Prizes are good, but healing the real gain

Prizewinning Poems, Franschhoek Literary festival, 13 May 2012.


The event “Prizewinning Poems” was an absolute treat. The featured poets, Dawn Garisch, winner of the EU Sol Plaatje competition, and runner-up Beverly Rycroft, performed some brilliant poetry and left the audience feeling distinctly inspired – not to mention aspirational.

The Screening Room at Le Quartier Francais was the perfect setting. Arranged in the style of a miniature cinema, with plush flap-back seats placed on cascading, tiered steps, the room allows the audience to face a raised platform where the performers can make themselves comfortable on “lounge” chairs.

Certainly, the warm palette of the room and the comfy decor proved to be quite an adequate correlative for the literary palate, as these two poets took us on a journey of plummeting lows and weightless highs through their poems.

This event was more than just a matter of sitting back and placidly watching two women read poetry. The poems “Miracle” and “Has your Dad Got a Bird Yet” arrested my attention like a hand roughly gripping me by the collar. These readings opened the floor for discussion on themes that were so personal and touching it was hard to not hear the collective echo of heartache in the room.

Confessional poetry, they said, is a problematic term, since it implies the act of confessing personal, hidden issues which both Dawn and Beverly felt as too narrow a description of their poetry. "Memoir poetry" would be more accurate, they felt; the poems they shared with us dealt with the personal experience of trauma and pain, and these themes were handled with such skill and depth that the content transcended individual human issues, becoming relatable to a broader audience.

Dawn, as a professional medical doctor, explained how in her field of work she had come to see people inflict pain on themselves, begging the question "in what way are you contributing to hurting your own health?" It is no secret that human beings are creatures of habit and once stuck in a loop of self-infliction, it can be difficult to break loose.

For these two writers, poetry has become an outlet for pain; a means to heal hurt and engage with issues which, when suppressed, can manifest like a disease and harm one’s well-being.

Beverly's reading of a series of poems dealing with her experience as a breast cancer survivor was particularly poignant. She said that on the way to the operating room, she had kept pen and paper at hand, scrawling notes furiously. The page listens to her, she quipped, and it doesn't judge her. The idea of poetry as a healing mechanism and a way to counter the effects of anxiety ran through the entire discussion.

A line of thought I found particularly acute was the idea of people being afraid of their own creativity. Both Beverly and Dawn started writing fairly late in life, poetry not being their paid vocations, yet their successes are testament to overcoming the fear of peer judgement. They placed their pieces in print and ultimately healed themselves through the act of sharing.

Despite the accolades they have achieved, Dawn and Beverly came across as incredibly humble; and it was humbling to hear memoirs of trauma; life experiences completely beyond the scope of my own experiences, yet somehow relatable. Poetry makes the unfathomable fathomable, and it is a wonderful feeling to have the power of words comfort, unsettle and inspire one. As Beverly said, everybody is born with the writing gene; it’s just a matter of facing your creativity and putting pen to paper, because your writing will not only help to heal your own hurt, it can possibly heal others, too. The price of producing excellent poetry at the expense of your own suffering might just earn you an award; better yet, it could supply you and others with therapeutic comfort.