Creating Art Out of Loss
by Kelly Running
My son has lived on the streets of Portland for thirteen years. He is addicted to heroin.
As a writer, I attempt to create art out of this loss. Poetry requires me to choose words that are precise – at the core of my personal experiences. Through poetry, I can communicate the raw emotions about these events. At poetry readings, people have expressed appreciation for my writing in large part, I believe, because they can relate to the complex relationships between loved ones, their addictions, and the ongoing cycle of hope and despair.
William Stafford said that poetry is an “emergency of the spirit.” I found that poetry lets me leave emotions on the page so I don’t have to carry them internally anymore. If I need to go back to an event and process it more fully or write about it, it has been bookmarked on my journal page by the few words I’ve associated with it.
For instance, with my son’s recent hospitalization at Oregon Health Sciences University for a drug-related staph infection, I wrote snippets of my thoughts in my journal to extract the angst and hold it on the page. I keep a journal with me all the time – even while teaching – so I’m able to jot down ideas and words as they come to me. I received a text from my son in the early morning hours when I was making coffee. He wrote, “Pray for me” and “at hospital.”
Of course, he didn’t text which hospital. In the next hour, I was able to find out where he was. I wrote a few words in my journal to leave my concerns on the page and, as a result, began the following poem:
19 Letter Text
I measured coffee grounds for another day.
The text lights up phone,
but it’s the dead of winter:
“Pray for me – at hospital.”
The vision of the priest
anointing a body with holy oil,
last rites administered,
Roman collar poised over the body
when a nurse, bending the rules,
confirms that he’s sleeping.
But by afternoon my son
is following the sirens’ song
a melody he can’t ignore
living in old-town city doorways,
the frigid nights biting at his skin,
the staph burrowed deep in his spine
silently eating the bone.
The words for “Commencement” (VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, Summer 2013) also began with a journal entry. In November 2012, I saw my son on the street. He looked terrible. I wrote that I didn’t recognize him and that his stature, his posture, his face seemed old although he was young.
Some of those words made it into the lines of that poem. Other lines came from after I’d gone to his graduation at Columbia River Correctional Institution. Someone said that that there is a natural curiosity of people about what it must be like to experience prison. I don’t think most inmates will tell their story, but I can give words to the event I witnessed. Hundreds of inmates want people to care about them. The hard exterior is how they survive their prison experience. Who else is able to give words to the complex emotions of the moment?
As a writer, I still prefer the tactile sense of a paper journal and I like to use the lab-type books that have grid spaces. I draw a vertical line down the right hand side, creating about a one-inch margin. I leave the first few pages of my journal blank for a table of contents. I date and include the time of day when I start writing the words, phrases and what I call “the snippets” of ideas. What’s good about this method is that when a poem is completed and published, I can go back to the first moment (date and time) when an idea came to me.
That one-inch band on the right is called “the river.” This term came from a class I took at Portland State University and it is where I can put down any kind of item, such as a reminder to pick up a prescription at the store. I’ve found that the thoughts that tend to draw me away from writing can be washed away on the “the river” part of the page. I don’t have to worry about them and can continue the creative writing process on the journal part of the page. That way, I’ve preserved the “muse” as it comes to me.
Often, the few words or phrases I write are powerful because I’ve recorded them in the moment. The writing process continues as I add words and phrases (sometimes events later are combined to make an entire poem), and polish (through my writers’ group feedback), and then publish (thanks to the great editing suggestions by Lisa Maier and the editorial team at VoiceCatcher).
Finally, I want to thank and acknowledge an unknown man who came up to me after reading my poems at the Multnomah County Central Library on March 23, 2013. He had sad, red-rimmed eyes. He asked me if my son was still alive and I told him that he was, at least as best I knew, but that I hadn’t heard from him for weeks. He shared that he had done an intervention for his daughter who was addicted to heroin. He brought her back to his home where she had given up and committed suicide. I felt awful. Almost at a loss for words, I told him how sorry I was and that I hoped, in some small way, my poetry helped him. He said it did. He was grateful that I’d found the words for him.
As an author, I find power in helping others through the complex relationships between loved ones and addictions. My poetry helps me to not dwell on the “what-ifs” and accept my son for who he is. I will always love him – unconditionally.
Welcome to the latest article in our Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Kelly Running is a native Oregonian, a teacher and writer. Her poem “Portland’s Living Room” was published last spring in the inaugural issue of Fault Lines, an anthology of West Coast poetry. “Jailhouse Call” was published in the Fall 2012 edition of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions and “Saturday Visitation” in the Winter 2013 edition.