Ms. Muse: Amy King on the Power of Stories and the Weight of the Current Political Moment

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“There comes a point in everyone’s lives where we start to recognize that we are making choices, that we are determining who we are by the actions that we make,” poet, educator and activist Amy King stated in a 2015 speech at SUNY Nassau Community College, where she is a professor of English and creative writing. “What we do says a lot about who we are, not just what we say.”

As a young child growing up in the Bible Belt, King remembers going to the grocery store with her grandfather—her one source of stability, love and unconditional support at that time who, “everyday,” made comments that she was learning to understand were racist. She recalls watching her grandfather flirt with a Black woman who was checking out their groceries. “I was very young,” she told students about that day. “I didn’t even have the vocabulary at that point to recognize this feeling or to articulate what this feeling was, but it was the feeling that something hypocritical was going on.”

That was when King, who identifies as queer, began trying to figure out how to address those moments in her family. “A story begins when a protagonist recognizes a conflict and begins to address how to correct that conflict,” she shared, “and some of us choose not to address that conflict—and that is a story too.”

After growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, King lived with her father in Baltimore, Maryland. As a teenager, she worked for the National Security Agency after testing high for analytical skills, but says she felt “uncomfortable” there, even just at 17, and “didn’t like the way the institution was run.”

Two consistent themes throughout King’s life are “social justice and story.” Her latest book, The Missing Museum, is described as “a kind of directory of the world as it rushes into extinction, in order to preserve and transform it at once.” Publishing it won her the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize and vaulted her to the ranks of legends like Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Pearl Buck when she received the 2015 Women’s National Book Association Award. (Named one of “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees by the Feminist Press, King also received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.)

King is co-editor of the anthology Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change and the anthology series Bettering American Poetry; her other books include I Want to Make You Safe, one of Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. Much of her prose, activism and other projects focus on exploring and supporting the work of other women writers, especially writers of color. King is a founding member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and former Editor-in-Chief of VIDA Review.

During a 2014 interview King gave for Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series, she spoke on the subject of trying to understand poetry by asking a pivotal question: “What is ‘understanding’ and what is an ‘experience’ with a piece of art?” She went on to say poetry should “jostle” us out of our regular ways of thinking—it should “undo” us in ways that are both good and uncomfortable.

For this installment of Ms. Muse, King opens up about learning to speak up and step up—and shares three new poems with Ms. readers. Here’s to hoping that they “undo” you.

Amy King (Photo: Ana Božičević)

THE POEMS

Selling Short

I cannot afford to live in the city I teach in,
& the number of people sleeping in cars has grown,
indivisibly. This is not a dream of guarantees
but the pursuit of handwritten freedoms that night the sting away.
Demons of clinics devise distribution mechanics
based on who you were born to & who you might know.
The 2 a.m. quiet promises no solace or silence when days
are hobbled & taken. Soon, light will be privately owned.

I’m Building a Body to Burn My Effigy In 

I will not mention stars Today. They have been used
for purposes not their own. Listen to them. Give them space.
Observe but leave them distant. If you think you know everything
about them now, you have outgrown yourself.
In the south we say bigger than your britches burns,
but I do not wish to confuse. I want to learn.

Joy Even

The denim and calico patchwork
of my childhood. Mothballs in a little black box,
felt lining each crevice. Michael Jackson
on a hobbled turntable someone left
at the apartment complex curb.
Costwald Village. Regal.
British. Anything but.

The dislocation of Backwoods, Georgia.
The first time a man touched me,
his semen glistening my inner thighs.

“Thriller” and the plywood coffee table.
The hoarder grocery bag maze
and Childcraft Encyclopedias flayed across the shag.
My 12-year-old amazement.
My 12-year-old embryo.
The fact of a body electric, searing for days.
Turning that birthed another world with a song and dance.

So many ways to joy. Some to death.
My anything. Me, anything. Joy even.

Amy King (Photo: Kimberly Evans)

THE INTERVIEW 

Can you tell me about your process of writing “I’m Building a Body to Burn My Effigy In,” “Joy Even” and “Selling Short”?

