When my daughter was born, I remembered words I had forgotten: sunqu, wawa, uripachallay. They poured out of me, bits of Quechua mixed with English and Spanish to form a strange litany of endearments I repeated again and again as I carefully traced the contours of her face, claiming for her every name, every devotional, I could think of: mi amor, mi chula, mi nena, mi wawa, mi beba, my basket, my bean, my bundle, my love, my heart, mi sunqu, mi corazón, uripachallay, palomita, little dove. When I ran out of words, I’d simply tell her I loved her, chanting: te quiero mucho mucho mucho, tanto tanto tanto, siempre siempre siempre. In the absence of any new thing to say about how much I loved my daughter, I became a kind of trilingual thesaurus.
I was just grabbing words—any word, every word—to fill the space between me and my daughter.
Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be able to write poems again. It seemed unlikely. The best poems are precise, carefully attuned to details and specifics. And my favorite poems have always been spare, nothing but the very thing that cuts through the extra. Think of Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” Or Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Making a Fist.” Or Patricia Smith’s “Medusa.” These are poems that feel like they have parted flesh or cut a clean streak across a dirty window. But my post-partum poems felt messy and confused, incapable of building even the ricketiest rope bridge across my feelings. I was just grabbing words—any word, every word—to fill the space between me and my daughter. It seemed impossible that we were separate people, and I worried about her obsessively, wondered how I could ever keep her safe, keep her alive. I felt crazy. It was easier to be funny about it than honest. I took up storytelling and comedy as an alternative genre. I’m not suggesting these are dishonest forms, but they allowed me to be a character, to exaggerate for effect—things I would never do in a poem.
And then I was given a gift. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad gift. 3Arts awarded me a two week residency at Ragdale. I wanted to puke. This isn’t a figure of speech. I really felt sick to my stomach when I opened the letter congratulating me on the award. Because, of course, I had to accept. It was an incredibly generous gift. Two weeks where I would be paid to do nothing but wander the prairie and write. Two weeks where I could sleep, where someone else would make my meals. Two weeks where I could be alone, or wander downstairs to drink wine with fabulous writers. Two weeks of being me-first, not worrying about my job or my obligations, my chores or my responsibilities. Two weeks without my daughter. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad gift.
What if she dies in a dishwasher?
I cried, of course. For the first two or three days I was there, all I did was sleep, and cry, and write long letters to my daughter describing to her how much I missed her. I watched two seasons of "True Blood" to distract me from my sorrows and then I cried some more because I was wasting this horrible time away from my daughter by watching TV instead of writing poems. So, I tried to write poems, but wrote more lists instead. Mi amor, mi chula, mi sunqu, my heart, mi corazon. I missed her desperately. The space between us was more vast than ever. I couldn’t fill it.
“Dear Ida,” I wrote in one of my many letters to a two year old, “I miss watching you sleep.”
“Dear Ida,” I wrote in another, “today I saw a deer.”
I wrote everything I could think of, and wondered what I’d ever had to say before she was born. Who had I been talking to? What had I been talking about?
Eventually, though, inspired by an article in the newspaper, I wrote a poem about a mummy. And then one about a ghost. And then one about Facebook. And one about fajas. And one about Jesus. And for fun, I wrote a whole series of three-line poems based on Ecuadorian slang terms that conflate food and sex. (Me hizo la sopa, me entiendes…?) And I even found my way to some poems about my daughter, some way of saying more than OMAIGA I LOVE HER SO MUCH I WISH SHE WAS STILL INSIDE OF ME WHAT IF SHE DIES IN A DISHWASHER? Found a small point of clarity inside my mess, a sliver of what needed to be said, something more but nothing less than this: mi sunqu, my heart, mi corazón …
Coya Paz is a writer, director, and lip-gloss connoisseur who was raised in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, the U.S. and Brazil. She is the artistic director of Free Street Theater and an assistant professor in the theatre school at DePaul University. She is also the co-founder of Proyecto Latina, a collective that showcases the art and activism of Latina women, and Teatro Luna, where she served as co-artistic director since 2005.
Coya is a weekly commentator on race and pop culture for Vocalo.org (90.7) and has been a featured performer for dozens of live-lit events, including 2nd Story, Palabra Pura, and Paper Machete. Her play Machos, created with Teatro Luna, won the 2007 Jeff Award for Best New Play, and she is currently at work on a remount of DOPE, created with Free Street Theater. Other plays include: Coya Paz is Not ______, a full length solo; The Americans; Nerds, Sluts, (Commies) and Jocks, Tempest, and Fa$hion. Above all, she believes in the power of poetry and performance to build community toward social change. Visit her on the web at coyapaz.com.
Video and page photography by Timothy Musho.
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