Last night I went to a Miserable Poet’s cafe. In the past I’ve been to Death Cafes. Both serve similar functions in allowing people to talk about what is otherwise unspeakable. I’m in a social media group that allows the same process. In a space that is held for people to talk about what makes them miserable, there can be a surprising amount of laughter.
Mostly in our lives we’re encouraged to hide our hurts, fears, failings and setbacks. We are to look brave and successful. This can make tough times into lonely times as well, and it can isolate us. When you think everyone else is brilliant, and winning, when all you see is the online bragging, it can be easy to feel you’re the only person who isn’t having a fantastic time.
Miserable Poet’s Cafe is the brainchild of Bill Jones, a chap who has an uncanny knack for making people laugh by being relentlessly miserable. He’s run several now, and their popularity is increasing as ever more people want to come out, not just to share their woes, but to listen attentively to other people’s. Why? Why would a person choose a night of misery over something fun?
There is a common humanity exposed by sharing stories from our worst times. Last night we had teenage diaries. I didn’t contribute from mine, but hearing other people’s, I realised I was not the lone freak I’d previously assumed myself to be. I listened to tales of pain and breakup, bereavement, madness, sickness, abuse and loss. We share these things. Sooner or later, all of us are touched by one of the many things that can go wrong for a person. Seeing our suffering reflected in other people’s poems, we can each feel that bit less alone. We can recognise the commonality of experience, and that makes it easier to be gentle with ourselves, and see that behind other people’s cheerful exteriors, all manner of grief may be lurking.
A poem calls on the writer to put their pain into a coherent form that can be shared. That in itself is a process that can be cathartic, and bring fresh insight. The sharing can be an act of release, having it witnessed can help place it in the past and draw a line under it. Finding out that other people understand can lighten the load, make it easier to help each other, make it seem less shameful to admit failure and shortcomings. We can laugh in recognition, we can laugh in relief. We can hurt together, and at the same time be comforted by the sharing of hurt. We can applaud each other for finding powerful, well crafted ways of making hurt intelligible to others. After an evening of that, you don’t go away depressed, you go away lighter, and feeling less alone.
I’ve discovered, in the last few years, that I absolutely love making people laugh, and if I can do that on a stage and hear the laughter, that’s even better. Comedy can work very well in darkness, it can feed on disaster. I remember from college a quote that went “Comedy equals tragedy plus timing.” It may have been Woody Allen. Being able to frame tragedy so that it becomes funny, is an incredibly effective thing. It can give back a sense of power and control, it can restore a person, it reveals the vulnerabilities we all share, and provides a coping mechanism. If you expose your sorrow, you can share it in empathy, and sometimes in laughter, and both are really helpful.