MonroeComp1.inddA date gone this awry might turn out fine if, for example, we could have gone back to my apartment and slipped off my shiny dress and made love like James Stillman and I used to do in Wisconsin, like Max and I used to do in Kansas, where you get into tried and true positions that take you to brief ecstasy. Then we’d relax, agree that the joke-telling had turned awkward. If the sense of intimacy lasted, in time I’d even be able to tell my date he needed to dry clean his sports coats. But the sex was polite, muted. Because he was polite, muted? Because his feelings were? I’ll never know. He left afterward because he had to teach folklore at a community college fifty miles away in the morning—by which time I was packing up my laundry to take to a laundromat a block away.

author photo 2015, chair, b&wThe blurbs say your book is funny, and yet it explores that era just after the feminist movement. Feminism is serious, necessary. How did this turn out to be funny?

It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.

Stay-at-home, breast feeding, “naturalist,” and/or cloth diaper-using moms, be forewarned: the old guard feminists have it in for us, apparently.  We’ve set women back decades with our hippie earth mother garbage, and at least one French Feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, is actually willing to say so publicly.  In an article for Salon, Madeline Holler writes:

Sure, children have been ruining their mothers’ lives since we evolved from chimps. But what makes this snapshot in time so different, according to Badinter, is the fact that modern, emancipated mothers are so complicit in their own destruction. Lactating, co-sleeping, time off from work – that’s a bunch of “naturalist” mumbo-jumbo and a distraction from a woman’s duty to herself and a society that wants to see her as equal but can’t quite get past the milk stains on her blouse.

The trapeze has its own kind of hubris. Similar to the myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the likelihood that you will both fall and allow yourself to be caught is what makes the art so exhilarating. From a seat in the audience, trapeze artists are otherworldly. Their bodies almost cease being human as women are tossed intro triple flips and gracefully grasp hold of a partner’s arms. Static trapeze, where balance is used to hang off the bar with only the arch of one foot, makes the performer seem little more than a series of shapes suspended in midair.

In person, watching middle-aged parents and their children leaping off platforms gives new meaning to audience discomfort. The sense of awe that exists watching a real performance with lighting and leotards is replaced by a gut-dropping feeling each time someone takes off from the platform. These are not people who have been training since birth. They could be your little brother, your grandmother. They could be you.

If you’ve ever taken a summer drive along Manhattan’s West Side Highway and not been paying close attention to the road, a strange sight may have caught your eye. On top of the Chelsea Piers are the outlines of ropes and wires. Unless you are lucky enough to pass by in time to see people propelling themselves into thin air, it would seem like a school playground. The New York Trapeze School, with both outdoor and year-round indoor locations, is the main place for Manhattanites who want to learn how to fly.

For sixty dollars, aspiring trapeze artists can learn the basics starting with the first swing off a twenty-three foot high platform. Though you are roped into a harness until more advanced levels, the ladder to get up there is precarious. It’s not much more than the flimsy aluminum you would use to paint a house. And there are two of them, held together with something that looks like a metal clip. Once you have reached the platform, it is time to fasten the harness into the ropes used for actual trapeze. In the beginner classes, someone is stationed at the platform to help you with adjusting your harness before taking off into the air.

This is the point where you will have your first experience holding the bar in two hands. Though they’re wider, there doesn’t seem to be much distinguishing the trapeze bars from the monkey bars most children use at the playground. As long as you forget that, unlike a play-set, this one is not built on a base of wood that has been solidly staked into the woodchips beneath you. And, unlike climbing sets, you will be required to lean the upper half of your body far over the edge of the platform before moving forward. The second reason the spotter is there on the platform with you is to hold the back of your harness in place until it’s time for you to sail out into the air. Once you’ve assumed this leaning position, there is no turning back. Your body is stretched so precariously that the simple opening of a hand will send you soaring.

Fifteen minutes of the class has probably elapsed at this point. There is only an hour and forty-five minutes left.

