Fluent in Tears by Sonya Renee Taylor

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

Yesterday a facilitator asked me to share a physical movement that represented my inherited body joy and shame; my mother, father, grandmothers, great grand father's slave shame. The question made heat coil around my throat, fill my chest with sand and lead. I was afraid. I have performed on stages across the globe, in front of hundreds of thousands of people and in this circle of 15 folks I was only fear. When I closed my eyes and let my body unfurl in heat, what came out was a flailing and flesh curdling scream that caused building staff to come close the door to the room we were in. The wail, the thrashing of my body was not my own. It was one hundred thousand bodies in my one body. It was the sum energetic expulsion of what it is to be in this black, queer, fat woman's body — words created to describe the disease of me, words I have tried to take back, always knowing they are there to remind me what it is to be hated, ignored, invisible, feared, frustrated with, thought stupid, thought lazy, thought less than less than less less less.

I began crying last night and could not stop. Every time I actually allowed a thought to root in my body, the weeping began again. It is here now as I try to type this and make you believe my pain, a pain most never think about. Some days I fantasize about stabbing myself in the gut with my fancy kitchen knives in front of a group of white people in a crowded San Francisco restaurant at the peak of Restaurant Week.

I often consider what it would be like to fuck the man I thought I loved, who once raped me out of my sleep, the person I fuck when I hate myself most. I often think of fucking him on the dinner table in the middle of a nice white family's meal in Berkeley, while they eat their organic broccoli. I imagine him pounding into me, hands cupping my ass, telling me I am getting fat, telling me about the size of his "real" girlfriend's pussy. The girl lighter than me, with hair like a white woman. Tears pooling on the tablecloth. 

I considered eating my mother's ashes after her heart gave up on being a black woman in America. I often have chest pains. I think one day my heart will explode, too, when I am 53 and heavy with the whole-cream hatred this country has poured into me. 

Literally, today, there is a rich white woman making dresses for rich white women with Oprah's naked body on the front of them. Oprah is fat in some. She is screaming in others. She is the richest woman in the world and a naked slave on the front of a rich white woman's dress. Always the mammy. A billion dollar mammy. A fat, black sub-human to gawk and guffaw at. 

Literally today, a famous white girl, who doesn't like her body, hired many black women and paid them well, I assume, to dance for her — to be her body by proxy — without the shame living on her flesh, without the centuries-long scroll of filth words written on her creamy skin. Oh to be pure and white and indignant while these beautiful black beasts bounce their asses as exclamation marks to her STATEMENT.

Last week a black girl needed help. But we don't ever need that do we? So she got what us black girls who knock on doors too early in the morning get (deserve) ... killed. She got killed for needing help. Renisha McBride is not allowed to need help. Sonya Renee Taylor is not allowed to need help. 

This week I listened to a room full of very nice white people at a racial equity training tell me (the only black person in the room) they never thought/never think about me, about the lives of Black people. That they didn't know how hard it is. That they were “just so naive.” I have a Ph.D in whiteness. I had to get that degree to live like I do in this nice rented duplex in the middle of constant gunshots, helicopters, sirens that run me down from morning till night. I speak fluent whiteness and it is why I have $100,000 dollars in student loans, a master's degree and a 20 year old BMW parked in my garage. I speak so much whiteness that I have a few thousand dollars in the bank and 6 dead black boy cousins killed before age 25, and a dead mama that used to smoke crack. I speak enough whiteness to know that I shouldn't tell this to the really nice white people who never think about the lives of black people. It will make them uncomfortable. It will make me an exception to this cliché of blackness that they all would assume anyway if they actually ever thought about me. It will make them confused about why I am crying as I write this.

See, I am not “those” black people. I know whiteness so much that I can convince them I have escaped my blackness, that I am different, that we are all the same, so why can't I stop crying?

But blackness is an elective no one takes, except for the curious, the guilty by association, the few who want their humanity back. But no one will assign you the class unless by birth. I am ashamed when I think of how I wanted to be a white girl for 30 years, a beautiful, blonde white girl since before I knew what blonde or white or girl was. I am ashamed of all the people I have fucked because I could never be a white girl, that I knew I was never going to be beautiful before I knew a word for beautiful, when beautiful was just a white girl with blonde ponytails kissing her shoulders.

