Here From Somewhere Else
This collection of poems was honored with the Editors Choice Poetry Chapbook Award by Turtle Island Quarterly in summer of 2015. Though Oscar Wilde warned that to be understood is to be found out, I’m grateful to have been understood so well. From Gwyn Kirk’s cover art (“Composting”) to the last poem, this is a record of transition and transformation. Walking through cities, forests and prairies, standing beside rivers and lakes and the sea, the speakers in these poems trace their movement from one geography to another, from one way of being to another. I wrote some of the poems years ago, and some quite recently; together now, in a narrative order I couldn’t have known and wouldn’t have predicted, they chronicle a changing consciousness.
The Man Who Loves Trees
loves through the seasons:
bare trunk, fat buds, full green, wet red
and their names: sweet gum
cypress oak spruce willow maple
red bud forest pansy
and their parts: leaf cone flower
bark root branch boll twig needle
lacy fans of rough crochet, pods
like cigars, like rattling gourds.
He loves their cast-offs crisp on the ground
their sound under his boots on the trail
rustling, breaking down into dust.
He loves, later, their sawn boards:
wood, its grain a watery maze
polished, rubbed into light, glowing
still with heat from the heart of the tree
like his own heart, pumping dark liquid
out to the limbs, out to his own warm hands.
Here From Somewhere Else, Judith Arcana’s gorgeous new collection, has movement at its core. Many of these poems are fueled by questions—questions that generate a powerful urgency and contribute to the book’s compelling internal momentum. A curious voice and generous heart guide us through Arcana’s geographical and emotional landscapes; I was delighted but not surprised that here, love gets the very last word.
- author of the poetry collections Threshold and No Acute Distress
Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture
Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, winner of the Minerva Rising Prose Prize in 2014, is rooted in pre-Roe abortion work and the realization that our situation is worse now (in the USA) than it was then. The story takes place in the near-future: A woman is working on a movie about the Chicago police raid on the feminist underground abortion service in 1972. Soon is one of several stories I've written about abortion and tattoos; some are online, one's a zine; for more info, check out this site's JANE page, and watch Jodi Darby’s trailer. For poems about reproductive justice and motherhood, read WHAT IF YOUR MOTHER.
I remember two women from the holding tank, when the seven of us, the Janes, got put in with them. Even right now, while I’m telling you this, I can see both women clearly. It’s weird, isn’t it, what we remember? And what we don’t? The first time I tried to write this, I didn’t know who took care of the baby while I was working. Which is truly bizarre because at the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the baby. There was the breast milk situation plus fear – I was thinking: What if they take my baby away because I’ve been arrested? And: If I do time, he won’t know me. That was in my head all day, and it was a long day; we started doing abortions about nine, got busted at three, got to the lockup around midnight.
Judith Arcana offers a fascinating perspective into the struggle for abortion rights in the 1970s, a story more relevant now than ever. Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture is fiction based on the true story of the arrest of the “Abortion Seven” on May 3, 1972 – and it’s an examination of the nature of memory, the spaces in history where fiction seeps in. The story’s narrator, who is making a movie about the event, raises questions of who to cast, what to include, and how to structure a film – creating at once an inventive way to write about history and a meditation on the territory between memoir and fiction, a keen rumination on the art-making process and all its attendant questions: In the end, what do we keep, and what do we cut away?
- Laura Moulton, Executive Director & Street Librarian/Street Books
Keesha and Joanie and JANE
I'm a Jane; I worked in Chicago's pre-Roe underground abortion service. "Keesha and Joanie and JANE" – the story in this zine – is rooted in that work. Set in the near future, it's a story about young women struggling to respond to the elimination of abortion access in the USA. I was lucky to have this zine published by Charles Overbeck at Eberhardt Press - he created the design/concept (the PLAYBILL parody, ads and all) - and he decided to use my mug shot, taken by the Chicago police when they busted the abortion service in early May of 1972. He put that picture right on the cover, illustrating the fact of the matter: when abortion is illegal, it's not health care - or even a medical procedure - it's a crime.
