Thursday, October 31, 2019

Honeyfishing with Poet Lauren Alleyne

The Creative Writing Minor at Washington and Lee University was pleased to host Lauren K. Alleyne yesterday! Pleased? We were lucky, blessed, gifted with her presence...all of the above. It was a moment of sheer joy for all of us, faculty and students alike. Lesley Wheeler's beginning poetry class joined my advanced poetry workshop for Lauren, tea and cookies, and later for an outstanding reading. Books were signed, questions asked, and words of wisdom bestowed. I've sprinkled some of those gems below, in between my somewhat fuzzy photographs (sometimes the phone camera loves me, sometimes it acts like we never met).

Lauren K. Alleyne hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women's Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019).

With Professor and Poet Lesley Wheeler

 "Punctuation doesn't have meaning - it has uses."


 "If I were a lawyer and saw an injustice, I'd drop everything, fly to that location, and offer to help people pro bono. But I'm not a lawyer (something my mother still regrets). But I still have an expertise - in words, with language. That's how I can help others who have experienced injustice."

 "A poem will come back to you when it's ready. And sometimes we're not ready for our poems! It can take ten years or more. But rather than put a bad poem out there, wait. The poem you want to write will come back for you when it's ready, and when you're ready."

 "Image, sensory experiences - your brain stores what it needs, whatever it is you need in order to go on from a particular moment. Later, during a freewrite, you push past what you know - and then you have access to those images and sensory memories that inform you, inform your writing."

 "What your life is determines what your relationship with words is, and will be."

One of my favorite poems from Lauren's reading last night was "Variations in Blue," - a poem about a kind of freedom or privilege we don't think about very often.   

Lauren ended our session by giving us this guided freewrite prompt:

1. think of a place.
2. Think of a story that happened there.
3. Now think of a memory or story of yours that is unrelated to that place.
4. Ask a question to the you (or subject or object) from the 1st place you thought of.
5. Answer the question.

Where the prompt led me:

Up in the Tehachapi Mountains
the dry earth is home
to ants, gophers,
gila monsters. Once,
at my Aunt Sally's 
house, I sat down
beside a black widow,
her geometric warning
bright as a glass bead.
What is it about the color red
that looks so pretty
to a four-year-old-child
who hasn't seen her parents
in a year? Perhaps the memory
of her mother's favorite
lipstick, skillfully applied  -
a ruby promise left behind 
on her cheek.

Deborah A. Miranda 



Saturday, October 12, 2019

"Living Poets Society" Drops!

Last weekend I walked into my favorite writing café, Pronto, to find two of my students seated at a table across from one another, earphones on, intent on their screens. They’re both excellent scholars and poets, and I had a brief moment of compassion that they were spending their weekend sweating over some assignment. But hey, at least they were here at Pronto, studying in solidarity.

“Professor Miranda!” Joëlle and makayla called me over to their table, faces illuminated with joy. No, it wasn’t because they saw me – it was what they were working on. “We’re editing our first podcast!! It’s called Living Poets Society and we’re having too much fun.”

I didn’t know it was possible, but these two just went up several more notches on my respect meter. A podcast?! When did they have time? One woman is a single mom of a 2-year-old (at a university where that’s rarer than hen’s teeth), and both are seriously engaged in senior projects and full-time classes and trying to get by. Both have taken several classes with me, and are in my current advanced poetry workshop.

We talked a little, and I asked for the link when the podcast dropped. I’d just mentioned to someone else about how the time for listening to podcasts has faded now that I live so close to work that my commute is a 10-minute walk or a 5-minute drive. But this podcast? This one, I’d make time for.

I was not disappointed. The link appeared in my inbox yesterday. I waited until this morning to listen. What. A. Treat. to eavesdrop on the thoughts and talents of Joëlle and makayla! This conversation is everything: manifesto, vulnerability, motherhood, sexual joy, ars poetica, black hair, eyebrows, softboys, and love. I mean, who talks about love anymore and means companionship, tenderness, sexual compatibility? These two women do.

Ya’ll should take a listen to Living Poets Society. You might learn something you didn't know. You will definitely learn something about being alive, 20-something, black, woman, poet, in a small private PWI in the un-fucking-believable year that is 2019. [p.s. the "Why I Write" piece that makayla refers to hearing in class is from Stephen Graham Jones. Sadly, a video of Jones reading this manifesto with a delightfully manic, feral, delicious gleam in his eye has since been removed from the internet. We can only hope it returns one day.]

