Making the Poet

I don’t believe in natural talent. I use “believe” on purpose because I might be wrong; nevertheless, there’s more to talent than whatever innate capabilities a person might be born with that makes them prodigy and genius. Natural talent is at best a leg up. At worst, it’s destiny and entirely uninteresting. I believe.

I did not start writing poetry—ignoring English homework in K-12 and song lyrics when I was a teenager and foolish and in crush with anyone—until I was forty years old. Fall 2013 at the University of Arizona in “The Elements of Craft in Creative Writing” course. Our professor introduced us to craft in poetry at the beginning of the semester, before we went into fiction and creative nonfiction. Why start with poetry? To paraphrase the professor, poetry is good for teaching all elements of good writing in general.

The poems I wrote in “Elements of Craft” are not examples of good writing. No natural talent. The professor’s feedback was kind and illuminating; it illuminated the ways in which my poetry was cliche-ridden, overwrought, and abstract. I became frustrated with my inability to write what might be considered good poetry, and then I became angry. I was not angry at my professor or other, better students. I wasn’t angry at poets. I was angry at poetry, the body of literature itself! I was angry at poesy, the act of composing poetry! For every poem I wrote and thought “this is finally the one that means I understand poetry,” the professor’s helpful critique and better poems by other students quickly disabused me of my confidence. Did my classmates, most of them many years younger than me, have natural talent? Yes, maybe, no. Whatever they had, I did not have it. My poetry was not alive, it did not surprise, it did not have layers of meaning, it did not resonate with readers. My poetry failed miserably. This made me so angry!

But the anger I felt was strangely appealing. Anger made me read more poetry. Anger made me read poems more than once. Anger made me read poems out loud. Anger sat me down at my computer to write new poems. Anger made me focus on my images, on my lines, on ways I could make them stronger, on ways I could break my lines in more interesting places, on ways I could make my poems sound better.

Let me put this in context. My concentration in creative writing was fiction. After “Elements of Craft,” I jumped into my fiction workshops with excitement because even though I was not capable of writing good poetry, I had learned a lot about writing in general and I brought these elements of craft to bear in my fiction. Not great work, but promising. Not anger-inducing at all. In addition to our genre of concentration, students were allowed to take introductory workshops in other genres, like creative nonfiction. I loved my creative nonfiction workshop and used the same elements of craft in my essays. I liked what I wrote. I received helpful critiques from instructors and students to make it even better.

Oh, but how my anger for poetry seethed during all of 2014. I wrote poetry in anger all year long. The result was a huge “Poetry Fragments” text file in which I angrily typed poems and fragments of poems, sometimes late at night when these fragments burst into my mind like a haunting and the only way to exorcise them was to get out of bed, turn on a light, and in cold fury write them down. They spilled out of me, these terrible lines and terrible poems:

Sunday, March 16, 2014 ~11:15 PM: “There is terrible poetry / on my fingertips / splinter wooden shards / too thin to tweezer.”

Well, of course I used a cliched splinter metaphor. UGH!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 ~10:46 AM: “The man in the mirror / is not the face of the man”

Yuck, yuck, yuck! Of course I would write something about the “man in the mirror”!

Sunday, June 8, 2014: “He can wear hats. / It comes with the green eyes.”

Well, of course… Actually, this poem was the easiest poem I had ever written. It spilled out of me, too, but not quite so angrily. In fact, its deep emotions arrived on the page with astonishing gentleness.

When the new school year started in the fall of 2014, I was desperate to do something about this obsession of mine. So I enrolled in the introductory poetry workshop. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that eight months of angry writing had made me a better poet. The other students in the poetry workshop, though, were insanely great and their mastery of poetry seemed well beyond my grasp. I learned a lot from reading and critiquing their poems, and from their feedback about my poems.

Friday, October 10, 2014 ~8:30 PM:Ich fyrcht Den Tag / when a man / lacquered not from dust / but fallen into it / shrugs off his black dog skin, / animates shoulders / broadly drawn with loess, / and shuffles into / biting at her ears.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014 ~1:20 AM:In one hole bury the bell. Bury the bell in dirt without ringing. In the dirt without ringing bury the bell. Bury it. The voice will ring.”

On Monday, October 13, 2014, I pasted revisions of my poems “He can wear hats,” “The Divorce of Lilith and Samuel,” and “The Talents” into a Microsoft Word document, carefully formatted them on the page, and submitted this entry online to the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s annual undergraduate poetry contest. I was selected as one of 2014’s three winning poets. Cash prize. Public reading.

Oh, but how my anger grew! Imposter Syndrome met obsession met ambition met doubt. I complained to everyone that I didn’t want to be a poet! I had no idea what I was doing!

I collected 98 pages of poems and fragments between 2013 and 2014.

In 2015, the English Department changed their policy that prevented students in another genre concentration from pursuing a second concentration in poetry. I took the intermediate poetry workshop in the spring and the advanced one in the fall. I wrote at least 54 more pages of poetry in 2015. Then I graduated. An anger born out of frustration transformed into anger about my identity as a writer. In this country that has forgotten to value poetry, a country where poets cannot make a living writing poetry (as artists in general cannot), a country with teachers that insist upon teaching its children how to “decipher” a poem to uncover the poem’s “one true meaning,” I was afraid to admit that I might like to be a poet.

I abandoned poetry to focus on fiction; a few hours later I had written yet another poem. I purchased poetry collections. I added books of poetry written by my college professors to my bookshelf. I discovered speculative poetry and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. I discovered poets who inspired me, who wrote poems that suggested ways forward for me. I paid attention to news about poets. I enrolled in writing workshops at the Writers Studio and at the Poetry Center and worked on even more poetry.

During 2016—I don’t remember when exactly—I realized my anger was gone.

The process of accepting poetry into my life and accepting myself as a poet had begun. I have no natural talent in poetry. I crammed a lot of exploration and discovery into a few short years to become the mediocre poet I am today. I consider this period of time as being the end of the beginning of my life as a poet. The anger, I don’t really miss. What I feel today is a more complex and, perhaps, more mature mix of emotions. Contemporary poets often use the word “consoling” when describing poetry. Poetry really is consoling. It brings me comfort. For someone originally from the Pacific Northwest, poetry consoles me the way standing on the beach against the loud ocean, gusty winds, chilly air, and light rain is consoling.

My anger may be gone, but my resistance is not entirely. I still write other genres. I still see myself as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer of short stories and novels, and as a nonfiction essayist concerned with technology and its impact on humanity. I still pursue these early visions of myself as a writer.

And I’m soon to be a published poet.

I don’t believe in natural talent. I believe in exploring and learning what interests you, especially the one thing that makes you so damn mad that you keep at it. Maybe a current of anger still underlies my poesy today. This anger keeps me insecure, challenged, and writing. It gives me ideas. It’s in my first published poem and so many of my most recent poems. In poetry, I believe, consolation and anger both.