I will never forget finding the page where somebody wrote, ‘I LOVE YOU! That’s WHAT MATTERS!’ with a small broken heart drawn beside it.
It hurt, physically, to see that, because i could feel how that writer felt, and the hopelessness of that being the only way that writer felt safe to declare his/her feelings.
But, at the time it happened, it felt distinctly inappropriate to carry that page around, asking friends and accquaintances, ‘Did you write this? Do you harbour hidden, painful feelings of love for me? Please tell me.’
So, I’m haunted. Until the day someone comes to me and says, ‘That was me, and this is why I wrote that, and who it’s for.’
I did not set out to be haunted. Who ever does?
I’d set out to serve my City, Edmonton, as Poet Laureate for two years.
Central to my tenure, I installed a table and a book, inviting the public to write ‘What’s poetic about your life, and this place?’ The table was framed by an arbour, in which hung a DreamCatcher. In my Anishinabe heritage, the dreamcatcher is a very strong symbol. It proved an amazing focus for people for the 18 months it hung in City Hall. Even after the physical dreamcatcher was stolen, the symbol held sway… that’s what symbols do.
Recently, a university student asked me why I chose the categories I did, for the writings people gave to the PoemCatcher, when I archived them at http://webofvisions.wordpress.com/.
Amanda, thanks for asking. I’m happy to explain.
Poems, Prayers, Darkness, From Afar, Kidstuff, Names
I chose those categories as i read through the raw pages, for it seemed that they captured distinct moods and modes in which people responded to the PoemCatcher.
Kidstuff, started because City Hall School director Linda Hut brought civics field trip students to the installation. Her staff artist, Nancy Schulz, designed the major parts of the installation around the DreamCatcher. I showed her how to build that, and so began collaborating w/the school.
Lots of other kids wrote in, too, when visiting with their families, and drew pictures. It seems useful to look at kids’ writing on its own terms.
Poems came about because i wanted to distinguish writing that was clearly crafted ahead of time and brought to the site, as opposed to writing that looked spontaneously composed onsite. Our then-mayor, Stephen Mandel, gave me the first complete poem. Fitting, since he established the Laureate program.
Prayers, i felt, was necessary in order to acknowledge the strong thread of spirituality in a lot of the responses. I think there is something deeper at work here, that people reach out from a spiritual place toward an opportunity to express poetry. Maybe we need a permanent, open, house of prayer. Simply put, we have one, the world itself; but we seem to respond to markers that give us permission to express prayers.
Darkness, in the same way, seemed necessary, to convey how often a public space for writing is used by people in crisis, or under some emotional duress.
The PoemCatcher collected essays, poems, letters and rants from writers feeling desperate for someone, anyone, to hear them, because they weren’t being heard otherwise, or because they saw an opportunity to make a statement to the perceived centre of power. Being so close to the courthouse probably influenced the amount of people coming from darkness to the installation.
From Afar salutes the worldwide reach of the project. I believe there are entries from people from every continent save Antarctica. That thrills me.
Names? Well, I invited people to write in, either anonymously or with their name. I wanted a little section that made a found poem, just from the names. Those names include Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney. Both were here during the installation. Either or both might have actually written the quotations from their work that landed in the book. Or not. I’m thrilled to think it might have been them. And okay with the mystery of never knowing for sure.
It’s fine by me to be haunted by that, as it’s fine to be haunted by a beautiful poem signed only with a scribbled initial. By the topic and the diction, I know and love that poet, and will protect their privacy.
It’s much different, being haunted by I Love You. I pray one day I’ll learn who wrote that, to whom, and why then and there.
Until then, I will be thankful that nobody wrote I Hate You. There were hateful, spiteful entries, but few. And true, somebody stole the dream catcher, which could be construed as an act of hate, toward me or toward Anishinabe culture.. But all they really got was a repurposed hula hoop, wrapped in strips from thrift store suede pants, strung with recycled macrame cord. The essence remains. The true meaning of the DreamCatcher is in its intent. And the PoemCatcher served its intent, to be a place for people to dare to express meaningful things. So i am not haunted by the physical loss, though it is a reminder that an indigenous Canadian cannot yet take welcome, belonging and support for success for granted in the mainstream. We’re working on that. I do what i can.
It is my fervent prayer that whoever wrote that heartbroken message, tells it straight to the person they love so much, and that that person then shows them how truly, the essence of love endures too.