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.

There’s A Great Silence Down Here

I planned to go to Mars.
My enthusiasms set to eleven
years old, I engaged in scrapbooking
and a Face looked back.
It’s a trick of mind,
this wanting bigger
alien monuments than human
artifacts, a willingness
to disbelieve disbelievers
disbelieving everything
not set in stone.

I planned to go to Mars,
but the Moon was a promise kept
too many. We choose to go
to the ends of the Earth instead,
by fire and heat, melt and parching
confines of one sphere too few
to contain so many squares.

I planned to go to Mars,
but devils detail Death divining
skin holding one cubic person
of water, flesh, and contempt,
three dimensions of depth,
a fourth without time.

I planned to go to Mars,
but I’m afraid of falling up.
Falling down isn’t any easier.
Following everyone, who must fall,
implies a nonzero chance for pits.
There’s a Great Silence down here.
I plan to pack light.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 30


That’s it! The last poem of Camp NaNoWriMo and NaPoWriMo 2017! It’s a bit of a downer; the long drive home after a fun weekend Disneyland and Disneyland California Adventure led to lots of thinking, alone, in the dark.)

Keep Moving Backward

The trick is not to stop, but to keep moving backward, to the next incident, to the next beating, all the bad times you’re heading back in time to prevent. Your father threw your mom up against the hallway wall and threatened to beat her if she stood in the way again of him beating you. You were thirteen. It must have been a weekend, at the beginning of the school year, because, oh right, you had that black eye in your school pictures.

You set the date. You push the button. It works.

You take care of it.

You show up at the door and knock. You do what you need to do. You say what you planned to say. Your mom screamed at you, your father found his gun, little you cried in terror, but your skin-tight modern body armor and your memories were a bubble of protection to keep you, current you, future you to them, black-eye free.

Back in the woods, you wonder if the future has changed. You could return forward and check: did he heed the warning you gave him as he quivered on the floor, did he become nicer, is your father now your dad? Or did your mom leave him and become a single mom? Did you grow up to write comic books instead?

But you won’t find out. You don’t know much about the multiverse, or time travel, or the ramification of cheap devices dropped on an unsuspecting market by anarchists mass-producing access to the dreadful past. You don’t stop to learn. You pick up your time travel device, learn how to enter the desired date, and push the button. Maybe everything will be different now, then, whatever you call the future time you feel from. Or maybe everything stays, stayed, will stay exactly the same. Instead of a ripple of effects racing forward through time, a second universe split off from that pivotal moment, inaccessible container for new consequences you’ll never get to feel in your guts because that wasn’t your past. You remember, so does that mean you are stuck with the old one?

The only way is further back. Your first stop was good practice. Ice breaker. How many times did he hit you? You can narrow some of them down. You have enough time. The one time you went to the hospital for stitches, when you were twelve. The one time when you were ten you told your grandma when you stayed with her during the summer and she talked about the price of war for returning soldiers and their families instead. Christmas when you were nine and received everything you wanted and it made him seething mad. That time he caught you at six with the six-year-old neighbor boy, both of you with your pants down. The first memory you have, from when you were four, and how startling it was to be alive and aware mid-flight between his punch and the wall. You jot down your memories, in wonder of the shining past spidering back into your brain after revisiting just one specific event abruptly provided you with more details about what happened before then.

You remember the bullies, and approximately when they happened to you. You march right onto the campus of the middle school at just the right time to grab Steve’s fist before it pounds out of eleven-year-old you an earlier black eye, an earlier ruined school picture. You visit your father again. And again. And then Nate after soccer practice behind the gym in the fall when you are ten, and again a few hours earlier before he hits your arm with his locker door and you get mad and agree to meet him later, behind the gym. You remember more and more of these events and always there are people around you shouting in fear and you simply brush past them and to you, before you can be abused again.

You feel very Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. You’re glad little John isn’t around to stop you.

