Poetry I’m Reading: Toward What Is Awful by Dana Guthrie Martin — Written by Tammy Robacker

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Poet Dana Guthrie Martin has released an eBook collection of poetry titled, Toward What Is Awful, through YesYes Books (2012).

Martin’s work has been paired with mute-toned, creaturely illustrations of visual artist GB Kim. The result is a small collection of poems that combine strangely beautiful visual components and multimedia formatting. This is a work for both poetry and art lovers.

Because Martin lives, reads and writes as a dyslexic, she refers to Toward What Is Awful as a “dyslexic transliteration” of the Roman poet Catullus’s poems. She likens her poetic translation process to divining tea leaves.

Transliterating is like faux translating. It is what you think a translation could be. It’s like reading tea leaves or tarot cards.

“When I let my guard down or when I’m reading, my dyslexia acts up. Letters flip around on a page or I scan the page horizontally as I read. It’s about attention and inattention. Perception and misperception. What I see in the work, I will never see the same way twice,” said Martin.

In 2010, Martin began transliterating some of the Latin texts of Catullus and wrote over fifty poems in a few short months. Once Katherine Sullivan, editor and publisher of YesYes Books, was introduced to Martin’s poems, she published seven of the transliterations for her journal, Vinyl Poetry. Then, she asked Martin to send her a whole manuscript of the poems for a much bigger artistic rendering.

“Katherine had the idea of an eBook to expose readers to work in a new format. I was open to it because, why not, it sounded interesting. Katharine Sullivan is someone I admire in poetry and in publishing as much as I admire anybody. She has opened the right doors, she advocates for her authors, she represents the absolute best aspects of the poetry community,” said Martin.

Once Sullivan got Martin on board for producing an illustrated web book collaboration project, seventeen of Martin’s poems were selected and paired with GB Kim’s artistic illustrations for the final version of Toward What Is Awful.

Catullus’ poems deal with the themes of love, women, sex and poetry. So what message rises up from Martin’s transliterations of his work? Martin says her collection is in conversation with Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, which is distinct from and exists in the space between the subject and object. “Kristeva is concerned with figures that are in state of transition or transformation. The abject is the consensus that underpins social order and, as such, disturbs social order and represents taboo elements of the self.”

To purchase Martin’s book, Toward What Is Awful, or to read samples of the new poetry ebook, visit: http://yesyesbooks.com/store/book/0201009/

Review of Artist Staceyann Chin

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Staceyann Chin is a Jamaican born lesbian, spoken word poet, artist and activist. She has written a number of poems addressing issues of race and sexuality as well as a memoir titled, The Other Side of Paradise, an unforgettable story that documents her experiences growing up in an unfamiliar and dysfunctional home in Paradise Jamaica. Told with humor and courage, her memoir speaks of home and self discovery. She  has appeared on television and radio stations, and performs both nationally and internationally.  Her work specifically speaks about the intersection of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and sex. She speaks against the patriarchal, heteronormative, racist and misogynist society with strong visually linguistic writing and fueling rage. A common theme in her work relates to the notion of the unspoken identity.

In her poem, Feminist or Womanist, she states:

“And while we’re on the subject of diversity, Asia is not one big race, and there’s not one big country called ‘The Islands’, and no, I am not from there. There are a hundred ways to slip between the cracks of our not so credible cultural assumptions about race and religion. […] The truth is I’m afraid to draw your black lines around me, I’m not always pale in the middle, I come in too many flavors for one fucking spoon. I am never one thing or the other” (Feminist or Womanist, Chin).

We are a fundamentally visual society; we understand our environment based on what we perceive. Often times, judgment of another individual is based on physical connotations that allude to stereotypes related to ones physical appearance. These stereotypes create unfinished stories allowing many individuals to “slip between the cracks” and remain “unclassified” in an inherently classifying society. Staceyann brings an awareness to our individual uniqueness and inherently changing individuality; affirming that there is no need to put labels or lines around ourselves because in doing so, we restrict and confine ourselves to wear only one of our many masks.

The importance of Staceyann’s piece, Feminist or Womanist, is to bring awareness to the unspoken identity. The unspoken identity is the part of us that no one physically sees but exists; it exists in our deepest understanding of who we are as individuals. Without this understanding, we slip through the cracks. Classifying unspoken identity should not be seen negatively but rather as an opportunity to understand and respect the diversity that lives in all of us. There is a fine line between understanding and listening, and pieces like Staceyann’s force the viewer to listen. I encourage you not only to listen but to look in the same way you would look at an individual for the first time, making the same judgments and perceptions. However, most importantly, take a second look and allow the individual to speak for ze, his or herself. Allow the individual or the performer to not be judged by preconceived notions of appearance or identity, but rather, by the content in which is spoken. You may find that there is more to it than meets the eye.

