Monday, January 27, 2014

Revising Guinevere, Ten Writers Transforming Rape, or When Trees Mattered More Than Boys

Photo and Artwork by Robyn Beattie
Most of us have to be transplanted, like a tree, before we blossom, Louise Nevelson, Dawns and Dusks, Conversations with Diana MacKown
This boat throne was made and photographed by my poetry micro-movie collaborator Robyn Beattie. She sent me both the raw image and the fired, color version, but my love for twilight won, hence the grey-white. I’m unable to resist the metaphor for passage, spiritual and physical.
In other 2014 news, I finally put up my writing desk—it only took a year. Here’s the photo of the altar above it. If you look closely, you can see the seams of repairs to both angel wings from the time my husband walked into the bedroom and pulled his shirt over his head with such force his kinetic vigor, from three feet away, pulled her right off the altar in a semi-circle to land at my feet. And that was when we only had one child…
The maiden (artwork by John Shannon, Tree-Free Greetings) stands in a boat the angel blocks. I chose the card because back when we lived in the redwoods I felt like a barefoot waif in the Story of the Root Children (by Sibylle Von Olfers) waiting for Mother Earth in spring: “Wake up, as soon as you’re ready, I’ll open the doors up to the ground.” The deep greens and burgundies of the garments here resonated with my experience of living surrounded by tree roots. And while she’s pretty, this Guinevere, rowan lipped and crowned by leaves, her eyes remain trained on the periphery where intuition lies.
I decided to keep her on the altar in the new house, because, well, Guinevere has me in her grip. As she has for some time now. The Guinevere section of my forthcoming poetry collection, November Butterfly, has grown now to more than ten poems. I’m supposed to be in the grip of revision, and instead I keep writing new Guinevere poems. Now even Lancelot seems to want to add his two cents, even though he’s already the subject of a handful of poems. It could go on, as I wrote in an email to a much coveted potential blurber, til the zebras return from the watering hole.
Which is why it is a godsend to have a deadline. My gracious poetry editor, Ruth Thompson (Saddle Road Press), author of  Here Along Cazenovia Creek and Woman Without Crows, sides with Guinevere and agrees to move book release out to November 2014 so I have more hours. With Guinevere. And Joan, and Amelia. Under Ruth’s careful stewardship, the manuscript just might take its proper form.  She caught me using Queen Anne’s Lace, writing from Hilo with her usual verve, “This pulled me up short. Isn’t Queen Anne’s Lace named after Queen Anne? And didn’t she come along years after Guinevere?”  
Greeting Card by Jan Kalyani Lochner
Photo by Robyn Beattie
And like a good editor, she sends a link to a website, World Carrot Musuem, where one can trace the lineage of plant names, for it turns out, what we used to call wild carrot. Other names: Bird’s Nest and Devil’s plague. Possible truth: first seeds arrived via the pilgrims in their sacks of grain. Root use: inducing uterine contractions. Tea: helps with urinary stones. Ancient spell: the burgundy floret increases fertility. For men: desire, potency. Question: Is the colored floret a genetic oddity? Or decoy, giving heightened notions of desirability, stained floret posing as bug already sitting in the heart of the flower?
I’ve always loved Queen Anne’s lace, my earliest associations from Illinois: chasing redwing blackbirds, popping hot tar bubbles on the roads to the farmhouse we rented, fishing with my brother for minnows in the stream with bologna. But after teenhood, the red dot in the center of the white became a symbol for what it feels like to not be able to hide something that has happened to you. Boys: rumors, crossed lines, things you can’t take back. You feel marked. I’ve done every woman’s number of hours in therapy threshing it out of the system. I like to think I’ve moved on in on my life. But not enough to not notice the perfect metaphor Queen Anne’s lace embodies with its one tiny red floret in the center surrounded by all that purity of sister florets, unmarred.
Here’s a floret flurry's worth of writers I admire for how they handle the topic of rape: Joan Swift, The Dark Path of Our Names (poetry), Diana RiversJourney to Zelindar (fiction), Dorothy Bryant, The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (fiction).  I first read Dark Path of Our Names in a Women Poets class taught by Sandra McPherson; years later, I was thrilled to have the chance to interview not only Joan about a subsequent book, Snow on a Crocus: Formalities of a Neonaticide, but Sandra McPherson as well; both women address in their interviews the power of using form when writing about difficult subjects such as rape or neonaticide (see Sandra's interview, Poetry's Secret Rooms: Bloodlines, Adoption, and The Spaces Between Birds and Joan's interview, The Poetry of Joan Swift: Snow on a Crocus, Formalities of a Neonaticide).

