The Visit: A Poem
Interview with Sharon Doubiago
by Julia Doughty
Every book you’ve written is part of your epic, your story this lifetime, is about you placed within your family relations, your communities and places, your country, within current circumstances and looking back in time. Each book then, refers to the ones that came before. Your first book, Hard Country, started with your writing the story you already knew and what you were discovering about its greater contexts; you were writing it down. You were writing it down after a long self-imposed silence, the aftermath of your father’s sexual violations and a story you wrote anonymously about it and the academics’ reactions to that story. [See ENDNOTE 1 ]
The Visit (Wild Ocean Press; available from Small Press Distribution, www.spdbooks.org) comes after your two-volume My Father’s Love, which profoundly describes the complex contexts—personal, familial, social, historical—of your father’s sexual violations, and of your parents’ and siblings’ fundamental betrayals of your shared truths.
The Visit, an epic poem, focuses on your relationship with Kha-che-chee/Jack Retasket, Shuswap-Lilloet/Statlmx, who suffered abuse and rape as a child at the Kamloops Indian Residential [Catholic] School, and later, in his 50s, was imprisoned for weakly proven allegations of sexual violations of his girlfriend’s daughter.
Please talk about your view of how western colonial, patriarchal culture has fostered and framed male sexual violations. And how your contemplations of indigenous, matriarchal cultures have influenced your writing about this issue.
Much, maybe most of our psychoses, especially the commonness of sexual violations, are the result of our Western colonial, patriarchal culture, not as is generally preached and accepted, that, most basically, we are savages/rapists/sinners, that the Church and State “civilize” us; save us from our sins. I see our patriarchy—the State and the Church— at the roots of our profound dysfunctionalisms. The child is conceived inside the woman, matures there, is born to her, is traditionally raised by her. Maturation demands that the child reject her, the mother, and turn to the father, the male. It’s all there in the first story of Western Literature: the House of Atreus. This is the way I put it in the interview that accompanies the book poem The Husband Arcane The Arcane of O:
…I thought about the House of Atreus…of the killings that just keep on through the generations: Agamemnon tricks his daughter and wife into the sacrifice of the daughter, Iphigenia, so we can have the first patriarchal war, Troy. Then Clytemnestra, the mother, kills him for killing their daughter. And then their son, Orestes, avenges his father by killing his mother, Clytemnestra. This is the root of western literature and our legal system. It’s the same family but it is forgotten, with each subsequent play, what the original crime was. Patriarchal rule is fully established by Orestes’ trial when Athena, daughter of Zeus and presiding judge, declares her verdict: “I am wholly for the male…and entirely on the father’s side.”
Most men are innocent in the sense they’ve accepted their privileges and dominance as being State and God-given; it’s called growing up. Their privileged, patriarchal role frees them, or delivers them to all sorts of sins of hierarchy.
The psychodrama of the boy born from/to a woman, on whom he is dependent, for whom he experiences first love, but who then growing into manhood learns his primal connection to her is the very thing he must kill, to gain respect, to become “a man.” (Is there anything worse for the male than being called a Mama’s boy?)
Men like to think—well, the men I grew up with and many friends and lovers since—that their role is to liberate women by way of sex. Then to impregnate them and then imprison them and throw away the key (out of their own fear of patriarchy). In a visionary, even love sense they like to believe that they are the female’s liberator—and then her keeper.
Our legal, societal, religious notions encourage male sex violation. We encourage them to be “men,” that is, in some deepest sense, to be rapists. (Apologies for the reduction, offensive and inadequate, but just think of this for a minute!)
Why are men sexually attracted to children? Violating their own children is affirming as positive what was done to them, their own rapes. Violating their own children is affirming their manhood, their own fathers; it’s finding a primal connection equal to the mother’s. That’s only part of it, of male sexual attraction to children, but…well as I put it in The Visit:
The passivity of those in his mind
created nightly in his fantasy.
Children he creates
all by himself. Children
in his complete control
Superior Master God Child
he is his privacy
we guard as sacred
his vulnerability, deep fragility
our sons, our brothers, our father, our lovers
and he hates us for this (#13 c, p. 86)
Mainstream/patriarchal parental notions create the obedient, law-abiding human who then “sins” in a sexy disobedience rooted in loss and violation of the Self—to reaffirm not only the abandoned/lost Self but the parents’ abuse, maybe especially the mother’s—her betrayal being the deepest, most primal violation. But consciousness of this is avoided at all costs—i.e., it’s what we currently label denial.
In the study of matriarchal cultures is found profound respect for children. The child is holy. Such is also seen sometimes, more now, it seems to me, than in the past, in western parents in the birth and toddler years of the child.
But woe, after that, the child’s growing into a self less and less in the parents’ control…. I remember my devout Christian grandmother, my father’s mother, the one with whom I was deeply bonded, and named for, Lura, shaming us: “in my day the child was seen not heard.” Having now read her lifelong diary I know she was deeply unhappy, actually traumatized, by her husband’s violent abuse of their children, and probably of her too—my grandfather, my father’s father. Mistreatment and brutalization of children was rampant back then, encouraged and taught as good, i.e. “strict,” responsible parenting. My grandmother, a college graduate, a public school and Baptist Sunday School teacher, obedient, passive, a good wife and mother, couldn’t put such directly in words—his shocking brutalization and sexing of their children—but it comes through, undeniably. (The sexing has been confirmed by one cousin, the daughter of my grandparent’s daughter.)
“‘Irresistible’ sex is a much promoted, celebrated patriarchal myth.”(p. iv) The “habits” and practices of male sexuality, his tastes, fantasies and acts are rooted in identifying with the father and brothers. The addictions of alcohol and drugs are nothing to that addiction.
The notion that serious sexual violations, and hence our sexual dysfunctionalisms, stem from culture’s puritanism, its sex-as-sin dictum, was promoted by two noted Twentieth Century French philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and also by many Twentieth Century males of all walks, including several of my Cal State/LA college professors, and by the Sexual Freedom League prominent in my Southern California childhood. The prescription for liberated humans is that children be liberated through sex. As I tell in My Father’s Love I grew up familiar with that notion, mainly through my closest childhood friend, Gae, whose parents were sexing her as my father was sexing me. I tried to accept the idea as possibly holding truth but just not for me, not in any way. I hated it. I did love sex from my first lover at thirteen, Ramon, of the Kumeyaay people, of which I have written, experiencing it as triumph out of my hellish existence; I wasn’t just a victim of my father, I had my own sexual reality. The survival of the sexual in me felt like accomplishment and became identity. And it helped me to “understand” my father better.
