i find that all along
life has been happening
beauty surrounds and supports me
that all the I seek to know
like a tight fisted ball of cabbage
that i peel away
layer by layer
eyes see splendor
and are satisfied
heart shares love
and is grateful
mind connects with others
and receives blessings
This morning on my walk the sea was on her white horse, galloping at such speed froth spewed from her mouth, her white ruffled shirt bellowed and tossed about in gigantic folds of energy. Sea was a woman sure and unafraid and her scent, alluring, flair the nostrils with its alluring vaginal froth. She chased my feet way up shore and had me running to escape her surging invitation to join her in wild abandonment, to fall into her arms, and her carried by her with horses, surrender to the buoyancy, to be tossed and rolled, my nose full of her. But caution made me observe her keenly and knew she was not in the mood for company; she was raging, delightful in her aloneness, ferocious in her freedom. And I thought to myself, one day, one day I will ride these white waves with such confidence, white skirt billowing, wild, unpredictable to control, galloping on my white horse, the sea my field.
Madness Disguises Sanity
as I walk
stare and pass by
on the far side
To be one
who lounge on
to the wind
people shy from
But I am woman
like a mute child
So I write
(From Tamarind and Mango Women, (Sister Vision Press),1992. This collection is the winner of the Pen/Josephine Milles Award 1992.)
As a writer, it is always an honor when someone says they have read my work, and like it – thus far no one has said to my face that they don’t like my work. But it is a profound distinction to know that my work is being used in schools and that students and scholars are interrogating the work, deconstructing it to decipher its meaning. A few months ago students from Cronton College in north west England contacted me via email to say they were studying my poem for A2 level exam. I was indeed thrilled, but also too busy with teaching to give their request full attention. However, what it forced me to do was to reread the above poem, that is almost thirty years old, and relive the writing of it. Quite frankly, I did not remember the poem or even in which collection it could be found, but I found it online. Reviewing the students’ questions forced me to travel back in time.
Rereading the poem, I am proud of it, and believe it stands up to the test of time; it is still relevant, and accurately captures a moment. However, it goes further by using that moment to make commentary on a larger issue –that is how some women feel silenced by patriarchal structures that restricts their need to speak, out on a variety of issues, and as a result label them mad.
The persona of the poem, in the voice of the poet, says that writing offers a safe space for her (should be read as women) to express and share all the things –social and political issues- that skips around in her head. Writing is a safety net, and an appropriate outlet; it provides a fence behind which women can speak out about issues without being carted off to the insane asylum.
These questions are by
Natasha Mercer, Georgia Hill and Emily Blunden
(All members of our A-level performance group)
What was the inspiration for the poem?
The poem was inspired one morning, long, long ago while living in Oakland Ca. I was jogging around Lake Merritt, near where I lived, and encountered a homeless man sleeping in a doorway in one of the buildings in that area. He was clearly experiencing some emotional challenges and was shouting, gesticulating and cursing at people, whomever, passed by. He was so vociferous, and seemingly so self-righteous, and in that moment I thought to myself, such freedom from social decorum.
Whatever was bothering the homeless man he was getting off his chest, and because of his social standing or lack thereof, his behavior was “acceptable.” I paused from my jogging, and stood watching and listening to him, and it is from that observation that the poem came. Also, I was in graduate school at the time and troubled by the Euro-male scholars that were standard part of the curriculum, acceptable masters of theory. There was a glowing absence of women, and certainly Afro-Caribbean women, such as myself, were non-existent. Seeing the homeless man, I thought to myself, he might be considered mad, but there was s level of sanity in his freedom and ability to shout out his pain, to cry out loudly to the world, I have been wronged. To be able to do so, is in my estimation, the greatest form of sanity, but if I were to rant like that in school about the theories that obfuscate my existence and that of my people, it would be said I had a psychotic break and need psychological treatment. The irony of course, is that by seemingly holding it together, I was forced to swallow my pain in order “to make it.”
