Where the Light Gets In: Slam Poetry Artist Zachary Kluckman on single parenthood, depression, and the power of art-making in community

“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” 
― Martin Luther King Jr.

“Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world.” 
― Marianne Williamson, The Law of Divine Compensation: Mastering the Metaphysics of Abundance

“I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.” 
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Loss ~ whether it’s the break-up of a marriage, a career that has come to an end, or something much less definable, such as witnessing the gradual dissolution of your child’s innocence ~ one day you’re cruising along in the closest you’ve ever experienced to bliss, and the next, it’s like someone sucker punched you deep in the gut.

And the pain you bring upon yourself can be the worst of all.  

Most of us are familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief: denial and isolation; anger; bargaining; depression…and finally, acceptance. Ahhh yes, the willingness to sit in that place of truth and face full on what has been lost. Yet while this can be the most painful stage of all, as it typically involves letting go of dreams you may have quietly or not so quietly been nurturing, this can also be a time of intense creativity, for here is where art-making can happen: when you allow yourself the opportunity to give shape and meaning to what has been such an important part of your life but is no more, and to imagine what will be born in its place.

Enjoy now the poetry of Zachary Kluckman…


Albuqueque, New Mexico ~

Paintings by Fotini Hamidieli, Imathia, Greece

An Easter Letter from the Detention Center

On the margin, with twin clouds
for cheekbones, a rainbow
is scrawled with such purpose
of color I can picture her
smile as tight as a garrote.
Desperate little girl in a four by six cell.
Fumbling for a sense of innocence
in the shape of hearts she has drawn,
erased and drawn again.
Her hands have forgotten 
the ease they once found
fluid as blue ink, writing
to inform me the judge
has ordered her to ninety days
in residential treatment.
Happy Easter Daddy. Tell the boys
how much I love them. I’m sorry
I’ll miss the little man’s birthday.
My daughter at fifteen is water.
On paper borders, she scrawls
her initials, as if she could stand
with both feet on this one small
possession inside her cell,
irrigating her claim
with the sweat of her 
efforts to smile, crafting
words to a father
she’s afraid has forgotten.
How brave little girls
can seem when they’re smiling.
How easily their bright-eyed shine
can be coaxed to the surface
by men who remember their promise.
I don’t wear as much make-up now.
Dad. I’ve put on a few pounds. I’m almost
A trustee. In two days they will let me
work in the kitchen.
Outside, the sun
flirts dangerously with thick charcoal
smoke. Hickory and laughter
bubble over chicken. Jump-ropes
hang in the air like wind-chimes. 

~ Zachary Kluckman

Fotini Hamidieli, Veria Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Zachary, you’re a spoken word poet, slam artist and actor, but you also identify yourself as a “youth advocate and peer support specialist.” We see hints of this in your poem, “Easter Letter from the Detention Center,” in which we feel the author’s pain so acutely as his teenage daughter teeters on the edge between holding on to the sweetness of her girlhood and the reality of innocence lost. As my own son was released from incarceration and psychiatric hospitalization this past Thanksgiving, this poem hit me especially hard. What was it like for you writing it? What kind of feedback have you received?

Zachary Kluckman: I am so glad the poem moved you. I feel like that is the best compliment any of us as artists can ever receive. And yes, I would say my work as a youth advocate and peer support specialist are connected to that, and to almost every poem I write on one level or another. It’s really amazing to me still: how all of this has evolved. I started writing poetry as someone who was hurting – as I suspect many of us do – and I did not think of it as therapy exactly, but it saved my life, literally, on a few occasions. And you know, it was about 13 years before I ever attempted to read or publish a poem. But I was very lucky because I discovered the slam poetry scene, where poets were invited to read their poems in the way they experienced them, which brought the poems to life in a very visceral way for me.

Before I knew it, I was caught up in the community and doors were opening to me that allowed me to speak my experience to youth and people in institutions, jails, schools, even a drug relapse and gang intervention program I ran with the courts at one point. Before I knew it, I was working with undocumented students, and people in recovery, activists, artists, even elected officials. All of this because I started writing poetry.

