All posts by lizmcgehee

Remembering Anthony Bourdain Pt II

Last night I fell asleep to the sound of Anthony Bourdain’s voice. He did not appear as an apparition.

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 6.08.01 PM
“fish”, lol

I realize what I’m about to say may sound blasphemous to many of you, but I sometimes forgo handheld books for audiobooks. The reason being, I’m busy as hell, and it helps me fall asleep 99% of the time. This habit started a little over a year ago when I started commuting across the longest bridge in the world.

I know what you’re thinking…that’s one expensive habit. FYI, you can rent audiobooks for free if you have a library card.

The point though, is that Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw is read by the author himself, and it is pretty damn phenomenal. There are many poignant parts about his feelings on suicide, which are both intriguing and hard to listen to now. It’s quite a window into his motivations.

For instance, near the beginning of the book, he says that when he got his first show and stopped working day-to-day, his life descended into chaos. You can also tell he is hyper aware of his privilege by the way he often calls himself out or glazes over these moments, detracting from his own pain and experience, but they’re still there.

I guess I recognize some of myself in Bourdain’s autobiography. Mainly these moments of complete self destruction and moments when he, despite his better judgement, goes along with questionable people and situations because he is bored of his life and monotony.

What I find interesting though is how often in interviews and in the book he lives on this edge of craving routine and also detesting it. It seems like no matter what he does, including travelling the world with a TV show, he eventually becomes numb to any moment of pleasure. Of course, this is exactly how depression works, and, once someone has it, their chances of relapsing skyrocket.

I had a strange moment last night where I thought, maybe there is something to that whole positive attitude thing. Although, for the most part, I believe depression to be both chemical and situational, which takes more than merely redirecting your thoughts to come out from under. Bourdain was very candid in his books and sometimes in his shows, but he clearly, and often, redirected his suicidal thoughts in front of others almost as quickly as they appeared.

One thing that stuck out in the book is just how frequently he played with death. In most of his anecdotes, it’s always at the edge, if not the forefront of his thoughts. In chapter two, we learn that he regularly let the next song on the radio determine whether or not he drove off of a cliff while living in the caribbean. Listening to this, I wondered how Anthony Bourdain ever made it to 61 years old. To say that he had a death wish was to put it mildly.

Still, his writing as a whole and descriptions are incredible. I am now convinced that he could have lived another life as a successful fiction novelist. Until last night, I seemed to have forgotten all about the explosive memoir that pushed him into the limelight in the first place, Kitchen Confidential (2000), which he discusses in Medium Raw (2010).

You can bet he used this follow up as an opportunity to go in on the Food Network and celebrity chefs once more. But, as we now know, the Food Network actually gave Bourdain his big break with the show No Reservations. Eventually though, he recognizes himself as a sellout. To make matters worse, they pull his show after realizing that audiences will eat up dumbed-down, buzzfeed-style TV features. This is a big point of contention for him in the book, particularly the way the network begins using anti-immigrant, anti-poc, anti-diversity language in reference to his show.

Where most people might move on from something like this fairly quickly, I get an overwhelming sense of hopelessness from Bourdain, even now, as he recalls something from his past. It’s like every moment, every event, every interaction in his life left a lasting mark. Hearing his voice through my headphones as I writhe around in sleep is both soothing and unsettling. 

I could probably write my own book about this, but, alas, I must go. However, if you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain and want more insight into this recent tragedy and into who he was, I recommend starting at the source.

Advertisements

Remembering Anthony Bourdain

At 7:17 AM Friday morning, I woke up to find a heartbreaking text waiting for me.

img_2581

I later told my friend that the news wasn’t surprising given his former heroin addiction and open dialogue about his struggle with depression and suicide. I’d witnessed him speak on this over the years in episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown. But this automatic retort was a lie. Despite his history, the news still shook me.

For one, you spend your entire life working for the things Anthony Bourdain has: an extremely successful career that allows you to travel across the world, wealth, fame, love—all on your own terms—and it still doesn’t fix the underlying problems that accompany depression and other mental health issues many of us struggle with.

Whatever he was going through, he deserves recognition for his accomplishments and his game-changing impact on the culinary arts and reality television.

If you watch some of his older shows, you might laugh because the foods he was trying and the places he visited, that seem so normal now, were still taboo for many Americans at the time.