All these thoughts were swimming inside my head, which lead to the creation of the poem. Because I had gone jogging, I had nothing on which to write, so I had to keep repeating lines of the poem on my jog home, and upon arriving home, I sat to write without even pausing to quench my thirst by drinking a glass of water. The poem went through four drafts after that first initial inspiration. I kept cutting back, trimming down, as I wanted it to be concise and not didactic.
Why did you choose the title Madness Disguises Sanity?
I do believe sometimes, the pressures in the society to confirm, to be proper is cancerous, forces us to swallow a lot of pain, but if one is deemed mad then one is allowed the freedom to rant and rave. Yet, if one listens, if one over looks the seeming madness, then one can’t help but hear the truth of the complaint. The idea behind this title is, what if we could wear madness like a mask that we put on when we want to speak out about an issue, unconventional or controversial, or our own personal truth that might be deemed unacceptable. I think often we use the label madness when we don’t want to hear people’s truth that might challenge our foundation.
What are the main themes of the poem?
Social norms, being preoccupied with ideas that one needs to express; the plight of homeless people, and women’s need to have safe spaces to express their ideas and be heard without being castigated.
What message (if any) did you want to create when writing the poem?
The primary message is to slow down and listen to each other, be open to new ideas, be less quick to judge someone as crazy or mad because s/he expresses a different opinion. A woman’s need to communicate, to feel as if there is a safe space to share her opinions.
I believe that the poem reveals roles in society. How far do you agree with my interpretation and do you have any comment on it?
Yes, the poem does interrogates roles and what is considered acceptable behavior within those roles, and what are the consequences for breaking those roles — the labels that get assigned to us, and how easy it is to use labels to dismiss and silence indigent members of our community.
I am very grateful that “Madness Disguises Sanity,” is getting a new life and that students have found this poem. My life long goal for my work is that it will be taught and performed throughout the world, and every piece will serve as an opportunity for dialogue.
In my first published collection, Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories, 1986, I killed off a character. While returning from school, six year-old Perry is run over by a drunken driver in the story, “Me Man Angel,” About two years after the release of the collection, while traveling to a conference, I just happened to sit beside one of my readers, and upon discovering that I was the writer, she accosted me. “How could you have killed him off,” she shouted at my puzzlement. “A friend gave me your book, and I cried all the way on the plane. Perry should not have died.” That was my first experience with the impact of my work on another, and I was truly blown away.
I immediately went into apology mode, sorry that I made her cry and embarrass herself on the plane ride, sorry that she loved Perry and that he died, sorry that I could not have made him live. After both our initial responses, she calmed down and we talked for the remainder of the plane ride from California to New York, five hours, about the collection and how much she enjoyed it. Despite her chagrin over Perry’s death, she was a fan and wanted to know when she could expect my next collection. However, she did say, “I hope you don’t kill off any other children.” I took her remark to heart.
As I reflect on that collection, I see now that all the stories are about death of some sort. The title story is about the death of a relationship that allows the protagonist, Bake-Face, to move forward and accept her role as a mother and claim the life she deserves. Similarly, Lilly in “Duppy Get Her,” is forced to end a relationship with a man her maternal grandmother disapproves of and returns to her people to give birth to her son. And in the last story in the collection, “Widow’s Walk,” as June-Plums frets about her fisherman husband whom is believed to have drowned at sea, she buries the life that has been planned for her and boldly steps into a role she conceives for herself. All ends well as her husband is found alive and is being retuning when the story concludes. But death, mostly metaphorically, pervades the entire collection.
Although most of my characters live, as a writer I do think about the ramification of a character’s death and what is the large motive/reason behind their demise. In another of my collections, Until Judgment Comes, 2007, Padee, the protagonist in “Sun’s Son,” dies and in the title story, Jeremiah’s father is killed, his mother dies and he inadvertently drowns a woman whom is he is baptizing. Death appears again, but that is fiction. While I am intimately connected with my characters during the process of writing, I tend to forget about them once the book is complete because other characters demand my attention. I tend not to grieve their death or even concern myself about whom might be mourning their passing.
