The Cipher

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman – Age 19

Fyah Spittah

I joined the AUC (Atlanta University Center) Poets’ Society in the first semester of my freshman year.

Ryan, the guy I was digging at the time, walked me to Trevor Arnett Hall on his campus, Clark Atlanta University, for my first reading rehearsal.  It was Clark’s Homecoming Week and a partner is always helpful in those kind of social situations where some strategic text messaging can make you look occupied and hip these days.  But that was then.  So there was Ryan.

He left me at a side entrance to go party; I was flattered enough that he had obliged to come from his room in Brawley on the other side of Clark’s campus over to my campus a block away to walk me back to his campus.

Okay, so it wasn’t all that long of a walk.  Spelman’s back gate is on one side of the street; Clark’s is on the other.  And it’s not a two lane street.  But I was 18 and fairly green to the concept of expectations.

The session was pretty short.  We’d booked a gig at a new eatery in College Park and each of us would read 2 poems.  We would carpool there in Keon’s car since it wasn’t on the MARTA line and would be a heck of a walk from the nearest station on a Friday night.  Plans laid, I went back to my room to find an appropriate outfit.

I needed to look artsy but approachable; not like I was trying too hard but put together…my wide legged Diesel jeans would serve the purpose.  Chucks?  No–my distressed brown leather oxfords with the clunky heel.

And the poems?  None of that imagery stuff.  No love poems.  I pulled out the one spoken word piece I’d ever written.  And it had the b-word in it.  How would I get around that?  I didn’t cuss.  Well, that one time

My turn to rock the mic came after Kenji’s.  A D.C. native, the at-the-time-new spoken word poetry seemed natural to him.  A hip hop head and burgeoning journalist, he rhymed of sex and social issues–the top two topics of spoken word–with the alliteration, metaphors, and proper [pause] breathes of emphasis that I thought I wanted to imitate.  But I couldn’t.  So I stuck with being me.  Which may have been where the problems came:

You shout at me from bass-heavy speakers of
hooked up hoopties with rims and tints
like I’m the one who stole your self-righteous dignity
and if I did
it’s only because you let me.
while you’re all caught up in those aquarian risings
the struggle still continues
and the smokescreen behind which you hide
isn’t making our strategy
which took over 400 years to map out
any clearer.
I looked for you
but you had dodged their bullets
and yet taken refuge in Snow White
and although you say she’s just a friend
I can’t pretend I didn’t see the branded “t” for token
across your chest
when we were making midnight sing.
Yyes, you are still my bronzed emasculated Adonis
Greek letters stealing the Yoruba, Igbo, Gullah strength
that makes you forever mine
but this iron burden you call love
is weighing me down.
don’t you know I cannot cherish those four letter lovewords?
and the overzealous pet names only make me cringe
i am a woman all by myself
and never your b-i-t-c-h either way…

Scre-e-e-e-e-e-ech!  Yes like pull the needle off the record.  Why did I spell it out?!  Why?  WHy?  WHY?!

After our reading was over, we had a dialogue with the audience.  I was immediately called to task by one of the women for my inability to stay in persona.  Okay, she didn’t say that.  She asked, “Darlene, why did you choose to spell out the word ‘bitch’ rather than say it outright?”

I looked out into that audience of people old enough to be my parents, including her, and thought, “Woman, that ain’t gonna happen.”

Even if that was part of what I was thinking when I made the decision, I still explained with all the assuredness of being 18 and quite Christian that was a term I did not use and even for the sake of the poem would not feel comfortable with it.

She accepted my answer I guess.  I don’t remember the rest of the questions I fielded that night but was happy to have some directed to me in the face of the talent I shared the stage with.  Surely they had more to talk about.

At Bennigan’s we ate our honorarium away and talked of plans to read far and wide on the campuses.  Throughout the city.  The whole HBCU circuit!  And indeed, to some extent, that dream was realized.  But not by me.

The AUC Poets’ Society suffered a slow death as few–maybe one or two–invitations for readings trickled in beyond that night.  And none of them were well attended; one not at all!  I barely saw Kenji anymore; Anika and Michelle were students on my campus so I saw them in passing.

One afternoon in the spring semester, my dreams of being a member of an artists’ community still simmering, I saw a simple white poster on my dormitory’s front door.  The word CIPHER was typed in a small oval.  This “new” poetry group was performing at one of the student centers and its membership included Kenji, Anika, Michelle, and Brian–all the members of the AUC Poets’ Society.  Except me.

That danged poem!  I beat myself up for all of five minutes and then just turned on myself all together with an air of resolution: you weren’t as good as them anyway.

As my dreams of being included were dashed ’til bloody on the rocks of rejection, I wrote.  Still. Ultimately I even published pretty extensively in Focus, our college literary journal, won an award in Clark Atlanta’s Annual Writing Contest, and an essay made it to the pages of Morehouse’s alternative news magazine: The Maroon.  On the other hand, I didn’t read in public again until I defended my graduate school thesis.

And that time, I didn’t spell out the word bitch, I said it.

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