looking back / looking forward

Looking back at my blog this year, I notice I really have not been using it enough. I think I am still hesitant to put myself out there, to employ this blog as a platform for the exploration of opinions on issues I care most about-- including but not limited to: poetry, disability, bodies, gender, and overarchingly, empowerment through creative expression. It was different with my previous blog, which was not obviously linked to my real name. Now every time I consider posting, I think wow, This Post Must Be Approved By Poet Jill Khoury (™). As I publish more, as I get more involved in the things that I love (see above list), I realize I have to trust my voice will stand on its own, even though people may disagree. This is my resolution for the new year. Opine more. Heh. 

In this vein, I dug up a post that was sitting on my desktop since October, which I wrote after I attended / read at a Women Write Resistance reading curated by Laura Madeline Wiseman and sponsored by the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Conferences often lead me to feel overwhelmed / filled with ideas that are too big or numerous to process right away. This conference, though it was one of the smallest I've ever attended, had the biggest impact on me because of the WWR reading. Here is the post I wrote after mulling over my experience:


Reading our work aloud was so empowering. LIke we were GOING THERE. To places that, at least in my life, remain largely unspoken. There's that repressive specter of "confessionalism is bad" lurking over me, keeping me quiet. In classrooms, at conferences, I have heard from men and women just how distasteful and unnecessary poems about the body, especially the body in extremis, are. Like such work is the equivalent of a tabloid, garish and sensationalistic. They are missing the point, gazing at the parts and disregarding the whole. I knew this and I stayed quiet because quiet was a life lesson I learned early and well.

The fact is that I grew from childhood into young adulthood under the shadow of abuse. I started reading poetry when I was 12. I would have liked to know that there were poems that addressed me as a current victim / future survivor. In my womb of secrecy and enforced silence, I thought I was the only one. I thought families came in one flavor, and boyfriends too.

Because it has been brought into the light as a cultural phenomenon does not make gender violence "over."  Children, wives, daughters, teens, teachers, transwomen… My sisters and I are shushed. Whether it is an overt threat from a parent, a micro-aggression on the subway, or a disparaging comment from a professor, the culture of "don't tell" (or even "don't be") is still very much at work. And that's why I'm proud as hell of the anthology, of the press that published it, and of us poets who contributed and continue to contribute our voices. Standing on the stage was transformative. Literally adding my voice to the narrative in an academic setting felt like testifying in spite of. In spite of "that's not the way it happened in my memory." "Boys will be boys." "You're being hysterical."

Reading at WWR was a rush, a real epiphany, but it got me thinking. Girls and women with disabilities face a double bind here. The reason I stayed with my abusive boyfriend as a teen and young adult was because I thought this was the best it could get. On top of being shy and unpopular, I couldn't see right, couldn't walk right, was prone to bouts of depression and ocd... who would want me? At least that was the message that was sent by my fellow students, many of whom bullied me because I was different. Even my friends, who wanted to advance in the pecking order of our little crew of misfits, had the occasion to call me out for something awkward that I did or said. And the larger message, sent by my parents', my teachers', society-at-large's absence of dialogue about disability, led me to feel like what my abuser said was the truth. How could anyone else want me when I was broken, wrong, crazy? 

College truly saved me. It brought me physical and mental distance from the tightly woven abusive nest. It reflected back at me my gifts, my strength, my empowered femininity. I met people who respected me and were interested in my ideas, my viewpoints. Even if, perhaps especially since, I was eccentric. 

But what about women who can't go to college or find another escape route that permits them their authentic selfhood? A nightmare scenario I run through my head when I want to torture myself is: what if I never got out of my abusive relationship, which took place during my high school and part of my college years? What if I never left the conservative, white, rural town I grew up in? What if I let my Self be buried under others' criticism because I had never been shown another mode of existence, or because I did not have the means to access it?

Is there a writing project that could happen that helps women with disabilities (including mental illness) celebrate their minds, their bodies (often seen as asexual or merely available to be used), their uniqueness? 

