The Real Me
Issue #73, April 2005
Is it me? For a moment
The stars are falling.
The heat is rising
The past is calling.
Is it me for a moment?
-- The Who from Quadrophenia
Here I sit ready to tell another tale of me, and wondering where to begin. Then this Who song started ringing through my head. Not just any Who song but "Dr. Jimmy and Mr. Jim" from my favorite album of all time Quadrophenia. I first heard this album for the first time in 1973 when I was eleven years old. I checked it out of the local public library, not because I knew what it was but because I saw the album cover and the booklet in the middle illustrating a young desperate kid rolling around in the waves and just knew that I had to hear it. I listened to it and looked at the book and tried to figure out the story of this kid's life. I was living in Pacifica right on the Northern California coast. My brother was in juvenile hall for dope, my parents were drunk and fighting every weekend, and I didn't know what I was feeling. I saw this album and said, "I'm feeling THIS."
Now I'm forty-two years old. Over thirty years have passed since I found that album. And in those years, I have lived through no end of shit: drug addiction, prostitution, deaths, suicides, rapes, and violations. Just four years after the day I picked up Quadrophenia at the library, when I was just fifteen years old, I found myself living alone on the streets of San Francisco where I worked sex clubs, whored my body, drowned myself in torrents of drugs and alcohol and began a very long journey away from myself then back again. It took me another twenty years to even begin to find the girl that walked into that public library in 1973. But I found her, and I've spent the past ten years trying to put her back together again.
Now the thing is, with a life like mine, not many live to tell the tale. Not only did I live, but I have been telling the tale in any variety of forms since I left the streets. Poetry, prose, painting, and collage. I have always felt the tremendous need to tell my tale. Not just a need, a mandate.
When I first began to tell my tale, I was still really young, just nineteen years old. And I was very cautious about my tale. I was fresh from the streets, and I was taking poetry classes in community college. I wrote about people in the streets, homeless, disenfranchised, desperate people. I wrote about runaway girls, streetwalkers, and junkies. But I didn't write about me. I wrote about me through fictional creations who were parts of me. It was safer that way. I wasn't ready to come out yet.
Then I began very cautiously putting me into art. First I did some self-portraits, including some mixed media - an old piece of leopard skin coat, a cigarette butt, a piece of a black garter belt, a yellowed strip of classifieds, little pieces of me, clues. But that's as far as I would take it. Distance was important, and being found out was a huge fear for me. The streets were still really close and could swallow me at any moment.
This was during the 1980's. There was a lot of protest in the Bay Area about apartheid in South Africa. I grabbed onto that and my art became more political but still personal. Women knelt on parched landscapes and hugged dead trees, their golden fists raised to a scorching sun, their bellies about to explode with their future, flags wrapped around their heads like so many bandages. I could wrench out suffering. I could dig out something inside myself and put another face on it. The colors and pictures of human injustice seemed to explode from my fingers. That was manageable. So I did that for a while.
But something started happening to me. I started cracking and falling apart. I was working on myself but distancing myself from myself at the same time. I was trying to contain myself, but my self didn't want to be contained. My self was shouting, "You can't just shut the door on me! I am here to haunt you until you tell my story." But I wasn't ready yet.
Then something happened, and the container broke and made a big mess. I got a scholarship to UC Berkeley where I transferred from community college as a junior. Suddenly I found myself in a completely foreign environment. I had no high school education, no family resources, no trust fund, no dorm room, no anything. Just me, my brain and my passion. It was there at that institution in a sea of intellectual posturing that I split and my self came screaming to the front.
I really didn't know my Self was screaming and didn't understand what was happening to me. All I knew was that I felt really alone, outside, and "other." I had no connection to anyone who surrounded me. Here I was an uneducated ex-whore in the middle of a land of privilege. It was class that was strangling me and making me so miserable. But I didn't understand class. What I did understand was that I could kill those feelings of otherness with drugs and alcohol, alcohol and drugs. And I did that until the tension got so unmanageable that I took an overdose of sleeping pills and ended up in the hospital on a breathing machine. It was the day after Christmas.
