Her Flaming Fingers: Wendy C. Ortiz and Rhapsodomancy
By Jessica DewberryApril 22, 2014
FOR NEARLY 10 years the hypnotic Rhapsodomancy: A Reading Series in Los Angeles has happened at the Good Luck Bar on the cusp of Hollywood and Los Feliz, every even-numbered month. Artists pour out infectious prose from a podium behind a wide circle-shaped cutout in an ornate wooden wall. Pink-red furniture and walls and hanging lanterns create a Chinese-themed decor in the smallish room made famous in the film Swingers.
The striking name, Rhapsodomancy, is also the name of an ancient form of divination. By selecting a poem or passage, querents are able to find both insight and direction. “In other words,” Wendy C. Ortiz, cofounder of the series and now sole curator, said in a 2011 interview with Antonia Crane for ZYZZYVA, “Got a question? Open a book of poetry and find the answer.”
Back in October of 2004, the series began when two friends from the Antioch MFA program decided to produce readings outside of bookstores, in an atmosphere where drinks were on the menu. They invited four of their favorite authors, careful to divvy artistic energy between poets and prose writers, and this has been the format ever since. The series has seen emerging artists as well as big names like Eileen Myles, Chris Abani, Steve Abee, and Anne-Marie Kinney.
At a recent reading, the intimate space was packed, the beer reasonable, and I sat jammed up against a bookseller and her stack of Tara Ison’s 2013 Rockaway. Ison, Sophie Sills, James Ducat, and Jennifer Genest were delicious readers. After the crowd dispersed, the Bee Gees played in the background while someone talked excitedly to Ortiz about their personal entanglement with mediators and divorce attorneys, which only made sense once I learned a little more about Ortiz’s life and work.
As a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Ortiz chronicles the atmosphere of the often-pilloried culture of Southern California marijuana dispensaries. She has two memoirs coming out this year: Excavation: A Memoir with Future Tense Books and Hollywood Notebook with Writ Large Press. She blogs consistently on Tumblr, and her prose and poetry are all over the place. She also recently crafted poems-on-demand for Grand Park’s Downtown Bookfest.
Ortiz writes with a raw, wrenching, vulnerable truth that is refreshing, grounding, and full of life-sustaining filaments. Hungry? Eat her words. The name for her series — to use a poem or passage to garner insight — easily applies, and the spice is healthy.
Last year, during an interview in Specter Magazine, Kameelah Janan Rasheed called her writing “beautifully disturbing.” This year, her Writ Large Press publisher, Chiwan Choi, told KCET that her writing “is hard to pigeonhole,” it is “completely unique and slightly off-angle.”
When I read her work I feel exposed, aired-out, and satisfied. She tears at themes and experiences that often demand secrecy, like extramarital affairs, mud-wrestling while a girl pushes a tongue in her mouth, and masturbating on a bathroom floor while coming down from an acid trip. Then she will flip it and write about invisibility as a gift, about being pretty as a fleeting concept, about childbirth recovery and the difficulties of what to serve her toddler for dinner.
In her essay “I’m on Fire,” a fertile desertscape of astrological signs ascend and descend, complicating meanings, even though, she claims, “the unconscious knows.” Speculating on everything from Bruce Springsteen to tattoo guns, she suggests that the important questions are “How to sustain ‘being on fire’?” and “How, then, to tend this fire, keep it burning?”
In a poetic piece published earlier this month by The Rumpus entitled “Wanted: Death Lament,” Ortiz directly addresses her readers:
Tell me, privately, every single thing you have ever felt about me that you would never normally tell me because let me tell you, we’re in a window when I can take it, and take it in, and I will never repeat it back to you and I will not reply but I am famished for honesty.
These words seem to come at an important, pivotal time for the author. And what better month to write about it than this one — a month chock-full of potent astrological shifts: a Libran eclipse, a Blood Moon lunar eclipse, and the intense Grand Cross of Uranus, Pluto, Mars, and Jupiter.
Ortiz is in the process of writing a third memoir, one based on an essay of hers published in The New York Times, “Modern Love: Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling,” about divorcing her husband during her 30s. “The unspoken things began taking sips of oxygen out of the rooms we lived in, slowly, adeptly,” she writes, and eventually she is truthful to herself and then her husband, and admits her love for another person, a woman.
These days Ortiz is writing, raising a child, putting in hours as a marriage and family therapist intern, and working through the very recent death of her father. Already able to channel words from a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir, she told Rasheed that her “curiosities extend” beyond astrology to “the occult, serial killers, domestic terrorists, archetypes, symbols….” She is preparing to test her endurance in a new way, to dive into the even darker parts of the water. A couple of weeks ago, she posted an image of a tilted ocean horizon on Facebook and said that this is how the world has been appearing to her. Things are askew, and things are changing.
One of those changes may spell the end of her reading series. The calendar is booked through the end of this year, with the 10-year anniversary in October. Submissions, however, are closed indefinitely. We can expect a kickass lineup, as always, and to hear the details of what the future might bring around the date of the next reading on the 27th of this month.
Jessica Dewberry writes creative nonfiction and fiction. She is completing an MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is also an Assistant Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel. Her work appears in the LA Post Examiner and Mutha Magazine and is forthcoming in other magazines and journals. Connect with her on Twitter @msjdew where literary quotes, retweets from brilliant people, and introspective thoughts (turned the occasional micro prose poem) run rampant.
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