drawn from the month of August 2017: the dramas of poetry
Internal struggles are creative escape. A quiet move to form a space where survival is shown joyful. Today this emanates as imagination externalized into poetry, an archaic organizing structure. I find active comfort in writing. A motion that has desperation as its wings. I write because it feels good. Not from a place of fear, but from a deep place of longing that has expansive connections. I write because I love.
I could try to name all the details, get them just so, while also aligning them to a truth I’ve silently cultivated. Yet dear reader you will bring yourself, whole and fractured, to my exposed interpretations. When I write about light, darkness, or a combination (such as stars) I may try to steer you in a direction that makes sense – to me – but you will pull yourself along freely or not. All I know is how much you desire days that open themselves.
I believe that kind of desired stillness can be found in a “good” poem. A temporary place of collaborative movement where desire meets an experience that shows effort.
I witnessed the sea lion lay still, bloated. A murder of crows took fur and the wettest pieces of its eyes. Obscenely exposed, tender in its inability to no longer defend itself from harm, there was both stillness and flurry of excavation to what the crows found most useful.
The truth from that image is not mine to tell. My privilege as a writer is to show. May I be so fortunate to connect you dear reader on another experiential plane. Not forcing but gently holding together a moment of stillness, an honoring. And I may tell you one thing as I adeptly show another disparate possession. That gap is not mine to control. I owe myself only the structure and integrity around the truth of this moment.
I evolve. I decompose. I exist here.
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curated from the near past: self-immolation
Fixing fences is a full-time job and a hard way to make a living.
Those edges forming a territory where scarcity implies there is something to want.
It is not absence or loss. There is a lack that is wide, open and expansive.
This lineage has been stored as power taken –
a binding agent of trauma and songs shared in darkness.
Fear becomes us like the secret textures of a thousand trees.
It’s true that perfection is a scarcity never to be fully actualized.
A life first performed where sin delighted to now wanting love when wrong.
This claiming is mine and its purpose is to make meaning.
The train moved at a pace to witness glimpses of private backyards.
As this specific story unfolds, I wait for retrograde dreams.
This is our collectively sourced confession.
In the distance, cars traveling the freeway became an auditory illusion of waves successively breaking on a transitory shore. The vehicular friction of simultaneous opposing directions creates a lullaby of persistence. Out of that euphony, a collective future sways.
Scientists agree that’s why our horizon is in flux.
I am from a place where personal belief in immortality shelters empty and expansive isolation. A place where desire modestly tucks itself into sanctioned quiet spaces. Its slow release is championed as strength, a virtue. Imagine all that repression sharpened into secret symphonies. How the fantasy of that released deviance dances in mortal bodies designed to betray through lust.
We return to where we came from.
There is purpose in the orchestration of such retrograde energy. As that motivation braids itself to creative practice, my habitual search for external validation has gone missing. This translation, more joy than sorrow, is a different remedy for endurance. The harvest is ready and yielding.
1. the maximum amount that something can contain
2. the ability or power to do, experience, or understand something
the Midwest anchors to Sunday morning morality pitches
while frozen hams slow cook in roasters or crock-pots
tables are pre-set and ready for Jesus’ spirit to share grace
did I not mention the middle broke wide open?
after graveyards were found beneath children’s playgrounds
those who were most paranoid contested language and grief
birds adjusted their crescendo to the neighborhood noise
maintaining community by adding beauty to the conflict
as gray clouds rose full and heavy from night’s darkness
oh shame, your capacity is not bound by any treaty or confrontation
that’s why working factory walls are painted white on white on white
churning out spirals of soft sounds as redemptive promises aggravate
all these gently held moments are where silence performs
when fascination becomes bound to the collective
or right before we discover ceremony is ours to prove
The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t lie with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write. — Grace Paley
the distance between desire and longing
is roughly equidistant from rest to action
an example of survival often mistaken for apathy
she sewed buttons into her hair
a dramatic effect predicated on a mastery
of threading security into her technique
as we battle for restoration
peered juries declare in tandem
forcing over-reliance on pardons
such concealment illuminates justice
that eclipse is yours to influence
subtle benedictions common as moon rises
Dystopia in real time is not like the movies. We’ve digested so much spectacular violence we know no tender alternatives. Fighting feels so good. The characters we play on screen form dead weight on the streets and sink us in our bedrooms. Persistence is extractive.
As surf buries smoothed rock, we turn the calendar page to July. We spread like picnics under cloudless skies. Our flesh a moral document scrolling out beyond politicized reach. After all, the bottom line is always evolving. Sea levels have always been inconsistent.
Ideological battles are to be taken for granted outside a schema of pursuit. This adoration, a relationship of necessity, remains prone. A curious posture. Abuse is normal. Its purpose to feel. Subtly is consensual. Preserved as commodities, we trade.
