Where does my poetry fit into the world? Where does my poetry fit into myself? My responses to these questions flow like the blood in my own veins. Inspired by the format of René Char’s essay “The Formal Share,” my own writing is broken up in sections using roman numerals. This essay will include my original responses regarding those questions, but they will be expanded upon by connecting my thoughts to multiple other poets who have attempted to answer similar questions, their essays anthologized in book The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons. I will also include poems and lines of my own that I reference and feel are relevant to the messages I create and the conversations I add to in this piece.
Why I Do What I Do
In early 2020, I performed my spoken word poem “Things I Wish I Could Say to my Girlfriend’s Mother” at a cafe in Newark. A girl approached me afterward with tears in the corners of her eyes. “Thank you,” she told me, “for sharing your story. Sometimes I feel so alone and that was exactly what I needed to hear tonight. Just, thank you.” Cafe girl, you embody why.
In Marianne Moore’s essay “Idiosyncrasy and Technique,” she quotes Tryone Gunthrie, who sums up the main point of her essay: “It is one of the paradoxes of art that a work can only be universal if it is rooted in a part of its creator which is most privately and particularly himself” (227). Because I dive deep into my own pain to create art from it, other people can dive into my poetry and find a way to heal. This idea is an essential ingredient in the fuel that fires my passion and creativity.
In those moments when someone sees themself in me, it feels like linear time does not exist, like there is a higher plane where our connection and that moment exist together. Osip Mandelstam, in his essay “The World & Culture,” writes, “Poetry is the plow that turns up time so that the deep layers of time, the black soil, appear on top” (18). He is referencing history, but I also feel like it can be interpreted as humanity. Poetry forces us to reveal our deepest layers over and over again and be better for it, because this vulnerability connects us to each other.
Two times in my life I’ve been left with the disillusionment that follows heartbreak. I wondered and still wonder how certain things can happen to me. How certain people can become unrecognizable. Writing poetry is a way of understanding what I cannot. A way of piecing together my life, what feels broken, and what I haven’t set my eyes on yet.
George Seferis, in his essay “A Poet’s Journal,” says, “But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, with what you will never find again” (71). It feels like I have developed my own language in between the pages of my notebook. Love, joy, betrayal, heartbreak, and so much more all churn together in my stomach and mind to create something. This “something” is often poetry. It is not easy to define, as Seferis also says, “Suddenly you discover that you’ll spend your entire life in disorder. It’s all that you have; you must learn to live with it” (73). My life as a poet is about what I can make of it, how I can use both my elation and my turmoil to create something beautiful and worth lasting.
Char says, “A poem is always married to someone” (60). My poems are married to the version of myself that sits down to write at that moment in time, and also to the versions of the people who are in the poems or who inspired them. I often employ apostrophe without realizing, calling out to who I love, who hurt me, or both. Paul Valéry, in his essay “A Poet’s Notebook,” writes how “to imagine is only to understand oneself” (171). Through my imagination in poetry, I can see myself in a truer, more beautiful fashion.
My body vibrates with emotion. If I kept it inside and did not release my thoughts on the page, ink would seep from my heart through my veins and my skin until my insides rotted away. Catharsis is an absolute necessity, to spit everything out and start to breathe again.
As Seferis says, there is “this vital need” (74) inside me to write. Most times the moment does not wait until I have a pen and paper in hand, so I currently have almost two hundred poems typed in my notes on my phone. Recently, I even created a folder for them all to help me keep track of them, because those poems, the ones born spontaneously in the moment, bear the most fruit when I sit down to flush them out and explore why that line or idea popped into my head.
a voice that can both break and build. break bridges. build walls.
the arms around me tonight have no face.
all your kisses left paper cuts i didn’t feel until now.
i withdrew myself from being at the whim of you.
stretch marks: evidence my skin has clung to my bones against all odds.
The instinctive nature of this is key to my survival. Wendell Berry, in his essay “The Specialization of Poetry,” writes, “It is a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home. The poet goes to his poem as other people have gone to the world or to God—for a sense of his own reality” (143). I seriously feel most at home in my poetry. The act of writing is the act of creating a home for my soul that lives between each line. Why write? As Günter Kunert says, “The reason is perfectly simple: to live” (136).
i remember the moment
it paralyzed me.
uncut diamonds in my stomach
i had to crawl to the bathroom.
the time goes by too fast.
i want to keep the bubbles
in my lava lamp.
pop, pop, pop.
go my knees
to the sweet rhythm of graphite
and ambient noise.
on paper is the only place
i can relax.
let it out. it go.
you’re not paralyzed. you’re kneeling.
you’re not drowning. you’re healing.
For me, poetry is not always a solitary experience. As a performer as well as a writer, I think about my audience. I think of people reading my words or hearing my cries and feeling the same. Feeling relief in the fact that I feel the same. This drives me forward when my spine wants to collapse in on itself.
