Saturday, April 20, 2019

#99 Backstory of the Poem "Mermaid, 1969" by Tameca L. Coleman

*The images in this specific piece are granted copyright privilege by:  Public Domain, CCSAL, GNU Free Documentation Licenses, Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law, or given copyright privilege by the copyright holder which is identified beneath the individual photo.

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*** The CRC Blog welcomes submissions from published and unpublished poets for BACKSTORY OF THE POEM series.  Contact CRC Blog via email at or personal Facebook messaging at

***This is the ninety-ninth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

****All images are given copyright permission granted by Tameca Coleman for this CRC Blog Post only unless otherwise noted.

Below Left:  Title Photo - Tameca L, Coleman in March of 2019

#099 Backstory of the Poem
“Mermaid, 1969”
by Tameca L Coleman

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? This particular poem actually started as an interview. I was creating a long essay for an auto/biographical course during my undergraduate studies at Metro State College of Denver (now MSU).

        I had chosen to write about my mother’s and grandparents’ time in Okinawa, Japan during the Vietnam War where my grandfather was stationed at Kadena Air Force Base because it was always a story I wanted to know more about.
  I remember this project being particularly challenging, despite my initial excitement. I had planned to interview both my grandparents, my mother and also my Aunt about their time there. But interviews proved challenging.
     I started with my grandmother who told me never to ask my grandfather about this time. Grandma was fiercely protective, and even said that I should just go ahead and make some things up. She told me a few things, like how her, my mother and aunt used to drive to the coast to look for seashells and watch the sun set, and how everything was so green. She told me about the market, and taking all the classes she could to pass the time, how the air force paid to have the family pack up their whole life and move it overseas, and how the appliances didn’t work because the plugs were different than in the US, and how this rendered their American appliances useless.

       But, when it came to my grandfather’s part of the story, Grandma explicitly told me that if I ever asked about that time, I ran the risk of sending him into an emotional tailspin because his experience was truly horrible, and to boot, he carried a lot of guilt in regards to the role he helped play out during that war.
      I did some research with what time I had, and learned about some of the terrible things America did. I also learned about how a group of angry locals who were so fed up with American presence that they even threw Molotov cocktails (Below)  at the school buses headed towards military bases. My grandmother told me about that specifically, and how school on the base was cancelled for long periods of time because of such scares. I did my best to weave all of these findings into my biographical account.

      Despite being frustrated, I went to my mother next. I asked her about her time there, and she told me it was one of the most wonderful times in her life because of the beauty and feeling of freedom she felt. It didn’t seem like Mom was aware of what was going on at the time. She was a young kid, after all. My mother had friends she enjoyed spending time with (and getting in trouble with), and Mom relates that there was nothing but beauty surrounding their home. Aside from the war, they lived in paradise.

      I struggled with the final essay, but I had to turn it in. It is still a work I am not proud of, and also a work I would like to review to see if there is anything else I can salvage from it, perhaps mine more.
      I never thought I would look at that biographical piece again, but the next semester, in one of my undergraduate poetry classes, I pulled the essay out of its box of papers. 
     In my mind, there was so much irony in the fact that for my mother, this was one of the very best times of her life, and for almost everyone else involved, it was a time of stress because of the known dangers connected with the war. This point of irony became an anchor for me as I revisited the pages. I pulled out my mother’s account surrounding one moment, the visioning of this mermaid on the rock, and added enough background details to set readers in place. I tried to keep as much of my mother’s innocence during those times intact, and also remembering road trips we had taken when I was young, my brothers, parents and myself with my grandparents. I researched what I needed to. For example, were there starfish and conk shells on the Vietnam beach? 

      I often feel badly for treating the account with the imposition of this irony. But somehow, this is also one of the poems I am, even at this point, after having created a lot more work, feel the most proud. It is the very first poem I’ve published that feels like a co-written poem. To date, I have written two such poems with my mother’s voice, and I hope to write some more because many of her stories are stories that should be told. I hope that my want to create more of these kinds of poems is not an imposition on my mother’s voice, but an amplification of it. I also hope that in sharing these stories and amplifying them, it can draw us closer.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. It is possible that I was living with a then partner who allowed me to go to school and not have to work. It is also possible that I had moved out after our pretty bad breakup into my own apartment which had one bedroom, a small patio, and a big “B” on the sides of the building. It is possible that I wrote the poem in all of these places. During this time, I was moving around Denver a lot, so it’s difficult to recall a specific place. The anchor in any case is Metropolitan State College of Denver whose writing professors, specifically Sandra Maresh Doe and Renee Ruderman, helped me with prompts to make this poem happen. I was in and out of writing workshops, receiving mentorship from these very influential professors, and also receiving feedback from some mediocre to super intelligent and helpful peer readers.

