Welcome To My Bed

Poetry: what I think I know.

I do not claim to be an expert on anything literary.  I am, at best, an enthusiastic novice.  I like words.  Words and I get along REAL WELL.  I'd say I read roughly one novel and one poetry collection a week. This is probably more than the average person, but I'm lucky enough to spend most of my time at work leaning against a counter with a book in hand.  Roughly five years ago, things were very different: I was new to the parentless world, at college as an art student, journaling furiously, showing none of my writing to anybody.  I read the same few books religiously (The Bell Jar, Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Please Don't Kill The Freshman), mining them for clues on how the whole words thing works.  But I did not read poetry.  Poems were a nebulous form that seemed almost evil because of how powerful people claimed they were.  You could memorize them, carry them around mentally, spit them out at anybody else like a spell, sing them to the tune of popular songs, wrap them in a love letter and use them for personal gain.  As a teenager, that power in economy was terrific and horrific at once.  I wrote poems every day, excruciatingly bad poems saturated in angst that made my few friends uncomfortable and my teachers shockingly proud.  A few of them ended up in the high school lit mag, but I had no delusions about grandiosity or success in the form.

At college, slam happened to me.  With all of its flawed format and silly hierarchies of rock star poets and gimmicky performance styles, it was exactly what I needed to make poetry accessible to me.  To make poems a scary, evil power that I too could possess.  This is what I sounded like in my early slam days:


It is embarrassing to hear myself rush, to hear how little control I have over my voice, how many things I repeat.  But this is exactly where it happened: where I found the power of poems.  The poem in the video is nowhere near my best work.  It isn't even something I can watch or listen to without cringing.  If I went back to it, there is so much I would change, so many thing I would arrange differently.  But showing this is important because it shows how much things had shifted by February of my first year as a writer admitting she is a writer.  Here, I am playing with language, repetition, a circular narrative that grows and changes and builds in a small, three minute arc.  This is important.  This play is how poems happen.  They are games you play with language to say something unexpected, but, like anything worth the effort, you have to be willing to be bad at them before you can ever hope to be good.

The immense power inherent to poems is in the things they allow you to say.  A poem, at its best, is a transgression of silence.  There is a reason why poets have been enemies of the state in countries and culture the world over since the beginning of language--poetry gives us license to say dangerous things, to say them quickly and starkly, to pare away all the white noise surrounding the heart of what we mean and present just that heart and only the heart to be consumed and sometimes these hearts make us sick.  They have an intense power when it comes to protest, witness, and education because they are so distilled.  Poems are the kind of writing that works in small strokes and creates big changes in thought.  They provide a space where huge leaps of comparison can be made, where two things before unalike are suddenly the same.  Poems travel great distances in single steps because of the way the images in them enter into a conversation, because of the way a line breaks, because of the multiplicity and music of sounds, the connotative and annotative meanings of words, the suggestion of a world much larger and more complex than what is said.

In less than two weeks, I am responsible for bringing what I now know about poems to students at my former high school.  I've been given five hour-long sessions to read poems by other that I love, poems of mine that I feel proud of, poems that might help people like me (latent writers scared of the magic they might produce) understand that poetry is far from dead.  I'm not going to talk about Billy Collins or Ezra Pound.  I'm not going to beat over the head with history.  The best way to get a kid to fall in love with poetry is to show them that it is a way to find voice in a world where everyone talks but few listen.

I could hem and haw about poems for a week-long workshop and still not be winded.  But I want to know what other people might say.  Writers, friends: why were poems an important discovery for you?