Several years ago (thank you Aunt Rose), I stumbled on Persia Woolley's beautiful Guinevere Trilogy (Child of the Northern Spring, Queen of the Summer Stars, and Guinevere, The Legend in Autumn). Though rape is certainly not the central motif in this series of novels, I adore Woolley's unflinching pages she devotes to the incident and its aftermath. There's no quick return to mobility, physically or psychologically. Guinevere narrates, "From the far safety of detachment, I told myself it was not I he was touching; only the flesh, not the spirit, was subjugated to his will....My spirit moved, cool and clean as a mountain pool, in realms he would never know" (Guinevere Trilogy, Queen of the Summer Stars). 

I don't think in the moment most of us make that connection that some part of the self remains untouched, but it is beautiful when that realization takes hold. One of the writers in a private writing group called The Haiku Room (135 writers so far participating with the goal of composing haiku daily), initiated by Nicole Galland wrote a haiku just as I was composing this blogpost that I felt belonged here for the way it sums up this concept. This is by Marsha Rosenzweig Pincus:

as his fist descends
her mind-body splits in two
one escapes the blows

In another feat of synchronicity, I contacted Persia Woolley while drafting up this post to thank her for the scenes she wrote. I read her Guinevere Trilogy just after completing the micro-movie Corridor to accompany a poem from November Butterfly focusing on Guinevere and her mother in which they get to enjoy a stolen moment alone together in the passageway between their bedrooms. After reading Persia’s trilogy, I was able to complete drafts of poems I'd started three years prior written from the point of view of Lancelot’s vision of Guinevere’s passing (after Mallory) and poems from Guinevere reassembling herself post rape (after Woolley). I ran a draft of this post by Persia as a way to thank her for the inspiration and had to include her rich and detailed response here for the look into her writing process:

“Your comments on my Guinevere were most touching. Very few people have ever noted the rape sequence, though it was the final thing that convinced me to write the story from her point of view. All serious Arthurian authors have the problem of how to explain her never having children. Rosemary Sutcliff makes Arthur impotent (as a result of horror at the incest with Morgause) and various other authors make him too old, etc. But that doesn't explain no offspring with Lancelot--both men aren't likely to be impotent or sterile."

"So it must be her. (One of the reasons she appealed to me was that she was a woman who had to define herself without children.)  Then I ran into references, both in my family and in books, of women who spiked terrible fevers following rape and were rendered barren because of the ensuing Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Voila!  Fits perfectly into the story and I felt it gave me permission to explore many other aspects of the story from the more human point of view, such as her being the step-mom to Mordred and watching the dreadful tension build between Arthur and his son, yet being unable to sway either one of them.” -- Persia Woolley

Persia put years of research (over ten, I believe) into her historical fiction. Here is a beautiful interview with Persia about her process, conducted by Sharon Kay Penman.

Dora McQuaid
Photo & Mural by Michael Pilato
I also want to mention three new young poets--new to me--but already fiercely dear to me for the shared interest in transformation. I heard the first two poets read at AROHO's summer retreats (2011 and 2013 respectively) and came away impassioned to track down their work. Dora McQuaid is an amazing poet activist, (working on reissuing her book, the scorched earth, with accompanying CD). Her website bio reads in part, Dora's "activism addressing sexual and domestic violence led to her portrait replacing that of Sandusky's in the Penn State Mural."

Lauren K. Alleyne
Lauren K. Alleyne, (Difficult Fruit), prefaced her reading by speaking of the importance of finding a new vocabulary for housing the experience of sexual trespass, advocating a move away from oversimplified victim terminology. Here's an excerpt from Eighteen, the poem from which her collection's title is derived:
The longing is to be pure; what you get is to be changed. 18, we will carry our dark, we will
birth ourselves again and again; we will
tend our gardens, harvest the difficult fruit.
I love how Lauren leaps from the line "what you get is to be changed" which belongs to poet Jorie Graham, how she takes us to the next level of transformation: that "we will carry our dark, we will / birth ourselves again and again" in order to "harvest the difficult fruit."

Lauren has forever changed the way I will think about any act of violence or sexual trespass. Her language empowers what we usually label, "the victim." I love this bold movement into the realm of action--gardener, harvester.  Forget purity--thriving is about taking the reassembled self into present time as someone capable of confident forward motion. I hope you'll read the rest of the poem here at Split This Rock. Here's an additional link to The Project Room, out of Seattle, with a description of the entire book, Difficult Fruit as well as an Interview with Lauren conducted by Nicelle Davis at Connotation Press. (July 7, 2014 addition: Chris Rice Cooper writes about the mentorship of Alleyne and the shaping of this particular manuscript: The Chemical Reaction Within Lauren K. Alleyne.)

