Monday, January 31, 2011


I don't have a lot of words lately. I don't want to fill up any space right now with explanations, I just want to do what I'm doing. So this is what I'm going to do here.

My husband is smart; he knew before I did that what I was fashioning was a self-portrait.

From a journal in 2007 (because I've been going through them lately):

If you want shiny lips you have to use the candy-flavored lipgloss on top. Brenda likes to wear it plain without anything underneath, but I always wear it on top of lipstick. It makes my lips look great, so shiny and red it's like they're practically made of vinyl.

Now that it's getting warmer the girls are starting to wear the tiny tight skirts we all used to. They wear them bare-legged with those little flats, leather or canvas. I'm still rockin my skintight jeans. I'm curvy the right way, and my legs are really skinny so they always look good. Brenda and Marisol can wear those shirt skirts really well, and Marisol has great legs, kinda creamy and muscular that look really good in those tiny skirts. But poor Callie, she's a year behind the rest of us and still flat as a friggin board. She doesn't have any hips or ass to speak of, so she's just better off wearing baggy stuff and showing off her midriff and her nonexistent tits.

We spend most of our time on the streets: that's where the action is. We get looks from all kinds of men. Callie and Brenda are content to fuck around with guys from Clemente or Lane Tech, you know, boys our own age, and Marisol will sort of go with the flow. She gets her fair share of looks and stuff but I don't know if she's even into guys. The whole time she's out here, she has this real dead sorta look on her face. One afternoon she was talking with this guy who was driving a black Benz two-door, and she stretched her tight pink lips into a smile and she talked to him, but the whole time her eyes never lost that vacant dead look. She got in his car and they disappeared down Halsted, but hell only knows what happened. We didn't see her again for a couple days and when she came back she had the same vacant look.

The thing I like about it is the tease. You're out there, and you're all dressed up, and it ain't like those tight ass Lincoln Park housewives, or this sick little single girls that fry their hair flat and teeter around on high heels that they meet in bars. They see me, in my skintight jeans and my jacket that's just short enough to show my ass, and my perfectly white Reeboks, and they know I'm tight. They know my body is new and fresh, so fresh it crunches when you bite it, and their mouths water. They think, look at her, she's young, she's anonymous, she's probably never had it before, so good or so hard or so big as I could give it to her. They don't know what I know: that they aren't anything special, that I don't put out, I only suck dick, and that most of the time they won't even get that. They ask me if I want a ride, and it really doesn't matter where they're going, I'm probably going to get in, but I gotta make them think that good young girls like me don't get caught dead with grown men, with my hand down their pants or their hand down my pants, doing dirty things young girls like me know nothing about. All this is still in the future, and they look at me from behind the steering wheel, their eyes questioning and lips curling in anticipation.

And then I know I can have whatever I want.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"write a little every day, without hope, without despair."

There comes a time when all your outlets are blocked, as with wax. You sit in your room, feeling the prickling ache in your body which constricts your throat, tightens dangerously in little tear pockets behind your eyes. One word, one gesture, and all that is pent up in you--festered resentments, gangrenous jealousies, superfluous desires--unfulfilled--all that will burst out of you in angry impotent tears--in embarrassed sobbing and blubbering to no one in particular. No arms will enfold you, no voice will say, "There, There. Sleep and forget." No, in your new and horrible independence you feel the dangerous premonitory ache, arising from little sleep and taut strung nerves, and a feeling that the cards have been stacked high against you this once, and that they are still being heaped up. An outlet you need, and they are sealed. You live night and day in the dark cramped prison you have made for yourself. And so on this day, you feel you will burst, break, if you cannot let the great
reservoir seething in you loose, surging through some leak in the dike. So you go downstairs and sit at the piano. All the children are out; the house is quiet. A sounding of sharp chords on the keyboard, and you begin to feel the relief of loosing some of the great weight on your shoulders.

This is from a journal entry Sylvia Plath wrote the summer she was eighteen. She took a job nannying for a family at the seashore, and evidently was struggling with some feeling while there. I read it this morning, yet another gray day dawning, and felt some resonance.

I do not have to finish anything, to be anything--a master of a pose, a wife, a friend, a teacher--in a complete form. Every piece of work or action, every choice I make is a practice. It is an easy thing to say, but sometimes I feel like I am in such pursuit of things, of mile markers or evidentiary benchmarks, that I feel like I'm pulling, or tugging my way down the road.

I would love to be able to blame the way I'm feeling on something easily corrected, like my diet. Like the absence of sunshine. Like too much or not enough sleep. But it isn't that. I don't know what it is, or where it comes from, but it is both truer and more elusive than that. It is something thin and invisible and undetectable, but ever-present. It's terrifying in its ever-presence.

I don't know if I can afford to feel this way right now. I have things to do, there are expectations. The clock doesn't stop, people still want me to produce. I cannot hit the pause button on my life, or my relationships, while I take a week to recuperate.

I'd like to continue writing, to chronicle and to confront and to keep making work despite this awful feeling descending on me like fog or rising tide. But I fear I sound incomprehensible. It's like writing high: you think you're all wise and poetic, but really you're trite and indecipherable.

I have also tried to tell myself that these vacuoles of despair are part of my legacy, part of the journey of being an artist. The writer's life is many things, among it a rhapsody of rejection, and the emotional sewage that comes with that is just what the talent through the ages has bequeathed me for choosing this path. Maybe if I look at that then this feeling has a purpose: maybe it will increase my talent; maybe it will increase my determination; maybe I will know better how to cope the next time. But even that sounds a bit hollow in its consolation. It feels like a positive spin.


