Aaaand We’re Back!

Sorry for the outage, everyone. We’re back!

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That’s a mixing bowl.

That’s a mixing bowl.

that's a mixing bowl
(That is also a cat.)

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How Long Does It Take To Write a Poem? Also, “Inside Her Heart,” and a class!

Verses of Sky & Stars: How to Write the Poetry and Science Fiction and FantasyI’m teaching an online class on writing science fiction and fantasy poetry on June 30 at 9:30-11:30 PDT. It’s a fun class because it draws people from many different backgrounds with many different goals. Some are dedicated poets, looking to sharpen their edge or find inspiration. Others are prose writers who’ve barely touched poetry before, trying something new, or hoping to pick up a trick or two to bring back to their novels and short stories.

As I prepare for the class, I’ve been going over some of my own poetry, thinking about how I wrote it, and what inspired it, and that kind of thing. I wrote “Inside Her Heart” while I was in graduate school, and although the poem is ostensibly about the mother’s loneliness, I think the emotion I was tapping was my own homesickness, living halfway across the country from my parents and my (then to-be) husband.

Inside Her Heart

by Rachel Swirsky

The morning
our youngest
leaves for college,
my wife sits down
in the breakfast nook.
“I’m done being a woman,”
she says. “I’m going to try
being a house.”

She draws a sweater
over her chest like
curtains, a wide hat
like a roof perched
atop her head. Weeds
spread across the linoleum
at her feet, littered
with forget-me-nots
and matchbox cars.

She moves from
the chair by the stove
to one near the window.
“Better neighborhood,”
she says.

At night, she
opens her mouth.
Lights pour out,
and scratchy music
like old records.

She beckons me
parting the curtains
so I can press my ear
to her heart and hear

tiny people’s footsteps
inside her, dancing
reckless, full
of opportunity.


I wrote a lot of poetry in graduate school. I always joked that I was writing poetry because I was in a fiction program–I knew I couldn’t turn it in for class, so it was lower pressure than writing something that I knew would be subjected to many brilliant-but-critical glares. I say it was a joke, but it was probably also true.

Poems are an appealing form because you can write them so rapidly in comparison to stories. You can start one in the morning, retype and revise it thirty times, and still send it to an editor in the afternoon if you’re feeling confident.

Well, sort of. First of all, I suspect the fact that I write poems (relatively) quickly stems from the fact that I don’t make my living on poetry. Just as they were low-pressure in grad school, they’re low-pressure now. I write something; it’s fun; I hope someone enjoys it; I earn enough money for something between a cup of coffee and a nice dinner. (At least I usually get paid — I’ve heard people refer to poetry as a “gift economy,” which is nice, but I like coffee and nice dinners and paid power bills.) Poets can treat their poems with every bit as much perfectionism as I treat my short stories. Poems can live on hard drives for decades, enduring a tweak or two every month when their file gets dredged up.

There’s also a lot of work that goes into writing a poem outside of the actual drafting, fingers-to-keyboard time. For me, sometimes that work happens before the poem is completed. It can arise as a kind of insistent, inchoate pressure that forms during my day-to-day experiences, from something as mundane as the ticking in my mind while sitting on a subway, to the whooshing blur of a dance floor–or, often, something shivery I’ve found in a book.

Sometimes, I spend the hours in revision, obsessing over where a comma goes and where it doesn’t. I do the same thing with my fiction–which I don’t necessarily recommend; there are diminishing returns on this kind of thing. Take it out, put it in. Take it out, put it in. Sometimes I can never really decide, and whether it’s there or not depends sheerly on whether I stop revising on an even pass or an odd pass.

Sometimes I hardly even notice the work I’m putting in. It seems invisible. A poem can seem to be begun and completed within hours. This poem felt like that–like something that just emerged. Of course, it didn’t–nothing does–I couldn’t have done it without years of reading and writing poetry.

The real work, though, was in my life–in the homesick experience of living alone in Iowa. Sometimes living is the work of poetry. Letting yourself feel, deeply. Truly engaging with the world and with yourself. Poetry begins with the examined life.

Posted in classes, Poetry, Rachel Swirsky's poetry, speculative poetry, Teaching, verses of sky and stars | Tagged | 1 Comment  

Wander the Kitten, Napping

Photographic evidence suggests that, as a kitten, the fluffball named Wander did nothing but nap.

