How does a poem start for me? At the time of writing, I have not written a poem since October. That happens sometimes. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, I live in Saskatchewan, and I find it difficult to write in the winter. Shockingly, this is not my worst winter, mental-health-wise, stuck at home during a pandemic. My worst winter was the year of burnout from the small, non-profit arts job where I worked alone. I didn’t write that winter either, as far as I remember. What I do remember is feeling trapped and helpless and alone and angry, so angry. I didn’t know that I could hold that much anger in my body. I was angry with everyone around me and especially myself. For not being able to make this job work, for not getting the funding the organization needed, for not getting the help I needed, for the broken systems that kept the organization barely functioning instead of thriving, for the way the organization and my personal well-being had become intertwined. I had just been pronounced “recovered” after a car accident and extensive physiotherapy the year before, but I woke up every morning hoping that a horrible accident would prevent me from going to work.
I did not write. I could not write. Everything I did write was angry and unrecognizable.
And then Spring came. I made the decision to quit my job if I didn’t find another job by Fall. Somewhere in the darkness, I applied for a summer writing retreat. It was my finish line, my oasis, the thing I clung to while going through the motions of a job that took more from me than I had. Finally, the week before the retreat, I interviewed for a new job and was offered the position the day before I left.
At my first meeting with the poetry facilitator, the wonderful Sandra Ridley, she commented on the strong emotions and traumatic nature of the poems and, very gently, asked if I might consider writing about healing.
I began researching the healing process. I read about how the skin knits itself closed, I read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Wolk, I read a surgeon’s manual about suture thread. I made a note in the corner of a page, “I am writing myself into a better place.” I wrote poem after poem after poem.
I started the new job when I got back, and I kept writing. Writing was natural and easy again. They kept pouring out of me. When the pandemic started, and I was sent to work from home, I stopped writing and then started again. I went to online poetry readings, I attended a virtual anatomy symposium, I participated in a poetry contest, I submitted, I submitted, I submitted.
Once again, I have found myself not writing. So I read, and edit, and submit some more, and do all of the things that accompany writing, except for the actual writing. It will come back. It always does. My writing tends to follow the seasons. Spring usually brings a new burst of energy and creativity.
I have a stack of my writing notebooks out on the floor of the living room, currently, in case the bright, brittle January sun brings new poems. In the meantime, I flip through them occasionally, placings flags on bits of poems that started and died or a line that could perhaps go somewhere in the brighter future.
So how does a poem start for me? I still remember, even if I don’t start right now.
Courtney Bates-Hardy is the author of House of Mystery (2016) and a chapbook titled Sea Foam (JackPine Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Room, Carousel, This Magazine, On Spec, Canadian Medical Association Journal, and are forthcoming in Juniper and NonBinary Review. She is currently editing an anthology of pandemic writing, running a lot of online events, and working on her second collection of poetry, tentatively titled Anatomy of a Monster.