I’m Not a Poet, Don’t You Know It?

I envy poets. I wish I could be one. I am a terrible poet. When I tell people this they look shocked  since I’m a writer I should obviously be able to compose poems. Not true whatsoever. In fact, my first writing class at DePauw was a poetry workshop and my poems were awful. Garbage. Junk. Feeds on Twitter are written more eloquently. I almost gave up on writing during that semester, nearly lured into a communications major, whatever that really is. Luckily, my professor Tom Chiarella saw through my iambic mess and realized that poems might not be my forte but telling stories truly is.

I’ve struggled to write poems for most of my life. In my early years as a writer, I found myself dabbling in short stories, playwriting and poetry. Many, many years ago I wrote a play for Earth Day and was wholeheartedly convinced that I, at all of nine years old, could stage this play at the beautiful Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, MI. I even called the office to set up a date to begin rehearsing my play about girls and the jungle. It wasn’t until the woman at the front desk asked how old I was and then told me how much renting the theater would cost that I realized that my puny allowance wouldn’t even cover the first few lines of my play. In 4th grade I wrote my first book, Jesse Goes to Hollywood. At the time I was completely obsessed with ballet, Hollywood and the television series, Full House. My story featured a young orphan girl, Jesse, and her adventure from the small ballet studio in her boring hometown to starring in the hit television series and meeting Steven Spielberg, all in one fun weekend! I was also going through a phase where I hated my parents, so one entire page of my book was dedicated to the airplane crash, accompanied by my sketches, that claimed the lives of Jesse’s parents. Jesse’s parents looked a lot like my parents, the dad complete with a black mustache and my mother wearing one of her schoolteacher-type dresses and long brown hair. I really don’t think either parents were impressed with my story or my artwork, plane and parents set ablaze.

During my middle school years I was completely obsessed with the rock and roll of my parents’ generation. My parents’ wouldn’t allow me to listen to Nirvana and instead bought me my first cassette tape, Greatest Hits–the Doors. I then fell in love with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and of course, the Beatles. I bought copies of Rolling Stone and Guitar magazine and read song lyrics like they were the directions to some important antibiotics, necessary and vital to sustain life. I began writing poems that helped fuel my awkward and insecure anger towards, once again, my parents and life. No one understood me. I wore huge black rimmed glasses with my thick lenses spilling from the frames and my teeth were equipped with enough hardware that if the situation warranted it,  MacGyver could construct a helicopter with my braces, retainer and headgear. Apparently, at the tender age of twelve, I already knew how damned awful life would be, so my poems were about death, taking the last sharp breath of life, saying Fuck It to the larger world. I was, apparently, a dark gawky child. Life was dominated by homework, chores, and an annoying little brother and I suffered through those petty nuisances of daily life and composed long, painfully long, poems about sex, drugs and rock and roll–things I knew absolutely nothing about.

Sadly, when I was twenty years old and my mother moved us to her new husband’s house, I found all of my old journals, filled with my sad poems and long musings about boys and how much My Life Sucked and in complete and total embarrassment, I threw them all away. It was one of my biggest regrets. I should have never tossed those early works into the garbage–although the content was completely silly and yes, embarrassing, it also showed the pure driven creative energy I possessed in my young body. Before boys and sex and college and tuition bills and summer jobs, I had nothing but full license to create, write and compose with abandon. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I didn’t think of how it would sound to others (with the exception of Jimi Hendrix. He was my tender muse) , or if it would get published or not, I just wrote what my heart and hormone-skewed mind directed me to do. If only now I had that bravado and complete faith in myself  to surrender to that creative side on my brain and let it all go, words onto the page, stories sewn together in the clouds.

While I’ve tried my hand at the poet’s life, it really isn’t in my nature. I am a long winded, verbose writer. Look at my blogs: I churn out 1000 words about long underwear. That would never make a good poem. I cannot compress my words into neat and precise lines, delicately piecing together such beauty in such quick words, careful examination of each line, each word, each brick of the poem. No, that is not me. I blabber on and on. I am not succinct. My poems in college resembled old Greek myths, spanning many pages and traveling to the netherworld and back. However, my poems were nothing like the greatness of the Odyssey.

