This is the first book of poetry that I've read in a while. I profoundly respect poetry as an art form but often have difficulty understanding it, so I'm not the most well-versed in that sphere of wordsmithery. Spoken word especially has fascinated, dumbfounded, and challenged me as I've been exposed to it more over the past four years. So it's with great pleasure today that I discuss this book of poems by slam poet Ebony Stewart, the "Gully Princess" herself, whom I've had the honor of meeting in person.
Love Letters to Balled Fists by Ebony Stewart
I first witnessed Ebony Stewart in action at a poetry slam at my university back in October. Following the show I waited in line to ask her about building confidence as a performer, and also to purchase a copy of this book. She signed mine, "Thank you. Shine your light, mama!", and inserted a business card with a black-and-white photo of herself on one side and the charge "KEEP CALM AND WRITE A POEM" printed on the back. From the moment I first heard her perform, to when she signed my book and gave me advice, to following her work online, to having read Love Letters to Balled Fists just now, Ebony Stewart has been a huge inspirational force in my life. When I met her she was both spoken word poet and middle school sexual health teacher, but I hear that as of this year she's transitioned and is now living and working as a full-time artist.
Love Letters to Balled Fists features 33 poems, separated into thematic sections by quotes from people who Ebony admires. The poems center on becoming/being a woman; what Ebony's learned from various people in her life, especially other women; experiences with love, breakups, and heartache; fear, loss, and pain; finding her way in life; her work as a sex ed teacher; the power of words; artistry; and her defense mechanisms, whether they be built-up walls or−yes indeed−balled fists. You get a sense from most of these poems that she's been through some things, and is really just trying to love herself back to life and fight to keep living. As such, the title she chose for this book is more than fitting.
I was happy to recognize three poems that I remember her performing at the poetry slam last year: "Number One Fan", which is about responding to an ex-lover who came out of the woodwork once he saw that she was becoming successful, "Cupcakes" in which she extols the virtues of her favorite food, and "Anonymous Box Questions a 6th Grade Boys Group Asks Their Sex Education Teacher", in which she addresses sexual practices, sexual identity, and self-love in response to a few of her adolescent students' questions. My personal favorites from this collection are "Backwards Driving", which addresses the struggle of feeling lost, inadequate, and unsatisfied in life, "Stalemate", which voices a woman's struggle with accepting the devastation of infertility, and "The Pretender" in which she, expecting the other shoe to drop, lambasts her lover for not giving up on her even when she pushes him away.
Affecting. If I had to choose one word to describe this work, that would be it. Find a way to get your hands on this book, but prepare to have Ebony's words break your heart a time or two as you read.
"if I close my eyes quick enough, I can play a reel of my mother.
I've got too many poems about her and I don't care.
Since when are there too many stars in the sky?
She loves me more than I pay attention to how or why" (Backwards Driving, p.5)
"For anyone who has to come behind him,
I'm sorry it won't be easy.
Can you love me in a way we can both agree on?
Only use words I can recognize and please don't use mine
...Let the only time you raise your voice be to remind God that I am a good thing
and you are blessed because of it" (Domestic, p. 15)
"[I know that] the body is a memory;
that I write to calm the shadows and to keep from swallowing my demons" (How to Make Poetry, p.83)