I have always done poetry, and mostly quite badly. It doesn't matter, I'm going to keep doing it anyway, I don't have a choice. An idea, a flow of words, a moment of emotion, gets into my head and won't let me go until I write it down. But I find writing to a prompt a very different experience.
The prompt brings up ideas or memories and images, and the words flow out. It is after this point that the process gets surprising. I think it may be because it didn't begin with me, and suddenly I'm rereading what I wrote and I find an unexpected layer of meaning. For example, take this piece of a poem I wrote a few days ago:
The boys lined the long hall
Black on one side, white on the other
And I threaded the middle of the gauntlet
Eyes on the ground
Trying not to see the faces
And further on:
While I found back ways
And insecure safety in classrooms
Suddenly I saw this moment when I felt so helpless. I saw this conflict that was so much bigger than I could deal with, so I found a way to retreat and avoid. For years I didn't even know how to talk about it in any kind of meaningful way.
Now, I get that I was young, and a stranger. But here is the thing; when people tell me they see me as brave because I have survived some pretty tough circumstances, I don't feel brave. I see the mouse girl, with her head down, slipping into safety.
I'm a person who ponders, not a person who snaps out a quick response. I want to be a person who stands up for what is right. I think I usually do in the end. But that really hasn't been tested. I have not had to make an on-the-spot decision to put myself in harms way to stand up for something I think is right. I have always been able to ponder from a safe distance and express my thoughts after I have had a chance to gather them.
I have always said that when I got older, when I didn't have kids depending on me, I wanted to become more radical. Now it feels like the protests that really matter are all far away, or online. Now it feels like what causes need is money more than bodies on the front line.
But then, I have to challenge myself, am I copping out? Have I just found new ways to keep my head down, not see, head for safety? I understand the scars that my childhood left me, my super-sensitive hypervigilance that I can't make stop, I can only dull down my immediate response a bit. Honestly, though, I don't have many reasons these days to step out of the protected environment of my work/family/tribe. And so I'm left with this final question: is it even possible for me to be relevant and significant in the world at this end of my years.
If it isn't possible, then I'm afraid I will continue to inflict mediocre self-involved poetry on my friends, and continue to feel like I'm finding the back ways and playing it safe.