Thursday, April 1, 2010

National Poetry Month: How I Became a Poet

April marks National Poetry Month and I will be devoting much of my blogging this month to issues facing the poetry world, my own poetic journey, and work I admire by other fine poets. I encourage you to take this month and read poetry, read about poetry, and write poetry. I hope you enjoy this first entry in my National Poetry Month series.

I never planned to be a poet. I planned to be a novelist. My head was always bursting with characters, elaborate plots, and heartbreaking endings. I spent much of my middle school years writing novel length works on my family's first computer. I'd print them out on one of those old printers that required you to removed the edges of the pages and I'd hold my story in my hands and feel the weight of it. It felt heavy and accomplished. Rarely, did anyone read these long works. My family often read short stories I wrote, but hardly ever the longer ones. These were mine. They were my treasures, my achievements, and my dreams.

I never became that novelist. I haven't written a piece of fiction in nearly three or four years. Yet, somehow that little boy novelist growing up in rural Indiana become the poet sitting here in Florida. I'm not even sure I can pinpoint the exact moment I shifted to the "other side." For I quickly learned that fiction writers and poets are very different people.

In high school, I began to tinker more with poetry. It began to appeal to me because it was shorter and I thought it was easier to work with and get a sense of accomplishment from (this was before I realized how hard it is to write a good poem). I still wrote some fiction and still imagined that one day I would write that great American novel that everyone would read and professors would assign in some really hard contemporary fiction class.

This all changed when I entered college, and I finally got to take my first creative writing class. It was there in the spring of 2002 that poetry got me, so maybe I can pinpoint the moment. In the class, my poetic work always got more attention than anything I wrote in prose. I distinctively remember turning in a poem called "The 32nd Wheelbarrel" and my professor (who became my mentor) wrote on my paper, "You are a poet. Know it bone marrow deep." Those are powerful words for any 19-year-old to hear. It is one thing to write and write and write, but it is another to have a moment that you feel what you wrote mattered to someone else.

As my college years continued, I wrote more and more poetry and by my junior or senior year I called myself a poet, but shyly. I, sometimes, still feel funny saying the words out loud. I often just say, "I'm a writer" and then people go, "what do you write?" and then I have to say, "Poetry, I'm a poet." The reason I feel funny is that most people don't get it. I often get one of two reactions. The first is silence and a confused look. If the person is a stranger, they often quickly move away from me. The second option is them launching into a "discussion" of poetry, which often includes references to songs being poetry, rhyming, or Maya Angelou. I hate both of these options.

Poetry is often misunderstood and people seemed puzzled by someone who would devote large amounts of time to writing it. I also always feel the need to throw in something about actually being a published poet (in real magazines) or about my MFA. When most people hear "poet," they think of someone writing ridiculous poems and reading them at open mic nights in a black turtle neck (not to offend anyone who does that, but that's not me).

I've grow into being a poet over the last ten years. I'm not the same person or the same writer. I've realized I will probably never write that novel, because fiction isn't my thing. I love reading it, but it's not in me. I'm confident today in what I'm doing and the power it has for me and can have for readers. I write for my own survival. If I didn't write I'm not sure where I would be or what kind of life I would have. Writing poetry feeds me, which is why I've written so much in the last two years as I've struggled with my teaching career and finding a place I want to be. When you are a poet, you have to be a poet for yourself first. You don't become a poet to make money or become famous. You then have to put your work out there and see what happens. I've been lucky in the last two years to get a huge surge in publications and interest in my work and I hope the surge continues, but whether it continues or not I will be here writing and writing and writing some more. I don't know what else to do.

Perhaps, I fell into poetry unexpectedly. I didn't plan it or predict it, but now it's my everything and my savior. Yes, I am a poet and I know it in the very marrow of my bones.

-Stephen (Poet)


  1. I, too, was a teenage novelist. I've still got the "masterpiece" of those years, a "Saved-by-the-Bell"-ish pile of crap where all the male characters were suggestively close and my dialogue was pulled from song lyrics. I started to identify more as a poet in my senior year of high school, when I discovered I got more bang for my buck with 20 lines instead of 20,000. I identify with your path to identification as a poet on a lot of levels.

    Happy National Poetry Month, Stephen. I'm glad someone took the time early on to make you see what you really are... and the world (especially my world) is a better place because of it.