The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a sort of round-robin of blog tagging where writers answer 10 questions about a recent project (or one in progress). Each writer tags 5 more writers. Four of the five writers I contacted never responded, so I’m including my own response and tagging the fantastic and wondrous Maia Morgan, whose blog you can check out here.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Broken Word

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea for my book came to me while I was at residency for the Stonecoast MFA program. As a spoken word artist for most of my professional writing life, I was trying to figure out when writing on the page had become so hard/intimidating. During one of many workshops, the thought came to me that betrayal was a big part of my journey through writing, both from fellow writers and inter-personal relationships. Broken Word refers to some of that betrayal and also how I broke my own word to myself, which was to keep writing, no matter what.

What genre does your book fall under?

My book falls into the memoir genre, though more in the Joy Harjo tradition of including poetry/song, alongside creative non-fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Phylicia Rashad would play my Mom. Bette Midler would play my grandmother. Michael C. Hall would play my first boyfriend. I’d love Jill Scott to play me.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? (if this applies – otherwise, make up another question to answer!)

I’d love my book to be represented by an agency and I think that will happen. My first book was self-published and though it was fun to design it and distribute myself, I’d like Broken Word to reach a much wider audience.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m still working on it, but hoping to have the first draft completed by June.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Crazy/Brave by Joy Harjo is the first one that pops into my mind.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been writing this book for a while and just didn’t know it. There’s been so much darkness and light in my life that writing it all down seems to be the only way to make sense of it. And I’m tired of telling the same stories…I want to get these stories out so that I can make room for new ones!

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I think that my book has a sweeping energy to it, where I travel from Chicago to New York to LA to Seattle to New Zealand to Australia and back again. There are hard, social issues that I’m grappling with such as race, body image, domestic violence and rape, plus a family history of dysfunction and alcoholism. Out of much of that difficulty, though, is an incredible amount of triumph and humor. It has all the things that captivate readers: adventure, tragedy, humor, the underdog prevailing and a whole lotta spice!

10 years ago today….


My father died ten years ago today. There are questions that I wanted to ask him that I never got the chance to ask. Questions that every kid who’s ditched by a parent wants to ask. Questions that sour my mouth with regret and confusion and full of stubborn desperation…

Why did you leave? Why did you break my mother’s heart? Did you ever think about me? Do you remember my birthday? Do you know my middle name? Did you ever miss me? How can you miss someone who you never wanted to know?

Why didn’t you want me? What did I do wrong?

I know the answers to some of these…like I did nothing wrong, except be born at an inconvenient time, in an impossible place, in clichéd circumstances.

He’s dead so I can’t hate him, can’t stay angry, can’t rail and rage against the outrage of his absence. He’s dead so can I still blame him? He’s dead and his name was never connected to mine. Dead and he’s never coming back and never answering for what he should have never done in the first place.

His funeral was packed and overflowing with people who had nothing but praise for him. What a great worker, what a great brother, what a great father…what a great family man. So many came up to me to put arms around me and express condolences for my loss. Can you lose who you never had?

I remember feeling like the tiniest, oldest child standing on a rock way out in the middle of a raging ocean, battered by waves and salt and so small in comparison to the wind, but standing still.

As I head into a strange city, anticipating a night at an open mic, a week of connecting with people I haven’t seen in a while, people I’ve only met once, people I’ve never met, I am meditating on why it’s so hard for me to connect with people.

I am hard inside…flame trapped inside a spine made of ice. Sometimes, laughter makes the ice crack. Sometimes, the tears melt tunnels through the frozen layers and I crawl a little towards the light. Sometimes, another body making me explode in pleasure is the only thing that staves off frostbite.

Mostly, though, I am cold. I have walked away from so many people, situations, relationships, things. I can leave behind much easier than I can hold on.

I can describe myself in negative adjectives all day and lament the lack of understanding from my fellow human beings. I can say that I’m a bitch, an asshole, a jerk and downright cruel when I want to be.

Perhaps, it’s the unfairness of it. Perhaps it’s the years that I spent wondering where my father was, wondering what his face looked like, wondering why he never wanted to know me, wondering if it was convenient to just forget that I was ever born and focus on his new family.

