Friday, November 17, 2017

A Poem for Native American Heritage Month--"Grandmother's Basket"

For Native American Heritage Month, here is a poem about my grandmother, who was so influential in my life, even though she died when I was thirteen. Like a lot of families, mine was torn apart by divorce when I was young, and as great as the loss of my father was, I think the loss of his family, my grandmother and aunt, was even more traumatic. These women had been the strong stable base of my childhood while both parents were chaotic children. Once the divorce occurred, I lost that stability and their wisdom, but never their love. Fortunately, as an adult, I could and did seek out my aunt while she was still alive and rebuilt the family connection. Unfortunately, my grandmother was long gone by then.


GRANDMOTHER’S BASKET

I loved Grandmother’s baskets when I was small.
They had intricate patterns and figures
woven into them in brown, black,
yellow, red, and orange.
She had different sizes and shapes,
used them for storage rather than display.
My favorite was in reds and yellows with a black border.
It looked to me as if woven of fire and grasses.

I would climb into cupboards, find one,
and ask why she didn’t keep it out on a tabletop
where everyone who came in could admire it.
“These aren’t the best ones,” she said
as she fingered baskets that looked beautiful to me.
“We used to make them from rivercane,
which makes a better basket and dyes the best,
but they rounded us up in concentration camps
and drove us on a death march to a new land
that didn’t have our old plants like rivercane
so now we use buckbrush and honeysuckle.”
Grandmother shrugged. “You make do.”

I asked her to teach me how to make a basket
like the one I loved with feathers of fire
along its steep sides. She shook her head.
“It’s a lot of hard work.
First, we need black walnut, blood root,
pokeweed, elderberry. Yellow root’s the best yellow,
but blood root will have to do.
They’ve dug all the yellow root
for rich people’s medicines, call it goldenseal.
Got to have our dyestuffs first.
Got to forage for most of them.
It takes lots of trips, out and back,
to get enough to make good colors.”

I knew I could do that and said so.
She laughed. “You’ve got to know what to pick
or dig or gather. It’s like with my medicines.
Can’t just go taking any old weed.”
I pointed out that I was learning from her
about the Cherokee medicine plants. She just shook her head.
“It’s not the same. I grow most of those.
Haven’t taken you out for the wild ones yet
because you’re too little still. Same for dye plants.”

I nagged at her for days, begging her to teach me
so I could have a basket of my own.
I had in mind that amazing fire-flickering basket.
I wanted to make one just like that.
My visit was over without her ever giving in.
I was used to Grandmother’s strength of will.
I knew I would have to try harder next time.

There was no next-time visit.
My mother had always hated her mother-in-law.
Now, she won the battle to keep us away.
Our relationship poured out in letters
until my mother destroyed them,
refused further correspondence.
Years later, Grandmother wrote me—
a letter that slipped past my mother’s scrutiny—
that she was making a basket
one last time for me.
I knew she was very ill,
soon to die.

I don’t know who got the beautiful baskets
when Grandmother died, especially the one
that I loved when I was small.
Her sister and niece who cared for her
in her last illness, I suppose.
That’s fair. My parents had divorced by then,
and my mother allowed no contact
with that family. But
a lumpy, brown-paper-bag-wrapped package
with Grandmother’s shaky, spidery handwriting
arrived for me after her death.
My mother opened it first and laughed.
I stood waiting eagerly to snatch up
the last thing my grandmother would ever give me.
“Look at that,” Mother said with more laughter.
“That ugly old thing’s supposed to be a basket,
I think. She sure lost her knack for that
at the end, didn’t she?”

When I was small and visiting, I knew
Grandmother already had arthritis
in her hands. That’s probably why
she wouldn’t teach me to make baskets—
because she didn’t have the dexterity any longer
to make the kind she once had.
I still have that simple handled basket
of vines (probably honeysuckle).
The whole thing is dyed black.
There are no intricate patterns of flames
or anything else. It’s just solid black.

I can see her plodding out to gather
butternuts for the black dye
and to pull the honeysuckle vines,
stripping off the leaves.
I can see her gnarled hands
painstakingly weaving under and over,
no fancy twills or double-woven sides.
Hard enough to shape
a shallow but sturdy gathering basket
for her long-unseen granddaughter.
All these years later
I have my own herb garden
where many of her medicine plants grow.
When I gather them to dry for teas and poultices,
I use that black vine basket.
I think it will last forever.


Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications,, forthcoming)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

To a Young Native Artist

I had great news yesterday. My next book of poetry, DARK SISTER, which is dear to my heart but languished unsubmitted while I learned how to navigate the new world of commercial mystery fiction and then the bizarre landscape of cancer treatments, will be published in 2018. 

Unfortunately, though, something happened that took the edge off that joy. For the third time in recent months, a gifted Native woman writer who had been achieving wonderful success was attacked from within the Native community over identity issues. Identity is a fraught issue in the Native community, but the crazy thing in each of these cases was that these women are all documented citizens of their respective (and different) nations.
We're all too used to having mainstream American society, especially publishing, tell us Native writers that we're not “Indian enough,” because we don't/won't write in the tropes and stereotypes they expect or think the readers expect from Native writers, because we “don't look Native” to their eyes (not like Iron Eyes Cody's great masquerade), because we live in urban areas rather than on reservations (ignoring the fact that over 70% of Natives live in urban areas—in large part due to US government policies of the mid-20th century). There's a special sting, though, when it comes from our own community.
Success as a Native writer is not a zero-sum game. When one of us achieves success, that opens eyes and doors for more of us. We're surrounded by a mainstream literary community with a few staunch allies, a lot of often destructive ignorance about us, and a surprising number of people with knives out when it comes to us and our writing and needs. We shouldn't be carving up our own and tossing bloody pieces out to appease them. We should be celebrating and lifting up our own writers who attain success and supporting each other as we all work toward greater things for each of us individually and our community as a whole.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this poem and posted it on Facebook, and I think it's relevant to this discussion.


To a Young Native Artist

How many people made love, or just had sex, and survived,
often under bleakest circumstances,
to create your unique spirit and body.
How many women gave birth, suckled,
and nurtured babes in violence and in injury and illness,
hoping for a future they would never see.
Every one of us born is a victory
against colonialism and attempted genocide.
You are the culmination of all those who loved
in the midst of hate. You are the resistance.
You are hope made flesh.
Never let this society dictate what you create.
Your ancestors have given you gifts. Use them.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Poems for Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead)

Today is the first day of  Dias de los Muertos (Days of the Dead) in Mexico and among Mexican Americans. Contrary to what most Americans seem to think of it, Dias de los Muertos is not a zany, drunken extension of Halloween. It's more of a family party to honor the spirits of deceased loved ones. In Mexico, many families visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are interred to decorate the graves for a party and eat and drink with their dead, who have plates prepared for them, as well. It has more in common with the older American customs around Memorial Day than Halloween.

Much like Samhain, the Celtic feast day that lies forgotten at the roots of America's Halloween, Dias de los Muertos are two days when the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead thin to the point of allowing communion with dead loved ones. Calacas and catrionas, the skeleton figures that are dressed up and posed, often in zany situations called calaveras, are a way of paying respect to Death without fearing or giving Death undue power over the living.

So, in honor of Dias de los Muertos, today and tomorrow, here are two very different poems.


CALACA COMEDY CENTRAL

In this time of marigolds and mariposas,
calacas, calaveras, and candles everywhere,
in this time when the veil between the worlds,
living and dead, is stretched thinnest,
watch the souls streaming through the tears,
trailing that unnatural chill of Lord Death’s land.

Here he comes himself, skeleton jester,
with crown and scepter to beg
for the taste of mescal y pan muerto.
Dress him up for photos,
Lord Death just bares his teeth
in an everlasting grin and dances,
loose-limbed and clacking, bone on bone,
holding out his sombrero at the end
as he mimics a hacendado’s formal bow.

Who knew he was such a comedian?
All our legends tell a different story,
scary and grim, not this grinning,
fingerbone-snapping prankster.
Who knew he could be so funny,
prancing around in silly costumes,
telling knock, knock jokes,
juggling sugar skulls,
striking ridiculous poses?

Be generous to that hat he passes
when his performance is finished.
No small change or paper bills.
This bony clown performs for one pay only,
a taste of what we take for granted
every day, a mouthful of mole,
a kiss, a look at the sunlight,
a breath of air like sweet wine,
one heartbeat rubbing up against another.

Once a year,
he comes to remind us
that life is a slapstick farce,
and his skeletal leer
is the ultimate punchline.

Published in Present Magazine


This second poem arose from a challenge given to me by a fellow member of The Latino Writers Collective--to write a passionate love poem for Dias de los Muertos.


