By Martin Chang
For most of her twenty-three years, Jessica Nelson has used poetry to help her escape from the pain of a damaged life. After reading poetry for eight years, she began performing her own poetry and discovered poetry’s second of many gifts: Finality. Poetry offers her “a light at the end of the tunnel. If I write, I can be done with it and I can move on.”
“It” for Nelson are the many ups and downs of her hard life. She didn’t grow up knowing her birth mother. She never even met her until she was 18. Talking about her dad, Nelson said, “He had a problem with attracting alcoholics. My dad has been married seven times. I’ve had four different step moms.” Nelson describes living in this type of a family situation as “always a negative environment.” She said, “There were a lot of things that you wouldn’t notice unless you lived in the house. Money was never the issue, it was attention.”
This fractured home life caused Nelson to seek asylum elsewhere. “I’ve lived in Jamison Center. I’ve lived with my seventh grade teacher.” The Kern County Department of Human Services describes the Jamison Center as “the only emergency center in Kern County for neglected children.” Eventually, this led Nelson to move from Bakersfield to live at Horizon Academy, an alternative school based in Bradenton, Florida.
She lived at the academy for two years. Nelson does not feel as though she was given the opportunity to mature at Horizon. “When you’re in the program, you get sent away and you’re fifteen and you come home and you’re still fifteen,” she said. Upon leaving the school, Nelson moved back to Bakersfield alone. So when she had to figure out life without the safety net of a family, she was lost.
Nelson described her rough adjustment to living life alone, “I never knew how to drive. I didn’t know how to balance a check book. I didn’t know how to live on my own.” Nelson also felt alone upon returning to Bakersfield. She missed the friendships she had at Horizon, “I lived for 26 months surrounded by 27 girls. So it was lonely when I came back home. Life goes on when you are sent away but when you come back you’re still where you were (as a person) when you come back.” Nelson takes her life experience in stride. “It was different, but here I am,” she said.
Nelson first discovered poetry at eleven. Between the drama of rotating step mothers and the Jamison Center, Nelson used reading poetry as an escape, “It was an outlet for how my family life was.”
Now Nelson is a young single mother of two kids, Kylie, age 2 and a half and Parker, who is around three months old. She began writing and performing at nineteen. Now that Nelson creates poetry it gives her, what she calls, “my own personal sense of closure” that she did not get simply reading poetry.
An important part of that closure process for Nelson is the sharing, “I never feel like anything is finished unless someone else reads it and gets something from it.” The Open Mic at Dagny’s is a place where Nelson enjoys taking this final sharing and performing step. “I love it. I love the energy. I love all the people that come. I love the experience. I love nervousness that I get. I love the feeling before I do it. (perform) I love the feeling after I do it.”
At September’s Open Mic Nelson performed “Growth”. The poem was inspired by one line.
What happens when you walk into a room and it smells like me.
The poem is Nelson’s attempt to bring closure to a toxic relationship. She performed the poem in an intense style, some words of her poem were recited in quiet, understated lines, while other words, like the words that inspired the poem, were performed with a loud booming voice that filled the small room at Dagny’s.
Nelson performed “Growth” this way because she wants the audience to feel the feelings that Nelson felt when she wrote the poem. When Nelson writes poetry her body is filled with nervous energy, “I just sit there and I talk to myself. I pace.” Capturing the emotion of those nervous moments is Nelson’s main goal when writing poetry, “I want to stay true to how it was written. This is how I see it in my head.”