As I was growing up I had written the odd poem, but it was The Women's Collage – a small group of poets including Enid Dame and Roberta Gould, which met every Monday evening for three years to critique our work, read, and publish an anthology – that helped me find my way to presenting my work in person. After years of training and performing, I'd abandoned theater because I couldn't see myself acting in other people's work or being part of a world I considered self-aggrandizing. I needed to express myself – not to put on a show. I learned my poems by heart and interpreted them with vocals in 60-minute sets – in bars, cafés, bookstores, libraries, art centers...
I often began with a few lines from Rumi...
For a long time, I principally identified as the daughter of a severely depressed mother who was repeatedly hospitalized for months at a time and subjected to all the usual "therapies" – including more than 100 electroshock treatments and heavy medication. My Irish Catholic grandmother convinced me that I was to blame for my mother's illness: "I was born with no visible defects – just a stain on my soul..."
My mother was outgoing, kind, and original. She never baked cookies or took me shopping, but together we swam, explored, and climbed mountains and I was grateful for her saying, "I only wear makeup for myself: It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks!" I remember her reading voraciously, studying Russian and Italian and then discovering those countries on her own. She was an avid photographer with a great feel for colors and a gorgeous garden. We were friends and companions.
In an anthology of women poets she gave me, I discovered "tell our daughters" by bsmilr brigham, who allowed me to put it to music and interpret.
My mother had something to say to everyone and an infinite sense of wonder and curiosity. A brilliant young graduate, she'd been hired during the Great Depression with a lot of fanfare and given a secretary. She quickly understood she was just a token but was too smart and intellectual to find fulfillment as the unpaid house servant. When things were going well, they went very very well; during crises, the whole family suffered. I ran the household, did my mother's hair, and parried the solicitude of girlfriends' mothers. Mental illness wasn't just a social stigma, it also wasn't covered by health insurance. But my mother's condition trained my resilience. My parents introduced me to many different communities and took part in interfaith dialogue from its beginnings. I've often been the only religious, national/ethnic, occupational or whatever in a group... One of my greatest joys is finding common ground with someone with whom I supposedly have none.
After returning from Morocco, an experience I explored in NOTES FROM THE MOROCCAN JOURNALS, I felt a huge responsibility to the people who'd hosted me. I also couldn't cope with the "West." My family was horrified that I'd agreed to marry a young musician to help him emigrate – at the request of his father, the group's leader. They didn't agree with my solidarity politics or recognize that the village's illustrious contacts would help the young man do well in the West. Close friends couldn't understand what had befallen the feminist they knew; only my dear friend Diane empathized. When, despite my success in promoting Bachir, the relationship fell apart, I felt alienated from everything.
I explored working for international aid agencies but knew that a meager salary and unpaid overtime meant abandoning all ambition to realize myself as an artist. I sought to make friends with immigrants, especially from the Arab world, attended progressive events, devoured international news (finally understanding the bias of "the newspaper of record") and searched in vain for the right Arabic course.
Espousing the notion that the personal is political, bearing witness important to me, as in Dream Poem No. 3:
I've never felt that my explicitly political poems were my best but have needed to write and present them. Learning that, along with 1540 other intellectuals, President Sadat of Egypt had imprisoned doctor, writer and feminist Nawal El Saadawi, whose book "The Hidden Face of Eve" had meant so much to me, I campaigned for her release with a petition and "DATELINE: EGYPT September 6, 1981."
After her release, I had the honor of meeting Nawal El Saadawi, who praised the text of NOTES FROM THE MOROCCAN JOURNALS.
In For Reza I wrap a poem that uses images from Sufi poetry I learned from Reza with music I learned in Paris in the class for traditional Persian singing taught by the marvelous ney player and friend Hossein Omoumi.
At that time I hadn't studied Farsi and Hossein didn't teach us the words: His only concern was the melody. I'd learned all of early Joan Baez when I was little and later, some interpretations by the late Iranian-British singer Shusha. Part of my ethos was singing a cappella. Although I sometimes added a simple stage set and theatrical lighting, I could – and did – perform in all kinds of settings... by just opening my mouth.
These excerpts from a performance at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan jump between English and French to describe those rare moments when I feel "at home." Not understanding everything is what it's about.
Je suis dépaysée depuis que je suis née (I've been far from home since I was born)