Five Writers Who Taught Me How or Why to Write

Charlotte A. Cavatica

If you had only your writing tools, a few months, and a mere five words to save the life of your best friend, which words would you choose? How would you make those choices? How would you argue connotations with a large, bored, and foul-tempered rat? When I first read Charlotte’s Web at age 7, these were the most urgent questions I could possibly imagine.  Words suddenly meant something—not just what they meant in the dictionary, but something big and powerful and unbearably necessary.  Charlotte’s brilliance with words stays with me still, especially that image of Wilbur standing quietly under a web diamond-edged with dew, believing with his entire being that the words “Some Pig” would save his life, because his friend the writer and story-teller said that they would.

I was teaching for the first time, a required-for-graduation five-paragraphs-about-a-short-story composition class at UC Irvine, when I learned E.B. White had died. I fell apart in front of my assortment of I don’t care, I’m afraid I’ll fail again so I can’t care and English is my fourth language, why do these people think I need this stupid class? students, unable to stop crying. Did you know him? they asked, stunned that a writer could so shape and shake another person only through words. I’d like to think that the most resistant student, the one who would be expelled if he didn’t pass this course on his fourth attempt, came round and started writing because he saw me cry. I suspect, though, that he was more shaken by a way-too —honest moment when he asked me why he was failing the class and I told him it was because he was being an asshole by ignoring every opportunity I gave him to actually learn something. That was Charlotte too, though—the right word at the right time is still all-important.

Charlotte’s other words, by the way, were terrific, radiant, and humble. I dare you to do better.

Audre Lorde  Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Will I be banned from all future lesbian or feminist literary discussions if I admit that Lorde’s essays are a much bigger influence on me than her poetry?  I still have my first copy of Sister Outsider, the 1984 Crossing Press paperback, with the words I needed at age 24 highlighted.  At 47, different lines in the same essays now speak to me:

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences.

Julia Penelope Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers’ Tongues

I’ve been re-reading sections of this radical grammar guide for 18 years, and I still struggle with assimilating its implications.  On first reading, what shook me most was Julia’s description of how English structures allow transitive verbs to become participles, and then to drop the agent altogether.  Thus Men batter women becomes Women are battered and then, in the news, in government reports, and in our own minds, battered women, the violence merely one natural characteristic of women rather than an action purposefully taken against us.  Now, as I try to write about the politics of fear, I am struggling again and again through her chapter on predicate semantics, especially the psych-predicates, which allow the people experiencing an emotional state to express that state by asserting that they are not agents but rather merely objects acted upon by stated or unstated others; there is a vast and vital enemy combatant confinement system difference between I am feeling afraid and You frighten me. Any of us who want to undo that system must, in fact, mind our p’s and q’s and passives and predicates.

Judy Grahn, “A Woman is Talking to Death”

What does it mean to live intimately with a poem for 20 years? To carry that poem so deeply that its words seem nearly your own?

When the news exploded across my office that blue-skied morning that planes had hit the towers in New York, I rushed to the web to see it for myself, to know if it was a fact even though I wasn’t there. The first sentence to cohere in my mind was this: all the chickens come home to roost/all of them. Meaning not the folk saying, common enough in my childhood with its actual chickens and actual roosts, but that maybe the hijackers, terrorists as they would so soon come to be called, maybe they were Josie’s babies. Not the babies of any Josie I’ve ever known, but of a girl Judy Grahn knew, so many years ago, a brown-skinned girl, pregnant at 13.

Josie came into my life in section four of Grahn’s transcendent elegy “A Woman is Talking to Death.” Grahn describes loving Josie, and wanting to kiss her, because she saw the pain and fear in Josie’s eyes when she returned to school for her final tests pregnant. But 13 herself, in a hostile place, Grahn did not kiss her, and later includes her lack of courage and inability to protect Josie as parts of a litany of indecent acts she regrets bitterly. In the poem’s sixth section, Grahn tells the story of a young man who called her names in Spanish and slugged her, in front of people who seemed satisfied that a queer had been hurt. Recalling this attack, weaving it into this poem that explores the connections and consequences in our lives, she writes:

now when I remember I think:
maybe he was Josie’s baby.
all the chickens come home to roost,
all of them.

