Write from your heart: scribble down words when you’re crying at 2am, or right after you’ve gotten home from spending time with someone you love, whenever your emotions are at their peak. Writing is best when it’s pure and raw and genuine. Don’t filter when you write, just let your soul flow out on the page. – Madisen Kuhn
Poems exist to instill in us a sense of passion. A passion to colour outside the lines, to dance under the rain, to bake a cake even if it burns beyond repair, to take our keys and just drive far, far away at midnight. It invokes in us a passion, clear as crystal to just live, live without any regrets. They exist to prove to us that in this infinite Cosmo of existence we shouldn’t be as close minded as to think that we are the only ones suffering, or perhaps to make the mistake of believing that we are alone. Everyone alive has a story to tell. Stories full of adventures, romance, tragedy, comedy, perhaps a tinge whimsical but still a story all the same. They are not just another forgetful face lost among the millions but perhaps, in words of Madisen herself, a mysterious masterpiece waiting to be discovered. There’s something utterly magnificent about unity and poetry shows us just that.
Madisen Kuhn, a poet based in Virginia, writes about themes and unfiltered thoughts that come straight from the heart. Her books, full of anecdotes about her life and poems highlighting the presence of hope, written in beautiful verses invoking aesthetic inclination, have been a source of inspiration and support to many.
Here’s what we learnt about the writer’s life and her journey so far.
Was being a writer for you a childhood dream or was it something that you discovered you wanted to be by and by?
It wasn’t until I was nearly sixteen that I discovered modern poetry. In English, we read The Red Wheelbarrow, Robert Frost and E.E. Cummings. I hated feeling like I couldn’t understand any of it. Then I watched the movie Like Crazy where Felicity Jones reads a piece of writing, and something clicked. I knew I wanted to write beautiful, affecting things like that. I still have the passage memorized. Poetry was growing popular on Tumblr at the time, which is where I began to share my work. None of my friends from school knew at first, so I felt very anonymous and safe there. I had no idea how to write poetry, which was undoubtedly apparent for a while, but I loved words, and I was determined to find my voice.
Do you follow a stringent writing process or do you get whims of inspiration where you feel keen to write?
For a very long time, I only wrote when I spontaneously came across an idea or a line for a poem. I used to swear by this process and thought that trying to write before inspiration hits would make it sound too forced and that it just had to come to me organically. Eventually, I realized that it was absolutely a defense mechanism. I was scared that if I tried to write in a different setting than I was used to, I wouldn’t like what came out. For my last book, Almost Home I would go to my local Starbucks alone and write nearly every day for several months so that I could meet my deadline. It was the first time I’d ever stuck to a strict writing schedule, and it felt incredible. I learned that there was always something within me to write about, even if I felt like there wasn’t. And poems that don’t come as easily at first are still worth writing. I go through waves of inspiration and writer’s block, but I believe that making time to write every day is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer.
I’ve noticed the poems I write in nature often contain more hope than the poems I write beneath the covers on my phone at 2am.
Do you believe one’s tangible surroundings play a key part over their writings? If yes, then how has it affected your compositions?
Absolutely! My surroundings have a significant impact on my mental health in general. Pre-pandemic, I would often go to coffee shops or cafes with outdoor seating to write. Going somewhere with the intention of writing allows me the space to focus all of my attention on that one task. It feels very romantic and dramatic to sip a latte and people watch while writing poetry… it gets me in the right headspace I want to be in when I write. Now that I can’t sit in a coffee shop, I try to write by a window or outside. I’ve noticed the poems I write in nature often contain more hope than the poems I write beneath the covers on my phone at 2am.
As a writer with a community of avid readers, is there a pressure to constantly write pieces that feel relatable to your audience?
Sometimes, I’ll write something and worry that it isn’t what my readers will expect or like. Since writing is my career, I inevitably find myself anxious about being relatable, marketable and consumable. But then I recall all the poems my readers connect with and how comforting and incredible that’s been. I know that if what I’m writing is real, then it will be cherished by someone. I’ve also learned that poetry isn’t always about being relatable. I still enjoy plenty of poetry that I don’t necessarily relate to.
Mental illness can be so lonely. My hope is that by writing about it, others feel validated.
As a writer we sometimes portray through our writings unfortified emotions and feelings that we fail to express through simple conversation. So when you show your art to the world does there ever lurk a hint of fear that people might see through the metaphors and actually get to see you in your most vulnerable form?
For the most part, I am very comfortable with being vulnerable in my poetry. When I’m writing, it’s just me and my thoughts. I try not to think about the part that comes next—where someone will read them. So I guess a bit of delusion is necessary for me to endure being so open. The only time that I really feel nervous is when my honesty might cause someone I love to feel uncomfortable. It’s difficult. I’m still learning how to confidently tell my story without feeling like I’m sharing too much of someone else’s.
How have your own experiences with mental health help you write poems highlighting the same?