Laying Lain by Sandra Hunter
Sandra Hunter, novelist and photographer, works with images in nature and juxtaposes them with text. The combination is haunting--I found her images profoundly healing. I'm thinking of her image of water trapped beneath the ice, Laying Lain (Special Merit Award, Northern National Art Competition, Sept 2013), which for me depicts a frozen psychological state many of us would recognize--a combination of hibernation and rumination. A pilgrimage of naming and labelling, attempting to sort out what happens in the aftermath. 

Around the rim of the dark blue oblong window of water, surrounded by snow, Hunter places her wordplay: just ....lie... shut...As viewer, you must keep going around the periphery of the water window to follow the "narrator," as you/she hunt/s for the rest of the wholeness of thought: lies, lie down, in, slain...where you also find the relief of up, though there's a sense of not being able to get lift yet. Which feels accurate to me as well.

Night Radio by Kim Young
When Sandra heard I was writing some sister poems that dealt with the vulnerabilities of surviving adolescence, she directed me to Kim Young, author of Night Radio (Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry)which tracks, among other things, an incident that befell the poet's sister. Sister poems psychologically double the pain, in my mind, where obviously two pasts and sets of traumas intersect. Add to that the extra layer of sorrow, projected responsibility, that comes with not being able to protect a sister, let alone oneself. 

Kim Young

Kim's book gave me permission to consider writing without fear or apology as her take on process is ultimately redemptive. Here's a line from an interview posted at The Coachella Review: "My hope is that the story-beneath-the-story in Night Radio is more about coming to believe in the world again, rather than the details of the trauma," A Conversation with Kim Young, by Kari Hawkey. 
Sheila Hageman's memoir about adolescence and her choices that lead to her former life as a stripper, Stripping Down, considers the entire equation that goes into the creation of self-esteem. Sheila looks at the complicated roots of desirability: how we see ourselves internally and externally in the grip of an image-driven culture where women's bodies are continually exposed across venues. She does a beautiful job structurally, alternating scenes in strip clubs with pivotal scenes of childhood linked to an attitude or belief about herself, her father, her desirability.

Sheila Hageman
She takes us with her through each strip club's doors and into the changing rooms where we witness meeting the managers, her first dance, and the clipped conversations between dancers. Writing the memoir allows her, with the advantage of hindsight, to ask stark questions of herself: what if she had allowed herself to become friends with the other strippers, for they were as complicated and potentially conflicted as she was.  The memoir also grapples with cancer, depression, and identity forming interactions with both parents, including the effects of secrets and psychological pasts of both parents. Moving her awareness into activism, Hageman wrote a second book, a non-fiction guide, titled The Pole Position: Is Stripping For You and How to Stay Healthy Doing It.

Something about Sheila's book provoked a sadness in me on behalf of both sexes and the intensity of the ever-present opportunities for mistranslations, especially during adolescence. So many conflicting messages from society, styles of communication, inherited patterns of belief and assumption. Lately I've been thinking about bridgework vs. polarization. There's so much to heal. On a visit to my father's house last summer, while recording new music and poetry, I noticed some newly hung black and white drawings.

Artwork by Peter Pryputniewicz
Turns out they belong to my brother. When I asked him if I could use one in a post I was writing about revision, rape and the roots of trees, could he tell me what the artwork was about, he said with his usual kindness towards my various obsessions, "Of course. The image is one in a series of drawings I did based on a potential video game. The image was meant to represent a token, one of a number of suits of mastery a gamer could accrue (such as sun, moon, wind, iron, butterfly). From the butterfly suit, the concept of this token has to do with grounding the force of an opponent's attack, hence the roots surrounding the figure." Of course it was from the butterfly suit, I am in the cocoon and have butterflies on the brain. Thank you, Peter.  

I love the transformative quality of the life we get to lead as writers. Sure, the finished writing takes its place separate from us in the market. But we are changed by what we write. Rebecca Mead (New quotes Jennifer Wiener (in relation to body image and writing) as saying she wrote her first book “almost as a life raft to the girl I once had been” (Jennifer Wiener's Quest for Literary Respect).  I feel that way sometimes about the poems I'm writing now--not only the poems for November Butterfly, but the new sister poems.

