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Surviving The Poem

Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes

In March 2011, the midterm of my last semester of undergrad, I sat in my thesis advisor’s office, waiting for feedback on a recent packet of poems I had turned in. Specifically, I wanted to speak to her about a 2-page experimental poem. The piece discussed, in few uncertain terms, that I had recently been sexually assaulted (as are nearly 1 in 4 undergraduate women). It was my first attempt at rendering this particular subject matter in my work as a poet; no one else had yet to read it.

It was a rough draft employing a form that was experimental for my 21-year-old self: whitespace, strange words, incorporation of found text. I knew, instinctively, that writing about my experience with assault would be something I had to do. I knew, also, that as a dedicated poet, it was necessary to write well and with ingenuity. With graduation looming, I meant to challenge myself, to create meaningful work that would help me be successful beyond the measure of a letter grade.

I expected my advisor to offer some sort of words of support and acknowledgement, and mainly to offer advice on how to improve my draft. What actually happened is that she made it clear she did not want to discuss the elephant in the room, that she actually felt disdain toward the subject of my poem.

“This poem is too content driven. It should be language driven,” she told me. “You need to take the subject matter out of this poem.” I was advised to run my poem through a surrealist exercise called “N+7,” one where you change all of the nouns in the poem to another seven spaces away in the dictionary.

In short, I was told to write about something else.

So I did. I changed the poem, using the method she advised above, and brought it into class. While I remained silent, as are the rules of a peer critique workshop, my classmates discussed the merits of what they had read as a love poem.

It was a pattern I’d see in the reception of my work for years to come: the rendering of my assault interpreted as romantic, a failure of myself as an author combined with the invisibility of rape in my literary circles.

My professor’s comment about language vs content would be one that haunted me. As I transitioned into the typical post-graduate struggles of revolving-door jobs, I also became more enmeshed in the literary world of Chicago. Eventually, I found my way to arts/activists communities where I did much curatorial and organizational work against sexual assault. I continued to write, but even as I grew as a person, my writing did not. I often wondered why I was able to articulate my political views in action and dialogue, but never in my own writing.

Avoidance is a symptom of PTSD, particularly in the wake of sexual assault. It’s a form of denial or suppression, an inability or unwillingness to confront. Avoidance is often reinforced by a culture that fails people who live with trauma, and literary communities are no exception.

The silencing message I first heard from my thesis advisor was often repeated by my literary peers: no one wants to hear stories of sexual assault. This subject matter is cliche, it’s uncomfortable to listen to, it’s depressing, it’s not entertaining enough or original enough or important enough to warrant art making, why write the “rape poem” when it’s been done so many times already? I heard this at open mics when hosts felt the need to crack tone-deaf jokes after a reader divulged their experiences with violence on stage. I read it in literary magazines, when testimony from fellow survivors was mysteriously missing from pages. And I heard it in peer workshops, where men were praised for bringing in poems about fucking, but poems about sexual violence incited debates about whether or not they were “necessary.”

Eventually, I realized my former advisor’s comment was a misguided criticism. I began to question its authenticity. I also began to oppose the dismissiveness of rape in my literary community, vacating the reading series and drop-in workshops of Chicago that favored machismo.

Soon enough, I found more radical poets and communities that shared what I already knew: that poetry is often inherently political and can, in fact, be a force against marginalization. I started going to a new reading series called Surviving the Mic, a monthly open mic explicitly dedicated to performance-based work for writers living with trauma. I was eventually invited to feature, and then become a co-facilitator. The reading series became my church; the fellow members of the organization (particularly its founder, Nikki Patin) were like my siblings, each making important and boundary-shifting work in both form and content.

Finding kinship with other poet-survivors created a necessary growth in both my personal recovery and my work as a poet. I let go of the idea of art being apolitical–I was experiencing, first hand, what a binding force it could be for individual health and community-building. Amazingly, I found that when I did work of this kind, whether in the action of writing poems or the action of building communities, I was able to help others, too. In essence, I looked to other survivors to lift up, and in turn, they lifted me. I brought these ideas to my practice as a teaching artist, and found myself able to create similar communities with my teenage students, many of whom were living with their own traumas, and who needed an inclusive, creative space as much as I did.

I also finally began writing poems about violence. Often, they were codified or vague rather than explicitly personal, but eventually, I had enough to make up a manuscript. I used that manuscript to apply to MFA programs, focusing on the idea of violence and identity as components of poetics. In a sense, pushing back against my experience with sexual assault led me back to school.

