10 HONEST THOUGHTS ON LOVING FESTIVAL AND SDOP HEADLINER
RACHEL WILEY, OR: A LIST OF THINGS I LOVE ABOUT FAT GIRL FINISHING SCHOOL
by Laurin Macios
This is the tenth in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3). Rachel Wiley is also headlining our Student Day of Poetry.
Attend Rachel Wiley's event at the festival, and if you're a registered student, attend her SDOP sessions.
1. The colorful surprises of her poetry. When I open Rachel Wiley's book Fat Girl Finishing School I’m reminded of crossing the threshold of a macaroon shop to see hundreds of the gorgeous pastries, in rows and rows of colors, just waiting to be delighted in and devoured. Rose-hued and mint-tinted, almond and maroon. In part, the cover image takes me there, its pastel flowers and fancy dining table conjuring up an English high tea. But mostly, each poem is fresh and new and surprising, and the variance is beyond palatable. From the pulpit sounds of “Pre-Flight Prayer of a Fat Girl” to the five haiku that comprise “The Unbearable Likeness of Being on OKCupid,” to the persona poem “The Circus Fat Lady Eulogizes Mary the Elephant,” the poems in Fat Girl Finishing School will keep you turning the page to see what else Rachel has up her sleeve.
From “Pre-Flight Prayer of a Fat Girl”
Pray, let us ignore the glances when the pilot announces the craft is overweight
and must sit flightless while luggage is rearranged for balance.
Lo, let us not look to the magazine models tucked into the seat backs like hymnals as anything holy
Pray, let us remember we are beautiful in our bounty
From “The Unbearable Likeness of Being on OKCupid”
without you I’d never know
how settling feels.
2. Lots of LOL time. If you like to laugh, Rachel Wiley gives you plenty of reason.
From “Love Letter to My Body #3: My Excuse”
in response to “Fit Mom” Maria Kang
My excuse is pumpkin ice cream and 3 seasons of Luther on Netflix,
…is that corn dogs go great with a side of feelings
…is that I actually really like the two little dimples right above my big fat ass
…is that I have no children and therefore get all the cookies
3. But depth, too. Fat Girl Finishing School focuses on body positivity in an honest and multi-dimensional way, including poems that “wedge our thumbs into the cracks and break them apart” (from “Brass Knuckles”), exploring and laying bare the poet’s thoughts and feelings. When I saw Rachel read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2014, she opened by explaining that she used to avoid writing about her body, or the body in general, but that she realized by writing about it she could take the reigns in the conversation. That's such a powerful thing about poetry (and an attitude and example we are excited to bring to Student Day of Poetry, at which Rachel is performing and leading a workshop). Recently, with that in mind, I asked Rachel what it meant to her to write the book. She said, “It meant pushing comfort zones even further and challenging myself to write about my body in a sexy way, in a permanent way and just saying the names of body parts I carried shame in. Writing the book meant a level of visibility and accountability I had not allowed myself before and because of that the end result was very freeing.” 10 times yes!
4. These poems explore a range of tough themes. In addition to body image and positivity, poems in this book explore themes of race, family, reproduction, marriage, and sexual orientation, to name a few. And what I love is that these poems don’t claim to hold the answers, but instead hone in on the wonder, doubt, hope, forgiveness, and confusion that often linger around our own personal experiences with those issues. For example:
I am 16 years old at a party full of rebel yell and Pabst Blue Ribbon
a boy/girl party where we have all come in search of that piece of Americana
found only when teenagers are left unattended and the liquor cabinet unlocked.
Where we learn how to drink ourselves more courageous than our insecurities.
On the floor of an upstairs bedroom
there is a boy sliding his hand up my thigh,
a smile dangling from his bottom lip like a lit cigarette
he looks at me full moon eyed dreamy
presses his whole body into my whole body
tells me I am "the prettiest half breed he has ever seen"
1 hour earlier,
this confederate flag of a boy loudly announced that he would not be playing any of that
and before his throat could kick the chair from under the R
I bottle smash my manners,
tell him whose daughter I am
threaten to show him just how black I could be if he dare say it again.
He does not know that my face is a two way mirror
that I am a speakeasy only old black women on the city bus ever really know the knock to,
they recognize the taboo tearing at the edges of my light skin and fine hair.