I don’t have one process. Sometimes compiled notes take shape. Or a poem just falls out of me as if, gored, the liver drops from my body. The heart seeping sounds more fitting, but a liver plop fits better.

“I’m Building a Body…” comes from an interest in physics and mortality.

“Joy Even” is part of the slow-burn of outlining a memoir.

“Selling Short” emerges as predictive dream, touching on issues that have recently led me to Rosi Braidotti’s “The Posthuman.”

What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry? 

When I first moved to live with my father in Baltimore at 15, I spoke slowly and heard the same. I often said “What?” in a deep southern drawl, uncertain of my own ears, which was probably also testament to a deeper uncertainty too. My father was my only safety line in a house full of strangers and with a stepmother who, quite quickly, began to play her own uncertainties out on me.

One day, as usual, I asked “What?” and my dad, no longer riding the romance of his daughter’s betrayal of her mother to be with him, the winner, suddenly shouted at me, “DO YOU REALLY NOT KNOW WHAT WE’RE SAYING?” It shocked the shit out of me. I made adjustments over time to alter the way I spoke, how I heard, to absorb unknown word usages and infer what I could. And to recover from what that moment meant.

You might prefer the story of how I used to read Gertrude Stein to friends over the phone to annoy them until I realized I had tricked myself as I was enjoying sounding her poetry aloud. Or how I grew up reading Nancy Drew and science fiction late into the wee hours and then woke up and watched Saturday morning cartoons in black and white. But this moment with my father shattered something. Luckily, the cracks are often where we make things and the broken pieces what we make things with.

I’m stunned by that moment with your father and your struggle to understand what people around you were saying. I’m also struck by the notion of the poet as a young girl not trusting her own ears, as you say. How did you learn to make out the words all around you–and to trust yourself?  

I don’t think I ever have really. I just embrace the temporality of life a bit more than usual and go with what comes across. It’s why I am not embarrassed to ask someone to pass the “lotion” for the salad or to verb nouns for decades now. I think subconsciously I suppressed my accent as a response to my father, but that shock taught me that not only is my mother unreliable, but so is the alternative, my father. I had already been disabused of the notion of unconditional love; I was holding out hope in him for at least a lasting, warm embrace. I’ve grown since that bottoming out: DNA is not all, and one can find family—and become family—elsewhere.

This is all linked to the notion that people speak to signal group intimacy; language is shaped by mutual alliances and allegiances. When family rejects your language needs, believe the message it sends and seek anew.

Do you seek out poetry by women and non-binary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

I won a city-wide fiction contest for Baltimore ArtScape during my senior year of high school. It was judged by Lucille Clifton, which made a lasting impression on me. I was not a writer, but my high school English teacher, Carolyn Benfer, encouraged me tremendously. I was attending a vocational school in the city and, up to that point, was destined to become a CPA.

From there, I attended the University of Maryland at Towson State and had the good fortune to enroll as a double major in English and Women’s Studies. The latter program is especially noteworthy as the program served as the model for many other Women’s Studies programs across the country, as envisioned and spearheaded by Elaine Hedges, who was also an active feminist, affiliated with the Feminist Press. This program led me to numerous marginalized writers back in the early nineties that I likely would not have encountered so early on independently or simply from core English classes.

I cannot speak highly enough about the work that Women’s Studies program did. The short answer is that the program taught me to seek work by marginalized writers as I would be missing out on so much otherwise. I do not seek literature simply to reflect my own experiences—I seek to learn beyond them.

What groundbreaking (or ancient) works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest and concern you? 

There is no one work, and as such, I continue to read widely. There are so many books I have not read yet, which is thrilling. Some of my touchstones range from Cesar Vallejo to Leonora Carrington to Audre Lorde to James Baldwin to Lucille Clifton to Gertrude Stein to John Ashbery. There are numerous younger poets I look to for energy, shifts in consciousness and awareness of current cultural concerns and who also signal structural and formal changes. A handful include Billy-Rae Belcourt, Chen Chen, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Vievee Francis, Airea D. Matthews, Raquel Salas Rivera, TC Tolbert, Ocean Vuong and Phillip B. Williams—but this by no means is an exhaustive list. Check out the poets anthologized in the Bettering American Poetry series I am lucky enough to be a part of.

