Learning to Suffer

A blog post written first for CavanKerry

Several years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at a writers conference. The participants were asked to talk about the topic, “Can Poetry Be Healing?” We all gathered or were stuffed into a rather small meeting Room. It seemed that most everyone attending the conference came to this particular panel. I laughed to myself as I imagined that, like being in the audience of a phony evangelist, they had come to be healed. I wasn’t sure if they would find that funny or even amusing.

The first panelist began by stating outright that in no way can poetry be healing.

He talked about the loved people he had lost to cancer, accidents, any number of other physical cruelties that he never could imagine poetry possibly healing.

The second panelist seconded the first’s conclusion. She added that she had read many a poem, none of which would heal anyone, that many poems would likely only make things worse.

My turn. Well, all along I had figured that we would all be agreeing that poetry can heal. So, whew, here I come now cast as the antagonist. That’s a part I flee from playing. And so I agreed with them. Then I said that there may be another way of looking at poetry and its possible connection to healing. There is the illness and/or the pain, but there is an inner suffering as well. And so I followed, somewhat self-consciously, with my story…

By the time I was 35, I had been in and out of six psychiatric units, lost a marriage and a young child, had worked with easily a dozen therapists, taken so many drugs that several times I had to go into cold turkey before they “tried another,” and along the way had been given a total of thirteen shock treatments. Nothing relieved my suffering. (I can go into what did, but that’s not the import of this blog.)

Among the effects of my experiencing ten traumatic events as a very young child was an inability to suffer. What does that mean? For one thing it meant that there was no way that I could trudge down the blue highway to healing until I was capable of experiencing the pain that accompanies recovery. I needed to discover suffering. It was this realization that enabled me to “go on” and arrive where I am today, talking to you.

However, what might help? I couldn’t read even a sentence that described the least sense of suffering without plunging back into the need for caregiving. I had tried to read the gentlest of books, Ring of Bright Water. It wasn’t long before I put it down.

At some point I decided to try reading poetry, lyric poetry. Most of it was short. I could read the first few lines and see if I was able to go on. And I wrote poems, not very effectively, but with enough artistic technique to create a sense of control over what I put down on one of those yellow legal tablets.

After a week or so I found myself no longer putting the words away. I kept reading. I suppose it was fortunate that I was reading lyric poetry, and a lot of it was lyric poetry about those who suffered and/or by those who suffered, because at some point—slow learner that I am—I realized that “That’s it!” Most of those who wrote or spoke these poems were able to, somehow, live within their suffering. And so I read and read and wrote and read myself into the realization that something in me was becoming able to experience, to feel, that which one must be able to face.

And so it was this story that I told for my panel presentation—my explanation of why poetry just might be able to heal, to assure us that we can suffer, perhaps comfort us, help us feel we aren’t alone, that someone understands. We may even prevail, even if it’s making the day a bit cheerier for those who care for us.

It’s now been thirty plus years since I didn’t know I could suffer. I have lived this time with profound understanding from my wife and daughter. Most certainly, like everyone, I do suffer, but now with the confidence that I can.


All I Have Are Words

(This post appeared first on the blog of the wonderful publishers of my book Losing Season, Cavan Kerry Press. I’ve remained connected with these wonderful people through their great good work in bringing the experience of beautifully made books and great untold stories to populations who might not normally receive them. I just love this publisher….

Just now Cavan Kerry is focusing their intentions on people who have disabilities. So we are writing about these, and finding writers with disabilities to write about their/our own experiences. This put me in mind of a writer I’ve been writing with for a while…)

I’ve just come back from spending a couple of hours, a couple enriching hours, with Randy Smit, the Reverend Randy Smit.

Randy and I get together at his home once every month. About a year ago, I received an email from him. I had no idea who he was. He asked if I would be willing to look over his poems and talk about poetry. Randy said that he was an ordained minister, had two graduate degrees, and through a former student of mine had developed an interest in poetry. He wanted to learn how to write poems that dealt with important experiences, ones that he felt prose simply wouldn’t embody. I was hesitant. I get a lot of these requests, and though I try to fulfill as many as I can, most of the time those who contact me do not want to develop the art; most want me to say that “these poems are very moving.” And I do understand that as well. After all, in our culture poetry is not an especially psychologically safe subject to talk about.

Randy asked if we could meet in his home. “It will be easier,” he said. And so I drove up to his place, parked, knocked on the door. A young woman answered. “Come in. I’m Elaine. This is Randy.” And she walked out of the room. “Elaine looks after me while my wife is at work at the hospital,” Randy said and welcomed me, smiling from his wheelchair. “Hey, I know you,” I said. “I’ve seen you in Sanctuary Woods when I walk our dog. I recognize you.” “It’s probably my glasses,” he replied, “a line I use all the time.” I reached out to shake his hand. “Sorry,” he said. “I can move only my head, and even that only a little bit. When we look at poems, you will need to hold what we’re looking at in front of me.”

