The Poet That Was

My poetry collection

Originally uploaded by radiofreegeorgy

Nowadays, my writing is focused on mainly journalistic endeavors — freelance newspaper articles, coverage of the university I work for, personal essay projects and of course this blog. I am pretty happy on this track and looking forward to further success along it. But if you asked 18-year-old me if she would like to be in this spot, she would likely recoil and shake her head. “Nuh-uh, no way.” Because, in my heart, I was a poet.

I have always been a writer. Whether it was short stories, essays for school, taglines and puns on the fly or for a project, you name it. I could write it all, and well. Since middle school, though, my energies had been focused on poetry. That could, of course, have had something to do with being a hyperemotive teenager. But there was more to it than that. For me, poetry wasn’t just a medium; it was a language, a fundamental way of understanding and translating the world around me.

In truth, the only reason I went into journalism was because my career prospects as a creative writing major were (I believed) zilch. (Not that they’re throwing buckets of money at you when you get out of j-school, but what did I know?) But here was my problem. When I first started out as a journalism major — even before that, when I wrote for the teen page of my local newspaper — I was petrified of talking to people. Absolutely terrified. So, I thought I could make my way as a columnist — ah, yes, rattling off 800 words of profundity every few days without having to lift up the phone or talking to another human, that I can do!

I soon realized that my dream of becoming a columnist right out of the gate was unrealistic. Columnists, of course, get where they are because they’ve paid their dues on a beat, reporting the hell out of the world and only then gaining a measure of credibility to offer their own perspectives on it. And even then, when given this platform to share their insights and opinions, they’re still reporting, of course. You never get to stop learning.

So as I proceeded upon my reluctant course, I struggled with assignments requiring me to, you know, report. I remember the first article I wrote for my intro to communications writing class — a profile of Planet Records, a few months after the fire that destroyed the Kenmore Square location. I paced outside of the Harvard Square location for a good 15, 20 minutes before going inside, overwhelmed by nerves and self-doubt.

Eventually, I got over this – I credit the trial-by-fire man-on-the-street interviews I did during my first internship with, accosting people on the street to ask them for their thoughts on Napster or cell phones. And along the way, I actually acquired a taste – and talent – for journalism.

But I never lost my taste for poetry or fiction writing. Throughout college and during the first few years of my professional career, I was churning out poems and short stories. (The name of this blog is one I originally used for a podcast I used to run — which I believe may have been the first-ever poetry podcast — lifted from an Eavan Boland poem, “Writing in a Time of Violence.”) After college, I finally got the courage to submit around to some publications – and, to my surprise, a few actually got published. The best acceptance I got was for a poem called “Old Woman in a Housecoat,” published in The Cream City Review.

That publication would prove doubly fortuitous, as in 2005 that poem was selected for inclusion in then-Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” project, an initiative to reintroduce poetry in the nation’s newspapers via a free weekly syndicated column featuring works by mainly non-household names. The project is still ongoing – column 215 and counting — but “Old Woman in a Housecoat” was published on week 14. My lucky number. The feeling at the time that the POET LAUREATE of the U.S. had read my poem, felt it worthy of inclusion in his project and written a short introduction was nothing short of intoxicating.

Why, then did I stop writing poetry? Over time, I had found myself less and less compelled to pen verse. I still tinkered with fiction, and sometimes in moments of overwhelming inspiration a poem would come to mind. But my professional focus was training on a career as a journalist, and my extracurricular writing was of a journalistic nature, as well.

At first, I wrestled with this transition. It was as if a lover had abandoned me, and I was left dumbstruck on a street corner in a foreign town. My writing life has always been alternated between extremely fallow periods and times of great productivity, and during one it’s always hard to see the other coming. But I knew that this wasn’t just a quiet period for my poetic voice; that voice, I feared, had been silenced.

What it took me some time to realize, however, was that the voice hadn’t been silenced; the language had simply shifted. I was no longer a walking Tower of Babel. All of my writerly voices were folding into one, weaving narrative, reportage, beauty and poignancy. In time, I made peace with the change, even embraced it.

All of this came flooding back at me the other morning as I organized books in our new bookcase. Our old bookcase had started dangerous resembling the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so we bought a new one with a chunk of our tax refund. As I started shifting books around, I realized just how many books of poetry I had acquired over the years, how passionate I had been about it. Back in those days, it wouldn’t take much for me to throw ten bucks at a book of poetry if I thought it looked interesting, and the contents of the poetry shelf certainly bore that out.

But have I actually read all of those books? Alas, not really. Some of it, yes, but my interest in writing and buying poetry far surpassed my interest in reading it. As I rooted through them, I thought, “I should revisit some of these.” I’ve thought that before, though, with mixed results. Still, writing always benefits from a diversity of influences. Perhaps throwing some poetry into the mix would give me a boost of inspiration. We’ll see if I follow through on that. I hope I do.

Rediscovering the tomes of poetry on my bookshelves, re-alphabetizing them and moving them to their new home, I felt a pang of tenderness for my former self. These days, whenever my translation of the world does result in a poem, I feel a wave of nostalgia. I want to “get back into it,” whatever that means, as if I had quit sailing or playing competitive chess. I want to be a poet again.

Then I calm down, sit back and realize: I already am. And always will be.


2 responses to “The Poet That Was

  1. Portrait of the artist as a young woman. 🙂

    It took me awhile to find my stride, too.

    How’s the writing coming along?

  2. Don’t we all have a poet’s soul? If you choose your wods well and express what you mean, regardless of the genre or assignment, you are doing a poet’s work within confines. The editor may disagree and weild a red pencil, but if you are getting paid and a smidgdeon gets through, what harm is done? Harte Crane, Stephen Crane, O. Henry, Jack London, Mark Twain…they all cut their teeth on the same craft. Everything comes in time for those who wait and practice. Good luck and best wishes.

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