Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 5, 2016

Who is a Poet? Who Gets to Decide?

At the beginning of the class I taught on verse novels, a student told us she’d asked a prominent writer whether she might write a good one if she isn’t an experienced poet. He told her no. This story sort of hovered over us through the course. Even if no one had told us we shouldn’t attempt what we were attempting, our own minds supplied such a voice. We began reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, in which both Lonnie and Jack have teachers who see poets in their sensitive young students. But we also read essays from writers who insisted that not every child is or can be a poet. We’re grownups, but we have histories of encouragement and dismissals. Who is a poet and who gets to decide?


Through July, we read verse novels and composed parts of some, trying to blend poetry and stories. As we wrote, we didn’t murmur aloud, “Is this worthy of being called verse? Is it good enough?” But I could feel the breath of the effort to infuse narrative with lyric moments. And everyone wrote some brilliant pieces. We had much to celebrate in the last class as people read work aloud. It was a festive evening.

Then the next day I got an email from a student, who let me know that she wasn’t going to stalk me with her doubt, but what she’d read the night before sounded a little flat to her ears, maybe partly in comparison to other more brilliant work.

Her work wasn’t flat. But I understand that amidst the celebration, traces of doubt were rising. Second thoughts had appeared in apologies we quickly squashed.

Doubt is always with us, and I think can rear high right after a class. We’ve had deadlines, prompts, structure, and each other’s interest and applause, and now all that is gone. I told my student a bit of what I loved in her work and advised her to reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and read Art and Fear. She wrote back that she would and was going for a swim. A lake was another most excellent idea.

A writing class makes a sort of home, and it’s sad when that door closes. But there will be other homes, though we have to make them. Staying connected with people in the class, and/or finding others who will share work, deadlines, and cheers. Doubt is part of the process. It doesn’t mean one should stop work. Rather we should make a place where it can be swatted down and kept in its proper sleepy place.


In Hate That Cat, Jack gets another school year with Ms. Stretchberry, who encourages him to examine his antipathy to cats, move beyond grief, write about a new love, and experiment with more poetic forms. Locomotion has shown Lonnie mourning not a dog, but his parents. And in Jacqueline Woodson’s follow-up, Peace, Locomotion, Ms. Marcus, who called him a poet – “Not a whole lot of people be saying, ‘Good, Lonnie,’ to me.” — is gone, replaced by a teacher who says he’s not a poet as he isn’t published. He stops writing poems, and more of the book is made up of letters to his sister. Though the poetry shines through.

Not just in a class but in our whole lives as writers, we’ll meet those who nudge us forward and those who seem to hold us back. Sometimes they can be the same person. Sometimes they can be us. Perhaps the writer who was asked by my student if she might be up to this challenge thought that if she had to ask, she didn’t have the talent or fortitude. But he was wrong. A better answer might have been to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

None of us can see the future value of anyone’s work, including our own. When I’m asked about potential, I like to err on the side of “go for it.” Writers owe that to each other as much as we need to urge each other to go back for another draft, letting each revision teach us how to make the next better. Most of us who write remember both teachers who saw hope in our work and ones who were unmoved. Both nurturing and fearful voices remain in our heads. Our job becomes to feel prodded by both, raising our own standards, while being kind to ourselves.


Meanwhile, we try to be grateful for the process, as no one knows how what we write will be received. Finding Wonders will be published this September. Stone Mirrors will come out this coming January. I love having two books of historical verse, which represent perhaps ten years of work, moving into the world together. Sometimes we get such happy endings – before we begin again.

Please visit the ever-encouraging Tara at A Teaching Life to enjoy more Poetry Friday posts.


  1. Congrats on your books. They look wonderful. I wonder about people who act as gatekeepers to talent with children. Who discourage so easily. Whose hurtful words can be remembered a lifetime.

    I wonder if he heard the question wrong. What she was really asking was could I write a novel in verse someday. The answer is always going to be yes. If you want something enough to work for it, then you will get there. She wasn’t asking can I write as well as you do even though I’m only ten and will only spend one afternoon on it. The answer to that would be no. But I wonder if that’s how he heard the question. Sometimes our own insecurities create a filter that distorts everything into a questioning of our ability.

    When I taught writing, I told my students that Every Voice Matters. Each Story is Unique. Maybe every voice can’t be published, maybe every produced work isn’t perfect. But the effort of writing down one’s thoughts is key to a happy life of understanding and articulating the universe. Of feeling connected, alive and heard.

    • The student in this case was a grad student, but your point about her possibly mishearing is certainly valid. And your point about how many of us focus on our weak spots. I love your philosophy of every voice mattering. Lucky students to grow in such an environment. What more can we want than to feel “connected, alive and heard.” Beautiful. Thank you!

      • I meant that the professional author could have misheard the question. My students were at the Senior Center, and they had been told not to write their whole lives by family and teachers. They had amazing stories.

        • Ah, yes. We all have hearing issues of various kinds. Yay for amazing stories and those who ask to hear them!

  2. Celebrating your successes! I can’t wait to read. As I struggle into a novel in verse myself, I sometimes feel like I’m wading into the ocean and waves slap me sideways, drag me under and throw me bedraggled back on shore. The overwhelmed feeling and the doubts fight for ascendency!

    • Thanks, Dori. That ocean makes us stronger. Every day it feels like standing off, brushing off the salt, and starting again. Sending big faith in the process your way!

