“Hey, I write poetry, too! Wanna read it?”
This is, hands down, one of the most terrifying questions anyone can ever ask: is there any conversation more awkward to navigate than when someone asks you to read their work outside of a professional or academic setting? I mean, you can only feign interest for so long if the writing is bad. Sure, it’s easy enough to provide some basic, surface-level comments, and maybe even sprinkle in some global-level feedback as well; however, if the writer isn’t used to receiving feedback, feelings may be hurt. Hear me out: no form of self-expression is wrong, but the sheer amount of poetry being put into the world is overwhelming, and a lot of that poetry is just…not good. I mean, really, really not good.
I think this is why folks give me a strained, fake “Oh!” when I tell them that I’ve published poetry. It was different at school, when I was sitting in that oh-so-comfortable echo chamber, surrounded by other writers who cared deeply about what we’d written. So much attention was paid to each word we’d picked, each line we’d broken, each stanza we’d crafted. Poets and fiction writers alike collaborated in workshops and student organizations to help each other write the best thing we possibly could.
Then, we graduated, and were faced with the real world. To our disappointment, we discovered that the number of people in our lives that cared about writing – whether it’s a short story, a poem, or a PowerPoint presentation – dropped exponentially. I feel that poetry is especially difficult to share and discuss with strangers and newfound friends because it’s often meant to evoke more of a feeling rather than outline a narrative (kinda like a song). It’s easier to answer the question “What’s it about?” when someone inquires about a story; with fiction, you have concrete details and characters to carry you through the conversation. If you’re lucky enough to write “narrative poetry,” you’ve got a little more going for you here.
So, knowing this, why did I choose poetry?
Well, first off, I picked up on the nuances of poetry pretty quickly.
In my Introduction to Creative Writing course, I found that the condensed, image-driven nature of poetry was what I needed to be a clear, concise, and efficient writer. Otherwise, my God, I peppered adjectives into my fiction writing, lengthening my sentences as long as possible for no other reason than I thought it looked purty. With poetry, I learned how to 1) mask my feelings behind an anonymous speaker, 2) use the right words (with appropriate syntax, meter, sound, etc.) throughout the poem to evoke a reaction from my readers, and 3) keep my writing short. It was incredibly important to me that I could learn to establish a feeling within my writing without using any abstract words (like “angry,” “apathy,” “happy,” etc.), instead letting the imagery do all of the work. It was like writing a painting, I guess: it gives the right reader something to think about, to derive meaning from.
Here’s the first poem I’d written that I was really proud of. It was about one of my roommates from freshman year. He’d just told us that he was moving out from the dormitory because he’d failed out of every class, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be returning home due to a rocky relationship with his parents:
his desk was covered by his belongings:
clothes packed nicely and neatly
into cardboard boxes, two blankets,
scratchy and stiff with matching sheets,
unwashed, six months to the day.
gave him the food none of us wanted:
canned beans, pistachios, out-of-date granola,
two bottles of water, and
put them in old grocery bags
next to his moss-colored backpack.
peer through the window at the snow:
see the streets he will scavenge,
searching for the for sidewalk
on which he will write his journal;
have we given him enough?
looked through his notebooks, after
moving away his unopened,
unused textbooks; found a letter
written out to his grandmother –
signed but never sent.
a few pages later, a sketch of
a dragon with pencil shaded scales
spewing fire from its gaping jaws,
a sword penetrating its belly.
it bled blackness through lead streaks
the split below the page
as it balanced on its hind
like a tight rope
I know, I know. I asked you to do the thing that I said was the worst thing anyone could ever ask anyone to do outside of a professional or academic setting. But, I had to show you, because this is where it all started. This is “why poetry.” I was able to say something with images alone, something that I wouldn’t have been able to convey otherwise. Sure, folks in the real world might not always be about it, but those who need your poetry will find your poetry, somehow.
Yikes. We tackled a lot here, and (for purposes of brevity) I didn’t go nearly as in-depth as I could’ve. Have a question? Hit me up, and I’ll do my best to answer as quickly as possible! My next post will actually be about my book, I promise.