On myth, taboo, and the making of boys

One of my favorite shots of my boys (age 6) and me (not age 6)

When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.

In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).

Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.

Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.

What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.

Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.

Today, my boys are almost 10. You see, I managed to keep them alive and come to love them–even if we never fell in love (eww). My boys are neither animals nor princes, but they are their own individual, forever-blooming selves, as they approach the cusp of adolescence recently coined tween-hood. They don’t require me every second of the day and night anymore; but we still share a lot of time, and it will come as no surprise that much of our shared time is spent in books.

We’ve found we all have a thing for myths–not surprising since the apple doesn’t fall far… and since the boys have been steeped in Catholic traditions (redolent with myth) since before they could talk. We have fun tracking myths–a Greek whale and a biblical whale. Same for the big flood. And same for the taboos that pop up in the myths we read about. God bless children’s authors, especially Rick Riordan, who, as the narrator Percy Jackson, manages to provide a wonderful introduction for middle-grade readers to the Greek myths without creeping me–or my kids–out. Yes, even those filed under “taboo.” [Great academic article on “The Sacred and the Profane in Rick Riordan’s Mythical Middle Grade Novels,” here.]

Yep, even the doozy: the Oedipus myth. You remember, boy grows up, kills dad, and beds mom. Maybe it’s because–and not in spite–of my Catholic upbringing that I am drawn to such taboos, as put down in literature. (For instance, I like Nabakov’s Lolita, because it presents the writerly challenge of a morally despicable main male character, and I like a challenge.)

Which brings me to the last book I read, Ed King (2011) by David Guterson, which presents the reader with a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Here, the author presents: “…the story of a baby boy given up for adoption, who goes on to become one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. While, of course, killing his father and sleeping with his mother along the way.” [Read the rest of the fairly positive Guardian review by Viv Groskop here.]

As always, Guterson’s writing is clever, but what interested me most about the novel was the challenge of knowing exactly where the story is going from the start–because the plot follows that taboo Oedipal path we all know so well. The question the reader asks is not: what happens next? But just how will it all go down?

Go down it does. “Most of all, though,” says Groskop, “it’s a tale of human error and hilarious idiocy.” Yes, idiocy. What’s that saying?… Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is insanity? I’d stretch that to lunacy–or idiocy. And isn’t that what we do when we retell myths? Go down the same well-trod narrative path? (Good on ya, brave Guterson.) Call me crazy, but I had fun following Ed King meander from myth to taboo to eww. Less the making of a man but the unmaking of one. Even a cautionary tale (dressed up in really fun literary fiction)–and isn’t that just what taboos are meant to do? Beware all ye who enter here.

Which brings me to my own writing, as I return to my work-in-progress and pull in myth–not as a plot device but to provide powerful images for my female characters. Sorry, boys. While the Greek and Roman myths, with which we’re all so well acquainted, often figure males in the leading roles, I’m discovering more female-centered myths in Finnish folklore, particularly in the tales set down in the Kalevala. I’ll keep you–and my avidly-reading boys–posted on my mythical meanderings.

Now, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite myth? What’s your favorite myth retelling? What are you reading right now?

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Don’t forget to stretch: A lit fest rundown…with not-pro tips

Nope. Not a churchy post. Hang tight, folks.*

It’s festival season around here. Whether that means discovering just the right pumpkin, a new lager, or a better, more flexible version of your writing self, don’t forget to stretch (more on that in a bit).

Earlier this month, I headed to Youngstown, Ohio, for the third annual Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival held on the YSU campus. Here’s a rundown, plus tips, and–of course–a list of the autographed books I lugged home! (First, shout-out to my cousin, Theresa and her husband, Steven, who kindly fed me homemade pizza and put me up for the night along my way through PA.)

DAY 1: I was in the hot-seat on the first morning of the conference, when I read from my novel-in-progress, choosing three scenes that feature my three female MCs in or at the water. I called it “Women at the Water’s Edge” and introduced myself and my writing as always returning to water. I guess I flow downstream or maybe the Cuyahoga River-burning jokes on my home city of Cleveland really got to me as a kid. Either way, water wends its way into much of my writing, and in the case of a reading, provided a good overarching theme.