Watch Jodi Darby's video trailer about the JANE stories and check out this website's JANE page for other useful links. I've also written poems about reproductive justice; here they are, in What if your mother.
I’ve got a question. I’m serious when I ask this, don’t think I’m not. I mean, I’m a medical student, and I’m straight, and I’m 26 years old, and I’ve had classes with the most poisonously anti-abortion prof at OHSU and I’ve got a grandmother who’s a far right Christian – she freaked when I did clinic defense in high school – but I have never been able to figure out where all this comes from. Bernie stands up and keeps talking: I mean, why do they think the way they do? Why did the US anti-abortion movement happen? What’s really bothering them? I’ve studied this history, so I know that nobody else, in any other country, at any other time, ever created a homegrown anti-abortion movement on anything like this scale. And we know all their “pro-life” talk is fake – that’s not what they’re about. Their movement’s not against the death penalty, they’re not against war or police shoot-to-kill, they don’t say a word about torture, they don’t care much about poverty, they haven’t set up a system to take care of abandoned kids – she stops to take big breath here – and lots of them don’t like contraception either, so they don’t seem to want women to be able to prevent unplanned pregnancy. They don’t even seem to be working to clean up the planet; they’re not stopping that kind of destruction-of-life. So, what is it, really, that makes them hate abortion so much? I’m serious – what is it? This drives me crazy! And besides, I have to know what to tell my daughter.
Despite Roe v. Wade, access to safe abortions has become tenuous in the USA. In “Keesha and Joanie and JANE,” Judith Arcana playfully speculates about what might happen if we put young radical activists at a table with their elders for some hard conversation, tactical organizing and learning from the past to make a better future. The result is complicated, funny, troubling and hopeful – and hard to put down!
- Honna Veerkamp, Media Artist and Organizer
I love the way “Keesha and Joanie and JANE” poses important questions for women in an intergenerational conversation – that connection is one of the very most important tasks we feminists need to address. Using myth, history and facts, this story cleverly points out generational differences and similarities – and the importance of contributions from women of different ages and experiences. This is good work!
- Sharon Barker, Director Emerita/Women’s Resource Center, University of Maine
As an activist, I’m struck by how the JANEBILL captures our position: the ideas, paralysis, aspirations and frustrations of trying to preserve and expand our right to safe abortion – even as access decreases every month. Here’s hoping this zine sparks readers to keep finding ways to push back against those who want to take away our basic human right to control our bodies and our lives.
- Susan Yanow, Founding Executive Director, Abortion Access Project
With the eye of a poet and the grasp of an activist, Judith Arcana deftly brings past, present and future into one brilliant intergenerational encounter in “Keesha and Joanie and JANE.” In this story, workers from JANE, the real-life abortion service in pre-Roe Chicago, meet with young women in an imagined future. Though replication of their actions is impossible, they insist that history is ours, now, for the taking – a taking by new generations living with new realities. Arcana offers complex thinking wrapped in engaging characters and dialogue – an impressive offering to readers in pursuit of the truth of women’s lives.
- Cindy Cooper, Founder and Producer/Words of Choice: A National Prochoice Theater
(read Cindy Cooper's blog about Keesha and Joanie and JANE)
If you’ve ever wanted a conversation with heroes from history, this tough-talking, lively tour-de-force of politics and art is for you! Judith Arcana brings the past, present and future together in this natural, accessible discussion of abortion and reproductive justice – the story-telling in “Keesha and Joanie and JANE” is mesmerizing.
- Minnie Bruce Pratt, Lesbian, Writer, Anti-racist/Anti-imperialist Activist
Judith Arcana’s JANEBILL - storytelling that is simultaneously about the past and the future of abortion in the United States - is vital, funny, and stirring reading for anyone who cares about reproductive justice. In content and format, this zine is an urgent reminder that is it we who must act.
