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The Poet is In

24 Nov

It’s become part of a punchline for me now when people ask me what my first Bachelor’s degree was in.

“I majored in poetry, but being a poet doesn’t pay like it used to.”

Always gets a moderate chuckle. But it’s jarring to me to think back to a time when that really was my life plan. I knew it was mostly crazy, and I think I was young and rebelling against growing up. I didn’t want some office job. Like most young people, I rejected the life I thought society was forcing on me. And while I’ve successfully avoided having a desk job for most of my adult life, I did bid farewell to my dream of being a poet laureate. It’s not the creative outlet I wanted to invest myself in. Yet poetry exists in my soul like a latent infection.

Back in April I saw a post on Instagram about a pop-up poetry event at Grand Central called “The Poet is In.” It was an all day event that had poets set up at booths writing personalized poems for people. I left work early and hopped a subway South. I had to be there.

I waited in line for about 45 minutes, not minding at all. I had a book to keep me occupied, and I was so excited. Which poet would I get? That hipster one over there? The wise old man over there? It was amazing to see so many people in line, excited about poetry. That’s what poetry is supposed to be. For the people. To connect with one another and, like all art, to share in a bigger human experience.

I think I would have been happy to get any of the poets, but I felt like fate brought me to Marie Howe. A warm presence with wild hair, it turns out she is actually the one who dreamed up the event when she was the New York State poet laureate. She asked me some questions about myself. About the classes I was taking in school. About what I wanted to grow up to be when I was a little girl. She took some notes as we chatted, then loaded up her typewriter and clacked away. When she was done, she read me my personalized poem.

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I almost cried. I loved it so much, and it felt like the perfect snapshot of that very moment in my life. I sniffled back my tears and profusely thanked her for my poem and for putting the lovely event together.

“You know, I didn’t start really writing my poetry until I was in my thirties,” she told me. “You have it in you for when the time is right.”

I needed to hear that.

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Finding Poetry

2 Jun

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New Year’s Resolution #5 this year (right after “Drink Less”) was “Find My Poetry.” By that I didn’t mean write more poetry, read more poetry, or even go to more poetry events, although all those are lacking in my life. I meant to find the poetry that used to infuse my life, that used to be the core of who I was. Six years ago, it meant everything to me, and somewhere along the way I lost it.

As with most resolutions, I started out strong. I volunteered at the Poetry Project‘s annual New Year’s Day Reading Marathon. After serving chilli to the masses for a couple of hours, chatting with poets, volunteers, fellow verse enthusiasts, I was allowed free admission to the reading. The Poetry Project is housed in a church in the Lower East Side and this reading took place in the nave. Some of the poems were beautiful, some were hilarious, some were stirring. More than anything it felt good to be hearing it again.

As I was leaving to go feed a pug in Midtown, I ran into an old friend/writing partner. I recognized his shock of white hair, and we hugged, whispering together. We used to get together once a week in Seattle to read poetry and write it, to drink whiskey and talk about our futures. He’s currently getting his MFA in Alabama. He was in town to spend time with his boyfriend who lives in Brooklyn.

“Oh, I knew Chrissy Wilson would be here!” he said to me. “I’ll be moving here in June. Let’s have poetry dates again.”

We were shushed by people around us, so I agreed, hugged him, and left. Six months later, it’s June. He emailed me that he’ll be here in a couple of weeks. But I haven’t done a single thing to find my poetry since that blustery New Years day. Time has done nothing but slip through my fingers.

But the other night, I was reading an interview with Cheryl Strayed where she mentioned one of her favorite Emily Dickinson quotes, the one in the art above: “If your Nerve, deny you-/Go above your Nerve.” And I couldn’t get it out of my head. I couldn’t get Emily Dickinson out of my head. I found myself pulling my dusty Parini Poetry Anthology (which could also function as a bludgeoning weapon) off the shelf and started reading the poems of hers I found there. And not just her. I felt as though I was looking through an old yearbook as I sighed over the names of poets long forgotten. Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Louise Gluck, Theodore Roethke. I read Anthony Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch” over and over again, feeling just as enamored with its perfection as I did when I first read it for a class in 2007.

