A personal goodbye to the ‘So You’re a Poet’ reading
After the reading the poets convene in the parking lot. It’s not officially part of the weekly event, but it’s our ritual to linger before the threshold, delaying the inevitable end of our too-brief Monday respite as long as possible. Occasionally we take it even further- “Who wants to come to IHOP?” someone will yell to the dispersed amoebae of conversers and listeners, animated and awkward.
“Who’s going?” another voice will counter through the crowd.
And soon enough there’s a bunch of us under bright lights and low ceilings squeezed into a plastic booth at the 24hr diner in the strip mall off of 28th, a four minute drive from the Chapel. We’re still deep in the energy that necessitated our migration. (Thomas Peters, founder and emcee of the “So, You’re a Poet” reading series, (8:30 PM every Monday at 1290 Folsom St, Boulder) occasionally reminds us that Wesley Chapel, contrary to the role it holds in our lives, does not sit in some miraculous vacuum apart from the workaday world, and there are neighboring households in which people are trying to sleep).
We sit there chatting and philosophizing, passionately interrupting and patiently listening, neglecting our oversized, overwhelming laminated menus, avoiding our phones, not thinking about work in the morning, ordering black coffee, compulsively flipping those tiny empty creamer cups as though they were tiny plastic jumping frogs. The night carries on until plates covered in syrup and pancake carnage are stacked, fatigue and food comas begin to set in, or someone checks the time and makes a face at their phone, reminding the person across from them that it’s Monday night or maybe Tuesday morning and they have four alarms pre-set for a time not nearly far enough away from the present moment.
I knew we’d hit an IHOP jackpot last night because it was my last night, and despite clear undertones of exhaustion I knew my closest friends would sacrifice their tomorrows for our tonight.
But even before that another special thing happened – this one unplanned and unexpected. Jonathan Montgomery, a seasoned writer and long-time faithful of the reading admired for his veritable talent and dedication to the scene, came up to me in the parking lot as the crowd was thinning out and I’d meandered aimlessly away from one of the remaining poet pods.
“I hope that was the story for the website!” he implored with a smile.
I hadn’t even considered that. I hadn’t thought of the piece I’d read that night as a story, much less an article, which is what I assumed I’d be submitting when Jonathan invited me – to my honor – to write something about the reading for Boulder Poetry Scene.
My piece was for an audience, in a sense. But it was written for the people gathered in this parking lot, if not actually entirely written for me, my own sense of closure and the need to fulfill a self-sacred duty before my impending departure from Boulder. This was a personal piece, a love letter to my friends, a necessary yet dreaded diary entry, a goodbye written under conditions of emotional strain and linguistic insufficiency to face deep fears of leaving this space and its makers behind. I told him something to this effect.
“I like that it’s personal!” Jonathan responded, with unadulterated zeal. The passion and excitement in his voice stood in such contrast to the pain and despair he expressed at the podium just a half hour before, and I knew this was one of those small, show-stopping miracles of human resilience that inspires you to hop on board and just hang on, no questions asked.
Earlier that night Jonathan got up on stage and spilt his pain. He spoke from and of a place of frustration, of disappointment, of being at a loss for how to pursue his life’s purpose of sharing and trading words, stories and poems, of writing and publishing, while also meeting the indifferent demands of what you might call Society, or The Man, or Being a Functional Adult in This Day and Age, especially in Boulder and Without a Trust Fund to Fall Back On. I mean, what artist hasn’t been there? And yet this was raw, in real time. The anger, the grief, the need. (This is why I sometimes refer to the Monday night readings as my “weekly dose of humanity.” I’ve yet to come across a medicine more healing, more heartwrenching and inspiring and destabilizing and uniting as this.)
A handful of earlier readers had prefaced their readings with check-ins, voicing their reservations or emotional states, and sometimes the reasons or events behind them. There tends to be a domino effect. One person’s courage and vulnerability opens the door for others to bare their wounds. One person’s joy causes a member of the audience to ditch their depressed poem for something different, funny or edgy or singing with pleasure. It goes all ways.
So now Jonathan is up there sharing where he’s at, and the audience is engaging. Nearly every single person there, whether silent or snapping or hollering from their seats, is fully present with him and his dilemma. Trying in our own ways to find some consolation, some hope, or simply to let him know he’s anything but alone in his experience. One poet yells something inspiring from the back row, something like a call to arms, a genuine encouraging rally cry. Another, however, challenges, “This isn’t therapy. Read a poem!”
“This IS my therapy!” Jonathan exclaimed forcefully back, in something like agony and surrender. “I’m taking this space as my therapy.”
