Have a problem? Write a poem. Don’t worry, here at Make You Write a Poem, we’ve got you covered. Covered in cut-up newspaper. Oh, you didn’t hear? The poems are already here, you just have to find them. Unfortunately, the problems are here as well. What, you think that’s not your problem? You’re the one covered in newspaper, pal. It’s your funeral. No, really, this is your funeral. Haven’t you looked in the casket? Ah, yes, they never like this part … Who am I talking to? Don’t worry about it. You should get to writing poems—bringing them out of the paperwork anyway. That body isn’t going to bury itself!
Content note: this piece deals with addiction, abuse, and intergenerational trauma.
I wish my father a happy birthday.
He tells me he’s drinking again,
And that he hardly heard from anyone.
I can only ever write poems about him.
Write back, he always says.
His emails come quickly, contain hardly anything.
Write back, he always says.
I have to come up with more to say, more that I can share.
There are so few safe topics to choose from.
He wants to see me. I don’t know if I can let him.
Just a few years ago, seeing him on the street would send me reeling—
Running, hiding, heart pounding, panic swelling.
I don’t know if he ever saw me run away.
I don’t know how to write that fear into a poem,
And perhaps this is where I fail as a poet.
I never thought I would speak to him again,
Never expected to write to him.
Five years of estrangement passed,
And then I did.
Something within me shifted.
Words like abuser, monster, Jekyll, and Hyde
Moved over to the side—
Making room for
Illness, sickness, and intergenerational trauma.
It took five years for my fear to begin melting,
For my anger to start eroding,
Revealing layers and layers of fresh-cut
Write back, he always says.
Get your brother to write to me,
And write back.
What more can I say, Dad?
Those little things that
Don’t add up
Or make sense.
Those things that
Don’t sit quite right.
Are they concealing something larger?
When, finally, we lift this old stone from the mossy earth,
Will we find, writhing on the ground,
Churning in the dirt,
Attempting to flee the scene,
Creatures without mouths, without eyes?
In place of a man, will we find a nest of lies?
I like to walk through urban wastelands.
I like to walk where I won’t stumble upon anyone.
I like to walk where the grass is dead and the buildings are disused.
I like to walk past peeling billboards, abandoned advertisements.
I like to walk out of pedestrian-friendly zones, out of friendly zones.
I like to walk in areas only meant to be seen for seconds through a car window.
I like to walk where the aesthetics have never been considered nor cared for.
I like to walk where I’m not supposed to go.
I like to walk with music.
I like to walk all alone.
I like to walk out here in the open.
I like to walk at night after the joggers have returned from their flight.
I like to walk until the muscles in my legs twitch when I stop.
I like to walk where I can sit on the ground and type out a poem.
I like to walk where I won’t be given funny looks for writing a poem.
I like to walk until I am unimportant, unworthy of comment.
I like to walk through places that don’t matter as a person that doesn’t matter.
I like to walk where and when I won’t be seen.
I like to walk through urban wastelands.
I like to walk,
And I like to pause
Without holding anyone up,
Without drawing any attention.
I like to walk at dusk as the joggers are just finishing up.
I like to walk as the sun sets, as the heat follows it out of the pavement.
I like to walk where the ashplant is cracked, and there is no one around to complain.
I like to walk until I empty every last thought from my brain.
I like to walk to the bus shelters without waiting for the bus
Because I like to walk.
I like to walk.
I like to walk,
I wish I never had to stop.
Content note: this piece discusses transphobia.
I’m on testosterone.
You’re in a corset.
You’re more visible than me,
So you’re treated differently
At this event, within this scene.
It’s like people don’t quite know
What to do with you.
They think they know what to do with me,
But they call me a girl,
Indicating they really don’t.
Is it a warm welcome
If they do not see me?
Is it acceptance
If it comes with erasure?
Is it friendly
If they keep saying she?
They show me how they treat trans people
With how they treat you.
It’s subtle, but it’s there.
They show me how they treat trans people
With how they treat me.
It’s subtle, but I’m here.
You have been the year of bad fucking breakups and shit luck.
You have been the year of challenges and disruptions and obstacles.
You have been the year of “if it can go wrong then it will”.
