I Don’t Believe Anymore That Poetry Saves Us
The psych ward of a hospital at 3 a.m. sits heavy with a palpable silence. I sit heavy inside this heavy silence heaving breaths at the wall. Breathing is not always a chore, but tonight is perched atop my chest something like a brick, or rather, a wall of bricks. Pretend for a moment I was lucid enough to walk my way out of this room, out of this hallway, out of this hospital into the waiting arms of night. Pretend the waiting arms of night held for me anything other than a world where the person who owned my heart hadn’t just that evening downed a bottle of pills; hadn’t just downed a bottle of pills that were mine. Imagine for a moment I was somewhere on a beach, or a mountain, or a train—pretend I was somewhere I could breathe.
Maybe eerie is the wrong word for the color of the walls in a psych ward—ivory white—and distortive as a bottle of absinthe to the face. Maybe I imagined the silence cut only by the way I repeated her name every hour on the hour, an instinct of grief. Maybe I wasn’t lying to the nurses when I said I wouldn’t try to kill myself when they let me out, but they knew better. Everyone knew better. And so I sat, arms folded overtop my knees, rocking back and forth at the center of a small cot with a sheet crumpled around my ankles. This was one of those arresting moments in one’s life—the poignant stillness of magnitude, wherein the seconds pass slowly and you realize either a momentous satisfaction with your existence, or you realize just how deep in the shitter you actually are. This was one of the latter-of-those-two-moments.
Amid escalating levels of grief and a newly developed tendency towards psychosis, I snuck out of my room and behind the circulating nurse’s desk. I stole a pad of post-it notes, orange ones. I stole a pen, the color of which I no longer recall. I sat on my feet in the hallway scribbling. In poor handwriting I scrawled: I don’t care to be good, sheriff, I care to be whole; I scrawled: You are not weak just because your heart feels so heavy; I scrawled: Today means amen in every language. All night I wrote every line of poetry I could remember by heart and pasted the post-its to the wall. At one point, a nurse attempted intervention, but her supervisor stopped her. Within a few hours the entire wall was filled with post-it notes. Some of the other patients soon filed into the hallway to see what the commotion was. They stayed to read my barely-legible notes. There were four of us seated cross-legged, sliding across the tile to peruse the quotes in succession. All night we rotated positions in the hall until I was sent home. That night poetry saved me. That night poetry might’ve saved all of us.
I dropped out of college the next month. I dropped out and worked in a lab for gene therapy. I worked in a lab for gene therapy and went to therapy. I went to therapy and took long drives. I took long drives and spent time in the hospital. I spent time in the hospital and found the right meds. I found the right meds and held down a job. I held down a job and spent time with my friends. I spent time with my friends and played golf. I played golf and quit cocaine. I quit cocaine and started running. I started running and quit painkillers. I quit painkillers and started writing poems. I wrote enough poems I finally got good. I finally got good enough to find my way into an MFA program.
Not all MFA programs require teaching in the community, but mine does. Each student is required to plan and orchestrate creative writing workshops for one semester. There is the option of setting up your own internship with a pre-existing organization conducting workshops—some of them operating during after-school programs, some of them in prisons, some of them in juvenile detention centers, some of them in libraries, and others elsewhere. But there also exists the option of being placed with one of the program’s community partners who’ve expressed a desire to host creative writing workshops but don’t yet cooperate with a pre-existing teaching organization. Every semester there’s a few of these that want to test the waters in lake Poetry Workshop and so reach out to our program. They’re a huge help to students who might not be as connected in the community and don’t have the knowledge or contacts to get involved with some of the existing groups.
During my internship semester there were four community partners: a rehabilitation program, a homeless shelter, a juvenile detention center, and a trauma therapy group at a local hospital. The last of these was introduced with a caveat—We’ve sent students here who weren’t a good fit. The facilitator is looking for someone with a whole lot of patience and experience in dealing with people suffering from mental illness. I wasn’t sure about the patience part but the experience with people suffering from mental illness was something I had. Despite my reservations, centered mostly in the fear of even recalling my own traumas, I signed up to teach workshops there. Something about it felt right in a way I can’t pin down or specify. Maybe it was like a round peg fitting in a square hole after its circumference has been shaved down by a rotary saw. Or maybe it was the idea that my own traumas might make a good fit for once instead of disqualifying or disadvantaging me in the ways they tend to do.
I was honest with Amelia, the group facilitator, when first I met her. She wore dark, thin-rimmed glasses and often donned blazers. She spoke measured and softly, as if having rehearsed each utterance before she said it. I told Amelia: “I’m bipolar and schizophrenic, I’ve been in group therapy, DBT, and out-patient programs; I think I’m a good fit.” I stopped short of telling her I get it—what it is to be healing as a full-time job. I get what it means to try and salvage a life. And tacitly, she agreed, I had a chance at fitting in here, at being the right person for the job.