I don’t care much for cooking shows, but I loved everything about Bourdain from the moment I saw an episode of No Reservations in college. He was, as the show’s title implies, an absolutely fearless, punk-rock, barebones traveling chef who went where high-brow chefs refused to and who could care less about these same opinions on food or his approach to food.

And yet, he spent so much time advocating. For people of color. For women. For rape survivors. For addicts. He was outspoken about all of these things. Much of the show (both NR and Parts Unknown) is dedicated to watching other people cook as well as learning and highlighting their techniques.

He never intruded in these spaces while he was there, rather he carved out a voice and a space for these individuals. That was the heart of his shows.

It’s incredibly hard to picture someone as fierce, loved, and wildly successful as Bourdain ending his own life.  Although he always spoke of depression and addiction as though he’d overcome them, there is no denying that this came up often enough in his shows to send up red flags. But there were also incredible moments of joy and laughter in the exchange of food and culture throughout every episode.

I’ve since talked to several friends about Anthony Bourdain, and he meant something different to all of us. A talented writer. An advocate. A bold voice that went against mainstream food critics. A cool guy. A tour guide in the bowls of unknown spaces. There’s no denying the fact that he touched people’s lives in a positive way…and under all that was still a man battling for his life.

I don’t pretend to know what drove him to this, but I think it was always this brokenness just under the surface in him that always resonated with me. Maybe it was what allowed him to be so different, relatable, and fearless. There is nothing glorious about suicide, which Bourdain himself admitted is a selfish, stupid act in past interviews. I don’t think anyone is in a place to judge why another does something this extreme. However, I think that Anthony Bourdain still deserves to be remembered for all he has done and for what he meant to others. I know I won’t be the only one who misses him.

Why Workshops are Valuable

Did I ever tell you about the time I did a writing workshop in Oaxaca? It was the week of Halloween, roughly two weeks after the students missing and the atmosphere was wild.

img_2484

Oaxaca is a big destination for Dia de los Muertos to begin with. On top of that, the political unrest grew each day I was there. Near the end of the trip, I received an email from the US embassy saying Americans were being evacuated 7-8 hours away in Acapulco. When I woke up the next day, the building across the street was covered ingraffiti about the students. As the Day of the Dead drew closer, there seemed to be more and more police presence, and, consequently, more and more human-sized guns.

But before that, Oaxaca took my breath away. There were old churches, colorful buildings, and mountains everywhere. The food tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. Not once did I come across anything with preservatives. Juice was nourishing and fresh squeezed. Raw tomato was practically orgasmic. Yes, I did get a touch of Montezuma’s revenge, but it wasn’t anything a few shots of Mezcal couldn’t fix. Best of all, it wasn’t overpopulated with Westerners, and I ended up gaining some Spanish by the end of it.

img_2483

The workshop (U.S. Poets in Mexico) itself was extremely valuable. I enjoyed working with Anselm Berrigan and Catherine Wagner the most. Wagner, in particular, had completely unconventional writing practices that shook the foundation of how I conceptualized craft at the time. This experience begged many questions I still ask myself today.

1) How many of us actually use our environment to write?

I’d say that most people write inside with their heads down. We cram our bodies into uncomfortable positions and rigidly pull on the depths of our imagination. Even if you sit outside to write or go to a different location, this stiffness is often still with us.

2) Now out of those of us that deviate from standard writing practices, how many of us use, really use, our bodies or movement to write?

It might sound counterintuitive, but that was the entire focus of Wagner’s workshop. Although it made me uncomfortable initially, this redirection opened up something in my writing I had never experienced before.

This came at a point in grad school when I felt myself repeating the same things over and over again in my work. I was at a standstill, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write for another year.

A lot of grad-level worshiping involves crafting in private until you’re ready to show it to your peers who then evicerate it, which is valuable in many ways. But after a while, can make it impossible to forget about the audience during the writing process and make you lose touch with your love for it altogether. That changed for me after the workshop.

The first thing we did was engage each other by siting in a circle and playing word games. Someone would say a word and the next person would have to pick out the middle sound to begin anew. This is where I got my thesis title, “Louisiana Alchemy.” Later, we walked around the courtyard describing what we saw in our perspective notebooks.

My favorite exercise though went a little further when Wagner asked each of us to write a sonnet (14 lines). However, we had to incorporate a number, a color, a piece of architecture, and we could only write one line for every block we walked, and we were all sent in different directions.

