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Billie Holiday, using her voice

on·o·mat·o·poe·ia (ä-nə-ˌmä-tə-ˈpē-ə, -ˌma-) [Late Latin, from Greek onomatopoia, from onomat-, onoma name + poiein to make]  n. 1 : the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss) 2: the use of words whose sound suggests the sense

A poet friend of mine said recently that he writes by sound. He hears the sound a poem in his head before he knows the actual words and content. He can hear the rhythm, the progression, the qualities of consonants and vowels.

It makes sense to me because his poetry has a real resonance on several levels. It is about the actual words, but it is also about their arrangement and about the ways they clash and clang up against one other. Or the way they rush together like running water, the way they cull and stand, like a still pool.

This week in my creative writing class, we have been talking about voice. Some students expressed frustration at the chapter in our book that discussed voice, because, they said, it was too abstract. It felt as if the book’s authors were speaking in generalizations: you know it when you know it, you have to experiment but you have to work to find what feels true to you. I can see how these proclamations can feel frustrating as they do not provide a road map to finding your voice. Then again, while not the most practical information, at least it is information that is true. I think of how often over the course of my life, I have been given instructions as guidance to things that really are uninstructionable. Yes, I said uninstructionable. The truth is, in art, in life, in our physical bodies, we have to find our own voice.

About a year and a half into my MFA program and into writing my first book-length manuscript, language began to break down for me. I was writing narratives and somehow these narratives were not sufficient to do what I wanted to do, to explore the territory I was navigating. One day, in the midst of a good deal of psychic anxiety over how the hell this thing was going to come together, I sat down to write about the landscape of Louisiana. I began to type descriptors—colors and geographic features and events—the words that made me think readily and instantly of the place. The words just rushed out, but they were story in the way I had been telling stories, they were words connected to, reacting to other words. In ten minutes, I wrote and finished and what came out was a prose poem about Louisiana. In the words and the space between them, I was finally able to articulate the struggle I have with this complicated place that is so incredibly powerful and beautiful and also full of tremendous sorrow. Opening myself up to the option of focusing on this lyrical relationship of words allowed me to perceive what I had already written in new, exciting ways, and this process resulted in the creation of many more lyrical pieces that securely anchor the pages in between chapters. These pieces also help to explore ideas and emotions that cannot be experienced using a straightforward narrative. Without paying attention to my intuition, these pieces would have never emerged. These poetic sections also helped me to revision the rest of my manuscript in a way that allowed me to open up room and keep writing.

I guess this is one of the keys to voice: being able to see outside the parameters of what one has done with language before. To use your voice, on some level, is to follow your intuition and instincts and allow the necessary sounds to surface.

I think this is always the greatest challenge as a writer: to not merely get the story down but to reveal the story using the right words for a given narrative or piece of information. This is why we agonize. This is also why, when we get it right, the words resonate in our bodies and in our mouths. We know we have said something true.

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vis·i·to·r·i·al  /viz′i tôr′ē əl/  a. [f. prec. or VISIT v.: see –IAL.] = VISITATORIAL I.

vis·i·ta·to·ri·al  /viz′i tə tôr′ē əl/ a. [f. prec.  +  -IAL, or f. med. L visitatorisu visitatory + -AL.] 1. Of, pertaining to, or connected with, an official visitor or visitation  2. Having the power of official visitation; exercising authority of this kind.

vis·i·ta·tion /vi-zə-ˈtā-shən/ n. 1. The act or an instance of visiting or an instance of being visited: rules governing visitation at a prison.  2. An official visit for the purpose of inspection or examination, as of a bishop to a diocese.  3. The right of a parent to visit a child as specified in a divorce or separation order.  4. a. A visit of punishment or affliction or of comfort and blessing regarded as being ordained by God.  b. A calamitous event or experience; a grave misfortune.  5. The appearance or arrival of a supernatural being.  6. Visitation Roman Catholic Church a. The visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.  b. May 31, observed in commemoration of this event.

I have being thinking of what it means to visit a lot lately. Every week, I visit three detention centers to facilitate creative writing classes. I watch as family members and friends check in to visit their loved ones through the impersonality of computer screens at jail. I check in at the “professional visitation” desk. I get my badge. I walk through a metal detector and a security checkpoint. I press a button to unlatch the massive metal door. I hear the ka-chunk of the door slamming behind me. And am I there.

But I am clearly a visitor in this space. I wear no uniform and walky-talky. I’m not in orange. I am not behind bars.

In juvenile detention, I go through a similar procedure. Lately, I am not allowed to bring in a bag so I carry my books and papers and supplies in with me in my arms. As with a visit to a friends, I bring some food to share, chocolate chip cookies and hot Cheetos. The girls were disappointed last week when I didn’t bring snacks so I certainly wasn’t going to come empty handed this week.