I can't wait for the next episode.

Excerpt from Living Poets Society: 

“…What is your favorite hair style? Black. Black hairstyle.”

“Black. Cuz we’re black, black, blackity black black black unashamedly black unapologetically black, we don’t care, k?”

“Black and multi-faceted.”

“Yes...We contain multitudes.” [whispered]


“And probably way more than Walt Whitman.”


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Song for your Journey: for Karenne Wood

Dr. Karenne Wood, Monacan poet and scholar, walked on not long ago, taking with her a large piece of my heart. 

When I arrived in Virginia 16 years ago, Karenne welcomed me to her homeland, offering her hospitality with open hands. Over the years we knew one another, Karenne Wood became a necessary and cherished part of my life. She visited my Native American Literature classes at Washington and Lee University (and gave readings) multiple times, was always available to confer with about Indigenous poetry and politics, invited me to read with her (and accepted invitations to read with me at conferences or community gatherings), celebrated our writing accomplishments, and commiserated over our frustrations with academia. We exchanged poem drafts and teaching strategies, dog stories, kid stories, and encouragment for the long haul. Karenne befriended my wife, Margo Solod, and always asked after her when we checked in over email or messaging. Karenne's own health - a 20 year battle against various kinds of cancer - was something she was more reluctant to discuss, but which she took very seriously. She knew how quickly everything could change; how luscious each and every day was, and therefore, how to celebrate life. 

When renowned poet (and now Poet Laureate of the United States) Joy Harjo came to read at my university in February of 2019, of course I asked Karenne to come welcome Joy to Monacan land. Karenne replied that she had been working on a land acknowledgment protocol with U of Virginia, and that "I am happy that people want to hear our language and acknowledge our presence. If you want me to do the prayer before Joy’s talk, I am willing. It’s brief. As for a gift, I thought of a honeysuckle basket with a lid, made by our tribal elder Bertie Branham." I didn't realize until the day of the event that Karenne would be coming from Charlottesville after another radiation treatment, or that speaking was difficult for her. That night, she shone. Her love for Joy Harjo, and a natural gracious, generous energy carried Karenne through the reading, and dinner afterwards. That was Karenne - always a giver.

In short, Karenne was a beautiful human being whose joyful presence in my life eased some of the loneliness I experience as the only Indigenous professor at my university, and taught me much about living in the moment. I will miss her deeply. At her Celebration of Life service, over 200 people came to hear stories about her life from her two daughters, tribal members, and friends. I guarantee you, Karenne was beloved by every single one of them, and many many more who could not attend.

I know I am not alone in my grief, or in feeling blessed by knowing Karenne Wood. In that spirit, I offer this poem, which came to me early this morning.

Song for Your Journey

            - for Karenne Wood

Heart battered as an old tree,
skin stretched to hold each year –
inscribed with the initials
of those who have loved you,
scarred characters too deep to erase:
imperfect letters, perfect.

This tree’s bark knows the iron blows
of despair, but still guards
what’s inside: all the circular years
spreading like ripples
from a pebble thrown into the center
of a lake with no name.

At dawn, mist swathes the lake in long soft breaths.
A Great Blue heron
spears the water, shimmering bass brave
the mysterious air in pursuit
of solace, and somewhere at the core
of this poem your soul

quests like a damselfly, skitters across          
a wide blue absence.
Friend, let the slim glitter of wings
carry you into sunrise where time
spins its spiraled arms, calls you
dear heart, darling, daughter –

and all of your branches burst into leaf,
one shining green prayer

at a time.

Deborah A. Miranda

Karenne's obituary from the Academy of America Poets, where some of her poetry is posted:

Karenne Wood
Karenne Wood was born on May 31, 1960. She received an MFA from George Mason University and a PhD in linguistic anthropology from the University of Virginia.
She was the author of the poetry collections Weaving the Boundary (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Markings on Earth (University of Arizona Press, 2001), winner of the Diane Decorah Award for Poetry from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.
Of her work, the poet Heid E. Erdrich writes, “These poems move us through indigenous history to reveal our presence today—in an act of resistance and revelation and faith.” An enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, Wood directed the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Center for the Humanities. She formerly served as a repatriation director for the Association on American Indian Affairs, the chair of the Virginia Council on Indians, and a member of the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission.
In 2002 Wood was named the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year, and in 2015 she was named one of Virginia’s Women in History by the Library of Virginia. She also received the 2009 Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Programs. Wood died on July 21, 2019.
Some of my favorite pictures with Karenne, at readings or gatherings... 

