Queer Femmes Respond – With a Golden Shovel!!

For my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, we just read One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. It’s an absolutely beautiful book, where she dialogues with poets like Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson using a form called the Golden Shovel, which she describes thus:

…take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original…then you write a new poem, each line ending in one of these words.

And about writing the Golden Shovel poems in her book, she says,

We live in a time when life is hard for many people. Yet there is reason to hope and to dig deep for the strength hidden inside of us. That is the message I take from Hughes’s poem (“Mother to Son”), and from all the other poems and poets included in this collection. That is also the message I explore in my own poems, inspired by these wonderful wordsmiths of the Harlem Renaissance.

I loved reading this book, and am lifted up and inspired by Grimes’s respect, love, and skill. Deep gratitude!!

This morning, I walked the dog, wearing my mask – uncomfortable – and feeling cut off from life. Anxious and grieving, I got home in not such a great mood. As I was looking at One Last Word sitting on my desk, I realized that I could reach out to a queer mentor or ancestor for hope and relief, just as Grimes did to her mentors and ancestors. Below is the Mark Doty poem I chose to dialogue with. Next week, when it’s gone through some more revisions, I’ll post my Golden Shovel poem.

Reading Doty’s poem again and then responding with my own words was an emotional experience. I wept. I felt better. I didn’t feel so hopeless or alone anymore. I felt held up by Doty, by all the queer writers who came before me and who are here with me now.

May you, too, be surrounded with queer love today and all the days.

Homo Will Not Inherit – by Mark Doty

Downtown anywhere and between the roil
of bathhouse steam — up there the linens of joy
and shame must be laundered again and again,

all night — downtown anywhere
and between the column of feathering steam
unknotting itself thirty feet above the avenue’ s

shimmered azaleas of gasoline,
between the steam and the ruin
of the Cinema Paree (marquee advertising

its own milky vacancy, broken showcases sealed,
ticketbooth a hostage wrapped in tape
and black plastic, captive in this zone

of blackfronted bars and bookstores
where there’ s nothing to read
but longing’ s repetitive texts,

where desire’ s unpoliced, or nearly so)
someone’ s posted a xeroxed headshot
of Jesus: permed, blonde, blurred at the edges

as though photographed through a greasy lens,
and inked beside him, in marker strokes:
HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT. Repent & be saved.

I’ ll tell you what I’ ll inherit: the margins
which have always been mine, downtown after hours
when there’ s nothing left to buy,

the dreaming shops turned in on themselves,
seamless, intent on the perfection of display,
the bodegas and offices lined up, impenetrable:

edges no one wants, no one’ s watching. Though
the borders of this shadow-zone (mirror and dream
of the shattered streets around it) are chartered

by the police, and they are required,
some nights, to redefine them. But not now, at twilight,
permission’ s descending hour, early winter darkness

pillared by smoldering plumes. The public city’ s
ledgered and locked, but the secret city’ s boundless;
from which do these tumbling towers arise?

I’ ll tell you what I’ ll inherit: steam,
and the blinding symmetry of some towering man,
fifteen minutes of forgetfulness incarnate.

I’ ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body,
pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation.
And I have been possessed of the god myself,

I have been the temporary apparition
salving another, I have been his visitation, I say it
without arrogance, I have been an angel

for minutes at a time, and I have for hours
believed — without judgement, without condemnation —
that in each body, however obscured or recast,

is the divine body — common, habitable —
the way in a field of sunflowers
you can see every bloom’ s

the multiple expression
of a single shining idea,
which is the face hammered into joy.

I’ ll tell you what I’ ll inherit:
stupidity, erasure, exile
inside the chalked lines of the police,

who must resemble what they punish,
the exile you require of me,
you who’ s posted this invitation

to a heaven nobody wants.
You who must be patrolled,
who adore constraint, I’ ll tell you

what I’ ll inherit, not your pallid temple
but a real palace, the anticipated
and actual memory, the moment flooded

by skin and the knowledge of it,
the gesture and its description
— do I need to say it? —

the flesh and the word. And I’ ll tell you,
you who can’ t wait to abandon your body,
what you want me to, maybe something

like you’ ve imagined, a dirty story:
Years ago, in the baths,
a man walked into the steam,

the gorgeous deep indigo of him gleaming,
solid tight flanks, the intricately ridged abdomen —
and after he invited me to his room,

nudging his key toward me,
as if perhaps I spoke another tongue
and required the plainest of gestures,

after we’ d been, you understand,
worshipping a while in his church,
he said to me, I’ m going to punish your mouth.

I can’ t tell you what that did to me.
My shame was redeemed then;
I won’ t need to burn in the afterlife.

It wasn’ t that he hurt me,
more than that: the spirit’ s transactions
are enacted now, here — no one needs

your eternity. This failing city’ s
radiant as any we’ ll ever know,
paved with oily rainbow, charred gates

jeweled with tags, swoops of letters
over letters, indecipherable as anything
written by desire. I’ m not ashamed

to love Babylon’ s scrawl. How could I be?
It’ s written on my face as much as on
these walls. This city’ s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

Every Friday, I showcase a queer femme goddess. I want to feature you! Write to me at thetotalfemme@gmail.com and let me shine a spotlight on your beautiful, unique, femme story! If you’ve written a femme story or poem or song, oh, please let me post it!

 New Femme Friday feature starting spring 2020: Queer Femmes Respond. Are you reading more poetry? Are you navigating various technologies in order to see your folx and not be so isolated? Are you still going out to work? Are you able to get out for walks? Who’s home with you? We queer femmes are meeting these unsettling times with queer femme panache, and I want to hear about it! Along the lines of the Corona Letters over at the Sewanee Review, please send in what you’re doing, how you’re staying centered and sane! Write me at thetotalfemme@gmail.com with questions or ideas or a full-on post (with bio, if possible)!

 At the Total Femme, my intention is to post three times a week: Meditations for Queer Femmes on Monday, Pingy-Dingy Wednesday on Wednesday and Femme Friday on Friday. Rather than play catch-up in a stressful fashion on those weeks when life prevents posting, I have decided to just move gaily forward: if I miss a Monday, the next post will be on Wednesday, and so on. Thank you, little bottle of antibiotics for inspiring me in this! (“…if it’s almost time for the next dose, skip the missed dose and continue your regular dosing schedule. Don’t take a double dose to make up for a missed one.”) As I undergo treatment for breast cancer, however, I’m just going to post whenever I can manage.