I spent years confused and tearing up at every movie with a father/daughter scene. I spent years not asking my mother about what must have hurt her terribly, not willing to drag her back into what seemed too painful to even broach.

I spent years feeling loathsome and damned, coming to the faulty conclusion that if my father never wanted me, no one else would or could.

When I was 21, I hired a private detective and I found him. Living in Pennsylvania, cozy with the family he deemed more worthy than my mother and I. I called him. Left a message. He called me back. We chatted, all long lost reunited talk show.

He and his family drove to visit me at my mother’s house that Thanksgiving. I threw a party and invited all my friends. I performed poems and sang songs, excited to show off for a father I had only dreamed of…later, I would find out that I terrified him. 

My uncle told me that my father was scared of how powerful I seemed, without benefit of being raised by both parents. How did I do that?

I am scary. I’ve been told that most of my adult life. Intimidating is another way that I am often described. What I don’t understand is how a Black woman who grew up with no father, broke, fat, queer and usually struggling with some sort of chronic physical pain can scare anyone. I belong to a group of women who are statistically the least powerful group in this country. I could run down the stats, but I’m tired of that.

What I don’t understand is how a man who created nuclear stability in a way that I will never be able to fathom could be scared of someone who has had to face more fear than he even had the capacity to comprehend.

What could be scarier than not really knowing where you come from? 

Ten year anniversary of his death and I am staring fear in the face, daring my shallow pockets and shaky dreams to destroy me rather than cower and succumb to entropy.

This day, ten years after my father’s heart exploded, I am ripping my own out of my chest and lining my feet with it.

Yes. I will continue to terrify the whole world with my ugly, unwanted truth in my quest to forget the questions I never asked and not ever need the answers.

Really, there’s only one question left:

Hey Daddy, how you like me now?

A Lesson from Maria…

The second time I ever read poetry in public, I was at Mad Bar in Wicker Park at a little reading series called “Mental Graffiti.” I was 19 and had only seen spoken word once before…when I came to Mental Graffiti the first time.

My Mom and a friend came along to witness what I would later call a miracle in my life: poetry performed live and on fire. From the first second I ever saw spoken word, I was hooked and wanted to excel at it, to triumph in it, more than anything.

That night, I trembled my way onto the stage and read my poem, hands shaky with fear, but also righteous indignation. My poem was about going to school with so many older people who seemed to think I was an idiot, just because I was 19. They were right, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was just pissed at being dismissed and kind of bratty about it.

There was one poet who completely blew me away at Mental Graffiti. Her name was Maria McCray and she was in her late 40’s, a former Marine who was also a Vietnam Vet. Her poetry sang with heartache and tragedy, rage and irony. She was a storyteller of immense and exquisite proportions. I wanted to be just like her, both as a writer and a performer.

After I made my way off stage, to big smiles from my Mom and good friend, I noticed Maria heading straight for me. I got so excited, head spinning with possibilities: maybe she liked my poem (!), maybe she wanted to mentor me (!), maybe we’d become friends (!) and I’d sit at that table in back, surrounded by the most talented of all those who spoke, whispered, sung, rhymed and screamed themselves into power across that stage.

Maria got right in my face and spat, “That sucked. You suck. And everyone at that table back there agrees with me. Just don’t come back, okay?.”

My Mom tried to interrupt her by saying, “Well, I’m her mother and I think—” Maria cut her off with a curt, “That’s nice, ” and continued to tear into my abominable writing skills.

Devastated. The death of my dream before I even fell asleep.

Of course, I cried a little. All right, a lot. I threw a little pity party and wondered what was so bad about my writing, about me.

And then I got really pissed.

You don’t want me to come back?

I’m totally fucking coming back and I’m not going to stop coming back until you acknowledge that you were wrong and I’m the shit. Every. Week.

And that’s what happened.

It took 3 years…one slam final where I placed second to last, lots of nights of bad poems, hardly any sleep, parking tickets, repeating my name every week because no one seemed to remember it and a moment where I called my Mom to tell her that I was dropping out of school to be a poet.

