Teaching and Poetry as Medicine


This time two years ago, it was hard to imagine that life could be joyful again. I was at my rock bottom, waking up every three hours to pump milk and bottle-feed my infant. While the addition of her new life was precious and absolutely wanted, it came with incredible, lasting physical pain and a depth of anxiety that would take over a year to shake. Diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and panic disorder, as well as insomnia and a slew of bizarre physical symptoms, I felt I had reached the emotional edge of what I could handle. My quality of life took a major hit as I struggled to see and feel past debilitating neck and shoulder pain and musculoskeletal symptoms that lacked a clear cause. The mystery of my own body struck fear into my heart, and I thought life was irreparably going downhill.

I don’t write all this to have a pity party, but because it is an experience that completely stripped my identity and changed my outlook on life, shaping who I am now and forever. My post-childbirth experience is not an uncommon one but rather one of which people don’t often speak. This is why we turn to the arts, where we find tools to put the unspeakable into words or images. To express. And in doing so we weave connections of empathy and validation.

Certainly, my experience over the past two years has shaped my philosophies and outlook as a teacher of creative writing. It has made me kinder, softer, and slower: is it the product or the process? Now is the time: listen deeply, observe closely, ask questions, cultivate relationships that will one day become shelters, and remember the vast universe which, like a womb, carries us all. How small we are. How big we are. Utterly beyond time, utterly worthy of time.

Giving birth and the subsequent task of caring for a baby has been a deep cleaning of the spirit, the excess of life scrubbed out of corners. What remains? Gratitude and empathy that bring me to my knees every day. Every relationship is shot through with new meaning. A great many of us have or will have moments that pull us down into the depths of an emotional abyss and shake the core of our being. We will have thoughts that frighten us. We will wonder if things get better. We will lay in bed at night questioning whether a life of pain, emotional or physical, is worth living. Nobody escapes feelings of loneliness, loss, or confusion. I look at students and I think about these things. They are going through their own versions of delivery, birthing not babies but new versions of themselves. Also, they were once fragile newborns, held in someone’s arms, carried in someone’s body. Somebody spilled out their life force to ensure the survival of these humans in a time when they were most vulnerable, unable to hold up even their own heads. They have parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, and an entire network of support around them, however fragmented or imperfect. There are people who love them as fiercely as I love my own child, and that love for my child has somehow blossomed and become my love for others. They are all versions of her – growing, exploring, searching, emotionally regulating, melting down if not on the grocery store tiles then silently inside their own hearts. Don’t we all want to be held by the universe? Don’t we all want to know it will get better?

I believe poetry can accomplish this. Poetry can, in a sense, mother us through the storm. In the past year, I’ve found refuge in finding new poems to read. I have primarily been a reader of fiction and non-fiction all my life, and reading poetry has never come naturally to me. I was never particularly attracted to bite-sized reading, the tendency towards abstraction or mystery of meaning, preferring instead sequential and concrete storylines. After giving birth, it seemed I could not hold a storyline in my mind anymore. Poetry was the nutrient I craved: plenty of white space on the page within which the soul can breathe, a medium with the capability of holding volumes within a single line, free from the pressure of chronological narrative, fragmented if it needs to be, if we need to be. Spirit, feeling, emotion, and thought, beckoning the reader to contemplate layers of meaning and the profoundness locked away in sensory details. Some voices, like Marcus Amaker in “Give Yourself Some Flowers”, were like an embrace. They knew me.

When I took up Writing the Community residencies once again after giving birth, these poems guided me. I entered the arena of life outside my house and baby care with a great deal of fear. I had this bizarre idea that I could not be back in the world and no longer fit within it. How would I talk to people? How would I convince students that they should write? It was a funny feeling to have because I’d taught a great many lessons prior to giving birth. But something within me had metamorphosed and I did not know myself. Despite this, I said yes to more and more residencies, taking it little by little as any seemingly formidable task can be tackled, re-growing the confidence I had once known.

The residencies themselves were grounding. With each residency, I came to know new community members and found the world teeming with kindness, joy, and genuineness. One student gifted me a quartz crystal necklace, explaining the symbolism in her father’s Navajo culture: look through it to see the stars and with greater clarity, to navigate the way forward. Such a beautiful wish to hold for another – here, have this object, that you may find your way, light crystalline. Another student frequently shared her poetry with me before and after class, poetry she had written on her own at home, with such enthusiasm, her entire body language excited to see how I would react to her words about the beauty of water or clouds drifting in a sky. You are such a marvelous poet, I said every time. Her eagerness was infectious, lifting my eyes to the future, to the things we are passionate about, like the writing and art which fuel our souls. Still another student, upon publicly reading aloud her poem about the passing of her parents, let out a coyote’s cry. “My heart is breaking and I feel upset,” she read, “Like a coyote howling at the moon. Awooooo!” So brave, this performative aspect of her work, and so evocative. I felt the entire room could be members of this coyote pack, singing together our haunted stories, our grief, our wild nature.

Through teaching, my heart cracked open and released the medicine needed to heal. I hadn’t given birth and subsequently been discarded by the universe as an empty decrepit shell. No, I was still alive, and becoming more consciously part of a larger community of creative voices and dreams that lift and matter. So many different voices, and yet so much shared at the core. It’s so simple, the little moments of connection that were as a lemongrass balm upon my wounds. I felt these moments as a growing hug, a strengthening in my solar plexus, a tranquility in my cranium. To this day, I am still shifting. My bones are shifting. My vision is shifting. Unraveling and transforming, but with more ease. The love of others makes it so.

Saraiya Kanning is a creative writer and visual artist with an interest in wildlife and ecology. As an educator, she seeks to inspire students with joy and curiosity for art making. She often highlights the intersection of art and science in her workshops and enjoys facilitating writing exercises that celebrate Sonoran Desert ecology. Kanning holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Arizona. She teaches drawing and painting through various venues around Tucson and in her home studio. You can view her visual art at raebirdcreations.com

Photo by Nia Ramirez.