It’s that time where we take a look at a few things we should learn more about, so let’s have at it.
I am obsessed with this collection of photographs from Nicola Ókin Frioli. Los muxes, gay men in the Mexican town of Juchitán, are beloved by the community. Families consider them a blessing, a good luck charm. They drink, work, and legislate in traditional Oaxacan dress: flower-embroidered blouses, brightly colored skirts, and scarves wound through long hair. Yet another reason I should figure out how to retire to Oaxaca.
When the subject of street harassment comes up, people usually argue about how best to deal with it. I’ve tried ignoring it, yelling back, giving the finger, and looking straight at them to ask why they think it’s okay to talk to women that way. David Cross has a hilarious joke about what these men might be thinking when they holler at us, but what I really want to direct you to are two women’s artistic responses to street harassment. In City of Brotherly Love, Hannah Price photographed Philadelphia men just after they harassed her. She captures an interesting moment; some guys look uncomfortable with the lens on them, while others don’t seem to care. Likewise, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh captioned her drawings of women with the things she wanted to tell harassers and then hung the posters around Brooklyn. They sparked a community conversation as people scribbled their thoughts in the blank spots.
Finally, Frieze Week–with two major art fairs and countless gallery openings–just happened in London, and it highlighted more African artists than the city had ever seen. Included as a Frieze Master was feminist artist Nil Yalter. Yalter’s photographs, drawings, paintings, and installations typically focus on aspects of the lives of women and immigrants.
Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.
The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.
I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.
As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?
Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.
Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?
Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!
Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.
The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
- Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
- Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
- Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
- Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
- Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
- Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
- Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
- Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.
It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.
Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.
In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.
I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.
Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?
I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.
- Heather Cassils: focuses on busting gender binaries through images of the body and performance art, sees transgender as a “continual becoming,” recent work: Becoming an Image
- Zackary Drucker: uses photography, videography, and performance art to explore the complexity of bodily identity and seeing; check out She Gone Rogue
- Greer Lankton (deceased): created posable dolls representing people considered as “freaks” until her death in 1996, inspired by Candy Darling, final work: It’s All About ME, Not You
- Del LaGrace Volcano: considers the performance of gender and intersex experience through installations, performance, film, and photography; recent work: Sex Works
- Antony Hegarty: performs with collaborators under Antony and the Johnsons, winner of UK’s Mercury Prize for I Am a Bird Now, lush and otherworldly vocals, also a visual artist, recent work: Cut the World (live album) and Turning (acclaimed documentary of a European tour)
- Vaginal Davis: started The Afro Sisters, Black Fag, and Pedro, Muriel and Esther; performed with Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin; performance artist exploring spectacle and racial and gender confusion through counter-cultural personas; recent work: “Lesbi Tropicalia – Tea & Sympathy” (performative intervention as part of Helio Oiticica)
- Rocco Katastrophe: rapper, singer, and producer uniting queer and hip-hop cultures; featured on The L Word soundtrack; started the first trans men’s magazine (Original Plumbing) with photographer Amos Mac
Filmmakers and Theatre Artists
- Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
- Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions: produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
- D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)
- Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
- Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
- Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
- Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.
- Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
- Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
- Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
- Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”
To celebrate the autumnal equinox yesterday, I attended Letters to the Earth: Songs and Poems of Conservation at Ijams Nature Center. The sky was a dreamy blue, so I rode my bike there. Jewel-toned hummingbirds flitted in and out of trees and cicadas sang their afternoon song while we lounged on the patio listening to a handful of Knoxville’s great poets: Marilyn Kallet, Arthur Smith, Jesse Graves, R.B. Morris, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Linda Parsons Marion.
They spoke of blackberries and tomatoes and mockingbirds, tigers and rhinos and rural landscapes. I was stuffed with empanadas, grilled corn, dulce de leche, and fresh coconut from the HoLa Hispanic Heritage Festival earlier in the afternoon, and I reveled in a day outside with so much for the senses after being stuck inside with a congested head for far too long.
Fall is my favorite season. It’s a time to reflect on the past, feel that familiar ache over things we’ve lost, and then let it all fall away like water. It’s a time to find beauty in change.
It was renewing for me to spend the first day of fall at a poetry reading. I’d been away from the literary scene for quite some time. I’d gotten busy with the nonprofit work I was doing, and I’d come home tired and in need of escape. I didn’t do much writing, I didn’t pay much attention to new writers and literary news, and I certainly didn’t attend events. I’d spend the day dealing with funding cuts and federal deadlines and the saddest client stories of abuse and poverty, and then I’d come home and watch 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Revenge and try to get some sleep before I had to get up and do it all over again.
And then came the period where I didn’t write at all. I thought I wasn’t a poet or fiction writer or storyteller after all. I thought I’d been wrong about who I was, that writing had just been a phase, though a long one.