What is natural? A few of my male friends still come from the position that liberating children to sex is beneficial for the child (of course not mentioning it being “beneficial” for them). And yet when you discuss or pursue this in study with former child victims, this is universally the great trauma. I have a poem about how the child, no matter how young—the infant! male or female—knows instantly when it’s being violated. That is, used/abused by the adult for his or her own pleasure. There’s this stanza:
August 23, 2008
In yesterday’s paper
a man was given life in prison
for teaching 3-5 year olds
how to dance sexually
for paying customers.
Well, again, why are men sexually attracted to children? And what is it about three-to-five year olds learning such? Why are they susceptible to embracing this as “growing up?”
Staying fierce to the truth of the hell I endured from my family, and then becoming a teenage mother, the profound experience of the birth and ensuing love for my son, shattered the prevailing societal notion—or rather, prevented the traditional abusive parental-child norm (labeled responsible parental discipline) from developing. This was a conscious rejection of the way I was parented. In becoming a parent I learned the ways I was wrongly parented. To imagine using your child sexually was/is a horrendous thought, absolutely the antithesis of love—and of care and guidance of the child. To not violate the child in solely psychological ways is a biggie too; almost impossible not to, at least at this stage of our human/social development. I was son-and-daughter-rooted, but still I was blind. It’s taken my whole life to get some of this!
I’ve a new memoir, 90% completed, about Ramon, with some of the focus on what happened that we ended up so different, i.e., his life in the military. He died of Agent Orange at age fifty-six. Most basically, Ramon was a victim of our hideous government, the courts, then the military—all with the co-existing racism. The blatant outright theft of this land from the Natives—of him from his family.
Ramon was Kumeyaay. He told me in junior high that he was Mojave. He really didn't know, nor did he know the history of his people. He was an orphan. Kumeyaay has other names:
mi Ipai , my Soboba, mi San Pasqual, mi Mesa Grande, mi
Digueño, mi Mission Indian, all names now for one boy
Ramon, mi first story
(2. “Toward Full Memory Forbidden, c. Looking For You Last Night”, p. 21) [See ENDNOTE 2]
I’m fairly certain now that Ramon was Kumeyaay, but not sure what the Mesa Grande say about this now. Naming can be a form of imprisonment. At his burial in 1997 on Mesa Grande they still insisted on being called San Diego Mission Indians. Well, his aunt, a major personality there, did. I've been on the Kumeyaay Internet site for a number of years now. I love it and nothing so far has called my naming him Kumeyaay in question.
Again, it’s taken my whole life to get some of this. Even so, I still cannot understand why more women don’t come from the root phenomenon of their children. The patriarchal indoctrination is profound. Women, with their children, remain the captured. This becomes the basic seed of misogyny: our mother failing us. Accepting our patriarchal roles reinforces that hatred, encourages the child’s divorce from her (as she is divorced from her own mother), etc.
Jack’s parents (of The Visit) finally acted in protection of their younger children; it took losing their older children to the Church imprisonment which they themselves had endured; it took maturation out of their youths of early parentage. They escaped Canada where it was the law to hand over your five year olds. But this meant, in the eyes of the US, the illegal act of crossing the border. And set Jack up for resentment that his parents left him behind, did not save him from the nightmare, his incarceration lauded as education and soul salvation. In fact, or so it felt to him, they deserted him.
The hypnosis which happens possibly more (or differently) for the male—well, there’s Michael Hureaux’s quote on the back of The Visit: “…the author herself is not prone to the dissociation patterns that male abuse survivors are able to enter due to male privilege. Almost all male abuse survivors adapt a dissociation pattern that leads us to being abusive in other directions connected to sex and intimacy....”
Julia: In The Visit you quote from The Husband Arcane The Arcane of O: “I ovulate against us.” What did this line mean in that poem, and how is it being applied in this new poem?
I mean the same in both poems: the change that will save us will be as deep, as fundamental, as the ovulation metaphor implies.
“I ovulate against us” focuses on the female’s need, and power, to change. To acknowledge her contribution and responsibility for our gender dysfunctionalism. To become a warrior for our children, foremost, before the husband. To change the self. A metaphor of physicality, yes, but I’m speaking, most basically, of the psychic evolution that is necessary—the recognition of just how indoctrinated we are.
I think here of an Autobiography of the Soul writing workshop I conducted in Minnesota in which several of the women participants wrote and told of being sexually violated at the age of two. In those remote, pristine Victorian farmhouses scattered across the state—wholesome, respectable, conservative, family-oriented, church-going Christian, etc.—the mothers carried their little girls to the beds of their fathers and grandfathers, as they themselves had been delivered by their mothers. Then, in present time and consciousness, the daughters confronting the mothers and receiving the identical response: “Yes, but we do not talk about it.”
Please note that this is Minnesota, not the South or Southern California stereotype of this common evil. It’s patriarchy not regionalism.
“I ovulate against us,” is recognition of just how deeply we are indoctrinated—physically, intellectually, soul-deep. How profoundly difficult is the task to change—even for love for our children, ourselves, our mates, our societies, our civilization. But this is what it’s going to take. We are all complicit.
Jack’s parents coming over the border to save their younger children from the rapist priests: it took them until midlife and a half dozen babies stolen from them to come to enough consciousness, of themselves and of their children, to finally act. Finally, they are realizing what happened to them—a radical realization. They are acting on the understanding that to save their remaining children they must “cross the border,” despite the law and loss of their home and people.
To realize that you have been violated is not an easy realization, especially by the ones responsible for your well-being, your survival. You depend of them for everything, you learn everything from them; they know what’s best. So much of the so-called success of our society stems from citizen denial and blindness. So much of the notion of America is based on an old concept of democracy: a man’s castle is his gated home; whatever goes on inside is of his righteous rule and none of anyone else’s business.
