Laura Madeline Wiseman, Kathleen Aguero, Elliott batTzedek, María Luisa Arroyo, and Ann Bracken
On Poetry and Transformation: A Conversation with Four Poets from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013)
Laura Madeline Wiseman: How do you view poetry as a transformative art?
Kathleen Aguero: Appealing to the rhythm of the body, the logic of reason, the insight of intuition, poetry lodges in our psyches to reveal itself in one dramatic instant or slowly over time and, thus, transforms us. Fragments of poetry I memorized as a schoolgirl come back to me at the oddest times. When I'm walking or washing dishes, these lines from Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" may pop into my head:
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room
She saw the water lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me, " cried
The Lady of Shalott.
The romance, dramatic rhythm and music of these lines hold obvious appeal for a nine-year old girl, but something besides pleasure in their sound cause them to remain with me, revealing more and more of their possibilities. I suspect as a child I intuitively grasped what I can only begin to articulate as an adult: the reckless longing that when acted upon may bring both liberation and doom, the paradoxical necessity of acting on it, the confinement of female subjugation, the vulnerability and common fate of us all. The changes they began in me as young girl continue to unfold in me as a mature woman.
Very different lines from Audre Lorde's "A Litany for Survival" that I read in my late twenties have also stayed with me as a talisman:
…and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
These lines achieve their transformative power not simply from their obvious truth but from the incantatory rhythms and stark images that precede, opening me to receive them physically, mentally, emotionally. The image that startles us into understanding something in a completely new way also transforms us, as do, for example, these lines from Linda McCarriston's "Green" about boy/men sent to war: "Shocks//of them are bound and sent/still green, to ripen in the shipping like tropical//produce." The poet's use of imagery and metaphor encapsulate the way we squander what we claim we love and produce in me sorrow and rage deepening my sense of something I profess already to know. Surely such moments in poetry literally change us—shift chemicals, create new paths between neurons—and in some lab scientists are documenting what we sense instinctively.
When writing, as I place one word next to another, those words build to create rhythms, images, meaning, both within and outside of my control. In struggling to create a poem I both shape a previous experience and create an entirely new experience, so, in a way, the very stuff of my life is changed.
For me these are the ways that, both as reader and writer, poetry slowly works its immutable transformations.
Elliott batTzedek: Words don't flow from meaning—meaning flows from words. Shift a syllable here or there, free a phoneme, dare to let the music choose its own lyrics, and what you know and what you feel veer out of the orderly lines and dart across the border beyond which There Be Dragons.
And honest poetry is the language of dragons translated into human tongues, or how human tongues speak Dragon.
Or maybe poetry is the place where I get to be a dragon.
Or poetry is what my Dragon-self and I create together, turning words into fire and flight.
As a poet, I try to turn experiences and emotions that exist outside of language into songs my people can sing. Like how I started this small essay a few inches above this line, determined to be smart and profound and deep, to craft carefully each syllable, until lines led to across led to border led to beyond which led (through a childhood soaked in fantasies of escape) to Dragons and now here I am, no longer a poet but a vast leather-winged beast with a voice that shatters stone walls and breath that burns walled cities to ash.
There is in every poet such as beast as mine—my Dragon-self, nostrils flaring, smells friend worth dying for or foe worth the fight. Most, I think, sport wings and armor or claws large as tree roots or eight sets of legs to dance an army off a cliff.
And for all of us poetry is our compromise between destroying the world and loving it. Or is the power of destruction transformed into love. Or love translated into the power to destroy.
A poem that is only what it seems to be is not poetry. Nothing is poetry until you catch a scent that makes you shiver, until what your brain reads and what your body knows diverge, until you catch out of the corner of your eye a shadow that strikes the nerve that knows you might yet be prey.
If at the end of a poem you are who you were when you started the poem you have not dared to dwell in poetry nor dared to let poetry dwell in you.
