I get asked a lot about how I came to poetry. I get asked so much that I think I’ll answer it here.
I first started writing poetry because in second grade my mother went to a conference where my teacher, Mrs. Gardner, said that I should try writing poetry. She said I had a poetic way of writing, and she’d like to see me try my hand at poetry.
When my mom told me this, I said, “Poetry? Yuck.”
Wasn’t poetry supposed to be stupid? Somewhere in my eight-year old brain I had developed that thought. Where did it come from? Who knows. It’s not like we were studying poetry in MPS (that’s “Milwaukee Public Schools” for those that don’t know.) It’s not like my teachers were encouraging each of us to find our creative gifts. It was a tumultuous time. It was the 70s. Classrooms were crowded and there was a lot of work to do. It’s lucky we learned how add and write our names. (Penmanship was still taught way back when I was a youngster.)
This suggestion of “write poetry” was simple yet unguided. It’s not like I went back to school then and had one-on-one instruction on the ins and outs of writing a poem. In fact, no one ever taught me, and I never studied the “rules” of poetry. My teacher never brought it up to me after the conference. My parents never said, “Hey, what about that poetry suggestion? Do you need some help? Do you want to go to the library and learn more about it?”
That’s not how it was then. Not in my household.
At the time this occurred I lived with my grandma and she was a busy woman who worked hard on the house, kept things neat as a pin, cooked like nobody’s business, and played the TV louder than anyone I’ve ever met before or since. In other words, after this “write poetry” revelation nothing happened.
Still, I was flattered, I think. Someone thought I could write? It was as if my teacher snuck inside my box of wishes and caught a glimpse of the piece of paper that said “I want to be a writer one day.”
The fact that I wasn’t teacher’s pet or someone she doted on made this even more profound to me. She liked me? Or at least, liked my writing? Amazing. She certainly never let on. In fact, she was one of the more grumpy teachers I had. I didn’t like her. I’m fairly certain she didn’t like me. And yet, isn’t it funny how these people we encounter can change our life?
So after this, I just wrote.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote what I “thought” might be a good poem because it rhymed. I wish I had kept it, but I remember there being words like creep around the house as quiet as a mouse.
Even as an eight-year old, I knew it sucked.
But I kept writing, and soon I discovered that my feelings about growing up in this crazy household could be made more sane through poetry. It helped me work through emotions and come to an understanding about myself and the adults in my world.
Writing was a secret for me then. It stayed that way for a long time. Oh sure, people knew I enjoyed writing, and some even heard that I wrote poetry, but doesn’t everyone? The thing about writing is that a lot of people do it on some level.
I didn’t study the poets, but I wrote consistently throughout the years and into adulthood. Then on a certain day in 1993 I heard Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” for the Clinton Inauguration. I was getting ready for work and had it on in the background, and stopped what I was doing and listened. We didn’t have the ability to pause TV or tape things like we do now, so I feel fortunate that I caught it while it was live that day. By the end of her reading, I had tears in my eyes and felt a fire in my soul. Yes, I thought. Poetry is this special.
There was something about Maya Angelou and her voice and her talent that made me want to read more of her poetry. I did after that day. I read hers and others, and started to see which poets I loved and identified with.
So to finally answer the long question of “how I came to poetry,” it wasn’t through study initially. I had written for twenty years before I read another poet’s work. Unconventional? Maybe. But we each come to things in our own way and that was mine.
Now, I read a lot of poetry. I can see now that all those years I wrote poems to understand things helped me develop my own personal writing style. Certainly reading poets now helps shape my writing, but my style came about in sort of an odd way. But really, what does it matter which path you take when you end up at the same spot in the end?