- Rosemary Candelario, Educator/Organizer/Artist
My mother, at age 75, frets about the threats to reproductive rights, especially since her four granddaughters have no clue about the “bad old days.” I witnessed the transition to a time when women and girls in the US began having greater control over our bodies and our destinies, and share Mom’s fears. “Keesha and Joanie and JANE” is an important reminder – it’s education for us all.
- Jenice L. View, Teacher/Mother/Activist
The Parachute Jump Effect
This is a collection of poems about dreaming, thinking, moving and changing. When I was creating the manuscript, I learned – again – that every poem means something different when it’s next to another, different from what it means when it’s alone. Each time I create a book, whether it’s poetry or prose, this phenomenon of connection is a source of amazement to me. I’m repeatedly amazed because, look, here it is again – all this shifting and sliding, this making of new meanings! I can predict this will happen, structurally speaking, even with chapters of prose – but I can’t know what the new meanings will be. Most of the poems in this chapbook were written recently; some were written several years ago. I added the older ones when the new meaning phenomenon kicked in. They floated up to the surface of my mind and memory because this sequence, this source of new meaning, called for them.
Suppose we could telephone the dead. – Jane Cooper
What’s it like out where you are?
Is it anything we make up, alive and imagining?
Is it something I can know, or so much not
what we think, I won’t know even if you tell me?
Is it forever? Is it like religion says? Do you laugh?
Is there music? Is there eating? Sleeping?
And if you sleep, do you dream?
Do you have work? Are the dead a good audience? Do they get it?
Can you go where you want, or is death organized
by time and geography, like living?
Can you fly? Can you see me? Are you coming back?
Will you come home, to the prairie where you used to be?
Or go somewhere else and live in another language?
Will you be someone else? A wolverine, or a stalk of corn?
You might be tomatoes or apples, or spinach on Steve’s farm.
Do you still have cancer when you’re dead?
Or does it go away after it kills you? Are you angry?
Or is there peace in death? What is peace? Can you tell me?
From opening doors inside of dreams to learning lessons from a mountain, from recalling the drowning of Virginia Woolf to telephoning the dead, Judith Arcana pursues both consciousness and lived experience as a seeker of beauty and skeptic of truth. At the heart of the experiences in this book are the elements — fire, water, earth, and sky — that capture the poet’s imagination and give ballast to her world. And there are implied relationships too …. as if The Parachute Jump Effect unveils the seedbed for camaraderie, for connection, for bridging the gap from the celestial to the terrestrial, and for locating the pleasures of memory and time.
- David Biespiel
To read Judith Arcana’s poems in The Parachute Jump Effect, is to feel utterly spoken to. The voice is confiding, intriguing, sometimes humorous, but laced with ominous truths, as in the first two dream poems. There’s great energy in the colloquial language: “Ok, All Right, Yes” ... enchants me with the rightness of its tone. (“You think you’ll live until you die/and hey—ok, all right, yes/you can have that one/that one’s got to come true.”) The collection is held together by its exploration of the thinking process involved in looking for life’s meaning .... [and] uses lyrical language to describe the search. At the shore the narrator is “searching/for what I can’t see as the waves come at me, opening the beach/right under my feet, capturing me/in the swirling tide-quickened sand.” And while these poems invite the reader inside the poet’s mind, they are never abstract as they wander through bakeries and kitchens, drop in on Montana and Colorado and Chicago, and reach the parachute jump that satisfyingly rounds off the book.
- Judith Barrington
4th Period English
In late spring 2008, I was working on a short fiction collection and a book of poems, but they got shoved aside by characters who showed up talking poetry inside my head. I now think the following elements had to have been in play: I’d published a couple poems with Spanish in them and was thinking maybe I’d do some more; long ago and far away I was a high school teacher; I met the young people working on PAPERS, a film about young people in the USA who are “undocumented” - and all the time (like everybody else) I was reading and hearing about the horror and terror of contemporary immigration. Those were the raw materials; the chapbook’s structure developed as I wrote. By the time half a dozen characters had popped up in my head, I saw that they were students talking and arguing about law, racism, ethnicity, language, nations and borders - here in the USA. By the end of that summer, I began to think of the poems, the collection, as a theater piece: there they all are, talking to and about each other, in scene after scene. Now, in addition to every poet’s desire (that you will read my work), I want these poems performed in theaters and high schools, in colleges, libraries, and parks. The full print run sold out, so I'm hopeful.
