It’s easier to find contemporary voices in fiction. They are readily accessible—easy to pick up at Walmart or Target or even the grocery store. People are talking about them over lunch. They get mentioned on talk shows. Oprah loves a good novel (and sometimes a bad one), and has been a champion of bringing back literary fiction as something we focus on in the popular consciousness. It’s more difficult to not be aware of contemporary fiction than it is to be in touch with it, but the same is not true for poetry. You don’t find the latest Billy Collins book at Walmart, and with the level of popularity he has, if you’re not finding him, you’re not finding any other poets either. The few poetry books that do make a massive impact on the national conscience tend to not be particularly good poetry (I’m looking at you, Jewel). In fact, A Night Without Armor may have been one of the worst things that happened to contemporary American poetry, with the exception of inspiring the brilliant parody by Beau Sia. It excelled at proving poetry to be exactly what we all fear it is when we are subjected to it in a high school classroom—dense, vapid, full of itself, willfully overblown, and taking itself far too seriously. (In case you can’t guess, I didn’t like it.) But Jewel was able to trade on her popularity as a songwriter to sell her poetry (which I honestly think most publishing houses would have rejected under normal circumstances). The irony is that her lyrics tend to work as much better poetry than her actual poetry does, even with its occasionally awkward lines and phrasings as well as the saccharin sentiments the songs tend to hold (OK, now I’m just being mean to her, sorry Jewel…..kind of).
When you live in a very rural area like the one I grew up in, your access to poetry is even more limited—bordering on non-existent. There are not bookstores with rich poetry sections to be discovered in the hidden corners. There aren’t coffee houses with open mics where poets get up to try their latest material out on a waiting audience. So my impression of poetry was pretty much that it was everything we fear it is. This didn’t change much when I began teaching it in a literature curriculum, because I didn’t really know any better. It didn’t stop me from occasionally writing a “poem,” but writing poetry was a huge pain. I was convinced it needed to have deep meaning, but that deep meaning needed to be obscured by about one hundred levels of awkward literary trickery and smoke and mirrors, so I wrote overblown, indulgent poetry. There were occasional nice lines, but not much to really remember.
When I started my doctoral program, the courses I could take were limited by the fact that I not only worked a full time teaching position, but that I lived two and a half hours away from the one campus in the state that offered the degree I was looking for. There were no online options, and my schedule was pretty full, so in the first semester, the only course I could take was a poetry workshop that met on weekends. I dreaded it, but it was a start, and I needed to start somewhere. I had taken a poetry workshop in undergrad which had done very little to dissuade me from my original opinion of poetry. It was very much a “today we will write a sonnet, and it will be a beautiful sonnet, and it will be a happy sonnet about love, and you will write it using this type of language…..” etc. kind of workshop. It wasn’t exactly adventurous, and it was very much rooted in formalism. The professor assigned her own book of poetry (which I didn’t like), because, she said, she wanted us to be able to ask an actual poet what she meant when she wrote something and get the correct answer, and because she got royalties off the books we purchased. While I understand the latter motivation, the former one falls squarely into that, “Poetry has a single meaning and if you can’t figure it out, there’s something wrong with you,” line of thinking that hammers yet another nail into its coffin. I was that much more convinced that I was going to be a fiction writer.
I spent the summer leading up to the workshop trying to get back “in shape” so I would survive a course. I practiced writing in iambic pentameter, or as best as I could get, and I practiced rhyme schemes, and how to write using the right amount of bullshit and smoke to make it seem like your poem means something far more profound than it does, which some people will see through, but not enough to really matter. Make it obtuse, rhythmic, and rhyming. It was not going to be a good semester for me, but I could grin and bear it to knock out a class.
The first Saturday of the course, everything changed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, the professor for the workshop, has a low tolerance for bullshit. She came in with her books and her note book and her prompts, and she told us that poetry is about truth. She read us poems by poets I had never heard of before that connected with me the moment I heard them. I didn’t labor over awkward, complex metaphors that said much less than the space they occupied would indicate. I heard the lines and the beauty of the language, but what I connected with was the meaning, the message. The poets actually said something, and they said it beautifully, but the beauty was in the truth and honesty of what they said—the boldness of the language and their refusal to shy away from the truth they wanted to communicate. I was already reeling a bit.
