The first poem that broke my heart was Richard Wilbur’s Boy at the Window. I think it was in eighth grade, and what touched me was the snowman melting a tear—the very stuff from which he was made—for the boy “surrounded by / Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.” I related to that boy. I loved the fact that beauty and not-beauty could exist in the same poem.
I kept reading poems, and writing them but not showing anyone, unless for a school assignment. In college, I majored in music but took a poetry class and learned that what I was writing wasn’t poetry but just an outpouring of teenage emotion. The professor taught us craft, and a lightbulb came on for me. Having been my high school yearbook editor, I loved the precision of a good headline and photo caption. To me, editing a poem became a fun game, and it still is. It’s also the reason I could write a good ad, which led me to becoming Vice President of Marketing Communications at a global financial services company.
But… I went years writing poems and never sharing. When I finally, at age 54, took a poetry workshop and then read a poem at an open mic, the passion for sharing lit me up again. I learned about submitting and had some immediate success with good journals like Poetry East and The Atlanta Review. That, and attending critique groups, gave me confidence and made me want to strive to write better and better poems.
I’ve been lucky enough to have reputable poetry presses publish my two full-length books: No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014), and to have poems in many journals and anthologies. Meanwhile, I teach sometimes; have taken workshops from poets like Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Denise Duhamel, David Bottoms, and Laure-Anne Bosselaar; attend readings like an addict; help host a monthly open mic I founded ten years ago; and continue to facilitate a critique group I started at the same time (and whose members have become dear friends and trusted advisors).
On October 16, 2019, a dream came true: Garrison Keillor read one of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac. Then on January 13, 2020, Tracy K. Smith read and discussed a poem on her thoughtful podcast, The Slowdown. My editor at Terrapin Books recently asked me to record a YouTube reading and I did it! My first. Other than a blooper at the beginning that I decided to keep in for a little humor, it turned out pretty well. Even though I’ve listed these accomplishments, poetry continues to be a wonderful challenge for me, and I want to keep learning and learning.
It’s clear, isn’t it? Poetry changed my life and now permeates it to the core, every day. Working on a poem, I lose all track of time and get into that magic zone.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish