Carmen Delzell, in your face The writer feels at home with uncomfortable subjects

November 23, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

THE WOMEN in "Practicing Emptiness" explore the ambiguous ground between the power of feeling special enough to be "kept" and the powerful revulsion at becoming so dependent. They talk of trade-offs, trade-offs and more trade-offs.

You hear about women who marry men they don't love, about women whose self-images depend upon how bloated they feel when they wake up in the morning, about how sexual abuse is cultural as well as physical. It leaves you with the impression that prostitution is one of the most honest transactions possible between the sexes.

Written by Baltimore resident Carmen Delzell for "Soundprint," the weekly half-hour radio documentary series produced at WJHU-FM, (88.1), "Practicing Emptiness" considers many of the ways in which women shortchange themselves. It will run at 6 p.m. tomorrow and Nov. 30.

"Often the 'Soundprint' stories are just family types of subjects -- on dads, or Halloween," Delzell says. "I had pictured 'Soundprint' as geared for Mom, Dad, Buddy and Sis on their way home. Dad's a professor and Mom's a social worker and the two kids go to the best public schools and they're all driving home in their green Volvo and they turn on the radio and say 'Oh Boy! "Soundprint" Time!'

"This time they're going to turn it on and, all of a sudden there's a woman saying, 'I was never going to bust my ass . . .'"

Delzell has built a national reputation for National Public Radio commentaries about uncomfortable subjects mined from her own life. She also reports from Baltimore for Wigwag magazine, writing about the Block and Fells Point, about drifters and outsiders who create their own small, glittering worlds.

The writer has become quite adept at polishing anecdotes and details which ennoble the difficult people and situations she has known. "Practicing Emptiness" has the feel of a lapidary artist who is very picky about her material.

"The women I know are more like me: Washed up on the beach of middle age with bits and pieces of relationships and pop psychology," Delzell explains in the piece.

For a while after she came to Baltimore in 1989, the writer ran Blue Moon, a secondhand shop in Fells Point. Now she is working as a substitute teacher, looking for something steady to support her between her free lance jobs. As an attractive, passionate, strongly opinionated, single mother in her early 40s -- the kind with a 25-inch waist and younger boyfriends -- she rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

"There's something about me. People can tell as soon as I walk in the door that I'm a rebel. I feel them thinking 'Here comes trouble'," she says.

She lives near Lake Montebello in a small house that seems tattooed with dolls, bric-a-brac and mementos: Every inch lends itself to artful display. Her son, Colin, 16, attends the Baltimore School for the Arts. Her 21-year-old-daughter, Ashley Morgan Pierce, lives in Washington.

"Part of me really wants to live in a neighborhood like Roland Park and have one of those 1952 Plymouths with wooden sides and wear Shetland sweaters and rake my leaves and talk about my husband and herbs and all that. You know what I mean by those kind of women? But I'm not willing to do anything to get that. I'm not willing to go work at some job that I hate. I'm not willing to marry the kind of guy who could give me that."

Instead, it sounds as if Delzell has chosen the hard way for much of her life. The oldest of five children, she grew up in Beaumont, Texas. When she was 21, her mother died and she found herself unexpectedly pregnant, unsure of the identity of the father.

She dropped out of college and went on welfare.

"It was illegal to have an abortion," she says. "My father completely abandoned me, my mother died, I was married, but my husband left me."

After a number of jobs, another marriage, another baby, various moves and several more attempts at college, she received a degree in writing from Goddard Experimental College.

"I was a 28-year-old woman with a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, living out in Rappahannock County, Va., with a hand pump and a wood stove and an old beat up pickup truck that was always broken down," she recalls. "I remember at that point that my life plan was to get off welfare, write a book and open my own store in Washington, D.C.

"Looking back now, I think 'Hey, wait a minute! Why didn't someone tell me that I couldn't do this?'"

Perhaps they sensed that Delzell was the sort who would set her life to proving them wrong.

She did open a store in Washington. And her unpublished book of short stories has provided much of her radio material. She has written about 50 commentaries for 'All Things Considered' since 1986.

When Delzell decided it would be fun to produce a "Soundprint" program, for instance, she set about getting the right introductions. It required slipping into a toney public radio benefit party for free.

"That's really how I've done everything in my life. I just don't take no for an answer. But I also won't do anything really menial. I've never been one of those people who says 'I'll scrub floors or work at McDonald's to save my money.' I'll starve before I'll do that."

She says a few publishers have approached her about publishing the series of "Carmen's Men" stories which ran on "All Things Considered."

"I wish they still let me do those -- because that's what I do the best -- but they got a new producer and they want me to tone down the man stuff," she says. "I feel a little censored. If I had my way, I'd talk about rawer things and be more honest about stuff."

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