One powerful thing I've learned through participation in a Women Write Resistance reading that I did not learn merely (I say merely as if I did not count it as a major success) by being an anthology contributor is: when you take the violation, the belittling, the erasing, and the feelings it leaves you with, and you transform it into art, art that can be experienced in a communal way, it changes you. It un-silences you --even--perhaps especially--from yourself. This is a gift I wish to give to others. How to start?


This was the content of my post from late October that I did not publish. I have been mulling over "how to start" since then. And I have come up with something. It's still in the gestational stages. But coming soon --there will be a surprise in the new year.



identity rift / look left for buses

So, since last week's post, I've been having a bit of an identity rift. As expected, I guess. I have determined some things:

1) The transformation switch is not a switch.
2) Using the cane full-time is still too emotionally hazardous for me.
3) But I will continue to use it at night, in unfamiliar cities, and also now at readings and when trail-walking in the park b/c that was unexpectedly helpful.
4) I now have a better understanding of what I will need to accomplish, in my psyche, before I am ready for full-time caning.
5) I'm a striver. It's who I am. Always trying for the next thing. But it would be really great if I could love the person that I am right now, in this moment, and the next, and the next, and the next, as they occur, without putting any adjectives or judgments on that person.

That is all.

about to flip the transformation switch

Family, friends, colleagues, secret foes: I have a life announcement. No, I'm not pregnant and my manuscript did not get picked up. I have a new white cane, and I'm going to start using it full-time. 

As many of you know, I have struggled with the concept of passing. Most of my life I did; then for a few years I didn't, then my mom suicided and I put the cane away indefinitely. I was under the impression that it made me more comfortable to blend in. Maybe for awhile there, it did. But it takes a *tremendous* amount of energy to pretend I'm a sighted person. I'm starting to feel tired. Like, in my spirit.

When I last tried the cane in the city where I currently live, I became filled with anger. I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of alcohol and drugs, hence perhaps lower inhibitions, and I constantly being beset by hassling and offensive comments from men.

The neighborhood I live in now is more obsessed with being proper, so I'm hoping less harassment.

A woman I know, B, who barely knows I exist, is teaching me patience by example. I secretly appreciate her as a role-model for dealing with what I call "the in-betweeners."

On the street, all over the city, over top of the harassment I got in my neighborhood, I was getting constant offers of help with basic tasks. I did not give a shit if people meant well. It filled me with anger to be condescended to. I was so bottled up with anger that I was almost out of control. In my experience, most people don't understand what it is to be blind; some people don't even understand that there are many different types of blindness which make (nearly?) every blind person capable of different things. The constant "helping" made me just ... I was just... every muscle in my body was tense with anger.

However. I have met this woman B. Who knows a lot about being condescended to and much worse than that. She is patient but assertive. She has lived a long time and been through much. She seems comfortable with who she is and not having to fit in anyone's box. 

I have watched her interact with these people who "mean well," and I want to try being like that. Patient but assertive. December draws ever closer. Maybe this is what year 40 will be for me. The year of learning a new way to respond to situations that will be healthier for me in so many aspects. Not to mention, my chances of getting hit by a bus are greatly reduced.

This transition will be so hard. I still have my dad's voice in my head that I will pretty much be victimized because I am blind --the implication being that I am essentially weaker than the norms. 

I have tried this experiment before and failed, so failure is the precedent. 

Using the cane, having the signifier, will make me wear my vulnerability on the outside, when I have been preoccupied with quietly trying to stuff it away. Don't look behind the curtain!

The truth is, using the cane will make me so much less vulnerable. Literally. To cars. On stairs. In crowds. And I will not have to chase fractured images of this world that moves so fast, way too fast for me, like a child batting at a butterfly, because I am so obsessed with passing. Maybe I won't have to play the "face-name game at readings," when people forget that I can't see and presume I know who they are.

