Two years ago, as part of my hometown’s annual literary festival, I competed in a teen poetry slam. For winning, I was given the opportunity to open for two of the headliners, Major Jackson and Robert Wrigley. It was a poem about my father dying. I read it from memory so the page wouldn’t shake.
After the show, I was flooded with enthusiastic praise. Everyone wanted to shake my hand, and more than once I was asked what I was going to do when I grew up, and I started to feel dizzy. I was sixteen years old and confused, and vaguely certain that wherever I went, it would somehow be disappointing.
I slipped into the bathroom where a woman washing her hands said, “thank you for your poem. I am grieving right now.”
And then she left.
I relaxed then, and realized the poem I wrote, though it was about my life, had little to do with me anymore. It was cast off. It was me standing in the middle of a tunnel, tapping the wall, and someone had found the sound useful on their own journey. Whenever I write a poem, this is all I let myself attempt to do.
Most days I feel entirely powerless. I spend countless hours working on what ends up being a stack of papers. I have been writing for as long as I can remember, but it always came from a place of insecurity. As I child, I wanted to be a writer or an actress, because they both felt like ways of avoiding living a singular life. Rather than being one person experiencing the world one way, I would be able to change characters.
And it’s true: on its own, poetry will not change the world, or bring back the dead, or even always be able to make us feel better.
But now I am able to see there is an underlying cause to write that might not be entirely founded on indecision. The power of a poem comes from what it is communicating, and how.
This power does not belong to poetry exclusively. It is in everything. All human endeavors are connected, in some way, to the same driving force. It is this web that binds language to social change, suffering to pleasure, giving birth to driving your child home from soccer practice. I write while others paint, play music, practice law, make legislature, design homes, sell real estate. I write even when it feels like I am doing it for the wrong reasons, because I have to trust there is something more to this than personal satisfaction and catharsis.
I am still young and learning and immensely curious, and while I am continually frustrated by the limitations of language: its rigidness and finality, I will always be drawn to the written word.
Every time I go on stage to perform a poem, I scan the audience for the face of that woman in the bathroom: the person who is hearing what I am saying, and finding it useful. And whenever I read a book, though I am seeing every word, I am looking still for her face. I am looking for a mirror.
In my head, I sometimes refer to poetry as an empathy exercise machine. We lend ourselves to the outlooks of others. We may ultimately reject them, as is our nature, but for the moment before that: before turning the page, or looking down to send a text at an open mic, we are being stretched to be more than ourselves. I want desperately to be more than myself.
So I write. I write because if I cannot change the world, I want to understand it. And if I cannot understand the world, I want to observe it. I will observe this world as openly and articulately as possible.
Lauren Gilmore lives in Spokane, WA. She writes poems, stories, and love letters to strangers. In 2013, she was the winner of Spokane’s yearly Grand Slam, qualifying her for both National Poetry Slam and the Individual World Poetry Slam. At IWPS that year, she was spotlighted on finals stage. Her work has appeared in Riverlit, The Wireharp, The Floating Bridge Review #7, Railtown Almanac: A Spokane Poetry Anthology, and Drunk in A Midnight Choir. Her first full-length collection of poetry, “Outdancing the Universe” will be available from the University of Hell Press in 2015. Her goal is to one day translate the word “butterfly” into every language.