The first time Valerie Boyer participated in “Rhapsody & Refrain,” in 2020, she was in the midst of great personal upheaval.
In those days, the poet was still adjusting to living in a new city, having relocated to Columbus only months earlier. She had also recently experienced a miscarriage and had come to what felt like a monumental decision at the time to depart her course of study at Methodist Theological School in Ohio – a choice she knew in here heart was right, but which left her temporarily reeling.
“It wasn’t just a grad school program, right? I walked away from seminary, so it was a reflection of my faith,” said Boyer, who will again read as part of the month-long poetry celebration “Rhapsody & Refrain,” and runs through Sept. 30. (Boyer is scheduled to read on Monday, Sept. 4.) “That was also the year that I say the world was on fire. And it wasn’t just COVID, but also the [Black lives matter] protests. … All of these things were converging, but what came of that is that I was writing through it. I was writing through my miscarriage, and writing through this evolution in my faith, and writing through not being able to go home because of COVID.”
As long as Boyer can recall, she’s embraced writing as a means of processing the world and her experiences in moving through it – a trait she shared with her great grandmother, who grew up keeping a diary during a different global pandemic. “And Her mother was a nurse in the midst of navigating the Spanish Flu,” Boyer said. “I’m fortunate to still have access to her diaries, and it was wild reading how this 1920 reality was mirroring ours.”
Now almost three years removed from that challenging experience, Boyer said she’s in a completely different space both mentally and in terms of her life journey.
“After you survive all of the many things you have to survive in that year, if that doesn’t bring you peace, or if that doesn’t bring you joy … then I don’t want it,” Boyer said. “It made me firm up my boundaries. And it made me ask questions of myself that social conditioning just wouldn’t allow me prior. After that, I couldn’t afford not to dream.”
Up until that point, Boyer said she had dutifully done what was expected of her, sharing that in Black culture there’s a tradition of telling one another “I see you being X, Y, Z.”
“And it’s not bad. And it can be a gift, because we’re really good at seeing what we see,” Boyer continued. “But there isn’t always a role for what we see, and more often what we’re seeing are gifts. … And I think up until then I was using what I would call my gifts and talents in ways that I was told they should be seen. And after , I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Of the numerous questions that Boyer asked herself as she began this deeper excavation, one stood out: What do you really want from your life?
Initially, the poet struggled with the question, first landing on the many things she knew she didn’t want. Gradually, though, the prolonged self-examination started to exact results, eventually leading her to forge a path that combined her loves of writing, education and history.
“And now I’m in a completely different headspace,” Boyer said, equating her experience with the way the Harlem Renaissance so closely followed the Spanish Flu. “In the chaos, artists do what artists do, and they create something beautiful out of it. And now we’re getting into an era of art and music and poetry where I don’t know if it would have existed had the world not been so chaotic. … I feel like I’m in my Harlem Renaissance, like I now get to create the world I want to exist in brick by brick.”
This feel of the weather breaking, and of the sun finally cracking through the clouds following an extended storm, has carried through into the poetry Boyer has composed more recently, introducing an optimism which she said will form the backbone of her reading at Streetlight Guild.
“I think I’ve always been authentic, but I’m starting to see more hope in my writing,” Boyer said. “They say when you deal with life, you can’t go under it, and you can’t go over it. You have to go through it. And now I’m starting to see my way through the thing.”
All shows take place at Streetlight Guild at 8 p.m. unless otherwise noted; admission is $5.
Sept. 3: (5 p.m.)
Sept. 4: Valerie Boyer
Sept. 5: Christina Szuch
Sept. 6: Karen Scott
Sept. 7: Amy Turn Sharp
Sept. 8: Jessie Scrimager Galloway
Sept. 9: Graham Bartels
Sept. 10: Dear Miss Stevi (5 p.m.)
Sept. 12: Lynette Ford
Sept. 13: Vernell Bristow
Sept. 14: Jack Johnstone
Sept. 16: Sayuri Ayers
Sept. 17: Aaron Alsop (5 p.m.)
Sept. 18: Rose Smith
Sept. 19: Travis McKlerking
Sept. 20: Dorian Ham
Sept. 21: George Lee Jr.
Sept. 22: Izetta Thomas
Sept. 23: Chuck Salmons
Sept. 24: Sidney Jones Jr. (5:00)
Sept. 25: Nikki Allen
Sept. 26: JG the Jugganaut
Sept. 27: Louise Robertson
Sept. 28: Rachael Scott
Sept. 30: Kimberly Brazwell