The Poet in the Poem

I have always been someone who likes to let a story or poem or painting speak for itself. When I like a television show or movie character, I sometimes don’t even want to know too much about the actor who plays him or her.

When I take a poem to my heart, I make it my own. Its language is translated into my personal archetypal code and drawn on the cave wall of my mind, and that’s as it should be for me.

That being said, it’s interesting to learn more about the lives of my favorite poets. It’s inspiring to learn about how, when or even why they wrote what they wrote, or see world events through their eyes. It’s touching and motivating to see some of the sources of their personal pain and notice how they’ve given it unique voice and used it as a creative force.

I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good poem without putting something of ourselves into it. So every time I read a poem, I am taking a look into the author’s psyche. I just don’t want to overanalyze–or make assumptions about–what I am shown.

Some poems appear to invite us into a specific realm of a poet’s personal experience. For instance, when a poem’s written in the first person and involves the narrator being sexually abused, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that this particular poet has had this in his or her life. And, if we do imagine this, we might be right a good deal of the time.

But not all of the time. Poets can write in imagined voices, and although what they imagine also says something about them as a person it isn’t a simple one-to-one correlation.

I’m a woman, and I’ve written several first-person poems in which the speaker is a man. I’ve read some amazing poems written from the perspective of a character very different from the author. Some of the poems I fear to write, but know I will someday, might contain the first-person musings of abusers and perpetrators I have known or who have hurt me.

How scary it is to think a reader might be affected by one and think I did everything my poems do! I’ve done many things I regret, but my writing scours the shadows and comes up with things I hope I won’t ever encounter. So I try not to make assumptions–I am honored to be invited into a poet’s inner life by their work, but I don’t presume to think I know them because of it. They remain a juicy mystery, as are we all.

When the Right Word Starts With “F”

I like to swear.

Not all the time, and I’d never want to use cursing as a substitute for the eloquent and nuanced expression of a feeling. But I like to swear sometimes.

I like to use the word “fuck.” It’s my favorite swear word. I like to use it judiciously–infrequently enough that it has an impact when I do it. It has to carry a punch, whether that punch is angry or sensual or irreverent or anything else.

Especially in a poem. Some poems are dripping with four letter words, and that’s good–if the words, and the frequency of their appearance, serve a purpose toward the voice and the emotional impact of of the poem. Look at Ai, or Sharon Olds. When they use certain words, it’s far from gratuitous. And if they make us uncomfortable, it’s because that discomfort has a part to play in the poem’s impact.

But I think some poems make the mistake of thinking that certain language will, in and of itself, make a poem gritty or raw or visceral. It won’t. It’s only a paint color. We still have to paint the picture.

On the other hand, there’s no need to recoil from any words if they are what’s feeling true. We need to treat them with the same consideration, and the same thoughtful editorial eye, needed by any words we’re using to refine a poem.

Let’s play with them the way we try to play with other words to sharpen our craft and pleasure. Play with their appearance, or their absence. We can try putting them in the mouth of a character one might peg as a more demure type, and use the surprise of them to make a tone shift or heighten a moment. I have a 25-line poem in which “fuck” appears only in the penultimate line, and it’s needed there. No other word would have worked, and it also wouldn’t have worked if it had appeared any earlier in the poem.

We can appreciate their qualities of sound. If I write “fuck” in a poem, it needs to work in terms of the poem’s sound and not just the meaning: the fricative f, the shortness and compactness of the word, and the primitive-sounding “uh” vowel should form part of a conscious arrangement.

I love words, and if you read this you probably do too. Let all words be piled around you like jewels, available for your loving and discerning hand.

Debunking the Poetry Myth

Here’s a cool synchronicity–the night after I post about the fun of the Bad Titles exercise, my 14-year-old brings home a very similar homework assignment fro her creative writing class. They were given a list of nonsensical headlines and told to pick one and write a poem based on it.

It’s her first poetry assignment as a teenager, and while she knows I write poetry I’m aware that I can’t foist my love of it onto her. Like many, she still labors under the delusion that writing poetry has to be hard, and she hasn’t discovered the magic of free verse either.

People think writing poetry is for academics, or for emo goth types, or for the suicidal, or for old-fashioned types who drink brandy from snifters. And so they don’t experiment with writing poetry, and they never discover gifts they might have. It’s true that not everyone will encounter a deep passion for poetry, but there are thousands who will never know.

The word poetry comes from the Greek poesis, which simply means making. A poet, like other creative people, is simply a maker. “Just make something,” I want to tell my daughter. Just let some words flow, and arrange them in some new way, and see that you just made a new thing. It wasn’t there before, and now it exists. Congratulations, you’re a poet.

I Love My Squid

I’m coming out of a serious depressive/awful self-care phase, and my creativity was drained during it. Drained is the wrong word–it’s more like being covered with a gigantic, turd-like pile of cement that never gets completely set but surrounds you and chokes you into immobility. Also, the cement really smells.

I’m grateful to be coming out of it, and am trying to coax my creativity and sense of pleasure out of the woodwork by looking at some of my old scribbled notes. One page brought a smile to my face: I’d been playing with a poetry exercise cited in a book (whose title I unfortunately can’t remember.) The exercise was called “Bad Titles” and was meant to lower inhibitions about beginning a poem.

