“I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem.”
—“Mingus at The Showplace” by William Matthews
The first lines of Matthews’ poem truly resonated with me when I first read it, though at first I couldn't identify why. On the surface, the poem itself is a light-hearted account of a young teenager attempting to find a way to express his voice. The humor is dry, the characterization is vivid, and the storyline unpredictable—and as a moody 17-year-old, I was hooked on every word!
It was so beautiful to me—that a 17-year-old boy in the poem could experience intense emotion and feel moved enough to share his poetry with “genius” Mingus, as he says. He was miserable, but he didn't keep his misery locked away.
When I was seventeen, my father suddenly had a heart attack and passed away on Christmas Eve. There was really no outlet for my pain; most people didn't feel comfortable talking to me and my sister, and no one felt comfortable doing anything to help us. The effect was extremely isolating—people would merely stare and whisper. I had never felt so alone.
I had never written poetry before, but there was an opportunity through Poetry Out Loud for me to create a poem and submit it for a supplementary competition. I had such a deep love for poetry at this point, and I felt like this opportunity deserved exploring. So, I did it. Five drafts of work yielded “My Sleeves,” a poetic tribute to my father, in a way.
That poem ended up getting first place in the nation in the Poetry Ourselves competition.
The entire experience was humbling. Every time I shared my poem in person with others, they showed genuine appreciation for having experienced what I had worked so extremely hard to put into words. This poem, this verbalization of the most intense and horrible and painful emotions I had ever experienced, became my way of honoring my father.
I remember performing my poem once for my peers in the South Dakota Honor Choir during their talent show. I was absolutely terrified to share my words with them (I actually backed right into a wall on my way out because I was so overwhelmed), but I did it because I genuinely loved the words that went into this poem, and I genuinely felt that I had something worth hearing in the notes section of my phone. On stage in the middle of my poem during a pause, a girl let out one audible sob right before the last lines of the poem. Later she came up to me and told me that her mother was in the hospital and had been in a coma for some time. She told me that every word I spoke resonated with her, related to her on a level neither one of us could understand.
That singular experience—to be told that something that you had CREATED touched someone enough to make them cry … feel comforted … feel not so alone … was one of the most incredible things that has ever happened to me. Before Poetry Out Loud gave me the platform to create my story and share it, I felt like I was in a dark and lonely place. Even before my father died, my voice was lost.
I consistently talk about all of the things that having that platform has done for me, but there are no words that can truly express my gratitude.
Poetry Out Loud gave me a link to connect to others with. It gave me the empowerment to confidently and unapologetically exist. It let me speak with my own voice. I will never, in my entire life, forget this organization and all of the people who created it. Without it, I solidly feel as though I would still be lost. I would feel as though my thoughts were not worth sharing, that my existence STILL had to be apologized for. I owe everything to Poetry Out Loud and I owe everything to art.
I will be forever thankful for my journey thus far, and forever eager for whatever is to come; and I can thank my poetry for instilling that in me.