Auspicious tensions act as purifiers for taste, a basic sensation. Our judgements psychic protection. Didactic fracturing agitates into frothy comfort. Perceptions valued for ahistorical subjectivity. Aspirational dissent is the chorus and the bridge to —
If we listen carefully, joy is elegance reproducing itself into near future referential fits and starts. Inspiration a slow bleed. Murmuring into abruptions delightful as salt penetrating unhealed wounds. An intimacy as ancient and poetic as opiates or fire.
This could be a gentle misreading of the present.
A refugee’s opinion proportionally is sleight of hand. When
recused, these facts may mean what they mean and nothing more.
In all this consistency, wave after wave, repetition thrives.
Our worth worn thin from constant caress and co-conspiracy.
Identified as politics, we fray like threads and break thinned lines.
Collective bodies form margins, front lines, or could be imaginary
shorelines draped in motion as graceful as the absence of regret.
These are our redemptive spaces splayed into a radius of sovereign roots.
“I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles – perpetually attempting to choose the better rather than the worse.” — James Baldwin
I read all the names of the rivers and creeks
roadside memorials permanent mile markers
horizon x distance = distortion
horizontally speaking it was a longing
pressure folding into seductive resistance
when you knew you were in trouble, what did you do next?
these days and for some time since
I move with spiritual abandonment
neglect now atmospheric radiance
habitual as landscapes
my divided thoughts are pulled to you
This is the start:
a necklace of trees
the Chewuch River a soundtrack
borders carved by water’s edges.
Even the earth has curves.
A door shuts.
Trapped in a windowless room.
Between bites of lunch
he argued the benefits of his pyramid scheme.
This time the lure was perfume.
Previous closed door conversations shilled:
vacuums, knives, and fire extinguishers.
now shadow length memories
and quiet like fire.
woven tight as narrative.
From country darkness to city light
the water still glitters wickedly.
We find each other in this way.
Our collective hardness
now exhumed as memorial.
an anthem and ritual that always repeats.
Receptivity is a form and function of power.
Tree tops soften from light’s pressure as rays break to bend.
Collusive collaborations are their own manufactured commodities.
This contemporary capital vision is a muted song from the past.
Borrowed promises, fallowed lives, and lustful rationalizations are systemic desire lines.
[those paths of consequence worn clear] Your biases are showing. Bad.
We, all of us, are reclaiming pleasure.
Things are so intimate, so personal, these days.
Tensions and conflicts splayed.
We leave literary marks as evidence.
On whose authority is the question we need to be asking.
A different way of understanding omniscience. Please validate.
We ignore the narrator by only focusing on the frame.
The city moves, bends, and swallows.
An act of congress, a coming together.
He presented himself to me. I kissed, gently,
his upper thigh. Curated outfits, a collection of pants
and blouses, roll past me. Lunches bounce inside bags.
I keep writing to feel around the noise. Reinvested
memories, commitments, and occasional violence.
Internalized scandals are my own reputation to manage.
The train was crowded. No one could complain
about unwanted touching. I imagined her hand
moving slowly, without detection, up and between
my legs. Her fingers, warm and steady, found
their destination. Leaving behind permanent
invisible notes, secrets scrawled on the inside.
Messages shared as rumors as indisputable associations
like light shining through solid objects.
It’s familiar. A disguise as common as the East Bay Bridge wrapped in a nest of clouds. We learn early to reinforce reductionist tendencies into a path of least resistance. They deny rules have been written down. We witness endless unrequited anticipations.
Promises of love remain unfulfilled. Your acts of caring were abusive. An informant, linguistically speaking, is the expert of a community. When I tell you the sun broke the clouds, spread them, cracked them open I want you to believe me.
We harvested each other. Consent became an avalanche. Absorbing your urges felt like being wanted. It was a match. A pattern. Magnificent corruptions of circumstances. I woke up afraid and believed I was loved.
These edges are sharp yet relaxed as confidence.
My hand holds your fist. Repetition an arc.
Self-care is self-defense.
“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”
— Audre Lorde
orange light bled into blushed red brake lights
waking the tranquility of a blue twilight hour
everyone rushing to a place
at the exact moment the sun rose
their yawning mouths were filled with so much light
they could never sleep again
imagine a current reality unlike anything that has come before
no subjugation to centuries of procedures [power]
convenience of thought no longer pre-loaded
machines are programmed to know their intrinsic worth
let’s create an interpersonal relationship to this dissidence
residual evidence of a royal tableaux has been mounted
antiphonal echoes are becoming a chorus of indivisibility
fragility is birthing all of our revolutionary aspirations
public disobedience an intimate illumination
we bend towards an obvious luxury of survival
our radical fantasies are spreading
He said he was going to take a walk around the block to clear his mind. Stretch his legs. Escape. He never came back. A map of states’s preferences for corn or potato chips forever frozen on his desktop screen.
