Writing in honor of the Gypsy Goddess-Saint Sara la Kali

Sara la Kali (Sara the Black) is the Romani Goddess-Saint who many Roma worship, and those who can will pilgrimage to the South of France to her statue on May 24th-26th and celebrate her with flowers, dancing, music, art, and a march into the ocean with her statue. Lots of Roma try their hand at matchmaking too, which adds a lovely springtime romance air to the holiday. I haven’t been lucky enough to attend (yet) but I honor her in my own ways. My poem “Transfiguration of the Black Madonna” is dedicated to her and expresses the hardship and cultural colonization that her people, the Roma, face. The snakes call back to her Indian origins and Shakti energy– the serpentine divine feminine. I’m delighted that the poem is out in the anthology by Sundress Press, Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity Anthology now available. The book is chock-full poems by poets I deeply admire with a hard, smart political edge.

If you would like to read an account of the festival, the jazz singer Tatiana Eva Marie, of Romani descent, wrote a beautiful essay for Quail Bell Magazine, “Sara-la-Kali: The Gypsy Pilgrimage,” about her experience of the pilgrimage and festival, dotted with wild ponies, art, and salt.

Here’s my poem, first published on The The Poetry Blog, and now in the Political Punch anthology. Check out the blog for more poetry!

“Transfiguration of the Black Madonna” (excerpted from Zenith)

Gypsy Goddess; Gypsy Saint
Black Madonna, full of snakes, let your crescent down. Wield the sickle, rush the milk, and salt the serpents’ mouths. Golden bangles, black milk snakes—these adorn your arms. Blue sky cloth cut for (you) Sarah, Sarah Black, Madonna Shadow, cut for goddess saint of wanderers, cut predestined, cut of chaos, cut the star palm bowls. Slip the feathers under scales and reform the body whole. You were a slave who sailed the chasm, sailed the sea and sun. Persecution sprang a river from the monster: milk, and spit, and blood. In the monster lived a woman and the woman’s soul—you wore her face and wore her tresses spun from black snake gold—golden teeth and golden brow, golden tail and root. The milk snakes split their nests and fled and now your mouth is ruined. There is no birth, there is no death, there’s only mutant growth, and milk snakes dyeing Sarah’s skin with heaps and heaps of gold. There is no sickle, there is no moon, there is no blood or salt. There’s only Sarah sailing through the dream in which she’s caught.

tatiana black madonna

Image by Tatiana Eva Marie, Quail Bell Magazine

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Jessica Reidy & Rosebud Ben-Oni reading for Poor Mouth Poetry 11/11

An Beal Bocht

An Beal Bocht

I’m so excited to be reading alongside Rosebud Ben-Oni for Poor Mouth Poetry at An Beal Bocht in the Bronx, and you can read with us! There’s an open mic sign-up after our reading, first-come, first-serve. So whether you want to kick-back and listen to some poems, or get up on stage yourself, we would really love to see you there. The event starts at 8 PM on Wednesday November 11th.

Bios~

Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She blogs at The Kenyon Review. Find her Facebook, Twitter and at 7TrainLove.org

Jessica Reidy worked on her MFA in Fiction at Florida State University and holds a B.A. from Hollins University. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and has appeared in Narrative Magazine as Short Story of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, The Missouri Review, and other journals. She’s Managing Editor for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Art Editor for The Southeast Review, Visiting Professor for the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop retreats, Outreach Editor for Quail Bell Magazine, and works as an adjunct professor and a freelance editor and writer. She also teaches yoga and works her Romani (Gypsy) family trades, fortune telling, energy healing, and dancing. Jessica is currently writing her first novel set in post-WWII Paris about Coco Charbonneau, the half-Romani burlesque dancer and fortune teller of Zenith Circus, who becomes a Nazi hunter. Visit her online atwww.jessicareidy.com.

I’m reading at the New York City Poetry Festival for Quail Bell Magazine, July 25th at 2:30 PM

I’m absolutely delighted to read for Quail Bell Magazine at the New York City Poetry Festival. Check out our Facebook event and come join us if you can. We’d be so honored by your presence. Put on a shawl and your best, smug writer-face and just kick back into the weird and imaginative quailings. I’ll be reading trauma poetry and poetry grown out of the Romani (Gypsy) tradition, and it feels especially cool to be reading on my 29th birthday. There’s a metaphor in there. Don’t feel like figuring out for what. What am I, a poet? Pssh.
jessreading