So if you are reading this, please send me supportive energy. This is a big, huge, enormous deal for me. It will cause me to move differently, interact differently, and interpret my own social identity differently. To make the successful switch, I will basically have to transcend my current self and become a new self. No big deal. Yeah, I need you. I need your positive vibes. For serious.

[On a more practical note, if you live in the area, let's make a plan to go for a walk! It doesn't matter where. This kind of white cane is different than the kinds I've used before, and so there will be some relearning of skills and re-acquiring of grace. I may look more awkward --walking with people has never been my strong suit --but I will feel less alone if you are with me.]

another list!

I was tagged by a friend (Rebecca Clever, editrix over at Blast Furnace) on Facebook to do this popular meme of ten books that changed my life. I have actually never made a list like this before; I've avoided it, thinking it an impossible task. The rules for the meme were to dash it off; don't think too hard, etc. But instead I really put some effort into it, wanting to see where it would take me. 

So here's my desert island 10. I ordered them chronologically, from when we first "met." I'm approximating here, but I would say this list starts in 1986 and ends in 2013. I was in sixth grade when I got Writing Down the Bones and probably in seventh grade when I got the giant Sexton volume. These books are still changing my life. I come back to them over and over. They made the list b/c they illuminated a new way of writing, thinking, or, in the case of alphabetica, doing art. I've taught from six or seven of these books. Composing this list actually made me feel more grounded in my creative self... so thanks Becca. I should probably put them all on one shelf so I can swoop them up in case there's a fire.

1. Natalie Goldberg. Writing Down the Bones
2. Anne Sexton. The Collected Works
3. Neil Gaiman. Brief Lives
4. Susan Wooldridge. poemcrazy
5. Stephen Kuusisto. Planet of the Blind
6. Paul Guest. The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World
7. Alison Lurie, Ed. The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales
8. Lynne Perrella. alphabetica
9. Mike Northen, Ed. Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability
10. Jeff Pethybridge, Striven, the Bright Treatise

my summer reading list

So it's nearly the start of summer, and I've nearly finished compiling my summer reading list. Maybe I should stop adding stuff to it b/c it's starting to look a bit daunting. There are only 14 weeks in summer, and I have 20 books on this list. I am not a fast reader. To be fair though, I've actually already finished Ruin, and I'm halfway through The Glimmering Room, Sex Talks to Girls, and Emergency in Slow Motion.

Since I'm still struggling with pain issues, and thus with making it to / through actual readings, I figured I would make up the difference by doing the reading myself. I would like to support my local poetry peeps and go to All The Readings Everywhere. But it is, for the indefinite future, literally agonizing to sit still for that long.

I used to be able to take pain pills to get through it but a) the weaker ones don't work and b) I kinda don't want to rely on the stronger ones b/c that's a slippery slope. So it has been since the beginning of April.

Thusly, I apologize if I missed your reading. And if I made it to your reading, it's because my pain was giving me the day off, or I took something stronger, or I just love you better. <-- Kidding.

Here's the list. These books are amazing and beautiful, or wondrous and ugly, or informative and terrifying… in any case you should check 'em out if you haven't already.

Hourglass Museum - Kelly Russell Agodon
Andalucia - Lisa Marie Basile
Hello, the Roses - Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Girl Show - Kristy Bowen
Nox - Ann Carson
Ruin - Cynthia Cruz
The Glimmering Room - Cynthia Cruz
Doll Studies: Forensics - Carol Guess
[Skinny] - Carolyn Hembree
Dear Lil Wayne - Lauren Ireland
In the Surgical Theatre - Dana Levin
Lamb - Frannie Lindsay
Nevers - Megan Martin
Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting - Kevin Powers
The Clerk's Tale - Spencer Reece
An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus - William Todd Schultz
Sex Talks to Girls - Maureen Seaton
The Amputee's Guide to Sex - Jillian Weise
Post-Pardon - Arisa White
Hospitalogy - David Wolach



In which I review Robert Walicki's new chapbook

A Room Full of Trees
Robert Walicki
Red Bird, 2014

“but suddenly,
the wall was filled with hemlocks,
and deer drank from streams,
walking out of the wall, 
Somewhere there was a way back in.”
    -“The Way Back”

In Robert Walicki’s first collection of poetry, the natural world serves as a conduit for memory to surface, giving way to situations both magical and real. Nature, in its various aspects, also acts as a witness and commentator as Walicki recounts lyrical moments that consider grief, trauma, and the way time changes people and their roles within a family. 