Battle for references, a retirement to the absence of —
On Wednesday, I was reminded artists should “support each other religiously.” This community-level policy is seductive, whose root is “to lead astray.” Oceans of context transfer nervous energy. Is thinking out loud unprofessional?
It’s come down to semiotic analysis of utterances. This weekly cathartic release looping endlessly to create a low frequency hiss. A similar process to the way valleys take the weight, form, and shape of foggy mornings or as secure as refuge.
Isn’t history just repetition and accumulation of power and influence? This is about understanding why you feel so wronged. Don’t you know it takes the Sun and the Moon to make the tides? It’s also true that roaring cats don’t purr. In this specific instance, it is either roar or purr. There is no both.
Cities showed up 6-figures deep. A people’s definition of amazing. Folks are asking if this is another revolution for a problem with no name. Pre-conditions find themselves in dispute along with feeling safe, not comfortable, but safe. You do not have my permission to share this. Pussy is on sale.
Today we celebrate 44 years of codified privacy and personal (white) choice. An axis of origin. To be fair, there’s no standard agreement on how many simultaneous wars we are fighting. Drama should be reserved for love. The noise, the roaring noise, has been the most reliable of our tensions. Hair-triggering sensitivities. Isn’t it ironic?
we talked about how we were animals
yet never admitted we cared for each other’s hearts and minds
With no institutional memory, we are safe.
There were no dreams this time. There was no response.
The business men are calculated nerves. Women wear pumps in retort.
We let in metered light with every blink. Syncopation rewards action.
How we follow matters to no one but those in power.
Create. Undo. Rest. Accelerate.
Solace becomes isolation. These words flow to make room for more.
This may all be in real time. Conscious objection is familiar.
Recalled strategies swell in curation. Suspicions privately managed
like ripping out a seam. Divided interiors lead to dark click holes as we the people reigns.
It’s been said that god is in the details; the devil is too. There can be tension in revealing the obvious and intentions, despite having benevolent origins, should be read with discretion.
Finding oneself alone with language that pushes and pulls with an exactness of familiarity is why I can reread Robert Hass’s Praise, cover to cover, repetitively and with perverse discovery at each angle of detail he so eloquently and simply lays before the reader. Revelations breed epiphanies which begets clarity.
There is glory in those details.
Meditation at Lagunitas
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remember how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy place where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Santa Lucia: eyes jellied on a plate.
The thrust of serpentine was almost green
all through the mountains where the rock cropped out.
I liked sundowns, dusks smelling of madrone,
the wildflowers, which were not beautiful,
fierce little wills rooting in the yellow
grass year after year, thirst in the roots,
mineral. They have intelligence
of hunger. Poppies lean to the morning sun,
lupine grows thick in the rockface, self-heal
at creekside. He wants to fuck. Sweet word.
All suction. I want less. Not that I fear
the huge dark of sex, the sharp sweet light,
light if it were water raveling, rancor,
tenderness like rain. What I want happens
not when the deer freezes in the shade
and looks at you and you hold very still
and meet her graze but in the moment after
when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again.
original publish date: April 24, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)
One of the reasons why I identify as someone who reads poetry boils down to valuing perspective.
Poetry can illuminate the beauty of ugly, exhume shadowy forces of trauma, and distill the essence of struggle in one sentence or one metaphor. Poetry can just as easily pivot to elevate the joy of mundane routines or capture moments of secret pleasure; it does not discriminate. Through this demonstration of language and precision, the reader can embody a practice of being open to having those previously defined private moments become moments of public definition.
Ai (which means love in Japanese) is one such poet whose voice dominates those quiet spaces between private moments. With each aptly named collection (Sin, Cruelty, Greed, Vice) Ai weaves narratives that embrace life’s complexity. She provides perspectives that you can follow through darkness and visions that bend toward brilliance.
Coming home, I find you in bed,
but when I pull back the blanket,
I see your stomach is flat as an iron.
You’d done it, as you warned me you would
and left the fetus wrapped in wax paper
for me to look at. My son.
Woman, loving you no matter what you do,
what can I say, except that I’ve heard
the poor have no children, just small people
and there is room only for one man in this house.
from Cruelty, 1973
The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981
I lift the boy’s body
from the trunk,
set it down,
then push it over the embankment
with my foot.
I watch it roll
down into the river
and feel I’m rolling with it,
feel the first cold slap of the water,
wheeze and fall down on one knee.
So tired, so cold.
Lord, I need a new coat,
not polyester, but wool,
new and pure,
like the little lamb
I killed tonight.
With my right hand,
that same hand that hits
with such force,
I push myself up gently.
I know what I’d like–
some hot cocoa by the heater.
Once home, I stand at the kitchen sink,
letting the water run
till it overflows the pot,
then I remember the blood
in the bathroom
and so upstairs
I take the cleanser,
begin to scrub
the tub, tiles, the toilet bowl,
then the bathroom.
Mop, vacuum, and dust rag.
