I left off part 1 of this topic saying that publishing my first book of family poems, Dance From Inside My Bones, was truly overwhelming.
For a number of reasons.
First, let me say, my experience with Snake Nation Press, where my manuscript won the Violet Reed Haas Award, was not one of those reasons.
The strong women editors at Snake Nation, Roberta George and Jean Arambula, were truly stellar to work with.
They lauded the honesty of my work, and had me attend the AWP conference in Atlanta for the book release.
Not for one minute, did I forget how fortunate I was to have my poetry manuscript published.
Getting a poem published is hard. Getting a book published is harder. I was one of the lucky ones.
Yet, a part of me believed it was some sort of mistake.
That they announced the wrong winner and would take it back.
A voice in my head (my mother’s) told me I didn’t deserve it.
Nonetheless, I was overjoyed, and deer-in-the-headlights scared.
At the AWP Snake Nation booth, I stood behind copies of my books, as thousands of people streamed by.
I am a terrible introvert. It took every ounce of bravado I had not to go to my hotel room and hide.
I smiled. I nodded I answered questions.
Mostly, the same one over and over–
My book is about family and growing up into a young woman.
And the response was largely–
Oh, childhood nostalgia.
No, not that at all.
Actually, it was more like this–
The problem was when I wrote the poems, I wasn’t thinking of some future point when I would have to physically stand in front of people and justify my work.
I wasn’t thinking about being there, in person with the book, putting a face to the autobiographical poems.
When I was writing the poems, I was trying to put my experiences into words that might connect with others on the other side of the page.
Being in front of people with my book felt like one of those dreams where you are suddenly naked in public.
I was more than uncomfortable. I was worried about being judged, or blamed.
I had written my truth, but I guess, I hadn’t yet claimed it. Not live and in-person, anyway.
I hadn’t accepted I had a right to that truth.
I hadn’t thought ahead to having to stand in front of folks and give readings.
But, I would give readings. And at Seattle’s Open Books, no less.
And I feared I would be hated for not saying Hallmark things about my mother. In this culture, and many others, the word mother is synonymous with sainthood.
But I didn’t have a Hallmark mother, nor a Brady Bunch family.
And I had been in abusive situations with family members, but never told anyone, other than my therapist.
Now that the book was out, it felt like I was shouting it from the rooftops, telling the world.
Well, anyone in the world who wanted to read Dance From Inside My Bones.
Then, there was the fact that all but one of those abusive family members were still alive.
What would they say, if they read my book?
Fortunately none of them wanted to read my book.
Which was a relief.
My mother said she knew it was “garbage” since I had written it.
I expected that. But it still hurt. Even now she’s dead, it’s still impossible to shut out my mother’s derisive voice in my head.
So what really happened at each reading I gave?
People were polite, applauded.
Several people bought my book.
Sometimes one or two folks asked me to sign it.
But one person came up and confided in me that my work spoke to them about what they’d been through.
That person thanked me.
And I cried tears of joy as we hugged.
I realized I’d come full circle.
Poetry saved my life as child in harrowing circumstances. Poems reached across time, distance, gender, culture, and spoke to me of survival. Poems taught me I wasn’t alone in my suffering. And if others could survive, so could I.
Finally, my poems provided that message and reached out as well.
My words only connected with one other living soul. And that was more than I could ever hope for.
I may not have changed the world.
I may not have bettered that person’s life.
But for one brief moment in time, that person knew they were not alone.
And it was enough. For both of us.
But still, I thought, I would publish no more autobiographical poems. I had said all there was to say.
Little did I know…
[Next time, Family Poems Are Hard–part 3]