Tell The History Of Now
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First phase of MFA Reading Series highlights healing power of poetry

Age-old art form offers necessary tools to rebound from tragedy

There was staircase-sitting-room only last Thursday night at the MFA Reading Series in New Dominion Bookstore. Forty-plus bodies were huddled in a small balcony space — momentarily suspended above the stately brown bookshelves hugging the lower level’s edges. Listeners folded their hands in their laps, nodding along approvingly as graduate student Aimee Seu and alumna Caitlin Neely read selections of original poems and prose pieces aloud. The air was so still that each speaker’s voice skated on top of silence.

Below, the glint of streetlamps beat against windowpanes and display glass. This simmering light was the only reminder and remainder of the outside world — a zagging patch of bricks and clustered stores comprising the Downtown Mall. Outside the shop, a few bodies floated along the mall’s characteristic brick path. The prospect that this same sleepy strip mall had been the site of unthinkable violence just four weeks before was, in that moment, unfathomable.

What is it about poetry that gives it the power to transform spaces? The answer to this question spun out from the words Seu and Neely spoke — both honest and resonant. The pair of poets demonstrated an interest in deep focus, and every line was therefore a testament to the universe’s beautiful complexity. Seu employed raw and rhythmic verse to tackle topics spanning from bulimia nervosa and menstruation to lilacs sprigs and train tracks. Neely, on the other hand, exhibited a fascination with Greek mythology, the natural world and experimental form. Although the poets wielded completely different writing styles, both achieved a common feat — in restructuring intangible emotions into meaningful blocks of language, the writers had, even if only fleetingly, recalibrated the earth’s order.

To observe a pack of relaxed bodies listening and breathing together on the bookstore balcony was to witness healing happening in real time. The stanzas shared that evening overpowered the hurricane of hate that had so recently ravaged downtown Charlottesville. The lesson of the evening was clear — poetry offers an artistic avenue to solace. In fact, poetry is the exact remedy the community needs to be able to navigate the scarring events of the past month.

Many maintain the position that this particular art form is unessential, quipping, “What can a fancy string of words really do to change the world?” In actuality, constructing poems is one of the most useful exercises for coming to terms with experiences and emotions. The universe humans inhabit is both chaotic and disordered. Therefore, people turn to art in pursuit of structure.

Creative writing professor and published poet Paul Guest describes poetry writing as a meaning-making practice, in which disordered aspects of the universe are restructured into impactful and ordered bodies of language.

“Formally, you arrange language into lines, and lines into stanzas, and stanzas into a poem,” Guest said in an interview Sept. 8. “It’s taking that unstructured, chaotic world and — through an imagined violence — structuring a poem. It’s kind of like throwing yourself a life-saver out into the troubled waters.”

As avid journalers can attest, weaving together words gives writers a new sense of dominion over a subject — in writing, one is able to tease out the “unspoken” of an experience, reclaim authority and find consolation in newly-formed understanding. To explain this concept further, Guest implemented one of his favorite quotes from literary emblem Robert Frost — “‘Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.”

“[Writing poetry] is a way of seizing control of the world, of your life,” Guest said. “It’s just a way of taking [back] a world that’s violent toward you, towards your life, towards your being.”

Poet and English Prof. Debra Nystrom echoed Guest’s belief that poetry offers unparalleled opportunities for empowerment and emotional alleviation. Poems, she said, have the unique power to unveil complexities of the human heart. Nystrom acknowledged in an interview Sept. 11 the importance of turning to poetry post-tragedy, and she nodded to the surge of poetic popularity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an indicator that people seek order during times of uncertainty and despair.

“After 9/11, people wanted to hear … poems that addressed what just happened,” Nystrom said. “Poetry can get at something underneath the usual language used to represent what’s going on and get to something more essential that can … sustain us and heal.”

In a world in which people often brandish language as a weapon, it is both refreshing and reassuring to indulge in writing that is wholesome to its core.

“There are so many ways that … language gets used around us, and used even to represent us, that feels wrong and that feels like a misuse,” Nystrom said. “To be able to find ways to use language clearly and accountably to get at one’s own interior life … that’s a great joy.”

Nystrom also noted poems can have “real political power.” Numerous celebrated poets have made impacts with their words, including W. H. Auden — whose lines, “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie” serves as a modern reminder to seek truth and resist injustice. Seventy-eight years later, humanity maintains the same need for political art which demands accountability and calls others to action.

Guest foresees that the Charlottesville community will experience a surge of poetry and art this semester, given the impact of recent events. Like the nodding audience members in the bookstore balcony, people are grappling for meaning in structure and comfort in community. And, like the brilliant, young poetesses who took the New Dominion stage, writers will provide.

In the words of Paul Guest, “Right now, we are called just as people, as citizens … as writers and artists … to respond — to articulate the world as we see it.”