National Poetry Month — Day 5 (NSFW)

So earlier this week I noticed that John Scalzi posted on his blog Whatever a list, off the top of his head, of women writers whose work had inspired him. It’s a good list, but clearly an impromptu one, and doesn’t include the women writers whose work he’d merely enjoyed, just the ones whose work had motivated him.

Why did he post this list? In response to this article about journalist Gay Talese and his disappointing inability to do the same — despite having worked with Joan Didion.

Again with the dismissive, or even anti-women, nonsense? Alas, yes, again.

Those of you who know anything about me have probably figured out by now that I tend to think the troglodytish idea that men are the superior gender is not only regressively stupid but also violently damaging. I find hope in that so many of the boys and men around me — my students, my colleagues, my son — are feminists, but then I look farther than my own proverbial backyard and see the presidential campaign, and I get kind of sick all over again.

So today I present to you this prose-poem by Tria Wood entitled “instructions.” It sums up just a slice of the unfairness/double standard/misogyny/internet culture/daily life that is still, somehow, being perpetrated in our 21st-century western civilization. I wager quite a few of the women who grew up in the time and place I did will recall the barrage of emails we got in the 90s detailing the instructions artfully arranged here. And just so you’re aware, this piece contains some strong language. This prose-poem was first published in Rattle as part of the “Poets Respond” series; click here to learn more about its genesis.

 

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INSTRUCTIONS

Check your front porch for potential attackers before you open the door for any reason. Check your back yard for potential attackers before you open the door to let the dog out. Check your front porch for potential attackers before you open the door to go to your car. Lock and unlock all doors quickly before an attacker has a chance to get you while you’re facing the door. Check the path from your front door to your car for potential attackers before walking toward your car. Walk toward your car while checking the yard, your neighbors’ yards, and the street for potential attackers. As you walk, keep at least one key poked through your fist so that you can punch an attacker with it. Check under your car, around your car, and in your backseat for potential attackers before you get too close to it. Lock the car doors as soon as you get into your car. Park as close as possible to the office, the store, the gym so he’ll have less chance to attack. Park in a well-lit area so he’ll be less likely to attack. Park at the end of the driveway nearest the street so that he can’t block your car in. Park at the end of the driveway closest to your front door so that you can get from the car to a presumably safe space as quickly as possible. Set booby-traps at all doors and ground floor windows, even if you feel foolish doing so. Keep the porch lights on, front and back, at night so others can see if someone’s trying to get in. Hope they realize that the person trying to get in is not your husband, your date, your boyfriend, your gay friend, your brother, your father, your uncle, your cousin, your handyman, your landlord, or anyone else who might have a legitimate purpose for being there. Know that it could be, has been for others, a husband, a date, a boyfriend, a gay friend, a brother, a father, an uncle, a cousin, a handyman, a landlord, or anyone else who might seem to have had a legitimate purpose for being there. Take self-defense classes because you hope to be able to fight off any of the above, or anyone else. If anyone attacks you, yell “FIRE!” because people will come running to help put out a fire. Change your habits and paths frequently so that you become harder to track. Don’t take any drinks that haven’t been poured in your presence. Don’t ever stop looking at your drink. Scrutinize your wardrobe and second-guess the fact that you wear makeup. Scrutinize your last few Facebook posts, tweets, and email messages to see whether they could be construed to make you seem insane, prone to lying, or promiscuous. When someone arouses your suspicion, respond politely, lighten up, smile, realize it’s just a joke, get a sense of humor, who do you think you are you fucking bitch? You bitch, you ugly bitch, you fat ugly bitch cunt, you fat ugly bitch cunt who needs to be fucked, you fat ugly bitch cunt who needs a fat dick to shut her up, you bitch cunt so fat and ugly you can’t even get raped.

 

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Tria Wood is a writer and educator whose poetry, short fiction, and essays appear in a variety of publications such as The Texas Poetry Calendar, The Mom Egg, Literary Mama, and Sugar House Review. In August 2012, she was the featured poet for the first annual Emerald Isle Writing Conference in Kodiak, Alaska, and in 2014, she was selected as a juried poet for the Houston Poetry Festival. She lives with her husband, her son, and their rescued miniature Schnauzer.

