Conjuring Strength Through Poetry: Battling the Slasher Movie in Your Head
Images via Karolina Grabowska & Engin Akyurt
I’ve always been attracted to the word conjure. Even the way it rolls off the tongue—all thick and slow like hot, dripping honey—makes it feel strong, otherworldly, almost like a verbal talisman or charm. When I think of what it means to conjure something, I see images of snakes twisting and turning like creeping vines. I taste oak and vanilla, smell the scent of mugwort and fire. In its simplest form, conjure is a verb, an action. It’s a call that’s placed during a ritual of sorts in an effort to reach something beyond ourselves: a spirit, a ghost, a form of energy or verve. It implies that through this act, that we as witches and magicians, as poets and scribes are tapping into something else in order to create, to craft, if you will.
That’s where poetry comes in.
I’ve been writing for 20+ years now, but my outlook on writing in relation to my mental health and creativity has been something that’s been shifting and transforming exponentially over the past few years. As someone who suffers from a shadow cocktail of chronic depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and frequent bouts of insomnia, I’ve had to learn to mitigate these diagnoses with a series of medications, breathing techniques, therapy, and herbal remedies. But when you combine that with an art form that demands isolation and a lot of time spent thinking (and then overthinking), life can become not only overwhelming but quite lonesome. With that said, there has only ever been one steadfast fix that has consistently helped me, saved me, and allowed me to live a life uncontrolled by the monster whispering in my ear: horror.
Now I became a writer for a lot of reasons, but the first and primary one was because I wanted something that allowed me to purge the poison collecting in my head. My therapist first suggested I keep a journal when I was in middle school and didn’t feel comfortable talking about my pain, and so ever since, I’ve been a strong advocate for keeping a routine that included a creative approach to written visualization, which I’ve since been told has morphed into a type of exposure therapy that allows me to confront my trauma and heal, thereby breaking through walls I’ve been building my entire life. As such, it’s become an important part of my process to not only name my monsters, but to give them a face and personify them as well.
Horror has given me a lot of freedom to explore my emotions and fears without judgement. It’s a genre that explores hardship, that doesn’t sugarcoat the facts, and it challenges everything I believe in, whether it’s moral, political, or spiritual. In fact, I like the realism that breeds in horror because sometimes life really feels like a slasher movie in my head, almost like I’m constantly running from a man in a mask who always seems to know where I am and what I’m doing. Truthfully, that’s not a bad description of how depression feels, and if horror gives me permission to metaphorically hack off unnecessary limbs and bury villains in watery graves in order to survive, then hand me the chainsaw, Ash Williams.
But Evil Dead allusions aside, the most important part about horror is that it believes you when you tell it that something or someone hurt you. It knows the demons are real, and because of that, it’s all too willing to listen and help you find methods to extract the monsters and put them to rest. Afterall, horror is about resurrection as much as it is about burial, so for me—someone who was looking for strength, for courage, for the ability to overcome—I knew I needed a genre that was familiar with dying, a genre that knew what it felt like to bleed.
When I began combining horror and poetry, it felt like a homecoming, a safe haven. I was no longer worried about saying something too dark or too grotesque, and it embraced me when I felt broken or weak and didn’t have the ability or desire to rise up and wear the badge of final girl. Essentially, the line I’d felt I’d been walking my entire life slowly began to disappear as I refused to walk on eggshells or speak in hushed whispers. I now felt free to run, to scream, but most importantly, to fight. My poems became centered around themes of violence and death, and while they were, and continue to be, graphic and macabre, they speak to survival and female empowerment, to all those private rituals I do to survive, no matter how big or small. And that right there—that place of acceptance, the bridge of fear and confrontation—is where the practice of conjure begins to exist.