Julia: In The Visit you say:
Now with your arrest I learn in still another way
that to write autobiography, memoir, to open
to therapy, as you did in Canada
could require the police to be called
…Beware of knowing the truth
Beware, in America, in therapy, in Creative Writing
beware in writing your autobiography
you better write fiction, you better deny, you better
lie [# 6, p. 47]
Yet memoir is so popular these days, factual, semi-factual, and fraudulent. Both Jack and Beth, his girlfriend’s daughter, have written and told of their experiences, maybe factually and maybe not, and the state’s police and judicial system have intervened. What public reactions have you experienced to your style of memoir?
At first there was what felt a surprising, positive response, but then fairly quickly, nothing. Hardly anyone who raved about My Father’s Love, Volume 1 has read Volume 2. This is partly of the big publisher situation—how small presses are “handled”—in the attempt to control all publication. It’s even worse now than when I chose this route over New York, small presses rather than the big ones in order to have more control and more freedom in what I write. The bookstore in my own little town now doesn’t carry my publications—well, one copy of two books of mine. They’ve never had Volume 2. There’s the aggressive campaign by the big publishers and few surviving chain bookstores of the past ten years of categorizing/dismissing small press publications as “self-published.” Recently Wild Ocean Press got that categorization from the NEA, disqualifying the books listed on the applications published by it (until the publisher protested). There are many such fine, important literary books, for which the world is fortunate, and in great need of—a good argument is made that this is where the serious writing is happening—but hey, our publications must not count—oh, the ethics of capitalism!—we are not in the Commercial money-making Main World, and of course there are not the avenues of distribution and acclaim as with the mainstream. How many independent bookstores have closed in the past ten years much to the delight of the Biggies? The Big Publishers believe in the ethics of competition, they feel righteous in killing small presses (which again have greatly expanded the quality and variety of what is published, i.e. what they need to control). Now it’s like they’ve let us go on with our “self-publishing” by way of the Internet, while they’ve taken over the reading public, closed the independent bookstores, made sure we don’t count. In significant ways we are dismissed more than ever.
Whitman’s Song of Myself was self-published. Wasn’t Alexander Poe self- published? Aphra Behn of England of the 1600s—the list of the classics originally self-published is long and impressive. Many of our current best poets—oh the many women! All of Sam Hamill’s books were published by his own press, Copper Canyon. Jack Hirschman. How many women just never got their writing to the light? My grandmother for one, she was a lifelong writer, a poet and a diarist, but never “published.”
Susan Suntree’s Sacred Sites, The Secret History of Southern California, (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) is an extraordinary and brilliant example of a different kind of poetry than is mainly taught in the MFA programs—what she labels as Documentary Poetry. I don’t see “Documentary Poetry” as much different from Ed Sanders “Investigative Poetry,” which I’ve labeled The Visit. Maybe “Investigative” includes the investigator, the writer—its story and situation—into the document. But both stem from a vision, actually a grasp of the Other that must be taken in, that cannot be excluded.
Much poetry is a form of memoir. Memoir (and poetry) presents serious dangers to a right wing/politically conservative society—unless you stick to the old Classicist formulas.
To free yourself from the facts and just dream linguistically—just make it up! Be creative! With memoir becoming so popular this stance quickly flooded the How-To Creative Writing classes, magazines, books and New York publishers’ advice. This stems from the psychological/societal/political need to squelch the actual facts and truth. The emotional truth is the real truth, not the facts—how often is that mouthed! The dangers to “them” of memoir writing—and yet the attraction, yes as you say, it is more popular than ever. Out of this I developed The Autobiography of the Soul writing workshop, i.e., how not to write your parents’ and societies’ account of you, but your own.
Along with the threat of memoir and small presses, there is the demise of free state colleges. Chained to your parents’ financial support, therefore to your extended childhood, the ongoing control by them, or to the future debt you incur through the student loan programs, you are less able to evolve, to tell the truth, to write personal nonfiction, that is, to become truly educated, self-enlightened and informed. Our parents do not want us to write autobiography! For me fiction is mostly Old World, Establishment, mostly boring. False and convoluted and absurd and distancing, immoral and untruthful, stemming from blackmail! Rooted finally in political conservativism —right wing fascism to maintain the Establishment.
In 1973 Norman Mailer got wind of Nixon and his cabinet declaring war on “free education”: the working class obtaining education is what is behind the mass rebellions. We must stop free education! Mailer mailed a copy of that meeting to thousands and thousands of libraries around the country. My love then, Max, was a librarian. I think I still have Mailer’s letter.
There are two basic traditions of poetry: one is the formal, Classicist, Aristotle one—form first, that is, class!—and the other is what Charles Olsen labeled Projective Verse, projecting from the self out to the world. “Form is never more than an extension of content.” Projective Verse for me are the images, words, truths, stories and poems coming from the inner truths, mine and everyone’s, our collective inner selves, however different we are, but what would come out, wants to come out, if we could liberate ourselves enough. The Beats: “First thought, best thought” is from this consciousness. Though that was never exactly true of me. I was mute, I was tongue-tied, I was a stutterer, I was silenced by the enormity and profundity of the actual. Maya Angelou was made mute too by her rape at eight by her mother’s boyfriend and his subsequent murder by her uncles. To find adequate, right words to express what I want to express will always be a struggle for me, not the thought or flash of knowledge. My first drafts are barely readable, at least to those who bow at Grammar’s (and Form’s) throne—but it took a lot to just grasp that self-fact, about language and thought, etc. and more to say it. I couldn’t produce much in the Creative Writing workshops I took in college because of this. Even now, when set down in such a class, I can’t. I can’t write that way: rules first, before content. The law before content. This is why teaching was so problematic for me in the beginning. And thus the development of the Autobiography of the Soul workshop….