Karen Osovsky | @karenosovsky

Native Guard, a poetry collection by Natasha Tretheway

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What I’m Reading: Natasha Tretheway’s Native Guard

In Native Guard (2006), a collection of poetry by former 2012-2014 United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, the poet creates a strong sense of place and loss when she takes the reader ‘down home’ in the rural South to tell her story.

By sharing personal memories of growing up in Mississippi, these poems confront a difficult childhood: being bi-racial and her mother’s tragic murder. Trethewey also includes pieces that tell the disturbing story of the mistreatment of America’s Native Guard, one of the first all-black regiments fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War.

In technical terms, I found a number of poems in Native Guard had a graceful, precise, and repetitive construction to them. That technique lent itself to their musical feel, many reading like a tight, bluesy tune. I was especially interested to see how Trethewey incorporated memory with this technique and built them into elegies — a poetic form mourning things she has lost. Works that confronted her mother’s death, while being grievous, also narrated a bigger truth about her experience of being bi-racial in the rural South.

As Trethewey’s book builds momentum in its grieving, she introduces the poem, “Native Guard,” as a timeline account of an all-black regiment’s participation in the Civil War. A poem of ultimate loss, her speaker tells the story of how slaves were moved into supply units to do ‘nigger work’ and given none of the support, rations, credit or honor for all they contributed to the war. Tretheway calls them ‘exiles in their own homeland’ and chronicles the abuses, suffering and abandonment these men endured in their station.

When combining the personal with the historical in her body of poems, Trethewey brings up an important discussion in Native Guard about the larger racial heritage of loss, aggression, and hardship in the Deep South. She finds a way to place herself and a dishonored body of soldiers in the context of American history. In addressing this loss and grief, Tretheway’s poems become the ultimate transformation and gift as they sing honor and praise for those history forgets.

Tammy Robacker| @pearlepubs

Cherríe Moraga — The Simultaneity of Oppression

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When Cherríe Moraga spoke at Oregon State University on February 10, she captivated the packed room of audience members and reminded all of us why we strive for social justice and change. She spoke about gender and sexuality, growing up in a mixed-race family, and her own struggle with identity. She addressed the important influence writing, such as This Bridge Called My Back, has for people with intersectional identities. What stuck with me most: she spoke of the simultaneity of oppression and freedom and how it affects all of us.

Moraga is best known for the feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back, which she edited with Gloria E. Anzaldúa in 1981 and first published through Persephone Press. This book became what Moraga calls “the Bible for women of color” (WOC) feminism, because nothing like it was available for women who truly needed it before. Its original mission was to find its way into every city and corner, and it certainly did. Intersectionality could no longer be ignored or denied. It allowed women, all kinds of women, to speak out and be heard. Upon discovering This Bridge Called My Back, “women of color feel their consciences catch fire,” Moraga said. Having felt out of place, unrecognized, unimportant, women of color were able to feel connected, to realize their power and value, through this book.

Moraga explained that the process of writing and publishing This Bridge Called My Back tore her up because the radical feminist WOC vision of change didn’t produce the results she and the other women hoped for. During the years after publication, she said there was a systematic breakdown of social justice movements politically and economically. Many of President Reagan’s policies were detrimental for women and nearly cast out people of color all together. Feminists struggled to keep momentum and conversations going, but they feared they would be drowned out. Luckily, this discourse is quickly re-emerging.

It’s strange to think of the 1990s as a time where anything happened, especially political or social turmoil, because I spent those years in such an ignorant bliss of childhood. But as an adult, I look back and realize that the years before and after my birth were harrowing times when women and people of color had to relentlessly lay the stone path to lead to where we are now. I am certainly grateful for activists such as Moraga who worked so hard for the change in which they believe.

This Bridge Called My Back was written by radical women of color during a time when their voices were muffled under the louder voices of white feminists and shut out completely by systems of power. These women sought to bring forth recognition of the importance of intersecting identities in this country, emphasizing race and class. This anthology brought together the many WOC voices into one powerful, unforgettable collection of experiences and ideas linking feminism, race, gender, sexuality, and class. This book allowed them to express to women the experiences that divide feminists in order to come together.

