Songs for the Struggling Artist


Medusa Long Shot Rocket Rejection

I started working on my Medusa play sometime around when I started my theatre company, which was close to 18 years ago. I abandoned the play after doing a reading of it but then picked it back up a few years ago when an actor, who’d read one of the parts that first time, asked after it. I don’t know if it had been a full decade at that point but the fact that it had stuck with him after so long made me feel like it was worth grappling with.

After much wrestling, I got the play into shape and did a reading in Brooklyn and after it, I felt like I still wasn’t sure if it was worth anything. One of my listeners pointed out that I might not really know what was actually there until I had the exact right actors. He suggested I think big.

I knew who I needed. As the person who gave the single best performance I have ever seen, I knew that hearing HER read it would tell me everything needed to know. I also knew that in order to have that happen, I needed to make the play good enough for her. I imagined her reading it as I was writing and the play got better.

I did another reading in Queens with a game group of lovely actors and I got even closer to what I thought the play wanted to be. All along I was thinking of this sort of lodestar of a performer and how to get it to her, how to connect with her, how to strategize for this play’s future.

As time went by, the play was selected as a semi-finalist for the O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference but went no further. All of my attempts to make a connection with my Medusa lodestar failed.

Then I saw that she’d be performing in a public park – so I printed out a copy and brought it with me in case I could be brave enough to give it to her. I was. I was brave enough and it was mortifying. Completely and totally mortifying. I don’t recommend this sort of experience to anyone. But – even though she wouldn’t take the stack of paper in the moment, she told me to send it to her agent. And believe me, it had been suggested to me to send it to her agent before but that information is not particularly easy for an outsider to find so the principal value in standing before the actual person was that I could ask her who her agent was. Then began the tricky task of finding her agent’s information. You realize, when diving in to this sort of world, that so much of it is designed to intimidate and keep you out. The world of agents is built to make it difficult to find them. There are services you can pay to simply get an email.

But with the support of a clever friend, I finally got to the agent. Also, with a lot of coaching from my clever friend, I did some finely crafted emailing to just get this play to the woman who had been its muse. After about a week of back and forth, it was, in fact sent to her.

Just getting that far felt like a great leap. It wasn’t just the labor of the week to get it to her – but the years of putting it on my list to figure out and all the attempts before. I launched the rocket into space.

Within days, the rocket fell to earth as I heard back that the play was not for her.

Strangely, given how intimidating the world around agents is, the rejection was one of the best I’ve received. It was succinct, clear and gentle. I wonder if that agents learn that skill because they never really want to give anyone a hard no. What if Julie Taymor suddenly decided to put my Medusa on at the National Theatre with a million dollar salary? Would my muse be interested then? She might. Or at least there might be another conversation to be had.

So weirdly, I find myself wishing other rejectors could be more like an actor’s agent. Reject us like you might have to make a million dollar deal with us next time – because you just never know.

Meanwhile, here I am watching my last real hope for this play float away. I know it makes no sense to set a bubble of hope on an actor’s interest but it was literally the only idea I had for the future of this play. I can’t produce it myself. It’s too big for the resources I can gather. It’s not the kind of show you can do at your local community playhouse.

So…this particular rejection hit me hard – even though I knew it was a long shot. It was the longest shot. And it’s going to take some time to gather the strength to build another rocket – or even just a wagon. It’s going to take some time to reassemble some hope. Maybe it’ll be another ten years. Or maybe never at all.

*Wondering why I’m telling you about rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Better Way to Read On the Internet?

I thought this one post I wrote was pretty good. I know they’re not all winners. There are some that I just sort of throw together and some I really work at and this one sat somewhere in the middle, in that it had the flow of something that just emerged but the shaping of something I’d considered for a while. I guess what I am trying to say is that I was proud of it.

But when I put it out – nothing happened. I shared it on all the platforms, all the social medias it goes to. And I could count the views on one hand. I tried to goose the algorithm on Facebook – since that’s the place I usually get my views. I tried to like my own post (looks like Facebook doesn’t allow that anymore though I was able to like it via the Songs for the Struggling Artist Facebook page) and I used the algorithmic golden word “congratulations” in the comments.

Crickets.

