A Poetry Caravaner speaks, by Fran Cisco. Originally appeared in the Martinelli Publications, 1/11/2006.
"The Gifts of Poetry"
". . . A year ago, I joined the Poetry Caravan, a volunteer group of more than 30 poets who read to people who ordinarily don't have access to spoken poetry, such as residents of nursing homes or patients in hospitals. I started reading to them one to three times a week, leading to much more reflection. When invited to join the group, I thought such a caring thoughtful activity might help people benefit from the feelings and thoughts that poets had a knack of imparting to others. Also, I felt sensitive to older people, perhaps resulting from the close relationships in early childhood I had with my elders plus my desire to give back more to my community. As with many forms of self-expression, surprises erupted, and as time went on I understood that I was the one being helped. I was receiving gifts on quite a deep level. It started with the audience responses to my poems. We learned more about each other, frequently very personal matters. At one senior center, "Harriet" told about coping with her despair over the loss of her husband two months earlier, as a way to comfort me when I read a poem about losing a loved one. "Thelma" broke through to the other women in her shelter by sharing her joy in writing as a result of a community poem developed in our workshop. "Jim" exploded in excitement at the chance to recount his POW imprisonment in Vietnam, usually hidden from many people, as set off by my poem about puzzlement and anger at terrorists and their sympathizers. Several attendees shared intimate family stories after hearing the poem about my grandfather telling stories to family members around the dinner table - including Happy, the parakeet on his shoulder, to whom he fed red apple slices. Several attendees expressed their struggles with spirituality and the concept of an afterlife, following my poem about seven reincarnated people in heaven boasting about their reputations and accomplishments. (One was St. Peter who described to the other six his experiences and relationship with Jesus.) As these exchanges over poetry continued, I began to see that the audiences helped me more than I helped them. Further along, I started to see how these were significant gifts.
Gift #1 -Allowing me to see that I'm in turmoil. From facility to facility, I found myself choking up when reading certain poems, like the sad ones about death or illness or about struggles with identity and purpose. At some places, I wept openly and had to pause as much as twenty seconds before getting back enough composure to continue. Often, someone would get up from his or her chair and come over to me with a tissue, or place a warm hand on my shoulder, or nod and smile that everything would be okay. Then I would try to cheer up the listeners and myself by reading a funny poem or telling an amusing story or starting a sing-a-long of "Let me Call You Sweetheart." But I never really recovered, never really got the audience to be comfortable and happy, as was my original goal. Why was this happening, not only at the facilities but also in the public places we held readings, such as libraries, writers' centers, bookstores, the Harvard Club, Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village or at house gatherings? Am I emotionally unstable? Do I have serious issues that need resolution? Am I ill-at-ease in my own skin? Why does reading my poetry trigger such a display of emotions? Was I developing a co-dependency with my audiences? If not for these readings, I might have gone on thinking I was just fine.
Gift #2 - Becoming aware of my self-centeredness. At most of the Poetry Caravan readings at facilities, I talked too much about myself. Worse yet, my attention wandered when I tried to listen to what the audience members had to say. I had to either repeat their names to myself several times or write them down so as not to be embarrassed about forgetting them. I think I put on a decent show of friendliness and caring, but underneath there was my prime agenda of making my points, imparting my worldviews, and expressing my feelings. I should have asked the listeners more questions about their own lives, their thoughts and feelings, their interest in poetry. I realized that had I asked more or better questions, the audiences would have shared even more. Thankfully, the audience members and staff were genuinely warm and generous individuals who were forgiving and supportive. However, my gift to them could have been to be a much better listener. The good listener is the true giver, because the speaker often has self-interest or vanity as the main motivating force, whereas the listener makes a precious gift of time and attention. Because it takes a speaker to start the process, the key is for the speaker to exercise balance and be aware that the listener is the real giver. I intend to be a much better listener not only at upcoming readings but also in my everyday life.
Gift #3 - Getting to work with others. My association with the Poetry Caravan and other writing groups has given me the opportunity to work with other individuals for common purposes. As a self-employed business person for many years, I've developed ways of handling tasks on my own, perhaps becoming too independent and set in my ways. It has been refreshing to contribute to a group of disparate individuals, tossing around fresh ideas, establishing commitments, arranging schedules, and making compromises. I've developed close friendships with many of the poets, several of whom have given me support and love, in addition to their beautiful poetry. Helping the Caravan with the promotion and sale of our poetry anthology, "en(compass)", was a lesson for me in patience. Recently, at an open mic public reading, one of the 70 participating poets, "Adele," read a letter she had received that day from a high school student she taught thirty years ago. The student wrote about the life-changing effect "Adele" had on his dedication to follow-through with education and escape the path of many inner-city children. He wrote about how he had been so impressed by Adele's love of poetry and what the poems said about life. Not only did Adele receive a special gift of thankfulness from her ex-student, but each poet in the room was reminded of the profound effect our actions have on people, often not realized until much later and sometimes never.