No, not all poetry is going to have the same level of therapeutic value. And the effect it will have on you, much like with counseling, will depend on your relationship to what you write and your willingness to engage with it fully and honestly. You can choose to gloss over the surface of what you feel, or avoid inserting yourself into the persona of your poem (though that tends to be impossible to do fully, as some bit of you will sneak into the content). Or you can directly engage in the wealth of experience that you have and begin to mine it for art, but also for the growth that comes with that engagement and the inspiration it can provide to others. Your experiences, memories, emotions, beliefs and other aspects of the life you have led up to this moment offer ample fuel for amazing art, and that art—that willingness to embrace the honesty of your existence within the art—can carry an incredible amount of inspiration with it for your readers.
Let’s take a moment to think about what we do with memories. Where do they come from and where do they go? There is an incredible amount of research that has gone into theories of memory, but let’s try to be intuitive about it and think perhaps metaphorically, outside of the literal, scientific reasoning, about how and why our memory works as it does. My mentor, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, in her classes and workshops, as well as her excellent book on craft, Writing Poetry to Save Your Life (which you can order from Amazon via this link—and I strongly recommend doing it if you have any interest in writing poetry), talks about the model of memory as a cave deep inside us, where everything that has ever happened is stored away. Some things go deep within the cave; some are closer to the entrance; some, perhaps, are as far back as possible, down a secret corridor, hidden behind an eight inch thick vault door. This cave of memory is where we store the experience of our entire life, and our willingness to go into that cave affects our ability to engage with ourselves as true selves. You can choose to only engage in the things you have placed at the mouth of your cave, but that is not likely to deeply inform your art, nor is it likely to be a great way to run your life.
Some people think of memory like a hard drive. Some think of it as a vast warehouse. Some specialists in memory talk about the construction of memory castles as a mental tool for improving and accessing memory with greater control and precision. Whatever your vision of memory is, you are likely aware that it is multi-leveled and that it is not always easily controlled. Sense memories in particular can be a problem—smells or tastes that remind us of another time so strongly it is almost like we are there. In many ways, PTSD is a malfunction of memory—the mind turning memory into the present moment through an illusion that leaves the person thinking they are back in a past moment of danger. Sometimes thinking back to a pleasant memory will bring up an unpleasant one, unbidden. Much of this has to do with our repression of memories, our inability to deal with them or confront them. Indeed, often we try to deny their existence at all.
What are the forces which keep you from going into your cave or warehouse or accessing the hidden files on your hard drive? In Writing Poetry to Save Your Life as well as her workshops, Maria talks about the idea of the crow, which whispers to you all of the terrible things you have ever heard that caused you to think badly of yourself or not to try. Sociologists or psychologists might theorize how different interpolations of shame play a role in our avoidance of our memories or our desire to cut and run from the pieces of our pasts that might haunt us.
Which brings us to an interesting concept. Haunt. Our memories that haunt us. One of the more archaic meanings of the word “haunt” is a place frequented as a feeding ground by a predator or group of predators. The memories that haunt you, eat you. Ever heard that phrase, “What’s eating at you?” Or perhaps, “Something seems to be eating at him lately?” Those memories we won’t deal with, that we pack away, we allow to haunt us. We begin to feed ourselves to them in small ways, and they will take larger and larger pieces from us over time. This impacts both our physical and mental health. It leads us into bad choices, bad decisions, destructive behaviors.
Am I going to say that poetry will cure everything? No. But it did a really good job for me.