I have always known feminism to be about all identities, that we are yearning to bring equity and importance to everyone no matter their race, gender, sexuality, class, or ability. I recognize this has a lot to do with my generation and the way the movement has shifted. It is hard for me to imagine feminism as an exclusive movement, one that favored middle-class white women who had the privilege of being radical. Of course, this makes sense. How can we expect women to be outrageous and misbehave when oppression breathes down their necks, and their lives literally depend on staying in line?

One thing that struck me most in Moraga’s presentation was the idea that oppression is simultaneous. In movements of social justice, nobody should be asking, “What about me?” because, as Moraga made me realize, freedom of one group of people means freedom of all, because it means the breaking down of all systems of oppression. Nobody is free from oppression until we all are, until systems of power change fundamentally or topple entirely to allow equality for everyone.

To me, feminism (of all kinds) is a freedom movement. Freedom to unapologetically be who you are. Freedom to commit acts of resistance against the patriarchy on a global scale. Freedom to fight back. Feminism is a way to connect us all and give us the freedom to make change.

Books and collections like This Bridge Called My Back are invaluable to those of us who seek social justice and change in this world, and to those whose identities have not been given the importance and recognition deserved.

“We wrote this book for you,” Moraga said, “and the next generation, and the next after that.”

Kelsey Sutton | @kelsanne92

The Fifth Sacred Thing- An Ecofeminist Vision

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Inside Starhawk’s visionary novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing (Bantam, 1993), lies a lush, thriving community of people in post-revolutionary California who have adopted an earth-based, ecofeminist set of values and ideas. While the rest of the country, and presumably the world, suffers through extreme corruption and poverty, the people of San Francisco seem to have figured it out. They live simply, help one another, and, above all, value the earth and its elements.

After a violent revolution, the people of this not-so-distant future San Francisco decided they want to live life differently- live a life in harmony and appreciation for the environment. They have chosen to honor the Four Sacred Things that sustain life.

“The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth. Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.

To call these things sacred, is to say that they have a value beyond the usefulness for humans ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit for them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeit its legitimacy” (Starhawk, 1993).

The magical city is filled with productive gardens growing on street corners, flowing streams, gondolas as public transport, and a happy, engaged community that fosters cultures, roots, and ideas. Energy healers, witches, engineers, strong female leaders, and all kinds of people- young and old- live in multicultural neighborhoods where everyone speaks more than one language and all religions are honored.

Starhawk’s writing centers around ideals of goddess spirituality with political undertones that together create a narrative explanation of the ecofeminist movement. The Fifth Sacred Thing is a great introduction to ecofeminism, as throughout the story she highlights all the values and ideas of the movement such as cultural diversity, matriarchal leadership, and social justice and how they can be applied on a large scale.

The book is set against a backdrop of a desperate and failing authoritarian country, a stark contrast that shows what could happen to our society. In her example of southern California, people are forced to obey a corrupt official religion, dying of hunger and thirst, and suffering from even greater crimes of humanity. The environment has been ravaged, almost to the point of no return, by which everybody is negatively affected.

When one of the main characters, Madrone, ventures south, away from her safe haven to offer her healing to rebels fighting the government, she describes to those she meets the way her “fairytale” city works. They can hardly believe that everyone has enough to drink and eat and that everyone is given equal respect, opportunities, and access. Additionally, everyone’s daily habits contribute to sustainability, bartering is the mainstay of the economy, technology furthers the health of the earth, and healthcare is free to everyone. Gender roles are nearly obsolete, marriage is no longer institutional, and integrity replaces the justice system.

Through the lovable characters’ interactions and reactions, page-turning events, and inner dialogue, we see an ecofeminist analysis and criticism of the world we currently live in, as well as plentiful reasoning for why we need to turn it around before the possible worst happens.

While the politics in this book are subtle and the story is mostly spiritual in nature, Starhawk is a known ecofeminist and this book seems to be a way for her to creatively spin an example of her idea and values. Within this world of pagan rituals and rich cultural diversity, Starhawk has created a working example of how ecofeminism can benefit our species and world.

If you are interested in ecofeminism or earth-based spirituality, The Fifth Sacred Thing is a great springboard for learning more about the movements. I would also recommend this book to anybody who is dissatisfied with the way our society works now, to anyone who desires environmental harmony and social equity, or to those who wish to see how love can save the world.