We were teaching for the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, a position my important friend, a wildly successful, highly awarded, influential, young, semi-political poet had gotten me. After a few days our boss informed her “Doubiago doesn’t go.” We were in her motel room, juggling emergency phone calls to and from her reporter fiancé in Lebanon under bombardment. She lay on her back on the sofa beneath me on the bar stool and opened her legs to me; she was not wearing panties. She was bargaining with me. As no doubt she had been bargained: this is how you do it. There are those who can open their bodies to be used in order to use the other—to be useful, you could say. But “Doubiago doesn’t go.” I was coming from poetry’s purity. Go where? To be the boss at the top—to be the poet laureate of the US, his goal even then which he accomplished, dictating everything he wrote, what he was building. Myself, rooted in the drop-out movement of my generation, I knew that trap, I was trying for the best writing I could do, that’s what going to the top meant for me, not a career path. I’ve always cited, even then, that to write greatly is different than writing to be acclaimed/awarded greatly. This had been the big break-through for me, breaking the blocked inside (no doubt the full story is told in The Book of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes). “Doubiago doesn’t go.” He grasped that I would never fall in line. I wouldn’t obey him, I didn’t come from that aesthetic line and tradition.
The bombs were falling on Lebanon where her love was. I went into my old stammering. Muteness. I could no more be seduced by her than I could be by our boss. But I’m not guilty of the accused hubris, a fact that surely shows through my varied works. Maybe there are no absolute rules, you have to find your own way, your own self, the aesthetic of each and every poem—and resist those who fight for one way only and ruthlessly kill all other ways. They label us as “political,” when in fact they are the politicos, aligned with the rulers. Ugh, the politics of poetry.
Julia: I went to the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in 1984 and 1985. I went there specifically to see you, to take your workshop, get a one-on-one consultation, see you read. I’d found you via an L.A. Times article—you were a waitress—as I was!—and from there I read Hard Country, which was an answer to everything, how to be a poet the way I am, and how to write about the way I viewed the self, family, the U.S., and our times. What else you did for me, that first conference, was when I asked you if I should continue writing, you said yes, for sure, keep writing. The way you did your reading seemed so authentic, so honest, so personable; it inspired me to the belief that I could do this too, come out of my own protective silence.
I didn’t know about the behind-the-scenes conflict that you’re talking about here. But the very first lecture I went to, the first day, a poet was talking about the difficulty of finding where to break lines in poems. And I heard some heavy sighing behind me. I looked, and two rows behind me, I felt certain, was you, the one who had sighed. Then in the Q & A, you said it was organic, the line breaks best when it is in accordance with the breath. I was so happy to hear you say that!
Julia: You present the problems with Jack receiving a fair trial and raise the issue of the inhumanity of prisons.
The danger of finding a guilty person innocent is far less than the danger of finding an innocent person guilty. I grew up on that, my mother’s mantra. “Better a guilty person go free than an innocent person be found guilty.” Isn't this a main vision of US law? Of democracy? I see my mother standing over the Hollydale floor heater, warming herself and lecturing this. I had no idea then that she was coming from her little girl horror for her father, Guy Clarke, her only surviving parent, behind bars. I’m with Angela Davis on this: abolish all prisons! (Check out The Prison Abolition Movement! I’m told there’s an important essay on this in the current Sun Magazine, "Criminal Injustice: Maya Schenwar on the Failure of Mass Incarceration" an interview of Schenwar by Tracy Frisch. June, 2015 stemming from her book published in November 2014: Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better.)
Julia: You quote from Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence: “The sadist and masochist are one person.” You say,
The prison system
made by the S&M of our culture
needs to be changed
what do we do
in the meantime
with psychopathic killers? (The Trial, # 7 d, “Abolish All Prisons”)
Psychopathic killers are the creation of our patriarchal system into which the boy (aren’t they almost always male?), born from his mother, dependent on her (for all his basic needs, i.e., his diapers changed!), clinging to her through childhood, but who in maturity must reject her, embrace the father, to find his so-called masculinity. With the abolishment of our penal system, which I have advocated since college, there would be much less of the sadomasochistic psychopathy that is core with our legalities.
But in fact, there’s a fifth section, “e. Love”, that’s missing here. There were many frustrations and crises in the writing of The Visit, some of which I still don’t understand, but I had one more section right there that came in realization that this—what you cite here—is inadequate. But somehow I lost it and outrageously failed to get back to it. As I remember it sort of assumes your implied question. Here it is, following d. Abolish All Prisons:
make a small hole to see outside
attempt the escape, jump
into the ocean,
know yourself as the newborn
know yourself as holy
know all others as holy
take the chance
don’t fall back
into their nightmare
But I still don’t know if it works.
Julia: Recalling the revelations that surfaced after Michael Dorris’ suicide of his abuse and sexual violations of his children, you question the happiness Louise Erdrich describes in her The Blue Jay’s Dance. Maybe The Round House is her answer to those years, a story of revenge—maybe at the time of the abuse she was feeling incapable of taking protective action? Maybe she really was in so much denial she didn’t see the signs?
Well, there you are, Julia, in beautiful defense of her. This is our humanity, our beauty, but also our complicity.
I suspect that she is still in denial. Maybe this is part of my difficulty with “fiction,” its complicity with the psychology and politics of denial. And what I keep circling, the wife’s, the mother’s, the sister’s capitulation in traditionally siding with the father against the raped child. Erdrich came out with The Blue Jay’s Dance at the exact moment of their ongoing real life nightmare, 1995—their adopted son suing him for sexual abuse and incest. She won our love and support in writing of the birth of a child, demonstrating how much she loves the child! This suggests “using” in a very bad way. They, the parents, were doing everything in their power to counter the children’s legal cases against him. To use, to build their own cases of innocence against their own children.
I would not want to be her adopted Native child.
But I haven’t read enough of Louise Erdrich to really say. What I have read, and have heard her read, however beautiful and poetic and of the Native, is still too formulaic for my tastes. Yes, of course, she deserves compassion and support, but as with the Forgive-Them-Father-They-Know-Not-What-They-Do edict, forgiveness is not possible without first confronting the violation and one’s own guilty participation in what has happened.
Women side with the man against their own children—this is undeniable. With the father, husband, the male figure over the child, and with the Law—as did my own mother and sister. Onto abusing, sexing, even killing the child—in their case, the possible murder of that oldest adopted Sioux child, Abel Dorris, who was suing them right then. But mainly—the siding with the man—by the much rewarded and reinforced force of denial. Still, I don’t understand this, given the powerful loveforce for our children, why that love doesn’t overrule the abusive man.
There’s Erdrich’s great critical and popular acclaim, her star position by the publishing industry; her important Native American focus; her identity, her income. That she sided with him, not the children, is again the law of patriarchal marriage. The husband is her Love, their children are secondary, are property that she makes and gives him, the Master, to use as he pleases. That’s patriarchy!
