Making Trauma Notes

Questions of culpability are often both foreground and background in my discussions about writing trauma with Rusty Morrison.* They emerge because I’m working on a book of connected poems that explore trauma’s antecedents and legacies, its truths and untruths. I use the writing itself as a means to question how one’s traumas emerge from, and merge with, the emergencies erupting all around us— climate, cultural crises, much more. 

How do I make this work more than a scrapbook of trauma? What can “more” mean?  How does one examine the scraps (torn or unintelligible in a logical sense) that fall into and out of such a book? Is a scrapbook of trauma “selfish,” can it ask the self questions that turn a self outward toward others? How does one avoid retriggering one’s dangerous behaviors, memories, or denials? How does one touch a “trigger” and not “fire” it as a “weapon” when creating or presenting work? 

Trauma and the act of writing

The first wall to writing the poem is getting it on the page, i.e., the wall of impotence and blocks. As the lines arrive to me I type them into my Iphone notes app. The act of writing became a block, so I wrote notes. A dashed off note lassos the magnitude of trauma, it feels less consequential living in an object I stick in my back pocket. 

Time in life is connected to the economy, obviously. My time is prioritized to my vocation, which pays the rent to house myself and my child. Whatever circumstances the poet endures, there are no poems without getting them on the page. Protecting the Poet’s Time, their creative and actual life, is more urgent than the poet’s product. This is the fragile moment before a poem exists, the wild uncontrolled act of first writing. 

Moving away from production and into prioritizing care: monetarily, spatially and bodily catalyzes the creative mind to open. The poet can exist free from the pressure of production, but the poem cannot. I need to care for myself and care for people around me, and I need to be open to receiving collective care. Without this buoy, the poem and the poet are at risk.

Insight and the inner world

The second wall is finding an authenticity or a truth that feels connected to the poet. The dynamic before the poem meets the page can move the mind from the wound of** trauma toward insight, toward alethia. How might I document what is both known and unknowable, as I ask myself, what authenticity can be offered through a documentary mode? How is the act of “note-taking” a documentary process that demands one risk opening to what emerges, and the boldness to allow such freedom, when traumas of the past wish to defy me? How to write defiance into the poems? The poem might remember a lived experience, my own or another’s, but it is not the lived experience. In this case, I ask the poem to both notice and connect. I ask the speaking agent to voice defiance, to act brazenly.

Employing a lyric agency that is both the writer’s but also exists separate from the writer is when insight enacts. Following a thought, image or conceptual experiment etc. far enough into oneself to connect it to meaning, a meaning that embodies or exhibits an emotive agility that can connect both with the poem’s reader and the poet. This connection can feel like a disclosure or truth, and it is where the reader and the poet meet. I am not asserting that the poet considers the reader during the poem’s initiation, but if I am writing toward insight with agency, it will reach the reader. Insight and the inner world can happen laterally, linearly or simultaneously with other walls. A cavity vent exists between them.

Cultural culpability

The third wall breaks to find cultural culpability. It can be empowered, political, risky or reaching. I can’t paint a window on the wall and point toward what’s going out there. The poet joins culture and enacts something that speaks to a reader’s broader and urgent truths or struggles. Yet, the poet does so within the logic of the poem’s architecture*** built within the two other walls, a building of the poet’s mind and making. 

Poetry provides readers with the opportunity to connect to language beyond the militarized syntax of American English diction. Poems can reach early childhood experiences with language, an experience before a reader is educated by violence, by the state, by trauma (even when it’s a poem born out of militarized language****). There is the moment of reading the poem where the individual reader is stirred and shares that response with their communities, transforming their singular experience into a collective one. This expansion contains multitudes; it can feel many ways to readers, i.e., rare, primal, emotive, intellectually sophisticated etc. 

A poem’s impact on readers does not absolve the poet off of the page; what I decide to do out in the world is important, especially when it comes to the task of community care and personal action. I must gauge my ability to risk. If I can take the risk, then I need to take that risk, acting with care for myself and care for my community, acting to amplify others, especially those vulnerable to the state. I must act to support others, so that their poems can make the page; we buoy each other.

To write trauma or pain and not retrigger oneself the poet can provide themselves with the most care possible, build expansion joints across their practice and experience community care without guilt or shame. The poet is both generous and brazen. The poet walks through the door of the third wall toward both documentation and accountability, toward a healing that isn’t necessarily the poem’s vocation but is within the poet themself.

* Rusty Morrison introduced the concept of three walls when we discussed my blocks toward getting poems on the page. Morrison was the editor of my two Omnidawn books. My conversations with her spurred me to write this post; she informed its creation. I credit her here, and I hope the post honors her. 

** During an ARC reading with Natalie Diaz, Poetry and the Senses fellow, reelaviolette botts-ward asked an eloquent and complicated question of the readers about trauma and healing in work, and some of Diaz’s response included these quotes:  “The wound can also bloom in possibility” and “a place to have a new origin”. Watch the writers respond to this question.

*** from Barbara Guest’s Invisible Architecture:  “An invisible architecture upholds the poem while allowing a moment of relaxation for the unconscious.” and “An architecture in the period before the poem finds an exact form and vocabulary”. 

**** See Solmaz Sharif’s Look

Sara Mumolo is an ARC Spring 2021 Poetry and the Senses fellow. This poem was written while on fellowship.