Stone Telling Roundtable: Preservation, Survival, Support
by Julia Rios
The second issue of Stone Telling has a strong focus on oppressed people in general, and women in particular. I asked Mary Alexandra Agner, Athena Andreadis, Lisa Bradley, Yoon Ha Lee, Erika Peterson, and Eliza Victoria to share some of their thoughts about these themes.
Julia Rios: Eliza, your piece ties together some of the strong themes of this issue in its exploration of the way people and places are buried and rediscovered, forgotten and remembered. Though tractors pulverize the land and turn people into rubble, the mother in your prose poem does not stay rooted in anger. Instead she comes to feel protective of every pebble. The world is in a constant state of flux, and all of us are part of that. To what extent should we preserve past things, and how can we continue to survive and create anew responsibly?
Eliza Victoria: That’s an interesting reading. I wrote the part about the mother to highlight the fact that if you don’t know where someone is, then they’re everywhere. And if they’re everywhere, everywhere is sacred. With the body embedded in the landscape, even a pebble cannot be dismissed.
To what extent should we preserve past things? I cannot say “completely” with determination - in the context of the personal this is considered unhealthy: consider the mother whose son has died and who keeps her son’s room the way it is when he left, like an altar – down to the bed sheets, the posters on the wall, the unopened gifts. One must not do this, one must “move on”. But in the context of the public sphere this is acceptable: we build monuments, we leave the blood streaks untouched, we show videos of the torture.
But I believe this: we must remember. And we must write what we remember, and write it accurately, in case the memory, or the physical proof, gets lost.
JR: Erika, your piece touches on similar themes, but from the more immediate and visceral viewpoint of a Gulf Coast resident who feels forsaken by the rest of the world. What inspired you to take on that viewpoint, and how do you feel that embracing one's bitterness helps or hurts along the paths of remembrance and preservation?
Erika Peterson: I think I should say upfront that I didn't personally lose any loved ones in the Gulf Coast hurricanes, and I wasn't personally displaced, so I feel wary of appropriating other people's tragedy in this work. But while the worst of those events were going on, it was hard to think about anything else. It's not just the enormity of the losses that people suffered -- it's also the way that the tragedy hinged on some of the most basic flaws of American society. What happened there wasn't just weather.
As for bitterness and remembrance: honestly, I think bitterness is neutral. I think you can be an effective witness for the past whether you're at peace or whether you're filled with rage. I think that being honest about how you feel is part of what makes your witness effective. When things progress to further stages of restoration or reconciliation there are probably some arguments to be made about which emotions are most useful; but when you're just trying to get the truth out there, feel whatever it is that you feel.
To tie this in to your questions to the other authors, in my mind the narrator of this piece is a woman. The poem began its life chopped up in sections, sprinkled throughout a short story about a grandmother and her daughter and grandchild. I never could get the story to work quite the way I wanted, so I set the poem free, but there was a lot in there about women and anger: both the power that comes from anger, and the power that comes from setting it aside. I think both halves of that dynamic are valid.
JR: Mary and Yoon, your pieces explore one of the other strong themes in this issue, which is what it means to be a woman, and how the difficulties we encounter help to shape us in the context of gender identity. Yoon's poem closes with the idea that witches' daughters (and women in general) learn to hide their self-portraits. Mary's takes a more defiantly overt stance with the assertion that a woman's body is her body with or without the obvious female marker of breasts. Is there a power that comes from knowing how to hide effectively, and when and how do you choose to exercise it, or to defy that impulse?
Yoon Ha Lee: I suppose the choice to hide or not-hide is power in the sense that it is a choice, but I think it is often the choice of someone who has been backed into a corner and has to learn this as a survival skill. The better circumstance would be for the choice not to be necessary at all, and then people could choose to reveal or withhold their self-perceptions without having to risk harm from whatever angle--social, psychological, physical. I spent years fighting with family over gender presentation (not "feminine" enough), and I don't know how it is for other people, but whatever "power" I might have by learning to hide or learning to not-hide in the face of social disapproval, I'd rather live in the world where I could just be left alone instead.
Mary Alexandra Agner: I'm sorry, Julia, but I am really struggling to address your question. Given my volume (my body's volume, my voice's volume), hiding has never been an option for me so I am unsure about how much power it actually has. I am sure I have felt, at some point, that it must have a power if only when I have wished to be let alone. I would echo Yoon's words, and hope that is also what my poem does, to say that the choice should not be necessary. I regret the assumption that hiding is the default and wish I could help change that.
JR: I'm sorry for my lack of clarity in that last question. I was thinking of hiding in less physical and more emotional or intellectual terms, though I realize hiding physically is something we can struggle with as well. I read Yoon's reference to learning to hide as a necessary skill for survival, and I found that an interesting contrast with Mary's poem, in which the narrator questions her identity and ultimately refuses to hide. I was wondering about what tips the balance between making it safer and easier to hide one's true self (feelings, thoughts, or even body) and making it worth the risk of exposure (perhaps by speaking out, refusing to cover one's physical shape, or showing emotion).