While fiction mirrors life, the death of someone such as my father who died on March 16 feels very different from the deaths I have created in fiction. I am a very practical person and understand the innate irony that the beginning of one’s life is also the signal of their imminent death. I have only attended a handful of funerals, and have basically avoided such events. My children and my will provide specific details that there should be no funeral for me, that I am to be cremated and my ashes sprinkled on the Blue Mountain. The finality of death I find appalling, especially because unlike fiction where I plan it, and it is therefore convenient, at least for me, in real life, even when expected, death comes as a thief, well actually, a purse-snatcher, someone who runs up and grabs one’s purse as they are just walking about, having what they thought, up until that moment, was a good day. Suddenly you have to contemplate credit cards, driver’s license, pictures of children from infant to 20, and all other assortments of things that as a woman you keep in your purse.
My father was only 86, and some say, “You were so lucky to have had him so long.” And while I agree, I also disagree because even though we had forgiven each other misunderstandings, years of absence, things not said, –and had arrived at acceptance and the knowing that whatever you wanted to hear will never sound like you think it should– you still had hoped for more; longer time to learn more details of his life, longer time, so perhaps your children could enjoy more of him, longer time so you two could sit down again as adults and unearth more details, longer time, just because I really don’t know if he liked to dance or what his favorite song was as a teenager.
My father was born Orlando Melhado Palmer, son of Edith and Ezekiel Palmer. He, like his sister, was born in Cuba, where his parents went to work, but returned to Jamaica when he was six years old. He spoke Spanish and also wrote proficiently in that language. These are merely facts that do not outline how I felt about my father or reveal the nature of our relationship, which as with all parental/child relationships are fraught with both happy and sad memories, and hopefully the former outweighs the latter. Of my childhood memories of my father he is a hero, strong and fearless swimming my sister and I out to sea at Gun Boats Beach, on his back, one at a time, alternately. As a character I would not have him die, at least not when I was a little girl.
He was a cyclist and raced at Town Moore, he went to England with the Jamaican army, and while there he studied and became a licensed chemist. In Jamaica he worked at Bernard Lodge, then on several sugar estates, responsible for the conversion of sugar into rum. After leaving the sugar industry he was one of the first Jamaican chemists to work at the University of the West Indies when it opened, working with the first set of doctors there. Then he went into City Planning and worked with the Public Work Department of Jamaica that sent him to Belize for which he did the city planning, and elsewhere. As a character he is still my hero, and I am rooting for him, despite his drinking that ended his marriage with my mother, because he was still in my life, and we still has Sunday drives and stopped and purchased hot roasted peanut from the vendor and we leaned against his car and shelled and ate them slowly, no words passing between us, but the enjoyment was evident.
He left Jamaica in the early 70’s for New York where he worked as a Chemist until he retired from Lannaman Candy Factory. He did not tell us/me he was leaving. We did not know where in New York he was for ten years. I would kill him if he were a character, and in real life, during this time period I wanted him dead. He did not attend my high school graduation, he did not interrogate any young man who wanted to date me, he did not know my plans for college; he no longer sent me birthday cards, he was not present, vanished. Such a character has outlived the value of his role in the story and therefore his death is understood. Readers would side with the me, the protagonist in this case, and not be outraged like that reader, mentioned earlier , who confronted me on the plane. It would be okay of her were my character and I killed him.
The tricky things about killing someone off is there is no chance for them to redress their bad ways and make amends, unless of course you the writer make allowances. So I did not kill off my father and about six months before I was scheduled to graduate from college, he sends my sister and I a dear daughters love letter about missing us, and wanting us to come and visit him, in White Plains where he lived for the past twenty five years and where he died. To say I was a little peeved is an understatement, but my mother, always more generous that many people deserve, insist I accompany my sister and go and visit my father, which we do, but I do not relent throughout the entire visit and demand answers from him, which are not forthcoming.