Not-pro tip: when reading longer works aloud, try to capture a mood and tone with language–over concentrating on plot and character development. Think like a poet, and focus in on strong images.

I was more than happy to play the opening act for poet and author David Swerdlow, who read after me–passionately and powerfully–from his new novel about a school shooting, called Television Man.

Panels, speakers, and workshop leaders–oh my!

Last year, I must have appeared composed enough to be asked to moderate a session, this year. So, I had the pleasure of introducing culture critic, radical educator, and writer, Erica Cardwell, who traveled from New York to present at this conference. Her creative nonfiction workshop was a real high point of my weekend.

Grounding her session with the James Baldwin quote–“Home is an irrevocable condition.”–we participants mined our personal pasts and notions of home for material. And this fiction writer (moi) got nonfiction on the page, which is really something!

Other highlights of my day included conversations with published authors about the writing process and the after-the-writing process of publishing. And, instead of coming out of these conversations focusing on what feels impossible (agent querying, anyone?), I came out refocused on the writing, itself–the reason I do this whole maddening thing. Not-pro tip: return to the writing.

As for that church pic up there…how’s that for a reading venue? Both poet Philip Metres (pictured) and Erica Cardwell, along with a young writer and scholarship winner, read their work in the sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church, an active partner of Lit Youngstown. And after…the world’s most glorious lemon cake. Not-pro tip: enjoy amazing cake after readings.

Just as I did when attending last year’s literary festival, I like to sprinkle in some research side-trips when in Ohio. This year, I didn’t have to travel far to get a taste of the 1980s music scene–just a few minutes to visit with my new friend Sonny Boy Hopchek, local musician, and owner of Underdog Records (the place to be if you want vintage vinyl!) since 1975. (Shout-out to John for the introduction.)

*Big thanks to R.W. Franklin for supplying the lit festival photos in this post. You rock!

As for after-hours…how does the saying go? “Into each writing festival a little hotel HGTV must fall?” Or, maybe that’s just me. Really, though, a full day of festival-ing can be a lot for an introvert. Not-pro tip: take time to recoup.

DAY 2: Recoup I did, and the next day began with a fiction craft talk conducted by Michael Croley, author of short story collection Any Other Place, which I’m loving. Talk takeaways: to get at emotion put your plot in motion; meaning, construct a plot to reveal your characters. The author and professor also talked about acute and chronic tension in our stories–the tension in the front and back story. But are they really front and back? Croley quoted Grace Paley: “Every story is two stories communicating with one another.” After learning that it takes Croley about 10 drafts to discover the plot of a story, I left that workshop feeling ready to revise (and revise).

The panel I sat on (along with the editors of Youngstown’s own journal, Volney Road Review) and the signature editors panel, titled “Cultural Identity in Writing & Publishing,” covered some of the same terrain: How can writers find publishing venues to realize their work (and, by extension, selves) in the world? On the other side of the desk, how do we editors (of journals, magazines, and even blogs) seek out and publish a diversity of voices? Tactics ran the gamut: from reading submissions blind (no names attached) to soliciting work solely from people of color. Is any tactic going to ensure that our compilations of creative voices–lit journals, mags, and blogs–represent the diversity of experiences of our writing communities and wider world? It’s a big question but one worth discussing and aiming for. Not-pro tip: be open to new strategies to find new voices.

Lit Youngstown’s indomitable leader, Karen Schubert, introducing the project and poets

The second evening of the conference, we took to the streets–or the sidewalk, anyway–for the Words Made Visible sidewalk project, a year-long collaboration between visual and literary arts. Four poets read from their work featured on four permanent sidewalk slabs: two on the lawn of St. John’s and two in the sidewalk of downtown Youngstown. Talk about making your mark, right?!

At this point of the festival, I was limping. And I don’t mean figuratively. All the writerly stretching I’ve done since last year’s festival: publishing and querying…starting a new novel…featuring poets on my blog… interviewing authors here and for Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I became features editor…working with other writers so their voices shine in articles, book reviews, essays, and stories…and I’d neglected my vessel.

This vessel-body of mine, I’ve written before, was once my creative instrument, when I was a student of ballet. This body of mine that birthed two more small ones almost 10 years ago…is oftentimes too still now, housing as it does a mind anchored to paper and keyboard. Not-pro tip: move the mind and the body.