OFRENDA

This is the altar I’m building
to my calaverada,
that madcap dance of death
my heart tangoed with you.
Boxes stacked and covered with fabric
to make a place of power
to draw you back to me.
A calavera of great artistry
will stand in for you, mimicking life
almost as well as you mimicked love.
I will bake you pan de muerto and rosquete,
still trying to please you,
buy finest bourbon, your favorite,
no mezcal or tequila for you,
place it next to the water, salt, and bread.
Mustn’t forget the mirror and comb
so you can check your hair
of which you were always so vain.
I will slice my fingers cutting
papel picado skulls and hearts,
yellow, orange, pink and white,
and purple for pain,
to decorate the velvet of the altar.

I adorn the ofrenda and myself
with bright, guilt-swallowing marigolds,
chaining them through my hair,
string their petals across the ground
to lead you back. Let me light the copal
and inhale the sweet smoke,
trying to attract you even now,
drawing you to me. Mustn’t cry, though.
“The path back to the living world
must not be made slippery by tears.”
It will all be to no avail.
I can’t fool you or anyone
into thinking I have finally found acceptance.
It’s all too clear I would wrestle
the Lady of the Dead herself
for possession, to wrench you
from peaceful rest in Mictlan
and back into the tempest
that was us.


Published in Present Magazine

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Birthday Poem for Breast Cancer Awareness Month--:Coming Around Again"

On my first post-cancer-treatment birthday, I am celebrating and making plans for the rest of my life with a renewed dedication to living as a creative artist.


COMING AROUND AGAIN

Three years ago—three years of poison and desperate
positive thinking—they cut off my breast,
carving out the lymph nodes
of the underarm as well.
They left me with an ugly, puckered scar
14 inches long and 3 inches wide,
raised one-half to one inch high
along its length, and another
incision 3 inches below that scar
where a length of tubing inserted
into the chest drained
blood and lymph into an attached bag
for 3 ½ pain-filled, sleepless weeks.

Death has come looking for me before this
several times. I have always tricked her
into leaving me to my life a little longer,
Scheherazade putting the random scenes
of daily living into dramatic narrative,
heightening conflict and tension,
generating suspense, embellishing
dull parts to create more spark and excitement,
adding touches of humor to lighten the mood,
a story playing out in front of her
to which she needs to know the ending
before she brings down the final curtain.
I’ve grown familiar with Death’s face,
can read it to tell if I need to spice up the story
because she’s losing interest. Old friend
and familiar, she bears no horror for me any longer.

I have seen the long view through her eyes,
the sacred labyrinth of galaxies
spinning out of control throughout the universe
pulling apart in spiral motion, eternal
dissipation of energy rippling outward
with magic like the violent change brought
by tropical storm clouds seen from the air,
galactic snake coiling around stars and planets
and black holes whirling like water
down a drain, sucking all matter and energy
within reach, voracious maws, widdershins,
sunwise, ears of creation cocked
for the song, symphony, story, vining
through the nebulae, gathering tension
and force, the vast’s giant spring pulled taut,
ready to snap back into the kaleidoscope,
force of tornadoes, whirlwinds,
passing into the still eye surrounded
by the stomp dance of the stars,
Creator’s medicine wheel, coming,
going, bringing, leaving, giving, taking,
moving up and down around the spiral
of time, infinity’s tilt-a-whirl.

Remaining attached to this life, these loved people,
I have no wish to join the stardust spiral dance
of destruction and creation before I must.
I’ll stay here in this incarnation as long as I can,
loving this insane world’s dark and light moments
and the people, trees, birds around me, clinging
until the last to its chiaroscuro, yin and yang.
Still, I won’t fall screaming into the void
when my time is up. I’ve seen the wheel of fortune
that is the cosmos. Life is circular, grinding all of us
into crumbs of creation, raw material for new wonders.
I’ve promised myself and lovely bony Ms. Death
I will embrace my ride on the celestial merry-go-round.
But the story’s not over yet—there’s at least one more chapter
before the spectacular, mystifying, completely satisfying climax.

© 2017 Linda Rodriguez

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"To the Nurse Who Told Me to Grieve for My Breast"--A Poem for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

It's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I will be posting a couple of poems for it over the next few weeks. Now that I've made it out the other side of my battle with breast cancer, I post these in honor of those still fighting that war--and in honor of the medical teams, like my own phenomenal team, and the caregivers, family and friends who support all of us as we struggle to defeat this terrible opponent.


