Monthly Archives: April 2012

Free White Woman and Her Poetry

I’ve mentioned the short story “Free White Woman and Her Poetry” in earlier blogs.  I wrote this story many years ago and have often thought of turning it into a novel with each chapter from a different character’s point of view.  I read this summary with poetry excerpts at the Southern New Hampshire University winter residency.  Each participant is allowed five minutes to share which gives you enough time to read about two pages.  So I thought I’d share this on my blog because it’s short and it is still April, poetry month.  I hope you enjoy it.

“Free White Woman and Her Poetry” presents a black woman who discovers her sense of worth and value to society through the art of poetry.  While serving a prison sentence for murdering her abusive husband, the woman learns to express her feelings through this emotional art form.  Her character grows when her initial feelings of disdain and dislike toward her poetry teacher turn to love and respect.  Her life begins again because of a free white woman and her poetry.

In poem No. 1, the woman, angry and full of bitterness at her prison existence, is challenged by her prison teacher.  For the first time she begins to define and express in poetic terms her feelings about prison life.

I spen time here lookin at white walls

With dirty cracks leakin smells

Of death and despair

I see white, black, red, yellow, and brown faces—

All sad eyes, dull eyes, dumb eyes, dead eyes.

No sunshine here

Jus bars—plenty of bars

But ya don’t drink anything good here,

Only the blood of your life leakin away

Through cracks on white, ugly walls.

No longer cry myself to sleep or

Cry myself awake.

No more tears

And my brain don’t even wake up no more.

Don’t know what day it is—

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday?

Don’t care really neither cause

Nothin gonna happen in here

Nothin gonna change in here—

Not even me.

In poem No. 2, a second prisoner, whose first poetic effort was designed only to shock her teacher, is able to put aside her cynicism and express her real feelings in a love poem.

Hey babe,

Take my hand

And I’ll lead you

To the land

Of Love.

Hey babe,

We’ll throw wild flowers around

And get so high

We’ll never come down.

Hey babe,

We’ll live through eternity together

Protect each other

Through all the stormy weather.

Hey babe,

Take my hand

We’ll grow old together,

Watching time

Slip away like sand.

In poem No. 3, the main character, now wiser and more mature, writes about her children, whose childhood is slipping away while she is in prison.

My children grew up

Like wild weeds in the alley—

Tall, thick, and strong.

They came one after another

Barely remembered before forgotten

And tossed in a den of babes

All bawling and biting—

There were no teething toys.

Two girls, two boys.

What made up my heart

Was divided into fractions

So large, so small.

I tell them that I love them

But they don’t hear me—

I’m stuck in here.

I wish they could see

My face now.

Oh, what could be joy,

My two girls and two boys.

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Love Songs for Poetry Month

Since April is considered Poetry Month I thought it only appropriate to post some poems.  A quick disclaimer first:  I haven’t written poetry in many, many years.  The one I’m about to share, I wrote in 1985 while taking a college Creative Writing course.  The assignment was to write something sensuous.  So, I wrote a love poem to my then boyfriend and now husband Dean.  Shortly after I gave him the poem, we broke up.  It was a very emotional time for both of us.  He wrote a poem in response to mine and shared it with me when we got back together.  We never could stay away from each other for long, which I guess, by now, is obvious, seeing how we’ve been legally married for 22 years, lived together for four, and dated for two.  Well, without further ado here’s my poem, followed by his (and I have to admit, I think his is the better of the two).  Enjoy!

The Love We Make

Deep tones you emit

From full, searching lips,

Sending shivers of anticipation

Down my legs and up my spine,

Clear through to warm my belly.

Your strong, but gentle hands

Reach for me, pulling me closer

To the heat of your presence.

My heavy head tilts back

As I melt

In your dark brown,

Liquidity pools,

The very essence of you,

That mirrors your soul.

As I fall

The hold you have on me

Keeps me from drowning,

Yet you smother me

With your delicious sweetness

I want to keep all for myself.

Tongues flick like fire

As I taste the salt of your labor

On your neck where I rest my open heart.

Planets dissolve into nothingness

For there is nothing

But the two us,

Consumed by flaming powers

Only we can control.

Moaning pleasure, the only sound

In the universe we created

From a mold of mutual understanding.

Bodies stiffen and muscles strain

As if letting go of all life’s frustrations

Within a matter of moments

That seem like ages,  like seconds

Ticking away from our grasp.

Reality ends

And begins

At the same time.

Another Love Song

Is this just another love song
Of fools and follies and emotions?
Is this just another love gone wrong
With its good intentions and romantic notions?

Does time always mend wounds done in passing?
Who is answering questions and who is asking?
Do tongues that flicked like fire still linger
What ecstasy can sweep us with its deep bound fingers?

And am I wrong to feel the way I do
As ages pass since I last saw you?
Could you ever understand if I could ever say
I’m trying to clear a path but I’m still in my way.

