At the Junction of History and Fiction: A Family Reunion

L'Improbable café in Paris

L’Improbable Café in Paris

Last summer, my brother and I met a first cousin for the very first time at a café called L’Improbable in the Marais in Paris. She shared the feminine form of my brother’s name: Frédérique. She was a journalist and arts lover, about to turn fifty. We had been playing e-mail tag for a few years as we pieced together the narrative of our disassembled family, estranged for almost seventy-five years. As the two Frederics and I sipped our drinks and laughed nervously at the unlikeliness of the rendezvous, I kept staring at her face trying to figure out which curves and lines belonged to us, and which were her own.

This past March, Frédérique and I met up a second time and walked the halls of the Salon du Livre in Paris together, embarking on the odd journey of getting to know our new-yet-old family. We conversed about books, politics, and the arts as if we had known each other our entire lives. As we passed in front of the Editions Christian Borgois, my cousin told me how, a few years prior, she had been at the Salon du Livre with a filmmaker friend. They had stopped by the editor’s stand where a display advertised a new translation of a Jim Harrison book. On a backdrop were blown-up segments of the book and up there, in large print, was my father’s name in a random extracted sentence. Jim Harrison and my father had known each other well, sharing a kitchen, sharing wine, sharing the same love for life that had animated my childhood. At the time, Frédérique had told her friend that yes, that was supposedly her half-uncle but no, she did not know him. The families had split during the Second World War. We were secrets from each other.

The seeds of our future friendship were planted when our grandfather met and married two women over the course of the war: my grandmother first, hers second. Sometimes it feels like my existence sprouted from the ashes of World War Two, as if the world before it was a blank slate, and afterwards came my family. And yet, my past is a past of the living. My immediate family all survived. Other stories carry different grief and different circumstances. For some, it’s the Holocaust. For others, it’s Algeria. Or Communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall. And now Syria. History has a way of coming from somewhere and catapulting towards nothing: wars that shape our pasts, us writing these shared traces like ants tunneling behind glass.

Nazi troops on the Champs-Elysées, 1940.

Nazi troops on the Champs-Elysées, 1940.

On my paternal side, Valentin, a military man, married my grandmother, Edith, at the start of the occupation, and my father was born shortly afterward in a Parisian suburb. His parents were not together long. Their divorce was finalized when he was still a toddler, and my father was sent to live with his aunts and uncles in the woods of Sologne. There was not enough food in Paris. His mother remained in the city to work. Valentin never sent another penny their way.

My father had a single, yellowed photograph of his father as a young man: a tall handsome man in his military uniform. And he remembered only one memory of him from when he was five-years-old. He carried the bitterness of his father’s desertion for a long time, and struggled in demonstrating affection. The only time my father ever told me he loved me was on his deathbed. Yet, he was a devoted father and husband, a man whose love of life was sometimes enough to make us forgive his impenetrable heart. He escaped the cataclysmic devastation of a broken home, not unscathed, but intact.

Without the facts of Valentin’s departure, my brother, mother, and I assembled our own fiction. The older generation said knowingly, “You know, it was the war.” Oblique and open to interpretation. Isn’t that how we piece history together anyway? In whispers behind my father’s back, we blamed Edith for their abandonment. We imagined Valentin as a gallant man, driven away by her bitterness. In my childhood memories, my grandmother appears like a caricature: a long, gray face matching long, gray teeth and strange metal hooks at the gum line. She would pull the fat of our cheeks and press her cheekbone hard into our faces. My brother kicked her in the shins and hid in the bushes.

Looking back, what sort of story had we built?—a sexist one, in which a spiteful woman abandoned with her child during the Nazi occupation might naturally be held responsible for her husband’s departure.

Each time she visited, my father became irascible. After cooking a large French meal, he abandoned us to mow the grass. With the drone of the mower in the background, my brother and I sat in the living room for hours, bored out of our minds as the remaining grown-ups slowly drank tiny cups of coffee. Edith took us aside to tell us how awful the winters were without her grandchildren, how she couldn’t live without us, and how terrible our parents were for not letting her see us. I had to pretend I liked the coarse pink wool sweater that she had knitted me. Why did she pick the roughest wool she could find? Yet, she had put all this time into it, knitting all winter, thinking only about us.

That was the problem. Those visits were infused with guilt, all those grown-up emotions projected upon the grandchildren: Edith trying to make us feel guilty that she never saw us, my father’s guilt about not liking his own mother, and my mother’s guilt that she couldn’t force my dad or her children to like her mother-in-law. With guilt came the unspeakable: We were never allowed to talk about Valentin.

When my father passed away from cancer in December of 2011, we published an obituary in Le Figaro. Later in my year of weird grief, I considered hiring a P.I. to help me locate the rest of his family, to piece together what happened to Valentin after 1942. We had heard rumors about half-brothers. I had nothing to go on, just my grandfather’s name and a divorce certificate. I found nothing on Google. Nobody else in my family seemed to care. Perhaps I wanted to glean more of my father, to trace his history a bit longer. I never followed through.