By the time I started my MFA, I anticipated that I would move beyond this “writing interest,” read new works, find other things to write about. I remembered all too clearly how my previous experiences in academia did not want to see a poetic landscape in which violence could exist. But, inevitably, in the third week of my MFA program, I wrote a poem about my sexual assault.

The poem was the most direct and personal I had ever written; it was also the most experimental, relying heavily on conventions of visual poetry and other experimental/hybrid qualities to make its point. The act of writing it, and then subsequently knowing I would have to share it in class and gauge the reactions of my peers, was suddenly highly emotional. Its composition involved digging documents from the night of my assault out of a folder in the back of a filing cabinet I carried with me from Chicago to Miami. As I worked through the rough draft, I found myself experiencing anxiety attacks. To get back in my body, I unrolled my yoga mat for the first time since I moved. I grounded myself in my body. I stretched. I searched YouTube for a guided meditation for PTSD episodes, and listened, eyes closed, back straight, allowing myself to cry.

I felt uncertain of my poem’s worth or value, particularly for an academic audience. In addition to the fear of the merit of my work, I was apprehensive of the opposite: that I might be coddled, seen as unstable. I feared that if I spoke candidly about being a victim of sexual violence, I would not be taken seriously.

Wondering whether it would be better to not bring anything to class at all, I wrote my professor a brief, vague email, something about how I was thinking I wasn’t ready to share my assignment. Obliging my request to speak further in person, she penciled me into her office hours the day before class.

In my professor’s office, after I blurted out a few ambiguous sentences about my insecurities, I finally unsheathed a single sheet of paper from my folder and handed it to her. In silence, she read the poem. She reread it. She repeated the final line aloud to herself. Then she looked back up at me.

We began to address my concerns: whether or not it was a successful poem in a literary sense, i.e., whether or not it “worked.” We then discussed how to introduce it to my peers in a way that discouraged caretaking. Eventually, the conversation moved to address problem of sexual violence as a whole, as I began elaborating on my past negative experiences in sharing work of this nature.

“The last time I wrote a poem about something like this for class, I was told to make the poem about something different,” I explained. My professor’s eyes flashed. “It’s okay now, but–”

“It’s not really okay,” she responded. “Saying something like that makes you into a victim again.”

“What I mean is… I’m fine,” I told her, adjusting my posture. “This all happened a long time ago.”

“How long ago?” she asked.

“Six years,” I replied.

She smiled at me. “That’s really not a long time.”

As a knee-jerk reaction, I began to explain to her that it really was, how much I had grown and accomplished and healed, the different measures of distance I put between me and my past. But then, when I began to accept her words, I felt immense gratitude. It felt like she had given me permission to exist. That I need not merely defy my memories, make them as small as possible, only a part of an artistic exercise. She allowed my trauma to be a part of me, without (as I had feared) making it all of me. It was a permission I needed.

By the time I shared the work in class, I had a rehearsed disclaimer: “I know this is hard to read. But I had to write what I was compelled to write. Please don’t worry. I don’t need to be taken care of. I’m here to talk about the writing.” To my amazement, my work was well-received on a critical level. The discussion did not dissolve into a group therapy session, nor did they choose to separate the content from the form. The classroom became the one I needed: one where my narrative was seen as valid, but my work was visible as poetry, where, for once, my real life experiences did not disqualify me from being a serious artist.

Now that I’m halfway through my first semester of my MFA, violence has permeated nearly all of my compositions, as they did in my path back to school. This isn’t to say my work hasn’t grown–if anything, my poetry has taken drastic leaps in terms of experimentation, sometimes inventing new forms or new types of hybrids. By being allowed to be the poet I am, I’ve been able to reinvent my writing concepts more quickly than ever before. Not having to fight for permission to be visible means I’m asking for new types of permission, challenging artistic boundaries rather than perceptions that do not include my experience.

I write this because it’s important for literary spaces–inside and outside of academia–to recognize trauma, especially trauma that is intrinsically related to oppressive forces. Testimony from people who have been marginalized by violence is often silenced and dismissed. Too often, this pattern is repeated in artistic spaces. However, that erasure is not attributive to the lack of value or place for art of this kind. Rather, the opposite is true: it’s symptomatic of a space that is more interested in replicating oppression than confronting reality.

Art created from a place of trauma is absolutely necessary. It’s one of the most poignant, undistilled forces of healing in this world. Even as ivory towers strive to ignore it, the nature of this power means it has always been and will continue to be a necessary part of the literary landscape. It may even be what gives its shape.

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