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Poem It Out Classroom

week 2: an interview with michelle ensminger

liz lamoreux

Sit back and marinate in the goodness that is this interview with Michelle Ensminger. When I started blogging almost seven years ago, Michelle was one of the first bloggers I really connected with because she shared so much of herself on the page and invited me to know I was not alone in my desire to write the truth out of me. So delighted to share her words about poetry today. 

*****

Question 1: How is poetry a lifeline for you? 

One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Poetry is a lifeline for me because it is what helps me hold the beautiful and the terrible things. It’s through writing poetry that I touch the joy and the pain. Poetry grounds me. It gives me back to myself over and over again. Poetry is the way I hold the questions I’m called to live and the truth buried within me. It’s through poetry that I find my voice and my courage. Poetry helps me become more fear-less.  

I started writing poetry in my mid-twenties. Before that I had a love-hate relationship with the art. I loved the idea of poetry, the beauty of the language, how it could be both elegant and raw, how it embodied tenderness and power. But I never felt that poetry was for me. It was something I ached for but couldn’t understand. It was foreign and illusive and a temptress of sorts. The idea that poetry didn’t belong to me was fostered in part by the way poetry was taught in school. The focus was always on interpreting the poem. I was never taught to “feel” a poem. I was never taught to breathe it in, to let the words touch my skin, to let the poem be a part of me.

I started writing poetry during a very turbulent time in my life. I’d recently divorced and shortly afterwards I began a very personal spiritual journey that would shake the foundation of everything I was raised to believe. To navigate through this emotional time of my life, I started writing and reading poetry. During this time poetry became my prayer, my meditation, my practice of mindfulness, a way to save myself when nothing else could.

Poetry remains an integral way in which I find my bearings in the world. It’s through poetry that I become more alive and aware of myself and my place in the world. When I write poetry I am in essence saying I am here. I am alive. I am full. I have so much to give, and I begin with this word…and then this one…and now this one. It is the way I connect to and better understand myself as an individual and as a wave in the great sea of humanity. It is how I give meaning to life’s experiences and the ordinary moments of my day. I use poetry to gently nudge the whispers of my heart into a tangible form of expression. I use it as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all humanity and my oneness with others. I use it to search for and look into the face of the divine in all its sacred and unexpected forms.  

Question 2: Who are the poets and poems you turn to again and again? 

Mary Oliver will always top my list of favorite poets. Her poem The Journey was the first poem that made me feel that poetry was accessible—it wasn’t something others read and understood but not me. Poetry was me. It contained my life and my stories. Finding the right poem and the right poet is all it takes to fall head-over-heels for poetry. I admire Ms. Oliver’s deep connection to nature and the life lessons she gleans while walking among the world, paying attention to nature’s details, and allowing herself to become one with life. There is a deeply spiritual element evident in her poetry that I relate to. Perhaps it’s my own longing to find god in all of life, including a simple poem. You can find several of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

Other favorites include:

Sharon Olds—She writes with a courage and honesty that is breathtaking (and a little intimidating). Nothing is off limits to her. Sex, abuse, betrayal, motherhood, divorce. She has taught me that every life experience has a poem hidden in it. And it doesn’t have to be pretty. In fact, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s bruised and broken and shows up at your door with a bloody nose. It’s the honesty of the moment, and who we are in that moment, that demands to be written. And that is something sacred and holy; messy and raw; powerful and liberating. You can find several of her poems at poetry.org.

Li Young-Lee—Liz introduced me to this poet several years ago when she posted his poem Persimmons on her blog. The way he plays with words is intoxicating. Because he makes writing poetry seem like play, it’s easy to be taken off guard by the power of his writing. It sneaks up on you when you’re not paying attention. Before you know it you’re left breathless.

Pablo Neruda—Neruda puts the sexy into poetry. He has a way with words that leaves me a little weak in the knees. I turn to Neruda when I need good strong poetry, the “shot of espresso” kind of poetry that demands you wake up to life. I recently read The Dreamer with my 8-year-old son. It’s the story of how a shy, introverted young man by the name of Neftali Reyes became the poet we know as Neruda. Neruda is a great example of how our life experiences inform our art, our words, our poetry. The poetry is always right there. It’s in us and our experiences.

David Whyte—He is another poet whose spiritual undertones really appeal to me. Reading David Whyte is like going to church on Sunday morning. It’s like reading a sacred text or sitting with the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. He finds the holy pieces of life, which is what I feel I’m always searching for. You can find a selection of his poems at his website.