Something about the timing of the block and being in this foreign landscape brought forth a well of inspiration. I stopped caring about the reader and felt that spark I used to get when I first started writing poetry in college. Some of my favorite poems (see 2 at the end of this post) came out of this experience.

Being a big fan of Wagner, it was also interesting to glean up-close insight into her writing practices. I had always wondered how she came up with such unique, phonetic verse. Everything for her was about movement.

This is also why I recommend finding a workshop where one of your favorite writers will be teaching or one that is put on by a press you love. Not only is it a great way to network, but it’s also a great way to learn exactly what you want to learn from the people you admire most.

Make it a goal to go somewhere you’ve never been before for this as well. As a writer, life experience is necessary for you to do what you do.

Although I went on this trip with a classmate and met up with an old friend who lived nearby, plenty of people go it alone and are ready to meet new writers. A friend may not have the same interests and may want to go to different workshops during this as well. You will also have the advantage of dedicating your time to the writers you came to see.

 

Where are your favorite writing workshops and what techniques do you still practice from them?

 


2 poems from the workshop:

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 7.31.38 PMScreen Shot 2018-05-31 at 8.02.57 PM

How I Was Misdiagnosed with Depression for 24 Years

Today, I’m going to address something I rarely talk about online that most certainly (and often unknowingly) impacts the everyday lives of countless women, myself included. To give you an idea of how something like a 24-year misdiagnosis happens, I’ll start with some personal history.

If you don’t care about any of that, skip to the “Why Women Are Left Behind” section.  

******

For 24 years of my life, I was misdiagnosed with major depression and bipolar type-II. This started clinically when I was 11 years old, but, as a young child, I remember a darkness coming over me and taking root, like the difficult kudzu you must fight to keep from swallowing a town.

I remember writing in an attempt to make sense of my reality, to carve out a world I could call home, a place where I had permission to feel both adequate and happy.

There were situational events that made me feel wretched, but they weren’t at the heart of the chronic rain cloud that followed me around. However, these experiences gave me an excuse to grab onto other emotions like anger which, temporarily, made me feel in control of my life and my feelings.

I think that we can all agree that these are childish coping mechanisms most of us grow out of eventually. For me, this process has been difficult, and the journey isn’t over yet. It is not enough to merely admit the problem or the cause. Changing our behavior and way of thinking is the hardest part.

In my case, I didn’t understand the problem until I was 24 years old.


There’s Your Sign

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time being punished in the classroom. My teachers were always shouting my name as though an acrid taste had just entered their mouths; their words like newly slung arrows lodged in my chest.

Despite the fact that this happened constantly throughout the day, every day, I found myself blindsided and demoralized each time. I still couldn’t control myself.


Whenever something jumped into my brain, I had to do or say something about it right then and there. And this impulse has been the bane of my existence my entire life.


Somewhere along the way, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of shame all of the time. My personality did a 180, and I went from extrovert to extremely shy, anxious, and wary of all people. Most disturbing of all, I became quiet.

I even learned how to feign listening when, in reality, I was completely checked out. I remember the urge to hit myself in head to pay attention. Why can’t I just focus?! Needless to say, I did not perform well in school and, at home, my parents worked tirelessly with me on homework with very little reward.

I also began to believe at this age that I was inherently inadequate, stupid, lazy, ugly, rude, and that everything about me was just…wrong. Everyone in my life reinforced this whenever I could not easily adjust to new situations or information.

By now, you have probably guessed my real (and painfully obvious) diagnosis. Hint: it’s not depression.


Why Women Are Left Behind

It’s no secret that ADHD can manifest as other disorders, such as depression and OCD, in an effort to control the original problem. However, women are disproportionately affected by this misdiagnoses.

I am no longer surprised when someone I’ve just told my diagnosis to responds with, “I think ADHD is overdiagnosed,” or “I think ADHD is made up.”

If you’re one of these people, keep in mind that the criteria has evolved substantially since the 80s, and we are just now recognizing the gap in previous studies that built this criteria.

For instance, over 99% of studies conducted on ADHD have centered exclusively around boys/men exhibiting hyperactivity, which means the number of undiagnosed and misdiagnosed women is still grossly underrepresented, and the consequences of this are deadly.

Another reason why women are able to “hide” ADHD for so long is that we are not permitted the same behavioral freedoms as boys and men. In other words, we are working twice as hard to fit ourselves into societal roles and norms. Women, especially, are held accountable when they fail at emotional labor, organization, caretaking, housework, let alone balancing these things with a full-time job.