Six months later, a Facebook message went straight to my junk mail, and I didn’t find it for months. A newly-discovered cousin, Alexandra, had read the obituary. She had heard of my father. That contact initiated a gradual reunion that included a series of emails, an introduction to several more of the first cousins, and, eventually, the meeting with Frédérique in person in the Marais.

image1 (1)One week after Frédérique and I were at the Salon du Livre, Jim Harrison passed away. He had been a mentor of mine since my mid-twenties when my uncle had forwarded him a poem I wrote. For years afterward, we continued to send each other the occasional piece of writing. His were gems, while mine were the jagged works-in-progress of a nascent writer. Just the week before he died, my cousin and I had been in front of his editor’s stand, talking about the coincidences that had reunited our family, talking about Jim and my uncle and my father, talking about the intersections of their lives and what had brought them together all those years ago (Key West, 1970s). I bought her the French translation of Just Kids by Patti Smith, and she bought me À La Trace, a travelogue written by her friend and author, Carole Zalberg. We share tastes and perhaps the same nose.

These last years have brought tragic losses to my family: deaths, divorces, disappearances, injuries, and illness. At times, my life feels like it is narrowing. At times, I find it hard to breathe. Am I turning inwards on myself, becoming so small that nothing will remain? And yet, I have a whole new family, seventy-five years after a war.

Frédérique told me more about Valentin. She filled in the facts where my family had let our imaginations run wild. He was a gambler, a womanizer, and a spendthrift. He lied about their social position. Frédérique’s grandmother, his second wife, cleaned houses to have enough money to feed the four children, despite Valentin’s military pension. Their childhood was hard. There were ashes there, too. We have posthumously absolved my grandmother, Edith, not of her bitterness, but of her complicity. Too little, too late, and there is no absolution for what we whispered all those years behind her back. But stories are neither stable nor straight. They are crooked and damaged and brilliant. And they do not end; we are connected to each other beyond what we immediately know, our pasts constantly retrofitted to meet the present, blossoming or shrinking depending on perspective.

Yoni Hammer-Kossoy

Spotlight: Lift / After the Rain / Caveat Emptor

Lift

Up here
even a slim wind
sets the outstretched
jib singing, but
that doesn’t bother
me any more than
the crane’s height
or cab’s close
quarters. The way
my son tells it,
you’d think I lift
a hundred tons
on my back
every day and build
those buildings
with my bare
hands. I say no,
it’s like any job,
hard hours broken
by bouts of stress,
and I don’t know
why the words
come out sharp
as they do, any more
than I could explain
the catch of breath
early morning
when a low sky
goes crimson,
and crows call
below my feet,
or name the sense
of tight-rope balance
that might happen,
mid-shift, when
construction site
suddenly becomes
circus dance.
I can point
in every direction
to apartments
I’ve helped raise,
yet when a project ends,
and I’m on the ground,
it’s always
the disappointments
I strain to stack away
like overloaded
pallets of cement.


After the Rain

If I were keeping score
the way we did when I was a kid
on an index card my dad taped
to a kitchen cabinet door
and marked presumed & confirmed
with squat black tallies
for all the dead things
our inside-out cat left
as casual offerings of love
then the pomegranate tree’s leaves
I find one damp December morning
strewn like golden feathers
across the backyard grass
would count as one point
while the tree itself shaken
bare to the bone save a few
forgotten husks of fruit
would count as three.


Caveat Emptor

Displayed on a patch of worn velvet,
the egg is bigger than any egg
you’ve ever seen,
heavier than a full-grown
chicken and must be held gingerly
with both hands
like the start of an idea.

But don’t let the salesman
see that quicksilver wonder,
and when he promises
a gourmet dinner
if it’s boiled for an hour
or better yet, a chance to hatch an ostrich
if incubated for six weeks,
you would be wise to consider
the merits of a fast, empty-handed exit.

For this is no curly-haired puppy
to be housebroken in a cardboard box
but a modern-day dinosaur
that will grow a foot more each month
until you’re forced to turn your bedroom
into a cage with a wire fence door
and the shutters mostly down
to keep away the neighbors.

He will peck with curiosity
at all things shiny, like your watch
or wedding ring, and get spooked
by sudden movement including you
bringing breakfast and dinner.

He will hiss and never sing,
rage at your kids
with his feather-duster wings,
want to run on those backward legs
and broken ballerina toes
but have nowhere to go.

He will learn to hate you,
and you will hate
the glossy black mirror
of his prehistoric eye,
until this shared knot splits
like a rotten peach pit
and you drag him to the street
and walk away not caring
if he is hit by a bus or rescued
away to the zoo.

If only to feel relief
and not just regret
for the first time in a year
when you go back inside
to broken-shell silence.

yoni_hammer_kossoy - photo_ResizedOriginally born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Yoni Hammer-Kossoy has been living in Israel with his family for almost twenty years. His work has recently appeared in Unbroken, Pidgeonholes, and the Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, and you can connect with him on Twitter @whichofawind.

 

Bridge to Nowhere

bridge-to-nowhere-san-gabriel-mountains-50ec690f54b972065300dec4

Bridge to Nowhere

 

I thought a lot about my daughter Reiley during a recent hike with my sons to the Bridge to Nowhere. Constructed in 1936, the 120-foot arch bridge over the San Gabriel River was part of the East Fork Road meant to connect the San Gabriel Valley to Wrightwood. It was washed out by a flood in 1938 and remains stranded in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. Reiley is a freshman in college in northern California and misses hiking in the mountains nearby our home in Riverside. She would have loved this trail, which winds through riparian woodlands, yucca gardens, and fields of tall grass studded with granite boulders.

Reiley is tall and broad-shouldered with the long, lean muscles common to distance runners.  Always strong and fit rather than lanky, when Reiley came home at winter break, she was skinny—at least, a full size smaller than she had been when school started in August—and skittish. “I’ve just been working out a lot,” she said. No doubt. Reiley had competed on her school’s cross-country team in fall. She was also unusually picky about her diet and short-tempered when the family’s schedule or foul weather upset her exercise plans. “Oh no,” I thought. Rapid weight loss, unnecessarily restrictive dieting, and obsessive exercising are signs of anorexia nervosa, a potentially life-threatening disease from which I am still recovering.

