Anyone who doubts the teeming literary genius in Central Arkansas should sample the poetry showcased at Guillermo’s monthly poetry night. This hot venue, stoked by Little Rock’s slam poet Zachary Crow and poet-emcee Karen Hayes, consistently smolders with the best in local poetry talent. Last Thursday night, I was lucky to have grabbed a seat and heard a leggy young scientist who read an erotic piece about angles, a lawyer-college professor who pens haiku and ditties as well as crossword puzzles, and the owners of Sibling Rivalry Press, Seth Pennington and Bryan Borland, who both pitched new pieces to the crowd. After Borland sat down, and I thanked him for offering his incredible poem and delivery, he turned to me, and in the spirit of giving that permeates this culture of poets, handed me his new draft (for me to keep).
But the most powerful moments of that poetry event were those created by Randi Romo, the feature poet, who shared poems from her debut collection, Othered (Sibling Rivalry Press). After hearing Romo, Arkansas Poet Laureate Jo McDougall, also in the crowd, commented, “I was struck by the heartbreak the reader has suffered but also struck by her hope. A line from Emily Dickinson came to mind: ‘I dwell in possibility.’” That night I bought Othered and promptly read it from cover to cover — twice.
This book of 28 poems features the kind of writing that can only be wrought from deeply-lived, traumatic experiences as well as from a lifetime of brave responses. Romo is a woman of feeling and passionate words, but she is just as much a woman of action. Fifteen years ago, she co-founded the Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR), an LGBTQ civil rights organization named by the marginalized kids whom Romo mentored and for whom she still fights. In a 2015 interview with the Arkansas Times, Romo discussed her motive to make more Arkansans allies for LGBTQ issues. She said, “It’s true, there are some that will never shift, but it’s the greater movable middle that now finds itself increasingly having to consider the real impact of homo/transphobia on their fellow Arkansans.” With her new collected works, perhaps Romo has now lifted her voice in her greatest rallying cry for those whom she defends, and it is likely that her message will reach far beyond the state.
From the moment we view the collage of protest images on the book’s cover, we brace ourselves. In his introduction, publisher Borland prepares us further when he tells us that Romo writes on behalf of those voices that have been silenced. Borland says, “Sometimes those voices belong to kids she’s had a hand in saving. Sometimes those voices belong to kids who couldn’t be saved, even with her best efforts.” Tragically, two poems specifically each serve as epitaphs for two of those victimized for being different. Most heartbreakingly, Romo dedicates the book to her daughter “whose life was deeply impacted by the penalties of otherness and who paid the ultimate price, with her life.”
Indeed, the poems deliver on our expectations to be disturbed. In “Coming Out” we learn that the response to the young Romo’s revealed sexuality was for her to be sent away for gay conversion therapy, where even after she was put through “queer exorcisms,” she proudly “stayed out.” In “Planting Season,” Romo reveals the tragic plight of migrant workers (she was one) who are exposed to a deadly gas as they work the strawberry fields. The poem “I Remember” gives us Romo’s wrenching account of how she endured multiple counts of sexual abuse, and how she learned to “sleep in boots jeans sharp-edged knife.” She effectively haunts us with the repetitive ending lines: “Not a one of these things happened in a public bathroom.”
It is as if Romo takes all those years of compiled suppression, bullying, and abuse, and — with the natural focus of a child who works a play dough squeeze machine — kneads her compacted clay of pain, then leans on the lever of language so that her poems come oozing out, brilliantly colored and exquisitely molded.
The overarching theme of this collection is victorious affirmation in the face of relentless oppression and violence. However, there is tremendous range, and the reader is also relieved and brightened by Romo’s lighter tones, including her breaks for humor. There is the playful “Bless Your Heart” from the perspective of the young poet, the child of a “Mexican mama / and a white daddy,” who is both charmed and befuddled by the whimsy of Southern expressions. In the fantastical “Step-Sister’s Lament,” the girl-narrator at Cinderella’s ball imagines her mother’s reaction to her being the suitor of a princess instead of a prince. To our delight, we revisit our own adolescent celebrity infatuations as we read “Fan Letter to Hedy LaMarr.” No matter the gender of the one we crushed upon, we recognize the fluttering thrill in the words of the teen moving toward her star on the TV screen. The poet says, “… so close I could touch you / and I wanted to / and it terrified me / and it exhilarated me / and I knew something was forever changed on / a Saturday afternoon…” Perhaps it is flashes such as these that highlight the gift of Romo. Indeed, where she shows us how she fights back against bigotry, we admire her guts and wonder if we could muster an equivalent courage. But it is in the calmer universal moments that she often appeals to our sense of sameness with her. After all, as social beings, we fear being outcast or marginalized. This poet portrays pangs that strike deeply in all of us.