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!

Gotcha!

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.

Meter in the Bathroom

Ah, reading poetry…truly it seems as if the very phrase evokes an image of leather chairs, delicate teacups and classical music playing in the background. Or perhaps a bohemian-looking cafe, rich and dark with philosophy and angst. One way or the other, there’s a feeling that reading poetry is somehow a more serious and elevated activity than reading other things.

I’m not immune to this canalization, which is why I feel so sheepish about the amount of poetry I read in the bathroom. At this moment, the bathroom contains the collected works of Eliot and Yeats, a thick Penguin anthology, and two recent issues of Poetry magazine. I admit it–sometimes the bathroom is the only place I read any poetry during the day. It seems somehow disrespectful.

But is it? Naturally, it’s better to read it there than not at all. And why should there be any requirement for where, or how, we allow poetry to speak to us? Elevating and intellectualizing it too much may dissuade the neophyte from trying it out. Perhaps it’s not bad to enjoy it in such a mundane, casual way. Not all the time, of course, but kind of like the balance between the “quickie” and the longer lovemaking sessions in a sexual relationship.

All right, then, I’ll try to get over my sheepishness. When I grab a book or a magazine in that most humble of libraries, I’ll just imagine it as a hurried tryst. “Missed you too, babe, but I’ve only got a minute.” It’s still a good minute.

The Word Resound

#108 on my List of Things I Know Are Wonderful To Do And Wish I Did More Often: reading poetry out loud. Not to an audience, or even to a friend, but to myself and an empty room. Reading a poem out loud causes me to interact with it differently–I adore the way a poem that works looks on the page, and would not want to give that up. But saying it out loud does things for me.

Saying the words slows me down, for one thing…I’m a fast reader and tend to zip my eyes over something and take it in almost as a gestalt; this isn’t good when a poem has so many juicy words and phrases that can be individually savored.

But it’s more than that: reading a poem audibly creates a sense of ritual. I am invoking something with the vibrations of my voice, something that is a blend of the poet’s energy and my own. The other morning I read one of my favorite works, T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I had never read it out loud before, and I found the parts that had moved me before to have a new poignancy and a new feeling of identification.

I go through phases of disorientation related to my mental health issues, and I’ve found that reading out loud steadies me. When I read something meaningful, I am sending a message out from a more centered and less frightened part of myself. It makes sense from a neurological point of view, but also from a spiritual one: it’s like reciting a prayer.

Try it, if you haven’t. But you have to be completely alone, so that you don’t fool yourself into thinking the message is meant for anyone but you. And no murmuring: say it loud and clear! It’s an important message, after all.

Too Late?

When I get excited about poetry–writing it, revising it, thinking about sharing it with others–the peanut gallery in my head gets loud. I hear all of the usual stuff from it about how many other writers are out there, how big the world is, or how crazy I am to think people would ever want to read anything I write when there are so many amazing poets to explore. I hear all of the usual self-destructive monologues from my addiction, trying to convince me that this, like everything else, is futile and wouldn’t I rather have a nice handful of pills instead.

When those don’t work–when my creativity is flowing too well, or my self-care is too good that week–the peanut gallery brings out its ammunition of last resort. That ammunition is my age.

When I read books by poets about writing/being a poet, they often speak of a process that started when they were quite young. By the time they are in their late forties, like me, they have been writing for twenty years or more. They have published books. They have degrees. They’re teaching. They’ve spent decades discovering and refining their voice.

What place is there for a poet who did not discover herself to be a poet until later in life?

It was always there; I know that now. But for decades I repressed my creativity so ruthlessly that it could not get out. Instead of writing words, I ate them, and my eating disorder ruled my life. When that was no longer enough, I added drugs to the mix. Now in recovery, and learning ways to manage my bipolar disorder that leave my creativity more intact, I have witnessed the rather slimy birth of a poet who appears to be me.

So, that’s what it is; I am a middle-aged novice poet. Is it too late? I know that all the training and classes in the world are no substitute for having something to say, and I believe I have something to say. But I also know there’s no substitute for experience, patient practice of a craft and learning from one’s mistakes. Is “catching up” possible?

I find myself doing math in my head; calculating around the age and cause of various relatives’ death to estimate how many years I might have left to write. I know it’s silly, and I know none of us know how much time we have left. But that’s what goes on for me.

I don’t understand what it is about poetry for me; I don’t understand what is driving me to become the adult in the kindergarten class of a strange school. I guess I don’t need to understand. I just need to take good care of myself and maximize the years I do have. If I can shout down that peanut gallery regularly, my desire to have a body of work can be a powerful force for resisting self-destructive impulses when they come.