The Other Side of Violet contributor Billy Cancel chats with Thomas Fucaloro.Read More
The Other Side of Violet contributor I.S. Jones discusses water, hip-hop, and the moon with Thomas Fucaloro.Read More
Are you rare? Do you want to be rare?
Latest thoughts from Aimee HermanRead More
The Other Side of Violet contributor Nkosi Nkululeko chats with Thomas Fucaloro.Read More
It all began with an eyelash.
Latest thoughts from Aimee HermanRead More
The Other Side of Violet contributor Lew Kelly chats with Jane Ormerod.Read More
The Other Side of Violet contributor Roddy Williams chats with Jane OrmerodRead More
You worry you enter rooms just for the free coffee. I write this into my notebook and leave it there, unattached to anything else. I try not to think about all the times I have walked into spaces I didn't belong, or didn’t think I belonged. But this is not a story about coffee. Although, I am drinking some as I write this. No, this is about my life as an imposter.
I am approached by seven doors by the time I get to work. Some open and close without my hands pushing on them; some need to be messed with. I have a key to two of the doors, yet even when I'm inside, I'm not quite sure how or if I should be there.
I am a teacher. Some call me professor. Though that word sounds way too buttoned-up and makes it sound like I brush my hair or wear deodorant (I often forget).
Three days a week (sometimes four), I head into the Bronx and teach at a community college. Throughout the hour and fifteen minutes commute there, I read. Write in my notebook if there are enough words collected inside of me. Sleep. Stare at people staring at their phones. Marvel at the ways in which our lives can twist and turn us into so many different variations of being.
Every other week, I receive my paycheck and still grow astonished that I am getting paid to swell minds.
Growing up, I always thought teachers were aliens. Like flesh-covered dictionaries and encyclopedias. I firmly thought libraries of every book and fact lived inside their bodies, pressed up against their organs, which of course they knew all the names of. Ask a teacher anything and they knew the answer; this is what I believed.
My parents never put my report cards on the refrigerator like my sister. She was in the extra-advanced classes; I was in the low self-esteem club (yes, there was such a thing).
I wanted to be a veterinarian until I figured out I’d have to deal with blood and death. I thought about being a hairstylist, and then changed my mind to a pastry chef until I became a drug addict and that took me away for a bit.
I have been a nanny, a house cleaner, a barista, a bookseller. I've worked in a movie theatre, a diner, a dollar store, a fast food chain, a bagel shop. I’ve sold jewelry; I’ve sold my body.
Ten years ago, I never thought I would call myself teacher. What am I saying? Five years ago, I wasn’t sure I could call myself this. For most of my life, I never quite knew how to be. How to sit straight, how to socialize, how to be a girl, how to study, how to be bad, how to be good, how to remain.
I tell my students that doors represent an opening. An engagement with another side, land, perspective. I tell them that our bodies contain doors of varying sizes. Doors with padlocks; doors with police taped ribboned around; doors with broken locks. Doors with windows, screens, metal, wooden, translucent.
Even an imposter has a door to their insides. The problem is that sometimes they just don’t always know the way in or through.
I carried around an EXIT sign sewed into both my wrists from all the times I tried to walk out and jump off the ledge of this body. Yet I always found a way to get up and keep walking. But this is not a story about my mental illness and all the scars creating an alphabet on my skin.
I am an imposter. But maybe we all are? I mean, what qualifies any of us to be in any room? I want my students to remain and get their degrees, but that paper doesn't necessarily get them into a room. Because then there are other STOP signs, which might assault their path like gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, must I keep going?
When I walk into the classroom, the students have no idea how nervous I am. Are they really going to listen to me? Me?But I almost flunked high school. I was a restless mess in college. And when I pass by the other teachers, I wait for them to ask me about my credentials. How many books I've read and if I’ve gotten through the literary cannon (definitely not).
In New York, where I teach, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those ranging in ages of 15-34. Every semester, my students tell me about their depression. Their anxieties. Their losses and their fears. I do not tell them all the times and ways I tried to walk off the ledge of this body. How I still feel this urge...
I do not tell them because what I show them is far more important: I always come back. At the start of every class, I welcome them as writers (because they all are) and remind them to be as present as they can be. At the end of the semester, I tell them I will always be their teacher, even when we are no longer walking through the same door.