Wander has a snooze

And nap:

Wander naps

And sometimes flop:

Wander lies down

But mostly nap:

Wander still naps

…but really this is because the rest of the time he was running around too fast for the camera to actually take a picture.

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Cartoon: I Voted For Obama!

If you enjoy these cartoons, and can spare it, please support my Patreon. A $1 pledge matters a lot to me.

I’ve seen this come up more than once – whites talking about voting for Obama in response to questions about racism. It’s a common enough behavior so that Jordan Peele made fun of it in his brilliant horror movie Get Out.

I’ve also seen a variant of this leveraged to say that Trump’s election has nothing to do with racism. Some Trump voters previously voted for Obama, therefore it is ridiculous to suggest that voting for Trump could be related to racism, the argument goes.

Regarding this cartoon, I always like this structure for a gag cartoon. In my mind, I call it “the mystery explained,” in which a bewildering or impossible-seeming situation developed in the first few panels is clarified in the final panel.

Incidentally, as far as I can recall, this is only the second time I’ve drawn Obama in a cartoon. I’m pretty happy with how he came out. It’s largely because Obama’s in the strip that I didn’t do my usual very limited color palette – I used skin tones I picked up from a photo of Obama, to help make him more recognizable, and between that and the fireworks it just felt like doing a more typical coloring job made sense for this cartoon.

That I so rarely draw major political figures, preferring to focus on social justice issues rather than the daily headlines, is one reason my editorial cartoons aren’t very commercial. So thanks, as always, to everyone supporting the Patreon. :-)

Transcript of Cartoon

The cartoon has four panels.1

Panel 1

The image shows a white woman, looking very pleased, stepping out of a voting booth.
WOMAN: It is done! I, a white person, have voted for Barack Obama!

Panel 2

The woman is surprised by Barack Obama being there. Obama is dressed in his standard dark suit, and looks cheerful.
WOMAN: Gasp! Barack Obama!
OBAMA: Hi, Judy! Thanks for your vote!

Panel 3

A close up on Obama holding up a piece of paper which says “certificate” in large letters at the top. Behind Obama, the voting station has disappeared, and fireworks fill the air.

OBAMA: As the duly-elected spokesman of all Black people, let me present this certificate signifying that nothing you say or do is ever racist!

Panel 4

A new scene shows the same woman, now in a different outfit, talking to three skeptical-looking Black folks.

WOMAN: And then Michelle Obama came out, and she said…

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Race, racism and related issues | 9 Comments  

Cartoon: But she never said “NO”

This stip was created with Becky Hawkins, who is also my collaborator on SuperButch! Becky drew this comic, while I wrote, lettered, and added the colors.

If you enjoy these cartoons, and can spare it, please support them on Patreon! A $1 pledge really matters to me.


The title image of this cartoon has the words “But she never said ‘NO’ in large white letters that fade into the background. Below the title is a drawing of telephone wires, with two birds sitting on a wire.
FIRST BIRD: Does this comic strip need a content warning?
SECOND BIRD: I think the title covers it.


A woman and a man are on a sofa. The man is leaning towards her, putting his lips near hers, while she pulls back and puts a protective hand, in a “stop” gesture, in front of her mouth.

WOMAN: I’m not sure I want to do this right now…
MAN (thought): That’s not literally saying “no.”

A closer shot of him from over the woman’s shoulder. He is smiling. She’s still holding up a “stop” hand. His thought balloon partly obscures her speech balloon, but not so much that we can’t read what she’s saying.

WOMAN: Hey c’mon, this isn’t a good idea.
MAN (thought): That’s not a literal “no.” So it’s okay to grab her boobs.

A closer shot of him leaning in to kiss her as she pulls away. She’s saying something, but we can’t read it because his thought balloon gets in the way.

MAN (thought): She still hasn’t literally said “no.” I’m good!

A close-up of his face. The woman’s not in the panel, but her word balloon – still mostly obscured by his head and his thought balloon – indicates that she’s positioned below him. He looks like he’s concentrating.

MAN (thought): Pulling away while I’m trying to pull her pants down isn’t literally saying “no.”

In silhouette, we see that she’s lying on her back, with him on top of her. She isn’t saying anything.

MAN (thought): Now she’s just being silent and unresponsive. No talking means she’s not saying “no!”