It will take another ten years, plus two years of therapy before I am able to let go of my feelings of abandonment and forgive my father, but even after that period, I found I had to revisit my forgiveness when things surfaced over the years. This is an important development, which should serve as a caution to writers tempted to kill off their characters, especially too soon. Such an act excludes the possibility for transformation, an important and cathartic element in fiction. If my father had died when I wanted him to, neither he ( my father) the antagonist nor I (the protagonist) would have been allowed the opportunity for growth. Even more importantly, we would have both been denied the opportunity to meet again and to be truly present in each other’s life.
Because my father and I were able to bridge the divide, he got to know his grandchildren, my children, and sent them birthday and Christmas cards without failure, wrote them letters, spoke with them on the phone and when I took them to New York to visit, during the summer, he would show them his garden of tomatoes and watermelon and beans that he was so proud of and tell them stories of growing up in Abokuee, St Ann’s as a boy and having to catch water and carry it on his head before he went to school. Because my father lived, we were able to talk about my various travels and all the places he has hoped to visit, but was happy to experience them through my stories and photos that I sent him, especially Egypt and Morocco and Italy.
My father, or Daddy as I affectionately called him, is survived by his six children, Keith, Stratton, Marva, Leonie, Opal and Patsy, sixteen grandchildren, Paul, Stacy, Ricardo, Althea, Antoinette, Sarah, Shola, Jawara, Teju, Sherene, Shanique, Strattene, Gregory, Gerogia, Jasmine and Daryl and four great grand, Kathryn, Patrick, Posydon and Oren. Also, a brother, Rue, and three nieces, Precious, Doreen and Lydia, outlived him. As a character and as a man, he did not bridge all the gaps or heal all the wounds with his children, nor did he get to meet all his grandchildren, although I made sure he had pictures of all of them As a man just like most characters he was flawed, proud and self-righteous, even when his actions were hurtful, regardless of the intention. As a man he felt as a father his children should forgive all earlier indiscretions and failing, but as a writer, I know ever character has to be willing to be self-reflective or suffer the consequences as a man, who dies estranged from some of his children.
Killing off a character is not as easy as readers would think. It has to fit into the story’s arch and when a writer uses this ploy it is because the character is expedient, and serves no other purpose. In real life, even when we want to we cannot or should not kill off others as quite often we have very little insight about their motives. If I had killed off my father when he dropped out of my life, I would have missed out on the wonderful opportunity we both had to develop an adult relationship and share each other’s life and learn step-by-step how forgiveness softens the heart and open you up to the grace and love available in the world.
I love my father, a patient man who would sit me in his lap as a little girl and allow me to steer his car, the same man who only last year when I went to visit him in his home in White Plains, NY cooked me several dishes and showed deep concern that I would be taking the train back to New York city after it was dark. These and other memories that I have of him and other moments that I enjoyed with him, will live in my mind and heart and which I will take to my own death.
Writing about death does not soften the sting of the finality of it, but the process of writing about my father’s death has helped me to let him go, to dance his spirit to its final journey, to dissect the man as a character and still end in love.
I have been pregnant for the last fourteen years, and I am still carrying the life that remains curled in my womb, in my head, refusing to be born. And there is no doctor who can give me prostaglandins to induce birth so that my cervix will dilate and open up so I can push the story out. There is no doctor to lay me on the delivery table and probe between my legs with a forceps and pull out this story, nor am I eligible for a scheduled c-section to deliver this story while I am out unaware. It is a lie that elephants have the longest gestation period: 95 weeks, which makes a year, eight months and a week…. right, whatever!
I have been pregnant with this story for fourteen years, for fourteen years I have been carrying this man, who ever so often tugs at me, but still refuses to be born. I thought I had aborted him, rinsed him from my thoughts, decided there wasn’t a story there after all. Done. Moved on to the next poem and story, and I have written many since his first appearance. Then a few years later he appeared again, for a little while and I thought I miscarried him, a probing sadness that he came and went without turning into a real life, that I could carry around and show off, and say isn’t he cute, doesn’t he look like his other brothers and sisters, doesn’t he have my cheek bones, eyes…?
