I am … Barbara Streisand.
See, I love to sing. I used to have dreams of being discovered, I’d even go so far as to stand in the yard near the expressway in the far corner of Teaneck, New Jersey, singing songs from the musicals my sister did at the JCC hoping the right person would drive by, pull over, and demand to know my name.
I was too young for the youth drama camp and when I was old enough to audition I found out that I am the worst singer. Somehow both tone deaf and rhythm impaired. At twelve I was actually kicked out of chorus at school, after having already been kicked out of band, forced to take a class called general music that was for us who were relegated to the category of music appreciators. I made the mistake of bringing in an Indigo Girls CD for my presentation. I was doing an analysis of the lyrics when the teacher took the CD out of my hand, held up the picture on the back of Rites of Passage for the class to see and said, “Look at these dykes!”
I don’t remember what I did or said.
He was right.
But it felt so beside the point like couldn’t he hear what I was saying? Or what they were singing? To this day any real music appreciator has got to appreciate the complex harmonies in that shit.
Well, I am the teacher now. It’s our third class and we are writing for three minutes, writing the sounds inside our heads:
All the sounds in your mind I am asked to go inside be interior (taste again) I am preoccupied by it what does it sound like when my mind’s in my bladder the dull roar of nothing just blood cells I am everywhere but skull I am what age I threw them the sounds in the room that’s easy the sounds in my mind I think I learn whats been rattling around in there when I bike. Hike. Dyke. “Take a hike dyke, that’s my bike!” Yikes! The weather is getting colder and I will not turn my shoulder as I get older but try to lift the boulder…
Tired, every few minutes almost killed, cause I’m cheap or have just made the choice that 2.25 each way is too much. And I gripe. In my head. Sing a little. A phrase is sometimes rattling around. I play with it, zipping past traffic, half out loud. Then fully, saying things revising, repeating. I’m chattering, I'm pausing. I’m zoning out. Imagining, testing trying over, amusing myself, stuck.
That’s when I’m writing.
Writing fulfills all my loves in music: Lyrics were my first introduction to poetry, and how a turn of phrase can be an anchor, something you hold onto something you share or keep to yourself until the moment to say it provides that relief of meaning and beauty and sense and empathy. And then there’s using the voice. Eh eyeh, ay aiy aiee, the sounds the sounds the SOUNDS we can make using our voices the infinite variety the choice of volume, speed, h o w y o u l e t i t o u t. And breath, sure. And rhythm. So it turns out I can sing. And even if the first few readings felt like an audition it’s gotten easier now.
Writing, not teaching.
See, I want my students to be in any situation where speaking, talking, writing, hearing, reading, LANGUAGE is used and think: that’s mine. My tools, my pleasure, I do that in my sleep I do that well, I love that.
I am almost always embarrassed by what I write. In my first graduate school critique a visiting artist, (Faith Wilding) the former head of the department whom I admire very much said, “you know, you’ll never get away from Yentl.” Now, dear listener, I do not expect you know what she meant by this. I don’t know exactly what she meant to mean by it, but I can give you some context. Yentl is the 1983 musical film where Barbara Streisand plays Yentl, a Jewish girl in Poland who dresses as a man so she can go to school and study. While my boyishness and Jewishness are obvious possible targets for this comment, and yes, maybe my mother is a Rabbi, and perhaps I do love musicals, but I was still baffled at how the work I was showing had anything to do with all that. I mean, was she even listening to me?
Maybe it was time for me to learn the lesson that while my words are saying one thing, my everything is also speaking. And while I don’t even like Barbara Streisand, sometimes you have to claim what has been leveled at you. Sometimes it’s all you can do.
So I began this assignment with an uncomfortable phrase. I don’t write to express what I think. I write to find out. I’ve told some of you to surprise yourself with your writing. I will take the risks, too. And it’s not about disclosure or confession, that model has been historically used too often against women- to imply that the writer is guilty of something. The risk is instead, bringing yourself to an unknown and tackling it. Finding something out and that something is your thought. Momentary, changeable, but entirely unique. Nobody else can do this but you. On paper and out loud messily, together.
Start with something that does not interest you. Something boring or embarrassing. Something tedious and ordinary. Write through your boredom. Write into the heart of the matter. Cross out the phrases you like and replace them with ones that trouble you. Trouble yourself. It is a rare space to be given, a class full of writing assignments in which the content is not dictated. Perhaps it is too open-ended. In that case, write about that. The only way to see yourself in the present tense is by mistake. Write two pages of only mistakes. Write all the things you don’t feel. Be a liar. Be an impostor. Make claims you cannot back up. Make the rest of us angry. Make us work. We are here to listen to what you wrote and like Faith Wilding, what you didn’t write as well.
A last note about risk and safety: How far you can each go is entirely dependent on how well we support one another. It’s like rock climbing. Each poet is the climber while the rest of the class belays. We hold the counterweight that allows you to move up. All I mean by this is, on Monday when we share our work, know that you are not only responsible for bringing in your writing and giving a performance of someone else’s work; but you as audience, as listener, are holding the ropes - don’t let your classmates fall.
The writing we produce here is doing something. We are writing writing into ourselves, writing it into our ways of hearing and knowing and giving ourselves a tool forever. I know I tend toward hyperbole, but then again I am a revolutionary. I am Barbara Streisand.