Athena, your poem and your article about Sapfo both show a spirit of defiance and commitment to being openly and wholly what one is. Your description of Lesvos as place where women were allowed more freedom and opportunity in love and work than in the rest of Hellas puts Sapfo in a context where it makes sense that she would thrive as a passionate poet, even though passions were not trusted generally. Your own poem speaks of the choice to engage in battle, and to face exile. There is a power in this choice, and a power in embracing passion, but it comes at the cost of facing distrust and danger as well. In your own life you've chosen to engage in battles, and to speak out against things you perceive as unjust. How do you reconcile those choices with the costs attached to them, and is there ever a time when you choose not to engage?
Athena Andreadis: I wrote another poem once which contains this passage:
For I come from an ardent race that has subsisted on defiance and visions.
Defiance is as old as Lilith and Prometheus, Loki and Raven. Some of the paladin stance comes from intangibles that are nevertheless powerful: cultural legacy, family history, personal temperament, even one’s name. Mine is Athena. She was the goddess of knowledge, wisdom and defensive warfare – and the daughter of Metis (Justice). As for my people, think Mediterranean Highlanders and you get a glimpse (I discussed this in Being Part of Everyone's Furniture).
In my case, I became aware from childhood that I didn’t fit any obvious mould. So I left my country, culture and family to engage in battles across domains that mattered to me: science, art, life. I also chose to be a maverick in all these domains. The cost was to be a lifelong exile who carries her home in her head as a dream, to be a feral loner pressing my face against others’ lit windows. Also inside my head I carry all the voices that told me I would fail – as I have, since you can never achieve even a fraction of what you wish.
With age and experience comes more wisdom. Since stamina is finite, you learn both tactics and strategy. There are times that I don’t engage: when I judge the battle hopeless even as a symbol. I don’t talk to creationists or fundamentalists of any kind one-on-one; they’re not amenable to reasoning of either emotion or intellect. I rarely talk to Tarzanists and obvious knuckle draggers except in public venues where others might benefit from the exchange. Sometimes it’s better to live and continue the fighting when chances are better -- but I never surrender nor forget. I have also been unusually lucky in finding a companion who understands me at such a deep level that I can put down my weapons when he and I are together in my exile's tent.
All my life I’ve skated on the thin ice of being different. I never hid it, I waved it as a banner. Nor did I ever regret it; if asked to choose again, I’d make the same choice. I like living such a life; it requires the utmost of you and rewards you with epiphany upon epiphany – the beauty that closes my poem. I call it being an astrogator: you never sleep in the starship's hibernation cocoons. You constantly scan the frequencies, hear the stars whisper. The reconciliation is simple: you make the choice eyes wide open, and never moan at the price it exacts.
JR: Lisa, in your article about Alfonsina Storni, you compare her to Gabriela Mistral (the subject of your article in the last issue), and note that they were close friends despite their different approaches to poetry and feminism. Storni, you say was much more openly subversive and vocal about her politics, while Mistral took care to blend in and hide behind a demure schoolmarm persona. This juxtaposition echoes the themes explored elsewhere in this issue, and is particularly notable because these women cared for each other and supported each other. How do you see modern poets and women dealing with these differences today, and how can we all work together to create a supportive and thriving creative environment for all the different voices out there?
Lisa Bradley: I don't feel informed enough to speculate as to how modern women writers are dealing with their differences today. I am only now beginning to feel part of a community myself. But I think Mistral and Storni's relationship offers clues as to how women artists can foster community today.
Storni and Mistral seem to have corresponded for some time without being especially close. As much as Mistral looked forward to their first meeting, she confessed to some trepidation, for Storni tended to be guarded, maybe even evasive, in her letters. (This despite the boldness of her poetry and life choices.) As Mistral wrote in an essay in 1926, "Alfonsina...had a reprehensible urge to leave her correspondents clueless....My Alfonsina, the interlocuter of our letters, was arrogant, playful, and at times, willfully trite." When the women finally met face to face, Mistral was relieved and impressed.
These poets may have known each other better through their work than through years of letters. So, clue 1, know what your colleagues are doing. Support those endeavors. Leaving encouraging remarks on a person's LiveJournal or tweeting her successes may be the beginning of a modern version of Mistral and Storni's epistolary friendship.
Also, Mistral appears to have reserved judgment on the woman Storni despite Storni's frustrating opacity in letters. So, clues 2 & 3, we can support fellow female artists without being best friends (or even especially liking one another)-- that is, we can distinguish between a colleague's art/craft and her self--and we may need to be patient with one another. We've all developed our own survival traits, and those traits--however useful and even necessary--may complicate or delay our personal connections.
JR: Thanks to everyone for providing valuable insights.