I started off my adulthood by writing a poem. What happened was this – I was studying A Level English Literature in the sixth form. That in itself was the first liberation. Liberated from maths, P.E, Chemistry and all other forms of compulsory torture and boredom. Liberation too from the relentless rushing en masse from one seemingly unconnected area of the curriculum, and school, every hour – summoned by bells, Pavlov’s dogs. ‘Free’ periods. Time to think. Time to read – Milton, Shakespeare, Hardy, and Dylan Thomas. Time to write.
But apart from the odd piece I had never written poetry. In the third year, a friend and I had started writing novels in our spare time. Stories spilled out of me easily then and gave me a first taste of ordering the universe. A bit like being an imagined God, making it up, in control. That bodily feeling of tension in the pit of the stomach, hovering over a blank page, then the emotional and physical release of standing back and looking at the meaning I had just created. A sense of satisfaction that I could never achieve by any other means, certainly at the age of 13. Access to a world where anything could happen, but I made it happen. The writer made it happen.
So the throw-away-homework-words of my English teacher ‘write a poem’ was my initiation – a special invitation to the threshold of myself. I don’t have it anymore, the poem, but what I remember was the rhythm; losing myself to a rhythm into which the words fell into their places. I had gone home for lunch, and got so immersed that I nearly incinerated the house in a chip pan fire. The chips were burnt, and maybe the poem was a bit overcooked, (or was it underdone?). But it was there, on the page, a poem where there had not been. Its shape and form, its mood and message, its song-like invocation to a new reader (at that point only me) to re-enter my fantasy world as a new version of myself. Shapeshifter, alchemist, and the magic was in my hand. What I had said was that there was a world of light, of grace, of freedom in contrast to the world of conformity, enslavement and indoctrination that I had just started learning about in Sociology. And it seemed to come through me.
After that I wrote every day, several times a day, right into my twenties and beyond. I never redrafted. This was to do with the feeling of being taken over, possessed as if by a spirit so that the words that came were sacrosanct. Dylan Thomas was my muse. I loved the musicality of his poetry, his refusal to mourn, also his determination to remain elusive. If you want me as I am, come and find me. I am going to help you with some shape, some rhyme, some helpful metaphors, some alliteration to delight your inner ear. But you have to do some work too, make an effort. So it was ok to be almost unintelligible, as long as it felt satisfying, and then I knew I had a poem. And it always came when I was hungry, in honour of the first time.
I was the centre of my own universe at the time, and that is what being a young adult is about. You’re finding out who you are. But now I can see that I have the first poets to thank for paving the way, making this act possible. Write a poem she said. And from then on writing a poem became a way of an inner wiser voice defining who I really was, or how the world looked, at any point in time. Like checking in to a new hotel room.
Interestingly, this stopped when I transitioned into the next stage of adulthood. A time consuming job, family responsibilities; periods of blissful happiness mingled with agonising stress. A dearth of poems, unless I travelled far away from it all – to my first retreat where I could shed all of that – and like that space where sea meets the land, the ‘Flisvos’ as it is called in Greece – become transitional again. Find that my essence had not left me, it was just buried.
And now mid-life, the great liminality, is here. And the poems are coming again to light the way. To seed the fertile ground of my old dissolving identity.
So is a poetry workshop or retreat a temporary liminal space where the pangs that a teenage girl or a middle aged woman feels can be safely experienced and harnessed into a creative fire? That is then used to forge our unique expressions, or even of works of art? No wonder they are becoming popular again. It’s a need to hang up the coat of conditionality and be free of its weight, let the chips burn, let the old structure burn down – and so to float, and swim and delight in one’s truth. It’s no less than freedom.