Saved By A Poem: An Interview with Kim Rosen
The renowned author and teacher talks about how poetry heals and transforms us
Posted Jan 25, 2014
Kim Rosen has awakened listeners around the world to the power of poetry to heal and transform individuals and communities. The author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, she combines a lifelong devotion to poetry with her background in psychotherapy and spirituality and offers lectures, retreats, and poetry concerts in a variety of settings around the world, ranging from universities, churches, corporations, and hospices to the New Orleans Superdome, the crypt of Chartres, and a Maasai Safe House in the Great Rift Valley. Rosen, an award-winning poet, earned a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and has been published in O Magazine, The Sun Magazine, and The Texas Review (among others), and founded, in 2012, the Poetry Depths Mystery School, a "multi-dimensional immersion in the power of poetry to nourish and heal oneself and others." I recently talked to this extraordinary teacher and writer about the transformative power of poetry and how to bring "healing words" into our everyday lives.
MM: How did you first fall in love with poetry?
KR: I think probably most every child’s first language is poetry. The rhythms of a poem reflect the primordial rhythms of the heartbeat we hear in the womb. Like other children all over the world, the first books my mother read to me were books of poems – in my case A. A. Milne, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose. So naturally first thing I wrote when I could hold a pencil was a poem.
But in high school, my delicious connection to poetry was crushed. There I was taught that poetry wasn’t this wonderful world of magic, it was “iambic pentameters” and “dactylic tetrameters.” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” though a classic, wasn’t what I was interested in as a blossoming girl of 14. Then in college my first classes were very strict, academic poetry written in a language that felt like a secret code to me. So I let go of it.
What I was really interested in was my inner life so I turned to the realms of psychology and eventually religion and spirituality. I had the great good fortune to immerse myself in many rich forms of therapy and spiritual wisdom. I became a therapist, workshop leader and teacher of spirituality. But years later I came to a very dark moment in my life when none of the psychological and spiritual wisdom I had accrued could touch the despair within me. The words that once saved me had somehow become the bars of my cage. It was then that I happened by “accident,” to hear a poem called “Love after Love” by Derek Walcott. Those words cracked through this hardened heart of mine in a way that nothing else had been able to do. The poem begins, “The time will come / when, with elation / you will greet yourself arriving / at your own door, / in your own mirror...”
MM: What is it about poetry (versus prose) that goes to the heart of our spiritual self and our experience?
KR: Well, first I should say there are poems that don’t necessarily go the heart of our spiritual self, -- poems like epic sea voyages, or bawdy limericks, or story poems or political outcries. But just about every poem has a rhythm and a music to the language – whether it’s a traditional rhyming or metric form or not – and that rhythm literally comes inside our biochemistry. It changes our breathing, it entrains the pulsations within our bodies, and this changes brain waves. Rather than calling this an “altered state,” I like to think that it changes consciousness back to its true nature.
To me, the word spiritual means beyond the limits of the mind. There’s something that happens when we go beyond the mind, we fall into a vastness where the thoughts and revelations are coming to us -- either through the poem directly or simply because we’re immersed in the poem and our minds are unlocked by it. We’re in what you might call a shamanic state – in the sense of how a shaman’s drumbeat can melt the veils between the conscious and the unconscious. Something happens that’s beyond the capacity of thought. The breath deepens, tears spring to the eyes, gooseflesh rises – all this happens outside of the mind’s power to create a linear path to that moment.
MM: Is it not also about finding meaning in the words of the poem?
KR: That a great question. I think both are true. Take Mary Oliver’s often quoted lines from her poem “The Summer Day”: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Beautiful lines, yes. But really those lines need the whole beginning of the poem to hit home in their full potency. We need to be entrained into the subtle rhythm and music of the whole poem – and then those lines awaken us with a gasp of meaning that goes beyond the mind.
MM: I see what you mean. It’s the music and the rhythm that carry the meaning of those words into a transformative experience.
KR: The meaning leaps into us because it’s in a setting of the unexpected. To put these two things together, “wild,” which has a kind of galloping across the tundra feeling together with “precious,” which has a precious stone held in your hand feeling, is unexpected. It’s a riddle that uses the mind to break open the mind. It’s the silence, the ‘ah!’, the quick in-breath between these two unlike things, that awaken us.
MM: It’s awakening by implication not declaration -- that paradoxical moment when the mind stops and can’t make sense of things and takes in the deeper meaning.
KR: Yes, and I think that within all great mystical traditions like Kabbalistic Judaism, Yoga Nidra, Zen Buddhism, and many of the Arjuna stories, impossible opposites are intentionally brought together as unsolvable riddles. That’s what a koan is right? And that’s what a metaphor is. It’s an unsolvable riddle. The mind breaks open in the process of wondering. The purpose is not the answer but the breaking open.
MM: How would you recommend people use poetry in their lives? And where does a person who has trouble with poetry, for instance, begin?
KR: In recent generations, primarily in the United States, much poetry has become less accessible. Also, people have what I sometimes call educational trauma around poetry because some poetry teachers themselves had educational trauma around it. But there was a time in America when poetry was part of everyday connections between people, as central to the culture as listening to the radio on the way to work. Poems were recited at dinner tables, between friends and in bars, as they still are today in Iraq, Iran, Ireland, Wales, Cuba, Kenya and many other countries. But here in the U.S. that’s changed.
So, how do we find the poems that speak to our deepest selves? The poems I love are what I call the poems of the inner life. Roger Housden has edited two of my favorite anthologies: “Dancing with Joy,” and “Risking Everything.” In the back of my own book, “Saved by a Poem,” there’s a list of resources and anthologies. There’s also a list of 50 of my favorite poems, which I call the poems of the inner life.
What I would recommend is that you don’t just read a poem and turn the page, but if something bursts open inside you, even on a subtle level, stay with that poem. Carry it around with you, tape it on your refrigerator, write it on a post-it note and put it on your computer screen. Come back to it as a Christian might come back to the Psalms or a Muslim to the Koran. Let it become your prayer. Someone once said, my book should really be called “Slain by a Poem” because it’s about how poetry can break you open and irrevocably change you. So if you really love a poem, let it break you open. Learn it by heart. Embody it. Live it. And if you want to write poems, start by having the great poets within your heart. Whoever that is for you. It could be Shel Silverstein, Marie Howe or Emily Dickinson.
MM: So beautiful. Thank you for that. Your poem, "In Impossible Darkness," is one that I use with my writing students to describe the creative process ... and the mysterious power of transformation. Would you mind reciting it?
KR: I’d love to.
In Impossible Darkness
Do you know how
Do you remember
inside a cocoon?
There in the thick black
of your self-spun womb,
void as the moon before waxing,
(as Christ did
for three days
in the tomb)
in impossible darkness
MM: Those last three lines take my breath away every time I read them. Thank you, Kim.
KR: What joy to speak with you, Mark.