The next semester I was back at Berkeley, but this time things were different. I was sober, and my vision was clear. I could see myself, and I wasn't hiding from my story anymore. Being so close to death somehow diminished my fear of being found out. All that seemed important was being able to live, and to live I had to let my Self out of her cage. I put together some of my poems and applied for a couple of classes - one with Michael Palmer, one with Thom Gunn. I didn't get into the Thom Gunn class. He wasn't really a fan of my kind of personal poem. Michael Palmer, on the other hand, took me into his class and taught me a whole new way of looking at poetry. It was like magic learning the thinking behind poetry, reading writing about writing by people like Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, Gertrude Stein. It gave me tools, power, to infuse my poetry, to mold my voice and launch my words. I learned to dig myself out of me and put my history on paper, while at the same time distancing myself from the personal through my craft. My life became a medium I could manipulate by crafting words, bending them, manipulating language and sound, until my life became an object, a compilation of black type in the middle of a white piece of paper.
At the beginning of that semester, I went to the student clinic because I had an infection in my arm from the IV from when I was in the hospital. The doctor started looking me over, saw the IV tube bruises, the rings under my eyes, the yellow color of my skin. "What happened to you?" She asked. I told her the truth. She took me by the hand right then and walked me over to campus mental health and told one of the therapists she had to see me. I was allowed twenty sessions. I went every week while I was in Michael Palmer's class. During that time, I put together a whole chapbook of my poems, mostly about my family. At the end of the class, we had to give a presentation and I just kind of fell apart. I told the class that I had been in therapy the whole time I was writing the poems. Michael Palmer said, "I had no idea." So that was the beginning of telling the truth. Once I started telling the truth, I couldn't stop.
After I graduated Berkeley, I started working non-profit jobs helping messed-up kids and other disenfranchised people. And I started working on my art, a lot. I worked on it in my home. It was for me and me only, so it was uncensored, raw. I made a lot of pictures of me, the biggest manifestation being Puzzle Dot - an enormous eight-foot canvas that tells my story in very literal and graphic terms. See that big wind-up doll screaming, her breasts like over-inflated toys. See that hobbling woman leaking blood at the wrists, clenching a Virgin Mary medallion for dear life. And that string of paper dolls, all cut out in a row, each little mouth screaming, and each little body a map of violation.
And my poetry didn't stop either. I started writing very graphic poetry about my life on the streets -- unflinching truth about my life of prostitution, all the dirty details without the cushion of self-censorship. And I performed it, flung my words out in bars and clubs and anywhere else I could. People gobbled them up. I became my own art object and carted myself about to exhibit.
But then something else happened. Something really big. I became a mother. I suddenly wanted to be a mother more than anything else in the world. And at the age of 36, twenty-one years after I began my life on the streets, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and I had to rethink again how I would create art. Because I have to create art. I do. It's the mandate. But I also had to keep my child safe. This took quite a while for me to reconcile.
Now my little girl is six years old, and it is just in these past couple of years that I've been beginning to get my voice back or, actually, reinventing my voice. I was afraid of my voice. I was so scared that if I let it out, it would take me to a dark place, that it somehow would spill over onto my child and stain her. I didn't completely trust myself and wasn't sure where to go with my voice.
At first, I did some experiments with art, painting abstractions of femaleness from the inside out and discovered a new vocabulary and a new vision for me. My journey had been a hard, dark and violent one, but by living through it, I gave birth to something new inside of me, not just my child, but a new life for me with a vision that not many have lived to see. A female body was no longer the grounds for violation. It was a fertile landscape of beauty, magic, and power.
Then in October 2003, I found a place for my new voice. I started a blog. At first I wasn't really sure what I was going to do with this blog, this weird and new form of writing and self-representation. It took me well over a year to figure it out, but I have and it has become revolutionary for me and my art and writing.
My blog literally is my journal. It is about me, my life, my vision. I have used it to reconstruct myself connect the dots, and excavate and lay bare the thoughts that go through my head. In this medium, I have been able to connect Kim the Mother, Kim the Child, Kim the Whore, Kim the Artist, Kim the Intellectual, Kim the Poet. I have been able to resurrect that eleven year old girl who found that Quadrophenia album back in 1973 and connect her to all of my history, to make a one, a whole and entire being, sealing together the fragmented and censored parts.
But blogs are very public, and this adds new dimensions and new complications to my creative voice. My blog is on the internet, so anyone with access to the internet can read it, yet I continue to resist self-censorship and have restricted very few entries. I have written some very personal and very graphic tales of my life. I have chronicled the interior landscape of my head and the myriad of thoughts I have as a woman with a brutal history and who is now a working mom married to a college professor. I laugh. I cry. I scream. I get angry. I get self-reflexive and I tell the Story of Me. But I do not censor myself. I do not close the door on myself. I give myself free reign.