“…To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl…”

Then I moved on to my old notebooks. The ones I carried with me everywhere. Full of mini-poems, thoughts, quotes, drawings. Nothing spectacular, just the things I heard and saw that stirred something in me, that felt destined to become a poem or a story or anything.

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This page with lyrics from a Gwen Stefani song, from a Blur song, a quote from the beginning of an episode of Planet Earth, a drawing of my legs in capri jeans. The notebook was full of nonsense like this. Recipes, directions, notes to self, doodles, schedules. It reminded me what I was missing when I lost my poetry. It’s about the observation, the curiosity of life, the ability to try and turn things askew and look at them in a new way. This isn’t to say I’ve found my poetry but those old notebooks that are full of embarrassing things and a couple of poignant things reminded me to observe and to note. That is the purpose of writing after all. Not to just publish or write successful how-tos. It’s to be a correspondent to the unique experience we each have.

I said that I hadn’t found my poetry, but on second thought, maybe I have.

Memorizing a Poem

26 May

My path to poetry was atypical. I suppose everyone’s is. I was never a big fan, other than Shakespeare which for some bizarre reason I never really considered to be poetry. When I made the decision to apply to the Creative Writing track at my university, I dreaded the fact that I would have to take poetry classes. To me, poetry was pretentious, obtuse and a dying art form. I felt like all the required verse classes I had to take were a giant waste of my time. Prose had always been my natural mode of writing, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible perfecting it.

Then, there was Steve Dold.

Steve Dold. I don’t know where to start. He was my junior year poetry writing professor. He was a dreamboat. Every girl in our class was madly in love with him. He would strut into class with his leather jacket and tousled hair. When he read poetry aloud, he’d get this dreamy look in his eyes and take on a high-pitched intonation which was comical yet entrancing. He taught us iambic pentameter by relating it to a steady heartbeat. A 20-year-old girl’s heart didn’t stand a chance.

Our assignments were pretty standard creative writing stuff. We would read a bevy of a certain type of poem then write our own. One week we worked on narrative, another week we worked on sonnets. The only other requirement he had for us was to memorize a poem, just one, any one we liked.

“I believe this will be the most important thing you take away from this class,” I remember him saying. “You will have this poem in your mind if you choose to keep it with you in your life. At some dark hour, when you most need it, it will be there, a calming refrain, a gift you give yourself.”

I rolled my eyes and decided that I would just pick a random villanelle. Villanelle is a highly structured poem based on French poetry. There are a couple of repeating refrains, a strict meter, and a predictable rhyme scheme. I figured this would be an easy form to learn. I checked out a book from the library full of them, I read a couple and found one that struck me. As I read it aloud, something about it was so pleasant, so perfect, and although I didn’t completely grasp the meaning, it affected my heart in a positive way.

I set myself to memorizing it one night when I was home alone in my apartment. I remember making Macaroni and Cheese, taking a shower, cleaning up my room, all while repeating the poem over and over again to myself.

With each repetition, something happened. I became more and more attached to each line. What was originally an interesting but opaque poem became a poem that meant something, each line revealing itself to me more and more.

I memorized that poem and still know it by heart. I went on to focus on writing and reading poetry. When I bring up poetry to people, they often groan and say they just don’t get it, that it’s too academic. Nothing irks me more. Poetry takes time. It is rare to read through a poem and understand it and be done with it. Poetry is meant to dwell with, to spend time with the words, the variety of meanings, to pull something from it for yourself. When I originally set to memorizing a poem, the poem had little meaning to me, except that I enjoyed the first line. Now it is a source of comfort when I’m feeling down. Yes, at dark times in my life, that poem comes to mind and it means something to me. It might not mean anything to anyone else, and it might not mean to me what was originally intended by the poet, but that’s not the point of poetry. It’s an art, and we are to take from it whatever we need.

The Waking

I will forever be thankful to Steve Dold for that.

