Room for All of Us

There is nothing a mother desires more than to see her child feel fulfilled and happy with life. I have an adult daughter who is euphoric now and at peace with herself through gender transition. It makes me happy to see her flourishing. I admire her courage to change.

Since she began transitioning, we are making up for lost time with mother-daughter experiences such as sharing clothes, shopping together, and having heart-to-heart talks about everything from books to music and technology to how we can help others understand diversity in its many forms. Aren’t we all unique, no two people alike?

In my forthcoming book Becoming Trans-Parent: One Family’s Journey through Gender Transition (Finishing Line Press, Summer 2017), I offer narrative poetry to share some of our “aha” moments, which include a learning curve for both of us, as well as the reader. I learned about changing avatars, new pronouns, name changes, selecting clothing, job searches, unique health issues, marriage and family, along with the joy that comes from seeing a child live her one true life.

Writing brought us together into a mother-daughter bond as my manuscript evolved. We bounced ideas back and forth; she was my fact checker for what I termed “trans-accuracy,” and she reached deeper to help me understand what it’s really like to be transgender. She was transitioning, and so was I.

As the months flew by, I watched her become joy-filled and outgoing; yet at the same time I worried about her long-term health and safety out in the world. It is now several years into transition, and she continues as the same loving, intelligent, and sensitive person she always was. The spectrum of who we are is wide and real, even if it is sometimes hidden through cultural pressure. Who we are is not fabricated — how can I help others understand this? As I say in one of my poems, I’m like the mother duck who looks after her ducklings, being protective and watchful. As parents we do the best we can. I watch people to observe if they look at us differently, and guess what? They see two women at the sink in a ladies’ restroom fixing our hair, tucking in our blouses, and moving forward.

In another poem, I describe our daughter who has skin like pink on a peach, who wears crystal beads that drape across her collar bone and is a person who walks with confidence, meets new people with ease, and has made new friends. She is the same person, but her doubting discord is gone. And yes, she’s the daughter I always wanted.

My daughter and I feel compelled to help others (think activism/advocacy) understand gender identity and the spectrum of identity that is not new, just more open these days. We are striving to make a difference with lawmakers who propose bathroom bills and threaten health insurance coverage, or employers who hesitate in hiring. I wrote this book for the reader to expand understanding and to tell about one family’s journey. I want others to know my daughter is smart, polite, compassionate, and human, so that when she goes to the bathroom, to the doctor, or applies for a job, she will be able to pee where she feels comfortable, get hired, and be treated as a woman who just happens to be transgender.

I wouldn’t change my daughter for the world, but I’d like to change the world for her and those like her.

Annette Langlois Grunseth has a BA in Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a lifetime member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Her poems have appeared in Wisconsin Academy Review, Midwest Prairie Review, SOUNDINGS: Door County in Poetry, The Poetry Box’s, Poeming Pigeons, The Ariel Anthology and other publications. Several of her nature poems were set to original music and performed at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. She is retired from a career in Marketing and Public Relations and lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with her husband, John, where they both advocate for equal rights.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.

Manifesting Mary

On the last day of the longest January I’ve ever lived through I woke up early just to have the house to myself for longer than usual. The only tiny luxuries that I actively can control the outcome of in this new place are my fat, grey cat named Gus, who I rescued when he was two weeks old, making him as sweet as a living stuffed animal, and an entire French press of coffee. I’ve felt like giving up more times I can take account of since moving to New York, but after kicking a pharmaceutical addiction (Adderall, I do love and miss you) and allowing myself these peaceful luxuries, I’m getting a hang of it here. I don’t make unnecessary train mistakes anymore. I have (loan) money in the bank, which sort of makes me less nervous and sort of comforts me. Things are beginning to look up. I might like it here, despite the hard and harsh realization that I don’t love it. My nine-year-old self is disappointed in me. I’m not as bold and wild here as I am at home.