It started three years ago. That fall marked the beginning of a series of struggles, from the September death of my husband’s brother–which was both unexpected and expected, wholly preventable and sadly inevitable–to my emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy the following July.
After that, I didn’t write creatively for more than a year. I just couldn’t. I would try–I’d feel like I should or even feel the urge, but when I sat before my computer or grabbed a notebook, nothing happened. Do you ever have that dream where you try to scream and nothing comes out? That what it was like.
I’d never had writer’s block; I’d written my way out of every dark hole. So I thought that was the end. I thought the writer in me was gone.
I had spent several years working for an agency that served victims of gender-based violence, so I knew a lot about healing. I had written support group curricula, researched resilience, and designed programs that helped people overcome trauma and tragedy. And then I found myself covering one layer of sorrow with another, facing my own mortality for the first time, grieving over the loss of something I never knew, losing a body part that was culturally tied to womanhood, realizing brutally just how much women risk their lives to bring new life, and tumbling down into a spiral of confusion over whether or not I even wanted to be a mother in the first place or ever.
I felt lucky to be alive. Had I lived in a country with less access to the right medical care or with a total abortion ban, I’d be dead. Had I not given into the pain and into my nurse mother’s insistence that I go to the hospital even though I didn’t think I needed to, I’d be dead. So I really focused on my relief at being alive, but eventually everything else bubbled up.
What I discovered is that healing is really tough. Healing is elusive, and you have to fight for it. You have to decide that you are going to go on, that you’re going to find a way to get through it, and that you’ll do whatever it takes. And you have to be willing to wait through every excruciating moment because it takes a long damn time. What I discovered was that in my time of need all the ways I knew to heal had abandoned me.
I couldn’t write a word. I did other things: I talked, cried, thought, ran, walked, talked, and cried some more. But I couldn’t put it on paper, and I didn’t feel like the pain would ever really go away. Maybe I couldn’t handle making it art. I was furious and disappointed and utterly sad, and maybe it didn’t feel much like art. Perhaps turning it into a poem felt too much like finding beauty in something that had no beauty or purpose or value. I hated what I’d been through. I said it wasn’t worth it. I said it was the biggest waste of everything. So how could I write about it?
I grew up a lot during that period. I crossed a bridge I never knew existed. Here’s what I learned: that’s life. Things happen, and that’s life. You take the good and the bad; you can’t have it any other way. Sometimes a bunch of bad shit comes at once, and you feel like you’ll never find your way out of it. Other times, it’s a gorgeous fall day, and you eat salty tostones and ride your bike and listen to poetry while hummingbirds mate.
Yes, if you wait it out long enough and work hard enough, Persephone comes back from Hades feeling like a bomb-ass queen. That’s life. Sometimes I sing it (that’s liiiiiiife) with jazz hands.
Deep into last fall, in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I fell in love with literature all over again. I’d forgotten the pull of words, the richness of life when words are joined in a way that makes you feel like singing. But there it was before me, and I felt it so hard that it welled up in my throat.
I started thinking about writing again. For a few weeks, I just thought about it. Then I sat down and words came, and I felt my new self settle back into my old self and we all felt good and ready.
Having read my post on Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” a friend sent me an article about women poets in India who have taken up the subject of rape. You’ve no doubt read about the increasing problem of violence against women in certain parts of India, Delhi in particular, and the gang rapes that made international news. One poet explains her intentions:
‘With debates increasingly centering around violence against women, the topic has become common ground for all of us. We have become one entity, irrespective of where we come from,’ said Tamizh poet Salma. Her poems are often devoid of illusionary imageries and soaring similes. ‘I call sex, sex. A rape, rape. People have often asked me why my language is so stark and descriptions so explicit. How else would you convey what a woman goes through? Poetry is constantly evolving and this is part of that evolution,’ she said.
This article got me thinking about the evolution of the rape poem. For centuries, rape poems came from the pens of men. These poems, such as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” and Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” addressed classical rape, stories from mythology. They were not meant to help the reader understand real instances of rape; instead, they served as metaphors, ways to address other subjects. Essentially, women’s bodies were not women’s bodies but political symbols.
Even later, with Seamus Heaney’s “Act of Union,” rape is used as a metaphor for Britain’s control of Ireland, a common theme in earlier Irish poetry. Likewise, many scholars consider Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” to be an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland. With its erotic, sensual imagery, “Leda and the Swan” turns rape into an aesthetic experience, which makes Yeats’s sonnet one of the most revered works of art and exemplifies a problem that is common in art from painting to film: the eroticization of rape.
So rape is sexy and rape is useful for “loftier” discussions than women’s lives. In her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky points out that “scholars and media pundits alike casually invoke rape metaphors…to convey a sense of ‘ultimate’ degradation or horror or to illustrate the humiliation of nations (e.g., the “rape of Kuwait”). Simultaneously, they neglect the particular experiences of [those] who actually experience rape.”
