Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Guest Post: Poet Rojé Augustin - How did "Out of No Way" come to be?

Want to make God laugh? Tell her your plans! This is one of my favourite quotes, and yes, I modified it. I include it here because this strange little poetry book was born out of shattered plans, or as I like to think of it, out of no way. I had never planned to write a poetry book. If anything, it 'planned' itself.

I started writing this collection in the spring of 2018, after one of the most tumultuous periods of my personal and professional life. When I think back on it now, the tumult had been twelve years in the making, starting in 2006 when my husband and I migrated from my native New York to London, with our two-year-old daughter in tow. There I became a ‘stay-at-home mom,’ a role I wanted. I always knew I would have children and I vowed that when I did — and if I could — I would cut back on work to raise them. Thanks to my husband’s unwavering support, I was able to do exactly that. I spent most of those years in London indulging in the realities of motherhood, a gift I am grateful for. In 2008 we were blessed with a second bub and I was again lucky enough to do the same with her, this time in my husband’s native Sydney.

I’d said goodbye to my life in the northern hemisphere, to my family and friends, and to a budding career as a writer and television producer. My plan at this point was to break into scripted television (a long-held passion of mine), with the help of Aussie friends and acquaintances in the industry.

Australia would become the place where my daughters would lay down their roots, where my husband would settle into the role of provider, and where I would unwittingly begin a 10-year ramble as a “stay-at-home-mom-who-was-also-working-on-a-creative-project-with-the-hope-of-reviving-her-career-when-the-kids-were-old-enough.” Needless to say, this is also where the tumult would begin.

What I didn’t know when we moved to Sydney was that compared to America the size, diversity, and financial resources of Australia’s television industry is tiny, which made it extremely difficult to break into, especially as a foreigner. I tried all sorts of ways to get my foreign foot in the door. I published a book, for starters. I joined the guild, I took refresher courses, I attended networking events, I entered script competitions, I signed up for mentoring programs, and I sought tons of advice from those aforementioned friends and acquaintances in the industry, many of whom did their best to help.

Caught shadows of me.
My hair is not unruly,
Just thinks for itself.
But in the end, I would spend the better part of ten years working independently, sometimes collaboratively, but always unpaid, on self-generated projects that I hoped would resuscitate my withering career. By the summer of 2017 the reality set in that no matter what I did, the economics of scripted television were stacked against me. I was an interloper in a very small pond, treading water with a glut of native swimmers. I would have to ditch my precious plan and set out in search of a raft.

In June 2017, I took a job as a producer on a panel show. Its audience wasn’t huge, but it was a well-known and well-respected program. My first full-time salaried role in nearly thirteen years. I was terrified but also extremely grateful to get it. The job itself was enjoyable and stimulating. Largely self-directed, plenty of research, lots of interviews, lots of pitch and scriptwriting, and the occasional field shoot. It suited me perfectly.

But as can often be the case in working life, the culture did not. It was rather like wearing a beautiful pair of shoes that killed your feet. I had a shared desk in the newsroom. It was very loud, and we were all packed in like sardines. Between myself and my nearest colleagues was a mere two and a half feet, on all four sides. As one of perhaps three brown faces in the newsroom, I was also very lonely, and at least ten years older than most of my colleagues, nearly all of them young, blond women. After ten anxious months, I quit, my confidence and self-esteem in shreds. June 2018, the winter of my discontent. By now I had fully awakened from the dream of “stay-at-home-mom-who-was-also-working-on-a-creative-project-with-the-hope-of-reviving-her-career-when-the-kids-were-old-enough” to the nightmare of being unemployed and pushing fifty. I had none of my New York peeps to turn to, I had none of my old friends and colleagues to ask for help, nothing of my culture to take refuge in, and no solid professional network to speak of. Despite an Ivy League degree, I felt completely dependent on my husband. I desperately looked for more options but found there were very few left. How had it come to this? When I had a plan. How had I become such a failure? These words, and worse still, dominated my thoughts for months, dragging me headlong into my sunken place. It was dark down there. I hit the bottom hard. And my poor husband, bless his heart, bore much of the impact with me. I was now back to square one.

Natural hair growth
Gives the promise of freedom
Ever in my name.
As I mentioned earlier, I had for years been working independently on creative projects. One of those projects was about Madam C.J. Walker. I hadn’t learned about Walker until I was in my 20s, and when I did my jaw literally dropped. Why hadn’t her story been told in schools, I wondered. I became passionate about Walker, terribly in awe of her legacy. In many ways, I needed her. As a young girl, it would have helped me tremendously to know that a woman like Walker existed.

