In 1994, at age 22, I started writing. I had big questions and a lot of inner turmoil. I felt at conflict with myself and key relationships were suffering. I sought answers to my life, tried to make sense of the chaos. I became drunk by the process of it all. Find a perfect blank book, and then ruin it with scribblings and musings. I found my voice and the work took form. It looked like poetry, read like prose.

I then got it in my head that I had to read my work out, in public, as if I knew that was a thing. Living in D.C., I learned there were options, lots of open mics. I went around, sought a venue I was comfortable in. I landed on Kala Kala, a jazz bar with poetry on Sundays. It felt right. To prepare, I had drinks in a bar called Hell, same street.

The first time I went on stage, I read the most painful piece I had written, the one that was the most revealing, the one that broke the seal and from which everything afterwards flowed. The audience laughed. They didn’t laugh at me; rather, they liked the words, thought some were funny. In that moment, I experienced catharsis. I was so pained and confused about life, so self-consumed, I missed the humor.

And then, it clicked. I needed to embrace the farce of it all. Strike a balance between the dark and the light, if I wanted any chance at life. I took a step back and laughed too. It was all absurd. The only choice was to accept it, succumb to it, revel in it.

The whole time, I thought I was alone. But there were people just as pained and confused as I was. I found my community. I found my church. I kept returning every Sunday, sharing work I had written during the week. We commiserated and became friends. My Sundays started and ended in Hell. I carried a blank book and pen with me always, I was writing constantly.

Kala Kala closed, but my trips to Hell continued. After chatting up the owner, I started a weekly open mic series there. Poetry in Hell. I ran it for two years. The ritual became: writing, reading out, editing and honing. Repeat. And being open to opportunity whenever it presented itself.

My journey began 25 years ago (as of this writing). My 22-year-old self would have never conceived I’d be running my own indie press today. University of Hell Press.

I was shopping my first book. I had a specific vision for it and discovered it wasn’t going to be realized by any press I admired. So, I endeavored to publish it myself and decided that my book needed a brand. The spirit of Hell had never left me, it evolved into University of Hell. It felt both irreverent and smart, subversive, potent.

The power of poetry? It saved my life. I wouldn’t have survived my 20s without it, and definitely not my 30s. I was spiraling in self-destructive behavior, but writing kept me busy and engaged. I know that poetry has the power to save others, I’ve experienced it. Like all art, poetry has the power to transform.

Greg Gerding is the Editor-in-Chief of The Big Smoke America. He is also the founder of University of Hell Press, an indie press that publishes irreverent and thought-provoking literature.

Photo of Greg Gerding by Dean Davis for his Pictures of Poets project. http://picturesofpoets.com/

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