I myself am a person in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, as well as severe depression and a history of trauma. So my work as a Peer Support Specialist is really the most natural thing on earth for me to find myself doing, but I could not have ever predicted that it would be poetry that brought me here. I guess you could say, it’s not been a very traditional narrative. But you know, after every performance I give anywhere in the world, people ask about one or several of the poems, because they relate to them somehow. And what an amazing connective tissue that is! I have had countless, long conversations with people about difficult experiences, and shared some light and hope with them. 

Still, when it comes to your own family, suddenly all of the things you went through in your life – the forced decisions, coping skills that may not always have been the healthiest options but got you through, the struggles – all of that comes rushing back at you, and you want to fall apart sometimes, especially when it is your own child. All we want as parents, I think, is for our children to be healthy and happy and whole, and yet, we have to let them make their own mistakes as well. When I wrote “Easter Letter from the Detention Center,” I was in this raw place where my instincts were at war with my logic, and my heart was broken.

I missed a lot of holidays with my daughter due to a legal system that I feel exists to keep children caught in an endless loop rather than giving them the tools they need to succeed and break free of that system.

And if they happen to have any mental or behavioral health symptoms, that system will roll right over them. I really understand how difficult that experience must have been for you as well.

What I know is that the pain of missing my daughter, and the knowledge that there was so little I could do to change it, is where that poem comes from. All I wanted was to hold my sweet daughter in my arms and let her know how much she is loved, and how much she matters. And I think people have reacted to that poem really powerfully. It’s funny because years ago I decided to keep a scrapbook of my children’s youth, but rather than doing so with a photo album, I have been doing it with poems, hoping to give them this collection of poems about their travels through the years one day. I wish it did not include these hard poems, but I guess that is the truth of youth. Some of it hurts, but with luck and love, we hopefully survive it and come out the other side stronger.

Fotini Hamidieli, Veria Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria Imathia, Greece

Deanna Phoenix Selene: In “Storm Warning,” you write about a father trying to soothe his son’s pain in the absence of his mother: 

When a child tries to find his absent mother
in his father’s arms, thinking she is waiting somewhere
inside him, like a prize they will win if they pray
or bite hard enough, all a man can do

is hold them to his chest, threaten the thunder
to stop scaring his children, whisper, tell them
how she smelled like water, how her breath
was the window rain looked through, jealous
how she taught him the classics

like love, like absence, like children
waiting for their father to stop watching the rain...

There is such an unshakeable sense of guilt we can carry as single parents when faced with missing holes in our children’s childhoods, blaming ourselves for not choosing a better parent for them, for not providing them with the dual-parent upbringing we may have known ourselves growing up. We must make peace, all of us, with the gap between what we wished we could have provided our children and what we were, in reality, able to pull off. It’s both a heroic act to be a parent and a deeply humbling one, isn’t it?

Zachary Kluckman: Oh god, yes. We hope our children come out of their youth stronger for the experience, and I think that applies to us as parents also. Everything that happens to them gets echoed inside of us.

Being a parent is sometimes a battle ground, sometimes a church, and always an experience of the heart.

Decisions can seem to weigh a ton at times because we know every word, every action, causes a reaction, a decision on their part that carries its own consequences. So parenting can be terrifying, or uplifting, or both. 

And if you suddenly find yourself going it alone, well, that echo suddenly becomes a thunder. Everything takes on this urgency to do it right and not make a mistake because we feel like we are all our kids have. For me, after my divorce and the storm that came with that, all I could think about on many levels was my children. How would they be affected by all of this? And how could I, as a man, try to fill that gap left by their mother? That poem is another that is really important for me, because for the first several years I carried that weight all the time. I couldn’t seem to escape it. But writing poetry helped me process a lot of that. And it gave me the language to talk to them about it.

Sobriety and recovery from my earlier experiences in life have taught me a lot about living a whole life, but being a parent has taught me more about being an adult and making an effort to be the best person I can than any other experience. So I am grateful, even on the days when poems like this are necessary.

Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece

Deanna Phoenix Selene: In “Jellyfish (Depression’s Twin),” you write:

"Invisible as I was, my body
an empty space for my mother to
cup her hands around..."

