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If It Stings

…that means it’s working

-a poetry story-

If It Stings…that means it’s working© Cover design

…or as I like to call it, Stings, is available in Amazon in eBook* format and in limited-addition paperback with full-color graphics. Weirdly, this is my first chapbook. I know that’s usually how most poets begin, but leave it to me to do everything back-asswards.

(*A note on eBook formats and eReaders that, I feel, needs… noting. I’d lost my ability to read in my mid-twenties after a brain injury. I also had trouble with receptive learning–meaning I’d developed aphasia but didn’t know the medical term.

The thing is, when your reading comprehension is higher than normal throughout your whole life and you suddenly can’t understand spoken and written language anymore because you have no context for what’s happening, you don’t think about it because you can’t afford to. Single mothers don’t have a lot of luxuries, fyi, and there was no “Googling” what happens after a brain injury in the 1990s. I had no medical insurance, so my brain did workarounds all by itself, and I didn’t panic because I didn’t have the luxury to panic.

And so for a long time, I could only read books that were not difficult to follow. I read a lot of genre fiction like Anne Rice [still a huge fan], and Laurel K. Hamilton–and genre fiction? Not easy to write, not good genre fiction, so don’t get me wrong here. I couldn’t read books I’d read while in grade school, which were university-level books, that’s my point.

That said, every so often, I come across memes like the following, snagged from an author’s blog [which, btw, defends all book-formats, so thank you]:

This meme [?] and other nonsense I’ve seen attempts to eradicate the validity of non-print books, specifically eReaders, while simultaneously knocking people who use them. I actually found this on a school teacher’s site. Knocking books that aren’t specifically in hardcopy. My, how “inclusive” of you. I’m sure your dyslexic students appreciate your stupid.

And so I’d like to take this opportunity to say “fuck you” to her and anyone who thinks they’re too cool for literary tech, that books aren’t real on a screen, powered by a battery. Really? How many books have you written?

Words make up books, not the binding, not the paper, not the pictures. And it needs to be NOTED, that now people with brain injuries like mine, people who struggle with other learning disabilities, blind and visually impaired folks, along with many others have been given, or given back, the gift of reading books that were, once upon a time, inaccessible to us. /end rant)

Back to our regularly scheduled post, and thinking on it… more on ‘exclusion’ later.

The first poem in Stings was featured in the best-selling poetry anthology, Pain & Renewal (Vita Brevis Press, 2020). I’m forever grateful to Vita Brevis’ editor, Brian Geiger, for including, “It’s About the Bees,” the first of many poems that came after the poem was published. It gave me the idea to grab hold of the flying-insect metaphor and write the rest of the pieces in the collection

Also, it’s one thing to hope you’re a decent poet, it’s another thing to be absolutely sure you’re a poetic genius. In between those divergent, subjective attitudes comes the desire for the objective, outside world to view your work and pronounce it “good” or “good enough to publish, include in…”

“Poetry is the language of the soul.” Who said it? Voltaire, claims one site, Shakespeare, another, and Plato or one of the other Greek dudes, and a ton of other people who are way too young, or who were born way too late to claim any sort of ownership/authorship for this little trite-ism.

But it isn’t trite if we think about how the human soul communicates. I’m not speaking of our emotional selves, our cognition, our spiritual beliefs or lack thereof.

The actual language of the human soul doesn’t exist, and if it does, why isn’t it the ambassador to the world?

A single ambassador who spoke to everyone, equally.

Selling-out our souls

The use of the word “soul” in poetry has become a self-referential joke. But as I speak of the soul, I want to define my terms.

The human soul is the essence of an individual’s greatest, highest, and best self. It is altruistic, empathetic, filled with care and love for everything around it, everyone around it, and it yearns (yes I know, another poetic cliché) to feel connected to everything, everyone, everywhere.

The human soul has no rapport with the prefrontal cortex’s ability to get along, play by the rules, think its way through a problem, or plan the execution of a piece of art or literary venture. The human soul has no rapport with our basest emotions, our subconscious’ neuroses.