I knew I was the opposite of that. I am ashamed that the residue of that longing still lives on my skin. There is nothing I will say here that will make you know what it is to carry a whole world's hate, to be pregnant and overdue with it. To be told you will always be on the brink of a delivery that may never come. Every day I have to decide to keep living in a world that is, at best, indifferent to my decision to do so. At worst, a world that will shoot me in my face if I get too close to needing them to see me. FUCK, PLEASE SEE ME. And this is just one week in this body.

Picture of Sonya Renee Taylor

Picture of Sonya Renee Taylor

Performance poet, activist and transformational leader, Sonya Renee Taylor is a national and international award -winning writer and performer, published author and global change maker. She has shared her work and activism across the US, New Zealand, Australia, England, Scotland, Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands. She is the founder and CEO of The Body is Not An Apology, an international movement of radical self-love and body empowerment that reaches over 100,000 people weekly. Sonya has been seen, heard and read on HBO, BET, MTV, TV One, NPR, PBS, CNN, Oxygen Network, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Today.com, Huffington Post, Vogue Australia, Shape.com, Ms. Magazine and many more. She has shared stages with such luminaries as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harry Belafonte, Dr. Cornell West, Amiri Baraka and numerous others. Sonya continues to perform, speak and facilitate workshops globally.  Visit her at sonya-renee.com or thebodyisnotanapology.com

Blog — A Thousand Boot Soles by Gregory Lawless

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

I have written two overtly political poems since the chattery and charmless late 90s, when I took my first creative writing classes with some very patient instructors at the University of Pittsburgh.  I mention the institutional setting because I think it’s important in determining the origin of a widely-shared aesthetic. Like most poets of my generation (I’m 34), professionals taught me how to write. I was a child of the workshop, and seven years of professional instruction during college and grad school convinced me not to wax polemical and write in line breaks at the same time. This is fine advice, and, in general, I think people should heed it. But I also think that advice of this stripe, so widely and uniformly disseminated, becomes a rule, and rules should periodically get what they deserve: graffiti mustaches, spitballs, muffled curses from the back of the class. 

Or even open demonstration.

But can a poem demonstrate in a political sense? Can it link hands, sing anthems, and walk through torrents of spite? Can it sound like a thousand boot soles? 

Back to those two poems. One is a dreamy, half-pretty reflection on the Bush administration, written in 2007, when almost everyone felt that he was both a silly and catastrophic man. It was ultimately more of a surreal obituary for an era than a complaint. The other is brief, hysterical chant from a chapbook I just wrote, about gas companies and the fracking they do in Pennsylvania. It may or may not be tolerable to readers. I don’t know, and I’m afraid to ask.

As any ethically responsible creative writing teacher will tell you, you put yourself at risk when you write a poem; in most cases, at least one person will let you know, implicitly or explicitly, that they don’t like the poem. This doesn’t feel good, and poets, though they don’t always admit it, prioritize feeling good more than just about anything. Because of this need, the poem should be seen as a kind of performance, and we ought to remember that performers want applause.

But performers also do something. They move through space and affect the world around them. They must acknowledge, despite the artifice of their staging, that they influence others, if only to bore, frustrate or soothe them. This is a good thing for poems and poets to keep in mind. That even when we’re making stuff up, or trying to impress, the poem might knock into something, or knock something over. Poems need readers to let them out of their cages, but they can cause some trouble once they’re free.

The famous line in this discussion is Auden’s: “poetry makes nothing happen.” I can’t deny that it’s been a profound consolation to me, allowing me to turn inward and away from disaster. But there’s no reason to think Auden’s axiom is true. At this point in American history, the most repressive (thanks to strictures of the post-911 surveillance state) we’ve seen in generations, the simple act of critique can freight its share of thunder. American writers live somewhat heavier lives than they did in the 90s (during the so-called end of history, and maybe it was for a while, at least for a lot of white people), so that even simple things have been altered, like breathing at altitude. 

Today a poem can make something happen by merely affirming the ethic of privacy and autonomy that’s needed to create; it can vandalize the repressive “We” that scolds us from behind daises, podiums and fake news desks.

Not every poem becomes political under these circumstances, but every poem that confronts forces that strip us of agency (poverty, war, warrantless wiretaps, discrimination, environmental degradation, etc.) has, to some extent, strayed into the political. Still, poems can merely stray there. And if they testify about these things with rote outrage, then they are more political than poetical, and, as works of art, dead on arrival. Which is too bad, because corpses can’t protest anything. 