All I could think was “Holy shit, ain’t that the truth.” And all I could feel in the silent room was this deeply personal and collective understanding, this gut-blow shock of being dropped into some shared emotional reality. A sharp incision, a deep dull ache.
We need this community. We need each other’s words and choking tears and whoops of laughter like we need the option of midnight pancakes when everything else is closed and the group energy is at an all-time high. We need it like a mother, like a therapist in a dark, dark place, we need it like water and sunlight. Like food stamps and stimulus checks. We need it like hope, like a pet to take care of when we can barely take care of ourselves, like a potted cactus that will tell us each day that we are giving enough, that we can sustain life, even when we’ve barely watered the thing in years.
As for me, I wrapped up with my therapist some months ago. I came to Boulder in a dark, dark place and found the readings shortly thereafter and while I’m a firm believer in (and beneficiary of) psychotherapy I also believe that the people and practice of “So, You’re a Poet?” gave me most of what I needed to find my way out of that low. Last week I gave my cactus to a Marshall Fire victim who lost all her plants and found me through Boulder Buy Nothing (check it out if you haven’t), petted my roommate’s cat for the last time and moved into my new-old ’96 Ford E350 camper van. Last night I read at Wesley Chapel and ate pancakes and cried and said goodbye. Tomorrow I’ll hit the road and next week I’ll be on the California coast and someday I’ll circle back home. Until then I’ll spend my Monday nights feeling a little extra lonely, and sometimes it’ll drive me to pick up the pen and dig out my box of envelopes and thrifted notepads and Beat Bookshop vintage postcards and write a letter to a Boulder poet.
Here’s what I read that night at Wesley Chapel:
A Goodbye to Face my Fears
We all have our traumas. While i have no authority to say whether writers and poets have more than our fair share, i will hazard a guess that we are more tuned in to our traumas than those who don’t spin stories, who aren’t constantly weaving thread-elements between the unconscious and the page. Treasure hunting for material and depth, we scavenge our dreams, memories, fears… For better or worse, we pillage our entire lexicon of emotions with a scavenger hunger.
Some of you have learned through my writing that my first defining trauma was that of severe mental illness: treatment-resistant depression, bipolar, Borderline Personality Disorder, anxiety, O.C.D., anorexia, binge disorder… I’ve heard all these diagnostic theories and more, but what it came down to was suicidality and psych hospitalizations. These characterized about a decade of my young life, and if they aren’t defining of my life in some way now, they are written into my etymology.
All this is to say i’ve spent long periods of my life feeling as though i were fundamentally incapable of enjoying anything. Even things i knew myself to love or to have loved. Like playing guitar, drawing, sunsets, mango sticky rice, and whole days spent tromping along the Northern California bluffs and through gulches with my best friend and high school sweetheart. Being incapable of enjoyment (and even diagnosed with anhedonia), i could not conceptualize really missing something in such a way that it made a difference. At my lowest lows i could not feel loss. Even when i was sent Away, there was no new hole in the absence of home, the absence loved ones and art and music and climbing. Because everything was already missing and nothing given or taken could make any difference in the fundamental problem of my life: it wasn’t worth it.
And so i don’t take life for granted. And i don’t take feeling for granted, or the ability to write, or to get out of the house and attend things like school and family thanksgivings, much less poetry readings. But maybe i’m beating around the bush a little. The title i’ve chosen is here to hold me – lovingly – to the flames. Apparently i’d rather get up in front of a roomful of people i do and don’t know and talk about my firsthand experiences with suicidality and extreme hopelessness than say goodbye to that room full of people. Which… says something.
What does it say?
It says i will miss my Monday night worship like all hell. My “weekly dose of humanity,” my church, my safe happy sacred space, the place you know you’ll never regret going to even when the very last thing you think you want to do is leave the house, or not go straight home from work, or get out of bed the evening after your overnight shift to put on your winter boots and bulky, tedious layers and bumble out into the snow to scrape the ice off your windshield and scare yourself half to death driving the 25 minutes to Wesley Chapel despite the extreme weather warnings.
The “So, You’re a Poet” poetry reading was once just an intriguing and intimidating idea i latched my mind and heart to, hoping it would be a way out of the isolation of moving to a new town alone and a way in to community, the underground canals of this new space, its creative veins, the seeds which would give me some sense of stability as i took the risk of allowing them to grow roots, which would in turn grow me a home. That’s a lot to put on a Monday night poetry reading. Or any event, for that matter. I probably would have settled for it serving as a way to hold me accountable to keep writing as i transitioned into a new routine, and to see how my writing fared with an audience. But the magical thing about this place, about Thomas Peters and the Beat Book Shop and all of you and all of the people who’ve made this space a home and a refuge and a ritual over the past 35 years is that my hopes could never measure up to the reality. And how often do we hear it that way around?
