Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 6, 2007

Poetry Friday: A Prose Writer Tries her Hand at Poems

I was a little kid who liked to read, memorize, and write poems. I can still make an awkward attempt at “The Shores of Gitcheegummee, by the shining deep sea waters.” As a teen, I didn’t consider another genre that wasn’t short and hard. In my first college creative writing course I focused on verse, though my wise teacher asked me to turn in some letters I wrote home, describing my actual life, to steer me away from too much “huh”ness, a tendency to say… anything. I found I liked being grounded more, and wanted to involve myself with characters for a duration; I also loved reading novels.

After a fling with teaching junior high, I went to grad school, where aspiring writers had to choose a place: poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, and stay there. It was clear there were identity issues in these placements, too. We fiction writers may have had a very poor shot at making money, but, hey, we thought, at least we’re not poets. The fiction teachers were all guys, tough enough to earn the program the nickname of “The School of Hunting and Fishing.” Of the two poetry professors, one wore long, gauzy dresses and evocative hats, while the man was apt to endearingly crack up at just about anything. They were cool, but would you want to bring them home to your family, and say, this is who I might become?

Decades have passed since then and I feel pretty secure in who I am. I love fiction and nonfiction, and my poetry impulses have gotten some play in the paring I’ve done writing picture books. But as I make a new connection with an old love, poems that can stand on their own, I feel tentative. Do I have what it takes? Will readers sigh or laugh or choke? And that identity thing still hovers. When I told my husband of 24 years, who knew my grad school friends, that I was writing poems, he joked, only slightly nervously, “I didn’t sign on for this.”

Still I’m making the leap.

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Responses

  1. Do you have a favorite poet? Brad Kessler, who is an amazing writer, says that he reads poetry when he is writing fiction as the words clean his mind, but no voice threatens to take over. I have been reading a lot of Paul Celan as I fight with revisions. You?

  2. Thanks for the suggestions — I’ll look for Brad Kessler and Paul Celan. Ach, favorites! I’m writing biographical poems, just to make things particularly crazy, I want a thread moving along through the poems, which Marilyn Nelson does so well and Carole Oles, Inventions on the Life of Maria Mitchell and a newer one on the sculptor Harriet Hosmer. I do like Billy Collins and Dorianne Laux among the contemporaries, with enough feet on the ground stuff then magicky twists. I grew up on, back in the day, when I was young and depressed, Plath and Sexton and still like them — I liked Stephanie Hemphill’s “verse portrait” of Plath that came out this year. Like Patricia McCormick’s astonishing SOLD, it spurred me to try poems with long narrative threads, which, I may regret, but…


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