“No words to describe it. … They should’ve sent a poet.” ~ “Ellie Arroway,” in Contact

I published a poem, “I Want Poets,” in 2018 with this opening line:

When another’s world, another’s life, another’s tether to all that is is frayed and on fire, I want a poet to tell me what it feels like

Though I put that idea to paper only a few years ago, I have recognized that it’s how I’ve viewed and traveled the world for far longer. 

I long have valued poets for putting expression — imagery, emotion, consideration — to their lived experiences, to places and occurrences that I have not known for myself and likely never will (e.g. war, political imprisonment, working in a factory, living in solitude on a mountaintop). 

I want to know the experience, whatever that experience, in all its truths. The joys and fears, triumphs and heartbreaks, profanities and revelations.

I want poets to take me through their home cities, lands and regions, holding me by the hand and pointing out to me that slice of humanity I’d never have known otherwise.

There was a time I was a soldier, but war would not become my experience. When I was a civilian again and pursuing my own work in writing, I bought the poet Brian Turner’s book, “Here, Bullet.” 

In reading that collection I felt like Turner showed me the raw sorrows and pains and truths of his experience in war, and like he had taken me as close to that hell and as I ever would go.

For example, the opening stanza of Turner’s poem, “The Hurt Locker,” with its profane utterances of soldiers feeling the searing and unconscionable traumas of dying in war:

Nothing but hurt left here.
Nothing but bullets and pain
and the bled-out slumping
and all the fucks and goddamns
and Jesus Christs of the wounded.
Nothing left here but the hurt.

For many of the past 20-plus years, wherever I have traveled, be it Chicago or San Francisco, Edinburgh, Scotland, or Lucknow, India, or any of the places between and beyond, I have looked for bookstores that carry the work of local poets. (Sometimes “local” needs to be broadly defined.)

My wife, Becca, has patiently hunted with me on occasion. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), we trekked the streets until we found a small bookstore that also sold works in English. 

It felt hidden away in a building that was more suited to small, nondescript apartments than to a retail space for poetic gems. It was a few levels above the noisy street traffic, reached by blank stairwell. And it was all I’d hoped.

In it I found “Flowers From Hell,” a bilingual collection of poems by Nguyễn Chí Thiện. Nguyễn, a Vietnamese dissident who died in 2012, spent 27 years in prison for “reeducation” by the communist regime in Hanoi.

It’s here, with Nguyễn, that I’m starting a new blog series: “A Poet Was There.” I’m starting by pulling works from my own shelves and, in short blog posts, sharing samplings from those books and why they matter to me, why they’re share-worthy.

If you have poets or poems that have resonated with you in similar ways, I welcome your reaching out by email — adam [at] humanitou.com — and sharing them with me. 

Soon enough I will be reaching beyond my own shelves in search of more experiences I otherwise would not intimately, heartfully know, except for …

a poet was there.