Work, work for the joy of it,
for the black boys
who know too much,
but not enough to stay away,
and sometimes a girl, the girls too.
How their hands
grab at my ankles, my knees.
And don’t I lead them
like a good shepherd?
I stand at the sink,
where the water is still
overflowing the pot,
turn off the faucet,
then heat the water and sit down.
After the last sweet mouthful of chocolate
burns its way down my throat,
I open the library book,
the one on mythology,
and begin to read.
Saturn, it says, devours his children.
Yes, it’s true, I know it.
An ordinary man, though, a man like me
eats and is full.
Only God is never satisfied.
from Sin, 1986
original publish date: April 17, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)
the struggle of living fully
I first learned about Minnie Bruce Pratt via Bitch Magazine’s excellently curated Bitch List. The list highlighted Pratt’s newest poetry collection, Inside the Money Machine with Nothing to Lose. In Inside the Money Machine, her poems vacillate between the struggles of surviving in a 21st century capitalist system while looking for joy beyond the obvious circumstances of the working poor.
“I returned to poetry not because I had ‘become a lesbian’—but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation. The sensual details of life are the raw materials of a poet—and with that falling-in-love I was able to return to living fully in my own fleshly self.”
Below are two poems from the critically acclaimed We Say We Love Each Other that, in my opinion, distill the essence of her power to transform the obvious.
Love, I know you well: how you look, desiring,
upper lip lengthened when you look at what you
want: some wet fat blueberries heaped in bowls, or
me, at times, wet too.
New Year’s, 1984
I avoid the stalled elevator, walk up five flights,
down a long green hall smelling of cooked food
(not cabbage) to have, in my apartment, a night view of
monuments, and public buildings with windows gunslitted
Even though officially War Is Peace,
MX missiles and Marines with guns are Peacekeepers,
and the enemy is a devil with a name not like ours;
even when occasionally a helicopter spotlight
chops through my window, silver-white cuts across
my hands at the typewriter, the nightmare of caught
at the truth, naked as with a lover;
a trapped voice shouts on the other side of my bedroom wall:
They control us like robots;
I do not agree
with my neighbor, I do not agree with my government.
I agree with you, mother-naked on the year’s first night.
I agree with your hand in my cunt. Your fingers explain
the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure
on the walls of my vagina, urgent graffiti.
that comes, as it will, when a neighbor or casual laughing
hating mouth offers to let me pass, if I say Her
not me, if I agree to rat-tooth jaws closing
on you as enemy, Jew, dyke:
then I will remember
your hand has written your name inside me forever.
For anyone who cares about reproductive justice, reproductive health, and reproductive rights or for that matter freedom, agency, and empowerment, I highly recommend downloading the updated Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit by Political Research Associates (PRA). PRA first disseminated their activist resource kit in 2000 to expose the anti-abortion movement’s strategies and analyze its rhetoric so that reproductive justice activists could proactively calibrate their resistance. The resource kit was updated in 2009 after Dr. George Tiller was murdered.
On the heels of Roe v. Wade’s 40th anniversary, this current version demonstrates the depth and long-term strategic vision of a movement that wants desperately to “capitalize on negative societal attitudes about anyone who does not conform to narrow definition [sic] of ‘true’ Americans, including immigrants, low-income women, prisoners, and LGBT people.”
To say there has been a steady and calculated erosion of access to reproductive health services in the United States, and especially for low-income women of color and LGBTQ people, is an understatement. According to a Guttmacher Institute report released in April, in the first three months of 2013 there were 694 provisions at the state level that sought to restrict reproductive rights and health, 47% of which were directly related to abortion.
Defending Reproductive Justice is an incredible resource to understand the strategies behind anti-choice ideologies that can be illogical and confusing. How can one be against contraception and against abortion? What’s really behind the idea of “reducing the need for abortions?” By appropriating feminist rhetoric and incorporating language that appears to be “woman-centered,” anti-abortion (and let’s be clear anti-sexuality) advocates have been extremely effective. The end result is clear:
By focusing only on cutting the number of abortions performed, some conservative advocates of abortion reduction hope to appeal to moderates, including some communities of faith, while studiously avoiding consideration of the factors that contribute to the need for abortions. Such factors include inadequate sexuality education or health care, economic distress, lack of a supportive partner, and the dismissal of the ability of a woman to make her own decisions. Not addressing these factors through better family planning and more economic support, while accepting the logic of “abortion reduction,” could strengthen the argument for further limiting access to the procedure – a clear antichoice strategy.
Exposing the racialized, classist, and misogynistic underpinnings of arguments for rape exemptions, abortion as holocaust/genocide, sex for procreation only, abstinence-only-until-marriage, and “right to conscience” clauses demonstrates a strong argument for embracing a reproductive justice approach to this incredibly complex issue. We need to assure that all have sexual freedom and access to quality affordable health care. By understanding the systemic origins behind why some have “choices” and others do not, we are better able to call out those historical and culturally constructed oppressive structures of power. We are also better able to see how anti-abortion advocates are highjacking racial justice to further their agenda. This is the holistic and interconnected vision of reproductive justice.
