Poetry for Southern California
Jennifer Donnell Guest Editorial
By Jennifer Donnell
I had a religious experience in the Fall of 2009. I was driving home with a carload of organic groceries, rushing to get my oldest child to football practice, when I saw "them." They were a group of people gathered with signs, at the corner of a major intersection. Most were young, blonde, and all were white. Being of fair persuasion myself, I couldn't understand where this group had suddenly emerged from. Was I missing out on a database of proactive, youthful political movers and shakers? I'd spent years going to weekly peace rallies to protest the Iraq War and our movement only drew a handful of people, at best. This fair-haired group was the largest political gathering I'd ever witnessed in my sleepy Southern Californian town. When I got close enough to read the signs, I discovered they were celebrating the anniversary of Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition which had been voted on in the last Californian election. I put two and two together, realizing that a large Mormon church was a block over. My best friend was Mormon and, when I got home, I called and mentioned my upset at seeing such mobility in young people—over something I viewed as a hateful, discriminatory expression done out of fear and judgment over differences. Since she had gay friends, I expected she would share my rage. She never called me again.
At the time I was heavily editing a prospective poetry manuscript. The spring before I had advanced to the finals in a contest to have my manuscript published, and the taste of that potential victory was still wet on my lips. Hadn't the publisher told me privately, over drinks, that had he known the manuscript was mine (I had used a variation on my name), it would have made a “difference.” Hadn't he told me emphatically, or drunkenly—it was hard to determine—to make absolutely sure I entered the following year?
However, hadn't my husband—unimpressed by my private drunken exchange of political philosophies with a good-looking budding publisher—written a passionate hate mail to said publisher, the effect of, "leave my lady alone, [expletive] dirt bag."
Oy vey! This was going to be a challenge.
After dropping my son off at his practice, where I commiserated with two other families who were equally offended by (what we viewed as) an anti-gay rally, I went home to write. I stared at a blank computer screen, unable to express what I felt. Why did I feel such hurt and anger, as a heterosexual? Perhaps I knew that through the flip of a coin I could have been gay. Growing up I knew kids who struggled with their sexuality and how their peers treated them, while I had always felt "different" due to a hemangioma birthmark on my cheek.
It was then that I began to type. Without stopping I wrote five pages of poetry from the perspective of a single, gay, proud female poet. It didn't feel as though I was writing persona poems. I was writing from the depths of my passion. I was writing what it felt like to be part of a minority growing up, when my birthmark was displayed on my cheek like a scarlet letter.
Over the next few months I privately wrote dozens of poems under my new identity. It was liberating. I was able to write about all the subjects I’d hesitated to before—from politics to sex, to traveling, to city streets. I had no limits and no one to worry about offending. Eventually, I gave my poet a pen name— “Winnie Oliver.” Winnie in honor of my dog, and Oliver in honor of my grandmother. Slowly an idea began to form. If I had burned a bridge with my publisher of choice, what harm would it do to submit a new manuscript under my pen name? I opened a Facebook account and only added poets I didn’t know personally.
Shortly thereafter the publisher du jour sent me a friend request, due to their interest in my pen name’s preliminary manuscript. Knowing that the publishing company preferred well known poets, I panicked and added dozens of writers to my account before finally accepting the publisher. The good news rolled in, my manuscript had received “honorable mention”—pretty good considering my pen name had no connections or publishing credits. Less great was that the manuscript I submitted under my real name, Jennifer Donnell, had not been mentioned at all.
Since the judging had been so close, the publisher said I could still submit Winnie Oliver’s full manuscript for consideration. The only catch was I had less than twenty-four hours to get forty perfected poems together. I stayed up all night and worked until my back began to burn. I was riding high, with the wind in my gay-friendly sails (even though Prop 8 and the legality of gay marriage was now fodder for the courts). Unfortunately, despite my efforts to craft together twenty-five great new poems in one night, the publisher told me that my manuscript was strong, but ultimately not chosen. If only I’d been able to use my real, much better, “me” poems, I thought, feeling defeated.
Shortly before this, I had taken on a challenge (on behalf of Winnie Oliver) to write thirty poems in thirty days, which I posted on Facebook. Winnie’s writing gained attention and I was soon saddled with positive comments and “likes” from strangers in the writing world. Then it got tricky. Poets I knew in real life, not well, but as acquaintances, began to friend request me. The carefree life of writing under a pen name was corrupted by 21st century technology.
It became even more awkward when a male poet with a book by my publishing company of choice (whom I also knew slightly) began complimenting me. In wasn’t long before he was ‘tagging’ me in his poems and lavishing praise on mine. I learned several things through this. 1. Straight men will even show interest in women who are self-proclaimed gays. 2. It matters who you are and who you are perceived to be. This particular poet had never once commented on my personal poetry under my real name, even when I’d sent it to him. Still, I was the one who had unintentionally been deceitful. What had started out of simple, raw passion for writing and as an experiment, had become a source of guilt.
I confided my lengthy scheme to a few friends who, for all I knew, told a few more friends. My ‘Winnie Oliver’ poems were published in several publications, and even chosen for an anthology through the publisher my book had almost succeeded with, twice. I confided in a few more people, who may have told more people. All I know is that after a while I had the feeling that the cat was out of the bag and frankly I was glad.
I can’t say that Winnie Oliver is toast. I enjoyed being a lesbian—from writing about her first experiences to her dysfunctional relationship with her family. It was freeing to shed my own personal narrative and try something new. Additionally, I was able to connect with other writers through writing alone, which is a surprisingly intimate connection.
As one well known poet—yet another who seemed to show preferential treatment toward Winnie Oliver’s poems—said: “Winnie has a healthy dose of insight and ethos.”
She should! After all I made her up with everything I am.
Jennifer Donnell is a poet and writer from Southern California. In addition to performing her work, she hosts a monthly literary series called "Smiley Face". Her recent publishing credits include: The Criterion, Orion Headless, SIC 3, The Scarlet Sound, Don’t Blame the Ugly Mug anthology (Tebot Bach), Poetix, The November 3rd Club, Bestiary Magazine, Poetry Friends, Young American Poets, Deep Tissue Magazine, East Village Poetry (forthcoming 2011), A Few Lines Magazine (Fall 2011), Negative Suck (Fall 2011), Perhaps I Am Wrong About The World (forrhcoming), The Strengthening Project (forthcoming unnamed anthology), and a winner (poetry) through the city of Laguna Beach 2009, 2010, 2011. She is currently seeking to publish her first full-length collection of poetry, and is nearing completion on a graphic novel called Still Afraid of the Dark.