Naomi Shihab Nye—She is a Palestinian-American poet who lives in San Antonio, TX. Being a native Texan, I can strongly relate to the images and storylines of many of her poems. I know the roads she speaks of. I’ve driven them. I too have let the sweet juice of Fredericksburg peaches drip down my arms. I’ve walked along the river in San Antonio. I know the tress, the never-ending sky, and fierce heat of the Texas sun. She even has a poem titled Portales, NM (the town where I was born). There is something to say for poets who bring you home (literally). When you know the images they use because you live in those images, there is a connection that is very different from a figurative or symbolic knowing. The words become very real to you because you have sensed them. You know the taste, the smell, the way the air hangs in the evening light. The Poetry Foundation website includes a selection of her poems.  

Billy Collins—His poetry is anchored in the everydayness of life. Because he approaches poetry from this standpoint, he’s a great poet for anyone new to poetry. He writes about topics that seem ordinary and mundane, infusing them with wit and keen insight. The result can be quite human and quite profound. You can find more about Billy Collins at billycollins.com and through the Poetry 180 website. He is also on TED and is the only poet I know of who has an app

Sarah Key—She epitomizes the power of spoken-word poetry. The way she has mastered the rhythm and flow of spoken poetry is mesmerizing and moving. You can find two examples on TED: If I should have a daughter and How many lives can you live?

For the past couple of years I have been experimenting with new-to-me poets. When a poet I’ve never heard of before crosses my radar, I purchase one of his/her books and explore their work. It’s been a hit-and-miss experience. There are times the new-to-me poet’s words speak deeply to me and I feel as if I’ve discovered a new friend (Vera Pavlova, Kay Ryan, Jack Gilbert, Kim Addonizio). Other times it just isn’t a good fit. That’s the great thing about poetry: there’s something for everyone.  I never regret exploring a new voice and a new style of poetry. I’m currently losing myself in the works of Tracy K. Smith and M.A. Vizsolyi

Question 3: Is there a line of poetry you would tattoo on yourself?

On my left foot I have tattooed the words “Live your poetry” (in French). I settled for this because I have far too many favorite lines of poetry to choose just one.

Question 4: Would you like to share a poem of your own?

What I’d like to share is not a polished poem but a glimpse into how I approach my daily writing practice.

After I sit down with my pen and notebook, I always take several deep breaths to ground myself. I will sit in the silence until I feel like I have become a greater part of the moment. Once I begin to sense that shift into presence, I’ll set the timer on my cell phone for 5-7 minutes. I tend to limit my writing to these short increments because it seems more doable and less overwhelming. I know once the timer sounds I can always write longer if I choose to.

I usually always start with some kind of prompt. Two of my favorites are: Today… and Sometimes… Today and sometimes are two small words that once they are on the page, encourage other words to follow.

Then, I just start writing. I trust the words. I trust my body. I breathe. I try not to force anything. I try to feel, to settle into the flow. I try to sit with the moment and listen with my whole self for what needs and longs to be said. If I get stuck on a word, I try to make myself let go and move on. Sometimes that’s not easy, especially when I know I’m not finding the exact word I want. I tell myself that I can always come back and explore the word further. I do this because I don’t want to get hung up early in the process. That kind of perfectionism can easily shut me down. I want to use my writing time as fully as possible which means I have to let go and trust the process of getting words onto the page.

The result of my writing time might be something similar to what follows:

Sometimes the frayed edges of morning
Come unraveled in her hand. One gentle pull
And the clouds ribbon to a puddle of silver at her feet.
The blue sky parts, framing the dark between the stars.
Sometimes the day scrawls her name in the margins
Of its longing. She wraps the sky around bare shoulders.
Wears it like a cheap scarf purchased
At a Five & Dime. One bird roosts on her collarbone,
Another circles her waist searching for its mate.
Sometimes at the end of all beginnings
She finds herself dressed in the crisp evening air,
A voice of birdsong echoing across the fragile day.

Question 5: Any other words about poetry?

Just a gentle reminder to the Poem It Out participants: you are a poem.

*****

Michelle Ensminger loves poetry, photography, and dates with her 8-year-old son. A West Texas native, you can often find her curled up in a makeshift fort writing her way through the messiness of life. Michelle always strives to nurture her creative spirit and pursue an authentic spiritual path in the midst of motherhood and working an 8-5 job. She believes writing can heal and awaken us to life, that stillness holds great power, and in the sacred act of honoring the present moment. You can find more of her on Flickr and Facebook.