Sculpture by Sandy Frank
I think of Robyn’s boat (at the top of this post unfired, below, in color and fired), not as your typical goodbye send off or Viking funeral to separate from the Guinevere obsession, but as a means of giving Guinevere a seat in the boat so she can enjoy the view from the chair as she floats down the river. Or maybe that chair is for the girl I was back when trees mattered more than boys.

Additional Links of Interest:

Fired Boat Throne, Robyn Beattie
Photo Barbara Hoffman
Forthcoming Poetry:

Peer Counselor, forthcoming in Chaparral (Founding Editor, Kim Young). I'm very excited about this online publication which showcases the work of Southern California Writers.

Here is a link to one of Joan Swift's poems (author of The Dark Path of Our Names) listed on her website:


New Perhaps, Maybes  with Liz Brennan (collaborative prose poetry)


Perhaps to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, is to effect a magic.

Read rest of Spell.

Gilgamesh, aka Red
Photo by Robyn Beattie
And here's one for all you cat lovers who are also inadvertently fish lovers, or maybe you have a husband who can't help but come home with beautiful Beta fish he's taken pity if coming home to a noisy house with two cats and a Husky, three children, and a storm of impending potential accidents is any better...In Beta's future: surviving the transfers from counter to counter (on those days my husband feels the fish--affectionately known as Red, or Gilgamesh, to differentiate him from Blue, the first Beta, who floated to the surface after his water was changed too the best we can surmise--is lonely...where, occasionally he finds himself the centerpiece at the dinner table, at risk of bits of macaroni or meatloaf slipping off the spatula on way to the 7 year old's plate).

Once again I have written a description that rivals the length of the poem itself. Here's the first line, which has nothing to do with be sure to go to Liz's site for the rest. And I gave you two lines, because Liz, writing in Sonoma County about Parsifal, must have a bit of the Arthurian bug as well. Robyn, partial to my husband's soft spot for Red, took the accompanying photo.

The Unasked Question:

Perhaps like light itself – now particle, now wave – the unasked question lives in between, just out of reach, leading us both out into the world and back into the depth of ourselves. Like Parsifal we ride forth, throats dry, with bugs whirring about our heads.

Read rest of The Unasked Question

Transformative Blogging:

I closed out the year at Transformative Blogging with a beautiful, in-depth interview with Heather Blakey (source light behind Soul Food CafĂ© and many other wonderful, innovative projects): Blogger as Weaver: A Solstice Interview with Blog Mage Heather Blakey. Thank you Heather for giving so generously to us in this interview.

I close by asking how you travel...on foot? By boat? And let's say you had a throne in your boat. Who might wish to sit there? Do tell...

July 1, 2014 addition: 

In this California Journal of Women Writers interview with Sandra Hunter, conducted by Karen Lively, scroll down for a description of how Hunter makes her text photographs, the magic of letters appearing one by one and how this image/letter work impacts her writing process.

May 31, 2017 additions: 

Words as Spiral Path: Tania Pryputniewicz on Owning Your Story, a close look at healing process and the writing of poetry, addressing three poems from the colleciton, November Butterfly: "Absolute Power,"  "Peer Counselor,"  "(25) Floors Up on Open Balcony in Seattle Guinever Fails to Appear."

Michelle Wing: off the margins; interview and 5 poems: "Reading Cixous in Translation," "Things That Stop My Breath," "Body on the Wall," "That One Time, Word Play"


Sandra said...

This cuts to the bleeding ragged heart of what most women would prefer not to address. It's done with such lyrical compassion that the reader knows she's in safe hands. Tania, you're one of the fiercest, most loving advocates for the contemporary women's voice.

Tania Pryputniewicz said...

Sandra, thank you for the kindness here. I'm heartened to know words here did some good in the terrain of carnage. Hoping to balance the ledger along with everyone mentioned in this post--your work so powerful--and the myriad others for future posts.

Corinne Stanley said...

Thank you, Tania, for such compassionate, informative writing. I felt transformed simply reading your blog, and learning about other women's writing!

What about women who are victims of incest and live lives of such deep denial that the transformation goes the other way--one of self-loathing, weight-protection, etc?

Good luck with your amazing book!

Tania Pryputniewicz said...

Corinne, thanks for the reflection and kind words.

There are so many layers to healing--yes, how hard it is, the ways we shut down for self-preservation, the ways we cope. It is my prayer that if we voice enough of the pieces, we can begin to see enough of the tapestry, build a bridge, whatever metaphor works, to carry the weight of the collective pain, cross, begin to reassemble. That everyone may benefit, heal, as can, as ready.

And same to you--congratulations on your forthcoming book of poetry.