How Poetry Broke Me Open

DSC02431Mis küsib elulahkmel heitlik maru!
Kuid sina enesele annad endast aru.

What will the errant storm ask at life’s crossroads!
It is you who must answer for yourself.

           — Betti Alver, From Tähetund

Note: This was originally posted to The Sarcastic Muse a few months ago. This was sort of a brave post for me. Enjoy.


Three and a half years ago, I was sitting shyly in Avignon, France around an unknown family’s table while laughter and curiosity and, yes, words darted around me with strange syllables and foreign footsteps. I understood maybe half of it, and in my social awkwardness, even as they asked me questions, my face flushed with the gracelessness that comes from trying to barge my way through a language when the words don’t want to come freely.

However, during my three-week stay with that family, my host-mother did say something to me once that I easily understood:

You are a flower who has not yet bloomed, Michelle.

In what way? I wondered. I didn’t ask her to clarify.

Half a year later, I was sitting in the first creative writing course I’d ever dared to attempt. The professor was a published poet; my classmates in the workshop came from all walks of life. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never before tried to share my writing with strangers.

We started the first nine weeks of class with poetry. I was mortified when I had to go home and force words onto the page. They felt like French, oddly shaped, badly bent on my tongue. In need of improvement. I ended up slapping words down just to be rid of them, barging my way through. And by the end of those nine weeks, my teacher had called my poems: mediocre, nothing special.

I wholeheartedly agreed. I’m just not a poet, I said when I met him for consultation.

But you have a gift, he assured me, referencing the short story I’d written for his class that — based on the mediocrity of my poetry — had shocked him so much that he’d asked me to meet with him privately in the first place, you can go far.

But how far? And with what? I wondered. Where, exactly, am I going?

I wrote one ‘good’ story for a class and it did not answer any more of my questions. It created new ones. It left me in doubt. I had gone through the majority of my writerly life with the firm conviction that I am not a poet. That class seemed to prove it. But, where then, when I wrote lyrically, when I wrote along the boundaries of prose with a poetic voice, did that leave me? What exactly did I write, then?

What is that singing in my head, now? What is the intonation of the words — the colors and shades of myself left behind like music?

I’ve tried to fit it into a framework. I’ve tried to write another short story — about Estonia, for instance — because I wanted to write based on the things I’ve experienced: the cultures, the languages, the distant light in winter, the way I’ve sat curled at the end of my bed drinking coffee while outside the snow rages. I’ve been working on a novel that reflects the cold I’ve felt, the tales of Forest Brothers running wild and brave during early Soviet Occupation, the way I see their ghosts in my breath against the skyline. That’s coming along.

But where are my words for this place?

Where has my journeying led me, ultimately? And how do I put it into words?

And then I saw it, the truth of it, the whole of it: everything I am in words, written. I am a student of languages; I put words together mathematically with a hint of the artist’s brush. I am a lover of anything that speculates implausibility and makes it believable. I love the bruises a beautifully rendered short story leaves on my heart.

But, over the years, as I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve found that most often when I’m looking for that escape, for answers, for anything quiet, I turn not to novels or to stories but to poetry.

Poetry is my lighthouse. Poetry is what has taught me foreign languages. The desire to read Betti Alver’s poem Tähetund resonated so deeply within me that I packed my bags, bought my one-way ticket, and enrolled as a Master’s student here in Estonia just to read it in the original language. Now it’s the backbone of my Master’s thesis. It’s teaching me linguistics; it’s teaching me myself.

Poetry is a dark force in my heart, a rendering of explanations unexplained. My mind is filled with poems and poetic lines (of other poets) that I read and re-read and remember, that I carry with me, that have changed my life. Poetry touches me in a way no other style of writing has. Poetry is the only thing in life that has forced me to move mountains to get to where I want to go; it’s one of the few thing in my life that makes utter and complete sense.

I am not a poet are words I have spoken until I believed them. Because I feared what being a poet meant. I’ve been running myself in circles trying to find my voice, my style. The thing that puts me into words. Looking under rocks, hopping along trains, standing at the edge of the world.

