Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thursday Afternoon in Tribeca: Sheryl St. Germain at Borough of Manhattan Community College

This afternoon we had the privilege of attending a poetry reading at Borough of Manhattan Community College featuring Sheryl St. Germain, a poet whose work we've admired for decades.

She connected incredibly well with the audience of community college students, something not every writer can do. (At other community colleges we've taught at, some who also connected really well are our friends Peter Meinke, Geoffrey Philp and Judith Ortiz Cofer at Broward Community College and Kate Gale at Mesa Community College.) The BMCC students asked highly intelligent questions, maybe two dozen of them: it was probably the best Q & A period we've seen after a reading in our last four years in New York.

A native of New Orleans, Sheryl St. Germain has taught creative writing at The University of Texas at Dallas, The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Knox College and Iowa State University. She currently directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University where she also teaches poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and most recently the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay.

Her books include Going Home, The Mask of Medusa, Making Bread at Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, and The Journals of Scheherazade. She has also published a book of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux, Je Suis Cadien. A book of lyric essays, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, was published in 2003 by The University of Utah Press. Her most recent book is Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems, published by Autumn House Press in 2007.

Sheryl was incredibly personable and both eloquent and plain-spoken. Her first reading was of an essay about her girlhood in her native city, a city we loved from our many visits from 1981 to about 1995 as a guest teacher in Tom Whalen's superb creative writing program for gifted high school students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Here's an excerpt from Sheryl's essay:

Our parish, our church and school were named after St. Lawrence the Martyr, one of the Roman Church deacons who fell victim to the persecution of Valarian in the year 258. The nuns told us different stories about how St. Lawrence met his death, most of which involved eventual decapitation, but the one I liked best was the story about how, when commanded to surrender the church's treasures to Valerian, he distributed the wealth to the poor instead, and at the end presented those poor to Valerian as the wealth of the church. Valerian, infuriated, initiated a series of tortures, the last of which was to roast him on a gridiron. It is said that during his roasting he joked with his torturer, saying "One side has been roasted, turn me over and eat it."

In addition to teaching us the stories about the lives of the saints and having us memorize the appropriate answers to questions of faith, once we hit fifth grade the nuns also taught us about sex , or rather how to avoid it. Sister Gisela, a big, red-faced nun of an indeterminate age would lecture us on sex during religion class, pacing the hot, unairconditioned classroom, huffing, her face getting redder and redder, as she spoke, her black habit flying out behind her when she turned as if to whip into shape any kid who might have been behind her.

"Your body is the holy temple of the Holy Ghost," she'd say. She had a sometimes stiff way of speaking, and an accent I later learned was Cuban. "This means no kissing until you marry and no touching the holiest parts of your body until you marry!" At this point she would turn and glare at us, one by one, and I swear it seemed as if she could see right into my rotten, sex-crazed young soul. When she looked at me like that I knew that she knew those thoughts I had during Mass while I was pretending to pay attention.

Sometimes she would separate the boys from the girls. Father Schutten, our pastor, would talk to the boys, and she would talk to us.

"No wearing of shiny shoes!" she proclaimed one day. "The boys are looking into the shine of the shoes and seeing what is under there, that which they should not see until you are married." She was sweating on the day she told us this, and I remember how flushed her face was, how drenched she was. She wiped her forehead with a handkerchief. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she whispered under her breath.

"And girls, you must look before you walk down the stairs in this building. I have discovered that the boys are waiting underneath the stairs to look up the skirts of the girls as they descend. This is a sin and it causes the Virgin Mary great sorrow when these sins are committed." We squirmed in our seats and my friend Maggie whispered to me "It's the boys' sin, not ours!"

Although I don't think it was the nuns' aim to teach us that our bodies were sinful-they meant to teach us they were holy-that was how we came to understand their lectures. The unclothed body was an unholy body, and anything we did with that body that felt good was probably a sin. We learned that lesson well, but that didn't mean we didn't still take pleasure in seduction. After all, sins of the flesh were not mortal sins.

My friend Maggie gave the first slumber party my mother ever allowed me to attend. We were both in seventh grade. St. Lawrence, not to mention Sister Gisela or Father Shutten, would have been displeased to know that we spent much of the night playing strip-tease music and undressing.

We spent the early part of the evening calling boys on the phone and hanging up. We made several calls to Brian Tizzard, the quiet, dark-haired boy we all had a crush on. At one point we snuck out of Maggie's bedroom window and ran the few blocks down the street to Brian's house where we threw rocks against a window we hoped was his bedroom window. When his mother's head appeared at the window we shrieked and ran back to Maggie's. By midnight Maggie's parents were asleep and we could begin our stripping. I had never seen my mother's naked body, or the unclothed body of any mature woman, for that matter. My breasts were just barely beginning to grow, but Maggie's were fully developed, and I wondered what they would look like.

