One of the interesting things about reaching maturity as a writer is the flatness of time you can experience, as words from different eras of your life are telescoped together by readers. Luckily, this phenomenon can be as illuminating as well as disconcerting.
“In Cities, Be Alert,” a poem I wrote as a class exercise when I was a college undergraduate in 1978, was recently posted on The Poets Watch website.
My first response when I stumbled on the poem it was delight–I love to see my poems out in the world– followed by a tinge of anxiety: “oh yikes, there’s another early poem getting attention– why don’t people look at my more recent poems?” The second response was creative curiosity: I realized that the epigraph, “in cities be alert for the sudden movement of pedestrians,” a quote from a newspaper article on which the poem was based, is missing, and began to wonder about whether that change strengthens or weakens the poem.
The third was a mild shock: reading the poem again as if it were by someone else, I realized for the first time–after forty years– the extent to which it is a feminist poem.
This week I launched the Kickstarter for Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, afraid it would be hard to raise $10,500 to ensure publication of the book. Instead, amid the petrifying, horrifying news of abortion bans passed in Georgia and Alabama the same week, we have raised over 6,000 of it in the first 3 days and I’m now planning the “stretch goals” for what to do with extra funding if we go over (purchase copies to donate to women’s shelters and prisons, abortion clinics, and public libraries (especially libraries in Alabama and Georgia!).
Being at the center of an issue of such concern to many is a new experience for me–and it makes me see myself in a different light. The whole process of editing this book, over twenty years and especially since the Kavanaugh hearing (the moment that renewed my energy to give the book a huge push into the world), has felt a bit dreamlike. I was propelled by something far larger than myself.
Looking back at this poem, I now see the threat of the pedestrians as deeply gendered. Of course.