An Interview with Kim Rosen
author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words
1. Why did you write Saved by a Poem?
Gratitude. Poems have saved me so many times that I wanted to pass on the gift. I was very fortunate, back in 1994, to discover a transformational path that guided me, step by step, to take poems so deeply into myself that they became my healers from the inside out. They truly rescued me from a suicidal depression at that time. Nothing made any sense to me anymore, except a few lines Goethe’s “The Holy Longing.” I began repeating them many times a day and something totally unforeseen began to happen. The poem caused huge shifts in my energy. In speaking those words, my thoughts, my heart and my voice were completely aligned with was most important to me. This was affecting my very biochemistry. I was speaking the truth, and the truth was setting me free. I felt like I had found the voice of my soul.
It seems to me that there is this doorway to wholeness that is right in our midst. It is free and available to everyone all the time. It is the quickest route home to the inner self that I’ve ever experienced. And yet so many people, especially in America, are ignoring it. I wrote the book to point the way, so others could reap the healing and richness I’d discovered for myself.
You see, poetry is actually the most ancient form of prayer or affirmation. So when you read a poem you love, especially if you read it aloud and really take it into your heart, it will actually harmonize all levels of your being—mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. And it’s not only about the meaning. The poem is a medicine that literally comes into your body and can affect your very biochemistry. Literal physiological changes happen through what I call the “Shamanic” elements of the poem: the rhythm, the sound, the shape and, of course, the meaning.
2. Tell us about a time when you were saved by a poem.
Oh, there are so many! The one I think of now happened last December, when I lost all my money to Bernard Madoff. He was the guy who was arrested in December of 2008 for the biggest Ponzi Scheme in history. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness,” literally saved my sanity and changed my life—maybe even more than the crisis itself!!
I had just moved my money into this small, local fund that showed incredibly stable returns. It turned out the fund was completely invested with Bernard Madoff. I lost everything.
When I heard the fateful message on my voicemail, all I could think about was this poem. I didn’t choose it. The poem just took over my mind:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.
Feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
Of course there were suddenly a thousand things I needed to do —contact my lawyer and my accountant, figure out how I was going to pay the bills I’d accrued when I thought I had money, not to mention rent, food, health insurance!—but all I could think of was finding this poem.
When I finally came up with it through a Google Search, I printed it out, sat on the floor and read it aloud.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go . . .
I’d never really gotten this poem before. My students had worked with it. My friends had read it to me. But somehow it had never hit home. Now it felt like the poem had been written for me personally, for this exact moment. It was like having the perfect healer arrive on the scene in the instant of the accident. The poignant wisdom of this poem guided me through a crisis that could have been utterly devastating. It showed me that what was before me was a path to compassion, and I was not walking alone.
The most amazing part of the story is later that day, still clinging to the poem, I went over to the home of the friend who had left me the message. She, too, had just lost all her savings. When she met me at the door, she was waving a piece of paper. It was Nye’s poem. She had been reading it over and over all day since she’d heard the news.
On a less dramatic level, poems often come to my rescue on a daily or even hourly basis. Maybe I wake up frightened or lonely. A poem will appear in my mind, or I’ll randomly open a poetry book before I dive into my day, and that poem will realign me with what really matters, with who I really am.
3. Many people don’t understand or relate to poetry. Is this book for them, too?
First of all, this book is about transformation and coming home to your inner self more than it is about poetry. Poetry just happens to be a direct route to that homecoming. So you don’t have to love poetry to relate to this book. You just need to be curious about how to find and live and give your best self in the world.
I myself am no expert on poetry. In fact, I’ve been intimidated by it for most of my life! But you could say I am an expert guide to the inner life. Poetry is the flashlight I carry to light the way.
Also, many people think they don’t relate to poetry, but they’re probably listening to and even reciting it all the time! Poetry is not only the stilted verse we learned in school. Have you ever been pierced by a line in a song? Have you ever fallen in love with a hymn? Did you ever get through a difficult time with the help of a song, or a prayer, or a sacred text? All these are poetry.
A lot of people tell me that they just don’t understand a lot of the poetry they read. I know what they mean. I feel that way with many poems. Yet we sing chants in languages we don’t understand—Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit—and still we feel the healing effect of the rhythm and sound. Poems can have the same power. You may not understand them in the way you understand an article in the newspaper, but they can have a healing effect on you, just like a song or a chant—especially when you read or hear them aloud.
