Meditations on Poetry, Leaving, and Fleshy, Porous Communities

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

I have just left Illinois—Spoon River’s homeland, my home of the last six years, a land of stalky grasses shuffling together the demons that have followed me from previous homelands of Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, California, Montana, Alaska, Nevada—for a new job in Delaware. I am already grieving the loss of a place that has nurtured my very best self—one that isn’t really “self” at all, but a humming of connections, of delicious community. The Midwest has allowed me to experience my demons not as disparate embodiments of inevitable torment that amount to an impossible wall of emotional ick, but as a congealed mass of stories that the mind compartmentalizes, for purposes of survival, and that I can, if I choose, rupture.

As the now-congealed mass of narratives that is my mind skitters across all of the tasks and excitements and sadnesses that come along with moving, I return to these lines from Bruce Bond’s essay, “The New in the News: Poetry, Authenticity, and the Historical Imagination,” featured in the current issue of SRPR: “Poems thrive on the new in the old, the old in the new, how each lies embedded in the other in dissonant dialogue” (p. 109).

While Bond is discussing the nature of poetry here, his words also express the dissonance of change, movement, birth, and death that are intrinsic to the human condition. Just as poems “thrive” on blending the new and the old, humans also “thrive” on the endless task of dissolving what no longer serves us and gathering close what does—even (and perhaps, especially) when we cannot fathom the connections between the two. How can we, when change inevitably and consistently arrives, keep our demons from scattering back into their traumatized disconnectedness where they fester and rewound? How can we see the past anew? How can we make the unknown familiar? How can we, indeed, thrive on our embeddedness?

Leaving is a process of returning to what matters, a coming undone, a shapeshift into some new body—a fleshy animal body, an earth body, a body of water, a mass of enmeshed bodies no longer resembling their disparate parts, having, together, become something entirely new. For many writers (and certainly for me), what matters, what moves our work beyond ourselves, is our relationship with “community.” Art, at its core, is a momentary materialization of community.

Case in point: The Word Bombing Reading Series. Curated by a collective of Central Illinois-based writers, past and present—Jordan Cox, Alan Lin, Evan Nave, Xuxa Rodriguez, Eric Longfellow, Brian Hedgepeth, Jeffrey Higgins, Michael Wollitz, and Laurel Perez—Word Bombing enacts the very momentary materialization of community that is art, over and over again (at least once every season). Held in an old homeless shelter-turned-art-gallery now known as ComeTogetherSpace, Word Bombing is a celebration of language, performance, and ultimately, of community. As local writers take the stage to perform 3-5 minute “word bombings”—from poems and short works of fiction and nonfiction, to improvised explorations in sound—Word Bombers “promote positive verbal vibrations” and “send them out” to the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois community and beyond (as founders Evan Nave, Jordan Cox, and Alan Lin explain).

“The general openness to experience and trust of one another” that is Word Bombing’s core philosophy has allowed many writers to experience a profound sense of belonging, says recent Word Bombing Curator, Jeffrey Higgins. For 35 year-old Jeff, Word Bombing was “the first time” he felt part of a community of his own choosing.

Emboldened by this sense of connectedness, Jeff initiated The Illinois House Project, a poetry-based multimedia documentary of sorts that attempts to understand the past and its relation to the material present, to really inspect what has come before (for examples of how this project is currently materializing, see Things Are Tough All Over, published by PRESS 254, and Jeffrey’s current video projects, described on his GoFundMe page). The Illinois House Project is “an archaeology of my own past, whatever that amounts to,” Jeff says.

Yet as The Illinois House Project has unfolded, the inadequacy of “personal experience” becomes glaringly obvious. “I am only one gnome/node/note (you pick) in a whole field of gnomes/nodes/notes,” Jeff says. In allowing for experimentation, ComeTogetherSpace has given many like me, like Jeffrey, permission to delve into our pasts, to not quite know what we’re doing as we’re doing it, and to do it anyway.

How can I leave Word Bombing behind? Central Illinois? The so many people I have loved and still love there? How can I, by leaving, return to what matters? I can’t participate regularly anymore in the Word Bombing experience of coming together in random chairs (everything from your average metal folding chair, to cozy velvet antique chairs and old wooden church pews), in a wide open space with a faux wall-fan at the front and a spacious wooden stage—itself, an enactment of community, of art. I cannot use the bathrooms reminiscent of elementary school, peruse the upstairs gallery space, or graze at the table of hodgepodge snacks (whatever Word Bombing’s minimal budget allows).

Regular visits. Phone calls. Skype sessions. Donating to Jeffrey’s current filmmaking project on Route 66, part of the larger Illinois House Project. Donating to ComeTogetherSpace via GoFundMe to help keep their doors open, after the City of Bloomington required them to install an expensive new sprinkler system. Money is communal.

Practice, cultivate what Illinois has offered me: the desire, the wherewithal, to rupture those thoughts and feelings that have long-provided an illusion of separateness. We all leave, only to come together again in some new, unforeseen way. We are all, constantly, arriving.

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).

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