And yet, I still cling to this word of imposter. I'm not trying to deceive anyone, as the definition often suggests. It’s more about how I feel.
I scratch hate crimes into the death of my skin, dry from winter fornicating with its oils.
I find this in my notebook, dated a few months ago. I have a steady job and a magical spouse who I love and a dog and an apartment and things and nourishment, but this does not mean that I don't fall sometimes. Mess up. Relapse into old behaviors. Hence, my self-stuck imposter label.
I worry that I am an imposter in my marriage because I don't believe in this word. I’ve had no great examples around me, and even though it’s a word my people have fought to have access to (and won), I still feel unclear by it
I am an imposter hippie. Swallowed by panic attacks at marches and rallies. Hairy but hungry for all varieties of animal. Can I still be a non-conforming subculture beatnik, and live inside this queer-stained heteronormative lifestyle?
Recently in my Women's Literature class, my students and I watched Lidia Yuknavitch's TED talk titled, "The Beauty of Being a Misfit." Though I have watched this many times, I still feel emotional throughout. She said, "Even at the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don't even know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly." Afterwards, I asked the students to react and one announced that she felt like her soul had been touched. So often we don't quite have the words to say how we feel or even what we are. And then someone else articulates it as though they have been swimming inside our lives, our brains. A student asked, "But what is a misfit?" And I let the other students answer: outsider, someone unlike the others, someone who doesn't fit in.
Maybe being an imposter is like being a misfit. It’s this giant secret I have living inside me. Like seeds of my former lives growing in my gut, pushing it out. It feels like the reason I should not be welcomed, but maybe being an imposter is the reason I should be here.
I have an exercise I do with my students each semester. It is based upon all the times we are approached by boxes: a box to check off our gender, our race, socio-economic class, educational background, religion, etc. Before the students arrive, I tape up blank pieces of white paper all over the classroom. Then, I ask them to stand up and approach a piece of paper.
This is your box, I say. Think about all the times you are asked to check boxes that may not include what you are or how you see yourself. Boxes with someone else’s language and expectations. Boxes which aim to label you with words or categories you may not feel connected to. Boxes just not big enough to include your vocabulary. I tell them that these pieces of paper are their boxes. They get to fill it in with their words. In the past, students have written: mother, battered, divorced, misunderstood, smart, latina, multi-racial, brother, son, survivor, queer, human, pansexual, Muslim, and even a question mark.
I ask them to sit down when they are done and write in their notebooks about what it felt like to choose their lexicon. Then, we get back up and walk around the room, taking in each other's language. We notice the repeated words, what we have in common, and what words surprised us. For some, this is their first opportunity to give away their self-identified language.
I absolutely hate labels, even though I wear this imposter one across my bound chest. And I wear other labels too, which I self-imposed. Do I do this before someone else does?
Dictionaries are thicker now, and so are we. In brain stem, worry lines, and flesh stretch.
Maybe we need new definitions? To take these words out of their tightly-sealed casings and wrap new syllables around them. Make room for more meanings. Expand the width of our doorways.
Read more Aimee Herman in the full-length collection, meant to wake up feeling
An exhilarating collection of contemporary poetry and short fiction by established and emerging writers from across the United States and beyond. The anthology also contains interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Paul Harding and award-winning poet and novelist Tim Z. Hernandez.Read More
Illusion of an Overwhelm by John Amen (NYQ Books, 2017)
REVIEWED BY DAVID LAWTON
John Amen's work has become familiar to us through his four previous collections of poetry, the last of which, strange theater, was a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. He also founded and edits the excellent Pedestal Magazine. John's latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, is a terrific overview of the obsessions that fuel his artistic process.
The book is divided into four cycles of poems. The first part, Hallelujah Anima, is concerned with desire. How it makes and mars relationships. Its first piece begins:
The purpose of desire
is to propagate desire
& its concomitant recoil:
ambivalence is truth.
We travel across a terrain dominated by Anima, the Jungian term for the female aspect of the male psyche, looking inward, which Amen refers to as a fixture I inherited. This fixture proves to be beyond the poet's control at times, as with the poem he begins:
What happened to Jul with the blond hair & brown eyes?
