"On the Other Side," "The Place Where the Lights Don't Dim," "Been," and "Dancing Women"

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2021 Barrett Winner

1st Place Alayna Will

Introduction by Angela Hathikhanavala, Barrett Committee:

Alayna Will is a natural performer in search of a stage. At 24, she already has 10+ years of experience as a multi-instrumental musician, singer, and songwriter, and she has been writing fiction and poetry even longer, since elementary school. Pre-pandemic, she played gigs at local coffeehouses, bars, and music festivals, where she found a welcoming community among fellow musicians, staff, and fans, and has been on both the giving and receiving end of the generosity provided by that community. Alayna is also a former student of mine. In my ENG 131 class last semester, she gave some of the most generous, thoughtful writing advice to fellow students, and composed memorable essays and other projects, including a 2-line, 15-second song that managed to encapsulate the experience of taking online classes while simultaneously managing mental struggles -- it continues to echo in my head every time I feel overwhelmed by pandemic life. When we judge submissions to the Barrett Creative Writing Awards, we read them blind, not knowing any details about the individual authors. It is not until we’ve calculated final scores that identities are revealed. But honestly, as soon as I learned Alayna placed first, it was a head-smack moment: of course! Her poems have the same rhythm and ring of truth as her in-class writing and songwriting do. The poem she’s sharing today, “Dancing Women,” highlights her love of music and movement through a feminist lens of self-love. Alayna’s other poems, which you will be able to read online soon, also reflect her lived experiences, including experiences with and treatment of bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. She’s been refreshingly open about her experiences with mental illness, and she provides an excellent model for communicating about mental health in the same, non-stigmatized way we communicate about our physical health. While it’s clear that the sky -- and the stage -- is the limit for Alayna, in the near-ish future she plans to extend her music degree from HFC into a potential career in music therapy. Once it’s safe to do so, she’ll probably be playing some gigs near you if you’d like to hear her music. In the short term, keep an eye out for her collection of over 50 poems, titled The Song You Never Heard, which she plans to self-publish later this year. I’m exceedingly proud of you, Alayna. Let’s hear your poem!

Dancing Women

Let the swing of our hips hypnotize
the militants -
they, lowering their guns to the floor
to soft stomachs of tan, white, black,
jiggling with each sway.
Let our arms raise
And celebrate wholeheartedly life
for our brothers and sisters,
for they, whose stiff joints lay cold.
Let us do what the dead cannot
and be not still bones,
but hot flesh.

Let us do what we can
while we can;
let what beat we dance to
last longer than the song.
Keep it in the breast:
let the sly bird free
in the quietest times.
That is our power,
conjured by our great grandmothers
whom once danced free
and bare as a babe,
and led mankind to learn
compassion for the She
that created life
in the same era that
man created death.

Let us continue to waltz;
to mambo;
to two-step;
to twerk;
to shake what our mamas gave us;
because we have something so much more powerful
than bombs
and bullets
and air raids
and hunger.

That is why man taught us
to fear and to loathe
our greatest assets -
our dimpled asses and thighs,
our spaghetti-straps,
and tiger stripes:
Because hatred is what starts the wars
and love is what ends them,
and dance, a revolution of love -
when we learn to love ourselves,
we learn to love others.

So dance away in your night club,
your hotel room,
your bathroom,
your local grocery store aisle.
Embrace your own sensual grace
and your own sexual fire,
and remember this -
they can kill and hurt and rape us
by the thousands, the millions,
but they cannot touch
our loving souls
by breaking down our bodies.

On the Other Side

What is it like
on the other side
to toe enemy lines
that you drew to define
'tween yours and their minds
"they're empty!" you cry

But the only shell stands
on the other side
neither his, nor hers,
and certainly not mine
what ally have you kept alive
on your shrinking other side

It is you who comprises
the other side
who whistles for war
with the seven seas wide
and when in rushes the angry tides
finds other reasons they did collide

The Place Where the Lights Don’t Dim

in the place where the lights don't dim
the doors don't slam
(but if the doors did slam)
in they would
with the weight of a freighter
spraying ocean waves
against a salt-soaked face

in the place where the doors don't slam
(and the lights don't dim)
the colors in the lights don't blend
and in the corners of the room
they bend
and if you look very hard
(and the doors don't slam)
they can even take up
the shape of a hand

in the place where the colors don't blend
(and the lights don't dim)
(and the doors don't slam)
the only noise is a hum
through the halls and the stalls
and the water would whistle
if it could
but it can't
all the voices fall dumb
(the only noise is a hum)

Been

Flip a coin
The coin is you
The outcome is today
Heads, Hades, same thing
You will not pass Go
You will not get dressed
Your friends won't call you
You will not leave your head
Seconds, hours do not matter
On the floor and growing flatter

Tails entails a changed agenda
Drawing halos from your eyes
If Heads is the fall
Tails is the rise
Your bones will shake with power
As you flit through stealthy hours
Whichever side will soon come drawn
And at the end, another dawn
To which you throw away your been
And must now flip the coin again