As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies and actions can/could make a direct difference for you—and for other women writers you know?

Besides the room, money and time Virginia Woolf called for, I’m beginning to find that a support network is vital. I don’t think this needs to be formal or a writing collaboration. I simply mean that it is encouraging to have regular check-ins with a small group of writers, as few as two even, where you discuss what you’re each working on, maybe share a small piece/excerpt, get feedback and discuss ideas.

It is often the idea exchange, even with just a friend on the phone, that I find generative. I find myself articulating ideas and vision in a way that is as revealing to myself as to my friend. I leave those conversations with ideas of where to head next with a poem or on what to research to build foundational ideas for a concept.

What’s next? What upcoming plans and projects excite you?

I’m outlining a memoir—fingers crossed—and writing poems. I may birth an essay down the road, but that is gestating for now. And volunteering time and support to a program called La Maison Baldwin Manuscript Mentors, a nonprofit arts and culture association that remembers and celebrates James Baldwin in Saint-Paul de Vence, to save James Baldwin’s house and turn it into a vital residency in France.

How has the current political climate in the U.S. affected you as a woman writer? 

I am not so much shocked as often startled. I think we all knew white supremacy, colonialism and toxic masculinity were at the helm, but the built-in invisibilities kept them shrouded in respectability politics and notions of civility, and of course, that begs the question: Whose civility? I also don’t think we are in some unique moment of history where shocking things have taken hold and the end is nigh, but that is how it feels at times. Power and paradigm shifts are often premised on tectonic shifts, and folks have to finally step up, choose sides.

That seems key at the moment: one can no longer pretend to be above the fray. And that may be most painful for those of us with privilege. No one is outside anything after all.

The post Ms. Muse: Amy King on the Power of Stories and the Weight of the Current Political Moment appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.

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INDIANAPOLIS — Colts rookie guard Quenton Nelson is a loud person when he makes a big play on the field. He just wasn’t loud on the video of him delivering a crushing pancake block against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday that went viral Monday. The Colts, according to a team spokesman, took the audio of Nelson screaming from another play and added to the play where the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft pulled and flattened Jaguars safety Barry Church into the ground on a Marlon Mack run to the right side in the first half. Video of the play from the Colts’ Twitter account was one of the most talked about events on social media Monday. It was up to more than 11,000 retweets and 37,000 likes on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon. "I saw it got pretty viral on the internet, which was cool," Nelson said Tuesday. "…Yeah, I wasn’t yelling, not on that play. I don’t know how it got amped…
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Maryland’s Firing of Football Coach DJ Durkin Marks a Watershed Moment for Athlete Activism

Once the players protested, the coach had no chance.

The University of Maryland’s board of regents tried to pull a fast one on campus on Tuesday, and boy, did that decision backfire. More than four months after offensive lineman Jordan McNair, 19, died after suffering heatstroke at a football practice, and after an explosive ESPN report unveiled signs of a toxic football coaching environment, Maryland’s leadership concluded that head coach DJ Durkin could return to the sidelines.

An investigative report released in September found that the football team’s trainers and medical staff failed to follow proper protocol in treating McNair; Maryland president Wallace Loh said the school accepts “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death. Another report found that Durkin, in an attempt to motivate his players, showed his players “disturbing” videos that included footage of “serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, bloody scenes with animals eating animals, [and] rams and bucks running at each other at full speed.” The report concluded that Durkin, who has a career 10-15 record at the school and was placed on administrative leave in August, also shared responsibility for failing to supervise a strength and conditioning coach accused of verbal abuse.

Still, Maryland gave Durkin his job back. But some players didn’t welcome his return with open arms. By Wednesday evening, a day after Durkin returned, the University reversed course and let him go.