Rachael who used to turn and wink at me as she belted her moody tunes...
Yet it also manages to bring him self-discovery, as when he says:
...still I wear "brother you better believe
none of this is going to work out"
like a suit of armor...
And it manages to finally arrive at inner healing, when he concludes:
have been punctuated by small salvations
I can never explain.
The second cycle, The American Myths, is an attempt to express the intimacies of a racist society within the family of man, a subject I am sure is complex for Amen as a Southerner. The tensions which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement roil beneath the surface as the family members self-medicate. Super PACs and PTSD are referenced, ironic emoticons appear within the text, and everyone tries to solve their problems with Jacksons, the currency represented by the most racist of Presidents. This cycle is at times difficult to read, and its context has only gotten more upsetting in the short period of time since when Amen first wrote it. But this has made it more important, and I salute John for not holding back.
The third part of the book, My Gallery Days, is a series of portraits of a 1990s New York City artist community, most of whom are struggling with drug addiction:
...ventriloquists on forever methadone, their abstracts
sold for change @ yard sales in Bellmore & Syosset,
the years pass like nodding on Coney Island.
This is my favorite section of the book. The portraits are specific and heartfelt. There is a surprising amount of humor regarding the art movements, and tenderness toward the protagonists, despite their dire situations. You can also identify most strongly in these poems Amen's debt to the beat aesthetic:
AM I soared on Adderall, crashing @ dusk,
Claude on 51st w/his rainbow pipe,
dude humming along to Coltrane
standards on tape, dude dead in a snowdrift in May.
The final section of the book, Portrait of Us, points us toward the possibility of escape from all the inner turmoil through love and romance:
The only salvation greater than love
is the possibility of love: the sky opens...
Most of these poems are very dense. I have not been able to adequately communicate through this review the density of the wordplay. The conflict between the physical and the spiritual. This is much to John Amen's credit, and makes it a book that everyone interested in poetry should sit down and read. Though this density represents the struggle that most of us are going through, in one way or another, it also contains sublime moments of resolution that we all need to get through this journey we are on:
to see it's possible
to love things
just as they are,
just as she is.
Illusion of an Overwhelm John Amen NYQ Books, 2017 ISBN: 978-1-63045-048-9
Origami the front page of The New York Times into an airplane. Watch words, carefully cropped photographs, and haunted headlines swoop into the air as you allow the trauma of the world to fly away from you. Inhale and exhale every yoga position you’ve studied. Remember that just waking up is enough to feel like you’ve accomplished something today. Give your mouth permission to shape itself in whatever position it wants; smiles are always optional. Stop when you need to and if you only get past your stoop, that’s OK. Give your body a standing ovation because organs and skin never receive the recognition they deserve. You will get lost, you will eat something that will cause your belly to renounce itself, you will want to hide, want to climb your way toward an unbothered planet, that’s OK. Listen: there is music playing. Your lungs. The trees. Your hair humming against ears. A cardinal calming you toward one more block. Your teeth, settling in to themselves. That woman saying, bless you. Litter like wind chimes against pavement.
"In the wondrous poems of Michelle Whittaker, "the tired self slipknots a song for her own self to sleep." Even as her language loops into lullabies, swells and spells, it casts a blue and uneasy shadow. Even when she meditates on art or mortality, she dazzles with a turn of phrase and explosive imagery. Even when adrift on the music and mystery of dreams, Surge is fueled by feeling. Warmth and compassion power this amazing debut."
—Terrance HayesRead More
Steve Dalachinsky interviews poet and artist Tsaurah LitzkyRead More
You gave me Garamond, curry powder in baby jars and the adoption papers of a manatee in Florida.
You gave me thirteen new sexual positions—only two of which were in frequent rotation—and wildflowers stolen from our neighbor’s backyard.
You gave me poison ivy; I almost gave you HPV.
You taught me how to kiss with my eyes open, how to eat a mango without utensils, and the meaning behind several constellations.
You taught me Spanish; I taught you how it feels to be left.
You gave me chocolate bars wrapped in poems; I gave you cabbage soup.
You gave me wild strawberries, homemade blackberry jam and your father’s socks.
