Monday, April 4, 2011

The Tattooed Poets Project: Martha Serpas

On this, our fourth day of the third annual Tattooed Poets Project, we are honored to have work from Martha Serpas.

Readers may wonder where we find all these tattooed poets. Most come our way by word of mouth, but a small handful, like in Martha's case, agree to participate after we send out e-mail inquiries, without even knowing if a poet is inked or not. Most poets don't even respond, a handful do, but are not tattooed, and once in a blue moon, we find a tattooed poet who is happy to participate.

Anyway, here's one of Martha's tattoos:

Martha explains:
This tattoo is a montage over 20 or so years in the making. First work, Willie [at Willie's Island Tattoos] on Staten Island; Dan [Williams at the Bridgeport Tattoo Shop] in Bridgeport, CT; Bonnie Jean in Yachats, OR at [Tattoo by Design]; and a guy in Houston I never should have let reline it. Bonnie Jean was is old school and taught me that tattooing is like coloring in a book: anybody can do it if the lines are really thick.

The tattoo’s a chronicle of a tumultuous time in my life. The wind/water symbol (my design) traversing the image was first. It felt like a spiritual emblem. The bird represents a goal of peace (brought it in from somewhere). The moliere/Celtic cross  (graphic artist friend, Carla Januska designed) is modeled after the one on the chapel at my divinity school and doubles as a setting sun. It is my graduation ring, of sorts. The feathery flame shapes (Bonnie Jean’s freehand) within the wings and tail came last—my attempt to soften up the image when my life became more tranquil.

I have a small tattoo on my ankle that precedes this one(s); a memorial to my best friend on my thigh; a reverse hurricane symbol on my thumb (post-Katrina); and a symbol of perichoresis (divine revolution) on my forearm. I’ve been told I look like a doodle pad. I get tattooed about every 5 years. If I ever become content with life, I’ll stop trying to achieve the ideal personal emblem. For now, I doodle.

Martha also contributed the following poem which, she explained, "was inspired by a photograph on the cover of Tattoo."  One note, Martha adds, is that "Suzanne owned the shop in Ann Arbor where I got my first ankle tattoo: Creative Tattoo by Suzanne. Great T-shirt: Go forth and live as art. I heard she passed away: Her breast piece was amazing."

She knows being chosen means to choose herself
and seals upon her breasts the Sacred Heart—
a thorn-bound garnet against open lilies,
a pink-and-white ink triptych on her chest.

Every shadow, a creed professed by lines
from votive needles to her deepest cells.
Her body gives life to art, reflects the fade
of dying flesh, and honors God’s design.

No second thoughts, she thinks that pain
is easily a choice we make ourselves,
as is admiring her canvas skin
as it ages. Affirmed with words spelled

on a defiant ribbon across her chest,
her blazón: Even the blackest sheep are blessed.

            [Appeared in Côte Blanche (New Issues, 2002)]

Martha Serpas’s two collections of poetry are Côte Blanche (New Issues, 2002) and The Dirty Side of the Storm (Norton, 2007). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and Southwest Review, and in anthologies such as Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image and the Library of America’s American Religious Poems. A native of Bayou Lafourche in south Louisiana, she is involved in efforts to restore Louisiana’s wetlands. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and is a hospital trauma chaplain.

You can learn more about Martha and her writing at her website,

A sincere thanks to Martha for sharing her tattoo and poem with us here on Tattoosday!

This entry is ©2011 Tattoosday. The poem is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

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