Dressed in black, she drove through Houston late at night with spray paint cans and large stencils she’d made, painting overpasses with Zen-like graffiti such as “Watch Your Breath” and “Breathe” or lyric phrases like “City of Glass.”
Marion McEvilley is a painter, poet and guerilla artist—but I knew her as a friend, mentor and as Alex’s mom. A beautiful boy I knew in high school, Alex died at 21 in a house fire.
Marion gave me a place to stay when I needed one. I could only imagine how she suffered, but what I saw was a woman quietly writing all over Houston.
She had found a way to speak directly to people in one of the largest cities in the United States.
The intimate connection between loss and making art had already begun to save me. My father had died suddenly the year before. I was still reeling, but learning to create. Here was a woman showing me how I might survive.
Remembering her spray-painted messages on Houston overpasses decades later, I started writing an anonymous blog of lyric prose, “The Notebooks of Mother X,” chronicling a parenting crisis with my teenage daughter. Struggling parents wrote to me and I wrote back. Sometimes, young women who identified with my daughter wrote to me about the raw truth of their younger selves. Writing anonymously for strangers, as Marion had done, became my own kind of guerilla art and helped me get through heartbreaking years now in the past.
I tell you this because I want to answer a question I often ask poets: What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry? For myself, I’m reminded how all that informs your relationship to poetry also informs who you are and how you relate to the world.
When I was 5, my mother gave me a spiral notebook and a roll of film to take my first photographs. And so, I began to gather words and to frame images. I scratched out poems about clouds and took snapshots of my striped kitten and beautiful mother.
One day at school, I asked my teacher, yet again, what a word meant. Mrs. Stevens, thanks to integrated busing in the south, was one of the first Black women I’d had the luck of calling my teacher. She walked me over to the heaviest book I’d ever seen—a standard dictionary on a table of its own. The world of words opened to me. Mrs. Stevens taught me how to teach myself any word I desired.
At 8, I read my mother’s books and collected favorite lines such as, “Your children are not your children …You may give them your love but not / your thoughts” (“The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran) or “Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly” (“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach).
I searched my King James Bible bound in a red cover, often reading only Jesus’ words, sensing everything else was a secondary source. I loved the way a sentence could also be a poem. “He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river.”
My most pleasurable experiences of reading were in a bathtub stuffed with pillows in a corner of a classroom, or listening to my teacher read Charlotte’s Web or Island of the Blue Dolphins (written by white male authors, like most books I’d read).
At my grandmother’s, at bedtime, she told any story I requested until I fell asleep. I loved hearing a woman tell stories—so often the voices on the TV and radio were men’s. How I savored her tired, sweet, Southern voice in the dark.
I recall watching rehearsals of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and running onto the stage with two other children when cued, playing the role of incredulous innocents. Standing in for one of the director’s kids written into the script, I loved how words no longer floated on a page but came alive. This is how someone you thought you knew becomes a monster, and what it’s like to witness “beasts” taking over your town or country, the play explained. I noticed how the written play was but a ghost of the performance. Words, spoken, had another kind of magic.
I vividly remember sitting in AA meetings with my mother and listening to adults tell stories from their lives, sometimes overcome by tears and stopping mid-sentence. And I recall the silence until they could speak again, silence that held as much pain as their words. Each person holds many stories and one might not be able to change the past but can make it better, somehow, by telling it. By facing it. And making yourself utterly vulnerable. By standing naked, emotionally, and telling your story to a room full of people you may or may not know or ever see again.
Copies of my poem written about an AA meeting ended up in everyone’s hands. That quiet child became a girl with a voice.
Forced to read Lost Horizon by James Hilton for middle school, I recall my tears of resistance and boredom at the beginning, then finding myself transported to Shangri-La and wanting that book to never end. Around the same time, I read my mother’s copies of Ms. lying around the house and began asking questions—who is this Gloria and what is feminism?
At Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts, I was introduced to works by the “masters” such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet which I read everywhere, rereading and memorizing lines, quietly swooning.
Thankfully, I also discovered contemporary writers, including, finally, the work of women writers, even some who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, like Leslie Marmon Silko. Among my father’s books, I discovered more white male writers among the Beat poets, but he also had books by James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver, and Black Voices, a paperback anthology that included a handful of Black women writers, perhaps most notably Gwendolyn Brooks.
Inside the cover of Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, my dad wrote an assignment for a college class: a 30–40-page script based on a book. He emphasized, “A script!!” In his belongings, I found stories but not a script. Neither my father or mother returned to college after my birth. My life, and Vietnam, rewrote their lives.
My mother’s restaurant and theater reviews and celebrity interviews helped pay the bills. Houston’s Key Magazine offices seemed bright white with wide windows, and my mother had her own desk which became mine after school. Meals we’d eaten and plays we’d seen had second lives in her words.
At summer camp one year, my mother directed a play she wrote and from which I kept my distance because I was, after all, a teenager. But she was the star of that summer. The other girls my age talked excitedly about mom’s play and so I could not escape it. When they performed it at the end of camp, it was a hit. While I had not acted in my mother’s play, I had lived “in it” as she wrote and knew many lines by heart.
Now, when I’m at my writing desk, I can still hear Mom reading her play to me, lingering on a word, listening for the song that wants to be born.
Dear reader, what childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry and life? How did you first find your voice? Tweet me @ChivasSandage (no DMs please) to be quoted in a Ms. Muse installment about our readers’ formative experiences with words, poetry and voice.
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