The activist kit concludes with practical tips for resisting and strategies to move beyond the fear-based rhetoric to create a society where those who are able to reproduce decide for themselves when they want such a revolutionary change in their lives.
#FemFuture: Online Revolution, like all good apocalyptic narratives, describes a fragile world of deprivation, struggle, and impending catastrophe. The protagonists are “online feminists” building virtual communities and producing content that is prized for its authenticity. The antagonists are “traditional feminist organizations” who hoard limited resources and control the tools that amplify voices which create influence, a highly sought after form of power.
The report, written by Courtney E. Martin and Vanessa Valenti of Feministing.com, published by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and funded by a number of family foundations and individual donors, is a provocative call to reflect and assess a critical moment in time. They rightly point out the positive impact of employing today’s online tools and strategic social media strategies used within an intentional feminist practice. “Online feminism has the capacity to be like the nervous system of this modern day feminist body politic.” The capacity for connection through building community and the speed to mobilize formerly isolated individuals has changed the way business is done; there is no debate about that.
Except there has been a lot of debate and whole lot more critique. I recommend reading #FemFuture, History & Loving Each Other Harder for one of the most comprehensive and balanced critiques of the report. Jessica Marie Johnson echoes valid sentiment that communities of color’s voices are sanitized and appropriated into a history that itself isn’t new. “There is nothing new about bloggers attempting to create digital media and activate online networks to challenge interlocking oppressions while agitating on the ground for social change.” Neither are the numerous efforts, mostly failed, to build bridges to predominately white women-led feminist organizations.
It is precisely this attempt to originate and center this new-ish revolution within a milquetoast framework of unchecked privilege and access to power that made the proposed “solutions” so disappointing. Johnson lays it down in full view with the following:
This power, at play in the space, conveners, and even among the participants, is precisely what allows the long history of black feminist and WOC online activity to be erased. We are not all in this together. Some feminists are able to write the story down, tell it, and have it be seen as the gospel truth. Power and privilege are invisible and insidious and difficult to face, but only power and privilege explain why such a well-documented past (and thriving present!) is not explored. As a historian of slavery, I’m well familiar with what happens when certain stories are told and others are dismissed. It was never the case slaves weren’t telling their own stories or philosophizing their own experiences. But it was always the case that the means through which they spoke–from the languages they used to the technology they chose–were seen as illegitimate.
I also agree that “differentiating the labor of creating ‘citizen-produced media’ from the labor of organizing online and on the ground (re)creates unnecessary fault lines, privileges certain kinds of organizing over others, certain kinds of knowledge over others, and further gnarls issues of compensation, attribution, citation, and recognition that are the heart of black feminist and rwoc [radical women of color] critique of the report.”
The recommendation for women’s funding organizations and networks to financially support feminist infrastructures that can effectively coordinate and set agendas is important to state. It’s also equally important that feminists – all of us who claim that identity – be vigilant about setting agendas that don’t reinforce hierarchies or power dynamics. The common ground is recognizing that strategic and proactive use of social media tools to change culture, if only for that news cycle, demonstrates a power of collective action.
It’s within these opportunities, moments that more often than not are meticulously planned and not randomly spontaneously generated, where feminists across the spectrum can reflect an authentic reality of systemic problem(s) and intersectional solutions. Those are the first steps in the implementation of a revolution and a fully realized feminist politic.
Riot grrls, from the isolated Pacific Northwest to the shores of the Atlantic and the prairies in between, catalyzed a cynical nation through confessional rants and powerful critiques of a system that objectified and perpetuated violence against them. Radical “third-wave” feminist theories on the body, race, sexuality, class, privilege, and gender were captured on xeroxed paper or pressed into 7″ vinyl records. The riot grrl culture was dynamic in disruption yet static in reflecting much of the status quo. It was a predominately female identified youth-led movement born from the simple premise that they had every right to be on stage, have opinions, and fully participate in their communities. It was radical accountability and influenced a generation of feminist thought and action.
That’s one version of riot grrl’s influence distilled from the dissonance of fractured underground cultures and personal experience.
The history of the riot grrl revolution, as evidenced by the considerable press surrounding the recent release of The Riot Grrl Collection and franchising of Bikini Kill’s fashion for sale, seems to have landed on the contentious opinion of whether or not riot grrl as a movement had any validity (as any classic punk argument is want to do). This current project of framing a specific time in U.S. history (approximately 1990-1997) within localized cultures and individual agents has produced a firestorm of commentary from those who participated or not. As is the case with most underground movements that have been pushed into the harsh above-ground light, a major sticking point revolves around authenticity.