In a poem “Dear Lover My Daughter” I quote a close male poet:
A man would have to be a corpse not to turn on
to your awesome girl in a very basic way.
And of course, you know as well as I do
phallic energy never learns a damn thing. And you know as well
both mother and daughter are dependent on him
so much so they are unable to know
what he is doing to them.
We must ovulate against this!
But again I don’t know Erdrich’s work well enough to say more, and I wish her well, especially in the continuance of her magnificent, important Native American themes.
Julia: You refer to your poems “Alima,” “Crazy Horse,” and “The Husband Arcane The Arcane of O”. What were the meanings of these poems when you wrote them and how do their meanings apply in The Visit?
The “Alima” poems scattered through Body and Soul stem originally from a battering by my love in Vermont before I knew myself as a poet, of walking all night in icy Fall mountains, about twenty miles, rather than getting back in the car with him, and the notes I took as I walked, physically bruised and once again psychically bruised. I loved him. That long freezing scary night walk—I can be there again in a sec—I kept myself going with writing those notes.
In the compilation of Body and Soul years later I needed to alternate its strong narrative poems—narrative being a new phenomenon for me, not of the more common childhood root, the adoration/addiction to fairytales which I personally despised from earliest memory for the programing; finding/allowing story was a radical leap for me!—with the freer, wilder, more linguistic, experimental mindset and structures of my origins. In Plainfield Vermont, a fantastic community of clashing poets that ultimately inspired me to end my five-six year vow not to write, it was once again, as when I took that vow, the LANGUAGE poets I was most drawn to. I wanted to write from non-meaning, non-story, that linguistic exploratory stance. (See the “I and I in Language” essay at the end of the second print of Hard Country for an in depth account of this.)
Then into the following Spring I was haunted by the news story of Patty Hearst’s disappearance. (She was kidnapped from Berkeley February 4, 1974 and remained missing for nineteen months.) For those months I kept journal notes of the daily news, including the Watts police bombardment and murders in May before we left Vermont to return to California in July. Both Max and I grew up in nearby-Watts neighborhoods. The probability that Patty Hearst was in that little stucco two-bedroom like the one I grew up in, that her safety was not an issue—even if she was the granddaughter of William Randolf Hearst—that they firebombed the place even though, or maybe especially because they believed that she was in there—well, among other significances, that house burning, with the two year Eastern contempt for “LA” that I’d endured, I realized my love of Southern California, its deep rootedness in me. I grew up, by the way, less than a mile from the poet Wanda Coleman’s childhood home; Wanda and I, unbeknownst to each other, were practically neighbors.
With the return to California, “Outlaw” (i.e. Patty Hearst) became a first completed poem, along with my first booklength poem Chinatown. I was reading Kevin Starr’s just published Americans and the California Dream, from which the movie Chinatown stems, a first public story of incest—for me anyway.
Julia: “A first public story of incest”? Can you explain this? I don’t get this—the story of the water diversion being a story of incest?
I am still in the shock at what was revealed at the end of that magnificent movie—remember I am not a movie lover—that the woman—played by Faye Dunaway—had (all along) a hidden daughter, maybe ten years old, who was the product of her father's rape of her. It was brief, never really explained (as I remember), but for me undeniable. I still see those two-three scenes—so like the denied images from the unconscious. "The story of the water diversion being a story of incest?" I've pondered this combo too ever since. I'll have to locate my Chinatown poem to answer this better. I’ve said ever since I only saw the film once—but now, it seems I did see it a second time a few years later to verify the incest part.
My Chinatown poem is ten to fifteen beautifully hand-printed pages plus an awesome cover by Modern Prometheus Press of Albion, published in 1976 anonymously, at my insistence. My first publication, but I was still writing, almost exclusively, LANGUAGE-oriented Alima poems, maintaining my vow to never tell on my father.
But it began to dawn on me that my attraction to LANGUAGE poetry was largely from my denial of my own story, my continuing to run from it (and my family), and from the political denial/manipulation of so much. This realization was a final propulsion for me into my own story and voice, at least the search for it. To actually come out as a poet.
“Outlaw” (published in Psyche Drives The Coast), while lauded with stunning audience responses, is in a style with which I am still a bit uncomfortable, especially in regards to my root affinity with LANGUAGE. Something about the simplistic facts, the reduction, as it seemed, to telling, the fairy tale cadence, the reductions of so much into the mythic.
Don’t shoot, I’ve
eaten this country alive
and I am gone
like the semen you spilt to the ground
when you fantasized me a whore
and then would not love me
for fear I was a whore
There’s definitely a narrative and a meaning, hard as I tried to resist such, holding its eight pages together. But I’m grateful to have managed “Outlaw”—that is: to have written it, and then allowed it to be published. That self-censoring/muting consciousness had been basic in my vow of silence. These days, with all my other published work that demonstrates my roots in other aesthetics, there is not the old embarrassment.
The “Alima” poems are more language-inspired/focused, again my earliest aesthetic, rather than of narrative, a story line, or coming to some obvious spiritual/philosophical sense/point. My Alimas are not as abstract or philosophically-based as demanded by LANGUAGE—no doubt I am more image-and rhythmic-oriented than they would approve, but, well for me, again, it’s back to my roots as a poet, what I had tried so hard to pull off in the beginning: no sure conclusion, no summing up, no story telling
if in the roots I get lost
in the clouds, if my trunk, my tusk, my hair, my vulva, my Zebra
tailbone, testicle, protozoa, forgive me Love, I
forgive you Moon your white
disappearing night beneath me …
if on me the sun, coming back, your whole self
if the sun goes back…
I put on…
song of the ripples over rocks in the creek to the Lillooet
and the Shuswap your mother and father where uncle
betrayed the Okanagan Salish our eggs
the Chilcotin and the Yalakom plus others on the Gun
the sound of waters the ones beneath and never birthed
Obviously, this was inspired by my love for Jack.
