Why i love poetry

by julie ann otis

Most poetry fails me.

Same with most music, most paintings, most movies, and certainly most theatre. I’m a born critic, and as a performing poet who sees upwards of 100 shows per year, I walk away from most artistic endeavors grateful to receive more art but caught in the (often thick) margins of what didn’t work. I see where the truth remained eclipsed, where intimacy was missing, and where contrivance and forced maneuvers won out over simplicity and presence. Don’t get me wrong – I never fault an artist for trying. I appreciate composers, writers, and art makers of all genres who create in the face of a culture that largely doesn’t value creativity as an essential part of the human experience. (Much like sleep, we know it’s psychologically essential, we don’t know exactly why, and that mystery leads to devaluation.) The very act of taking pen to page or voice to air deserves encouragement. 

Back when I worked in the management side of theatre, a guy came up to me after a performance of Jerry Springer: The Opera (to this day, the most entertaining show I’ve ever been a part of) and said, “y’know, I’m not into theatre, but I liked that. It was like non-theatre.” I can think of no higher praise than this kind of recognition; that a performance has pushed beyond norms of storytelling to find unexpected resonance. It’s the same surprise and delight I experience when hearing a poem that’s pushed beyond being a poem to become an incantation, a revelation, a witnessing, a truth telling, a miracle of translation from divine experience into words thru semiotics so ripe they almost fall off the vine. These slim slices of poetry (or “non-poetry,” as my friendly patron might have called them) press against the form to take it further in its evolution or to strip it back further than I thought I could let go. 

The dusty manacles of what we think poetry and theatre are still weigh on us (and our box office ledgers). But though the outdated or overwrought may give our art a bad name, they also provide the springboard for our minds to be blown by the true, clear voice of those gifted few who pierce thru and captivate us. Every miracle owes a debt to the sea of the mundane, all the worthy artistic efforts that caused only minor ripples or invoked eye rolls and watch checking. Indeed, if it weren’t for all the failures and mediocrity filling the atmosphere, those shining stars wouldn’t have a backdrop against which to blaze. Nowhere is this truer than with poetry, and understanding the necessity of half-baked, milquetoast work is comforting and encouraging to me as a poet. Of course I want everything I write to be a stroke of astounding genius. So inevitably, when it’s not, I can value the work it does in contrapose.

The liberation of enjoying missteps and almosts and not-at-alls is at the heart of why poetry welcomes all players. I love poetry as a form because creating it allows for uncertainty and inquiry, because it lets the space of what’s not said communicate volumes, and because, at it’s best, it receives instead of instructs the reader. Most of all, I love poetry because anyone, anyone, anyone can play with words until they find the arrangement that is the unique scaffolding and portrait of their experience in that one moment in time.

Looking back, I see that the patron who told me he loved Jerry Springer had only taken the first step: He had seen and noted the exceptional nature of a play that pushed on his assumptions about the art form. But the next seed to be sown was his desire to push on those assumptions himself. When people see my work, I’m complimented that they don’t know how to describe it; that “poetry” either carries too much or too little definition to describe what I’m performing. But what I want now is to hear that I’ve planted the desire to create. Spreading the love of a poem is a gift, but loaves and fishes, friends, loaves and fishes: Spreading the love of creating poetry is a transformation. I want them to hear my call to join our army. Remember you were born to create. Relearn how to play with words as if it were your right and pleasure to bend, twist, and employ them. Press into this form with us and explode it, expressing yourself with your own brand of disfiguring linear language, helping us all to evolve and expand its reach. I love poetry because of what you, non-poet, are going to show me it can do.

Julie Ann Otis is an artist creating written, spoken, and performance poetry, often composed on the fly and occasionally performed in mid-air. She recently completed nine months of study in Indonesia and the United States, studying multiple modalities in creative arts, religious rituals, somatic psychology, and healing arts. Julie teaches contemplative and bodyful practices to help students develop active receptivity, fluidity, and ease in their creative process. She will be teaching an intuitive writing workshop, “Befriending The Inner Critic,” June 14-20, at Noepe Center for Literary Arts. Accolades include Opus Affair Artist of the Year in 2014 and an exhibition at Boston City Hall in 2013 featuring her poem in response to the Boston Marathon bombings, If I Claim You As My City. Julie's guided meditation series, Bodyful Journey, and her live spoken word album, Sermons of the Real, are now available on iTunes. More info at www.julieannotis.com.