I am a person who is eager for answers. I am uncomfortable with ambiguity. I do not like feeling helpless. Yet it seems the world is full of questions, grey areas, and things outside my control. It is writing that helps me reconcile the world’s almost ineffable complexities and my craving for certitude.
Yet ironically, the enterprise of writing a poem is punctuated with uncertainty. Does this poem say what I mean? Did I encapsulate that moment, that energy, that feeling properly? In other words: does this poem capture my humanity?
Poems are objects, that is to say, they can be shared with a friend or stored in a book. But poems are also actors. Poems make us see one another; they help us feel the pain, the love, the suffering, the kindness of another. I repeat, somewhat ironically, in one of my pieces, “poems are not about politics; poems are about people.” When poems act, they allow us to empathize, to understand, and even perhaps, to heal. That is why I insist that poems are in service of both our intimate interiority and our shared experiences.
But how do we write such potent poems?
When I get confused or scared, I find solace in writing a poem. For me, a poem begins with something I know to be true. It can be an experience of fear, of love, of despair, of wonder. I get lost when I start writing about what “should” or “could” be instead of what is, and more specifically, what the world is like for me. For example, sometimes I start with the experience of a sound, like in a recent poem of mine: “my heeled boots hit the sidewalk— the metronome of our silences.”
I think of all the specific instances that make a moment special or magical or intense for me. I want my poems to feel grounded and rooted in something material. So I write: “I take it all in:/ the colourful Koreatown murals/ the demolished department store.” Then I like to juxtapose with a sentiment others might relate to: “I listen to your smile/ as you listen to me talk / about school / and friends/ and death.”
Many of my poems start in my mind – usually as a string of words– either that I said or heard. If I can, I write it down as quickly as possible because I will inevitably forget. I prefer to begin writing my poems in a notebook, not just for the aesthetics, but because I think we self-censor less that way. With a keyboard, it is easy to backtrack and to dismiss our own words. When I write with a pen and paper, I viscerally feel the writing experience and it supports my process more steadily. The free flow is sometimes jarring and I think: “wow am I really feeling that way?” I find it a useful exercise in introspection and authenticity.
I think poems begin as kernels of truth about my existence, but I often polish, curate, and even embellish them. That urge to modify our feelings and experiences in their representations is equally as human. We are not always proud of what we feel and how we experience. I think our inclination to hide or sanitize that reveals something about who we are as well.
I encourage everyone to write, especially in moments of anxiety or bewilderment. I have to constantly remind myself to write too. I have to remind myself that poems are not meant to be perfect and that is precisely why they are important.
Barâa Arar is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and community organizer. She holds a Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University and is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Toronto, focusing her research on photography, gender, and colonial resistance. Her poetry and personal essays have appeared in Room Magazine, This Magazine, Canthius, among other publications. Barâa is the recipient of the Carleton Provost Scholar Award for community engagement and immersive research.