In celebration of World Poetry Day 2021, J.Allan Longshadow speaks to poet and spoken word performer Lara Edwards to discover how her love of poetry has helped her overcome anxiety, conquer fear and open up incredible new opportunities.
J.Allan Longshadow: Lara, thank you for joining me, It’s a real privilege to have the chance to interview you today. I’ve worked with you several times in the past and have always been amazed by the bravery and depth of your spoken word performances. Would you tell me when you first discovered poetry?
Lara: I’ve loved reading since as early as I can remember. I used to love going to the library with my father – it was one of our real ‘together’ times – and with him I discovered children’s poetry – Lewis Carol and Spike Milligan among others stand out from those days. As my reading broadened, I found myself captivated by stories like the Chronicles of Narnia. I loved how this amazing fantasy world was shaped in the language and I knew then that I wanted to use words to create my own worlds.
J.A.L: I remember being mocked and bullied for being a bookworm at school – how did you find school?
L: Funnily enough, I was never really shy. I’d say I was quite popular – but I did find one particular frustration. My friends were able to express themselves brilliantly through drama, art and other mediums, but they just didn’t work for me. I just didn’t feel able to say what I needed to say. Then I discovered that words were my real power – and with it I found my strength, I was able to express myself in my own way.
J.A.L: Did your attitude towards poetry and words change as you grew older?
L: I’d say that my poetry grew up with me. I never really wrote that stereotypical ‘teenage angsty’ sort of poetry – it was always something a bit deeper for me. I began exploring more; as well as reading and writing I began to develop an interest in performing – all of which I came to discover can be incredibly transformative.
J.A.L: You quite often mention during your performances that you did not have an easy childhood. Would you be willing to share more about the challenges you faced?
L: Until I was about ten years old, I had what I would consider to be a relatively normal childhood – everything seemed just as it should be. Then, my mother began to suffer from clinical depression, which led to her making multiple attempts at suicide – ten or more, as I recall. Luckily, I had already found my strength in poetry and this allowed me to handle the situation enough to get through it. Poetry saved me from a lot of dark things – I used it as a form of personal therapy.
J.A.L: That sounds like an incredibly traumatic time in your life.
L: The trauma I was experiencing was indescribable. And although I was a fairly outgoing kind of person and had a supportive father who I could be very open with and some good friends, I found that talking was not helping – instead, it was making me more upset and increasingly anxious. It was during this time that my dad discovered some of my poetry and embraced it – and that sort of opened up a new door. I had never really been inspired to write for the sake of it; I didn’t really want to write about my own feelings – but it became a form or release, a way of processing what I was experiencing. A lot of my readers have said that it has the same effect on them which is really wonderful to hear.
J.A.L: One of your most popular – and moving – poems is called “Darling Daughter to Mother Dearest”. Would you tell me more about this piece?
L: So the Darling Daughter poem is definitely the most personal poem I have ever produced – and I am amazed at how much it has resonated with other people suffering from similar experiences. It was something that grew out of a counselling session. I’d been having counselling for about a year and a half, but I just didn’t feel I was making any progress. My counsellor suggested I try talking to my mother, but I wasn’t ready for that, or even ready to talk about some things with my closest people. Instead, I found myself having a conversation in the form of a poem, in which I told my mother everything that I had been holding back on. It was a poem and a conversation all at the same time. After I had written it, I didn’t even read it for a very long time.
Interestingly, the poem later became the foundation of almost everything I do now. The poem was extremely cathartic, and reading it always reminds me that it is not all darkness – no matter how bad things may seem, there is always hope, a glimmer of light, a silver lining on the clouds. It was incredibly scary to share at first – but knowing that it has helped people has helped me to overcome fears of my own. Someone in Seattle read it after I published it online and asked if they could perform it, which was really quite amazing. As more and more people discovered the poem, they encouraged me to perform it.
J.A.L: How did you feel about the idea of standing up in front of an audience and performing such a deeply personal piece of poetry?
L: Well this poem was a piece of me. It was my experience. It was me baring my soul. I really didn’t believe that people would want to hear poetry like this performed, and I wasn’t aware of any scene in which I could share it. Then my wonderful friend Isabella Crowther introduced me to an amazing spoken word community called ‘Voicebox’, where I discovered there was a safe place to share such intimate work. Even then, I must have gone to about ten meetings before I was brave enough to perform. I realised that it is OK to be scared, and once you accept that, you really can overcome your greatest fears.
J.A.L: It sounds like poetry really has helped you to overcome some incredible obstacles.
L: Absolutely. I’ve found that poetry has allowed me to build confidence in so many aspects of life. It’s helped me in everything I do – I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for poetry. I have found that being able to express myself through poetry is extremely liberating, but also, at a deeper level, it has helped me to build emotional resilience. It is even thanks to poetry that I have been able to get through to the final year of my degree.
J.A.L: As somebody who has been there, what advice would you offer to someone struggling with fear or anxiety?
L: Things scare us – it’s completely normal and it is completely OK to be scared. But if things do scare you, try breaking them down into small steps and work on just one small, manageable part of it at a time. You don’t always have to take a running jump into something that is daunting – it’s OK to take things slowly. Also, you will have good days, and you will have bad days. It’s important to accept the difficult days and embrace them – poetry can really help with this.
J.A.L: How would you say poetry has helped you during the lockdown?
L: To be honest, having anxiety is like being in an almost permanent state of lockdown in a certain sense, so in that respect, perhaps I am more accustomed to the isolation than many. Funnily enough, I really haven’t felt compelled to write anything directly about lockdown – and I certainly have no interest in creating poems just for the sake of it.
J.A.L: What advice would you give to anybody wanting to write or perform poetry?
L: First of all, remember there is no obligation to share. If you want to write poems that are only ever seen by your eyes, that is completely fine. Whether or not you wish to share your work, I’d definitely encourage you to engage with other poets – it’s a great way to meet other people that you can connect with at your level. When it comes to performing poetry, it is extremely daunting at first (but well worth the effort). For many people, the biggest barrier is that they are self-critical. This often comes from judging themselves based on other people’s performances. The thing is, only you can be you – nobody else actually matters in that sense. Just be true to yourself, be genuine.
I would add, make sure you find a safe, supportive and creative community that really embraces poetry as a form of expression.I’d also encourage you to try different forms of poetry until you find what works for you. Most importantly, just put pen to paper and see where the journey takes you! Trust me, it is an incredibly strong tool to have in your arsenal.
J.A.L: Lara, you’ve come quite a way since those early days. Tell me about some of your achievements.
L: Well, to go from performing in front of a few close friends to being live in front of an audience of 400 was quite amazing. I literally had a panic attack right before I went on stage, but a friend gave me the courage to get up there and do it. More recently, I performed a virtual live set to an audience of over thirty. I wanted to fill a gap, and it was also a great opportunity for me to develop my filming and technical skills. Since then, the show has had over five hundred views and amazing feedback, which is just incredible.
J.A.L: I think there is something special about poetry when it is performed out loud. Would you agree?
L: Definitely. When you read poetry out loud, it takes on a different form. It has a special kind of magic.
J.A.L: I’ve noticed you like to share the stories behind your poems when you perform, which makes your performances feel even more personal and intimate.
L: For me, giving context to the poems helps my audience to appreciate them more, but also, it kind of gives a message to my audience that it’s OK to be vulnerable. I think this is why people tell me that my performances are so impactful.
J.A.L: It’s been truly incredible talking to you and I have to say, I admire your bravery. Where can people find you and discover more about your work?
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