I still have the first notebook I ever used specifically for creative writing, one of those small, square-ish, black and white composition books. The binding is Scotch-taped, as is the first, loose page inside. On the front cover, in the big round letters of my careful eighth-grade hand, is written, “Paula Lambert (Future Novelist).”
Admittedly, even after proclaiming myself a novelist—albeit parenthetically—the first three things written inside are poems. But after those few awkward attempts at what I supposed creative writers wrote, everything else is prose. There’s an essay written for a school contest, which I’m delighted to say I won ten dollars for, and then one short story after another.
I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer. My first Masters’ thesis was, in fact, a novel, set on an Indiana farm. One scene in chapter six was based on something I’d seen happen several years earlier: a piglet born still encased in its amniotic sac. The woman I was with had screamed for her husband to come help, and I was horrified to witness the oddest administration of CPR I could ever have dreamed of—all to no avail. The farmer cried out something like a frustrated “Bah!” and threw it on the floor. Later, the enormous, suffering, angry mother somehow got hold of three living babies and ate them. (Ate them!) The woman once more screamed for her husband, who came in wielding a hammer…
The real-life details of what happened were so horribly vivid I couldn’t get past them to write the scene I wanted: just that first tiny piglet born in a slick wet sack. I pushed away my keyboard, grabbed a pencil and nearby legal pad, and tried the scene as a poem.
The first one came with a caul
and she pulled it from the straw
tearing at the slick wet skin,
purplish gray. He took it from her
in one hand, breathed into its mouth
past the tiny pointed teeth
and rubbed its chest so the four dead legs
circled into the air. “Better off, prob’ly.”
He tossed it, slapping cold and wet
against the concrete floor. She flinched
when it hit, turned back to the gilt,
and waited for the next one to come.
Somehow, focusing on the image of that purple-y skin and the sound of the piglet hitting the floor, I was able to separate myself from the memory and work out the story I wanted to tell.
The novel was never published. But the poem was. And I included it many years later in the chapbook I was finally persuaded to put together, which is called, interestingly enough, The Guilt That Gathers.
In the five years since that chap was taken, I’ve shifted entirely into poetry. My first full collection, The Sudden Seduction of Gravity, was published last year. I’m not sure I can explain my full conversion, but I do call myself a poet now, and rarely think about prose at all. I can only say that poetry satisfies me, and does so in a way that fiction never did.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In February we’re exploring the theme Purple, Plum and Indigo.