For Those Who Were Teenaged Prince Fanatics Like Me

The Death of Soul, a Remix

I've decided to marry a treble clef or break beat
men, sex, music are that intertwined in my life
me and my future husband will speak exclusively in song lyrics
or island patois, pidgin, rien que Anglais, unless it's rhythmic
like: you're jinglin' baby/go 'head baby
you're jinglin' baby/go 'head baby

I blame this alchemy of men and music on my childhood
which rocked with tambourine shakes, doo-wop harmony
and in every other house lived a slick-pretty man who could sing.

Men with bass-guitar voices, men inside pyramid homes, men
driving Cadillacs glossed by the moon. How could I not be
peculiar? Post-Motown Detroit, air still ripe with miracles
and temptations and me with wild, flapping feelings
between my nine year old thighs.

Then 1977, he arrived.

He was guitar riffs and wanton falsetto, everything I felt
but could not express, only knew it when I heard it
like when his anthem spun soft and wet on FM radio.

My best friend's daddy, who sang backup, didn't like him.

Pornographic, her daddy said. The devil, Mama would say
but what did they know? My girlfriend's daddy kept
women vacant as Smokey Robinson's house and
Motown was dead at the edge of a continent--
the pious heel-spins by suited men, cliches
we no longer used.

I tape-recorded my love's voice, carried scrolled parchments
with his songs, memorized his impish face. He was what it
meant to be young and hot, to be distilled between
the rub of bricks, Funk and your parents' social movements.
He was North American royalty, was cravings
unsheathed, the center of a flower,
seduction as a principle.

Nothing is permanent.
Not neighborhoods or soul music.

Even my history of lovers mimics staccato:
I've loved dozens of dark, polished men
who were abruptly gone

--copyright Renee Simms, from Mischief, Caprice, & Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press 2004)

Immigration + Women Protagonists

Sometimes I can't process an event until I can relate it to literature. Literature serves as my religion; I use it to make sense of what I'm experiencing. So today, as I listened to discussions about Arizona's draconian immigration law, and talked to a friend who was coming to the state in May but who now is cancelling her trip in protest, I kept thinking about the novel Mosquito by Gayl Jones. The main character of that story, Sojourner Nadine Jane Johnson, is a truck driver in the American southwest who discovers a pregnant woman, Maria, in her truck. Nadine then becomes involved in a modern day underground railroad, transporting "illegal immigrants" into the country. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the book:
"I'm a truck driver, like I told you, and the onliest African-American woman trucker on this route. They's plenty women truckers nowadays--though ain't that many in South Texas....

I asks Maria she still hungry. Course I don't know them Spanish words for it. But she know what I'm saying. She shake her head no and wipe her mouth again on them Handi Wipes. She kinda pat her belly, like she saying that baby he seem like he well fed too. Then she kinda lean back against one of them detergent drums. I rolls up my trail mix and puts it behind one of them other detergent drums, but nods towards it, so she knows if she want some of that trail mix she welcome to it. Then I just sits back against one of them detergent drums. That Maria her features kinda reminds me of them Mayans. I can't tell whether she a peasant or what. Her hands kinda got few blisters on them, but they ain't knarled sunburnt like the hands of them womens that works in the fields. They's dirt under her fingernails, but that seem like it from scratching her way across the borders."

Because the novel is written in first person stream of consciousness it was sometimes difficult to get through, but I think I'll revisit it to remember what Jones had to say about identity and nationality in this moment of our nation's history.

As I flipped through Jones's book, I also thought about a panel I attended at AWP a few weeks ago. It was titled "All Around Bitch: The Challenges of Writing Unlikable Female Protagonists." While I wouldn't call Nadine a bitch, she definitely is not a "passive, selfless, sacrificial woman" (to use language from the panel description) and she possesses motivations and behaviors that are typically seen in male characters. Maybe this is why I loved the heroine of Mosquito and continued to read it despite struggling with the improvisational nature of the narrative. I've also realized that the characters in most of my stories are less than "likable." And that's okay. That means there's a whole spectrum of behavior that I get to explore.

