Recreating Our No

I recently finished reading Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus: and other poems. I had originally added it to my reading list because of my interest in the central cycle of poems, which build a narrative entirely out of titles of artworks that in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. While the well-crafted splicing of lyrical poetry and art criticism did not disappoint, but I was even more struck by the “other poems.” Lewis unflinchingly and masterfully tells difficult stories of blackness in America, complicity, loneliness, and incest.

When it came time for me to sit down and write something about the craft in her work, it was that last poem, “Lure,” that wouldn’t let me go. I wrote about the power of negation in the refusal throughout the poem (which is bookended by the simple but compelling statement “I am not there…any longer.”). A power capable of opening imaginative possibility, while still grounding the reader in the reality of what occurred. A power capable of bringing us intimately into the experience of self-doubt and denial that often come with trauma from the people we love.  A power capable of anchoring us in the sense that this should not have happened, without taking on a lecturing, pleading or preaching tone. (You can read an excerpt of the poem and my short paper about it, here.)

But there was another powerful part of the magic of negation that I didn’t put in that paper. One that seemed more personal than craft based—one that resonated with me from a very different place. Through the poetic recreation of trauma using the lens of negation, there is an empowering reclamation of the survivor’s No. For many years, as a gay woman trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do (namely: be straight and stay married), I overrode my inner No for more than a decade. It was never verbalized—my now ex-husband would never have continued to have sex with a woman who said No aloud—but it screamed loudly in my own head, a voice that I gagged “for our own good.” When I finally did come out to myself and others, there were some who questioned why I hadn’t done so sooner, people who would point to the damage I had done to him and the trust of those around me. The most honest answer I have is: I was afraid of the repercussions of saying that No. The damage it could do in my other relationships. The unknowns that lay on the other side of it.

How much more true in Lewis’ case of a three year old trying to find her No with her own grandfather? But in recreating the experience in the negative, the language flexes all of the hard-won muscles of the adult’s No. Voicing the incest serves, in the words of Judith Harris, as “an antidote to harm caused by civilized silence,” but voicing it in the negative is a very specific antidote. The antidote of saying and hearing one’s self say No, for those who need the balm that the language of refusal offers.


Found in Back Bay, a few years ago and part of a whole series of “not art” graffiti tags.

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Community of Feeling

from Greek sympatheia “fellow-feeling, community of feeling,” from assimilated form of syn- “together” + pathos “feeling, suffering”.

Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Sympathy

Like so many others, I remember exactly where I was thirteen years ago. I was in college, which is to say Toronto. It was my second year and this new country was just starting to feel less foreign.

I had a three hour long class that started at 8:30AM every Tuesday and Thursday that semester. There was a student in the back who always had his short wave radio on, volume turned down but always murmuring in the background of every lecture. Not long after class began, his hand shot up from the back of the room, flagging something urgent. “Someone has blown up the Empire State Building!” he told us, wide eyed. The whole room went quiet. The teacher called for a break to regroup and ten long minutes later, when it was more clear what had happened, he announced that class was canceled.

I had no classes for the rest of the day.I repeatedly tried to call my sister, who was going to school just north of New York City. I sat in the common room of a friend’s dorm watching everything unfold. Shock. Fear. Numbness. Sadness and loss. Anger. But I also remember that I wasn’t in those feelings alone. Not only were Canadians feeling the fear, evacuating all of their tallest buildings, but in the days and weeks that followed, they felt the loss, the shock, the anger than comes in the early stages of grief.

There were few Canadians I’d met without someone in the United States. Each new face had a relative, a friend from college, a former co-worker somewhere across the imaginary line that divided us. With a broadness I haven’t seen amongst those in the U.S. towards those experiencing tragedy in Canada, those in Canada felt with us that day. Our pain, our fear, our loss was theirs too, sometimes very personally but more often, in a deep sense of shared existence and community.

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Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Overcome

They came to me at the graveside of one grandfather, but were nearly so late to the funeral of the other grandfather that I thought they wouldn’t show at all.

