This year for Christmas I asked for An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States. I’m an avid reader and a proud lit. major, but I’ve never asked for a book of poetry in my life.
If I could take you back in time, I’d drop you into a college classroom in the basement of a cold building in Springfield, Missouri. You’d see a 19-year-old version of myself yawning and rolling my eyes as we discussed Yeats or Plath or Frost. I hated poetry. I loathed it. I often skimmed or skipped my poetry reading assignments, and let my thoughts float away during those long-winded discussions.
Now let me drop you into my life a year or so later. This time you’d find a 20-year-old version of myself sitting in a poetry writing class. I'd be at a tiny desk in a second-story classroom, with a small window in the corner and a big whiteboard at the front.
Shocked that I ended up there? I know. Me too.
But my degree plan required me to take one creative writing class and so I chose poetry as the least painful option. I lacked the confidence to write anything longer than that, and I thought perhaps I had enough smarts to write a few lines of verse and get it over with.
I didn’t flunk out of the class or fall madly in love with the genre. I also didn’t discover myself as a writer or even come coasting out with a solid B. What I actually did was become stifled for the next 15 years or so, because the professor hated my work so much that he held it up (literally, on an overhead projector) as a model of what NOT to do. Every other week, which is how often we had to turn in a poem for his review.
People tell me now that maybe he saw something in my writing. That maybe he was envious or otherwise intimidated, as he’d published a lot of his own work (most of it dark and depressing) and that perhaps I was able to write what he couldn’t. Of course I can’t say if that’s true or not, especially since those poems are stored on floppy drives and are inaccessible without some major effort. But it’s nice to think about it that way on my really bad days.
I went on from that class and I never wrote anything until my late twenties outside of some sparse journaling and some tear-filled personal blogging. It wasn’t until I approached my thirties that I began to realize my violent emotional scribbles were actually birthing a writer. And from there I discovered that I’d actually written some poetry along the way. In fact, I’d even written a rhyming poem called "I Don’t Write Poetry."
How had this not registered in my brain?
I think it’s interesting how sometimes the things we’re most repelled by are actually the things that are truly “ours” once we get past the wall of fear. I started to realize I was a sleepwalking poet only a few years ago. I called myself a sleepwalker because I’d written poetry without seeing it or knowing it was happening, and it wasn’t until I’d flipped through my scribbles a year or five later that I’d noticed patches of words emerging from the page and forming verse.
So these days I have a new thought about my college experiences: that maybe I actually took the poetry writing class because it was part of my DNA, not because it was the easiest way through. And maybe I actually ran away from Wordsworth and Keats because I was deeply afraid of my own abilities (or lack thereof).
I think as we try to figure out what we’re here to do, we can sometimes find clues in those things that we turn away from or avoid - especially if they keep popping into our lives from around this corner or the other. For me, my "thing" kept resurfacing in my writing without my even being aware of it.
Do you have anything like that happening in your life?
I’ve also learned that when we claim to hate something, it’s often because we’re afraid of it. We’re afraid of its effect on us or we’re afraid of its latent power. We’re afraid that maybe the “thing” will be our undoing or conversely that the “thing” will be a rocket that launches us onward to success. And then we recoil because of the intensity of what that might be like.
Last night I was flipping through a special black notebook that I keep in my nightstand to jot down my creative ideas. It contains some of my most important musings from the last four years, and it turns out that in 2016 I wrote a helluva lot of poetry (that I didn't particularly notice at the time). And you know what? Some of it was crap. But some of it was really good - maybe even profound.
The other part of this story is that my first-ever publication credit ended up being a poem that was selected for inclusion in a literary anthology in 2017. I sent just one poetry submission to one publication, and it was selected from the masses. Easy as that, apparently. What was I so afraid of?
The lesson in all of this is to invite the "thing" into your life that you find yourself running away from. Invite it in like I invited in An American Sunrise, which arrived wrapped in paper and ribbons on Christmas Day. You may discover what it truly means for your life once you stop and take a hard look.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife (Warren Publishing), was released on August 18, 2020. To read an excerpt, check out reviews, see the author Q&A, or find links to buy, click the Learn More button.
The Big Pause