Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Brown Girl Dreaming

Awhile back, I began to contemplate the lines between autobiographical poetry and memoir. I wondered where one would draw the line, saying that poems by a poet were about their lives, but what they created was a book of poetry, or whether something could be called a more poetic memoir?

I found a great book of poetry by memoir master Mary Karr (in this post here), and a good guest article by Keven Bellows on Marion Roach's blog here. Jill Bialosky's article on her memoir History of a Suicide and her contemplations about poetry versus memoir is here. I love this quote in particular from Bialosky:
Both poetry and memoir attempt to uncover what lies behind the unreasoning mask and rescue it into consciousness. The creation of both arts is reliant upon Keat’s ideas of negative capability, of being capable “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
These are all adult memoirists and poets, which is, in some ways was I was looking for.

I realized over time though that I had sort of overlooked the plethora of poetic biographies for children and teens out there. One example I used to use to teach middle schoolers is Poet Slave of Cuba (a biography). In terms of telling personal stories, Naomi Shihab Nye's collection What Have You Lost? is a wonderful tender collection of poems by children and young adults about real life loss.
In fact, it seems poetry is commonly used in younger reader literature, because it is construed as being simpler, more readable, more appeasing to kids. However, that can be deceptive. Intensity can pack a punch in poetry, even moreso than in prose (see Poet Slave).

In particular, Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, has been on my list since it came out a couple of years ago, and it is wonderful. Like Poet Slave, it deals with a difficult time filled with racism and struggle, in this case, the civil rights era in the south and north. Her lyrical verse makes it possible to depict difficult scenes - difficult for adults as well as kids! - and actually to reveal the simplicity of the logic that ruled - and still rules - racist thinking.

For instance, she speaks of going north with her family, moving from South Carolina to New York City, and how her mother begins to discipline their speech with switches:

We are never to say huh?ain't or y'allgit or gonnaNever ma'am -- just yes with eyes
meeting eyes enough
to show respect.
Don't ever ma'am anyone!The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days... 
The list of what not to say
goes on and on... 
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak. 
As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
into them.
Or this amazing short poem, which depicts going back to South Carolina after living up north:

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

As is so often the case, my favorite passages are about memoir itself, about memory, about writing. While Woodson is depicting an era, and her experience being black at that time in the US, she also questions the nature of memory itself, especially in family. These are various passages from the amazing poem "other people's memory":

You were born in the morning, Grandma Georgiana said.
I remember the sound of the birds. Mean old blue jays squawking. They like to fight, you know!...That's how I know you came in the morning.That's how I remember. 
You came in the late afternoon, my mother said.
Two days after I turned twenty-two.Your father was at work. Took a rush hour bus tryingto get to you. 
You're the one that was born near night,my father says... 
My time of birth wasn't listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people's bad memory.

Finally, she writes throughout about her journey of coming to writing. When she was very young, words were exceptionally hard for her, which had a sting because her sister excelled at everything (from "gifted"):

I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist
twirl across the page.
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on. 
I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.
And, of course, as a National Book Award winner, she has done just that.

If you are usually writing or reading in prose memoir forms, explore poetry - whether it is explicitly labeled memoir or not. Play with form, on large and small scale. See if you can find a way to accept the uncertainty and complexity of life with simple forms, in a way complex paragraphs and sentences cannot grasp.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Young Memoir

I just read this wonderful article on NYT about writing memoir before one is forty.
One of the things I love in her argument is the understanding that writing real-time, without the lenses which come later in life, has its own merit.

Generally, in the memoir world, age and distance is favored. Generally I favor it myself! Having begun work on memoir writing in my early 30's, I, too, experienced some of the same derision or disbelief she did. When I told them it was two memoirs, I got scoffs. Then, if they were at all interested, they would ask what I had to write about so early on.

"I lost both my parents by age 20, and I am married to a transgender woman."
"Oh," was the frequent response.
But having something to write about is not the same as being able to write about it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Being Black Back-to-Back: Ta-Nehisi Coates' Two Memoirs

Recently, I decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' first book, The Beautiful Struggle, for the first time. We've own a copy of it nearly the whole time it has been out, and I've long loved his writing at The Atlantic. But it wasn't until Between the World and Me came out that I decided to finally get down to his first book, a memoir.

In it's own way, Between the World and Me is also a memoir. It is framed as a letter to his teenaged son, and includes a lot more of politics, race, and history than his first book. But especially when reading them back to back, it is impossible to ignore how much his perspective has opened, how much his view is altered by writing about how his father related to him as a boy (Beautiful Struggle) versus relating now as a father to his son (Between the World and Me).

They aren't the same book ten years apart, of course - they serve different purposes. But when the same issues arise - especially around education, race, and living situations - his change in perspective as a father writing to son instead of son writing about his father is powerful to behold.

For example, here is a paragraph from the first book, Beautiful Struggle, in which he describes his father: