Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Bug Motel, A Pink Cat, and Why Poetry Isn't a Hobby

As a kid, I would often see something in a store and say, I want that and my father would respond with I can make you that. Don’t worry this isn’t one of those sad father-son stories, because he often followed through. One summer he made me a “bug motel” out of wood, screen, and old scraps of school bus seats (he worked at a school bus factory) and I loved that thing. I spent a whole Indiana summer catching lightning bugs and forcing them to spend the night in my little motel. Often their lights dimmed or they drowned in the coke cap full of water I placed in the motel as a “swimming pool” for my guests. Regardless, he enjoyed making it and I enjoyed playing with it.

I also spent many winters at a Christmas craft fair where my parents had a booth selling goods they made. My dad constructed and painted lots of wooden decorations and toys: doorstops in the shape of kitty cats and turtles and clowns made of building blocks with little felt hats. My mother made stuffed animals. My favorite was a big pink cat that I loved to drag around by its ear, which eventually fell off. When my sisters and I played house, this pink cat was always my “wife.” I even went as far as giving her eye shadow, which was actually just purple chalk I smeared above each eye. If this isn’t proof that people are born gay, I don’t know what is.

The point is these actions made my parents happy. They had no desire to be toy makers or world famous crafters. These were their hobbies. I grew up in the Midwest and making crafts is what people do.

In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the word “hobby.” As a poet, I’ve had this word thrown at me many times. When I first moved to Orlando, I was in a gay club and a friend of mine introduced me to another friend of his. This friend of a friend heard I was a writer and asked what I wrote. I said that I wrote poetry. He responded by saying, poetry is just a hobby. I thought maybe he was joking, so I said, no, I mean I really write and publish poetry. He followed this up with a repeat of his previous comment: poetry is just a hobby. He seemed to be quite upset at the fact that I didn’t accept and understand this concept. He continued to press me by saying, what do you really want to do? I explained, once again, that I wrote poetry and that is what I want to do. Then for a third time he repeated, poetry is just a hobby. This is when I said fuck you and walked away.

This happened over two years ago, yet it hasn’t left my head. I can’t shake this man’s words or the complete disrespect in his face as he repeatedly said hobby. Now, I hate the word. In reality, there is nothing wrong with hobbies. Hobbies make us happy. They keep us busy. They help us make friends. They are something that fills the time, but in an enjoyable way.

Poetry, for me, is not a hobby. I don’t necessarily do it for fun. In fact, sometimes it isn’t fun at all. It is hard work. I recently saw a quotation about how writers are people who give themselves homework for the rest of their lives, and it’s true. I write poetry because I have to and I want to share it. I feel driven to do it, even when it’s painful or unpleasant. I come home from a fulltime job and force myself to write. I don’t write poetry just to share it with my mom or to give it as gifts so I don’t have to spend real money. It doesn’t fill my extra time, because I feel like my job is writing poetry and everything else should cater to it, which doesn’t always get to happen.

A few months ago, I had another odd situation. I taught a publication workshop with a friend and fellow writer and blogger named Jaclyn Sullivan. Our part of the presentation was on literary magazines and publishing fiction and poetry. I was explaining the fact that most literary magazines do not pay you, but give you free copies and help get your name out there. Then, this woman in the back raised her hand and said, so if you aren’t getting paid then what’s the point? She didn’t use the word hobby and I couldn’t, because of the setting, tell her fuck you, but I felt her sentiment was very much the same as the man in the gay club. She couldn’t believe that someone would write without getting paid to do it. Clearly, my presentation was going to be lost on her.

I was taken off guard and said something about loving poetry and then something about probably sounding un-American due to my lacking drive for money and then something else about wanting to actually get a job at a good school teaching in their MFA program. She, and probably many others in the room, could not quite grasp what I was saying or the reason behind my poetic desire. Yes, I am poet. Yes, I don’t make money. Is this why no one cares about the arts anymore? Is it really all about money? How cliché.

I write poetry because I was born to. It is inside me. I know lots people will never understand it and others will always think of it as my hobby. Most will probably never read a poem by me. Yet, somehow none of that really matters. I’ll still be here writing it, sending it out, and publishing it.

My dad has stopped making so many crafts. He now lives in Texas with my mom and my two sisters and his only granddaughter. He is happy. As for my bug motel, it was thrown away years ago, yet it lives on in a poem.

-Stephen (Poet)


  1. Great post. Being a Midwesterner myself, one issue my grandparents had with my writing and lack of financial rewards was that it didn't look like the "work" they were used to "farming, construction, office work, etc." Thus...hobby. My parents get it, thankfully.

  2. Today is William Carlos Williams birthday (b. September 17, 1883):

    "Poets are damned but they are not blind,
    They see with the eyes of the angels."

  3. Your passage regarding the publication workshop and the issue about receiving payments for poetry made me smile inwardly.

    Good post.

  4. Thanks for the comments and for reading.