“Crazy Horse” was a powerful dream (March 25, 1979) that I couldn’t ignore, which I report as the poem in Hard Country, as the structural center of that work, couldn’t sweep under as I had most nightmares. I was reading Mari Sandoz’s beautiful Crazy Horse, The Strange Man of the Oglalas, and, so unlike me, had decided not to read the second-to-last chapter of his betrayal/murder. I literally felt I couldn’t take it. But then I fell asleep, in the middle of that Sunday afternoon, so unlike me too, and had the dream, a nightmare so powerful it erupted into consciousness, clearly coming from my deepest, much denied experience—with myself, my father, my family, my first love, Ramon, with my country’s genocidal history. It seemed like Crazy Horse himself was telling me. Coincidentally, March 25 is Jack’s birthday (who I met fifteen years later). Yes, as outrageous, as objectionable as it will be to some, in me Jack connects with Crazy Horse. Their tribes are basically of the same longitude, just a few hundred miles north and south from each other.
Of course, I knew, and had since I was thirteen with Ramon, my social trespass, the taboo from all sides, that I was not to relate in any way to Native Americans. Though my mother had always insisted “never forget! We are Indian.” The western North Carolina mountain Cherokee, her father’s side, is verified in the records but actually she always said “we are Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee.” It was her maternal side, the most victimized in her childhood, the least legally protected, that she related most to. Most probably we are coastal Lumbee, who were labeled Cherokee until 1952, and are still fighting for recognition. Repeatedly she said "we are Indian." Repeatedly she said “don’t ever forget that.”
Why my mother had not shame for her Indian heritage remains one of the most amazing and beautiful facts. She was raised in the Danville Hughes School orphanage by widows of Confederate Dead officers to be "well-bred"! Admittance required the child to be one hundred percent white. All I can figure is that this identity and pride was instilled in her very early, before the family was destroyed by the State and Church, before all the deaths. Her grandmothers pounded it in, “Don’t ever tell, but don’t ever forget!”
My mother, Garnet Audrey Clarke was born in Sanford, North Carolina in 1920 before her family, driven out of Town Creek/Southport, NC as Lumbee Indians, made it to Danville, Virginia. (The 1897 violent, right wing, racist take-over of Wilmington North Carolina, and surrounding area, which had voted in black and Native Americans to the Mayor’s office, a take-over that was ongoing for decades, is only recently well-documented.) The women, including her mother, died of TB (or Brown Lung Disease, byssinosis) within a couple of years of work in the Dan River Cotton Mill, and the men, bootlegging, were busted and sent to prison. In 1924, the Racial Integrity Act, the so-called One Drop Rule of the eugenicists, arguably as racist as any ever in the US, became law in Virginia—one drop of Indian blood made you illegal forever. That's when so many Native survivors went into hiding, including my grandparents on both sides, avoiding naming their tribes on the written records. But they instructed Garnet as she was put into Hughes’ orphanage to never tell, but never forget: you are Indian. When I was a girl she said Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee like mantra; later her sister Mozelle found Lumbee. The mountain/Appalachian Cherokee part is validated. I've worked against profound pressure not to forget.
The Husband Arcane The Arcane of O (Gorda Plate Press, Mendocino, 1996)—the O.J. Simpson poem—begins with another nightmare: waking in OJ’s body as he is murdering Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. I met Jack right at that booklength poem’s completion. My publisher, Beth Bosk, of the important The New Settler Interview/Gorda Plate Press, a white woman with black children who had sided with O.J. explained, “Because I have black sons, because I know directly how hazardous living in this country can be for them, that verdict was a good verdict for my family….” She was saying guilt or innocence is not the deepest issue here. But “your poem forces these considerations. Your poem dredges through what many many women wish they could speak. What they mean. What they want to say. It isn’t going away. It wants to be voiced.” (p. 69-70 of The Husband Arcane The Arcane of O.)
Now I’m a bit amazed at the correlates between The Husband Arcane and The Visit. How did Jack’s performance with me happen at its debut reading, Valentine’s Day, 1996 at the Paris Theater in Portland Oregon? My welcoming Jack on the stage though we had never rehearsed? Though I knew he didn’t know my work, or anything about contemporary poetry. It’s the photo on the cover of The Visit. (Valentine’s Day, by the way, is my father’s birthday. ) [See ENDNOTE 3 ]
My ongoing Native American theme, yes,
but it has nothing to do with my bookpoem
about OJ and Nicole
though there is the issue of race
and, as if prescient, the issue of us, of this poem
the issue of gender
the issue of abuse
the issue of innocence and guilt
the issue of masochism
the issue of sex
the issue of murder
the issue of love (#2, Toward Full Memory Forbidden, d. Six Weeks Later, February 14, 1996….)
Julia: You address the old rationale of “irresistible” and the ensuing typical line of reasoning to answer the whys for sexual violation. And writing this poem may have been an even greater risk than writing My Father’s Love, because you are discussing the topic via the life of Jack, who is not a family member.
I consider #13, “Irresistible,” the heart-core of the poem, at least for me.
There is the enormous issue of trust, of communication, of fidelity—with Jack, with anyone in his position, with telling his story. With the awareness of how evil and corrupt the prison system is. In the writing of My Father’s Love there was the psychic undertaking, the constant questioning, of trusting and testing my own memories and accounts, of writing it from that, from the search, of ever-going for the truth, coming from the facts, not from my opinion, my fantasies and wishes, not allowing even good writing, that is, poetry, above the truth, as is urged in most memoir/poetry teachings, but from the self: any and all mistakes are clearly mine. In writing from First Person you are taking on the obligation of telling the truth as near as you can, while acknowledging with every word that this is simply your truth, to the best of your knowledge. As hard, as conscientious as you try to be you might make mistakes. This is a holy/spiritual commitment and endeavor—with your people, all people. You accept the blame for any mistakes, and for any truths that you bring out of the closet.
With Jack I don’t know the full facts, there’s no way that I could, ever. He vehemently maintains his innocence.
