Ceremonies

She borrowed my only copy of Essex Hemphill’s “Ceremonies,” a poetry collection, selling for $250, out of print. The cover, with two shirtless black men, had a slight white slanted crease from left to right. Otherwise, the pages were intact.

Six months later, I asked for my book to be returned and she claimed I never lent it. I didn’t debate. I simply said, “Okay”. But inside I was burning with rage and I wanted her to die. I clearly recall saying to myself:  she needs to die. I imagined breaking into her house, and searching her bookshelves for it, finding it, waiting for her to return home as I sat on her couch reading “Ceremonies” and eating her leftovers from her refrigerator while watching Days of Our Lives on her TV; and, as she opened her door and saw me sitting there with all of my audacity I would clearly say, “You know damn well you were lying. Here’s the book!” And throw it at her.

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t do that. I said nothing.

I was angry at her and angrier at myself . I should have never trusted a fellow writer, a lover of words, and wisdom–they steal books, we steal books.

I found “Ceremonies”, along with a few other gems, at a free book giveaway in my hometown around 1994. Because of its perceived provocative language and topics, I kept it hidden under the floor mats of my car’s backseat where no where would even think of finding it.

“Ceremonies” graduated high school with me; traveled to college with me; then went to graduate school with me. It moved from West Virginia to Jersey City, New Jersey; Jamaica, Queens; Back to Jersey City, New Jersey; and then the Bronx, in 2008–where she stole it. That book had been through some shit. That book had seen some shit along our travels together.

“You never lent it to me. . .”   I kept track of my books–I knew she was lying. Hell, my mother was a librarian–I was raised to know the importance of books and keep track of them.

I prayed for seven nights, before bed, she’d be punished for stealing and lying about it. I prayed that she’d be punished for gas-lighting me, making me think I was hallucinating and never lent it to her, when I knew damn well she asked for it, I traveled from the Bronx into Manhattan, handed it to her over coffee–coffee I paid for and I wasn’t even a coffee drinker.

I stopped searching and re-searching my apartment, knowing she had it; knowing she had lied to me for no reason; knowing I was wasting my time searching for something that wasn’t in my possession.

Less than one year later, her hair began to fall out; her body shrunk tremendously and rejected food. She phoned me and said she was sick, and I regrettably feigned sympathy because I wanted my book back. She continued to go for testing and diagnosis after diagnosis but doctors had no clue what was wrong, except it was some type of autoimmune disease they couldn’t pinpoint. She quit going to doctors and tried a holistic approach.

One morning, the sun came through her bedroom window while she read a book, an aged book, out of print, and stole her breath.

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Hurricane Malady #2

I could tell you about the wind
and how it howled like a motherfucker
in my ear with sweet mother tongue music,
conjuring those that came before
to protect from events
soon to happen before me.
But it didn’t start like that.

That would have been a normal day.

It started with a blackout,
a loss of vision and light,
and all things pleasant
and all things memorable.
And all things that once were
now are not and never will be.

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Card Counting #1: Talking to the Ancestors

Tarot never behaved
for Children of Indigo–
there’s something abnormal
about manufactured cards
sold for $19.95 or
attempting to interpret messages
from cryptic images
shuffled around a few times,
restacked then layed out as if to say,
“pick a card, any card.”

I used to have a racist Chinese friend,
who changed his name
to sound more European.
He lived in Puerto Rico
for tax incentives
and always spoke of Puerto Ricans as them
and wondered why they
never pick themselves up by their bootstraps
and simply do better.
I told him if I weren’t around,
as a Black man, he’d say the same
about me or my people
and due to systemic racism
in our drinking water,
there are some who will never get ahead,
apparently never would be in cards.
He laughed, expecting me to laugh.
He made a few million dollars
in one year from going to Vegas
and card counting.
“There’s a method behind the madness with cards,” he said.
“But you have to be really smart. . .
and know what you’re doing
before anyone else understands
you’re the one who sets the mood. You’re in control. . .”

I don’t need cards or incense.
I don’t need rhymes or reasons
Or a natural cant to summon.
I never wanted to count cards
on an enemy, hoping he’d get
the Ten of Swords.

