27 February 2021

My 50th birthday, and remembering my second husband.

Today is my 50th birthday, and I'm spending it grading on a Saturday. Certainly the pandemic is to blame for the lack of a celebration, but I'm at the end of Week 8 in a 10-week term, and the AWP conference is next week, so I would like to be caught up, at the very least, on last week's grading before next week begins. 

My second husband died on February 25th last year, so I anticipate that my birthdays moving forward will always have some sense of loss attached to them, at least for a while. I have no desire to rewrite history--things did not end well between us. But, our divorce was final only about four months before his death, and I had hoped we'd eventually salvage a friendship. I absolutely expected to know him longer. His passing does not require that I forgive him, but I am reluctant to hold onto hurt feelings and bitterness and guilt. I won't forget the numerous, valid reasons why I broke up with him, but I still mourn him. There are things that I miss, and things I'm glad are in my past. He was a big personality, and our good times were great. I loved him very much, but as I've said before, I am glad that it is a closed chapter of my life. (And, because I continue to write about him and talk about him, I know the chapter might be closed, but I'm still processing.)

My tax returns arrived--so I have paid off the small balance I was carrying on two of my credit cards, and I bought a few small pieces of furniture for the house. I used a few hundred dollars to buy a handful of books on tattoo history that have been published in the last few years--two of them over a hundred dollars. Those are my birthday gift to myself, and I feel I absolutely deserve them. 

It will likely be a week or two until I'm able to sit down and write another blog post about a tattooed lady, but I'm thinking that it might be Nellie Thornton or Mildred Hull. Millie is my favorite of all, but Nellie has quite a sordid tale. They both lived very colorful lives--Nellie as a traveling circus performer with multiple husbands, and Millie as a drinker and brawler. Millie was also the first female tattooist to set up shop and work out of a barbershop in the Bowery in NYC. This is a photo of Millie. It is difficult to date this photo, as her tattoo work looks less complete here, but the fascinator she's wearing in her hair is also in another tattoo shop photo taken from another angle. In it, she looks older.

I received a rejection letter from The Rumpus this past week . . . they'd held onto my poems since last July, so I thought they had a chance at publication there. Otherwise, everything is in a holding pattern with submissions.

23 February 2021

My research project. And Trixie Richardson.

I've decided to pick up my "tattooed lady research project" notes again. Finally.

A bit of background:

To be specific, I am researching in an attempt to correct and preserve as much of the ever-disappearing history of the early 20th Century tattooed lady in the United States as I can. I started this project during a spring term sabbatical in 2015; I made a trip to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to dig around in the Circus World archive, to help me to plan a collection of poems about circus folk and sideshow performers. Once I was in Baraboo, I realized that the whole project was shifting to some kind of nonfiction work. I'm not really a nonfiction writer, so the concept was both scary and exhilarating. I found a niche--MY niche--but my sabbatical and the following summer were just the start of the project. I thought I might have a book here, but I could tell it would take years to research, and multiple trips to other archives--Sarasota, Winston-Salem, San Francisco, and New York City to start. Holy crap.

Then, at the start of that fall term, after six months of steady work on the project, the shooting at UCC took place. To say that my priorities changed is a vast understatement. I'm still in the process of learning to live with related PTSD, and I've come to realize that my brain rewired itself in some pretty dramatic ways. And then I married and divorced in quick succession. I became buried in never-ending department chair work. In short, a few years were rough for a number of reasons. It's taken me a long time to come back to this project. 

So here we are.

In an attempt to get myself motivated to continue with this project, I brought home my enormous collection of note cards and photocopies from campus in October--and they've actually been sitting in the back seat of my car until today, when I finally felt compelled to bring them into the house, hoping I could force myself to start looking at them. "Baby steps" is a philosophy I've come to embrace.

Then I accessed my online annotated bib for the project this afternoon, and I freaked out, because I think I've lost a few of my online sources. The last time I've had them open was in 2015, and frankly, I don't know yet if I saved screenshots or pdfs of the web-based sources. I should have done that, but my brain was lightly scrambled in 2015--and I don't think I was necessarily thinking about maintaining the integrity of my sources when I unexpectedly put this research on hold. Frankly, of all the things I miss about how my brain used to work, I miss my impeccable organization the most. Even though I am extending myself some grace, I am a little upset about it. A few copies of photographs may have gone missing, too. However, I think I just need to sit with my research and get familiar with all of it again. I might be worried about information that I absolutely backed up. 

I'll find my foothold, and I will plug away with what I have. 

