In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 186.
“Let me begin with Crow. I first met Crow on the mountain. The mountain that changed everything. There’s always been a bird inside me. It used to sit outside my window when I was a girl, me feeding the hogs across the cornfields. Then that little bird was orange and bright, but it grew into Crow, black Crow. Crow who has always been with me, even now.”
So says the trailblazing, raw, seductive, forward-thinking, and enigmatic funk queen, singer, and mythmaker Betty Davis in Betty: They Say I’m Different, a 2017 documentary on the artistic life and disappearance of Davis from the music scene years ago. Davis, who died last year, was Black and Cherokee—like myself—and told the director of this film, Philip Cox, that Crow was her spirit guide. Images of black crows landing and taking off punctuate the film and stand in for Davis, alongside powerful images of her in the 1970s, as we learn about her path to becoming the wild thing that she was. We see her growling into the microphone, with her gritty rock and roll sound; her iconic outfits replete with sequins, feathers, colorful prints, and metallic boots; her sexually liberated dance moves. She was distinctly and uncommonly free, unapologetically Black and female during a time when civilized and genteel images of African Americans were in favor on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. As a performer, Davis was therefore seen as “indecent” (often synonymous, when it comes to women of color, with being fully empowered); she faced major backlash for being so undeniably herself, leading her to drift away from the music scene altogether, opting for a quiet and private life instead.
The tone and timbre of Davis’s voice, that Crow that was within her and encapsulated her artistic aura, still lingers in my inner ear, leading me to an intuitive feeling about what I’d like to become as a writer—purposeful, deeply authentic, and free in the way Audre Lorde described it in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”: “The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” For Davis’s music always elicits feelings from its listeners, and in feeling and hearing her freedom one also becomes empowered by a process of artistic osmosis.
I’m convinced by what Lorde and Davis have shown me, and what my ancestors have passed down to me in our beliefs and ways of moving through this world, that writing that originates from being as opposed to thinking is where authenticity lies—our real and most sincere selves, our inner crows. Creating art for me has never been an intellectual exercise as much as it has been a spiritual one, a deep exploration of who I am, where I come from, and where I’m headed. In finding and writing my true voice as a poet (and I tried on many voices during my undergraduate and graduate years to see what stuck), I have arrived at a ritual through which I create language from my subconscious, my intuition, my dreams, my body, my ancestors, but never truly from my mind—that final editing tool. For writing is far more than a mental activity; it’s a soul-searching pursuit. Crow was Davis’s “heartbeat,” as she says in the film, and I am committed to a poetics that originates from our inner selves, our heart caves, and, yes, our literal heartbeats.
Immersing myself in Davis’s world has led me to thinking about how we can be freer to present our truest selves in poetry, as true as Davis was to herself when she performed on stage. The way one sings across the page may differ from the way they speak in other settings: their office voice, their phone voice, their outside voice. After all, isn’t poetry our inside voice? Yet, even as that interior tone is some very real part of us as poets, writing is simultaneously a performance, aware of a readership that may potentially analyze, and judge, every word and line.
The architecture of self on the page, the use of voice and tone in building it—how does one find that? Some people go looking for their voices in others first, mimicking their favorite poets. Others claim to be born with a strong artist’s voice, their own bright-turned-black crow. The path is varied. Some people more carefully construct this sense of self, this literary voice, for a certain purpose. Maybe it’s to be liked, accepted, “cool,” published, or maybe it’s to counter that which is liked, accepted, “cool,” and generally published. Others give off the air of caring little about public perception at all and more about what feels right in the moment. What I’m mostly interested in is how much of ourselves we reveal and give to our readers through our voice. How much of our pain or mischievousness or family upbringing is found in our choice of words, the slang and vernacular we do or do not use. How much of ourselves do we give without reservation on the page?