I recovered from his loss, and moved on, birthed other children who did not cling to my womb refusing the life that I was so willingly granting. They choose to be born and were named and published and thereby got to share their lives with others. And still others fought for place in my womb, racing frantically in this 40 million sperm marathon, most never lasting long enough to reach the uterus, make it to the oviduct, and still further up the oviduct where the egg is located, and then the road is still uphill from there, to break down the walls of the cumulus oophrous, all fighting more frantic and more eagerly, but only one, at least one at a time will fertilize my egg, and I will sit with loving patience and listen to and write their story. Well that is the way things are supposed to happen, but somehow this man won the sperm marathon, got inside my womb and stay glued to its walls, comfortable, contented, just hanging out, allowing many who came long after him to be born.
And here he comes, peeping out, spreading my legs wide on the Bart train (although still not ready to be born), just last night as I was returning home from the birthday party of my poet friend Nellie Wong, with the most outlandish opening if there ever was one. I should have known he was special since when he first came to me he was sitting in his living room building his coffin. And I told him I just could not have that, and his feeling were hurt and he went away. Then he came back a few years later and had a woman friend, although he was still building his coffin. I told him that I might be able to work with that – every one deserves a life and who am I to say to this man, you shouldn’t be building your coffin and courting a woman at the same time. And since she was cool with it, I said , okay I will give you a chance. But then he didn’t know what to do with this woman, and she wasn’t so sure if she should avail herself since when he invited her over, the coffin was in the living room like the proverbial white elephant in the room, except she really could deal more easily with a white elephant, any elephant even a herd, rather than the coffin. She just sat there ever so often glancing at it, hoping he wasn’t planning to kill her and put her in it, as they sipped rum and coke. Nothing happened, so I assumed, erroneously, that he just up and died and slipped from my womb while I was asleep and unaware.
Fast forward to last night on the Bart train and he appears in my head as clear and familiar as if it was yesterday, vexed that he came home, and this woman who it turns out he has only been seeing for a little over three moths he gave the key to his house and he returned to find her asleep in his coffin. At first he thought she was dead and was wondering how he was going to explain that to the cops, but then he realized she was asleep. Imagine my astonishment at these two people who have now taken up residence inside my head and have been carrying on.
I am sick of him, and because he still is not born, he has no name, so I can’t even shout, “Hey Delroy! or hey Jimmy or Sambu! Stop that and get out my womb! I have carried you long enough!” He pouts and tells me that is not his name, and to leave him be. You see my crosses. What can I do? It has been fourteen long years that he first came to me, and I hope now he is ready, but I don’t think he is a short story as I had hoped, I think now because he has been with me such a long time, he thinks he deserves a novel. I don’t know. I tell him I will see, but he cannot move as slowly as he has been these last fourteen years, we are both getting on with age and need to just decide.
That fact is, like me, I have known other writers who have been carrying a story with them for a lifetime, or at least for years. The average novel takes two years to be born, and this is true even of male writers, so again writers belie scientific evidence and data collectors who neglect to document these births of ours, often long and arduous– as we do give birth to stories and poems. As for women writers we never approach menopause, in fact we are often more prolific having multiple births as we approach that period.
Coming Next: 10 Reasons To Be A Writer
Send your questions about writing to Opal and she will do her best to answer your queries.
While I understand the impetus behind the above question, I must admit, having been asked it so often, I want to just fold my arms and turn my back in sheer vexation, but I don’t. I grit my teeth, breathe, smile then offer some shortened version of what is really a simple, but complex explanation about the voyage of poetry and the arduous and even hazardous steps that make one better. Of course it begs the question, better than now or then, better than X , Y or Z, or better at using words, or better at exploring a topic, or better at imagery, or just a better poet.
That is the dream of every poet, to be better than he/she already is. I think Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott probably would concur. Maybe even Pablo Neruda, and his teacher/mentor Gabriela Mistral. I think Octavio Paz wanted to be a better poet, as did Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course so did Miss Lou, the great Louise Bennett. I am still searching to know and discover how I can become a better poet as I am not yet the poet I want to be or think I can be, nor will I be as better as I want to be, maybe not even before I die.
