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 until I was forty (ignoring English homework in K-12 and song lyrics when I was a teenager and foolish and in crush with anyone.) 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. 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 “The Elements of Craft” class are not examples of good writing. No natural talent. The professor’s feedback was kind, helpful, 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 poems! I read poems and frequently didn’t understand them. I wrote poems and none of them were any good. 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” there was the professor’s illuminating critique and there were better poems by the other students in my class that 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. It failed miserably. It made me so angry!

But the anger I felt was not a miserable anger; it was strangely appealing. This anger made me read more poetry. It made me read poems more than once. It made me read poems out loud. This anger sat me down at my computer to write new poems. It 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 sounds better.

Let me put this in perspective. My concentration in my creative writing degree 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 nonfiction. I loved my 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, it arrived on the page with deep emotions and astonishing gentleness.

When the new school year started in the fall, I was desperate to do something about this obsession of mine. So I enrolled in the introductory poetry workshop. I discovered that eight months of angry writing had made me a better poet. Meanwhile, the other students in the poetry workshop were insanely great. I’m not sure I felt competitive, but I felt like their mastery of poetry was 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.”

I collected revisions of my poems “He can wear hats,” “The Divorce of Lilith and Samuel,” and “The Talents” on Monday, October 13, 2014 and dropped them into Microsoft Word. I carefully formatted the document and submitted it online to the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s annual undergraduate poetry contest.

And I was one of 2014’s three winning poets. Cash prize. Public reading.

Oh, but how my anger continued to grow! Imposter Syndrome met obsession met ambition met doubt. I complained to everyone. I didn’t want to be a poet! I had no idea what I was doing! I collected 98 pages of poems and fragments of poems between 2013 and 2014.

In 2015, the English Department changed the policy that had previously 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 graduated. During 2015, I had written at least 54 more pages of poetry. An anger born out of frustration transformed into anger about my identity as a writer. In a country that has forgotten to value poetry, in a country where poets cannot make a living writing poetry (as artists in general cannot), in a country that teaches 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; just a few hours later I had written yet another poem. I began purchasing physical books again, because poetry books in digital format are still difficult to find and often poorly formatted. I added poetry by my college professors to my bookshelf (something I should have done while I was still in school.) I discovered speculative poetry and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. I discovered the poets who particularly inspire me, who write poems that suggest ways forward for me. I began to pay 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. Like trudging up a dune while sand slips and slides you back down and only after much annoying effort arriving at the crest breathless only to see that there is now an entire dangerous ocean left to navigate, I have some sense of this period being the end of the beginning of my life as a poet. I don’t miss the anger, exactly. What I feel today is much more complex and, perhaps, more mature. I appreciate how contemporary poets frequently use the word “consoling” when describing poetry. Poetry brings me comfort now. For someone originally from the Pacific Northwest, poetry is consoling to 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. These were my early visions of myself as a writer and I’m still pursuing them.

As a poet, though? I’m soon to be a published poet.

I don’t believe in natural talent. I believe in exploring your interests, and also exploring those things you don’t know or are not sure will interest you, and then learning which of them, especially which one of them, makes you angry while it pulls you into its orbit anyway, makes you so damn mad that you keep at it, emotional, uncertain, persistent. It’s wonderful to be that kind of angry. It’s wonderful when the anger is gone and in its place the real work begins.

I’m not sure I believe my anger is really gone, though. There might be a current of it underneath my poesy still today. It keeps me insecure, challenged, and writing. It gives me ideas. It’s in my first published poem and it’s in so many of my most recent poems. Consolation, but anger, but natural and rewarding.

I believe.

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.