What do godliness, suicide, and algebra homework have in common?

Enter the psyche of the religious teenage girl.

As a devout 16-year-old, I lived the exemplary life of a good Pentecostal. I sang in church, I read my Bible, I prayed.

But I sinned—I touched a boy who’d never be my husband, I listened to the Backstreet Boys in secret.

And I wrote. I wrote about the things that I was never able to say out loud.

Since age nine, I’ve filled over 36 journals—diary entries that later evolved into school notes, to-do lists, or detailed emotional maps from therapy sessions. Essentially, I’ve created an almost endless supply of words to use as material. But it wasn’t until I took a class with Matthew Rohrer that focused on the act of “making it new” that I began to use these diaries to write poems. At first it became an exercise on reliving the past, then it became a craft, a skill in manipulating language and truths, creating new ones out of trauma.

“Diary Entry #4: Ghazal” was written from language collected from my fourth diary spanning August 2005 to March 2006. In it, I recounted my senior year of high school—my first kiss, my first heartbreak, my first anxiety attack—all under the umbrella of religion.

I wrote:

The Holy Ghost was one of the best gifts I could ever receive.

Then I did something that I didn’t think I was gonna do. I kissed him.

And then:

I haven’t been breathing.

With each new entry, it was evident that I was beginning to fall into a tug of war with love, God, and my increasing signs of anxiety and depression. The language was strange to the secular reader, obsessive, almost a prayer or song, as I begged God to cure my instability. And at the time, God was the only option. Within my religious community, seeking the help of mental health professionals was not only stigmatized but also not an option. We were taught they wouldn’t understand our spiritual way of life and would only cause us to stray away from God. Now I’ve come to understand this was an attempt to silence us for fear of underlying scandals coming to the surface.

When I first began crafting the poem, I had to separate myself from the girl I was in these diaries—virginal, naïve, damaged. Not without significant struggle, I appropriated her language, cut and pasted phrases together to retell her story in a different form. Soon I became immersed in creating unusual juxtapositions, challenging expectations, allowing myself to discover the malleability and awe of words.

As for structure, the ghazal has always fascinated me—the chant-like quality, the refrain at the end of each couplet, the proclamation of one’s name in the last line. With Arabic and Persian roots, the ghazal traditionally invokes loss, erotic longing, mysticism, and the metaphysical. It was the ideal shape in which to explore the obsessions of my 16-year-old self within the safety of poetic constraints:

Then I did something
I didn’t think I could do. Dear God,

I thought about suicide, then my algebra homework,
then maybe something else godly

With each couplet ending in a variation of the word god, the poem became a way to reclaim and subvert the expectations of godliness, womanhood, and mental illness:

I got my period and I feel less godlike,

an unclean romance in my body, how I cupped
my hands to catch whatever came, little bit of God’s

blood escaping my vagina, or how
the idea of cutting a wrist might lead to more goddess.

Although this poem is not the first I’ve written about my religious experiences, it ecompasses the spirit of rebellion and subversion that once seemed altogether blasphemous. I can’t help but think of poets like Sharon Olds, who was raised Calvinist and is an exemplification of learning how to grapple with the repercussions of religion through poetry. Her poem “Satan Says” lives in my brain like a compulsion: “Say shit, say death, say fuck the father, / Satan says, down my ear.” Both pleasure and danger are at play, a leaning into the peril.

And I leaned as well, in my poem, at 16, teetering on the profane, the suicidal ideation transformed into a carnal ascension:

…there’s a mouth in my underwear wadded with tissue.
It sings beautiful things when it’s touched. It sings oh god.

And oh god, sometimes I dare wonder what would have become of me, had I not found words. And all I can say is, what a redemption, these diaries. What a grace.

***

Diannely Antigua
Diannely Antigua

Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. She received her BA in English from the University of Massachusetts Lowell where she won the Jack Kerouac Creative Writing Scholarship, and received her MFA in poetry from NYU, where she was awarded a Global Research Initiative Fellowship to Florence, Italy. She is the recipient of additional fellowships from CantoMundo, Community of Writers, and the Fine Arts Work Center Summer Program. Her work has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her book 'Ugly Music' was chosen for the YesYes Books 2017 Pamet River Prize. Her poems can be found in Washington Square Review, Bennington Review, The Adroit Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. Her heart is in Brooklyn.

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