You come to me unwarranted
speaking tongues untied.
Your presence is known
with faint scents
of burnt strawberries and heavy vanilla clouds
briefly traveling past my nose.
You arrive unexpectedly on time.
When we speak, I see you
like yesterday’s moments
and hear you like reruns of seasons changing
and cardinals chirping on my sill.
You come to give solace and messages
during sweet dreams while awake.
You come to me with your crooked nose
and thick hair and large eyes.
You are sarcastic and ensure you’re real
by returning for three nights.
Coincidences never exist.
You come without Ouija or Tarot Cards
summoning you, on my behalf.
You come as a gift
to give a gift
and for me to share a gift,
professing all of this
was always in the cards.

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A Poem for the Darth Vader in Black Boys

I wanted to be Raggedy Andy,
with alarmingly red, dry mop hair;
Tight-ass jeans and a plaid button-down.

I wanted to be a common white boy.
You know–the kind from West Virginia
that smells of wet Skoal and sweat,
neatly dressed with his shirt tucked
behind a Confederate flag belt buckle,
somehow still sexy.
White like fresh Wonder Bread–
bland and under interesting
faking success,
lost in the mix of Dad’s shadow,
of neglect, of cocaine,
(or even Fentanyl, because it’s easier to get.)

I wanted the powdered face and cheeks
like a Ballerina Rose,
offsetting cherub lips.
Mostly,
I wanted that red hair
more than I wanted to be White.

But they said, “No.”

I was the villain they forced me to become–
to stop unwarranted prepubescent faggotry,
like bedwetting and playing with white dolls,
Or pretending bath towels were long blonde hair.

They covered my face
with the black plastic mask,
demanding “This is what you will be tonight. . .”
It had an odd-looking slick dome on top,
descending down
like a nun on a playground slide,
escaping the priest
from seeing her stigmata or menses.


I could barely see through the small eye slits
and could barely breathe with the small
nose and mouth holes.
I was cloaked in the velvet night,
black as the coal around
Aunt Marie’s house,
black as my thick coarse hair,
black as they wanted me to become.
That was the night we walked there–
my last memory of that house near the coal mine.
Yet my first memory
of my brother–
the one that never existed,
yet searched for, far away,
on 21 planets only known to me
and my Dogon ancestors.
We should have been Jedi Knights.
We should have been Luke and Leia.
I should have been Leia.
But I was too damned damaged to be her that night
as the dark wind touched me,
corrected me,
in ways and in areas my mask could never shield
and I could never forget.

The stairs to Aunt Marie’s
were slick with soot.
And with mother’s hand in my hand,
We approached Aunt Marie’s door,
Mother said,
Say trick or treat.
Make sure you say trick or treat
when she opens the door

or she wont give you the candy. . .”

Reaching the top step, looking into the glass front door,
I immediately screamed.
I immediately panicked.
I saw a short black figure in the glass looking at me!–
When I moved, it moved!–
almost robbing me of consciousness
and my internal whiteness
and my hope.
When the door opened,
Aunt Marie
stood there, thin and dark like a perfect raisin,
confused and disappointed
with her hands on her hips,
watching me scream in terror,
trying to release myself of Mother’s hand
still holding mine with a firmer grip,
terrified of the image in the glass mocking me,
she asked “what’s his problem?”

Out of breath from screaming,
Out of breath from walking up those stairs
with that horrible mask, I wheezed:
“I’m. . . I’m Darth. . . I’m Darth Vader. Trick or treat.”

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Rejected: Taking a Chance With Your Writing

I decided to do something recently I haven’t done in a while–submit my work to various publications. [Insert Scary Music Here. . .]

As I was doing so, I realized I was setting myself up for rejection. Something I used to take personally. However, the older I get, the more calloused I become about rejection. I’d like to think I no longer carry my heart on my sleeve regarding my writing.

However, as I was submitting my works, it had me sit back, pause, and consider the reasons why I (or other writers) may receive rejection letters.

For the sake of this writeup, let’s pretend our writings are 100% amazing and profound. As such, what could be some of the reasons we’d receive a rejection letter?

1. Rules. Did we read the instructions properly? Sometimes basic instructions are lost and not followed such as including (or not including) your name and contact information on first page of submission. Maybe, it’s a collection of essays for and by women, but you don’t identify as such. Read the instructions a few times. If you don’t see any, many of the publishing teams would rather have you reach out and ask questions than send them something that doesn’t adhere to their rules.

2. Editing. Many of us writers are also editors. But, if you feel uncomfortable with your editing skills, feel free to reach out to a friend. Editing can help with mandated wordcounts, for starters. Inconsistencies within the story can also be found by an editor with an keen eye. Importantly, don’t be so head-strong about working with an editor, especially a good seasoned one. One personal tip is, find an editor who specializes in what you are writing.