You think we all come from Mexico
and up here maybe that’s the most.
But also Guatemala — do you know
where that is? And even Colombia
far away as that is from this huerta
far from these apples and pears.
I wonder if you even know these
other countries are in the world
with you. Like you call your country
America but it isn’t — this place is only
los Estados Unidos, the United States
of America, a chunk of a chunk, a piece
of a piece del norte — ¿comprendes? Do you
know Canada has more land, up there
on top of you? Do you know Brazil
is almost as big, and it’s only one part
of América del Sur, the whole south?
You think you know where you are, where
everybody is and should be. But do you?
Judith Arcana’s 4th Period English is so wonderful, I feel privileged to have read it, and I wish it were part of every curriculum starting right now. Listen to the voices of Corazón, Cesar, Mikoor, Huynh Chinh, Kathy and Megan, Jamayah, their teacher Ms Solomon and her neighbor Khatereh Jafari — you’ll think you were there in George Washington High School, Anywhere, USA, surrounded by The World. And you were. This is absolutely terrific writing.
- Alicia Ostriker
These poems are amazing. Inside that strange, raw intersection where immigration and Americanism meet, Judith Arcana’s new collection brings to life a whole population in a typical American high school. Her own strong voice disappears as she seemingly channels Adelita and Vicente, Tiffany and Jason, teachers and tíos, parents and visiting profesores. The stories that emerge here are vulnerable, confused, angry, outraged, tender, and, above all, deeply human.
- Diana Rico
Judith Arcana invites us into an urgent listening exercise that leaves us yearning to befriend the real Verónicas, Tyrones and Ashleys who have inspired these poems. This polyphonic collection is a labor of love and compassion, making readers aware of the painful ways our young people struggle between the myriad borders of this world.
- Alicia Partnoy
What if your mother
By the end of the 20th century, women’s motherhood decisions in the USA had become, terrifyingly, more severely constrained than they were in 1970, when I became a Jane. I had an eight month sabbatical from my faculty job in 1998, and surprised myself by writing a small set of poems about abortion and adoption. Soon I understood those poems needed to be joined by others, to become a book. So I researched contemporary clinical practice to bring my JANE-era knowledge up to date, increased my work with activists for reproductive justice, read about contemporary adoption methods and experiences, and learned more about the intense insurgence of biotechnology in human conception and birth. This collection is the result of that work.
Not really a baby
Most of us think it’s not really a baby
not a baby at all when it’s that small.
We see pictures on a screen, strange
dim images shot back from space.
But we know science isn’t what you feel.
What you feel comes from inside
movement grandma calls quickening.
Until then we count on the calendar
to where we’d have to be to have it
be a baby: like if you let it grow
those chubby bumps into fingers
it would be because of the fingers
lots of us think it’s a baby then
with legs and arms, even if the eyes
look like they’re from another planet.
That’s when all the pictures fit inside
your family album; that’s when
most of us think it really is a baby.
Arcana has written poems about a subject so complex and difficult that I could not imagine them being written …. she tackles the whole range of situations and emotions …. She’s articulated the impossible and … given us a way to think about what couldn’t have been thought.
– Toi Derricotte
Judith Arcana's .... words speak the clear, bloody truth of women's fight for reproductive freedom .... taking readers ... on a journey through ... the unspoken and the unspeakable ... the real and the inevitable .... tell[ing] the real story about mothering, not the Hallmark version ....
– Jill Scott in Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering (Canada)
This inspired collection … covers the gamut of reproductive issues from mothering to miscarriages and women’s bodies to babies … delivered by a true poet.
This book … is about the reality of women’s lives, as daughters, lovers, mothers, and women who choose not to be mothers …. the beauty, the pain, the tragedy, the joy and the power ….