Ann Bracken: I don't remember writing many poems during my growing up years, except maybe a few love poems for early boyfriends. I never sent them, of course, they were just locked away in my pink diary secured with a fragile lock. I remember beginning to keep a journal and to write a lot of poetry when I experienced the unrelenting pain of a seven-year migraine and four-year depression. While my mother had suffered from chronic depression and alcoholism her entire life, when depression descended on me in the Fall of 1993, I was determined to find my way out. I think writing, especially writing poetry, really helped me to shape that dark experience into the most transformative event of my life so far.
I wrote about the despair I felt and about wanting to die. I wrote about feeling like I lived in a large plastic box--that I could see life, but I was not a part of life. I wrote about the fights that my ex and I had over my depression. His cruel words that condemned me to a life of blackness, a life where I would never get better. I remember writing once that it was as if we were castaways in the ocean after a ship had sunk. I was holding on to a lone plank of wood, paddling towards the hope of rescue. He was holding on to my legs, pulling me down, crying that we were never going to make it. I remember telling him, "I'm going to get better in spite of you, not because of you."
One day after a fight, I wrote down the dialog that had just occurred between us and as the words appeared on the screen, I remember thinking, "That's how my father used to talk to my mother." I kept typing. Then the breakthrough happened. I typed, "That's not anger. That's abuse."
In that way, the depression was a gift. What I realized over time was that the crucible of illness had exacerbated my ex's abuse to the point where I could actually see it. The twin tools of journaling and poetry served as my tools to craft a bridge over the chasm that my 25 year marriage had become. Journaling and poetry helped me to discover the portal to my new life.
Poetry continues to help me transform my experiences that can speak across time and space. Speak to abused women I meet. Speak to women who are confused about their lives. Speak to women who know something better is possible for them. That is the greatest transformation of all.
María Luisa Arroyo: A multilingual Puerto Rican woman poet who grew up in the North End projects of Springfield, MA, I began to read and to write poems at the age of 9. That age was crucial to me as a person and as a poet, because it marked my school transition from the so-called bilingual program into the gifted and talented one. This meant that my English exceeded my Spanish, mainly, I must add, because there were no educational opportunities back then for me to maintain my native tongue. I remember marveling at the power of reading aloud original poems in English in front of my teachers and classmates. Poetry then meant playing with words I taught myself in English from a tattered American Heritage dictionary. I realized then, too, that I could use my spoken voice just like my violin to engage positive attention.
If poetry in school helped me to cultivate my joy in poetry, poetry at home for me, especially as a teen, simultaneously meant carving out mental space for safety and privacy. In a Spanish-dominant home with boisterous brothers, Mami, a second-shift factory worker, who loved us but feared Papi more, and Papi, an alcoholic musician and foundry worker, who honestly felt that beatings were the best way to discipline and to control us, I learned how to make myself invisible by hoarding library books to read, journaling, and writing original poems. Poetry mattered because I learned how to use words to name the experiences I was having at home and in school. Reading poetry by other poets and writing my own original ones kept me from imploding while living a split life between home- a volatile, frequently violent, Spanish-dominant space- and school - a safe, largely positive, English-dominant haven.
A first-generation college student, I intentionally chose German to study in order to have another language I could call my own, even at the consternation of my first-year college advisor, who admonished me: "Puerto Ricans shouldn't take German." At this writing, I have spent more years of my educational journey immersed in German, especially in poetry and literature by women, than I have in Spanish. A few of my professors: Margrit Lichterfeld (Colby), Dr. Gloria Ascher (Tufts), Dr. Judith Ryan (Harvard), even accepted my process for writing scholarly papers. An open-minded yet resisting womanist reader, poet, and woman of color, I engaged German texts by responding first with original German poems.
My independent reading of poetry collections by Judith Ortiz Cofer, Ai, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy, and Sharon Olds challenged me and gave me the courage to transfer the indelible truth of personal experiences, even painful ones, into narrative poems. Thanks to these and other poets I have adopted as virtual mentors, I use poetry to resist the silence around domestic violence, child abuse, and other social injustices as much as I use poetry to illuminate that each of us-regardless of age, background, or ability-has the capacity to use poetry as a viable means for self-expression.