After Joy Harjo's reading and talk at Washington & Lee University, this past February.

 With Mojave poet Natalie Diaz at Washington & Lee University.

 At the Library of Congress, L to R: Deborah Miranda, Karenne, Eric Gansworth, Louise Erdrich, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Stephen Graham Jones.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Living in Omelas

We are living in Omelas. Do you know the story? The story of a magical, beautiful society in which everything the people have that is good depends on keeping an innocent child caged, abused, neglected? Ursula K. Le Guin writes,

"In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar…The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room.”

Le Guin calls it “a room,” but we soon learn that this is a cage. An enclosure to keep a living thing from obtaining their freedom; an indictment from one in power about the intrinsic value of one lacking empowerment.

“In the room,” she continues, “a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten ... it sits hunched in the corner … and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.”

Who are these people, the ones who come to glance furtively, guiltily, with such repulsion? They are the people of Omelas, who by custom or law, must witness the child’s conditions with their own eyes at least once in their lifetime. Admirable, in its own way, this act – at least citizens are fully informed, required to have knowledge of the horror beneath the surface. Le Guin notes that without exception, these witnesses – usually young people – are horrified, and want to rescue the child. Of course, Le Guin says, “… that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one … The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.”

Yes: Omelas is a utopia built on top of the question why, which must never be asked.

Le Guin does not sugar-coat the realities of the caged child’s life. “The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. ‘I will be good,’ it says. ‘Please let me out. I will be good!’ They never answer. The child … is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually."

Ursula K. Le Guin died just 18 months ago, in January 2018. I want to think she was somehow spared the daily news of children's faces inside cages even within the boundaries of her beloved California, verified reports such as this one from the New York Times: “Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met, the lawyers said. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants.” I want to think Le Guin was spared these images and reports – but I understand that she saw this story coming years ago, in all its different manifestations. Indeed – Omelas has existed, exists, in so many places, in so many times, that we almost don’t know anything else is possible.


Le Guin’s story reminds us that it is a choice, you see. A choice to know the child in the cage suffers; a choice to allow, by doing nothing, the child's suffering to continue. The child is "it," not a person. That makes the knowing easier for the people of Omelas. That makes it easier to be a citizen of a land dependent on the pain of innocents. I can even imagine kind-hearted Omelasians traveling to other lands on missions of mercy, as saviors for the poor children of other nations – building hospitals and schools for children trapped in poverty, donating clothing to victims of war or famine or natural disaster. That would be allowed. That would not disrupt Omelas itself.

But sometimes … sometimes, Le Guin writes, a person comes to see the child and cannot make peace with this truth. Those people wrestle with their souls. They cannot make the choice to save the caged child – thus shredding the entire fabric of their country - but they also cannot continue to benefit from that child’s torture, either.

Those are the ones, Le Guin says, “who walk away from Omelas.” Instead of going home to comfort, family, job and willed ignorance, “…they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Even though Le Guin warns that what lies beyond Omelas is unimaginable, I’ve tried to imagine it. Even though she tells us each person goes alone, I’ve hoped for a kind of solidarity between individuals who cannot accept the terms of this social contract.  And even though she says the ones who walk away never return to Omelas, I wonder. I wonder what would happen if those who walk away from Omelas return to their country together, pooling all that they have learned on their journey, willing to ask the ‘why’ of it all: Why must even the mere chance of one child’s happiness cause the loss of an entire society’s privileges? Why is this gross imbalance of power misrepresented as balance? Who made up that rule? Who decides that change is destructive, rather than creative? And why does everyone in Omelas believe this "fact," swallow this premise hook, line and sinker?

I imagine, in my wildest dreams, citizens willing to face their darkest fears, willing to accept that change might not result in catastrophe, but something even more valuable: self-respect. Humanity. I imagine citizens willing to pay the price for such a prize.

I imagine that returning to Omelas would destroy Omelas as it currently exists; Omelas would no longer be Omelas. It would be something else. Not utopian, not idyllic. Not the Omelasian Dream. I don’t know what we would name it. I don’t know if it has ever truly existed before - though I must say a few groups, both "civilized" and "primitive" - have made the attempt. I don’t know if Le Guin’s narrative ends on a hopeful or doomed note. Must we invent an entirely new world? Is nothing in this one salvageable?