As the Temperature Rises in Arizona...

Copyright 2008 - 2010

....(today it will be 92 degrees)...the collective intelligence of AZ Republicans drops to an all time low. Hence the proposed immigration reform bill which everyone has criticized as unconstitutional, a violation of the 14th Amendment, a violation of notions of federalism, and a law which requires racial profiling in its application. President Obama has instructed the Justice Department to see if the bill would violate civil rights.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon says he will sue the state over the bill. Hundreds of Arizonans marched this weekend in protest. Congressman Raul Grijalva has been vocal in his anger over the bill. Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke about this very issue in February at a panel on Civil Rights at ASU, says he will return to march in the streets with undocumented workers.

And the response? Refried beans smeared in the shape of a swastika on the state capitol. Cute.

BTW, I heard one report, that I can't confirm, that eighty percent of the calls by Arizonans to Governor Jan Brewer were against the bill, but she signed it anyway.

No Impact Man

I watched the documentary "No Impact Man" this weekend. If you haven’t seen or read about it, the film is about a New York writer, Colin Beavan who talks his wife into forgoing basic luxuries for one year so that their family will make the least possible impact on the environment. They don’t use toilet paper, they eat only local foods, they don’t drive or take a flight on an airplane. And they turn off the electricity in their apartment for six months of that year. Did I mention that they do all of this with a two year old who is still in diapers?

Although this lifestyle sounds drastic, even for a year, I’m not sure how much convincing Beavan’s wife really needed since the project was part of his book deal. He did the experiment and wrote about it, presumably for a decent advance, and the media exposure they received from the NY Times, Good Morning America, Stephen Colbert's show and elsewhere ensured good book sales which was followed up with the release of the documentary.

Plenty of critics have written that Beavan’s ultimate motivation was money and notoriety. They say the experiment was really a staged stunt. One of the film’s interesting moments occurs when a local urban farmer tells Beavan that he isn’t making an impact at all. “If you were really making an impact, you wouldn’t be getting all of this media attention,” he says. The farmer, who has long white hair and looks like he just made it out of the Sixties, points out that Michelle still works as a journalist for Business Week, a company that kills thousands of trees, he says. And the couple still lives in a 5th Avenue co-op, he continues, so what if they don’t use the elevator to get to their unit on the 9th floor? In short, the farmer tells Colin, you’re still caught up in the capitalist machinery.

Stunt or no stunt, I found the documentary thought-provoking. It made me think about the modern family and how much we consume. It also made me think about the connection between poverty and environmental impact versus privilege and environmental impact. Colin and Michelle chose to downgrade their lifestyles to lessen their carbon footprints, but many people share a similar lifestyle--they don’t have a car, can’t afford to fly, wear secondhand clothing, don’t own a television—but they haven’t chosen to do without these things. They’re just broke.

I’d say that many people I know fall somewhere in between. We buy local, recycle, shop thrift stores, take public transportation. We live this way because we care about the environment, but also because living this way fits into our budgets. In my case, I’m also bringing what I learned from several years of being extremely broke.

I learned how much I could live without in the late 1990s when I lost all of my savings and retirement money on a risky investment. Just like that, we went from two cars to one. A bicycle became the mode of transportation to work. I frequented pawn stores and payday loan stores. I learned to get creative in the kitchen, looking at the one onion, one egg, and package of rice and thinking, okay, fried rice for dinner.

There were benefits to a scaled down lifestyle. Like Michelle and Colin discuss in the film, it does force a family to interact, to go outside, to feel less anxiety about “things.” But when you’re poor, you have a bunch of other problems and thinking about the environment isn’t one of them.

At the end of the film, the couple talks about what they will try to incorporate into their lives from their year of no impact. Colin still blogs about what he's continuing to do to ease our environmental crisis. My guess is that their desire to make the earth more livable has kept them on the path. But never underestimate the power of material status.