Monday, January 10, 2011

don't answer that, it's rhetorical.

The little girl, the nine year old who was killed in Saturday's shooting in Arizona, she was born on September 11, 2001. She'd just been elected to her third-grade student council, and went to see Congresswoman Giffords to stimulate a budding interest in politics. Think of that: she entered the world on the date of one act of terrorism and exited it by means of another.

An act of terrorism. I'm not sure if I've heard this kind of language around what happened at the Safeway in Tuscon. Which is interesting to me, because language has been a big deal in the fallout of this tragedy. Keith Obermann put out an editorial about rhetoric and language of violence right after the shooting --and a friend of mine critiqued it, and he also linked to a really cool article in the Atlantic, keep clicking to find it. A sheriff in the area connected these actions to political rhetoric from the climate in Arizona, and is now being condemned and judged and distanced by a ton of people in the media. Malibu Barbie and her brood are being chastised for some target list they've put out, and are rabidly defending their use of this kind of language. Fascinating that after such human life is destroyed that language is the first thing that people start to talk about: the why of a disaster like this is in the language. That's the reason I'm a writer.

The thing I notice is that people who are called on to comment and respond to the shooting keep calling the suspect "a monster", "a deranged individual", a lone, crazy gunman with little to no evidence of this having been anything more than a random act of violence. Why is that? Don't get it twisted: I'm sure this guy is not well, is mentally unstable. But why do we need to strip him of his humanity when we talk about his actions and motivations?

Because, Jess, you say, he stripped so many of their humanity; turnabout is fair play. But I don't know. Maybe this guy is crazy, and maybe he acted alone, but maybe this isn't so random. Maybe he's angry about a lot and thought he was out of options. Maybe he wanted to have his voice heard, and thought the only way to do it was to smear blood and brain all over parking lot tarmac. Maybe he's not a monster; maybe he's just a guy.

That's the reason that I think we're all in such a hurry to call this guy crazy, to chalk him up as a nut job, to make this the random violence of a deranged man and not an act of terrorism.

My Honey pointed out that the vernacular in this country makes acts of terrorism committed only by brownies: The Oklahoma City bombing was an act of terrorism, he says, but does the nation remember it that way, the way that the remember the Twin Towers bombings as acts of terrorism? Tim McVeigh was one of ours, he was no towelheaded, camel jockey Muslim. He was a good ol' boy. He wonders if this shooting will linger in our collective memory as an act of terrorism--which is what it is.

I'd argue that given the path of the rhetoric conversation that the odds are slim. Everyone wants to write this guy off as a nut job, so that the pain and fear we feel is a little less real, so that instead of vulnerable, we are brave, fearless, indestructible. Not only do we need to make what might have been a political statement into an apolitical violent expression, but we need to keep the same dark face on terrorism. If people who blend in as easily as these men do can violate and destroy our safety and our freedom, then we are never safe.

Friday, January 7, 2011

instead, joy.


I was working on a post about Las Vegas and about how my maiden voyage there was a series of firsts, but even before I sat down I found myself sounding altogether too wise and sum-uppy and here's what I learned on my vaycay. Yuch. I also recently did a bit of griping about how difficult San Jose was with the in-laws who seem as different, distant and inscrutable as Martian epic poetry. But no more of that either. Instead, some favorites from Sin City and San Francisco. I've left out all the ones of me looking contemplatively out at the Golden Gate Bridge and wondering if I should move my husband and my life out to the West Coast. (It's a real question, but there's such a thing as too many furrowed brows.)


Monday, January 3, 2011

open letter in pursuit of writing time

Dear Professors:

I'd really like to be selected for your residency. The truth is that for the first time in a while I feel like I might be beginning to understand the path that I'm on as an artist. I've been working on a memoir for more than a year now, and I discover that the question I want to explore is what it means to be an American.

It's a fascinating, quite alarming time to be alive. I feel as if the stakes of identity and interaction are so high. People who could take their citizenship for granted are now feeling acutely threatened, are beginning to circle the wagons. The question of American identity affects our politics, our relationships, our jobs and schools, our artistic expression. America is changing; I ask myself is American optimism, our relentless can-do, pick-up-by bootstrap attitude a virtue or a vice? As we toil toward a better existence (individual or collective?), what problems are we ignoring that will hinder our nation? I am fascinated, arrested by the question of what it means to be an American, a black woman in America, in an adolescent country that has prospered faster than it can keep pace, that wants desperately to forget horrors it's committed in the name of America, or to justify them as necessary and appropriate. I feel like I'll be writing to ask this question for a long time in my artist's life.

Right now I'm writing about my family, my upbringing, my race, all of the things closest to me that make me an American. I guess I'm writing inside out. But I know that this is just the beginning.

I get so excited about this work it makes me shake. Salivate. Ache. I'm desperate for it.
I've been working really hard with mixed success. I've learned that teaching is super important to my writing. When I am able to be super disciplined and focused, the students I work with reflect back a boundless amount of energy, energy that feeds brilliantly back into my work, and also allows me to funnel back into them at my best. Unfortunately, what generally happens to this symbiotic relationship is that I pour into their writing, and am often left without enough time or energy to approach my writing in a way that feels truly satisfying. A residency like this would afford me the time to focus my efforts on my work without having my attention divided.

I don't really know how to ask for a good opportunity except for to ask. To say please, I'd love the chance to come to your university and finish what I've been working on for months. To say that I'm vibrant and hard working and ambitious and that one day you'll want your uni to be a part of my bio because of what I'm doing in the world.

Pick me.