I feel like the project is even more pressing now. In five short years, additional history has disappeared from the internet. I thought I was seeing a surge in interest and writing about tattooed ladies, but that just hasn't been the case. And, these women don't seem important enough to the male tattoo historians who dominate the field.

Because there has never been a truly comprehensive, accurate account of these women's lives and careers, their photos become lost in a jumble of any and all tattooed women from their respective eras--and not all of them were circus sideshow attractions. At times, it's difficult to tell the difference, and there are distinct differences. Books like the excellent Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin just can't do all of the heavy lifting alone. Most other published histories and "encyclopedias" of tattoo don't mention more than a few tattooed ladies by name. Many of them are riddled with errors.

Side note: "Tattooed Lady" is a term that, to me, denotes "a woman who worked as a professional tattooed attraction, pre-1950." In contrast, "tattooed woman" is a more general term that can apply to any woman with tattoos, from any time. I just want to explain that ahead of time, because I'm not a fan of men using the term "lady" or "ladies" as a diminutive term when they mean grown-ass women.

While published tattoo histories don't spend a lot of time on this fact, many of the tattooed women depicted in collectors' photographs from this era who sport a handful of "hidden" or discreet tattoos were sex workers who earned a few extra dollars on the side by posing for partially nude photographs.These photographs were sold to collectors from classified ads in the back of men's magazines by people like Bernard Kobel.

Many of the women in these photographs never worked as tattooed ladies. Other women--those with sketchy tattoo work, or without full body suits, for example--were women who scraped together a living between smaller traveling carnivals and dime museums. To further muddy the water, many of these small-time tattooed ladies worked under catchall names like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," an attempt to bank on the popularity of the Marx Brothers song. Others worked as the even more generic "The Tattooed Lady," which was probably an effort to keep the sideshow's owners from having to commission new canvas banners whenever a new tattooed lady was hired.

So, there are a good number of vintage and antique photographs of tattooed women floating around on the internet and in private collections, but not all of them were working as tattooed ladies. Those that did work with circuses didn't keep diaries or journals that have been published or archived or otherwise made available. Some have families who were scandalized and shamed--who worked diligently to bury their family's connection to the sideshow. In many cases, the records for now-defunct circuses and sideshows have been lost to time. All of these truths work against the efforts to piece together any history at all for some of these women.

The largely missing story of Trixie Richardson is a prime example of how time can erase almost every trace of these women. 

Trixie Richardson is frequently mentioned in the limited scholarship about tattooed ladies, but virtually nothing is known about her life. Albert Parry's seminal 1933 book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art identified Trixie as a tattooed lady who also worked as a tattooist, but she warrants little more than a line or two in Parry's book. Parry claimed that she worked as a tattooist at the New Jersey shore in 1925, tattooing several thousand women, so the story goes, in that single season. 

Perry offered no source for that information, and it sounds highly improbable to me. The average woman in the 1920s was not tattooed while on vacation at the shore. Instead, this sounds like a tabloid news story about a tattooed lady that's been told and retold until it became her only history. Trixie Richardson is subsequently mentioned in other sources, but those authors repeatedly cite Parry's book. No one has ever offered any information that helps to prove Trixie was a real person. For a while, I couldn't find any definitive proof that this woman actually existed.

Add to that: there are at least three different tattooed ladies identified in various sources as Trixie Richardson. They all have dyed black, bobbed hair, and they were all working in the 1920s and 1930s. They all passed through New York City--they were all photographed in the same studio with many of the same props and costuming as other tattooed ladies. However, these three Trixies don't have matching tattoos. 

The irony is not lost on me--these women made a living by baring their skin and welcoming the gaze of spectators, but they are also confused with one another regularly because tattoo historians often can't be bothered to look closely enough at their tattoos to differentiate them from one another. I can't tell you how many hours I've logged, zooming in on scans of hundreds of blurry, 100-year old photographs, trying to match arms to arms, chests to chests, for positive identifications on anonymous photos.

I believed for a while that none of these women was the "real" Trixie, becoming increasingly convinced that it may have been a name, like Lydia, that was used by more that one woman. I eventually found a photo of Trixie that was printed with her name on the front of the photo. 

So, I revised my hypothesis, thinking this woman may have been the first to use the name Trixie Richardson, and perhaps she found some fortune and fame. Other women may have been emulated her look in order to cash in on her popularity. 

It's important to note that I can't find evidence of Trixie in any group photographs of circus performers--and larger shows always took a "Congress of Freaks" photo each touring season, to be sold as souvenirs. Because of this, I believed Trixie to be a lower-tier sideshow performer and that it was just dumb luck her name was mentioned in Parry's book at all.