Next is the most basic trapeze trick—the knee hang. It’s more or less self-explanatory. You curl your knees into your chest in order to get them over the bar. Then you hang upside down by your legs and undo the process. Beginners tend to miss the gravitational cues that announce when to move to the next step. Flying trapeze relies entirely on your ability to use balance to your advantage. You become that pendulum from physics class, moving from one end of a trajectory to another. Only, in this case, you have the ability to increase your momentum by releasing your arms at one end of the knee hang and curling back into yourself at the other.

There is only one part left before the end of your basic training is over. There are thirty minutes left in the session.

For the last step of your foray into circus arts you will be asked to trust a stranger beyond the limits of most romantic relationships. On the ground, an instructor readies you. “It takes twelve seconds from the time you take off. Being off by one second ruins everything.” You will be hanging upside down from the bar. Swinging back and forth, the stranger will yell that he is ready. This is when you are supposed to reach backward to grasp the forearms of a strapping young man. He is also on the trapeze, pulling you off of your perch. You will hang in the faith of your increasingly firm hold on his skin.

From the audience this is a heart-racing moment. Though the net below and the harness rid the act of fatal danger, there is something both raw and brave in watching someone rely on another so fully. In the motion of straightening legs, normal people gain a grace that can rarely be found on the ground. For only a second, the two on the trapeze are suspended in the air. It takes watching a number of people take their first turns to figure out why: the person being caught always waits to lock arms before allowing their legs to let go of the bar. There is trust here but it isn’t perfect.
Some members of the class will never get the catch quite right. One woman has trouble with finding the rhythm of steps. By the time she swings to be caught, the other person has pulled too far away from her. Her husband can do it. So can her children and all of her friends. She is jealous. Discouraged. Before the last round of flights, she takes her harness off and gets ready to go.

To become a true trapeze artist you have to feed off the exhilaration of height. You need flexibility, strength, and above all else, a sense of yourself as a gravitational object. Trapeze is a sport like anything else. It builds strength and requires discipline but it also metaphorically—and literally—reaches something higher. The bar centers you in a unique way. Either you will find balance or you will fall. Short of trying something a little closer to the offering of your high school gym class, those are the only two options. People at the trapeze school come to the sport for many different reasons. Some have been gymnasts or dancers. Some came to accompany a friend and couldn’t stop doing it. One woman quit her job as a lawyer specializing in international law to travel for a year. When she gets back she is hoping to teach trapeze to others. People at this school—at least those in the upper levels—are not sure what they would do without it flying their lives. One woman says she has worried about the possibility of moving to a place without access to trapeze. This is a lifestyle and an addiction rolled into one.

It’s why true trapeze artists—those ones you’ve paid to see illuminated by stage lights—can make a possible activity seem wholly unattainable. As moving forms, their bodies are not what you are made of. This is not a matter of endurance or muscle tone. The need to be in the air is apparent from the first few swings. After dismounting from the bars, the more advanced students turn to their instructors in order to perfect their tricks. Few of them have real smiles but the thrill is clear on their faces. To trust the bar is to fly and to fall like Icarus. You know you have the ability to catch yourself on the way down. For the next swing, you will only push yourself higher.

It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.


(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.

Mother’s Day is a yearly obligation, like taxes, that sneaks up on me, fills me with dread and guilt, and forces me to tell a short series of little and white, only moderately willful–though potentially disastrous (at least if I get caught)–lies.

I know people who live for these things–these holidays and way-markers on the calendar.  I’ve felt and done it myself–even tried to do it on purpose in the manner of a deliberate outward-turning “lifestyle change.” I know that these things parse the metronomic passage of time into a reliable series of meaningful events, thereby turning the calendar into digestible avocational cycles of preparation, payoff, clean-up, and recovery.  The next life goal and feeling of accomplishment need only ever be as far away as the next major or minor holiday, birthday, or anniversary, and you can set your own cycle period by choosing to observe more or fewer of them, significantly reducing–if not eliminating completely–awareness of mortality and the indifferent siege of time.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.