In The Wake Of Trauma, Poetry Brings Me Back To Myself

By July Westhale

flickr/m kasahara

As I write this, it is National Poetry Month, which means about as much as any National _______ Month. What I mean is that I, like many people, don’t confine my consideration of subjects that are important to me within the contours of the calendar year. And poetry, particularly — well, poetry is something I can safely say I think about a good deal of the time.

It feels particularly apt at this moment to talk about poetry, in regards to my previous conversation about “craziness” and self-compassion (or lack thereof). It is apt in many of the same ways that it is always apt to talk about the juxtaposition between personal conflict and artistic complication of conflict. This morning, in my come-down after a week of anger and lack of self-compassion, I decided to forgo the stack of reviews and editorial work I had to finish and instead bake cookies and listen to poetry podcasts, lectures, and readings — because that, I’ve found, is the most basic and failproof road back to the self. Poetry encourages thinking, or at least, a restructuring of thought, an economy of thought, a surgery or dissection of thought. And in times when grief and stress make a person so insular that they can only see the writing on their own interior walls, poetry brings a person out forcefully.

In my researching of poetry-related media, I stumbled upon Kevin Prufer’s recent reading at the Ohio University College of Arts and Sciences, which had only recently been made available for streaming. I adore Kevin’s work — not only was I lucky enough to have him as a poetry mentor while I was doing my MFA, but his books are among the small collection of poetry I keep on my nightstand year-round.

In the video, Jill Rosser introduced him to the large crowd at Ohio University, and gave the truest summary of his writing that I’d heard. And to speak of Kevin’s work is a monumental task; his poems are often their own narrative compositions, full of political events that span hundreds of years, even futuristically, that take on jingoism and rurality and human error and trauma.

“I seem to write a good deal about trauma,” he once told me in a phone interview I did with him when I was writing my own column at LitSeen, “though I’ve experienced very little of it in my own life.” You coulda fooled me, I remember wanting to say to him. But I love Kevin, and for all of the skills and no-nonsense tools my own trauma has given me, I would never wish on him anything with the same likeness. Yet his characters — and his poems almost all have characters, sometimes a crowd of them all braiding their voices between stanzas — all seem to be in the middle of some Great Chaotic Disaster. And the demeanor of his characters, which is so remarkable, is what Rosser chose to deftly address:

“Prufer’s somewhat dreamy speakers often seem more curious than shocked, more numbed than appalled, more puzzled than panicked . . . They suspect their values have been thwarted, perverted, and dismissed by the very culture that provides them with the necessities for survival. There’s a kind of controlled desperation here. His characters witness what has happened here, some atrocity or devastation or betrayal, and they continue to endeavor to find something that will reconstitute the desolved value system with an expression of yearning or they fight their isolation with some form of communication, however futile, by questioning the events, by doubting what they see. They are expressive of our daily coping mechanisms — our discomfort with our own comfort.”

Perhaps this is the reason, or one of many, why it is so much easier to look from the outside and problem solve than it is to extend compassion to one’s own self. We are uncomfortable with our own comfort, or maybe we are uncomfortable with how comfortable we have gotten with the desolved value system — the same system that keeps us in a cycle of productivity/burnout. Externalizing forces — such as therapy, or art, or friends who are particularly tuned into Emotional Intelligence Radio — are the only ways to try to fight the isolation of mind-Earth.

Because I have managed to mention my therapist in nearly every article I’ve written for this site, I won’t stop now (for consistency’s sake, of course). My therapist talks about recovery as a process of spiraling. Not spiraling, necessarily, in the sense that we often think of it (which is to say, like black ice, or a swerving out of control), but the idea that our main traumas exist as fixed points in our brains, and that we cycle around them. We will continue, she says, to cycle around them for the duration of our lives — therapy and recovery don’t mean dissolution of events, of course — but each time we spiral or circle by them, we have a different set of tools, a different vantage point.

Our brains, who, as we’ve already established, love us, are always working. That is why we’re always calling our friends to talk about the same goddamn thing (only with a new or perhaps only moderately modified theory about it), or why we dream (which, in my opinion, is the brain processing information while we sleep, perhaps information we aren’t well-equipped to handle in our waking lives, even lucidly), or why we write. It is certainly why many of us read — to gather information, new or already established, about the way we work, why we obsess, what causes us to process the information we process and why we process it the way that we do.

I am an extremely project/goal-oriented person. Those who love me have sometimes said neurotic (I prefer “driven,” but also recognize my own neuroses). And I’ve noticed, in my adult life of recovery from chronic trauma, that I’ve worked through my wounds and tendencies with a check list-like demeanor. Emotional intimacy and trust issues? Check. Disconnect from adopted family? Check. Dead mom stuff? I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll be on that forever. Scarcity issues around money stemming from growing up poor? Ehhhhh — I’m working on that. Bring me to present day. Bring me to strep throat and anger and overworking myself and the space ship to get to have a goddamn second ok.

I don’t have the answers. Every month, without fail, I spend the first week panicking and in a tailspin about where my money for the month is going to come from. It doesn’t matter what projects I’m working on, or the fact that I am frugal as hell, or that I’ve been extremely lucky to have steady work as a writer since I began freelancing nearly four years ago (even if it sometimes just covers the basics). It doesn’t matter if I had a full-time, civilian job that offered full benefits and a 401k. I would still panic.

Every time I get a paycheck, I immediately pay whatever needs to be paid. If it’s a larger check — say, for the completion of a particularly large project — then I’ll even pay my rent in advance, my health insurance several months down the line, change the oil in my truck early. I’ll stock up on canned foods, batteries, toilet paper, the fancy grain-free food my cat likes. I’ll hide cash around my studio, in purses, pockets of jackets. And I’ll worry that I’ll never get paid again.

Where does that come from, that apocalyptic feeling surrounding scarcity? I have a million answers. And like I said before, the answers aren’t the crux of the issues — it’s how to cope with the swinging.

Today is an anger-free day. I am leaving tomorrow for a trip to Georgia, where I’ll see one of my best friends — a poet from Pennsylvania with whom I went to grad school. I’m not bringing my computer, but I am bringing four books of poems, two journals, and an iPad full of prose. I’m bringing my reading journal, my headphones, and the big denim button-down I always write in. I’m bringing the travel alarm clock that used to belong to my mom, so I can wake up early and read. I’ve put a vacation notice on my work email address, and have told the gigs I’m working on that I’ll be unavailable.

And, it’s National Poetry Month — which means, that while I think about poetry nearly all the time, the rest of the world is thinking about it, too, collectively. And the options for externalization are endless, and I will always be saved from myself.

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