You have been an endless, unstoppable bulldozer of a year.
You have been the year of anxiety, panic, and fear.
You have been the year of a loss of control on a mass scale.
You have been the year of pushing me beyond my limits over and over,
And discovering I’m a lot more resilient than I give myself credit for.
2020, you have taken and taken and taken,
And what you have given has been less obvious,
But it’s what I will carry with me into the next year.
I’ve been telling myself to let go of what I cannot control,
Not an easy feat for someone like me,
But that is what you come down to, 2020:
The stark reality of everything I cannot control.
You have wiped away illusion after illusion after illusion,
Exposing the magician that is me.
2020, I can’t keep track of my griefs anymore.
They weave, white wisps of thread, throughout my body.
Each one connected to my heart and branching out in its own unruly direction.
My mother says I need to grieve, but which hurt do I tend to first?
Which thread do I begin to weave?
2020, you have been a gift,
A terrible, smelly gift in ugly wrapping paper,
A gift I did not want nor ask for,
But a gift nonetheless.
You have shown me where my limits really are.
You have shown me reality, exposed the illusionists.
You have shown me friends and family who care about me.
You have shown me what I cannot control, yes, but also, what I can.
My flaws have been laid bare before me by you,
And the flaws of others just seem so fucking human too.
2020, you have worn me down, beaten me up, and made me cry,
But you have also prepared me to take on 2021,
And I’m a better fighter than when this year had just begun.
2020, I’m grateful for what you have given and even for what you have taken.
I’m ready to say goodbye to you and move into a new year
With bruises and bloody knuckles and a little less fear.
No, this broken and unruly heart contains hope,
Hope that this will be a better year.
I select a piece and pick it apart and put it together and click submit and there it is,
at the mercy of the world.
It’s not really what we’re looking for,
but we’re glad you submitted and hope you do so again!
It’s not really what we’re looking for, but it’s good that you found it.
You’re not really what we’re looking for, but we’re glad you exist! Hooray!
There’s probably something you can do with that.
It is what you’re looking for.
You are what you’re looking for
and there isn’t an email template in the world that can take that away.
Lately, I’ve been feeling stuck. I’ve grown tired of the repetitiveness of my routine. I’ve been asking myself what the point of it all is. Where is this leading? Why am I doing it? What’s the purpose?
When you’re a young person, you’re taught to structure your life around your future rather than your present. You’re meant to perform well in school so that you can apply to do more school. You’re meant to decide on potential careers to pursue. You’re meant to engage in clubs and extracurriculars to bolster your resume. You’re meant to work part-time to save money for future you, who’s gonna be really fucking broke. They don’t tell you most adults change careers several times in their lives. They don’t tell you it’s okay not to go to university, that college and trades are fine too. They don’t tell you the real world often isn’t as stressful as school can be. In your mind, the real world is a terrifying place that will take one taste and then spit you out, which is why you spend the entirety of your youth preparing for it.
When all was said and done, it was actually pretty anticlimactic. You finished your undergrad and declared that you were done with school forever. You wanted to do “something real” with your life and school didn’t feel real. You got a temp job two weeks after you wrote your last exam. Three weeks went by and they extended your contract. A few weeks after that, they hired you on permanently. You got an apartment alone—finally, no roommates—because you were making more than minimum wage for the first time. This would change, of course. Rents continued to rise and wages stagnated, making having your own place difficult to swing.
You stayed at that job for well over a year. A few months in, you started to ask yourself, “Is this it? Is this what I want to be doing? Is this what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”
You felt dissatisfied, stuck. You were living in your hometown and that didn’t feel quite right. You had left to travel and for school and then returned without intending to stay. You decided to leave again and began making escape plans. You talked to a close friend who lived in a nice little town you had visited several times. You asked them about it. They said it was a great place to live. You needed to leave your town, you didn’t want to go too far, and you weren’t interested in living in a big city again. You decided on a date and handed in notice at your job. It felt good to have plans again, to pin your hopes on the future once more. It felt familiar.
You moved to the new town. You stayed with your friend until you found a job and your own place. You got a part-time job and a side gig. You explored the new town, connected with the communities there, and settled into your new life. Moving was the right call. For awhile, things felt good, better than good, actually. You revelled in contentment.
