THE BOOK: West Side Girl & Other Poems
PUBLISHED IN: 2013
THE AUTHOR: Lauren Scharhag
THE EDITOR: Self
THE PUBLISHER: Self
SUMMARY: West Side Girl is a collection of mostly biographical poems, written from 2005-2013. I focus on themes of family, food, womanhood, health, death, and my rather unusual heritage—Mexican-German.
THE BACK STORY: Both my parents are first-generation Americans, my mother Mexican, my father German. Being born and raised between such radically different cultures has shaped me profoundly. The differences weren’t just cultural, either– there was also a classist element. My father’s family were well-to-do German intellectuals. My mother’s family was blue-collar, at best, with a long-standing criminal streak. Navigating those two worlds was often surreal and a bit overwhelming.
Also, it’s been a struggle being considered a half-breed—I truly don’t know where I fit in. On forms that ask for my ethnicity, the options are usually “White (Non-Hispanic),” and “Hispanic (Non-White).” What do I put? I never know. Bi- or multi-racial is sometimes an option, but not a guarantee. Another issue is that I am very fair-skinned. I didn’t blend in in the barrio where I spent so much of my childhood, and I experienced a great deal of intraracial racism—I was treated better than my darker cousins because I was so white. I was constantly teased for having a weird German name. Ironically, even though my grandfather was himself born in Germany, he was very vocal against Mexican immigration. I used to find propaganda strewn around his house—flyers talking about why Mexican immigrants hurt America. It was very troubling and hurtful.
Death is always a big subject in poetry. I was fortunate that I got to know my great-grandparents, but I had to watch them and my grandparents suffer through terrible health issues before they passed on. I lost my great-grandmother, step-grandmother, grandmother and my husband’s grandmother all in the space of a year and a half. It was a tremendous blow. I have also struggled with severe health issues myself—I’ve had chronic, intractable migraines since I was 7. I had endometriosis and PCOS, which resulted in a complete hysterectomy at 26. So a lot of these poems address mortality in that sense—physical pain, hospitals, and barrenness. I hate to perpetuate the notion that an artist must suffer, but in my experience, it’s kinda true.
Food is one of the themes of this collection because it’s also been a central part of my life. Food bridges so many divides—it’s been a long-standing joke among Mexicans that no matter how much white people may hate us, they LOVE tacos. Everyone on both sides of my family love to cook and are quite good at it. The kitchen was always the heart of the house.
I spent my teens and twenties grappling with these things, trying to forge a cohesive identity. These poems are a reflection of that struggle, as well as an exorcism.
They are also the point where I felt like I had really achieved some competency as a poet. There are 48 poems in the volume, and 17 of them had been published. That’s really not a terrible batting average, but at the time, it felt like failure. I’m old enough to remember when all magazine submissions had to go through snail mail, which meant a lot of printing and postage costs. At one time, I had over 600 rejection letters! Publishing this book was my eff-you to the whole establishment. I was so fed up with the rigmarole of submission and rejection. Indie publishing was getting to be a thing, and I thought, why do I keep banging my head against the wall? If I want people to read my work, why not just DIY it? Then, for a while, I didn’t really write any poems at all. I basically almost gave up just when I started to get good at it.
I’m back to it now, and I feel like I’ve grown so much. I have since moved on from autobiography and am trying to turn my gaze outward. I have stopped keeping and counting rejection slips. Perhaps not coincidentally, I get more published now. I’m also working on a new collection, and about to host my first open mic. Poetically speaking, I’m in a very good place right now.
WHY THIS TITLE?: The title refers to Kansas City, MO’s West Side, which is historically the Hispanic neighborhood. It’s where I spent my formative years and attended Catholic school. The bull photo on the cover is the Hereford bull, a statue on the downtown bluffs overlooking the West Bottoms, on the banks where the Missouri and Kansas Rivers meet.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I believe a poet’s job is to make uncommon experiences accessible to everyone, to achieve universality—and to do so in an artful way. I think everyone, at some point, has felt as though they don’t belong, so even if you can’t relate to my specific situation, you can understand what it feels like to be shunned or alienated. Everyone has to deal with illness and death at some point in their lives. Everyone loves food.
Barring that, I hope that if we have nothing in common, I hope I have given the reader insight into something new; that I have, in some way, enriched their life.