There are fifteen people in this room, we sit in a circle. In a circle we eye each other delicately. We eye each other exchanging knowing glances—there’s a new person in the group. There’s a new person in the group and it’s me. Me, the shifting, nervous one. Nervous about being back in a psych ward and nervous about having to teach. The psych ward wraps around a corner and into a long hallway lined with doors. Doors leading to offices, doors leading to therapy rooms, doors leading to more doors and patient rooms; patient rooms that open and lead into the hallway leading to this room. A room of seniors and twenty-somethings; of bankers and bus-divers; of college students and mothers; of men who’ve known the hardness of life and those who’ve been held more softly by time.
The first Friday I taught my workshop at the hospital I fumbled the metaphorical football. I had the students do some dodgy writing exercise using as many adjectives as possible to describe a noun of their choice and then write a poem incorporating these. It was a momentous failure. The students had no idea why we’d done this or of what benefit it was to them. The thing is, when you’re struggling to scrape a life from the dirt, everything has to be important. The students, once released from the hospital, will come three times a week and spend three hours here going through group therapy and DBT. Balancing that with work, family time, and coping with mental illness becomes all they can muster. So when I tell them, without any justification, to write poems, they pine for their time’s purpose.
The next week I sat with them and explained: When I was sick, I wrote. When I was sad, I wrote. When I had given up all hope, I wrote. There was something sacred about the act of creation; something restorative about the pseudo-language and liminal spaces incorporated into poetry; the writing into a place of emotional truth and subconsciousness, wherein you could distinguish the specific circumstances of your current existence. The students took to it gradually, learning to see the possibility of uncovering their interiors or grappling with their transient states of circumstance.
I don’t imagine myself to be the kind of person who can swim. I learned to swim by thrashing about. This thrashing, it carried me through the tides. In these tides I learned how to advance against an ocean. My ocean was the shape of my body, the shape of a child growing into shoes too small for them; shoes not meant to be worn but rather left under the bed until forgotten about. I forgot the long-winded answer to the question of survival. I spent years relearning it; relearning there are many kinds of surviving. The kind of survival I required was rooted in creation of something from the darkness. From the darkness I had to cultivate something beautiful, a monument to the passage through suffering.
Care was required when choosing which poems to bring to class. Each of the students possessed complex traumas to cope with. They could be triggered by any number of a host of things—anything from the color red to mentioning certain names could be a trigger. Amelia instructed the class: “Take stock of your emotions. If you’re higher than a seven on a one-to-ten scale in terms of intensity level, do some coping exercises before you write. If you write when your emotions are too intense you could stumble into things you might need your personal counselor’s help dealing with.” It was a tightrope—choosing the right poems and exercises that would teach them the ins-and-outs of writing poetry and generating content, all the while keeping the students feeling safe and in control. Each student’s drastically different needs and abilities weaved a complex swarm of laser lines to duck and hurdle over.
Cynthia avoided writing in workshop, listening carefully in the corner, slurping from her Speedway Big Gulp each morning, having chosen soda over coffee for her morning caffeine fix. In lieu of writing, she would draw complex spirals and interconnecting lines, often imitating optical illusions she found online. Her group icebreakers always mentioned something about her children, what they had done this week, what they had said to her, how she felt about them. More or less there were assigned seats in our room, and though members of the group rotated out eventually, there was a consistent cohort. Cynthia sat closest to Ellen, a gruff woman who often wore hats and took nobody’s shit. Ellen had been hardened over time, sometimes sharing snippets of her past in poems. She started writing as a teenager, mostly poems, but some stories as well. During group discussions Ellen and Libby participated most, extremely keen on sharing their ideas about poems—I like how the poet makes a list and deviates from each item before coming back to the idea of the list, or This makes no sense, do poets sometimes use words just because they sound good in that spot?
As I got to know each student’s personality and tendencies I made better lesson plans. We recalled favorite photos and sketched them before writing ekphrastic pieces about the images in our minds. We talked about the happiest moments of our lives and relived them on the page. We wrote odes and elegies to things that held our hearts for any period of time. Together each week, foraging through the medium of poetry, our rag-tag group congealed into a cohesive whole. Over time, each of us learned the others in a new way—Sky became comfortable enough to come out to the group, asking us to use they/them pronouns. Ellen shared her fear of dying without being remembered. Sarah found the strength to talk about her divorce and being a single mother, which fueled her heart-breaking poems.
“Our condemned house / Hands sinking into the soaked plaster / water constantly leaking through the house / more ceilings collapsing in each minute / black mold spread… A sole can of waxed beans in the cupboard.”
—Excerpt taken from a student’s poem
My apologies for skipping the good parts. I forgot to tell you about the butterflies—how each Friday we’d count the butterflies in the room together: the paintings and wall art; the stickers and woodwork; the hanging chrysalis spinners. I forgot to tell you about the poems. Odes to violins and the cracked floorboards of childhood homes; recollections of the happy moments in the procession of time; a hodgepodge of lingual experimentation. We made things together—Cynthia who sat in the corner and sketched during each writing workshop; Parnell, who served in Afghanistan, who rocked back and forth in his chair; Libby making eager comments and scooting her chair ever-forward.
