Usually, I am one to find the thread of dark humor even in the worst of circumstances. But I found myself at a loss. I had been increasingly depressed and anxious since a confluence of world and family events descended, including family deaths and friends’ severe illnesses. I’ve had trouble finding sources of light, my poems becoming increasingly morose. But I don’t believe in writing a book of only sad poems. We deserve a glimpse of hope along with the despair, so we don’t get buried alive. 

I thrive in the turn a poem can take, for the beautiful and the devastating, but that can also hold the whole cup—full and empty. How do you write the poem when the words become buried in a landslide of fear, of dread, of stuckness, piled high on top, with breath a labored effort? 

For months I obeyed Julia Cameron, woke up writing the requisite three pages of blah blah blah, accepting the lack of imagination, metaphor, and inspiration. Willed myself to eat breakfast when terror dampened any desire for food. Knowing I should be grateful for having food to eat and a place to sleep and an adult son, born after multiple miscarriages, a survivor of addiction, alive and a wonderful human being.

What does despair look like? The bottom of an empty well, damp. A dank smell. I lose my appetite and my desire to cook. And I lose my words; the writing that has always been my companion becomes nonexistent, sluggish at best. So, how do you revive the appetite and see the radiant, the humorous, the glorious, and the just plain curious? My intention is to find the light, even if it is a diffused line shining as fog stares into the dark cave of depression. Even when the stalagmite threatens to rip me to shreds as I grope about in the obscure abyss. 


I want to write a poem that contains the contrast of light against the darkness. But how to access light/joy, even awe in dire times, under challenging circumstances? We as poets and our readers need to have that mix of light and dark, as well as humor; a way to see those moments of joy, guideposts such as the beautiful “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón and illustrations of finding delight in an imperfect world, such as Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Poet Bonnie S. Kaplan wrote to me, “I love the work of Naomi Shihab Nye for exactly the reasons you note. She is able to find joy in the darkest places, and her humanity always shines through.” 

I’m obsessed with finding and writing about those little spots of joy and delight. But how do you inspire yourself and others to find awe and wonder, particularly when a state of depression or anxiety can cause you to lose the ability to carry a full sensory experience? 

In the past, I have found the ability to note the existence of something devastating while still finding a glimmer of something deeply funny, which has saved me, like the time my then high-school-aged son walked in on me and my girlfriend in the bedroom (when I thought he’d be at school). It was disturbing for all of us, but a few days later he let me off the hook with, “It’s OK, Mom. You just ruined lesbian porn for me.” 

Recalling the release of laughter reminds me to breathe and feel hunger again. When my son was younger, I was leading the  exhausting life of a working single mom bringing home the oatmeal. One night, while cooking with my son, who was little at the time, I was especially weary  when he suddenly proclaimed, “Damn, that okra is good!” When he got older, I taught him how to make chicken and pork adobo. My appetite came back.

I managed to write a memoir in essays, One Day on the Gold Line, which addressed miscarriage, family violence, unblended families, racism, homophobia, police brutality, and addiction while still containing humor and moments of joy and lightness.  I wrote an essay that riffed on the tone of  a popular book on pregnancy at the time, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting: When Molly Is Not a School Girl.” It showed the dark humor of dealing with addiction in the family.

The poem I’d like to write with my community is a poem called “Light Sources—101 Light Sources,” but I must start with the question, “What is the place where you can see a glow, even a luster, illuminating the world for you when all is dull?”

What makes you pause and inhale the moment?

What light filters in amidst the tears?

What reminds you of love?

Of safety?

Of companionship?

In a desperate attempt to claw my way out of despondency, I asked myself these questions—questions I knew I needed badly, and for no particular reason I began to notice:

A snail inching along so slowly, as to be almost unseen, towards a sea turtle who sits silently, stoically.

A girl, my goddaughter’s daughter, who whirls about and pulls along her Barbie in the doll’s convertible through the town plaza in Tlaxcala. 

My beautiful son and a joke he just told me: my desire to ask him to take me along to the party he is going to, and knowing I would never ask to go.

The Bird of Paradise that looks like a family leaning in together while the pregnant hummingbird buzzes around it.

My three-month-old grand-niece’s appearance at the first reading for my debut full-length poetry collection, Secondary Inspections— her delicious arms in mine, eyes glinting, piercing rays as if she’s already lived a lifetime, an open, frank, unflinching gaze.

The son I spend the evening with, cooking and eating mole, who leaves with a hefty hug and his signature words, “Mom, I love you so, so much.” And it tastes grand!

We should all have a list to draw from, knowing that someday, when we are ready, we’ll add our moments to the poem. I want this community poem to be that list of light sources, and a road map to helping our fellow poets find their way out of the cave. This is the question I want to ask and answer over and over again in our poem: “How did you find your way out?” I wish I could answer that for you now, but that’s why I keep writing.

The answer to the riddle “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is the same response to the question “Why does the poet keep writing?” To get to the other side. I kept writing and writing and writing, and then one day I smelled the rosemary again, tasted the adobo, and cooked the mole. 

And today I wrote this essay.

Carla Rachel Sameth, co-poet laureate of Altadena, California, is the author of the poetry collection Secondary Inspections (Nymeria Publishing, 2024); What Is Left (dancing girl press, 2021); and One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays, which was a 2021 Independent Press Award Distinguished Favorite in the category of memoir, and was reissued in 2022 by Golden Foothills Press . In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Along with Peter J. Harris, they will work on Ode to the Land, a series of workshops allowing cross-generational creativity. Poets are invited to acknowledge, honor, and explore the interconnections between the lands we inhabit, the places we call home, identity, and the lives we live in a time when many people don’t cultivate meaningful contact and interactions with those from different generations. High school students and elders, fifty-five+, were taught the ode, ballad, praise poems, and other lyric and narrative poetic forms from various stylistic and cultural traditions.