May 7, 2011

27 May

Before I moved to New York, I e-mailed some of my old editors at Wave Books where I used to intern and asked them if there were any poetry circles they could recommend to me in New York. They told me about Ugly Duckling Presse which is much like their sister publisher on the East Coast. I had been casually e-mailing the editors there back and forth since moving to New York about volunteering/interning/working/just plain getting involved. Finally our schedules aligned, and I volunteered to come in and bind books.

They are stationed in an amazing building in Brooklyn that houses artist lofts and coffeeshops. I wish I had taken a picture of the actual office, because it was incredible. Books everywhere, large art murals, posters, boxes and boxes of poetry.

I had also never bound a book before. Unlike Wave Books, Ugly Duckling Presse binds and prints most of their books themselves. They are beautiful. As is customary payment for volunteering for anything in the poetry world, I was sent home with my arms full of gorgeous poetry books which I am ashamed to admit I have yet to read through. I was in charge of Awling (i.e. poking three holes in the center of a stack of copy). It was a fun afternoon with a bunch of strangers who all love poetry. I met some amazing people with amazing stories. We bounced back and forth poets we liked and had a pun off!

It made me crave poetry, to get back into that scene. It really is a scene. If you go to enough events, you start running into the same people all the time, and I miss having writers and readers to talk to and discuss and share new discoveries with.

February 20, 2011

2 Mar

My dear friend Chris was visiting from San Francisco. I met up with him in Greenwich village for some coffee and a lot of catching up. Back in the day, we used to get together roughly once a week. We assigned ourselves poems to examine and discuss. We even would write little assignments. Many of our good-intention writing sessions devolved into drinking a lot of whiskey and just hanging out, but we still encouraged each other to write and read poetry more.

Anyways, on this day we chatted about poetry and life. Then we meandered over to the famous Magnolia Bakery with supposedly the best cupcakes in the world. I’d like to quote the poetry of Andy Samberg from his song “Lazy Sunday“:

“Let’s hit up Magnolia and mack on some cupcakes.
No doubt that bakery’s got all the bomb frostings.
I love those cupcakes like McAdams loves Gosling.

2? No 6? No 12? BAKER’S DOZEN!
I’m told you that I’m crazy for these cupcakes cousin.”

The cupcakes didn’t really live up to all the hype. I found the frosting a bit too heavy. But it was a lovely, lazy Sunday with an old friend. Check out his blog to the right. It’s called “Last Class“, and it is fantastic. He doesn’t update it very often, but when he does it is always a reading delight.

August 22, 2010

22 Aug

Angie, my sister, and I went up to Tahoe. Angie suggested we go to “Hidden Beach.” I got so excited. Almost six years ago, I went with a friend up to a hidden beach where there was a huge tank-like thing in the water. I have never found my way back. I was sure she was talking about the same thing! As we hiked down, I realized it was not it. Still a lovely day with the sun, the beautiful lake, a good book. However, I would still love to find that beach again one day. I wrote this poem about it for one of my classes.








Lake Tahoe

The Lake gets its official name from a misinterpretation of a
Native American word for “edge of the lake,”
but when I see the signs while driving over the mountains
toward its shores, I think of my east coast grandmother,
with pale New England skin
and how she would pronounce it with all her refinement:
“t’HO.”

He took me to a hidden beach at the Lake, a hike
from the main road. We trip on stones, and dead pine needles
sneak into my flip flops.
The trees clear and the deserted beach
is waiting for us, the sun bouncing off the water in a blinding
salutation.

A large tank sits on its shores, abandoned and rotting.
Entirely out of place.
So in a paradise where no war would dare enter,
the tank sits, a puzzling wart on the lake’s
otherwise perfect complexion.

He swims, teeth chattering from the
water. I hopscotch on stones toward the tank,
while he splashes my exposed legs and I try
to ignore the icy water.
I listen to the tank groaning with each quiet lake wave
that rushes over it, and I ask it how the two of us
ended up there, until I feel cold fingers wrap around
my ankles and I slip backwards toward the water
and into his shivering arms.