I know better than to take Facebook’s algorithmic selections personally but still – having so few views made me question my own perception of quality. Maybe the post was no good after all. (Again – I know better. Some really great posts have only 4 views total. I know, I know the two things are disconnected. And yet.)

Then one of my friends commented, liked and shared it. Suddenly a post that had had only one view thus far that day had 18.

This is, on one hand, indicative of the reach my friend has but also suggests the power of one person sharing in the algorithmic battle for attention many of us seem engaged in. (Don’t underestimate the power of your share, like and comment. I am heartily grateful for every one. Your click will take my views from 4 to 5. Your share will take my views from 4 to 12 or 18 or more if others share it.)

This all makes me think about what a terribly imperfect way of sharing writing the internet is. It’s also a terribly imperfect way of reading. Facebook pitches its stream of posts as a NewsFeed and it does feel like it has become the place I receive a lot of news – and not just the news – but also the essays and articles and blog posts about things I care about.

But because of Facebook’s algorithms, it decides what I see instead of me. I miss so many things while simultaneously having the illusion that I’m current with the writers I like. But I know that I’m not. I follow Rebecca Solnit there so I see a lot of her writing but I know Facebook doesn’t show me everything. KatyKatiKate is a blogger and podcaster like myself and I want to support her work however I can – but I know Facebook is only showing me a third of what she writes. I wonder what genius posts she’s over there crafting and Facebook isn’t showing me or anyone else because of the algorithm’s quirks. I’m gonna guess she has a few of those orphan posts, too.

In the years before social media, I found it hard to follow writers and bloggers. I felt like I had to remember to go to various websites, various blogs. I just couldn’t remember all the places I wanted to go on the internet to read things I cared about. So when Facebook came around, it provided this very useful service of aggregating those articles, blogs and such. It’s just that it does that so BADLY. Like So Badly.

Twitter is even worse. People don’t really click on articles on Twitter. My sense is that it just moves too fast. The views I get on Twitter are negligible. And I don’t even understand how to share writing on Instagram.

So…what I’m waiting for is some kind of feed for writing. Does it already exist and I just don’t know about it? I want to be on it with my friends. I want to see what they recommended and be able to share pertinent news, as well as indie writing, like KatyKatiKate. The algorithmic bias of Facebook means it will really only promote what is shared – but as much as I love KatyKatiKate’s work, I’m not going to share every single piece. I don’t expect that of my readers either. But I want to be able to at least know about every piece that KatyKatiKate puts out. I want to click like, or love or star or heart or whatever, on all of them and I want to have a list of writers that I love listed on said site or some kind of extra boost for them. How our writings are shared matters and the way they are read and shared at the moment is really not working well.

I rely on Facebook to promote my blog and podcast and we all know how problematic it is. But if it went away tomorrow – or if everyone just deleted their accounts en masse, I’d have no readership whatsoever. I’m dependent on it, at the moment, and I do not appreciate how much control the Facebook algorithm has over who gets to see my work. And, due to the foibles of a writers’ brain, sometimes the control the algorithm has has a great deal of impact on the way I feel and my assessment of the quality of my work. It happens that way sometimes and I do not like it. I’m looking for another way.

 

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Taste of Being a Patriarch in the Patriarchy

For most of the last decade, every day, I’ve been using a line of Hamlet as my prompt for daily writing. The Hamlet Project has nearly 100,000 views and most of them are not people I know. I don’t get a lot of comments on it but when I do, they tend to assume I, the author, am a man. I have been called “sir,” for example, and also “bro.” I think, even when I am not explicitly gendered in a comment, I am assumed to be a man. I don’t know this for sure, of course – but there’s something about the tenor of the comments that makes me feel like I’m being mis-gendered.

What is that tenor? Well. The comments tend to be respectful. They tend to endow me with a level of authority I am not used to receiving in situations wherein my gender is more obvious. It’s just kind of a vibe. And it is very nice, actually.

I’m not trying to obscure my gender identity in this venue but in not making it obvious, it leaves a lot of people room to assume that I am the default gender. I’m also talking about one of the most famous male characters in history – featuring one of the most famous patriarchal struggles – AND – I say on my ABOUT page that the project began from an interest in playing Hamlet. Hamlet is a male character. It thus follows, as the night the day, ipso facto, I must also be male.

