Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why Poetry Matters

I have had a weekend full of poetry.  I know that I have written time and time and time again about poetry and writing and words and their power.  I have quoted Audre Lorde more times than I can count: "Poetry is not a luxury," she says.  "It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change... Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought...  And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.  Poetry is not only dream or vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives."

Lately, when I find myself talking about poetry (which is often), and when I find myself talking about my poetry in particular, I end up on the edge of an emotion I do not know how to name.  I feel my body filled up and bursting with an energy and a love and a power that I can't explain without my voice shaking.  My eyes sting and there is a lump in the base of my throat as I try to speak truth to this meaning, this emotion, this living thing that poetry is inside of me...and I can't, because it is too much.  It's too big.  It's too full and rich and powerful, and the only way I know how to write that is in poetry...but as of yet, a poem about the power of poetry has been a little too meta for my finite mind to grasp.

The sermon at church today was titled "Poetry Matters."  It was a moving service full of poetry and music, and why poetry matters in our world.  I came away from it, eyes stinging as I questioned why poetry matters for me.  Why is it that this -- this thing that is no more than letters strung together to form sounds that form words that form phrases and stanzas -- why is it that this is the thing that brings me home?  Why is this the thing, again and again, that saves me?  Why this?  Why not running, or travelling, or knitting, or roller derby?  What is it about this, about poetry, that makes me feel whole?

People say, "well, clearly it's because you're a good writer.  Clearly it's because you have a gift for writing."  And, sure, compliments feel nice and stroke my ego a bit, particularly as I know I can't judge my level of "good" or my level of "gift."  It's taken me 10 years to be able to say comfortably that I'm a writer - I'm a person who writes, sure, but feeling as though I deserved that title of "writer" took time.  I still get nervous when people read my writing.  Pressing "publish" on every blog post is an act of bravery; every comment feels like I'm waiting for criticism of my heart, and I continue to have a small panic attack when people mention reading my blog in person.  No joke.  The momentary look of terror that crosses my face when you say, "I read your last blog post"...that was real.  You didn't imagine it. 

I have always been a writer.  This I know for sure.  My mother transcribed my first poem when I was 3, and I never stopped.  There is some aspect of this that was born into me for reasons I will probably never know, but the necessity of writing...that's been recent.  The way poetry gets into my body and lives there...that's new.  The way I need poetry and words in a way that can't possibly be physiological, but feels as necessary as breathing?  That's been the past few years.  And why?  Why is it that poetry matters this much to me?

Last night, I did something ridiculously brave.  Capital B-Brave, even.  After attending a day long Unitarian Universalist conference on Racial Justice, I participated in a Poetry Slam.  As in, I legit participated.  As in, I actually competed in the damn thing.  I got up, in front of lots of people I didn't know (and two amazing souls I do know - and who I could not and would not have done it without), and I recited my words.  With a jazz band playing behind me.  I'm not even kidding.

I've read my words before -- and I'm terrified every single time -- but it's been in slightly different circumstances.  Never in a competition, first of all.  Never in a situation where presentation as a spoken word piece actually meant something.  Never with a freaking jazz band.  Never in front of that many people, never in front of a mixture I know and people I don't, never with a slew of other kickass poets.  Never without thinking about it for a LONG TIME and preparing SUPER HARD beforehand. 

And then when I was chosen as one of two winners to enter the "second round," I had to write a poem in 5 minutes to read aloud in front of everyone.  No time for perfection, for rehearsal, or questioning, for self-doubt, for "you're not good enough," for "you can't do this."  Just time to write it, to be nervous, to read it, and to let it go.  I got second place (and $50), if you're wondering.  But honestly, winning had nothing to do with it.  I'm not just being humble here -- winning really had nothing to do with it, and when I've told people about the experience today, winning second place just didn't even feel like a relevant detail.  

The important piece was bravery.  The important piece was truth -- my truth -- being spoken, by me, aloud, to a room of people.  The important piece was being heard.  The important piece was trusting myself and the world enough to believe that could happen.  The important piece is feeling like a total badass.  The important piece is this felt sense of mattering.  It is power.  It is feeling like I can create something from my mind and my heart - that I so often label as broken - and have it be a thing of power.  It is the knowledge that in those 4 minutes I was on that stage, I created something powerful that changed me and the little world around me.  It's not a big change - I'm not saving the world.  But something happened in that room that was purposeful, that was deliberate, that was beautiful and powerful.  It mattered.   I created something from my broken self, and it mattered.

