So in the spring of 2010, I began having some serious anxiety about my poetry. Here I was, with a degree in poetry from the University of Houston, two books of poems under my belt, and a job teaching Creative Writing and English at a tiny high school which had developed enough of a reputation for Creative Writing that at least a couple dozen kids a year applied there because they wanted to be writers.
That’s all great, I thought, but a part of me was slowly turning to dust inside because I hadn’t written what I thought was a decent poem in several years.
To be fair, I was embroiled in writing a novel and had made some forays into memoir. And I had always considered myself a fiction writer more than anything else, even from the time I was a child. (I think the first time I read one of my short stories in front of an audience was during fourth grade, and yeah, I knew then that Story was It.) But though I’d begun my education at UH as a fiction writer, about halfway through I felt stymied and switched to poetry, and then I wrote nothing but poems for about three years.
What did I learn from that? Simply, how language works. How to navigate the relationships between words. So after writing only poetry for a while (other, of course, than the literary analysis essays — about other people’s poetry — required for some of my classes), when I came back to fiction, the result stunned me. My stories were a lot better.
But back to 2010. I hadn’t been writing poems. I had barely been scraping together enough time to draft more than a chapter or two per semester on my novel, thanks to my job teaching high school. I was coming slowly out of what some might have called a mid-life crisis but which my artist friends assured me was really an artistic crisis. My identity, which had for most of my life been at least partially wrapped up in my ability to be creative, was suffering due to a lack of time for anything creative. After having two kids and continuing to teach high school full-time, I had quit my hobbies (dancing, painting, jewelry making), and I was treating my writing (and please forgive me for this) like a hobby.
So Aaron encouraged me to sign up for a poetry workshop at Inprint over the summer (when I do not teach). I took it. It was transformational. (And here I must give a shout out to the most excellent Paul Otremba, who was leading the workshop.) I wrote a lot of poems that summer, and many of them received a good welcome, but beyond that, I was actually satisfied with my work. I felt so relieved, every other aspect of my writing career began to flourish in the wake.
* * *
When I began teaching, lo these many eons ago, one of my classes challenged me to write a sestina with six words they chose on the spot at random. They gave me a week to do it, in what I imagine they must have thought was a fun table-turning moment. I laughed. I’m not a trained monkey. Why should I perform?
“Come on,” they said. “If this form is so much fun, just do it.”
I sighed. “Okay, this does sound interesting. What are the words?”
They came up with them quickly, enthusiastically. Flower, grace, cold, water, coward, chump.
“You’re on,” I grinned. “I won’t need a week.”
* * *
So why am I telling you this story now? I have learned, in the past month, that my poems are making their way into the world again. Of those poems I wrote last summer, several are under consideration for publication right now, and one has been selected for print in two different anthologies. I’m also going to be a Juried Poet at Houston Poetry Fest again this year. I’m jazzed.
So I wanted to share a poem with you. Since I can’t put any of those newer poems here on my blog while they’re under consideration or about to go to print, I thought I’d share that poem my students challenged me to write way back in the day. (It has been published, in the e-magazine PHUI and in my book Gypsies, but I own the copyright.) It’s also sort of an important poem for me because I think when I wrote it I crystallized, internally, the generally stoic nature toward most of the world which I hoped to adopt in my life.
If anyone is interested in the mechanics of a sestina or how to write one, please post a comment. (And apologies: one of the lines in this poem is really long, and the margins of the blog template won’t allow it to fit all on one line, and I can’t figure out how to tab it over, so it looks like two lines, but it’s not.)
For the Cold Lovers
(or, Survival of the Fittest)
I must have been a real chump
to be excited by that rare treat, the flower
you gave me. Maybe because I had been a coward
then, I thrilled to see the graceful
petals even after they’d fallen – gracefully – into the water
glass on the table in the cold
corner of the room. (I thought the cold
would preserve (my chump-
euphoria and) the life (in the watery
grave) of the tiny flower.
I was wrong. It died a pathetic – yet graceful –
death, leaning slowly toward its demise like a coward.)
That plant was a coward,
and so had I been, unafraid of the cold
(the wrong thing to trust) and worried, like a graceful
music box dancer, by the independence which might protect me. We’re a bunch of chumps –
me, the satin-slippered chick, that slowly dying flower –
and we ought to be put out to sea without food or drinking water
in the hopes that the salt-water
creatures will overturn our craft of cowards.
Then I will try to hold, to comfort the choking girl as she weeps for the flower
(that has already found a grave in the cold
sea) and thrashes about (like the chump
she is proving herself to be) in that graceful
way she has, until I say, “To hell with this grace
and daintiness, you’ll drown in these waters
if you don’t stop acting like a chump
waiting to be rescued and grow some strength! The cowards
can’t swim to shore, and the cold
will overtake you if you aren’t wise. The flower
is already dead.” She’ll weep for the flower
and the death and the woe until her pathetic, graceful
thrashing convinces me not to care anymore, and I leave her to the cold,
unforgiving, undrinkable ocean water,
letting her gently (tired from the thrashing) weep, a quieting coward
sinking into the deep, the grave of the chumps.
And I, no longer a chump or a coward,
will swim back through those waters, strong of arm and a new grace,
wary now of the cold and unimpressed by flowers.