Poetry Is A Séance
Ghosts haunt my mind today – many days. Today, they floated in while making preparations for a Halloween poetry séance reading with my monthly online poetry performance group, Performance Anxiety (Thursday the 17th at 8 pm central, reading will be posted on Twitter @performanceanxt). I run this group with my co-founder Tom Snarksy, and it was Tom’s idea to have a poetry séance reading, to celebrate Halloween. His idea for the poetry séance was that performers would read some of their own work coupled with the work of a dead poet to whom they would lend their voice. Online, contacting poets to ask for their participation, I felt giddy about this project because, to me, poetry has such a concrete connection between the world of the living and the dead.
My brain was brimming with the ghosts of my own that haunt my poetry, and there are many – when I saw, online, a prompt for writing about the connection between Halloween and poetry. It was exactly where my head was at today, and so I put aside my poetry reading preparations (sorry, Tom) for a bit to give in to my ghosts. One of my ghosts is even my greatest muse.
Halloween and poetry both tangle with ghosts. Halloween began as a celebration (Samhain) where people dressed in costumes to ward off ghosts. Poetry, on the other hand, welcomes ghosts. These ghosts may be the spirits of the literal dead we attempt to converse with, celebrate or vilifybut keep alive by communication and conversation in print. They may also be the very living humans who have, in fact, ghosted us in one way or another. Some ghost by choice from friendships and romance for reasons necessary or selfish even sociopathic. Some become ghosts beyond their control, removed from a shared space by educations or careers or family concerns – those who may be haunted by our absence as much as we are by theirs.
My poetry is filled with all of these kinds of ghosts. I recently wrote a poetic memoir Dewy Decimals that is the story of my sexual awakening in the library (Hedgehog Poetry, Valentine’s Day 2020). The story is about my use of the library (where I was uncharacteristically given carte blanche to educate myself on anything) to read and learn about sex as a minor. My background was Mormon and complicated by abuse. Every outlet of entertainment, besides books, was highly censored. I wasn’t allowed to watch R rated movies or even watch TV shows as a young girl like The Facts of Life (for the title alone – my parents didn’t watch it either.)
The boy in Dewy Decimals who is my love interest at 17 plays a considerable role in this book. He’s a ghost to me in a lot of ways now in the sense that we haven’t communicated since he attempted to contact me about ten years ago. At that time, we had a nice conversations about our lives, where we were currently at and he paid to send me a huge signed Britney Spears poster that still hangs in my house. He has his own life and a very important career that I know little about. I don’t google him or look him up on social media even, but I think we live fondly as ghosts inside each other’s hearts still. It was nice to revisit him in this book.
I have another kind of ghost, too – one that lives in another of my books, Pink Plastic House. His name is Jeff. When I annotate Pink Plastic House, I elaborate on Jeff’s story which is told in part in the poem Ghosts, which I’m including here today (first published in Anti-Heroin Chic):
You’re either buried in the earth or ash,
a quiz, all tragic answers. Question mark
a scribble on my heart, how deep the gash
you carve in monosyllables. Such stark
simplistic speech, poetic flair reduced
to words like “nice” and “soft, “so preti.” Brain,
in bars, bloomed buds: “gossamer,” seduced
with fingertips on fishnets, now needs to strain
against a tumor, time to thank me for
some sex from twenty years ago. Vocab
of child with grownup memories, I store
a lesson larger than its letters: Grab
ahold of what you caught that you most crave;
these ghosts you think of last before the grave.
Ghosts is a tribute to Jeff, who is my ultimate muse (perhaps in a little competition with another dead one, Shakespeare.) Both played a huge role in my development as a writer. Shakespeare provided the architecture that gave me a safe space to speak about my pain in his sonnet form. He couldn’t get me to publish though. It took Jeff to do that.
Jeff was a poet I knew in college – a friend but like a ghost a kind that gets inside you in even the literal ways. We met at a place called the Mystic Garage, a poetry commune in my town, that put on poetry readings in the giant warehouse where a group of a half-dozen poets cohabitated inside. I sat in the back, often in fishnets and pigtails, never had the courage to read my scandalous sonnets that were different in sound than the free verse renderings that were regularly offered up there. (I had so many insecurities, still do – just don’t them run my life the way I used to because I gave myself up to a ghost. We’ll get to him in a minute.)