They didn’t come to the justice of the peace’s office the December I married my love, though hers came. They did come the night before my first wedding, silently, after all the lights had gone out and the sentries of my mind slept.

They often came in the therapy that followed and when they did, Glenn would have to remind me to breathe. They often won’t let me breathe. They often don’t let me speak either.

So while I was somewhat surprised they didn’t come yesterday, I was relieved to have my voice. As I read the poem I’d written for my sister’s wedding at the rehearsal, I could my voice, clear and slow, bouncing off the church walls.

I read the final words and looked into faces smiling and full of them, in eyes or on cheeks and noses. It was both strange and perfectly normal to see them there for others but not feel their arrival for me. As often as they come unbidden, I have to invite them. Remind them. Tell them they are welcome, that they can come over.

Even then, I don’t always know that they’ll answer my invitation. Tears have been like that all my life. We’ll see if they come to the wedding today. I won’t hold my breath for them.

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Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Finite

from Latin finitum, past participle of finire “to limit, set bounds; come to an end” (see finish (v.))

It was my first visit to the Grand Canyon. Punk New Englander that I was, I hadn’t packed a winter jacket for the Christmas visit. After all I was headed to the desert, right? I had a puffy vest and a cardigan, which was enough to keep off the chill in Phoenix’s valley over night, but wasn’t anywhere near enough for the top of the rim, which was covered in snow and ice. Still, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon when I was this close. I shivered a little harder and tucked my hands in my pockets. Cold weather builds character, I reminded myself, though I was unconvinced I actually needed more of that.

My first glance over the edge cleared all thoughts of the cold. The pinks and oranges and brick reds, with speckles of deep green I slowly realized as trees, all under a gossamer layer of white. I couldn’t stop staring. I tried to take pictures, but each one felt so far removed from what I was experiencing that I eventually tucked the device back in my pocket.

I knew the canyon ended. But it seemed to fall endlessly. My brain knew that was absurd, but that same brain would spin every time I tried to peer down to see it’s bounds. I gripped the railing tighter and forced myself to look away, giving myself a chance to recover from my dizziness. Instead, I looked at the sky: clear and blue and limitless. Somehow this was better. I suppose my head was used to looking up into a seemingly endless sky, while it wasn’t used to looking down to see an indefinitely expanding openness below us. Or perhaps gravity made one feel inherently safer to my deeper, reptile brain.

The clouds held my finite gaze until I was able to return it to the magnificent hole before me. The Grand Canyon wasn’t finished with me yet.

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Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Elevate


I raise my glass with the casual telekinesis that only my imagination could pull off. It floats there, full of champagne and waiting for words I haven’t yet said. I’m about to make a toast, but I’m not sure to whom yet. So it waits and I wait, the suspended glass with nothing to clink yet. Is it a wedding? A holiday dinner? It can’t be a funeral, those don’t have toasts. But it could be something simple like a birthday or a new job, maybe just a long ride on a pair of bicycles or the hauling abandoned furniture out of the basement. Just because I started with the word “elevate” and gave myself the power of telekinesis, doesn’t mean I have to get all fancy.

Last night, I dreamed I was walking down stairs. That was the whole dream: stairs and stairs, heading forever down and my feet falling, one at a time, on each newly appearing platform. Sometimes it was polished marble like the step of a bank or a museum. Sometimes it was green shag carpet like the stairs of my childhood home. Changing and shifting their texture and color, but always down and down. I didn’t know, dreaming or waking, where they were headed. I just knew what I had to do: keep moving.

When I woke up, my first thought was, I’m so glad I made it back up to my bed! I have no memory of how I rose all though flights back up to my second floor apartment. Levitation or elevator, here’s a toast to the invisible pulleys that silently raised me from endlessly descending sleep.

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Priceless Poet

Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Priceless

…I feel the carousel starting slowly

And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,

Photographs of friends, the window and the trees

Merging in one neutral band that surrounds

Me on all sides, everywhere I look.

