Writers on Writing #106: Jacqueline Boucher
I’m swaying at a sweet spot: two beers and no dinner, red lipstick, and dim lighting that smudges the distinction between supportive colleagues and tipsy strangers wandering in. It’s December. The upstairs room at the brewery is all lacquered wood and beery congratulations on a successful end to the semester. Thirty-some faculty and students are gathered to celebrate the end of a workshop with a reading. And in that space, feet planted in shoes that trick me into believing I’m barefoot, I feel at home for the first time in over a year.
To put poetry on a page is a kind of practiced evisceration, like putting guts under glass in some private museum. Something else happens altogether when a poem becomes a thing that lives in the air, when the body of it can’t be ignored or internalized any longer. To speak a poem is to make a concert of diaphragm and lungs, of teeth and tongue and, yes, of the evisceration that brought it to life in the first place. To listen to a spoken poem, then, is to bear witness to a bodily triumph where the idea that “I’m sharing this with you” becomes equally as powerful as “I made my body do this for you.”
What does it mean to be the person sitting on the other side of that six-foot channel between poet and audience? If the act of giving, of making the body perform, is such an intimate one, then being an engaged audience member at a reading must be an onslaught, a standing still with hands open, an unwillingness to look away. When it’s over, both parties feel raw, energized, and at a loss for what to do with that one memorable line, that handful of intestine.
Before I came to the academy, I was a slam poet in Juneau, Alaska. Month after month, I put six feet between my body and the first row of chairs and filled it with whatever could fit in the three-minute narrative of a competitive poem. The first time I wrote about not being in love anymore, it was to twelve people in a vacant storefront in January. The first time I gave a name to my experiences with sexual assault, it was to a crowd of a hundred and fifty on a cold night in October. I can’t remember, but I think my dad was there. In return, I sat and listened while seven other poets pushed their traumas and triumphs into that same heavy air.
There are plenty of ways writer communities are formed: desire to share an intellectual space, hope for accountability, striving toward a similar goal. Each reason for its formation is as valid as the strength of its members. The community that is formed by the interplay between poet and audience member, however, doesn’t come from the same cerebral place. Instead, it’s a tacit understanding that two people—twenty people, fifty—have experienced a radical give and take that’s changed them. Maybe they’re hollowed out and half-drunk, looking for somebody to help them hold the caverns in their bodies together. Maybe they’re treading water, palms too full to take on any more than they already have.
In the past, I’ve struggled with how easy it is to think I know a writer based on a connection to their written work. I’ve struggled more with how suddenly I realize I’m wrong. That, at best, I’ve consumed the product of someone’s labor without giving anything in return, and we’re both no less alone than we were before. But when poetry lives in that six-foot space, a thing experienced instead of a thing consumed, poet and audience member stand on equal footing. The answer to “I made my body do this for you” is “I see you;” is “I’m listening;” is “You’re not alone.”
Jacqueline Boucher is an MFA candidate writing and teaching in Marquette, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Superstition Review, Split Lip, The Butter, and other magazines. She also serves as PN's spoken-word editor. Send her your work here.