I’ve heard, all my life, accounts of innocents confessing, in facing the odds of their predicament—just confess, and it will go lighter for you. Stories of those who confess to what they are not guilty of. Jack was made this offer during his trial in Newport Oregon—to claim Diminished Capacity and receive one third the sentence. He rejected this offer. Thus he received the maximum sentence. The burden/responsibility of taking on another’s story, including having to juggle the possibility of denied guilt—a very difficult requirement for one such as myself who protected her sexually-abusive father. Knowing Jack’s tragic real-life history, knowing the evil of the Church-State-Prison system, and my own soul-driven propensity, as I say in the poem: I stand by him even if he’s guilty. There’s the profound statement by the jury that found Dennis Banks and Robert Roberdeau innocent—while within a year, another jury found Leonard Peltier guilty of the same “crime” and sent him to prison for life—citing the indisputable fact that their civilization had been destroyed by ours.
Again, innocent until proven guilty: supposedly that’s what our legal/court system is based on, not guilty until proven innocent. But as I quote a defense lawyer from a New York Times story: “Ask any experienced defense lawyer: the real risks are for an accused person who is innocent. A guilty defendant has many more options available.”(p.70)
What happened to Jack in our legal system was the assumption of his guilt.
I grew up hearing my mother’s constant reminiscing (from deepest trauma, I know now) about the incarceration of her Cherokee-Irish father, which led to his early death. Conceivably a police murder. That’s a long poem I haven’t finished.
And well, what if Jack is guilty? With my history I can well imagine it, but I don’t know that, that’s just my imagination, as my father’s voice still accuses me from out of the Universe.
Again, in writing First Person we are taking on full responsibility. Any mistakes, any “fiction” is clearly our own burden/responsibility. In speaking from/of another we are endangering that other, no matter how much we aim to help. That’s a fact, a reality, inescapable.
I’m waiting for Jack’s full response. I know he’s hurt and dismayed. He’s spent eleven years now in prison, all the while writing to me. I think he assumed that I’d come out in screaming, full-righteous support of his innocence, despite my ongoing efforts to be open and honest with him, to tell him and share with him what I was writing, and how I write.
I maintain my full support of him, innocent or guilty. I needed to come from the possibility that he is guilty in order to go to an even deeper issue, at least in terms of this writing, and to be believable myself: this enormously hideous, common crime that we are so unable to look at—the ongoing sexual violation of children. And of course, of the penal system, racism, sexism. etc.—all the evil “America” is guilty of. (Corrections wouldn’t let him receive # 3, 4, and 5, to read for his corrections and approval, though all of it had been written by him to me from inside there.)
There’s talk now of keeping convicted sex criminals in jail even after they’ve served their time. Ha! to keep private prisons in business! Here we are, back in the Dark Ages, against which my mother always said was the greatness, the foundation of America, all men are innocent until proven guilty. And so I take it to the next bath tub lecture: but Mama what if he is guilty? What then?
“No man is guilty,” she responded.
Julia: In the last section of the poem, you say: “I will be big as love for you I will be wise enough O World.” And in your preface, “I Am My Brother’s Keeper,” you explain:
Few have understood my fidelity and unwavering love for my father
which I learned through prayer and my childhood church, Trinity Bible
Church up on the corner of Industrial and Main, in Hollydale, California.
The soul-deep example and spiritual lesson of Jesus saved my sanity. (I do
not refute that now, though—and I must state this—I disavow the
Christian church.) Jesus taught me to Love and to Forgive and to know a
kind of Negative Capability, John Keats’ complexity of thought and
possibility. I never hated my father, I hated what he did to me. “Forgive
them Father, they know not what they do.” Black and white thinking, as
my father himself lectured (though trying to beat me down) is war
mentality; truth and genuine resolutions are found in deeper approaches.
This is a radical message. What has it cost you, to adhere to this position, among feminists, among False Memory advocates, Stockholm Syndrome proponents, among writers of biography, among those who would jail the criminal under the Megan Law?
To lose this root connection would be to lose the poet in myself. That root enables the poetry. I’d go once again into the muteness of my childhood.
To lose my important friends—well, to deep heartbreak, I have lost many beloved ones, male and female. Poets, politicos, sisters, family, regular folks.
To lose big press publication…. Well, I made that decision long ago, I accepted the invitation to New York from the top three women agents that Gloria Steinem arranged for me. I ended up turning them down. I never wrote for “success,” “fame,”etc. I wanted to write the truth, at least of the search for truth, impossible from a formula. So I chose to publish with small presses. (Amazingly, I have been published twice by the University of Pittsburgh, not exactly a small press. I cannot thank Ed Ochester enough for this.)
It has cost me full-on respect, validation, and thus reputation and availableness as a poet. My books, I can well imagine, would be difficult to teach in the parent-paid and student-debt MFA programs now.
It has cost me the opportunity of being in the harem of the Napa boss on his way to D.C. Ha! No way! No way could that have ever happened. I’m grateful.
Poetry that stems from the current, class-based and moneyed MFA programs, in contrast to the brilliant, revolutionary, soul-rooted poetry and consciousness of the 60s-90s, when many of us were educated not by our parents, but by free state colleges and the free presses, and thus not required to stay loyal to our parents aesthetics/politics hypnosis. Their instructions. Their blackmailing brainwashing constructs. Instead, by our own soul-root connections—at least to the search for such.
I’ve lived most of my years as a poet on the road in my van, a wonderful life not silenced by a big writer job, by writing as a “career.” Robert Duncan tells of the power of the vocalized poem, the sound going out into the universe and continuing forever, even if no one is in the immediate “audience.” Yes.
“Doubiago doesn’t go,” the poet boss announced. The shock for me remains the notion of his working aesthetic, the notion that the poet is supposed to come from a formula, an order—from obedience, allegiance. (This is no doubt from his Stanford education, Ivor Winters whose disdain and censorship of Robinson Jeffers just on the other side of the coastal range, continues as orders.) Not the exploratory, the creative. Not the self directly up against the cosmos. Again, that’s a poetry I can’t evoke—that same evolving order as from my parents and society: law and order first. Don’t tell. Don’t remember. Don’t know. Lie. Fall in line. Write Hallmark card poems—but in a superior, elevated language of snobbery, of class. The Classicists have always demanded, like my parents and communities and bosses, our muteness—except for the words they order, approve, and intend to maintain.
What has it cost me? Well, never going for the coveted top positions, only for the highest writing—again, fundamental for me—I’ve not worried too much about this. What this has allowed me is my fantastic life on the road.