Often, I’m not intentionally writing poems about mental health, but of course, they end up being about mental health anyway. It’s one of the most prevalent things in my life—being aware of how my mental illness affects me daily and doing my best to function and heal and grow. I’ve known I had anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. I’m recently learning that there are even more layers of mental illness that I struggle with that I hadn’t yet been able to define. All of it, in some way, seems to connect back to childhood trauma. Mental illness can be so lonely. My hope is that by writing about it, others feel validated. And I feel less alone when my readers relate to the poems that are more difficult to share. My boyfriend tells me that I should go back and read my own poetry regularly, especially when I am anxious. I’ve found a lot of clarity in writing.
So far you have published three books that have been much appreciated by your readers, what are your main sources of inspiration for the same?
The complexities of identity, vulnerability, self-reflection, self-doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, hope, healing, gratitude, acceptance, and the forever-changing, intricate nature of existing.
Can you describe to us your publishing process?
Every book I’ve published so far has had a different process. Loosely, though, I try to find a theme in the poetry I’ve written recently, maybe twenty to fifty poems, and then create a concept for a book surrounding that. I think by doing it this way, the collection comes together more naturally. I’m always so afraid of forcing things. Conceptualizing, organizing, and titling a book is always the most challenging part of the publishing process for me. I have difficulty defining myself in general, so defining a collection of poems is an in-depth and laborious process.
I love meeting my readers. Every single one of them feels like an old friend.
Books that you believe has changed the way you look at life?
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. Basically, Mary Oliver’s life’s work. Her poetry grounds me.
Vinyl or Speakers?
My record player is broken, and I haven’t gotten it fixed for over a year now, so my ideal self would say vinyl, but my actual, current self says speakers. I have several Google homes linked together; I love that I can put on music and hear it playing in every room in my house.
Do you believe romanticizing life is important to feel grateful for one’s experiences and to live to the fullest?
I think there’s a balance between good and harmful romanticizing. As a Pisces, I am very dreamy and find a lot of comfort in forgoing reality. This is great for my art but can be trickier with my mental health. I need to stay grounded, self-aware, and realistic so that I can show up in life as the best version of myself. Otherwise, I’d just disappear into my inner world forever. I do think romanticizing your life to keep you motivated and engaged is a great tool. I just need to be careful and know when to be romantic and when to be practical.
While it’s easy to get caught up in self-doubt, remember all the writing that you have found solace in, and believe that your words hold that same power because they do.
Do you plan to write a novel?
I’ve thought about it for years but don’t currently have anything in the works. I love fiction. I’d love to write my own little world into existence.
As a feminist, how crucial do you believe it is to represent the stories and emotions of women through poetry or prose?
Incredibly crucial. I think poetry has been used as a beautiful vessel through which women share themselves, and I’m so grateful that these stories are being told. I look up to so many women in poetry: Nayyirah Waheed, Lang Leav, Amanda Lovelace, Alex Elle, Olivia Gatwood, Upile Chisala, Jasmin Kaur. Their bravery, creativity, and rawness are powerful and affirming.
An aspect of feminism that you feel keen to write about or are passionate about?
That femininity is complex and entirely defined by each individual person. We get to define ourselves in whatever way we choose, regardless of what others expect. What’s important is getting to know our most authentic selves and feeling the confidence and freedom to express that in a way that feels right. For me, intersectional feminism looks like spending a lot of time reading and sharing the work of other women whose experiences and perspectives are different than mine.
An artist, living or dead, you admire the most?
This one’s hard. Phoebe Bridgers, maybe. I’m in awe of her songwriting.
For me, intersectional feminism looks like spending a lot of time reading and sharing the work of other women whose experiences and perspectives are different than mine.
What advice would you give to your fellow writers?
Your perspective is valuable. While it’s easy to get caught up in self-doubt, remember all the writing that you have found solace in, and believe that your words hold that same power because they do. Also, break all the rules if that’s what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone trick you into believing you’re not a “real” writer. If you write, you are a writer.
With everyone who has ever lived on earth at your call, who would you choose to have a stimulating conversation with about life, literature, etc.?
I don’t know how much my grandfather enjoyed literature, but lately, I’ve been thinking about the conversations I would’ve liked to have with him as an adult. I actually wrote a poem about this a few months ago. It’s hard to accept that our time on earth can’t perfectly overlap with everyone.
Can you share with us a moment, where you realized that you made it as a writer?
I was eating lunch in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia when I glanced over at someone on the bench next to me and saw that they were reading my book, Eighteen Years. I manically elbowed my boyfriend and was like, “Oh my God! Look, she’s reading my book. What do I do? I need to say hi.” So, trembling with adrenaline, I went over and said, “That’s my book!” She looked so confused. I realized she probably thought I was accusing her of stealing or something, so I quickly clarified, “I mean, I wrote it. I’m Madisen!” We talked for a few minutes and took a photo together. Her name was Rachel. She was so kind. She told me about how she picked it up at Barnes & Noble and that it was one of her favorite books that she had read that year. A few months later, she got the illustration on the back cover of Eighteen Years tattooed on her arm. It was undoubtedly the most surreal moment of my life.
What do you love most about being a writer?
I love the feeling of getting the end of a poem just right. And I love meeting my readers. Every single one of them feels like an old friend.
Any quote you want to leave us with?
A line from a Mary Oliver piece called May. I’ve been coming back to it whenever I need to remember that it actually feels good to do scary things because of the relief that follows.
After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.