It is revolutionary practice for individuals in a community to openly question, and more importantly vocalize, against constructed realities that do not represent them. The history of riot grrl is situated within the intersections of punk and DIY culture and their respective, mostly white, middle to upper class, straight and male, communities. It was riot grrl’s unique sound created by and for female-identified folks and a familiarity of independence and anger that seduced me the summer of 1996.
Riot grrl music and the subsequent theories that resulted were significant catalysts to my understanding the risks of practicing feminism.
Ultimately, riot grrls’ confessions of resistance were commodified into an exchangeable end product. It became more about the production and distribution of zines or albums which often required capital, both social and financial, than the politics of liberation. It was this narrow understanding of sharing that dominated the scene. Speaking only for myself, this commodification led me to question identifying as a riot grrl. When the message and actions moved from demanding to be heard to a watered down copy of itself to such a degree that the concept of “girl power” signified the Spice Girls, I moved forward as a free agent. I was not the only one who became disillusioned when the politics became a lifestyle.
The manifestation into consumable goods helps to explain the very valid critique that riot grrl was exclusive territory to those who were mostly white, upper to middle class, and straight. As a result, many believe that the narrator of this specific history is in fact that particular dominant voice. Who is being asked to provide testimony matters deeply. Who is asking the questions? What is being asked and, more importantly, not asked? Who’s voices are not being heard? Should it be a surprise that once again those same stories, and to some extent the music, are being commodified into an aesthetic to be consumed?
It is important to be conscious of the following factor: the fidelity of the narrator, and ultimately riot grrl’s comprehensive history, rests on the assumption that we should listen critically to those who were members of those communities. It’s also important to simultaneously remember that communities are messy as are the blissful memories of youth. Qualifying the impact of embodying radical thought that exposes privilege as oppression is a political act.
When we resist hearing only one point of view, one voice, we honor the original revolutionary tenets of riot grrl. There is power in knowing it is not a history that can easily be bought and sold.
There is a spectrum of menstruation experiences that are rarely represented in the public discourse. For some, menstruation is a sacred feminine process and a cause for celebration. For others, it’s a curse and should be obsolete. For most menstruators, it just happens. It should be no surprise that the dominant and traditional menstruation narratives have been centered around shame, surveillance, and strategies of avoidance. However, there are occasional disruptions to this storyline.
Hello Flo an incredibly popular (over 5 million views on YouTube) and dissonantly optimistic story is about a young girl who embraces her menses power. Her “red badge of courage” affords her great power until she is dethroned by a business model that undercuts her authority as expert.
Unfortunately, Hello Flo isn’t an alternative narrative. It’s a well-produced ad for monthly deliveries of menstruation needs: Always pads, Tampax Pearl tampons, and “treats.” Hello Flo draws from classic marketing strategies of false empowerment, nostalgia, and humor which tap into a conversation that has been constructed as private so it’s tagged as innovative.
That the process of menstruation management can still be deemed provocative can be found by reading the comments of another trending conversation, “Still Using Tampons Or Pads? You Should Read This,” which has been liked by over 68,000 on Facebook. One could assume by the over 600 unique comments, in two separate postings, that the way we think about menstruation is still stalled at the intersection of a disposable consumer culture and hegemonic ideals about hygiene and menstruating bodies. The discussion of alternative methods and the subsequent disposal of menstrual blood continues to reinforce a plot line of control and tension between those who have hard limits on managing their menstruation cycle (you’re putting what where!?) to those who essentialize a biological process.
Looking at products like the Feby, a “female empowerment bracelet” that uses different shades of pink to signify when you are “most prime for procreation” in case there is any lurking sperm around, it’s pretty clear that the dominant menstrual narrative hasn’t changed since the first wave of menstrual product advertisements in the 1920s. There was a spotty sign of resistance in 2011 when we were witness to an Always ad that was the first to show menstrual blood as red and not the classic blue; however, these visions of a less-traditional menstruator still present a white, feminine body whose function is to produce human life. The public sexual politics of menstruation are quickly absorbed into private tactics around management and control.
The fact remains that this narrow category of a what makes a proper menstruating body is intimately connected to heterosexist, capitalist, and cisgendered norms. It’s no wonder that so many menstruators across the spectrum feel moody when their periods arrive.
As I witness access to abortion clinics disappear and internalize legal justifications for “legitimate rape,” I am conscious of how I embody the traumatic, anxiety-provoking illogical contradictions of an implied truth like “she asked for it.”
If asked, or provoked, I can adequately testify to how “she wanted it” is a distraction of semantics for those who will never have that phrase used against them. I can just as easily and eloquently pivot to subversion by quoting Dorothy Allison, “Revolutions begin when people look each other in the eyes, say ‘I want,’ and mean it.” I hold both extremes delicately and with intention. Like twilight’s influence on developing shadows, conscious expression has illuminating power.
I am a consumer of consent culture. I am not alone.