– Network for Reproductive Options Newsletter
Lyric, varied, funny, moving, full of lively stories and authentic voices …. this book will change the definition of political poetry.
– Annie Finch
The title poem … should be made into a poster and pinned up on the wall in every clinic in the United States.
– Peter Bours, MD, longtime abortion provider
Grace Paley's Life Stories
In the early nineteen-eighties, I became interested in biography, and decided my next book would be about a writer, a woman, so I could learn from her (as Grace said about Virginia Woolf, I wanted to learn how she did it). In 1984, I started graduate school; Grace showed up at a conference nearby in my first semester. When I heard her talk – about politics, writing, and the politics of writing – I knew she was the one for me. So I wrote literary biography for my dissertation and, after graduation, turned the dissertation into this book. From those years ‘til her death in August of 2007, we were friends; we had a good time together.
Grace Paley was one of the great masters of the short story form; her work serves as one kind of standard for anyone and everyone writing stories, in any language, in any country. She also wrote poems and essays that tell us, in her startlingly clear voice, things we need to know. Her work in the streets has been neither less nor more important than her work on the page; these two forms, these ways of being and doing, together comprise her lifework.
Grace was one of the “famous” contemporary women who understand that their success is fostered by women’s liberation movement, by feminist consciousness. She knew – and said – that only a few critics and opinion-makers paid serious attention to her until waves of women lifted and carried her, buying her books by the thousands.
By the time of her death, Grace had become a national treasure in the USA, both loved and honored. Because of her joyous, funny, smart and intensely interested years of living, people in countries all over the world gratefully celebrate her.
Grace Paley believes that we are all creatures of our time, born and formed in history. Her stories always carry the past within their present, even as both turn amazingly into the future. Every story, she has said, is at least two stories, and her own often include more than two plots, more than two sets of characters, more than two “central” themes. This is one of the ways in which her work is most true and most autobiographical, for the stories of our lives never do separate and line up neatly into diagrammable, chronological plots. Instead, our stories weave in and out erratically, absorbing and eclipsing each other in turn, moving back and forth through history, which contains them all....
Out of the PTA and into the streets, she had developed into a charismatic speaker and organizer. Like the voices of her fictional narrators, her own voice is compelling. In the gritty charm of its Bronx cadence and pronunciation, Grace’s voice is easy to understand, compellingly sincere, simple and intimate, revelatory and explanatory without being directive; her public style is no less personal than her immediate presence. A live model of the feminist axiom – the personal is political – Grace Paley often catalyzes and embodies the thoughts and feelings of her audience as she speaks....
When she thinks about having become 'a literary person,' Grace agrees that the transformation took place over a long period and was almost imperceptible. She rarely speaks of the long time it took for her to define herself as a writer, but she willingly generalizes from her own experience to comment on how difficult it is for women to be taken seriously – even in the midst of success. In 1984 … Grace addressed this issue [at a conference, and is quoted as] “saying that her stories were considered nice, little unimportant stories about domestic situations. As if to prove her point, an article in the Chicago Tribune about th[at] conference referred to her as an ‘intellectual version of Erma Bombeck.’ [and don’t even think about what that foolish phrase implies about the estimable Ms. Bombeck]...."
When told that the University of Illinois Press had taken it out of print, Grace Paley exclaimed: “Oh! People love that book!”
"Such extensive research is unmatched in Paley scholarship; Arcana's focus on the political crucible of Paley's consciousness is rare in contemporary literary criticism."
- Google Books
"Based on extensive interviews with Paley, her relatives and friends, this ... biography succeeds admirably in linking Paley's work to her ... life ... as writer and passionate political activist ...."
- Mary Anne Ferguson
"Tackles the question we all secretly have about our writers: how much is literature and how much is their lives? This witty, insightful book is full of Paley's quirky charm, tenacious integrity, and exuberant activism .... a delight for both old fans of Paley and new readers intrigued by the connection between peace, justice, and art."
- Minnie Bruce Pratt
Lilly Rivlin's 74 minute video documentary about Grace is described here. Listen to CircleA Radio's hour-long show honoring Grace a few months after her death in 2007; it includes several clips of her, reading & talking on different occasions.