Nevertheless, my blog is a project, and I am very conscious of how I use it, the stories I choose to tell, the voice I choose to use, the performance I am giving in this public arena. Through my blog, my art, my history, and my writing are no longer compartmentalized. I have been able to create a new self-portrait, one of my whole self, not fractured crippled bits. I mix stories of my past with pictures of my present, poetry and politics, humor and sadness, film and fashion. All of me with no shame, no censorship. And I build a rhythm into it, moving back and forth through form and sound and image. It's a big collage of the me I have been assembling all these years. And it is a me who I like.
Through this public medium, I have met people who I never would have met before. And that has been phenomenally liberating, that people who I never knew and never met, have taken the time to read about me and take an interest in my life and validate my experience. It has given me tremendous inspiration to keep telling my stories and to ultimately create The Story - the book that I've always wanted to write.
But also through this public medium, I have been exposed to scrutiny and disapproval by certain constituents. And in this scrutiny and disapproval my issues with class and otherness have resurfaced, again in relation to an academic environment.
I am married to a college professor, and it is fairly common knowledge among some of my husband's colleagues and students that his wife has a public blog. Now, I have met various academics at the university in any number of settings and have discussed literature, poetry, film, and art. But it has only been in the superficial context of a social gathering. On very few occasions have my comments or insights been taken seriously or perceived as anything beyond informal banter. Ultimately I am not "one of them" - a scholar sanctified by a higher institution, so my writing, my thoughts, my creative endeavors, my ideas hold little value in the eyes of most academics. And now, with my new creative medium, my new method of artistic deployment - my blog - some of these academics are taking issue. Their issue, however, is not in relation to me as a person, as an artist, as a writer, or as a thinker. Their issues are with me as a person who is married to the academy. Apparently, to some, if you are married to a college professor, your creative voice is held accountable and should be censored according to the laws of acceptability in the academy. It is hard to believe that such discrimination and such blindness still exist. It is hard to believe that educated people who actively voice a liberal agenda are not able to see the merit of my work or see that by exposing myself to the public I am taking a brave step. The agenda in my work is not that different than that of some politically motivated academics. By making myself and my history public property, I am hoping that I will not only liberate myself from the things that have oppressed me, but that people who read me will feel less ashamed and oppressed by their own personal histories.
I am not an illiterate person, and in fact I am fairly well read in a number of areas - art, poetry, philosophy, film. I just don't happen to have a Ph.D., nor at this point do I want one. In the past, I felt resentment and somehow cheated that I did not get a chance to go to graduate school and "be all that I could be" due to my socio-economic circumstances. But now, after years of processing and working out my artistic voice, I realize that going to graduate school would have been the most crippling thing I could have done. Why? Because I am free. I have freedom to write and create and express what I want to, and I have learned that I am a valuable person, and that my stories and tales and voice are important. In fact, I have learned that all creative voices that question systems of power and oppression and the prisons of gender and class are important, regardless of the context and intellectual level. I have learned to appreciate the academics, so I wonder why it is so difficult for some academics to appreciate me.
I have also learned that regardless of how personal my stories are, how graphic they are, how seemingly honest they are, that when I tell a story for public consumption, it is always a performance, a product. I am aware of my audience, and I perform for that audience. So when I am being scrutinized and judged on the personal content of my stories without consideration of artistic or social merit, I feel the finger of unjust accusation -- "How dare you be who you are. How dare you have lived your life." But of course, most academic writing does everything within its power to remove the personal, to not take a personal stake or make a personal commitment, to become pure intellect with no person. So when a person shows through - a big, loud, honest, and graphic person - it is a threat and an easy target.
But it is this kind tension, the quiet voice of censorship, class and academic discrimination that will keep me writing and continue to prove to me the importance of my writing. If writing the stories of my life inspires frowns and threats of censorship, then I need to keep writing them. I am not putting myself behind lock and key again. I am putting myself out there, all of me - the 11 year old girl looking for records at the library, the 15 year old girl walking the streets, the 26 year old woman walking into student mental health, the 32 year old belting out her poetry in a bar, the 42 year old working mom. I'm putting it all out there for you or whoever else wants it. The rest, well they can just take a good long look at themselves in the mirror. Maybe they'll find something they haven't seen for a while.
Kim Nicolini lives in Tucson Arizona with her partner Charlie, daughter Skylar and menagerie of pets and critters. Kim squeezes any number of crazy things into each day, including working a full time job, trying to be the best mom on the planet, making art, writing poetry, growing a magical garden, and going to as many movies as possible. If you want to contact her or find out how to access her blog, drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.