The soul has no understanding of politics, socio-economics, nationality, skin color, gender, sexual proclivities or identifications. The soul doesn’t care about credentials, social status, class or station, your net worth, education levels or higher-learning degrees–all constructs of a rather new form meritocracy created to stifle, rather than free, the many ways we attempt to communicate with other souls.

And so I believe that the human soul transcends all the above and could give you example after example of why I think I’m right.

The human soul is quite literally the thing that binds us together in times of true, imminent danger, in times of overwhelming loss and weariness, in times of grief, joy, and common purpose. It’s the genesis of any sort of true rapprochement. It’s what spurs feats of everyday heroism and kindness. It’s why, I believe, people who take human life, who cause suffering with callous indifference are said to have “no souls.”

I’ve seen or read art that feels soulless because it excludes the majority so thoroughly, there’s nothing to infer but petulance and ego.

So, if you were to ask a poet like Charles Bukowski or Emily Dickenson (talk about dichotomous and ends of the spectrum) if poetry was the language of the soul, they’d likely give qualified answers that lean toward the affirmative.

If I asked someone in an MFA poetry program if poetry was the language of the soul, they’d probably scowl at me and say, “What are you suggesting?” 😏

I think even these folks have to admit it. There’s some serious dissonance going on.

If poetry is the language of the human soul, and poets use letters and words as their means of communication to the whole of humanity, soul to soul, then why would they need a higher learning degree, or any degree at all, to be taken seriously as poets?

Remember the spectrum?

“I hope I’m a decent poet ———————————I AM poetry.

At what point do the hopeful move more toward the center? When they get their undergrad degree? Get accepted to an MFA program? Get published in a discriminating literary journal? Maybe when enough objective, outside opinions pronounce it “good.”

And on the other side, I wonder if there comes a point when the self-proclaimed metonym for poetry ( trust me, you can find these types of poets in or out of academia) step aside to make room on the ever-growing platform designed to encourage soul-to-soul communication, or is there only room for so many, which is why the winnowing process includes an academic CV and impressive “who you know” publishing credentials.

It’s unfortunate that, for every poet today, there will come a time when they’ll have to choose between their soul’s need to connect and jumping through expensive, academic hoops, then molding their soul, for lack of a better word, to fit what’s getting accepted, published, and what “edge” they have to make their work more appealing, socially relevant, or popular.

I chose connection and I’m not sorry.

Identity imitates art

Image courtesy Fred Romero Wikimedia commons

My husband was vilified on Goodreads for giving a poor review to a book of poetry for its lack of universality and verisimilitude.

He was called names and accused of having the equivalent of no soul. He was told that ‘universality and verisimilitude were no longer the standard for good literature,’ because ‘not everything is about the cis, white male.’

Yes, it was quite the ruckus, and extremely hard to take seriously. Was my husband an ideal audience and reader for the poetry collection? Probably not.

I thought I was closer, more in the target-audience range, and after reading it (unfortunately the miniature lynch mob who came after my husband colored my perceptions of the book just a tad), I decided it wasn’t that inaccessible.

I could relate, on fundamental levels, to feelings of not being safe, not being respected, being hurt and disenfranchised for who I was, feeling like I don’t belong.

It was only after I finished the book I saw a page I’d missed, a “note on the title.”

From a poetry book which shall not be named….

Yes, here it is. I blocked out the words so I’m not giving it any credence or promotional value because it doesn’t really deserve it based on where I’m at. You see, the author didn’t want someone like me reading it, which of course made me sorry I wasted my time and money on it. Did it give the author what they wanted? Maybe. Not sure.

So… the title had been changed from its original title because the author didn’t want me reading that (aloud or in my head?), meaning the book was not for someone like me, meaning someone UNlike the author.

Meaning the work came from a place of, “Look at me, aren’t I transgressive and brave.”

No, you’re not. Not when the current social zeitgeist sanctions this brand of ‘transgressive.’ That’s not brave, that’s pandering, that’s exclusion, that’s ‘sorry, no room on the platform of soul-to-soul communication for your kind.’

Which is fine, if that’s how you wanna roll.

