The Power of Poetry: Some Slightly Connected Thoughts on Crafted Vulnerability, Stage Fright, Beauty, and Gratitude
– Stevie Edwards
Anybody who has seen me read poems on stage very often knows that some days I still shake like a newcomer, that sometimes I hide my face behind my book at readings, that despite preparation and a general (although frequently wavering) belief that I’m a fairly good poet – I often struggle to inhabit the tiny hells recreated in many of my confessional poems when on stage.
I have been meditating a lot on why reading my poems in front of people is so uncomfortable for me. I’ve often received positive reinforcement after readings. I’ve never been swept off stage Apollo-style. I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying the performance of poetry. I even watched every single episode of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam at one point. But, although I’ve improved in expression and am less likely to have a full-on anxiety attack on stage than I was six years ago when I first took the mic, I usually feel like I’d rather jump in front of traffic than give a poetry reading. The thing about the moment a poem leaves my lips and enters the ears of strangers or friends in the audience, is that it’s not mine anymore. I lose control of the stories and emotions I’ve distilled into a series of sonically-pleasing, aphoristic lines. I have to face judgement. Maybe a shaky hand is the soul’s refusal to claim its body that collects scars and histories. I wrote for years in journals without showing my writing to anybody. Sharing my poems was never really the point for me. The point was getting the little ghosts out, putting them into quarantine, saying good riddance. I often feel nostalgia for that privacy, but I also know that I was very lonely and isolated in it.
Right now I’m sitting in my dining room with a cup of green tea that’s steeped a little too long. It’s a half-furnished rental, and the chairs don’t match the table. Sometimes my roommate’s dog bolts down the hall and wants me to pet her, and I do. I can pin the story to this page about how I got a dog for Christmas when I was seven and didn’t take good enough care of her. How my parents were busy with a new baby and depressed and broke and struggling in ways I didn’t understand. I can write how the dog was dirty and untrained. How once I found maggots in her food bowl on the back deck and didn’t care; nobody had bothered to empty it in weeks, just poured more and more dog chow on top. How she lived to be a smelly seventeen despite negligence. I can pin the story to this page, too, about my cousin’s husband who kicked a puppy to death while their children were in the next room. I might have gotten some details wrong. It’s not even my story. I could probably even tell it in iambic pentameter or a sestina if I felt like it. I can make any shame or horror I want stand still for a moment. When I say it aloud, it starts to flap its terrible wings, to fly straight for my eyes—fear of judgement, a swooping rabid bat, always.
I tried to kill myself a couple of weeks before my first book, Good Grief, came out. I kept trying to write a transition sentence to this paragraph, but any logical transition into explaining that you tried to kill yourself is mostly a lie. There were a couple bottles of bipolar meds I kept “forgetting” to take. I fell down so hard when they got hold of me that I chipped my bottom teeth a little. Bruised my hipbone too much to walk. Puked myself alive. Woke up a failure. It wasn’t my only suicide attempt, but it was my first in eight years. My life was going fairly well on paper. I was studying in a fully-funded MFA program at my top choice school, essentially getting paid to write poetry. I had won a book deal that I didn’t expect to win. I remember my reasoning for the suicide and it still scares me—I didn’t think I could handle going on a book tour and I felt like I either had to go on tour or give up poetry. I couldn’t imagine living through either. It’s easy enough to type that here. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my doctors or therapists, for years after. I tried to die. It didn’t work. I woke up on a Sunday thinking it was a Monday and emailed my fiction professor about needing to miss class because I wasn’t feeling well. He emailed back saying that I didn’t know what day it was, that I was confused. He was right. Rather than explain the suicide, I claimed a bad bender. That seemed like a reasonable confession for a twenty-something writer. Weren’t writers supposed to be self-combusting drunks? Wasn’t that the image I was fashioning myself after, anyways? A version of that story became the first poem of my second book, Humanly, which I lived to write and see published despite my best efforts. Of course, I was both right and wrong when I thought I couldn’t do a book tour, that my nerves were too bad, that I couldn’t get on stages in front of strangers every day and read them poems about things I wouldn’t even admit to my friends. I could do it, except for the false belief that kept saying I couldn’t, that vulture on the bed (or air mattress or couch) each morning on tour that always squawked whiskey or anyone else’s body, a series of bad ideas about what escape could look like. I chased that image until I got sick of it—or rather, until my life got too sick.