Every time I speak poems in a public gathering, people come up afterwards to thank me for opening them up (finally!) to poetry. They tell me they are astounded, that they’ve never liked poetry before, maybe they were even afraid of it, but they’ve fallen in love with the poems I’ve just spoken. They want copies of all of them! Somehow the experience of hearing poems spoken very personally from the heart, allowed them to receive them at a very deep level.
4. What kinds of people can poetry help?
It’s really amazing how many people tell me stories of being saved by a poem. Just the other day I was picking up my new eyeglasses and the woman adjusting them told me that after her brother’s suicide, the only thing that kept her alive was learning all of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart! And she’d never been interested in literature, much less poetry, before. Those sonnets gave her a way of speaking the unspeakable grief she was enduring. She felt she was not alone, that another person had been where she was and had made it through.
In the book I tell other stories about the ways poems have saved people’s lives. Children, teenagers, people in conflict zones, all sorts of people—and none of them were experts in literature! When Dr. Maya Angelou was a child, for instance, poetry was a lifeline for her. Do you remember in her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, how she went mute at the age of eight after being raped by her mother’s lover? Well, what she doesn’t say in her book is that speaking poetry brought her voice back. I also tell the story of her son, Guy Johnson, who, in the midst of radical spine surgery, asked his mother to recite poetry with him to help him get through the unbelievable pain. And there is also a story of how a suicidal teenager saved her own life by reciting Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” twice a day like an affirmation.
There are also stories in the book about how poetry can have profound impact in conflict zones. In Baghdad, for instance, there’s an initiative called the “Freedom Space” where Sunnis and Shi’ites come together to speak poetry. I am so moved by the healing that is happening there. It began as a competition, but almost immediately they realized they were all on the same team! Because the longings, agonies and loves in all the poems were the same. They started out with 25 people in 2006 and now there are weekly events all over the city and the suburbs. Some of the events draw crowds of over 5000 people. Often the gatherings happen in neighborhoods where people have been killed for speaking poetry. Yet the magnetism of the poetry, the hope and inspiration offered, has actually drawn members of the different militias to join together to guard the events.
5. What do you mean when you say poetry can be the voice of your soul?
I believe the poems you’re drawn to—regardless of whether they’re mystical poems or not—are the voice of the inner self, calling you below the surface of your life. If you take even one of those poems seriously, really take it into your life, read it over and over, feel it in your body, allow it to draw your personal experience to the surface of your awareness and, especially, speak it out loud, then there’s a level of congruency that can come into your expression in the world that’s very profound.
Often whatever is going on in surface behavior or conversation and what’s going on in the deep internal self are two different things. That fragmentation between what the inner self knows and what the outer self expresses can be the root of a lot of suffering and unkindness. When you choose a poem that you love—whether it’s a mystical poem poem by Rumi or a poem by Sylvia Plath about her rage at her father—and you speak it with the passion of your own experience, there’s a lining up of all levels of being. For a moment, that fragmentation simply doesn’t exist. It’s pure freedom. For me, it’s like flying. There’s nothing in resistance to the pure flow of life force through your body, your voice and out to the world through the poem.
6. So, what exactly is it about poetry that has this effect?
A poem is like a prayer or a hymn or a holy scripture, except it’s nondenominational. If you’ve ever sung sacred songs or repeated prayers or affirmations, you know there are many, many levels of healing that go on. It’s not only the meaning of the words. Sometimes you don’t even know the meaning if you’re reciting Sanskrit or Latin. There is a mystical medicine in the rhythm and in the sounds of the words. There is a physiological response to the beat. There is a way that the interplay of the sounds themselves, like a shaman’s chant, mystically melts the veils between the visible and invisible worlds.
Any good poem works inside you in all these ways as well. In fact Socrates, and many other wisdom teachers throughout history, believed that speaking poetry at the threshold of your death would attune your energy with the higher vibrations of spirit, easing the transition. When I turn to a poem in the midst of a moment of panic or despair, I can almost hear the different levels of my being clicking into alignment: my breath deepens, my feelings start flowing, my body relaxes and my mind opens in a kind of “Aha!” experience.