This is the final panel. The setting has changed; the man is now holding his arms up and looking frustrated. A few people in silhouette are looking at him; their posture makes it seem like they’re angry at him.

MAN: How was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind-reader!


A small panel below the bottom of the strip shows the man, now looking full of himself, talking to a different couple of people.

MAN: I do consider myself a feminist!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | Leave a comment  

Cartoon: How Long? aka Trump Card

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I hope you find this cartoon funny. It’s definitely me holding a mirror up to myself; I’m genuinely started by the amount of bitterness I have towards conservatives for electing Trump. It’s just so breathtakingly irresponsible. I pride myself on being chill and mellow and seeing the good in people, but maaaaan, conservatives are not making it easy.

(Although, honestly, this isn’t my first extended political bitterness. Ask me about Bush v Gore sometime.)

Artwise, I’m feeling good about this one. It all looks pretty decent, the characters look animated (at least to my eye), three out of the four panels even have backgrounds, and I even did some research (to figure out how to draw brains).

And I got to draw spppaaaaaccceeee, which is not something that comes up in many of my cartoons.

Looking at the art now, my big regret s that I didn’t make the little antennas on top of the brain jars little speakers instead, with the word balloon coming out of the little speaker on top. Admittedly, I’m not sure that anyone on Earth other than me would find little speakers on top of brain jars funny.


There are four panels in this cartoon.

The first three panels show two women walking on a hillside, perhaps in a park. One woman is wearing a shirt with an exclamation mark design, the other is wearing glasses. They’re arguing.


EXCLAMATION MARK: A lot of liberals are rigid and mean to people who disagree with them.
GLASSES: Conservatives elected Donald Trump president.


EXCLAMATION MARK: Obamacare didn’t deliver nearly as much as liberals promised!
GLASSES: Yeah, but conservatives elected Trump!

Exclamation Mark has turned her back on Glasses, crossing her arms and looking stubborn.

EXCLAMATION MARK: Oh, come on! How long are you going to hold that against us.

We are in outer space; there’s a moon nearby, and a flying saucer and planet in the background. In the foreground, two brains in high-tech-looking jars (well, high-tech in a 1950s sci-fi movie prop sort of way), both with eyeballs, are floating in space. One of the brains is wearing a pair of glasses.

CAPTION: A million billion years later.
GLASSES: …but conservatives elected Trump!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Elections and politics | 6 Comments  

Cartoon: New Recruits’ Vow

If you enjoy these cartoons, and can spare it, please support them on Patreon. A $1 pledge matters a lot.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever done a cartoon about ICE before, and I’ve really wanted to, but it’s been hard for me to think one up.

ICE is genuinely one of the most evil branches of the U.S. government; they’re needlessly martial, needlessly cruel, and far overfunded. If you pay attention to ICE in your newsreading, you’ll hear of outrages virtually every week. It’s one of those topics that gets me so enraged that I just see red and then it’s really hard to make up a cartoon, and so I end up doing a cartoon about something else.

(But what would we do without ICE, you might ask? Remember that ICE is a relatively new agency, created in the panic following 9/11. Before that we had the INS, and as bad as the INS was, its culture didn’t seem as combative or as dismissive of the humanity of the immigrants it dealt with.)

(“Not as bad as ICE” is, admittedly, not a high bar.)

I think the art for this one is decent. I’m definitely leaning hard into the “bighead figures” drawing this year. It’s not necessarily the most fun style for me to draw, but something about the contrast between the horrible things my cartoons are about, and the extreme cuteness of the drawing style, adds an extra punch to the cartoons. Or that’s the theory I’m working from for now. :-)

Transcript of Cartoon

This is a four-panel cartoon.

PANEL ONE shows two women, one wearing a long open-front sweater and a polka dot skirt, the other wearing pants and a long-sleeved v neck shirt. The woman with the polka dot skirt is reading aloud from something on her smartphone. The woman in the v-neck shirt is listening, hand on her chin.

DOTS: Listen to the vow this group makes new recruits take! “I swear I will have no mercy for brown people…”

A close-up of Dots as she continues reading from her phone. She looks a bit angry.

DOTS: “I will throw them into prison without due process. I will pull their crying children from their arms.”

A shot of the two of them. Dots continues to read from her phone. V-Neck interrupts, looking horrified, her eyes wide and her hands on her cheeks.