Sonny Boy Hopchek (left) and The Shoeshine Boys

So, I was happy to close out my weekend, sitting, late-night with friends, and listening to live music to inspire my writing. Also, the hazy IPA (my first) didn’t hurt…

But not before final readings–from former Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon (below right), and R.W. Franklin, this year’s runner-up for Lit Youngstown’s Short Short Fiction Open contest. Congrats to all for a wonderful literary conference. Can’t wait for next year’s!

And last, but not least, my autographed book haul: Christopher Barzak’s novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing; Jessica Fischoff’s poetry collection, The Desperate Measure of Undoing; Karen Schubert’s poetry collection, Dear Youngstown; and David Swerdlow’s novel Television Man. Not-pro tip: bring a big bag.

Now it’s your turn. What’s your festival of choice–literary or otherwise–held during the fall? What’s your favorite swag to take home?

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My interview with award-winning poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis

I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”

Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”

Teri, HAINT is such a personal collection, taking the reader from your childhood through motherhood and family life. The first poem, “Fade to Black,” is a self-portrait, which traces your background: “Only now can pixels completely capture / the mulatto ancestors born in Virginia, / … yellowing successive generations in Cleveland.” Can you tell me how your upbringing in Ohio figured into the making of you as a poet?

It almost seems that everyone accidentally endeavored to make me a poet. My mother taught me to read using Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. She also pointed out Maya Angelou and Carlos Castaneda’s work to me when I hit ten and had a voracious appetite for reading. I was the kid who listened intently to the stories told by my older relatives. And I came across Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets and A Pocket Book of Modern Verse in our basement, leftovers from my parents’ college days. I would sneak down and read them and just felt a kind of glory in what those books held, how the words seemed so alive on those faded pages. 

The end of that same poem is a foretaste of the collection, a journey of love–of others and the self. “Finally, / the close-up— a mirror, and I am discovering how slow love is…” Is this what you had in mind when ordering this collection, a chronological journey to love?

Definitely. This collection was a long time coming. I lived a lot of life between the first poems I wrote that made that collection to the person I was when I finished it. I was in my early 40s when it came out and it felt like such a defining moment to have it published. I wanted the poems in it to tell my journey and how I came to be the poet I was at the end of the book.

You write very frankly about adolescence–first period, first loves. You also grapple with the “price for beauty” you paid as a black girl. Did the craft of writing and of poetry help you to redefine beauty? Did you grow into acceptance, write into it, or both?

Both, it was a hard uphill battle to love my dark skin and kinky hair in a time before it was in advertisements and on televisions. Writing helped me to see what I needed to excise, to exorcise: the hurt, hate, anger and denial. Writing helped me push through the pain, much like giving birth, to know that there could be something worthy, a bettering, a healthy self-love on the other side of it all. At first though, writing was a therapy, a way to address the pain and see it on paper and once it was out, I could feel better and reflect with more clarity about my experiences. 

You play with form in the poem “The small of my back (your hand here)”– best poem title ever!–with the shape of the verse on the page. “One Night Stand” uses the Golden Shovel form created by Terrance Hayes. “Scar Tissue” the Bop form. How do you come to these kinds of poems–material first, form first?

Each of these poems came about differently. With “the small of my back (your hand here)” I just HAD to play with form. The poem almost called for it and it was so much fun to do. “One Night Stand” began in that form and was only crafted to be in that form. And “Scar Tissue” evolved, as I knew I wanted to try out the form and wanted to pay homage to a song that was a favorite of mine (and my dad) as a child. But funny enough, it also takes the title from a favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers song, so it was a way to pay homage to the music and experiences that shaped me.

A couple of poems in your collection were written after songs–one after “Seasons” by the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby. How do music and poetry work together for you? How about visual art and poetry?

I always have music onin my car, in my home, in my office, always. I also grew up in a household full of music, from The Temptations and Led Zeppelin to Steely Dan and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Songs create tiny movies of emotion in me and I love to dive into the rise and fall of the music and the lyrics. Words come next, to explain, to capture those emotions on the page, to help me sift through what the song has done to me. It creates a truly fulfilling loop as I cannot play an instrument and have not sung in a choir since my teen years.

