Queer Poetry Therapy
The relevance of rainbow representation.
Posted July 17, 2020
By Kimberly Dark
Sometimes I’m not sure what gender a person is
so I have to turn my head, take another look.
I have to pause, look closely, see for myself.
It’s important to know for sure.
Isn’t that what we’re taught?
I have to start a conversation, have an interaction,
try to understand.
Sometimes I need to make a date, go to dinner,
learn some more.
I need to find a private place,
Peel off my clothes, meet some skin and feel it out.
I need to settle down for a while,
have children, pass some holidays, make rituals,
shed some tears, see some tragedies unfold.
I smile a lot, make meals, make love, take it all in,
go on trips, sleep close…
Sometimes I’m not sure what gender a person is
so I have to take the time to find out.
Kimberly Dark’s invigorating cadence draws her audience into vulnerable subjects of identity, definition, presumptions, revelations, and what it means to be a bodily person. A sociology professor at the California State University of San Marcos, and regarded as one of the top LGBT orators in the country by the Advocate and Campus Pride, Kimberly Dark is as insightful and engaging as you might imagine.2,3 We met years ago as part of an educational art tour, and as a complete tangent, she helped me become the queer counselor I am today by writing a sterling college recommendation letter. I am incredibly thankful to Kimberly, but more to the point, I am inspired by her.
Whenever she expounds on gender and queerness, I always wish I could record it, play it back, let it sink in. So naturally, when I read her prose, I tend to read them twice over. Like many, I used to think of poems as the epitaphs of dead white men, but it wasn’t until I sat in on one of Kimberly Dark’s live performances that I encountered the kind of first-hand queer feminist representation I’d been missing. Admittedly, I didn’t fully grasp the catharsis I was feeling until a decade later.
Poetry therapy. Even the sound of it is lyrical.
I was first introduced to poetry therapy by my colleague Elnur Gajiev, known in our circles as Dr. El. He’s an aloof man of pathos with a PsyD and the kind of heartfelt smile that makes him at once mysterious and instantaneously likable. He’s the kind of person that understands pain, both its hardship and its beauty. That’s right, he’s a poet, and he implements poetry in his practice— a modality I hadn’t encountered before our meeting, though it implicitly makes sense.
In both individual and group sessions, Dr. El would invite his clients to read a selected poem aloud, take time to unpack its contents, explore which stanzas stand out the most, then read it again to let it sink into a deeper level of resonance. I often write about resonance and dissonance as a natural part of our self-actualization process, but it wasn’t until I had listened to Kimberly Dark that I had ever resonated with poetry. In turn, it wasn’t until I sat with Dr. El. that I realized how powerful said resonance could be in a therapeutic setting for LGBTQ+ clients.
Like Kimberly Dark, there are many phenomenal LGBTQ+ poets for clients to engage, each one with a respective lifetime of wisdom. Historically, when the world would not or could not provide representation for sexual and gender minorities on stage, screen or radio, poetry slams did, creating a vibrant and verbose library of culturally diverse queer poets. A discourse on LGBTQ+ orators wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the influential works of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, and Ifti Nasim. Likewise, Kay Ulanday Barrett, J Jennifer Espinoza, Trace Peterson, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Lee Mokobe all have some incredibly moving works about the trans and gender-nonconforming experience.
Inviting clients to write poetry of their own is also a valuable exercise, even if they don’t necessarily regard themselves as a poet. Utilizing our imagination allows us to create mental flexibility, just as challenging our typical vocabulary and cognitive patterns via stanzas or rhyme schemes makes us re-examine how we think. Turning words over in our mind can help dislodge rigid definitions to derail the cycle of thoughts so many of us can get stuck in. Poetry can allow us to give voice to our emotions and our irrational beliefs, in order to understand what’s going on within ourselves.4,5 In kind, poetry therapy can also explore our relationship between self and other, and has been utilized to help people nurture empathy.6
There is, most certainly, a lot more to poetry therapy, as Dr. El. and the National Association for Poetry Therapy will tell you, and therapists who are interested in this cathartic modality should invest in the credentialing offered by the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy. Yet today, I want to underline poetry therapy as a potentially gender-affirmative modality for LGBTQ+ populations, if only because poetry has been the bastion of free expression for so many who have felt unnecessarily censored. When we listen to poetry, written by those more eloquent than ourselves, we can access points of resonance and representation we may have never been able to verbalize on our own. And when we write our own poetry? We give ourselves radical permission to express a full gambit of emotions and experiences with a form of deliberate value congruent vulnerability.
And who knows? We might even have fun. After all:
I’m not poetic
Just queer enough to haiku
1. Dark, K. (2018) Gender Certainty, in Love and Errors. Puna Press, San Diego, CA
2. The Advocate (October 5th, 2011) Big men and women on campus. https://www.advocate.com/news/2011/10/05/big-men-and-women-campus
3. Campus Pride (December, 13, 2010) Top 25 Best LGBT speakers and performers.
4. Mazza, N. (2016). Poetry Therapy: Theory and practice 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge.
5. Collins, K.S., Furman, R., Langer, C.L. (2006) Poetry therapy as a tool of cognitively based practice. The Arts in Psychotherapy 33(3):180-187
6. Furman, R. (2006) Using poetry and written exercises to teach empathy. Journal of Poetry Therapy:The Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, Research and Education, 18 (2): 103-110