Kelsey Sutton, Volunteer

From the Desk of Margarita Donnelly

marg The first time I sat at Margarita’s desk was the first time I began to appreciate what a true force of nature she was. It was late summer, and while Margarita had ostensibly been retired for a year and a half, she was everywhere in the office she had run for 35 years. A true stereotype of a creative mind, she worked from piles, files organized by memory, and an incredible Rolodex in her head. Finding your way around the CALYX office meant you were, by default, entering the annals of the history of CALYX—a place and an idea inextricably linked with Margarita Donnelly.

CALYX Journal and its younger sister CALYX Books are, in their own way, an oxymoron. It was only after the brainstorming was done and the plans all agreed upon that someone mentioned that the poppy chosen for the design is one of the few flowers without a true calyx. Inconsistencies of iconography aside, CALYX to this day has remained true to the early editorial and activist vision: a place that protects and nurtures the ‘bud’ of women’s creative work, a collective model in an era when ‘thoughtfully considered’ has taken a back seat to speed, and a home for voices rarely heard above the din.

Margarita once told me that when CALYX was founded in 1976, she and the other founders thought they’d be around for 5 years or so. There was so much momentum and so much optimism in the women’s movement that they truly thought there would be no need for such a specialist press by the early 1980s. When she told me that story, 36 years later she was so obviously tickled by their youthful naiveté you almost missed the slightly rueful note in her voice as she recounted the years spent developing a myriad of talented women’s voices—years that eclipsed her own time for writing and creative work. As part of a program sponsored by the NEA in the early 90s, CALYX was given organizational structure and business advice consistent with its non-profit mission—Margarita cried the day they told her she would have to stop editing and focus full time on administration if CALYX was to survive. Teeth gritted, she knuckled down, but never stopped editing, and the next decade were the most lauded years of CALYX’s publishing: an American Book Award, a lambda shortlist, reviews in the Times, and movie deals (Into the Forest, starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood is due out this fall!). Accolades in place, CALYX hired more staff and published more books, but stayed grassroots in the truest sense—they believed in the words, the authors, and the power of women’s voices rather than market trends or clicks and ‘likes’.

At the last editorial meetings Margarita was able to attend, for an anthology book of CALYX’s 40-year history, she was much as I imagine she would have been at the first. Piles of books spilling across the table, handwritten (mostly decipherable) notes, a tendency to veer from decade to decade, story to story. She held us spellbound with her remarkable storytelling ability, whether it was the hysterical—being in the bathroom when they were trying to present her with the American Book Award, or the seemingly mundane—hauling 200 pounds of books up narrow European stairs to a book fair. Story flowed into story and suddenly any agenda we had paled in comparison to soaking up the wisdom and joy of her remarkable spirit. To this day we still haven’t covered everything on that agenda, but the editors at that meeting, many of them relatively new to CALYX, accomplished far more than the crossing off of line items that day; we all became a part of CALYX in an indefinable way.

Margarita took the best of her lineage and history, combining the Irish gift of storytelling—not to mention an appreciation of the tragi/comic—with a true passion for social justice born of a childhood in Venezuela, and brought them not just to CALYX but to her life and, by lucky extension, to the rest of us. Though behind the scenes she left her indelible mark on the feminist landscape, her remarkable legacy deserves a name and a face, an enduring story in the limelight. CALYX was one of a multitude of those small feminist presses that came out of its era, but, due largely in part to Margarita’s passion and grit, it is only one of a handful to survive with such continuity of mission and editorial strength. And now, as we are planning our 40th anniversary, I still feel honored every time I sit down because, wherever CALYX goes, it will always be Margarita’s desk.

Alicia Bublitz Director, CALYX Press

Top Ten Books of 2014: A Feminist Analysis

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“If we are to dismantle a system that is oppressive because it pushes certain people to the periphery, we must bring those same people to the center.”
– Leonicka Valcius, blogger, author, editor and traveler

A demand for an “equitable literary landscape” within the publishing community reflects the larger socioeconomic and political disparities among racially and ethnically diverse communities. Publishers Weekly, an international news website for book publishing and bookselling, conducted a 2014 report identifying industry characteristics within the publishing houses. The report showed that the larger socioeconomic disparities by race and ethnicity translated into the publishing communities workforce. It concluded that 89.3% of respondents identified as white, while the remaining 11.3% identified themselves as Hispanic (any race), black or African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, mixed race or other nonwhite race (Publishers Weekly).

