Words of wisdom for the New Year from one of our amazing Montana Poet Laureates, Melissa Kwasny (from her talk at our 2019 Luncheon).
Missoula Writing Collaborative Luncheon: October 9, 2019
I’m Nobody, Who are You?
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
We are always asking each other who we are. I’m Melissa Kwasny, who are you? We are always asking students to say who they are, to know themselves. But that is difficult to do;
it’s difficult to talk about who one really is because the answer to that is invisible. Who we really are isn’t exterior—how old we are or where we work or go to school. It’s what we dream about or how we imagine, what we think about and how we perceive, and probably most importantly how we feel. Some call this the self, some the soul, “solid like iron or tender and breakable like the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl,” as the poet Mary Oliver writes. I call it the interior life, something everyone has, whether we pay attention to it or not. Writing poetry is actually the act of paying that kind of attention.
As a poet I know firsthand that poetry saves lives. As a troubled teenager, depressed by alcohol and violence at home, I can say it saved my life. The poet William Carlos Williams famously said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably for lack of what is found there.” That might seem to some ridiculous. People don’t die for lack of poetry. But that’s not what the lines say. They say we die for lack of what is found there. And what is found there? As someone who has been reading and writing poems for most of my life, I would venture a few guesses. Evidence of our need for beauty and music in our sometimes ugly lives. Allowance of the feeling life. Evidence of our common humanity. And
because of this, pain also gets a voice. It is respected. It is not banished. “I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon,” Montana writer James Welch says, bringing himself
As a long-time educator, as both a poet in the public schools and a professor in undergraduate and graduate poetry programs, I can testify that poetry changes student lives.
Ask any poet who has worked with children and they will tell you that, often, the students who are most at risk of failing in academics, paradoxically, magically, excel at writing poetry,
a fact that surprises not only their teachers and parents, but themselves. Why? Is it that poetry provides a safe space for the healing of wounds? Is it that it offers a language that
empowers students, sometimes for the first time in their lives, by re-introducing them to the power of creation, to what Keats called the Holy Imagination? Is it because what they create
is never wrong, always right? Yes.
Let me tell you a story. I know a family, two parents and many children. The family is poor, and the parents have struggled with drug abuse and its attendant dramas and catastrophes.
The oldest girl, when she was five, would escape the house and run and run down the railroad tracks away from us all, so fast none of us could catch her. I cannot describe the
hopelessness many of us felt for these children. I was teaching at the University a few years ago, and, when I was discussing her work with one of my graduate students, she mentioned that she was working at the girl’s school for the Missoula Writing Collaborative. When I asked her about the oldest girl, her face lit up. “Oh, do you know her?” she said. “She’s a star!” The poet later sent me an anthology with not only this girl’s poems, which were indeed star-like, sparkling, but also those by her younger sister. She has started to draw, and she now runs track. This girl has a place in her school now. She has respect—respect from her peers as evidence that she is somebody. She knows she is Somebody, too.
Who are you? Poetry, not science, not math, offers students a language to answer that question.
According to the Trevor Project report, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. Montana consistently ranks in the top three states in number of youth
suicides. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection report suicide among Native Americans to be at least three times higher than for other ethnic groups. LGBTQ youth are
3-4 times more likely to consider and attempt it. We know that bullying, as well as a real or perceived lack of connection to others, is a primary cause. Can poetry save these lives?
“You are standing in the minefield again. / Someone who is dead now / told you it is where you will learn to dance.” What if the Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong wouldn’t have been
able to write that? The young gay poet Chen Chen writes a poem called “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities.” The late African American poet Lucille Clifton
writes, “may the tide/ that is entering even now/ the lip of our understanding / carry you out / beyond the face of fear.” My co-poet laureate, Mandy Smoker, titles a poem ““Can
You Feel the Native American in Me.” And yes, yes I can. Poetry lets me travel the distance, as she writes in another poem, “between one place, one life and another.” Everyone,
especially young people, measure themselves against these distances. Poetry, instead, fosters
But what about state standards, you may ask? What about core curriculum? As a professor in a Masters in Education program for teachers for the past twenty years, I can tell you that almost every well-designed poetry lesson meets such multiple standards—from reading comprehension to expressive languages to public speaking to history, even crossing curricula to teach science and math—that one has to be selective when listing them on a lesson plan.
That is not, however, the point of my talk. By now, you know that the point is hope: hope for connection, for children, for the imaginative life.
I want to thank Sheryl Noethe for her genius and vision in founding, directing, and teaching in this marvelous program for so many years, to Caroline Patterson for taking on the reins,
for all the former directors, board members, and consultants, and especially for the poets going into the schools, carrying their forces of good into the classrooms. As I write in a
recent poem, “To be a friend is to be alive together. Not relationship, but bond, / to step
out from one’s valence with outstretched hand.”
Montana Poet Laureate 2019-2021