A Poem is the Opposite of Silence
"If I’ve written about something troubling me, something negative, through the act of creating a poem, I’ve then at least made something positive out of it.
I’ve turned worry into creativity."
POET and arts cordinator Colin Dardis recently published a new collection, The Dogs of Humanity (Fly on the Wall Press), with themes tackling mental health issues. Here Colin writes a guest blog for First Fortnight about how, since an early age, he has found that writing, and poetry in particular, has helped him put things into perspective.
How does it feel once you’ve written a new poem? I don’t know any writer that dreads the writing process; some might struggle with a commission, or trying to write to a particular theme, but when they are trying to express their own interests and needs, it’s mostly enjoyable. In fact, the common lament amongst writers is that they wish they had more time to write, instead of having to worry about paying the bills or meeting the other multifarious demands of life.
If we feel this need to write, to explore our feelings and reactions, our compulsion is to indulge in that need. And if we are nurturing a need, then there must be a benefit to us in doing so. I’ve lived with depression, anxiety and panic attacks since my mid-teens. I was only diagnosed with depression and stress in my mid-twenties. But it was around the age of 15 that I started to regularly write poems.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was responding to a basic need within my own reasoning: to try and understand myself, and my position in the world. This isn’t an uncommon feeling during adolescence: one goes through many changes and new experiences as a teenager. At 14, I was a dumpy kid of average height. By 15, I had shot up five inches, having a growth spurt over the summer, losing my puppy fat and growing out my hair. That alone might be enough to reason with; but even before then, I had always felt a degree of isolation, of difference. I had friends in school, close friends, but didn’t connect with any kids in my street. I started priding myself on any minor difference: the long hair, my taste in music, my sense of humour, my religious outlook. I was a contrarian, a non-conformist, a free spirit. But really, I was depressed and not knowing how to handle life.
So, where does the mind go to when we are writing? Ultimately, writing is a solitary, reflective experience. In the age of mindfulness, and being told to live in the moment, writing has always exercised this. It’s dedicated time to pause and think, to study our accumulated observations and ask ourselves what we think. At 15, I didn’t know I had a need for this. And yet, the poetry was constant. I filled five notebooks in two years with my teenage scribbles. When writing, I was in command: I have an urge to write, and it was easily realised. This sense of achievement – an ambition fulfilled – was a solace during times then other elements of life were perhaps less controllable. And of course, this feeling has continued throughout adult life too.
When writing, we choose the words, we craft the expressions, we formulate the narrative and movement through the text. We do this in a way that perhaps we cannot do so easily in “real life”. So when we step back from the page or screen, and survey our text-filled domain, it’s natural there is some degree of satisfaction felt. What we write may not be perfect or polished, but we have given ourselves a degree of separation between ourselves and our emotions. And within that little distance created, we can reach something akin to understanding and peace, even if momentarily. We have stepped outside of the circle, in order for us to better see what lies within.
I believe this little distance allows for a more subjective analysis; when in the thick of things, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or exhausted. If I’ve written about something troubling me, something negative, through the act of creating a poem, I’ve then at least made something positive out of it. I’ve turned worry into creativity. It’s not as if every poem comes from a negative starting point, but for the ones that do, they are not a source of depression in themselves. Any poem is an accomplishment, a “stain upon the silence” as Beckett would have said. A poem is the opposite of silence, and while we must continue to speak up about mental health, any writing we can achieve helps contribute to the conversation.
Colin Dardis is a poet, editor, and arts coordinator from Northern Ireland. His work has been listed in the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, and Best Reviewer of Literature: Saboteur Awards. Colin co-runs Poetry NI, a multimedia platform for poets. His work has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. His new collection, The Dogs of Humanity, is available now from Fly on the Wall Press.