3. Theme. Many anthologies have themes. Most often they will list the them in the instructions. If you feel the theme is vague and you need more clarity, reach out to them and ask them to clarify their intentions. Many times, publishers want the writings to be more symbolic; while others tend to want the writings straight forward. Make sure you completely understand the theme and its intentions.

4. Judges/Reading Committee. Maybe your writing is good. Damn good. But it just didn’t catch the eye of the judges or reading committee. That’s okay. We all have our personal tastes–it doesn’t mean the writing is bad. If the judges or reading committee is listed, do your due diligence. Research them. Find out what types of writing they write and enjoy. Many times this can be found with a simple google search.

5. Publishing Restrictions. Again, maybe your writing is damn good. However, due to publishing restrictions, it just didn’t make the cut this time. Restrictions could easily be the final page count of the book or magazine. Budget-wise, it would throw the production process over budget. Part of the pre-production task is to ensure the page count of the book, journal, etc is under x-amount. Or, maybe your writing was amazing, however they only permitted people in a certain area (country, state, or county). Finally, maybe it was for unpublished works and your writing appeared elsewhere.

Sometimes, committees will even send you a slight critique.  Other times, we aren’t so lucky. After your unwanted rejection letter is received, if you feel the need, reach out to them and ask if they had any feed back or reasons it wasn’t published. Don’t always expect a response, but it’s worth a try anyway. Importantly, don’t take it to heart.

Remember, just like the writing process, the publishing process is like running a marathon with hurdles every few feet. However, as long as we know most of the hurdles from the start, we’ll be better prepared to conquer our goals.

[Stephen Earley Jordan II is the author of several books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also directed and written a few award-winning short, experimental films. Check out his latest book published January 2022, Gods Mourn Too: Essays on Writing and Questions for Thought.]

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Sudden Fiction: “Black Shine”

[Assignment/Challenge: Editing is always the fun part when creating a story. It’s like putting a puzzle together. I challenge everyone to write a short story with no more (no less) than 400 words. Here’s my 400-word Sudden Fiction]

***

15 years old, running cross-country, to stay in shape for short distance.

We were all fourteen years old and went to rival schools in the same county. We met at a track meet and only saw each other at track meets. The three of us were all equally fast and ran sprints. In between events, our coaches allowed us to sit with other teams and make friends.

C. and I were closer friends than with Tiffany. Tiffany only spoke to us at the track meets, while C. and I spoke regularly on the phone. Tiffany told me that she “wasn’t allowed to have boys call”. She gave C. a poor excuse (I don’t recall) for why she couldn’t give her the phone number either.

At one track meet, Tiffany invited us to her house for her birthday party.

We went.

C.’s  mom picked me up, drove us to Tiffany’s, and dropped us off in front of the baby blue trailer on a narrow gravel road.

Soon, Tiffany’s father came home. He was tall and big and dirty—black dirty, with an unusual shine. His thick hands held a sheet cake in a plastic rectangle container. Blackness chafed from his fingers, leaving a bit of the dark shine on the plastic container when he placed it on the kitchen table.

Without eye contact, without words, he left the room.

Tiffany’s mother pulled a BIC lighter from a small open space from the top of her Camel cigarette pack. She lit the candles. We stood around the table as the glow of the flames lit our youthful faces.

“Tiffany come here,” bellowed a voice from the next room, seemingly to intentionally interrupt us from singing ‘Happy Birthday’. His voice rumbled like an untuned tuba. “Why did you let that nigger in MY house? Niggers have one place in the world and it’s not MY house, you stupid bitch. . .”

She returned to the kitchen. Silence replaced birthday wishes.

They were ashamed that I was shamed. I was not safe.

I was that nigger.

“I’m sorry.” Tiffany’s voice was barely heard. She stared at the candles as they melted onto the white icing.

I was quiet and embarrassed, but instantly C. spoke for me, spoke for the both of us, rescuing me. Rescuing us. “Excuse me, ma’am,” She was polite.  “May we use your phone? We shouldn’t be here.”

Tiffany’s eyes closed. She blew out the candles and her wish came true—we disappeared.

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You were the remedy

You were the remedy–
fierce and destructive,
destroying life
like Hurricane Maria,
doling out blows to your children
with unyielding winds,
battering hope.