These days, when it seems that all the people making money have MFAs and I’m struggling to just get through the rest of my Bachelor’s program, I consider that I might have made things harder on myself than necessary.

However, three years after that first moment, I got my first feature at Mental Graffiti and the year after that, I made it onto Mental Graffiti’s National Poetry Slam team. We placed 16th that year in Seattle and I learned a lot about the politics of slam and what happens when egos, passion, politics, art and ambition collide in one boiling, unpredictable stew.

I started learning more and drove myself hard to not only write and perform well, but also to teach and help shape the next generation of those in love with the word.

Before Def Poetry Jam, but after Nationals in Seattle, Maria apologized to me…and my Mom. She told me that she was wrong about me and that she was glad that I didn’t listen to her. After that, we became close friends and, in 2011, myself, along with her loving family, friends and fellow artists, helped honor her memory after she passed away.

There’s no such thing as failure. There is simply trying and not trying. I’m glad I didn’t listen to Maria, but fortunate for the lesson in perseverance and faith in myself, beyond all obstacles, doubters and anyone who tries to determine my level of possibility and promise.

I eventually fell out of love with spoken word, unable to deal with the egos and bloodlust for notoriety and infamy. I didn’t like how competitive I became in those spaces and the effect that it had on me to not confront sexism or racism or homophobia or sexism or ableism or sizeism or any number of stupid things people will say to get a laugh or a high score or a round of applause.

So, I moved into my own blend of live song and poetry, social commentary and burlesque, music and monologue. This blending of genres and expressions has allowed me to connect with artists of myriad perspectives and backgrounds and I’ve found more joy in collaboration and coalition than I ever had in trying to become somebody’s star.

If success is finding what you love and being able to do that, then I have been and continue to be very successful.

Maria McCray, a women who triumphed gloriously and struggled and scrapped to live her life, her way, had no idea that she was setting the course for my life that fateful night in 1999 and I owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, in this life or the next.

Surrendering Voice

I think I’ve reached the end of my road as a professional artist. I could call it a good run, but honestly, there is so much left undone, unsaid and unrealized that I can’t help but feel disappointed in myself and grieving for what might have been.

I tried. I really did. However, I’ve come to the realization that I’ve outlived my usefulness as a writer and performer. When I look around the world, I see so many wonderful artists creating in ways that are more powerful, more potent, more intelligent than anything I’ve ever done. Also, my point-of-view has become obsolete in a world obsessed with image and fitness.

My initial motivation for performing my own writing, besides the cliche needs for attention and validation, was to present the perspective of the fat girl. When I was 19, I rarely saw bigger women on stage anywhere and I felt like this was a problem. Also, I went through hell and back throughout my youth and adolescence and knew I wasn’t the only one. I felt like it was necessary to show people how hurtful and narrow-minded they are, especially with regard to overweight teenage girls.

Flash-forward 15 years and not only do we know that we’re cruel to bigger people, we cosign it in the name of health and never really check our issues around it. To this day, I receive a lower level of respect, consideration and service in most areas of the world. The party line is that I should lose weight if I expect to be respected and if I don’t, it’s my own fault that people don’t respect me. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s okay if you’re fat as long as you’re fabulous with it, complete with long, luxurious weave, overpriced clothes, uncomfortable and expensive shoes and 10,000 layers of make-up. Don’t forget the healthy dose of sassy attitude, a la drag queen trapped in fat body.

Or if not, I should butch myself all the way out and become the ultimate in swaggering stud.

I find that my perspective of a gender-neutral, basically healthy, definitely nerdy wallflower is neither sexy or popular. My clumsy two left feet leave me at the sidelines of all cultures of color, which deem anyone without natural rhythm an affront to realness and joy and freedom, even though I feel incredibly free when I watch the dance floor explode in patterns of uninhibited wildness.