What month and year did you start writing this poem? I finished my undergrad in 2009, so I started writing this poem sometime before that. I published this poem for the first time in 2009 under the title of “Mermaid.” In subsequent publications, I retitled the poem “Mermaid, 1969” because readers mistook the poem as my own story on more than one occasion. I have published this poem more than any other poem so far. (Left:  Tameca in May of 2009) 

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) At the moment, my office is akin to an anti-room that has a path in it that leads to my writing desk. There are boxes strewn all over, some of them pulled apart and most of them stacked. I’ve lived in this apartment for one and half years working on some manuscripts, grad school, and the past many moves have shuffled around my school papers so much it is difficult to find specific drafts right now. So, while working, I turn my back on the mess. I hope to at some point soon have a much better handle on knowing where these papers are, organizing them into folders so that I can keep some kind of track of myself. However, for now, these documents are unavailable.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? I am unfortunately unable to find either the physical or digital copies of the essay I wrote at this time. But I can say this: “Mermaid, 1969” is a page in comparison to the 20-30 pages I began with for the biographical account.

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?I’m weary of putting voice to things like this because I feel that once I publish a piece of writing, in a certain way, it is no longer mine. Each reader comes to the work with their own experiences and understandings. In a sense, though I have written it (or in this case, somewhat co-written it), the work is rewritten with each new set of eyes because of however a reader comes to it. Further, if I need to explain myself too much, maybe I haven’t done the job of writing whatever it is well. I like hearing from readers and do not necessarily like to impose on them any specific thing they should take out of a work. 

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? I still feel guilt in having written this poem the way that I have. In some ways, I feel that I have stolen someone’s story that isn’t mine—namely, my mother’s. I’ve imposed my own sense of irony, and also published this piece of work as mine. I also feel sadness because I don’t know many of my family’s stories. When I began researching and writing this biographical project, I was excited to learn more about my family, but I so many times found myself against deep holes and dead ends in the text. 
Many of these stories have died with my grandmother, and will most likely sift into the ground when my grandfather is also gone. I feel deep sadness about this because in some ways these stories, even if they were horrible, could teach me something about where my family has been, and perhaps also who we are, who I am.

Has this poem been published before? And if so where? The poem was published a few different places, including Pirene’s Fountain, admittedly quite some time ago: -->

Anything you would like to add?  Thank you again for reaching out to me to guest blog on your project. 

When Mom wasn’t making cakes
or practicing her off island dialect
of Japanese to the scowling market ladies,
when she wasn’t taking classes on ikebana,
when my sister and I were not at school
on the Kadena air force base,
she drove us across Okinawa.
We’d hang out of the windows,
hair plastered to our necks, enthralled
by green on green, terraces and vineyards and jungles
green, women with baskets on their heads
traveling down the road in their bare feet.
We passed cart-driven men, their ox carrying
bundles of sugarcane. We left them in dust,
giggled as we passed, waved and smiled,
pointed until Mom made us stop.

These were the best times for me:
When the car arrived at the reef,
after we’d seen the oranges, yellows,
and the reds of the sun setting over the water,
after fried chicken and Nehi soda,
after the first sighting of stars,
we hunted cowries with our flashlights,
the drying starfish and conk shells there.
We found shells nicked by seagull beaks,
with something inside of them, still living.
We found sea glass, coins, trinkets, sand
dollars and oyster shells.

One night there was a woman
balanced on a rock over the water.
She was just sitting there, running
a comb through her impossible length
of hair. At first I thought
her a mermaid, but her feet
folded to her side like arms
hugging in close. Her tattered
skirt and ill-fitted blouse
waved in the cooling night.
Her hair, greyed-black, whipped
at the rock, just as the air force jets
sped across the sky on their courses
to and from Vietnam.

She became a silhouette against the sunset,
etched behind my eyes, forever.

     Tameca L Coleman is a singer, writer, massage therapist, itinerant nerd and point and shoot tourist in their own town. Tameca has published work in many genres, and has also performed and recorded music with many different bands. She doodles sometimes and likes weird music and dance breaks. For more information about their work, follow @sireneatspoetry on social media or check out her webhub at


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#099 April 20, 2019
“Mermaid, 1969”
by Tameca L. Coleman

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