For the first five years of the 1970s I was an inhabitant of two worlds: suburban Mountain Brook, Alabama (one of the richest cities per capita in the country) and Southside, in downtown Birmingham, the “arty” part of town where there were record stores and quaint restaurants and what looked like hippies. I was engaged in both worlds.
I lived in Mountain Brook in a nice house and had two children in the school system. I was on the board of the Friends of the Library (I did their newsletter), attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (I did their newsletter also) and was in a garden club that I must admit I never attended. I had friends in both worlds but they didn’t know each other and probably didn’t want to. There were two exceptions to this rule. One was a man somewhat younger than I who came from Mountain Brook but now lived in Southside and aspired to be a writer. He had the look of a European ascetic philosopher, rail thin and with a beard and wire rimmed spectacles. The other exception was a man from a privileged background who lived in the most exclusive neighborhood in Birmingham in a great big mansion that was so vast it had secret passages but who spent most of his time in a little store he rented in Southside, crouched in the back trying to write something important. He had published a poem in a national magazine, Evergreen Review, (notorious for publishing obscene and erotic literature) and had come to expect a lot from himself. He had a neon sign made in the shape of his distinctive signature hanging out in front of his office. After he died a bar bought the sign and used it for their sign.
Although I was a painter and did a good business in portraits, I had a passion to be a writer, specifically a poet. I had been reading and loving poetry all my life and had heard its rhythms in my thoughts and in my dreams. Not knowing what I was doing, not having even an inkling of the door I was opening and what might be waiting on the other side, I enrolled in a writing class at UAB and began writing poems like my brain was on fire. I had a scorched earth policy as to subject matter and I took no prisoners. When I read my poems aloud in class I could literally see jaws drop.
The teacher of the class was Bobbie Gafford, a well-known writer and poet, and there were some other excellent writers in the class. We met at night and as time went by and we became comfortable with each other, us writers sat on the classroom-grade carpet and leaned against the wall with our legs stretched out, ankles crossed, relaxed. We felt free to be outrageous. We were merciless in our criticism. One of the students read a story one time that was so bad I had to go out in the hall and lie on the floor. Sometimes the work was so good I felt grateful just to be present at the reading of it. Both my friend with the beard and the man from the mansion were also in the “class”.
About mid-year, Bobbie asked me and two other students, Marilyn Michael and Mary Louise Moss, who was black, to join her in compiling a book of our work. We weeded through the haphazard notebooks and stray slips of paper holding our best poems – all of us were disorganized – and combined them into a book called The Moonpeelers after a poem by Marilyn. Another friend named Becky did the cover and it was stunning. The whole book was stunning. Still is.
Being a poet – even a beginner like I was – is like your worst nightmare – the one where you dream you are out in public naked and can’t remember how to get home. You go way out on a limb and lo! it breaks and you write about it as you fall. You land and it hurts and you write about how bad it feels. I came to understand that by giving myself up to such a dangerous art I was arriving at the place where it would be me against the ordinary life. I would be inviting vulnerability, asking life to bring it on! I began to feel like a skirmisher, leading the way into battle, way out front, devil-may-care. Soon poetry became an exoskeleton that took over my very being, and the other me – the practical person who cooked and cleaned and drove children to school – was totally eclipsed. I wrote on everything, every moment I could. Everybody in my life became a character in my living drama. Poets are so anxious to find truth they are willing to jump into fires and off bridges. Being a poet was the most dangerous thing I have ever done. Painting was like having a tea party compared to writing a poem. Ask Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas. To be a poet you have to be willing to kill the last chicken in the yard and write about how it feels to have nothing.
One day my bearded friend and I were sitting out on the Southside circle on the curb, our feet in the street. We often sat out there and talked poetry. I remember I was wearing hip-hugger blue jeans and these lace-up boots I fancied. I told him that I was getting a divorce. He asked me what I intended to do then. I said I intended to paint and write poetry. He refrained from pointing out that I was clueless. He said that he wanted to sell his store and study for a profession where he could counsel people who were suffering. He had a big heart and I figured he would find a way. He did.
One thing my bearded friend did was sponsor poetry readings. The Moon Peelers had just been published and he asked me to do a reading with him in the back yard of an old house in Southside. He sent out invitations and we had a nice crowd sitting on a very green lawn in white wooden chairs. One of the most important things about standing up and reading your own poetry to people is: What do I wear? For just this occasion I had bought a white organdy dress, button up the front, floor length, three-quarter length sleeves with ruffles, really old and fragile, and with a few little holes and rust stains. I had bought it from a second-hand shop near my studio, but I think the dress was more like fifth-hand. It was perfect. I decided not to wear shoes since I didn’t have any that went with the dress. I was not the least bit self-conscious nor did I consider myself a phony or a poser. I was living at the command of the White Goddess and she didn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought anyway. Poetry does something real to your brain that takes all that away, all that caring. You feel like a truth-teller and that nothing else matters. I was happy with the reading.
Not long after that I was divorced. I went to an attorney who was recommended to me by friends. His office was full of art, some of it by people I showed with in galleries. He was a very well-mannered gentleman and I liked talking to him. When I was leaving he told me he had a copy of The Moon Peelers and how much he liked it. He told me that he had had a party recently and that one of his guests, a woman, had taken my book to read and that he had later found her in the bathroom sitting on the floor, crying. She told him that she identified with me. Of COURSE she was crying. She said she wanted to be free like that.
The thing is, people think poets are “free” because they write about the compelling parts of life – about mystery and soul – rather than the mundane. But poets are NOT free. They are imprisoned by the words that will not leave them alone. That’s why they drink and die young. That’s why- eventually – I slipped its surly bonds.
Twenty years later I joined a group at my Episcopal Church, a class that studied theology in a four-year program devised by the School of Theology at Sewanee. This was in 1996 and I was still in the group in 2013. But that first day, one of the members – a young woman who was about to have her third child – came up to me and introduced herself. Her father, she said, had been my lawyer when I divorced my first husband. She remembered that he had talked about me in such a way that she had carried around a mental picture of me: I had come to his office in paint-covered bluejeans and I was bare-footed. I didn’t remember that. What I DO remember is that when my divorce came through I had to go to his office to get the papers. It had been an easy divorce since, true to my vision of myself as “the poor poet”, I had asked for nothing. When I left I remember jumping up in the air and clicking my heels together like they do in movies – so I was wearing shoes that day. Probably the lace-up boots I fancied so. I then entered la-la land and stayed there until a sensible man found me.
Footnote: February 12, 2016: I re-read The Moonpeelers last night for the first time in decades. I was ruthless in those poems. I have never ever thought of myself that way, but I sure enough did it. I guess I am sorry since they are hurtful words, but in many ways I view the person that wrote those poems as someone else, who, like Persia, is ancient, going by another name.