During a brown-bag today put on by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, Executive Director Leslie Donaldson shared some news. Her past two visits on Tim Barron’s morning radio show included conversation about my line of poetry, “blood beats history as presence.” This line stretches across a billboard as part of the ACGL’s “Art in the Sky” program. (See my announcement last month, “Billboard Installation,” Feb. 16, 2012.)
While I haven’t yet found a podcast for either of those radio discussions that apparently were provocative, I did find a blog describing an individual reaction. Interestingly, the line inspired Mr. Scott D. Southard to recount his harrowing collegiate experience under the tutelage of famous poet-professor Diane Wakoski, whom he dubs Darth Poet. Here is an excerpt from his post “My Fear of Poets” (Feb. 20, 2012) related to my line:
Recently, the Arts Council of Greater Lansing put up a billboard celebrating a local poet. I first saw this sign while driving on a highway this weekend, and afterwards I spent 20 minutes trying to understand what I read and then wondering how that one little sentence exactly was poetry. How safe that was for me or the other drivers is debatable (Considering my driving skills it is always debatable when I am on the roads).
The sign read only this: “Blood beats history as presence.”
Imagine seeing that in big white letters with a black background while driving and you will understand my car’s slight swervings. (I get what the poet is saying, but the imagery being used feels very aggressive to me; “blood” and “beatings,” etc.).
I’ve never really understood modern poetry and the sad thing is I have tried. But like the Freemasons, they have their own secret rules and initiations into deciding who can and cannot be in the club. I was never honored with the customary black turtleneck and ink quill as it were; but, honestly, I never sought it out.
Such an account increases my curiosity about the views being expressed related to the billboard, and I am eager to listen to those radio broadcasts. For the moment, though, I have encountered this post and am motivated to weigh it in light of March being Women’s History Month. Stick around this longer-than-usual post and you’ll see why…
On one hand, Mr. Southard’s post truly amuses me, since much of it is based on stereotypes that contrast my journey with poetry. For instance, I don’t own a black turtleneck nor a degree in the creative arts, and I freely admit that the celebrated beat-poets — notably male, like Allen Ginsberg — do not move me. From such a period, I am much more interested in those who have been silenced, like Elsie Cowen whose poetry I first encountered in Women of the Beat Generation (1998). Ms. Cowen’s family sought to commit her to a mental institution –she being a woman not following her ascribed conventional functions — and she opted for suicide instead.
Despite my line provoking something in Mr. Southard, something resonating to an earlier formative experience with another female poet, he doesn’t provide attribution for my line nor my gender. (Why is that? Maybe he just didn’t expect me to read the post.) Alternatively, Southard names his admired poets, all of whom are male and considered classical (see the post for details). A gendered line glares, although it goes unacknowledged, a line so often drawn without naming it for what it is. So, I propose a more apt title for Southard’s post would be “My Fear of Female Poets.”
Poet-professor Leonora Smith characterized my poetic voice from my first solo collection “Blame It on Eve!” (2007) as a “strong, relentless voice — a voice that rises not from the throat but from deep inside the body — from the solar plexus and the womb.” A fair portion of my poetry emerges from lived experience and family stories, which I explore in social, historical, and cultural contexts. These excavations often are intimate — through bodies of land and/or flesh, at times across generations, stemming from a viewpoint committed to non-violence, healing, and social justice.
My inspiration to pursue such writing was sparked through encounters with bodies of work by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Sylvia Plath, and Anais Nin — admittedly, all women writers. Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (1992) has provided inspiration with nonlinear (or disjunctive) writing and weaving “the personal” with “the political” (as if these are ever distinct — not!). Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller (1989) with oral poetics, book design, and writing about roots. And Audre Lorde’s The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance simply is amazing poetry.
Returning to the line under discussion, “blood beats history as presence:” it closes my poem “A Concise History,” first released as part of the online collection “the land, once called DeWitt” (2009). Part of Mr. Southard’s perception that words like “blood” and “beats” convey aggression is accurate, since the poem does wrestle with legacies of colonialism and patriarchy. Yet, in truth, the blood beating here is that which flows through our bodies, links us to our ancestors, sustains life. Mothers are prominent in the poem, honoring the connection between blood and the creation of life. When putting the poem in its original context (or even below on its own), I anticipate readers find these connections:
“A Concise History”
Thirteenth Century, northern Europe.
Teutonic knights ride north, kill or remove Prussians from their land.
A ripple widens from Catholic demand: knights to castle to village.
And tongues are ripped from mothers.
Nineteenth Century, North America.
William Warren writes history, exposes foreign fantasy.
He is Anishanabeg, metis. He links the Ojibwes to the Algics
– lost tribe of Hebrews, migrant mothers of Gentiles.
Present day, planet Earth.
Needles race the double helix; blood again spills.
Invaders merge interest through bloodlines as blood denies blood.
Privilege protects power, but mothers protect children.
Soil breaks; mothers birth; man forges death as salvation.
Despite deception, people are,
and blood beats history as presence.
So, Readers, as Women’s History Month comes to a close, I hope you discover a woman writer, someone possibly obscured by her historical moment or even lack of attribution. Toward such a discovery, I recommend visiting “Voices from the Gap” by the University of Minnesota, a resource that provides biographies and bibliographies for women writers and artists of color. Happy exploring!
And as we head into April, which is both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, I am honored to announce that I am performing at Take Back the Night in East Lansing, Michigan, on April 17! More details are forthcoming. Local TBTN programming on and before April 17 is provided on the Facebook page for Greater Lansing’s TBTN campaign.