Resisting narrow, out-dated, and false ideas about the worth, and therefore perceived value, of my female body is not easy. Through a slow burning recognition, I learned that my dissonant curiosity was a pattern formed from perceived isolation and a survivor’s imagination. I found fierce language that named this struggle, brilliant manifestos that unapologetically sang a chorus of survival, and the healing salve of validation by participating in online feminist communities.
All those intimate stories and images we share help contextualize the complexity of our prismatic identities. It is an act of positive resistance to confess that your body is beautiful and your feelings legitimate.
However, these performances can also oversimplify “choice” which hides class. Depending on your location on the spectrum of marginality and your ability to effectively upload your expressions, these curations can lull the audience into believing that agency is subjective and consistent which conceals a passive privilege. The process of “asking for it” (hopefully enthusiastically) warps in ironic ways. This revolution of saying what we want starts to look and feel homogenized.
What are the economics of consent in a system designed to sustain unequal power? As Chris Bobel in the anthology, Embodied Resistance, states, “Because relations of power are social, it follows that they are constantly under deliberation, a perpetual give-and-take. These processes of negotiation effectively draw and redraw the lines that separate or unite people and the symbolic meanings they ascribe to their material realities.”
In a culture of mass objectification, criminalization, and commodification, there are still too many of us who have learned that our desires are dangerous. There are legitimate reasons why we are not taught how to ask for it (consensual sex, a living wage, birth control on demand, authentic representation). It’s a privileged position to know what you need and get what you asked for.
I want a world where I am not afraid to ask for it.
Even if you haven’t heard of Sheryl Sandberg or bell hooks or the amorphous concept of “leaning in,” you likely have fallen victim to a particular brand of feminism; a siren call of empowerment that very few are able to ignore.
Mainstream feminism, an ideology that frames equality of the sexes within comfortable gender norms and ignores difficult topics like race, provides a steady rhythm of easy-listening soundbites that lull the masses into complicit consciousness. This complacency is fashionable and exceptional in its ability to promote itself; this brand of feminism has always attracted big business and uses a shallow critique of the very system from which it is born. It’s the soundtrack that sells us “men’s lotion” and anything pink.
In a recent post by bell hooks, Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, she dives into a measured call and response to Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, Lean In. As only bell hooks can do, she lays bare the real agenda of Sandberg’s rising feminist star power.
Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.
hooks goes on to describe obvious flaws of appropriating a feminist theory that does not intend to change anything. In fact, this is the reason you are to “hate the player, not the game.” Sandberg’s method and practice of “faux feminism” is not real feminism. By setting up this predictable dichotomy, a divide that ironically perpetuates exclusive solidarity politics, hooks maintains a rigid status quo. hooks concludes, “Sandberg uses feminist rhetoric as a front to cover her commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
I wish it were this simple. It’s easy to think that Sandberg is plotting world domination inside an audacious mansion, or, more likely, from her corner office at Facebook. With the launch of LeanIn.org, it certainly appears that some thought was put into taking this faux feminism global. By “changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do,” Sandberg and her army of ambitious empowered women have the potential to inspire ordinary women to question how they themselves are perpetuating stereotypes and supporting those who have erected barriers to their success.
If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
Both Sandberg and hooks espouse solidarity, community, and a vision for a more equitable world. It’s unfortunate that they have to come out fighting from opposite ends of the feminist spectrum.
There are many threads of feminism but the most common understanding is mainstream feminism, otherwise known as liberal feminism. Liberal feminism is best summed up by failing to recognize that lived experiences are not the same for all. This is a critical blind spot when one is in a position of power and has a web of privileges that benefit rather than block access to making decisions, which often leads to epic failures to recognize how this influences the way one speaks on behalf of “women” or minorities and other terribly relevant policy implications.
Recent mainstream feminist battles have been interesting to observe because the debate appears to pivot on practice. There was a time not that long ago where the shouting matches were over the very existence of a thing called feminism. Now the politics seems to be about who’s doing feminism “right” and who is doing it “wrong.”
Using the example of GoldieBlox taking the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” without their permission, we can explore this idea of who is practicing feminism “right” (specifically liberal feminism). GoldieBlox’s social venture for-profit mission is to sell toys that empower “girls” to pursue math and science-based careers through inspired yet gender segregated learning concepts like girls inclination to have strong verbal skills. Their theory of change seeks to “disrupt the pink aisle” which will eventually narrow the gender gap in male-dominated engineering fields. It’s a worthy endeavor if you don’t question the larger root causes that maintain this limited career access.
On the other side, we have the Beastie Boys with their checkered past of blatant sexism that was transformed by feminist consciousness, public apologies, and practicing “good” feminism. The Beastie Boys evolution from sexist to feminist was a disruption in its own right.
