I want to tell you a fairytale.
But before I start, I have to explain a few things. In 2011, I went on my first cross-country poetry tour. I spent nine weeks on the road with fellow poet, Mindy Nettifee, reading poems to audiences night after night. We used the stage as a platform to encourage women to make noise. We didn’t specify what kind of noise, we just wanted to remind them that their voices were vital to the poetry community. To THE UNIVERSE. Easy, right? Read some poems, sign some books, high-five some ladies, no big deal.
Only it was a big deal. After every show, a handful of women would approach us, explaining why they no longer read their poetry in front of an audience. Or why they quit writing entirely. Some even told us they didn’t know women were allowed to write about menstruation, or birth, or any part of their bodies. This, in 2011. Every night, we’d get pulled aside, and it would always be apparent that these women were opening themselves up in a way that frightened them.
We heard stories of shaming, of sexism and silencing and even assault. I came home with the new understanding that there is still so much work to be done. And I don’t mean in some naive gee-golly-gosh-the-world-is-SO-HARD kind of way. I knew that, simply, women were yearning to hear themselves in others, and weren’t.
Eight months later, I decided to hold a poetry retreat in my house, open to any writer who lives as a woman. It was going to be fabulous. We’d have writing workshops and discussions in the day, then hold a poetry reading each night, beneath the electric summer sky. Oh, and there’d be pie. Lots and lots of pie.
Thirty-five women came. They pitched tents in my backyard, slept on air mattresses or yoga mats or couches or one of the five beds my kids were generous enough to give up for four days. We had vibrant conversations about race and sexuality. We wrote poems and laughed and danced and sang. We gave each other permission to make noise.
I wept when it was over. I’d lived my entire life feeling like I didn’t belong to anything or anywhere. I’d been shamed into denying so much of myself. All the best parts. Four days with thirty-five brilliant minds makes magical things happen—it became so clear. I am a Latina poet. A woman poet. A mother poet. A sister poet. I am a Latina mother-woman-sister poet.
Now for the fairytale:
Last year, my family and I did it again. This time, thirty-nine writers came. I was in charge of the final writing workshop. I marched the poets onto my front lawn in lines of two. Part one of the assignment was this: you had to face your partner, look them directly in the eyes and say, You are an important person. Your writing is necessary. The recipient of this declaration had to wait thirty seconds, absorbing the truth of these words, never breaking eye contact, before replying, I know. Then the first recipient had to repeat this truth back to their partner.
If this sounds easy, I assure you, dear reader, it is not.
Which part do you think was the hardest? Receiving the compliment? Having to make eye contact with someone for thirty seconds? Or saying I know? Would you understand when I tell you that, after I told the poets they had to make direct eye contact with their partner, some of them broke down in tears upon hearing this instruction?
Holding eye contact was brutal, and many of us (or maybe it was just me) took more than thirty seconds to answer, I know. But once everyone got through it, we were changed. And you best believe that the poems written after this exercise were like incantations sprung from the soul. As poets, we often hide behind language, masking ourselves with metaphor. But our poetry cannot exist without us. We have to praise ourselves.
Go ahead. Find a friend or a mirror. Say it:
You are an important person. Your writing is necessary.
Rachel McKibbens is the author of two full-length books of poetry, Into the Dark & Emptying Field (2013) and Pink Elephant (2009.) She is a New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and the 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion. Her essays, poems and nonfiction have been featured in numerous publications including The Academy of American Poets poem-a-day, HER KIND, Muzzle Magazine, The Los Angeles Review and The Nervous Breakdown. She co-curates the critically acclaimed reading series Poetry & Pie Night in upstate New York.
03.17.14 by Rachel McKibbens