Photo by Ginny
Note: you can listen to a spoken-word version of Zarah Moeggenbergs’s Writers On Writing essay, as well as her spoken-word poem “Brand,” which she discusses below.
Dancing in the Palouse: Finding Rhythm in a New Field
Dancing to Florence and the Machine or Michael Jackson most mornings, before the hallways woke with tired grad students, Ashley and I didn’t know that in a few months we would be moving westward together. We danced hard, Ash all arm, me all hip. We danced our weekends out; shitty dates, crappy feedback on poems, students we couldn’t reach, solo hikes, wild Lake Superior, snow stuck to our socks, rent we barely afforded, odd jobs we kept on the side. Three minutes before my 8am class, I’d pack. We had it timed perfectly; how many songs we could shake our bodies to in our tiny grey office, how many cups of snobby coffee—usually a pot—before I’d trudge through snow to teach.
Early August, Ash and I packed a seventeen-foot U-Haul. We filled the cab with a cat and a kitten who hated each other, along with my yappy Pomeranian, “T,” and a litter box. Ash and I had never been west of Minnesota; she was a native Minnesotan, I was a transplant Michigander. We jammed to whatever radio station we could find, stopped only in North Dakota for a four hour nap, and otherwise drove 43 hours and 18 minutes to the border of Washington and Idaho.
We crashed in my naked apartment on the brown carpet, little more than a light sheet upon us, and woke to texts we didn’t know how to answer; a few from her boyfriend at the time, one from a pretty blonde-haired girl I’d sought on OkCupid. We ignored the texts and, like zombies, unloaded every piece of anything that belonged to us.
Ash started writing poems like crazy. And I stopped. And that’s the beginning.
I began a PhD in English in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University, leaving the poet in me behind. I became immersed in a field I knew little about, knowing only that the highest I had ever felt was while teaching composition. I wanted that high every day for the rest of my life. I read articles that made me feel small, watched bodies freeze when I discussed my research, and drank a lot of whiskey in-between.
The month before I made my decision to move to Washington, where I had the option to pursue a PhD in creative writing instead of comp and rhet, my MFA thesis director told me I should keep making poems, but I shook my head. Then she said, “Well, in all my years, I know you’re someone who’s never going to stop writing.”
For two months in hilly Pullman, Washington, I was frustrated by the lie I felt my director had told me, and especially by things I couldn’t absorb; the man who didn’t wave back on the bike path, broken beer bottles on the sidewalks, my winter jacket still hanging in the closet, the absence of lakes nearby, and having to drive to a tiny patch of trees in the Palouse to hike, to see any green at all. Ash was so busy in the poetry world I had left that we struggled to meet, even just to do homework together every three weeks. My notepads stayed on the desk. I wasn’t writing poems on the backs of receipts or into my palms anymore. I was actually paying attention in my pedagogy and rhetoric courses, but my heart didn’t leap into my sternum at anyone or anything.
My MFA thesis was focused on love between women. The poems were sexy, magical and real, raw and loud, dirty at times, mundane at others, and woven with care in rhythm. In both spoken word and for-the-page poems, I wanted to capture the love in a woman making an omelet, the moment you notice a new wrinkle beneath her eye, tracing a tattoo on the back of her thigh, how hands get memorized on trains in big cities or in cars watching freighters moan down rivers. But in Pullman, WA, in this tiny town of the Palouse, no matter how many dates I went on with women, none of them made me want to write. I made dinner for a woman who couldn’t eat more than four bites. She was sweet and talked with her hands and arms. Another made me eggs some mornings, usually overcooked, and played music I’d never heard before. Another, who cancelled frequently and whom I’d asked out on a date after two shots of tequila, didn’t know how to hold hands back and we talked less and less each week. Eventually, I hesitated to say what I wanted to say. I shut down. I stopped sharing old poems.