For me, recovery consists of conforming to deeply internalized rules that ensure adequate nutrition without risking the slippery slope to obesity that resides just shy of normal weight in the imagination. My mealtime decisions are quick, and I don’t crave rich, decadent, or unhealthy fare. I simply appear to eat like a thin, active woman committed to a healthy lifestyle.

“I’d like the salmon. Can you substitute salad greens for the rice?” I asked when it was my turn to order at a work-related dinner last week. “Yes, of course. What kind of dressing would you like?” the server asked. “Vinaigrette. On the side. Thank you.” Salmon is not my favorite food, nor did I feel like fish. Rather, it satisfied my “protein and veggies” rule for eating out. I also had a glass of red wine and just a bite of chocolate-raspberry cake.

Reiley returned to school in mid-January and began training for the crew season. I hardly recognized her when we met in San Luis Obispo eight weeks later. Reiley’s workout tights hung on her, ruffled just above her hips where she’d tightly knotted the drawstring to keep them from slipping. Her head was perched on a painfully thin neck, dwarfed by the raised collar of her bright pink down jacket, which seemed to be suspended inches beyond the perimeter of her body. She was wearing two additional layers underneath, though at seventy degrees, it was a relatively warm day. I was shocked, scared, and wracked with guilt. Why the hell did I let her go back to school at the end of winter break?

Anorexia, characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss, has existed since the 12th century in the guise of ascetics’ refusal to eat and more commonplace instances of “wasting disease.” Reported cases of anorexia have increased steadily since 1930, escalating from the 1970s and ’80s, coincident with both the unprecedented rise in obesity and the emergence of dieting as a cultural practice.

Although researchers and clinicians do not know exactly what causes this complex disorder, there is an emerging consensus that “genes play a major role” (Kaye et al. 2014). According to Cynthia Bulik, a psychologist who specializes in disordered eating, there is no “anorexia gene,” but rather a number of genes that dispose an individual to develop the disease. These genes are likely to include those that govern personality variables, such as anxiety and perfectionism, those for hormonal and metabolic factors, and those for appetite. Addled by underlying neurobiology, an individual suffering from anorexia responds to physical and emotional stress by obsessing over food, exercise, and weight loss.

I was somber, fastidious, and anxious even as a young child. Always a finicky eater, I cut meat and sweets out of my diet in third grade after a stout great-aunt teased me about accepting a second helping of apple crisp. “I used to eat like that when I was girl,” she said. I put my fork down and left the table.

I experienced three bouts of rapid and significant weight loss, accompanied by fanatical exercising, before losing more than thirty pounds during my freshman year in college. I knew Reiley was homesick and overwhelmed by her classes, training, and work. Still, it never occurred to me that she would starve herself. Reiley was an “easy” baby whose first words included “happy.” While Reiley had favorite foods—peaches, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter—she had always enjoyed a far more varied diet than I did as a young girl, and easily ate enough to fuel her high level of physical activity. Not anymore. Her diet now consists of vegetables, some fruit, lean protein sources, meal bars, and occasional “treats” such as a slice of Costco pizza or half a brownie.

It’s tough to write about anorexia. Self-exposure can be liberating but also frightening. In addition, writing about anorexia outside of a medical context elevates it to a more interesting place than it arguably deserves. It was tedious to subsist on bran cereal, yogurt, and a limited selection of Lean Cuisine options in college, and to make unnecessary late-night trips to the library or a friend’s room just to run back up the eleven flights of stairs to my suite. But such narratives provide valuable tactical information for anorexics who consume memoirs, confessional articles, and posts by other anorexics, as well as novels about people with disordered eating as how-to manuals for starvation. Cautionary tales about the anorexic experience provide crucial details about how to become the best anorexic: the minimum one can eat and survive, how little one can weigh at a given height, how much and what kind of exercise provides the best chance of weight loss with the least physical exertion as a starving body weakens (Thomas et al. 2006).

I intentionally avoid the risk of glamorizing the practice of self-starvation or revealing its secrets by focusing on recovery. The balance required in writing about life as a recovering anorexic mirrors the balance between responding rationally to nutritional information and dissociating from cultural preoccupations. That is, by grounding anorexia in the contemporary discourse of “brain disorders,” I hope to undermine any applause that might be warranted by disciplined eating to the point of starvation. The recovering anorexic’s story of a potentially “bumpy, messy recovery…full of relapse, self-doubt and…weight gain” is significant because it resonates with universal, human stories of redemption.

Eating disorders are not a matter of food, weight or shape.  They are about the discomfort of being human and fallible, something I am sure everyone can relate to in one way or another. ~Louise Harvey

Crossing the San Gabriel River

The trail to the Bridge to Nowhere can be strenuous for those unaccustomed to climbing or unprepared for wading. Though it features just 800 feet in altitude gain, it’s over ten-miles round trip and requires rock scrambling and at least four water crossings. It was cool and overcast the day we hiked, and the water so early in spring was frigid. Reiley would have been exhausted and deathly cold.

For anorexics, the path to recovery is arduous. Like the Bridge to Nowhere, anorexia is alluring, deceptively strong, and accompanied by a neurochemical euphoria that is painful to let go. I was unable to order my eating and allow my weight to stabilize until I decided to become a mother just over twenty years ago. I consciously chose to provide my body with the food-fuel necessary to grow my eldest son, Quentin, followed by Reiley and their two younger siblings.