Except of course I am not. And depending on the piece that someone might read, it might or might not become obvious. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of feminist content that shows up but maybe I’m just a super woke feminist dude. There’s a way that once the assumption has been made, it will be hard to see the “narrator” differently.

That is, until it becomes obvious. Recently, I started getting lots of views and comments from a man whose website describes him as his country’s “most versatile living writer.” For a few days, I knew he was reading because my statistics reflected a lot of views from his country. He commented several times. I clicked “like” on his comments but didn’t respond to them. Then, he asked me a question, so I answered. The act of commenting revealed my picture and my name and thereby also my gender identity. And wouldn’t you know – I haven’t had a comment or a view from his country since.

I don’t think this is a situation of a person realizing I’m a woman and stalking off in fury saying, “By god, I don’t wish to know what a WOMAN has to say!” I suspect I just suddenly become a lot less interesting. A dedicated reader might just wander off for no particular reason, you know. It’s not sexism, no. It’s just – what’s that over there?

This is the thing a lot of people don’t understand about things like sexism (and racism and ableism and so on) – that it isn’t the overt stuff that gets to us. It’s really the indifference that’s adds up over time and wears us down.

It is actually super nice to be seen as the default. The misgendering is so pleasant because it comes with an assumption of capability, authority and collegiality. I know what those things feel like now and recognize that I don’t usually feel them in any of the other venues (like this one) wherein my gender is a lot more obvious.

Before I tuned into this experience of reading as male, I couldn’t have really articulated what experience I wasn’t having. I didn’t have any sense of what it felt like to have male privilege. I’m thinking of that email experience/experiment those two co-workers had when they switched email signatures for a week. We focused a lot on the male co-worker’s eye-opening interactions when he was perceived as female, how formerly easy interactions became confrontational when he was perceived as his female colleague. The story for me felt like, “See! It’s not all in our heads!”

But now I’m thinking more about what the female co-worker’s experience was when suddenly the way was cleared. I think I imagined it a little bit like that Eddie Murphy SNL sketch where he disguises himself as a white guy and people just give him stuff and throw white people parties on the bus. But of course it’s not that dramatic. No one gave that switched email co-worker an award or a pile of money when she was perceived as male, her job just got a lot faster and easier. Similarly, I’m not getting any special kudos or winning awards or praise or pats on the back in being perceived as male with my Hamlet Project, it’s just a more pleasant atmosphere and I get twice as many views.

I’m not saying it’s a paradise over there. An occasional dickhead makes his way there just like anywhere. But the dickheadery is somehow less dickheaded. The vibe over there is nice.

So I’m in no hurry to disabuse anyone of their perception and I might really enjoy using a pseudonym for some stuff in the future, just because it’s nice to roll around in male privilege for a bit.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast episode of this post. (It’s like an audio version of the blog.)

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Here Is My Blush

In high school, at forensics meets and auditions, people often would look at my chest and get a concerned look on their faces. “Are you okay?” they’d ask. “You’re bright red.”

I had a rather unfortunate tendency for a performer; When I’d get nervous or excited or just pumped up, my chest would turn red or blotchy. I understand now that it’s probably a factor of being an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) but at the time it was just embarrassing.

It mostly doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know whether I’ve evened out or have fewer opportunities to perform or when I do, I don’t get nearly as nervous or if it’s the quieting down of an aging nervous system or maybe I just don’t look in the mirror that much but I haven’t seen that bright red chest blush in ages.

Last night though, I went in to brush my teeth, looked in the bathroom mirror, took one glance at my chest, got a concerned look on my own face and asked myself, “Are you okay? You’re bright red.”

And then I realized that in the process of re-engaging with a play I’d previously abandoned, I’d gotten myself as worked up as I used to get when I was performing in high school. I know writing is as physical an act as anything but it’s not usually as physical as that.

But here’s what happened.

Quite a few years ago, I started work on a play about Victoria Woodhull. I worked on it at a residency in Maine and did a preliminary reading there and then back in NYC six months later.

I submitted that play and proposals to work on that play to all the developmental programs and all the residencies and no one gave a damn about it but me and the tiny handful of people who read it or heard it in 2017. Other projects stepped forward and pushed this one aside. I worked on my book for young people during my residency in Vancouver. I wrote a whole new play for the Shakespeare contest at the American Shakespeare Center. The Woodhull play just sort of fell by the wayside. I didn’t actively abandon it – I just never picked it back up to fix those problems in Act Two that revealed themselves after the last reading at Flushing Town Hall. But. I love these characters. I love the play, actually and the pleasure of re-engaging with its difficulties is actually very sweet. And according to my body’s blushing system, it’s a lot more exciting than I realized as well.