These numbers summarize the annual survey sent to nearly 7,500 subscribers who work at publishing houses in the industry—about 800 responded, 650 identified their race.

The shortage of racially and ethnically diverse employees within the publishing community has a direct correlation to the low number of racially and ethnically diverse authors being published. In comparing the Top Ten Books of 2014 for both the New York Times and the Washington Post, there is a significant difference in the diversity within each newspaper’s list. For example, the New York Times’s Top Ten Books of 2014 is racially represented as 9 out of 10 authors identifying as white, and one identifying as Indian American. While six female and 4 male authors represent the gender gap. In contrast, the Washington Post’s Top Ten Books of 2014 is more racially representative with a Jamaican male author, an Indian-American male, a lesbian author from Wales, as well as individuals from Tasmania, Canada, and Britain. In contrast, seven males and three females represent the gender gap. However, both lists show no women of color. This is not unusual considering that women of color are still one of the most marginalized groups worldwide.

The publishing world only begins to reflect the socioeconomic disparities that exist among racially and ethnically diverse communities. However, by increasing the number of racially and ethnically diverse employees within the publishing community we can begin to see a shift in the types of books that are being published. By publishing more authors of color, we may also begin to see an increase in readership among marginalized communities.

As children, we are often told not to judge a book by its cover. However, as a reader, it is important to see oneself reflected within the literature. How can a person of color self-identify or see themselves reflected within the literature if white men write most of the books being published?

The publishing community needs to consider the diversity of their employees and its effect on the types of authors being published. Diversifying employment will assist in creating a more equitable literary landscape. Diversifying this conversation will help shape that dialogue.

Please follow #WeNeedDiverseBooks and look for tweets from CALYX.

I can only speak personally. I understand, however, that as a privileged member of the publishing community it is my responsibility to step aside, to ask, to listen and to not assume something I do not know or understand. So I ask you, with questions provided by Leonicka Valcius, how does the publishing industry provide greater access to people from marginalized groups? How does the publishing industry begin to create an equitable literary landscape? How do we stop limiting our literature?

Written by: Karen Osovsky, P.R Volunteer

(Intern Journals) Top 5 Most Influential Books in my Life by Women

On Monday, I posted onto our Facebook page a link to an article by The Guardian which listed the 50 most influential books written by women. While I can agree that list is full of novels I have enjoyed reading in the past, not all have been influential in my life. Thus, here are the top 5 most influential books in my life by women (in no particular order):

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
This was one of the first novels I read as a kid. I was an avid reader; I’d hole myself up in my room for hours on end. When I found this novel, I was really excited and surprised that someone would write about fieldworkers and about a Mexican girl. Esperanza Rising tells the story of a rich Mexican girl who is forced to move from her life of luxury living in an Hacienda to the fields of California/Texas when her father dies, and the family (her and her mother) loses all their money to her evil uncle. I had to yet to discover House on Mango Street, so for me Esperanza was the first character I could ever relate to.


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I read this novel a couple of years ago in my American Women Writer’s course. The plot structure and Morrison’s use of first person made the book memorable to me, but what really impacted me was the novel’s commentary on beauty and race. The Bluest Eye reflects on how standards of beauty in this country can impact someone’s life, whether it is a young child or a grown man, and how a community’s response to these internalized standards can affect everyone. The Bluest Eye is truly a remarkable novel, and really made me reflect upon my own struggles with my identity and standards of beauty.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
My first introduction to the genre of magical realism (now one of my favorite genres) was through this novel. Before Allende, I’d never read a novel by a non-American woman or a South American author. The House of the Spirits tells the story of Clara (hey, like me – also the first time I’d seen my name in a novel) and the Trueba family. The novel follows four generations of Truebas and their rise to power, and their resulting downfall during the Chilean revolution. Allende’s novels almost always have a female protagonist, her other works include Eva Luna and Daughter of Fortune.


The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I spent half of my life reading the Harry Potter series and watching each film. I received my first Harry Potter book on Christmas. The Harry Potter series tells the story of a young boy wizard who is thrown into the middle of an upcoming wizard war, it is a fantastical novel with trolls, dark wizards, moving trees, giant spiders, flying cars, and much more. It’s a bit sad that Joanne Rowling had to use her initials in order to get the series published. It was a large part of my childhood, and I can’t help but get nostalgic every now and then because it introduced me to a new world where I could escape and anything could happen.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
ImageI’ve read and re-read this novel at least three times. The story of Anne is inspiring, and her character is sassy and lively. This novel tells the story of Anne Shirley, an orphan who is sent to live on a farm, and her adventures on the island of Prince Edward. I remember often longing to find my “bosom friend” and my Gilbert Blythe (my first imaginary/fictional love).  

