In April 2020, 24-year old Kulsoom Kashmiri embarked on a challenge to write a poem each day. In the first poem ‘The Art of the Wound’, Kulsoom speaks to the desire people with mental illnesses often have to understand themselves better through introspection. She writes ‘I made a hole in my body / Cutting deep to find what made of me’ with bold tenacity and style. This series of poems explores the colourful mosaic of moments in the life of a person living with depression and anxiety. Her willingness to be vulnerable in her poetry gives mental illness a face and a soul. And introduces readers to the understanding that having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t thrive at life.
‘The Art of the Wound’ explores the speaker’s personified skin reacting to self-harm. The speaker watches as her ‘blood screamed’ and ‘skin chuckled’ back at her with curious delight and horror. Kulsoom’s graphic imagery does not shy away from the way in which a depressed mind-set can glorify self-injury in a moment of delirium. The poem concludes with the melancholic question: ‘Who knew that mutilation could be so beautiful?’ reflecting the brutality of self-harm and the mental turmoil that causes it. Here, tearing open one’s own body becomes symbolic of the speaker’s desperation to understand one’s self and read every bodily scar like palmistry or divination.
Several of Kulsoom’s poems delve into the void that depression forces the mind to explore. However, just as many of her poems show what is often the light at the end of the tunnel for many sufferers of depression – a support network of educated, loving friends and family. Kulsoom began writing this series of poems to and from work on the busy London underground. Allowing the rumble of the tube to coax her mind to deep fleeting thoughts, she began writing her poems as a purge of her turbulent experiences from mind to page. Over 30 days, it became a ritual.
In a short interview Kulsoom said: “My poems have created a place I can be the most vulnerable” and she describes her poetry as “an extension of me” through which others can understand mental illness through an authentic lens. Kulsoom captured her spontaneous thoughts into slices of free-verse, which together create an honest collage of a young woman’s life with mental illness. Her poems can be used to educate readers about the different symptoms that depression can be expressed through. The process of writing the poems was therapeutic for Kulsoom and her lively free-verse gave her a break from the constraints of daily life.
From confusion and melancholia comes anger in the ‘The Jaws of the Sky’. This poem looks at the unpredictable day to day experience of mental illness, ‘I screamed and tore open the jaws of the sky / I am rage / today’ this animalistic imagery is visceral and moody. Kulsoom signs of each poem with her name, as though writing an entry in a diary. This adds to the intimate atmosphere that her poems provide. Her poetry stands out as honest and confronting and at the same time it’s comforting to those who relate to her emotions.
In ‘Blossoming’, Kulsoom talks about her supportive partner whose ‘Soft hands cradled my face / Kisses that felt like sakura brushing past me / on a warm day in Kyoto’ showing how much it does for a person’s mental health to be surrounded with love. To be present in the moment can be a struggle for those with depression and anxiety. Kulsoom skilfully paints the world around her transforming into a place of solitude with love and understanding as the catalyst. Kulsoom’s style is preoccupied with conceits that engulf the reader with emotion.
The benefit of her poetry is that it adds to mental health literacy and educates readers about real experiences with mental illnesses that can’t be found in DSM diagnostic criteria. Fresh, exciting and truthful writing like this helps readers recognise the signs of illness and also see a reflection of what managing those symptoms looks like in the real world.
Conversational poetry like this contributes to the de-stigmatisation of mental illness. Poetry empowers the speaker to take control back from their illness. Kulsoom paints a walk with a lover through Kyoto like a fairy-tale come to life. Moments such as these encapsulate how the quotidian can be beautiful.
There is inspiration to be found in Kulsoom’s series of poems precisely because they move through the motions of real life. Mental health poetry helps to provide a shape to feelings that otherwise remain out of the grasp of language. The sweetly succinct end to this poem ‘I am blossoming’ reminds us of the moments that are worth waking up to see again. Relating life to floral imagery and images of rebirth cycles.
By writing what comes to mind and not fixating on drafting and redrafting ideas, Kulsoom captures the real way depression affects people. Representation for people with mental illnesses are often inaccurate and focused on melodrama. Kulsoom’s poems have a confessional, spoken-word quality to them. Each poem enchants you with a new moment and emotion to embrace.
In the poem ‘Falling in Love’ we see a return to the floral imagery that Kulsoom is so inspired by. She mentions how ‘I always felt empty alone / But with him rooted by my side / I became yellow and everything good with it’ reminding us that growth is not linear, but comes in seasons. Kulsoom takes inspiration from nature and her immediate surroundings often throughout her work which reflects the way that anxiety can make one disassociate from their own body and look for stability in people and objects.
Kulsoom began writing poetry in her early teens. She found a better way to understand herself and her emotions by translating her feelings into the written word. Inspired early on by the brevity of writers like Emily Dickinson in style and subject, Kulsoom is now published in The Scratched Record magazine with her poem ‘Dear Mother’ for their Bloom edition; ‘Jaws of the Sky’ for The Posesie Collaboration and Kingston University’s 2021 Student Anthology: Ripple with ‘Following the Wound’. Liberation is a key theme in Kulsoom’s work.
Young people like Kulsoom are leading the charge against the stigma of talking about mental health in literature. Kulsoom’s style of poetry champions freedom, self-love and acceptance of one’s self equally on the good days as the difficult ones. There is warmth in the common understanding that you are not alone in your intense mood swings, depression or anxiety and that vivid colour can be found in every day moments.
Kulsoom emerged from her 30 days of poetry to take a well-deserved rest on the last day of the month. Reminding herself of her capacity to “paint something that is painful into something beautiful”.