I’d researched her life for some time and had early stages of a spec treatment and pilot script when a friend called one day to tell me that a U.S. production company was in pre-production on a limited series about Walker for Netflix. I was both gutted and thrilled by the news, a strange brew. Gutted that I wasn’t going to be a part of bringing her story to the screen as I’d hoped to do, but thrilled that it would finally get the recognition it deserved. When it came down to it, I didn’t really care who was spreading her gospel, so long as it was being spread. But I had all this research that I’d devoured, and several drafts of a treatment and script that I’d worked on for months, plus hours and hours of my imagination devoted to her.

My friend suggested that I repurpose all of that work into a poetry book. My first thought was, ‘why on earth would I do that?’ It sounded to me like the dumbest idea. Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry. I’d read plenty of the greats as part of my degree — from Emily Dickenson to Langston Hughes — but I didn’t think of myself as a poet. A writer, yes. A poet, no. But my friend persisted.

I remember sitting at the dining table watching our black Angora cat, Smokey, blithely hop onto the couch for a nap, and the low hiss of a space heater faintly in my ear. I remember reflecting on my day-to-day, on how I’d abruptly quit my job and found myself adrift, waking each morning riddled with dread, knowing that my husband would go off to work, my kids off to school, and I would be left home alone, surfing the web for jobs, and envying the cat her insouciant life. I gave my friend’s suggestion serious thought. Why throw away months of hope and hard work? I decided to give it a try. At the very least it would give me something to do while I looked for work.

I wrote six terrible poems in a week. They were so bad I gave up in a fit of disgust. But then one night I had a dream in which my late maternal grandmother, Lilian, spoke the following words to me in her native Haitian Creole: “Map grimpe ak cheveu’m, map grimpe!” which roughly translates to, “I climb with my hair, I climb!” Needless to say, I took this as a sign. After the dream — and after learning from my mother that Lilian had been taught the Walker method by her mother, who had likely been trained by Walker agents, and that both women had been able to provide for their children as hairdressers — I dove back into the poetry. It wasn’t long before I found my flow. As it happened, writing this epic woman’s story in verse became my sun of York, so to speak. Turning my winter of discontent into a glorious spring. Such was the joy it gave me. Instead of hiding under a blanket of despair and self-pity, as I had done for nearly three months, I began to wake each morning excited to get out of bed and get to work. As I got further along in the writing, I felt as if Madam C.J. Walker herself was visiting me, encouraging me along, my kind and generous muse. She lifted me out of my sunken place, as she had done for legions of black women before me, including my grandmother, whose dreamy missive became part of a haiku.

Lifting as I climb
With the only thing I can,
My God-given hair.
That I’ve re-told Walker’s story through poetry is one of the things that I hope gives Out of No Way some relevance during these uncertain times. With the pandemic upending daily life (so much for plans), and forcing us to shut down and face a tumultuous road ahead, poetry can be like a salve that invites a certain stillness into the fray, soaking the mind with its wonder and intensity, even if only for a few lines of verse. That’s certainly true for good poetry. Did I write at least one good poem? I hope so. To that end, I humbly acknowledge that Out of No Way may not appeal to everyone, indeed it may appeal to no one. But for me, it truly was like the sun breaking through a storm cloud. I wrote the collection in honour of that gift.

About the book
Author, producer, and emerging poet Rojé Augustin has written a groundbreaking debut collection of dramatic poems about hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia. Rojé's singular and accomplished work is presented through the intimate lens of the mother-daughter relationship via different poetic forms — from lyric to haiku, blackout to narrative. (One poem takes its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.) Written in tribute to Walker, Out of No Way deftly and beautifully explores themes of race, motherhood, sacrifice, beauty, and the meaning of success in Jim Crow America.

Born Sarah Breedlove to former Louisiana slaves in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned at seven, married at 14, became a mother at 17, and was widowed at 20. After the death of her first husband, Sarah moved to St. Louis with her daughter where she earned $1.50 a day as a washerwoman. When her hair started falling out she developed a remedy and sold her formula across the country. In the process, she became the wealthiest Negro woman in America.

About the Poet
Rojé Augustin is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her first novel, The Unraveling of Bebe Jones, won the 2013 National Indie Excellence Award in African American fiction. She wrote the novel while living in London and Sydney as a stay-at-home-mom. Rojé continues to work as a producer while also writing in her spare time. She currently lives in Sydney with her husband and two daughters.

Watch for my review of Out of No Way on October 29. 

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1 comment:

Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment. It means so much.

I apologize for word verification, but as soon as I changed the settings from only users with Google accounts, I started receiving a ton of spam comments...within one hour of changing the settings. The bots are on high alert apparently.

  1. Thanks for being on the blog tour. This is such a heartfelt guest post about real struggles and inspiration.

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