And then I stumbled on a photograph that changed everything, and clarified Trixie's place in tattoo history. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is the woman who is the "real," or the original, Trixie Richardson. When I began this project five years ago, this photo was all over Pinterest and the internet at large, but she was not always identified correctly. Note her chest piece--a rising sun behind a bald eagle, wings spread over two American flags.


And this is a badly retouched photograph of the same woman. The sun behind the bald eagle's head is what separated this chest piece from the others, but it's easy to look at the roses on her left shoulder and match those up, too; those are definitely the same tattoos. Her eyes are a giveaway, too. Her tattoos were not complete in the photo below, if you look at the field of blue behind the flags' stars; so, this is an earlier photograph than the one above. Another version of this photo, accompanied by a photo of her back, is labeled with her name, and as having been taken in 1924.

And this is when I stumbled across a bit of serendipity.

The photo below shows Trixie in a photo collage. This collage would have been would have been reproduced and sold as a souvenir "pitch card." The existence of this pitch card allowed me to confirm that Trixie was indeed a legitimate tattooed attraction, making her living in some sort of circus sideshow. 

I'd only seen a copy of this pitch card with most of the writing at the bottom of the photo cropped out. Though I couldn't read it, I knew that because the writing is bright white, it was likely written on the photo's original negative, or on an original print of the photo. This could have happened before the photo was distributed as a souvenir, or before the photo became part of the circus's archive. The style of handwritten block lettering is common on photos of tattooed circus attractions from this era. (I also know that Bernhard Kobel did not label the prints he sold in this manner--he used numbers.)

Then I found the copy below, and I could finally read the caption. She is identified as Miss Trixie Richardson, and she worked with Ringling Bros. in their 1926 or 1928 season. This is huge. Not only was she a circus sideshow attraction, she worked with Ringling. According to multiple sources, Ringling did not have blow-off acts in their sideshows, and they did not tolerate grift or sex work on their tours. They were considered family entertainment, even in the late 1920s. So, at least in 1926 or 1928, Trixie was at the top of her trade.

It's also important to note that this pitch card also has a separate engraved watermark/signature in the lower right corner, stating that Trixie was tattooed by Charles Wagner, the famed NYC tattooist. Because of the props and backdrop used in these photos, and the similarity in handwriting, and the connection to Charlie Wagner, I am willing to believe that the handwritten caption is correct. I will write about Charlie on another day--while not a tattooed lady or circus worker, his story is both sad and fascinating, and he appears as a minor character in many tattooed ladies' stories. While Charlie's reputation was questionable, his body suits were considered some of the finest tattoo work of its time on the sideshow circuit.

The information I was able to glean from this souvenir photo is more detailed than anything that Albert Parry or anyone else has documented about Trixie Richardson. This quest to find any scrap of Trixie's story is exemplary of how these women and their histories are disappearing--it's often because no one has bothered to actually look for their stories. And, I think I'm at a point where it's too late to salvage much.

As I mentioned above, one of the cities I need to visit for research is San Francisco. However, in the five years I've been away from this project, Lyle Tuttle has passed away. While he may not have been willing or able to meet with me, he was the last living link to a lot of history.

I am hoping to make a trip to the Ringling archive in Sarasota, Florida within the next year. I think it will prove to be the key to this project in general, and to learning more about Trixie in particular. I hope Covid-19 vaccinations allow this to happen sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, I need to organize what I have, to make sure I have a detailed list of where to begin when I'm able to travel. 

Even writing this short essay about Trixie feels good. I've missed this project, and I can already feel my excitement and momentum returning. I'm going to start small--writing an essay here and there on this blog,

19 February 2021

A financial misstep, but a good week overall.

This week has been fairly stagnant with submissions; I've not received any rejections or acceptance notices, and I've not sent out any new submissions. 

On a more significant note, I did find out on Wednesday that I've secured professional development funding for the Summer Poetry Workshop at Community of Writers in Squaw Valley, CA--it's a full week of workshops with an amazing handful of poets, and I'll hear in early May whether I made the cut. And if I do, I won't have to pay for the registration out of pocket. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I expect that there will be a great deal of competition . . . this summer's workshop is virtual, which cuts the need for travel, meals, and lodging. I'm crossing my fingers that I might have a shot at a place in the workshop, anyway. 

AWP is coming up on the first weekend in March, so I need to start this coming week to get my online classes ready to run without me for a couple of days. AWP is also virtual this year, and I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that to attend more panels and readings. I'll hopefully be able to "attend" recordings of panels during my spring break, too.