Coming from a dance and performance background, I can say that there is a vulnerability to presenting yourself physically to an audience that you cannot hide from. In writing, to some degree, we can hide behind the page: Our bodies are not present, only our words can be seen. But I desire that same fullness, that same “here I am” quality on the page, and I can only assume other writers do too. I also understand the inauthentic voices that can show up in a written work when we conceal ourselves. How can one remain authentic, I have wondered for the better part of my twenties, when the poet, the page performer, acknowledges to some degree the audience, their readers? There’s something playful that can take place in that performance. So perhaps authenticity is a choice. Of course, one must know how to pull something true out of themselves before that choice can be made.
Engaging in other art forms helped me to find and establish my authentic voice, and it also taught me how to pull something true out of myself, for finding our own inner crows and our voices is, for me, one and the same—the purest part of our being. In college I fell in love with acting around the time I committed myself seriously to writing (yes, I was still dancing). Pushing myself to find my own crow within the voices of scripted characters who looked, sounded, walked, and thought nothing like me helped me nail down my authentic voice with each costume and character change. It also helped me feel the full wingspan of my inner self. Yet acting initially felt anti-India. I was a shy child growing up, and I am still an introvert today (though I masquerade as an extrovert when I absolutely must). Not having to use my voice during dance kept some part of me safely tucked away off stage. Knowing that about myself, I forced myself to audition for an acting class in college as a way of pushing past my comfort zone. Who was I if I proved to myself that I wasn’t so shy, that I could get up in front of an audience and cry without feeling uncomfortable? I feared acting would make me unhinged or overly emotional, because it created a version of myself that couldn’t control what happened next, what my scene partners said and how I reacted to them. And control is the very antithesis of acting, of art in general, which thrives on flexibility and spontaneity.
While I won’t be so prescriptive as to recommend that every writer take acting classes as a sure method of finding their own authentic footing and voice, I will offer the suggestion to do something that feels antithetical to how you generally think of yourself. Dear reader, is there something you’ve secretly desired to engage in but were terrified to do? Maybe it’s taking a pottery class or dressing and presenting yourself in a certain way that feels truest to you. Give yourself the grace to explore something you’ve avoided or, more simply, something new you never thought you’d do. What becomes of you if you put yourself in a totally new context?
Just this summer one of my dearest friends asked me to paint his nails while we were on vacation together. No doubt this was a huge moment for him, as it surely would be for any heterosexual man in America working actively to break free from certain brassbound ways of being a “man” that don’t serve them. After a half hour in the nail polish aisle of some drugstore in the Southwest, he chose the most beautiful, shimmery pink polish, and slowly, very slowly, fell in love with his painted nails throughout the rest of our week together. It was a wonderfully tender time for his self-discovery. So make yourself tender, and see who you really are. Think of whatever new task or way of living appeals to you and what has stopped you from doing it. Maybe you’ll fail at first when you try it. Lord knows my mother and sister candidly told me that the monologue I prepared for my first-ever acting audition was a very low starting point (lovingly, of course, always lovingly). But if you push yourself to keep at it, you’ll find your grit, your inner rock and roll, your truest self that can then be brought back to the page for you to strengthen your writing practice.
“There it all began, the beginning of being different, like a piece of sugar cane, sweet to the core,” utters Davis in her distinctive Southern voice. In finding our voices as writers—who we are and what we stand for, the symphony of sounds that add up to our distinct utterances, the song of our particular crows—we can search deeply by implementing one new action or way of being in our lives that terrifies us. Why not push into the deepest corners of your being and feeling (not thinking, remember) to expand your conception of who you are and what you can become? I wonder what power, what growl, we can find within ourselves if we commit to not trying to sound like anyone else but being that someone else. There must be the push beyond what is readily known. In that push, that search, I wish for you to find your bird-like voice, your song, and sing it until a new melody blows your way, until that song has said all it needs to say.
India Lena González is the features editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, a poet, and a multidisciplinary artist. Her debut poetry collection, fox woman get out!, was released this fall as part of BOA Editions’ Blessing the Boats Selections. India is also a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor and has had the pleasure of performing at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, St. Mark’s Church, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York Live Arts, and other such venues.Art: Bianca Ackermann