I still get on the train late, always forgetting to add thirty minutes to any journey just for buffer time and train traffic. On this particular morning, my coffee and cat time went on longer than usual. I entered the shower to find the existential dread of a dozen bottles of empty products lining the lip of the tub. The mushy, water-soiled soap bar had a long, curly pube on it. This is why I needed the extra coffee and cat time. My first panic attack, an irrational sinking in my chest, a disappointment in myself for not going to the grocery store on my day off, and my first empty need for medical, chemical intervention, has set in. I exit the shower after rinsing off rather than lathering up, leave the bathroom and stand naked in my bedroom staring into my closet full of clothes I’m not fun enough to wear anymore.

I manifest things and I’m good at it. Whether it be a material object, like an item of clothing I’ve set my sights on or an ugly white dog on my door step—if I put the image from my head verbally out into the universe it usually appears. Sometimes it’s completely accidental. Take the dog, for instance. I made a vague and outlandish prediction before moving to New York City that I was going to find a small, ratlike dog on the street and it was going to become my pet. When my roommate came home in the midst of one of the first snowy days in Brooklyn with the announcement that there was a small dog tied up outside our apartment with all of its things, I didn’t particularly want to have the dog, but I felt a duty to take it in from the cold. The dog, who I fondly named Dave, ended up biting me and leaving a dense, fleshy scar on my wrist. I kept him for four days in from the cold and waited for his owners to come pick him up, but no one ever came. Dave got adopted through a shelter and is a happy family dog now, but I feel a tiny pang of guilt for manifesting him in the first place.

I’m not a religious person, but you don’t have to be when you’re raised by strong Italian Catholic women. Religion, whether close or important, surrounds me because of my family. Religion feels like part of my culture, but in a strange optional way. I could be religious easily, and no one would doubt my faith.

In all of my keepsake boxes, along with love notes from old boyfriends, yearbooks from middle school (when I believe I peaked), and sentimental items, I’m always finding rosary beads and St. Christopher’s mixed in. Tucked away from judgmental eyes, a pendant that stands for protection and good travels makes sense to me lying next to a envelope of love notes and a bent penny that a poet I used to sleep with made me. I keep the penny in a Candy Hearts box labeled “heartbreaker.” These things I collect are more for comfort than memory, because I’ll always have the candy heart box to remind me of “the one time” a poet was crazy enough about me to bend a penny for shits and gigs. I feel silly appointing these items value.

As a young woman, I find these trinkets of religion comforting because they remind me of my mother, my grandmother, my childhood bedroom (which recently was demolished along with the house I grew up in), but as a kid I felt suffocated by religion. I was an atheist before I knew all my options, before “spiritual” was a self-describing category of practice, before “namaste” hit the mainstream.

I’ve absolutely never prayed on purpose, but I find myself mid-plea or argument with God often. God is my first reader. He tells me to cut the fluff. He tells me to trim the fat. He tells me to get to the heart of it. He’s the empathetic listener I speak at when I feel like I’m talking into the void.

Because of my etched and engraved religion and total fear of being found out as a “Jesus-y” kid, as my father often put it, I rebelled at a safe arm’s length by never going to church even if my grandma asked, but also by never fucking under the pulpit of my undergrad’s chapel. The chapel was the spot to hook up throughout college. It was a bucket-list adventure. It was almost a requirement of the sisterhood and camaraderie that I identified strongly with for four years. The experience was handed down from generation to generation. I’m sure, without even doing the deed, I handed down rumors and stories of the pulpit and the chapel. It wasn’t like the poet and the penny, it wasn’t like anything “bad” I had ever done. I didn’t judge anyone for fucking under the pulpit, under the large, realistic crucifix of Jesus, but I wouldn’t do it. No one has ever considered that I hadn’t. I don’t let them know otherwise.

