They feel like incomplete thoughts. One day I finally realized the reason why I, for a very long time, was unable to connect with poetry or appreciate it. When I would read a poem I would feel as if the expression was incomplete; poetry felt abstract in a way that did not make sense to me. Even if I would initially have a positive response to a poem and would think, “Ah, that was poetic!” in the same instance I would also judge it to be pretentious, trying to communicate more than what the words could actually mean or rightly convey. And this was precisely the reason why I struggled to appreciate poetry in the first place, I had learned to value only that which communicates clearly, cogently, and ‘logically’. I had been well trained for academic writing, and got stuck there! Eventually, a class I took with Kwok Pui Lan helped me break out of such a narrow way of thinking and valuing, but it was not an easy task.
Poetry does not usually have complete sentences, words are often used in what seems like an abstract manner – they do not communicate directly, often intending to create a mood or atmosphere instead. Coming to understand this in Professor Kwok’s class helped clarify for me why I had not been able to connect with poetry up to that point; poetry did not fit the criteria for what I considered valid and valuable (at the time) – it did not fit the academic standards into which I had been trained. Poems purposefully leave room to read between the lines, to enter the moment, the feeling, and allow the words to create an experience. In my academic training I had learned to use my words precisely – to make a logical argument, based on a clear and substantive thesis, and build my case, step by logical step. But learning about poetry and the fact that it is precisely about communicating more than what the literal meaning of words can convey (as if these are so clear anyway), offered me another way of “making my case.” Because sometimes it is not all about what is clear and logical, but about what is deep and complicated, passionate and paradoxical. With poetry one can tap into the voice that might be buried, the reality and experience for which there are no words. With poetry, one creates an environment into which the reader and the writer are invited, invited to rest and feel and dwell in the spaces between the lines…
Writing my first poem
One day in class with Professor Kwok we were given the task to write a poem. She explained to us that in Chinese poetry the writer creates an environment or atmosphere by describing concrete objects, usually those in nature. As I began my attempt to write the poem, I was imagining myself trying to write/describe a tree or a flower or something else from nature, but I was at a total loss. I had no creative or metaphorical words to create an atmosphere or feeling. As time passed and I had nothing, I began to look at my classmates, and looking at them made me smile. I like people and I thought about how alike and different we all are; alike in our humanity, in our hopes, desires, fears, in our fragility; but also, how at the same time we are very different and can find it very difficult to connect with one another. Even when we do connect, the connection seems very fragile and sometimes fleeting. So as I sat in class trying to write a poem about nature, I finally decided that I would instead write a poem about what I saw before me – the people I saw across the circle from me in class – and there it was, my first poem was born.
I dream of people, so different, so alike
And in my dreams I smile
For a moment – we are all one, connected
We lose our grip
A curious thing about my first poem was my friends’ reaction. When I shared the poem with my two classmate friends one of them immediately exclaimed, “That is so depressing!” I laughed, because I had no idea my poem might be depressing, I had not thought of it that way when I wrote it – I wrote it feeling much more focused on the connections between people. Perhaps, though, my friend was doing precisely the kind of reading between the lines that a poem calls for, and in that reading saw something I did not even know was there.
Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters.