There’s a question I’ve asked sometimes during writing workshops. Usually when the writer whose work is under discussion seems unsure or inarticulate about their work. Or when the work itself lacks any sense of cohesiveness or urgency. It was my question of last resort when I felt I had no idea what kind of feedback to offer—why is this important to you?
And to follow up—Why is it important for you to write this? What is it about this specific story/poem that you feel you need to explore/share/document? What makes this work so important that you’re going to get up early and stay up late to write it, spend hours daydreaming and planning and revising, stare at a white space until the words come, persist even when neither publication nor awards shower themselves down on your work?
Now I think I should always start with that question…or at least preface my comments with my understanding of why the work was important to the writer. More than plot, more than language, more than mood, I think what pulls me in as a reader the most is a sense of urgency. That’s what keeps me reading, what keeps me listening, what makes me turn the page, what makes me unable to put down a book. The energy of urgency jumps directly— electrically—viscerally— from writer to reader.
So, I have two projects I’m currently working on…a novel and another collection of poetry.
The novel has been moving incredibly slowly. I keep giving myself one-year deadlines to finish the rough draft. Three years have passed. If I wasn’t so completely in love with the main character and the story/setting, I would have given up already. At the same time, I haven’t articulated to myself why writing this book is so important to me. Perhaps unlocking that will unlock everything else.
On the other hand, there’s the new collection of poetry, tentatively titled “blood/sugar/canto” and I know ALL my reasons for writing it, for needing to write it, for needing to share it. I’ve been an insulin-dependent diabetic for three years now, and I’ve been depressed, terrified, sick, frustrated, and in denial—sometimes all at the same time. Not to say that I haven’t also had hopeful and productive days, days when I’ve felt strong and healthy, days when I could look clearly at the situation and make good choices. It’s just that one bad day can wipe away the memory of a bunch of good days. I was sliding into a bad day this morning just contemplating how exhausted I felt and how much medication I’m taking at my age. I was ridiculously healthy, outrageously strong until I turned thirty-one. Five years later, I’m taking four different pills and four insulin injections a day.
I’m writing these poems in order to heal myself, in order to heal myself of the fear and despair I’ve felt…and beyond that, to talk about diabetes and living with it, to talk about everything from food to blood sugar testing to my family’s experiences with diabetes to doctors and pharmacies and copays to communities of color, of poverty, and their relationship with diabetes. And I want to write about song and the persistence of singing, about the power of creation in despite of and because of illness, loss, and obstacles.
Except for Sherman Alexie, I can’t think of other poets who have published poems about diabetes. My big dream for this book is that it will spark conversations between diabetic and non-diabetic people and between generations…I hope that it will spark discussions in support groups and maybe even reach a doctor or nurse or two…
This is a lot of dreaming considering that I’ve only written seven poems so far…and who knows how things will shift between now and when it comes together…but I know I have a place from which to start.
I’m leaving you with one of those seven poems, the one that was hardest to write. Take good care of yourselves.
(apologies…wordpress.com wreaked havoc on my line breaks)
en trozos/in pieces
i never met my mother’s mother Concepcion Liguez Lara died the year before i was born my father told stories rushing her to the doctor to have her toe her black fleshed toe amputated my mother never said anything never said how she died never described her illness
the last time i saw my tia Lupe it was my mother’s funeral my tia died two years later i remember her strong graceful lifting herself out of the car into the wheelchair survivor of amputation toes feet legs they’d begun on her fingers i remember her fierce expression
my father had been diabetic for six years the only time i ever saw him cry the doctor had just told him it was likely they would have to amputate his foot he turned his face to the pillow body convulsing with broken sobs he healed kept his feet for another eighteen years
after four years of silence i called when i heard he’d lost one foot neither of us spoke of it we spoke of living and of pain of dying and the end of fear we said goodbye knew we would not speak again later i learned they’d also amputated his other foot what he feared most was to go in pieces
now i fear it too
strange dazed terror when i see the crutch the walker the wheelchair the power scooters terror when i see the missing foot the missing limb strangers on the bus and at the store and at work and on the street anywhere everywhere terror
yes limbs are lost everyday to war in car accidents at work to freezing temperatures to violence but this is the terror of being devoured one limb not being enough to satiate the beast this is the terror of going piece by piece
would i be strong enough to follow my tia lupe’s example would i want to could i see myself go in pieces i think i would choose to live but i don’t know there is a prayer i cannot help diosito grant me 75 years of life to do my work please i want to stay whole and strong and able to walk
i know this is selfish i have already been given more than others more life more strength more freedom more health more love more time but i can’t help wanting more sometimes i hold my feet my calves in my hands stare at my fingers i cannot comprehend my body without them
oh body cuerpecito mio
how many years i wasted not loving you judging you for what they said you lacked for what you were too much of too big too dark too fat too short too india too masculine not pretty enough not feminine enough not worthy of love what does any of that matter now
oh body, cuerpecito mio, i will never see you through their eyes again only through mine praising your strength and your beauty the life i’ve lived through you your joy and your endurance your hunger and your light i will learn to take care of you as i have learned to love you no terror no terror only love