The speaker’s role as a boy, a young adult, and finally a man is explored in a way that is simultaneously forbidding and tender. He does not get much help as he attempts to navigate his unfolding masculine identity. As a young soccer player, he is ogled by an older man. “I was the backup, the replacement. / Every game he sat, top bleachers, always looking, no wedding ring, / never blinked. And I watched him too… / till I was called for and had to turn….” This poem and others that follow give one the impression that abuse was more than a threat for this speaker.

As a young adult, the speaker volunteers to help set up at a party for John, who is leaving town after his lover, Matt, has passed. The speaker is a friend, but not a member of the gay community (“You’re not like us, so how could you understand?”) At the end of the party “When the cold enters the room I know without looking that the door is open. / Someone holds it for me, then moves out of my way.” Sweetness turns awkward. Affection, even at a time when it is so desperately needed, is too much to bear. 

Throughout this intricate navigation, nature is present. When the abuser threatens, “the pines that bordered the field would sometimes bristle in the windless air.” At the party, which is a wake, or a more literal bon voyage, “the light is weird / in the kitchen where I say goodbye to John and he hands me back the bowl empty.”

Near the end of the collection, the speaker must reconcile the evolution of his own identity after the loss of his father. “When I walked into the room where my father was / the whole wall behind him, was covered in flowers. / The whole room had that sweet, slightly drunk scent. / A flourish of color spread across the room, / and the lush, deep greens of the leaves enveloped every gap behind them.” He regards the dead body of his father amidst all this lushness and recalls a childhood incident where he and two boys took turns battering fresh road kill (“…when it was my turn I didn’t want to, / but someone started laughing…. When we saw the blood / everybody ran home.”). Access to this unbidden memory of death / not-death is no comfort. (“I thought of the stick, of the running.”) This death, the image of this transformed father-body, will not be something from which he can run.

In one of the book’s most poignant moments, the speaker is making a scarecrow—reconstructing an effigy—using what the natural world, and his own father, have discarded: “Hay on a stacked pile, loose shoots of grass… / long stems and thistle.” “Now I’m sliding on his pants— / wool shirt over wood pole arms….” But nature, and bodies, are entropic. “The crows take pieces off him with their beaks.” “There are parts of him everywhere.” 

Walicki illuminates the small moments of (both) violence and kindness that boys and men show each other. A Room Full of Trees chronicles with much sensitivity a formidable journey from childhood to adulthood. 

Buy it here.

Tagged! Writing Process Blog Tour

I was tagged by Pittsburgh poet Angele Ellis in this linked blog tour of questions about the writing process. Angele has two collections out: Arab on Radar, and Spared. She is a great friend and support for me. You can check out her responses to the WPBT questions here.

1) What am I working on?

Currently I have three things going at the same time. I have a full length ms that I'm shopping around to publishers. I've become at sixes and sevens with this ms because I've been writing / revising it over four years and have handed it off to a number of readers. The resulting book, well, some days it looks great and I am proud. Some days it looks like I took out my nightmares on it with a machete. Why are these poems in this order? Why did I take out that one and leave that one in? This will be my first full-length publication, and I don't yet feel comfortable at juggling so many ideas. I'm not sure, however, if the process of organizing a full-length ms ever becomes comfortable. Hopefully I will have the chance to find out.

Chapbooks, to me, are easier. They are focused. They have a defined arc. In my full-length ms, voices and motifs spiral and weave, and after four years, I don't feel in control any more. So.... I've recently hired an editor. This is a Big Deal for me, a major act of trust and surprisingly intimate. However, I feel confident placing my work in her hands. She's already helped a great deal by asking some good questions and helping me focus my ideas. I'm excited to find out what her fresh viewpoint has to offer, and to learn vicariously how better to construct a book.

