In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Sarah Kay is on the line.
I was a third-culture kid, which basically means that any attempt to describe my identity requires a silly amount of en dashes. I recently went through a difficult breakup that has made my lack of roots more apparent and intolerable. I know this is a big ask, but is there a poem that can help me build a home?
I am half Japanese American and half Jewish American, I grew up in New York City, and I attended an international school. I am very familiar with the phenomenon of being a third-culture kid, as well as a prisoner of the en dash. (For those less familiar, third-culture kids are children who grow up in a country or culture that is different from that of their parents. It is a common experience of expats or children raised abroad, and while the term attempts to cover a very disparate group of humans, I like that it gives a unifying language to children who grow up feeling different or lost or just a little bit outside.) These days I spend my time performing and teaching in schools around the world. I encounter TCK’s growing up in totally different countries and yet they all share similar experiences. They feel like a community to which I am connected. Because of this work, I also spend a lot of time in airports, those miserable transient places, and I spend most of my time far away from anywhere or anyone that feels like home. And oh! “Home!” That ephemeral and impossible ideal. Where is it? Who is it? How can we find it and reach for it when we need it? Today I give you Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful piece “Gate A-4.” In it, she speaks of an experience in an airport, when a woman needed her help. Together, they built a small community at the airport gate. For Naomi, we carry “home” around in our language, in our food, in the way we look into someone else’s eyes. She writes,
I noticed my new best friend–by now we were holding hands–had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
You don’t have a lack of roots, TCK. You just carry yours with you. And even if it feels like you don’t come from one single place or that you do not belong to a “home” that you can point to on a map, all those en dashes you carry help you form new homes everywhere you go. As Naomi says: “Not everything is lost.”
PS: watch the author share her own piece.
I have received my first publisher rejection and am feeling appropriately mournful and dramatic. Is there a poem for this?
As a matter of fact, there is! But first, let me tell you what I hope you already know: that a rejection from a publisher is simply evidence that you are doing the good and hard work of sharing your writing with the world. The great news is that being rejected from a publication (or from many!) doesn’t stop you from being a writer. Nobody gets to stop you from being a writer. Perhaps your writing belongs elsewhere. Perhaps your writing wants to marinate a little more. I am proud of you for sending it out at all. I hope you continue to take risks. All the writers you love and read have been rejected, and perhaps continue to be rejected; rejections are the writer’s version of acquiring scrapes and bruises. They are not an excuse to hide in our homes. They are merely a reminder to wear a helmet. Perhaps this poem by Hanif Abdurraqib can be a balm. The poem itself takes on the form of an email exchange. Here is the beginning:
Re: Your Submission 9:27pm
We regret to inform you
that the poem in which
the dog empties itself
into morning’s fresh glow
as a metaphor for love
will not be accepted by our magazine
we invite you to submit again
we invite you to first find love
that isn’t shaken to life
by the warmth of a dog’s digested meal
I love this poem so much because each time the editor responds, I feel the sting of rejection along with Hanif, and every time Hanif writes back, I am reminded what an incredible poet he is. Later on in the poem he writes, “I do not confuse necessity for love / I do not confuse hunger / with the need to fill myself / with anything that will have me.” And though he is not writing about you and me, what a great reminder it is for both of us: do not confuse necessity for love. We may love to publish poems and share them with the world, but we do not need the validation of that publication. Focus on your hunger, on your need to write what you need to write.
When I was sixteen, one of my friends died from cancer. We weren’t even that close, but I still cried like my heart was breaking when I saw her coffin. In Jewish funerals, there’s a tradition where friends and family help cover the coffin with dirt. Over the years, when I’ve felt like the grief hurts so much I’ll cave in, I’ve tried to write poems. I was surprised that the grief never became easier, although I suppose I don’t want it to become easier. If it did, it would seem like she was even more gone. Do you have a poem to help me?
I am very sorry for your loss. Grief is one of the hardest things to put words to. And there are certain kinds of pain that do not get easier, but perhaps do get more familiar. Perhaps after holding grief for long enough, you recognize the way it sits in your body at a certain time of year. Perhaps it does not surprise you in the way it might have at first. There is a small comfort to me in the familiarity of grief, even though the loss itself never goes away. I want to share with you the poem I always turn to in times of mourning. The rabbi of the temple that I attended as a child used to read this poem during services, so to me it is akin to a prayer. I have repeated it so many times, I know the words by heart. Like grief, it is now familiar. The poem is “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy. The poet writes,
You can love me most
hands touch hands,
bodies touch bodies,
and by letting go
that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
give me away.
The poem is a blessing, and it is a request. Your grief is real and formidable and yours, but so is your life. The poem implores you to “give your friend away” by sharing yourself and the love you felt for her. If you can remember to love, to live fully, to touch and be touched, you are allowing the moment of her passing to echo onward, instead of letting its heaviness stifle you. She isn’t gone, you feel her constantly. “Look for me / in the people I’ve known / or loved, / and if you cannot give me away, / at least let me live on your eyes / and not on your mind,” Merrit writes. So let your friend live on, dear Grieving, but make sure you live, too.
Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from New York City. She is codirector and founder of Project VOICE and the author of four books of poetry, including B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder.