It takes 30 hours to re-twist my locks. I first started my dreads in the summer of 2017. That summer, last summer, I had just arrived on campus, my fourth. I wanted a place to clean up, to rest, to cry. I came, per usual, with a car load of books, my cat and a laptop of poems. I gathered each section into a gel, back-combed it and sprayed saltwater mixed with tea tree. With each palm roll, I spun together strands I had long forgotten.
I moved 1,000 miles from Buffalo to Kansas. Beginning my locks would mean getting ugly for a period of time, and I couldn’t do that in the same place where I just started a business, made such a name for myself. I wanted anonymity, one that did not forego attribution, but the kind that allowed for mess—the production of new knowledge.
The summer before (2016), I visited Salina, KS for a poetry reading. Wearing cowgirl boots, I grabbed a shot of whiskey (the bartender apologized for putting ice in it) and toasted with a woman to my left, missing a tooth. I thought to myself, “This is just the town I was looking for.”
Salina is two and a half hours from where I live now. I moved the only way I knew how—via school. The Midwest is more spread out than the Northeast.
My ultimate aim was to return, to teach in the inner-city schools. There were inner-cities everywhere. I was always in close proximity—still am now. Because of this, I never knew how far away I really was.
I spend, on average, less than $40 a week on groceries. I worked pretty hard to get to that number. I figured out which foods I was allergic to, which ones would make me feel full on a budget, which change purse to bring in and which grocery store had a good mix of high quality foods for less!
This was a lifetime achievement—and so was getting accepted into a PhD program.
I believed that if you worked hard, did magical things like eat well on a shoestring budget, you’d guarantee yourself safety. You’d be able to catch your breath. I missed the point—that breathing was an expenditure. A PhD program is no place to rest. From the minute you enter, you are inadvertently asked to get your portfolio together.
Rest or not, I needed a laboratory. To heal, I needed to experiment. And the only break I would ever get is the one I gave myself. I needed a buried science.
Writing is the primary lab, the only true sanctuary there is for a poet. For any tools I did not bring with me, I could recreate them here. I lost much of my cover and had only the illusion of privacy—a black woman in a PhD program could not hide many places. Many of my tools are commonplace: Pilot pens, tiny notebooks, family photos, poster paper, markers, flash drives, knitting needles, yarn, sarongs, a lover’s cards, shea butter, a white board and packed book shelves. The other set is a mixture of dance.
There seems to be a connection between my gathering of tools, the gathering of coiling strands into ropes of hair—and the gathering of poems into this collection.
The Forest She Traveled has a total of 45 poems, in six sections and over a span of nine years. At the end of compiling this draft, which is the book’s second version, my eyes naturally moved to check the word count. Over 9,000 words. For a poet, that is quite the number.
Parallel to this compilation, I started writing a poetry/prose journal, Road Map Atlas. “It’d be my next one,” I thought.
I started Road Map Atlas February 4thof this year and the redrafted version of The Forest She Traveled February 17th. I started to notice that Road Map Atlas’ word count began to creep past the 4500 mark. I silently exclaimed, “If it took nine years and nine-thousand words to create The Forest She Traveled, then I have just completed four-and-a-half-year’s work in less than two weeks.” What was the difference?
On a road trip, the most prized place is a rest stop.
The Trajectory: Brooklyn to Swarthmore—ABC Strath Haven; Swarthmore to Bryn Mawr—Bryn Mawr College; Bryn Mawr to Swarthmore, Swarthmore to Chester; Chester to Philadelphia—the University of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia to Brooklyn, Brooklyn to New Brunswick; New Brunswick to Buffalo—University at Buffalo; Buffalo to Mission—The University of Kansas.
I began attending classes at KU on July 6th, 2017. Well, it was one class. It was on African-American women writers. Within two weeks of moving, I lost 20 pounds. On the way here from Buffalo, we drove, went by way of New York. Michael was driving. I had to stop home. There was a family reunion.
Arriving late, I got a plate of food and was able to meet up the next day for the closing party in the backyard of my cousin’s place. Back in Brooklyn, on Prospect Ave, I stopped by to say hello to my auntie, whose big birthday bash I would miss since it was the weekend after class started. I stopped home, hugged my parents and had grits with them in the morning. Through the Holland Tunnel, on the way here, sitting in the passenger’s seat I read the first assignment: poems by Phyllis Wheatley.
Good ol’ Cherita broke down in Ohio, right at the turnpike. She needed a new battery.
She’s been good to me, that car. She’s 12 years old, got over 125,000 miles and been with me through five moves. Jeep Liberty. She was named after her mother, Cher, short for the 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee I had in Chester. All metal, that jeep was, not this plastic stuff that they use to make cars with nowadays. She looked like champagne steel.
My cousin Al, God rest his soul, fixed her up. In the title poem, Cher not Cherita is the Jeep I took up to Martha’s Vineyard “running hot and out of gas.”
When I had to finally send her to the scrap yard, I remembered to grab the radio. I needed to grab the radio, to have something to remember Al’s work by, to remember his concern for me.
I reached as far West as I probably ever am going to go, live at least. In my boomerang back East, I wanted to bring something with me, send something ahead, native to that land.
I first compiled The Forest She Traveled in the summer of 2015, a few months after I arrived to Buffalo, a few months before entering the Innovative Writing program at UB. It was a chapbook of fourteen poems, eight of which were created six weeks from July 27th of that year. The remaining six spanned as far as 2011.
I was new in town and wanted something to work on while I waited for school to start. So much that year ended with the phrase, “I just need to make it until September.”
What was not explicit in that first drafting was a desire to make sense of what it meant for a poet to enter a poetry program. It was, however, the reason I wrote it, a way to prove upon entering the program that I came with work and could create it there, too.
I’d been out of the practice of poetry in any systematic way since leaving Pennsylvania. Working in Chester, at the College Access Center of Delaware County gave me both the freedom to practice my craft as a college access professional, as an organizer and as a poet.
Throughout my life, there was tension between what was considered work and what was considered “extracurricular,” how I could make a living and what I love to do.
“Working to help these kids,” was the phrase I and many other educators and program facilitators I knew used when describing the field we were in. Poetry and the arts were things that could enter to help enrich the curricular experience. Poetry, however, was not the thing you did “full time”—and definitely including not studying it.
How did I end up in a PhD in Creative Writing program six years after leaving Chester? In Kansas, of all places?
My genius plan was to go to Penn (the University of Pennsylvania), study the college success side of bridge programs, increase both my skillset and pay, find a job at a university in their student success or academic affairs office, take one or two classes while working to become a professor. I’d keep my debt load low and continue to fine tune my academic coach training.
After becoming a professor, I would have much more free time, I would not be tied to 9 to 5 as my formal work hours, and I could write more poetry, go to more gallery openings. With this genius plan, I’d finally reconcile. I’d make my passion my profession, all of them: Teaching, poetry and scholarship.
I’ve always thought of myself at some level as scientist. One of my primary laboratories was the playground. That is what the university was for me, a place where I could test and take that testing out into the world.
As a professor, I’d have the respectability and security of the institution to do far off experiments, to write far out poems.
I used to say school was a safe haven, recession proof; when things were good, people went to school; when things were bad—people went to school.
Right before graduating the Graduate School of Education at Penn, I got an amazing second interview at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York. After 14 years in Philadelphia, I wanted to try to forge a career in another city, the one I originally left and only knew at a familial, provincial level.
The office building was shiny and modern and had lots of light, windows floor to ceiling. The day of my interview, it rained, torrential downpour. I was sick with a fever and food poisoned the night before. I could barely speak. My umbrella broke as soon as I entered the cab two hours before I was to be at the interview site.
The taxi driver said his air conditioner broke and that he had to keep his window open to defog. It was warm outside and hot in the car. I started to dose. Before briefly falling asleep, I said, “Please don’t take the Westside Highway. Traffic is always bad on it.” With 25 minutes to make it on time, I woke up and we were close but still on the Westside Highway. It was over before it began. I got to the interview 10 minutes late. The rest is history, in this collection.
Right now I am doing taxes. Joking with my tax guy, I said, “You know, I’ve never really been above the poverty line.” My condition is by no means unique. Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) on average make about $20,000 a year while they attend school. It is funny. My mother once said, “You have a plan, and God has the punchline.”
After Penn, it took me six months to find a job. In the meantime, I got trained and licensed as a security guard. The experience cleaned me up. Got me regulated on a clock, respectable work, and a community of support (my coworkers were a trip and still today beloved).
I continued working security while at SUNY Buffalo. That supplemented my income as I taught grammar and business writing at the Olmsted Center for Sight. I worked with visually-impaired and differently-abled adult students who were getting workplace training in the hospitality and call center fields.
I was young, am still young, less so now. I am still learning how to balance work and writing—especially when writing is the work. This new way of accounting, in 2018, has interestingly given me the space I needed to write, to collect, to catalog the poems before you.
In the story of my travel, in the seemingly haphazardness of it, is a girl in a jeep trying to dodge bullets, afraid, and trying to figure out how to fight, how to still, how to heal—how to fight, again, when the war keeps on changing.
Vestiges of sexism in the workplace and its intersection with being black and low income still exists. Such forces, corral women, intersectional bodies, into precarious positions. My engrained reaction to run from violence into school, into idyllic notions of safe haven, prevented me from staying and fighting in many of the jobs I’ve had.
The pattern of my travel traces a violence my body could not bespeak.
“To write is to wager,” Joan Retallack said, and Audre Lorde reminds us, our silences will not protect us, at least, not for long. However pervasive, social ills find no border or industry a barrier and can even infiltrate into the academic realm, in our beloved institutions of higher ed.
This collection is my breaking of that silence, releasing the terror that’s travelled with me for so long and blazing a trail back to the first lesson we are all taught after crawling—to stand, to take up thy bed and walk.
At this new moment, in the time where women are once again drawing national attention to the layers of workplace violence—my compilation of this book of poems is no accident.