DOTS: “I will spread fear and desperation. I will…”
V-NECK: What nightmare group is this? The Klan? The Nazis?

A middle-aged man with a mustache and wearing a suit, stands behind a podium, talking to a crowd of people. The front of the podium has the Department of Homeland Security seal, and the word “ICE.”

MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to ICE!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Immigration, Migrant Rights, etc, Institutionalized Racism | 12 Comments  

Comic: Why Some Jobs Are Illegal

I couldn’t do all these cartoons without the support I get on Patreon. A $1 pledge really matters.

Sex work is, for me, in the same category as smoking pot or (until recently) not legally recognizing same-sex marriages, a category I’d describe as “there’s just no logical reason this should be illegal.”

This cartoon focuses on how little sense the arguments against legalization make. But the most important line, for me, is in panel 2: “Wouldn’t that make things worse for maids?” It seems clear that 1) no law will ever succeed in wiping out sex work, and 2) laws making sex work illegal inevitably hurt the sex workers themselves.

When the government outlaws something, it’s going to lead to people being hurt.

And sometimes it’s worth it. Lowering the speed limit to 20mph in a residential zone will harm some people. Some people will be made late, some people will have to pay speeding tickets, etc. But in exchange for that, we get a big gain – pedestrians hit by cars will have a much higher chance of surviving. The gain, in this case, seems worth the loss.

But outlawing selling sex makes it much more likely that sex workers will be assaulted, hurt, even killed, and makes it much harder for them to go to police for help. And the more marginalized a sex worker is (for instance, because of race, or because of being trans) the more endangered they are. This doesn’t seem to be a case where the gains justify the losses.

Artwise, this strip looks good to me, although I wish I had inked with bigger, meatier lines – the lines in this one look a bit too thin and controlled to my eyes. But that’s the sort of thing I notice a lot more than readers do, I think.

There are a bunch of things I think came out well. The clothing is better than usual for me this strip. The hardest thing to draw here was the maid’s cart, but I think it came out well (by which I mean, I think readers will immediately recognize what it is without having to think about it). And I think some of the body language looks good (especially the woman in the plaid shirt in panels 3 and 4).

Transcript of cartoon

Panel 1
In the foreground, a young woman with her head shaved on the sides and sunglasses is walking three dogs. In the background, standing on a grassy hillside, two women, one in a polo shirt, the other in a plaid shirt, are talking.
POLO: No one could want to be a dog-walker. It shouldn’t be legal.
PLAID: Some people like it.

Panel 2
In a hotel hallway, in the foreground, a maid pushes a cleaning cart. In the background, the same two women are talking.
POLO: Many maids are exploited or even trafficked. We should outlaw being a maid!
PLAID: Wouldn’t that make things worse for maids?

Panel 3
A hilly park again. In the foreground, a man with a knit cap and one of those orange “I work for the city” vests is picking up trash off the ground with a trash-picking stick. In the background, the same two women talk; Polo looks disgusted, and Plaid is facepalming.
POLO: Picking up trash for a living is gross. It shouldn’t be allowed.
PLAID: You’re being ridiculous.

Panel 4
In the final panel, we see only Polo and Plaid, talking to each other. Polo has a forefinger pointing up, making a point, and Plaid responds fervantly, leaning forward and smacking her fist into the palm of her other hand.
POLO: And for the exact same reasons, we should outlaw prostitution!

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 37 Comments  

Claiming the Feminist Politics of My Survival

Author’s Note: In March of this year, I was invited to give a talk about being a male survivor of sexual violence during my campus’ Sexual Harassment/Assault Awareness Week. Uncharacteristically for my campus, where panel presentations on topics like this tend to be the norm when faculty and/or students are involved, the person who invited me offered me the chance to be the only speaker. What follows is the text of the talk I gave. The title is kind of a mashup of titles of two posts I’ve written that address this subject in a much more fragmentary way: Towards a Feminist Politics of Male Survivorship and My Students First Taught Me to Claim the Politics of My Survival. This talk—which is long, about 7,000 words, and which contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence—presents a much more fully fleshed-out version of the thinking in those posts. I’ve divided it into chunks that I hope will make for easier reading.

Good afternoon.