The second project is a chapbook which I have working-titled "the dead mommy poems" to the horror of my husband and therapist. To me, it is darkly hilarious. And sometimes, the way to cope with a devastating loss involves humor. My mom chose to end her life on September 21, 2012. I spent the next year-and-several-months trapped in a little sphere of agoraphobia and wordless grief, and beyond structured visits to various mental health professionals, did not get out much. Year two, for me, is about learning how to be a poet again. Now I have energy. I can give more. I'm pushing myself to participate, show up, really be there for others and myself---now that I can go unaccompanied to the grocery store like a champ.

This chapbook happened because, after about a year, I started having recurring dreams in which my mother (both in her living and dead forms) made scary cameos. So I started poem-ing them. But I didn't want the poems to be overtly like... "last night I dreamt…" So. I've been pushing into the territory of magic realism for a few years now, and that's what these poems are. To me this makes complete sense. The whole circumstance surrounding my mother's death was incredibly surreal... it utterly defied the logic of any rational or irrational situation I've been put into already in my life, and my life to that point had not been free of weird and traumatic stuff. So I'm really taking chances / having adventures with language and voice in these poems, and they give me a great sense of accomplishment. I recently did seven of these poems at a reading to a very strong reception.

The third thing is another chapbook -- of centos. As a hobby, I am a mixed-media artist. About fifteen years ago, I started out working with paper and glue. I cut out these small fragile details to make a whirl of color and shape that both invited and challenged the eye to interpret it. Later I moved on to include more media and then into the digital realm, but the pieces I'm most proud of are the ones that take only one type of material to create something complex. I had been interested in centos, for years, but from a distance. However during the last NaNoWriMo, I did a poem a day instead of doing 50K words. In my scribbling-typing-web-crawling frenzy I discovered these poems by Australian poet Kate Fagan. I just fell in love with the form and decided I had to pursue it. There's more to say about this chap, but I want to keep it under wraps for now.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My knee-jerk response is "read it and see!" It's very hard for me to conceive of poetry as "one genre." There are so many subgenres.

J. Allyn Rosser once said of my work, "[it] moves between the real and surreal without bothering to compartmentalize."

My poetry is more grounded in the body. It engages the senses. There is usually a subtle or not-subtle threat involved.

I would say it is not cerebral or meditative. I do not "think on the page." I am emotionally involved in every poem, and I intend for the reader to be emotionally involved as well.

I don't write pastorals. Sometimes I wish I did. Because it seems easy. And sometimes I will throw myself a pity party to the tune of every journal is publishing work about the natural world and nobody likes my stuff because I don't meditate on the beauty of the majestic forest etcBut that's only when I'm frustrated or have just received an inordinate amount of rejections in a week.

I am increasingly taking risks with language and imagistic leaps----seeing how far I can go before (I feel like I) alienate my reader by making the poem impenetrable, and then pulling back a little. That's fun.

3) Why do I write what I do?

If I didn't, I'd go crazy. 

4) How does your writing process work?

This question is hard to approach in generalities, so I will make it specific. For the dead mommy poems I wait until my unconscious presents me with a bit of a dream or a memory and I treat that as impetus for a new poem. From there it's like... I breathe deeply, close my eyes, and allow myself to go to that surreal and terrifying place. And then write what comes out of it. 

The centos are much more methodical, which is fun in its own way. The sources I'm using have digitized versions. I can sit for hours immersed in a book, combing through for evocative words and phrases. Then I sift through the pile of scraps and see what emerges. It's interesting... these centos are not meant to recount the sources that they borrow from. In fact, I wanted just the opposite to happen. I wanted readers to think, "how did that poem come from that source?" But because there is a pattern of diction and language in the source material, the tone of the source remains in the poem. 

