The pretty young woman took a step toward the microphone. She told us that she wished it wasn’t so hot in the bookstore. Her voice was almost hushed. She said she would read to us the beginning and end of her poem. She would skip the middle for now, since it was a long poem and she didn’t want to take too much time. She riffled through the pages, looked up, and tasered us.
A shot right to the heart. She told a story with her words that hurt to hear, but the words were so beautifully formed that the pain itself was beautiful. We were riveted to our folding chairs. You could have heard a pin drop on the concrete floor. We were there, with the characters as they struggled through the situation she described. Her words, her pages, took the clay of her experience and fashioned something meaningful from it. The vessel she formed held a treasure - her soul, not just on the page but hanging in the air, the essence of her humanness, in her own voice. She did more than tell a story - she breathed her humanity out into the void between us, and it changed me as a listener. Struck with 50,000 volts, barely able to catch my breath. I won’t forget the feeling or the poet - her experience, through her poetry, became my experience. She had taken the events of her life and out of it, fashioned something exquisite.
Certainly every poem does not connect that way with every reader. When a poem does connect that way, it brings a sudden blast of someone else’s soul so close to your own that they touch for a moment. In a room filled with appreciative listeners, a powerful poem connects us all.
Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe wrote, “The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader, who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes, so to speak, toward a deeper understanding of self or society, or of foreign peoples, cultures, and situations.” Good poetry can do that with just a few words. Whether it is written in chapters or in stanzas, by someone in Nigeria or ancient Greece or midtown Sacramento, good writing draws us deep into unfamiliar territory. And through that process of connecting to someone else’s experience, we are forever changed.