In Celebration of Poetry Month

I've read so many good poetry collections in the last couple days. Randall Horton's The Definition of Place (Main Street Rag Publishing 2006) was one of them. Here's one of my favorite poems from that collection:

The Ideology of the Lean

I'm thinking to myself Superfly the first time I see
Pocketknife bend the corner between history and
algebra class, almost hugging brick wall with his
right shoulder, the stringent sway of his left arm like
a well oiled piece of machinery in search of a brace
to propel his young-blood strut. Although his strides
are not long, each time he thrusts the bow of his legs,
drag pigeon-toed feet forward, the circular crack
of space revealed speaks of contempt, a trait that will
always keep him unchained. So I emulate his defiance,
practicing in front of full length mirrors anywhere I can;
perfect my own variation of the lean until it feels natural
and I can express my entire belief system in a walk.

(Copyright Randall Horton 2006)

R.I.P Dr. Dorothy Height

Photo from

There are some people who do such good work for so long that you think they will live forever. Civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height was one such person. I will miss seeing Height in the news with her trademark hats. I'm also missing civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks who passed away five days before Height. Here's an interview of Height from six years ago on

On Resurrection

As a girl, the story of Jesus' crucifixion really bothered me. The brutal torture and killing of a nonviolent man was too much for me, especially if there were illustrations of the crucifixion in the Sunday school book. His disappearance from the tomb was unsettling too, even though in church we were told his disappearance was a happy ending. I spent countless Sundays hearing the resurrection story and at some point I stopped feeling creeped out by it and even became comforted by this narrative structure. Give me a character pushed to her limit, forced to redeem herself, and I’m happy. Give me a celebrity who falls from grace then reinvents himself and I’m reading the tabloid story online.

Then there is Martin Luther King, Jr. Yesterday, was the 42nd anniversary of his assassination. King’s story, his vilification while living and our reading of his life as a sacrifice for our community, is eerie in its parallels with the story of Christ. Last week, PBS had two shows that focused on King that are worth catching if you missed them. One was a documentary with Tavis Smiley, and the other was Bill Moyer’s show last Friday.

And finally, dominoes. After Easter dinner at my uncle’s house, our family sat down to play the game. There was a lot of trash-talking as usual, but the best line came from the winner who’d been losing during the early rounds. “And because its Resurrection Sunday!” he said, slapping his bone on the table.

A Reason to Keep Going

My short story, "Secondhand Objects" was named a 2009 Notable Story by storySouth. The entire list is here. I'm just learning of this prize but the process appears pretty democratic. Journal editors or readers can nominate any story, of at least 1,000 words, that appeared in an online publication for the previous year. Judges then reduce this list to the Notable Stories of 2009. storySouth editor Jason Sanford will reduce the notable stories to ten. Then the public can vote for their favorite and the winner gets a cash prize. The objective of the prize is to showcase good fiction that appears on the web.

R.I.P.: David Mills

I was sorry to hear that David Mills, producer and writer of "The Wire" and many other really good television shows, has passed away. At the time of his death, he was working on a new HBO series, "Treme" that is set in New Orleans and which many fans of his are looking forward to.

Meanwhile, Slate has this article on all the college courses being taught about "The Wire."

It's National Poetry Month

Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia

by Harryette Mullen

as horses as for
as purple as we go
as heartbeat as if
as silverware as it were
as onion as I can
as cherries as feared
as combustion as want
as dog collar as expected
as oboes as anyone
as umbrella as catch can
as penmanship as it gets
as narcosis as could be
as hit parade as all that
as icebox as far as I know
as fax machine as one can imagine
as cyclones as hoped
as dictionary as you like
as shadow as promised
as drinking fountain as well
as grassfire as myself
as mirror as is
as never as this

Copyright Harryette Mullen, from Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press, 2002)