Whether we want to admit it or not, we write these behaviors off in boys, or we get them treated immediately. Girls, on the other hand, are shamed into masking symptoms.


Thus, changing their physical appearance, and performing restrictive behaviors that cause them to distrust their own bodies, language, and autonomy from the time they are born. This results in self-loathing, depression, OCD, anxiety, and more.

This exercise of control over women in public and private spaces is so normalized that it’s invisible. And this sort of medical erasure happens to women all of the time and not just for psychological issues. Women, and women of color in particular, with legitimate medical concerns are often patronized, ignored, and misdiagnosed by doctors.

I am reminded of the fact that both my male cousin and I had the same behavioral issues and learning difficulties in school. I was told to control myself; he was sent to a psychiatrist and given tools to deal with his disorder.


Revelations

In 2016, Quartz published an article addressing just this:


“ADHD materializes dramatically differently in girls. ‘Anxiety and depression turn into low self-esteem and self-loathing, and the risk for self-harm and suicide attempts is four-to-five times that of girls without ADHD,’ 2012 research shows…


“Unlike boys, many of whom show hyperactivity, girls’ symptoms veer more toward inattentiveness and disorganization. Girls tend to develop ADHD later than boys. They frequently mask it in an attempt to conform to society’s expectation that they be on the ball and organized.

And while some ADHD symptoms can become less intense for boys after they pass through puberty, for many girls, it gets worse [1].”

I had just been diagnosed for the first time at 24 years old when I read another life-changing article by Broadly called: “‘I Thought I Was Stupid’: The Hidden Struggle for Women with ADHD” [2], which left me feeling a mix of things, mainly that I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t alone. And, for the first time in my life, I felt understood and validated in my experience.

At that time, I had already completed half of my graduate degree in Colorado with a year-and-a-half left to go. Between grad school, a 100-year flood 3 months into living there, my boyfriend at the time moving back to Kansas, and my own cross-country move, life had taken a huge toll.

I’d never felt more alone.

This feeling progressed until I became scared enough to seek professional help. Every 2-3 years my ptsd (from Hurricane Katrina) was triggered like this. Major upheavals, lack of control over my environment and relationships, worrying about my grades—it all brought up too much. Inevitably, my entire life and mental health status imploded shortly thereafter without fail.

This cycle was normal for me from ages 15-24 and even expected.

Imagine my surprise when, after many sessions, my new psychiatrist in CO told me that I wasn’t depressed. I remember my mouth falling open. What do you mean I’m not depressed?!

He became more and more convinced that the root cause of my depression was a direct result of undiagnosed ADHD. As he went through several points with me using examples from my childhood and these bouts of depression, the direct link between my sense of self worth and my ability to complete things/lack of organization suddenly clicked. Holy hell!

Not once in all of my years of therapy had a medical professional suggested this to me.

Most of the advice I’d received up until then required a lot of that pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps blend of self-help. But I couldn’t fix that aspect of my life. That was, well…me.

So here I was at 24 years old finally putting the pieces together. And with that, I felt the beginning of many painful years unravelling.


The “Miracle”

My diagnosis was, in fact, the beginning of untangling a thick web of self-hatred I’d buried myself in for so long.

I’ll never forget the therapist who performed the test saying, “It’s a miracle you’ve made it this far,” in reference to graduate school.


The truth is, it isn’t a miracle. Not in the slightest. There is no such thing for people with ADHD. The only “miracle” here is that I did not give up.


The first year I applied to graduate programs, I didn’t receive a single acceptance letter. Yes, I was an above average writer, and I was passionate about it; but that could not account for years of poor grades, a disorganized portfolio, and an abysmal GRE score.

While my friends were off starting their programs the next year, I was working at a refinery to save money and busting my ass on those applications for the second time. I remember crying a lot at the application and testing fees, during the math portion of the GRE, at the overwhelming feeling that I was doing all of this for nothing, and at the realization that I’m not the only one who has to do this and omg why am I crying?

Even though my portfolio was amazing and my letters of recommendation were from well-established poets the second time around, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t good enough. And until I was finally diagnosed and treated, I had imposter syndrome throughout all of my classes and interactions at school.

It didn’t matter that I was 1 of the 12 chosen out of 400 applicants or that I was 1 of the 5 admitted for poetry. It didn’t matter if someone solicited me for poems or was moved by my work. Or that the students that dropped were first-time applicants who couldn’t handle the workload. I can state these facts all day long and still feel insecure, although less so now.