Every student has five minutes to write a list of 20 terrible poem titles. They can be terrible because they seem nonsensical, or really boring, or distasteful–anything goes. Then they pick two favorites, toss them into a bag, and the titles are mixed and randomly assigned to class members for a writing period.

Some of mine included:

High Protein Wedding
The Apple That Time Forgot
What I Saw in the Shower This Morning
The Letter W

and the two I selected as my favorites, Long Walks on the Peach and I Love My Squid. I wasn’t in a group, so I couldn’t be assigned someone else’s bad titles. But I took those two and wrote something. The first one actually turned into a keeper, and I ended up with a silly but fun rough draft for the second.

I hope to be creating again soon. I have three stage-1 ideas incubating right now, and if I can abstain from self-sabotage they will develop and give me pleasure. And you know what? Make that four, because I just got an idea for The Apple That Time Forgot!

Like It Rough?

I’ve been thinking about the term “rough draft” lately, because I banged out three rough poems in the last couple of days. Not from scratch; each came from notes that had been sitting around in my folder for weeks or months. I was going to see someone special today, and I like to share poem drafts with him, so I went ahead. The results were like the Three Bears, in my opinion–one I like a lot, one’s pretty okay and one still feels stilted.

Rough: what do I think about when I hear that word? I try to embrace the fact that all poems will be rough when I first pronounce them arrived, but what does that mean?

Rough, the word itself, makes me think of harsh, uneven terrain. Rough makes me think of aggressive, physical sport or play. Rough makes me think of angry sex and grimy leather and grit.

A poem, a statue, a life can’t ever become polished if it isn’t willing to be rough.

Taking those inky scrawled notes and turning them into a draft; turning them into one of the infinite possible drafts that could have emerged from the same notes, feels like an act of supreme brashness. And it is. It’s bravado and chutzpah and in-your-face.

Revision is a time for humility. A rough cut is not. Even though I make a lot of changes in the process of creating a draft, overthinking will drain the juice out of it. Time, later, to devise changes that will improve without eviscerating.


So there I am, sitting sedately in a support group meeting, attentive to the speaker, and my mind wanders just a bit…and suddenly, I get this grin on my face. I’m not sure what it looked like to an observer, but my guess is that it was something between a cat spying a bird and someone conceiving a particularly naughty fantasy.  It was the grin that comes with the gotcha.

Stephen King’s protagonist in the novel Misery, who is a writer, talks about the gotta–a sublime moment when a story catches hold. He describes it viscerally: “—but I gotta see how this ends.” I gotta know will she live. I gotta know will he catch the shitheel who killed his father. I gotta know if she finds out her best friend’s screwing her husband. The gotta. Nasty as a hand-job in a sleazy bar, fine as a fuck from the world’s most talented call-girl.

Love it. But right now my equivalent is the gotcha. That moment when my brain nails down a key line, a frame, a voice for a new poem. What will the poem look like? Don’t know yet, but it exists now. The fact that it hasn’t actually been written; well, that’s important, but the gotcha is like the Big Bang. I can play around with words, and the result might be pretty or even have some merit, but without that pulse of energy it’s not mine.

At the first possible moment I slipped out of the room, acting as if I’d just noticed a silent buzz on my phone (which, suppose, I had, if one allows a metaphorical buzz on a metaphorical phone) and found a quiet spot. Frantically, I entered the words into my phone in stream-of-consciousness fashion.  Then I went on with my day. But traces of a secret smile lingered at the corners of my mouth: I know something you don’t know. 

O Brave New World?

One of the next steps on my neophyte poet’s journey involves meeting some actual poets. I live about 45 minutes from Berkeley and 90 minutes from San Francisco, so there are events I can attend. I’ve been reading and researching, while trying not to let myself get overwhelmed.

There are several kinds of poetry events, and I feel as if I would belong more at some than at others. But that’s just assumptions on my part at this stage–until I check something out for real, I shouldn’t talk myself out of anything. It’s just my insecurity that pictures me surrounded by edgy urban twentysomethings who will cast me out for not being politically relevant enough.

Learning about events and readings also fuels my insecurity by showing me how many poets are out there; names upon names that are unfamiliar to me. Do I have the mental capacity to care for my family and live with my issues while also learning a whole new culture and taking in the work of hundreds of new poets?

As I’ve been doing, I broke it down into small, specific and attainable. I found a coffeehouse in Berkeley that has a reading and open mic every Monday night, and I’m planning to go. If I don’t like it, I’ll remember that there are many flavors of events out there.

Ultimately, I need to find a way to connect with fellow writers in a way that works. It’s so easy for me to get the impression that the only way to become a published poet is to dump the rest of your life and do full-time networking. Hell, nowadays it’s easy to get the impression that to succeed at anything one has to become an expert networker and social media mogul.

I can’t let that idea stop me from writing. It’s true that my mental health issues make it challenging for me to be consistently extroverted. It’s true that, while my blogging is helping me make progress on the social media thing, I have a lot to learn about self-promotion. It’s true that my family needs a great deal of my time right now. But I have to believe–I have to–that if I write poetry that speaks well enough, it’s worth doing.