As a young queer woman growing up in South Dakota, my sexuality was more a cause for fear than pride. When word got around my middle school, I was told by faculty that I would stop “this behavior” or find another school. I was silenced, so I turned to poetry and prose. Writing was my way to express myself. On paper, there was no reason to fear, and that gave me courage in my real life.
Today, poetry has grown especially among the queer community, as well as among young people of color. Not only is it a form of self expression, but it has become a platform for people to start important and uncomfortable conversations. Topics such as racism, homophobia, sexism, sexual assault, to name a few. Those who are oppressed are often persecuted and shamed for their anger.
Poetry has become an outlet. A way to speak out and make people listen without dismissing us immediately. A chance for them to contemplate, to ask questions, open up to what they don’t want to see. Moving to Ashland OR and then to Portland after experiencing what I had in my youth, I felt like I could breathe. I was surrounded by those who had similar stories, people who knew my anger, my fear. I felt validated, finding this community, speaking with other artists and seeing the vast and diverse talent Portland has to offer. It is so different and yet connects and inspires us all. A specific saying comes to mind almost every day as I explore this city.
“You cannot heal where you got sick.”
My story isn’t the only one, there are so many who have taken their hurt, the darkest corners of themselves, of our society, and made it into written art. I sat down with a young poet I have had the pleasure of getting to know. Up and coming queer poet, J. Kerrien Dennis (Soda Graveyard, First Night in Paradise).
Sitting down over coffee at a local shop on the south east side in Brooklyn here in Portland. sharing experiences with how our writing has affected our lives, our views on the world, was eye opening to say the least. Poetry is meant to be open to interpretation, but hearing the voice behind the prose gives it more of a meaning than I ever could have imagined.
The question everyone always starts with is “what first made you write?” To a lot of writers and poets, or even artists in general, this is also the most difficult question to answer.
“What was a thought about my day, would turn into a poem about my week.” J. says with a little laugh. “I never just sat down and said, ‘Alright, I’m going to write poetry now’. It all happened very organically” .
J. goes onto describe his poetry as someone would describe photography, snapshots of moments, insignificant as they may be, but something he feels compelled to put on paper. Whether it be because it inspires a certain feeling, or it’s a moment he feels deserves to be remembered. Even if it is just by him.
“I write my poetry from a place of anger, mental illness, especially concerning oppression. It’s emotion that isn’t pretty”
It’s a feeling I could relate with, When I first started writing, I did try to make it pretty. Create an escape for myself. But growing up, and seeing all that was going on around me. Socially, politically, my poetry became angry. And after experiencing a personal trauma, it became charged with a fire that many would like to put out, or ignore altogether. But for me, for so many, that fire, that feeling that makes the pen rip right through the paper, it’s all someone has. “If my poetry makes people angry, especially if they disagree with me, that’s what I want. Not to take a moral high ground, but considering what I write, If this is something that makes people upset maybe they need to reflect on what they’re really angry about.”
Anger into art, that’s what the oppressed are doing. So many have lost loved ones, experienced trauma and they pick up a mic, a pen. They are some of the bravest people I have ever known.
They are the ones who say the hardest things to hear, the things that make your stomach drop. But they are the things that must be said, must be shared.