TO THE NURSE WHO TOLD ME TO GRIEVE FOR MY BREAST

I sit here unable to understand.
My breasts have been good to me,
I’ll admit to that—
lots of sexual pleasure
through the years,
large cup size when it mattered
to the world around me,
never any problem with infection,
mastitis, fibrosis, cysts.

When I had babies,
my breasts overflowed.
No problem nursing—
I pumped breast milk
for La Leche to deliver
to neonatal preemies.
Men and women who were born too soon
and struggled to live
may be alive today
in part because of my breasts.

It’s not like we’re talking
a hand, an eye, a leg.
It’s just a breast,
mostly a big inconvenience,
always in the way and vulnerable.
Not something I can’t do without.
Losing it won’t cripple me.

And the son of a bitch tried to kill me.


(Published in Black Renaissance Noire, 2015)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Excerpt--Motivating Yourself to Write

Writers often make resolutions to find time to write. I posted a blog about this recently here.


However, even when this resolution is successful and the writer creates a workable writing schedule, such a resolution often ultimately fails because often writers have more trouble motivating themselves to actually write during the time they've scheduled than in finding or making the time to write. In fact, one of the reasons we as writers so often find ourselves over-committed and without dedicated time to write is due to our procrastination and lack of motivation.

To help with that problem, I offer an excerpt from my new writing book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, available in ebook and trade paperback here.



Motivating Yourself to Write
The trick is to motivate yourself to actually write in that time slot you’ve created. Most of us find it easier to disappoint ourselves than to disappoint other people, so if you can find a buddy or partner to help keep you accountable, that’s a great way to overcome that difficulty. Perhaps you two can call, text, or email each other every writing day with goals before your writing time and what you accomplished after that time is over. Or a group of writer friends on Facebook can do this for each other. I know a number of writers who post their day’s time spent writing or page totals on Facebook, and get lots of positive feedback from their writer friends for it—or consolation if they’ve missed their goal.

It’s also important to set regular rewards for yourself for completing planned segments of writing tasks. Putting your feet up with a cup of tea and a special treat. Spending time reading a book you’ve wanted to read. Buying yourself a book you want. Buying nice pens or blank notebooks or whatever desk/office gizmo you’ve been wanting or needing. Buying materials you’ve wanted for a craft project and--as a later reward--giving yourself time to work on that project. Lunch with one or more friends. Make a list of small, medium, and large rewards for fulfilling various writing commitments.

Also, schedule some creative refill time into each week and month. Take a walking or library or bookstore or art gallery or museum break every week, even if it’s only for thirty minutes. Take a nice blank book (one of your rewards) and a nice pen (another reward) and visit a lake, park, nature preserve, or riverside, just walking and sitting and writing with no stated purpose. Describe in writing what you see, what you feel, what you’re thinking, what you want to write someday or otherwise do someday.

If you’re serious about writing, reclaim your power. Would you treat your car the way you treat yourself? No, you would make sure it had as much quality fuel as it needed. You would buy new tires for it when they were needed. You would check its oil and get it regular tune-ups and other routine maintenance. You would do all of this because you know these things are important to keep it functioning at its peak. Show yourself as much consideration as you do your car. No car will run on empty, and neither do writers.

Make time to remember how to dream, and make time to bring those dreams into reality. Visualize your successful life as a writer, and then plan that change. Exercise your change muscles first by making small, unimportant, non-threatening changes in private areas. Learn to make a habit of changing things you are unhappy with—in your job, your home, your relationships, yourself. Envision the life you want to lead. Write it down. Check in with it often. Analyze problems. Get back on the horse when you fall off, and fix the problems that led you to fumble your plans or work routine. It’s always an ongoing process. No one’s perfect, but the only way you can truly fail is if you stop for good.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Excerpt--To Find Time to Write Your Novel, You Must Make Time to Write

I'm an autumn baby. Consequently, fall is always when I feel as if the year is truly beginning. Of course, among the Cherokee, this time of year is when we celebrate New Year--we believe the world was created in the fall--and among the Jews, as I've discovered from my husband, this is the season for their New Year celebration, Rosh Hashanah. For many parents and kids, the start of school is the start of the new year.

It's at the beginning of a new year when people make resolutions for self-improvement. Writers often make resolutions to find time to write. 

So, as my 2017 Cherokee/Jewish/schoolkid New Year's gift to all my writer friends out there, here to help with that problem is an excerpt from my new writing book, Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, available in ebook and trade paperback here.



This book is based on a class I've been teaching for years, which is always sold out. People have requested that I write it up as a book, so it's finally available. I hope you'll enjoy this section.