Let’s talk about my cave. Previously on this blog, I’ve discussed my original relationship to poetry (unhealthy), and the earth shaking change that came with sitting in my first workshop with Maria at SUNY Binghamton. I entered that room braced to have to sit through diagrams of the components of villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets, and told to iambic my pentameters until my rhyme schemes died from the rhythm method (or something like that). Instead, she told us about caves and crows and telling the truth, and I was so disarmed that I just did it. The poem that happened was not something I had expected at all. I had anticipated writing measured verses about logs and regimented stanzas about vaguely defined love interests. Instead, I wrote about my grandfather, and not in some general, carefully guided, restricted way. I wrote about him in a way I had never allowed myself to admit that I thought. I wrote about loving him, like any good grandson would, but that it was a difficult love—that we didn’t have much in common, that there were many ways I was likely a disappointment to him, that there were things we simply weren’t allowed to talk about and I sometimes resented having to not be myself around him. Most of all, I admitted that sometimes when I visited him, I couldn’t wait to leave. That being with him often reminded me of the ways in which I could not meet his expectations, and that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about the areas of my life that I thought were most important. Admitting that allowed me to start thinking of our relationship in a different way. I started to do my best to simply appreciate him as he was, and to accept that I would build a life of my own whether it met what he wanted from me or not. While this didn’t completely assuage my guilt, it was a step in the right direction. I didn’t necessarily feel all of this when I first wrote the poem. It came over time with reflection on what I had written and accepting the honesty of it. In the end, what it provided me with was a few years at the end of his life where I loved my grandfather with honesty rather than out of duty.
And that was just the first poem I wrote.
People who know me or are familiar with my work know that I deal quite a bit with a difficult relationship with my family. I started to write poems about losing my mother when I was 16. I started to write about going for several years without speaking to my father at all, dealing with his mental illness, and trying to rebuild a relationship with him which at that point I had been attempting to do for over a decade. Again and again, I started to find myself deeper inside of the cave, and I was learning about myself the whole time. I began to realize the resentment and anger I carried toward my father was earned (though I’m sure he would disagree), and that maybe some relationships aren’t worth saving, and I walked away. Some people might say this is the opposite goal of what someone should accomplish in therapy. I would respond they have better relationships with their parents. Walking away from my father and my family, while difficult in many ways, turned my life around. All of the drama and stress, the late night phone calls about the same problems over and over again, and the constant fear that someday I might wake up and find out I was suffering from the same mental issues he had started to go away, and the energy they had taken from me began to be channeled into healthier portions of my life. I let go of my fear of not being a good son and accepted the reality that to be a good son in his eyes would mean derailing my entire life.
This, by the way, was something I had spent almost 20 years in counseling trying to figure out. I got there within four months of writing poetry from inside my cave.
Should poetry replace counseling? No. Absolutely not. But it can supplement it wonderfully, and for those who have been resistant to counseling, fostering the attitude that leads to good poetry can also foster the attitude that helps you to heal, and your poetry can help others as well.
Often, this type of poetry is called Confessionalism, a word that has become somewhat derogatory over time. The original Confessionalists, such as Sylvia Plath, put painful personal truths front and center in their poems. Some people see this as emotional regurgitation. Journal entries with line breaks rather than actual poetry. But if poetry is about finding beauty in even the un-beautiful, how can Confessionalism be thought of as anything other than that? And the poetry of the personal is not necessarily only confessional. Confessional as a concept implies the unburdening of oneself, but the application of that term to this class of poetry ignores the ways in which the poetry can also be helpful in unburdening the reader as well.
Often, beginning writers aim for the general in their poems. They worry that if they focus on the specificity of their own experience, they will alienate their readers, who do not share the same experience with them. This is even sometimes taught in beginning writing workshops or in high school creative writing curricula—don’t be too specific. Unfortunately, the opposite is actually true. Specificity creates the sense of reality. Detail is at the root of the genuine experience of poetry, and while a reader may not be able to relate to the exact moments that a writer writes about, their powers of empathy can be evoked through detail. They may not have had the same experience, but they have likely had the same emotion, and perhaps that ties into an experience of their own. Your poetry may help someone else to grow, to enter her own cave and begin to grapple with the clutter in the far corners.
This has already been embraced in many support programs for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are many deeply affecting books that are coming out now as a result of their experience. Writing this poetry has helped these writers to process the experiences they have endured, and many other veterans have been able to read it to begin their own process of healing as well. Poets such as Brian Turner have been leading a charge within contemporary poetry for the voice of the modern soldier to be heard in ways beyond jingoism and calls to combat. They have dealt with the reality of war and its aftermath, and they are marking the way for others to heal as well.