My great grandmother got a visit from the saints in the later years of her life. Great Grandma Michaelina, or “Grandma with the White Hair,” as I called her, is my mother’s namesake. When I imagine her getting a visit, I immediately imagine her being visited by the Virgin Mary at thirteen years old, when she first started getting her period. I’ve heard that story a few times and imagined the fear of what it felt like to wake up in a pool of your own blood to think that you’re shamefully dying because your own mother doesn’t know how to explain it. But, anyway, the Virgin Mary didn’t come to her, the saints did. She described it to my mother as each saint walking into her living room where she was sitting before bed and introducing themselves to her. She told my mother that she was “the only person who she could tell,” in fear of being seen as crazy, but that she did not just imagine this happening. She met the saints, and after each one left she felt more okay with dying. She told my mother that she was the only one who’d understand. It wasn’t until recently that my mother told me that grandma’s visit wasn’t a well-known event in our family. I was trusted with the story just as she had been.

There was something about my great grandmother that resonated with me as completely honest, completely capable, despite her thick Sicilian accent and frail, elderly frame. Regardless of our eighty-eight-year age difference the last time I saw her, which was at her hundredth surprise birthday party when I was twelve, I didn’t feel that she ever made it a point to push her age and knowledge on me. She didn’t expect me to fear her or respect her, but automatically I did. She was a reputable source, an honest matriarch and mouthpiece of our family, who happened to meet God by extension of saints.

My mother, on the other hand, is harder for me to believe. We are too close and too similar for me to believe everything she says, which is partially because she’s known to exaggerate just like I do. My mother’s story is that the Virgin Mary herself came to her in the backyard of our house. I imagine her standing by our slate rock wall, the only point of value and pride of our home for all of us, smoking a cigarette and picking dead leaves off the wild tiger lilies that came back every year. The Virgin Mary came and said one word to my mother: endure. This word and visit came at a time when I’m sure that my mother wanted to do nothing but give up. My mother is an alcoholic and has been in recovery for six years, but this visit came long before she got sober. On top of her own problems with addiction, she married a man who is a narcissist, an addict, and a liar. I try not to blame myself for the wasted twenty years of my beautiful mother’s life. I was the fertilized egg that led to a partnership, a marriage, and another child, my brother. I was the egg that led to the chicken that was my mother’s addiction and mental illness. But that’s another story.

Mary came to my mother before she got sober, and that’s part of the reason why I have trouble believing her story. Before she got sober, she wasn’t stable. She was always on the brink of an emotion, whether good or bad. This message of endurance came to her at a time when drinking was the only relief from sadness and anger, which were ultimately caused by my dad. He frequently used drugs, cheated without apology, and disappeared with no explanation for days at a time. I remember the day Mary came to her vividly because I remember doubting her, rolling my eyes. When I came home that day from school, I found my mother smoking a rolled cigarette inside the house, a frequently overlooked rule that my father made for what seemed like my brother’s and my sake. She usually smoked while she talked on the phone, a double oral fixation. That day, she was on the phone with her grandma, because she mouthed to me “GRANDMA WITH THE WHITE HAIR” through exhales of thick smoke. She recounted the story, repeated the word, and ended the phone call with our family’s signature verbal kiss. “Mwah. Love you.”

So, after that day she endured. She took the high road with my dad, she focused on herself, she got sober. She endured in the most literal way she could, until she realized that “endure” didn’t mean “stay.” On Christmas eve of 2012, when my brother was a sophomore in high school and I was a freshman in college, almost in the opposite fashion of the Holy Mother herself, my mother packed a bag and left my father, leaving my brother and me with him. She’d left before, moving my brother and me to motel rooms or shooing us to sleepovers, but she had always returned. There was something big, monumental about the fact that she left us with him that day. She was enduring for herself. We were expected to endure through this in our own way, too.

This split heavily influenced me, and changed my relationship with my father forever. He blamed me for my mother leaving because she and I had gotten into an argument hours before she left. He didn’t speak to me for four days, including on Christmas. I endured by calling my mother, deflating my pride, and asking to stay with her, wherever she was. Things started getting easier through my mother’s persistence to survive.

