Bump up against enough poets in an MFA program – faculty and students—and eventually it begins to rub off. I arrived at poetry via what I enjoy reading most -- memoir. That is, it was reading two memoirs-in-poetry that fueled my poetry aha moment: We Didn’t Come Here for This, by William Patrick, and Blue Suburbia, by Laurie Lico Albanese. Patrick’s book was recommended to me by nonfiction writer and poet Richard Hoffman, back in summer 2006, just after I had been in Richard’s workshop the first week of my MFA program. I resisted. I was not interested in poetry, I insisted. Thanks but no thanks.
Fast forward one month to the Jersey Shore with my family, who had more stamina for the sun, humidity and heat than I did. A lazy hour at the air-conditioned local bookstore turned up Albanese’s book, which I opened only because I noticed on the end flap that the author lives in the next suburb over from mine, and I bought it more to support her and the independent bookshop than my own (then-nonexistent) poetry habit.
Three days later, restless from jetlag -- our vacation interrupted by my need to fly to Las Vegas, where my father was hospitalized with a stroke – I pulled the book from my poorly repacked suitcase. In less than an hour, I had finished reading and started again. Then I opened my laptop and ordered Patrick’s book. Since then, I’ve been tacking on poetry volumes to most of my book buys.
I’m going about it in a completely haphazard and non-academic way. I just pick up a poetry book, skim, read a few poems, and if I like what I read, I buy it. Or I hear a poet read, stumble over his or her work in print somewhere, or think the book’s cover is kind of intriguing (yes, it’s that illogical; but then poetry isn’t logical, is it?). Nikki Giovanni and Jeffrey Harrison arrived home with me this week; Ai and Holaday Mason got here somehow. And of course, Richard Hoffman.
And then…well, you know what’s coming, right? Rarely content with merely reading something I find fascinating, I usually need to try writing it too. And sometimes, it gets published. I’m not really a poet, I’m a nonfiction writer. But now I sometimes write poetry.
A contentious essay that just isn’t coming together morphs into verse in front of my eyes. A small moment seems to demand unusual punctuation. A misbehaving essay calls out for line breaks. I’m enjoying myself, even the rejection slips, like the one I got yesterday, from a mid-tier literary journal, which said, “This shows graceful and intuitive use of line breaks, and we especially enjoyed the spare use of language. Submit again.”
Submit again. I will. To the recommendations of writers who know better, and to the lure of poetry. Even if another is never published, I submit that reading and (trying to) write poetry, will always feed my writing.
Get started: Read a new poem each day. See what happens.
I'll be back in a day or two with more about the NonFiction Now conference.