How does one translate life into poetry, especially in seasons of total depletion?
Breaking the Alabaster Jarprecedes
About three years ago, I had an experience while writing a poem that scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t the poem itself that frightened me so much as the voice undergirding it—to my ear it didn’t sound like anything of mine I’d written before, and I wondered if it was my voice at all. The poem came out more or less fully formed, and if you’d seen me typing away you’d have thought I was chatting with someone online. It all happened so fast—and in one sitting, as though it could always be that simple. But in a very literal way, the poem had been writing itself for my entire life and the moment had come when it was time to externalize it. I hadn’t conjured the moment or looked for it, but suddenly there it all was, exposing me—my arguments with God, my earnestness, my anger, my complicated love for what I cannot see but feel. I didn’t write another poem again for almost a year, and the poems have come slower and slower ever since, but with increasing force each time.
Every time I attempt to write these days, I text my friend Mary some version or another of the same complaint: I’m so sick of myself! Why do we bother trying to do any of this? But the last time this happened, just a few short weeks ago, I felt compelled to apologize for complaining. For no particular reason I can recall, I felt a pathetic sort of embarrassment, keenly aware of the cyclical tedium of my own misery. How many times had I confessed to being utterly sick of my own sickness, only to give up before I could start? Just how many times had I berated myself already for not being quick enough, prolific enough, well enough to see my ambitions clearly? As I made a note to myself to word vomit into my journal next time instead of subjecting myself to the humiliation of regurgitating my own despair to an audience, my friend’s reply blew in like a fresh breeze: I’ll never be sick of you–I love you whatever way you’re feeling.
There’s this verse in the Epistle of James, urging its audience: “Confess your faults one to another . . . that ye shall be healed.” I don’t actually believe that experiencing depletion, doubt, or even downright jadedness is a “fault,” especially when dealing with chronic illness. But for me and my Puritanical demons, it weighs as heavily as any personal failing, however illogical and unwarranted this is. Because here’s the thing: I’ve been circling the reality of my own mental burnout for so long now, and feeling so much shame about my inability to make things anymore, that I’ve actually started to believe over time that the way to become a good, “functioning” poet is to find a path towards steady, timely production. That the whole point of trying to get mentally and emotionally well is to go back to being an active maker that’s doing, doing, doing—regardless of health or capacity.
When I think like this, I tend to do one of two things. Either I freeze, and everything in my body shuts down, and whole days, weeks, and sometimes months pass, which I can’t remember much of when I’ve gotten to the other side. Or, in some merciful periods, while in the depths I find comfort in looking to the parts of my past that feel sacred to me—revisiting the movies, TV shows, music, and books I loved as a kid or teenager. It’s sort of like time travel: I try to go back to what it felt like not to be cripplingly self-conscious about optics and precision and ego and bad-faith readers—what it felt like to enjoy myself without believing I needed to earn that pleasure. When and if it feels possible, I immerse myself in the voices and stories and sights that shaped my inner self, long before I ever dreamed of becoming a writer like Jo March, or Anne Shirley, or any of the other sapphic heroes I came to model my life after. But if I’m not careful, I still find myself regarding these small practices as stepstones towards making a product—that even pleasure should be in service of something evident from the outside.
I don’t fault myself for slowly buying into this belief, and if you’ve bought into it too, I hope you don’t fault yourself either. It’s nearly impossible to escape the real and imagined pressures we find ourselves shouldering as writers—specifically, writers who deeply love this work, but find no comfort in trying to write through our grief. Writers who, even if we could find the wherewithal to put our thoughts on the page, have seasons when we are so disconnected from our own bodies and desires that we can’t even really feel what we want to say, let alone say it. It’s a wound that that time seems only to worsen, not heal.
But this, I must remind myself, is only one aspect of a much larger, much richer picture. And I find something wonderful in the sentence construction of that line in James (on topic, a verse that’s been translated from Greek to English). I think there’s a surface reading of the line that twists its urging into that Puritanical manipulation all too familiar to me: Debase yourself in order to be absolved. It’s a reading I’ve assumed for years, up until recently. These days, I’m learning to read it instead as a simple reminder of cause and effect: mutual vulnerability brings healing. That is, if we allow it, and if we trust ourselves to find our people in real life or on the page—those kinder, gentler voices that tell us they’re here for us, whatever way we’re feeling.
Beloveds, though I write this to you in a season of emptiness, what I do have, I squeeze into your hands. Yes you, wherever you are right now, reading this. You who want to give up on writing, you with a swollen heart and a foggy brain, you who are overworked, you who are scraping to get by. You, having crawled too far to turn back now, you, who wonder daily if you’re good for anything else other than the path you’ve chosen. You, with so much to say and no language for it. You, who simply can’t create when you’re in the darkness, no matter how badly you want to.
I write this for you. I write this for us both.
Translating our lives into poems isn’t always linear or straightforward. You don’t need anyone’s permission except your own to feel all of your frustration, and pain, and periods of creative silence. But if you’re looking for a sign from the universe that it’s okay to stop trying to force your work, that it’s not just okay but good to tend to yourself in whatever way that brings you joy and doesn’t hurt yourself or someone else—this is your sign. Beloveds, be in your poems. Let them happen as they will, and know that however long it takes, the moment will come when you’ll be ready to start translating. You won’t even be able to stop. Observe your life, your loves, and yourself with curiosity and without judgment. And when you can’t, just be. Let’s just be in our poems, with each other, even in the dark.
Natasha Oladokun (she/her) is a poet and essayist. She holds fellowships from Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Jackson Center for Creative Writing, Twelve Literary Arts, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was the inaugural First Wave Poetry fellow. Her work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, The Academy of American Poets, Harvard ReviewOnline, and Kenyon Review Online. You can read her column The PettyCoat Chronicles—on pop culture and period dramas—at Catapult. She is Associate Poetry Editor at storySouth, and currently lives in Madison, WI.