One of the after effects of trauma is a distinct feeling of powerlessness.  After I was sexually assaulted, I felt a huge loss of power...which was followed by a year of feeling unable to regain that power, unable to access help, and unable to advocate for myself and my needs, as hard as I tried, due to the multiple screwed-up systems that kept the crazy in place.  When you speak and aren't heard, and you are blamed, and shamed, and silenced for so long, you internalize it.  You just do.  As hard as you try not to, you are vulnerable, and you learn that you are broken.  That you don't matter.  That you cannot effect change on your world.

The night I was sexually assaulted, I heard these words: "You know what your problem is?  You don't have any confidence.  No one will ever love you if you don't get some confidence.  Now give me 150%." 

The night I was sexually assaulted, I heard these words: "Know what your problem is?  You.  You're fucking unlovable."

You internalize that.  You just do.  As hard as you try not to, that shit seeps into your pores and tries to live there.  I've been trying to wash it off, but it's been four years and I'm still not clean.

 A few months after my life fell apart, I started writing with a ferocity and a necessity I didn't know existed within me.  Gone were my nice poems of hope and love and goodwill toward were the poems with stanzas like:

...[he] went beyond my mind to the
spiritual realm I thought was
just mine.
He curled up in there
hissing in happiness
like some
perverted kitten.


If I told you poetry is
womanhood being about sisterhood and
kisses being about moonlight, passion, bliss,
would you think I had found
the real poem?
Would you think I had unleashed
the poet in me? Because
that’s not poetry dude, that’s

These poems have not been read by others, and yet they saved me.  On my bad days, I can look back at my chronology of poems from 2010 to 2014, and I can see my growth.  I can see my grief, I can see the shame, and the self-doubt, and the place my hope bottomed out.  It is, actually, a way of seeing the "skeleton architecture" of my life. 

Looking back at my writing, though, what I see most is my strength.  In my good moments, I see the ways I wrote myself out of the darkness again, and again, and again.  I see power.  When I write my truth, when I write my heart, I feel power.  As my world crumbled around me, I wrote these words:

Poetry is knowing when
all else is gone and I
am a shaking mess of broken worth and
frozen dignity, I am still
my words
and you
will never
silence me.

My words are the place my power lives.  Poetry is the thing that holds me together and tears me apart.  It is the place where I am in control to write myself whole and write myself broken.  With my words, I can "give name to the nameless so it can be thought."  I can write confidence.  I can write loveable.  I can write vulnerability, and ugly, and unworthy.  Through my words, I can be both, feel both, create both within me.  On paper, I have the power to erase unloveable.  Erase broken.  I have the power to be, and create, and tell all of the confusing truths I am living without them being questioned.  I can write all of my contradicting truths, and not one of them will become a lie.  This is necessity.  It is power.  It is the only way I know to hold myself in a container of worth and mattering.  It is, perhaps, the best way I know to practice loving myself again.

By sharing myself whole and sharing myself broken with my little corner of the world, I am reclaiming my voice and power.  I am reminding myself and the world that I am worth hearing, worth valuing, worth remembering.  By letting myself enter and embody my words last night, I became living proof that I am still here, still powerful.  When I share a poem with you, I am handing you my heart to hold.  I am trusting that you won't drop it, or squash it, or throw it away.  By reading a poem aloud, I am stripping myself bare before you, willing to claim that I am worthy, full of voice, and alive.  When we claim ourselves in that way, there is no way we will not be changed.  There is no way we are not changing our world.  There is no way that poetry can not matter. 

"Poetry is not a luxury."  It is power.  It is reclamation.  It is the necessity of embracing and embodying all the pieces of my worth I can muster to claim over and again as truth that I am still here, living and powerful in my words.  It is the proof that, in spite of it all, I am still speaking, and no one will ever silence me.

1 comment:

  1. This is officially the most powerful and meaningful blog entry I have ever read in my life. And I've spent a lot of time reading them. Thank you for speaking up Laura. You put words to my experiences too.