It’s not often that men like me, men who have survived sexual violence, get to tell our stories in the way that I have been invited to tell you mine: not just at length, but as part of a program like Sexual Harassment/Violence Awareness Week, which usually focuses almost exclusively on men’s sexual aggression against women. There is good reason for that focus, of course. Women and girls are the targets of men’s sexual aggression more frequently and more systemically than men and boys are targeted by sexual aggressors of any gender.

Nonetheless, as revelations about Kevin Spacey, about the well-known conductor James Levine, and the fashion photographer Bruce Weber have shown—not to mention earlier revelations about, for example, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert and former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky—men and boys are also targets of sexual aggression, and we do not deserve to be left out of these conversations just because our numbers are smaller.

This is not the first time I’ve spoken publicly here at Nassau Commuinty College about the fact that I am a survivor. About twenty years ago, I was teaching an independent study in creative nonfiction with two women of color, each of whom was also a survivor of sexual violence. How we came to work together is a longer story than I have time for here, but what we worked on were personal essays they each wanted to write and publish as a way of breaking the silence in their lives and in their communities about sexual violence against women.

In order to get independent study credit, my students had to present their work at an end-of-semester colloquium in front of an audience that would include, among others, the college president and the vice president of academic affairs. When the time came to start planning for this presentation, however, my students got really scared. They were concerned they would not be taken seriously. The other students at the colloquium would be presenting conventional, research-based projects in traditional academic disciplines. My students, on the other hand, had done little or no research, at least not in the traditional sense; they had no facts other than the facts of their own stories to substantiate what they had to say; and they worried that what they had to say—which dealt, sometimes explicitly, with the most intimate parts of their lives—would be considered inappropriate, and even insulting.

They feared they would be seen as nothing more than stereotypical women of color: emotional, traumatized, and not smart enough to cut it at the intellectual level of their more scholarly white peers. To alleviate their concerns as much as possible, I offered to introduce them with a statement about how meaningful it had been for me to work with them, to have been for them the kind of mentor who simply did not exist for me back in the 1980s, when I was starting to come to terms with my own experience of sexual violence. This way, I told them, anyone who had a problem with what they said, would have to come through me, not just as a white male faculty member, but also as a white male survivor.

So that’s what we did. I read my introductory statement and then my students read their essays. Each one, when she finished, received a standing ovation, and everyone who came to speak with them afterwards—from the president of the college to the families of the other student presenters—was warm and supportive and even thankful.

With one exception.

A white colleague whose student had also presented came over to say that he was angry and disappointed. I had, he said, failed in my responsibility as an educator and an academic. First, I’d treated as serious intellectual work writing that was sensationalizing at best and, at worst, salacious and titillating. It was none of those. Second, I’d allowed my students to present that writing at the colloquium, lowering the level of discourse at what was supposed to be a celebration of student intellectual achievement to that of a trashy women’s magazine. Third, I had inappropriately introduced my own personal experience into the colloquium, turning that portion of the evening into a kind of group therapy session.

I don’t remember very well what I said in response, but my response isn’t the point right now. I’ve told you this story because I want to you to understand that even though this event is not a scholarly colloquium, even though my talk is perfectly in keeping with the theme of this entire week, once I agreed to give the talk, I also agreed to stand before you in much the same position as my students were back then.

You will walk out of this room today knowing things about me that even some members of my family don’t know or that, if they do know, they choose to pretend they don’t. What this means, whether you realize it or not, is that you will walk out of this room knowing things that you could use against me. Because no matter how confident and unashamed I may be as I stand here telling you that I was sexually violated as a child, to have been sexually victimized in our culture is still a mark of shame, and we all, if we are honest with ourselves, know how to use that shame, as my colleague tried to do, to silence and dismiss those survivors who choose to speak out.

In speaking to you today, in other words, I am choosing to trust you—both those of you who are my colleagues and those of you who might one day be sitting in a class I am teaching; and I am making this choice knowing full well that some of you might choose to violate that trust. I believe the risk is worth it, however, because being able to say out loud what I’m going to tell you has made the difference for me, as it has made the difference for others who have similar stories to tell, as it could make the difference for some of you here today who have not yet told your stories—being able to say out loud what I am now going to say to you has made the difference for me between living the life I have wanted to live and feeling like the only life I deserve is the shame-filled half-life that the men who violated me tried to force me into. Continue reading

Posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Men and masculinity, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues, sexual assault | 17 Comments