And I cannot explain the action of leveling,

Why it should all boil down to one

Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.

Today my Facebook feed is full of John Ashbery, a name I recognize as I should. But, if I may be brutally honest, I have no idea what his passing has cost poetry or me. I wish I did. I wish I could read his words and see some stash of treasure, some gold I could count and weep. But I can’t.
The poet himself said that if he were to turn his name into a verb, the verb would mean “to confuse the hell out of people.” If that is his genius than it’s little wonder I have trouble quantifying the loss. I’ve read poem after poem tonight, each one riding both edges, the doubled sharpness of priceless.
As I’m admittedly a poor judge of poetic “worth” and he would have made no claim to write for everyone, I don’t feel I’ve dishonored myself or him in this admission. Though perhaps I have shown a weakness: the inability to value confusion, mystery, and disjointed truth. I’ve always gravitated toward poets who say things artfully and indirectly, but those I sense who also aim to communicate something more than sound. In my own writing, even in my most puzzling poems, I try to leave a key, to not to hide or hoard what I’ve been given.
Perhaps it’s unfair to say Ashbery was hiding his coins in heavy walled vaults, but I have a feeling it’s not a characterization he would find offensive. In some ways, he was a craftsman of vaults that only the most enterprising thief could break (and even then, perhaps would not now how to value what she found once the door swung open).
I am no vault cracker. Not now, anyway. Perhaps someday, years from now, I will hear a small click, as I spin another of his poems in my ear and suddenly I’ll see what’s been behind the door or hear the beautiful sound the hinges make. I’ll know then what delight death has taken from us in John Ashbery today.

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Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Critical

critic (n.) 1580s, “one who passes judgment,” from root *krei- “to sieve,” thus “separate, discriminate, distinguish.” The English word always had overtones of “censurer, faultfinder.”

I don’t remember my first college vocal jury as clearly as I remember the aftermath.

As a classical vocal performance major, I was used to performing. I’d been on stage for most of my life, in fact. But this was different. Every mistake I’d made, every excruciating hesitation, was larger and brighter in my memory with each passing moment. I felt more sick to my stomach after finishing than I had before I’d began.

I made my way home with a head full of the voices, familiar ones that had been with me for years. Voices that sounded objective—like honest friends who were just trying to help me out. We don’t have to keep doing this to ourselves. they said. We could do something else. Anything else, really. We were smart, hard working…. yes, theses voices, they believed in us. But just maybe, you know, singing wasn’t our thing? I sang well enough for most people to say nice things, but discriminating ears were different. And when all the sifting was done, there wasn’t much left that made my melodies worth much. The voices went on and on inside my head, while outside my head was lightly nodding.

As a few stray tears slid down my face, I thought of all the work I’d put in all semester. But there was only one moment that mattered to those few discerning ears at the long table at the back of the room. Wiping my face as I descended the stairs to my basement apartment, I began composing a letter to my voice teacher. An apology. After all, it was her reputation I’d carried into that room and my fault it had been dropped unceremoniously to the floor when I was asked to translate an Italian lyric. I owed her at least a letter.

When it was written and trifolded, it was almost too thick to slide under her office door. Once it was out of my hands, I sighed. The critical voices were finally quiet. I’d made them and my sure-to-be-disappointed vocal teacher a promise. I’d promised them I’d be quiet. Quiet enough not to embarrass any of us ever again.

Of all the promises I’ve broken to myself, out of failure or necessity, that’s been one of the most critical to my sanity and well-being.