In addition to supporting Reiley’s medical treatment and counseling, I’ve encouraged her to find a compelling reason for recovering that is more immediate than the still-distant ticking of her biological clock. When she does, I’ll be waiting, like a patient and trusted guide, to show her the way.

Notes

Kaye, Walter H., Christina E. Wierenga, Stephanie Knatz, June Liang, Kerri Boutelle, Laura Hill, and Ivan Eisler. 2014. “Temperament-based Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa.” European Eating Disorders Review. Web.

Thomas, Jennifer J., Abagail M. Judge, Kelly D. Bromwell, and Lenny R. Vartanian. 2006. “Evaluating the Effects of Eating Disorder Memoirs on Readers’ Eating Attitudes and Behaviors.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 39: 418-425. Web.

Writers Read: The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young

I was hoping that at some point I would figure out what this book is about—maybe you are too. – from The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction by Dean Young (p. 153)

It’s difficult to digest all of The Art of Recklessness into an annotation, probably by design.  Writer Dean Young often loses the reader with lines like: “It is the very overabundance of referential capacity that makes for the breakdown of any single referential stability, or at least conscribes it.” Then a few pages later, he redeems his academic-speak with: “If you want to learn how to cook a lobster, it’s probably best not to look to poetry. But if you want to see the word lobster in all its reactant oddity, its pied beauty, as if for the first time, go to poetry. And if you want to know what it’s like to be that lobster in the pot, that’s in poetry too.”

What you’ll like here: Young’s ideas of desecration and recklessness.

What you won’t like: long, overly academic dissections of historical movements, pieces of art, poems, poets, etc.

The Art of Recklessness will remind you, slightly, of Poe’s Eureka or D.H. Lawrence’s The Fantasia of the Unconscious. Both are long, if sideways, ars poetic, and profoundly affective, in ways you can only suspect and catch out of the corner of your eye. They seem to employ a strategy of over-complicated, drawn out, partly absurd dissection and analysis interrupted by bright shafts of dark profundity—like poison in a hearty soup.
[blockquote align=right]You’ll make a lot of marks in this book; many, many lines will be underlined, many things will be drawn—squiggles of importance and notes written in there.

Young’s book, though, doesn’t quite reach those magical depths. Perhaps that’s a personal failure—failure of audience not author. There is so much in the book that is good, that expands and unfolds truths about poetry and about the self, but this reader may not have reaped any real dark truth or transformation.

So, you’ll like his ideas of desecration as a creative effort to reach divinity—destroy the idol and in the pieces something shines through. And you really will be affected by his recklessness—much more so, though, after actually seeing how all this works in his poetry.

You’ll make a lot of marks in this book; many, many lines will be underlined, many things will be drawn—squiggles of importance and notes written in the margins. It’s a good book, but long. It takes a long time climbing over a lot of big words, college words.

Dean Young. Photo by Jana Birchum.

Dean Young. Photo by Jana Birchum.

You’ll also really appreciate this:

“We must cut ourselves out and off to move toward a sophisticated sense of the art beyond our sense of self, to develop a historical sense, to see what we write in dialogue with the poetry of the past, to see poems as things, material to be manipulated…We must risk a loss of passionate connection to distance ourselves from our work, to grow a little cold to it in order to revise, in order to look at a poem as a series of decisions.”

That will ring true. You hadn’t really thought of that deliberate cutting out so deeply. Most of your poetry was all personal eruption, for nobody but the passion of the moment. And you like all that stuff, but it’s often unsophisticated and uninteresting. Too personal, much self-pity, self-centeredness.

So you’ll appreciate this idea of distance, deliberate distance, and recognize yet fear the risk of it. The calculated gaze of an author is much different from the curiosity of the child.  “Poetry is not discipline,” Young says, but it is. It’s a series of decisions, made recklessly and with much risk. You’ll like that. The distance isn’t always so far, but it’s so the connections and passion aren’t hugged to death and smothered in petty subjectivity.

Also, the idea of conversing with history and recognizing the conversation is important and fun, too, like a dorky sort of party. Young’s position is that poetry is not just a revolt against convention, which is adolescent and reductive, but a dialogue with what is being resisted, historically. The dialogue is then affirmative and playful and not so self-serious. [blockquote align=left]Young’s position is that poetry is not just a revolt against convention, which is adolescent and reductive, but a dialogue with what is being resisted, historically.

You’ll sometimes feel that he is on the edge of something, and you’ll want him to go further, risk a little more, believe a little more. He says in his discussion of modernity:  “The futility of existence is related to the inability of identity, of subject, to take on the stability of authority and knowledge, of insight, to not be a victim of itself, the jarring loose of the single vanishing, point meaning the vanishing of god.” He goes on to disagree, thankfully, and makes the metaphor that the beauty, not futility, of the self is in this inability to hold together.  That the destruction is like music and life is like music, moving from one electric disruption to the next, constantly rebuilding. “If there is divinity in us,” he ponders, “it is in the process of allowing ourselves to unmake and remake ourselves.” So close! A tease! What is that process of allowing, Dean? Go on, more.

The self is fluid. Yes you’ll want him to say. Always deconstructing, stitching itself up, but there is the possibility of decision. Self can be discipline, but vulnerable discipline. A gifted, magic discipline that feels kin to surrender, that comes from somewhere else other than inside, not you. He suggests as much in his poems, too. They are not without a believer’s hope, but are beautiful in their hope.

