Couldn’t you write a mystery novel? I like mysteries. And you could be famous like Mary Higgins Clark!
If you could write a thriller like Tom Clancy, you could make a lot of money! Puh-leease, just write one money-making book.
These are the questions people sometimes ask me. Okay, I’ll tell the truth: These are the questions family members ask me. (They know who they are.) Why poetry, for Pete’s sake? Why write what so few people read, let alone buy?
I’ll admit it’d be nice to make something on my poetry. And it wouldn’t bother me a bit if I at least became well known among, well, other poets. And so, my path to the zero profits and near-obscurity of poetry is still surprising even to me.
As a teenager, I’d fill spiral notebooks with short stories, mostly violent and gruesome tales filled with angst and, of course, a female protagonist trying to save the world. In seventh grade, my Language Arts teacher actually called me aside about one such story, trying to figure out, I’m sure, whether I was right in the head. I assured her it was just a story, nothing more. I liked writing. I liked experimenting. I liked pretending I had a voice other than my own, a character more heroic than I thought I was.
I wrote some poems back then, too, but not many, and they were all sentimental: Verses about a child’s love for her mother or love for God or just love in general. Quite the opposite of the stories I was churning out, but equally bad.
I decided in high school that I’d major in English education. My plan was this cliché: I’d teach to pay the bills and write the great American novel by night. But it never happened. I married right out of college and went straight to graduate school, earning my M.A. in English from the University of Dayton. I then landed my first teaching job at Wilberforce University and had my two children. My life became consumed with caring for my family, working with phenomenal students, and pursuing scholarship. All joyous, but creative writing was nowhere in my life.
It wasn’t until 2002, or thereabouts, that a documentary about Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon reminded me of my long-deferred dream. By then I was teaching at Cedarville University and beginning to direct its brand-new writing center. A colleague had brought the documentary to the school to show, but because one of my children was sick that day, I ended up watching it at home. Alone. Good thing, too, because I wept like I’d lost my best friend. In what I can only describe as an undeniable and overwhelming calling, I knew that day I was supposed to be writing poetry. And a fear suddenly seized me: I might die without ever having done so.
With school-aged children, a full-time job, and a busy schedule, I knew I couldn’t really go back to school for a poetry degree, though I entertained the thought quite seriously. Instead, I followed in the footsteps of playwright August Wilson, who, after being expelled from high school on being falsely accused of plagiarism, went to his local library where he spent the next four years reading everything he could get his hands on, creating for himself his own education. His story, which I used to teach in my Dramatic Literature class at the time, inspired me to do likewise. I went to my local library and began checking out books of contemporary poetry.
I had already read all the great poets from the past—from Homer and Virgil to Frost and Dickinson. What I needed most then was to read living poets, my contemporaries. What were they writing about? In what styles and voices? What conversations were they having, and how could I join in?
Poets I started with—Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, and Maxine Kumin, then Mary Oliver, Louise Gluck, Ted Kooser, Annie Dillard, and Stephen Dunn—left their marks. To this day, I return often to Kenyon and Kumin especially.
Eventually, I began writing my own poems. I showed early drafts to a colleague of mine, who was honest but thankfully not brutal. I had the heart for poetry but not yet the craft. So I had to read books on craft. Of course! And I started attending workshops.
Along the way, I also realized that writing was more than a dream—it was a way to endure life’s many challenges. All in all, what I discovered is no big Higgins-Clark mystery: One never stops learning how to write poetry.
Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In October, we’re exploring the theme The Ghazal.