Let the Poem

TTR2.1COVERBLACK-232x300I published a poem this month! It’s the first one that formally drops me into the professional category because they paid me. You can read it for free online here by clicking on the cover image. The journal also has a Mini Contest for each issue – you can vote for your favorite in each category.

For most of my usual blog readers, a literary journal is probably a bit of a foreign artifact. The first time I published in an ungrad journal I didn’t even show my mother a copy because the cover was a horrifying piece of Chucky-style doll art. And even my poem in this particular journal is very different from the kind of things I write about here – basically my kids these days. But there is a method to this seemingly bi-polar writing style and basically it has to do with being better at all of it.

What we love about good actors is that they can portray dissimilar characters with ease. My daughter Ada has been mourning the loss of Professor Snape while I grieve for Colonel Brandon. I’d like my work as a writer to have a similar scope – which means I hope to be read by more than one kind of reader. A poetry mentor of mine believed the healthiest writers could write in more than one genre.

In case you are hoping I’ll tell you what “At the Nadia Bolz-Weber Lecture” is about, prepare to be disapponted. I won’t tell you because that would be like telling you reading one person’s movie review was as good as watching the movie yourself. A poem is a very different thing from an essay or a work of fiction. It’s probably as far from a blog post as two pieces of writing could be.

A poem is a carefully crafted piece of fiction, even if it is based on a real-life experience. This is the single piece of writing pedagogy that opened me up to the possibility of becoming a poet. In the process of writing, the poem becomes a new thing. Even if it started from something that actually happened, once it is on the page the poem is then crafted into whatever it wants to be as a piece of art. Every word, syllable, and line is re-arranged, edited, re-created.

In the case of “At the Nadia Bolz-Weber Lecture,” the speaker of the poem wasn’t even me anymore. As a writer, I had been constrained by telling the truth as I knew it and that limited me from exploring the many ways a moment could be experienced by myself or by others. This poem is how I imagined a person could have experienced that lecture, those words.

When you read a poem, keep those things in mind:

Remember the poet is not necessarily the speaker.

Remember the poem is always about more than what happened. The poem is how the poet tells you it happened, every word, space, and line break. The poem is the experience of reading the poem, hearing each word break through your conscious and unconscious mind.

This is, not incidentally, what I think makes some people love poetry and others hate it. You don’t get to “torture a confession out of” a poem (as Billy Collins brilliantly remarks). You only get to read it, hear it, feel it.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love to tease meaning out of a poem! And I’d love for you do to that with mine. I love a poem that captures my imagination with language, rhythm, or sound but isn’t clear immediately to my mind. I love re-reading it, studying each line and word choice, and eventually making connections that add up to a sense of meaning. You can read my personal anthology of favorites here.

You just shouldn’t try to make a poem something that it isn’t: an essay, for example, or a blog post. Let the poem be a poem. Who knows what all goes into one person preferring Professor Snape to Colonel Brandon … but they are both brilliant, aren’t they? Suited to different tastes and purposes perhaps, but created by the same person (with obvious direction and inspiration from outside sources, which is another discussion entirely).

Happy reading – whatever you choose!