She was expected
to be the success story,
the one to get you out of
‘this damn town’;
The favorite,
the light-skinned daughter,
with good grades
and good hair like a Puerto Rican.

Forget a harvest.
You salted the land.

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5 Ways to Make Your Writing Stand Out

Everyone thinks they are a writer. And as I say in “Gods Mourn Too”, most people can write (maybe not well, but nonetheless, they can formulate a coherent sentence). But not everyone is a writer deep down in the core; and, many simply can’t produce something of substance, of change, of authority.

I’ve many acquaintances published by major publishing houses, with books riddled with not only errors, but also lack of substance. Publishing isn’t what it used to be. As a child, and a child of a librarian, book publishing used to be something unique, something almost unreachable, something where the best of the best writers would go as if on Mt. Zion and shine their knowledge upon us. And we would sit back in awe and eagerly feed on their rich words and grow from them.

It’s not like that anymore. It’s about what will sell; and current trends. No longer are the times where we can expect or get substance or longevity. And, that’s the sad part about writing. The majority of writing and publishing are simply produced to fill an immediate trend.

But whether you are published traditionally or independently, there are still ways to make your writing stand out and have a tad more quality in the long run.

  1. Research. I always say I’m not just a writer, but also I’m an unofficial archaeologist–I dig things up. I investigate my findings. I watch the news. I read. I investigate my problem and try to analyze them so I can expand on them in my writings. Characters are real. They should be as interested in the world around them as we are. Despite writing fiction, your story deserves to have real moments described in it. How did the fall of the Berlin Wall affect your character; if it took place in 2001, how about the after effects of 9/11? The list can go on. Research that time point. Characters deserve to be developed to their fullest potential and have their own identity.

    One of the worse things to do is describe each character by the physical attributes when they walk in the room. Let their essence describe them. Let the way they walk, talk, and communicate with others be the what really describes them. Sit back and research human behavior. Sit in the park one day and research how people move their hands when they speak, walk, or even talk to themselves. Analyze them. Each person is intricately different. Finally, your research in daily news and questioning the whys and hows and whens will also assist in character and story development.

  2. Dialogue. Next time you watch TV or talk to friends, listen. Listen to their isms. We, as humans, have our own style in which we speak. There are some people who always start their conversations the same way; others may have their go-to words they tend to overuse; many tend to repeat the same phrase or story over and over. Listen to the uniqueness of your friends, yourself, and others. It’s an opportunity to understand our differences and recreate unique voices for each character. Despite the close bond  created in The Son of Leviticus short story between two young men, I manipulated the dialogue between them representing an obvious sense of naivete and dominance (and even racism).
  3. Location. You don’t have to directly mention the city and state in which the story takes place. But you do need to know about it. I’ve a friend who was writing a story where the main character lived in France. My friend literally spent two weeks in France, mapped-out an area, the stores, the eateries, the amazing food and wines and documented it all for the sake of his character. Everything was chronicled in a journal with photography of people, places, and even menus. When you know a location, you can mention the foods, the streets, the weather and going back to #2 (the dialogue). In turn, the intended audience of your book will know where it takes place without an elementary description.
  4. Opinions. One of the best things about this world is the varied opinions. From abortion, to politics, to race relations, to religion–we’re bound to never agree 100%. And that’s fine. With that said, your characters shouldn’t be in 100% in agreement with each other OR with you. Create characters you simply don’t like. Create die-hard characters who also challenge you as a writer and the characters in their every day life.
  5. Poetry. Even if you are a fiction writer, practice poetry. Description is my strong point. I always say I was a poet first. But the older I get the more I need various forms of writing to properly emote. With poetry, real poetry, classic poetry, you have to study it; study the rhythm even if there’s no rhyme; study the simplicity, the beauty even in darkness. There’s a unique type of editing that happens when crafting poetry–each word is concise and purposeful. You can implement this type of careful word choice and limitation into your fiction.

 

[Stephen Earley Jordan II is the author of several books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also directed and written a few award-winning short, experimental films. Check out his latest book published January 2022, Gods Mourn Too: Essays on Writing and Questions for Thought.]

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Perception is Reality

[I found this poem I wrote, and published in 2000 “Dan River Anthology”. I’ve been trying to find all my old publishing credits and reflect on progress and style. I was about 21 years old when I wrote this]

She sleeps
with her eyes open
wide as a child’s
on Christmas
hoping her fairy godmother
will sprinkle fairy dust
into her Titania eyes.