7. Do you give the reader specific ways to apply the poems to their own lives?
Yes. Each chapter of the book describes a different aspect of relationship with a poem, a different angle on how a poem can open you to your true self. I take the reader through the process of choosing a poem, the direct experience of what I call the poem’s “Shamanic Anatomy,” which is the way it uses meaning, rhythm and sound to alter consciousness, and the process of speaking the poem aloud with transparency and passion. There is a chapter about the difference between learning by heart and memorizing a poem. And, my favorite, a chapter on what I call “the Gift of Forgetting,” is about the treasure trove of self-discovery that lies behind each word you forget when you are getting to know your poem. Actually, the most important, valuable part of learning a poem by heart is the places you forget. Because they are calling you beyond the edge of your familiar self.
8. So, how did you come to combine transformational work with the love of poetry?
When I was a very little girl, I was fascinated with the human psyche. I used to go the library of my elementary school and stare for hours at a Time-Life book called The Mind. In about sixth grade, I read Jung’s memoir, Memories Dreams, Reflections and I fell in love with the mystery of what goes on below the surface of a human being. So as an undergrad at Yale, I had three paths. I was a director in the theatre, I was in psychology, and I was also studying religion and spirituality. A lot of people told me I had to choose one focus, but it turns out all three were necessary.
By the age of 22, I had my own theatre company in New York City, was training in various forms of therapy, and was a member of a spiritual community that was very focused on the interface between psychology and spirituality. Drawing on my background in the theatre, I began using music and ceremony to create workshop environments where people felt safe to look within themselves towards the places they’ve been afraid to look—whether towards past wounds or latent powers, visions and gifts. I spent many years acting as a guide, standing with people at that edge between the familiar self and diving off into the soul.
Then, in 1994 when poetry literally saved my life, I began to navigate the territory where poetry and transformation meet. I spent the next decade and a half merging my background as a spiritual guide and workshop leader with my passion for poetry as a path of awakening. I went to grad school at Sarah Lawrence College to get an MFA in poetry. It was then that the three strands of my studies began to interweave to create one braid: poetry, psychology and spirituality.
9. At this pivotal time in history, when so much is in crisis, both globally and, for many of us, personally, why turn to poetry?
Especially in these times of global and personal challenge, poems provide a necessary medicine: a language to speak the unspeakable and a way of knowing you are not alone, even in your most private and inexpressible experience. Some poems provide refuge, carrying you into the depth of your inner self. Some are wakeup calls that inspire you to action in the world. Actually it seems that more people are turning to poetry as the turmoil grows in the world. There are more and more articles about poetry in the papers. There are several new primetime TV shows devoted to performance poetry here in America, and one in the Middle East, kind of like American Idol, that is more popular there than sports or the news. It is so successful that it spawned an entire channel devoted to poetry! Here, new translations of ancient, mystical poems by Mirabai, Rumi, and Kabir are proliferating. Mary Oliver is drawing crowds of thousands to her poetry readings. Our own president is known to turn to poetry as he prepares himself for his most important meetings and speeches, spawning a new word: Obamapoetics. I’ve noticed that the world’s hunger for poetry seems to be growing in inverse ratio to the decline of the economy. It seems that as we lose the hope of buying our happiness, people are turning to poetry. People want to come home to themselves, and they are turning towards one natural resource that will never run out: the perpetually renewable resource of the heart. And it’s cheap! You can feast on it, whatever your budget. Poetry is an inexpensive and utterly efficient ride home to your true self.
10. Is there any message you want to leave with your readers?
In this world of iPods and e-mails and spam and traffic jams, the opportunities for fragmentation of awareness are thick and fast. It can be lifesaving to return to a poem that you hold within you. It lives inside you like a sanctuary, like a mosque or a church. Whether you know it by heart or you turn to it on the page, that poem literally does what I believe temples were created to do. It returns you to what matters most. Perhaps it has always been important to return to that holy place where the particles of consciousness organize themselves in alignment with the heart’s wisdom. But it feels to me that in this day and age, it’s even more important.
There is a paradoxical urgency at this time in history to slowing down, focusing on what matters, looking into each other’s eyes and speaking the truth. Poetry is essential to communicating the truth of the heart, the depth of the soul. Whether you are new to poetry, or a lifetime lover of poetry, or a writer of poems, lift the poems off the page and into your living experience. Let them become your teachers and your guides. Let them become your pulse and your breath and your language. Let them emanate out of you, into the space between you and others, through your voice and through the lived wisdom that you are. Your whole being will come into alignment. And that wholeness is contagious. You will touch other people and bring them into resonance with their own souls.