Jeremy Mifsud on Poetry, Identity and Healing

Today our Assistant Editor Amanda McLeod talks with Featured Artist Jeremy Mifsud about how poetry can help us find our authentic identities, and how we can use words to heal.
(Trigger warning: this post deals with abuse. Please exercise self care while reading.)

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash
Amanda McLeod: For many of us, we wear masks in our daily lives and struggle to define our true identities. What role do you think poetry plays in helping us uncover and accept our authentic selves?
Jeremy Mifsud: Poetry is an intimate activity through which we are able to explore the self and our innermost desires. It is a place that begs to break free from conformity, and especially in the day and age where poets are encouraged to experiment with form, poetry has become a place where all rules can be broken. This is an ideal formula for us to let our authentic selves emerge onto paper.

AM: A lot of writers use their writing to process difficult experiences. How do you think making ourselves vulnerable through our work helps us heal from trauma?
JM: Writing about difficult experiences is a tremendous challenge — we put ourselves at the risk of reliving the traumas that have deeply affected us. For me, writing about these traumas is a way of making myself the storyteller. In a situation that I was once powerless, now I am the power master. The retelling is a form of rematch, where my mind and the story battle out again, but because I hold the pen, I start winning control and I’m no longer debilitated by my past.

AM: You mention the risk of reliving our traumas. How do we balance that risk when we commit those events and experiences to a permanent written form?  And how do we address the benefit for ourselves against the impact of publicly sharing these experiences on others close to us?
JM: Those are some tough questions! I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but personally, I prefer to write about traumatic experiences when I am in a good mental state so that I can withstand the emotional backlash. Perhaps writing need not necessary be permanent, especially in the digital age – we can easily delete what we write once it serves its purpose of healing. However, I like to keep all I write and go back to read and I always impress myself with how far I’ve come.

When publicly sharing these experiences, I am practically outing myself to friends and family whom are not aware of everything that goes in my life. It’s a tough decision, but I am not willing to go back into another closet for two reasons. Firstly, I do not have anything to be embarrassed of. And secondly, my past experiences make up who I am today. I just hope that if I don’t bring them up into a discussion myself, people won’t come up and say “you said this in your poem, is it true?”, but it’s a risk I have to take.

AM: Does writing for publication in this context cause you to hold back - does knowing people will read your words make you hesitate?
JM: There are times when I look at a poem and think, “This is too personal and revealing,” and keep it on my drive for a few months – it never held me back from the writing. Now I’m okay with submitting pretty much anything, but I am considerate to only submit these pieces to editors that would treat them with care.

AM: Can you describe your optimal creative conditions? Where and how do you feel most productive?
JM: I’m alone in my room, curtains closed. I have just finished reading a book and my brain juices are flowing, eager to create. I have a conversation with myself and when we (me and my other voices) strike on a good line or idea, I start writing and the rest is history.

AM: Form in poetry seems to be evolving more than ever. Is there a poetic form that you feel most drawn to? 
JM:It’s interesting you say that. I usually think of contemporary poetry as breaking away from form. Perhaps I have noticed certain trends, but ‘forms’ are much more personal nowadays and they are constructed to fit the poem rather than vice-versa. I wouldn’t have any specific form in mind, but I have the biggest respect for poets who use indentations and line breaks to create meaningful and effective pauses as opposed to just an aesthetic choice.

AM: In other discussions I've had with poets, it's been mentioned that even 'free verse' contains some markers or stylistic elements. What are your thoughts on this - is 'free verse' really 'free'?
JM: Our brains tend to function in specific ways and I guess there’s bound to be some structure and common stylistic elements. Personally, I like to work on a poem by poem basis, so my style will depend on the poem. I know there are other poets who have a more structure and consistent style. Free verse allows for freedom and for a poet’s voice to evolve, and I firmly believe that when poets find their voice, they don’t conform to a style for the sake of conformity, but seek the optimal style for their work.

AM: What would you like your poetic legacy to be - in what way do you want your work to resonate in the future?
JM: It’s hard to think of it in the grand scheme of things. I’d like to think there will be at least one person who is able to identify themselves within my poetry and my experiences and not feel alone. As a queer individual, I often sought out to read works published by queer poets and it was a healing process. Likewise, the process of reading poems about sexual abuse was cathartic to me. And because poetry is so intimate, I could identify my innermost emotions and relate to poets and find strength in the words of others. That’s the kind of effect I’d like to have on others.