Is this just another love song
Of fools and follies and emotions?
Does it only fall like rain upon
A vast and endless ocean?

Are we lost and consumed beyond control?
Does our essence still mirror our souls?
Can we still gain some calm composure
And hide from open hearts’ disclosure?

We try to grasp beyond our reach
And clench the emptiness that makes us weep.
We only think of sweet yesterdays
As we hitch a ride to take us away.

Is this just another love song
Sung through tears in shades of blue?
Perhaps it is a love gone wrong
But I still find myself—loving you.

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Dialogue vs. Dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God

When I first began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston I didn’t understand what the characters were saying because Hurston used phonetic spelling to capture the dialect.  I had to read their words out loud in order to comprehend their meaning.  But once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t put the book down.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is about Janie Crawford, a black woman, who begins her adulthood at sixteen by marrying Logan Killicks, a man her grandmother chose for her.  He treats her like his mule.  She runs off to marry her second husband, Joe Starks, an ambitious man, who also treats her like his property.  It is not until her third and last husband Tea Cake when she finds her true love and true self.  Janie’s strong voice presents humor and sadness through vivid descriptions and marvelous metaphors.

I wrote a short story a long time ago about a black woman in prison and a couple of literary judges warned me about using phonetic spelling.  They were afraid I would offend someone.  I asked a black female friend of mine to read it.  She wasn’t offended and liked it.  Having one’s characters use Ebonics doesn’t make the writer a bigot.  It is no different than presenting a Southerner, no matter their skin color, speaking in southern slang, such as “y’all.”  A person’s dialect doesn’t represent their intellect.  Many people misjudge a person’s level of intelligence by listening to their accent.  According to Adam Sexton in Master Class in Fiction Writing writers should “ignore accents . . . and the phonetic spelling required to render them on the printed page” for the same reason I had trouble at the beginning of the novel, it sometimes has to be read out loud to be understood (116).  Also, like the judges who read my story, Sexton believes this use of phonetic spelling discriminates against certain people, such as “inhabitants of the inner-city or the Deep South, immigrants and farmhands” (116).

Hurston, who is black, was ridiculed for using “Eatonville’s Ebonics.”   Her critics thought she was downgrading her culture, and “pandering to a condescending white readership” (Gates, 204).  Instead, she was trying “to achieve a precision of expression” which she did with aplomb (Boyd, 13).  If, according to Sexton, 50 percent of characterization is created through dialogue, she did what she aimed to do, create believable characters (109).  Just because her characters didn’t speak formal English, didn’t mean they were illiterate.  They just had a different way of expressing themselves.

Her use of black linguistics was not meant to merely entertain or act as an “adornment.”  She was “’naming’ emotions . . . in a language both deeply personal and culturally specific” (Gates, 204).   She uses this language skillfully in not only the dialogue, but also in her narrative.  “She could see a man’s head naked of its skull.  Saw the cunning thoughts race in and out through the caves and promontories of his mind long before they darted out of the tunnel of his mouth” (77).   Hurston used “black ‘idioms” . . . by a culture ‘raised on simile and invective” (Afterword, 203).   The story begins at the ending of Janie’s ordeals by revealing a communities’ disapproval of her when she returns after running off with her third husband.  The following is a perfect example of invectiveness:  “Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy . . .  So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish.  They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs” (2).  Her metaphors add depth, colorful description, and humor to her story, such as, “Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide” (7).

Hurston also switches points of view throughout the book.  Within a paragraph, we see Janie’s thoughts and then those of her three husbands.  Though Janie is telling her story, the switches reveal the “woman in a male-dominated world.”  Her narrative also shifts “between her ‘literate’ narrator’s voice and a highly idiomatic black voice,” a clever device underscoring her experiences as a “hyphenated African-American,” a “black person in a nonblack world” (Gates, 203).

There were some passages I didn’t understand, and I’m not sure if that had to do with my attempt at deciphering the dialogue or I didn’t comprehend the cultural context for the story is filled with folk lore.  Although it’s advised to avoid phonetic spelling in dialogue to avert confusion and discrimination, master story tellers like Hurston can get away with it and create a classic that will survive time like those of Dickens and Twain.  And Hurston wrote this classic work of art in seven weeks.   To cover the range of a love story and adventure, with all variances of story motifs throughout, is a feat many writers never accomplish.  She must have had one hell of a muse.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Boyd, Valerie.  “She Was the Party.”  About the Author.  P.S. Insights, Interviews & More       in Their Eyes Were Watching God.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, First Perennial   Library edition, 2006.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis.  “Afterword”  in Their Eyes Were Watching God.  New York:  HarperCollins   Publishers, First Perennial Library edition, 1990.

Sexton, Adam.  Master Class in Fiction Writing.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2006.

 

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