Yes, I struggle with questions about living in Omelas, about the children in our cages. Do you?

“Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” originally appeared in the short story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. Le Guin, in1975. It has since been reprinted multiple times.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Alma perdido

Certain ancestors carry stories that fascinate me. Estafana Real, whom I wrote about in "They Were Tough, Those Old Women: The Power of Gossip in Isabel Meadows' Narratives," continues to draw me back to her again and again. Recently, I discovered another Estefana story: in April of 1868, at the age of “57” (actually, 59), Estefana Real married a man named Ricardo Preciado, who is listed on the marriage record as 30 years old.

Previously, Estefana had married a man named Mendoza, and had many children with him (and some by other men). Next she is married to Juan Acedo, with whom she had the “joto”Victor Acedo. At some point, she married Joaquin Gutierrez, a Chileño, perhaps in hopes that marriage to a “European” would help her hold onto El Potrero.  Now I find she married Preciado late in life; although divorce was practically unheard of, and certainly not available to the poor, serial bigamy was common in California in the early days – not just between Indians, but Euro-Americans as well, many of whom found the lack of organized record-keeping convenient. Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s extensive written marriage records, still another RC priest presided over Estefana’s third (and last?) bigamist event – Father Michael Rocca. Ironically, this kind of easy marriage/remarriage, common in pre-contact tribes of the area, was one of the key factors the missionaries cited as evidence that Indians needed civilization lessons; it "proved" that colonization and missionization were not just necessary for Indians, but an ethical imperative for Euro-Americans! 

Thinking Preciado might be a way to trace the latter years of Estefana’s life (he’s already an interesting marker of her resilience, perseverance, and ingenuity), I searched for him in the archives. He seems to have registered to vote in Monterey, but the dates are wide there – 1867-1898. He has a mark next to his name that translates to “[naturalized] by treaty with Mexico,” so perhaps Estefana was not a citizenship marriage. I mention the possibility because it's difficult to imagine what benefit a legal marriage would give either party in a time and place where common-law relationships were quite widespread, and which Estefana, at least, had already experienced.

Like most Indian women of this time period, I’m certain Estefana married for reasons of survival rather than romance; romance was for the very young, and a brief, if that, privilege. Once a woman had a child, she was at the mercy of any man who would help her support that child; as an older woman, at nearly 60 years old, Estefana was past child-bearing age, and had shed her many children (some of them were raised by other women, relatives or families who took a child in as a servant – such was Victor Acedo’s case). But while she was finished raising a family, now she had to look after her own, elderly, self. What did she have to offer a 30-year-old man from Mexico? Perhaps citizenship in exchange for a cash payment, or bartered items? Perhaps she’d hung onto some money left over from her time at El Potrero? Shared housing? 

Isabel Meadows notes that Estefana had “mucho maridos,” but she never mentioned Preciado. This seems to imply that Preciado was not a significant relationship for Estefana; although it’s true that Isabel was only 28 at the time of Estefana’s marriage to Preciado, Isabel had much knowledge about Estefana’s other, earlier partnerships. Why didn’t Isabel remember this one?

Interestingly, Preciado’s marriage to Estefana seems to be the only record he left behind. Even his death is hard to locate. This could be him – it’s in the general geographical area - if he had lived to be 85:

But that’s a slim chance, not really enough data to make a firm statement. And I can’t find anymore. 

Ricardo Preciado is another one of those sad mysteries: a human being whose life came and went, without leaving more than a name on an odd marriage record, voting registration of an indeterminate year, and a “maybe” death record. He was born in Mexico, around 1838, but there are no baptismal records that I can find; he came from nowhere, and went nowhere. All I know is that he married my 4x great-aunt, who was twice his age. Was he kind? Was he cruel? Did he leave behind loved ones in Mexico? What state was he from? Did he speak English, Spanish, an Indigenous language? Who loved him? Whom did he love? What happened to him? 

We can't know any of this. He’s part of the crumbling past now, his flesh fed on by darkness and roots, time and the many-legged creatures of the earth’s remaking. A small blessing on your soul, Ricardo. I don’t know you well enough to remember you, or memorialize you, but I see you. I see you.