The truth is that therapy and medication cannot completely erase years of psychological damage, but it can help. And, because of those things, it is easier than ever before to not give up or break down at the slightest obstacle like I would have in the past.

I wish that more women had access to this knowledge because it can improve your quality of life exponentially. I have much more control over my impulses and emotions, or rather, they have stabilized. Tasks are easier to prioritize and don’t overwhelm me as often. I can see the big picture of my projects and my position and am less prone to quit on impulse or self-sabotage.

Basically, my life is 80% more manageable than before, and I have some great doctors to thank for that.

There are still people who tell me my disorder isn’t real or overdiagnosed, and people who let it mar their view of my capability and performance. Then there are people who see it as a window into you.


My Thoughts on Living with Diagnosed ADHD

Personally, I believe ADHD is behind all of my creative and professional success.

If you follow my blog for writing tips and some of what I’ve said sounds a little too familiar, take refuge in knowing that ADHD has been an asset more than anything else in this area of my life.


Whether we are capable of recognizing it or not, those of us with the disorder have a unique set of tools the average person does not have access to.


That puts our perspective and our possibilities at the cutting edge of creative writing. Scores of famous writers, artists, actors, and creatives in various professions, including entrepreneurs and CEOs, have learned to embrace this disorder and use it to their benefit.

Despite many of the negatives that come with ADHD, this endless, unstoppable creativity is something to be thankful for at the end of the day.

What Aziz Ansari Teaches Us About Sexual Coercion

In the wake of the sexual assault allegations against Aziz Ansari, I felt the need to say something about consent. I’ve seen a lot of disappointing reactions on my newsfeed today, all from men. Mainly people posting this New York Times article, Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being A Mindreader. Even my gay friends have defended Ansari, and, although I adamantly disagree, I can understand why they would.


When we picture a rapist, we picture someone who is physically and emotionally capable of overpowering a woman or someone who looks rough around the edges.


Aziz Ansari is the opposite of this, more than that, he’s a likable guy. Yet, he has openly joked about sexual coercion in his skits, and we all laugh at it. That’s because sexual coercion is completely normalized in our culture.

But what is sexual coercion exactly?

Most people do not realize there are multiple forms of rape. Sexual coercion, in my opinion, is one of the most insidious forms. Here’s an example:

Picture you’re sitting at a table with someone just trying to do your homework. The other person offers you a bite of their bagel. You say no thanks, but you feel bad, because you like the person, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Five minutes later, they offer you a bite of the bagel again. You react the same as you did before. This cycle repeats until, finally, you take a bite of the bagel just to get this person to stop.


This is something women experience every single day at the hands of men, only it’s not a bagel we’re saying no to. It’s unwanted sexual contact.


So, if you give in, eventually, that’s still consent, isn’t it?

Not exactly. What the offerer has proven by the time you cave is that they do not care about your desires, your boundaries, or your consent. They just want to get laid, and they will keep chipping away at you until they get what they want.

If this sounds like something that happens all the time, that’s because it is. Sexual assault is often in plain sight and encouraged. People think of sexual assault as violent stranger rape when the majority of rape is performed by someone the victim knows and is comfortable with. It’s nuanced like that, and because of this, women have difficulty speaking up in the moment.


You wouldn’t expect a woman to pull out a rape whistle on a trusted friend because it’s not that kind of situation. You can’t expect a woman to fight or scream “no!” at these times either.


I don’t think Aziz Ansari is an inherently bad dude, or that he is even rare in thinking that what he did was perfectly acceptable. But it isn’t that hard to tell if your partner wants to have sex with you. It’s also not hard to ask for consent.

A common reaction I see to this line of thinking is that everything is being treated with “kid gloves” now. The same argument has been made for things like autism and rampant levels of mental illness. To which I say, these things have always existed; we just have a name for them now, and we aren’t accepting ignorance anymore.

The Lesson

What Aziz Ansari teaches us about sexual coercion is that it is still a societal problem we need to address. Despite the #metoo movement, victim blaming is still a huge problem.


We should not be teaching women to “speak up” more often. We should be teaching men to stop wearing women down until they get what they want, and that this behavior is, in fact, a form of assault.