There’s just no place for yours truly in any of the art or entertainment communities out there. I never finished school and though I plan to go back, I simply have no stomach for academia. I enjoy business, but the music industry isn’t a business industry as much as it’s a pop-culture mafia, filled with cutthroats and hustlers, snake oil men and lots of abject shadiness. Designing things is fun, but I’m no computer whiz and keeping up with technology is like trying to keep up with the Kardashians…expensive, time-consuming and a big pain in the ass.

Also, the same politics that apply in the mainstream apply in the underground. Sorry, darlings, I am never going to be satisfied with being awesome for a girl or for being Black or a person of color or queer or whatever. I want my work to be considered what it is, without it being marginalized into insignificance. I’m also quite tired of folks’ issues with fat clouding my opportunities and their judgment. It’s like I can’t be taken seriously until I lose a bunch of weight and “prove” to everyone how much I love myself because I’ve starved and treadmilled my way into their skinny hearts.

And I’m no comedienne, which seems to be the only way that anyone wants to see a fat woman. Sorry, can’t make you laugh and giggle and such. I’m simply not equipped that way and I have a flair for the dramatic.

You know, I tried really hard and in a lot of ways. I’ve written poetry, performed it, dabbled in burlesque, created two one-woman shows, curated a bunch of shows and series of shows, recorded EPs and an album, played with a bunch of different musicians and written more about my process than I care to share with anyone. At the end of all that effort, I can’t even get the people who’ve worked on projects with me to show up at my shows nor can I get people to listen to the albums I’ve had to give away because no one’s interested in buying.

So I get it. And I’m tired of trying. It’s been over a decade and folks still act like I just got started yesterday. It’s frustrating. At this point, I’d rather leave it to those people who are doing a better job of it than I am and concentrate on making sure I’m taking my vitamins and figuring out what really makes me happy.

Love is a strange thing. It evolves over time and takes on different shades of meaning. I love to sing and write songs. I love to put together shows and events. I love bringing people together, in the name of art and sensory stimulation. I love having an idea and peeling the layers until it has blossomed into a tangible thing in the world.

I loved being an artist, but I didn’t love everything that came with it and all that I’ve had to sacrifice, in order to do it on my terms. I’ve given up stability, countless friendships, peace of mind, time and money, only to find myself broke, with no close friends outside of my Uncle and Jeff, boxes of albums nobody wants and a reputation for being angry, overemotional and too political.

So, I think it’s a wrap for me. I’m glad that I was able to do more with my creative energy than my great-grandmother and grandmother, who were both unrealized artists in their own right. I am grateful that I’ve been able to travel and get a little recognition for what I do. It’s more than many artists get to experience. Perhaps my children will take it a step further and it’s my hope that I can give them a little more than I had and so on and so forth.

If you’ve taken the time to read this, please know that I appreciate you giving your energy towards this rather maudlin and self-pitying little note. You don’t need to tell me not to quit or not to give up or there is a place for me or any platitudes along those lines. I’m sure there are people and places who appreciate some of what I created and maybe you’re one of them. Thank you.

Perhaps I should be satisfied with being a middle-of-the-road artist, but I always wanted to be the best and I just don’t think that my idea of best coincides with anyone else’s idea of best. I mean, why write a song if it has no chance of being someone’s favorite song? Why write at all if I have no chance of being someone’s favorite writer? And why put out anything if there is simply no interest? I mean, I’ll always write, sing, etc, but the putting it out there for people when no one really wants to hear it seems like a colossal waste of time. Also, I’m human and I want a family and a home of my own with a porch swing and pitcher of lemonade on the veranda. The art/performance thing has been my life for a long time and I don’t have very much to show for it, except a lot of painful memories and yellowing newspaper clippings.

To be honest, there’s only one place that I see myself as a thriving artist within a community of other artists who actually respect my work and who are interested in putting together shows that weave poetry and music, costume and movement and that place is on the other half of the planet. Maybe I’ll get back there again and stay…we’ll see.

As my Uncle advised years ago, I think it’s time for me to go within myself and find what I’ve been seeking on stages and pages. Whatever it is, I haven’t found it yet but I have hope that I will.

Thanks for being with me on this journey. It’s been real.

And so voice, I surrender you unto yourself and make it so you resonate where it matters most…within.