“I just finished reading ‘West Side Girl’ and was glad I picked it up. Lauren Scharhag takes one into a world not of just beauty but reality, and fantasy. Speaking of the dead, the hearth, and her own frailties. Her way with words and presentation, especially with the immersion in her Mexican culture, she is nothing short of a modern Frida Kahlo for poetry. If you wish to read book of poetry that will rip your soul out and then lets you gaze in awe at the myriad of colors and spices that it holds this would be that book.” –Smashwords reader
“Stark, beautiful, and not for the cowardly, [these poems] leave fingerprints upon the heart. Be brave. You’ll be glad you did.” -Goodreads reader
“Beautiful, expansive, eye-opening.” -Smashwords reader
AUTHOR PROFILE: Lauren Scharhag is the author of Under Julia, The Ice Dragon and The Winter Prince, and the co-author of The Order of the Four Sons series. Her work has appeared in multiple magazines and anthologies. She is the recipient of the Gerard Manley Hopkins Award for poetry and a fellowship from Rockhurst University for fiction. When not writing, she can be found hanging out in prisons or embarking on art pilgrimages. A recent transplant to the Florida Panhandle, she lives with her husband and three cats.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: In additions to the reasons I gave above for why people might want to read these poems, the story of the child of immigrants seems very topical right now, with the issues surrounding immigration, refugees, and Trump’s wall.
CHASING THE WORM
Satan doesn’t have to come to me. I’ll go to him.
I expect to see him: waiting, massive,
I am too impatient for the bottle.
I chew through pure blue agave,
greedy for the gusano.
Buffeted by protein, elixired, armored,
I am prepared for him, machete in one hand,
jar in the other.
This is the fly nest that grew in his chest:
Beelzebub heart, bottle-green.
It takes an insect heart to catch an insect heart.
No one will believe me. I will die an old drunk
with my artifacts and curios. But when they bury me,
I will return, a hero, to the worms.
Every 27 days you grow new skin.
I am never the same river twice when you dip into me
Six quarts of blood flowing through this single heart
Enough salt in this body to flavor your meals through the season of Lent,
to ease the weeks of your fast.
Enough water in this body to slake the thirst of a pair of desert sojourners for a day.
1,000 skins in a lifetime.
Let us talk of beauty and the relative nature of depths and shallows.
Three layers we’re constantly trying to plumb to get at the person within.
Symmetry is beauty and that’s the real myth:
One breast smaller than the other, one leg shorter,
one eye squintier.
The right lung smaller to make room for the heart,
one-sided beast beating the bars of its ribcage.
I sometimes wonder if it casts its shadow on the left lung
and that’s why it’s so hard to breathe.
Skin cells flake off one at a time and turn to dust on the air,
Tiny motes that drift around our room are pieces of us.
I blink more often than you by virtue of my sex,
probably because I am continuously astonished by this need,
this release of flesh, piling up in corners and collecting on bookshelves.
By virtue of my sex, my heart beats faster. Breast milk full of toxins
I’ve taken in from a spoiled world. I’d be more upset about that
if there were any eventuality besides a child growing up
to pick his own poison.
The skin is considered the largest organ.
You’ve seen all of mine, though I’m finding it hard
to separate the me from these parts. I am more than teeth
and a jawbone. I am more, even, than these glands,
this amygdala. I am the memories it stores.
I am breath. I am a voice.
No one can seem to agree on how much we dream or how long,
seconds or minutes departing ourselves, once a night, or a thousand and one times—
sleep tales we tell ourselves like Scheherazade to vouchsafe our happiness.
Let us drop the nonessential things: tonsils, appendix,
uterus, spleen, and get to the meat of the matter.
You’d be amazed at what can be waylaid, what can be traded away or given freely.
Scars form anytime we are damaged beyond the first layer.
We strip ourselves down and admire each other’s patch jobs,
but we won’t settle for anything less than soul and bone.
We will give of ourselves until there is nothing essential left individually,
only the essential us. Three hundred million cells are dying inside as you read this.
I am constantly learning that this is all there is, we are a brush of fingers,
the joining of palms, a connection at the place where the skin grows the thickest.
WEST SIDE GIRL
I wear my skin like some reject from the Tribes of Ham,
Pale and transparent as skim milk. I can never go home.
My father imparted to me like a curse:
“You’re just like your mother. You’ll never
Be able to live more than thirty miles from the West Side.”
And I think, Of course. He’s right.
He’s always right when I don’t want him to be.
And I wonder if it’s this curse, his curse,
Which also gifts him to be able to see into me,
And I to endure the pain of being seen. After all, my skin is his skin.
Ah, Marìa, Marìa, Marìa– las très,
Great-grandmother, grandmother, mother,
And I am the break in the rosary beads.
I think of the placenta from my grandmother’s birth buried on the hill,
The hill, which I can never go back to.
Instead, I toe the thirty-mile mark.
“¡Bolilla!” They say. “¡Gringa!”
At nine, I saw myself as naked as Eve,
And hurried to cover up my whiteness.
Now I go, bearing my flesh like shame,
And the neighbors ask who the white girl is who comes and visits.
Someday, I will take a grater to my skin.
I shall cast it off. Flayed, I shall anoint myself with cominos and cilantro.
In blood I shall make my pilgrimage.
On the Boulevard, I shall hail, Marìa.
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