When Images are better than Words

When I started this blog, I included posts of cartoons I drew about my writing life. As I spend this school year away from my little ones, I've indulged my interest in drawing a bit more. The second picture is one I drew this semester and that I'll give to my son for Christmas. I looked at an old picture of him, tried to draw it and although it doesn't really look like him, I like the result anyway.

The top picture was drawn by my daughter and I've framed it for her as a Christmas present. I'm her mom but let me be the first to say that I think she's brilliant.

I realize that I'm becoming more interested in visual images as a form of expression which may explain the ridiculous amount of movies I've watched since July. I also had to teach a course that studies film as text so that's part of it, too. While I'll never stop loving words or needing to read eloquent writing like that found in James Baldwin's essays, I'm really digging this experimentation with visual technique. I think my technique will eventually fall somewhere between graphic/animation and realism. The process of drawing feels less exhausting than writing, and more rewarding as the image slowly emerges from the page.


So, I've been watching a LOT of movies lately. I won't embarrass myself by giving a count (although I know what it is. I need a life. For real.) I've seen some really great dramas, documentaries, and comedies. But nothing compares to this 5 hour movie about renowned Venezuelan terrorist, Ilich Ramirez Santos a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal. The movie is based on a French documentary of Carlos which aired in 1995 and is included (in French, no subtitles) as the fourth disc in the collection.

I have not been this amazed by a dramatic narrative since The Wire. I could not stop watching. It was also interesting to view this story of terrorism-in-the-name-of-fighting-imperialism given the current nonviolent liberation movements happening here and abroad.

And, oh my god, Edgar Ramirez, the actor who plays Carlos is unbelievably, unforgettably sexy. An interview with Edgar Ramirez about the film can be found here.

Patriarchy is a Helluva Drug

What is up with Gloria Cain and Vanessa Long "standing by their men"?!? Long has decided to go ahead with her divorce after first telling the press that she was filing, and then hours later saying that, No, she wasn't filing. Now she's filing again. But her flip-flop is disheartening to watch because it suggests that she's negotiating with her husband's camp which is only concerned with Bishop Long's reputation, wealth, and power. Gloria Cain, too, had to stand, disgraced, on a dais with her husband in order to save his pecuniary interests post-campaign.

Yeah, I know that both women may have their own financial interests in not destroying their husbands' careers, but THAT makes me even sadder because of what it says about the imbalance of power in their relationships.

Photo of Herman Cain courtesy of The Guardian
Photo of Eddie Long courtesy of EURWEB


Unbelievably sad news that Wangari Maathai has passed on.  I read her memoir earlier this year and was moved by her activism which included imprisonment, but also by her stories of being a mother, an academic, and someone who survived a rather ugly divorce. There is no way to talk about her strength and vision without resorting to hyperbole. May she rest in peace, and may we never forget her.

Reading at Antigone Books

I will be reading on Friday, October 14th at 7 pm at Antigone Bookstore in Tucson. I'm reading with Meikil Berry as part of the Other Voices Women's Reading Series. Come and check us out.


Here is a remembrance wall that I passed today near 15th St. and Union Ave. It was a moveable wall covered with black cloth that was placed in an empty parking lot. A simple but moving tribute.

Pacific Northwest-ing

I am in Tacoma, Washington for two years, teaching at the University of Puget Sound. In addition to living in a new location, I am without family for the first year and it will be interesting to see how this affects my writing. No more excuses! I'm hoping that I will write a lot and be inspired by the landscape, the ocean and new colleagues. These are pictures of Mt. Rainier taken from a Target parking lot, a pier on the sound, and the sidewalk on Union where I like to take morning walks.

Remembering Velma

I am at the age where the death of friends and relatives is not shocking, but that doesn’t make the loss any easier. Today is my godmother’s funeral at Mayflower Congregational Church in Detroit. As I try to make peace with this reality, here is what I want you to know about her:

Her name is Velma Lewis Ward.

She was born December 27, 1929 in Salem, Michigan.

She was not raised by and did not know her parents.

She was raised on a farm by a black man, born in 1892, who was a gentle spirit and deaf later in his life. Everyone called him "Gramps."

Aunt Velma milked cows as a girl.

She attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

She had freckles, wore glasses, and had thick, beautiful hair.

She is survived by one child, a son, whom she raised alone.

As a girl she wanted to be a doctor.

