Jennifer Nix on the healing art of poetry

Jennifer Nix is a former editor-at-large for Chelsea Green Publishing, a producer for NPR’s ‘On the Media’ and staff writer for Variety. Jennifer said she never took up that much to poetry, until the age of 42, when she discovered to be in a state of advanced kidney failure. This is when, despairing and waiting for a transplant, she turned to poetry. The encounter with poetry was transformative for Jennifer, and the beginning of a journey of self-discovery and self-transformation. Serious illness gave her the feeling of existential illness and isolation necessary for her to approach poetry. Says Jennifer:

Those who haven’t suffered serious illness rarely understand how isolating it can be. Suddenly I was cut off from all the strong and healthy people scurrying up their ladders of success. Being weak in America — where a presidential candidate can declare that the uninsured should be left to die, and audiences cheer! — feels shameful, and I just wanted to hide. Once I invited poetry in, though, it was as if the entire human chorus had started looking out for me. When light returned, I could see clearly the kindness of so many people in my life—in particular Jimmy, who would become my living donor. Without my disease, I might never have known how blessed I am by my relationships.

Poetry became a ritual, or better a healing ritual for Jennifer. With poetry beginning and ending each day -Jennifer took up the habit of reading a few lines of new poetry to start and finish her day- poetry helped Jennifer find a right balance between despair -preceding the months of the transplant- and euphoria -in the months immediately following a successful transplant- and despair again -falling into depression fearing the organ rejection and the feeling of unworthiness in receiving the new organ from a living donor. Says Jennifer that when she found the phrase “constant creation of ‘self’ is a tricky / mess” in Joanne Kyger’s “[He is pruning the privet],” she finally knew that her ‘manic search for meaning‘ was finally winding down, and that through poetry she had found a new beginning.

It is time to apply my mind once again to matters outside as well as inside myself, to new work and the routine matters of existence that give life its form. I have finally arrived back at my true self, after nearly three years. I have found my balance between euphoria and despair, and I have poetry to thank for riding alongside, helping me navigate from disease to ease“.

You can read Jennifer’s full essay on her journey of self-discovery through poetry on the Poetry Foundation website. You can also listen to the podcast where Jennifer Nix discusses how the poet Joanne Kyger helped her overcome her feeling of existential loneliness during her illness here.

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