This past Friday night, Cole and I attended a poetry reading to support an incredibly worthy endeavor, The Whitefish Review. The Whitefish Review is the baby of Whitefish local Brian Schott and friends. It is a remarkable literary journal–the likes of which William Kittridge, Pam Houston, David James Duncan, Terry Tempest Williams, John Irving and Rick Bass have all shared their stories. In addition to these standout writers, the journal also features up-and-coming writers, both young and old. Its bent is mountain culture, but in reality this dream of Brian’s, is a collection of fine and true writing. It’s a marvelous project, impressive in its scope and depth of stories, poems and art. The fundraiser featured another local legend of words, poet Lowell Jaeger. Lowell is an instructor at our local community college and author of many books of poems. His poems are beautifully crafted and precise and funny. He’s not a tall man and his long hair is braided down to his butt and his fingernails are painted black. He possesses a gentle spirit and a keen eye for noticing all of the details of life, which I believe, is the path the poet is charged with.

I’d like to share with you, in this space, one of my favorite poems of his. I do not believe that poets have an easier time in writing than those who favor prose. No writer of any sort, from screenwriters to journalists, come by words easily. It is a fine art, a maddening craft, and one that must endure.

door-t0-door jesus

from We by Lowell Jaeger

We mail the reply card for the free gift and demonstration.

Poof! There he stood, guaranteed,

knocking at our door.

Let’s get this straight, we ask,

even if we don’t buy this stuff

we still get the free gift, right?

The gift is yours, he says,

grinning back to his gums

while he unlatches his sample case

and–whoa!–out comes the sky,

some oceans, mountains out of nowhere,

forests, rivers, wild animals,

livestock and the chatter of birds

all over the carpet

tall building and cities, bridges,

parking lots and malls. We ask,

where are the people? Hey, what’s

the gimmick here? You give us this world

and no one to run it? Again he grins, points his finger:

The gift is yours. Wow, we say, okay.

Some of us go live in one valley, some

in another, someone else comes along

says this is their valley, they saw it first.

We try compromise. Divide the pie.

And someone says it’s not fair, how come they got bigger malls,

more parking and someone else says don’t trust them

they’ll cheat us and someone else says

over my dead body…

Pretty soon we got the sky mushrooming with poisonous gas,

rivers in flames, wasted animals, no sign

of birds anywhere and with nothing

but skin hanging loose on our bones

–presto!–we’re back in the living-

room, home where we started; the sales

guy just laughs and evaporates

right there leaving us

to stare at the black hole

smoldering in the one good rug.

Jesus, some of us say, helluva demo!

Naw, some others say, we seen it before.

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4 thoughts on “I’m Not a Poet, Don’t You Know It?

  1. Anne

    I had Joe Heithaus for a hoscho seminar my first year, and he encouraged me to be a poet – something about seeing the spirit of one within me. So I signed up for an intro creative writing class the next spring, and not knowing about the faculty, I took a class with Greg Schwipps. And, I hated the poetry section, which I recall being what we started off on. And then, at the end, we got to creative non-fiction, which is something I did not know existed.

    I was really blown away that I could write about things like fishing, and that it was valid as an art form (and, ok, I may have gone fishing more often with my dad after that class, thanks to Schwippy-Schwipps). Maybe it’s because it was also the time in my life where I started to spend a lot more time outdoors (that semester was when I bought my first Indiana state park pass – and I’ve bought one for every year since then). And, since I didn’t get enough in his class, I somehow managed to sneak into Lili’s workshop (even as a mere history major). While I don’t write as much as I should anymore, I think the skills I developed in those classes translated easily into other forms of writing – and hopefully will continue to as I start a new degree in the fall!

    Anyway, what I’m taking forever to getting around to saying is that what you write is still pretty freakin’ awesome, so I don’t think you should feel bad about your lack of skills in other forms of writing! Your amazing gifts more than make up for your bad skills at poetry.

    1. As always my friend, thank you. You know what I regret from my DePauw days? That I didn’t take enough poetry classes. I’m sad to report that I didn’t have one single class with Heithaus or Schwipps. I was, however, completely obsessed with Bill Little and his literature classes. And you know what else, I didn’t have to take an English lit or Shakespeare class either.

      Hmm…perhaps there is something missing from my English degree!

      I am so happy that you sneaked into Lili’s class that spring semester. And I’m happy for your new academic adventures this coming fall. And I probably should have purchased an Indiana state park pass…perhaps I would have been a whole lot happier about my experience in Greencastle!

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