Not only does poetry allow me to breathe again in the moment, but that moment is forever captured in time. My poems keep spirit records for myself and the world. Kunert reflects on this:
To write: so that something happens that everyone secretly wishes—that moment, for a moment, might be lasting and might be reawakened again and again. To write: a wavelike spreading out in all directions that knows no boundaries and encompasses and illuminates ever more, and ever more the unknown. To write: because writing constitutes nothing final but only provides impulses; because it is an endless beginning, a constantly new first time, like intercourse or pain. As long as one writes, ruin is averted, it doesn’t all slip away; and that’s why I write: to bear the world as it steadily crumbles into nothingness. (138)
This quote is everything. I find so much relief in writing as an endless beginning, for me and for my community. By community, I mean humans in general, but especially people like me. As a queer woman, I am documenting my life and all of its constantly new first times, because my identity is an art form in itself. As a spiritual being, I truly feel like I have no boundaries, that time is not linear, and everything I feel connects to everyone who feels the same, again and again forever.
To expand on this and the idea of boundaries, I may feel like there are no boundaries for me, but that was not always true, and this is not true for everyone. Char says, “Recognize two kinds of the possible: the daily possible and the forbidden possible. Make the first, if you can, the equal of the second; put them on the princely way to the fascinating impossible, that highest degree of the comprehensible” (64). He plays with the idea of making the impossible possible through writing, and I feel like I do this in my writing too. To reference the first section of this essay, my poem called “Things I Wish I Could Say to My Girlfriend’s Mother” was a way of doing what I was not able to: tell that person exactly how I felt. This is a spoken word poem I practiced over and over again and each time I became lighter and lighter on my feet, able to do the impossible and express these feelings in my own way. The same can happen on the page. I have written about heartbreak infinite times as a way to understand myself and bridge the gap between what I feel is possible and impossible for myself.
Things I wish I could say to my girlfriend’s mother
You can’t bully me into falling out of love
No amount of death threats will pry my heart
From your daughter’s hand
And besides lady, you don’t know me
I am not a bad person
I am the most genuine being you’ll ever lock eyes with
Not the devil’s work
But the ink from God’s pen
I bleed permanence, not sickness
My sexuality is not a disease or a mental illness
And how could you blame your daughter
It was you that kicked her out
I got the call late at night
My heart turned to stone when I realized I was 2 hours away
But with a phone call I was able to give my girlfriend the peace you deny her
With your rejection came a blessing
She spent the holiday season with me
Being we don’t get much time together
Since you like to keep her prisoner
We enjoyed our time
But I’m dying to ask you
Do you think she likes waking up
In a home that isn’t hers?
Or that she doesn’t miss you?
Do you even consider the trauma
To be rejected by her own family?
To hear the words Worthless, disgusting
Escape the mouth of someone who claims unconditional love?
Lies don’t seem very religious to me
If it were my choice, the day I realized I was in love with your daughter
I would’ve screamed it from the top of mount everest
I would’ve been loud enough to make music on every ear drum
You’re the reason why she kept our relationship a secret for so long
Even if our legitimacy doesn’t resonate in you
Like any couple we fight hard but we love hard
We bring out the best in each other
I’m tired of you playing victim
You are not at fault for your ignorance
But your pride is toxic
We are all choking on it
Your knuckles are white, desperate attempts to keep your eyelids shut
We are all affected by your inability to loosen your grip
And despite you
We are still able to share laughs so light we sprout wings
Our saliva is the honey, sweet kisses leave us buzzed
People like you are why love always wins
You may be a steamroller but so am I
using my strength for good
Still she has repeated herself so many times
It doesn’t have to be that way
It doesn’t have to be that way
You are twisting it like she chose me over you
She is choosing herself
You have exhausted every argument
you wanted to drown yourself in holy water
To get the devil out of your house
You were a doctor trying
To cure your daughter’s love for me
Now, since she is too strong to believe you
I am the master manipulator
The one who turned your daughter gay
You cannot bully us into falling out of love
Our stories still exist no matter how deep you try to bury them
The way they scream 6 feet under is sure to keep you up at night
Language is a miracle. I love to play with sounds and images and create new things. This gives me a sense of purpose and joy and connection to the world around me. This is how I fit into the world, snug in the arms of nature, confident in the body that is me.
Although each poem is a creation, I agree with Kunert when he says, “The lack of freedom in every literary effort increases proportionally, and variability decreases, because all that succeeds is what promotes transformation; everything else comes about halfheartedly or not at all” (137). In other words, if you do not write what comes naturally to you, you might as well be “a living corpse,” unable to grow and shift in the world. Only recently did I discover the relevancy of this to my own writing. Over the summer of 2021, I submitted three pieces to a literary magazine that commented on how all of the pieces felt elemental and esoteric because of the nature imagery. I had not even realized that I referenced nature in all three of my poems, but after they pointed it out, I noticed that nature finds its way into almost all of my poems. But that is what comes natural to me. Connecting my own being and life to nature is how I transform; I cannot change this and I would not want to.
and why they wouldn’t tell me there’s another choice
made for lungs like mine made to dip into
miss milky moonglow river
and drown to life.
nostalgia for the love i’ll never have
would be a distant balloon
but far away
filled with the smoke that steals
things i wish i could say to my girlfriend’s mother, part 13
don’t you know
she is a geyser that can’t stay quiet
and trapped anymore.