In the summer I am the color of hot church gossip when the sun burns brown into my cheeks.
My spine is a railroad tie on the tracks that segregate the races in my mother's pink cheeked southern Ohio town
I am only a girl who knows this word is flint to the gunpowder in her blood
but still trips over the trigger when trying to explain why you can’t say it.
He may well just be a boy repeating a word dribbled from his father's chin like so much skoal
but he is already easing into the luxury of never having to worry about the kickback.
The party has boiled down to a drunken murmur of unhooking bras.
This boy stumbles onto the refuge I have made of the last empty room in the house
where I have long given up on playing Americana.
It is on the floor of this darkened bedroom he pushes my hair from my eyes
cradles my olive face in his soft pink palm
and leans his mouth so close to my mouth.
I am both aware and not aware that he is not calling me pretty
that he is calling me close enough.
I want to tell you how I set fire to this boy's lawn
I want to tell you how I renamed him and denied his history
I want to tell you how I shoved this passing right down his throat
Instead I am left to consider the 14 years I spent pretending
that I didn’t let him kiss me anyway.
5. She writes love letters to her body. The book includes five of them. I vote we all write one today.
6. This poem.
7. The music of her words. “Let us pray for a seat that sits not on an aisle / but a window so we may cling to the plane wall / in attempt to make ourselves small” (“Pre-Flight Prayer of a Fat Girl”). And from “How to Become a Heretic”:
Even though the house is emptier than you planned
you are still tip-toeing through it,
a swarm of telltale eggshells scuttling under foot.
The voices in the kitchen have all gone to gossip,
a cackle of smudgeless faces upturned to heaven.
8. The temple you enter. Spiritual and church references ring throughout the book, from the opening poem’s prayer, to the bell-less steeple and churchless hymnal in “How to Become a Heretic,” to the last line of “Ode to Tracy Turnblad.” This spiritual thread calls forth the sacredness of the body, the atrocity of having your temple constantly questioned, and the potential there is for us all to forgive and love ourselves and each other.
From “Ode to Tracy Turnblad”
Ode to your royal drag queen mother for turning arch eyebrow to bar raised,
for stuffing all of her decadent orbit into those pencil skirts
Ode to my own mother for gifting you to me a VHS hymnal
when I was 8 years old
and so chubby
and learning how to pray in my own temple.
9. Paper Babies, which happens to be one of Rachel’s own favorite poems in the collection, and in which, she told me recently, she was "coming to terms with the decision to never have children.” She said, “I love that I finally had a place to lay the names I had spent much of my life collecting for possible children. I started with the names, assigning them to other things and times in my life and worked back from there to some of the events that solidified my choice.” The poem begins:
My boyfriend sends me a text that asks
When we have a daughter, can we name her Marble?
It’s not the name
but the when that pulls me to a record scratch stop.
10. Rachel’s performance of “10 Honest Thoughts on Being Loved By A Skinny Boy.”
Bonus Time: Q&A
Laurin: Were there themes you focused on before you turned to the body positive focus of Fat Girl Finishing School? Do you still write about those and other themes?
Rachel: The work I produced prior to focusing on body positivity spanned from breakup/dating poems to poems about domestic violence to funny open letters to spiders and KFC employees. I still write a lot of dating poems. I still like doing funny work. I think I have expanded my work on domestic violence to overall addressing the patriarchal society we live in.
Laurin: Your readings at Dodge were really dynamic and powerful, and I can hear your voice when I read your poems to myself. Do you consciously think about both page and stage as you write and revise your poems? If so, how does it play into the process?
Rachel: I come from a performance background so that is always in mind when I write. Reading aloud is a big part of my editing process: first alone in my home and then at an open mic, and I keep editing until it sounds right.
Laurin: Who are your biggest artistic inspirations and why?
Rachel: The films of John Waters were likely my first lesson in going against the grain. I watched them earlier than most, I think, and they left a big impression. I am drawn to defiance, so poetically Rachel McKibbens, Jeanann Verlee, Jan Beatty, and Sharon Olds are all voices I soaked in when I first started taking writing more seriously. I am also a big fan of Yoko Ono because she really seems to just do whatever she wants.
Laurin Macios earned her MFA in poetry from the University of New Hampshire and is Program Director of Mass Poetry. You can peruse her work at laurinbeckermacios.com.