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Learning Grief: A Writers’ Fest Memory

Aracely Medina shares her experience with Patricia Smith.

Aracely Medina shares her experience with Patricia Smith.

by Aracely Medina, Elan Senior Poetry Editor

Elan is an international student literary magazine. In this feature, students who are members of the staff will share their experiences with the Douglas Anderson Writers’ Festival.

In 2014, a month or so before that year’s Writers’ Fest, I sat down to read Patricia Smith’s poetry. She was coming to the Festival and I wanted to brush up, see what she was all about. And I was in awe of the creativity and power with which she spoke of grief. I think mostly of The Blood Dazzler, her book which explores the consequences and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In her poem “Siblings,” she personifies the hurricanes of 2005, mixing the destructive tendencies of the hurricanes with human characteristics:

Cindy couldn’t keep her windy legs together.

Dennis never learned to swim.

Emily whispered her gusts into a thousand skins.

In “Katrina,” Smith captures the hurricane’s impact in a succinct, imagery-driven poem by writing from the perspective of the hurricane itself, creating an voice at once innocent and malicious:

Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls,

unturned skin. With shifting a frantic mouth, I loudly loved

the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.

I was sold on Patricia Smith’s power as a poet, and decided to visit her workshop on the day of the Festival. When that day came and I walked into the room where the workshop was held, it took me a moment to absorb the fact that this talented poet was standing in the front of the room. She was tranquil and poised, and every student there knew that this woman would break us and help us generate personal and vulnerable poetry in less than an hour.

“Think about the person you love the most,” she said, and we thought about siblings, spouses, children, and parents “Now imagine they have died and you must dress them.”

We were shocked and she guided us further. “How would you dress them? What would you bring? Talk to them.”

Bit by bit, image by image, I wrote about buttoning a white dress on a friend’s corpse. I bit my lip, looked up and saw the whole room in tears.

Smith taught me to write what kills you, what brings you to your knees, because vulnerability and pain are among the greatest catalysts for good writing. Years from that Festival, as I began to write about more personal topics–suicide, sexuality, and death–I realized how important grief was to my writing. You let yourself grieve, roll through the agony, the ache, and in the end, make it yours. This is what I learned at the Douglas Anderson Writers’ Festival, and I can’t wait to learn something more this year.

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