After the board decided to keep Durkin, Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie—who also played with McNair in high school—was reportedly one of three Terps who walked out of a team meeting. He took to Twitter to criticize his school.

“Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate,” McKennie wrote. “Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”

A few other Terps chimed in, including offensive tackle Tyran Hunt. “At the end of the day, a YOUNG life was lost,” Hunt wrote. “My brother, teammate. And to boil it down to even horrific matters, a paycheck was chosen over that life. Through whatever and forever, I live for Jordan Martin McNair.”

Such a public callout of a college football coach, by his own players, is practically unprecedented. So often, college athletes are taught to conform to the rules. Get paid, lose your spot. Don’t talk to the press without permission. Respect your coach, or suffer the consequences. Stunt your expression.
These tweets revealed a rupture within the Maryland locker room. It was nearly impossible to picture Durkin coaching players who felt his presence dishonored their deceased friend. Durkin could no longer work in College Park.
“Pressure busts pipes, doesn’t it?” Hunt tweeted. “Don’t let anybody tell you your voice doesn’t matter,” McKinnie responded.
In announcing his decision to fire Dunkin, Loh cited other stakeholders who influenced his thinking: students organizations, as well as faculty and deans who objected to the original decision to retain Durkin. The reaction of McNair’s father, Martin, was also haunting.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face,” he said.
But don’t discount the power of the players. We’ve entered a golden age of athlete activism, where players taking a knee during the national anthem can shape the country’s political discourse, where calls for athletes to “shut up and dribble” spark an even more fervent response to injustice. Sure, these college students aren’t protesting politics. Instead, they are fighting for a fallen teammate and friend. And their words have power. Staying quiet never seemed so quaint.

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Some cyclists in North Carolina were nearly hit by a flying deer after the animal was struck by a car — and it was all captured on video. The collision occurred Wednesday as Peter Flur and four friends were finishing a 45-mile bike ride from the Brace Family YMCA in Charlotte through Union County. Mounted…
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A Rape Accusation Against Cristiano Ronaldo Is Finally Getting Attention. It’s About Time Soccer Had Its #MeToo Moment

Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal’s most famous soccer player and arguably the most famous athlete in the world. But in the last few days, his name hasn’t been in headlines for winning championships or crying on the pitch after being issued a red card. His name is flashing across screens because of a 34 year-old woman named Kathryn Mayorga, has come forward to say Ronaldo brutally raped her in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2009.

How is it possible that a story that sports media in North America had no interest in publishing less than two years ago, is now splashed all over every screen and social media platform? This case was not reported on by any major outlet except for a story in 2017 by the independent German newspaper Der Spiegel. Except for a select few commenting on social media (myself included), the case against Ronaldo got no traction. Fast forward 18 months, and Der Spiegel published another story. This time, it was a detailed account from Kathryn Mayorga herself. The publication spent more than 20 days with her and held countless interviews, fact checked and re-checked before it published.

The documents acquired by der Spiegel were damning and according to a recent Twitter thread by one of the main authors, Christoph Winterbach, there were more than 20 staff involved in working on the article. In response. Ronaldo’s lawyer and his team made a lot of noise as part of their legal posturing and even accused der Spiegel’s piece of being “illegal” because “it violates the personal rights” of Ronaldo. Laughable at best.

For those who understand the law, and the severity of the crime, there is much substance in this story. Back in 2009, Mayorga’s inexperienced lawyer (who had specialized in traffic violations) was no match for Ronaldo’s PR mega-machine and legal team, ended up settling with them for $ 375,000 on the condition Mayorga not . But Mayorga’s new legal team is disputing that contract and arguing that she was mentally deficient due to trauma from rape, and was not competent enough to make a proper decision at the time.

They have filed a civil suit on Mayorga’s behalf and the case has since been re-opened by the Las Vegas police. In Nevada, the statute of limitations has not expired for this crime. Mayorga has not only suffered physically (the hospital documented her injuries in a rape kit when she reported the crime), but she continues to suffer from that trauma to this day and—according to her lawyer—is in “active therapy.”