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Today’s 10 minute, unedited free write, based on the Daily Post’s daily prompt: Visceral

The internet tells me that my organs can’t be counted because there is no standard definition of what tissues are organs. The word’s Greek whispers a clue though: that with which one works.
The vet called yesterday when my cat was awake from anesthesia. His blood and urine said every hidden mass was still working with him. Eleven years. Who knows how many more he’ll have. In his groggy first hours home, he rubbed his face against me, the furniture, and the dog, one at a time marking everything that was safe.
The blood of the little dog in the apartment upstairs told a different story. The urine was witness. For weeks, he wouldn’t stop crying. Pain or protest, I can’t tell with my human ears, but I know that deep inside his tissue will not listen. It’s now just tissue—no longer working with him.
As he sings his howling tune this morning, I check my email. There’s a note from my Mom: a friend of the family is fighting cancer. Cancerous tissue producing more and more of itself. An organ tirelessly overworking, every day, hour after hour, building a wall of flesh against all other organs.
I sit down to write him a note, ears full of the howling loss overhead. I want to tell him of the sweet music his organ has yet to make. I want to tell him to keep working. But as I begin, my fingers refuse to write past the greeting and a visceral floor drops out inside me. I set down the pen and let my fear howl along with the small voice above me.

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Relearning Lessons

Persephone is an eye catcher. Be it her size, her brazen frontal nudity, or her captivating personality, I’m asked about her more often than any of my other tattoos. While not everyone with tattoos has back stories for them (plenty of people have tattoos whose sole purpose is to look awesome), mine do. Persephone’s goes like this:

When I was younger, I loved to play mermaid of the lake. There’s a childhood picture that catches a glimpse of this: smaller me sitting on a half submerged rock, legs swung over to one side, looking at the camera with my most mysterious look. But by the time adult Erica was training for triathlons, the open water swims weren’t play. They were terrifying. Before every race I would stand on the shore, heart racing and breath shallow, my mind spinning through every possible excuse to back out. I always got myself into the water somehow, but many of my swims were spent on my back, where I could breathe freely. Before what would turn out to be my last race before knee surgery, I stood on the shore, ready to do the usual mental battle…and realized I was fine. I had a bit of pre-race jitters, but I wasn’t freaking out. I’ve got my mermaid back, I thought and the idea of Persephone was born.

This week, in training for my first post-surgery race, it suddenly came flooding back in: the panic, the heart-pounding certainty of drowning. Beth and I had gone to our usual spot for some swim practice, with the extra impetus of trying out wetsuits before the race. We’d been swimming most of the season in swimsuits, but wetsuits are often a boon to swimmers and Beth had never given one a spin. My wetsuit hadn’t been used for years at this point, but it still fit, albeit snuggly. Perhaps too snuggly. Maybe it was the tightness of the mock collar around my neck. Maybe it was not being able to feel the water on my skin as I had all season. Maybe it was the choppy, pre-storm waves in the water that night. Whatever the cause, I found myself fighting all my old demons, stroke after anxiety-inducing stroke. I arrived back on shore in one piece physically, but mentally in shreds, saying to Beth in frustration: “That was not the swim I needed right before the race.”

I knew I had to reset my mental state before the race, but I had no idea how. I also knew I had a poetics essay to write for my next graduate school packet, but I had no idea what I wanted to write about. As I flipped through the anthology of formal verse I’ve been reading in search of inspiration, Philip Booth’s “First Lesson” stopped my restless paging dead in the water.

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head

be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

Gently, and I will hold you. Spread

your arms wide, lie out on the stream

and look high at the gulls. A dead-

man’s float is face down. You will dive

and swim soon enough where this tidewater

ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe

me, when you tire on the long thrash

to your island, lie up, and survive.

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

Booth’s poem became the topic of my essay, which you can read here, if you’re interested. I spent the day with a poem of comfort for the near-drowning, trying to understand how it finally finds its way to a place of rest. And poetry worked its magic in the places I couldn’t reach with any amount of reasoning. Yesterday, when I stepped out of the same lake after an uneventful swim, I swear Persephone winked at me from underneath her dark hair.


Persephone, when she was just a wee outline.

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Practice Makes

early 15c. alteration of Middle English parfit, from per- meaning “completely” and facere “to make, to do.” Often used in English as an intensive (perfect stranger, etc.).