Also, you’ll keep remembering bits out of order, like debris floating up to the surface. You’ll enjoy when he muses about copying, “… your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.”  To seek out that error, it’s playful.  It’s funny. You’ll want your poetry to be that.

Young, Dean. The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2010.

Joshua Roark currently lives with his beautiful, amazing, fellow writer wife in Los Angeles, working as a homeschool teacher for young kids while pursuing an MFA from Antioch University. He also works as an assistant editor and web manager for Antioch’s literary magazine, Lunch TicketHis poetry has been published in San Gabriel Valley Poetry QuarterlyKiller Whale Journal, and 3 Elements Reviewamong others.

Thoughts on The Wire, Writing, and Perspective

the-wire

When I was nineteen, I began working on my first book. My goal was to have it published before I turned twenty-one; I would be one of the youngest published writers in history. After my undergrad English classes at the Metro campus of CU Denver ended for the day, I’d spend an hour or two in the computer lab, typing away. The computer lab was located in the basement of a remodeled, old Greek Orthodox Church, now used for classrooms and labs. I typed away, working on my magnum opus, which was all about how pissed off I was at church and religion. It was terrible stuff, but I tried to make it sound literary by titling each chapter with a line from T.S. Elliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I sent queries to agents and publishers, and now feel guilty that I was one of those people who was not yet ready to publish, but thought he was, and only added to the agents’ stacks of queries and manuscript submissions. At best, the manuscript was read by young publishing interns in New York. At worst, it was promptly (and rightfully) deleted from their computers.

After some months of only silence in response to my queries, I came to realize that I had made a horrible mistake. Because while there are those who write best-selling books in their early twenties, most writers don’t “hit it big,” so to speak, until they are are well advanced in years, probably for good reason—developing the craft of writing takes long, hard work, with very little immediate reward beyond catharsis. But when you’re young and hungry to get your writing and ideas out into the world, you don’t want to hear about limitations. At least, I didn’t.

*     *     *

My friend Mike is a professional photographer. He has made money shooting commercial photos for Apple and Nike but has also been able to curate a career shooting projects he loves: Syrian refugees, bison environmentalists in Wyoming, intimate profile portraits of actors at the Sundance Film Festival, and whatever other random, artsy, photo stuff he wants. I am jealous of Mike because while we’re about the same age, he’s four years into making a living-wage career from his art. He flies around the world to New York and South America and the Middle East (of course, he claims I am romanticizing his job). I’m not sure if I’m jealous because I’m not quite at his level, or because I’m simply impatient, or both.

I think writing, good writing, really is one of those things that simply takes a long time. Maybe not for everyone, but for most of us. And in the end, perhaps the slow-cooking development is a good thing, because the time and patience (and, hopefully, wisdom and craft) developed along the way are ultimately what make writing great. There’s just a slower immediate return.

Recently, I finished watching the sixtieth and final episode of The Wire. I’m nearly a decade behind, but when I finished it, I joined the (previously annoying) masses of people (albeit some years late) who ask everyone they meet, “Have you watched The Wire? You have to watch The Wire.”

The Wire first premiered in 2002 on HBO. Initially billed as a show about the Baltimore drug scene from the perspective of both drug dealers and police (“poh-lice”), each season focuses on a slightly different subject—the streets, the docks, the schools, a political race for mayor. Each season has its own flair, but with a consistent cast of characters and continuing plot lines. What results is a gritty and realistic (yet not completely despairing) depiction of race, drugs, law enforcement, black identity, and politics. The Wire shows a world in which law enforcement and city politicians are so concerned with statistics and appearances that they fail to make any real impact. It shows good cops driving drunk and bad cops abusing their power, all while climbing the chain of command. What we really find out is this: The game is the game, whether it’s slinging drugs on the corner, climbing up the police ladder, passing standardized school tests, or becoming mayor. There’s pressure from all sides to show immediate results, demonstrate strength, and forgo solid groundwork needed for long-term change. But in the series, where true change actually occurs is in hard, slow, deliberate work—the kind of work that doesn’t reap immediate results.

The show’s name derives from the cops’ wiretap used to trace drug dealers’ phones. From this tap, they’re able to get information on murders, drug shipments, real estate deals, locations, meetings, and so on. But listening to the wire is a slow, tedious process—one that almost always gets shut down by the chain of command for producing seemingly little results—and yet, ultimately, it is one of the few things on the show that ends up doing some good.

I came away from The Wire with this notion: the change that we often need in our world is that which comes about only through hard work, dedication, and integrity. True change comes from an emphasis on long-term goals rather than short-term results. While The Wire is about many things, it also a meditation on perspective and patience, and how crime, race relations, and effective law enforcement require tough, persevering work to get anywhere in the long-run, to make any sort of lasting change.

The same tenacity is required in writing and art.

Though we write because we love it and because it’s who we are or what we are called to do (even sitting down to write this blog post, strangely enough, has made me feel better and more complete than I was feeling an hour ago), we also understand that it could be years before we have anything tangible to show for it. I wish that when I was younger, someone would have told me this—not that it was hopeless to get published or to write a book, but that it was most likely foolish because it would require many years of patience and suffering. But this is what it takes to do any sort of art or make any sort of lasting social impact. There is no app. True change and impact require hard work and patience. There are no shortcuts. Shortcuts give you shitty bondage novels and corrupt police forces.