Aziz also teaches us that even the nice guy can be out of touch with consent. Speaking and asking questions during sex is embarrassing sometimes, but if we (I’m looking at you New York Times) are going to make the argument that women need to be socialized to speak up, we need to make the same argument about men.

More Reading:

P.S. Medium.com published an amazing piece on coercion and Aziz Ansari worth reading. The author articulates sexual coercion on a personal level and articulates the subject better than I ever could.

Prompt of the Day: Poetry

Winter is my favorite time of year. Partially because my birthday is in the new year, but mostly because the transition from December to January feels like a much-needed purge. This is when we let go of the old and believe transformation is possible.

At Christmas we dredge up old wounds with family. We think about the new year as a chance to be better. This is a period of resolution, renaissance and rebirth.

In the spirit of this, I want you to think of a person who has hurt you emotionally in the past. A person you have not been able to let go of for whatever reason.

Why do your memories of this still ache, and/or how were things left unresolved? Do you blame them or yourself? Or both?

I am asking you to go where you have refused to go before and to address this person/incident (and yourself) with the most honesty you can muster, even if it hurts.

Rules:

  • Don’t specify who this person is or a specific incident, rather describe how they make/made you feel.
  • Use a minimum of 5 stanzas/paragraphs, OR, alternately, you can use 5 lines.
    • Doesn’t matter if you use a traditional form, free verse or prose blocks.
  • Address different questions/aspects in each paragraph/line.
    • Paragraph 1: Whose fault was it?
    • Paragraph 2: What were the results of the fallout?
    • Paragraph 3: Do you still think about them? Be honest.
    • Paragraph 4: How hard is/was it for you to love again?
    • Paragraph 5: What would you say to them now?
  • Does not have to be a romantic relationship. Supplement appropriate adjectives in the paragraph questions.

Here’s my attempt:

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 7.16.04 PM

Genre-Bending Women

I could write about this all day, but here is a shortlist of female writers that have influenced me through their individual contemporary/hybrid styles:

1. Maggie Nelson

A mixture of poetry, essay, philosophy, and memoir, Bluets blows both form and genre out of the water.

2. Lidia Yuknavitck

The first book I ever read by Yuknacitch was her memoir, The Chronology of Water, which remains one of my favorite books to date. Her use of language is so precise, so powerful, so poetic, yet perfectly bare-boned and vulnerable. Her latest novel, The Book of Joan, is a modern reimagining of Joan of Arc that takes place on space station. Again, the language is incredible and completely unexpected for dystopian, sci-fi.

3. Roxane Gay

Gay blew up in 2014 with the release of Bad Feminist, a collection of essays that redefine what it means to be a modern feminist. But long before this, her debut came with a collection of 15 stories called Ayiti, “a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience.” Her novel An Untamed State, was released the same year as Bad Feminist. Gay also posts actively on tumblr with thoughts on life, recipes, and more.

4. Claudia Rankine

When Rankine’s lyrical memoir, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was released in 2004, she completely changed both poetry and CNF. Similarly, her book Citizen pushed this line of hybridity further when it was nominated for the National Book Award in poetry. Some argued that it was a collection of essays, while others saw it as poetic. Still others see it as both, and I am inclined to agree with them.

5. Anne Carson

If you haven’t read The Glass Essay, you need to get on that right now. Carson manages to meld poetry and the personal essay perfectly in this piece as well as The Autobiography of Red. Her poetry is typically prose heavy to begin with and extremely enjoyable to writers of different genres.

6. Carmen Giménez Smith

Crisp autobiographical poetry and a must-read.

7. Octavia Butler

Badass sci-fi daring to go where no one has gone before. “[Butler] defied formulaic sci-fi while exploiting the freedom of the genre to take her usually female and nonwhite characters to places where mainstream fiction would ten to deny them.”—Commonweal

8. Eula Biss

Please read The Pain Scale if you haven’t. She also has a myriad of essay collections that skillfully tackle hard-hitting topics.

9. Lorrie Moore

“Oh, the precarious position of fiction in our world: that over the last several decades the novel has continually been declared dead, and the short story is in constant resurrection, which means half-dead or post-dead or heaven-bound. But one continues writing anyway—as has been said by many—because one must.”—Lorrie Morre

10. Ruth Ellen Kocher

I had the pleasure of studying under this incredible poet whose hybrid work is constantly changing the game. domina Un/blued is a personal favorite.