On a shelf in my room here in New York I’ve created an altar. Knickknacks and things that remind me of home decorate the shelf, which I found on the street in Bed Stuy and carried on the train home. On the corner closest to my view from bed stands a statue of the Virgin Mary I bought for forty-nine cents at a Salvation Army. My roommates, and even my boyfriend, find my Mary decorations to be kitschy. They laugh at the wall covered in religious art. It’s supposed to be funny because I’m a sort of anti-Christ. I’m loud, overly sexual, I love tequila, I swear and recreationally get fucked up on party drugs often. They are aware of my mother’s vision, of her reminder to endure, yet they still consider my worship to be satirical. I don’t correct them, because I’m not one to ruin a good joke for anyone.

My manifestations, sometimes, are purposeful without me knowing. I’ve been waiting for a visit from the Virgin Mary since I was told about the power of these visits as a young, skeptical girl.

I don’t know why I sat where I sat that day. The spot between the man and the woman that I took was, quite possibly, child sized. I am by no means small, nor do I need the validation of anyone telling me that I am. I’m aware that squeezing childbearing hips into a tight spot with no elbow room isn’t wise. I was running late, so with a flushed face and an elevated heart rate I started to mentally beat myself up. The woman to my left kept hitting me with her right knee and elbowing me while fiddling with something between her fingers—which only made me more nervous. It seemed like the moment I noticed why she kept knocking me was also the moment I noticed other seats opening up across the train car.

“Can I help you with that?” A smooth voice came out of me, despite the gravitational pull of the better spot in my reach. “I’m really good at getting knots out of chains.”

“Really?” she said in an accent I couldn’t place. “You’re my angel.”

Before I could process why I had offered to help and how the fuck I was going to get the knot out, I was in the midst of focus. So, for seven stops I shook and prodded with her knotted chain. I found myself wrapped up in thought, needing the chain to budge, wanting it to come untangled without breaking. Occasionally, the woman would cheer me on.

“Don’t give up!” she said sweetly. In a moment where she noticed my fingers were shaking while trying to hold the earring I was using as a tool still (half because I’m an naturally shaky person, but half because of Adderall withdrawal and too much coffee), she held my hand steady for me. Her hand was the warmest thing that’s ever touched me, and immediately I felt a pang in my heart.

When I found myself describing the event to my boyfriend later that night, I tried to get my description of her off the tip of my teeth.

“She was, well, she was beautiful,” I said.

“So you were attracted to her?” he said.

“No! No. Absolutely not. She was beautiful like how a mother is beautiful.”

Despite her cheerleading and occasional check-ins, I wanted badly to say that I couldn’t do it. My stop was approaching, and I started to feel anxious that I would break the chain because I was rushing. Then suddenly, the chain wiggled loose and dropped its knot. The pendant on the end swung easily between my hands, and I noticed that it was a Virgin of Guadalupe rosary. I hadn’t noticed the metal beads linked by chain, or the pendant, while untangling it. She tearfully thanked me over and over so many times that I got nervous, almost embarrassed. I gave her the rosary and told her that she was so welcome, and began to gather my things to get off at my stop.

“Could you put it on me?” There was something intimate and vivid about this question, and I couldn’t say no. She pulled her short hair forward on her neck, giving me a space nestled under her scarf to link the clasp to the chain. My hands, which were clammy and cold, touched her neck. She didn’t pull away or jolt when they touched her neck, they just felt warmer.

“There,” I said, as she lifted her head toward me and smiled. After her rosary was safely back around her neck, the woman gained color back in her face and her eyes brightened.

“I’m Carson,” I said with a shy smile. I didn’t recognize the sweet, smooth, honeylike voice coming out of me.

“I’m Aphra,” she said. “Thank you. You made my day. Don’t give up, and good luck!” I felt newer, or at least warmer, as I walked off the M train. I saw the beauty in the snow falling like a beam of light from the sky, to the street, and into the subway staircase, instead of scrunching my nose at the smell of piss.

I texted my brother and described the encounter as a “religious experience,” noting that her name was Aphra, like Aphrodite. He immediately responded.

“It was Mary.”