As for revision, I get up early on the weekend while my husband is sleeping, feed the cats and pay them some attention so they are content and leave me to go do cat-things, and that's when I do my best revising. I like silence, or ambient noise that I can tune out. Drafting for some reason, tends to happen in the evening. I do all my work on the computer because without the speed of typing I could never keep up with my flying thoughts.


Dotting the I in activism

So I've been thinking and thinking about my experience at Split This Rock. Really mulling it over. Here's the thing. The energy, inspiration, and fortitude of the STR milieu was something I'll not soon forget. I met up with several people whom I mostly see online (Mike Northen, Sheila Black, Kathi Wolfe) and got to talk with them about various projects and that was good good stuff! I even shook hands with Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body Is Not an Apology, which has become an international phenomenon. 

These were the true highlights of the conference for me. The little personal connections. And I think that these moments were helped along by the fact that STR is relatively small --at least compared to AWP, which has mushroomed out to somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. 

The bigger picture, though, is what I have been processing for the past two weeks. What do I have in common with the STR community in the larger sense? Do I *belong* there? Should I go again?"

There was a panel in which one participant described herself as "an accidental activist." She sort of stumbled into it from a very personal place. Another woman on the panel seconded this notion. But then a third woman, whom I respect for her fierceness, intelligence, and creative power, said essentially that [paraphrasing here] individual activity is next-to meaningless. We need to organize on a global scale. We need to act collectively to affect any change whatsoever. Notably, she was the only person on the panel who had been born in the southern hemisphere. Suddenly I felt very small.


There's a certain cultural (rugged individualism!) and class (I don't *need* a village, thank you) value system that gives birth to my need for this fantasy of independence, when interdependence is the reality.


As I write this I'm exiting a half-week flare-up of my fibromyalgia. I think the pain / fatigue are diminishing to "normally abnormal" levels, but last week I took a five-hour nap that interfered not a bit with my ability to sleep during the night. Last night I had to ice my back, hips, thighs, and neck after doing one (1) load of laundry. The thought of organizing anything right now besides my sock drawer is overwhelming. 


One can derive warmth, motivation, strength, protection, representation from a community. I would have to say that the only communities in which I have ever felt appreciated and fully integrated were when I went to college and later, graduate school. Not really before or since. 


For comparison, sometimes I don't feel fully integrated into my own skin.


In the building where we live, I have never met my neighbors though I have made acquaintanceships with the maintenance people. I shake afterwards every time I make small talk.


At our last house, the neighbors emotionally abused their children and each other. Horrible screaming fights that I constantly wondered if they were leading to something else. Several times I pressed 9-1... but didn't have the courage to press the last 1. 


When I first found the disability community it I felt pride, an upswelling of self-esteem, positive identity.


When I started using my white cane after a long hiatus, I carried Beauty Is a Verb around like a bible. 


When I started grieving my mother's suicide, I had to put the cane away.


Infighting: if you're an academic, you spend too much time in the ivory tower. If you're street, you don't have authority to speak on certain matters. If you have disability X, you are less "disabled" than someone with disability Y, and so have less of a right to speak. If you use certain language to describe yourself and your disability, that's traitorous. If you see humor in your situation, you're a sell-out. If you see despair in your situation, you're a sell-out. f you can (and / or do) engage in the act of passing, you're a sellout. If you're too bellicose, that's not cool. If you refuse to be a warrior, why are you here? 


I have sat at the computer too long, probably an entire half-hour, and now the pain is bad again zinging up and down my thighs, throbbing in my forehead. And my eyes are really tired. 


I want to be apart. I want to be a part. I want to partake. I want to part ways. I want, I want to participate.


My words can go where I cannot. They can stay longer. It will have to be enough for now.

Back home...

I had a great but enervating time at Split This Rock. The energy was invigorating; the ideas were inspiring. I have made several new contacts, and I have ideas for some new projects. At this time though, I'm still assimilating and integrating all that went on. STR came at the end of a month that was pretty adventuresome. I'm still trying to breathe and let the changes happen.