I pulled together some rough, rough drafts of some new poems last night--working on lines I've salvaged from my journals, trying to mad-lib my way to something inspired. It's at least some effort.  

30% of the way through *The Overstory*--I love it. I love it in a way that makes me not want to read it too quickly.

So my financial misstep is actually a series of unfortunate events, all at once. I paid 500.00 on a credit card this past week when I meant to pay 50.00. I have tax returns on the way, with which I was planning to pay off the whole balance on that card, but I just made a simple error. Adding to that, I'd ordered a 350.00 bookcase from Wayfair the day before, and I was unable to cancel that order. Then, my friend's husband, a contractor, called me to arrange a small house project. For this week. So, I haven't had the pleasure of being this level of house poor, or hoping I can dodge any bounced checks, since I started living alone--almost two years ago. I'd just sent a check to my therapist, who is holding it until she hears from me, which is what the contractor is also doing. I was able to transfer funds, but it's taking forever to process. Unbelievable. 

On a positive note, the large, noisy, terrible air conditioning that was built into the side of my living room is gone, and the hole is patched on both the outside and the inside of the house. It's already quieter in the house, which makes working from home easier, and I'm in a better place to get a split heat pump system installed this summer. I'm grateful I was able to get that done on such a quick timetable.

16 February 2021

Getting started on a new journal. and new opportunities.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been spending a little time in my studio over the last few days, making monoprints with acrylic paint and a gel plate--I use these papers in my journals, and I burned through my entire stash during 2020, because of lockdown. 

In 2020, I filled four altered books as journals--so much more than usual. However, since the last one was filled, I've not started a 2021 book. I am hoping that part of the hold up is that I don't have pretty art paper to leaf through and add to the substrate of a new book. 

I am about 15% into *The Overstory,* and it's strangely compelling. My kindle is surprisingly heavy (it's an older model), so I need to pull out my book triangle and work out some way that I don't have to hold it. It doesn't help that Tony Cat wants to sit all 16 pounds of himself on my lap and belly every time I sit on the sofa. So I'm trying to balance him, a book, two other cats who are also wanting to be as close as possible, and the fact that I have to pee every 20 minutes. 

I have a therapy appointment this morning via Zoom--my first in a month. I am reluctant to suspend appointments while we're still in the pandemic. I am afraid I'll bottom out or need that outlet as soon as I let it go, so we'll continue with once a month for a few more months. Once spring is fully here, I'll start considering whether I will be able to trade the garden for therapy for a few months. 

And the poetry. 

Getting a new altered book journal started will force me to at least play with found poetry a little bit, which is a tool I often find helpful when I am running low on inspiration. Sometimes, just a two- or three-word phrase, taken from three different pages in a book, can be the start of a strong line of a new poem. And, to paraphrase Robert Hass, it is harder to write a good line than it is to write a good poem. (I think I've mentioned that quote/paraphrase before--it really stuck with me.) Hass writes about the power of a good line in his book, *A Little Book on Form.* That book, incidentally, is on my bedside table, and it's another one that I plan to read in its entirety this winter or spring--for too long, I've read a chapter here, a chapter there . . . truth is, it's full of valuable lessons, and I need to finish it. 

I sent an application to the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, CA last week for their summer poetry workshop. It's a juried application process, and although I'm already using my faculty professional development funds to attend AWP in March, both AWP and the Squaw Valley workshop are virtual this year, meaning that I only have to pay the registration, not meals and lodging and travel. However, I've already told myself that I'll charge the registration fee if I am accepted to the workshop but don't secure funding. 

Susan Olds will be one of the instructors, and Brenda Hillman, Blas Falconer, Kazim Ali, Forrest Gander, and Evie Shockley are the other planned instructors. Robert Hass will be reading. Holy shit. They'll make notifications by May 1, so I'm crossing my fingers that I might have a shot. I'm so unknown, and it's been so long since my writing has been workshopped by others in any formal or informal way--I'm hoping I'm not completely out of touch with what was expected in the writing sample. 

I'm still waiting for word on a fairly tall stack of submissions to journals and magazines . . . and I need to get back to generating new drafts of new poems. I know I've written a lot of poems in the last year, but I worry that if I get out of practice, I'll stop trying.

14 February 2021

Valentine's Day, my book list, and a quiet weekend.

Valentine's Day this year is blissfully quiet--I've been reading on the sofa with the cats for most of the day. I realized it's been over two weeks since I've posted to the blog, so I am taking a break to write this. I'm going to make pasta alfredo (with shrimp!) for dinner for myself. 

