An Honest Poet

As I approach my first experience of featuring at a reading, I need to remember the importance of honesty. To be an honest poet is to present myself and my poems in a way that reflects who I really am as a poet, not what I think my audience might admire the most.

I’ve noticed that I am nervous about my reading taking place the Monday after the presidential inauguration. Emotions may be running high, and it is not unlikely that the open mic will reflect this. My insecurity tells me that I should try to generate some work that would address current events.

I worry that people won’t want to hear a bunch of work that has nothing to do with any of the topics so present in our minds and hearts right now. But that’s not for me to decide: I think being asked to feature means being asked to let people see a broader picture of my work. Presenting a hurried and forced set of work, out of fear or out of a desire to be accepted, would be dishonest. Holding back my most authentic works out of fear that they’ll be seen as self-indulgent would also be dishonest.

Just Call Me Ebenezer

Not because I hate the holidays (even though I do.) It’s because I am being a miser with my poetry lately.

Last post, I talked about how I’ve been asked to do my first feature. At the poetry readings since then, I’ve had trouble choosing what to read at the open mic. I don’t want to read my “best” stuff, or my newest stuff, or the stuff that feels most personal…you get the idea. I want to save the good stuff to read at the event, which is in late January.

Understandable, but I shouldn’t get too fanatic about this for two reasons. One, there aren’t going to be a huge number of people there, and something I read at an open mic will be heard by many who won’t attend this event. Two, and more importantly, I need to stop worrying that a member of the audience at an open mic has heard my poem before. It is OK for a poet to read the same thing more than once.

All of these feelings are part of my desire to show people who I am as a poet. I don’t want to waste any opportunity to speak to someone, and that’s a good way to feel. However, I do my best work when I am not approaching things with an attitude of scarcity.

Twenty-Five Minutes

I’m featuring at my first poetry reading!

To “feature” means that you are the poet who spends a larger chunk of time reading your work, as opposed to the 2-5 minutes during an open mic. I will have 25 glorious and terrifying minutes to read multiple poems and give the audience a greater sense of who I am than a single poem can do.

It’s a small and intimate venue in Berkeley, and there will probably be less than 20 poets there–but it’s still exciting to me, and it’s a great compliment to be asked. Usually the featured poet is more established and published, and I am what is diplomatically referred to as an “emerging” poet.

At first, I told myself that the host who invited me was just being supportive and wanted to give me the opportunity as a growth experience (Me finding it hard to take a compliment; what a shock) but the next week another of the hosts, who doesn’t know me, asked me independently.

I’m really grateful for the kindness and welcome I’ve found so far in the Bay Area poetry community, and I can’t wait¬†until January 23! I’m having such fun imagining which poems I will read and in what order, as well as being inspired to finish some new ones.

Denial, Anger, Poetry

The poets have been getting to work about the latest catastrophe, each on their own timeline and in their own way. Working through shock, outrage, despair and fear as well as they can…and, when they are ready, they’re starting to pour it out into poetry.

I am a coward in many ways when it comes to horrible things happening in the world around me. Sometimes I shut down, terrified that these feelings will catapult me over the thin edge I walk into an irreversible act of self-destruction.

When I went to one of my regular poetry readings on the Sunday after the election, I knew what I was going to hear during the open mic. A part of me wanted to stay home, afraid that it would be too much for me. But I went, and I’m very glad. I’m glad I found enough courage to show up and be present with everyone’s pain and anger and fear.

A few years ago I might have been impatient with it somehow, wanting the poetry to give me a break instead of drawing me deeper into the emotions of the time. Now it seems perfectly natural that we all (yes, me too) tended to have poems reflecting what was going on. A baby cries with the voice that’s available.

What Do We Want?

“What do we want?
Immortality!
When do we want it?
Now!”

—from “The Poets March on Washington” by James Cummins

But seriously…what do we want for our poetry? What do we want it to do? Not that it has to do anything, of course. It can be only for ourselves if that’s what we want—Emily Dickinson ordered that all of her poems be destroyed after her death. We only have them because someone ignored her wishes.

I’m running into this question more and more since I’ve begun sharing my work at readings and preparing actual submissions. I find that my process of revision feels different when I am anticipating reading the poem out loud to a group, as opposed to thinking only about submitting it in written form.

Beyond this, I want to think about how I’d like my poetry to affect other people. Do I want it to help someone understand something? Do I want to make someone feel less alone? Or do I want, in the end, just to give others bits of the oh-yes-I-don’t-know-why-but-yes feeling I get when a poem speaks to me?

If I am sharing my poetry only to get fortune (ha!) or fame (slightly less vehement ha!) or even just to get appreciation and positive ego stroking, I’ll set myself up for disappointment.

What is your fantasy about your poetry’s role?

It’s Alive!

I am the mad scientist of poetry! I have taken something apart, put it together in new ways, injected it with new essence and created LIFE!

There’s a lot of great writing out there about revision, and I love reading it. I love hearing about the ways other poets try to shake up their poem in hopes of finding a better version of it. But I think many of us fear revision because we imagine it as some painstaking, word-by-word nitpicking that will never end…and will suck the joy out of our creative process.

I’ve been known to do that kind of revision; I’ll take out a comma and put it back ad nauseam. It’s important, however, that I understand I’m doing it not to please some omniscient editor but rather to please myself.

What’s really amazing, though, is the type of revision I got to do a couple of days ago. The starting material was an old draft of a poem that has never really pleased me–it existed as a draft, but I wasn’t in love with it.

I opened the word processing document containing the old poem, and opened a blank file next to it so that I was writing a “new” poem using the old draft as reference. My starting point was a change in voice I’d decided to try, so I began with that. As I typed, it took on its own direction with new rhythms and transitions.

I revised the revision a lot, going back and forth to make sure that the things I loved in the original were preserved or given a transformed role in the new version.

The magic moment happened about a third of the way in: the poem surged into life before my eyes. It was not only a better poem than its source, it was alive in a way that the source was not.¬†Where I had not considered sharing the original at a poetry reading, I couldn’t wait to share this.

This is why revision is worthwhile. It isn’t about judging my old draft–after all, without it this one could not have come to exist. It’s about creating something that makes me happy.

Show and Tell

Here’s the greatest benefit I am receiving from starting to attend actual live poetry events and read my own work: When I know I am going somewhere like this, I get like a kindergartener on Show and Tell Day.

I want to bring something new, if I can. I want to bring something I’ll enjoy sharing. If I have a partial draft that’s been in limbo, I get inspired to sit down with it and see if I can whip it into readable shape. If I have a piece that exists but has never been read to an audience, I get inspired to polish anything that might improve its readability.

It’s wonderful for breaking me out of physical, mental or emotional inertia. Right now I’m about to tackle revising an old draft that has been untouched for nearly a year. I’ve been vaguely dissatisfied with it the whole time, but never dug back in…but for some reason, I want to read it tonight.