Carson Jordan grew up in Ithaca, NY and attended Wells College, receiving her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, focusing in poetry, women and gender studies, and Creative Non Fiction in 2016. She currently resides in Brooklyn, where she’s working towards receiving her MFA in Non Fiction at The New School. In her free time she enjoys collecting race-car memorabilia, hanging out with her cat Gus, and occasionally dabbling in glitter and tequila.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.

Give This Poor Subject a Verb

(A couple of years ago, an ambitious and talented student writer burst into my office one afternoon in exasperation and despair, plopped down on my couch, and asked me if I ever felt like I might never write again. Not anything—not another poem, email, list, or post. As it happens, I had just been thinking about just such a time.)

Eight and a half years ago, the first ambitious task I undertook after I moved from Washington, D.C., to my North Carolina apartment was to write letters to family and friends who’d been so helpful during my wife Emily’s illness and death. It took me six months. Toward the end of this undertaking, I hired a young woman to look after Langston, my then six-month-old, for two mornings a week. I selected stationary of hummingbirds and dragonflies. I tried my best to write neatly. I sat in the same antique swivel writing chair in which I sit now, a graduation gift from Emily’s parents, and made and checked my list twice, though I’m sure I left people out.

Part of the reason I wrote these letters was because of Emily’s minor but persistent fear that she hadn’t sent thank-you notes to everyone who’d given us wedding gifts. We’d divided the responsibility along family lines, but then we moved and, three months later, moved again. Somewhere along the way, the list had been lost. Even after ten years of marriage, she’d felt mortified when she thought about it. So, in the first six months after her death, I wrote and mailed eighty or so letters. The job seemed beyond me, though I went at it dutifully.

Three and a half years later, after yet another move, one of my new colleagues at Delta State University told me the story of a young woman who suddenly dropped his Shakespeare class late in the semester. She was smart and capable, and had engaged honestly in the course, and my colleague was fond of her. Why? he asked. Why must you quit now? Your grades have been exemplary. She told him she had gotten married that summer and now had over five hundred thank-you notes to write—Shakespeare had to go. Decades later, the situation still exasperated him, and my sympathy for her surprised him.

The business of grief is pure prose. Give this poor subject a verb, keep it busy. Or get it going again, so it might progress along its sentence. Poetry was lost to me. Its concentration, its formalities rebuffed and appalled. I wanted straight report, and people obliged me. In the first year after Emily’s death, I received dozens of books on grief and mourning. I couldn’t read them all, but kept them anyway. Even now, I’ll come upon one while scanning a shelf and my mind will snap back to the time I received it. Time travel of a sort: for an instant, I am completely there, returning to the smells, discomforts, and the old tugging hollowness in my belly of those moments. This gravity of grief still pulls at me, as if I might swallow myself.

The body of contemporary English language literature on mourning seemed to me then impressively large, and I still lack the heart to delve into why we are drawn so enthusiastically to these litanies of bereavement, to grief and its eventual, necessary sublimation. I wondered why I hadn’t really noticed them before, these long, lonely cries of anguish.

Unsurprisingly, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was among the first books I received. I wanted to like the book, to need it, but individual words and phrases kept getting in the way: Corvette, New York, Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills, Brooks Brothers shorts, Quintana was at Barnard, Forty years, December 30. Why should their wealth and length of time together matter? Grief is grief, but I envied her the years, the certainty of her vocation, the seemingly gentle existence. I envied her the adulthood of her child. Emily had died on the first of December, two and a half months shy of her thirty-seventh birthday, when our oldest child was five and a half years, our youngest five months old. I even envied Didion those twenty-nine days of December. It didn’t matter that on December 30, 2004, when Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack as they sat down to supper, Emily and I had celebrated our daughter Virginia’s third Christmas in our two-bedroom 1908 bungalow, whose disproportionately large hall and high ceilings made a perfect court for the Nerf basketball hoop our daughter received as a gift. I felt like being unfair, being cruel. Privilege, privilege, privilege, privilege, echoed in my head, like some lost line of Lear. I raged that Emily was denied the satisfaction of a full working life, the anxiety and pleasure of watching her daughter and son reach out for their own adulthoods.