*     *     *

After I was done writing for an hour or two at night in the basement computer lab of the remodeled Greek Orthodox church, I would take the Federal bus from downtown back to my home on Lowell Boulevard. I’d wait for the bus, listen to Radiohead’s In Rainbows or Say Anything, and watch the city lights of Denver twinkle around me, the occasional chill of cold air whipping through the buildings. The moon would silhouette through the skyscrapers. And in that moment, I sometimes felt like I was onto something, that I had finally found something of worth and beauty. Even though I was young and wanted to do big things with my life, for one moment, I didn’t care about the end results, or care about how long it might take to get there. I was happy just to be participating in something I found meaningful.

It’s not often, but every now and then, the two align: the work I’ve put into sowing actually reaps some tangible benefits. But it’s still work, and I guess that’s the point. There are no shortcuts to great art or lasting social change. I wonder if this is something that today’s hurried society is increasingly losing sight of. As William S. Burrough’s said, “Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”

R.L. Gibson, Do I Know You, 2014. Xerography (mixed media), 16 X 20 in.

Spotlight: ‘Do I know you?’- A Xerography Series

In one year, my father died in a crash due to complications of diabetes; I had two surgeries reserved for women 20 years my senior; and I became the guardian for my 92-year-old Grandmother Emma, in the end stages of dementia. My mother, and each of her eight siblings, had diabetes and high blood pressure by age 50, bunions by 55, some form of cancer by 60. […]

A Poet Laureate, Jell-O, and Me

“The shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy has lasted two decades. Now the next shift is coming: from knowledge to creativity. We no longer need to hire knowledge. It’s nearly all at our digital fingertips.” – Kaihan Krippendorf, Fast Company

*     *     *

I didn’t set out to wear a business suit. “Part Time. Girl Friday. Spanish helpful but not necessary.” Those were the words that led me into a world I knew nothing about: advertising. US Hispanic advertising, to be precise.

It was 1980. I was fresh out of college with a BFA in theatre, determined to support myself with the kind of part-time job that allowed for auditions and wouldn’t crush my creative spirit. In addition to light bookkeeping and other administrative responsibilities, my Girl Friday tasks would include ghost writing new business materials for a larger-than-life Cuban with a torpedo cigar protruding from his mouth and a toupé perched on his head. Even Bewitched didn’t provide that bilingual bicultural perspective.

“Rahchel,” he bellowed, “I need for dictashun for jew una carta. Escribe.”

Not even Spanglish captured his ability to mangle, manipulate, and make up words. He dictated to me in a language all his own. After a few days, I tried to quit, explaining to his gringa wife that I couldn’t continue because I couldn’t understand him.

“Give it a little more time,” she said. “You might get used to it.”

It wasn’t long before I picked up on patterns. The suffix “ation,” for example, was often a substitute for “ing.” So if he said “grabation,” I realized he meant, “recording,” since the verb “grabar” means “to record.”

“Rahchel, jew need for go to the estudio para one grabation.”

My mental conversions happened faster and faster, and soon I was tackling sixty-page presentations with complex passages about the demographics and psychographics of the US Hispanic market. His wife was right. I got the hang of it and stayed–for fourteen years. Before you could say Telemundo, I became the first employee of what turned into Madison Avenue’s largest Hispanic ad agency.

“Rahchel, we gotta makashure que el cliente tiene el entendation que el Mercado Hispano es one sleeping gigante.”

It was soon my job to help prospective clients understand the untapped potential of this sleeping giant—8 million Latinos with billions of dollars in buying power. For perspective, the US Hispanic population now exceeds 52 million with buying power upwards of 1.5 trillion.

I costumed myself in a two-piece business suit, pantyhose, and heels and presented my prose to a captive audience—CMOs, CEOs, Corporate America. Presentations let me write and act, albeit in offices and conference rooms. If I played my role just right, I could win their trust and, ultimately, their business.keyframe509RRcRochelleNewman-Carrasco_000

That’s when the conflict began. Winning business meant taking on more work. Part time became full time, and full time became all of the time. The pause button on my acting and writing careers got hit more and more often until the dream powered down all together. I promised myself I wouldn’t stay away from my creative pursuits for long. In the meantime, I collected a steady paycheck and was surrounded by some of the brightest minds in marketing and advertising. My clients included corporate giants like Procter and Gamble and General Foods (now Kraft).

*     *     *

In 2013, well into my third decade as an advertising executive, a career that included fifteen years of agency ownership, I had a now-or-never moment. Awakened by creative impulses, I pulled the trigger on the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University. As my first residency began, I spotted a familiar name on the list of guest artists: Dana Gioia (pronounced Joy-ah). If you’re not familiar with Mr. Gioia, and even if you are, his bio merits review. This past December, he was named Poet Laureate of California. Author of the controversial essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, Gioia chaired the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 and is considered one of the most influential voices in poetry and arts advocacy. His 2007 Stanford Commencement address was listed by NPR as one of the greatest speeches of its kind. Gioia has two degrees from Stanford and one from Harvard and is oft quoted as saying he’s “the only person, in history, who went to business school to be a poet.” In the mid-’80s, he was a rising star in the high-stakes marketing world of General Foods, and that’s where our worlds intersected. Dana Gioia was my client. I only met Gioia, the poet, years later, in a classroom in Los Angeles, just as I was taking my own creative leap of faith.

GioiaInterviewFinal

Photo by Evan Vucci/AP WIDE WORLD PHOTOS

I attended Dana Gioia’s poetry workshop on The Poetic Line and listened to him read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” twice—once to accentuate the rhymes and once the way it was written. As he discussed strategies of syntax and stops, I could clearly see Gioia, the client, the man I knew more than two decades prior—the one who seemed different from other corporate executives even then.

