Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Icall myself a fem­i­nist because it was the fem­i­nist analy­sis of sex­u­al vio­lence that first gave me the lan­guage to name as a vio­la­tion what the man who lived on the sec­ond floor of my build­ing did when he forced his penis into my thir­teen-year-old mouth. That man pushed my voice back into my throat and filled me with a silence that made any words I spoke after­wards—any words, not just those with which I might try to describe what he did to me—feel simul­ta­ne­ous­ly untrue and unre­al. That silence left me voice­less when, some years lat­er, the sec­ond man who pre­sumed my body was his to do with as he pleased did pre­cise­ly that. But then, in ninth grade, com­plete­ly at ran­dom, I took Con­rad Aiken’s Select­ed Poems down from the shelf in my local library. I opened to the first poem and had to stop read­ing about a third of the way down the page because I real­ized I wasn’t breath­ing:
from “The Deceitful Palimpsest”

Well, as you say, we live for small hori­zons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk togeth­er,
See­ing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret mean­ings,—
Yet know so lit­tle of them; only see­ing
The small bright cir­cle of our con­scious­ness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morn­ing,
I walked in a cer­tain hall­way, try­ing to find
A cer­tain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
And there in a spa­cious cham­ber, bright­ly light­ed„
A hun­dred men played music, loud­ly, swift­ly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In pow­er­ful incan­ta­tion… Clos­ing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whis­per,—
And walked in a qui­et hall­way as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.

I sat on the floor and read those lines over and over again. I want­ed to be that woman, with a voice strong enough to rise above the sound of a hun­dred instru­ments. More than that, though, I want­ed to be able to do what Aiken had done, con­jure her and the expe­ri­ence of see­ing her so pow­er­ful­ly that it would take someone’s breath away.

I don’t remem­ber how much more of Aiken’s work I read back then, but I do remember—because the lit­er­ary edi­tor of my ninth grade year­book chose to pub­lish it—the first poem I wrote that tru­ly meant any­thing to me:

Alone, always alone,
Star­ing always star­ing,
Out of a win­dow,
Nev­er leav­ing it.
Watch­ing chil­dren,
And remem­ber­ing,
Yes, always remem­ber­ing,
What it was like,
When you were young,
Alone, always alone.

Writ­ing poems like that did not sim­ply help me find a voice; it proved to me, in its phys­i­cal exis­tence on the page and in the fact that it moved my friends when I showed it to them, that I had one. By the time I dis­cov­ered fem­i­nism in the 1980s and began to under­stand myself as a sur­vivor of sex­u­al vio­lence, poet­ry had become the pri­ma­ry vehi­cle through which I was speak­ing the truth of who I was, and so poet­ry became for me what it remains to this day, a way of explor­ing how sur­viv­ing sex­u­al violence—how liv­ing with the val­ues that informed the sex­u­al vio­la­tion I survived—has informed the way I choose to live my life.

I pub­licly broke my silence about being a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence in my first book of poems, The Silence of Men, which was pub­lished in 2006 by CavanKer­ry Press. The ani­mat­ing ques­tion at the heart of that vol­ume remains the cen­tral ques­tion that moti­vates me as a writer, What does it mean for me to com­mit myself as man nev­er to stand on the same side of any­thing as the men who vio­lat­ed me? My own heal­ing, in oth­er words, is not the pri­ma­ry focus of my work, though there are cer­tain­ly moments of heal­ing in my poems and writ­ing many of them has been per­son­al­ly heal­ing for me. Rather, I am con­cerned with explor­ing what it feels like to hold myself accountable—personally, polit­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, and socially—in how l live my life as a sur­vivor.