And I put the book down.

The passage above is an excerpt from And There Was Evening and There Was Morning—Essays on Illness, Loss, and Love, forthcoming in September from WTAW PRESS. A “first look” chapbook from the memoir is available here.

A native of Philippi, West Virginia, Mike Smith is a graduate of UNC-G, Hollins College, and the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of And There Was Evening and There Was Morning, a collection of essays forthcoming from WTAW Press in September. Mike Smith has published three collections of poetry, including Multiverse, a collection of two anagrammatic cycles. His translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust was published by Shearsman Books in 2012, and he is co-editor of the anthology, The Mint’s Invitation: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts in Translation, forthcoming from Columbia University Press in August. Together with software engineer Brandon Nelson, Mike created and curates The Zombie Poetry Project at zombiepoetryproject.com.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.

Arrangements

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.

Poetic Magic

What I teach my students about poetry is that everything—every word, every sound, every line—is the result of a decision the poet has made. A poem is a collection of decisions. I introduce them to techniques, elements, and forms; I have them read successfully constructed poems (and some badly designed ones as well)—all tools that can help inform their poetry-making decisions. We write, read, respond, develop, and revise.

Decision making in writing poetry is something I believe can be taught, and I do my best to teach that to my students.

Despite this truth, I also believe that poem-making isn’t always so logical. Sometimes, it’s as if the decision has been made before the ink leaves the pen. I don’t know where it comes from: I can’t claim it’s a gift one is born with or a mystical muse randomly spreading inspiration. But I know there’s something. Something . . . that’s just a bit magical.

I can’t teach that. That magic can’t be taught.

I was already writing poetry when I walked onto my college campus. I’d already read Plath and Sexton and filled notebook after notebook with angst and beauty and love and pain. I’d declared my major on Day 1: I was going to learn the hell out of creative writing during my time there.

My introductory classes taught me techniques, elements, and forms. I read and read and read. I wrote, responded, developed, and revised.

And then I met James Reiss.

The room changed when James stepped into it. He radiated—his voice and his laughed filled the air and opened up the space. It was like the whole world was within those four walls. It wasn’t that James was the center; rather, he helped us see beyond our isolated campus, our limited experiences, our youthful narcissism. He helped us to see everything.

James Reiss taught me a lot about writing poetry. He was a good reader—harsh but fair. He once scribbled “disposable” on a poem, and I was really angry and hurt the entire walk home. Then I sat down and read it again and immediately saw my error. I’d assumed that a strong emotion would automatically make a great poem. I was wrong. That was a valuable lesson.

The most important thing I learned from James, though, didn’t come in a note on an assignment. It didn’t even come in class. It came from just being in his presence. James was poetry. He helped me find poets I needed as mentors and friends; he pointed them out to me in books and at the table around me. He helped me become the poet I wanted to be. He helped me to be me.

And part of who I am is a believer in the magic of poetry. Yes, I use the knowledge I’ve been taught (and now teach) to make good decisions when writing. But sometimes the magic comes and I do not turn it away.

I once took a walk off campus, down a hilly road. I saw a fence, and a poem came to me. I walked home and wrote it down. My class workshopped it; they asked questions about details, wanting to know why I’d chosen the name Deborah in the penultimate line. After class I admitted to James that I didn’t have the answer—it had just come to me and I didn’t want to change it.

James told me to leave the line as it was. James taught me to trust the magic.

On December 2, 2016, James Reiss died. I saw the news on Facebook, a post from a poet I did not know, mourning the death of his mentor, who was also my mentor.

The day before James died I’d held his books The Breathers and Express in my hands, studying the inscriptions he’d left for me throughout both, looking at each time he’d crossed out a woman’s name and written mine there instead, remembering the lessons he’d taught me over twenty-five years ago.