One book that was life changing for me is a chapbook by Dustin Brookshire called To The One Who Raped Me (which is available from Sibling Rivalry Press by clicking this link). Dustin writes very personally about his rape by an ex-boyfriend, with an intense bravery and honesty I thought I would never see. It was a difficult book for me to read, because every page reminded me of the rape I had avoided writing about, avoided talking about. It wasn’t a complete secret—there were some close friends who knew about it at least as an event that had happened—but it wasn’t something I shared the details of, or talked about the effects of, or even did anything about. It was something I just carried around inside me, locked up very tightly, and once in awhile losing control of it and watching it lash out when some guy said, “You like that, don’t you?” or I smelled the cologne from that night. I didn’t think it was something I could talk about, or that people would even want to listen. But I read To the One Who Raped Me one poem at a time, sometimes having to read them again, sometimes having to set it aside because I’d taken all I could of it. It was walking me to places in my cave that I didn’t want to go. I read lines like, “I could have screamed/like I was told to as a child/if someone touched me inappropriately./Instead--/I asked him, politely, not to./Then I told him no./Then lay paralyzed,/hands pressed to the bed/like Jesus’s hands to the cross,” and I was back inside my freshman dorm room, or I was inside of the weeks after when I kept wondering why I hadn’t just screamed or kicked him or tried to hit him, or I was trying to tell my RA what had happened and giving up when he laughed because he thought it was funny, like I was joking.
It’s not like I never tried to write about that night. I had turned out some heavily veiled attempts at poetry that read like refrigerator magnet art and no one would have understood what I meant without my explaining it. But reading Dustin’s book made something change in me. I suddenly understood what it could mean to talk about it—not just the healing factor for myself to finally deal with it, but that it might reach someone else who remembered what it was like to have their arms held down, the backs of their throat battered by an uninvited person who was going to simply take whatever he wanted from them. I understood that there was not only power in speaking up, but the ability to maybe empower someone else as well.
I was fortunate to read with Dustin at the OutWrite Book fair in Washington, DC, last summer as part of the Sibling Rivalry panel, and in a horrendously awkward and garbled speech, I tried my best to thank him face to face for what his book did for me. At the time, I still wasn’t fully comfortable talking about it, and I’m sure he probably thought I had some sort of speech disorder. I had only read the book a few weeks before, and it was still processing for me, but it allowed me to start approaching the idea of beginning to put my own rape into words. It took me until December before I could finally force myself to sit down and write the first poem, and I cried most of the time I spent writing it, and I sobbed uncontrollably when it was done and couldn’t sleep that night because I was afraid of the nightmares it would trigger for me. And, briefly, I thought about burning it. But I did something different. I read it at a workshop. And I cried while I read it (which, if anyone knows me at all, they know made me furious because I HATE crying in public), but I wound up not being the only one crying when I was done, and there were several other people in the room who came up to me after while I was still shaking and feeling like I might be sick, and they told me about their experiences, and what it meant to hear someone else discuss it as well.
That poem, “Police Line,” went on to be published in MiPoesias. At the time, I had no contact information to include in my biography, so I haven’t heard from anyone else who may have read it and been affected by it, but I hope that, somewhere out there, there may have been someone who felt a little bit less alone, and maybe found it in themselves to begin confronting their own experiences as a result. And I have begun to write other poems about it as well, to try to encourage the healing of a wound that I allowed to be open for far too long, and maybe to help with the conversation that Dustin started with his own book. What I wanted most to tell him when I spoke to him at the reading was that his book helped me in ways that I probably never would have allowed anyone else to do. His honesty and his courage to tell his story made a huge difference in my life in terms of coming to grips with an event that was almost 20 years old at that point and was still very much on the surface for me, no matter how hard I tried to avoid it. It’s still something that I am dealing with, that I am still trying to write about with great difficulty, but I’m dealing with it finally, rather than just pushing it away and pretending it never happened. Poetry can save your life, and hopefully Dustin Brookshire realizes that his poetry has likely saved more lives than just mine.
Your poetry can help you too, but you need to go into your cave. You need to be willing to take on the memoires that are in there—the good and the bad, because sometimes even our good memories are ones we suppress. One other thing I began to realize as I wrote was the number of people who I loved deeply who I had forced myself to pretend to hate when they had hurt me, whether intentionally or not. I had especially done this with some of the men I had loved most in my life, because pretending to hate them was much easier than admitting that I was hurt. As I began to write about them, I began to bring up the good memories—the good things that had happened, the feeling of what it had been like to be loved and in love, and I let myself embrace that and the goodness and wholeness of that rather than holding on only to the pain that came with it ending. It changes your life immensely when you suddenly remember loving and being loved, rather than the fallout of a break up.
