Earlier this summer, I dropped off my car for repairs in West Asheville. With time to kill, I walked over to Izzy’s Coffee House on Haywood Road to get some editing done for that week’s issue.
For a brief period, I sat alone in the coffee shop’s downstairs area. But soon, a pair joined me two tables down. I’d say I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I’m a writer (which means by default I’m always kind of eavesdropping). This is how I learned I was seated next to award-winning songwriter Chelsea Lynn LaBate, who, as it turns out, was gearing up for the release of her poetry collection, Free Roses.
She and I conversed briefly. I mentioned Xpress‘ monthly poetry feature and encouraged her to shoot me an email. She then returned to the conversation she’d previously been having with her friend, and I returned to editing.
Later, as I was packing up my computer to head back to the mechanic, LaBate called out my name and asked if she could read me one of her poems. I’ve attended many public readings in my day, but I’ve never had a practical stranger recite a poem directly to me. It was a special moment, and one that reinforces my writerly instinct to eavesdrop.
LaBate and I later reconnected over email. In our exchange, she informed me that she’d experienced several psychotic episodes, resulting in multiple hospitalizations over the span of three years. Her collection, she added, was written in a manic state. An advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LaBate uses her platform to inform those with mental illness about the organization’s free support.
Below is the poem LaBate read to me at Izzy’s, as well as a subsequent conversation we had about her work.
Today I Asked the Butterfly
by Chelsea Lynn LaBate
Today I asked the butterfly
what it’s like to be a butterfly.
She perched on the purple skirt
of a petunia and asked —
What’s a butterfly?
I blushed with shame
at the notion of assigning a name
to someone who never named herself,
someone who is so absorbed in being
that she doesn’t need identity.
Because of her,
I started to move in ways
I had never moved before.
Losing my name meant
I could become the unknown,
a pattern, an echo, a prayer.
I mimicked the bear, the great moose,
the rhino, the squirrel.
I morphed and shifted,
but when I thought of the butterfly
I felt the most uplifted.
I didn’t know the God in me
until I became the small,
winged one who drinks from
the hearts of flowers.
Xpress: Can you speak to what inspired this poem?
LaBate: I was in a trance state and actually had a conversation with a butterfly. In my book, I talk to dogs, a rooster, a beetle and even the sun. This poem illuminates that state of interconnectivity that I felt when I was in an altered state — a state where all beings could communicate and be in the tender company of one another.
What made poetry the ideal outlet for these conversations and reflections?
I needed a form of writing that was extremely articulate and concise. I wanted each piece to be approachable and understood by anyone. They are little reports. I’m responding to the matter at hand. Sometimes it was more of the collective experience like the piece “Inhale” written for George Floyd. Or a tribute to my yoga teacher, Michael Johnson, whose teachings sustained me in the mental wards. Poetry, to me, is more direct than song. I wasn’t stuck within the form of song — they didn’t have to rhyme or have a catchy chorus, they could simply relay the information.
Could you speak a little more about the two approaches — songwriting and poetry — and how they inform each other, if at all. Is there an overlap in your approach with these forms? Or are they entirely separate in your mind?
They are separate. The poems lack the structure, rhythm and rhyme that the songs have. When writing a song, I always start with the lyrics and, of course, there is a chorus. The poems don’t have a chorus. There are just some topics that I don’t want to sing about — like getting locked up.
I know you’ve self-published previous collections, but your latest is coming out on Mezcalita Press. Could you share any advice to those currently trying to find a publisher for their poetry?
My advice would be to actively share as you write. This builds a desire for the work. I read at family gatherings, concerts, potlucks, camping trips, on dates. I always have my poems on me. I bookmark the funnier ones — the ones where I am talking to my cat, the dogs, beetles or even the sun. It’s more of a treat this way. You never know who is going to have a connection for you and your work.
I got picked up because I was sharing (my work) on Facebook. My friend and press mate, Grant Peeples, asked if he could share my poems with Nathan Brown, founder of Mezcalita Press. The feedback was that they’d never seen anyone bring so many subjects together like I do; that it was completely unique and would serve a lot of people with mental illness.
So, carry them with you. Read to everyone possible. Post on your platforms. Have some lighthearted ones. People don’t want to hear about your trauma or politics when they’re on a picnic. Save those for an audience who has come specifically to hear that subject matter. …
Writing poetry is a lifestyle. If you want it to live, you have to first invite it to live in you.
What surprised you most in working with a press this time around?
I am surprised at how professional that book looks and feels. It looks like a “real book,” the way the letters lay on the page, the table of contents. We’ve gone through so many drafts to get a good product. This has surprised me, too — having two people editing and still finding errors. Another reason I couldn’t have done this alone!
I’ve written hundreds of songs and poems. Free Roses is by far the most important work I’ve made. It has been a lifeline in the hardest times, but I put it out there. I shared bravely. It is the people’s poetry. Anyone can understand it. You don’t need an English degree in order to enjoy it. This would be my advice, too. If you’re not writing for the people, you may not sell any books.
The humor works really well in “Today I Asked the Butterfly.” There are delightful surprises throughout, including the opening stanza. Is humor something you make a conscious effort to include in works? Or is it an aspect of your personality that naturally manifests in creative projects?
I’ve been told that I am funny. Once at a Jack of the Wood show, a fan came up to me and said, “I don’t come to your shows for the music,”
“Oh?” I said, confused.
He said, “I come here for your comedy between the songs.”
When I get full on life and feel deeply connected to sources and all of creation, the humor is there. I’m just simply reporting.
What do you hope readers take away from your collection?
That enlightenment and madness are close sisters. If you excuse the paranoia and the terror, and pay attention to the heightened state, there’s a lot of beauty there, a lot of connection.
I hope readers are poetically informed by the mania and the bliss.
Who would be the four poets you’d put on your personal Mount Rushmore?
I’d have four faces of Mary Oliver! Her poems are scripture. But really, Leonard Cohen, Wendell Berry and Hafiz.
For more information, visit chelsealynnlabate.art/.