Free poem: “Columbus”

(Trigger warning: violence, blood)

I do not usually give away my poetry for free, because my poetry has value and I think there is a value in poetry-publishing venues that pay. Today, because it is Indigenous People’s Day, because the United States has off for a day celebrating Christopher Columbus and it is also my birthday (and I am a hobbit, who gives presents on my birthday), I am making a small exception.

I wrote “Columbus” over a year ago. I wrote it in a state of blind, panicked angry. When you write about yourself and you are a marginalized person, sometimes people use details of your life or your family history for things you did not intend when you shared them. My family history is complex; a story of assimilation and imperialism and resistance, of refugees and forced migrations, of fake names and fake papers, and it does not lend itself to easy stories about What It Means To Be American, or what it means to be anything else. It offers no answers about anything, except to say that perhaps surviving a rigged game is hard, and you make hard compromises. But sometimes people looking for stories that satisfy their own inner narratives “discover” us, repurpose our lives, our families, our traditions, for their own needs. This has happened to me a few times, most painfully in spaces where I am the only brown person, being asked to educate white people. The healers in my family become magical witches; our syncretic religious traditions validate ideas about the “evolutions” of religion; my family’s hard choices with passing and assimilation become part of a dozen narratives I do not choose about what I “really” am and how racism “really works”. I am reinterpreted, over and over again, my ancestors and their cultures are reinterpreted, to support narratives about me, about us, that do not involve us. We are objects to be interpreted; we are not experts on our own lives and experiences, and our own words only matter if they can be quoted out of context for validity.

Among constant questions about whether “diversity” is necessary, if it is necessary for non-majority people to talk about themselves  or if we should be glad to be spoken for; do not think you can speak for me. I can, and will, speak for myself.

Columbus
I am still awake when the thief holds a scalpel to my heart
and looks for the choice parts to cut out for her plate.
“Do not take my grandmother from me,” I say,
but she clamps my tongue down and will not hear me.
She pores over my secrets like a jeweler, looking for the biggest stone,
a war-trophy for her conquest of the country I have loved.
Will she take the dead who came before me, who lay in my ribs in uneven rows?
Will she take the words of my grandfather’s drunken mumbled humming?
She has already taken my father laboring in the kitchen under the secret weight of history
for the soup course and side dish of the next dinner party.

The pain is worse than I had imagined: she cuts out my whole heart, all my family
and slices it piecemeal, throwing the remnants back at me.
She only wants what looks good on paper; early deaths and women unhappily married.
She does not care about the details; she cannot even spell the city we came from
or the saints to whom we silently prayed.
She takes my tongue, too, to learn to speak the words only I should know.
“I only want to borrow it,” she says, butchering the language of those who love me.
She leaves me broken-ribbed and wordless, her blood-stained mouth singing my grandfather’s song.

The fragments of my family lie in ribbons around me, when I claw my chest closed.
My mouth will take years to patch together into a familiar shape.
The slivers left of my ancestral tongue can yet form words among the blood
and though I am swallowing myself to speak, I whisper every name that was not taken from me.
The dead, already rising up before me, will return to claim their fragmented bones
and I will call my heart back to me, piece by bloody piece.
I will not go quiet into the unmarked grave still incomplete.

“An Unexpected Guest” is out today! (& a poetry sale announcement)

Today is the publication day of my poem “An Unexpected Guest” in Liminality Magazine! I’m awfully excited to be appearing among such wonderful poems, but hope you take a little detour to read Amy Fant’s Tasseography of English Breakfast Tea at 30,000 Feet and Jennifer Linnea’s The Night Before an Interstellar Journey especially, two poems that gripped me when I first read them and I keep thinking about. But the whole issue is incredible, and you should savor it.

This poem is a sequel-of-sorts to an earlier poem published there, titled “The Haunting”. The Haunting is the story of a ghostly possession; this poem is from the point of view of the ghost, himself haunted by remnants of WWI, where he became disabled. The narrator of today’s poem, Geoffrey, is a longstanding character of mine who is the subject of a novel I am writing with my wife, one of the main characters of our alternate history America where faeries invade during the 1919 influenza epidemic (though, he is not troubled by embodiment issues there). He is, in this poem as elsewhere, disabled, queer, a trauma survivor, and a native of my adolescent home, Virginia. My own experiences with PTSD shape this poem a little bit — it’s one of several of my published works on the theme.

This poem also appears on the anniversary of my first publication. Liminality was the very special venue where I first appeared in print, in their very first issue. One of the things about this magazine that gives it its unique voice and vision is the willingness of the editors to take risks on new authors. It has become one of my go to venue to discover poets published for the first time — new poets and old favorites always color the pages. Many writers will tell you the first publication is the one that makes all the rest possible. For a magazine to take chances on so many new poets is exciting and important.