The clock kept ticking and another year passed by in a blink. They increased your hours at the job so you were no longer reliant on side gigs. You moved two more times within the town, struggling to find decent affordable housing, but eventually landed in a nice (though overpriced) two-bedroom apartment with your partner.
Week in, week out, you go to work. You pay rent. You cook dinner. You take out the garbage. You write in the mornings. You try to get published. You finish another zine. You see your friends. You go to events. You attend weekly meetings. You go for walks. You call your mom.
You feel those questions come creeping back up: “Is this it? Is this what I want to be doing? Is this what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice life. It’s comfortable and relatively easy. It reeks of familiarity. Not too much has changed since you first arrived here, and yet, your contentment has waned away. You’re beginning to resent the things that once made you happy. You’re looking for meaning in it all and not sure if you can find any. It might actually be too easy. You’ve settled down into a routine and none of it is exciting or challenging. You think back to the plans younger you had: get a Ph.D., become a professor and a published author. You gave those dreams up during your undergrad when the big city you studied in made you feel like you were drowning and the school that was meant to support your development was apathetic about your dissolution. While in school, you felt alienated by the competitiveness, the institutionalization of education, and the pretentiousness of accreditation.
Maybe I don’t need to reach those heights, you thought. Maybe I can have a smaller, quieter life.
So that is what you built for yourself, and here we are: something isn’t quite right.
I resent the way I was set up to always think about the future as a young person because now I can’t stop focusing on the future. I seem incapable of being comfortable with the present. I am constantly looking elsewhere for satisfaction; looking to escape, explore, and go on adventures. I resent routine, repetition, and familiarity. I am happiest when I am learning, having my limits tested (within reason), and being challenged by life. I believe that part of this is just the way I am. I thrive on newness and change. I need to feel like I am growing, and if I am not being challenged by life, then I feel stuck.
I also think that part of this is learned and it isn’t healthy. I have a hard time being in the present and I am constantly searching for happiness elsewhere because it never feels attainable in the moment. I am always pinning my hopes on the next town, the next job, or the next school, as though a little change is all I need to be happy. Though change is an important part of the recipe, I don’t think I should just pursue it for its own sake. Sure, I might be happy for a little while if I get a new job, a new place, or a new routine, but that will eventually wear off and I’ll be back where I started.
I need to pursue a life where I feel challenged and invigorated, to some degree, by my surroundings and by what is expected of me. This is something I have to give some thought and attention to. I will never be happy just getting up and doing the same thing over and over until I die (because let’s face it, millennials don’t get to retire). I need to respect and attend to the part of me that thrives off of change, challenge, growth, and development.
But I also need to heal something within myself that is unable to fully engage with the way things are.
I have to learn to live in and appreciate the present, even as I make plans for the future. I wrote a short poem recently about this:
I don’t think the answer is out there
In the next town over,
At the new job,
In the new school,
Coupled with the new lifestyle
I think it’s right here,
Staring me in the face.
I think it’s always been.
I’m not going to find satisfaction by constantly running around like a chicken with its head cut off, running towards this or away from that. I need to figure out how to be in my life as I build my life. I need to hold space for the discontentment as I learn to live with the discontentment. I need to think about and plan for the future, but I can’t keep only ever living for the future, because eventually, I will run out of future.
I think I am going to try two things then: explore my options for the future and start meditating again. I have a love-hate relationship with meditation, but I need a practice that will help pull me into the present and that seems to work for some people. I’ll give it another go and see if it works out. I was reminded about meditation as something potentially useful while reading Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices edited by Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston. So many of its contributors cite meditation as a practice that, albeit difficult, enabled them to get in touch with themselves on a deeper level. There is something important about being still and I am missing stillness. I race from one thing to the next with little mindfulness and it’s having a negative effect on my overall life. So, fine, I’ll try it again. Thanks, I hate it, but I need to find a way to strike a balance between coming home to the present and respecting my need to plan for the future.
Note: I’m referring to myself with the use of “you” in this piece, not trying to generalize or dictate your experiences, which I recognize may be quite different from my own.
Content note: this piece contains discussion of death, grief, and hospitals.
