Every April, the literary world turns their collective eyes to poetry in an effort to observe National Poetry Month. I, too, find myself paying extra attention to poetry during these days, even more than I usually do. Every day is another opportunity to find the words in my bones that I’ve hidden for safekeeping. It sort of feels like coming out of hibernation; the Earth spins itself a web of sleep and I wake up feeling the words filling the brim of my heart.
I discovered poetry almost 10 years ago. I was a junior in high school and I half-heartedly decided to take a Creative Writing course. The teacher (Mrs. Fields, Flint Southwestern Academy) was well known and I’d never taken a class with her. I wanted to see what all the hype was about.
Ten weeks later, I had a new-found appreciation for words, their uses, and the powers associated with them. The teacher created the space for each student to see and feel the words, to pick them up and understand the weight of them, to excavate them from our bodies in a way we surely had never experienced before. It was the first time I’d felt understood by my peers, the first time I’d felt understood by my own self. Leaving that elective course made my heart hurt because I knew that there wasn’t going to be another teacher like Mrs. Fields. Still, I vowed to write, even if only for myself.
Each year since then, I’ve practiced this craft and I’ve discovered some of the best writers this world has to offer. Each year felt like a new discovery of writing; a rabbit hole that I’ve fallen down, climbed back up, and fallen down again and again, except each time, with more enthusiasm than the last.
This year was different. This year didn’t feel new. I felt challenged to write more, to be honest, to face what scares me most about my own writing and the poems that I feel deep connections to both in myself and others. This year I wanted to share my favorite pieces with the world. I set out to read, research, discover, and listen to poetry written by some of the most talented, poignant, and honest writers in the world, past and present alike.
About a month ago, I completed the 30-day journey. If you want to see each post, you can start here.
This is what I learned.
The world isn’t paying attention. Not really. Not honestly and truly. Many people believe that poetry is dead. Rainn Wilson (creator of Soul Pancake and actor from the TV show The Office) recently tweeted poetry’s demise:
Not to mention, we live in a world spinning too brightly and boldly to stop for a second and breathe. This is what poetry is: an observation of the breath, the way it bends, the tips of each tongue saying something new and different. It seems that in such a world, people are not paying attention to the words that the world’s artists have to offer.
There’s a large amount of talented writers/poets/artists that are unknown to the person sitting next to you. Of course I don’t know that for certain. Chances are high, at least. In 30 days of reading and reflection, many Google searches, and scouring various Internet archives of poetry, I came across poets who have been long unknown but are incredibly talented writers: Jamela Dabuet, Andrea Gibson, Anis Mojgani, Buddy Wakefield, Danez Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Yesenia Montilla, and many more. These folks have turned the pages (pun intended) on what it means to be an artist in times of trouble, happiness, mourning, and everything in between. But why don’t people know them?
Something that means something to me won’t mean the same thing to you, if at all. It became evident that there were poems that mean a whole lot to me; words that got me through heartbreak, words the gave me permission to be myself and to feel openly, words that allowed me to heal. These same words may mean nothing to the next person. That’s a truth of life that my parents didn’t explicitly say, but always inferred. At the same time, this fact makes room for the possibilities of deep human connection. If I can learn to listen to your lived experiences and keep my mind open to feel out your interpretations of poems, I’m committing myself to knowing you. It’s not easy but it is worth it.
Building something isn’t only brick and mortar. Sometimes it’s lines and lines of the honest parts of ourselves that have been long ignored until they were put onto the page. Ink draws reality; when the universe has access to it outside of our heads, it becomes real to us and the world. This is what it means to construct a life: to begin the ultimate project of focusing less on topics and more on voices. We have a world to build. Those before us built, too, and we have an obligation to observe it, modify it, sometimes even starting anew if we see a way to make things more clear and deeply beneficial to our collective wellbeing.
The old adage, “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.” is true. New information opens windows to rooms we didn’t know existed. If there’s one thing that this month-long adventure brought me, it’s that poetry brings a perspective on something/someone/someplace/someidea that I hadn’t considered before. In some direct ways, I was challenged in my opinions on what it means to live a life. In some subtle ways, I found that I have much more exploring and unpacking to do in order to understand some things. Although frustrating at times, I know this experience was imperative in my learning what this world is, how to make a better life, and how to be a better person.
The human experience is enhanced when we start paying attention to what moves us. There are many poems and poets that can manipulate words into meanings that I hadn’t understood before. This sometimes looks like a cry for help or a whisper of madness (or a little of both). Regardless, when we pay attention to the tender parts of ourselves that we have been afraid of giving focus to, it’s going to sting. But it’s the path of healing. All soft spots can be preserved while still scraping the undersides of the most important moments that have shaped us. We do not have to let the world harden us in the process. Softness is not weakness, it’s a sign that even though the hurt met us, we can still find ways to love.
“Words and ideas can change the world.” -John Keating (Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society). In college I had this quote written on a piece of paper and taped to my door in an effort to encourage others to not be afraid to use their words. This has become more evident in the time of 45. We are living in a time of moral erasure and the defense of a man (see: many people) who must be the center of attention. But the words that are brought into this world by writers and artists are continuing to shine a light in the otherwise dark corners of this country and world. I’ve spoken with people who think words are just words. But this, I have come to realize, is often spoken by folks who cannot fully comprehend the weight of words, the meaning behind inflection and tone, or language that drives a community.
