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  • bumarsh

No Room in the Poetry Circle for Me

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

I tried to write a poem today; to reacquire the artform. One word over the other, then the mind sunk back to the concepts of my discipline. I’m a cognitive psychologist and professor; if I am not thinking about how culture influences memory, then I am thinking about lectures and other academic antics.

Writing poetry was once like floating to me; that doesn’t mean the product was good, but it came easy. Words ran out like they were trapped in a steel room filling with smoke until my pen pushed open the door. That was college; I would walk around the academic quad late at night waiting on the southern air to share a writable thought with me. I penned hundreds of poems of varying quality. Free verse, spoken word, and even a sestina or two rested in ink, then digitized for posterity. I even started an official student organization called the Poetry Circle that survived many years after I graduated. Commencement passed and I paused in a retail job, then traveled around Asia and from the mind the words still flowed like a faucet with too much independence. When I started graduate school, the right words waned. Unimpressive terms formed more unimpressive phrases and only birthed the feeling that something wanted out. The Ivory Tower was calling and the journey there required allies and focus. Poetry would have to pilfer my attention. Unexpectedly, during my years as a graduate student, a poem or two leaked out. In the final stanza of one of those rare pieces, I expressed the mental struggle this way:

I earned my PhD, found an academic job, and moved on from poetry. Years later, in April of 2019, I would make another attempt to reenter the circle to convene with my former self. At this point, in my fifth year as a professor, academia had won, and my field forced itself into my writing.

The poem was for a study abroad psychology course I was teaching. I posted it in a PowerPoint presentation about the Self, riddled with audio files of me explaining psychological concepts. The students were expected to move through the audio-visual lecture on their own time. The poem sat unappreciated on the first slide, just irrelevant ramblings in the way of a passing grade. Poetry pushed me away again.

Exactly two years from my last lyrical dust up. A friend suggested I submit something to a university publication in the rust belt. For the journal, I refashioned an old piece from college called From Giants. I started the piece in 2010 and stared at the unfinished project for 10 years. I was infatuated with the wording like it was a one-sided romance in high school; the poem’s completeness did not seem interested in my pursuit. But then, I found the right words, delivered them with intent and care–changed the title–and there it was, Up From Red Soil. For a moment, I had returned to that place where a joyful peace was found in staining a small notebook with unimpressive words that sometimes teamed up to stage an impressive performance. Nevertheless, it also suggested that I had passed the point of reentry. Ironically, I have also lost the ability to float. Perhaps, there are no new lyrics to write, only academic papers and thought pieces that can certainly impact the mind, but maybe they won’t woo the heart like a string of carefully selected sounds and semantics reminding you that reality has rhythm.

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