Jeff always read though – one of the most passionate and gregarious of performers. After he would always come and find the girl in the back scribbling in her diary.
In bed, he would often tell me how much I should read and express myself and be a part of things. It felt impossible to me, and he didn’t press the issue. He probably enjoyed me watching him and the times we had after. I enjoyed being a part of that community even in my passive role in the audience.
At some point, I stopped writing, had a professional career for a while and got distracted as many grownups do by the living of life – forgetting why it is we are, in fact, alive. Then twenty years later, I got a Facebook private message from Jeff, and I knew immediately from the diction that something was very, very wrong. His eloquence was stunted. His use of language was almost completely destroyed as his body would soon be.
I quickly realized I was having an encounter in life I had never experienced – a person was contacting me to tell me they are dying. It felt like a new kind of virginity I was losing – the worst kind, having a conversation with a person becoming a ghost. He had a brain tumor, and he had only weeks to live. His monosyllables echoed this. There was no doubt it was true and I felt suddenly like something in me was dying, too – a boy who knew me as a writer. When you don’t read your work or publish, there isn’t a lot of them, you see.
I was over 40 years old. I had one publication that only was published because a dom of mine in a bdsmrelationship at 23 had surreptitiously submitted a poem I wrote to him to an editor of an anthology on submissive women. When it was accepted, I consented to its publication and held on to that one small proof that I was a writer for many years. Even it, though, because was published under a penname (so afraid that my parents would find out)
The Jeff I was encountering now was different than his young, hippie, carefree, take- people-as-they-are self. His impending death seemed to have imbued him with an urgency with which I was not familiar, and yet I very much required. I will be forever grateful for what happened next. He asked me flat out, are you still writing? I was so embarrassed to say I was not.
Whereas his younger self, maybe because we had a sexual relationship that in those years was more the focus, would have let it go, dying Jeff did not. He used his small, misspelled words, some of the last gift of language he had left to tell me to do it. Now was the time. You have to do it.
When a person becoming a ghost tells you something like that, it cannot feel more important or urgent. It finally worked. By the time, I saw Jeff’s facebook account one day become an RIP account, I was writing a novel. Weirdly, I went to the prose direction almost as if poetry was too scary to attempt again.
I joined a website to try to work on my prose. While I was there, I noticed people putting poetry up for critique. I had a character in my novel who was obviously a version of me. She wrote sonnets, and I decided to take the sonnets “she wrote” and post them on the site in the poetry critique. I got a huge response to my poetry that gave me the confidence to continue. Then I saw a submission call posted on the site for poetry, and it was for the magazine Anti-Heroin Chic, which I knew nothing about, but I decided to go for it. I received a response in less than a day – and it was the motivation that spurred me on to publish nearly 500 pieces of writing today only three years later.
A ghost did this. He possesses me. I do online readings, video readings – a thing I said I would never be able to do – a thing which I ran off a stage in a graduate school instead of completing the one reading I ever did. I’m teaching a workshop in Mississippi next year on The Succinct Striptease of Short Form Poetry at The Southern Literary Festival. So is Jeff. You see, as he once was literally, he is again inside of me, and when I can’t do these things alone, I let him take over. I’m possessed with a ghost and with poetry, and I recommend it.
That’s the difference of poetry and Halloween. Halloween is associated with ghosts, but the association comes from a ritual to ward off ghosts. Poetry is a ritual to welcome ghosts. Invite them in again. Give them a voice and a space in the physical world. Allow ourselves to be empowered and stronger for their presence than we are alone. Poetry is a séance, and I’m going to have one right now.
[For my readers who know this story, thanks for listening to it again. I try to it as often as possible. It’s my origin story as a writer and it is also Jeff’s origin story as my muse, and we both think it’s pretty special.]
Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of fourteen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House (Maverick Duck Press), Candy Cigarette Womanchild Noir (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), the forthcoming Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press), The Meadow (APEP Publications) and Shut Your Eyes, Succubi (Maverick Duck Press). Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website http://kristingarth.com