July 16, 2020

Article at Far Villages, an anthology

Paving the Path to a Poet's Life

From "FAR VILLAGES, Welcome Essays for New and Beginner Poets" published by Black Lawrence Press, 2020

I didn't even know I was on a journey when I first began to write poems, in my late forties no less. I was working in a bookstore along some stellar poets who introduced me to a whole new world of contemporary men and women poets who astonished, energized, bedazzled me with what they wrote about, and how.

Two of those poet-booksellers conducted free-write workshops, and they invited me to join in. What an adventure! I was relieved of rhyme, comforted by stanza length choices, introduced to the music of enjambments or end stops, and most of all, excited to leap off the edge into a prompt.

As a journalist writing nonfiction books, articles, and website posts, I was used to space constrictions and a short poem can definitely be constricting. I also pursued facts, not fiction, so the poet's journey bothe freed and challenged me. A prompt is not exactly like a newspaper editor's assignment to "get the story." It is something totally opposite. It is an invitation to release imagination, leap into experimentation, conjure images with no other purpose than to put pen to page and see what flows.

While I never gave up the storytelling element of journalism, I was no longer attached to the precision of factual reportage that is necessary for genuine news stories while writing my poems. Technically, I was free to drop articles, eschew subject-verb-object, play with metaphor and simile, embrace music within my poems from the inner rhymes to cadence within lines.

Still, how to segue from the brutality of facts to the world of imaginative fiction that didn't rely, much less need, facts? If I witnessed something that was blue, but aqua worked better in the poem, could I pursue what works vs. what is correct? The answer, after many attempts, was absolutely. I was able to transfer my ideas into the whimsy of fantasy, the softness of dreams, and to leave objectivity behind as I dove into where no journalist is supposed to go: emotions.

Emotions! What a fraught word. Good. Bad. Ugly. Hurtful. Blissful. At first, writing about them was a release of almost immeasurable comfort. Then came the conundrum of writing about experiences best discussed with wise counsel. Are these dives into despair self-indulgent? How could they possibly engage a reader? Is the personal ever truly universal? What IS the role of a poet?

Still struggling with these questions, I was invited to share my poems at readings, and I loved the experience. Listening to other poets at readings taught me so much about presentation, speech, theater, and honoring words. More than anything, reading my poems aloud to a live audience was concrete evidence of what worked, and didn't quite.

Many classes, workshops, how-to-books, and one-on-one counsel with poets have all been fantastic resources to make this journey ever fascinating, and make my poems stronger. As for my continuing work in journalism, poetry helped me. I thought more about word choices, considered the shape of the story in depth, became more creative with my poetry techniques when exercising the principles of my nonfiction craft.

My poetry still contains shreds of my journalism experience. The who, what, where, why, when, and how of Journalism 101 provide as good a blueprint as any to show the poet what's missing, what needs to be deleted, especially if you enjoy writing narrative poems like I do.

Writing poetry, like novels and short stories is, in a way, like being an actor. You can enter different worlds, become different people, and make the endings of stories you know so well just the way you want them to be, not as they were or are.

Poetry, to me, is a lot like tea, a drink that can relax the body as it clears the mind. Poetry invites both the calming meditative experience of being lost in telling a tale while challenging the mind to tell the story plainly straight or so crooked it meanders in places you've never even conjured before.

I am still learning how to write poems, and love that there is still much to master. Advice? Of course, I have suggestions. They are to:

  • go at your own speed
  • seek good counsel
  • pay attention to what works and what doesn't and learn to understand why
  • challenge yourself with consistent practice to the point of experience
  • share what you learn with others
  • have fun!

Traveling on the poet's journey is like mastering a musical instrument, it's all about the practice. In a letter to reporter Maurice Eisenberg, written after the Germans were driven out of France in 1944, the celebrated cellist Pablo Casals wrote, "Now that the enemy has been forced to leave, I have returned to my practicing and you will be pleased to know that I feel that I am making daily progress."

Whether you have been forced into silence or have abandoned the practice of your art, I urge you to resume the practice. You will find solace, excitement, sorrow, satisfaction, and much joy.