Around 70 people packed the small performance space at the Someday Lounge in Northwest Portland last night to listen to poetry, explore the concept of madness, and support Portland Hearing Voices, a pioneering local group that challenges stereotypes about mental illness.
The event, organized by Ashley Toliver and Will Hall, featured Portland poets James Gendron, Emily Kendal Frey and Zachary Schomburg, who delighted, inspired and startled the crowd with evocative renderings of the English language.
The performance raised approximately $400 for Portland Hearing Voices.
Toliver said, “Art and poetry are about communicating what it means to be human, right now, in our bodies, from our experiences, in this world. It’s about forging a connection based on the honesty, originality, tension and authenticity of that transmission. If any facet of human experience is shut out of the conversation, we all lose.”
Schomburg also reflected about the relationship between poetry and madness.
“When I write a poem,” said Schomburg, “I try to detach myself from the logic of my reality. I try to create a space for myself that operates without a common logic, a dream-logic more specifically–I try to steer a lucid dream. I suppose in this way I can feel mad, glazed over, indistractable, hypnotized. I’m not as interested in finding the poetry of the real world, or shared logic and narrative, as I am in finding the poetry of the imagination, of impossible but recognizable logic.
“So, that space I go to is an extremely personal and intimate space, one that only I have access to or will ever have access to. In a way, writing a poem for me is a way of getting to know myself. My madness is personal, consistent, and productive. Finishing a poem is like snapping out of something, and back into the world. I would think that this experience isn’t too much unlike a more clinical definition of madness (to be separated from the light of the world for a moment).”
Hall, the director of Portland Hearing Voices, introduced the poets and talked about the group. He also shared some of his experiences as a schizophrenia survivor. From a background of homelessness and hospitalization, Hall has emerged as an internationally recognized advocate for people diagnosed with mental health issues. He has been recovered for over a decade. Among his activities, he has a therapy practice in Portland, writes prolifically, and hosts Madness Radio on KBOO-FM.
Also speaking were Jenny Westberg, Myriam Rahman and Anusuya StarBear, who shared personal experiences and explained why Portland Hearing Voices is important in their lives.
One of the featured poets, James Gendron – according to his bio on Reading Local: Portland – is from the sun. His “Number One Country” begins with the words: “Lately my hand is an alligator.” Gendron teaches writing at Portland State University, and his new chapbook, “Money Poems,” will be published by Poor Claudia next month.
Emily Kendal Frey’s poems include “Sorrow Arrow,” which starts with the words, “Sometimes I want fewer choices / Asparagus or a baby with wings.” She teaches at Portland Community College, and her recent publications include “Frances” and “The New Planet.”
Zachary Schomburg is the author of works such as “Scary, No Scary,” which, according to a review by Timothy Henry, “attempts to find the thin line (if it even exists) between terror and pleasure.” Other publications include “The Man Suit” and “Little Blind Thing.” He teaches at Portland State University and Portland Community College.
Also scheduled to read, but unavailable at the last minute, was Sara Guest, a poet, novelist, William Stafford Writing fellow and program coordinator for Write Around Portland. Guest’s poetry was still featured, however, as the other poets began their sets with selections from her work.
Chris Shelamer-Terry, who attended the benefit and took photographs, was moved and inspired. “I think it’s so awesome that people all come, as a community, in recovery and working toward recovery, being able to speak about their own lives around people who are supporting them. I hope that Portland Hearing Voices continues its work, because it makes for a strong set of people.”
More information about Portland Hearing Voices: http://www.portlandhearingvoices.net/