I've also been spending a few minutes here and there on monoprinting some new art paper. I spent about a hundred bucks on some newer acrylic paint tubes around Thanksgiving, so I have a half-dozen colors I'd not even played around with. I am finding that if I do a few layers on a few sheets of paper and leave them to dry, and come back an hour or two later, I'm less of a perfectionist and I get less prickly less often. It's going well so far, and I'm glad to be building up my ready supply of papers. 

I also made up a set of four winged hearts--hearts cut from vintage book covers, layered with junk and found poetry--for a friend's mail art swap. It's the first time I've mail art in over a year.

And, I have not been spending as much time on new drafts of new poems as I should be, so I am going to work to change that in the coming week. I need to buy myself a decent office chair for at home--I think I could sit at a desk or table for longer if my ass didn't hurt from my metal kitchen chairs.

Right now, all of my work is out simultaneously at the maximum number of publishers i feel comfortable submitting to . . . so the last two weeks have been a little slow for submissions, because everything is already sent out. I haven't gotten any rejection or acceptance notes in almost a week.

I have, however, been reading--and reading much more than I have over the last few years. I am so excited about that! I feel like I'm starting to train myself to sit still and focus on a book all over again--I've gotten too used to watching a movie and flipping through my phone at the same time, and that's not doing me any good as a writer or an instructor or an artist. Putting down the phone is hard, but I'm working on doing it more frequently.

I am currently on a long weekend for President's Day, and my grading was caught up, so I've had a few days in a row to myself. Happy Valentine's Day to me. It's perfect.

I finished up Mary Karr's *The Art of Memoir* yesterday, and I'm about a third of the way through Matthew Zapruder's "Why Poetry?" as well. This morning, I found RIchard Powers's *The Overstory* on my Kindle, so I began reading that. I have a bad habit of buying novels that are prize winners then not always reading them. 

So far in 2021, I've read the following books:

*The Art of Memoir* by Mary Karr

Karr's voice is worth the price of admission here. I've read all of her books, and her memoir is as wonderful and vivid as her poetry. Some chapters are better than others, but it's all valuable. She ends the book with a kick-ass list of memoirs she teaches from and recommends. 

*The Book of Speculation* by Erika Swyler

A novel about a family with a carnival/circus background? Yes, please. I will basically read any piece of shit that boasts a connection to carnival or circus folk. This one was meh. I found a few elements of the plot pretty hard to believe; I couldn't get past the inconsistency in the main character's actions. Frankly, the protagonist and his sister both destroy items that are the only tangible proof of their family's history, and it just didn't ring true to me.

*Ayiti* by Roxanne Gay

These stories are wonderful--they were quick to read, and entertaining. Gay is enormously talented; I'm glad I have *Difficult Women* in my stack for February.

*Writing Hard Stories* by Melanie Brooks

Meh. I think there were some great revelations in some of Brooks's interviews with well-known memoirists, but too much of the book was spent describing their lunches, their interactions as she set up the interviews . . . Brooks was still in graduate school when writing this book, and perhaps there's just a little too much wide-eyed deferring to the masters. I didn't feel Brooks had enough of her own philosophies and her own ideas about memoir to hold it all together effectively. Most significant to me--I thought the book would offer a lot more about writing trauma-informed memoir. And, some chapters were really repetitive--several authors repeated the same lessons, and I felt it bogged down the book. It seemed obvious to me that she needed every interview she had--because she didn't leave out interviews that overlapped again and again.

*The Dark Dark* by Samantha Hunt

I did not love this book, and the last story in it seemed like a bad MFA workshop piece, which it probably was. I have Hunt's novel *Mr. Splitfoot* on my kindle, half-finished for a couple of years now. I just don't think she's one of my favorites. 

*Carry* by Toni Jensen

Full disclosure: I worked with Jensen at Chatham University where I earned my MFA, and I am briefly mentioned in the book. That being said, I felt that I gained an important lens on our country through this book. I'll write more about it in the next week or so . . . I don't want to shortchange it.

I am shooting for four books per month, for 48 books in 2021. I am hoping to hit 50, just because I'd like the round number. I am making an effort to read more books on the craft of writing, and I am trying to read more BIPOC writers, though I know my list this year is fairly white so far. I have another book of Gay's and Jensen's short fiction collection in the short stack of books that are waiting their turn, and a few more on my kindle. I was really missing the feel of a novel--needed a break from the nonfiction and the short stories.