For nearly a decade I have been writing toward a poetics that helps me feel like I can control my life; by my life, mostly I mean my brain, which has always been a pretty chaotic place. The power of confessional poetry for me has been less about cleaning out my closet and more about organizing the yard sale. There are boxes that go straight to the dumpster. Here’s a thoughtful display of the junk of my life you will see. Look at it neatly arranged in couplets or a sonnet box. You may take it with you for $15 if you promise to leave the premises immediately. If you’d like to talk to me about it, for most of my “adulthood” I’ve asked the common courtesy of bringing some Klonopin or chardonnay. Or perhaps a set of giant pins to mount me to the wall like an insect, to make me sit still in the story and stop reorganizing it into something more aesthetically pleasing, something easier on the eyes. But I think as uncomfortable as sharing my at times highly personal poems has been for me, it has ultimately been a gift. The number of people, especially women, who have come to me and said they felt validated and less alone after reading poems I’ve written about sex, suicide, shame, and other taboo topics has made me understand the need for that type of poetry. Knowing that my poems have made others feel less alone makes me feel less alone. Weird how that works. There are also many poets whose crafted vulnerability has validated me, especially Rachel McKibbens, Jan Beatty, and Jericho Brown. I am so grateful for the bravery of those who have dared to live in their truths without shame because it makes my living seem a little more possible. I know it seems dramatic to say that poetry saves lives, but I think it can help us stare down shame and feelings of unworthiness, and those things can destroy lives. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to get free of myself, and poetry has helped me to envision myself as free. And having a good vision for yourself can be a very powerful thing.
I have this idea that I want to start writing poems that help me get out of myself, to stop trying to get my story straight or slant or whatever it is I was doing in my first two books. But right now I’m looking at a rose bush out the window and am thinking about pricking my arms while weeding around one as a child. I can smell the heavy fertilizer of the Horrocks greenhouse in Lansing, where my mother and I would pick out new flowers to plant every May. Right now my right boob hurts due to an infected piercing. I wonder if my mother has ever wondered if I have any body piercings. She caught me with a self-pierced bellybutton as a teenager and didn’t seem angry. Right now I am worried about the security deposit to my last apartment, which was supposed to come in the mail this week but didn’t. I am thinking about how I’d like to buy a computer desk and more bookshelves with some of the money. My story is always going to be part of what I see and feel when I look out the window, but I am less interested in getting myself right these days. I want to get what I’ve known of the world as right as I can. I want to know more of the world. There was a time when I didn’t want that.
Baldwin has said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” I’ve been feeling those words a lot since I moved to Charleston last month. Feeling joy in a place with such active and visible ghosts—acquaintances planning weddings on plantations, a tween with a Confederate flag t-shirt at my bougie morning coffee shop—might require poetry. Poetry allows us to behold the terrible beautiful world in one breath, to hold despair and joy in the same hand. I’m worried that sounds too close to a Kahlil Gibran quote but refuse to Google it. Poems often thrive on dissonance, and finding beauty in dissonance helps me to love this world a little more. I suppose what I am talking about is similar to what Keats called negative capability: “When man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats). I am trying to write poems that stand inside of uncertainty and still find things to praise. And I don’t think it matters if I praise my sore legs that keep walking me home from work each night, or if I praise the relief of night rain in my first Carolinian July, or if I praise an idea of a home I miss, or if I praise the mild infection in my right nipple for not being cancer, or if I praise my friend who has stomach cancer but keeps living beyond the rational limits doctors have suggested—it is all praising living. It is all beholding the terrible beautiful uncertainty of being human and saying thank you. I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than gratitude, and poetry helps me to access it.
I started this essay talking about stage fright and seem to be ending it somewhere else. I have an idea that gratitude is an answer to stage fright but it has yet to be proven completely successful. Perhaps I’m not completely grateful yet. For the first time ever, I’ve been reading poems in front of people without booze or anxiety meds, and sometimes it feels exceptionally terrible. I feel like vomiting and running at the same time, as messy as that would be. I look at the audience’s faces and look at my poem and look at the mic and wish someone else would just go ahead and read it for me. But I do it. And, perhaps for the first time, when people compliment me after readings, I can actually feel their praise. I can see how my work has affected another person and experience that connection instead of wanting to hide in the bathroom or rip my skin off. I think having gratitude for connecting with others, for being alive, for not being a complete pariah, for experiencing and creating an experience of poetry for others, is moving me away from caring about stage fright, which I think limits its power.
Stevie Edwards is a poet, editor, and educator. She is Editor-in-Chief at Muzzle Magazine and Acquisitions Editor at YesYes Books. Her first book, GOOD GRIEF(Write Bloody 2012), received two post-publication awards, the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze in Poetry and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. Her second book, HUMANLY, was recently released by Small Doggies Press. Her poems have appeared inVerse Daily, The Offing, PANK, Vinyl, Devil’s Lake, Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Cornell University and a BA from Albion College. She currently lives in Charleston, SC, where she works for a nonfiction publisher by day and is a poet by night.