In the year since that first sale I have received eight acceptances and five publications. This number is astonishing to me. Hard work goes on; there are always poems on the market (many more than get published!) and I get more nos than yeses on the whole (I expect that will always be true). But to be 12 months in and have a publishing history I am extremely proud of is amazing to me — the community of fellow poets and readers I have discovered has made this, and so much more, possible.

I have also sold my poem “I Am Alive” to Strange Horizons. This is a really exciting moment for me and I can barely wrap my head around it. This poem, which comes out of my an experience I had several years ago during a car accident, is one of the most personal things I have ever written and I am very excited I will be able to share it with you. Like today’s poem, it grapples with surviving — and not surviving — the things which almost kill us (and indeed, surviving those which do kill us).

The other thing that excites me is the venue itself. Strange Horizons is one of those places I have always dreamed of selling to. It is one of my favorite poetry venues and now I am going to appear in their archives alongside some of my absolute favorite poems. Every time I think about it I get excited again.

Strange Horizons is running their fundraiser right now so check that out too and donate if you can or signal boost. Jane Yolen, who opens the Liminality issue with some Russian folklore, also just got published in Strange Horizon’s Fund Drive Bonus Issue, so if you want more, read her poem The Truth About Briars and go donate so Strange Horizons can continue to publish wonderful, cutting edge work the world needs. I’m especially looking forward to the poems coming at the $11,000 mark, myself.

‘The Woman Sings Her Marriage Into Being’ is out today!

I am delighted to announce that my poem The Woman Sings Her Marriage Into Being is now part of Issue Seven of Through The Gate, one of my favorite venues. I am delighted to share the issue with Sonya Taafe, Mari Ness, Selena Bulfinch, and I amazed at how Mitchell Hart has put together a “death, ghosts, and birds” issue full of poems I love and am very proud to be among.

There is a weird fandom story behind this poem, one I promised to share when it was published, so here it goes now. This poem is secretly about Lord of the Rings. Well, actually, it is secretly about two spaces never seen anywhere in Lord of the Rings, but invented by Tolkien — it is about Harad, the South-lands where the brown people in Middle-earth live (something like an analogue for MENA), and it is about Numenor, the ancestral homeland of Gondor and Arnor, sunk beneath the sea.

On Numenor, the island nation of humans, there were little scarlet birds called kirinki, said to be no bigger than wrens. Nobody knows what happened to the birds during the Sinking of Numenor, a wide-scale tragedy in which the entire population of the island, sans a couple of boats, sank in an act of divine outrage because of the actions of the king, corrupted by Sauron’s influence. It has always bothered me tremendously that in a story ostensibly full of divine figures of immense power, who save some but not others, the population of the whole island was put to death.

This dissatisfaction led me to write a little headcanon here about how the colonial subjects of the Numenoreans reacted to the sinking, including a story about magic turning the dying Numenoreans into birds and sending them across the sea, to live among the burial places of a far desert tribe, out of the sight of anyone who would recognize or know them. So, in a very peripheral way, this story is from the margins of Middle-earth, full of things I think readers deserve to see even if Tolkien didn’t — two women who love each other despite their differences between them; old, old blood magic written in song; the impossible heroic rescue from death itself; a love story set in a corner of the world where “the villains” come from.

But you don’t have to read it as a bit of Middle-earth poetry at all. Many cultures across the world associate birds and ghosts, and brides taken from the lands of the dead are long overdue wives of their own, who love them for who they are.

Poem Sale: Lessons of the Knife

I’ve sold a poem to Rose Lemberg’s collection Spelling the Hours, about forgotten figures of science and technology history. (Special thanks to India Valentin, Toby MacNutt and Rose Fox, who read the poem & helped me polish it before submission.) “Lessons of the Knife” is about James Barry, a Victorian English doctor who spent his life working on issues of public health in the British army; sanitation, women’s health issues, disease prevention, better access to medicine, improved living conditions for the poor, better understanding of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. He performed one of the earliest successful cesarean sections in western history and first documented an indigenous herbal cure for STDs in South Africa. He was notorious in his lifetime for an accusation of having sexual relations with his closest friend and patron Lord Charles Somerset (even their friends did not deny his relationship with Lord Somerset was inappropriately close — the pending court case was only dismissed because Lord Somerset was extremely influential and important) and for ruffling feathers wherever he went with his insistence on good medical practice over military protocol.

If Barry were only a radical pioneering Victorian doctor who traveled all over undertaking humanitarian works of medical reform, with a colorful public history, he’d be important enough to medical history. As someone who seems to have been bisexual, a flirt with ladies and a romantic intimate with gentlemen, he even seems like a queer figure in history who doesn’t come to any of the tragic ends that we have been told are inevitable in history (Barry, like many of his generation, died in his 70s from dysentery from London’s polluted waterways, not from anything tragic). But there’s one more thing about Barry that makes him truly unusual in the history of English medicine — he’s the first trans person we know of in English history to become a doctor and practice medicine. Barry was assigned female at birth, and lived his entire adult life without his birth identity becoming public. The discovery of his birth assignment upon his death led to confusion among the English world, sensational writing and magazines depicting him as a woman in man’s clothes, going into the army for love, following narrative tropes of the time. But for trans men who have struggled to prove their presence on the historical stage, Barry seems a clear example — he wrote of himself exclusively as a man, demanded to be treated as men of his time and received that treatment, and was successful at his medical and humanitarian work and even moderately famous for it.