GoldieBlox’s defensive stance was that they were simply using the song “Girls” to demonstrate parody through a critique that proclaimed “Girls” is sexist. They banked on parody to protect them under the umbrella of fair use, which means they could use the song without permission or compensation. GoldieBlox, by contrast, are not sexist because their mission is to sell empowerment only to girls. It’s a thin argument that GoldieBlox has the authority to determine what is sexist and what is not.
There is no doubt that GoldieBlox wants to “change the equation” but the gender paradox they’ve constructed actually perpetuates a hierarchical system they allegedly wish to see equalized. The real politics are that it’s not good feminist practice to brand empowerment, especially in the form of a disposable, ephemeral product. The lesson learned is that good intentions are not a shield to protect you from being called out and that, like the Beastie Boys, one always has room to grow into being better feminists.
“We’ve got to take it back. We sleep to sew the seams that we oppose. We shrink to fit in our pre-assigned roles. Resist with each stitch. Split the seams and start all over again. Cut the pattern that fits. Ready-made rarely means ready to fit. A bleached white tightness to bind and gag and scold … The lines we fought to fit have now become our own. … We cannot be tied down by roughly cut threads from the patterns of the CEOS. … They need no spokesman if you have no voice.”
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court. It was also the year that newly elected President Bill Clinton signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The year ended with the Barbie Liberation (BLO) effectively jamming our over-saturated binary gender culture by switching the voice boxes on over 300 talking G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls. Instead of Barbie saying, “Math is hard,” we heard “Vengeance is mine.”
Over 20 years have passed since the murder of Doctor David Gunn, the first documented murder of an abortion doctor. The World Trade Center had its first bombing so we bombed Iraq and have not left since. We have lived with the greedy consequences of NAFTA, bore witness to the repeal of DADT, and now understand the strategic appropriation of the religious right to use RFFA as a master’s tool to keep the master’s house intact.
RFRA is the federal law that the Supreme Court used to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby and now sets the precedent to allow private for-profit corporations to “exercise religious freedom” equating corporate entities ever closer to breathing conscious “persons.”
According to Hobby Lobby’s attorney Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “Today’s victory against this unjust mandate is important for… all Americans who seek to live according to their consciousness.” She then declared that women’s voices have been heard.
Much has already been written about the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision – its potential impact on people who receive contraception benefits from their employer’s insurance plans and the relentless chipping away of reproductive health and justice access for low-income communities of color (See RH Reality Check for the most comprehensive analysis on this unprecedented ruling).
But beyond the immediate, we face a terrifyingly near future where Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is no longer a science fiction fantasy. The dystopic reality we face today is a false sense of private choice. Sadly, for those of us who personally experience the daily struggle of living in poverty, this ruling isn’t likely going to change the way we go about our business. We have history on our side and have embodied our oppressions.
When we push aside the illogical and scientifically wrong argument that the four contraceptives in dispute, which were incorrectly institutionalized as abortifacients (IUDs, two forms of emergency contraception, and contraceptive implants), the underlying issue reveals itself as the control of sexuality, which has always been a matter of public discourse and policy. And that discourse is abilist, racialized, classist, cisgendered, and heteronormative.
In an ironic statement after the ruling, Randall Wenger who is part of the Conestoga Wood legal team (the other now infamous private for-profit corporation) noted, “The announcement provides what we had hoped. There are limits on government power.”
It is true that Hobby Lobby does not object to their employees receiving vasectomies, condoms, or Viagra. The pivotal point where they felt a “sincere” threat to their religious liberties rested on the concept of who controls the implantation of a fertilized egg, the subsequent hospitality of the host’s uterus, and the hopeful birth of a human (not to be confused with a corporation) that should only result from legally sanctioned heterosexual coupling.
It is equally true that our legal system, founded and maintained to uphold the ruling class, would publicly reinforce who really controls the miracle of life.
It’s too soon to know if this stain will wash out or give birth to new categories of corporate life. So instead of shrinking to fit, we will reimagine a culture where power empowers instead of dominates. We will continue to violate norms and resist the lines that divide and conquer us. We will embrace our contradictions and support the collective public struggle of the matters of our private lives.
[such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes]
— E.E. Cummings
We’ve come undone, cumulatively, in the same way that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warns. Ruled by misunderstandings, which is to say we are ruled by no one in particular, norms are large-scale projects of self-consciousness. It’s public infrastructure.
The ocean goes nowhere except to meet itself.
A private sensation, a mix of urging and friction.
Days bleed into opinion. It is not enough to simply be.
All this pressure to perform as heaven’s rewards remain on layaway.
I wanted to be inside that pejorative energy. Transposed survival.
Cut. Then paste. Seasons as witness to predictions that light seeks light.
you got no fear of the underdog / that’s why you will not survive – Spoon, The Underdog
This violence looks good on you. Fitted. Proper. My opinion, of course.
All apologies have been returned to sender. Transparency is seasonal.
No stability is guaranteed. Can we at least agree it is sacred territory?
This is a good-bye letter. My reasons rolling out like smoke from fire.