I asked this on our Facebook page, but what are your top 5 most influential books by women?

Between the Lines: Lynn Casteel Harper

Now that you have, hopefully, had a chance to read the full version of Family Fest, Lynn Casteel Harper’s compelling, insightful essay from the Summer 2012 edition of the CALYX Journal, please enjoy this equally thoughtful interview she did about the piece.

Summer 2012 CALYX Journal

“Family Fest” is set during a weekend-long Christian music gathering, which your narrator does not seem to regard highly. What made you choose this backdrop? What effect does it have on the narrator’s perspective?

I actually have some affection for southern gospel music and the groups I’ve come to know over the past few years.  I enjoy, in moderation, the tight harmonies and the un-ironic happiness exuded from stage. But when I found myself immersed in this intensive environment for three days, I simply could not ignore the deeply troubling way the event had merged faith with a particular portrayal of family.  The fact that only certain versions of family were given the microphone—and only these “family stories” could enjoy public narration—got me thinking about all the audience members whose families did not fit the sanctioned narrative.  It got me thinking about my own stories.

The wedding of faith to one kind of family narrative haunted me, particularly as I began to consider my friends (“Melody” and “Justin”) whose theology was similar to the theology represented on stage but for whom these idealized notions of family had shattered in the face of hard realities.  The sacralizing of a particular narration of family does not just happen on the gospel music stage.  My long weekend of immersion in this “Family Fest” family hit this fact home to me.

This piece is often concerned with untold stories, or those which are hidden or ignored because they are uncomfortable. In your opinion, how do untold stories affect their keepers and their subjects? How are they best dealt with?

It’s not that I was hearing untrue stories from the stage; I just sensed how partial the stories were—all happiness and new life and strong faith.  The truth of Melody and Justin’s family life casts an uncomfortable shadow.  It is messy, sad, and confusing, but every bit as real as the testimonials on stage.  And in our culture that has a hard time facing up to finitude, we don’t know what to do with darkness other than hide from it or deny the power of its existence.  But just shutting up about it seems dishonest and serves to reinforce the same sentimentalized stories of family.  If the stories we circulate—both culturally and personally—are only those which are predictable, flattened, simplistic, then what gets lost is a fuller accounting of this life.  What gets lost is the freedom to express a range of experiences—a freedom that can give rise to greater understanding of self and other, greater compassion even.

We are bombarded by narratives of winning, success, overcoming—in the pulpit, popular books, movies, advertisements, talk shows.  It’s an insidious triumphalism.  Untold stories are those that we fear will not be accepted, because they are our stories that don’t have the “right” ending.  It takes courage to tell them, and I don’t recommend telling them unless one is prepared for rejection, especially by those people one loves most.  I recommend some reticence even—not hiding but exercising some discretion about when, where, with whom to share.  I’m actually working on a piece on the importance of reticence, because I think there’s a cultural loss when we don’t balance telling with withholding.  Don’t cast your pearls before swine, but also don’t hold your precious truths under lock and key.  It’s a delicate balance.  I’d be lying if I didn’t share that I have written and agreed to publish “Family Fest” only with much fear and trembling. As a minister and a writer—both professions that require truth-telling, which often means exposing shadow—I assume some vocational hazards.

I think we have to begin to speak and hear and grapple with the truths that neither feel good nor lend themselves to triumphal narratives.  We have to grow up as hearers of difficult truths; we have to learn how to hold messy stories without needing to “fix” them.  Otherwise, we end up swapping superficialities and skimming the surface, never getting to the marrow of life.


There are many different kinds of families represented in “Family Fest”: newlyweds, grown children, worried parents, a pregnant bride, etc. What is it that defines a family? What purpose do families serve in our society?

Our families of origin are those people we didn’t choose but to whom we are tethered, for good or ill.  We grow up within, because of, and despite of them.  We must reckon with them, and they with us.  They perpetually remind us that we cannot escape the complicated negotiations, the blessings and curses of community.  Our families teach us the realities of life lived together; they are the first “society” we navigate.