 

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Women Writers Wednesday 2/18/15

Before I introduce this week’s review, I want to say how much I’ve been enjoying the Women Writers Wednesday series. It started as a desire to demonstrate some of the many contributions women have made to literature — a flickering candleflame of one blog rebelling against the general misogyny of the publishing world’s corner of social media. When I put the call out to other women writers, the response was strong. This weekly series is booked all the way to May, with new additions still coming in. I’ve been thrilled with the response and appreciate it so much. I love not being a lone voice. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone who has participated in any way: fellow reviewers, people who share these posts on social media, those who are reading them, those who are simply voicing their support of the concept. Thank you so much.

So this week’s installment comes from Tria Wood, who responds to Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz. This book came out last year from Future Tense Books.

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When I was a senior in high school, my favorite teacher took me aside one day. “Be careful in college,” she warned, “because there are professors who will try to seduce you by telling you how intelligent you are.” I nodded, but thought otherwise. I know I’m smart, I said to myself. What I want is someone to tell me I’m beautiful. I wasn’t yet equipped to recognize the truth in my teacher’s warning: that to be a smart girl is sometimes so difficult that it becomes a vulnerability that can be exploited.

Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation: A Memoir tells the story of the five-year relationship Ortiz had with one of her junior high teachers, whom she calls Jeff Ivers. Her careful diary-keeping during those years helps craft a text that is rich with detail and immediacy. Ortiz guides the reader through the story of this relationship and her adult reflections on it with skill and poetic flair. Throughout the text, Ortiz performs the excavation promised by the title; the digging she must do to tell her story is illustrated by short scenes from her adult life, including a walk along the La Brea Tar Pits with her infant daughter. The past, preserved as if in sticky tar, is pulled up excruciatingly, and becomes something she can examine and learn from.

Excavation (cover art)

“During those teenage years my self-worth was something I felt was small enough to hold,” Ortiz writes. “It was my pen, my paper and sometimes, maybe, my ability to attract people to me.” It is into this need that Mr. Ivers steps. By appealing first to her intelligence—her writing—and next her attractiveness, he manipulates her into an on-again, off-again relationship that she feels obligated to maintain due to complicated combinations of attraction, shame, and fear of being “average.” As Ortiz also negotiates relationships with boys her age and ponders the attraction she feels toward girls, Mr. Ivers becomes a touchstone for her, a knot she must work at until it finally unravels.

author Wendy C. Ortiz
author Wendy C. Ortiz

Throughout this memoir, Ortiz captures the rolling emotional boil of being a teenager, the overwhelming intensity of every feeling, whether high or low. I especially recognized the sense of power the young Ortiz feels in fits and starts at the idea that someone—this man—wants her. At that age, it doesn’t matter that this power might be an illusion. It matters only that it provides some small barricade against the debilitating void of wanting to be wanted. As an adult, I can see each of Mr. Ivers’s abusive machinations for what it is, yet I cannot blame the young Ortiz for being lured in by him. His character and methods will ring true to anyone who has been in a manipulative or emotionally abusive relationship; he is an expert at making her feel she must stay with him, clinging to her even as he cuts her down and pushes her away.

Secret relationships like this one seem to stud smart girls’ teenage years; think Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano in their boiler room makeout sessions. In the midst of our wanting, someone appears, seems to see something in us that no one else does, and we become satisfied with the pittance of attention that he allots us behind closed doors. In high school, I had this kind of relationship with a boy my own age; in reading Excavation, I realize that the fact that I didn’t fall for some older man’s overtures is perhaps due only to the fact that no man ever made them.

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Tria Wood is a writer and educator living in Houston, Texas. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have recently appeared in Rattle, Sugar House Review, Bayou, and Literary Mama. My Life as a Doll, a large-scale literary art installation she created with artist Tara Conley, was exhibited at DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston in 2011. Find her online at triawood.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.