He invited me into a spacious room with bookcases and floor to ceiling windows. “I spend most of my time here. I’ve come to know, really know the trees, the sky, the different animals and birds that hang out in the back yard. And of course the books.”

We sat at a large round table, Randy’s poems spread out there. “Okay,” he said and took a deep breath, and laughed. “I’m ready. Show me the ropes.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to be able to write real poetry. I want it to be about my days, but I don’t want it to draw attention to myself. I want us to talk about poetry. I want us to read poems together. And I want to just see what happens when we hang out.”

“We can do that,” I said, hoping that we could.

We looked at some poems, some of Randy’s, some of mine, some of poets I thought he would learn from. Randy can’t write anything down, but it was clear that he was absorbing it all, and loving it. I asked him if he wanted me to “write any of this down.” “I’ll tell you if I think you’ve said something I might not remember. Then you can write it down.”

After a while our conversation began to explore and reveal the intersection of poetry and theology and what Randy called “spiritual practices.” It was as if the subjects themselves were having a conversation.

During a pause in our chattering away, I asked Randy the name of his condition. “I have no idea,” he said. “This is how I came into the world. All I can do is open my eyes, think, imagine, and feel. I feel a lot. And I live in words. Words are my world. All I have are words. I live in my head in a world of words. Even when I’m with other people, and I love being with other people, it’s words that bring us together. Like us, now.

I couldn’t help but think of the biblical passage about the word becoming flesh. I mentioned it to him. After all, he is a minister. “Yes!! That is what happens. For me words become flesh.”

And so since that first meeting we have gotten together and lived in a conversation that enlarges the world of each of us—through words.

After we had met a few times, I said to Randy, “You know, I will never know what it’s like to be you.” He laughed. He laughs a lot. “And I can never know what it’s like to be you,” he replied and then added, “But we can keep getting closer and closer to understanding. We’ll never get there, but we’ll keep getting closer. Poems, yours, others, mine are going to do that for us.”

From that first meeting on, if asked what it’s like to be a poet, I am no longer able to offer one of the more common replies: “Poets live in words.” No, I, and likely most poets, live in words for part of each day. Randy lives in words all day, every day.

(Randy Smit writes the very next post on Cavan Kerry’s Blog. See that here…)

Three amazing Poet Teachers

McGookey, Baron, and Friedler. All three of them teaching workshops this fall. If I were trying to decide between them, I really don’t know how I could do it, each one a remarkable talent. I have many years’ writing friendship with each one of these writers, and can just tell you that you can’t make a bad choice among them. Just hope that in your lifetime you have the chances that I have to write alongside all three.

1. Creative Writing Workshop: The Prose Poem
Class meets Wednesdays Sept. 9 & 23, Oct. 7 & 21, Nov. 4 & 18

6 to 8:30 p.m. at Kazoo Books II
2413 Parkview Kalamazoo, MI 49008

Cost: $180 (includes all handouts)

Instructor: Kathleen McGookey
Class size limited to 10 students

We will look at writers working in this genre including Russell Edson, Charles Simic, Gary Young, Killarney Clary, Nin Andrews, Mary Koncel, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Aloysius Bertrand, Alice Jones, Marosa di Giorgio, Zachary Schomburg, Shivani Mehta, and Kim Chinquee.

We will also read and discuss selected critical essays about prose poetry and do some in-class writing exercises, as well as write and discuss our own prose poems.

Please email k​athleen.mcgookey AT gmail DOT COM with questions or to sign up.

2. The Writing Life Workshops
With Laurie Baron

Eight Mondays
September 29 – November 17
10:00 a.m. to noon

*Write together and respond to each other’s writing.
*Bring manuscripts of works-in-progress for the group’s response.
*Share resources, inspiration, and accountability.
*Meet with me in a one-on-one conference.

The workshop is limited to eight participants, and the cost is $195.

Write to lauriezbaron AT gmail DOT COM, to enroll.

3. The Splattered Ink Press Writers Conference with Joy Gaines Friedler

She has designed a brilliant workshop titled:
Menage-et-trois: Using devices of Poetry, Fiction & Memoir Together to Create Excitement

October 23-24, the conference is $175 for early bird registrants, less for students, more for those who hesitate… Follow the link below…


Let’s See What Happens at Oxbow

Remember the ads that had an almost whining tone that started something like this…”Are you one of those people who . . .?”

Well, are you one of those people who…  loves to write and comes to the end of the day saying, “I want to write, but I don’t have the time; I have so much that I have to get done before I ever get around to writing anything.”

Do I ever have the cure for you!

