Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A poet? Really?

I find this terrifying - and moving. Poems published?

I remember being young and falling in love with Frost, Whitman, Dickinson, and wondering if I could ever be a poet. I scribbled horrible poetry when young (except for one brief verse in my teen years that I hope will be an intro page for a collection some day). Now in these later years, something in life turned me back to poetry like a thirsty wanderer in the desert of this world - you know, I can't possibly drink enough.

Friends back in Takoma Park MD certainly helped nurture this turn. Two English professors at the University of Maryland played major roles - Martha Nell Smith, Emily Dickinson scholar, among other things, and Marilee Lindemann, Willa Cather scholar, also among many other things. When friends and neighbors gathered at their house, the evening often ended in poetry readings. We brought our favorites and really enjoyed this time together.

A memory I will always treasure: the year the Emily Dickinson International Society met at Mt. Holyoke College in 1999, I think. Martha invited me and the family I was partnered with at the time to join them. We spent a remarkable afternoon at Dickinson's home in Amherst, went into Boston, to Harvard, where we viewed her manuscripts, and one night at around 2:00 a.m. took our flashlights and went to the cemetery to visit her grave. You know, all these things add up. I started wondering if I had a voice to add to this glorious American tradition.

Through them I also met the great Ruth Stone and the remarkable Alicia Ostriker (with whom I also had the privilege of marching more than once against the war in Iraq).

After my second book was published, my writing took a turn. I wanted to change my whole orientation towards the "creative" part of creative non-fiction, took up this huge memoir work that I have been immersed in now for about two years, coming close to completion of the first draft. I started dabbling in poetry to help my creative writing. Something had been unleashed, or freed up, in my writing when I turned to the memoir, and the poetry opened that more. Through poems, I worked on economy of words, turns of a phrase, metaphor, and the significance of what is not written as much as what is.

Every now and then I would say to myself about one or another of them, hey, that's not bad. And I kept reading poetry.

One day I was at my computer feeling very uninspired when I came upon the Verse Wisconsin submission deadline for their Fall 2012 edition. I don't even know that propelled me to this absurd notion, but I sent in three poems. To my astonishment, they accepted one of them. I sat in front of the email message frozen in fear. Are you kidding me? A poem? Out there in public?!

Later, they sent me the call for submissions for a special online edition entitled, "It's Political," asking for poems inspired by all the tumult here in Wisconsin since the election of Scott Walker. I thought, okay, why not? Two came to me, two were written, and both were accepted.

Here's one of them:

In my writers critique group, I expressed my reluctance to ever be called a poet. They looked at me somewhat mystified - but if you are writing poetry, and you're poems are being published...

Okay, okay, I get it. Still, it's terrifying - though in the midst of all the memoir writing I still stop now and then when a poem appears. It will be good to have more time for this once the big manuscript is finished.

I'm not the only one who emerged from our Takoma Park version of the old 'salon' to end up here. I want to introduce you to the poetry of another old neighbor and friend, Janlori Goldman, who has also taken up poetry since those days. She humbles me. Her poems are magnificent and getting better and better.

Writing for me has become this great unfolding. I know I need to think about how to pay the rent and all, but something compels. Now I try to trust what is there, what is presenting itself. Actually, since it compels, it's pretty hard to resist in any case. I'll worry about the rent some other time.

So here are the 3 poems. This new issue of Verse Wisconsin was just launched today. Please visit, and then spread the word. Read my poems, yes, but go to that home page and then look around. There is some really great work here and I am humbled to be in this company.

And as for my old friend, Janlori, check out her work at Huge Shoes Poetry.

Finally, thanks to my writers critique group at RedBird-RedOak Writing here in Milwaukee. You are not only an inspiration and great moral support, you have also given me the courage to call myself a poet.

RedBird-RedOak writers read at Fixx Coffee House, Oct 16. Photo: Kim Suhr

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