For me, my writing process with poetry begins with written visualization. This means that when I sit down to confront the blank page, I’m doing so with a set intention, with a list of conjured visuals and experiences, a tally of thoughts and nightmares that I’ve storyboarded in my head. Sometimes, I’ll literally collect those images—or ones similar to them—and map them out on Pinterest or a corkboard that I keep in my office, and to me, this is comparable to how other writers outline their stories. Personally, I find this to be the hardest part of the process because this stage is all about confrontation. This is when I have to hypothetically look in the mirror and choose what I want—and possibly need—to go into battle for. Sometimes this includes confronting an abstract emotion like loneliness, whereas other times it’s more so about forcing myself to relive a moment or a memory or a person and the trauma associated with it/them. I then go through these images piece by piece and write down reactions, words, phrases, and/or feelings that I associate with each one. Sometimes, I even link them to a song or a piece of music. With that said, I oftentimes find myself editing my truth, but this is natural and to be expected as this comes from a place of vulnerability, but the more I’ve done this, the more comfortable I’ve felt with my scars and my ability to share them with other people.
Once I’ve visualized the images that meet and honor the memory and/or mood I’m working to conjure, I then move into line work, and this is where I begin to construct the framework of the poem. At this point in the process, I’ve extended the invitation, channeled the pain, and now I’m tapped in and working with it, sometimes even through it. Here I’ll determine if this flows in a stream of consciousness, which might fit the description of a prose poem better, or if I’m thinking in fragments, in stilted thoughts and phrases, something free verse with line breaks and adjusted white space might suit better. However, the importance and depth of the line is something that poets want to take very seriously though, because the line is the part of the poem that dictates the rhythm and voice. I’m a big believer in reading poetry aloud as I write it, and this is particularly important because it allows us to hear the natural inflections of the human voice, not to mention identify sound patterns and awkward phrasing that might not work with the tone or syncopation of the piece. Plus, this is also a moment to feel your truth on your tongue, to say it aloud and hear your trauma, to own it. Oftentimes, this is a moment of revelation for me because I tend to keep secrets from myself only to find them leaking out through my poetry years later. In some ways, it’s like waking up from a blackout and reading a bunch of notes you left for yourself, so you’d remember what you did the night before. As you can imagine, this is enlightening and usually heartbreaking, but I’ve always found it freeing because this is the moment when the visualization becomes something real, and now that I can see and start to process the suffering mapped out before me, it’s easier to begin to understand it and eventually start to heal from it.
So at this point, I’ve cast the spell, and in some ways, seeing my demons spread out on the page like that is akin to watching an exorcism take place. That means this stage is all about banishment. In terms of process, this is where I go back in and add breath work to the line, confirm affirmations in my phrasing, and further develop my images, much like a photographer does when working with the wet plate method. I read the lines aloud and try out different inflections in my voice, listen to where the screams are, where bated breath is left hanging. But beyond the words, it’s the absence that becomes important here. Where are the spaces? The breaks in consciousness? Where am I gatekeeping my silence? Jenny Mueller writes in her essay “Minding the Gaps” that "within such silences, poems may make revolutionary turns, searches, and strange propulsions. The line “breaks” not simply because it ends, but because its sense may be smashed, amazed, or thrown in all directions.” I like to look at white space as a way to confirm what feels hollow to me. It’s also a way to play with emphasis, longing, and pacing, thereby heightening the experience and sensation conveyed in the line. When I first learned about white space, I loved how poets would use it to command the space, to soak up the severity of the word/phrase or lack thereof. This, coupled with punctuation, is a practice in meditation and acceptance. Through it, I’ve worked to expose myself to a series of events in my past, however now I’m in control of what happened and I’m able to both conquer it and move past it.
Yep, that’s right! Just call me Sidney Prescott, folks.
Afterall, whether we’re working to expel an emotion or the knife-wielding maniac we’ve given home to in our heart, conjure—or invocation—allows us to bring forth an energy for survival. In poetry, specifically in horror, we’re able to reach out into darkness in hopes that understanding the shadows will shed light on our fears. It’s a way of taking what we’ve been told is our weakness and using it instead as a strength to create something beautiful, because in the end, when we write and allow ourselves to be open and honest, raw and susceptible, it creates a group of warriors and draws in other people who have also walked into the night and lived to tell the tale. In this way, we can heal together, connected as one in a group of final girls and boys.
And that community?
Well, it makes the world and all the monsters in it a just little less scary.
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Mueller, Jenny. “Minding the Gaps.” A Broken Thing Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, University of Iowa Press, 2011, pp. 170-172.
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