I don’t really know what to write. My usual way with words has gotten away from me. I’ve been left with a chaotic swirl of thoughts, images, and feelings that are difficult to articulate.
Thinking about death. Thinking about grief. Thinking about meaning, about birth, about loss, about change.
Your life can change in a moment, with one voicemail, text message, or email. One moment.
I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. My mother was the primary person in charge of my education. For a few years, she would drop me off at her parent’s house once a week to learn from them. My Poppa taught me math. My Nan taught me french and poetry. She had me memorize and recite The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear to her, which I initially hated because it was hard, but eventually managed because she wouldn’t let me give up on it. She had it memorized herself and would correct me mid-recitation if needed. We went again, again, and again until I got it.
Everything changed with a voicemail. When I first heard the recording over the phone, I assumed it was for something else. I had last spoken to the caller a few years ago about arranging a surprise party for my Nan.
I heard her voice. She said her name. Confused, I thought, “Why is she calling about the party? The party already happened”. I was almost irritated. Who calls about a party that’s already happened?
Then she explained her reason for calling and it clicked. Ah, it’s one of these phone calls.
My partner was sitting in the room with me. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
Heart racing, I told him what I had just heard. I called the person back. No answer. She hadn’t been able to reach my mom, she’d said. I called my mom. No answer. I left my own voicemail.
While I’d been trying to call my mom, the person had called me back. I called her. She picked up.
She was with her, there. She explained what was happening, what they had found, and where the paramedics were going. She mistook me for my mother. I explained who I was and said I would keep trying to call my mother. She said she would keep us updated. We said goodbye.
I tried calling my mom again. No answer.
Wait, had anyone told my brother?
I called him and he picked up on the first ring. Later, he told me he’d been looking at his phone while walking home from work, just about to change the song he was listening to, when he’d received one of those kinds of phone calls from me.
I told him. A few minutes later, he walked into the house and told my mom. A few minutes after that, she responded to my messages.
Now they knew.
As I got older, lessons with my Nan became less formal but just as formative. We moved away from memorization and practice and towards discussion. After the day’s chores were done, we would sit together in the evening with tea and snacks and talk for hours. I would tell her all about my life, my plans, and my questions. She would listen openly and curiously. She would ask me to elaborate sometimes and share stories from her own life. She didn’t pretend to have all of the answers or try to make me see things in any particular way. She would just share what she knew and had experienced. She would also tell me stories from the books she read or movies she watched in great detail. She was a wonderful storyteller, and often, just listening to her take on a story was more interesting than the books or movies themselves.
I had to get there. I haphazardly packed a bag, forgetting socks and underwear. I arranged a ride with a friend. The conversation on the way down was surprisingly normal. When we neared the hospital, I realized what was about to happen, what I was going to walk into. I felt scared.
We got there and it all happened very fast.
I was in the bathroom shortly after, looking at myself in the mirror, drying my eyes and blowing my nose. I was still scared. I didn’t know if I could handle this. I was buzzed back into emerg and told they were moving here into a private room in the stroke wing.
The damage was too severe. They couldn’t operate. This was the end.
She squeezed my hand when I first arrived but never woke up. There was a substantial bleed in her left hemisphere from the blood thinners she was on.
Two days went by. I won’t go into detail about them. They were awful, beautiful, powerful, painful, bizarre, long, exhausting. They are private. At some point during those two days, I stopped being scared.
Then she was gone. Just like that. Gone but not really gone. Gone but still here, gone but everywhere. She left that room in the hospital and went everywhere.
My Nan told her grandchildren she was a witch. She would cast spells sometimes to be dealt a better hand of cards or win a draw prize. She told me one of our ancestors had been a witch, a powerful healer who shared my name. I asked her about this when I got older and she maintained that it was true. That magic is real, everywhere, and accessible to all of us was one of her lessons.
Look for me
when my spirit leaves this earth
look for me above,
I wish to join the eagle’s flight
and soar with them at dawn’s
Think of me each time you see
a pair of wings,
close your eyes & in your mind
see hummingbirds + dragon flies,
the gorgeous wings of butterflies,
when they alight then look for me,
a flash of light in a twilight sky
just know I’ll be close by.