Not very many people would seem to be as interested in my play’s questions as I am but after seeing that old high school chest flush return, I know that the re-engagement is as potent as any performance. I also recognize that this is the good part, actually.

Whenever, if ever, this play sees production, it will be as agonizing as sweet to see it realized. While I would surely rejoice loudly and wildly to see it onstage, it will always be compromised, there will inevitably be those moments of agony at misspoken text or misplaced emphasis or whatever details might arise. This writing flush is the play’s purest joy for me, I suspect, and I’m writing this now so that I remember it.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Default Character and Why Elizabeth Acevedo Made Me Cry

Elizabeth Acevedo’s presentation at the Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators made tears fall down my face in a way that I usually try to avoid in public. Acevedo is an extraordinary performer, writer, speaker and it’s no surprise that she took hold of the room full of writers and illustrators and moved us. But why was I crying?

At first, I thought, “Well, I’m old enough and she’s young enough that she could have been one of my students when I was doing workshops and residencies all over New York.” And while I probably didn’t teach her specifically, I certainly taught a lot of kids who could have grown up to be poets or performers. I thought maybe I was having a teacher’s kvell moment, feeling proud of my former students by watching her work. But I think it was something more.

One of the stories she shared was about her graduate training in poetry that led to her writing an ode to rats. (I’d tell you the story in more detail but SCBWI’s blogging policy forbids me from disclosing the contents of a presentation. Though if you watched the beginning of this video, which is freely available on the internet, you’d be pretty much up to speed.) At the heart of the story is a kind of mental gentrification of an artist in the midst of learning a craft. It’s a story about the way that a person in power, coddled in privilege (white, male, economically secure, always part of the dominant paradigm) can thoughtlessly dismiss a culture, a humanity, can fail to see what treasures are right in front of them.

I thought, perhaps, after hearing this story, particularly the part where all of Acevedo’s Spanish words are circled in red, that I was crying for the loss of all the books I haven’t read, all the stories I haven’t heard from the people whose art was cut off at the knees by this kind of colonialist mind set, the kind that can’t look up words he doesn’t know, the kind that can’t see an experience outside of his own. There are so many books we won’t get to read, so many poems we won’t hear, so many films and plays we missed. I mean, I’m crying for that loss again right now as I write this. It is our culture’s great loss. There is no question.

But this felt more personal. It felt like she was talking to me – like it was my story she was telling in addition to her own. I’m not Dominican. Not Latina. Not a woman of color. I cannot claim to have had my work edited to fit a whiter paradigm. My work is probably right in the white zone, probably with its own unconscious colonialist impulses. I have seen the cultural knee-capping happen to students in my orbit but that particular injustice has not been one I’ve had to face. So what is it? Why does this feel so personal? I’d love to believe I was just moved by a cultural loss but I don’t think my tears are that selfless.

I suspect the feeling is familiar even if the facts are different. I suspect I felt all the ways I have been dismissed, edited or questioned for being too feminine, too disorderly or too much trouble. I suddenly found myself looking for a word that expressed a kind of colonization of gender. I want to be able to note the action while it’s happening. I want to be able to say to someone something like “Stop patriarching me!” (but better) or to find the equivalent of calling someone a colonizer. It’s not the same, I know. I know it’s not the same. But there are many ways that women’s bodies have been claimed by others instead of the people to whom they belong.

Of course we have words for the many ways that that claiming happens – many of which have only recently become common parlance. We can acknowledge that someone has committed domestic abuse or sexual assault or sexual harassment or reproductive tyranny or gaslighting or rape or objectification, etc, etc – even something as tiny as mansplaining – but so many of these things stem from a basic entitlement to women’s bodies and space. I need a word for the whole basket. I need a word bigger than sexism. I need a word for when someone is editing the femininity (or feminism) out of my work. I want to be able to shout something better than “You’re being sexist!” That phrase is too passive. It’s something the person is being, not doing. I want something like, “You’re doing sexism!” – both so I can identify it myself and to make it clear to other people. I need a word that can help highlight the subtle ways this happens. Sexism, like colonization, is ACTIVE. It’s not just in the water. It’s something people do to each other all day long and repeat and repeat, generation after generation. Colonizers try to make people assimilate to the dominant culture. Sexism-ers (sorry, still need a word and until I find one, I’m going to keep making them up) make people assimilate into the biased binary.

