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evolution of a poet

December 9, 2013

I’ve begun a notebook where I keep track of the poems I’ve read that I really love — the name of the poem in English (and its original name, in the original language,  if it’s been translated into English); the poet and their lifetime [birth–death]; short notes about their background (if I can find any); and when I first read the poem.

Currently I have 68 entries, by 59 poets. At least 51 poems were originally written in English (as far as I know); the remaining poems have been translated from Elizabethan English, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Irish, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Spanish, Swedish.

The poem I read the longest ago came from a book on Islamic Spain that I read in 2003. It’s short and I have it mostly memorized; whenever I think of it, I am moved to tears. If I could write like that!

I wasn’t thinking of myself as a poet when I read that poem, but perhaps my long-dormant poet parts awakened then.

I gathered clippings from a handful of other poems over the next 6 years. In late 2009, in an issue of Selvedge, a fiber arts journal imported from the UK, I read a poem about a girl in a green dress that astonished me. For the first time, I thought, “I want to be able to write like that, write poetry like that”.

I saved that poem, but I didn’t try to write poetry. I wasn’t even really looking for poetry yet.

In 2011, I was driving to the public library one day when I happened to hear an interview on NPR with Nikky Finney, about her book, Head Off & Split, that had just won the National Book Award. I was transfixed by her reading of the title poem. I decided I would have to seek out her book, but actually, the library had copies right near the door. I brought one home and read it.

I didn’t know poetry could do the things her poetry does.

I bought her book, the first book of poetry I’d bought in 18 years, and only the second book of poetry I had ever owned (the first was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman).

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I read books about how to write poetry.

A blank journal I had bought years before became the place I collected words, images, lines, ideas. I made lists of groups of words containing the same consonants, or the same vowel sounds. Some of them seemed like they belonged in a poem, but I didn’t know how to start.

I made lists of words I liked, both those I thought of off the top of my head, and those I combed through the dictionary looking for.

I wrote a poem, inspired by Mabon (a Pagan holy day, on the autumnal equinox), that I posted on my blog. My first poem since 1980.

And then one day in December 2011, I sat down with my poetry journal in one hand and pen in the other, and 6 handwritten pages gushed out. I even had a title: the name of a song that figured prominently in my early romantic life, supplying the sweet, whilst the subject of the poem, which took place a little earlier, supplied the bitter.

The poem didn’t really end, but when I ran out of things to say, I was in a place that seemed to have no relationship to the beginning of the poem. And yet the poem showed me something that was a great unresolved wound . . . and this one, I could do something about. (Although it took me almost another year to figure out what I could do. But then I did do it.)

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I read books of poetry in translation — Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Spanish. I noted those I really connected with.

In August 2012, I wrote my second poem, also posted to my blog.

I played around with anagrams, some of which suggested lines of poetry. Through the end of 2012, I wrote another 5 (surrealist) poems that way.

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I took a break from the blog (thinking I was ending it). I experimented with different names to go by, and found one I liked.

I joined a poetry meetup group, introducing myself with the new name. For our second meeting, we were to write a poem containing 5 specific words. I had so much fun with first one, I decided to see if I could write 5 poems with the same 5 words. I tried to make the subject matter as different as possible. The tones of the poems also differed — 1 was serious and meta-; 1 was imaginative, but grounded in reality; 3 had playful rhymes, and of those, 2 were surrealist, 1 was . . . something else. The last one, although only 6 lines (of 26 words total) seemed to capture something essential about me. That’s the one I read for my poetry group, and people liked it!

I found a new name for myself as a poet. When I meet poets & other writers, that’s the name I use, and they are often interested by its etymology.

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Knowing I was going to New Mexico in August, in March I began collecting lines or phrases or words from magazines I read, which became part of my own personal “poetry kit”. I wrote 3 more poems that way.

I wrote a poem for an occasion.

The last poem I wrote for my poetry meetup group took me the entire 5 weeks. It has a rhyme scheme, but it’s not playful or fun. It was very hard to write, and I didn’t enjoy the process at all. But in the end, I have a poem that captures an emotional truth about my relationship with my mother, even though nothing it says actually happened.

I have written poetry about things that didn’t happen, things that maybe don’t even make sense, things that are hard to imagine, things that I wish could happen, all without first having to pick “nonfiction” or “fiction”. Poetry can be either or both; possibly it can be neither. I love the ambiguity, the uncertainty, the freedom of it.

I’ve written poetry about places I’ve visited, places I live nearby; philosophical musings, working through problems I don’t know how to address, disappointments; and a playful & joyous summary of my life to date.

I’ve written poems that play with sound. Even though I’m not musical. I think I feel the rhythm with my body, like the dancer I have been, and hope to be again.

I’ve written poems that explore viewpoints, including nonhumans.

With poems I don’t have to build an entire world, create a cast of characters, figure out a plot. I can just write from one moment of inspiration. Things can be short, and not fit together. I don’t have to commit to anything long-term.

I don’t have to please anyone but myself.

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Unlike many artists I’ve met, I like every piece of art I’ve ever made, in any medium. Each piece was the very best I could make in that moment, and as such, I value and honor it. Many of them I really love, for they convey things about me I could not express any other way.

As I grow and change and evolve, my skills at craft improve. But my early works are still valuable and important and I will always appreciate them. I’m proud of them.

That’s why I’ve been submitting my poems for publication, even though I haven’t been writing poems very long.

I think I’m a good enough writer to get accepted for a writers’ residency, or a fellowship, and I will keep applying for them.

I believe in myself and my skills and my art.

I am a poet.

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