A poem can sound like a pair of boot soles. And maybe a thousand poems can sound like a march. But boot soles, especially crowds of them, are dangerous. Besides, marching in step with others is always artistically suspicious. I value poems that feel the draw of political community even as they retreat from it, at least for as long as it takes to write — which, for better or worse, can take your whole life. 

Picture of Gregory Lawless and small child with cute bear hat (presumably Gregory's son).

Picture of Gregory Lawless and small child with cute bear hat (presumably Gregory's son).

Gregory Lawless’s poems have appeared in Pleiades, The Journal, The National Poetry Review, Third Coast, Devil’s Lake, Gulf Stream, Cider Press Review, Sixth Finch, and many others.  He is the author of I Thought I Was New Here (2009) and the chapbook Foreclosure (2013). Read Gregs blog at I Thought I Was New Here.

Blog — The Cyber HEArt Era Begins!

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

One thing HEArt cofounder Dan Morrow and I have always agreed upon is that HEArt was the best thing we ever did. From 1997 to 2002 we poured every last bit of energy, sweat and love into publishing the nation's first and only journal of literature and art devoted to fighting discrimination and promoting social justice. The work was powerful, the artists brave and unflinching, and the purpose more meaningful than anything we'd ever pursued. Unfortunately, time and money became increasingly hard to come by and one of us got pregnant, so with great sadness, but knowledge that we had given voice to some of the most significant contemporary art & literature, we let HEArt go.

Ten years later, recounting the import of that five years to Program Officer Germaine Williams at the Pittsburgh Foundation, we were invited to submit a grant to relaunch HEArt online, or as Germaine said, "We could get behind that." So this time, with encouragement from funders, lots more experience and an urgency in our culture benchmarked by DOMA, Trayvon Martin, Occupy and Sandy Hook, we began again.

That was more than a year ago and today here we are, with thanks to the A.W. Mellon Educational & Charitable Trust Fund of the The Pittsburgh Foundation and partnership with our fiscal agents, the New Hazlett Theater, bringing you HEArt Online.

Which brings me to the contents of the launch, which we are thrilled to present — a mix of some of our favorite artists from HEArt's original print launch and new artists we are thrilled to have discovered. Although everything is outstanding, let me draw your attention to a few pieces in particular.

First, Tim Seibles' "One Turn Around the Sun," which is a glorious poetic call to action that rattles us from apathy and challenges us to own the role we play in our lives and our culture. Are we participating or following? Are we thinking, feeling, moving, changing? Are we merely existing? I hate long poems, but this 11-page manifesto I have read again and again and again because it is uncompromising in its desire to make the world a place we can stand and stand in. It's the kind of poetry that has legs. It runs and fights and dances and bites. It's not going to be tied down or quieted. I dare you to try and put clothes on it, to read it and come away unchanged.

Then, there is the interview with Jan Beatty by Mary Kate Azcuy re: Jan's poem "Shooter," a controversial poem that witnesses sexual violence against women. Jan pulls no punches. She makes no apologies. She has been for many years my guide in what the poem can do to that prose can't. It is the image, the line breaks, the risk taking, the bravery, the truth, the heart. It's all here, it's all expertly crafted and its undeniable. I love Jan. Double dare.

Finally, there is the element of rock star. I got to do an interview with one of my all-time new favorite poets, Jericho Brown. OK, so he didn't have a new poem for us to publish, but he was hugely generous and responsive in giving us an interview which oozes his humility while effortlessly showcasing his keen mind and insightful perspective. AND he let us reprint one of my favorite Jericho poems, "Collosseum" from The New Yorker. Just what is political poetry? Ask Jericho.

I could go on forever, but let me say there is nothing in this launch that should be skipped.  From Terrance Hayes' "Democracy Is Dying" and Stacey Waite's "When Butches Shoot Pool" to Scot Roller's photo essay "Freedom Riders" and our Music Editor, Mark Dignam's review of The Sessions Voices "Blackbird," it all meets our ridiculously high criteria for craft and cause.

And this is just this start. Our goal is to publish on a rolling basis, new work once a week, or at least every two weeks.  If you subscribe, you'll always know when something cool is up. In the meantime, please read, comment, share, promote, link, shout it from the rooftops. HEArt is back and the beat is stronger than ever! 

Leslie Anne Mcilroy, Poetry & Managing Editor