Who I am: Coming To Terms With Being a Poet

i-am-520073__180I am a writer, an animal advocate, and a wanna-be creative writing instructor, but if you look closely, you’d realize that every action provides me with a reason to think. I am always thinking, daydreaming, analyzing, reminiscing, writing about what I am thinking and daydreaming, or talking about what I am analyzing or reminiscing. Pass me a list of words, and I will elect to use them as part of my recreational writing habits to create a twenty page essay, or short story, or long poem. During my “Foundations of Form” course in Graduate School, I created a forty-four page journal devoted to listing and defining words and phrases that I collected from course readings, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Though I was once terrified to share this with friends and relatives, I now fully indulge my verbomania sessions. The true poet-activist me that I kept safely hidden from the world gradually pervaded through my many layers of protective coatings.

Tough Girl refused the existence of my insecurities, and their right to portray me as anyone that I am not. Though I am still cautious when vocalizing language, as the fear of judgment from my peers, and my strong compulsion to preserve words within myself continues, I gladly accept the word logophile as a part of my personal characterization. Because words are so deeply meaningful to me, as my companions, my flashlights for maneuvering through a world that seems always to surprise and confuse me, and because I love people so much that I feel an insatiable need to relate to them through words of their personal lexicon, my speech is often slowed by the mental word scanning process.

My vortex sucks the land dry of words, like abstemious, sentry, changeling, impish, pinioned, palliative. I no longer spend my time concocting characters for myself; prevaricating my true persona no longer interests me. So if you spend enough time with me, stare directly to the core of me, like my dogs following me with their wise eyes as I eat, defecate, scribble a word onto a facial tissue while in the midst of cleaning their kennels. Staring into my aura like them, you will watch me as I rush out the door to go boogie boarding, attend dinner with a friend, or an Indigo Girls concert, while in the midst of organizing an essay, selecting a new word for an old poem, and using the word to bring up a topic of conversation with my wife. Watch the syntax swirl in my wake, like leaves in the wind on a woodland floor. Watch the chunks of poetic debris fall like confetti cascading from a pinata. Ask me, if you don’t think it’s true. Or just read my essay “An Addict Like Me?”:

I’ve spent a sizeable portion of my life wondering about poetry, reading poetry, reading biographies and articles about poets and poetry, and conversing about poets and poetry. Over and over, I lose time during the poetry process: compulsively conceiving poetry from my imagination, incubating it somewhere in my emotions, nourishing it with my thoughts and delivering it into accurate words with the best level of intellect that I possess.

Minutes tick on, but I don’t notice my breath suspending, cotton ball clouds hanging, morning rise or night descend, the screaming, the nurses, the rushing, blood gushing from my cervix, a womb still saturated in syntax . A tornado or bomb or earthquake could cause me to break my neck, lose a limb, and I would still be thinking about that one perfect, precious, brilliant line with its delicate fists, cherub cheeks, and demonstrative cries for relief and recognition, the one that simmered in my sac and was about to pierce through.

The clinical, mental health and recovery side of me, challenges the notion that this just might be an addiction. A perversity. A side effect of some mental disorder or dissonance in the relationships between my psyche, ego, subconscious, brain functions. I don’t know. Are we poets addicts?

This question is far too large for me, just like poetry is a thing that often eats me, thrashes my skin, crunches my bones and leaves me for dead, while I still cling to its veins, its umbilical cord wrapped around my pelvic bone. But I pursue an answer, just the same. During his Statement of Conscience in Poets Against the War, Peter Levitt writes that a poet’s “. . . morality and word are identities . . .” (120) which supports my metaphor of giving birth. Words and the meanings that they combine to signify are part of who poets know themselves to be. They are just as much a part of a poet as children are a part of their mothers or fathers, as an extension of identity.

We deliver them into the crush of cold light with the same intentions that parents have for their children. Good, conscious parents want their children to eat natural fruit, take warm baths, feed on the nutrients of breast for as long as possible, and become ripe with native goodness, the morality that comes from their juices, so that they can live the life of their dreams. Poets feed their art with reading, education, practice and the fruit of our imaginations and experiences. We hold them tenderly, let them suckle on our minds, direct them toward right and as far away from wrong as possible, and carefully, mindfully prepare them for life on the page.

Poets want their craft to develop and thrive, and progress toward success with dignity. Like Levitt suggests, poets “. . . have the hidden hope – perhaps hidden even from ourselves – that, against all odds, our poems will somehow reestablish a ground where life, in all its true nature and various forms can live as it was meant to” (120). Poets want their pieces to triumph, become heroes, and make things happen naturally, too. We may even expect too much of them, like parents do with their children. Much like a drug or symptoms of a mental disorder, we can also become codependent on poetry, as we rely on their structures to support us, want them to shelter us, move us forward or make us happen.