On December 14, 2016, Brain Mill Press announced that my book A Wife Is a Hope Chest would be published as the first full-length collection in its Mineral Point Poetry Series. The limited-run fine first edition will be signed by the poet. By me.

James will never hold my book in his hands. I will never inscribe his copy. But his name is already in there—between every line in every poem on every page.

Christine Brandel is a writer and photographer. Her work has recently appeared in Callisto, Public Pool, Under the Rader, Blue Fifth Review, and The Fem. She also writes a column on comedy for PopMatters and rights the world’s wrongs via her character Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss) at Everyone Needs An Algonquin. She currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where she teaches at a community college and serves as a hospice volunteer. More of her work can be found at clbwrites.com.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.

Explaining Myself

With all the controversy surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you might say that this is Vietnam all over again. But it isn’t. The Vietnam War, like all of America’s earlier wars, was fought with an army of conscripts from almost every community in the nation. It was hard to find someone who didn’t know someone who fought, and maybe died, in Southeast Asia.

Our current war, beginning with the devastating attacks of 9-11, is being waged by an all-volunteer military, one that is increasingly separate from the population at large. Like in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, today’s soldiers live, train, fight, and die in self-contained communities that are largely out of the public eye. For most Americans, contact with today’s soldier is limited to a brief “Thank you for your service” at an airport, or while watching a Budweiser beer commercial.

Even President Bush encouraged us to “enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” And we did, with the consequence being that military veterans are warily regarded as either traumatized victims or raging lunatics. CNN’s Brooke Baldwin blamed war veterans who had become police officers for starting the 2015 riots in Baltimore. And a recurrent theme in Hollywood is the broken veteran, intent on bringing the war home to our streets.

I went to Iraq several times. My husband repeatedly deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are like other veterans – patriots, who love our country and want to defend what it exemplifies. We are really no different than anyone else. Some people excel, others have a harder time getting by, and a few find life impossible. But it is hard to talk about this, particularly with those who haven’t been there. So, I write.

War traumatized me. I was mistreated and damaged even further when I sought care at the VA, and there are now days that the very act of leaving my house is an ordeal. I am not a victim. I was hurt. I have a condition caused by my experiences in the war. There is a difference. So, I write.

The reaction to my work has been a bit of “wow” tempered by “I never knew,” then a solid, “thank you for your service,” followed by a “did you kill anybody?” If I am having a particularly unlucky day, the next phrase is the inevitable, “Can I play with your service dog?” And then, “Why not?” I never know how to respond. So, I write.

I don’t write to heal, even though I’ve been told, and read, and heard from many people that writing is the path to recovery. I write because I’m a writer, and I have a story to tell. I don’t write to remember. Lord knows, I already remember more than I want. I write to explain myself to others—my son, my community, my compatriots who have been to war, and to those who have never been to war and will never go. So, I write.

My poems tell my feelings about going to war, being in war, and the frustrations of coming home.

“Winning Hearts and Minds,” was first published in a different form in the chapbook Triggers. “Processing” was first published in a different form in The Washington Post. “The Homeless Woman” was first published in a different form by The Chico News and Review.

Sylvia Bowersox served her first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004 as a U.S. army broadcast journalist attached to the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul. Her assignments took her around the country, but much of her time was spent in Baghdad, at Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters, which serves as the background for much of her work. She returned to Iraq for two more tours as a “3161” press officer assigned to the U.S Embassy Baghdad public affairs office, and later to the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR). She lives with PTSD, and writes about her experiences in both wars. She has been honored by multiple Pushcart nominations for her work. Her first book, Triggers, a chapbook of war journalism flavored poetry and prose, was published by JerkPoet Press. Her work has appeared in the journal 0-Dark-Thirty, The Synthesis, Tethered by Letters, Solstice Literary Magazine, Epic Times, Bramble Literary Magazine, and The Washington Post. Sylvia received her Masters degree in English from California State University, Chico. She lives in Wisconsin with her veteran husband, Jon, and her Black Labrador service dog, Timothy.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.