That unreal morning, even as I knew the violence happening was exactly our violence, coming home to roost high above the tops of the tallest trees, I also knew in my gut that these men might be Josie’s babies, and image after image from Grahn’s poem lived through the next days with me, comfort and warning.

Manly Sappho. Or Psapfo. Or Psappho

It seems nearly shallow stereotype, I know, to be a lesbian poet and cite Sappho as a writer who has changed my life. So let me qualify – over the last year, the study of Sappho has profoundly shaped how I think about poetry and what the act of translating teaches us about poetry.

My MFA program, at Drew University, specializes in poetry in translation, so I’ve had the opportunity to hear some amazing translators talk about what they do and how they do it, including C.K. Williams, Peter Cole, Ellen Doré Watson, and Pablo Medina. Poet and translator Mihaela Moscaliuc presented an amazing lecture/workshop on Sappho with translations, transformations, transfigurations, and a few pure inventions from across many centuries and cultures.  All of these led me back to Sappho, prepared to read across and through the translation process. But it was Willis Barnstone who gave me Sappho as a mentor, and Heather McHugh who gave me this poet as a living voice, a contemporary in this struggle to turn syllables into meaning.

Barnstone’s introduction to his 2006 translation Sweetbitter Love offers a passionate defense for reading Sappho’s love poems as openly sexual and lesbian, with a great review of how attempts to hide this have distorted our understanding of her and of poetry in general. In this discussion he mentions, as an almost aside, that “Much of the world’s love poetry is homoerotic, and in ancient Greek poetry, the majority of love poems by known male poets, from Ibykos to Pindar, are addressed to other men.”  Hmm. This helped me understand what Sappho, and who knows how many other women writers lost to us, were doing, and why she stood out in her own world. And it’s set me pondering on just how many of the models held up to us as “great love poems” have always been homoerotic—is this why most have felt completely inauthentic to me? Add in the love poems to “women” which were to an imagined muse or unrequited source of lust viewed from a distance as passion incarnate, and just how many love poems are actually about the messy, astounding corporeality of women, or men, loving women? Just what could a model of authentic heterosexual love poetry be? Of lesbian love poetry, if it had been allowed to develop a track separate from but alongside men’s love poetry?

I’ve always been better at questions than answers, which is why I’m a poet and not a writer of actual-money-making romantic advice books, so I have nothing easy to say to this. Except that this fragment from Sappho is one hell of a place to start exploring:

May you sleep

on your tender girlfriend’s breasts

In “What We Make of Fragments” from Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, Heather McHugh defends the reading of the fragments that have come down to us from ancient writers as if they were contemporary poems written in English. After all, she argues:

All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which our words are couched. Its lines insistently defy their own medium by averting themselves from the space available, affording the absent its say, not only at the poem’s outset and end by at each line’s outset and end.

From this starting assumption, what we have of Sappho’s poetry becomes whole rather than broken, or at least whole in addition to broken. McHugh quotes Friedrich Schlegel: “Many works of the ancients have become fragments; many works of the moderns begin that way.”  If the Sappho we have is the Sappho we allow to speak to us in our terms, in our tongue, then yes, this Barnstone translation is a poem entire:

You lay in wait
behind a laurel tree
and everything
was sweeter
women wandering
I barely heard
darling soul
such as I now am
you came
in your garments.

In the land of lyric, what more might this poem need? Yes, details are missing, but lyric is the emotion that lies within narrative stripped down to the pith and made to sing, and pith and melody are what our fragmentary Sappho has in abundance.

And as a final bonus from my months of Sappho study, I found what I could only hope to be my epitaph, from a passage written about Sappho in Apuleius’ Apology, cited in Barnstone’s “Testimonia and Ecnomia:”

She was a woman of Lesbos too, who wrote lasciviously yet with such grace that she reconciles us to her outrageous speech through the sweetness of her songs.