There are human experiences that are universal, whether you’re sitting on a solid-gold toilet or squatting in a field. The same shit comes out.

If you’re a reader and can’t find the universality in poetry, then maybe it doesn’t have it, or maybe you’re not feeling it. That’s why subjectivity and poetry really go hand in hand. Not everyone resonates with Eliot, and not everyone resonates with Maya Angelou or the art of Salvador Dali, and so forth.

However, it’s baffling and disheartening that our institutes of higher learning are now just another tool used to exclude, just as money and class were used, once upon a time, to keep the ‘wrong sort’ out, while encouraging the ‘right sort’ to join.

And while the conflict and intersection of commercialism, consumerism, art and literature isn’t new, with the advent of technology, the filtration system has been overwhelmed. So one could argue that we need academia to be the new arbiters of taste. Except… they only let paying members in the game.

Understand, I’m not sour-grapes over any of it. It’s that I feel a certain sense of foreboding–an odd premonition that we won’t know what we’ve lost until it’s lost, and even then, we won’t know.

It will be an echo of something we collectively yearn for, but even our yearning will get eaten up, lost in the din of louder, faster, shinier voices, splashier copy.

I worry for the soul of poetry and great literature, however dumb that sounds, because those have historically captured the essence of the human experience in their time, and the reason they are ‘great’ is because they still speak to the souls of today’s human beings.

Walt Whitman was “America’s poet,” not because he was male or white, but because of his soul.

His work and words contain you, me, soldiers on battlefields, the people in the streets, blue-collar workers, people working in high-rise offices in Manhattan, people who live behind white-picket fences and behind bars. People who feel disenfranchised and alone, who feel isolated in crowded rooms, or who are never forced by circumstances to even question how glorious life is, and all people in between, before and after this and that.


And how ironic that the contemporary poet above, whose work was defended by their tiny little set of groupies, actually references Whitman in some of their poetry–ironic because Whitman would have been told, petulantly, that he was not the intended audience. Just like my husband wasn’t and I wasn’t, either.

I suppose my only response to that would be, “Yes, we could tell.”

©Original photography by J.A. Carter-Winward not to be used without express permission

In closing, If It Stings... might not be your bag, your cup ‘o tea, or your thing.

If you can’t relate to families, relationships, pain, loss, grief, love, family secrets, mothers, fathers, children, community or the lack thereof, things that bind and connect as well as dissolve, and personal mythologies and stories from your past that make up huge chunks of who you are, then this book? You might not like it. I’m okay with that.

But I wrote it for you, anyway. All of you.

From If It Stings
that means it’s working

-a poetry story-


Turning on the light—
it’s night outside and my son—I was
up, waiting. Remembering when I was

too sick to wait. Not hearing him
not come home. Not hearing his absent
breath. I told my husband to come look.

On the porch, I said. The bees, they’re
everywhere, there, there, see? Dead. I opened the
front wooden door, the leaded beveled glass

creating colors that weren’t there.
What do you think it means, I asked.
It isn’t bees, he replied. It’s yellowjackets.

I remembered then, when my son told me once
they had no purpose. That yellowjackets were not
helpful, they were not food. Yellowjackets

were a scourge on the earth and deserved to
die because they had no purpose. They just
were. Like a burst appendix. Like a sick

mother who showed her son death and
despair in her eyes too soon. Like a son
with pinpoint-pupils and a chalked-skin outline

bordering his gaunt face, his perfect
rusted-penny hair dyed black for no reason
or purpose other than to not be himself.

It means, my husband said, the bug-spray guys
did their jobs. He got the broom and swept
their still-twitching bodies off the porch.

And I don’t know why that wasn’t a
good enough answer for me but it didn’t
matter just then because we fixed the

porch light. It’s on and the nights are
still warm and my son—he’s sure, now, to
find his way home.

If It Stings…that means it’s working
by J.A. Carter-Winward

Initial publication: Pain & Renewal: An Anthology, 2020, Vita Brevis Press, edited by Brian Geiger.

And so je te vois, peace out, and read whatever you can, however you can. It’s about your soul, people.


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