Interview: Michelle Wing – Cry of the Nightbird

Michelle Wing anthologyAt the 2011 Retreat for Women Writers, Michelle Wing read two poems she had originally written for “Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence.” She also met Dora McQuaid and watched her film about her own journey with poetry and domestic violence activism, “One Voice.” She bought a copy of the film, and showed it to her co-workers at the domestic violence agency where she volunteers back in Northern California. Returning to AROHO in 2013, Michelle’s sense of herself as a writer and of her mission as an activist were even stronger. She gave a Mind Stretch talk called “Healing with Words,” and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support she received from everyone present. In that talk, Michelle said she wanted to create a book, a collection of the “Hurt to Hope” writings. When Michelle returned home for the fourth series of “Hurt to Hope” events, two local women stepped forward, and said, “Let’s make it happen.” As they worked on the anthology, AROHO continued to have an impact. Poet Carrie Nassif (AROHO 2013) has a piece in the final book, and her beautiful photographs illustrate each of the four sections. A quote from a poem by Ruth Thompson (AROHO 2011 and 2013) opens the third section. And always, Michelle was bolstered and inspired by the presence of AROHO throughout the project, simply knowing that her sisters were waiting in the wings. (Bio credited to A Room of Her Own Foundation).

TCJWW: What has writing for this anthology and reading the experiences and reflections of others been like for you? In what ways are writing and art therapeutic for both survivors and the larger community?

Wing: Each year of Changing Hurt to Hope I have written pieces of my own to contribute, sometimes poetry, sometimes prose. I do this for two reasons: first, I want the other participants to view me as a peer, not as some kind of an administrator or manager. And secondly, writing has always been the way I have repaired my own past. The more I write, the more I uncover, and the more my writing evolves into new areas of healing and growth.

You ask what it’s like to read the reflections of others. The first time the new CEO of the YWCA, our parent nonprofit, read a full binder of Hurt to Hope selections, she came to me the next day, and, in tears, said, “How do you do this? How do you hold it all?” I answered very simply. “One person at a time.” That’s the only way to do it. When I receive a poem or a short story or a memoir, as it comes in to my inbox, I open that message and I allow just that experience in. Doing it that way, I can contain it.

What I have learned over the past five years is that writing these stories and poems matters. The survivors go through incredible healing simply by putting the words down on paper. They are further bolstered by sharing it with me, just one listening person. By the time October comes, and they are standing in front of a room full of people, many of them are calling upon a courage they had no idea they possessed. Speaking the words aloud is a phenomenal act. Knowing that other survivors are in the room gives them strength. And each year, I have members of the audience come up to me, people who happened to come to an event, who say thank you, because they have been so moved by what they have heard.

The reason I know this process is therapeutic is that I have hard evidence. We have Hurt to Hope alumni who return. A woman who writes a piece in 2010 about her past abuse, then comes back in 2013 to say that she realized she had been in an emotionally abusive relationship only two years ago, which she has since left, and is now in a solid, good marriage. Or a mother and her daughters, who attend together to piece together a traumatic past, and end up rebuilding their family. I have seen what is broken knit back together.

TCJWW: The nightbird who flies towards the light despite its battered wings is a powerful metaphor. What inspired the title and structure of this anthology?

Wing: When we were brainstorming for a title, we were thinking about the fact that so often the worst violence happens at dark, in the middle of the night, with no witnesses. So the image of the nightbird came to us. “Cry” has two meanings, of course. Either weeping, or calling out, making sound. I like the fact that it can mean both. The bird, also, has a double significance. It is both fragile and delicate, but at the same time, because of its wings, capable of flying away. At our anthology launch event, we asked a musician to perform the Beatles’ song, “Blackbird.” The lyrics were simply a perfect fit.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly

You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

Taking off from the nightbird image, the structure of the book became clear. We moved through the parts of the day, as metaphors for the journey of healing. “Night” contains stories about the moments of crisis. “Dawn” is filled with poems and other pieces about the time when a survivor awakens, fully realizing she is in an abusive situation. “Noon” is the section dedicated to breaking away, setting a new path. The final part of the book, “Twilight,” is for the writing about recovery and next steps. We were lucky to have one of our poets, Carrie Nassif from Kansas, provide us with beautiful black and white photographs to illustrate each of these sections.

TCJWW: There are many misconceptions surrounding domestic violence. What are a couple you are most eager to clarify?

Wing: The biggest is our tendency to victim blame. What’s the first question that comes to mind when you hear about an abusive relationship? Probably “Why doesn’t she leave?” Why don’t we ask, “Why does he get away with hurting her?” The question of leaving is so multi-layered. There are financial considerations; will she and her children end up homeless? There are custody issues; will the abusive partner manage to deny her access to the children? There are real safety issues; can police and the courts protect her? Women do leave – and usually it’s the most dangerous time in the relationship, after they have left. We don’t acknowledge that as a society.

