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From Poetry Magazine

Conduit: Connecting All the Stampeding Hearts

By Jamaal May


[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Jamaal May’sThere Are Birds Here” and “Per Fumum” appear in the February 2014 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]

In the photograph the man smiles and waves. A sun smiles on his bandana and banners wave behind him.  This shot, captured in Tiananmen Square, took place just before the tanks rolled in and the much more famous picture from that era was snapped. The man in the photo is the father of the college student who began to tremble and weep while explaining to me how moved she was by a poem I’d just read, “Pomegranate Means Grenade.” I stepped from behind the table and did what felt most natural: I hugged her. I held her until I could feel her weeping through my shirt and against my skin, and then held on until her short gasps for air slowed and she repeated, “Thank you.”

Her father was not unlike the poet invoked in “Pomegranate Means Grenade,” Huang Xiang, a writer, calligrapher, and activist for human rights and free speech. Both stood up to the government, both survived and eventually made their way to the United States, Xiang being imprisoned by the Communist Chinese government a dozen times along the way. The college student said she was continuously troubled by the reality of those that suffer in the fight for free expression. Knowing her father could have died that day makes the Tiananmen Square massacre more than a historical footnote to her and made the poem that much more important in her eyes.

I needed the poem that night to help me remember why creating and sharing was vital. This college reading was my first featured appearance after a six-month bout with stage fright that kept me from taking readings I couldn’t afford to pass up financially. I grappled with the possibility that I would never again be able to stand in front of an audience and recite what I had written. “Pomegranate Means Grenade” was a necessary poem in my push to break the spell of defeat. It always connects me to something larger, something more important than my own sense of comfort.

“Pomegranate Means Grenade” was written in the summer after my first year of working with the Inside Out Literary Arts Project. The poem was inspired by students there who were so open and brilliant and creative, I couldn’t help but fear for the safety of their spirits. It opens with an epigraph from one such student, Jontae McCrory, an eleven year old who on the first day of class raised his hand and asked if I read Lord Byron. Throughout the year Jontae showed an attention to language and love for fresh metaphor and imagery that was astonishing. “The heart trembles like a herd of horses,” writes Jontae in his poem “Burning Soul.” Here is the poem in its entirety.

The burning soul of the spiritual part
of a human being that is believed
to survive death opens
like a thousand roses in mid-spring

and the ash of the phoenix
that burns like one thousand suns.

The burning sore,
like the sting of a wasp.

The heart trembles
like a herd of horses.

Scars the soul like ten stab wounds.
The linking of newborn blood.

When I first read “The heart trembles / like a herd of horses,” I wished I had written those lines. The idea of a trembling heart hints to weakness while the herd of horses projects power. This paradox is a fruitful way to approach life; with a heart that is vulnerable but has the power to shake the earth. One of the many things I learned from working with these students was this lesson about the real power of vulnerability. To truly write to the core of human experience I have to be at least as exposed as the hearts of children. Emotionally connected writing demands no less.

The linking that occurs at the end of “Burning Soul” has resonated with me for years and keeps opening like those spring roses. I’ve come to think of what Jontae implies as connection between death and rebirth (“newborn blood”) as being representative of another, related conduit—the one that connects us all in something like a cultural ecosystem. Because we cannot truly know one another’s minds we need conduits for closer understanding, a meeting place between one mind and another. Art can serve as this conduit, specifically in this case, the art of creative writing.

William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “No ideas but in things,” first in the poem “A Sort of a Song” then repeatedly in the long poem “Paterson.” This basic tenant of the Imagist movement has continued to influence contemporary poetry, and it serves as an excellent aid in explaining this concept of creating conduits with poems.  When someone says “longing,” nothing is conjured in the mind, therefore the writer and reader, also other readers of the same word, are not sharing a mental experience. When the writer says, “red wheelbarrow” we are sharing the image of that particular thing. It’s not the exact image, but we are all closer. All communication is approximation at best. By expressing ideas through objects, using symbolism, juxtaposition, metaphor, etc., we can manufacture a liminal space that is a closer approximation of the same ideas. This is how we connect to each other through words. This is at the core of the transformative power of literature.

Considering how this all functions on the micro level, it is no surprise then that a poem written by an eleven year old in Detroit eventually united an emotionally broken performer and a haunted college student four years later and six hundred miles away. The catharsis of that moment is only one of the many conduit paths I can trace back from my experiences in the classroom. That same year dozens of other poets in Detroit connected with thousands of other students through the Inside Out Literary Arts Project. Take into account twenty years of this kind of life-changing work and it becomes impossible to argue the value of Inside Out and organizations like it who inspire the newborn blood to create tomorrow’s literature today, challenging all trembling hearts to shake the ground with hoof beats.

Note: This piece will also appear in A Beautiful House: Twenty Writers, Twenty Years with InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a forthcoming a collection of essays by community writing teachers.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Monday, February 3rd, 2014 by Jamaal May.