When we had worked together, I was in my early twenties, he was in his thirties, and aside from a client crush sparked by his unchanged good looks and resonant voice, I was particularly enamored with his ability to simplify complex marketing ideas, communicating only what was essential. He was also one of the few clients who not only got the idea of culturally-specific marketing, but also seemed to embrace it. All too often, the average white male (or even female) marketing execs struggled with this new way of looking at the world. Nothing about Gioia was average. The son of a Mexican-American mother and an Italian-American father, Gioia was no stranger to cultural nuances, but there was more to his distinct style than that.  He wasn’t as literal as many of his corporate MBA-trained colleagues, and he approached problem solving with an open mindedness and imagination that was more often associated with liberal arts types. At the time, I had no clue that he was a poet and neither did anyone else at General Foods or the Agency. Likewise, he didn’t know that I was an actress-writer in a costume, playing a role. There was a time when such things were better left unsaid.

…What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide….
From Unsaid, by Dana Gioia

One day in 1992, I was informed that Gioia had left General Foods. The news came as a surprise to everyone. He had turned the Jell-O brand around. We had even worked on Jell-O Jigglers together, a product innovation that helped grow sales. I heard something about his leaving to become a writer, but it wasn’t anything too specific. I remember thinking, That makes sense. He was sensitive and soulful in an industry where souls were sold, not protected.

bd1915362fba6846b75276d6e1bc5ee5In his essay, “Being Outed,” Gioia writes about the Esquire  article that stripped him of his literary anonymity. “When I entered corporate life, I resolved to keep my writing secret,” writes Gioia. “There was no advantage in being known as the company poet. For nearly a decade I succeeded in keeping my double life hidden from my co-workers.”

Shame. So did I.

*     *     *

Trends often swing like pendulums. What once was good for you is now bad for you until it’s good all over again. Think butter or bilingualism. Such is the case with creative artists in the corporate workplace. In the ’80s and ’90s, there was no room for polymaths or multi-hyphenates; renaissance types were not held in high regard. In business, you picked a lane and stayed in it. Being part of the advertising world meant you were all-in, 24/7. There might be time for hobbies—particularly sports or immersive drinking activities like happy hours—since those could be leveraged with clients and prospects. But wasting time with “frivolous pursuits” that were not likely to turn a profit? Unheard of. Words like flaky, irresponsible, and artsy-fartsy characterized anyone who invested in their artistic dreams.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Fast Company, one of the leading publications on business innovation, has written countless articles on the Creative Economy. Not only can Creatives come out of the closet, but, also, they can ask for a raise. In a Wharton School of Business interview in which Gioia discusses the “close connection between business and poetry,” he alludes to some of the obstacles that have kept creativity and commerce apart. “I don’t know any senior executive in the United States that doesn’t lament the need for greater creativity, conceptual innovation and imagination in their corporation,” says Gioia. “But they don’t know how to foster it …”

Over the course of my career, I have witnessed uninspired hiring and training practices filter creative thinkers out or scare them away if they slip through. Not taking corporate culture seriously turned out to be my key to success, but not everyone starts out as young and clueless as I did. I had no business background, but I grasped the concepts inherent in marketing and advertising analysis. Soon, I had a business card that introduced me as a Strategist, in spite of my desire for a title like Storyteller, Struggling Artist, or even Comic Relief. I never thought about these identities as part of a whole—more complementary than conflicting—but it turns out they are. A De Gruyter Open paper, “Poetry and the World of Business—An Exploration,” cites a study examining the relationship between poetry and strategic thinking. Researcher Clare Morgan identified at least nine ways in which poetry can help business. She revealed poetry’s role in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and in learning to make associative connections—all important business skills. Poems encourage us “to question givens and make us more aware of complexity.” Additionally, being that poems don’t “offer closure,” and are “infinitely interpretable,” they help us “handle non-resolution,” and consider the views of others.

In her book What Poetry Brings To Business, Morgan asked Gioia, the executive, about his “success in turning Jell-O from a business with a seven million dollar loss to a twenty million dollar success.” Gioia, the poet, responded: “I looked at things differently. I made associative connections. I thought around and beyond and through the data that confronted me.” In the business world, my mind worked well because my mind worked like a poet’s.

Gioia left General Foods about twenty-five years ago in order to dedicate his life to his art, and he never looked back.

Money is a kind of poetry.– Wallace Stevens

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
From Money, by Dana Gioia

It has taken me a few decades to pick up where I left off after I put the arts on hold and took a left turn into advertising. I used to call those lost years procrastination. I now refer to them as a digression, if for no other reason than it’s much more literary. To that end, I am on “modernity leave,” from my suit-wearing, business-card carrying career. If there were ever a moment to be a poet or a writer or an artist of any kind in the business world, this would be it. As I experience my creative rebirth and nurture an inner child, I weigh the trade-offs of keeping a foot in each world and, every day, come closer and closer to cutting the cord.

Writers Read: Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz

LA-based writer Wendy C. Ortiz writes about her loss of innocence in her debut memoir Excavation, which has received rave reviews since its 2014 release. Ortiz’s writing is rife with figurative language like simile, metaphor, personification, parallel structure, alliteration, and repetition, but it is also incredibly self-reflective. Whether it’s the temporal distance that gives her this perspective (a forty-something Ortiz is far from her adolescent self) or her background in psychology (she holds an MA in clinical psychology), we the readers relish the connections she deftly makes and the brave insights she offers through the hindsight perspective and a strategic sampling of literary devices.