I do worry now—maybe I always have—about my work being preserved. How lowly, such a concern! But I was told repeatedly, even before I started, that my work would be read and recognized after I was dead. My horoscope says the same thing, as do the lines of my palm, as do my occasional fortune tellers. Outrageous to cite such, but I suppose there’s something there for me. Who knows? Maybe those wonderful “fortunes” have kept me going.
How do we keep going? We’re still of the long American frontier era in which each generation has to start anew, as if nothing has gone before, as if all the past is forever buried, must not be known. No future, no past. That data/info must be controlled.
As if publication is the issue, not the writing. I’ve got Maude Lura Chitwood Edens’ diary, my grandmother’s “work” from age nine to the day she died at age seventy-three, 1889 to November 1953, one of the most important works I’ve ever read, even if I am the only one who has, or ever will. I am so grateful.
Julia: Was Maude the one who was murdered?
No. Maude Lura is my father's mother, who was of five abolitionist families of Winchester Tennessee, the grandmother I knew, who was so important to me. I am still digesting the fact of the infamous Corn/Chitwood/Sharp abolitionist families, detested and greatly persecuted after the war, and that my grandfather, her husband, was the son of a Confederate soldier, and that this is the reason they were forbidden to marry. He, Marion Avon Edens, was disowned when he married Maude anyway, resulting in his having to work his whole adult life in the miserable Ducktown Copper Mine.
It’s my mother's grandmother, Elizabeth Reynolds Simmons, who was raped and murdered September 14, 1935 in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the age of sixty-three, which I didn't know until our visit there in 1988. It was a carefully guarded secret. See Chapter 20 of Volume 2 of My Father's Love. p. 210.
Julia: And what you are working on now and looking towards doing?
I've spent the time since completing The Visit trying to organize the many poems, uncategorized, unpolished, unpublished, mainly of the past fifteen years, and deal somehow with finishing—even the ones I doubt would be of value to poet readers. Those poems have special places in my heart! Maybe I’ll call that particular collection “Diary.” (I think here of the Robert Creeley’s revelatory volume of diary poems, A Day Book.)
There are the unpublished but finished manuscripts: Naked to the Earth, poetry; Why She Loved Him, memoir stories; I And I: O Love/ Personal Essays on the Poet's Life and the Vocation of Writing (from ninety individually published essays); Mama Coyote Talks to the Boys/Essays from an Ecofeminist (most essays published); The Structure of Molly Bloom, Literary Criticism, (1969-1974), 600 pages.
There are the works in progress: New Poems (untitled, nearing completion: several volumes); Son, memoir (many individual chapters published); My Nazarene, memoir (re my Palestinian grandson, first chapter published in The Santa Monica Review; accepted also by the Harvard School of Theology, and The Feminist Journal); Ramon/Ramona, I Love You, memoir/creative nonfiction (early version published in five issues in the San Diego Reader, 1995); Perdita's Father: My H.D., memoir/creative nonfiction/literary essay, several chapters published); The Autobiography of the Soul: how-to-write memoir based on years of teaching Creative Writing; Johnny Manynames, novel; Electric Violin, novel.
I intend to live long enough to pull these off. And any and all that keeps coming, mainly the poems.
1. The short story, “California Daughter,” was eventually published in Aphra, New York. Spring Summer, 1976, another first publication, though I had written it six years before in graduate school.
2. According to recent Google entries, Mesa Grande is Ipai. Mesa Grande is on the geographical border between the Ipai and the Tipai, no doubt part of the confusion. The Mesa Grande people have related to, and still to this day, as best as I understand, to the Ipai, Soboba–San Jacinto/Hemet-based tribe. Helen Hunt Jackson left significant money and love to these people who she claimed were her favorite, a fact that is rooted in the historical outdoor pageant “Ramona” mounted there every year in Hemet. In places the Mesa Grande Reservation is only a few miles from Ramona (San Diego County), but the children were picked up by the Riverside Sherman Residential School bus at age five, enrolled there, and not allowed to return home during the school year for the rest of their childhoods. This no doubt accounts for some of the confusion. There has always been dispute about the Santa Ysabel affiliation, just two-three miles down the road from Mesa Grande. Some of the tribe fiercely maintains the San Diego Mission Indian status while others the northern affiliation. I suspect this is Church-anti-Church history, which can be well-imagined. The claims by the Santa Ysabel Mission and the San Diego Mission of the Mesa Grande people is possibly rooted in the historically violent conquest and enslavement. The warriors that attacked the San Diego Mission in November 1775, killing the priest, were from the area that became known as Ramona and Mesa Grande.
3. My father was born February 14, 1916. His father, my grandfather, Avon Edens, was born on February 15, 1878. Many close friends and significant loves, mostly males, were born around February 14: Gae Walters, Charlie (of Hard Country), Keith (my 2nd husband), Johnny (my 3rd husband), Alan Scouten, Robert Yoder, and there are others.
Sharon Doubiago’s memoir, My Father’s Love: Portrait of the Poet as a Young Woman, Volume 1 (Wild Ocean Press, 2009), was a finalist in the Northern California Book Awards in Creative Nonfiction, 2010. My Father’s Love: Portrait of the Poet as a Woman, Volume 2, was published in 2011 (Wild Ocean Press). Love on the Streets: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) received the Glenna Luschei Distinguished Poet Award and was a finalist in the Paterson New Jersey Poetry Prize. She has written two dozen books of poetry and prose, most notably the epic poem Hard Country (West End Press, 1982; 1999), Psyche Drives the Coast (Empty Bowl Press, 1990) for which she holds the Oregon Book Award for Poetry, the book-length poem South America Mi Hija (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), which was nominated twice for the National Book Award, and the story collections El Nino (Lost Roads Press, 1989) and The Book of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (Graywolf Press, 1988), which was selected to the Oregon Culture Heritage list, Literary Oregon: 100 Books, 1800-2000. She holds three Pushcart Prizes for poetry and fiction, two Oregon Institute of Literary Art Fellowships, and a California Arts Council Award. She’s published over a hundred essays—from the personal and creative to the scholarly. She is a board member of PEN Oakland. A new collection of poetry, Naked to the Earth, will be published later this year, and a new collection of memoir stories, Why She Loved Him is circulating.
Some of Julia Doughty’s more recent chapbooks are available at http://dharayoga.com/julia-doughty-books/