The problem is with the question, is that the phrasing has an erroneous premise — which implies that there is a magical formula that makes one a better poet; or if I think Mervyn Morris is a better poet than I am, then whatever works for him that makes him a better poet, might also work for me. But the fact is while some might consider Mervyn a better poet than I, there are those who might consider me a better poet than he. Maybe we should stop comparing guinep to jackfruit. When one asks this question what is it that the person really wants to know? Truly, I don’t remember ever asking this question, but my memory sometimes lapses.
A better poet always self promotes, so I want to reference myself, and invite potential askers of this question to consult my collection, Eros Muse: poems & essays, (Africa World Press, 2006), and specifically, “When the Poem Kisses You,” which is a letter to an emerging poet, resulting from my teaching life, and also my version of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I am certain wanted to be a better poet himself. Although the essay is not prescriptive, nor does it specifically answer the above, it does, I believe, speak to some important elements of this writerly life of a poet.
The letter begins, and I quote myself, “When the poem kisses you, there is no need to ask what it means. Just accept it as a gift.” A better poet is someone who is open to being kissed by a poem, and does not question the gift, by feigning such trite response such as, “Oh you shouldn’t have.” Or “that’s so thoughtful of you;” or even worse, “I just don’t feel I deserve this!” A better poet readily kisses back the poem, and insists that the kissing continues as long as is possible until there is the need to come up for air. Bottom line. A better poet wants to write great poems all the time. But a better poet does not want to write great poems that is like that of another poet’s, regardless of whether or not that person is famous. A better poet has her own voice. A better poet knows it is practically suicidal to compare herself to anyone else. A better poet daily goes about doing her work –which is to write her truths in the strongest and clearest way that she discovers– to become better. Period.
In the above-mentioned letter to an emerging poet, I invite the would-be poet to become intimate with the three P’s: patience, persistency and perseverance. This is the only formula I know, and it has worked for me. A better poet understands that under no circumstances, should a poem be rushed. A poem is not a woman in labor. A poem is a Yogi, sitting on a mountain, with fog wafting as gauze while he ponders his third eye. A better poet sits with the idea, allows it to take shape until it levitates, then ever so gently, the poet grasps the poem, firmly, every so affectionately, until they become one, then the poem becomes its own essence and of necessity leaves the poet.
The other two p’s, persistency and perseverance, are dispositions that any better or wanting to be better poet must become very familiar with. To aspire to be a better poet demands complete intimacy with these two fellows, the former of whom can be annoying to even the most agreeable person, and the latter, although often admired for unyielding determination, has limited number of friends. But a better poet does not take her/his cue from others; a better poet understands that the work of a poet is never done. There is no finish line that you can speed past, setting a world record and garnering a gold medal. A better poet will not get the endorsements nor have the entire island come out to welcome you home like Usain Bolt. A better poet is lucky if she is even allowed to come back home so she doesn’t expect anyone to meet her at the airport.
But what makes a better poet, better than any superstar and why I so admire your desire to become a better poet, is that a better poet will take the time to validate by recording what she thinks, feels and knows; a better poet, by descending into imagination, ascends to give language to her idea, and is often willing to share her poem, even in its imperfection, in hopes that someone else might catch a hold of the light and bring it close to their heart to warm and brighten their life.
I am thankful that Keorapetse Kgositsile, South African poet Laureate, whom I met in New York in the 70s when I was taking tentative steps in this area, and whom I had the pleasure of hearing read last March at the National Black Writers Conference in New York, 2013 (and where I was one of the invited poets) wants to be a better poet; I am thankful that Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet and priest, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing read at the Annual Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicarague, 2012, (where I was one of the invited poets), wants to be a better poet. I feel so fortunate that Jayne Cortez, whose poetry I admire, and who recently died, wanted to be a better poet, and I am grateful that I know and have read with Sonia Sanchez, who inspired me to walk this path, and who still strives and wants to be a better poet. Wanting to be a better poet is perennial.