I have no idea what I would have been able to create if I hadn’t already spent a lifetime in the Patriarching Machine. I hope I’ve been able to resist most of the assimilation to the sexist structures – but I know there is a colonizer and patriarchist in my own mind, who does at least as much damage to me as any sexist colonizer outside me. I’d like to believe that if someone told me my idea wasn’t good enough that I would have gone ahead and written it anyway, the way Acevedo did, but I don’t know if I would have. Or did.

At this same conference, I learned about the Default Character – this is the “Neutral” character, the one that you don’t need to specify anything about. Unless we’re told otherwise, we assume the character is male, white, upper middle class, able bodied and Christian. Any character outside this norm, tends to need to be specified.

In order to be welcomed into the mainstream, we try to make ourselves closer to the default, to the neutral. We might edit out our femaleness and/or our cultural identity. (When Boots Riley won a Spirit Award for my favorite 2018 film, he pointed out how class struggle has been pretty much invisible in film due – in part – to self-editing.)

It’s a gentrification of the mind, of art. Where has my own artistic sensibility been edited and proclaimed not noble enough for the taste-makers, educators and gatekeepers? What poems haven’t I written because I was told my experiences were not sufficient? What plays or books or songs did I set aside because they weren’t nice enough for a “nice” girl like me? Acevedo heard criticism of her rat idea and she did not fold, she did not nod and say, “Oh, okay, how about an antelope?”

She went ahead and wrote that ode to rats. And she performs it on stages and in videos and there are likely people who have heard her rat ode that have heard no other odes in their lives and so she sets a new standard, a new possibility. We can praise what had once been held in contempt. We can change the definition of nobility. We can all be noble humans and there will be no more default characters.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of March, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

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Want to help me clear the cobwebs of the patriarchy from my mind?

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If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Atmosphere, Art, Magic and Souffles
February 18, 2019, 10:18 pm
Filed under: Creative Process, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

As I write this, I’m at a table under a palm tree facing a late afternoon sun over a blue green sea. It is a beautiful location – perfect for reading or bird watching or people watching. But it is curiously not perfect for writing. At least, not for me.

About a week before, I was in a restaurant with a storied history, with a legacy of writers and revolutionaries at their tables. It was not my usual sort of spot and I didn’t have nearly enough time there – but it was perfect for writing. Why? Why? Why does a café with dusty old photographs on the walls have more power than a beautiful sunset beach?

The answer is atmosphere. There is something in an atmosphere. There is something in an atmosphere that speaks to a writer and gives a little lift to the pen. That is why a soulless Starbucks, despite a comfy chair and the “arty” décor, does absolutely nothing for me and the Hungarian Pastry Shop (if I can find a table) is magic. There is a sense of magic in a place where other artists have hashed out their arguments and ideas. There’s a kind of possibility patina of the past on the walls.

I imagine there’s a similar magic at an artist’s colony – like a Millay, an O’Neill or a MacDowell – a sort of creative breeze that blows through there, whispering concentration, inspiration, whispering solidarity perhaps?

As lovely as a beach is, as pleasant as the atmosphere can be, the beach’s inspirational voice is not so writerly. It feels very elemental, asking you to consider the sun and the moon and the waves and the primal rhythms of the universe. And none of those things make very good drama – so the atmosphere does not so much serve the work I’m interested in. Maybe if I were a nature poet it would be my fairy dust – but as it stands – the magic is most likely to happen in a dingy old café with mismatched chairs and a surly waitstaff who mostly leave you alone.

Can I write without it? Of course. I can write anywhere with coffee and a table. I can set words down in any old place. One of my regular spots is a bubble tea place with almost zero atmosphere. Seriously, the music is terrible, the lighting is terrible and the seats are uncomfortable. But it’s fine. I make it work. However – if I get a chance to be in a place that gives me more than basics, there’s more chance for magic.

