Thursday, April 22, 2010

National Poetry Month: Poems That Changed Me

Writing poetry is a challenge for me, but a challenge I love and can't seem to escape. My process is one of many revisions and lots of reworking. I write endless drafts and spend hours upon hours writing and revising before I let even Dustin read a copy. In many ways, nothing ever seems good enough, but I think that is the lot of most artists.

I've written hundreds of poems. Many have seen the light of day, many have been read by friends or workshop peers, and a few have been published (check out my new publications tab at the top of my blog). Others are hidden deep in the files on my computer that might one be rescued or might stay in solitude forever. There's also been a few that have changed me and my work forever.

When you begin a poem you never know where it might take you or what it might do to you. In many ways, I'm not in control of the poem. The end result can astonish me and move me in ways I never thought possible. It is this moment that I write for, and when it happens it's powerful.

In this post I am going to write briefly about a five poems that I've written that have affected me in this way. These are poems that challenged me and proved something to me. They often led me on new paths and journeys within my work.

1. An Obituary for My Boyfriend Who Did Not Die of AIDS

I wrote this poem in the spring 2006. I was in my second semester of my MFA and still trying to find my poetry legs among many talented people. A week or two earlier, I'd gotten this idea of writing obituaries for people who had not died. I wrote one about my mother and it had gone pretty well, but this one pushed me into a new direction. This poem is brutally honest, the lines are longer (which at the time I rarely did), and it's intimate in a way my work hadn't been before. The poem deals with the strange position you often find yourself in as a younger gay person in relation to the AIDS crisis. This poem showed me what I was capable of and made me realize I have stories and voices to share that are unique to me and my identity as a gay man. My workshop was surprised by the poem in the best way possible. For me, this was the beginning of what would become my thesis and my first book manuscript, though I didn't know it at the time. Sadly, this poem has still never been accepted by a journal. It might be one of my most rejected poems.

2. Making Love After Watching Interview with the Vampire

This is the first Brad Pitt poem I wrote and it is also from my MFA days. It was one of those days when I was up for workshop, but had no poem I felt like taking. I was feeling stressed and not really in the mood for workshop. I had recently watched Interview with the Vampire and it was still floating around in my head. I then sat down and wrote a draft of this poem. I read over it and revised it a bit and thought, hell, I'll take it to workshop. This was, and still is, very unlike me (see process note above). I was prepared for an attack. Not a brutal attack (that didn't happen too much at FSU), but a slow ripping apart of my poem (which might be worse). Instead, people loved it, and I suddenly started to see the potential in the poem. I had tossed it off as a fun pop culture poem, but I realized there was a great idea here. This pushed me to write seven more poems about Brad Pitt. The series is one of the best things I've written and really demonstrates how pop culture can inform and push a poem. This was a big breakthrough for me as a writer. It also led me to teach a pop culture poetry class for three semesters.

3. Iranian Boys Hanged for Sodomy, July 2005

This poem means a lot to me for so many reasons. First of all, it is based on a photograph I saw in The Advocate of two young Iranians about to be hanged for sodomy. The image is so startling and powerful that it has never left me. I cut out the picture and placed it in one of my many writing journals. I kept coming back to this image and felt a strong urge to write about it, but had no idea how. I was overwhelmed with emotions about this image, yet I knew I had to get something out. This poem went through more drafts than nearly any poem I've written before, because it was so difficult. I didn't want to exploit the image or situation, or place myself inside it as if I could understand it. Instead, the poem became about this image and how it affects a western gay couple. The end result is a poem I'm proud of and a poem that I hope has a powerful effect on anyone who reads it. This poem is also significant to me because it won me my first poetry award and my first cash prize for my work. This poem won the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award in 2008. The poem is available on Gival Press' website and was also included in their anthology Poetic Voices Without Borders: 2.

4. This Side Up

This poem proved to me that I could be a poet without school to push me to write. I wrote this poem in the summer of 2008. I had graduated in May with my MFA and I had been unemployed since. I was spending as much of my time writing as possible and out of that writing came this poem. At the time, it was the longest poem I had ever written. It is three pages of fairly long lines. This poem is about my roommate in college, who was Muslim and from Pakistan. During my first month of my freshmen year, 9/11 happened. This poem explores my relationship with my roommate, the events after 9/11, and my struggle with religion and my sexuality. It's an extremely narrative poem and one that weaves various stories and events together. This poem pushed me out on my own and helped me create a style that I'm still using today. It also changed my book manuscript forever. The title of the manuscript is now This Side Up.

5. An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn't Moving Anymore

This poem isn't actually finished yet. It is still a work in progress. I have a full draft that I've revised many times, but there is more revisions to do. I'm including it, because it has already changed me significantly. A few months ago, my friend V sent me a syllabus for her documentary poetry class she is taking in Utah. I ordered most of the books from the class and read them. I mentioned this earlier when discussing the chapbook I recently finished called A History of Blood. One of the assignments on the syllabus was to write a 10 to 15 page poem. I saw this as the perfect challenge for me. For even longer, I had been playing with the idea of writing a poem about Jeffery Dahmer. Everything seemed to align itself and I began writing. I now have a 12 page poem that might just be the best thing I've ever written. I'm proud of it, excited by it, and it keeps me entertained and challenged. It was easier than I was expecting to put together such a long poem. I'm unsure what I'm going to do with this poem, but for now it has opened new doors and new poetic possibilities and for that I'm thankful.

-Stephen (Changed)


  1. Wow, this is such a great post. When I first read the title, I thought it would be about other people's poems that changed you, but this is even better. I may copy you and write a similar post!

    I often think of myself as not a "real" poet because I don't have a book yet, but when I read your posts, you remind me that we are real poets already, that we are doing the work it takes to be poets, book or no book, that we are learning and improving all the time. So thank you.

  2. 最豐滿最好之稻穗,便最貼近地面........................................

  3. Thanks for this great post! I came across the your blog through Dustin Brookshire. I am glad that I did.

  4. Jory, Thanks so much for the comment and for reading! Nice to meet you.

  5. You inspire me often to get my head back in the poetry game, though these days I'm so entrenched in fiction that poetry feels like an alien country I once could navigate but have long since forgotten, lol...