All day on June 26th at Ox-Bow you are going to be given all the time you ever dreamed of. This magical setting will let all that “other stuff” drop off as you breathe in and write out. “Let’s See What Happens!

That’s the name of the session I get to lead and you get to attend. And you get to write all day, any way you want, about anything you want. I’ll be there for you to talk with about your writing, but only if you want to. If you enjoy working with prompts, I’ll give you plenty. Now I’m starting to describe what the catalog entry describes. So follow the link below. And then let’s all see one another and see what happens when we do.

Oh, and lunch, a terrific lunch, is included! I’ve had many of the most amazing lunches of my life on that porch at Oxbow. That place has some kind of magic…

Oxbow School of Art and Artist’s Residency
Art on the Meadow with Jack Ridl: Let’s See What Happens
June 26, 10 am to 5pm

Author Hop

Look, if you love independent book stores, and want to support them, at all, but especially during the holidays… If you love books… If you read books… If you write books… If you ever think you might want to read or write or touch a book…

If you ever lived or breathed within 100 miles of Kalamazoo, or 1,000, then I encourage you, this Saturday, December 6, to stop in to Kalamazoo Books, an independent book store, a wonderful, magical, welcoming place for readers and writers and the people who love them.

Please stop by. Not just because I’ll be there and would like to see you. Yes, that is true, I will be there along with Lisa Lenzo and Andy Mozina and buddies from Wayne State University Press. But come because, really, this is the best kind of book store, and book stores like this are just so nourishing this time of year. So many gifts for so many people. Generosity oozes all over the place.

Click along, friends, and read all about it. And, I’ll see you there!

Read all about it!

Lifetime Achievement

I would never have hallucinated that the day would arrive when I might be given recognition for a lifetime’s work. Yikes!
A lifetime’s work?

Here’s how that happens. You do what you do every day for some 45 years and then you get an email informing you of such.

Some things, I admit, I did dream about: hitting the game winning home run in the seventh game of the World Series, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, draining a thirty foot jump shot with time running out to win a championship for my father, seeing Julie well, but what happened a couple weeks ago I could never imagine.

Okay, so what happened? First the Poetry Society of Michigan informs me that they have named me Honorary Chancellor for the next two years. This means so much: these poets work with poetry and poets for all the right reasons: respect for both poet and poetry, support for those who compose work that connects us to one another and to what deeply matters, encouragement to those learning the art, and an affirmation of poetry as crucial to  sustaining all that is humane. They give themselves to bringing out the compassion and understanding that we carry into each day.

Then, along comes a message announcing that the Literary Society of West Michigan has recognized me with one of their four awards given to those who have contributed to enhancing, enriching literacy. I was cited for a lifetime (there it is again) of work restoring understanding of what poetry really is and what it can bring to and do for others.

I feel okay celebrating these two recognitions because they were not something I worked for or dreamed of or hoped for or even knew about. They came as a result of doing what I do. I learned from my father, the coach, to never make “winning” a goal. It should always be a result. I’m even more fortunate than he was. I didn’t even know there was something that would come from, I say again, doing what I’m still doing.

Yes, I was floored when told of these. I will try to believe this was deserved. I’ll try.

PS. Speaking of the Poetry Society–the other day, their anthology, Peninsula Poets arrived. Reading the poems, I was once again shown how important poetry can be to one’s life. Every poem in the collection matters. Each came from what mattered to the poet; each connects to what matters to us all. The editor, Edward Morin, should be named “Editor-of-the Year.” He, James Ahearn, Julie George, and Angela Maloy must have given up half the hours in their days to devote themselves
to creating this edition. Gratitude abounds.

I have, of course, overlooked others who deserve celebration. If you are interested in joining this soul-sustaining organization, contact Cynthia Nankee at cwnankee@aol.com

And now back to earning the right to carry these recognitions.


Here’s a venue that will be a great place to have a good time, and the kind of place I’ve never dreamt of for poetry… I mean, like, I’ve read in a castle in Ireland, a coupla coffee shops, in someone’s backyard, in a horse barn, (starting to sound like Green Eggs and Ham, right?). I’ve even read over Skype, but now—–THE RED DOCK!!!?

Yes, wow.

If you aren’t familiar with it, picture a Florida Keys-ish bar and restaurant in atmosphere, beverages, good eats, picnic tables, umbrellas, happy-hearted staff. Owners Tony and Dona Amato are a joy to be around. They flew the French flag for Bastille Day, a Grateful Dead flag for Tony’s birthday. Who knows what will fly when poetry hits the Saugatuck and Douglas waters…

When? August 12, Julie’s birthday!
What time? 5pm

Where is The Red Dock? Take the first right once you cross the bridge heading south from Saugatuck to Douglas, turn just past the Summertime Market. Head down the hill to a big gravel parking lot, and look toward the water for a boardwalk.