Expectations are simply nonsensical in such a consistently wild arena. I try to bring people here – special people only. People who even if i’m attracted to them i won’t sleep with them out of a deep respect –no, reverence – for this space. People who i’d want not my parents, but Tom to meet. I often talk about the readings in this animated, childlike, wondrous way, going on about them to whoever will listen, and sometimes someone becomes curious and wants to see for themself, and when they do come it’s rarely what i described to them, because the energy is always changing. It’s so collective, dependent on who is present, and yet there is this constant foundation, which of course is built upon the sacrifice and passion of one Thomas Peters.
For decades, Tom has been the glue of an ever-evolving community. He is the home you can return to, the face you can always find, the storyteller who never fails to entrance. Consistency in a jarringly volatile world, solid footing on the shifting sands of youth, or politics, or climate change. Or maybe he is the bearer of a beacon of light signaling vivacity and relief amidst a routine whose banality drags on, a nearly intolerable blur of indistinguishable days and weeks.
Of course i can’t pretend to know any significant fraction of what Tom’s seen over these past 35 years of Monday nights. But i do know he has weathered the loss of many friends. And yet he shows up, again and again, despite these seemingly small yet significant tragedies, shows up with his whole true self, and remains open to creating ties with anyone who proves themself to be trustworthy, interested and interesting.
It breaks my heart to add to these losses. This reading and everyone i’ve met through it is the reason i’ve stayed put in Boulder as long as i have, delaying my departure multiple times, extending leases and applying to new jobs. And yet i know the time has come to leave Boulder, at least for now. There is something trying to emerge i cannot create the solitude and space for while immersed in such an unspeakably meaningful and special community as this. How could i turn away my friends again and again to sit alone with the page? And so it’s oddly easier to pick up my whole life and move over a thousand miles away without plan or income security than to remain where i am supported and content and carve out the solo space and time i know is needed to embark on larger writing projects that demand a higher level of commitment and discipline.
If you had told me eight years ago that i would have all this, that i would be happy and feel loved by people who were strangers not so long ago, if you had waved a wand and shown me a vision of this moment, or any Monday night within these past 16 months, i would not have believed you. At the risk of trauma-dumping, i think it is relevant to mention that at that time, and for years prior, i fully believed, as did my parents and my therapist, that i would not live to see my early 20’s. Yet here i am, knowing wholly that this is a miracle, that the chances of me not only surviving but also living to experience this level of gratitude, love, everyday beauty, happiness and confidence were next to none. I am happier than ever, these days, and i have more love and pride for and confidence in myself than ever before. You all have quite literally changed not only the quality of my life, but its path. To be a writer, to commit to the instability of pursuing art as more than a personal practice, was not a pipedream because it didn’t make sense to dream it at all. It was these readings, this audience, your support and willingness to hold space for my words and emotions that built my confidence up to the point that i am not only willing, but excited to take the leap of faith in my writing. It was listening to and becoming helplessly inspired by your words, and seeing you fight the good fight, publish chapbooks and book series while holding down unrelenting underpaid day jobs, working overtime to make Boulder rent, committing to teaching English despite the obvious innumerable challenges of choosing such a career. It was your vulnerability, you getting up on this stage despite the anxiety, the breathlessness, the doubt, the shaking threat of panic attacks. It was you writing your first poem. You reading for the first time after writing in secret for several years.
“Thank you” is vastly insufficient. Everyone here has felt words fail in the face of the profound. I am full of love and gratitude, i am full and i am already grieving and yearning for this space again. This is not a forever goodbye. I know this is a home i can and will return to, in whatever capacity. But i feel the need to mark this transition still. To express the weight it carries for me.
And so for lack of language to convey this weight, i’ll propose a trade instead. Perhaps it’s unnecessary, but still, let’s enter a mutual promise to commit to faith the belief that the world needs our words, that we need our words, that i need and have needed your words. Let’s agree to practice this belief when we are at a loss, when we hit that block, when the process is clumsy and halting, unrelenting and unrewarding. Let’s promise each other – as obvious as it may be – to never stop sharing our writing.
Rin Hart (they/them) is, at heart, still a Boulder poet. Originally from Berkeley, they are now wandering the West Coast, living out of their converted camper van,
writing memoir, and embracing the road with all its openness and uncertainty.
You can find them at rin-hart.com, @rin.hart.writer on instagram, climbing in the mountains, or swimming somewhere in the shallows of the Pacific.