This doesn’t come easily, and it doesn’t come immediately. You have to expect that it will take time. The cave has a ton of things inside of it—an entire lifetime’s accumulation, and you have to move the things in the front out of the way in order to get to the things that are further in. And each memory you encounter may be something you need to reencounter several times before you completely process it and understand it and are able to be honest about it or to find at least what most closely resembles the truth of that memory for you.
One of the keys, one of the most essential pieces, of this process, is not allowing yourself to over think your writing. Don’t let your brain intervene with what’s in your gut. Don’t let the crow or whatever force there is that has stopped you from dealing with the contents of your cave cause you to second guess yourself or to say, “Oh, but I can’t write that.” Truth is often going to be surprising, because often the truth is the thing we are most likely to hide from ourselves, especially the difficult truths. In workshop, Maria allowed us 20-25 minutes to write a poem. I follow this in the workshops I run as well. You may gasp and think, “Impossible—no one can write a poem in that short a time.” One, yes you can. I’ve done it; Maria does it repeatedly in every workshop, and shares them with us; and I have watched my fellow participants in her workshops and my own students in my workshops do it time and time again. Two, 25 minutes doesn’t allow you to start revising it before it’s finished. It doesn’t allow you to think, “Oh, now I just can’t write that.” It doesn’t leave room for, “No, no this will never do.” It forces you to take on your memory, your topic, and to simply write about it, and sometimes, in the rush of creation, you will suddenly let the truth slip through—the real truth that maybe you put in a box inside a box and then stashed in a corner somewhere. Three, you’re writing a first draft. You’re not worrying about it being perfect—you are worrying about it being honest and having something to say. If you’re worried about finessing it or making it fit to a form, that comes afterwards. But the initial draft—25 minutes, and you should probably be able to fit a bathroom break in there as well. No, you’re not going to write Beowulf, but Beowulf has already been written, and no one needs to write it again. So 25 minutes. Including a bathroom break.
When you have those moments when your poetry affects you—when you have an emotional reaction to something you’ve written yourself as you are writing—then you know you have written something powerful, moving, and most importantly honest and genuine. It is these truths that begin to spill out that will set you on the path to examining your life as a whole.
On a side note, I would like to return, briefly, to Sylvia Plath, who it would be difficult to say was saved by poetry. Sylvia Plath represents when poetry does not save us, but if you read her poems carefully, you may be able to see why. Most of her poems, at some point within them, almost always near or at the very end, dodge away from the truth just as she is arriving at it. There is a sense in most of her work that she declares everything to be “just fine,” when even a casual reader who knows nothing of her biography or how things turned out for her in the end can tell you she’s further away from fine than Pluto is from the sun. Even her novel, The Bell Jar, after a frank and honest dealing with mental illness throughout, arrives at a final chapter that tonally seems tacked on and artificial. It’s the happy ending that didn’t really exist in a story that was mostly pulled from her own life experience—the happy ending that never actually happened, the one part of the book that most definitively makes it fictional. If we were going to talk about Sylvia’s cave, we would talk about a cave where many of the boxes had been opened, peered into, and then promptly taped back shut and pushed further toward the back of the cave. Is it her unwillingness to deal with the honest circumstances of her life that killed her? Probably not. She lived in a time when it was difficult to be a woman in the arts, suffered prolonged serious mental illness that was not treated properly, and does not seem to have had a great deal of positive support in her life. At the same time, I sometimes wonder what how things would have turned out if she had admitted after sticking a stake through Daddy’s “fat black heart” that she wasn’t actually “through.” Maybe, had she acknowledged that that was just the beginning of that journey, there would have been many more years of her work, and she may have had a much longer and happier life.
In terms of your own writing, I hope the prompts that are included under the resources for writers are something that might help you to begin your own explorations of your memory. I will periodically be rotating new prompts in, so please check back from time to time to see if there is something else posted that helps to trigger the process of exploring your cave and unpacking the memories that are stored there.
July 25th: Updated to include links to order Writing Poetry to Save Your Life and To the One Who Raped Me.