Poetry | Melissa Ferrer Civil: ‘I want to see a better world’

Melissa Ferrer Civil (from the artist)

A quest for truth drives the first Kansas City Poet Laureate

Melissa Ferrer Civil is well aware that she is the curious sum of an evolving accumulation of unique yet ultimately connected yearnings, actions and experiences.

Such self-assessing is part of being a truth-seeking poet.

To that end, which never really ends, the 32-year-old change agent is many more things, including passionate performer, dedicated community organizer, joyful theologian and mental health crisis survivor. And more, of course. Always, inevitably, more.

Now the Brooklyn-born Civil is focusing her combined facets to boost her adopted hometown in a brand-new way, as the first Kansas City Poet Laureate.

Appointed to the position in February by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, the infectiously enthusiastic Civil will for one year create and participate in a diversity of poetry performances, public arts education opportunities and other events in which her verse-centric sensibilities can invigorate the citizenry’s appreciation for the arts and, most vitally, for one another.

“The dream for me always is to reach people who normally wouldn’t listen to or read poetry,” Civil says. “I see myself going into spaces where poetry normally is not and adding poetry as part of the equation, because of the deep reflection it brings, because of the way it immediately hits the spirit and can kick open doors.”

Civil’s approach to poetry is as caring as it is unflinching.

“My style doesn’t pull punches,” she says. “I’m always striving to say the most honest thing I can say, without any regard for what people will think — the most honest and loving thing, I should say — because my heart is what engages and gets me to the page. And so there are things that my heart is telling me must be said, and I do it in a way that is, as someone once said, a sting and a kiss. But I apply the stinging thing with great care, and I do that in almost all of my poems . . .

“A friend of mine told me that there’s a bed of spikes, and my poems pick people up and drop them on the bed of spikes.”

Civil has learned from facing her own pointy truths. She endured her first psychotic episode while a senior studying creative writing and Italian at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. The disruption delayed her graduation by a year and a half.

“The best way to talk about it is to say I was a girl who was obsessed with finding the truth and spreading the truth,” she recalls. “And, not having the tools to get me there, I formed my own tools, and those broke my brain in my desire to reconcile mankind with the God kind of thing. And that sent me on a journey to find God’s will for my life.”

For a while, Civil lived in a van. She traveled with new friends to conscious music festivals and ecovillages. Twice, she joined and left the 12 Tribes religious cult.

“For a long time,” Civil says, “I didn’t use the word ‘cult,’ because I was like, ‘Damn, they had a lot of things that I believed in.’ But they were pretty cult-y.”

Starting Over

Six years ago, while befriended by a family in Warsaw, Missouri, Civil had another psychotic break and was eventually taken to Research Psychiatric Center in Kansas City, where she began to heal and make plans.

Starting over in a homeless shelter, “the first thing I did was look up open mikes,” Civil recalls, “because I was going through hell and high water and I needed to expel what was happening inside of me. I needed to release my demons, if you will. I needed to call them out by name. I needed to be accountable for my experience and say I’m afraid, by doing it publicly. And so I went to open mikes and got on stage and was very honest — very honest — about the things I was going through.

“And that’s how I found my first community. People heard my story: that I was going through hallucinations, that I was feeling these feelings, that I could feel these energies of doubt, guilt and shame and fear and disappointment and all these things that traveled through the air and attacked my spirit. And they were there for me on the poetry scene. So poetry, both the act of doing and the community built around it, is what really helped me to begin my journey.”

Her growing KC accomplishments include being a Charlotte Street Foundation studio resident, founding the writers’ workshop series SECCARA (Self-Expression, Community, Care, Accountability, Responsibility and Agency) and operating A Nation of Exiles, an arts and organizing events series that hosts local and visiting performers in partnership with social justice and community building organizations. Additionally, she is one of three Kansas City artists selected to attend the Dakar Biennale in Senegal through the KC Cultural Outbound Fund, a program of Global Ties KC that “aims to empower artists, educators, and community changemakers by providing them with opportunities to travel abroad.”

And as the inaugural Kansas City Poet Laureate and beyond? Words on the page are only part of the work, Civil says.

“It doesn’t just stop at poetry,” Civil says. “Any form of expression, whether it’s painting, music, dance, acting or getting yourself out there and allowing yourself to feel who you are, is worthwhile. If you really want to see the world change, you’ve got to get up and do something about it…

“It’s cool to be a poet. It’s cool to be an artist. But I don’t do it for the sake of poetry, honestly. I don’t do it for the sake of art. I do it because I want to see a better world and I want to see that as soon as possible.”

For more about Melissa Ferrer Civil, visit melissaferrerand.com.


i used to take pride in my

handbasket present, a

feast of no cost needed

but your presence and

whatever you would offer.

known for my no agenda,

i could walk shameless—a

bliss that superceded

incisive divisive race

borders and glass ceilings.

i only had to swallow

every hurt and call it

fertilizer—cosi i’d become

a star. and later, a black

hole. moments of no

agenda but fear torn inner

terrain—lost—but so found

the voices knew my name.

confidencecrumble &

dungeonrumble i became.

moved in stutterstep &

slitwhisper. from such

murkwater I learned to

prosper a vision that

includes my own life so

when I open the

handbasket, there is food

for me, too, inside.

Previously published in the weekly literary journal jmww, Sept. 15, 2023

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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