Poetry began for us as incantation and prayer; as words arranged with power to transform minds and hearts. Its spell saved my life. At 14, after a turbulent childhood, I ran away and lived as a squatter in Los Angeles alongside other unwanted and forgotten children and adults on the streets of America. I kept a notebook whose cover I inscribed with Plath’s famous quote from The Bell Jar, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” Those words reminded me I was human and what happened to us was real. They became my raft in a sea of madness. Within the pages of that notebook, I recorded the beauty, wonder, traumas, and injustices we experienced and witnessed daily. I survived and eventually reintegrated into mainstream society. The friends I left behind died, were imprisoned, or vanished without a trace. I went on to college.
As a biology major with a dream of saving the rainforest and a love of poetry, I was inspired to take action by Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. Her words pressed onto my consciousness with the immediacy of a blade to the throat, “It is not your right to feel powerless. Better people than you were powerless.” It seemed everything I’d survived paled in comparison to the suffering of those on the frontier of environmental destruction. On the flimsy promise of a job with a conservation-centered nonprofit, I left school, sold everything I owned, and moved to Ecuador. The job fell through, but on a chance encounter, I befriended Moi Enomenga, leader of the indigenous tribe, the Waorani. Moi invited me to live in his home village of Quehueri’ono, and treated me as an adopted sister, showing me the generosity and wisdom of his culture. During my time with his people, I watched war rage between the Waorani nation and the cancer of government-sanctioned land exploitation. I kept a soggy, dogeared copy of Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting in my things to remind me to always pay attention. To write write write what I saw.
I made poetry my religion and learned from the masters: Clifton, Rilke, Komunyakaa, Sexton, Frost, Hayden, Gluck, and Donne. I dedicated my life to the study of this magic. With time, I learned to organize my thoughts in meter and stanza. My own heart pumped iambs. Years later, I finally was able to tell the story of my homelessness in Los Angeles with the publication of my first collection of poems. Unfortunately, by then the last of my friends from that period in my life had died. They will never know their names and stories found a home. Poetry’s power moves me to keep working. I began writing the manuscript for my second full-length collection last year after a late-night phone call with Moi. “We have many books written about us,” he sighed, “but I trust you. You’re like family. I want you to write one that tells things from our side.” I’ve made it my focus to communicate his wish with these new poems.
For me, the Power of Poetry is its ability to cast a spell of anger, love, sorrow, shame, joy, or a new perspective through words. It’s sorcery. Poetry’s power is a classroom of usually apathetic students jumping and shouting wildly as they watch a great performance of a poem on TV. The Power of Poetry is the change it inspires. Its power has altered the course of my life and the lives of countless others. For millennia, it’s been a catalyst, friend, confidant, and bullhorn. Its strength endures. That is the Power of Poetry.
Lauren Brazeal’s first full-length collection of poetry, Gutter, centered on her homelessness as a teenager and was published by YesYes Books in 2018. Her individual poems and essays have appeared in journals such as Waxwing, Verse Daily, Barrelhouse, and Diagram. She is currently earning her PhD in Literature from UT Dallas where she is working on her second full-length manuscript, written with the collaboration of members of the indigenous Waorani Nation of Ecuador. In addition to her writing, she is the founder and president of Fundación Warepo Beye, a non-profit organization which provides emergency medicine, medical supplies, and provisions to Waorani communities in crisis.
Thank you deeply, Lauren, for your witnessing in words. You are the light. And yours the power of poetry. Karla