And then she did the think I expected least—she gave us a prompt: think of an important person in your life and a place you associate with them. Write about the space and the person as though you are talking to them, and use the richness of details to make us feel like we are there. Then she gave us 25 minutes to write. There was no “this is an iamb and how to turn it into a metrical foot.” There was no long lecture about the history of the villanelle and the proper construction of one. There was no, “Now we shall imagine a pastoral scene and explain it using the vernacular of the romantics.” She gave us a prompt and told us to go write.
And I wrote what I now consider my very first poem. The ones that came before it, I don’t count anymore. They were exercises in whatever I thought poetry should be or what I thought people would want me to be as a poet. This was the first poem I wrote that was my poem, and I wrote it in 25 minutes:
Your hand shakes a bit now
as you hold the control up
to show me how
pushing you up
into a standing position.
“Try it,” you say.
And when I waiver you say,
“Get in the chair.”
You thrust the controller into my hand
and I remember that hand
beneath the barrel of the rifle
sliding my grip further down the stock.
“You squeeze it off,” you said,
“Don’t be afraid of it.”
And always as I pulled back slowly
that this shot would be another pockmark
in the berm at the end of the range,
sending up a cloud of dust
behind the virginal countenance
of my target
would make me jerk the trigger.
jerk it,” you’d say.
And I would load another round.
“Press the button to make it sit,”
and I struggle to let myself
fall into the cup of the chair,
until the seat presses against
the back of my knees,
and I have no choice
but to fall.
When my brother
was old enough to aim,
you took him to the range as well,
until the day
you turned from posting a new target
and found him aiming at you.
Lucky, stupid Ben,
who got to sit at home on Sundays
and watch cartoons
while I resumed my training in armed combat.
“Isn’t that nice?” you ask,
as the chair settles.
“Now recline it with the other button.”
And I press
and begin to glide to a recline,
that I must keep my sites
at six o’clock bull,
and that I can’t nestle the rifle
too hard against my shoulder,
and not to wince when the bang comes
because it will throw off my aim.
And when we come home
and grandma asks,
“Well, how did we do this time?”
you’ll grumble that I’m coming along
even though you reminded me
that my score was
Now I’m lying in your chair,
where grandma’s chair used to be,
and you are smiling,
unsteady on your feet.
I know how your knees must hurt,
but your chair was something
that you just had to share,
even if I’m perfectly capable
of standing on my own.
“Isn’t that something?” you say
as I am delivered to my feet
Then we go back to watching TV--
you drifting in and out of sleep,
wondering when it’s time to leave.
It was a poem about my grandfather, who was still alive at the time, and a recent visit I had made to him where he showed me the new chair he had that helped him to get up and down—something he had always been perfectly able to do until just recently, which frustrated him and scared me. My grandfather had never been frail, and this was one more sign that the point was coming when he wouldn’t be there anymore (a point that turned out to be less than two years away). We’d always had a strange relationship—his love was a difficult love sometimes, and I was sometimes a difficult person to love. We didn’t have much in common in terms of interests (though he published a poem before I did), and the issue of my being gay had been relegated to one of those areas where we know it, but we simply don’t speak of it. I was never a great shot, despite all his efforts to make me one. I never learned how to do anything extraordinary with tools, aside from some spectacular injuries I inflicted on myself. But he still loved me, and I loved him as well, even though it was difficult for our lives to mix sometimes.
These were things I had never said before. They were things I did not talk about or even acknowledge to myself for the most part. But there, in that room, surrounded by other people also in the act of creation and revelation, it was suddenly there, along with many other things that came from that weekend, and the many weekends to follow. Maria made me a poet, inside of a single weekend, and she has helped build me into the poet I am now.
Only a few years ago, I hated poetry. Now my entire upstairs hallway is a floor to ceiling bookshelf that is filled with my poetry collection (and I am running out of room). I’ve become insatiable for the words of other poets and their truths, and I have written more of my own than I would have ever thought possible. My goals in life have begun to revolve around poetry—not just my own, but the ability to raise other people’s awareness of it as well. This shift has affected the way I write, the way I teach, and even the way I live my life. So many of the things I write about are based in problems or past issues that I spent years avoiding. Working through them on my own terms through my writing has allowed me the chance to begin to put my past into order and make sense of it so I can place it behind me and begin focusing on my future. This is one of the things I have seen poetry do for people I have worked with in workshops and classrooms as well. When they find their way to poetry, when they find their way into that world and mode of expression, it becomes something life changing for them in ways that are hard to imagine possible just from the expression of words, but it is a journey worth making