  3. Another beautifully written piece, Jeannine. So inspiring! I used to love teaching poetry writing. I remember many years ago we had visiting teachers come into our classrooms in Amherst to help children write poetry. Then we would publish their poems in class books. The late poet Kenneth Koch used to teach poetry writing for children… I believe his book was “Wishes, Lies and Dreams.” I miss teaching….

    • Thanks, Laurie for the comment but more for all your great teaching. I’m so happy that Emily had you introducing art and writing with so much respect both for the craft and for children. And I’m glad she grew up in time when kindergarten was a place for such self and world exploration, before testing crept in. Thank you!

  4. As a writing teacher, I found myself reading these lines over and over: “Most of us who write remember both teachers who saw hope in our work and ones who were unmoved. Both nurturing and fearful voices remain in our heads.” I am so mindful of these voices when I speak with my students – I want them to believe in themselves, for why try if you are told there is little hope of success?

    • I know your voice remains with many students, to be remembered and treasured for many years ahead. It was my second grade teacher who stayed with me — sharing my love for poetry, and letting me and my friends Heather and Naomi work on making little books at recess, during an era when no one thought to assign such. Your students clearly blossom under your belief in them. They are lucky! Thank you for your good work!

  5. Your words are a gift to all writers, Jeannine, as your books are a gift to readers. I’m excited about Stone Mirrors – the cover is lovely!!!!

    • Thanks, Sarah. Yes, I’m so happy about that cover, illustration by Ekua Holmes.

  6. “Doubt is part of the process. It doesn’t mean one should stop work. Rather we should make a place where it can be swatted down and kept in its proper sleepy place.” This is such a challenge for me, and it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone. Thank you, as always, for your wise words. I’m so excited to read your new books!

    • Thanks, Catherine! I feel some doubt every day, which last some days longer than others. Over time, I’ve learned to see it as a phase to go through. It doesn’t mean I love it, but I accept it. At some point it changes into something happier. Good luck with your work.

  7. I was lucky to have encouraging teachers, even in college, and while sometimes I have doubt, I love poetry and writing it so much that I keep on. I love this, Jeannine: “Our job becomes to feel prodded by both, raising our own standards, while being kind to ourselves.” Congratulations for the coming books, looking forward to them!

    • Thanks for the good wishes, Linda. All those encouraging teachers must have made you part of that line, as well as a confident and happy writer (at least most of the time, which is what counts!)

  8. I had a creative writing teacher in HS who managed to convince me that I should place my efforts elsewhere. And I did. For many years… many, many years. I wonder if I had been discouraged in grad school whether that would have been better or worse in terms of long term effects. In the theater world, students are similarly told, if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, you shouldn’t be here. I’ve always found that kind of talk to be unhelpful. Life happens however it happens, but I’m still glad to know that you err on the side of “go for it.” Can’t wait to read your forthcoming novels, Jeannine!

    • Urgh, I do not like hearing stories of high school teachers who think it’s their job to draw lines between good and greatness, or whatever. How does anyone know what will happen? When I was in high school, it was the boys who were encouraged — and some were excellent writers — by women teachers. I kept my own quiet counsel. And as you say, life happens as it happens. But I look for quiet potential if it’s not excellence that’s beaming and encourage either. Glad you returned to what you love.

  9. Everyone starts as a “beginner,” students need to understand that persistence is the key. They may not be a “real” poet today, but if they keep reading and writing, they can work themselves into the title, “poet.” Thanks for the thought-provoking piece!

    • Thanks, Diane, for all you do for poets and poetry.

  10. It’s important not to let doubt overtake a writing class! (Good reminder for my home-away-from-home — aka classroom!!)

    • Yes, doubt is there — Hello, hello! We can greet her, give her a seat, then let her be while we get on with the work! Thank you for reading and writing.

  11. I completely agree! Continue to inspire and honor the young writers. Congrats to you!

  12. I love this post and the comments/responses. Thank you so much. I have allowed myself to call myself a poet. I am not published. I struggle with the monumental task of my verse-novel wip and other projects. The reason I do is because it helps me move forward and continue with writing rather than feeling like it’s a silliness in my life…just a hobby. I am absolutely intrigued with “who gets to decide”. I think that’s a great question to explore in a work of art.

    • I’ve been in classrooms as student, teacher, and visiting writer, and always so much more gets done when the person passing out paper, or whatever, expects creation to happen. When the authority seems to expect a certain happiness and flow, rather than being busy guarding old lines, shuffling through handbooks of antique expectations. I’m so glad to hear you keep on with your creative work — especially that verse novel. Wishing you continued luck with letting doubt hover (we can’t help that) , but not settle in!

  13. Yet another very fascinating discussion and insight. Self doubt always rears its head. I think that’s the benefit of having a number of projects on the go, because if doubt is eating away the heart of your writing, you can put it away for a time and work on something else, then come back and see it with fresh eyes, and renewed passion.

    Also, a novel written in prose is sometimes the best start point for a verse novel. My younger reader verse novel, ‘Bully on the Bus’ was born out of a chapter book. The story was there, but when crafted into verse it was so much more powerful. Initially I wasn’t very experienced in free verse … but learnt much from the experience!

    Congratulations on your two forthcoming titles. How exciting, and rewarding!

    • Hi, yes and yes and yes. I almost always have several projects going on, for many reasons, including the one you state. And I’ve seen prose shift to poetry — love that your work found its power in that form. Thanks for writing and the congratulations.

  14. I so needed to read this. I am about to re-engage with my WIP, a verse novel. While not physically working on it, its.been in my head and heart.
    Thank you.

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