hurts so much more
than love rejecting;
they act like they don’t love their country
what it is
is they found out
their country don’t love them
— Lucille Clifton
I used to write poetry all the time, had this idea that I was a poet. A couple of my poems won some competition when I was in junior high. They weren’t all that, but at the time, I was pretty happy with them. I wrote mostly greeting-card-style poems: lots of nice, sing-song-rhythm rhymes, lots of pretty sentiments. The poems got less sweet and sappy, less rhyme-y, in high school when my family started falling apart and I had a breakdown. The writing still wasn’t great, but it was a lot closer to being good than the earlier work.
I went off to college with the thought I’d ‘hone my craft’ and become a ‘real’ writer. I don’t know if the system still works this way, but when I got to Sarah Lawrence, students interviewed the professors in order to choose classes. It was an interesting idea, sure, but not so workable in practice for me. At 17, I wouldn’t have known how to interview prospective newspaper delivery kids, let alone my teachers. I was completely intimidated by a man who probably would have been a fine poetry instructor, and went instead with a kindly-seeming woman who wound up shutting me down entirely.
That ‘kindly-seeming woman’ was poet Patricia Goedicke. Forgive me, but I am going to speak ill of the dead here. Ms. Goedicke may have presented as warm and kind in our interview, but she wasn’t particularly either in our workshop. There was one student in the class whose work she very much liked, and she did not hesitate to make sure the rest of us knew that, didn’t hold back from saying that we couldn’t hold a candle to that student and that our inferiority even stripped us of our right to offer critiques of anyone’s writing. And then there were my one-on-one conferences with her.
When the year ended, I put down my pen and called it quits on writing. It was clear to me that I wasn’t a writer, that I’d never been a writer and that there was no chance of me ever being a writer.
Three years passed. My last year in college, a friend told me that if I didn’t write a story and show it to someone she would stop speaking to me. She bullied me into setting up a meeting with one of the fiction instructors, and once I had that deadline, I sat down and wrote a story. The instructor I met with was Grace Paley. And she was completely lovely with me. Our 30-minute meeting stretched to an hour, and I left kicking myself for not having signed up for a fiction workshop freshman year instead of poetry, for not having walked away from Goedicke’s class after the first insult, for having doubted my ability to write because of one person’s unkindness.
I wrote like crazy after that, but I didn’t write poetry. That was a room I wasn’t allowed to enter. Poetry was for other people, people with more talent, people who knew or understood more … about language, about life, about … I don’t know what, but something that I didn’t know and understand.
When I started teaching adult literacy classes, I found my way back to poetry. I couldn’t make my students try to write poems and not try right alongside them. And I wrote bad poems, but I liked them, so I kept writing. But that was just messing around. It didn’t make me A POET.
Obviously, I’m still writing poems. Last spring, I turned out almost five dozen tanka, for goodness sake. I’m definitely still writing poems. I don’t always love them, but I do like them, like that I’m writing them. But calling myself a poet? Can’t quite get there yet. Still feel like that’s a room I’m not allowed in. Still letting one person (who’s been dead nearly four years, I find) dictate how I can and can’t think of myself as a writer. Almost let that old hurt keep me from attending the Sonia Sanchez workshop two weeks ago. I’ve got some work to do.
Taking one more chance,
spreading my ribs to reveal
the whole of my heart in one glance.
What will it cost to feel
that raw, that vulnerable, to reel
back from the door-closing “We regret to inform,”
that luke-warm “No” harsh as an ice-storm?
* Thank you, Piri Thomas.