Depression is not an easy thing to write about and an even harder thing to share, but something quite remarkable happens, doesn’t it, when we have the courage to make ourselves that vulnerable? 

Zachary Kluckman: Absolutely. You know, I edited an anthology called Trigger Warning: Poetry Saved my Life, several years ago, for that very reason. So often I have heard people say poetry “saved” them, but I rarely hear exactly how. So we wanted to hear those stories, and the result was this collection of poems and short essays from poets around the world answering that question. And it is a perfect example of what happens when we allow vulnerability to be not a deficit in our lives, but a source of strength.

I remember a fellow poet once came up to me after a reading and said, “Keep struggling Zachary. You write pain so beautifully.” 

What do you say to that? “Thanks, I will be sure to keep the wound open!” I laugh about it now, but at the time I was sort of dumbfounded. I understand the compliment he intended, but it was hard not to internalize that in the wrong way.

Life has a tendency to throw a lot of packed fists our way as it is, so struggle is unavoidable, but the willingness to admit to ourselves and others when we are hurting, or when we are low, is so vital. In the realm of suicide prevention, you learn how precious vulnerability really is because people sometimes die without it. As a peer, my own vulnerability is not only a strength for me, but sometimes the strength someone else needs to borrow to get through a hard time.

I think that’s true of poetry as well. When we allow ourselves that moment of opening and revealing, we become a fuller version of ourselves.

Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your work first drew my attention when you posted a note on New Year’s Day on social media about loneliness. I found the last paragraph especially to be the loveliest and most honest and courageous writing I’d encountered in a very long time:

….however lonely we may feel, there is a thread of invisible energy that connects us all. A shared experience of living that means we are not disconnected from the world around us, no matter how thin that thread may feel. If you exist, then you matter. Your heart matters. Your ability to love and be loved matters. And I love you for existing. I love you for bringing your light to the party. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Shine as brightly and loudly as you can and remind the world your light goes unchallenged into the new year. Screw the ball drop and the fireworks. Let this year be the Big Bang of your own creation and let the world witness the birth of you, little star.” 

I want to thank you again for this beautiful piece of writing, Zachary.

Zachary Kluckman: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. You know, I have gotten to a point in my own life where I feel like social media is in a weird, uncomfortable place of starting arguments and creating negativity, and I don’t think that was ever the intention. I mean, definitely, we need to be able to have conversations about the struggles and changes that are obviously still in place in this world, but I don’t think we’re going to accomplish that by fighting it out with our neighbors through social media. Real conversations need to happen face to face, sitting together for change to happen. 

So I decided I would rather try and use my social media presence as a place to offer some hope, and, going back to that question of vulnerability, I find the best way to share hope is to start by saying, “I hurt too sometimes.” If I can share my own challenges openly, however scary that can be, and then say, “But I still believe, I still hope, I still breathe…”, hopefully that helps someone else remember that strength exists inside of them as well. We are actually quite remarkable human beings. Our strength is damn near bottomless, when we can allow ourselves to remember that. Just think about how much you have endured and survived, and how many times you have felt you couldn’t make it, and here you are, beautifully alive!

Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece
Fotini Hamidieli, Veria, Imathia, Greece

Deanna Phoenix Selene: You know what finally sent me knocking on your door was this powerful spoken word clip I found when I Googled your name that day: “To The Man Who Asked Why I Still Hold My Son’s Hand”‘

Deanna Phoenix Selene: I just listened to it again, and…wow. Can you share what led to writing this piece?

Zachary Kluckman: I am so grateful that you found this poem. It is one of my favorites, and a really important piece for me. We were talking earlier about being a parent and the fears we can have around that, and one of the most bizarre to me is this fear of affection we seem to have adopted as a culture in America. 

In many other cultures, family members hold hands, or even kiss on the lips. It’s a ritual of affection that seems beautiful to me. I have always believed that we don’t know what day is to be our last, so I believe in telling people every day that I love them. And it’s funny because some people will get annoyed hearing it all the time, and yet I can take comfort in knowing they will never doubt that they were loved, even if I happen to pass unexpectedly. Even on bad days, when they are truly struggling, I know my children do not doubt that someone out there loves them. And I hope this gives them strength.

