Turning Dissonance into New Forms

“When freedom is in danger, when you are asked, in one faked way or another, a shabby admonition, to leave your own humanity which includes the humanity of all, the alarm is extra-ordinary, America. Don’t you think so? You must respond, America. You must speak out, you must write.”—U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, in Poems for Political Disaster



You’d think it would be settled by now. That there’d be no need to count the ways art and poetry can help us through the dark times. But I keep running into reminders of how these values and ways of being become sidelined during extraordinary times. How they are treated as non-essential or secondary—even impossible.


For example, half of my private students tell me they can’t focus, can’t commit, can’t pull themselves away from the train-wreck to think about their own work. And yet just as many of the writers I serve tell me that they find themselves clinging to their writing practice as a life-ring of sorts. They read, they write, they do the work and somehow this holds things together inside, if not in our nation’s capital.


The outer-world, especially as encountered through the news media and social media, is an unfolding emergency of seemingly endless proportions. Anxiety, fear, and grief are the words that keep coming up when I talk with others about how we’re feeling and coping with things. Worse are the persistent, distracting thoughts that interrupt us throughout the day and night . . . What can we do? . . . Who’s in charge? . . . Are we going to be okay?


(In my A Secret Life course, participants have taken a one-month hiatus from social media in order to incubate a secret project. At first it was a challenge to step away, but now it seems to have restored some mental calm and in its place, creative work is flourishing. And something like happiness.)


Surely, the moments when I’ve been capable of imagining something other than disaster, are those when I’ve lost myself to making something: a poem, little paintings, collages, and handmade postcards, mostly. These are not grand undertakings so much as simple and familiar practices that give me access to a basic sense of well-being in my body and mind. Others pray or run to stay sane. I write. I read. I make things with my hands.


When I’ve steadied my gaze for long enough to write a line, a stanza, or a whole poem, I feel myself and I feel a form of power that I require in order to do all the others things I need to do, like parent, and make a living, and show up as an engaged citizen. It has always been so. Through heat and pressure and the mixing of many elements, the process of poetry turns dissonance and difficulty into new forms.

This is a form of alchemy.


This poem was written during a short residency at Arrowmont School of the Arts and Crafts in Tennessee last month. I worked with artist Bill Muller, of Big Wheel Press, to create a letterpress broadside which was sent to 1400+ supporters of The Old Art Building in Leland, Michigan, where I’ll be the 2017 Ann Hall Artist in Residence in June.


There is so much more that I can do, and will do as I learn how to respond appropriately and thoughtfully to the present moment. I’ve become accustomed to spending a little time each day, calling senators and representatives, writing letters and expressing my views. But I’m determined to continue to write and collaborate and teach as well, even under pressure to do otherwise, because we must not abandon what makes us human and whole. To do so would be to succumb to a regime that would like nothing more than to tire and crush us into submission and silence.


We must write our reverence, our tenderness, our humanity, and yes, even our joy. This, too, is resistance.


(Please consider joining me for one of my upcoming online writing courses. You can view the line-up over here. A Body of Work: Manuscript Incubator for Poets begins February 24. The fourth annual March 21 Day Poetry Challenge begins on March 1, and our theme this session is Reverence & Affection.)


poetry matters. join the conversation.

join my community


poetry matters. join the conversation.

join my community