When women finally began writing rape into poems, the narrative changed dramatically. Suddenly, the rape poem became personal, intimate, and painful. Rape was no longer a metaphor but a gritty reality. In a strange way, women reclaimed their bodies as sites of personal violence instead of national symbols. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Ntozake Shange expressed the complexity of woman as victim: being betrayed by a friend, being treated like a criminal by the police, feeling guilty and dirty, trying to overcome victimhood, etc.
But the depiction of rape on a personal level does not rule out politics. If the personal is political, then these poems are fiercely political, which just what the Indian poets are saying. Poetry can be healing, as it has been for countless victims in programs like Lifecentre, and it can nurture empathy, helping readers understand the experience of sexual assault and of living with the threat of this kind of violence. But it can also be a revolution.
Contemporary rape poems often serve to challenge, disrupt, and destabilize patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that create male subjects and female objects, punish and silence transgressors, and perpetuate rape culture, i.e., community complicity. I came across this story from Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, who describes submitting a poem about her friend’s brutal rape to a literary journal and receiving a disturbing response from the male editor who told her to stop writing rape poems because he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.” Clearly, he was threatened by her poem. Her response, of course, was to write another one.
In Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, poet Anne Waldman wrote:
Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradiction that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means in figuring out how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time [and bodies]. She–the practitioner–wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand feminine ‘difference.’ She’ll take on the subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband(s), lovers, male companions, warmongers, micromanagers, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside down. What does it look like?
After I read Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” I thought about a few things in my life that I hadn’t written about. I thought about the time I was riding my bike to the library, nearly a decade ago, and two men in a pickup truck followed me. I could feel it all over again. And then I wrote this:
Quick, the hammering fear
as they pull up alongside
in a beat-up work truck
Words I cannot repeat, will not
words thrown like hammers
fired like hot bullets
I tell myself
to look straight ahead
keep riding, pedal harder
One block free
they find me again
I try to hide the shudder
It is the loveliest kind of day
a day for falling in love
or dipping your feet in the creek
A neighborhood of Victorians
pale pink, creamy yellow, baby blue
sidewalks interrupted by old trees
But the truck rumbles again
Locusts that keep coming, shadows I can’t shake
They have fists and gasoline and terrible tools
I have only the slender frame
of my bike and myself
a voice caught in my throat
Done taunting, they gun it
disappear into the city
their laughter still squeezing my throat
I stay inside for weeks
for the clouds watch my every move
the air itself trembling with murderous desire
Last week I wrote about violence against women in crime fiction and detective shows, and I mentioned that these kinds of stories often lead us to believe that there is always some kind of monster lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. While most women are attacked by someone they know, we also live with fear of stranger rape as a fact of life. Maybe “fear” isn’t quite the right word. Awareness? We are always aware of potential threats to our bodies–partly because frequent verbal harassment reminds us that violence is not far behind–and so go about the world knowing that horrible things sometimes lie just under the surface of a seemingly pleasant moment: a night out with friends, a quick trip to the store, a walk in a park.
I said last week that even though these threats are out there, I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about them despite what these stories and the media would have me think. Two days after I wrote that, I was lacing up my running shoes and glancing at the local news online. I discovered that a woman had been sexually assaulted the day before at the park where I run several days a week. She was walking a trail with her two-year-old daughter in the middle of the afternoon.
A great deal of cussing ensued in my living room.
Needless to say, many in the community and employees of the park are angry, feeling like an important part of all our lives–where we seek peace, fellowship, and pleasure–has been attacked. I run for release, for serenity. But I also work out a lot of creative ideas while I’m running. I like to run at this particular park because it has miles and miles of trails to choose from–with dreamy sunflower fields, old marble quarries, and lush, tree-covered tunnels that make everything magical.
For me, a good run or long walk is magical. My feet can barely keep up with my imagination as it takes off in different directions, conjuring up ideas, crafting narratives, developing characters. I spend a lot of time just letting ideas percolate before I ever write a word. It’s my favorite part of writing, the wandering mind. There’s something about communing with nature that sets my mind free; I can become anyone or anything in that moment. It’s like lucid dreaming. As long as I’m moving forward, the scene in my head is as vibrant as jewelweed along a stream.
I don’t know what I would do without this part of the process. Granted, it hasn’t always been part of my creative process. I used to write poetry strictly, and all I needed was a pen and paper to make something happen. It might not always be good, but there would be something salvageable to be put to work the next day. When I began writing fiction, however, I realized I needed a different approach. I couldn’t just sit down and write and expect there to be a full narrative, so running and long walks have become a critical part of my life. There’s something about a physical challenge that engages my mind in a way I never would have expected. It also helps me deal with stress, anxiety, or other frustrations.