Another misconception is that domestic violence only happens in certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of families. Predominantly, victims are women. I have been using “she” in this interview when referring to survivors, for convenience sake, because of that fact. But men can be victims, too. Although it does tend to happen more often in families with greater stressors, like poverty, it happens in all socio-economic brackets. A batterer can be a high school dropout or someone with a Ph.D. . There is violence in teen dating relationships. There are no age limits – abusers can be fifteen or seventy. There is domestic violence in lesbian and gay relationships. All ethnic groups, all religious groups, every segment of our population. This is an equal opportunity disaster.

We also tend to underemphasize the extreme damage caused by emotional and verbal abuse. Everyone recognizes the danger of physical abuse, can see that a broken arm or a black eye is harmful. But it is difficult sometimes for survivors to get the help they need to recover from years of the more insidious damage, living with someone who destroys your very soul. It is actually much like the torture inflicted upon prisoners of war, and needs to be regarded this way. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real, and takes years of careful nourishing, therapy, and love to recover from.

TCJWW: How has the Changing Hurt to Hope project evolved over the years? What have you achieved and what else do you hope to achieve?

Wing: When we first started out, we held readings in three cities in Sonoma County. Our fourth year, we expanded to include a fourth city. The other unanticipated thing that happened that fourth year is that a local newspaper wrote about the project in their blog, and we received entries from far outside our county. Two musicians, one from New Jersey and one from Michigan, submitted songs, and poets from Kansas and Georgia, as well as one from the Los Angeles area, contacted us. To accommodate them, we asked them to record their words in video format, so in 2013, our events had a multi-media component for the first time.

Also, over the years, as you can tell from the inclusion of the songwriters, we changed from being strictly about writing. In the call for submissions, I encouraged creative responses. We had a writer who was an artist who showed slides of her paintings while she read her piece. Another writer loaned us one of her paintings to exhibit at all of the readings for the month. In 2014, a local high school student contacted me, and said she had made a short film about domestic violence as part of a summer film course in New York. The film was breathtaking; we showed it that year, and again this year at our book launch. We have had writers incorporate music, as well, reading poetry with keyboard accompaniment, or singing original songs.

The biggest achievement has been the publication this year of our anthology, Cry of the Nightbird: Writers Against Domestic Violence, with its selections from the first four years of Changing Hurt to Hope. I am so grateful to my fellow editors, Ann Hutchinson and Kate Farrell, for stepping forward to offer to help me with that project, and to our publisher, Carol Hightshoe of WolfSinger Publications. The book is not only a way for us to reach new audiences; all of the proceeds go directly to our local domestic violence agency, YWCA Sonoma County, to continue their work.

For the future, we are currently developing an activity guide to accompany the anthology. We hope that other agencies, such as women’s shelters, support groups, family justice centers, etc., will use the book as a launching point for discussion, healing and education. We are also in the midst of creating a Cry of the Nightbird website, and hope that via that avenue we can reach even more people, with links to critical resources, a blog with the latest news, videos of our readers, and a continuing growth of our network of authors.

TCJWW: The Cry of the Nightbird features fiction alongside personal nonfictional accounts. What inspired this editorial choice? Do we gain something from fiction that we do not gain from nonfiction and vice-versa?

Wing: When I first conceptualized Changing Hurt to Hope, I saw it as a exactly what I called it: writers against domestic violence, not survivors against domestic violence. In the same way that an art gallery might announce an exhibit focusing on the subject of war, I was asking that creative members of the community at large respond to this theme. I knew that some, perhaps many of them, might be survivors. But that was not a prerequisite. So that naturally made fiction one of the genres that became part of the event.

I love reading novels and short stories. Personally, I learn just as much about the human condition, what we grapple with, and how we make choices from works of fiction as I do from memoirs or biographies. It’s an easy transition for me. With poetry, as well. You can’t always assume that the “I” in a poem is the poet.

So, yes – we had a few entries which were complete fabrications, simple works of fiction. Most of the time, though, as I learned through my contact with the participants, even the fiction contained veiled truth. It was simply another way of telling the story. Some of the women who wrote for Hurt to Hope had never put their thoughts down on paper before. For most of them, they chose a straight-forward memoir approach. But we had many, many women who identified as writers. As one of them said to me, “I want to be listed as a poet, not as a survivor.” And truly, she has earned that title.

Sometimes nonfiction can be difficult for the listener, because you are thinking, “No, I don’t want to hear this. It’s simply to much, knowing this happened to you.” Fiction helps create some distance, allows the audience a bit of breathing room.

Overall, I appreciate the mix. It’s one of the things I am careful to do when planning each evening’s reading. I have poetry, fiction and memoir interspersed, and I also try to balance tone, with heavier pieces followed by more hopeful ones. Again, I ask the audience to just be with us, one story at a time. To remember to breathe. And most importantly, to hope. Because no matter how difficult it is to read or hear some of these stories or poems, there is hope – because the writer is standing in front of you, either on the page or in person, alive to tell her truth. That’s the happy ending.

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