A counselor at her high school, Northville High, suggested a career in cosmetology instead.

Aunt Velma was one of the first black women to get a PhD in biochemistry from Wayne State University School of Medicine.

She thought that the failure to use black people in medical trials had negative effects on our health and the diagnosis of illness in our community.

She said “molecules don’t give you the whole picture” of a person.

She became a Medical Anthropologist.

She did research on coronary disease in older African Americans and contributed greatly to understanding the role of ethnicity in the health care experience.

She never talked about her accomplishments.

She had friends from all walks of life.

She believed in astrology.

She didn’t really care for the shape of her nose.

She was a feminist.

She authored or assisted in numerous scientific publications.

She told me as Capricorns we were susceptible to problems with our joints.

Upon seeing my oldest child as a baby, she remarked, “He’s perfect. Keep that formula!”

She researched the cultural impact of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.

She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

She was the first African American to address the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

She had an uncanny ability to remember many facts, data, details, and dates from the recent past and decades before. Her son has this ability also.

She was a member of The Royal Society of Chemistry as a Chartered Chemist.

She lived for decades in a house on Littlefield in Detroit.

She loved music.

She said in a 2004 interview, “Whatever talents you have, you need to use to the best of your ability for humanity.”

She mentored and influenced many younger people.

Her voice was soft and you had to lean in to hear her when she spoke.

She left this earth on September 2, 2011.

It's National Poetry Month!

I'll be reading this Thursday at Chandler-Gilbert Community College with Jimmy Berlin and Jacquelyne Kibler as part of the college's celebration of National Poetry Month. Come if you can. Pecos campus, 7:00 p.m. Let's celebrate the word!

On Privacy + Annoying Little Dogs

A friend posted this status update a few weeks ago: Is it weird to be on someone's Facebook page when they walk up??

The answers she received were overwhelmingly "yes," but I expect that soon, the majority of responses to that question will soon be "no" or "meh. who cares." This is the age that we're in, we inhabit both real and virtual worlds, all of us celebrities with our own fans, followers, and headshots. Why shouldn't we expect people to read about us online, to see what we're up to and who we've posed with in pictures? In fact, shouldn't we be flattered that they're thinking of us at all?

Thinking of someone is one thing. Looking for all their info is stalking them from afar.

Not that I don't do it, too, but it does concern me. I don't worry about my own privacy--I'm grown--but I do worry about my tween who is on XBox Kinect with people he's never met, people who live in different countries all over the world. My kid knows enough not to play video games with adults (and adult XBoxers don't like playing with kids anyway) but he doesn't understand yet how this anonymous interaction could come back to bite him in the butt.

For example, I've witnessed him engage in heated competitions, including smack-talk, with other game players. I've overheard he and his friends sit in front of the tv screen and lie to the other players about their names and ages. What happens when an insult is taken personally and someone hacks into your XBox account (is this possible?) or finds out who you are and starts to harass you? Stalking from afar (what we do when we google others) is one thin line from harassing from afar.

Not that old school bullying can't happen. (I received a typed letter in the mail the other day. No return address. It read: "Dog Owner, Put a lid on that little dog of yours. Please. And welcome to the hood.")

The difference is that I probably know the idiot who sent that letter. The letter writer is someone who lives in my neighborhood.

But who are the cranks and weirdos who are watching us unseen? This is one of the real dangers, I think, of so much of our information being accessible to the public at large.

Not that Facebook cares about our privacy.

So much of who we are today is how we present ourselves through different media. You can ask any real celebrity what the price is for that kind of access.

Pictures from Egypt

Credit: Emilio Meorenatti/Associated Press

Credit: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

These photos are taken from the front page of today's New York Times online. My students are writing ekphrastic poetry based on war images. These pictures of a people's revolution surely inspire words.


As the rest of the nation freezes under snow and ice, Arizona has cold winds and these things blowing all around.

After Tunisia - Writers Respond

The Guardian has ten Arab writers respond to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Al Jazeera reports on the newest uprisings in Egypt and Yemen. And the blog, Pan-African News Wire,writes about demonstrations in Algeria and other North African countries.