Not a single one of us went unchanged, especially me. Now, where before I used to sweat and jitter upon walking into the psych ward, I would step concisely and comfortably. Where I used to get dizzy and anxious, I was controlled and gregarious. Where before I was hesitant to open up, I now embraced an acceptability—that I had something to offer to those who are in places I have once been. Even my own therapist noticed a newfound searching during sessions, a resolve towards openness and confronting the rough parts of myself. I felt useful and encouraging; I felt more confident in my own recovery; I had watched people heal in ways I thought to be insurmountable obstacles.
For ten weeks I taught workshops. For ten weeks we came to share our sorrows and hopes, sitting in similar places in life, though our circumstances be different. In those moments I was reminded of a Ross Gay quote: “Everyone…lives with some profound personal sorrow…Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated…Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is this sorrow the true wild? And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?”
“What’s the strangest thing about you? / Is it the way you see the light inside the dark? / Finding comfort in the ugliness of the damaged / The broken / The dead / Is it the joy and laughter you carry during the storm? / The way you run towards the thunder, / arms reaching to the blackened sky? / Is it just the way you’ve learned how to survive? / Staring destruction in the face / And daring it to try.”
—Excerpt taken from a student’s poem
For the last workshop, I decided to do something quick and easy. There were fifteen-minute breaks between each of the hours during “group,” which lasted three. Breaks were precious and I wanted to reward my students for their hard work this semester. This was my pittance of a parting gift. Instead of taking our usual hour together, I took half, packing up my bag and readying to leave after the students had shared their poems for the final time. Amelia stopped me—"Whenever someone leaves our group, ‘graduates,’ as we say, we go around the circle and give feedback.” I sat back down, crossed my legs hesitantly, and braced myself:
Cynthia- “I’m not really a writer because the PTSD has my thoughts all jumbled and it makes me feel stupid. But the exercise we did today was fun. It was the first time I’ve been able to write this way, probably ever. It took me a lot to get to this point and I want to thank you for getting me there.”
Danila- “I haven’t written poetry since high school, you reminded me of how great it was to express yourself. I promise I’m going to keep writing.”
Geoff- “I was nervous about some people in the group, I wasn’t sure if they’d take to poetry, but the people that I was most nervous about appreciated it most. I think they got the most out of it.”
Amelia- “I was worried because some of the people we had brought in to teach workshops to previous groups weren’t great, but from the moment I met you I knew you were going to be awesome, and my suspicions were correct. You came in and flourished.”
Libby- “I love poetry, I wrote it when I was a little girl and had forgotten how much I loved it. I write every day now and I’ve checked out three books of poetry from the library. It means the world to me to have found this again.”
Harriet- “I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of poetry because I had done so much analysis of poetry in my high school AP English class that I started to hate it. I also didn’t know how it would work in the group dynamic, but the moment I met you I realized how gregarious and bubbling with enthusiasm you were. It was hard not to fall in love with what you cared about so much. You made everyone feel so special and validated with their writing, it wasn’t just a “good job,” you went on and on and gushed about everyone’s work and made them feel like they had written a masterpiece.”
Parnell- “I’ve never been a writer. I never thought I would care about poetry. But lately I’ve been reading more and started painting again. That’s something I haven’t done since before I was deployed and it’s nice. It feels like I’m finally starting to be myself again. I’ve gotten to the point where I wake up on Fridays and say ‘oh it’s poetry day’ and have it be something I look forward to.”
Ellen- “Today I had a rough morning. I was in a bad mood and wanted nothing to do with anyone. After seeing how much fun everyone was having, I totally forgot about my morning and it gave me an escape. I got lost in it.”
I sat there listening to all of this, holding back tears. I said something unremarkable and made my way to the elevators as everyone filed out of the room for their break. Libby gave me a hug, I held back more tears. Harriet told me she wished I could stay, Amelia thanked me again. I rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked to my car. The whole drive home I cried.
I didn’t expect to save these people, that’s an unfair assumption to make. In fact, it’s problematic. To assume the weight of any other person is to carry too much, if we imagine ourselves able to do that. But we can’t. It’s metaphorically and physically inappropriate to do so, if not downright impossible. At worst what I gave these people is an uninteresting activity, at best it was a distraction. But this distraction could be meaningful. Caught up in the mundane is our grief and existential emotional struggle. Each day, we are tasked with repetitions and obstacles among haphazard events we must navigate. Being alive is exhausting, being engaged while alive is even more-so. But for once, people interacting with poetry have the opportunity to step away and imagine themselves, or other worlds, as they wish. In a healing way maybe, but also in a dreaming way, in a searching way, or in a way that could be reprieve. This is what I think I gave them—the opportunity to make of their world, if even for a second, whatever they saw fit. And I think this tool and incidence aren’t only useful, but also powerful. I don’t believe anymore that poetry saves us, we’ve always done that ourselves, but I do believe on some level it can help us heal. I saw it myself—each of us salvaging soles from beneath our beds and finding that for once, the shoes in our lives fit our feet. This year I learned the ocean of my body. This year poetry healed me. This year poetry might’ve healed all of us.