It is by way of simile that Ortiz introduces us to the man who strips her of her naiveté. “Chalk dust scattered away from him [eighth grade English teacher Mr. Ivers] like an aura,” she writes (11). Pages later, his eyes meet hers, and a thirteen-year-old Wendy is biting her lip (15). All too soon, he’ll be “pressing his hardness against [her] and licking [her] thighs, then [her] clit” (23). All too soon, “the fevered rub of hips against the floor, the burn of carpet through clothes, the clenching of toes” will mean young Wendy’s undoing (29). But Ortiz is sure to convey said undoing beautifully. She compares the purple of concealed hickeys to flowers: “A small field of hickeys hid like violets under my t-shirt,” she says, thinking back on an afternoon romp with her former teacher. She has been marked, and it will take decades to excavate the hurt—to free “her body from the bitumen” (234). [blockquote align=right]Predators can sniff out girls like she once was—girls who come from broken homes where Mom is “despicable with drink,” Dad is an “occasional apparition,” and “I love you” is something you say “to the sidewalk.” As predators go, Mr. Ivers has a highly-attuned sense of smell.

Unfortunately for Ortiz, predators can sniff out girls like she once was—girls who come from broken homes where Mom is “despicable with drink,” Dad is an “occasional apparition,” and “I love you” is something you say “to the sidewalk” (30, 141, 63). As predators go, Mr. Ivers has a highly-attuned sense of smell. He notices Wendy when her own parents do not. He takes an interest in her writing and in her “dormant sexiness” (23). He steeps her in praise, then makes “unspoken promise[s] of sex” (23, 39). He hones in on the child with the “cream-colored Princess phone” and has her seeing cream as the stuff of sex, instead (44). Ivers sexualizes his student before she’s ready, whispering salacious suggestions in her ear and playing games of “tongue and touch” (73). (Notice Ortiz’s use of alliteration there too, with “cream-colored” and “tongue and touch”.) The narrator puts it succinctly: “I imagined I was a woman … actually, I was a girl” (177). It is lines like this that make the reader think: This lady gets it. She’s done the hard work of “brush[ing] this bone off” (235). She’s reflected. She understands her story.

Author Wendy C. Ortiz. Photo courtesy of FORTH Magazine.

Author Wendy C. Ortiz holding a copy of her second book Hollywood Notebook. Photo courtesy of FORTH Magazine.

The disparity between girl and woman is all the more pronounced as Ortiz inserts her young adult voice into the narrative as a counterpoint to the authorial voice of reason. The innocence of, “‘So like it doesn’t have to be specifically about school?’” contrasts sharply with the adult voice that explains, “It would be years before I could find the words that would fit my experience” (16, 41). Likewise, her “little girl’s headboard” and “little-girl dresser” and “cobwebby stuffed animals” sit in stark opposition to the “men in cars that stopped and offered [her] rides,” the “hit of acid,” the “inhalations of laughing gas … the next sexual encounter that … spoke of love” but reeked of wine coolers and marijuana and illicitness (93-95; 90; 162; 172; 135). The adult narrating lets us know she is at the helm with statements such as, “I felt thirteen, which was becoming more rare” (60); or “I saw my expression go from fourteen to ageless” (70); or “Suddenly, ‘fun’ sounded like something a fourteen-year-old would say” (87); or “I realized that was maybe the sixteen-year-old thing to say. I was often guilty of this” (178).

This guilt is something Ortiz wrestles with until her experience comes full circle—when she becomes a teacher to young students herself and later, a parent. “Could I ever imagine having some kind of sexual relationship with these kids?” she asks almost rhetorically when she is “twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one.” The answer, of course: “absofuckinglutelynot” (28). Now, as a mother herself, she says, “I want nothing like what happened in my life to happen in hers … I want a magical existence for her” (233). And if you follow Ortiz on social media, you’ll see how beautifully she’s rising to the challenge (and also that her daughter is freaking adorable). As an adult in two authoritative roles, Ortiz is changing the narrative. She is reclaiming control. She is breaking the cycle. She is assuaging the misplaced guilt of her youth—the guilt that should be saved for Mr. Ivers and the “parents who were [in]capable of interpreting those [help me] signs” even though she “had undergone unthinkable acts right under their noses” (106, 233). With this book, the narrator bares herself, removing the “cloak of secrets and shame around [her] shoulders … [that she] would wear, always” and revealing instead a self-assured woman (read: perceptive, edgy, cool) and a proud member of both the queer and literary communities (212).

Ortiz, Wendy. Excavation. Portland: Future Tense Books, 2014.

Melissa Greenwood with Wendy OrtizLA native Melissa (pictured here with Ortiz at the 2016 AWP conference) is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA program, where she studied creative nonfiction writing. In her past lives, she freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and custom-fit women for high-end bras at a specialty lingerie store in Toronto, Canada. Most recently, Melissa lived in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, but now shes back in sunny Los Angeles, where she works in communications at a local private school, teaches mat and Reformer Pilates, reads a whole lot of nonfiction books, serves remotely as Copy Edit Manager for Lunch Ticket, and tries to sneak in the occasional Netflix viewing, usually while on speakerphone with her Canadian boyfriend as he drinks maple syrup straight from the source, and she nibbles daintily on dark chocolate (it’s an antioxidant, and besides, she deserves it after all that core work … or so she tells herself).