Covert art: The Painter’s Garden by Wawi Navarroza
In a recent On Being podcast, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye shared, “…it always seemed very much to me, as a child, that I was living in a poem, that my life was the poem. And in fact, at this late date, I have started putting that on the board of any room I walk into that has a board.”
You are living in a poem.
In the five years I stopped writing, it was poetry that kept returning, over and over again, in the margins of school notes and essays and readings. Later in university, I’d kept a scribble notebook to dump these poetry-impulses into, just so I can get on with whatever I was failing at doing. I already believed I was never going to be a writer, that the days where I felt at ease spinning worlds out of sentences were over. And to an extent they really were.
At the age of nine, I started writing fiction. Ghost stories swarmed the school corridors back then, more than they ever did in the four or five schools I’d attend later. Ghost stories filled up my room in book-shaped things – novels where kids would narrowly escape freakish monsters and apparitions from some adult’s fancy. I lived a horror story, too, outside night terrors and dreams where I asked the universe, how do I escape?
I kept those awkwardly-sized exercise books – one for every potential novel I was ‘working’ on, mostly unfinished. It started with a group of kids catching a ride in a haunted train (but of course), chased by zombie-ghouls (double whammy), and there was something about a green stone in a ring that was magical and had to be found, otherwise everyone’s dead (I’m amazed I still remember this). Fiction used to come easily for me but as my calls for escape/safety went unanswered over the years, I dropped it.
I was writing poems before I knew what poetry was. In the schools I attended later, I found out more about language through Literature classes and something was ignited in those hours spent reading and dissecting poems. While this was happening, the horror story I couldn’t escape – my life at home – bloomed into a garden of wounds and muted cries for help.
I drowned in the mess of this garden every day. I learnt how to kick the dirt up, not for relief but for the sake of continuity, through Art. Self-expression for the reason of saving one’s life, hoping there might still be something to save by the end of the day, month, year, decade…
In poetry, I found ways to say something without having to spell out what happened to me on a daily basis and make them bait for negative stigmas – the true culprit of my health’s constant decline.
Growing up, I found the kind of safety in poetry I could never get from those who could afford to help me but didn’t.
One of the ways I survived was by replacing adult/parent/nurture-figures with language and books. With the poems, I found a way to use language that could let me laugh and cry and scream and kick to my raging heart and muted throat’s content.
“A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.
“It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”
– from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Some things, like grief and trauma, are so beyond the peopled languages we’ve been conditioned into. The abstraction of poetry and visuals allow us to challenge these languages, these conditionings.
Twist a moment into something much more extravagant than it can ever be, amplify it in metaphor and description to fit just how big these moments live inside of you. Tell a truth you can never tell anyone in a poem, then read it out loud. Poetry, when freed from the rigidity or artifice (think: metered structures stripped of their emotive contexts), enables us to find what matters. What matters is finding a language that allows us to live with our own quietness in the day-to-day, without forgetting empathy.
I returned to prose through poetry.
In university, I grew unable to complete a piece of artwork until I wrote a poem to go with it. Some were two-liners and others were so long I never finished them. I didn’t really write these pieces, either, I allowed them to happen, sitting hunched over the pen and paper knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless I let them spill out of me. I took what this process taught me and I now write as part of my larger practice.
I’m finding ways to not hide myself in abstractions or ghost stories. I’m learning how to let language arrive to me, move me, and take form somewhere outside of me. I think that with prose, I write to communicate a documentation; of process, my rage, the conversations I hope to have.
Maybe my bones can tell that it’s time to really shake the dirt up, burn that fucking garden. What I’m doing is reclaiming what has been taken away from me, making enough space for me to reconcile with it – my narrative.
“But I found the students very intrigued by discussing that. ‘What do you mean, we’re living in a poem?’ Or, ‘When? All the time, or just when someone talks about poetry?’ And I’d say, ‘No, when you think, when you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem. That’s what a poem does.’ And they liked that.”