I’ve been writing poetry, or something resembling that, consistently since I was eleven years old. I’ve always liked words, the energy, the power, and the meanings that all vary. Unlike prose writing, poetry offers up a canvas of possibility in its negative space. I found I was always attracted to its delicacy and ebullience, and how the cadence was always especially important. In college, I completed the creative writing poetry track, which doesn’t mean much at all except that I can tell you that I am a poet. I more or less know what my voice sounds like when I write. I more or less know how to get a poem out of myself. And these are just some of the many steps it takes to attempt to think of yourself as a poet.
I was a late-blooming reader, but you couldn’t stop me once I began in earnest. And once that happened, I internalized just about everything I read. When I started to journal in middle school, poetry tumbled out. I was trying to articulate how I felt and in came rhythm and rhyme. When I read it back to myself now, I can see that I was imitating what I thought poetry was. Please be assured that it was laughable. Half the time I had no idea what I was saying, I just liked the noise of the words. I have to give myself credit—from an early age I understood that sometimes language can’t be tamed but corralled. My language took shape to reflect fleeting emotions and experiences. The meanings of the words weren’t as important at the time as the noises they made. I experimented with them to see if the sounds could echo the moments they were born from.
I had to practice a long time before I knew what I sounded like—before I was able to grasp at structure and appreciate the language that makes my materials. I experimented and wrote the clichéd poetry that teenagers write all throughout high school until my first real poetry class in senior year. My teacher was a published poet who specialized in spoken word, which definitely emphasized my personal pursuit of my voice. This was the first time someone told me not only what I was doing right, but what I was doing wrong. I realized that my raw language would always fall flat until I took a red pen to it. Poetry, for me, from then until today, is in the edits. I finally understand the beauty in the draft, how deep thinking can transform a work with time, and how most poems will never be finished, and that’s okay.
I will forever be grateful to the professors in college who showed infinite patience to what felt like a long year of banging my head against a page, waiting for something of value to fall out. I fell even more deeply in love with words and noises. I love the way that they feel in my mouth as I speak. I love the way they fill the tip of my tongue with energy. When I’m reading, my tongue moves, itching to circle around the speech I’m seeing. And this energy circles around and around until suddenly, a new phrase. Then, I begin again. Poetry is an excess of thought, time, and deliberation, fighting to escape my brain. I had to accept that before I could call myself a poet.
Here is a little sneak-peek to what I wrote in my poetics statement for my portfolio last year. It explains a little bit more about what I am talking about with excess:
Poetry has always been excess—simultaneously necessary and unwanted. The idea that no one asked for poetry resonated with me until I realized that I asked for it and that is why I wrote it. The excess comes from wonderment, from wanting to make sense. A semblance of poetry gets made when I am trying to impose order on my chaos. Even if the order is more chaos. It was chaos on my arms, pen bled into skin cracks; chaos on scraps sticking out of notebooks. Now it’s chaos in a frame, all framed on a piece of paper.
When I write I try to write as if I’m in a vacuum, asking myself what I would say if there was no one listening. Poetry equating truth is a clichéd and over-used equation but valuable as a conduit of understanding why I write for myself. If I am not speaking truth, then why am I speaking? What lie am I desiring to hear? This is how I figured out what I sounded like. I started to speak to myself and not the whole world or a classroom. Writing poetry became a completely selfish act in a way that radically changed my voice. On the page, as a poet, I am strong, fearless, vulnerable, honest, misunderstood, unsure, confident, and quiet. The multitudes are exhilarating.
This is just my theory of poetry— how it works for me. I haven’t been published, I haven’t submitted in a few years, and I don’t openly let people read my work. I definitely want to, but it takes a certain type of courage and confidence I don’t have right now. But, this instinct to write never goes away. Even when I’m not dedicated, lines appear and poems emerge. Because of this, I know I am a poet.
Over the past year, I have lost a lot of the drive and stillness that I used to take to write. In honor of National Poetry Month, I decided to start working on my craft again. One of my biggest inspirations is a poetry journal that came out recently by Noor Unnahar called Find Your Voice (we have it in the store). In it, she combines poetry prompts, teaching you tools and techniques, with collage. For experienced poets, it may be a little redundant, but I found the new perspective inspiring (and the pages are just beautiful!). For new writers, this is a fantastic introduction into the somewhat staggeringly intimidating world of poetry.
If you are interested in writing poetry, or have been writing but don’t know how to improve, perhaps take a look at Hugo House. They are a place for writers in Capitol Hill, where an abundance of talented poets teach. The readings are such fun, and the environment is very supportive. Also, take a look at Open Books: A Poem Emporium in the Wallingford neighborhood. I have always loved taking a look at their vast selection and talking to the staff about what they are reading.
I hope that this poetry month finds you with a time for reflection and pause. Take a moment for yourself to do whatever feels poetic to you. Perhaps, grab a pen and paper. You’ll be surprised what comes out.
— Kelleen, Island Books, Mercer Island, WA