Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Looking at History Through Memoir: Jim Grimsley

I have read quite a few memoirs/autobiographies about the the civil rights era by black civil rights leaders, most notably John Lewis' Walking With the Wind (which he calls "A Memoir of the Movement" - a fascinating subtitle, for another time). Before now, I hadn't realized how little I knew about the desegregation era in schools in specific. To read my first hint of it "from the inside" from a white man is powerful, though of course, incomplete. I am now seeking out more titles which explore it from the black perspective, as well. In the mean time, please find more about a wonderful, historical book by a white man who happened to be a boy in the "front lines" of integration.

The memoir is Jim Grimsley's How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. Grimsley happened to grow up in a tiny town in North Carolina, and be high school aged when the Freedom of Choice program went into effect in 1966. The bulk of the memoir covers the time between 66-68, when the Freedom of Choice program gave way to full desegregation.

Grimsley is a fascinating narrator. He was a self-identified young "sissy" - gay but not knowing the word, hemophiliac to such a degree that no other kids touch him and he never plays in gym class. Already an outsider, in other words, and an outsider others are afraid to bully or tease, lest they kill him. He half places and half finds himself making friends with the black kids - first the three girls that come to his all-white high school, then the completely halved population of black and white the first few years of desegregation.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More Multimedia Memoir and a Word on Natural Metaphor

I cannot get over this cartoon about being date raped.

I want to warn you that it is intense, and visceral, and yet not explicit. She has found the 100% perfect balance between personal and universal, and a naturally-existing metaphor in her own experience: making breakfast for her rapist, being precise about it turning out just right, in order to convince herself she was not raped.

For all of the memoir I read, cartoon memoir are actually likely my favorite. Included in that list are the ever-classics Persepolis and Fun Home, but also lesser-known works like Need More Love and underground classic Blankets.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Multimedia Memoir

Linsday Rogers, cermaicist, painting a mug with some donated words from a poet at Pentaculum, the residency I attended at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in January.
The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us. 
-Natalie Goldberg, "We Are Not the Poem" in Writing Down the Bones  

The above quote is one of my favorites. I love it especially because so much of poetry is autobiographical - whether or not we use "I" in it.

A few years ago, I wrote a sestina about a young girl getting raped and having a child from the rape. It was an immediate poem and very powerful. When I put it in the third person, it felt too distant. I changed it to first person, and it was much stronger. Most of my friends and readers knew it wasn't me - for one, I don't have a kid. But the famous visiting poet at my residency *did* think it was me. I was a bit embarrassed to explain I had not overcome all the woman did in the poem to take a month off to write, and she was a bit embarrassed to fall for the belief that "I" in a poem = autobiographical. She applauded the power of the poem none the less.

I bring this up because it is rare to find memoir in verse form. It is rare to find any full length book in verse form, other than a poetry manuscript in which each of the poems are their own distinct pieces. But in my recent residency at Arrowmont in Tennessee, I was reminded by my fellow writers that a fair number of poetry manuscripts are unofficially memoirs.