Almost every teenage girl writes poetry. These poems live long lives on lined paper, in unseen notebooks and buried in defunct LiveJournal accounts. A grown woman comes across them and feels nostalgia, some familiarity with her former self, but paramount among those feelings usually is embarrassment.
Poet and UC Berkeley alumna Alicia Zakon, even on the eve of publication, admits embarrassment is still the strongest emotion she has toward her own verse. It is very probable that readers will feel the same way.
Zakon is animated when she speaks. When she told me she was a dance teacher in addition to being a poet, I was not surprised. She spoke with me about her poetry project, “Laundry & Love Notes,” as well as her Kickstarter and her larger mission to empower young women through teaching poetry as self-expression.
We began with the title of the book. Zakon explained: “I love alliteration! But really, laundry for me is a metaphor, talking about the process of self-growth and development and how important it is to do your own personal work.
“It celebrates the process where you work through your issues, and you put it up there for other people to see, so you grow from it, and other people learn from your experience. Many of these poems I wrote without ever intending for them to reach an audience, but now I’m choosing to share it to let other people relate to it.”
Laundry is a good metaphor for the book, and the element of exposure is more than a little present. In this collection, Zakon discusses her family dynamic and home life from a very young age, as well as the unrequited crushes and fumbling self-discoveries of adolescence.
Each section and period of time is headed with an icon of care indications for garments that seem keyed to the subject matter: poems of pain marked with the pictogram of wringing, the tender pieces marked as hand-wash only.
Zakon’s style in them is modern and individualized, although her voice emerges as a youthful one and never really grows up.
When asked about her poetic influences, she named some local favorites: “June Jordan, definitely. Although I never met her, I got to take part in her program Poetry for the People.
“She framed the personal and political, and her program focused on poets with powerful stories as well as the poetic form. She also wrote with a lot of empathy and was able to embody people’s stories that were not her own. I really admire that about her.”
“I also really enjoy the work of one of my peers, Chinaka Hodge,” Zakon said. “She’s a great local poet and playwright with a real storytelling spirit, and she tells the stories of people who don’t normally get to tell them themselves.”
Zakon’s writing habits stem from an unusual parental practice. When I asked her about her inspiration, she cited her mother. However, her mother didn’t inspire her indirectly but rather in a very immediate way.
“My mom, like around age 5, got me one of those little lock-and-key diaries, and she used to give me writing prompts,” Zakon said. “She always wanted us to live life but also reflect about where we were and where we wanted to be. She would give me prompts like, ‘Where do you see yourself at age 27?’ So when I go back and read those, it definitely lines up differently.”
Zakon admits that her younger self imagined marriage and children by now.
“And my family … we didn’t always communicate well verbally, so writing became a way for me to have that relationship with myself and have a safe space to express my feelings about what was going on,” she said.
When asked where her art comes from, Zakon’s answer was familiar and jived with her work. She predictably related it to the numinous qualities of experience and the wish to relive the intense moments in life.
Zakon relives heartbreak and the building of the self in poems that are very personal yet lacking in effect.
Zakon’s Kickstarter campaign — which as of press time is less than half-funded and is open until Sept. 27 — aims to fund “Laundry & Love Notes” as well as an outreach tour for her to teach self-knowledge through poetry to young women all over the country. Her motivations for this program come from her own life.
“Chinaka Hodge came and did a workshop in one of my English classes at Berkeley High School,” she said. “I went home that night and wrote a bunch of poems. Some of them I share even now at slams and at open mics. That was a powerful one-time experience that set me on this path, and I’d like to provide the same for others.”
Despite being born of these powerful connections and emotions, there is nothing striking in “Laundry & Love Notes.” It is not groundbreaking or heartbreaking poetry, and it will not change your life.
Zakon’s aims are noble, but her talent is average. Her verse is perfectly common and speaks to a common experience. If this book isn’t moving, it is at least highly relatable. Reading Zakon’s poetry is as intimate and as exciting as watching someone do her laundry — but with the suspicion that if you tried on her freshly washed clothes, they might fit.