Growing up with six siblings, the cacophony of voices at home, in Brooklyn’s streets, the entire city, skilled me in the art of channeling voices.
A Penny Saved is comprised of four distinct personae: Penny, her husband David, the House, and oldest daughter Elizabeth and her imaginary friend Jewlie. A Penny Saved is inspired by the true-life story of Polly Mitchell who was held captive in her Nebraskan home for 10 years; she escaped in 2003 with her four children. I reimagined the story here and there to make it my own: extended her captivity to 12 years and gave her three children. Thankfully, throughout the process of creating this book, my community of writers reminded me of my artistic license.
Penny’s voice was the first voice I started to write in 2006. She speaks throughout. Certain details stood out for me from newspaper articles: she was a recent high-school graduate when she married—she was still a teenager; wore second-hand clothes bought by her mother in law; had sisters; and she was in love. I kept that in mind while writing poems in her voice—she was in full trust as is the case when opened by love. Penny speaks from somewhere private and deep, and mythical at times. She expresses herself in all possible ways, since she is denied that freedom in her marriage.
I like to frame and structure what I am doing, so I’m not overwhelmed by the task of writing. Because A Penny Saved is inspired by a true-life story, I knew my end—she escapes. (In the book, I alter how she gets out of captivity.) This is what I built her character up to do. Through her captivity she learns to be strong, births children, and by the end of the book, grows into a woman.
I visually mapped out Penny’s home (and prison), so I knew the environment she would be in for 12 years (figs. 1 and 2). I found images in magazines and online and pasted them into my notebook. I’m fascinated with those omnipresent narrators, like in Morrison’s Jazz, magical realism, and I was smitten with the personae poems in Tyehimba Jess’ Leadbelly. The House is Penny’s number one champion and confidant, a consistent stable presence; it has an opinion about things, without judgment, and keeps a protective, maternal air.
There was a point in 2007 when I realized I needed something more to develop Penny’s voice and the book as a whole. My writing relied too heavily on lyrical inventiveness and the poems needed more heart and body. They weren’t going deep enough. I stopped working on this manuscript for close to two years, because I needed to be attentive to my heart; my own voice—when and why I choose silence; and which relationships grew or depleted me. Having left the East Coast for the West, for the first time in my life, I was three thousand miles away from all things that offered security—I couldn’t write the poems I wanted for A Penny Saved if I weren’t willing to take a heroic journey within. Both Penny and I needed to learn to stand on our own.
What are you willing to risk? The stories we choose to bring to life are based on our capacity to risk.