When I arrive in the pod, they see me with a Safeway bag.

“You brought snacks?”

“I did.” And I smile.

“Hot Cheetos?”


“And cookies.”

“Yes, those too.”

For the day, I have planned to talk about music, art, writing and ask the girls what impact these things have on them. Do these artistic outlets have the capacity to heal our community? Ourselves?

I have them look at black and white images and write about them. Then we read poetry from other classes. When we write again, I ask them to either consider the question about art, music and writing or this one:

How do you find positivity in your life when there seems to be only negative around you?

Walking around, I stop to check in with one of the girls, who wrote a poem last week about traditions in her Native American culture. She is writing about positive and negative.

“Want to read what I have so far?” she asks.

She is talking about how when she is in a negative space, she gets mad at people for no reason. Sometimes, she says, she feels as if she doesn’t deserve a better life.

The paragraph about finding the positive is just two sentences so far.

“What do you mean by this?” I ask, “that you don’t deserve a better life.”

She tells me that sometimes she is overwhelmed by her mistakes and doesn’t think she deserves something better. We talk about how all of us have unique things to offer and I ask her about what she grounds herself in, what is one of the gifts she has.

“My culture,” she tells me. “I come from strong cultural traditions being Native. And the spirituality and traditions are really important to me.”

“Great,” I tell her. “That’s so great. Try writing about that.”

Later, although she is soft-spoken, she is eager to share her writing with the group. But when she begins to read the positive part, about the importance of her culture, she begins to cry. The girls in the circle all send her compassionate looks. Keep going, they say.

She finishes and says that it is so hard. That a lot of cultures have their language but her community doesn’t speak it anymore. There is so much alcoholism and in adults and so much early death among the children.

“It is so painful,” she says.

Later the same day, I go to an event sponsored by Coalición de Derechos Humanos, where artists, poets and musicians are sharing their responses to the SB 1070 bill. The final group to perform is a group of Native American dancers. The adults wear feather headdresses and large anklets made of shells around their ankles. The children wear white shirts and shorts and red bands around their heads. A drummer, a man with long braids, provides the rhythm for their dancing, which was beautiful.

I stand close to the drum and I can feel the beat within my body. In a break between dances, the lead dancer stops to talk about their presence there.

“We, like many indigenous peoples, do not have a word for owning the earth or property because we do not believe Mother Earth is something that can be owned. So we do not believe in people being stopped from going where they want to go, living where they want to live.”

I think about her words. Much of the talk surrounding the bill, even amongst those who oppose it, surrounds immigration reform: reforming the way we allow immigrants into our country. But what this woman is suggesting is that immigrants to this country do not need our invitation to be here. They, she says, have every bit as much right to be here as we do.

I wonder too how hard it must be for Native peoples to constantly find the larger culture in which they live in so in conflict with the believes at the core of their community. They find themselves having to buy homes or cars, to sign documents of ownership. They live oftentimes on reservations, the specific (often non ideal) land that the government has told them they own. This land, but not the rest. It must be hard to live divided.

I think then about the girl in detention and the struggles of her community. I think of her immense pride in her community and the way she was so sensitive to the suffering of people in her culture and to the potential loss of their way of life. The fact that it is so important to her and that she believes so strongly in its value is so key, and I told her so. But that fact does not do away with the pain and suffering, with grieving a tragic loss.

No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we are all visitors to the very ground we stand on. It doesn’t matter how much we try to make ourselves and our lives permanent—through deeds to houses, through buying furniture, through having babies, through building massive, strong buildings, through making art. The truth is that our lives have an expiration date. We are visitors to this earth.

And as visitors we have a responsibility to not act like the houseguests from hell, like we are sometimes prone to do. We need to bring our gifts to the table. We need to be polite and generous to our host. We need to leave the home not having left a negative mark on it, but instead, having made it better or more alive with our presence.

Standing just next to one of the dancers was a boy, who was maybe three or four. He wore a Spiderman t-shirt and shorts and he was moving, trying to follow the dancers best he could. I saw the round shape of his eyes that indicated that most likely this boy has Down-Syndrome. I wondered if the dancer he was next to, a beautiful woman with a brown-feathered headdress, was his mother. He was dancing, off rhythm sometimes and often almost running into the woman next to him or the other dancers. But he wasn’t shooed away. The attitude of the dancers was one of total acceptance and love. He belonged there, I thought. And the dancers were allowing him to be where he belonged.

*I have decided to begin attaching relevant links to the dictionary word of the week when appropriate. Related to “visitorial”: Read Suzanne Rivecca’s short story “look ma, i’m breathing” from death is not an option

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