During the women’s movement in the late 60s, a poet of one name, Alta, asked this question: “How often have we had clean sheets and nothing on sheets of paper?”
No internet in those days, no digital journals. Shameless Hussy, Alta’s feminist magazine, was mimeographed, stapled and arrived in the U.S. mail. The issue in which I had a poem featured a black and white centerfold photo of Alta herself, wearing nothing but a sanitary napkin and belt, her thumb hooked lasciviously beneath the elastic strap at her hip. Young women don’t even know what I’m talking about.
The photo shocked and delighted me. Alta was not gorgeous nor was she model-thin. Nice breasts. Curvy. She was a healthy American woman making a statement about our attitudes toward womanhood. Right on. I stopped wearing a bra immediately. That didn’t last long, now that I look back on it. Much that I thought of as permanent turns out to have been ephemeral when I look back on it.
Alta enlivened feminist issues for me. I discovered A Room of One’s Own. And Tillie Olsen’s Silences. Women and writing was the slice of the feminist pie I cared most about: good thing, too, because the ERA was never going to get ratified. (Talking to you, Arizona, and a dozen more.) Soon after Alta asked her question about linens I was married with four stepchildren, making decisions to do laundry instead of writing, cook instead of writing, go to work instead of writing, take care of children instead of writing. Being a woman was a major obstacle to being a writer for me and for many others.
I couldn’t even decide my own identity. At a 1972 memorial reading for Kenneth Patchen, that great and undervalued American poet, the program listed me as Pat Keuning. It will interest Denver poetry buffs to know that in the program, organized by Henry Hough, I read with James Ryan Morris, Tony Scibella and Larry Lake among others. I was one of the new hippie kids, startled by the rowdiness of the crowd, some of whom had been drinking. Their Patchen was apparently not the one I loved.
In 1981, at something billed as a Chicano Poetry Reading, I had the honor of reading with Lalo Delgado and Ray Gonzalez among others and I was Pat Urioste. My first book of poems, by Patricia Keuning Urioste, had just been published. But I wasn’t a Chicana poet and that identity also passed. Meanwhile my poems continued to be small savings scraped from the corners of my busy life. Clean sheets and nothing on sheets of paper.
“The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first,” says Tillie Olsen, who published her first book at 50. As I was drafting this, I remembered the towels, took them downstairs and started them washing. In the kitchen, I paused to think about what to make for dinner. Staring into the back yard, I observed the overgrown vine on the fence, almost went out to trim it. No. I’m supposed to be writing. Get a glass of water. Back upstairs with you.
Nonetheless, things are better now. “It is remarkable,” says Virginia Woolf, “what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.” Writing is much more enjoyable in retirement, when I don’t have to go to work every morning and a regular check arrives anyway. Writing happens in a disciplined way I never managed before. So many distractions when you’re young. I had to experience night life, bars, bands and dancing; had to man picket lines and go to jail; had to take care of children; start and stop various careers; have bad marriages—bad marriages are consuming, although I sometimes wrote because of them—had to teach, love teaching, devote my evenings and weekends to grading and planning. I had to finally, for the second book of poems in 1994, decide what my name was and stick to it.
At my computer in my own upstairs room, I’ve had a peaceful Monday morning of writing. Below my windows, a quarrel of sparrows broadcasts from the Beauty Bush. Its masses of pink blooms flutter to the ground, will soon be gone. In these post-retirement years, I have written over 100 essays and poems, translated a 360-page biography and 50 Mexican short stories. I’ve learned about revision, about patience, about how to keep domestic urges at bay until I’ve got 800 words. And I still have clean sheets.