Excerpts from novel-in-progress, Zenith, & poems in The The Poetry Blog

A late post, yes, but a few weeks ago an excerpt of my novel-in-progress, Zenith, and some poems came out in The Infoxicated Corner of The The Poetry Blog, curated by Fox Frazier-Foley, author of Exodus in X Minor. The poem “Mina the Lotus” is also from Zenith, a love poem written in the voice of the Mina, the main character Coco’s mother, to the Romani (Gypsy) goddess of Fate, Sara la Kali. Mina’s character is a poet in some ways fashioned after Papusza. The other poems, “First Exorcism” and “The Gargoyle Back Scratcher” are not part of Zenith, but they were born out of The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop 2014 Yoga and Writing Retreat in Verderonne. Keep an eye out for this year’s upcoming retreats in New York City; Newport, Rhode Island; Paris; and Granada. I can’t express how exciting and terrifying it is to debut the first few pages of the novel, and how much it feels like I’m tempting hubris. Much of my writing has been delayed by enormous life changes and helping to care for my Aunt and other, who are both terminally ill– but in the face of the illnesses of my loved ones and the comparatively small turbulence of my personal life, I am reminded that art and love (and all of that what makes life worth living, et al.), are the only truly present things. So I am writing through it, perhaps more slowly than I hoped, but I am writing. And I am very honored and appreciative for the space and support that The The Poetry Blog has given me. Thank you, Infoxicated Corner! Please forgive my delay– a snow storm took down the farm’s internet for quite some time, and I live in the middle of nowhere, which I actually quite like.

Dancing in the castle at the CWW Verderonne yoga and writing retreat

Dancing in the castle at the CWW Verderonne yoga and writing retreat

On being a ‘Gypsy’ Witch

Fox-Frazier Foley, writer and curator of The Infoxicated Corner of The The Poetry Blog, solicited an essay about Romani poetics and language, and immediately I knew I would write about Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s poem “The Apparition of Choxani,” from the anthology The Roads of The Roma: a PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers. Fox has mixed Romani heritage too, so the project felt like a gorgeous act of unity and cultural collaboration.

For me to better understand “The Apparition of Choxani,” and write what became my article, The Magic Word:
‘Gypsy’ Witchcraft, Love, and Breaking Tradition in Luminiţa Mihai Cioabă’s Poem “The Apparition of Choxani,” I had to look at my Romani family’s history as well as our traditions—not those that endured, but rather those that were extinguished.

photo

With a headband that my lovely Romani friend, writer Norma Szokolyai, gave me when we taught in France together on the CWW Yoga & Writing Retreat

My entire Romani identity is invested in my grandmother and what she taught me, and her identity springs from what her family could pass on to her while simultaneously obscuring their ethnicity and shedding their culture, attempting to avoid the gas chambers or a bullet in a ditch. They had a unique opportunity to do this, namely that some of the Romani family had already married gadjé and assimilated for love, and my beautiful and resourceful great-grandmother decided to re-marry a cruel-but-useful gadjo (non-Roma) and bring her three children with her to his farm in the countryside. There are whispers that her papers were forged and documents were signed by Hitler, but the details were lost a long time ago. This saved our line but left holes in our Romanipen (The Romani Way)—we lost parts of our Roma soul. I never learned Rromanès, because my grandmother wasn’t allowed to speak it—how could they explain to the suspicious Nazi officers who burst-in from time to time why their children spoke Gypsy-tongue? Most Romani families affected by the Holocaust did not break and bury their traditions. Fate tossed my great-grandmother a bone and she took it, but most Roma in WWII Europe knew that they could not assimilate and would not be allowed to. They spoke Rromanès and Romani women wore dikhle (traditional head coverings), even in the concentration camps. In the camps, there are accounts of Roma singing traditional songs and even dancing to keep their spirits and their dignity. What else is there to do in the face of utter hatred and persecution but dance? Recently, a Belgian village hired a DJ tried to try to (illegally) oust Roma from their camps with loud music, and the Roma danced then too.

My grandmother taught me our family trades, dancing and drabaripé (fortune telling, and healing magic), and although I didn’t learn about Choxani until I began researching my more about my cultural heritage as a young woman, she taught me about a different kind of witch— the drabarni, or healer or adviser. Usually the drabarni is a woman in the Romani community who uses prayer, amulets, herbs, and energy work to heal physical, emotional, and spiritual illness. Some of these practices survived in my family because far down the line there was a drabarni in my grandmother’s family. Romani magic is quite real within the culture, but it looks nothing like the “Gypsy Witchcraft” books you can get at B&N. Romani writer and scholar, Qristina Zavačková, has an incredible blog post on Romani magic, titled “Magic and Magpies—Akhaljiben the Kakaraske.” Even though our family assimilated and we lost so much, even though I went to school with gadjé children where I didn’t learn anything about the history of my people, not even the fact that Americans enslaved Roma alongside African Americans in the Old South, I was still different. I was still stoned till I bled on the playground after I leaked the truth about my family roots when I was six years old and too proud of my grandmother for my own good, despite her many warnings to stay quiet. I was still given detention by my fifth grade teacher for being a “witch.” I started wearing the epithet like a mantle. I proudly practiced my family trades when I was a teen, through college, and whenever I was in a tight spot. But it was still nothing like the fantasy Gypsies in story books– it was real, gritty, and sometimes heartbreaking. It was an identity that I claimed with such mixed feelings that, for years at a time, I would refuse to crack open my deck of cards because I couldn’t be a Gypsy freak-show for one more day. And other times, I felt like I was making my ancestors proud, that I was my grandmother’s blood, and I was grateful for my beautiful and complex culture.

In short, it matters when the word “Gypsy” is appropriated and redefined by outsiders. It’s our heritage, it’s our genocide, it’s our right to reclaim the ethnic slur used against us. If we are witches, it is because we have not been understood by outsiders–we are not magical, but we have a powerful culture. So be it.