In the same breath, we are together and alone. Poetry exposes that which is central to the human experience: our togetherness, our aloneness, and our in-betweenness. These writers have given us all a gift if only we recognize it as such, and for that, we must not cry wolf. We must not claim nobody tried for us. We must not say the world is devoid of saving devices; each poem, a step; each world examined, a world discovered with a little more light than last time. How long have you known poetry’s power? they would say. Since forever, I only just discovered it inside of me in every small moment that deserved a second glance (which is every moment). We will be together and alone in crowded rooms and in quiet mountains. This will not change. But we will. That’s an important note.
Each poem is an exploration of identity. That’s what this month was for me in a broad sense. There were writers who expanded the world’s collection of perspectives on what it means to be black, trans, female-identified, male-identified, able-bodied and not, privileged and not, marginalized and not, grieving and not, in-between and not, loved and unloved, hurting and healing, and so on. There’s more to this world than we know. There’s more to all of us. We can never truly describe who we are in one breath just like we can’t in one sentence. Sure enough, we say something (write something) and the next day we are different. Each day is a new chance to interview ourselves and describe the transformations in real-time. Identity–what makes us who we are and who we want to be–has been fluid for centuries, which is to say, we have been fluid for centuries. That’s embraced by poetry in such a manner that isn’t in everyday discourse.
Every person–dead or alive–has fragments of stories that we’ve never heard before. Even if something sounds exactly like another story, it’s not. There’s something different about it: setting, environment, space, the heart within, the mind without, the way in which memory is recounted, or the eyes with which we’ve observed it. This is what poetry does in every line. There’s an extraction happening and we have a front row seat to a world we haven’t seen before.
We are nuanced. It’s not black and white, yes or no, inside or out. It’s the many possibilities that occur in between each structure; a spectrum that is wide-ranging and not always inclusive. This world we have created is not the best version of itself. I’d even venture to say we don’t know what a world that is 100% loving, compassionate, or curious looks like. Only pieces of each melted together based on what has come before or what has not come before. The point is that there are ideologies, theories, organizational systems, ways of knowing, processes of decision-making, and modes of thought that are not all-encompassing. Each step in this life is a culmination of history and wonder with differing degrees of awareness, understanding, and chance. Our moments are composed of equal parts possibility and things unknown. There are feelings still unfelt and occurrences yet to happen. Subscribing to one train of thinking (and only one) is to take out all possibility for curiosity to work well. It’s a shrinking of human growth and knowing when we say, “No, it’s done THIS way and ONLY THIS way.”
What’s comfortable and safe is not always what’s honest and right, and vice versa. What’s a poem if not something meant to disturb the parts of ourselves that we place neatly into a locked box that only we can see? What I mean by that is that poets have a unique way of exploring what we’re all afraid of in a short amount of time. Unlike essays or fiction, poetry can say much more with using much less. It is a normal practice for poets to uncover what we feel safe in (see: masculinity, bigotry, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, heteronormative behaviors, etc.) and depict the world in a different light.
Poetry can’t fit into one month. There are people that I wasn’t able to highlight, not because they aren’t good but because I only highlighted one written poem and one spoken poem each day. That’s 60 total poems with a couple of poets repeated. The truth of the matter is that there are hundreds of writers who deserve the spotlight, hundreds more who deserve to be known universally within communities not only composed of enthusiasts. Much like other month-long observations (Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, etc.), this stuff is important to observe every month.
What’s in a poem? Fragments of who we are. In the most simple way to describe something not-so-simple, every poem written (good, bad, ugly) has slivers of honest and raw emotion. Some poems will contain one very important line hiding amidst lines that set it up and tear it down. Other poems are short, to the point, and are meant to resonate quickly without the reader noticing it happens when it happens. It is meant to set the reader up for processing and internal conflict.
This is what poetry is for. To pull each seam away from your body and give you space to examine it on your own, in your own way. To send you spiraling. To punch you square in the throat right before kicking you in the gut. To take your breath away and allow you to find it again. To give you a bridge to walk on, no matter how broken or unsteady, so we can find each other again. To fracture the “best” parts of ourselves so we can find the best parts of ourselves. To heal and bring warmth. To make notice of obvious, subtle things that we aren’t paying attention to. To give us the currency with which understanding can happen. To show you and me and everyone else that there are things worth fighting for; the small moments, the impactful embraces, the love, love, love that we have coursing through us.
April 2017 brought me courage and strength, even if nobody was engaging with my posts. It brought me a sense of community with people throughout the world who are feeling some of the same things as I am. It brought perspective and challenge, hurting and healing. I cried, I laughed, I dug deeper for understanding and critique. I listened and felt a range of emotions. Most of all, it gave me permission to write again. It allowed me to believe in my own words again. It inspired me to forget hiding the rough parts so that I can show the world what I’m made of, whoever I am in this current form, whatever shape I’m taking today. It enabled me to feel deeper, to reach higher, to stay here longer. I’m better than the person I was before I started the journey. At the end of the day, that’s all I ever could have asked for.