I started biking on strange roads and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in these yellow and brown hills that never seems to end. Most sunsets are pink where I live, and in the winter the light is gone by 4 p.m. It’s taken me five months to find a grocery store where I want to flirt with the cashier, a coffee shop where the chairs and walls are worn, a route to my office where the trees bend the right way. Mostly, it’s taken me a long time to get used to that yellow hue that takes the hills and farms from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. When I get up around 7:30, clip the collar around T’s neck, reheat yesterday’s coffee in the microwave for 65 seconds, and take Stadium Way up the hill, turn around at the top just before the road bends, the world has a filter unavailable on Instagram that lasts all day.
I wrote three 30-page seminar papers, read more queer theory and composition studies than I can convey, walked my dog four times a day, started buying myself flowers at the Safeway each week, took baths, wore too much Patchouli, and drank whiskey and cabernet. And one night, before what would be bowling and Jameson and a bad hangover in the morning, it happened.
The poem “Brand” came on a warm December afternoon in Washington, the kind where you only need a sweatshirt and warm socks. I was walking T up Stadium Way, the light dull and brown. I received a text describing a friend’s grandmother and mother arguing about Christmas plans. I had just reached Harvey and Duncan as I paused to read the message. After squeezing my hands back into my mittens and shoving my iPhone into my pocket, I looked up. When I saw the hills, grey beyond the city, sleeping muddy wheat fields, I knew my friend had given me a gift. Those hills, the same hills I couldn’t let myself understand, made me question who I could make two women be; where they might live, what they would be upset about, and how they could love. I’ve always believed that we argue because we love each other, and despite only having reached the merger of Stadium Way with Harvey and Duncan, three blocks away from my apartment, I started to walk home. I considered, as Andrea Gibson wrote in her spoken word poem “I Do,” how “This kind of love has to be a verb.” Familial love is so many verbs, so messy, so braided, and so ruthlessly necessary. I wanted to capture that. I wanted to write.
Once home, I began to research the planting of wheat, the same wheat—though my friend argues it is something else—that gets caught in my dog’s fur in the summer. I learned combine harvesting and winter planting and stacking. I learned the hum and thrush of machinery. I learned every color of every month. I learned every hue of green, each flicker of yellow. I learned the dirt overturned. And I started to see a woman flicker underneath it all. She might have been Brand. She might have been me. She might have been someone I may never know.
It happens—is my point. It’s true that it doesn’t leave you. It’s about waiting for the right spark, the right combination, the kick, the draw, the impulse not to leave for bowling on time and to write her all down. Again I felt my heart in my sternum. I started tapping my feet on the brown carpet. My back was hunched over the paper. The wind whistled around my apartment, which grew darker and darker. After only three hours, “Brand” was drafted. I sent the sound file to Ash, eleven miles away in Moscow, Idaho, and her word for it in the morning was “honest.” In that moment, I knew my director had been right. It doesn’t leave you. Sometimes you just have to wait. Sometimes you have to collect for a while: starless nights over and over again, a mechanic telling you your Subaru will die in two months, your IPhone that won’t light up, one girl’s soft flannel shirts, another’s copper eyes, rough hands that won’t hold yours back, the unsaid in things we say, what is said when no one speaks.
Ash is going to keep making poems each week. I’m going to keep figuring out how to fuse queer theory into composition studies. We’re busy here. But, what’s important is never to stop dancing to what you want to dance to, even if it means she’s not going to dance back, even if it means putting all the leftovers into Tupperware, even if it means making your own eggs and reheating yesterday’s coffee, walking your dog alone, and unheld hands on the few nights she’ll spend with you. Because when that happens enough, once you’ve danced hard and long, once you’ve got enough in your chest, you write yourself. You write her all down.
Zarah Moeggenberg is a queer poet living in Eastern Washington with her 8 lb-Pomeranian named Teddy, a lot of furniture, an unnecessarily large winter coat, and a serious appetite for Indian food. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Northern Michigan University and is currently a composition and rhetoric doctoral student at Washington State University. She has been most recently published in The Fourth River, Oklahoma Review, ellipsis…literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ellipsis Lit Mag, and SunDog Lit among others. Zarah’s first book of poetry, To Waltz on a Pin, focused on love between women, is forthcoming with Little Presque Books in 2015. When she can she drives to small towns for dive bar karaoke, thrifting, and to collect stories from strangers.