As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Melissa Kwasny in response to a video of her reading her poem “Counting the Senses” aloud. Melissa Kwasny wrote letters back to seven of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Thank you for responding with such open-heartedness, intelligence, and spirit to my poem “Counting the Senses.” Without readers like you, who share your insights, questions, and connections to your own lives and experiences, poems could not come alive. Poetry is really a communal enterprise. It needs us both.
One of the greatest gifts that poetry has given me is practice in ever closer attention to the exterior world. In turn, it is a wonder (and a paradox) that in refining my five senses—which the poet William Blake called “the chief inlets of Soul in this age”—I also become more connected to my interior world.
Whether we call it the Self, the Soul, or the “Holy Imagination,” as Keats did, we all have interior lives, where we think, day-dream and night-dream, and, most importantly, feel. Other people might not see that interior world, but it makes us who we are, whether we share it or not. Poetry offers us a language to share it.
While reading about Iranian Sufism, I came across the concept that there might actually be four more senses: telepathy (sensing the thoughts of other people); telekinesis (sensing movement of people or things far away from you); clairvoyance (far-seeing or visionary experience); and teleportation (being able to sense yourself in a place different from where you are). This idea led me to write the poems in The Nine Senses. I gave many poetry readings from the book. Afterward, audience members kept coming up to me to ask, “What about a sense of humor? A sense of fairness? What about a sense of impending doom?” The poem “Counting the Senses” was inspired by these exchanges.
In the writing the poem, a story emerged, one about a beloved friend who found a cancerous tumor early enough to get treatment and survive it. She divined—as in foretold or intuited—that something had gone wrong. She trusted her senses. She listened. It is a trust that is akin to the trust one follows in writing a poem.