Maggie went first; she had been practicing, she said. Setting the needle of her pink record player to the beginning of "The Stripper," which she had as a 45, she jumped up on top of her bed and threw her thick, dark hair back, looking at us with a look that reminded me of Sister Gisela's look, but this one knew something else. As the music began she pranced around the bed, tossing her hair this way and that, slowly unbuttoning the buttons of her cotton pajama top, which had, as I recall, blue elephants on it. Her breasts bounced as she danced. She turned away from us, dropped her pajama top, looked back at us and grinned, and with the music as loud as we dared (we didn't want to wake her parents) she jumped and turned toward us revealing herself to us in all her bounty. Hair falling over her face, olive skin glowing in the lamplight, she grabbed her breasts and held them out to us, kicking her legs out from side to side to the music. She represented at that moment all I knew of desire and its mysteries, and all I wanted. With her full brown breasts and their darker areolas and even darker nipples, Maggie's body was both enticing and frightening. Her gutsiness infected us all and soon we were all gyrating hips and waists, throwing our hair about and tossing off our pajamas.

We were fascinated with the strippers on Bourbon Street whom we'd only seen glimpses of thus far. During trips to the Quarter, set up by the church or our family to introduce us to its "history" and "architecture" we always wound up walking down Bourbon street, which I guess the adults thought was ok as long as it was day time. But the strip clubs rarely closed, and sometimes we'd get a peek when the men guarding the doors held them open briefly to entice passersby. The strippers, it seemed to me then, had a power over men I wanted to have. Years later, as a young woman, I would try to get a job as a dancer in a Fat City club, but when I learned stripping was expected I couldn't go through with it. By then I preferred a more intimate form of power and pleasure. I loved the way an orgasm would wash through my body like a flood, filling me, swelling me from my ear lobes down to the very spaces between my toes. To reach orgasm was to reach that place so like a swamp, to be filled in that way with such a diversity of flora and fauna and still, still water, to be awash with desire-this was what it was to be alive, I thought. At once swamped and lifted up above it all.

Her poems did for us what she told the students Kafka said writing should do, that famous line about "break[ing] the frozen sea within us." The first poem she read was "Getting Rid of the Accent," which her audience could relate to since the New York and New Orleans accents are so similar (our Brooklynese got mistaken there for Yat). Here's Sheryl's poem in full:
I thought I had gotten rid of it
after I moved to Texas; speech classes
and twelve years in another state--but I'd
still fall back into it like into the gutter
whenever I visited, even on the phone,
whenever my mother called, forgetting
I was a college graduate, forgetting
I was an English major, saying things
like wheah ya at sweethawt, or
dat doan mean nuttn, ya awta seen
da way she pawks dat caw, the sounds
I was fed like milk as a child, the aw
sound predominating as if it was just
too much work to pronounce the r.

I tried hard to get rid of it,
to make my voice sound
as if I had nothing to do with
the black smell of the Lake,
nothing to do with my mother's
beans and rice,
nothing to do with my father's breath,
my brother's track marks.

Once, after listening to me speak,
a friend snickered, "I can tell
you're from New Orleans
by the way you say room and leg."
I couldn't hear it at first, couldn't hear
that I was saying rum for room, and layg
for leg. It was the hardest part
of getting rid of the accent,
rum still sounds more right than room,
gets the job done quicker,
with less effort. Leg was hard too
because layg was in me like blood.
It was a word my mother used a lot,
get your laygs off there, Sheryl,
close your laygs, Sheryl, wash
out the tub when you shave your
laygs, Sheryl, but I practiced
and practiced it, the short e
of leg and the long o of room,
squinching my mouth
into the unnatural positions,
working my way from
the voice of my father,
the blood of my brother.

I was not going to sink
as my mother had, lower
and lower into this spongy
land, I would not have my words
sound like the drunken streets,
the ditch-water
that runs by our house still,
infectious, addictive,

when I sing of this place I love
unreasonably more than life
itself, I want the words to rise
strong and true, separate.

Sheryl also read poems about her family, her Cajun roots, and an "ars poetica" poem about her reasons for becoming a poet. Then came the enlightening question-and-answer session that was so fascinating that it was hard to believe the time had passed so quickly (not the norm, in our experience, at poetry readings). It was a wonderful event and we're grateful we got a chance to attend.

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