I’m always aware of what can happen when I’m out there. There’s that word again. One has to be aware. Some of the trails become quite isolated, and I pay attention to my surroundings and sometimes look back to make sure that men who pass me don’t double back. Balancing daydreaming with defensiveness is a complicated act, but I’m sure it’s one that many women are used to.
Every time I’ve gone out since this attack, my imagination has taken me in a very different direction. All the stories and characters are the same: I fight this guy. I win. I stop him. I become like a superhero, a warrior, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jennifer Garner in Alias. I imagine possessing Buffy’s super strength.
And then I’ve spent an hour dedicated to committing violence. I don’t like it. I’ve run out some of my anger, but my muscles are tighter than usual. So much for release.
My heart goes out to this woman and her family. It could have been any of us, but she’s the one who has to live with it, who has to find a way to make sure it doesn’t haunt her child. The police have released a sketch of the attacker, and I hope someone turns him in.
In the meantime, I will keep running wherever I want. And I will find a way to go back to the kinds of stories I want to create. I won’t let him change my life. Though I may have some tricks up my sleeve if you meet me on the trail.
I’ve written about the debate over rape jokes, and it goes on and on in editorials, blog posts, and online discussions. But Patricia Lockwood took a new approach by submitting her thoughts in poetic form. “Rape Joke,” published in The Awl last Thursday, has already received more attention than any poem could dream of in its lifetime. I beg you to read it, sit in silent thanks for a moment, and then come back to chat.
I know. It hits the spot–if the spot is a deep ache to say once and for all that rape is both horrific and sadly banal and can really fuck you up but eventually you find a way to go on living and are even able to find the humor in your tragedy, but that humor is yours to share as a way of processing and healing and getting on with life. If the spot is a desperate desire to explain that the real joke is that this kind of thing happens every two minutes, that rape is so normalized that we talk about it all the time but nothing ever changes, that women are often silenced when they talk about rape.
Take a deep breath.
This is what I love about poetry. It guts us in a way that nonfiction generally can’t manage. We might have different interpretations, but it’s hard to come away from a piece like that without feeling something approaching what the narrator feels. This piece also reflects the wide open landscape that we get with poetry. In an essay, the thesis is laid out pretty quickly, but a poem takes us on a ride to a place we didn’t know we were going. I know I’ve got poetry as a knife and as a vehicle here, but I’m just going to take liberties with metaphors and you can bristle and click away or just indulge me.
Poetry requires a different kind of engagement than most other discourses. We open ourselves to experiencing language more deeply, and our imagination is aroused with metaphor and imagery. Reading the comment section after the poem (because I wanted to know what others thought but was quickly reminded that other people’s brains are like quicksand pulling me down to the very bad place), I saw responses that described a physical reaction to the poem (“I can’t breathe”) and its transformative power (“This poem changed me”).
The Guardian posits that Lockwood’s poem may encourage people to read more poetry. I suppose it’s not the kind of poetry most people are used to. Folks who don’t read poetry tend to think of the medium as a tangle of unrecognizable wildflowers that shouldn’t be here so let’s burn them and plant grass instead. But most poetry is more accessible than it seems at first glance if we are willing to take the time to think about it. Sure, it can be tough to deal with poetry that seems to be nothing more than a catalogue of non sequiturs, but a lot of poems offer a narrative that’s fairly clear.
“Rape Joke” is accessible, clever, and moving at the same time. The images of some of the more poignant moments stick in my head: the “pretty green necklace” that she later cut up, her laughter for “one long split-open second.” There is a lot going on beneath these words, but they conjure up vivid images that linger like an uncomfortable feeling.
Lockwood’s poem also uses language most of us don’t think of as necessarily “poetic,” but there are no words or moments that are off limits in poetry. We can write lines about washing dishes (“I opened the windows and shut / the doors and put the plates in the sink / and oodled Palmolive all over.”) or monthly bleeding (“Yes, / I want to talk at length about Menstruation. / Or my period.”) or, as Lockwood does, dip cups (“He had chaw in his mouth the entire time, and you told him he / was disgusting and he laughed, and spat the juice through his goatee into a Mountain Dew bottle. “)
Perhaps this kind of poem shows lapsed readers the usefulness of poetry–beyond the simple pleasure of reading–and, therefore, reminds them that poetry is a subject worthy of their time. Perhaps it says something about rape and rape jokes and rape culture that we needed to hear. Maybe some readers identify with the narrator, find in this poem something of their own story, and feel validated or less alone.
It got me writing about a time I was followed by two assholes who threatened me while I was riding my bike. I hadn’t thought to see a poem in it, but there’s a poem in everything. Maybe there’s a joke in everything too. But as with poetry, it can take a long time to see the humor, feel brave enough to reach out to it, roll it around in your hands, and not want to smother it.