Did Steve and Nate respect you more after your shocking interventions? Did you become good friends with reformed Steve and Nate? Did you learn in high school Steve, for example, was gay, and did you have your first relationship then, with him? Is there a different future where a different you heads back in time to stop Steve from outing you to everyone in school, because he was afraid to come out to anyone else, and it was easiest to sacrifice you instead?

You wonder after days of this, after years, if you shouldn’t just prevent your mom from marrying your father. You remember where they said they were and you estimate the year, and then you go back and watch them meet. Instead you follow him home to your grandparents house where he’s been staying after he came back home for overseas. You observe him fall apart, continue to fall apart.

You’re a detective now and you uncover new dates to stalk. You’re a traveler to pasts you know little about. You’re a historian, an expert at finding time and place. You’re a soldier in the jungle, on base, arriving to destroy the events that destroyed him. You’re a philosopher analyst special teams, attempting to prevent battles and wars. You’ve forgotten to be a genealogist. Bad guys unrelated to you are on your list now. You’re a killer. It takes a lot of time. You’re a professor, a historian, a collector of experience and experiences. It’s all forward when you get to your latest past, but you’re creeping back through time, tweaking and changing things as you go. You still exist. You haven’t done anything to remove yourself. Or maybe you are entirely removed now and no longer exist as anything other than a writer of new futures, a muse, a deity.

You don’t plan to stop and you hope no one else stops either.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 27


This is a long one. I wanted this to be prose poem, and it kept getting bigger. Maybe it’s more flash fiction than poetry. It’s very rough. Tense is all over the place, much of it on purpose, but probably in error in a lot of places. In revision, I would make it more surreal, add more poetic language and lyricism, search for stranger associations and bolder, odder descriptions, make sure any given tense makes sense at that moment, unpack the last line, etc.

Good Posture


The curse of life is death and the curse of death is also death,
but my skeleton will outlast both.
My skeleton will stand for eons.
He is a spongy mountain, an iron mine.
Stoned with mellow marrow, my skeleton prefers to climb instead of recline.
My skeleton won’t be buried. My skeleton won’t be burned.
My skeleton will be left vertical, packed in vitrified remnants of me,
upside down in a dewar filled with liquid time and nitrogen.
My skeleton isn’t a mummy under glass but glassy inside stainless steel.
My skeleton is key. My skeleton is my library.
My skeleton is the permanence I seek; I’m the clothes he wears.
My skeleton in the tailor shop, thirty years from now or three thousand,
requests a change of wardrobe to match the thaw,
based on the measurements he brought.
My skeleton all new, from the inside out.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 26


This week for craft class and workshop at The Writers Studio, we read and discussed the first few poems in The Best American Poetry 2016 anthology. I was inspired by these wonderful poems to try out a few of the techniques on display. “O Esperanza!” by Catherine Barnett makes use of a fun character—an inner clown—to discuss in a unique way the lofty abstraction of hope. “Turns out my inner clown is full of hope,” the persona narrator begins. The persona narrator has a lot of fun with this clown, including the brilliant line “Clowns are clichés and they aren’t afraid of clichés,” though I actually didn’t get the full joke until someone pointed it out at workshop this evening (hint: fear of clowns.) The poem lets hope reside in this inner clown character, has fun with it, and then follows additional associations to unexpected new places and a radical turn into some heavy thoughts about knowledge and philosophy, all of it made possible because the poet doesn’t approach hope in the usual clichéd, sentimental ways.

A skeleton was the first image that popped into my head when I thought about using some of these techniques in my own poem. In the first draft, I tried to emulate Barnett’s poem fairly closely and I tried to follow unexpected associations for my imagery. The poem was mildly interesting, but when I returned to it this evening, I saw that there were ways to use these techniques to talk about other ideas I’m interested in.

So this is my poem about cryonics and my choice for interment when I die. It’s made possible by a combinations of techniques that let me explore cryonics in new and hopefully unexpected ways.