This fall, I taught an online writing course meant to help poets put together and prepare their first poetry collections for publication. Though I’d designed the course to be about the practicalities of structuring, formatting, and submitting their manuscripts, by the third class meeting, our conversations had diverged to the role of surprise in poetry. I found myself repeating a quote to my students that one of my previous poetry professors used to say: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” (I am not sure where this quote originally came from but I believe it is a slight adaptation of this quote often attributed to Robert Frost, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”)
To recognize the importance of surprise is, essentially, to recognize the value of curiosity. Curiosity is about listening—to loved ones, to the world around you, to the most quiet and steady voice inside of you. Curiosity is about being open. The importance of being open, not needing to know or trying to control an outcome, is a lesson I keep forgetting and stumbling back to—not just in poetry, but in life.
The poems in The Necessity of Wildfire, my second collection, pursue a question at the heart of most of my writing: how does where and who we came from shape who and how we love? This is likely an unanswerable question. But that doesn’t make it a question not worth asking. I am bewildered by the ever-branching trajectories of my life (any life, really), the traumas and triumphs I’ve experienced and everything in between, the people and places that have shaped me and how I’ve shaped them in return. I’m thinking here of the central lines in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”
The Necessity of Wildfire grapples with difficult issues including abuse, addiction, illness, and grief. I’m often asked why I write about these topics. I’m not interested in sensationalism or blame. I’m interested in unanswerable questions. I’m interested in the act of meaning-making: sitting with the complexity of these topics and looking at them from as many angles as possible. I write poetry because it makes me see the past, present, and future anew. And then does it again, and again.
What does it mean to live in a state of being unresolved?
Recently, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and one particular quote stays with me: “When I refer to ‘creative living,’ […] I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.”
For writers in our current economic and social context, there is a lot to get wrapped up in—submitting to literary journals, trying to get agents and publishing contracts, reaching readers, getting reviews, taking workshops, attending readings and conferences, selling books, etc. But, when you boil it down, all of these things are noise. At its core, writing poetry isn’t about any of that; it is about creating and living a creative life. The older I get, the more I realize how time is the most valuable thing we have. I try to remind myself to cut out the noise and get back to writing, to creating, and being open and unresolved.
I will never fully understand who I am, who I came from, or why I love who I do and how I love. But, through the act of writing, I am creating my own interior landscape, my own mythology.