Every Mother's Son
In 1971, I gave birth to my son and immediately began to worry about whether it would be possible for me, raising him, to counteract the forces of conventional male socialization. I did the research for this book hoping it would help me figure out if we had a chance, any chance at all. Could mothers withstand, or at least lessen, the fearsome impact of patriarchy and male supremacy? Could we do that and, at the same time, raise our boys to be people with full human possibility alive in them? Could they grow to be their real selves (as my son said)? Every Mother’s Son was the first feminist analysis of the mother/son relationship published in the USA and, for too long, was one of very few such books.
Mothers … raising male children … confront … the pattern which has produced nonurturant, emotionally unresponsive, highly competitive and materially oriented males … given to verbal and physical violence, to the domination and frequent abuse of children and women …. We’ve been trapped with our sons, imprisoned in false ways of being … by a culture whose very language turns mother into mocking profanity, son into demeaning insult. But if sons can recognize that there is no danger to them inherent in the mother, discarding the layers of masculinity that cover their humanity, and if mothers will undertake the painful struggle to restore our integrity as women, then mothers and sons can begin to break the constraints of fear and anger between us.
A shocking book, in a cleansing, salutary way – I loved it. Against the fashionable tendency to regard women and men as planetary opposites, Judith Arcana reaffirms the ancient bond between sons and their mothers, reminding us of what the human species can accomplish if we own it together.
– Martha Roth
This book is truly a major work of feminist analysis.
– Joseph Pleck
Arcana compassionately takes mothers and sons together, guiding us carefully toward the hope we will not use our power against each other.
– Carol Kleiman
A provocative read … compelling, fascinating.
– Chartist (UK)
Our Mothers' Daughters
In the 1970’s, I was one of many women inventing and teaching Women’s Studies. In every class, no matter what the subject was, we inevitably talked about our relationships with our mothers, about the pain and confusion surrounding those relationships. When the students and I went looking for information and insight, we found very little, and very little of what we found was useful. Misogyny and mother-blaming were omnipresent, and Freud’s ignorance about women loomed large. This book grew out of my search as a scholar and my life as a daughter. It was one of the first feminist analyses of this crucial relationship, and it rose directly out of the intense struggle for women’s liberation in the second half of the 20th century in the USA.
… all of us must confront the reality of our mothers, as the women they are, and as they live in us – even if they are thousands of miles away or dead. Whether we come to the truth of our mothers through our politics, the guidance of therapy, or the revelations of dreams, we need that truth to break down both the generally false concept of “mother” in this society, and whatever specifically false stance we hold relative to our own mothers. For mothers and daughters to relate to each other in truth – even sporadically – is a terrible struggle for both women.
It blew my mind … Judith Arcana’s book suggests to us the possibility of ceasing to blame our mothers for making us the people we are … Already this precious little book, much thumbed and pored over, has passed amongst my friends and acquaintances.
- Honey (UK)
Beautifully written ... a welcome addition for any woman's bookshelf. Whether you read it as a mother, a daughter, or both - it might help you understand life a little better than before.
- Woman's World (UK)
[This is]… a rare and valuable book, telling and illuminating. She manages to evoke memories, capture yearnings and represent profound pleasures and griefs that many women share. Most important, she reminds us of the mother-daughter-mother circle in the lives of women, newly poignant in the light of the present women’s movement.
- Mary Howell
A first rate account. The paradox of family life is that we all know about it existentially, yet we know nothing of the common threads that make family life so important, so enriching, and so terrible. Judith Arcana has given us a real gift in offering her perspective on family socialization, developed from both personal insight and systematic research.
- Arlene Kaplan Daniels
[Judith Arcana's Our Mothers' Daughters was] written with a generosity of spirit and healthy curiosity.
- Jane Marcus
[This book is] … humanistic, it doesn’t seek to blame … it asks you to see your mother as a woman of her time who did the best with what she had.
- John Doh (“genericbloke” online)