AWP Conference 2011

I will be in D.C. next week at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. The district just got hit with another snowstorm so travelling that way should be interesting. If you're there, come check out these panels where I'll be contributing:

Friday, Feb. 4th 3:00 - 4:15:

Empire Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F204. African American Writers on Obama. (Lita Hooper, Renee Simms, Tara Betts, Antoinette Brim, Demetrice Worley) 44 on 44: Forty-Four African American Writers on the 44th President of the United States is an anthology of poetry, essay, and creative nonfiction based on the election of the first African American president of the U.S. The anthology includes contributors’ reflections of the historic election of Barack Obama. Several contributors will read from the anthology and engage in a discussion with one another and the audience.

Saturday, Feb. 5th 1:30 - 2:45:

Virginia C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

S180. [WITS Alliance]—We Were All Poets in the 3rd Grade: What Happened? (Jack McBride, Janine Joseph, Mary Rechner, Renee Simms, Giuseppe Taurino, Jeanine Walker) WITS Writers will discuss their paths as writers and teachers, from when they fell in love with writing, how they were discouraged or made to feel anxious about the process, and how they subsequently came back to it. Investigating why K-12 students go from a willingness to engage creative writing (and all it entails: vulnerability, creativity, risk) to being afraid or indifferent, panelists will explore best teaching practices for re-engaging students and collaborating with classroom teachers.

Books, Books and an Interview

Harlem is Nowhere by author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the first of a trilogy about African-Americans and utopia.

The historical novel Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez has gotten rave reviews and is now out in paperback.

Tayari Jones' third novel, Silver Sparrow, comes out this spring, but she's gifting one to a lucky winner on her blog.

And Junot Diaz talks about writing and ethnicity to the Mumbai Mirror.

Michelle Obama's Dress

Rachel Roy in Accra
Originally uploaded by Abena
I absolutely loved the grey dress that Michelle Obama wore at the State of the Union address last night. Loved even more that the dress was by designer Rachel Roy (pictured) who is the ex-wife of Damon Dash...who was a co-founder with Jay-Z of Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear clothing line. We got a hip-hop First Family for real.

Rewriting the Draft (four years later?!?)

I spent a good part of the weekend revising an essay that will be published this spring. I first started writing it 4 years ago. I wasn't really sure what I was writing about back then, but I knew that I'd had a relationship with a woman that had changed my life and I wanted to tell that story.

The first draft was emotional and rambling. I shared it with friends who were writers and avid readers. One friend sent lots of notes and really good suggestions. She kept saying that she was moved by it. That was enough encouragement for me to feel like I had something to further develop.

I let the draft sit for a few months before I picked it up again.

I'm always amazed at how clearly I see my writing after I let it rest for a while. When I return to a piece after a hiatus, I can tell right away what's working and what isn't. That is never true for me when I spend days in a row revising and editing. For me, working too long and hard on the same piece obscures my vision. I've ruined good drafts that way.

When I read the essay again, I liked a lot of it, but the introduction wasn't working and the themes were not fully developed. I took another stab at it. When I finished that draft, I sent it out to literary journals who accept nonfiction. No one was interested. When I read the draft again, after it had been rejected, I decided that it really wasn't the type of essay that a literary journal would publish. The tone was not literary and the subject matter was popular. It was also an essay that would be of special interest to women, especially mothers.

I sent a pitch to an online magazine. The editor seemed interested and asked that I forward it. I sent the essay to her and waited. Nothing happened. I read through the essays that this site published and realized that my piece, although too commercial for the lit journals, was probably too serious for this site. The essayists writing for this site were young, hip, and kind of snarky. I could never write the way that they did.

Then I purposely forgot about the essay. This is the hardest thing for me to do. I feel as much pressure as the next writer to publish and publish often, but taking a pause is a crucial part of my process. I've found that when I just live my life, I'm inevitably observing the world and thinking deeply about issues, even when I'm just walking the dog. When I just live my life, something I hear or see will "click" and remind me that "This is what you were trying to write about in that essay." Then I'll feel a new sense of urgency to return to the draft and sharpen its focus.

I've learned that my first drafts are usually about releasing the emotion I feel about an issue. The intellectual piece does not come until later for me, and it doesn't come at all if I try to force it. I have to do ordinary things like work and deal with relatives. When I interact with other people, I see situations that are extraordinary and that are the stuff of literature. That's when I understand the theme that wants to emerge in my work.