Follow the boardwalk all the way to the end, and there you will be, right on the harbor, ready to order up and take it easy.

I will have the opportunity to read with Lauren Camp, a fine, fine poet from New Mexico. Tony tells me Lauren is a dynamo (laurencamp.com).

Boaters are welcome to tie up at the dock. Come early to grab a paddleboard, though you can’t drink beer while paddling. There are SOME rules at the Red Dock.

Come be with the people you like to be with, stay for the poetry.

TEDx Macatawa: The Perfectly Imperfect

A TEDx Talk.

I was asked to give a TEDx Talk.

These talks bring new ideas to the world, or at least ideas that have been overlooked. The last time I had a new idea, it was defeated in a faculty meeting.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a new idea. Actually it was a very old idea, an ancient idea, and one I’ve continued to promote through retirement and onward. So, what new idea could I come up with? I came up with a chair. TED talkers walk around the stage. I walk my dog, or follow as he sniffs,  a rather uncoordinated, random walk. I am quite good at sitting. It’s how I’ve always done my best work.

TEDx and TED Talks are stunning, flawless, perfect, excellent. I’m very uncomfortable with stunning, flawless, perfect, excellent. When I taught at a nearby college, people were constantly pursuing excellence. Like Charlie our dog doing his sniffing. “There! Nope…. Maybe over There! Nope.”

I never had any idea what in this or any world Excellence was or looked, sounded, tasted or smelled like. But everyone  seemed to know it was there, somewhere. I knew that it was used in conversation: “Like, ya know, that’s excellllent!”

Really? Excellent? When I asked, I was told it meant “doing or making a thing better than most everyone and everything else.” At what cost? And how do you know when you’ve arrived? Merely by measurement?

Only that can be excellent which can be measured? There is a reason standards have lowered from reaching for wisdom or inspiration to spelling all the words correctly. Reaching for perfect measures is the new black.

Not being much of a fan of it, what could I talk about if I couldn’t talk about excellence? This gnawed my bones for a long time before it came: I would talk unexcellently about other things worth pursuing. Or I chose to state the positive: I would suggest that a thing is worth doing even if you don’t do it well.

In fact, most things worth doing have more important reasons for doing them than doing them well. And so I sat in my chair, promoting The Perfectly Imperfect*

I TEDx Talked about the virtue of not focusing on doing things well, or even doing them well at all.

And my microphone fell off my ear.

And I went 34 seconds past my allotted time.

And my chair squeaked.

*The title came from our daughter, who at age 7 said to me when I hung holiday lights up one side of our front door, across the top, and 1/3 of the way down the other side, “Daddy! Let’s leave them up this way. They are perfectly imperfect.”



It’s the day after reading with my former student Chris Dombrowski at Horizon Books in Traverse City. I asked Chris to read first because, as I told the audience, “I wanted Chris to read first, because then you might be thinking what an amazing teacher I am. If I read first, after Chris, you would be thinking, “Well, he most certainly must have learned in spite of his professor.”

On April 3, at the former Literary Life building, 758 Wealthy in Grand Rapids,  I’ll get to give another reading with Chris Dombrowski. Chris will be reading from his new collection, Earth Again, from Wayne State University Press. I’ll be reading a few poems from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, also from Wayne. Yes, Chris and I have collections out at the very same time from the very same press.

Okay, yeah, for nearly 40 years I’ve given readings. What’s another one? As William Stafford said in reply to one of my students asking him if he was nervous before a reading, “Oh no. Not at all… Resigned.” Well, with these readings, I am nervous and joyful because Chris is a former student. I wonder if, unless you are a teacher, you can fully feel, understand, what it means to be up there reading with someone who was 18 when you first met in a classroom. Teachers are fond of saying that they learn more from their students than their students learn from them.

What did I learn from Chris? I learned how to work with Chris. When he came to the college he was already knowledgeable about the artistry of composing a poem. He already knew the work of a remarkable range of poets. What was there for me to offer him? I brooded. And then I realized that, of course, the best thing I could do was stay out of his way, be an attentive reader for him, and kick him back on track if he started being unknowingly disloyal to his vision.

So can you imagine what it was like for me to open this year’s catalogue from the Press and see on facing pages Chris’s collection and mine. I wonder if there is any teacher out there who has had this happen? If you know, let me know.

Several times with the launch of our books, Chris and I will share the podium. I won’t go sappy here about this (too late?), but I feel as sappy as any proud “Uncle Lou.”

One other time I was invited by a former student to read with her. Sally Smits, who was teaching at the Indiana University campus in South Bend asked me to “share the stage.”  I had no idea how much it would come to mean to me. Quite a lot, it turns out.