My therapist told me once that perfectionism is fairly common in closeted LGBTQ people. He explained that when folks are told there’s something shameful in them, they set about to “make up” for it in other parts of their lives. It’s a sort of lovability insurance, just in case their secret is found out. They might be a huge disappointment to their parents in their gender or orientation, but at least they’re a doctor/lawyer/professional athlete, so their parents must to be proud of that. Perhaps my tendencies weren’t helped by two decades of closeting, but my beginnings in perfectionism started long before I was aware of anything to be shamed for in who I loved. It was there in my reluctance to play anything I hadn’t already mastered during piano practice. It was there in my sinking stomach every art class and my constant mirror watching in and out of the ballet studio. And it was there in my literal bedroom closet, where I hid from the blank page of my first big writing assignment, a third grade research paper.

For years, in order to step out of that closet and do anything, I told the voice inside my head to shut up. It would sound the alarm at vocal juries and races and even at the stove and I would do my best to shut it down by brute force. I had to. If I didn’t, I would freeze, unable to even make dinner, never mind making it to the finish line or making art. The high standards of the Editor (as I’ve come to call that voice) were overwhelming and paralyzing. It wasn’t until adulthood that a poetry teacher coaxed me to be gentler with that voice. “It’s trying to save your life! To the Editor, a bad poem is as threatening as stepping out into traffic!” From her, I learned first to be grateful for those inner standards and, from that place of gratitude, to ask the Editor to step aside long enough for something to be made. Where asking failed, bribery sometimes worked, but the shift at least quieted the constant self-beratement.

A fellow writing friend recently posted a quote from Anne Lamott: “The perfectionistic voice in your head is the voice of the oppressor.” A commenter objected so, we should listen the voice of mediocrity? Again the same antagonism— the valiant writer against the oppressor; the narrow gate of perfect art versus the wide road down to forgettable writing. But what if, the narrow gate is the size of the eye of a needle, so I simply dismount my camel and never begin the poem? The only perfect poems are the ones that are still in my head—once it becomes real words on the page, it is always less than I imagined. My perfect poems are beautiful, voiceless creatures that never leave the cage of my skull.

Beyond my legacy of training in classical arts (learn the steps and perform them, learn the notes and produce them), this made improvisation all but impossible. Improvisation left too much to chance; the risk of imperfection was far too high. Paired with a group of dancers for a multi-disciplinary art project a coupe years ago, I nearly ran screaming from the first meeting when they asked “Could you improvise a poem?” Instead of escaping, I worked a deal with my Editor—an imperfect compromise where I let him be the improviser by creating erasure poems. More recently, a similar panic crept in when numerous mentor figures suggested I add “free writing” to my writing practice.

Writing practice. Writing habit. The making of writing. And yet when I tried to free write, I couldn’t get the Editor to pipe down long enough to make anything. Three sentences in, I was reworking a word or phrase in the first sentence or simply deleting everything. If I wrote in long hand, large swathes of the page would be crossed out and sometimes whole pages landed in the shredder. (Not the recycling bin. The shredder. Which gives you a sense of my Editor.)  Every word made, swiftly unmade. Nothing completed. “Free” writing became like the free in “fat free.” Perfectly absent. Until I stumbled into another compromise, another bargain with mediocrity that would put words on the page: a blindfold. I started a new page with a prompt word, set a timer for ten minutes, and then turned the brightness on my laptop screen all the way down.

The result was full of typos, garbled punctuation, and redundant words that made the Editor wince when I brought the screen back to life. But there they were—words on a page. Words that with a little clean-up, sometimes, weren’t half bad. Words that on occasion led to a poem, but more often were merely momentum—words that led to more words. As the Editor allows, I’ve been sharing the free writes as seeds in the unremarkable soil we’ve been tilling together. Perhaps they’ll grow to be sturdy, nutritious kale. Perhaps they’ll bloom into beautiful and heady smelling peonies. Or maybe they’ll just nestle into their warm, dark pocket of the internet and stay there. Vulnerable and maybe entirely mediocre, they are a furrow I can point to, saying: See, Editor? We made something. And it may not be complete, but people saw it and we’re still perfectly fine.


Let the free writing begin

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