We all have that one crazy relative that makes our lives look “together” by comparison.  And you think, “There’s no way I’d ever have anything to do with Aunt Tilly if she weren’t part of my family!”  Families often force us to encounter radical difference and to learn how to deal with it.  I think these are good habits to develop—getting used to being thrown together without killing each other, even learning how to love one another.  This is good for democracy and for living in a pluralistic society.

But often times our families become an end in themselves—little sovereign nations—demanding unquestioning allegiance and devotion.  They end up promoting insularity that is more concerned with conformity and “me and mine” than with any other form of devotion or the development of any other relationships.  If my best friend were to die, I would get no bereavement leave from work; if a remote relative dies, I would.  This seems odd to me—our society’s categorical elevation of bloodlines over other kinship ties.

I find it troubling that no family I know fits the sentimentalized, idealized model, and yet we seem to cling so fiercely to its narrative superiority.  Because certain conceptions of family have become so sacralized, it is very hard to offer textured and complicated accounts and definitions of family. Nevertheless, I hold out hope that we can make way for more expansive notions of kinship, when we begin to share more full-bodied and honest renderings of actual familial relationships.

 

As a Baptist minister, how does your faith relate to your writing?

I see writing as an extension of my faith.  I try to listen for the still, small voice within, and to other voices of faith—living and dead, within scripture and without.  And I hope to emerge with something honest.  I have to trust—this is the faith part—that this “something honest” that I’ve given shape to in words on a page might just speak to someone else, to some truth she knew but could not yet communicate.  The act of writing is a spiritual discipline, a practice of attention to what is going on inside of me and outside of me.  I guess you could call it a form of prayer—my way of attempting to connect to a larger life.  I say “attempt,” because writing, like faith, is about approach not arrival.

I hope my writing can increase a sense of possibility and hope in the world—not through avoidance or glossing but by looking hard into it and not turning away.  This is why the cross is such a conflictual source of inspiration for me; it is the constant reminder that I can’t escape the tragic, wherever I find it, in any search for truth.  I can’t ever preach light without holding the dark.

 

Here at CALYX, we love to hear women’s voices stand out. Where do you turn to see new female writers and artists share their stories with the world?

I try to get my hands on new literary magazines as much as possible.  I’m also privileged to be part of a faith community in which women preach almost every Sunday; I am privy to their sermonic artistry weekly.  But, to be perfectly honest, I traffic mostly with the dead these days!  I recently visited Emily Dickinson’s home and had the tremendous experience of standing in the bedroom that incubated her genius.  I’ve felt compelled to turn back to her in recent weeks.  I try to follow threads. For instance, I read a Patricia Hampl essay recently, which lead me to her memoir I Could Tell You Stories, which lead me to reconsider Sylvia Plath and to discover Edith Stein. A recent re-reading of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm reminded me of the power of a mysticism-tinged, unblinking telling of truth. I am in the middle of the book of Job and love rediscovering how gritty the Bible is.  I’m not sure a more honest grappling with the raw “stuff” of life exists than in Job; innocent suffering, grief, well-meaning but miserable friends—it’s all there.  Some new writers to me aren’t necessarily “new” in the chronological sense.  For instance, I’ve just started reading Adrienne Rich after her recent death.  I am mostly non-systematic in my reading; I simply try to read good writers wherever, in whatever century, I can find them.

***

Lynn Casteel Harper is a Baptist minister serving as an interfaith chaplain at a retirement community in New Jersey. She writes for the religion section of The Huffington Post. Her work is published in shady side review, Freerange Nonfiction’s Freshly Hatched, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, and the Journal of Religion and Abuse.

Diana Simpson, Intern Extraordinaire

A Word on “Family Fest”

 Dear Readers,

Although the staff and volunteers of CALYX take great pride in our careful and sometimes overly nitpicky editorial process (“you want me to do what with that comma?”), we do make mistakes from time to time. We must inform our readers that one such mix-up made it into the printed pages our Summer 2012 issue of CALYX: because of a formatting error, page 52 is missing text from the thoughtful and rich essay “Family Fest” by Lynn Casteel Harper.

This stings a bit because the issue is so lovely–we of course wanted it to be perfect. I’d like to think it’s still one of our best issues (read it for yourself and let us know what you think).

We offer our apologies to both Lynn and to our readers. To read the complete and correct version of “Family Fest,” please click here.

Thank you for your continued support of our little team!

Your (very human) senior editor, Rebecca

Warning: contains beauty, truth, errors.

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