curiosity. While most of the time I find it amusing, sometimes I balk at the idea that I might not be Cajun enough because I don’t fit the stereotype that has been presented in the recent boom of Cajun reality TV shows or maybe I can’t trace my lineage all the way back to Acadia. But, I do know that my family has been living and toiling on the bayous of south Louisiana for at least six generations…not Cajun enough? Psssttt…cher, ya don’t know what cha talkin’ bout.

To find solace in my culture’s perceived ignorance, I have researched speech patterns so that I could justify to myself that when I am speaking to my grandmother in the tone, dialect, and expressions she and I are most comfortable with, I am not speaking down to her, nor am I speaking in non-standard, grammatically incorrect English. I am speaking to her in a dialect. A true and bonafide dialect– the result of the melding of French accents and vocabulary, Cajun French, and English. Similar to Yiddish, which is a combination of Hebrew and German that was spoken in ghettos and acted as a means of unity for Yiddish speaking Jews after WW II, Cajun English is spoken in its own type of ghetto– the bayous of the southeastern US. I know that the reference of the bayous as ghettos may feel…just not right. But, consider what a ghetto actually is: a portion of a city occupied by an ethnic group that is looked down upon for some reason (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghetto). Well, in the very stellar text titled Bayou Farewell, Cajuns are referred to as the “niggers of the bayou” and the author goes into great detail about the assumptions made about Cajuns by other southerners. Many of these assumptions are related to class, ethnicity, and educational access and opportunity.

Given, I think the use of the word “nigger” to be quite strong and perhaps inappropriate. As someone who has taught at HBCUs for ten plus years, I do not attempt to apply an adequate comparison between Cajuns and African Americans in regard to their disenfranchisement and racism.

However, I have to say that as a Cajun on the east coast, I can’t help but wonder had I been east coast educated, not a first generation college student, and maybe spoke without an occasional Cajun brogue, perhaps life would be easier.

That little soap box aside, I am really dreading teaching this book, but I think after quite a bit more brainstorming and some healthy, cathartic blogging, I’ll figure it out.

Word vomit…

Yesterday I made a rookie mistake, an English 101 error, I posted a blog without considering my audience. That is one of the first things I teach my students: know your audience.But, I did  not think about my audience. I had word vomit and spewed projectile missiles formed out of caustic sentences on the page.

So, I took the post down, reminiscing about the days when a blog felt more personal and journal like; now it’s a business, and as a result, everyone is a potential audience member.

For instance, with Facebook and Twitter, you always run the risk of alienating someone, of rocking the boat just because there are so many potential readers. Granted, I am pretty sure the only person who read my post yesterday was my dear Aunt Donie, but I just couldn’t shake the idea that perhaps I had said too much. I think the lack of that impulse is very telling. I remember when you could post something online and maybe your voice would get out there and maybe not. People did not have to worry about being cyber stalked by current and future employers; one did not have to worry about Twitter feed being quoted on the five o’clock news.

I’ve confronted this idea of a blog being a business; how does one monetize one’s self? I am assuming first a following is needed, but then what? So, you have a following on the web. How does that turn into money or a career? Despite the willingness to write, write, write, I am confused; how does it pay the bills, again?

I find myself having these fantasies where I am like the main character of Julie, Julia, and at some point in this whole losing my job, remaking myself gig, I stumble upon something great, something worth sharing. Something that makes me unique and outstanding. Then I remember that that really only happens in the movies, and I lose my momentum. Stuck. I wonder what to do. Where to go next.

I sometimes think I have so much important and titillating stuff to say that I convince myself that I can present awesome commentary with snarky, acerbic wit on the issues within our society from the perspective of someone living it, day to day. Then I realize that stories like that are like opinions, everybody’s got one. What makes mine so special?

What is my gimmick? Is it being a Cajun in DC? I still can’t get over how fascinated some folks around here are about the cultural differences: “You mean you have family that used to hunt alligators?” I sigh, “Yes, yes I do.” How else am I supposed to answer that? Oy, vey!! Or, when I am confronted with the little idiosyncrasies in my speech and pronunciation, and I just want to yell, “I am off the clock…lemme talk how I want to.” When I am angry, intoxicated, or otherwise relaxed I speak like a true Cajun; it ain’t propa English cher but sho’ adds some flava dere, ya know!

Cajun is in these days. Cajun Justice. Cajun Pawn. Cajuns have found a place for themselves in reality TV, why not the blog-sphere?