I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.
It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.
Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.
Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.
The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.
Recently I went to a reading at a local art gallery. Poets had been requested to choose a work in the gallery and write a piece inspired by it. At the reading, the artists were present and heard our work.
Few things are as personal as a painting to an artist, or a poem to a poet. I had done ekphrastic (inspired by a piece of art) poems before, but I had never done one that would be heard by the actual artist. I worried that they might dislike my work or be disappointed that my take on the piece was so different from theirs.
As it turned out, the artist did like my poem. I got to talk with her after the reading and she said the poem gave her a different appreciation for her painting. How wonderful! It gave me real satisfaction.
However, it’s important for me to remember that if she hadn’t liked it, it would have been all right. I would have regretted it, but it wouldn’t mean I had failed.
Why? Because poetry, like other forms of art, is the ultimate in subjectivity. Any piece will appeal to and repel someone on this earth. We need no justification for our reactions or our opinions. This is what makes the arts special.
So I recently gave tips on how to attend a poetry reading, but why should you? What about them makes it worth your time and effort? Why leave your comfort zone for it? Here are some reasons I find apply to me.
It gives me perspective. As I hear different styles of poetry read in different ways by different poets, I maintain a realistic opinion of my own work. I’m reminded of how subjective it is; I am left feeling neither inflated nor deflated about it.
It gives me ideas. When at a poetry reading, I am listening without distractions and my mind wanders in a specific way that promotes new connections. It’s common for me to get a flash of inspiration for a new poem I’d like to write. I keep paper and pen handy during a reading and jot things down between poems. By the end, I have a bizarre mishmash of seemingly random words and phrases that carry the seeds of multiple new works. I may or may not follow up on each of them, but the seeds exist.
It gives me a sense of community. I find groups of people very challenging because of my odd fluctuations of energy–I’m always waiting for people to write me off as they find out more about me or hang out with me long enough to get a feeling for the inconsistencies in the way I present myself. My bipolar disorder and the depressive phases come with it can make me feel “other” more often than not–yet, with all that, going to readings helps me affirm my identity as part of a creative community. It lets me see poets of all ages and backgrounds and realize that no idiosyncrasies have the power to un-poet us.
It changes the way I write and revise poems. When I expect to be reading a new poem out loud, I end up paying more attention to its sound and rhythm. It’s important not to get carried away by this; the way the poem looks on the page is still just as important. However, thinking about sound adds a layer to the process of refining a draft.
It re-connects me with the part of myself responsible for poetry. Daily stresses make it easy to lose touch with this, but after a good reading I feel stronger and more centered. Toxic people, the news, pervasive fears–all of these have lost some of their power when faced with the power of creative thought and the love that drives it.
If you are anything like I was, you might be very intimidated by the idea of one of these events. Maybe you don’t know what to expect, or maybe you expect the atmosphere to be uncomfortable. Maybe you think it will be a roomful of snooty intellectuals who will dismiss you as not hip enough, not educated enough, not artsy enough…not something enough.
Maybe the idea of actually reading your poetry to an audience of strangers feels so exposing that you cringe at the thought. Why not just pass around the contents of your underwear drawer, or strip naked and do a Charleston at the microphone?
As someone who started going less than two years ago, I’d encourage you to go to one. It’ll open up new aspects of your writing. Here are some tips that might help:
Get there early. Find out where it is and allow plenty of time to get lost, find parking, etc. The reason to get there early is that many of these places are on the small side and you want to get a seat close enough to hear clearly.
Introduce yourself to people and admit you are new to this event.
If anyone asks whether you’re a poet, you say YES.
Bring your poetry, even if you don’t think you want to read this time. Bring at least several different pieces, because what you want to read might change depending on what you have heard. There is often a break during which you can sign up if you didn’t before.
Allow yourself to notice that you don’t adore every poem that is read at the open mic, or even every poem read by a featured poet. Notice how subjective it all is.
If you choose to read, respect the time limits.
Don’t forget to silence your phone.
I predict you’ll find yourself hearing some poems you don’t think are all that great; poems that make you think “Hey, I brought poems I think are better that that. Or certainly no worse.” Whether on that day or a subsequent occasion, you’ll step up to that mic and read something. After it’s over, you’ll see that no one snorted in derision. No tomatoes were thrown. You did it, and the world did not come to an end.
Once, while preparing to speak at a recovery event, I wrote something like, “Open my heart, and then open my mouth. Let me look like a fool to forty-nine people if it will help the fiftieth person.”
Do I have the courage to apply that idea to poetry as well?
In a couple of days I’m going to read a few pieces of poetry at a recovery event. The audience will be very different from the ones I have faced before–for the first time, I’ll be reading poetry to an audience of people who may have come for other things and have no interest in the poetry part of the show. I’m experiencing a much higher level of public speaking anxiety than what is normal for me. I’m trying to revamp some poems into a format that I think is “cooler” or more likely to go over well–and the revamping is at a complete stall.
Not too surprising, I suppose. While my self-care has had some improvements lately, I have been very blocked when it comes to writing. The reasons are both repetitive and unoriginal, but there it is.
At any rate, past experiences give me faith that when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and manage to read. Past experiences assure me that this will happen, and the world will not come to an end. I just have to show up.
Last night I went to a reading by California’s current Poet Laureate, Dana Giola. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had such a long and varied career–he’s a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, with an MBA and a PhD in literature. He has taught and promoted poetry education all over the state for years.
The contrast between seeing his poetry-as-my-career persona and the more intimate experience of hearing his poetry was fascinating. He, like many poets, writes of love, grief, communion with nature, and all of his human experiences. However polished and goal-oriented he may be in his endeavors, when it comes to his poems he is naked. And thank the gods for it–how else could I feel connected to him and keep any feelings of envy and inadequacy to a minimum?
Because (and this will be no shock to those who have read any of my writing) I do have these feelings. A career such as his is not achievable for me unless I invent a time machine and manage to get started writing well before my late forties. I must focus on what I can do in the time I have, and I must keep my eye on that which makes me want to write whether it leads anywhere or not.
Today I’m wrestling with a common question: go to a poetry reading or not? One of my favorite monthly ones is happening this afternoon, and I want to go–but I’m not having a good day.
Not having a good day, in this case, refers to my bipolar symptoms. The depression and disorientation are up for me right now, and it is hard to focus. When I am like this, I feel a bit alien and more socially awkward than usual. How much of this is my perception and how much actually affects others is hard to determine.
Would going to the reading do me good? Yes, almost certainly. It’s an opportunity to connect with the poet I am and disconnect from mundane worries.
So what’s trying to keep me away? Ego, of course. Not wanting to show my vulnerability. Wanting people to like me.
Let’s break it down, however. Some of my poems that touch people the most are my most unguarded ones; the ones that expose me. One of my favorite things to say to myself when I am blocked is “When all else fails, tell the truth.”
I’ve written it before, but for me it bears writing again: my best qualities come forth when I offer myself to the world, just as I am, and let others decide what to make of it.