Tomorrow, she’ll see
the Elephant man
underneath
the duct-taped ass head
and know she is Jane Eyre,
searching for herself
and her ugly beast.

Lie thou there,
Ladies, you Lesbian Lysistratas,
and teach poor Titania
to be a feminist
in this man’s world.

 

[Stephen Earley Jordan II is the author of several books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also directed and written a few award-winning short, experimental films. Check out his latest book published January 2022, Gods Mourn Too: Essays on Writing and Questions for Thought.]

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Feral Child, Feral World

“Men should never be shamed. . .” was the first line that came to me, and ultimately framed short story Feral Child a few years ago, even though the line doesn’t appear until the end. It’s a frightening line. Frightened me, as the writer. As I wrote it, I recall asking myself “what happens if men ARE shamed? What will they do?”.

I found myself talking to myself about men as if I weren’t a part of the group. This is what happens what I analyze my characters and their intentions. I have to separate myself from myself and everything that makes me comfortable. But the answers to those questions needed to be answered. And the answers chilled me.

I had to divide my thoughts and analyzation of my characters into three categories: child abuse/neglect; domestic violence; and the male psychology.

Many decades ago, so long, I’ll call it high school, I wrote and memorized a speech on public opinion. In the speech, the notion was that many of the actions we complete aren’t because we want to do it; it’s because we are more concerned about public opinion. Many times we don’t follow the paths we truly want because we’re too concerned of public opinion, including the feeling of being shamed. Hence why we have so many unhappy adults in careers they truly never desired; or, even married, for that matter.  For God’s sake, what will people think if I remain single or childless my entire life?

The problem is many men tend to take-to-heart public opinion. Maybe just as much as women. And, to boot, if the public opinion may end up questioning his masculinity, a whole psychological domino effect begins to unfold and everyone in the path ends up feeling the wrath.

I was thinking about the male psychology (or what many folks have now inappropriately deemed as fragile masculinity), as Feral Child unfolded. Initially, though, the story had nothing to do with male psychology. But we, as writers, know that things unfold when and how they suppose to. The story’s initial intent was to focus on the child (named The Moreno) and the developmental studies of language; whether children with little to no human contact can still learn and speak a language. This is why the last scenes are important–it speaks. Yes, it. At this stage, the father had already made The Moreno into a horrific object. But yes, it speaks.

However, from the male psychology perspective, there was one key moment that triggered the lead character to have a mental demise–the moment he felt shamed. And this pure shame is what pushes the entire short story into a nightmare.

Feral Child was the third short story in The Macabre Collector’s Series, depicting the fear of man and how this fear is based simply on shame. In this story, a Puerto Rican family’s racism and sexism become real, yet unspoken; child neglect becomes normal; and man’s shame becomes the ultimate sin and disease for which he chooses to die.

Here, the Moreno, a feral child, was born into a world where language was never spoken, abuse was normal, and as a survival mechanism becomes the unfathomable. Feral Child represents humanity and all things shameful we grow to hide for no apparent reason but for our own selfish excuses and machismo.

Male machismo blinds men and even bonds men. Machismo was first written about in Latin American literature early 20th century by feminists tackling the topic of male-dominated infrastructures within the Latin community. And, as an individual who lives in Puerto Rico now, some of these topics in literature, definitely reflect every day lifestyle–you will not shame the men. And, if you do, horrible consequences have happened.

In Puerto Rico, the rate at which femicide occurs continues to increase every year; and the rate at which trans (mtf) murders continues to increase as well. Most often, if it’s a disappearance, the law enforcement will simply say “she ran off with a boyfriend. . .” However, if the murder is obvious, the sentence never fits the crime. This is why there are ongoing marches and protests vocalizing this discrepancy on the island.

As a writer, I may never truly understand the human psychology. And I think that’s the fun part with writing. I’ve become an archeologist–constantly studying and digging things up, in attempts to make characters I create a tad more whole. However, I always tell fellow writers that you must stay on top of the happenings around you–the news (local, federal and international). It helps us understand the plights of a people, of a gender, of a culture. It helps us formulate ideas and adjust characterization for the sake of realism in this feral world.

 

[Stephen Earley Jordan II is the author of several books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also directed and written a few award-winning short, experimental films. Check out his latest book published January 2022, Gods Mourn Too: Essays on Writing and Questions for Thought.]

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