Levitt also relates a similar vision of mine when he states: “Fill the air with poems / so thick – / even bombs / can’t fall through” (120). Just like the production of poetry, for me, causes desensitization to my environment (as I state above, even bombs), Levitt suggests that poetry has the potential to prevent destruction caused by bombs, or that it can arm us with capabilities beyond nature. If poetry is so powerful that it can send poets into a mental state satiated by elements of euphoria, or alter views so strongly that they are like sheaths against bombs, then how is poetry dissimilar from the sensations of drug use or mental health conditions?

As much as poems provide a writer, like me, with a brief, natural period of solitary relief from all exterior conditions, poets, no doubt, want to produce prolific poetry, function outside of ourselves, as an expression of ourselves, yet exist in service to others, and we want others to experience the same phenomenal release as achieved during the creation of poetry.

We want others to see the meaning in our words while simultaneously experience the high that is achieved in the state of producing them. We want others to laugh and smile, cry and frown at the images we’ve created from within ourselves, like photographs of children that parents often share with friends, family and the world. Yet with all this gallantry and esteem involved with our intent, do our imaginations and thoughts and words infest our minds, like a mental disorder or narcotic, to the extent that we believe that we can use them like shields of peace and protection? Do any of us have control over our desires to “repair the world” (Levitt, 120) with words?

During her poem “NO” in Poets Against the War, Joy Harjo intimated a notion similar to Levitt’s when she states how she had hoped “our words might rise up and jam the artillery in the hands / of dictators” (96). The idea that the words we use and the language we formulate can act like antacid or some immediate resolution to acts of war is much like the idea of personifying the poem, naturally giving it life, fingers and fists that can hold up against the barrels of military weapons.

Harjo expresses the concept that poetry has the ability to clean “the air of enemy spirits” (96), which suggests that poetry, both the product and formation, is the equivalent of spiritual healing, like prayer or meditation. Poetry is a suspension of time, a love that holds like vapor in the air until we breathe it back in again. Poetry is satisfying, enriching; and since it is such a divine experience, sometimes, it is addicting. Sometimes, it lodges in me so deeply that I miss an exit, drift off the road, forget to brush my teeth, put a bra on, lock the doors and turn off the stove. Isn’t poetry addicting? Aren’t we all addicts?

Both Levitt and Harjo portray poets as paltry or ineffectual with their work, yet both cause us to wonder about that definition. Levitt calls poets “foolish, foolish souls. . .” yet he immediately states that they are also “. . . blessed with the notion – the certainty – that a human being armed with nothing more than a syllable may help to repair the world” (120). Harjo (or her narrator) wrote that she expected “like a fool” (95) that her words could stop a dictator from cruelty, but even if poetry didn’t bring war down, “we had to keep going” (96).   As producers, mothers and fathers of our work, our minds are sometimes stolen by the sensations of poetry, then dumped into a mixer that combines our egos, intellects, imaginations and emotions into a mastery shake of courage and valor, esteem of the highest form.

We begin believing that this one piece of art can absolve the world of its filth, inject it with super serum, like the kind we’ve just experienced during creation. Poets can sometimes, unknowingly, yes, foolishly, believe that our babies are superhuman, super special, yet ask me if I would ever look away from that blooming firework in my mind? Ask me if I’d ever cheat on the words, orphan them, throw my baby into the ashes of war or walk away from the sensation of words like everlasting morphine lollipops. When you become impregnated with the blessing of poetic life, nothing else matters.

It’s possible that poets are either chemically dependent upon poetry, like a drug, or poetry is a part of mental discord. Neither definition matters, since poetry is as natural to us as it is to the birthing process. When we’re lying on our backs, legs up in the stirrups, or latched onto birth in progress with our sweaty hands, in anticipation and anxiety and ecstasy, we don’t worry about whether we’ll wind up like John Carey’s poet character in “To A Cautious Poet,” hanging behind the blinds while praised, admired and viciously tortured, then murdered, dead. We don’t give a damn about the fools who say we don’t matter or we matter too much or we just might be druggies or mental, suicidal, like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman . . . . .

To all those who wonder, negatively or positively, or somewhere in between, about poets and poetry, like me, I ask you: Do we speak too slowly? Are we quiet, passive, spontaneous, erratic, egotistical, led astray by spiritual predilections, compulsive, lonesome, dramatic, emotional, empathetic, alcoholics, irrational or philosophical? Yes. Yes. We are all of those things, just like all mothers and fathers and humans can be. We want to experience with you, so that poetry, in all its ethereal and earthly combinations, can be ubiquitous, like love. Roque Dalton’s “Like You” on page 121 of Poetry Like Bread can provide the best response to these questions:

Like you I

love love, life, the sweet smell

of things, the sky-blue

landscape of January days.


And my blood boils up

and I laugh through eyes

that have known the buds of tears.


I believe the world is beautiful

and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.


And that my veins don’t end in me

but in the unanimous blood

of those who struggle for life,


little things,

landscape and bread,

the poetry of everyone.

Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”

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