Barry is a fascinating man and one I’ve intended to write about for some time. Two years ago I picked up research to write a speculative fiction piece about him — that story never materialized, but this poem, celebrating his life and his achievements, has instead. I’m very excited that it will be in Spelling The Hours alongside other figures of historical importance who have been too often overlooked. When I have more information about the release of Spelling the Hours, I’ll be updating here.

If you’d like to learn more about Barry’s life, skip wikipedia (editors are constantly fighting over what pronouns to use; for that matter, skip any material that refers to Barry as a woman, it relies on bad sources) and stick with Rachel Holmes’ solid biography (though, it could use some updating to mention anywhere the concept of trans identities), Scanty Particulars.

Forthcoming work!

I am happy to announce that I sold “The Woman Sings Her Marriage Into Being” to Through The Gate! Through the Gate recently published what might have been, among tough competition, one of my favorite recent issues of poetry, an issue I glutted myself on and kept coming back for fresh rereads (I still think about Juli, TW for violence against women and suicide, but Bogi Takács’ The Iterative Nature of the Magical Discovery Process is joyous and light and still makes me smile.)

“The Woman Sings Her Marriage Into Being” is a special poem for me, which has its roots, very distantly, in the writing of JRR Tolkien and his lore of Numenor and the quite unexplored southern lands of Harad, and religion and culture I created to fill in the gaps there, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a fanwork as such (you won’t find anyone or anything you recognize from the books!) It is, like several of my other poems, a ghostly love song (I do, in theory, write other things, I promise!) When it’s published, I’ll talk a bit more about the mythical landscape that shapes the poem, and the single ornithographic reference within that places it in conversation with Tolkien’s mythology.

Through The Gate is open to submissions through June 1! Go submit, poets. While you’re at it, if you haven’t done it already, Angels of the Meanwhile, where my poem “The First Wife” about Eve and Lilith is appearing, is on preorder till the end of June. Please donate as you are able to help Elizabeth R McClellan pay medical bills, whose poem Quiet Magick was in Through The Gate as well. For pay-what-you-will, you will get poetry & prose by some of MY favorite writers, including Rose Lemberg, Amal el-Motar, Catherynne M Valente, and Lisa Bradley, among others who I am incredibly delighted to be among.

There will be more news as events warrant. I have had some very encouraging rejections this season, and did squeak by for Camp NaNo with 30,000 words with some creative interpretation of “creative writing” (some of which is even now being edited!) but hope to bring you more publications soon!

‘Among the Dead’ is out today!

Among the Dead, my ghost poem, is live today at Liminality Magazine! Special thanks to my wife, India Valentin, and Toby MacNutt for comments and suggestions.

Like another recently published poem, ‘The Haunting’, Among the Dead is about ghosts you love, and the happiness a haunting can bring. Following a young man through his life with ghosts, he seeks to enter the kingdom of the dead to be with those he loves. It is, in a way, a queer love poem dedicated to loving many people, as well as a ghost poem.

The poem is full of folklore. The trooping dead who pass beneath his window were a folklore feature of medieval Europe — though this troop seems happier than the armies that walked the earth as part of their purgatorial suffering! Leopards, here referenced, are a symbol of Dionysus, who sometimes played a role as a lord of the Underworld as Dionysus Chthonios, whose mysteries promised memory and rebirth to his followers if they drank from the waters of a secret river in Hades, the Mnemnosyne. As for the wine of libations, well — everyone knows to meet the dead, you must feed them. (A small aside, it is not the only poem referring Dionysus in the issue! Andrew Watson’s Blood and Honey is about a more violent side of Dionysus.)

If you would like to feed the dead while you read, honey wine and other hydromels have been a traditional offering throughout most of history. But if you don’t have mead or spiced krupnikas handy to sip on, try this pomegranate-honey cooler. (Original Recipe from Martha Stewart)

For one cup:

  • 4oz white wine
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
  • 2/3 tbsp honey

Instructions: Mix pomegranate juice and wine. Drizzle honey in and muddle until dissolved. Tip a little into the earth to salute the ghosts who love you, and drink.

Exciting Things In March

March has exciting things in it, and exciting things coming up.

EP Beaumont interviewed me for a project called “The Muse of Research”, in which writers discuss the relationship of research to their writing. A short version of the interview went online at Skiffy & Fanty, I’m told the full-length version will be along next week.

Liminality Magazine is publishing another poem of mine on Monday. If you liked “The Haunting”, you will probably like “Among the Dead” — it too is about the ghosts you love. Bonus notes will go up Monday, along with a themed recipe.