I spent much of my early years in a neo-colonial, proto-feminist interior world, managing my various traumas by pretending I was a plucky, white British girl in a secret garden or boarding school lorded over by an evil school mistress or mean housekeeper, or, alternatively, an Elf, because who, really, wanted to be a Hobbit?
This is all, apparently, quite normal. John Caughey is an ethnographer whose seminal work, Imaginary Social Worlds, explains how the imaginary, internal experiences in which we spend most of our lives, both asleep and awake, enable us to negotiate culture and construct identities either in opposition to or in concert with external experiences. This was all explained to me in my almost 20 years ago by history professor Eva George, who not only taught me about her mentor’s work, but about viewership, and um, how to drive (I’m a New Yorker, people).
Caughey is “particularly interested in how contemporary individuals handle multiple cultural traditions including how they simultaneously or alternatively construct senses of self out of diverse cultural models of race, gender, ethnicity, and personality.” In Monica Hand’s book forthcoming from Alice James Press, me and Nina, we find this de/construction:
my name an omen
my name sin
my name a moan
Disidentification, disembodiment and subsequent embodiment; the slipping into and out of the self that became the cultural icon; reconstitution in the poetic form itself as each word of the poem is an anagram of “Eunice Waymon” (substituting “s” for the soft “c”), a nod to the anagrams in Terrance Hayes’ Hip Logic. (cover art above by the talented Krista Franklin)
Hand writes, “I have always felt sameness with Nina Simone – her sadness, her anger, her restlessness, her alienation, and her super sensitivity, her refusing to be named. I saw her first as a woman, a lonely woman. I also felt her rage. It was only later after I was well into the project that I realized her activism and that she – her music and her life – represented so much more.
"My biography as revealed in my poems is really just one story told over and over. It is a story of loss and of redemption. It is a universal story. That I am a woman, an African American and queer writer is more than circumstantial but that I am a mother, fat, 57, educated, traveled internationally, lived in major cities (east and west) and a host of other particulars may form the lens from which I experience the world but they do not make my story any less universal than that written by someone of different particulars. I am not saying these “markers” have not influenced or even determined my experiences but that I do not have to identify them in the work for them to be at play in the work or that if I chose to identify them in the work that they somehow now narrow the story and make it less universal.
"I didn’t know at first I would write a collection of poems. I was just trying to get right the first poem which was kind of a collage poem about her music so I decided to watch a few of her performances on video. Her sadness, her melancholy was apparent from the very beginning. I began asking myself, “Why is she so sad?” I also asked myself, “Why is she so angry?” In answering these two questions, I also asked myself, “Why am I so sad? And “Why am I so angry?”
"I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free"
(Do yourself a favor and watch until at least 1:50. Seriously.)
“I have found this is the great gift we have as writers – the ability to be both inside and outside of our heads, to allow for a certain schizophrenia, to give ourselves over to insanity.”
Hand often writes in Japanese forms, such as haibun and zuihitsu, greatly influenced by Kimiko Hahn. “Writing poems is about exploration and experimentation. What I am most interested in is language – finding the right words to express my sensitivities in a language that feels foreign to me. I can’t shake the feeling that English is not my first language and that every attempt to communicate in it is an attempt to find and speak in the first language – a language that has been forgotten but the linguistics of which is remembered inside my cells even if I can no longer articulate its vocabulary. I suppose that is why I am interested in forms (fixed and homegrown.) These constraints help me find freedom – freedom from within the chaos of thoughts and feelings that constantly crowd my mind.
"Ironically, I put myself into a box to break out of the box. I am constantly trying to knock down the walls of should this and should that.”
In another poem, “Daughters,” anagrams from the title fall, fittingly, at the proverbial end of the line:
who could defend argue
for pretty poems when flowers gather
around your feet catch you in the hunter’s rude
snare who will stand guard
who is the thug
who ravishes chokes on the dregs
disenchantment buried in every myth heard
of an ill-fated mother’s tar
baby story forgive me dear daughter
Speaking of boxes, tar babies, daughters and embodiment, I am in turn drawn to the imaginary social worlds created by video artist Kalup Lindzy, who, of late, has been creating imaginary social worlds with James-of-all-trades Franco:
And now, to sleep, perchance to dream, of the beautiful, needful thing.