So if words are my instrument, then they are what I will bring to all the whirlwind and kaleidoscope of emotions that music stirs up inside me.

It is the same with visual art. Some of the poems in HAINT are responses to the book, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams. I took the book with me to Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency in 2015 and it helped me write the last poems of HAINT. I have such emotional responses to all art, and poetry allows me to harness and mine those response for poems.

You’re the winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry (among other awards). Do you get back to Northeast Ohio much?

Winning the Ohioana Prize meant so much to meto be recognized by my home state felt like a real accomplishment and achievement. I go up to Cleveland at least 2-5 times a year. My mother, father, and sister still live there, plus so much of my extended family. Coming home is so much fun not only for me but for my husband and children, they love Cleveland too, which gives me a lot of pride in my hometown.

Living in the Washington, DC,-area, you’re very active in your writing community here. What does it mean to you to support your fellow poets and artists? If we’re poetry fans in this area, what shouldn’t we miss out on?

I think Washington, DC, has an incredibly welcoming and thriving literary community. It embraced me when I came to the city in 1998 and has shown me love and support ever since. Poetry has defined me for so long and I love being able to share it with people through my job as poetry coordinator and to uplift other poets. If a poet moves me, then I want to share their work with others. The Library of Congress puts on great events, as does Split This Rock with their biennial festival of poetry. Bookstores like Mahogany Books, East City Book Shop, Politics and Prose, Sankofa Bookstore, Loyalty Books will often bring and present poets.

There is the American Poetry Museum in Brookland, DC, which hosts great readings. George Washington University and American University will often bring poets. The University of Maryland has their Writers Here and Now series while Georgetown University has the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Plus libraries around the District, Maryland, and Virginia often host poetry readings. There is rarely a week that doesn’t have a reading in the DC-area. And of course, the series I coordinate, the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library!

As poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library, what’s the best perk of the job?

I get to surround myself with poetry every day. I used to sneak it in at other jobs, writing it during meetings, reading it on lunch breaks. But at the Folger, I can be out and about with it. I also have an office filled to the brim with poetry books, but one of the best perks is getting free poetry books. I just love it. It is like Christmas every other day. 

I adore your website, poetsandparents.com. What does it mean to you and to your marriage that you and your husband, Hayes Davis, are both poets? What does it mean for you as parents?

Thank you! We worked hard on that website! As for our marriage, poetry is the bedrock of our relationship. We bonded over poetry from the beginning and it has played a significant role in some of our early moments in our relationship, from when we were dating and Hayes mentioned Cornelius Eady and I knew who that was, to him letting me tag along as he wrote a paper on the poet Derek Walcott, to us attending a reading by Nikki Giovanni on our second date, poetry has always and will always be something we connect on.

As parents, it means we have made children who are hungry readers and who know a lot of poets. We also know when to whisk the children away should one of us take up a pen and begin scribbling furiously. Plus we support each other in being first readers, providing edits, or offering kind words when the rejection notices come in, or some bubbly and flowers when the acceptances hit the email. To share something like this makes our marriage stronger and deeper and it means we always have something to talk about.

What are you working on right now?

I have finished (well, I keep tinkering but it really is done) a second manuscript and am sending it out (fingers crossed)! I created my own goddesses in it, as a way to elevate experiences and emotions I felt important and I am using stories from my grandmother and as a black mother in America to interrogate where this country is right now and where it needs to go.

Thank you to Teri Ellen Cross Davis!

Find out more…

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint, (Gival Press, 2016) winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is a Cave Canem fellow and a member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. She has received fellowships to attend the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook, Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the recipient of a Meret grant from the Freya Project and a 2019 Sustainable Arts Grant. Her work can be read or is forthcoming in: Academy of American Poets, Auburn Love’s Executive Order, Avenue, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Figure 1, Gargoyle, Harvard Review, Kestrel, Little Patuxent Review, Natural Bridge, North American Review, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Pacifica Literary Review, PANK, Poet Lore, Poetry Ireland Review, and Tin House. She is the 2019-2020 HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence for Howard County, Maryland and the Poetry Coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland with her husband, poet Hayes Davis and their two children.  


Twitter: @cross_davis
http://selectedsubconscious.tumblr.com/
http://www.poetsandparents.com

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