11. Vanessa Angelica Villerreal

Beast Meridian is one of the most beautiful collections of poems I’ve read in a long time. It includes family photos, potent imagery, and wounding personal experiences to show the erasure and illegalization of Mexican-American bodies in today’s society.

12. Jennifer Tamayo

You Da One is highly experimental and uses pop culture references to explore the wound of American assimilation.

Prompt of the Day: Poetry

You may or may not be familiar with erasure poetry, but it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like. Taking pre-existing work, you mark out chunks of text to create a new poem. This process can be especially helpful if you’re experiencing writer’s block.

Ruefle-Mary-page1Mary Ruefle has a famous 42-page-erasure poem called A Little White Shadow that she created from Emily Malone Morgan’s Brown & Gross (1889). I believe I read an interview somewhere in which Ruefle claimed one of the main reasons she chose this text is because there are no copyright issues from a text this ancient. So bear that in mind before you spend too much time on this.

A former professor of mine, Ruth Ellen Kocher, took a different approach to erasure in her book domina Un/blued. While in Rome, she wrote tons of poems and later went back and erasured her own work. The results are absolutely breathtaking.

Many poets erasure their own work in the editing process without thinking of it as such. And many poets have difficulty letting words go. But this process is all about whittling down to the most precise language. You’d be surprised what can come out of that.

Rules:

  • take a text you’ve either written or a text that you love and mark out chunks to create your own poem

Here’s my attempt:

Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So:

Taken By Frost

a yellow traveller
bent in the undergrowth
and wanted
that morning
I kept knowing
I should never come back

 

Prompt of the Day: Flash Fiction/Poetry

Laura Theobald is one of the many writers incorporating modern technology into their work. Using iOS predictive text, Theobald wrote an entire collection of poems titled THE BEST THING EVER. You too can create an interesting story or prose poem through predictive text. You’ll also get a glimpse into your psyche when you see which words you use most frequently.

Rules:

  • 20-25 words minimum
  • start with “I died”
  • if predictive text repeats the same word(s) too often, hit a random letter for more vocabulary options

 

Here’s my attempt (I can’t stop laughing):

 

BYE Y’ALL

I died in the past, and it is literally just one of my favorite places. Yeah, that’s what I’m going through. Right after lunch, I’ll be a feeling. Like this, but so far away. I’m going home now. I’ll let y’all be good. I’ll talk tomorrow night. And love with him has no chance. I died in a good mood I guess. I died in the way you told me. I died in the world. Just let me remember that.

 

Why New Orleans Still Makes the Perfect Dystopian Setting

Plenty of people have written about the use of New Orleans as a dystopian setting over the last decade, which hits a little too close to home—literally. Yet, I cannot deny that my city does in fact make the perfect backdrop for political commentary. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, this statement makes sense, but does it still hold up?

From a local perspective, I would argue that it does for the following reasons:

1. Unwavering Weather Deathtraps

It’s hard to believe that a little over 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina left 80% of the city flooded, at least 1,833 dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless—myself included.

While this event destroyed my 15-year-old world, it captivated the rest of the country through the national news circuit as the ultimate disaster porn for months, maybe even years.

The question on everyone’s mind—How could this level of devastation occur in 2005 in one of the most powerful countries in the world?

The images, more reminiscent of a third world country than that of a modern US city, forever shook the country’s self-view. People waiting on their roofs for days with rescue signs, houses upon houses filled with water, stragglers swimming in what was once a street, security footage of looters, the cajun navy out in their personal boats, the 27-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in ruins, my childhood theme park (Six Flags New Orleans, formerly named Jazzland) becoming a lake instead of just having one.

6flags.jpg
Photo Credit: PBS.org

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dissociate myself from these images the way the rest of the country did. I distinctly remember the people around me as well as the anchors on TV referring to us IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) as “refugees”—people who by definition have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

This semantic discrepancy spoke volumes and reflected the cognitive dissonance between what people were witnessing on television and what they believed possible in their own country.

The use of “refugee” framed the black bodies appearing on millions of white American screens as foreign. The media also fanned fears of looting and crime through exaggeration, bias, and racial stereotypes: Whites borrowed for survival, while blacks doing the same thing stole. But I digress.