holding it all in is killing her
so she spits water droplets into an
with everything she wishes she could say
with everything she wishes you would
understand even if she did
muster up the courage to blow.
are the yellowstone
supervolcano that has already burst
and left her life in shards of ash
and bubbles never the
that leave surface.
instead they sit sit sit
there there there
until i get the call at 4 am
until i am the one who drinks her tears
so she can continue to whisper
while you listen from across the hall
until i am the voice on the other end
reading her a fairytale
so she can pretend the bubbles are blue
my body is not a temple but
the whole sky
the sidewalk i march on
is made of rain-soaked clouds
my freckles are pieces of
that never left
they knew they belonged on my skin
the inside of my thighs was always meant
with the color of her
purging this rain
every animal squeals in beloved dissonance
and relearns how to dance
every daisy remembers how to bloom
and nods its center towards me
all living things
are bathed in a deep blue
in my arms
made of hail
fused together by that
summer night smell
and her selfless love
The same is true for writing about my recent heartbreak. My god, did that wreck me, and it continues to cause me pain. I have written about thirty poems in the span of a few months, and most are about her. I cannot help this. It is what pours onto the page, and it has saved me. I cannot imagine a world in which I am a poet that did not gravitate toward writing these things, and the world is made better because of my authentic poetry.
Moore quotes John O’Hara: “‘There is in one room in one day of one man’s life, material for a lifetime.’ The artist does not—as we sometimes hear—‘seek fresh sources of inspiration’” (225). This rings true in my work. Poems can feel fresh but familiar all at the same time. But above all, the poetry has to be authentic. Valéry writes about how “poetry’s special aim and own true sphere is the expression of what cannot be expressed in the finite function of words. The proper object of poetry is what has no single name, what in itself provokes and demands more than one expression. That which, for the expression of its unity, arouses a plurality of expressions” (173). But above all, “A poem’s worth is its content of pure poetry, that is, of extraordinary truth” (176). We employ the art of poetry to express the inexpressible, to bring to life what is too complicated to communicate in earthly, linear terms; it requires something else, something divine and round.
In poetry is where my spirituality lives, and I know many poets feel the same way. A.D. Hope, in his essay “The Three Faces of Love,” explores the idea of creation in writing, how in a way, we are becoming God (117). When we write, we are God; we access divinity in creativity, by creating something out of nothing using language. Wallace Stevens, in his essay “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” quotes M. Brémond regarding a similar idea: “one writes poetry to find God” (52). Whether we are searching for a higher power or becoming one, it is undeniable that poetry’s ability to “[fix] ephemeral beauty” (45), as Luis Cernuda says in his essay “Words Before a Reading,” gives poetry elements of magic that perhaps no other art form has.
Many people are turned off to poetry because of years of schooling that taught them their interpretations of a poem were “wrong.” But if everyone had the opportunity to dive into Ars Poetica, they would find that that is an insufficient way to view the art form. I hope that my poetry is able to access people and show them the beauty that lies there, with no need for a “right” meaning, only their own. As Stevens says, “When we find in poetry that which gives us a momentary existence on an exquisite plane, is it necessary to ask the meaning of the poem?” (53). Tina Chang sums up this idea beautifully. In an interview, she said, “I remember being asked by teachers, ‘What does this poem mean? as opposed to the more important question, ‘How does this poem make you feel?’” This should be the focus whether the poetry is being studied in a high school AP classroom, an introduction to poetry workshop, or an MFA program. Once we figure out how to implement this viewpoint on a larger scale, humanity will be better for it, as I cannot think of anyone who, after diving into poetry in this way, does not embrace poetry in some form.
Berry, Wendell. “The Specialization of Poetry.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 139-157.
Cernuda, Luis. “Words Before a Reading.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 42-48.
Char, René. “The Formal Share.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 59-65.
Gibbons, Reginald, editor. The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art. The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Hope, A.D. “The Three Faces of Love.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 110-121.
Kunert, Günter. “Why Write.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 136-139.
Mandelstam, Osip. “The World & Culture.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 16-23.
Moore, Marianne. “Idiosyncrasy and Technique.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 215-230.
Seferis, George. “A Poet’s Journal.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 71-82.
Stevens, Wallance. “The Irrational Element in Poetry.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 748-59.
Valéry, Paul. “A Poet’s Notebook.” The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, The University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 170-179.
Wendy. “A Conversation with Tina Chang.” Lantern Review Blog: Asian American Poetry Unbound, Lantern Review, http://www.lanternreview.com/blog/2012/03/22/a- conversation-with-tina-chang/#more-5270. Accessed 30 Nov. 2021.
“another,” “things i wish i could say to my girlfriend’s mother, part 13,” and “gaea’s grandchild” were first published in Queerlings Magazine. Thank you to Queerlings for believing in my work, especially the pieces I hold closest to my heart.
This essay was originally written for my intermediate poetry workshop during the fall 2021 semester at Montclair State University. Thank you to my professor, Dr. Nicholas Samaras, for assigning this essay and inspiring me to think about why I write.