Ronaldo initially called the allegations “fake news” and insinuated that Mayorga was trying to get famous using his name. I have worked with survivors of violence and have yet to meet or know of a victim who has enjoyed any of the bullying, shame, societal isolation and mental health upheavals, and wanted to claim some type of infamy from an attack. And I won’t even dignify the ridiculous notion of “false accusations.”

Writing about rape culture in the soccer world is a struggle. Before the 2015 UEFA Championships, I heard about allegations against Spanish goalkeeper and Manchester United star David De Gea, who was implicated in a horrible rape case. I pitched that piece to at least ten different outlets and no one was interested in publishing it and paying me for my work. Thankfully, I found it a home at a soccer site entirely run by women. And they backed me up when the online harassment started to descend. I have only tweeted about Ronaldo thus far and the responses to my tweets have been violent and angry—presumably from Ronaldo supporters. Another indication of the hatred casually flung at women for speaking up.

Mayorga’s attorney has said that she was enabled by hearing survivors in the #MeToo movement disclose their own stories. There is a strong tide of women speaking up courageously, slowly washing away the impunity often enjoyed by powerful misogynists and abusers. Perhaps #MeToo has finally transcended into the realm of sports, a realm where it is desperately needed. With cases like Patrick Kane, Kobe Bryant and Baylor University’s football team, and other men who rarely face consequences for their actions, it is needed now more than ever.

Predictably, the same sports media who initially had no interest in this story have become “experts” in criminal law, and on sexualized violence. The vacuous reporting and unnecessary reflections are mostly done by men, and center the 33-year-old star. Opinions on due process (reminder: it’s a legal system not a justice system) and about Ronaldo’s athletic prowess and teams don’t have anything to do with this case in which he is accused of anally raping a woman, who by his own accord, told him “no.”

The way that these stories are reported by sports journalists who have little or no training in reporting accurately on sexualized violence can be re-traumatizing for many survivors. Instead of investing in proper media tool kits compiled by advocates for victims of violence (all free), editors unleash a bevy of unhelpful pieces that contribute to an unhealthy society steeped in rape apologism. On that night in 2009, Mayorga was dancing with Ronaldo. Does that mean she invited rape? No. These outlets are complicit in the way that victim blaming and shaming become part of natural discourse when rape is reported.

Then there is the sexist sports establishment itself. Since the most recent news broke out, the predictably irrelevant statements of solidarity from Ronaldo’s supporters have emerged. His current team Juventus FC tweeted out nonsensically reminding Twitter that Ronaldo has conducted himself with “professionalism” and “dedication.” The issue at hand is not whether he is a “champion.” How Ronaldo performs on the pitch is not correlated to the fact that he may have brutally violated a woman. The issues must not be conflated.

Ronaldo was left off of the Portuguese national team roster for upcoming international matches—but not because the Portuguese football federation felt it necessary to exclude him from the squad for being charged with a violent crime. They somehow managed to explain this decision while singing his praises. Portugal national men’s coach Fernando Santos said in a news conference on Thursday, “[Federation] president Fernando Gomes and I spoke with Cristiano Ronaldo and we considered it best for the player not to be included in this and November’s call-ups.

He went on to wax poetic about the alleged rapist: “I personally always support my players, and this is not even a question of solidarity, but I believe what the player said publicly. He considers rape to be an abominable crime and clearly reaffirms that he is innocent of what he is being accused of. I know Cristiano well and I fully believe he would not commit a crime like that.”

How nice for Ronaldo for people to believe him because he works hard and people are familiar with his persona. And while Nike and EA Games, two of Ronaldo’s major corporate sponsors, are “concerned” with the allegations, it is not enough to have them pull their money away—even though Ronaldo allegedly used sponsorship money to settle with Mayorga in 2009. The reluctance to cut ties with a powerful athlete underlines that the dignity of a woman is not worth sacrificing profits from soccer cleats.

#MeToo has yet to be championed the way that alleged rapists are.

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