I think about the practice of writing as being a little like cooking (and I’m not much of a cook so if this analogy falls flat that’ll be why.) But certainly when you set out to cook, you gather the ingredients and you can probably make a reasonable meal. Let’s say you’ve got some eggs and some milk and some flour and butter. If you mix ‘em up and put them in the oven, you’re going to get something edible.

But only under the exact right conditions are you going to get a soufflé. It can literally depend on the atmosphere.

The fallen soufflé will taste fine – you can eat it, no matter what – but to get the delicious light texture of a soufflé, you’re going to need good atmosphere. A door slam can ruin the whole thing. My writing process is the same. The ingredients are pen, paper, coffee and uninterrupted time.

In the right atmosphere, I can write a soufflé – in most instances, I’m just writing an omelet. It’s fine – it’s good – whatever atmosphere I’m in will make it’s way into the work a little bit – so if I can, I prefer a place with atmosphere that might push me past the boring old omelet and into soufflé territory.

This post, for example, is not a soufflé. It’s fine. It gets the job done – but I wrote it on a beach with tourists shouting over me about happy hour and constant interruptions and some really lousy coffee. This post could never be a soufflé – and I knew it the moment I sat down. That’s how it goes.

I sit down with the same ingredients every day and if I’m lucky, if I’m very very lucky, a soufflé will happen even in less than ideal circumstances – but mostly I just get some utilitarian art food out of my labors. And some days there’s magic.

photo by Donna Shaunesey

This blog is also a podcast.

You can find it on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

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The Cafe Wall of Fame

On the wall at Café La Habana in Mexico City is a plaque that proclaims the previous presence of Octavio Paz, Ché Guevara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more. The rumor is that the Cuban Revolution was planned there. It is an inspiring place. The conversations of these public intellectuals soaked into the very walls.

Also, not a single woman is listed in its storied history.

It was founded in 1952. That means Frida Kahlo could have gone there in the last two years of her life. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington could have gone there. I know they didn’t live nearby but still, they could have. Laura Esquivel was two years old when the place was founded but I imagine she’s been there at some point in her life.

I mean – did no women come and plan there? Or they just haven’t done it yet? What if we planned the feminist revolution there? The Cuban one worked out reasonably well for the guys who started it.

I have a lot of questions about this particular place because it feels like a kind of magic to write in so potent a place. But I wonder if that magic has only ever applied to men. Did women not go there? Were they somehow unwelcome to the public intellectual’s realm? Or was it unsafe for women? Or were they there and then forgotten about? Or did they just have their coffee, conversations and revolutions at home?

As a woman who has spent time in coffee shops in many countries, I can confirm that public spaces like cafes are more male space than female. In some places I’ve been, I’ve been the only woman. On holidays I am almost always the only woman in the last open café.

It does feel as though despite our many advancements, public space like coffee shops still belongs to men. Soraya Chemaly gave one of my favorite TED talks on the subject of public spaces. The gist of it is, almost all public space is male space, in that it was designed by and for men. I can’t stop thinking about this. I’m fascinated by the architectural projects that are JUST beginning to address it. There is a movement coming, I think. But without the history, it’s very difficult. Show me the café that brags of all the women who frequented the place. (Seriously please show me – I’ll go there.) Show me the city that was planned with women in mind. (Vienna comes closest in that they made adjustments based on a survey of women’s needs back in the 90s.) All space is men’s space that others find our way through. All cafes are for men, for men’s ideas, men’s revolutions. The women’s revolution is in the house, I guess? Which maybe explains why we haven’t really had a revolution.

If women have no public space in which to gather, if we aren’t seen in public together (except for once a year at our march) then we have no public power. We try and claim space when we march. We chant. Whose streets? Our streets.
Now maybe it’s time for:
Whose café? Our café.

I’m not here to call out Café La Habana. Honestly, I can’t think of a single café in the USA that honors literary greats or revolutionaries of any gender on its walls. Café la Habana is way ahead of us in honoring writers, artists and intellectuals and I respect and admire them for it. I’m a fan.

One day in the future, I hope to make it back to that cafe, where I’ll drink another delicious lechera and on their updated plaque I hope to see many women’s names. Or maybe one of you will start a café with women in mind and we’ll all turn up to hang out and plan our revolution and someone will hang a plaque up decades later. I’d like to be on that wall with the rest of you.

Photo by Donna Shaunesey

 

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