You gave me dreadlocks, butterflies in the pit of my stomach, a hickey below my hip, and taught me how to keep myself hairy.
You healed my allergies; I gave you two new ones.
You gave me Gibran and Hafiz; I gave you Murakami and Bukowski.
You taught me how to knit, how to pronounce, how to soar.
You taught me how to survive bed bugs and depleted bank accounts.
You gave me wisdom; I gave you expired moonpies and a half-eaten poem.
You gave me red wine in ceramic mugs on late evening walks with mountains crawling against sky.
I gave you 47 ¾ lies mixed with 17 apologies and an unclaimed felony. You gave me forgiveness.
For six years, I have been writing electronic letters to someone I have never met. The entire time we’ve corresponded, I’ve been in Brooklyn; he has been in prison. Our sentences have swum in many directions, but lately we have both begun to grow introspective. Sometimes he is the gasoline to my words, getting them to move quicker out of me. However, recently I expressed an affliction bubbling in my brain, referred to as writer’s block.
I wrote to him, “Actually, I don't believe in such a thing. I mean, a writer writes. Right? And yet, here I am contradicting myself. A brick wall against my chest. An accidental overdose of words without even swallowing anything. Focusing too much on meaning and not enough on purpose.”
My fingers press down on letters, creating meaning, and then I erase. The words go away as though they never existed. Maybe this is why I find more ease when writing in my notebook. There is no delete. Everything remains.
We speak about nicknames, my electronic pen pal and I. He shares his with me and I tell him the ones I’ve been called. I write, “I like the idea of a word that has no meaning, which makes NEW meaning from how it defines.”
There are many questions I want to ask my electronic pen pal, which I leave stewing inside me. Some I am just not ready to ask; some may not have an answer.
Another kind of block.
Even while writing this, I pause more times than I care to announce. Staring at these words. Feeling unqualified to be writing them. Contemplating other labels I can quickly stitch to my skin to replace what I thought I was.
I’ve begun to ponder letting go of pressing this word to me: Writer. It is a noun. A person. But it is so much of a verb too. An action. A state of being. Of doing. I talk to my students about STOP signs and all the words, images, thoughts which stand in our way of becoming. My STOP sign has always been red. With curly hair and very thin lips. (Me.)
I thought being inside something would make me feel less blocked. And yet, I wonder if maybe it has led to the cause. This two-syllable label gives me heartburn. I yearn for the days I was less self-conscious. Or I yearn for the days I will be self-confident.
Years ago, I performed a piece where words were written all over my body. Parts of my poems, secrets I’ve hoarded, words I’ve been or still are.
On one of my arms were the words, “what I was and what I am engage in a battle.” There is a tug-of-war with our past and present and I don’t know about you, but I feel this pull every single day. It is the cellular structure of my writer’s block, and yet sometimes the cure.
Thomas Page McBee wrote, “The more you’re exposed to different narratives, and the more you see there’s not one way to be anything, the more you question and interrogate your own way of being in the world.”
Maybe I just need to interrogate myself more. Not be so afraid of my questions and just ask them. To learn about others allows me entrance into learning more about myself. This may not aid my writer’s block, but perhaps it can keep me here just a little longer as I work on figuring out the answers.
Thomas Fucaloro chats with the author of Crown Price of Rabbits, John Paul Davis.Read More
Audre Lorde asked, "what are the words you do not yet have?"
So I ask my students to bring to class the largest sack they can find. Made from forest or skirt or their least favorite weather pattern.
But it must be the curvature of empty, I add.
I arrive early and some of the students are sucking on the neon haze of their cell phones. One travels their neck and shoulder to places I’ve never been to before because of the music collected in the drum of their ears.
When it is time, I ask them to clear their desks of everything but their sack.
(They are quite used to these odd requests from me.)
I am wearing pants, color of crushed moss, with long-distance pockets.
Dig long fingers—once described as emaciated pianos—down deep and lift out as many question marks as I could fit inside.
I dump them onto desk and ask my students what they see.
Lines. Curls. Arches. A mountain?
Each student receives a question mark to place into their sack. The ones who insist get more.
We walk around the room with our voices, practicing how to use our question marks.
Lorde wrote, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood."
