by Crystal Hoffman
My three-year-old niece has recently begun a cycle that myself, my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother all experienced around the same age. She dreams of snakes each night, wakes up screaming, still seeing them slither over her bed even as she regains consciousness. She never had a traumatic experience involving a snake. I’ve never even seen her shriek at the sight of one. In fact, I once placed a small snake in the palm of her hand, and she giggled joyously as it wiggled about in her palm. “He’s tickling me,” and then an uneasy look emerged over her face, “Okay, it’s time for baby snake to go home to mommy.”
It’s no secret that man has a natural enmity towards snakes. The serpentine form and vertical pupil is deeply ingrained in our psyche. It inspires fear from deep recesses of our primordial memory, wherein their jaws were mysterious threats to our species’ survival. But there is a reason the ancients used snakes as a symbol of power, wholeness, and health. The fact is that healing takes wounds, and overcoming the fear of their existence, looking in the depth of the bite marks, acknowledging the teeth and the flesh from whence they emerged—and not flinching back, is sometimes all it takes for the unification to begin.
My final full day at Burning Man I woke up an hour before sunrise, dressed in my favorite Victorian gown, grabbed my typewriter, neon arts and crafts supplies, a couple scoops of hemp hearts and almonds and made off for Center Camp. I had intended to write poems for people at Burning Man before this. My friend Margaret and I were hired to create wearable self-reflecting poetry for audience members as the TypewriterGirls for the Work of Art Awards Ceremony in Pittsburgh about five years ago. It quickly turned into one of our favorite activities. But somehow each time I planned to set up shop at Centre Camp, I was sidetracked—by Gnostic Masses, Sufi Whirling, Acro-Yoga, adjustable four story climbing structures, Elvis Espresso Camp, cinnamon toast stands, steam rooms, Old Testament story re-enactments, 10 am contact dance parties, etc. But this time, I had new vision and was determined to inaugurate it in the desert dawn.
I was inspired by a sacred stone ritual held at Nectar Village wherein a group of women wrote the most damaging stories they carried as a part of themselves on piece paper, wrapped gemstones inside them, and then burnt them in a pit full of playa dust after reading them out loud. It was a process intended to alchemize the words and stones into powerful amulets for future battles. This was precisely the kind of healing that I hoped to accomplish through the interview poetry writing sessions. Beyond writing out a short personal narrative or extended vignette packed with symbols snagged from dream recollection or intuited from conversation, I would attempt to write out each burner’s full-blown fantasy self, attempting to produce a condensed hero’s journey.
The interview process lasted about fifteen minutes or until I felt like I had enough material and structure to begin alchemizing. I asked each burner questions about powerful childhood dreams, their driving goals and fears, their most formative battles, the most important symbols in their lives, their earliest and most recent experiences of awe, other individual that shape how they view themselves, and their conflicts and contractions. In short, I guided our conversation so that might discover potent images and structures that could be used as powerful personal symbols to effect transformation. The most important thing in each of these poems was to create both a narrative that the individual could identify with and strive towards utilizing a system of symbols that could take on a myriad of layers of meaning. In as short amount of time as possible, I also tried to them aesthetically pleasing and accessible. This was not easy. It was exactly as draining as you would think it would be, but oh so worth it. After composing the poem, I typed it onto the colorful cart stock, punched a hole in the corner and strung it with ribbon to be worn as an amulet for protection in future battles or placed on their altars.
Perhaps due to the ethereal surroundings, but also due to the fact that merely having someone listen to you intently and bear witness to your most personal stories is powerful in-and-of-itself, each individual that heard these poems aloud for the first time was moved to tears. Half of them stated it was one of their best Burning Man experiences. Then around 2:30, I discovered that a fellow who I thought had been watching the acro-yoga going on around my station at Center Camp had been listening to my questions for the past couple of customers. “Are you a psychologist? You should join up with my camp. We have free advice booths.” “No, no. I’m just a poet. I’ve been writing poems for people like this for a few years with my performance group.” “Well, you know it’s very like narrative therapy. Have you heard of it?”
This doesn’t surprise me, but it cinches something. I’m suddenly certain of why I’m here. I’m trying to heal some of the wounds that our toxic society lays on our psyche with their damaging stories of “you’re not good enough” “that person is hurting you” “you have to be better than her at____” or “you have to defeat this____”, or that any such qualifiers should even exist in the ultimate reality that we should be attempting to build in our collective psyche.
It took a while to fully process this experience. I quit my job. I looked in a million different directions to fulfill this calling. I’m still not certain of my future, but I know where I’m heading now. I’m going to walk across the country doing what it is that makes me that happiest. I’m going to write poetry for people. I’m going to write new myths that break down borders and wash away the soot. And while I’m at it, I’m going to try to inspire others to do so, and collect them in what I’m calling The Poetry Pilgrim Project.