So the intellectual piece for this essay eventually revealed itself and I understood that I was writing about ideology--when to trust it and when to let it go. I revised some more and then sent it to two places, a publication where the readers are mostly educated women and mothers, and as an unsolicited email to an editor at a bigwig monthly magazine. The bigwig editor never answered, but the women's magazine was interested.

The editors thought that I had two distinct narratives going on and wanted me to get rid of one of them. This was a revelation for me. I thought I had one major plot line and a sub-plot that helped clarify the main story. But once I read the essay again, they were absolutely right.

They also told me I needed more scenes and so I added that.

Once I'd made those revisions, they accepted the submission. Then came the first round of edits, the ones I spent this weekend incorporating into the latest revision. There are two editors and their comments are in two different-colored fonts. They made suggestions about the title, the opening, the closing, whether or not to name my children in the essay, they asked for more background information and, once again, told me that I needed more scenes.

To say that I'm grateful for their help is an understatement. I feel so lucky to have the chance to learn from them. I always tell my students that they need a community of writers to give them feedback, but I also know that good editors, the kind that get what you're trying to say and that push you to write your best, are rare. So I've spent several days trying to live up to their expectations.

I've also learned two things about my relationship to creative nonfiction. The first thing is that I'm avoiding scenes in my essays because I believe that my memory is unreliable. I think, How can I write dialogue that's not 100% accurate? This isn't completely true. I really need to get over that.

The second thing is that I fret over how much of my family's personal life I should share in my writing. I will use pseudonyms for my children in this essay, to protect them, even though the essay really isn't about them at all. Still, I feel like I'm straddling a tricky line by even mentioning them in my work. I'm now thinking about whether I'll ever include my kids in writing which I publish in the future.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

This memoir about Eastern versus Western parenting strategies has been getting a ton of publicity. The smartest response I've read is over at Buddhafun (and not just because I love Stephanie Han and her writing, though I do.)

Here's a snippet of what Stephanie had to say:

it depends what you want from your kids and how you see the world. Is your priority to make them economically successful and have them achieve social status? Then her methods might not be so bad.

Will it yield children who are good spouses, community oriented, or who might meander down another more unique path in life? Nah. Not necessarily. Depends. Maybe if they meet other ballbusting types who tow the social line of good behavior. Yeah, then it can work out. But let's be frank--Margaret Mead is not born of this stuff, neither actually is someone like Baryshinkov, or hey, let's name him--Einstein. (That said, how many children actually become those types of figures? Not many...) Actually, what is yielded from Chua's method, I hate to say it, but let's be frank--is a kind of bourgeois mediocrity within a certain socioeconomic group. Good schools. Good extracurrics, the right holidays and camps, the right understanding of good wine and an opera. But this does not necessarily yield the kid that stands up for the weaker ones, the person who stands by the environment, votes for his community, and has the guts to do the right thing, simply to do the right thing.

Check out the rest of the blog essay here

{look for title at the end of post}

What a privilege it is to write and to teach writing.

I'm sitting here in my pale green bedroom with candles lit looking at my syllabus and the dozens of poetry collections that clutter my bed. Can you tell that I'm in heaven? Few things excite me more than a discussion about why certain words of a poem, that have been put together just so, are damn near perfect.

And that's why I've been disappointed by recent discussions about the futility of language. According to this Slate article, David Foster Wallace was driven by this question. And the shooter last week in Tucson, Jared Loughner, wondered if words mattered. I don't have a problem with posing that question or exploring the answers, but I will never agree that words are meaningless. There's too much evidence that words matter--a whole lot. Look at the recent rewriting of Huckleberry Finn or the parts left out of the Constitution as it was read on the floor of Congress. Think about the times that someone's words made you cry or question what you believe. Language, like music, is one of the many ways that we connect spirit to spirit and mind to mind.

[I'm reading over what I just wrote. I'm noticing the biblical allusions from me, a very secular girl. This is because when I say I believe in language that belief is religious in nature. So let's go all the way. Let's title this "In the Beginning there was the Word."]

Arizona Writers for Justice

On Monday, January 17th, I will join a group of writers to read poems, essays and stories that speak to the true legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a range of writers and styles involved and the readings promise to be funny, inspired, and just plain good. The writers are:

Venita Blackburn
Myrlin Hepworth
Ryan Holden
Michelle J. Martinez
Rae Paris
Fernando Perez
Annette Sexton-Ruiz
Renee Simms

Please come out and support the reading. It's free, and it starts at 7 pm at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.