I urge my students to rise. They clutch their sacks, which beg to be filled.
Here is when I begin the list of what will go inside our sacks:
- the discolored fist-marks on skin
- the hisses, hauntings, hunted parts of us
- mirrors or any reflective glass that forgets to disclose our most important bits: our insides
- every pronoun that mispronounced us
- all the no’s incorrectly heard as yes
- our childhood (optional)
- the memory of that time someone told us to let go of reaching because arms are never long enough to get us out and through
- every single box which has boxed us in
- that scar hidden behind a different one, shaped like an EXIT sign
- the words: I can’t
Our muscles grow vocal chords, working hard to lift what now overflows.
Some students are still confused. Several are crying.
Audre Lorde reminded us, “We were never meant to survive.”
So I ask my students, what can we do to remain?
I can tell them all about how classrooms felt like cliffs to me and I jumped more times than I can remember. That the few times I remained were because a teacher gave me a sack to fill with words. And questions. And dreams. And poems.
I can tell them that I still hoard questions marks in my pockets and beneath my tongue because there is so much I do not know and cannot claim to understand.
I can tell them that for every time I was incorrectly pronounced, I could feel my mouth’s zipper get thicker and stronger and tougher. Creating my invisibility.
But it’s not about me. So, I wait for them to decide how to feel. How to react. How to respond. Give them paper to write on and words to read to fuel their question marks.
To keep them here a little longer.
Which keeps me here too.
We continue our profiles of poets and writers featured in the great weather for MEDIA anthology The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker today with our interview with the wonderful Soodabeh Saeidnia:Read More
When can we start to admit that the more doors we close on people—locking them out—the more ledges we are, in turn, building for them to jump from. This doesn’t need to be political.
I ask my students: Raise your hand if you went to the bathroom today. They look at me, inquisitively, wondering why I would ask such a personal question.
Slowly, they all raise their hands.
Then, I say: How many of you paused at the rectangular sign announcing who gets to enter? How many of you didn’t relate to the word or image announcing a gender you may not prescribe to? How many of you just held it in because a possible urinary tract infection made more sense than entering a room that didn’t include (or welcome) you.
This doesn’t need to be political.
This is simply about a universal human function. In fact, maybe our bladders can be the thread that finally sews us all together, reminding us we are human. We are not the same, but we connect. We all just need to urinate sometimes.
In a recent article in the NY Times, Janet Mock wrote, “When trans students are told that they cannot use public facilities, it doesn’t only block them from the toilet. It also blocks them from public life.”
If you’ve ever gone camping, I mean, without the nearby showers and stalls, real wilderness without wifi signal, simply stars and moon and occasional bear sightings. You’d know that there are no separations. The earth doesn’t care about what gender you identify as. The soil does not lean toward a particular political party. It exists for you to dig your fingers into. To squat over and pee. To dig your hole and…well, I think you get it. Maybe this is why I love camping so much. Because I can be my loudest version of wild. Be naked (at times). I am not woman or man or ma’am or girl. I am just flesh. Wild and free.
I wasn’t supposed to still be here; I think this thought almost everyday about all the ways I have tried to erase myself. And all the ways government and others have tried to do the same.
I just want my students to remain. To feel embraced in a world where walls are replacing welcome mats. It is difficult enough to exist without all these question marks growing inside a body and mind.
For me, it is not UTI or bust. Though I linger at times and wish for more options, I walk into the F room. Women’s. Ladies. The one wearing the dress.
I try not to make eye contact with anyone, circa 1990s high school gym locker room.
I walk into a stall and squat. Try not to make eye contact with my vagina because we are so often not on speaking terms. I just need to pee. Wipe. Pants up. Flush. Wash hands without engaging in mirror contact.
We all do this. We all go to the bathroom. So, why not make it just a little less stressful and offer more options. Take the signs down. Or add another one like: FOR ALL.
I’m not interested in starting a campaign to investigate the obscene amount of urine splattered on toilet seats. I just want people to feel more welcome nowadays.
And I only want ledges to be homes for pigeons, not humans who’ve been pushed out, whose bodies have become politicized. Perhaps we need to take the time to ask: Who are you (today)? How do you feel? What do you need in order to be who you are for even just one more day?