– Wendy Pantony
I went for a walk on a trail the day after I got back home. I looked for her in the birds that flew above me. I looked for her in the light and the clouds. I felt her presence everywhere.
I still do.
Your life can change in a moment, with a voicemail. One minute, you’re going through your Saturday routine, and the next, everything is different.
At some point during those two days, I wrote a poem about grief sitting next to her. My brain was fried and scrambled, so it wasn’t very good, but in essence, I was trying to describe grief as being like a ball of energy. When it first forms, the ball is huge and takes up every part of you, beginning in your core and seeping into every limb, into the tips of your fingers and toes. Gradually, it shrinks down to a more manageable size, until eventually it can be tucked away and stored. Once acquired, that ball of grief will always be with you. Even if you manage to tuck it neatly away, it’s still there. It will always be there.
My Nan will always be everywhere now, and nowhere. She has gone to that expansive place where individuality, separation, definition, and lineality are not factors. She exists differently now. She is here and not here. We miss her and she is with us. She has moved on, gone elsewhere, but the love she gave us is still here, within us alongside the grief.
I wish I could write about this more articulately, beautifully. I wish I could find all of the right words. I wish I could express the depth of everything I’m feeling, but this is where I am and what I have. Maybe better words will come with time. Maybe words themselves are too limited to capture death, loss, or grief. Maybe all of these things are too big for words.
I think my Nan is at least partially responsible for my being a poet, which I’d never thought about before now. It didn’t come from nowhere. She introduced me to poetry at a young age. She was a closeted poet herself, a private one. She wrote a collection of poetry throughout the course of her life that she never published, but she let me read some when I was a child. When I started writing poetry, she was always keen to read it. She encouraged me to get my work out there and was proud when I would occasionally get published. A few years ago, she asked me why I hadn’t published a book yet. “I thought you would be like J.K. Rowling by now,” she said. At the time, it irritated me to hear this because it felt like a lot of pressure. She had high expectations. J.K. Rowling wasn’t even J.K. Rowling at twenty-four, but maybe it wasn’t high expectations so much as highly complimentary. She just assumed I would become a famous writer and was wondering when, exactly, that was going to happen.
I cry a little bit every day. I write a little bit every day. I go back to work. I act normal. Sometimes, I feel normal. Usually, I feel surreal. I’m exhausted, in body and brain. I keep crashing with fatigue. I keep thinking I’m getting sick, but I’m just tired. It hits me in waves and the waves contain all kinds of things. I keep thinking about how I’ll never talk to her again: never share anything with her, never ask for her advice, and never hear her stories. Occasionally, I’m hit with feelings of elation and surges of energy. Is that her? I wonder. Is that her telling me she’s happy now?
I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I’m realizing I don’t really know anything.
Nothing matters and everything matters. We’re all going to the place she’s in now. I hope it’s a good place. I hope she’s happy there. I think, if she is, she’s trying to tell me that.
Before all of this, death had affected me, but I had never seen it, never touched it, never gotten that close. At first, I was scared. Terrified. I wanted to leave. I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much. And then, at some point, I just got comfortable there. I had to. It doesn’t scare me the way it did before. I was able to see the beauty in it. I was able to see it as natural, normal, just another part of life—the counterbalance.
She gave me so much all my life; so much love, so many lessons, so many adventures and questions. The last thing she ever gave to me was a close proximity to death. This was the last lesson she ever taught me.
Death is natural, normal. It is coming for me, for you, for all of us. Do not be afraid. Do not avoid it. Do not run away. Come into the room, sit down, get comfortable. Be with death. Hold space for death. Respect its power, its inevitability.
I watched my grandmother die and I learned about death. I also learned about life. She was fearless, dedicated, grounded, open, loving, generous, and always curious. She and my grandfather built a beautiful and enriching life for themselves and their family from very modest beginnings. I believe love was her guiding pillar, she pursued what she loved and centred the people she loved in her life. I can’t count all of the lessons she gave me. I am grateful she was in my life and I was in hers. I am grateful to have been with her at the end, to have held her hand during that final lesson. It was a hard one to learn, but it will be with me until my end, until the cycle repeats itself again.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
– Edward Lear