But love is more than words, or else every love poem would result in marriage. Wouldn’t that be problematic? Seriously, it’s the little things, like a simple touch on the shoulder, that convey love as well. We all hold our children’s hands when they’re little, or our parent’s hands when they are old perhaps, but somehow we have this social norm that says between age 6 and 60, no hand-holding. It’s not proper or some such nonsense, and really, how ridiculous is this?

I honestly believe this idea that we should stop holding hands with our kids after a certain age is a result of homophobia and fear.

Either fear of what people will think or a fear that we are somehow going to teach them its ok to hold hands with someone of the same sex, and this could lead to them becoming gay. Even if, by some strange methodology, that was true, why would that be a problem?

Even a small amount of common sense and a simple act of listening tells us that people who happen to be in the LGBTQ community are simply who they are. There’s no choice to it, and no act of affection is going to threaten this weird, delicate heteronormative balance we still seem to be striving towards.

Not many people outside of science perhaps remember Harry Harlow, the noted psychologist who experimented with rhesus monkeys in the 1930s. But essentially, he experimented with young primates by separating them from their mothers very soon after birth and raising them without touch or affection. In one famous experiment, he presented them with surrogate mothers made entirely of wire holding bottles of food, and surrogate mothers made of cloth but had no food. The babies would almost always go to the cloth mother because that need for touch was more important to them than food. In instances where there was no affection or touch, those monkeys either died or grew up with severe psychological challenges.

So I wanted to write about this because I have had people actually give me dirty looks for holding my son’s hand when he was around ten. And I feel its important that we talk about these strange hidden aggressions. In my mind it comes down to one simple concept: If my child asks for affection, I am not going to say no or tell them its improper. 

How can we hold back love from a child and expect to have a world where aggression and fear are driven back? 

I have had some of the most masculine, intimidating guys come up to me after a reading and tell me how much they wish they could still hold their child’s hand, or that they wished they had done so more. For me, that’s been a powerful response and indicator of how much we can do with a poem and a willingness to be honest with our feelings.

Spoken word poet/slam artist, Zachary Kluckman
Spoken word poet/slam artist, Zachary Kluckman


Further Notes

Zachary Kluckman, the National Poetry Awards 2015 & 2016 Slam Organizer of the Year and 2014 Slam Artist of the Year, is a Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medal Poetry Teacher, Pushcart Prize nominee, Red Mountain Press National Poetry Prize recipient and a founding organizer of the 100 Thousand Poets for Change program, now recognized as the largest poetry reading in history. Kluckman has appeared multiple times at the National and Individual World Poetry slams, as well as regional competitions and continues to tour the world as a spoken word artist while facilitating poetry workshops in performance venues, schools and institutions. With work appearing in print around the world, including the New York Quarterly, Red Fez and Write Bloody’s Multi-Verse anthology, he served as spoken word editor for the Pedestal magazine and has authored two poetry collections. Recently he was one of 3 poets invited to represent the United States at the Kistrech International Poetry Festival in Kenya. Kluckman is also an actor with appearances in numerous television and film roles. His book, Trigger Warning: Poetry Saved My Life can be purchased through Amazon.

Fotini Hamidieli was born in 1957 in Greece, has lived and studied in the U.S. and Italy and is presently living in Greece painting, teaching art lessons, doing graphic design work and developing educational art programs for children. Fotini writes, “The human figure and colour have been my main interests throughout my work. Inspiration can come from anywhere and ideas brew internally and usually surface unexpectedly. The work of Cezanne, Matisse and American expressionism have influenced me from early on. I have presented my work in twenty solo exhibitions and have participated in many group shows all over the world.”
Education: 1973-1975 studied in Eugene Tonoff’s studio, Providence, R.I.. 1978-1979 Honors Program of R.I.SD, Rome-Italy. 1979 BFA Rhodes Island School of Design.

You can see more of Fotini’s work in my Combustus interview with psychotherapist Andrew Nargolwala: The Life Imagined. And in the piece the American psychotherapist wrote for Combustus. The Lies We’re Told, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, and the Hopeful Truth. Also visit her website. Or purchase her paintings at Saatchi Art. You will also find my Combustus interview with Fotini here.

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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