But as I walk among these poetic people — these Estonians who built their world on songs and held onto everything they are through words when words were not free to them — I realize that I’m not that much different.

Because I am a poet. Not always a good one, at times mediocre. But I see the sculpture for the stone it once took years for the Earth to make. I see the foundations of wind outside my window, threaded with words. I see myself now, how I’ve finally grown into that thing I feared — how perhaps I’ve been that thing all along.

Two years ago, I moved back to France for a longer period of time. I climbed the fence, ignored the barbs of a badly rendered sentence, and kept going. I learned to speak. I met my former host-family for dinner one night and sat around their table, laughing and letting the words fall as they should, one after the other. And as I was walking out the door, waving good-bye, my old host-mom called out to me: You’ve finally bloomed, Michelle!

And as I walk the streets of this foreign land, this home to me, and look at the people who have taught me not to fear myself, I think — well, yes — indeed I think I finally have. I have finally broken open.


What are your thoughts on finding your voice? Does one style call to you? Have these kinds of awakening, eye-opening moments happened to you? Please share in the comments below. I always enjoy reading your stories.


5 thoughts on “How Poetry Broke Me Open

  1. One word, beautiful 😉 You have a gift for taking the written word and having it convey deep-seated emotions. Call yourself a poet, a writer, a philosopher, or any other label you would like to attach to it. In the end, you inspire through your words.

    To be honest, I never even knew that I had a writing voice. I had never given it an opportunity to speak. Tied up in the tangled web of technology, math, and science as the only viable path to a “successful” career, I overlooked the signs that perhaps I should have been a little more attentive to the artistic side of my being. I wrote a blog post several months back entitled “On The Write Track.” It was during this time, that I realized how incredibly important the written word is to me and just how powerful an effect it can have on each and every one of us if we have the courage to allow it.

    It will take you to places deep inside, uncover hidden emotions, make you laugh, make you smile, make you cry. And it leads you closer to your authentic self whether you choose to share your words with the world or only your future self.

    Thank you Michelle for sharing such a beautiful story and for the breath of inspiration that we all need in order to follow our authentic course.

    • Thank you for such kind, encouraging words! You always take the time to leave such thoughtful comments.

      I understand that pressure, in some ways — the pressure to find the ‘successful’ career — as I’m at the age now when family and friends have started to ask more seriously about the steps I’ve taken to enter into the real world (whatever that is) or what my future career plans are. My parents used to consistently tell me that I should do something that would guarantee me a job. So I ended up (in no particular order) halfheartedly applying to pharmacy programs, temporarily pursuing a business minor (never again), and studying for the LSAT. All before I decided that there was just no way I’d mentally/creatively survive any of it.

      I’m still not sure about what I want to be when I ‘grow up’. Not in the career sense. I’d like to go after translation/editing/writing because that’s where my heart is. But no matter where I end up, I know that I’ll follow the course that is best for me. In that sense, Estonia (and my writing) has given me hope.

      Though you had to push your artistic side away early on, at least you managed to find it again. You, too, have a gift with words, and it would have been a shame for it to have remained dormant. Words have a way of changing things for us — a way of opening our eyes to ourselves.

      Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂

  2. I’ve spent a lot of time writing short stories around ideas that interest me. Then recently I tried a couple that more mundane in setting but based more around things I had felt and been through. The responses from my initial reader were the most positive I’ve ever had, and the one of those stories that’s been submitted to a market got snatched up straight away. Guess I’ve discovered something about my writing by looking into myself.

    • Perhaps these stories that were more introspective or emotionally-based garnered better response because the readers could relate more to how you felt? The setting is important, in a lot of ways, but it’s relationship to the story is meaningless without the characters there to interact with it. Readers visit the setting via the characters — even if it’s a place they have never been to — but emotions and reactions of the characters are the things in a story that tend to resonate. Hmm. It’s always hard to know what the reader is looking for.

  3. Pingback: My First Acceptance Letter | Words and Wanderings

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