Between August 29 and September 17, directly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, “dystopia” spiked worldwide on Google trends. If you look at this search trend between January 2004 all the way through September 2017, there is no other spike of this magnitude. In fact, when you look at this graph, dystopian YA is just beginning to surpass that spike in terms of popularity. That almost feels wrong, given the wave of Hunger Games, Maze Runners, and Divergents dominating publishing and film.

spike

But if a world-ending event were to occur in America, people already picture it in our backyard thanks to Katrina, the Louisiana Floods of 2016, and even the occasional two-hour thunderstorms.

2hurricanes
What in the actual F???

In 2017, we’ve had the strongest recorded tornado in LA since the 1950s, a biblical thunderstorm (that consequently trapped me in my car for five hours), and, at one point, there were three active hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, which, scared the absolute crap out of me. I’ve never witnessed such a thing in my lifetime, and, frankly, my list of close encounters with supposedly once-in-a-lifetime weather events is much too long for my liking.

la-na-new-orleans-flood-20170810.jpg
After a 2-hour thunderstorm. I was stranded in my SUV down the street.

To my surprise, New Orleans has resembled Seattle more than a Gulf Coast city this year. With newly formed tropical storms and hurricane upgrades every day, I finally muted my weather alerts before hurricane season ended. I won’t even get into to the daily tornado/waterspout watches I recieved while driving across the longest bridge in the world (not hyperbole) to get to and from work.

All of this is to say, we’re never far off from apocalyptic weather or an ecodisaster down here.

2. Refusal to Put the Past to Rest

Another reason New Orleans serves as a popular dystopian backdrop is because our residents don’t just live in the past, they also glorify it.

Until I left the south, I never realized just how bizarre, let alone common, it is for a classmate to receive a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). My mind is still boggled by the self-proclaimed American patriots around me who tote the flag of the losing side.

The confederate flag is so prevalent here, you would think it’s the state flag. I may be desensitized to this symbol now, but, as a child, I knew exactly what it meant without any verbal explanation and felt anxious every time I saw it. Children are perceptive enough to notice the commonality between flag-wielders, some of whom’s ancestors never fought in the Civil War.

While the confederate monuments have come down, this continues to be a hot-button issue among residents. The statues are permanently gone and never coming back, but people here refuse to move on, blaming any and every issue from flooding to poor fund management on metal and stone.

leecircle
Photo Credit: The Daily Signal

Class and racial tensions aren’t going anywhere, which provides a great backdrop for political unrest, injustice, war, primitivism, violence, corruption, and all the things that makeup dystopian works.

Baton Rouge, the state capital located less than an hour way, has the highest wage gap between men and women in the entire country. Baton Rouge and New Orleans also have the highest rates of HIV in the country. With one out of every 55 people in Louisiana is behind bars, we are the prison capital of the world. Oh and don’t forget that we dance in and out of the top 10 murder capitals on a regular basis.

Throw in the fact that the majority of these prisoners are black men performing prison labor, and you can see a new form of slavery that isn’t far off from plantation days. Actually, some of this labor is performed in plantations.

3. Decrepitude and Corruption

A lot of people (aka tourists) find New Orleans’ infrastructure to be “charming.” However, I’m well aware that the abandoned hospital around corner still has flood water from Katrina filling the bottom floor and parking garage. The roads and foundations are sinking faster than we can fix them. Black mold and asbestus run rampant in schools, homes, and public spaces.

Because we rely almost exclusively on tourism, the French Quarter is the only area that keeps up with preservation and maintenance, while the areas populated by local residents continue to show scars from Hurricane Katrina. The job market is almost exclusively service industry for the same reason.

Corruption is also notorious in New Orleans. Show me a politician that hasn’t blatantly embezzled money from taxpayers, and I’ll show you a unicorn. The worst part it though, is that the entire country knows this about us.

img_0079-1Yes, parts of this city are lovely and interesting because of their history, but tourists shouldn’t be the only people in the city who experience upkeep. But, all of this just makes Nola a better candidate for said dystopia.

Conclusion

Bottom line: There are a million reasons to love New Orleans, but this city still reflects past atrocities and what is still broken in modern society. Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for this view on a national scale. However, the ingredients were there well before the storm and remain here today.

These are things we accept in New Orleans, and maybe that is in fact part of our charm. This is a city full of history, heartache, violence, ghosts, and tragedy. But it is also a place of love and magic, a place where people can express themselves without judgement.

There are things I would like to change, but the reality is that this colonial city is set in her ways. So, for now, you can either take it or leave it or just accept that nothing, including this crime-riddled city, is solely good or bad. Either way, no one in the US knows dystopia better than New Orleanians.