Book Excerpt--To Find Time to Write Your Novel, You Must Make Time to Write

Writing a novel requires several things—time, motivation, the willingness to keep learning the craft of fiction, and an ability or process to access your creative thoughts. We’ll deal with the first two in this chapter briefly since they’re mostly beyond the purview of this book, and the rest of the book will concern itself with elements of the craft of fiction and a process for accessing your own inner knowledge of your novel by freewriting, brainstorming by yourself, and thinking on paper. I will be including samples of actual work documents I have used with this process to create published novels in order to give you examples of how these techniques and tools work—and also to show that behind those perfect books you pick up at the bookstore lies a great deal of hard work, messy process, and flailing around. This book is designed to help you keep the flailing around to the minimum.

To Find Time to Write Your Novel, You Must Make Time to Write

How do you find time to write the novels which are your vocation in the midst of job and career demands, family and housework demands, community and societal demands? When everyone else expects so much from you that there’s nothing left for your own dreams, what can you do about it?

First, we have to change our terminology from “finding time to write” to “making time to write.” The sad truth is that no one finds time to write. There aren’t big pockets of time just lying around waiting to be picked up and used in most of our lives. For most of us, we’ll have to give up some comfort or pleasure to make real time to write—in some cases, to make any bits of time to write at all.

The first step is to make the decision to own your own life. Time is not a commodity--the time we’re talking about is the substance of your life. When it’s gone, so are you. If you want to write anything, you have to claim your own life and find out what you want.

How do you find those pieces of time and the regular schedule for writing that leads to a body of work? The trick is to create order and make a tourniquet for a time hemorrhage, but first you must destroy all of those 'shoulds' and 'what will people thinks' that are standing in your way. Make it easy on yourself by asking for help and accepting help when it’s offered to you. Take the time to de-stress. When you’re not frazzled by stress, you’ll find it easier to set limits and boundaries and hold to them.

Whenever you find your desk or day becoming chaotic, take time to reorganize. It will repay in more time that you can steal for your illicit love affair with the novel. To make sure you stay on track with those things that absolutely must be done, make a brief list of the way your time was spent at the end of each day and week. Check it for places where you abandoned time reserved for writing or other truly necessary tasks to engage with lower priority urgencies or comfort activities. After a disastrous day, sit down with a notebook and figure out how to handle things differently if you face the same situations again. Review the situation and just what happened step by step, pinpointing the spot(s) at which you could and should have made a different decision or taken a stand against someone else's urgency with your time. Figure out a strategy for dealing with this situation when it next arises, and write it down. Then forget the day and relax.

Worrying about the myriad things, some great but most small to tiny, that we must take care of wears us down. When you find yourself doing this rather than being able to write or revise the passage you want to work on, keep an ongoing master list and write down each task or obligation the moment you think about it. Get it out of your head and onto paper to free your mind and stop the energy drain. Then, later, you can decide which tasks can be delegated to someone else and arrange the remaining tasks in the order that will allow them to be done quickest and most easily.

We can also free up energy by developing habits and systems to take care of the mindless stuff. We already do this every day, brushing teeth, driving to work, without having to make decisions for each tiny action that comprises these tasks. Develop a system for handling things that recur, and stick with it for twenty-one days. Then it will be a habit, and you can forget it and set your mind free to be more creative.

Much time use is sheer habit. Work smarter. Find the ways in which you want and need to spend time. Steal those minutes and hours from low-priority tasks. Break down everything on your to-do list into small tasks and estimate the minimum time to accomplish them. (Double all time estimates!) Schedule into your calendar. If they won't all fit in the time allotted, then something must go. Nothing is fixed in stone--renegotiate and eliminate whatever you can. Of the rest, what can you successfully delegate? It pays to invest time (and money, if possible) in training someone to do it.

Become assertive. Don't be afraid to approach someone with a request, and don’t take it personally if they refuse you. Learn to say 'no' kindly and firmly and to receive a 'no' without letting it affect your self-esteem or your relationship. Be secure.

Author of many published novels and teacher of writing, Holly Lisle, says it the best way I’ve ever seen it. “Realize that real writers who write multiple books and who make a living at it have systems they use. A process for brainstorming, a consistent way of outlining a story, a certain number of words or pages a day, a way of plotting, a way of revising, a way of finishing. Writing is work. It doesn't fall out of your head by magic. It doesn't just happen because you want it to.”